Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Marching as a Woman Of Color

This is Essay #4 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week during 2017.

Since Saturday, I've written about 3000+ words (that's about 12 pages, double-spaced, but probably more) about the Women's March. Some words were addressed to certain people in emails, some were words written in my journal to process what I experienced. And here I am, writing more about it.

I've started this post at least four different ways. Probably more.

Why? Because there's just so much. So so much.

About a week before the march, I decided to participate. This, after two months of saying I wasn't. (Read here for more on why I changed my mind.) And so I made the preparations necessary. First up: I needed a marching buddy. Second: I needed a sign to carry. Third: I needed an organization to march with for safety reasons (I wanted to be sure someone official could account for me should something happen.) This was by no means my first protest.

By Friday night, the night before the march, all was in place. I was marching with my friend, Samara, who is Iraqi-Anerican and her friend, Jennifer, a black woman. Three other friends from their neighborhood were also going to be part of our group -- three white women.

I went to Staples and had them enlarge a poster created by artist, Molly Crabapple, that quotes Audre Lorde: "Your silence will not protect you".  My sign, bold and colorful and fierce, was ready.  A friend commented: Damn, that is badass. Yes. Yes it is. It's Audre Fucking Lorde. Expect nothing less.

Another friend got me registered with Sanctuary for Families -- organization affiliation? Check.

I was ready.

At least as much as I could be.
There are always unexpected things for which we cannot prepare.

On the train into the city, there were a lot of white women jabbering away, holding their signs, wearing their pink pussyhats. You'd think I'd be excited by this, by this showing of women who were willing to go to the streets and protest this new administration. But I wasn't. I was suspicious. I hate to admit this --and maybe this is cynicism, but maybe not-- but I looked at these women and wondered: are you doing this because it's trendy? Because it's the cool thing to do? Where were you on November 8th? Did you actually vote? Or did you stay home thinking she had it in the bag? And now that you've woken up from your dream, do you think marching for one day in the streets of Manhattan is going to actually change things?

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but if history is any indication, I worry that this is a one-time thing. Activist for a day. And then hashtag the shit out of it. And then disappear.

I pushed those thoughts away. Or at least I tried. I wanted to give this demographic of women the benefit of the doubt. After all, if we're going to incite real change, we need their help.

But I couldn't ignore the fact that in the massive crowds of women --and men! There was quite a good showing of men-- that there were very few people of color. And this is New York City where I'm used to seeing so many brown faces. All I saw, aside from my two friends, was a sea of white. With pink-capped heads. (Which, by the way, bugged the shit out of me because it felt like an empty gesture, a symbol without real meaning or significance. It was a gimmick. I'll admit that initially, I thought: oh, how cute -- maybe I'll make one too. But then: what the fuck?? Cute?! We're talking about people's rights to fucking survive, to fucking LIVE, preferably without fear. A hat isn't anything. What does a hat symbolize? Not a goddamn thing! A raised fist means fight. A hat? A fucking hat?? Uggghh! And it's fucking PINK. Must we continue to reinforce gender constructs with PINK?!? Come on!! Uggghhh!!!)

As far as the signs people carried, there were very few that had messages demanding racial equality & social justice. I felt like my sign was the most radical with Audre Lorde's face looking out at you severely, demanding you to speak.

A few folks told me they loved my sign, which I appreciated. Others snapped photos of me & my sign, which I wasn't comfortable with. I had a battle in my head about this.

It's a protest. Of course, people are going to take pictures to document this moment. But why did I respond differently to different photographers? A woman of color took our photo and talked to us while we marched. She wished us luck as she headed on to her next photo opportunity. A white-haired white woman took my photo as I marched by as if I were a specimen in my natural habitat. Like an animal in the wild or something. She was detached --an observer-- and not engaged at all. It was weird. I wanted to turn around and tell her to delete my photo from her camera or to tell me where she was planning to share that photo or if she had a form for me to fill out and give her permission to take my photo. Or even just ask her what she thought of my sign -- why did she like it enough to snap a shot? Does she know who Audre Lorde is? Then I had a moment of panic: what if she was working for the alt-right, looking for shit to skew into fake news / alternative facts, and make me part of that disgusting narrative? Ugh!

I tried to ignore these observations. I tried to stay focused on my purpose: to show up and make it known that I am here and that I am demanding to be heard.

That was really hard.

It's hard to do that when white women carry themselves as more important than you, when they take up space in ways that tell you you are not as important.

