Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Notes from My Classroom as a Professor of Color: Emotional Labor & White Fragility

This is Essay #33 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week during 2017.

Yesterday, I offered up the opportunity for students to speak about the events in Charlottesville over the weekend – its terror, its violence, its racism. I did my best to create a safe space (which is something I strive do on Day One in my classroom anyway as I try to encourage risk-taking in their creative writing. But, you know, safety is an illusion.). I set some ground rules for people to respect others’ opinions, to allow for people to finish speaking, to ask questions, to ask for clarification, if need be. I’ve been with these 13 students for the past 5 weeks –four days a week!—and I’d like to think we have been successful in creating a supportive community. So these ground rules were really only reminders. Also, it’s a small class, so this was manageable. To have this kind of conversation in a lecture hall of 200 students looks very different.

I think it’s important to provide the space for students to speak freely about moments like Charlottesville so that they can process and learn in ways that are productive rather than stuffing it deep down inside because it might not be the “right” response or the “right” opinion. Stuffing things inside only leads to festering, which leads to outbursts that are counterproductive, sometimes violent.

As can be expected, it was a difficult conversation. We fumbled with our words. We preempted a lot with “I don’t mean to be offensive…” We forgot how to breathe. But we also found ways to help each other articulate the offensive things into more nuanced language, into compassionate expression. We shared resources, exchanged vantage points. We found ways to laugh at our own stumbling. It was difficult for all of us, but, overall, I think my students felt better having been able to voice their thoughts, their questions, their confusions. Me, I felt a little hopeful.

For context, I have a very diverse group of students, where 25% of the class is white. The rest are students of color.

*

I was telling someone the other day that I am the person I needed when I was an undergraduate: a professor of color. Though, admittedly, I didn’t know I needed that when I was 19 years old. Representation is important. For students of color to see a woman of color at the front of a university classroom illustrates for them a possibility that they might not have ever considered. I am aware of this. I am very aware of this.

I am also aware of how this, my position of authority as educator and my position as a woman of color, plays out in the classroom on an everyday basis. Many students don’t take me seriously. I mean, who takes creative writing seriously to begin with? And then a woman of color? It’s a piece of cake, they usually presume. Until I tell them that I am a hard professor and a strict grader where, on average, only a quarter of the class earns an A. Instantly, all those looking for an easy A to boost their GPA drop the class.

What I find is that my students of color, more often than not, take it as a challenge, stay in the class, and work their butts off. I’ll admit: it makes me smile.

*

At one point during yesterday’s conversation about Charlottesville, one student, a white male, got up and left the room. He needed to take a walk, he said. He was uncomfortable.

Generally, I try to honor people where they are. If he needed to practice self-care, I was all for it. I let him leave. He did not return to the classroom until the period ended.

And while I try to honor people where they are, I also do not let them off the hook so easily. As everyone was leaving, I asked him to stay so I could check in with him.

I asked him what happened. After admitting his discomfort and just needing to leave, he then said that the conversation was the same conversation he’s heard and keeps hearing over and over. According to him, nothing new was being said.

“You could’ve called us out on that. You could’ve challenged us. You could’ve shifted the conversation into something that wasn’t something you’ve already heard. But you deprived us of that opportunity by not coming back.” I said.

He nodded. Agreed.

“You missed the part of the conversation where we discussed that gray area between taking action, inciting change and self-care, self-preservation. Yes, you needed to leave the room – for self-preservation. But then you didn’t come back. That was an opting-out. Yes, you needed to do what you needed to do –and I honor that. But now, consider your actions and how they are an illustration of white male privilege. You can opt-out with no consequences. Nothing will change for you whether you participate in the conversation or not. Me? Us people of color? We cannot afford to opt-out – our lives, our livelihood depends on it. And I am not exaggerating.”

He did not disagree, but he began to talk about how I was treating him as a symbol of whiteness rather than as an individual. He told me that I was “mishandling” the situation, given my position as professor –which puzzled me & I asked for clarification. He said that because I am his professor, my words carry some impact (of which I am well aware) and that perhaps I should consider this when talking to him and treating him as a representation rather than an individual.

Oh.
I see.

Deep breath.

