Tag Archives: racism

Who wins? Love wins

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Not so long ago, when everyone was talking about Rachel Dolezal, I found myself in the minority of people who supported her right to self-identify. Since then, has come a torrent of violence against the Black community: the church shooting in Charleston. More churches in the South, burning. The Klan marching with the Confederate flag. The President being greeted by this symbol of racism.

And then, the marriage equality decision, and the celebration. The rainbows erupting on my Facebook page. My friends, online and elsewhere, care about both of these events. Already, my more radical friends are moving on to celebrate Obama commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, because the frontiers of social justice stretch out in all directions.

We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities.

In a group I moderate on Facebook, “All transmen know each other,” a member posted that they identify as trans* on the FTM spectrum, but also as a member of lesbian community. The kinds of remarks I deleted from that thread were made to show disrespect and disapproval of the original poster’s identity. Which just goes to show, even in a tiny subset of a minority, gathered in solidarity over at least one of our identities, we are fully capable of tearing down strangers for claiming to know who they are and where they belong. Familiar much?

One of the strongest allies I have, in all of my struggles, is my therapist. I’ve been seeing him for several years, and I trust him to see me, not to reduce me to my identity labels, to understand that I have both a history and a present. He’s even helping me see that I have a future.

And he’s a straight, married white guy. When he told me that his family went out to dinner to celebrate the marriage equality decision, I bristled, but didn’t say anything. (To my therapist. I know. And he’s probably reading this.) On a personal level, he’s a flamboyant nerd. There have been days I’ve walked into his office and bitten my tongue, so as not to say, “What is up with that shirt?” (Did I mention he’s probably reading this?) Over the years I’ve gotten a better focus of what has made him into the person and the professional I’ve come to trust. Those of us who know what the inside of a locker looks like, understand something about one another. My therapist and I have a few identities in common, but they’re not why I trust him. It’s because he’s passionate and believes in his work so much that he is my ally.

Thinking of him and his family out at dinner, celebrating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I thought of all the people who come to our local Pride event each year. Some of the straight people there have politics as radical as mine, if not more. Some of the gay people there are conservatives with whom I have nothing else in common but an LGBT umbrella. My husband told me about standing in line for beer after the parade, behind two women who were complaining about the furry presence. There was no one more modestly attired than the furries, but this couple saw them as rubbing their sexuality in other couple’s faces. At a Pride event.

Identity politics erodes not only common decency, but our sense of irony.

My community can turn on its own, always has, in times of crisis. We’re not that different from any other group you can think of, as far as that goes. What’s remarkable, and worthy of celebration, is when we’ve fought together in solidarity for justice. We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities. The uproar on “All transmen” against lesbian-identified FTM-spectrum trans people, the lesbian mommies who objected to the furries, and Black people and their allies who mock the idea of cross-racial identification, are all guarding the same source of personal dignity and self-knowledge.

When I went to my tenth high school reunion, almost fifteen years ago, it was my first time seeing my classmates since I’d transitioned to male. I went to a small public high school in the rural South. I recognize and know the names of most of the people I graduated with, and they mostly knew me, too. There were just over a hundred of us, so not too many to get to know. And we’d had this formative experience together, going through high school, beginning to figure out what kinds of adults we’d become. One of my classmates, who is Black, showed me the photos in her wallet of her family, watching closely for my reaction to her white husband and their children. This was her litmus test: If you don’t like what my family looks like, then screw you, I could imagine her thinking. She’d passed mine the minute she started talking to me. Not everyone wanted to talk to the transgender classmate.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see interracial marriages happening among my graduating class, because when we were in school together, there was no interracial dating. Few of our parents would have allowed it. No one came out as gay in those years, either, though I learned from my sister, who attended after me, that in her class five years after mine, there were one or two who came out.

I really like my high school class. I think we’re an exceptional group of people: a lot of very smart people, and kind ones, too. Some of them suffered a great deal: from poverty, racism, divorce, disabilities, bullying, domestic violence, substance abuse, you name it. “Suffering does not ennoble,” is a phrase my husband likes to quote. We were mostly much kinder, ten years out, than we’d been in school. We are capable of becoming more sympathetic from having suffered, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Abuse begets abuse. It takes effort to break the cycle.

