Stretching

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah explores lots of things in this extended interview. But these paragraphs stuck out to me this morning.

I think there is sense that we need to deeply interrogate people’s practices all the time without saying what it all means or admitting how complicated everything is. But people are like family members that come around, and while you may not agree with all the decisions that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the context in which they operate. Even if you don’t get down with them really.

What’s strange to me is how angry people got that I was expressing love for another black woman who is seemingly different than me. I read the comments, I wanted to reply, I am sorry that you cannot see past all of our divergent personalities to see why I still get her. Understanding someone is not at all the same thing as agreeing with them. It was almost threatening to people that I was expressing understanding with someone who may be different from me.

She’s referring to her writing about Beyoncé and dealing with all of the naysayers hating on her particular flavor of feminism. But this sentiment applies in many other places as well. Feminism and social justice are wide and varied fields. The movement is not uniform. How do we expect privileged groups to shift their world to include us, when we can’t even manage to shift ours to include other marginalized people who’s tactics are a little outside our comfort zone? I feel like we’re finding out we were actually comfortable in our little cubby at the bottom of the ladder. It wasn’t great, but it was familiar. If we want to climb up, we need to move and stretch. We’re using muscles we’re not used to using. And we’re feeling the aches and pains.

The journey to understanding the movement

I’m beginning to understand that a big barrier some privileged people have is a deep misunderstanding of what it takes for real change. While I applaud the sentiment, some of us understand that just being “nicer” to each other is unlikely to effect real change. The people fighting for social justice understand that this fight isn’t about being polite, or getting your feelings hurt. Not at all.

We are talking about oppression. We are talking about constant and lasting harm that is being done to a whole class of people. If you think this is about feelings then of course it looks like overreaction to you. The challenge for you is to see that there’s more. The challenge for you is to really understand that other people’s experiences and context are significantly different from yours. If you can do that, you’ll be able to start empathizing with how someone could come up with such a different response than yours. You’ll start to understand where all the passionate anger comes from instead of assuming it’s just “politics” or “man-hating”.

The only question you need to answer in order to start on this journey is “Do I really care to understand?” If you do, you must start by listening. There is no fast track. And you don’t set all of the rules of discourse. This may be a hard pill to swallow. But this is the shape of the movement.

Privilege and Prejudice vs. Education and Judgment

I’m writing this on the heels of the latest internet debacle involving women and allies vs clueless and insensitive men. I’m not going to spend any time on that. Instead it resurfaced a lot of my ideas about how this cycle continues to play out. I’m not going to do this topic justice here, and I’m not sure I really have a thrust for this post. But I need to get some thoughts out.

There are many topics we could drill down to. The first question I have in my head is how do you get good at making people aware of their privilege? Privileged groups are many and varied. But when it comes to big, societal problems such as sexism or racism, owning up to that privilege is an incredibly hard thing for a person to unpack. Understanding privilege, and then understanding the harm it can do, and then learning to recognize it is something that takes a long time and is very difficult for even those of us on the receiving end. For a person to then be expected to come to grips with their own part in the system is a tall order. But that is what is expected. Just because we admit that a thing is hard, doesn’t excuse people of privilege from our responsibility to grapple with it.

But when women or minorities recognize privileged behavior, what exactly should our focus be? When you awaken to the ways in which discrimination and prejudice constantly affects you and those around you, you can’t help but be hurt, frustrated, and angry. It’s easy to lash out at individuals or generalized groups. It’s easy to convince yourself that they “should know better”. We often use incredulous statements like “this still happens in 2013?!”, as though we expect to reach a point where people will stop being affected by bias and social conditioning. I fall into this trap sometimes, but I’m trying to get out of it.

Our responsibility is to educate, and to agitate for justice. As many times as it takes and for as long as we can stomach it. We will fail, we will get discouraged, we will sometimes give up. We are human, and none of us can bear up under the weight of oppression indefinitely. But the need for that work is unlikely to end soon. That’s why we need more allies. The more numbers we gain, the easier it is for us to keep up the pressure.

What are the tactics of turning people into allies? This is one of the sticker issues. The response to discrimination and prejudice often come with judgment, shaming, and even personal attacks and harassment. Are these okay? Even some people who would like to call themselves allies are made really uncomfortable by seeing a bunch of angry people “gang up” on one individual. It goes against our sense of fairness. It sparks people’s empathy for that person ( I could probably do a whole post about empathy). That’s why those who are blatantly in the wrong always end up with at least a few apologists on their side.

I don’t have all the answers there. I know my personal feelings about how far I think it’s appropriate to go. I think judgment is a natural response. It’s a manifestation of the very values we are trying to promote. Judgment is how humans tell other humans that they do not approve and expect better. Nobody wants to feel like a bad person. But even without being labeled, if you are doing harm or spreading bigotry, you deserve to be called out. Sometimes people won’t be too constructive about it, and perhaps you’d like to rail against that. But the judgment is warranted.