“It is because I am your professor that I am having this conversation with you. It is my responsibility to educate you, is it not? I want to challenge you to see beyond your line of vision. If you are uncomfortable, good. This is how change begins. If you are uncomfortable with being seen as a representation then welcome to the daily lives of people of color. You have to learn how to navigate these kinds of conversations without taking them personally. We are talking in a larger systemic context. Yes, you are an unwilling participant, but you need to own that in order to begin to be able to affect change. You can have your feelings, honor them & acknowledge them, but then, don’t hold on to them like a rock. If you are truly interested in social justice and change, you will let that rock go, move on, get over it, and get to the real work.”

He expressed his difficulty in articulating how he was feeling. I told him that it was normal, that it was alright, that this is part of change, of growing. He can think on this –on all of this—and in time, he’ll be able to process in ways that are best for him. I told him that he might not agree with all that I’ve said –that he might indeed outright disagree. But, I said, later, over time –maybe ten years from now – who knows!—over time, he’ll see more clearly what I’m talking about (This is my hope. There are no guarantees. All we can do as educators is plant seeds. Whether they flourish or not and how –that’s out of our hands.). For now, I told him, just sit with it –it’s a lot—and digest it.

*

This is some serious emotional labor.

At one point during our conversation, I gave him an example from my own life in which I was seen as a representation of Asian and an objectified woman, not as an individual –it’s something I’m trying to write about now and it’s not easy—and I could feel the catch in my throat. I think he was taken aback by it a little bit, too. It took a lot for me to steel myself so that I could stay focused on the discussion at hand –which was his position of privilege in this system-- and not to veer off into my own personal shit (and risk emotional meltdown). Internally, I was asking myself why I offered that example, out of all the examples? Wasn’t it enough to just give him one of the many “harigato” or “you speak English so well” encounters? I don’t know. Maybe I wanted him to see firsthand, from someone he knows, just how much hurt we people of color bear.

Also this: he did not see his own privilege on display by trying to put me in my place, telling me that I was “mishandling” the situation. He even went so far as to go the "This is a writing class that I'm paying for" route. To which I responded: "Creative writing is about learning how to be human -- having a discussion about Charlottesville is part of that process -- we need to learn and remember how to be human." To be fair, he did express wariness in saying this, but felt that he needed to point it out. On the one hand, I am glad that he felt comfortable enough to express how he was feeling. On the other, here again is a display of privilege: subconsciously, he was feeling this way because I am a woman of color. Had I been a white man, he would have accepted whatever I had to say wholeheartedly, without question, without any commentary on how I have “handled” things. Because, as a white man, I would’ve handled things just perfect.

(And don’t tell me I’m making this shit up. That’s called gaslighting. Cut it out.)

This is a precarious position.

And so I must tread with care, always carrying my light of love and compassion. But also, always making time for self-love and self-care.
  

Sunday, August 13, 2017

About Charlottesville

This is (late) Essay #32 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.

What the fuck year are we living in? Is it 2017? Is it?? White supremacists marching with torches on Friday night – seriously? WTF? (Though, the humor is that they used tiki torches and well, the internets were having a field day with memes. Silver lining in everything, right?) A white man attending the white supremacist rally mows down people demonstrating against racism & fighting for social justice. Three people die; thrity-four (at last count) are injured. What. The. Fuck. Can we no longer gather to demonstrate and fight for what is right without risking our personal safety? Maybe we never had that safety. After all, like Roxane Gay has said: safety is an illusion we create for ourselves.

When I marched in January at the Women’s March, I was legitimately nervous for my safety. Heck, I’ve been wary of my personal safety since November 9th. But, I wanted and needed to be an example for my daughters. Here’s a question: why must I make that kind of decision? To stay home & feel safe or to go out & fight? No white woman had to make that decision. White women brought their kids to the march.

Now this. Charlottesville.

People of color were hurt, no doubt. A 32-year-old woman was killed. At the hands of a white man. Where is the denunciation of such acts of violence from Cheetoh?

 Where are our elected officials decrying this? Why is no one screaming “terrorists”?! I hear nothing from Capitol Hill. Crickets. (And if you are moved to correct me on technicality, resist the urge to do so. The response, on the whole, has been soft, at best.)

There’s a lot of rhetoric. There are a lot of things to be said. People are saying them. People are talking. But I don’t know how much listening is happening. I also don’t know how much talking is talking to ourselves. Further deepening the divide. 