At the beginning of the day, we were in the holding area on 47th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, waiting for the police to open the barricades so that we could join the flow of the march at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. It was crowded, packed like sardines. I was doing my best to sustain a positive energy, to not think about exit strategies in the event of an emergency (would I get trampled?), to take deep breaths. We had been standing there for about two hours with very little progress. I made an off-handed comment to Samara about people's patience running out (because, well, that's human nature), that they needed to let some people into the march to release this build up of marchers. It was more an observation than anything else. Then this white woman in her late sixties decides to insert herself into our chitchat by saying, with a tone of condescension: no, that's not going to happen -- just take deep breaths. I gave a look to Samara that said: who the fuck is she to tell me what to do? Up until that point, I was fine, breathing, staying patient. But now this woman is telling me what to do (as opposed to making a suggestion) and my patience was close to breaking. I didn't respond, tried to turn away from her (though I couldn't fully do that -- it was that packed), and took a deep breath. This white woman then made efforts to wiggle her way forward to join her friend a few inches ahead. Because, you know, we weren't going to the same place for the same purpose or anything like that. I reached into my bag and whipped out my lavender oil. I offered it to Samara and Jennifer as well. I listened for the echo of my protection chant in my mind (Earbuds in, I had played it all morning while I got ready at home). I needed to strengthen my personal forcefield. And to calm down.

Soon, we got tired of waiting and decided to join the march on our own terms. We turned around and made our way through the crowd to get back out onto Third Avenue. What I kept noticing was that white women were pushing through the crowd as if their time and space was more important than anyone else's. I don't know how many times a white woman tried to push past me. It took a lot for me to just keep it together. To not shove back. To not spit some angry energy. To do that, I kept reminding myself, would not be useful. Not in this moment. Later, I told myself, later you will write about it.

Others have since commented on the "peacefulness" of the march. What struck me during the march was something I heard from different people in the crowd: the NYPD pretty much gave up on trying to keep us on the route. They shrugged and let folks walk wherever they wanted, even if it meant shutting down traffic (which we did). Now, had this been a Black Lives Matter march, there's NO WAY IN HELL the NYPD would've allowed that. Veer off course? No fucking way. So yeah, white bodies kept my brown body safe. To a certain extent. The microaggressions were still there.

What made it harder for me was the three white women marching with us.

While I'm sure they mean well and have good intentions, I couldn't be myself. Not fully, not wholly. And that bugged the shit out of me.

A day before the march, I emailed a friend of mine, a white woman, about white privilege. She had gone ahead and found me a marching buddy without asking me. She assumed that it'd be okay for this stranger to join my group. I had to tell her, no, it wasn't okay. I didn't know this woman's politics outside of wanting to march. Was she a true ally? Or would I have to babysit *and* educate? I wasn't interested in spending my time and energy in this way during the march. I told my friend that this "found marching buddy" couldn't come with me. She responded in a productive way: in a kind of tiny awakening and understanding of where I stood -- she apologized and hoped that her ignorance didn't hurt our friendship. I think she's a little bit more aware now, which is good. Also, I didn't have to march with a white woman stranger.

But now here I was marching with three white women strangers. Sure, they were friends with Samara, but I didn't know the extent of their awareness and knowledge. And while I do not like to police my thoughts when it comes to social justice, I found myself doing that to a certain extent. For a couple of reasons: self-protection (would they try to dismiss how I was feeling? What my lived experiences are? as white folks are wont to do) and energy preservation (would I need to educate them?). This, in and of itself, is exhausting.

After the march, we got a bite to eat. Once the food orders were in, someone asked: what now? In that moment, I had all sorts of feelings. What do you mean "what now"? Didn't you think about that when you decided to march? Are you asking because you truly don't know? Or because you need ideas and suggestions? I held my breath. I didn't know which way I wanted to respond. I wanted to take a moment to step back. I also wanted to wait and see what the others might say.


Are you fucking kidding me??

(I know, I know! I'm not practicing this yoga teaching: to meet people where they are. But I'm just so fucking tired of it all! Fucking. Tired.)

I took a deep breath.

Suck it up, I told myself. Here's an opportunity to mobilize these women into action. Be the fucking educator already. Just for this moment.

So I exhaled a series of suggestions on the kinds of actions to take. The Women's March itself also has a list of 10 actions for the next 100 days here. I don't know if they'll do anything, but at least I did my part by offering some knowledge.

It's the small actions that build up into bigger, longer lasting effects.

Even if it means I have to invest more emotional energy than white women.

I'm going to keep fighting for social justice, as I've always done. I just hope white women will step up beyond their activist-for-a-day and join the fight in earnest.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Action: Show Up

This is Essay #3 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week during 2017.