The woman who showed me her family photos, posted on her Facebook wall on the importance of having a “loving” conversation about what marriage is and is not, and this definition is purportedly Biblical, and not inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. (So far, she hasn’t had anything to say about polygamy or divorce.) The larger culture of our country, in the forms of social approval and formal legislation, now includes my marriage, but my former classmate’s religious subculture does not.

It wasn’t long ago—around the time my parents married—that legally, my classmate’s interracial marriage was considered no more legitimate than my same-sex marriage. My father’s generation was the first in his family to marry non-Sicilians. My mother is of English and German descent. When I was in high school, my parents told me that interracial marriage was cruel to the children, who would have no place in the world. They said this without irony: my parents were racists who said they weren’t racists. They were not the first such white people to exist, but because they were my parents, they were the most confounding to me, and their racism, which became my racism, would be the hardest to see and undo. My parents hadn’t considered how the world had changed since their own marriage, and how it could change again. They hadn’t thought of how their messages to their children reinforced racism instead of changing it.

I agreed with my classmate that marriage has been redefined, and went on to say that this has been the most important change to marriage’s definition since Loving v. Virginia. I asked her which side of this change she wanted to be on. She hasn’t answered me, but I kept thinking about her, and seeing her continue to draw a circle around her marriage with her  Facebook posts, and excluding mine from legitimacy. Then I dealt with the same circle-drawing in the “All transmen” group, and then I had my silent recoil from an act of earnest solidarity from my therapist and his family. What did all of this turf-guarding mean?

I realized that, while part of me wants to protect my valuable identity as a queer, I will have to share my queer values with an ever expanding circle of allies, if I want to see progress in the world. Because there is a difference between a subculture and a culture. You can’t live in your subculture all of the time. The greater culture is constantly affecting it, forcing us to live by its standards, but also changing with us. In forty years, marriage between a Black woman and a white man has gone from dangerous and illegal to mainstream. You can now see interracial couples in ads for cars and breakfast cereal. Interracial celebrities: musicians, actors, models, comedians, athletes, and even our nation’s President. My parents were wrong: there is a place for the child of an interracial couple in this country. One is in the Oval Office. And there’s a place in this world for me, too.

What’s larger and more all-encompassing than identity politics is our human dignity, which does not rely upon us having one identity or another regarding our gender, race, beliefs, or abilities. Because as I’ve seen in my own, small trans community, we can define and subdivide identity groups in every possible way, to include those who are like us and exclude the ones who we don’t understand and don’t want to. If we can’t put a label on someone that makes their choices or existence make sense to us, some of us are at a loss as to how to respect them. Our real lives are complicated, and not just internet-famous people’s lives like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s, but all of us who are honest about our personal growth, how we’re not the same people we once were, and yet we are, and are capable of becoming so much more.

Violence against Black people, and against trans people, particularly poor trans women of color, isn’t going to go away unless the mainstream culture changes. Because I think we can agree, it’s not what the Black people are doing inside their churches, or trans women in public bathrooms, that makes hateful people kill them. It’s what we’re telling one another about who’s on the inside of the circle of dignified existence and who is not.

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If America’s #1 Dad Couldn’t Save His Son with a Whupping, None of Our Kids Are Safe

 

Bill Cosby

Choosing not to hit my son is one decision I’ve never regretted.

With domestic violence so prominently in the news recently, in predictable sequence have come outrage and backlash. After it was made public that the NFL had known about the video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious in a casino hotel elevator, and then behaving coolly afterward, my friends on Facebook expressed righteous anger, first directed at the perpetrator and those who would cover up such violence. But then came the more complicated responses: the scorn for Janay Palmer, who expressed regret for events leading to her own assault, and who married the man who treated her so remorselessly. There were even defenses mounted for Ray Rice, saying that Palmer must have brought on such actions, that she had struck first and had it coming.