(In my head, I’m asking: where the fuck are you, Obama? Fucking say something! You know people will listen. People will ignite with hope.)

I’m –I can’t even find the words— Heartbroken? Angry? Grief-stricken? Unmoored? Or simply broken?

What’s it going to take for real action to happen? Or is this country just going to explode? Taking the rest of the world with it?

What do I tell my kids? I don’t shield them from this shit, but I also talk to them in age appropriate ways. I have to be mindful of what I say and how I say it. How do I do that with this?

*

When will white people wake the fuck up? When will they stop making excuses? When will they step up and DO SOMETHING? (And I’m talking about the white folks who actually acknowledge there’s something wrong going on in this country. Not those white people who try to split hairs about what history is and what we need to preserve—like that Lee monument—not those white people who are telling people like me to relax. Those people can fuck off.)

I am beside myself.

I am not surprised by the events in Charlottesville yesterday. Given the escalating racial tensions since November 9th, all of the hate crimes that exploded in the days immediately after, and the violence in the months that have followed, no one should be surprised. But I am horrified and heartbroken, angry and outraged.

We are not seen as human beings. Not by these white supremacists. We are only objects to be run over by cars because we are in the way.

We cannot let this stop us from continuing to fight for justice. We cannot let fear silence us. We need to lift each other up and find our light.

 *

Where do I begin?

This is to say: where do I begin to really incite change? Rallies and protests and demonstrations are all good ways to get physical, to put your body out there, to be seen and to demand to be seen. Petitions are good to get your name out in front of the people who make decisions. Writing essays like these are good, too. But what about in our daily lives? How do we, how do I spark change? In ways that are not only effective but also protect, to some extent, my own safety?

Scenario #1:

My parents and brother voted for Cheetoh. I have not had a sit-down with them to find out why. It puzzles me, but to be honest, I don’t want to know. The why doesn’t matter now. What I do want to know is how they feel. Right now. In this moment. Do they feel the same way? Do they still support Cheetoh? Do they even care that white supremacists are gathering in large numbers threatening their very existence? Do they even care that people fighting for justice were killed and injured yesterday? Or is it too far removed from their daily lives for them to even care? When will they start to care? When the Neo-Nazis are knocking down their door to take them away because they’re brown? At that point, though, is it too late?

How do I have this difficult conversation with them when listening has never been taught? Silence has always been our family modus operandi. How do I change that? How do I listen. And how do I do it with love and compassion?

What are the consequences of having these difficult conversations with my parents and brother? Am I willing to break the “peace” – whatever this “peace” is? What are the consequences of silence?

Should I just be focusing my attention on other more “political action” type items?

Scenario #2:

There are white women in my life who believe they are allies. Sure, they mean well, but do they understand what privilege they carry? Do they understand that while they can “take a break” from taking political action, marginalized people cannot? For most of them, the answer is no. Their political actions have to be more than what’s convenient for them, what’s comfortable for them. Are they willing to put their bodies in harm’s way in order to fight white supremacy? Heather Heyer did. She died in Charlottesville trying to fight racism. How far are these white women willing to go?

There is more to say on this, but I am tired. Exhusted.

*

I don’t know how to end this essay. I am sleep deprived. My brain isn’t very clear. I know that I have to make some breakfast. I know that yoga might help. I know that it is supposed to be a sunny day today. Maybe I can just take today to practice self-care, to mourn, to laugh, to nap, to nap. And tomorrow, tomorrow I will continue to fight in big ways and small. With plenty of love and compassion and hope. Always love. Always compassion. Always hope.


The Ebb & Flow, Rise & Fall (of Friendships)

This is (late) Essay #31 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.

[Note: I began writing this essay mid-week last week, before Charlottesville. Trying to finish it after the white supremacist violence was really REALLY hard.]

I was out for a drink the other night with my friend Nina. We are both going through some spiritual –and emotional & psychological—changes. Good changes. Not easy, but definitely good in the long run. We are present in the world with more love and compassion. I can’t speak for her, but personally, I’ve been working on seeing the Divine in all people. Which, I’ll have you know, is hard as hell. But I’m trying!