Public shaming is harder to contend with. I see shaming as a tactic to encourage people to accept judgment. Shaming isn’t the same as condemning someone. It’s about actively creating an atmosphere where they can see that their behavior is not tolerated by those around them. I think it can be a really useful tactic if the person under scrutiny actually cares about the opinions of those around them. But unfortunately, shaming is often harmful and has the opposite effects from what was intended. Often with modern internet shaming, we are expecting a person to respond to the judgment of a bunch of strangers. Regardless of whether the person may deserve it, I don’t think this tactic has a high chance of working. We respond to people we relate to or people we respect. We want to keep their good will, so we make ourselves open to what they have to say. But when we have no existing reason to listen to someone’s accusations, then our instinct when attacked is to shut down, to defend our sense of self-worth. Especially if we haven’t first done the work of allowing honest self-reflection.

Some people might feel as though public shaming isn’t about being super effective at converting individuals. That calling out bigotry is our responsibility, whether the target responds or not. I believe this too, but there’s nuance here as well. As I said, the goal is to educate. Not just the source of the prejudice, but anyone who may be listening. There are always way more silent lurkers than there are those who participate. I’m of the opinion that those silent lurkers are usually more open. They are often silent because they are uncertain about where they stand. That uncertainty is the space where education can bloom into understanding. That is where allies are born.

Finally, there is a distinction in my mind between public shaming against discrimination or prejudice, and sharing public sympathy. The internet has done wonders for bringing like-minded people together. Sharing our interests, concerns, and troubles with others who understand and sympathize has always been therapy for humans. But this kind of community can also raises the hackles of people of privilege. For them it becomes about exclusion, reverse discrimination and a perceived hypocrisy. And they don’t respond well when told that it’s not about them at all. This is an non-constructive and unwarranted response. But it’s one we have to deal with.

It’s not easy to parse apart the benign from the antagonistic. And that’s to be expected, because we are not all the same. The people effected by discrimination and prejudice are multi-faceted. Some of us are smart and angry. Some of us are uninformed but persistent. Some of us are patient and forgiving. Some of us are also silent. We all need to find our own ways that we want to influence change. We don’t have to all agree on what those are. In fact it is impossible. And people of privilege will knowingly or unknowingly pit us against each other by treating us as homogenous. It’s important to note that we do the same to them. That’s another thing humans often can’t help doing.

This is enough of a brain dump for the day. I’ve mostly been speaking through my viewpoint as a minority and an ally of women. Next time, I’ll try hard to speak through my position as a person of privilege. I suspect it’ll be more difficult to be even-handed. But practice makes perfect.

A programmer, among other things

I’m a programmer by trade. I’ve been a working professional for going on 9 years. Not long after I started, I became a programmer by nature as well. Programming is a part of who I am. I live in the tech world, both online and off. Many of my friends are programmers and that is the primary thing we share in common. I program for fun, to relax, when I can’t sleep, when I’m procrastinating. I dream about programming. Not all the time of course. I don’t mean programming is exclusively who I am and what I do. But to most who are not programmers and perhaps don’t understand, it would seem that it takes up an obscene portion of my life. That’s pretty much right.

But tonight when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts turned to other things. I started to think about what else I might be. If I could no longer be a programmer, what’s the next thing that would consume me? I thought, “whatever it is, I should write about it”. And then it became obvious.

I love writing. Having something good to write about brings me so much enjoyment. Stringing words together in ways that are cogent, eloquent, tactful, concise, persuasive, approachable gives me just as much personal satisfaction as developing elegant solutions in code. Not feeling inspired to write makes me annoyed with myself and I feel guilty. Being inspired or compelled to write on some topic, and not being able to formulate thoughts gives me anxiety.

I think about writing. What I mean is that I take all of my writing seriously. I think hard about almost all of the writing I ever do. Being a vocal citizen of the internet means I communicate via text a tremendous amount. For most people, even those who end up typing as much as I do, it’s probably safe to assume this isn’t a huge cause for concern. For me, it’s great, and also a burden. I am preoccupied with being able to express myself well through writing. It takes up an obscene portion of my life.

I have 3 separate blogs. I saw no other choice, because I wanted to control as much of the context for the audience of my writing as I could. I’m on twitter a lot (understatement). Even with only 140 chars to fill, I often quibble and even agonize over the composition. I write to craft thought-provoking streams of consciousness that span multiple tweets. I write to craft helpfully descriptive messages to my coworkers via emails, or more likely Yammer. I’m even on google plus, and other random places on the web, crafting huge paragraphs of text that I’m sure no one will read, though I’m often pleasantly surprised. While you’re waiting for me to hit Send in an IM, I’m editing and re-editing, rethinking and reformulating, reconsidering and sometimes not posting at all because it didn’t meet the approval of some stern internal critic.

As an aside, I realized with some chagrin that one of the reasons I don’t really dig facebook, other than my usual pretentiousness, is that I don’t feel the audience would really appreciate how much time I took to craft my posts. I don’t mean outwardly appreciate it mind you. I’m not looking for verbalized critical praise from my FB folks, or anybody really. This is a completely subjective and internalized feeling that nobody gave a shit. And so I rarely share there. My internal writer made me stop.