When the second scandal hit, of another NFL player, Adrian Peterson, beating his four year old child with a switch cut from a tree, the cycle of abuse coverage went through the same cycle of anger, shock, disbelief, bargaining, and shame. This time, among the defenses of his behavior was that loving African-American parents not only commonly beat their children with switches as a form of discipline, but that this is good and necessary. Necessary, according to one person with whom I’ve had this conversation, because Black children, especially Black boys, need to be harshly disciplined, or risk bringing upon themselves the wrath of a racist society.

***

I’m a white man, from what I think of as a fairly typical working class white American family. My sister and I would get spanked, and have other corporal forms of discipline imposed upon us. I decided not to spank my own son, and to raise him differently in other regards: to value difference, to be empathetic, to know that I was a real person, and so was he. I think I did, not great, but okay. Some of my choices as a parent were wrong, and some have been cause of long introspection and deep shame. The choice not to hit him is not one that I regret.

When I was a kid on Long Island in the early Eighties, my family’s principal bonding experience was watching TV together. My sister and I would sprawl on the white shag carpeting in front of the big console television in the living room, and we would all laugh together at “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H”, “The Muppet Show,” and other prime time programming, especially on Sunday nights.

My parents, sister, and I watched “Bill Cosby: Himself” on HBO when it first aired, in 1983 or ‘84. Cosby’s live show was a clear departure from our  family’s usual fare, the production bare, and revealing. His standup routine was delivered in a period brown suit on an empty stage, a conference chair and a microphone his only props. Cosby covered several taboos in succession: drug use, religion, childbirth, parenting. And he did it all without going “blue,” enabling my sister and I to stay through the whole performance. There’s a whole bit about how he and his wife would deliver nightly beatings to their five children, announcing it like an arena sport. My sister and I laughed at this along with our parents.

We all loved Cosby after that, and became devotees of his new sitcom. The Huxtables were well-to-do, squeaky clean role models of modern American family life, a version of the Cosbys, themselves. Whether Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable spanked their TV family was never addressed. I wouldn’t have chanced to wonder. That Bill Cosby had managed to bring a Black family into my father’s living room was miraculous. Even Archie Bunker types like my father were getting Cosby sweaters for Christmas and Father’s Day, in 1985, and growing to identify with him. My family, who regularly identified themselves with Archie Bunker et familia, now invited Dr. Huxtable’s family into our living room on Thursday nights.

The actor who played the Huxtables’ teenage son, Theo, on “The Cosby Show,” Malcolm Jamal-Warner, was serious “Tiger Beat” material.  The model for TV’s Theo Huxtable was Ennis William Cosby, Bill and Camille Cosby’s only son. He was killed in 1997 in a robbery on the side of the highway at night, while changing a car tire.

Ennis wasn’t alone that night. He called a friend, who came and watched from her car while he changed his tire. Someone came up and knocked on her window and caused her to move her car a short distance. When she looked up again, Ennis was dead.

Ennis Cosby did all the things I’d want my son to do, in that situation. Be self sufficient, and value your life. Move off the side of the road, fix the flat, don’t be alone in the dark. Ennis’ father was America’s Number One Dad. Ennis had dyslexia, and his parents sent him to the schools with the best LD programs they could find. The foundation named after him is for kids with learning disabilities. If the most perfect parents, giving their son every opportunity and tool that he needs to succeed, can’t keep him safe from a racist thug with a gun, then what can possibly keep any of our kids safe?

The answer is, nothing. We can do the best jobs we are able, even the best jobs possible, and yet we can’t control the whole world. Every day, millions of parents have to watch their precious children, whom they love, walk out the door into the unknown, and just… hope they’ve done enough to bring them home safely. What knowledge, what parenting act, what faith or magic, can possibly be momentous enough for this task? I imagine the fear that Bill and Camille probably felt for their son every single day, that someone would take their beautiful child’s life, because that unknown future assailant would not see their child as beautiful.

 

***

 

When I was a child, I was beautiful, but no one let me know that. Other kids told me that I was funny looking. From a young age, I told my classmates that I was from outer space, that my parents were not my real parents. I knew I was weird. I eventually stopped telling lies and tried to figure out the truths of why I was so different, what it was about me that isolated me, even in my own small family. It would take me a long time. Meanwhile, others volunteered their own answers to my question. Their taunts varied, leaving me only with the impression that there was something wrong with me that even others had a hard time pinning down.