As we talked over a beer, she mentioned that she has noticed her circle of friends shrink. That now, she only has a few people (four or five maybe) that she can turn to when the going gets rough. And even in that small group, only one or two (myself included) actually “get it”, get what’s happening to us, or, at the very least, offer a listening ear rather than prescriptive advice (which is really judgment, projection, and opinion in disguise).

Change is hard. For everyone.

But also, it’s the only constant thing in our lives. The only thing we can depend on.

Nobody likes change. It’s unfamiliar which then creates fear which leads to discomfort and who wants to feel that? So then we fight with all our might to resist change, to keep things the way they are, the way they have always been. Which is not possible. Not really.

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, in which the whole idea is to embrace uncertainty, to be at peace with groundlessness. It’s about being in the present moment, about practicing non-attachment, about being kind to others – basically, some of the main practices of Buddhism. But the focus on change is what I love about this book. The idea of embracing –heck, welcoming!— uncertainty is fascinating and is changing (haha) my attitude towards a lot of things in my life. For the better.

As Nina and I change, we have seen friends move out of our lives. Sometimes, it’s a blantant break up. Most times though, it’s a fading out: allowing time to pass with reduced communication. Or no communication at all. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision on the part of one party or the other or both. Sometimes it’s subconscious where schedules are so busy that if we don’t make the effort to see each other or see each other regularly due to structured schedules (think: social/religious groups, kids sport practices, etc), we just lose touch.

Change happens whether we pay attention or not.

*

I have a friend I’ve known for over twenty years. We’ve been friends THAT long. (Am I really that old??) So, for the past, oh, I don’t know, eight or nine years, we’ve made it a point to have dinner, just the two of us, at least once every other month. She lives in the city so I make the journey there because, really, it’s more fun than dinner in Jersey. Haha! We usual try a new restaurant each time – there’s just so many to choose from, so why not? And each time we meet up, we talk about our current lives –career, kids, spouses, aging parents—and sometimes reminisce about our younger coming-of-age days. It’s quite a thing to have a friend who has been with you for most of the big stages of your life. And over the years, I’d like to think that we each have changed and evolved over the years. During those changes, we’ve adapted to each other –in some sense, we changed together despite our different paths.

And then the election of 2016 happened.

You want to talk about change? Jeez.

I didn’t think I had to worry about her & our friendship. After all, we’ve been through a lot together. And while we didn’t often get into discussions about politics, we agreed on many things and both expressed frustration with our Republican fathers. But as time went on since November 9th, I came to a deeper understanding of who my friend is, beyond the college girl I grew up with. And with that understanding came a little heartbreak.

You can probably guess where this is going.

So I’ll summarize: woman of color and white woman are friends for a long time. The nation’s racism is brought out from behind the Wizard’s curtain into the bright sunlight. White woman and woman of color march in January’s Women’s March, but with separate groups. WOC thinks nothing of it as it was a very big march and to coordinate was nothing short of a nightmare. Later, WOC asks WW about her experience of the march for a piece that she is writing and asks what she is doing to continue her political action/involvement. WW responds with the fact that she is very busy with a deadline of her own. Also, it turns out WW has a standing policy in which she does not talk about politics (huh?). WOC is confused as WW chose political action by participating in the march. It becomes clear to WOC, by the newly-stated standing policy, that WW is unaware of her white privilege. To be able to opt out of political conversations because they make her uncomfortable serves as Exhibit A of white privilege. WOC is not sure if she can hold a conversation with *anybody* that bars politics. It is not an abstract thing – it is directly connected to her livelihood.

Some time goes by. WOC posts to FB an article about WW and their obliviousness to their privilege. WW friend posts a brief comment that indicates she might possibly be offended by the post but does not say this outright. WOC wonders if WW friend read the article or only the headline. Since then, there has been no communication between the friends. That was about two and a half months ago.

I do not know what to make of this.

Silence is a tricky bastard. Some days, you want it so you can be alone with your inner Self, to spend time with your Self.  Sometimes, you want it so you can think and write. Other times, it can grow into an ugly monster, filling your head with invented apocalyptic narratives.

I have not reached the ugly monster stage. There has been too much going on in the world and in my own life. There has been little time for silence.