The other day, while having drinks with a friend, I leaned over the bar and whispered, half-jokingly, to my bartender-friend, Matt: "We're all dead after January 20th". He laughed, but with that knowing look of agreement.

This opened up a conversation about the Women's March on January 21st. He asked if I was going. I told him that I wasn't. I've been ambivalent about the march since it was first conceived in the early post-election days. First, it was about my own personal safety. On November 9th, I couldn’t even leave my house. I was that scared. But I forced myself to at least go to therapeutic yoga; if anything, to find a moment to connect with myself and others in a spiritually supportive space. On my way, I saw a pick-up truck with a DT bumper sticker in front of me at a red light. Another car pulled up to its right. The driver rolled down his window and pumped his fist, shouting “We did it”, to the driver in front of me. I couldn’t breathe. He then drove up to the next car up, which apparently had a similar bumper sticker, because he did the same thing to that driver. I felt my body freeze in tension.

If I couldn’t even feel safe driving to my local yoga studio, how could I possibly feel safe among hundreds of thousands of people in a demonstration in the capital of this nation that has chosen a demagogue to lead us? (“Lead” is definitely not the right word here. “Rule over us” might be better.) I’ve always been a political activist and eager to participate in various protests, but this was different. This was bigger. I knew it was important for me to be part of this, but I also had to think about self-preservation. I am now a mother and have to consider how my activist actions might affect my family.

There was also a lot of drama wrapped up in the march itself: from the change-up in organizers to the co-opting of the Black women's march in 1997 (and even the historic MLK march) to women of color, generally, being unheard. (Read more here.) But this was the main thing for me: there was no clear message. What were we marching for? Was there a specific agenda? Who was going to speak, if anyone? What would they speak about? If we were marching for general women's rights (equal pay, the right to choose, etc.), then why did I, a woman of color, not feel included in this conversation?

Over the past year, I’ve had a problem with white feminism and the ways in which they are short-sighted and, often times, oblivious to their privilege. How they haven’t seen the ways in which they’ve excluded women of color from the discussion. There are better-versed people to articulate this. You've got Google -- go check it out.

Then the election happened. And white women gave the president-elect their votes. Even *after* the pussy tapes came out.

What. The. Fuck.

In an instant, everyone’s true selves were exposed to the world. The curtain wasn’t just drawn back – it was torn down, ripped right off the rod. The racists came out of hiding and terrorized anyone with brown skin. The misogynists came out and tried grabbing women and girls between their legs. People started breaking off long-time friendships; families weren’t talking to each other. It was a stark white (pun? you decide!) wake-up call.

I found myself angry at a lot of people, but not bold enough to face them. I simply withdrew from them. It sounds like the coward’s way, but, not only did it feel like too much work that would likely fall on deaf ears, I really felt outnumbered and unsafe. Where I live, DT lawn signs were rampant en route to driving my kids to school everyday. It gave me anxiety. I live in a Red county in the middle of a Blue state. Go figure.

Essentially, I’ve spent the past two months in hiding. Only talking to like-minded folks. Usually online (Facebook, email, blogs). (I realize that change can only come by reaching outside of our circles, but again, I wasn’t feeling ready for that just yet.) I engaged at minimal levels with those I must. Keeping conversations brief and only about the matter at hand. Politics was tucked away in a small box, in a dark corner.

Of course, I kept myself informed and signed various petitions and did what I could from the safety of my laptop. But overall? I’ve just been trying to keep myself together. (It doesn’t help that yoga teacher training is working to pull me apart and dismantle me. But that’s another conversation.)

And now, here we are, a week out from The Apocalypse. (I know, the language is dramatic –possibly inflated-- but it feels necessary in this moment.) I am feeling anxious. Not in a “I am unsafe” kind of way. But in a “I need to DO something” kind of way. The digital signing of petitions feels empty. The online conversations are great, but I now feel a need to be physically engaged. To take physical action. And I feel ready to do that now.

So, when Matt started that conversation about the Women’s March, I was reminded of the march against the war on Iraq after September 11th. I told him I was there, freezing my ass off in the streets of Manhattan with friends, protesting and standing up for what I thought was right. The look on his face –one of inspiration perhaps?—reminded me of how important it was to take action. Real action. This is what it takes to inspire people to take actions of their own. And before you know it, it gets contagious, it builds, and then whammo! We’ve got a movement.

Over the past two months, I’ve been working on cultivating my personal force field. I think it’s strong enough where I can go out into the world and march. To demonstrate. To show that I AM HERE: I am living and breathing and I give a shit about the world I live in. Sure, the actual march might not change legislation in the instant ways that we are used to in this social media era, but it’s important to DO SOMETHING. Even if it’s only symbolic. Even if it's complicated, as politics often are (I still have issue with white feminism.). Even if the shitheads in office disregard us (though they need to be reminded that we put them there). We, the people, need to speak up. But you can’t expect to be heard if you don’t even show up.