That’s another thing. It took me a long time to refer to myself as a writer. Even to myself. The truth is I still don’t feel comfortable saying it to other people. Being a writer, as in “I am a writer”, is quite a weighty thing. To me, and people like me, it carries with it a sense of mastery and accomplishment with language that for the longest time, I didn’t find myself worthy of. Even trying to apply the label to myself, I immediately started to create tiers, of which I was the lowest of the low. If I dared to call myself a writer, I must surely be the basest form of such a thing as this.

But that only served to provide further evidence. Who but a writer would take such a thing so seriously? I was given this quote by a good friend of mine; the first person I knew personally who I believed when they called themselves a writer.

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

This quote stuck with me, even though at the time, 15 years or so ago, I had no idea that I would turn out to be a writer. But the case started building really early.

In high school, I ended up in english class for gifted students. I thought this was super weird as I hadn’t done anything to achieve it. But whatever, I had friends there too. We were given creative writing assignments. Write whatever you want as long as it’s completely made up and it’s an actual story. Characters, narrative, beginning, middle, and end. I sat paralyzed in front of the blank page and panic started to build. My friends started scribbling furiously. Filling paragraph after paragraph without breaking a sweat. Did I mention we only had 30 minutes or so?

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just write down some bullshit and get it over with? I had time to kill while I pondered this, so I read some of the… ahem, “narratives” that my friends were spewing forth. I was disappointed. Here I was, a high school kid, focused in the maths and sciences, who didn’t even *like* english and literature classes. And I found myself turning my nose up at the schlock I was given. I didn’t even know enough to think the word “schlock” at the time. But indeed if I had known it, I would’ve reached for it instantly.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized why I had been paralyzed. I couldn’t write because I wasn’t inspired by any material. And I find it uncomfortably difficult to turn out writing I feel doesn’t meet some minimum bar. This was as true then as it is today. But back then, I actually chalked it up to the fact that I must not be creative. I started to internalize the bullshit about being “left-brained”, and so creative writing and art and music must be just “not my thing”.

Literally for the rest of my high school career, I did increasingly worse in language arts classes. That day in gifted english, I did actually manage to churn something out. I was first and foremost a good student, you see. But it took no small amount of anguish. You can imagine it being infinitely more frustrating because I didn’t really understand where it was coming from. And after that incident and a few more, I kind of gave up on the part of school that involved writing. I didn’t turn in work for english classes, and I failed more essay assignments. My senior year, I came this close to not graduating, even with a three point something grade average, solely because I had cut too many english classes. A lot of times, I skipped only english and showed up for the rest of them. My excuse was that it was first thing in the morning, and I was tired.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I started my journey to becoming a programmer, and found computers, that this was able to change. It turns out that writing with pen/pencil is “not my thing”. I can’t stand it. It feels clumsy, and it doesn’t go fast enough for me to spill things out of my brain and onto the page. But when I got a keyboard; when I learned to touch type; when I learned how to edit text swiftly and deftly. Oh man. All of a sudden, writing became a joy. I had thoughts flowing out of my fingers with ease (okay maybe not ease). And when I read it back to myself, it didn’t suck. I edited a few things and read it again. And it sucked less. I kept following this impulse, and eventually, my short, stubby digits turned out something that received the highest praise I ever give myself for something I wrote. I don’t mind if people read this.

The weight lifted off my shoulders was immense. I started to feel like a whole person. One who could be analytical and logical enough to be a programmer. But also had some form of creativity. By god, I was well-rounded! Of course, these days, my whole view is more nuanced, and I hope more balanced. I realize that I’m not an artistic writer in some traditional sense. I write for writing’s sake. I don’t sit down and write novels or seek to get things published. And my shoulders aren’t completely free of sandbags. I’ve still got that inner critic who makes writing anything much harder for me than it should be. I also realize that this is okay. I don’t get near as much anxiety around my writing and whether it meets some objective definition of “good” or not. I still agonize over it, because that’s part of my process. But I like to think it’s in a mostly healthy way.

Most importantly, I realize I may never really produce anything of note as a writer. I may never be gainfully employed as a writer. I may even lose my shit, quit my cushy programming career, go try to be a REAL writer… and fail miserably. And that’ll probably be okay too.

Sometimes I like to write. Sometimes I like to program. Sometimes I try not to do either of those things for as long as I can stand it. Cause sometimes in life, you gotta mix it up.

The thing about guns

We’re all still shocked. I know. The most recent incident of senseless gun violence in Connecticut yesterday is just about the worst you can imagine. 20 children dead. I don’t have children, but it still breaks my heart. In the coming weeks we’ll hear many  more details about what happened. We’ll be able to dissect it from every angle and try to make sense of it. But right now, for me, it’s simple. The number of guns in this country and our lack of strict control over them is a problem.

That’s a simple statement. It doesn’t say this incident was a direct result of our gun policy. It doesn’t say we should ban all guns immediately. But it seems clear that there’s a pattern here. We may have to argue about what the pattern is exactly. We may have to argue about what action to take. But in my opinion, that is the work to do here. We need to figure this out. We can’t keep saying “what can we do?” or “there’s nothing to be done” about the fact that 20 innocent children are dead and so many families are grieving.