But there are a few questions floating around: what is she thinking? Why hasn’t she reached out to me? Why haven’t I reached out to her? Is this the direction of our long friendship? A fade-out? What is the consequence of that?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. They are merely there. Floating. So I’m asking: how much time will pass before I’ll want to know the answers? Or, am I okay not knowing the answers?

Change is hard. How we handle it makes all the difference. Do we resist it? Or do we run towards it with open arms?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Lila, Divine Play

This is (late) Essay #30 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.

Play. This is what she, my teacher, offered. Lila, in the yoga world.

I’ve been having trouble lately, struggling with grounding myself. There are a lot of things going on. If you know me, you know that I tend to put too many things on my plate. I try to do it all because I want to do it all – not because there’s an expectation, but because there’s just so much I want to do! A friend once told me, “You really live life to the fullest.” If she meant that with regard to the number of crazy things I put on my plate, then yes, I do. But what about living life to the fullest in a way that you are present and fully engaged with what is happening in your life? What about being full in quiet moments, when nothing is happening at all?

I am too serious more often than I’d like to admit.

Also, I feel myself not wanting to write this essay. For what might be revealed about myself to myself. And to whomever is reading.

Which, of course, means that I must write it. Despite the fact that I really don’t know what it’s about… other than play. And my unconscious resistance to it.

Too often I forget to play. Too often I get caught up in dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s. Too often I draw lines and boxes and charts and try to manage life in this way. Organized. Orderly. Scheduled. I have control. And when I don’t have control, I tend to respond in dramatic ways. Forgetting that really, I never had control of anything to begin with.

There’s a man named Mahan Rishi – my soon-to-be Kundalini yoga teacher—who has said on more than one occasion: “Suffering is optional”. I take that to mean I should be less serious, that there are ways in which we can respond to our lives that do not create unnecessary and unbearable suffering. Which is not to say we can avoid suffering entirely, but maybe we can choose different ways to look at it.

Oh, that word: suffering.

There’s a lot of different ways I look at that word and I could go on and expound upon the various meanings and interpretations that range from the Buddhist understanding of the word to the Catholic one and the responses to how suffering shows up in my life, BUT! I will not. I will not go down that rabbit hole. Not today anyway.

I will say this much though: in all of my seriousness, I am hard on myself. About everything. My teacher gently pointed this out to me again today. I am trying to work on being friends with myself – to be more kind, more generous, more loving. It’s slow-going. The way I treat myself is definitely not the way I treat my friends. Why is that? Why do I think it’s okay to be harder on myself? I know the answer. I also know I’m not alone in this. And this is why I want to work on being friends with myself. To work on extending unconditional love for my very flawed self, insecurities and all.

And to play more often.

My teacher suggested that maybe sometimes it’s not about searching for meaning in every little thing. Maybe it’s just about being. Being in the present moment. To just be in it. To not attach meanings or story lines or opinions. To not push away feelings or ignore them or act on them or listen to whatever those feelings are saying. To just be.

And to play.

So, the real question is: how do I do that? How do I let go? At least enough to just play, to lighten up, to have fun with life?

In the yogic sense, lila is divine play. And so, in following Hindu traditions, to play means to create.

What shall I create today?

Monday, July 24, 2017

How (Not) to Write an Essay for The 52 Essay Challenge

This is (late) Essay #29 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.

Wake up before everyone else. You like the quiet of a brand new day. It’s like a clean sheet of paper (which can be both exciting and terrifying), open to so much possibility.

Make some coffee. You know that writers all have their rituals. Some read. Some physically warm up with calisthenics. Some meditate. Some take walks. Yours is coffee.

You pour cold water into the back of the coffee maker, insert a brown paper cone filter (because you are environmentally responsible and do not buy the white filters), measure out the coffee carefully as you know the ratio of water to coffee grounds is key to the perfect cup. (Well, that and water temperature and length of steeping, but, really, who’s paying attention to that?) You “pre-heat” your mug by pouring a little water into it and popping it into the microwave. It is important that your coffee is not poured into a cold mug as that will affect the ideal temperature of the beverage. That said, you also warm up a tiny cup of half-and-half. Again, to not mess with the coffee’s ideal drinking temperature.