So I’m going out and I’m going to show up. I’m ready to fight. To march. To shout. Make my fucking voice heard.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Essay #2 of the 52

The second essay is too sensitive to post publicly. If I know you & you want to read, reach out.

For my kind readers who I don't know, Essay #3 is coming! And I think (I *think*) it will be public. One can never be sure of the writing process.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Old Days

This is Essay #1 of The 52 Essay challenge, a series in which I write a new essay each week for 2017.

The first day of a new year and I'm talking about the old days? It happens. We take inventory of the year that had just ended, wondering what to change, where to improve, what we missed, where we want to go. At least I do.

Yesterday was a friend's birthday. And I think about what that must be like: to celebrate your entrance to the world at the crossroads of beginnings and endings. As I write this, I'm reminded of his birth story, one filled with magic, one in which a midwife appeared out of nowhere to aid his mother in the birth (as no one was around - everyone was counting down to midnight) and then vanish.

I sent him birthday wishes and we ended up having a brief exchange over email. One comment he made was about missing the old days. Before social media. Before the hyper-careerism of creative writing. When writing workshops were all heart. When writing was all heart.

This made me think about my own writing. Is the heart still there? I'd like to think so but I'm not immune to the effects of careerism -- I see it everywhere and wonder if there's something to that. But then I look at the work that's being produced and realize: nah, there's nothing*. It's empty language. Slight of hand. Linguistic gymnastics. No heart. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about beginnings. And endings. And how I am nostalgic for a less complicated time.

(*Yes, grand sweeping generalization. We're adults. We know there are exceptions.)

A few days ago, a writer friend reminded me of our time at VONA when it was in San Francisco -- USF to be exact. He reminded me of skipping --SKIPPING!-- down the street, three of us locked arm in arm like kids, on our way to the Haight, singing Carpenters songs. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down, but that day it wasn't raining and I don't think it was a Monday, so I'm pretty sure it was spectacular.

This was before Facebook was born.

We were present. We engaged with each other: eye contact, small gestures of touching - an elbow cupped, a hand along the small of the back, linked arms. And dancing. Lots of dancing. So much fun, sweaty, barely-lit club dancing. We wrote hard, exposed-our-inner-souls kind of hard. And then we danced hard. We hardly slept. It's a wonder I survived those two weeks.

The USF Lone Mountain campus was a rapid changing climate (they say there's some crazy number of different micro-climates in the city of SF). The mornings were cold and full of fog. I imagined that London might be like this. By 2 o'clock, there was sun and clear blue sky as expansive as a blank page, a fresh notebook. And if we went to the Haight (which we often did), it was downright hot. After all, it was late June. Those mornings, I forgot it was summer at all.

In workshop, I'd hunker down to write at the start of each session with the given prompt. I was eager to get back to my poet self. I spent a year away from her, trying to turn her into an academic scholar in the PhD program at UC-Santa Cruz. I thought I could be both poet and scholar but by the end of that first year, I had left the poet behind in some ditch on the 17, that treacherous freeway of sharp curves and sudden climbs and drops through a mountain. A road upon which I took two fellow poets to the beach after our first VONA week. (Later, one told me that she feared for her life, gripping the passenger door's handle white-knuckle hard, as I took each curve with the approach of a NASCAR driver. I remember those adrenaline rushes, the control I wielded over my car. It was fun for me. Apparently not for my passengers.) I didn't know I had forgotten that poet self. Until VONA.

Each day of workshop, we'd write. We'd push ourselves to dig deeper. Our workshop facilitator, Ruth Forman, gave us no choice. She demanded it of us. Later, we'd look at the poems we brought, try to locate the heat, the core of each poem. We helped each other excavate. Uncover the farthest reaches, reveal glimmers of gold. So yes, there was plenty of crying. But more importantly, there was plenty of heart.

Now, a decade and a half later, I find myself missing those days when everything felt infinitely possible. Yes, things are still possible -- it just takes a little more effort on my part to see past the obstacles. And in this political climate, it's even more crucial to seize possibility, crack it open, and share it.

As the new year kicks off, I want to see if I can get back that bright-eyed possibility through the cold fog that 2016 left behind. To dig deeper into the work but also into my life. To be engaged with elbows and sweaty bodies dancing in the half-dark, small of the back guided by my heart. All heart. All. Heart.