One afternoon I came home from school and called my mother at work. I was sobbing and she was flustered. I never called her at work. “Let me call you back,” she said hastily, and hung up.

I’d gotten gum in my hair on the school bus. Someone had put it there. My hair was long and thick. I would have to cut the gum out. It would not make much of a difference, but I was defeated, anyway. This wasn’t the worst bullying incident. Yet for some reason, I called my mother. I only ever turned to her when there was no where else left to turn.

She called me back after a few minutes. “You bring this on yourself by being different, you know.” Her advice went on in that vein, not for long. Then she hung up.

I cut the gum out of my hair and didn’t mention it again.

When I hear the stories about Janay Palmer and Adrian Peterson’s son, I feel sorry for them, because they are being told that they deserve to be abused. And some people believe it’s true. The arguments for it include, this was done to me and I turned out fine and, if I don’t do this to my own kids, they will draw fire, however unjustly. But this is what happened to me and I’m not fine. Not only can’t you protect your kids by beating them, but hitting them begins teaching kids the lesson early that some people are allowed to hit other people, that there are natural hierarchies, with violence flowing down to the bottom. It sets them up for the next lesson, the one my mother stated so baldly on the phone that afternoon. It sets them up to take responsibility for their own victimization.

There are few subjects more divisive than how to parent. We all want to think that in such important areas of our lives as how we treat one another, the loved one and the stranger, that we are making the right choices. A new generation of progressive American parents is challenging bullying, even permitting the diversity of transgender children to flourish.

The conservative countervailing forces regard the couple, and the family, as small sovereign nations, places where we each must make our own laws in accordance with our own values, and be free to make the difficult choices of how to be good people, how to stay alive, and how to raise our children to be good, free, and safe, as well. None of us are perfect at it, even the ones with college degrees, TV shows, and worldwide recognition. It leaves us vulnerable to criticisms that go to the heart of who we are: our values, our children.

If you take cultural relativism to its extreme, any practice is acceptable, as long as it has a stated purpose and is accepted and perpetuated in a society. Female circumcision, child brides, even the deplorable practice of slavery, upon which America was built, can be defended and has been: that it is Biblically sanctioned, that it was “necessary” to economic development, that it was “less severe” in the North, that it “brought heathens to Christ,” or that ”it happened here, and we’re okay now.” Opposition to change is a conservative impulse, and not all conservative trends are bad, even to a flaming radical. Without doing things the way we always have, every morning would have to begin with a negotiation of terms that we would otherwise regard as settled: which side of the road to drive on, what language to conduct business in, whether we still have employment and on what terms. Some institutions are worth keeping, but leaving open to modification, as needed.

We still speak English every day, but we let new words slip in, and new ways of saying things. We still have laws, but we don’t pillory or publicly hang people, any more. And while many parts of this nation were founded on specific religious principles, or on slavery, or piracy, or genocide, these are no longer values we embrace as American. And we did this through the radical act of enlarging who we saw as fully human and worthy of being treated as an equal to ourselves, from a “We the People” that did not include me or most of my neighbors, to one that does. Even the Constitution, our nation’s Bible, is not immutable. Today’s “We” still doesn’t include everyone it could, and its breadth is constantly being contested. I would say it’s in our nature to contest it, has been all along. The reason we had to fight the Civil War was because we could not sustain the courage of our convictions at Lexington. The reason we had to fight the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s was because neither war was fully over. Perhaps the Puritans were right to identify themselves with Israel, who wrestles with angels.

I don’t have all the answers to how we’re going to win the war on racism, or how to actualize the emancipation of children from the petty tyrannies of their parents. I am no more an authority on parenting than average, perhaps less so. Maybe the family is an oppressive structure that cannot help but recapitulate abusive power structures, or perhaps it can be reformed, a tool instead of a cage, and made just. In either case, change to the family unit will only happen incrementally. Yet it’s undoubtedly changing.

Image credit: fuzzcat/Flickr

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