I’ve been talking about this with friends and acquaintances. I’ve been debating with those people who say “we should focus on mental illness”. No, this is a false choice. We can and should do something about the way we treat the mentally ill. But it’s not only those we traditionally think of as mentally ill that perpetrate these massacres. If we took everyone on the fringes of society and treated them like crazy people, we’d have an entirely different problem. I’m not even convinced we can correctly identify the fringes of society anymore. The point is that talking about mental illness and how to properly treat it is a long conversation. It has dozens of tangents that will take us away from addressing yesterday’s tragedy. We should most certainly try to get at the root causes of things like this. But that’s not the only thing we should do. We also have to ask if there are other ways this could’ve been prevented.

I’ve talked to the people who say guns don’t kill people. That madmen will do violence regardless of the weapon. This is certainly true. But what other weapon allows a madman to kill 26 people before anyone even knows what’s happening? If we put this madman in your child’s school and give you the choice of whether he has a knife or a gun, are you gonna say “oh it doesn’t matter”? It does matter. It matters because circumstances matter. Because the things around us affect our state of mind in a very real way. I responded to this in a facebook post earlier and it was a moment of clarity so I’ll reproduce it here.

I take issue with the idea that more guns don’t have an effect on the level of violence. Yes some people who want to do harm will find a way to do so. But guns make it terribly easy to do so and on a wider scale.

Guns have a very real psychological effect. They make you feel invincible. They increase the probability that you’ll take matters into your own hands. Once you fire a gun and hit someone, it’s much easier to do it again in rapid succession.

We can take a self defense class to learn how to defend against a knife. Show me the gun defense class. Should kids have bullet proof vests at all times?

And the self defense thing doesn’t hold up either. If someone threatens you or your family, a sane reaction is to want to deter them from doing that and make them leave. Not blow a golf ball sized hole in them and cause them to expire. So “gun control” could even start with not allowing average citizens to own a glock because there is no legal reason that they require one. The fact is, owning that glock makes you feel justified in blowing a hole in someone. Maybe even unconsciously itching to do so.

There are non-projectile self defense weapons that are illegal today. Because they were deemed “too lethal”. The only reason we haven’t extended that same common sense to gun control is because this country has a sick fascination with them.

I’ve talked to those people who argue for that we are overreacting. That this incident and the dozens of others don’t constitute any pattern. They want to see more facts. They want you to scour the internet and cite credible sources. And then they want you to spend time picking apart and debating each one before they will concede that something has to be done. I have no patience for these people. First off, when 20 kids are dead, there is a lot of reacting to be done before it becomes overreacting. Second, I’m left asking why you feel strongly enough to take the side of those who wish to possess killing instruments above those who only want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. But okay, I’ve been trying to read a few facts myself. I shared this one earlier and it was more than enough for me. Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States, with a choice quote.

“If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing….Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not.”

I don’t have all the answers. No one does. It may be that we’ll take a few missteps. It may be that some people will feel like their rights are being violated. That’s not new. We should always be having this conversation in the context of our country’s dedication to civil liberties. But civil liberties have always had to be balanced with public safety. Our public will never be completely safe. That’s not how the world works and nobody here is naive. But we have to take steps. Instead of denying the current climate, instead of arguing for arguments sake, everyone who cares about victims of random gun violence needs to help us figure it out. And if you don’t care, or you think other things are more important, well, we’re not really talking to you.

What’s the big deal?

Several times in the last several weeks, I’ve found myself involved in an internet dust-up on twitter about “women in tech”. This is the politically correct term. But what it’s really about is the rampant misogyny and sexism in the tech industry. The most recent kerfuffle involved geekli.st. I won’t go over the details. Start at this article and then the internets will give you all the information you can stand. The short of it is that there’s a video promoting the Geeklist brand that made some women uncomfortable. And when one spoke up, she was systematically dismissed, marginalized and threatened, rather than having her issues taken seriously.

Over the course of this internet argument, I had several well-meaning and curious guys reach out to me to try and understand what all the fuss was about. They seemed like good people, but they were missing something about what it means to be sexist. Many men who come into these arguments are troubled because while they might see that something is wrong, they can’t see a clear set of rules that determine when something is sexist and when it isn’t. They’re also a little (or more than a little) frustrated by the seeming “double standard”, because many of the issues that women complain about, seem to happen to men too in some cases.

So I’m going to take a shot at explaining. This is going to be really tough. I am by no means a scholar. I have no authority on this issue. I’m just a man who has learned enough to be concerned about the problem. I’m constantly examining myself in an effort to ensure that I’m not a part of the problem. And if at all possible, if other men can start to examine themselves and their part in this, all the better. For convenience, I’m gonna speak directly to these men who asked me to write about it. All of this comes from my perspective. Not everyone will agree with my assessment, including some women. This won’t be perfect, but I’ll do my best.

Why is this a big deal?

I think this might be the place to start. Some men find it hard to understand why women can still be made to feel uncomfortable or offended. Aren’t we past that (No)? Haven’t we done a lot for gender equality (yes, but not enough)? Even if there are still some cases that are bad, aren’t we being overly sensitive (maybe, but mostly no)?