When the coffee has finished brewing, you measure out one teaspoon of sugar and run your finger over the spoon’s edge, sweeping away the excess to ensure that you have less than a teaspoon, as you do not like your coffee too sweet. You put the sugar in the empty mug. You then pour the coffee into the mug, over the sugar, allowing the heat of the coffee to dissolve the sugar while simultaneously swirling it into the coffee. This is a trick you learned when you worked at Dunkin Donuts in high school. You’re not sure it’s any different or better than simply putting the sugar into the coffee after it’s been poured, like most people do, but you’d like to believe that it does make a difference. It’s a habit you don’t want to give up.

You grab whatever fruit is available –berries, bananas, apples, oranges—and bring it, along with your coffee, to your writing studio. Now that you think of it, you grab a protein bar, too. Just in case. You leave your phone on the kitchen counter so as to try to minimize your distractions, like sending random text messages. They have a new collection of emojis now and you’re dying to use them all. Best to leave the phone in the kitchen.

Once in your studio (a converted bedroom in your house), you flick on the mug warmer and put down your coffee. You mentally note the effort with which you work to keep your beverage at the ideal temperature. What does that say about me? you wonder for a split second, but then turn your attention to your desk.

There is so much clutter, you think to yourself. Maybe I should clean a little bit. But then you scold yourself. See? This is why we don’t get any writing done. Focus, girl. Focus.

You take your journal –one that is from Paperchase, your favorite brand of writing journals (not Moleskin, like every other writer you know) that are hard to find but have recently been seen at Staples. There is something about the feel of their paper. And the spacing between the lines is perfect for your handwriting. Plus the bookmark ribbon is always a pretty color, not basic black. Not to mention the variety of covers. But you digress— You spend some time freewriting about whatever is on your mind. This, you tell yourself, is writing meditation. This is one of your rituals for writing. If you don’t do this, you’ll mess up your whole day. And writing anything of worth will be useless.

Oh, the things we tell ourselves. And the things we believe.

After you’ve done your brain dump and have thoroughly stressed yourself out with the giant to-do list that emerged from that dumping session, you are ready to begin writing your essay. But that thing that popped up in your freewrite –the thing about finding childcare in the event that their outdoor camp would be cancelled—that thing is gnawing at you. So you go to the kitchen, get on your phone and text everyone, including your mom, to find someone to care for your kids so you can go teach your summer session class later that morning.

Then you are faced with the phone issue. Literally. The phone is in your face. Okay, not literally, physically INSIDE your face. Man, theses kids and their use of “literally”! You upgraded to a new phone and, as usual, there is a problem. It is never easy to make any kind of change when it comes to technology. So, you decide to get on the phone (using your house phone. Yes, you still have a house phone for these very reasons.) with customer service because it is early and everyone is still in a good mood. You hope.

As you dial the number, you have already resigned yourself to the fact that you will indeed not write this essay. The phone call will take much longer than you have time for and then you will find yourself rushing to get ready for class. Thankfully, your dad will be arriving shortly to stay with your kids so you can do your job.

As for the essay, there’s always tomorrow. Maybe.



Essay 28

Hello dear reader,

Essay 28 of The 52 Challenge will not be found here as I plan to submit it for publication. But if you're curious, it's about swimming. And if you're even *more* curious after I just said that, then email me & if I know you, I'll send you a draft. If I don't know you, then you'll have to wait patiently for the publication. :)

Have a fantastic day!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

On Raising Biracial Kids, Part 2: Grandparents on the other side of the aisle

This is Essay #27 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished, totally messy!) essay each week during 2017.


“She doesn’t know anything.”

My dad said this to my nine-year-old last weekend, as I was getting ready to go out. My parents were babysitting that night. I am truly grateful that they live nearby and can provide such support to me as well as participate in my kids’ everyday lives. But a sentence like this makes me take pause.

My daughter came upstairs to tell me this.

“Why did he say that? What were you talking about?”
“I was talking about Cheetoh*—“
“You know you can’t talk about him with Lolo.”
“I know. I forgot!”
“So what did you say?”
“I said I didn’t like him [Cheetoh] and he asked me why and I couldn’t remember. And then he said that you didn’t know anything.”

I held my breath. Tried to steady myself and not allow anger build into rage. I took a long, deep inhale. I slowly exhaled. I could feel my body begin to knot. I was working on not taking this statement personally. I took another deep breath.