So in this incident, a woman was offended. Well that’s not exactly right, we can’t have a meltdown every time one person is offended. Several women were offended, lots of other people spoke out about the tastelessness of the video. But maybe that still doesn’t bother you. Would you believe that *lots* of women were likely offended by the video? And most of them will never speak up? Why wouldn’t they speak up? This may not seem right or intuitive. But one of the reasons is because this isn’t an isolated incident.

The reason this is a big deal is not because some women got offended. It’s a big deal because we are constantly doing things to offend women, every day. Every time you hear something about sexism, that’s just one instance of the pot boiling over. But women are constantly reminded by men that we objectify them, that we don’t fully respect them, that we exclude them. Every. Single. Day. If you had to deal with that kind of atmosphere, how often would you even bother speaking up?

Maybe you’re shaking your head right now. Maybe you think I’m blowing things out of proportion. That’s fine, just keep reading. And next time you get a chance, ask a few female friends of yours. Have a frank conversation with them. Don’t take my word for it.

How do you know this?

So what made me start to feel like maybe I understood what was going on here? It’s a hard topic. One of the things that occurred to me recently is if you try to speak on topics like this with any sense that you’ve got it “figured out”, you’re probably wrong. So what makes me feel confident enough to speak on it? In short, because I’m black. One day I started to realize that the things women go through, the history they’ve fought against, and the obstacles that are arrayed against them have lots of parallels to black people and American racism.

Stay with me guys. This section is about racism. Arguably an even harder topic. But I’m going to try to speak on it as it relates to sexism. If you can try to understand one, from my perspective, then you may get some insight into the other. Keep in mind that these are “parallels”. Any attempts to read into this as pitting racism against sexism are probably misguided.

So I talk to people about racism a lot. Despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to affect me much. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to be successful in the tech industry. As such I’m connected with lots of awesome people who are not black. Blacks are also woefully underrepresented in tech. But I try to keep abreast of current events, and I often share news items dealing with race. And occasionally I have similar conversations with white people about the race issue. Aren’t we past it (No)? Aren’t we being overly sensitive (maybe, but mostly no)? Don’t white people experience racism too?

That last one is interesting. One person said to me “I’ve experienced more reverse racism against me than I’ve seen racism against blacks”. I asked him what he meant by that and he clarified that he had been called “honky, cracker or terrorist”. I’m assuming this person was white. It was on twitter and I could only see his avatar. But I might be assuming too much. Particularly with “terrorist” thrown in there. I’ll get to that in a bit. But for our purposes, let’s assume this is a white person. I’m sure lots of white people have had this experience. Angry black people is a real thing, and I’m sure some insults have been hurled. Maybe even some punches thrown.

But I want to examine this definition of “racism”. Say you were called a honky. Definitely has racial tones. But how does a white person feel when they’re called this? You may feel hurt. You may feel offended. You may feel angry because it implies something about your morality or integrity. These are serious things and not to be overlooked. But do you think that is equal to what happens when I hear the word nigger?

Let me tell you what happens.

All of the above are certainly there. But there is more. I’m instantly aware that I’m in a dangerous situation. I’m confronted by a person who has used a word that means they do not respect my humanity. Historically, that word was given to us by people who had branded us lower than common animals. That word was used as people shackled us in chains, beat us, raped us, and killed us. And I’m not even talking about slavery.

These things continued to happen even after we had been “freed”. We were seen as second class citizens. We were given the lowest place in society, where the most successful of us could still be spat on by the poorest, most ignorant white person you can imagine. More so, this was completely acceptable behavior. No repercussions were forthcoming when white people took out any frustrations they deemed fit on us. What were we supposed to do? Speak out? Would you speak out if it meant that you could be killed and no one would bat an eye? No one of importance anyway. Your family, your community would be devastated. But they had no hope for redress. Their pleas would simply be ignored.

Fast forward a little. Didn’t we get past that? Didn’t we realize we were wrong and that we could do better? Didn’t we get together and say as a people that we wouldn’t allow this kind of injustice anymore? Yes we did. Most of us anyway. But what about the people who didn’t agree? The people who were not on board? Do you think they changed their behavior just because they could no longer operate with complete impunity? No.

I grew up with adults telling me that I had to be careful around white people. Not that I should hate them. But that I should be wary of them. Cops most especially. Because at any time, they could decide to take my freedom or even my life from me. Still I was fortunate. As a younger child, these things didn’t touch me. I was never spat on, never felt discriminated against. But as a young man, I had my share of incidents. In just one incident, I was stopped by police when walking through a neighborhood with a friend minding my business. I was told I “fit a description” of someone committing a crime. I was frisked, thoroughly. I was roughly handled in places I do not voluntarily allow men to handle me. But what was I to do? I was scared shitless. Then I was put into the back of the squad car. No miranda rights, no charges levied, not even being told whether I was being arrested. The police officers talked. Looked some things up on their computers. I don’t know how long, but I remember being terrified. Then they let us go. Just like that, I was allowed to continue my life.

And that’s my personal experience. There’s no “I know a guy”. Or “I’ve heard about such things in the news”. It happened to me. But that’s not even the worst of it. What about what we hear in the news? I can’t stop reading about Trayvon Martin. If you haven’t read about this, please do. Because it puts a fine point on my argument. Trayvon was also a young black kid walking through his neighborhood minding his business. A man who wasn’t even a cop came up to him, accused him of “being suspicious”, started harassing him verbally and physically. When Trayvon dared to fight back, because he thought we lived in a world now where he could do that, the man took out a gun and killed him. That’s bad enough. That’s terrible. That’s not even the worst of it. The man who killed Trayvon has not even been arrested. He told the police that it was he who was assaulted. He told police that it was he who feared for his life. He claims he shot and killed this kid in self-defense. And they bought it. They didn’t test him for drugs. They didn’t investigate his claims. They didn’t investigate the claims of eye witnesses who have a different telling of the story. They didn’t talk to Trayvon’s girlfriend who said he called her and told her that he was afraid. The police just let this man go on the strength of his word. He’s still walking around free today. His word against a dead, unarmed black boy who “looked suspicious”.

All of these things. All of these things flash through my mind when I hear the word nigger. And that’s when it’s overt. That’s only the times when people who have this hate in their hearts even bother to tell you that they hate you. Most of the time, you will never know. You will never know if they aren’t hiring you because they don’t want too many of your kind around the office. You will never know if they told their daughter she couldn’t see you and that’s why she didn’t call you back. You will never know if that judge gave you 5 extra years on a small drug charge just to “keep you off the streets”. You will never know if the guy who is following you through the convenience store is just checking on you, or if he is ready to blow your head off if he thinks you’re going to steal something. You will never know if they reject your legislation because they simply don’t agree, or because they will never allow a nigger to successfully run this country. Big things and small things. Every day we deal with this. Every. Single. Day.

Would you trade your few honky incidents for that? Do you still think these definitions of “racism” are equal?

As a small final note to this chapter, it is my opinion that if you are called a terrorist, you should feel some of the same dread for your life and livelyhood that I’ve described above. With the atmosphere in this country right now, that word is gaining almost as much fear, hatred and violence behind it as the N word. I would be concerned.

I thought we were talking about women

Yeah, that last section got away from me. But are the parallels starting to emerge? The length of that section on racism should tell you how much this issue affects me. How it permeates my life and colors everything I am. From what I understand, this issue of sexism does something similar for women.

Every time they walk into a room full of men, there are countless things they have to consider. When men look at them, it may not just be a look. When men reject them for jobs or don’t invite them to conferences or make off color jokes with them, they can never be sure what that means.

There are a lot of facets to this, but let’s talk about objectification for one. The way I define this (which is not from a textbook), is when women are treated as though their sole purpose is for the sexual gratification of men. That sounds harsh doesn’t it? It sounds far-fetched and removed from the innocuous examples we seem to be harping about. There was a video with a half-dressed woman. So what? Men like looking at women. Is that bad?

Ostensibly no, but if you think that’s the extent of the issue, then you’ve actually outlined part of the problem. The only person with autonomy who is considered in that reasoning is the man. He wants to lust over women, so he should be able to. How does the woman feel? What does it mean to her that a man is looking at her, undressing her with his eyes, and picturing explicit sexual things that he would like to do to her? Is it starting to feel creepy yet? Let me ask you, as a man, how would you feel in a room full of strange men looking at you that way? Not so great? Now ask yourself why a woman would feel any different.

Because she is heterosexual, you say (we’re assuming hetero). Because if I was in a room full of women looking at me, it might be kind of cool, you say. Now you’ve hit on the other important point about this sexism thing. Most men don’t understand that most women are not like them. Most women don’t get off on being the object of sexual desire to strange men. They don’t enjoy the idea that strange men are preoccupied with their sexuality. It doesn’t matter what you would like. They don’t want your lust infecting them. It means something different to them. The rules you use as a man do not apply the same way.

So why is this? Why are they so different? They still like sex right? (yes they do, but there’s also a lot there to explore) Well why doesn’t it manifest the same way for them as it does for us? Let’s go back to that woman in a room full of men thing. Why is she apprehensive about the prospect that these men might be looking at her with arousal? It is because men can exert power over women.

Whoa, back up. This is sounding bad right? But stay with me. A woman knows that at any time, if she’s in the wrong situation with men, or just one man, they could decide to take away her control. Simply by virtue of being stronger. Historically, when men have wanted something from women, they have simply taken it. In “westernized” societies for many centuries, women have been subservient to men. They were expected to obey and to serve. Their livelyhood was dependent on a man providing for them. If they did not obey they could be beaten with impunity. Their children could be taken away. And they were not considered equal members of society. No right to vote. And this was considered normal. Sound familiar?

The history between men and women is complex. Just as complex as that of blacks and whites. The effects are still being played out today. We’ve all read the stories about the woman who was raped. But her attacker got off scott free. If he was even arrested. Many victims are shamed and blamed for what happened to them. Like it was their fault. The man was just doing what men do. She gave “signals”. This still happens today. In our oh-so-enlightened society.

So sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, when a woman finds herself in a group of strange men, she may be uncomfortable. She might be apprehensive about whether these men see her as a peer or as a sexual object. Maybe they try to do both at the same time. Let’s say something happens to heighten this sense of sexual objectification. Like projecting pornographic images on a large screen to these men. How would that make a woman feel? Can you imagine? So when women complain about objectification today, it’s because they know what men are capable of. The fact that some men still look at them as merely sexual gratification has cause to make them fear. More so, because these men look exactly like the good ones.

But women are tough. They have fought hard against these things. They’ve managed to create an atmosphere where that kind of thinking is not okay. They don’t have to overtly fear as much as they used to (but if you think they don’t fear at all, you’re mistaken). Mainly these days, it causes women frustration and anger when they see instances of objectification. Because we *should* be past this. They should *not* have to keep dealing with this. We should *know* better by now. And yet, I’m writing this because some men still don’t even understand that it’s a problem, and that they are part of it. And some women too.

And we’ve only really talked about objectification. We haven’t even touched on the other hundreds of indignities, both large and small, that women deal with on a daily basis from men who don’t respect their autonomy. Sexism is a wide topic. I can’t cover it all here.

But unfortunately we’re not done yet.

On the meaning of Privilege

Okay, I’m not sure who’s still with me. If you are, I hope I’ve got you thinking. I hope you’re starting to examine the things that you do every day that might make women and/or minorities feel insecure. Notice I didn’t say the things you “might” do. The things you DO. You definitely do. You just don’t notice it and nobody tells you.

You may be saying I’m full of shit. That the problem isn’t as big as I make it out to be. You may be confident that you’re not part of the problem. You may be thinking of all the counter-arguments that usually arise at this stage. You may be still thinking you just don’t get it.

This is also a very important piece of the puzzle. You don’t get it because you don’t *feel* it. These things that we are talking about rarely come up in your life. You try to understand them objectively or intellectually, but you will fall short. The things women go through, men most often do not. The things black people go through, white people most often do not. The reason you get to act like these things don’t exist, or if they do they are remote and not a huge deal, is because you are part of a privileged class.

Privilege is a peculiar thing. It is related to terms like elitism or aristocracy. But it’s actually not the same as those things at all. It just so happens that those things also generally come with privilege. But even someone who feels like they are low on the social class scale can enjoy privilege.

The way I define this (which is not from a textbook) is when a class of people have advantages given to them automatically, simply by being a member of the class, that are not afforded to members of other classes. Let’s put this into context. As a man, you have probably never felt objectified. You don’t understand the offense, because it’s not something that even affects you. That is a privilege you (we) receive as a man. We don’t have to fear that the sexual appetites of women will impose themselves on us. Sure there are some exceptions. There always are. But they are remote. Removed from us. We don’t lose sleep over this issue.

In the same way, if you are a white person in this country, you enjoy privilege. You do not fear that, if you are suspected of a crime, the police will throw out all concept of justice and due process and just take away your freedom or your life.

But wait! Maybe you do. I know lots of people who are outraged over the recent decisions by the Obama administration that degrade our civil liberties (NDAA, etc). The president can indefinitely detain you, he can sentence you without a trial, and he can even order your death with no accountability for that action. All he has to do is say you’re “suspicious”, er, I mean a “terrorist”. That’s scary right? Well for me, this is not a new thing. For me it doesn’t even have to be the president. It could just be an angry cop, or a racist judge. You rail against these things like they are new, because you are now vulnerable. You are no longer part of the privileged class that did not have to worry about these things happening to you. You could be labeled a terrorist at any time. You fear for yourself and your loved ones. So now you feel it.

And that’s what is so insidious about privilege. Many times, people that enjoy it don’t even realize they enjoy it, unless they lose it. It doesn’t even register with them that the lives of others don’t have the same baseline as theirs. We will never lose the privilege of being male. We will never truly be able to grasp what privileges that affords us compared to women. We don’t even have to think about it. And when we are forced to think about it, our natural reaction is denial.

Denial. That is also a strong force at work here. It starts with the definition of these things. That’s why I try to define these concepts like objectification and privilege the way I see them. Every discussion should be framed by our a mutual understanding of what we’re talking about. Because many men have created their own idea of what it means. And that has allowed them to deny that they do it.

Many men like to think of objectification as an overt thing. They confuse it with exploitation. They assign negative connotations and malicious intentions to it. They decide that only “bad” people do it. This is a neat psychological trick. What it does is give me a way out. If only “bad” people do this, there’s no way I’m doing it, because I’m not a bad person. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a bad person. So they go to great lengths to avoid doing that. Including twisting the definition of things to serve that goal. It’s the same with racism. So we can start to examine some of the counter-arguments and see them break down.

“It can’t be that bad. Men looking at attractive women is a natural thing!” – What’s natural does not automatically equate with good. It’s arguably natural for you to want to hurt someone when you’re angry at them. Being civilized means that you restrain yourself from doing that, because it causes harm to the other person. In the same way, you should restrain yourself from abusing your sexual gaze with women. It does them harm.

“It can’t be that bad, women often participate in objectification!” – Yes and black people do commit crimes. But some black people committing a crime does not give us the license to sentence all black people to a life of fear and struggle. Some women being okay with objectification does not mean *you* can think it’s okay. The issues with the oppressed class do NOT negate the responsibility of the privileged class. You still have to work on bettering yourself.