“Do you believe him? That I don’t know anything?” I said as evenly as I could.
“No. He’s the one who doesn’t know anything." I'll admit: I laughed on the inside. "Why does he like Cheetoh?”

And here is where I have to be careful.

“He doesn’t read the same things I do. He has a different way of seeing things.” I said.
“So he’s reading, but he’s reading it wrong,” she decided. 

What do I say to that? In my head, I agreed. In my actual response, I said “He just needs to read more things outside of what he usually reads.”

“Can you help me with my answer to why I don’t like Cheetoh?”
“Because he grabs women’s private parts and hates brown people.”
“Oh yeah! Now I remember!”

[*Cheetoh is the name we use for the 45th president. Voldemort is another one. We do not say his name in our house.]

*

Some of you reading this will be shaking your heads, passing judgment on my parenting skills here. Chances are, you are white. Some of you will be nodding your heads in agreement, perhaps wondering why I couldn’t have taken a harder line. Chances are, you are a person of color. The complicated response is the one who passes judgment and is also a person of color. This last category would be the one in which my dad falls.

Eight months after the results of the 2016 election, I am still don’t know the reasoning and logic behind my dad’s choice to vote for Cheetoh. Here is a brown man, an immigrant who fled the Marcos dictatorship, deciding that a rich white guy who gives zero shits about him –and in fact, would probably like to have him deported—is a good choice for president. I’ve come up with some theories as to why he’d vote for Cheetoh: he really hates powerful women, which, in turn, makes him anti-feminist, which, in turn, makes him in opposition to me, a feminist. (This is nothing new.) He is gullible enough to believe the promises that Cheetoh will turn the economy around and revamp healthcare. (Based on what past experience? On what records of success with such things?) Well, we all know how that’s turning out.

But the bottom line is: I have stopped making the efforts in trying to understand this choice, as it doesn’t serve any purpose in the present moment. It doesn’t change the election results. It also doesn’t change my dad. He is too set in his ways to see anything beyond what he has already decided. (He’s always been set in his ways. His advancing age only further solidifies it, if that’s even possible.) I thought I could just leave things be.

A long time ago, my dad decided that we were not to talk about politics, ever. And when I say “we” I mean everyone in our family. He and his dad, my grandpa, would get into heated political arguments when I was a kid. Republican against Democrat. Light skinned brown man against dark skinned brown man. Privileged physician against the forgotten WWII veteran who now delivered mail. One time, it got so heated that my dad ordered us in the car and we drove away from my grandparents’ house before dessert.

My grandpa has been dead almost thirteen years now. His birthday was on the Fourth. He would’ve been 98. I wonder what he’d say about all of this. About Cheetoh. About my dad. About me. Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to him when he told his stories. What could I have learned from him? What insight could I have gained? Alas, the past is gone and all I’ve got is now. So I turn my eyes to my kids.

*

It’s tricky to love someone who stands behind the things that are diametrically opposed to the things you stand for. But this is what unconditional love is, yes? Yes, but I want to note that unconditional love is not an automatic given, as I previously thought. It is built. It is tested. It is revised and rebuilt. It is tested over and over. The unconditional part is deciding whether or not to rebuild, test after test.

I hate to break it to ya, folks, but love is not some magic fairy spell that appears out of nowhere (it can be, but not always). It’s not “You are born. Your parents are there. You instantly love them.” (The reverse can also be applied here. Parents don’t always instantly & automatically love their children upon birth.) Love can be a decision you make. And I mean that across the board of Love. Familial, romantic, platonic. (Divine love is an entirely different matter that plays by a different set of rules, something for a different essay.)

So the same questions are still here, the same ones from last week’s essay: how do I teach my kids compassion and love, even for those who disagree with what they think, even for those who support people who do not see them, my kids –my daughters—as full people, but rather as objects to be taken, silenced, or removed? I know that the best way to teach anything is to model. In this case, I need to be the example of showing love and compassion.

But how do I myself extend and show love to my dad? Do I overlook his staunch beliefs, even if they are beliefs that threaten my very livelihood and his? How do you love someone like this? How do you accept who they wholly are and still love them?

Jesus did it. But, hell, I’m not Jesus.

Still, I’ll give it a shot. Because I want to try. Otherwise, where would we be if none of us tried to do the hard thing?