Believe me when I say that responsible black people have real problems with our criminal element. And responsible women have real problems with these ladies who continue to prance around in their underwear for the enjoyment of men. We should try to improve these things. But that is a separate issue to what you do with your privileged position.

“It can’t be that bad. It happens to some men, and we handle it okay.” – First of all, when it does happen to men, they do not handle it okay. Do some research on the effects that emerge when men truly feel objectified and sexualized without their consent.

More importantly. We have to stop drawing these false parallels. The fact that it happens to some men, in remote instances, that you’ve kind of heard about, just doesn’t cut it. It is not on a grand enough scale. You cannot use this to tell women to “suck it up”, “deal with it”, or “lighten up”.

Let’s draw this comparison to the example about civil liberties. People are really upset about that. But how many US citizens have been detained? How many US citizens have been killed? Not very many in the scheme of things. Even considering that we don’t know about some of them. But if I told you to “lighten up”. “It’s probably not that bad”. “Some of those guys *are* terrorists”. Does that make you feel better? Probably not. And this type of thing doesn’t even happen every single day.

So what can I do?

This has been a long journey. If you’re still with me, I hope it’s not because I’ve completely convinced you. I hope it’s because you’re starting to ask more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface of both of these issues of sexism and racism. And remember, I’m probably not qualified. I probably got a million things wrong about sexism because I really don’t have the credentials to speak on it. I’ve made some generalizations here that won’t hold up to hard scrutiny. If there are women still reading, I hope you’re not completely furious and I hope you’ll try to educate me where you feel I’ve misrepresented.

Again, I’ve only given you my understanding. But that understanding motivates me to try hard every day not to abuse my privilege with women. The same way I hope that white people don’t abuse their privilege with me.

It’s hard. Not only because there are no set rules to follow. Not only because we (men) are not really wired to thoroughly empathize with women on the issue of sexism. But mostly because, once you really start trying to be mindful, you realize that you will never be done. You will have to fight to stay on the right side of this thing constantly. Your stupid brain will try to get the better of you in ways you won’t even realize until it’s too late. You’ll wonder how you got to the point of people screaming at you on twitter. You *will* mess this up from time to time.

So what can you do? Just fix it. Apologize first, then fix it, however you can. And try to understand what you did wrong so you don’t inadvertently do it again. And then go about your day as normal and be thankful that you are privileged. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but it is a great responsibility.

Maybe the gay marriage debate isn’t the “problem”

I was catching up on the latest crazy anti-gay thing, and I had a thought about the issue of gay marriage. Maybe we’ve been going about it the wrong way.

Advocates for gay marriage say they deserve the same rights as hetero couples. That’s true. Those against the idea say marriage is a sacred, religious union and not open to homosexual couples. That’s also technically true. The pro groups counters by talking about civil unions that are recognized by the state. This is a good compromise but most on the other side don’t see it that way. They don’t want a compromise, they want to be right. They want the state, and by extension our society, to validate their world-view of what a spiritual union is. Unfortunately we are a very religious nation, so the separation of church and state is more of an ideal than a hard rule.

Well I started thinking, why don’t we come at this from the other direction? Why should married couples receive any special recognition under state law at all?

My understanding of history is that married couples started receiving things like tax breaks and such as an incentive. Getting people together had many benefits. They could pool resources and put more of their combined income into the economy. They could have children and be more likely to pay for their higher education as a couple. They could purchase a home. Also good for the economy, but important to establish a sense of normalcy after WWII and create the idea of “The American Dream”. Someone school me if I’m getting any of this wrong. I suck at history.

But aren’t we a different society now? Isn’t our economy different? Isn’t the idea of “family” different? Do we still need the state to incentivize people to get married? Perhaps we should be incentivizing different things that don’t polarize people based on their values. Do we even still want a society where coupling up confers upon you special status and privileges under the law? What if we eliminated most of the legislation around civil unions? What if “marriage” returned to being a private matter that means whatever private citizens define it as? Then nobody would even be able to try and “ban” other people from doing whatever they wanted. And no one group would be able to use the power of government to push their personal value system.

I made a point to say we can only eliminate “most” of the legislation around civil union. There are some very practical definitions of “family”. Like those that allow you visitation rights in hospitals. I don’t think even the anti-gay zealots care if gay people visit their sick loved ones (if I’m wrong, I’d be really sad). There’s parental guardianship. That’s a big one. The question of whether gay couples should be “allowed” to raise kids is a big part of this issue. The state should have no say in that either. If one unmarried adult can adopt a child, then 2 same-sex adults can adopt a child. There’s also in vitro and other methods by which one (or both) women in a union bear a child. The only question is the process by which the other person can become a legal guardian. You want to be able to pick them up from school, and bail them out of juve when they do something really stupid. You know, like family.

I don’t know what the legal precedent for these things are. And I know for a fact that the anti-gay crowd will still want to argue about this as well. But this is one instance where less government could actually solve problems and quell some controversy. What do people think? I’m sure there’s lots I’m missing here. Particularly around what it means to be “family” in the eyes of the state when you get “married”.

Would prefer people to comment on Google+.