Zandria F. Robinson

I read her blog, and then read some articles about her (thanks to my friend UnAmerican’s previous post), and then made the mistake of reading the comments section. My God! The hate that has been directed at this woman – why?! It makes my stomach roil and I wonder at her courage.

And underneath my horror and admiration is another emotion – relief that I was not born black in these white lands; I can leave.

As my husband said about France, “black and brown people here are so beaten down and scared that if you breathe hard on them, they will blow away.” My son, who is born in these lands, experiences much more than us. In France, there are very few Indians, and his friends say that he is from Africa. They don’t believe him when he says he is American. He is darker than I, and is smart as a whip, a topper in school and a champion at chess and can solve the rubics cube in under 2 minutes, and I watch as he hunches more inwards over time, looking down in the presence of adults; his voice so low, we have to ask him multiple times to speak up. He will not go and ask a waiter for more water. How different he is from his cousins in India – they are loud-bordering-on-obnoxious and so sure of their place, high in the world. They demand. My son scrunches himself smaller.

In our apartment building, several neighbours cannot get their heads around the fact that we live in their apartment building in this aristocratic neighbourhood. It is so bizarre a fact, it doesn’t compute. So when the downstairs lights burst, the apartment manager comes to our door and questions us about our whereabouts on that day. She is a budding Sherlock Holms and wants to ascertain the facts. After 15 minutes of this and once her intent is revealed, I ask her – “Why would we, me a professor and my husband an engineer, after 5 years living here, suddenly feel the urge to sneak down in the dead of night and break a light?” She goes away – logic is not the strong suit of these hate-filled-ones – but persistence is, and she comes back another day with a different charge. This is a beast that cannot be killed.

But to us, this hate is a minor annoyance, easy to shrug off, at most a twinge in the pit of our stomach.  But for my son, it is a more deadly, slow-poison. He is almost-always crowned the leader when there is troublemaking involved and never the leader in any other matter. One day, we got home from the park, and I was in the garage putting things away while the kid waited right outside for me, and two neighbour women start scolding him. For what?! He was simply standing there, waiting for me. He has every right to be there – we live here!

I hear them and I came out the garage and I see my son, standing sullen and scrunched up, his voice getting lower, more defiant-defeated. And I shout at these hate-filled-ones, and I threaten to bring down the whole force of every power under the sun if ever-even-once they shout at my son again. If they have an issue, come speak to me or my husband, or “I will see you behind bars,” I thunder with all the righteous fury of generations of middle-class Indian privilege. They flounder at my vehemence – they do not know that I am not one of those whom they have beaten-down since birth.

And I wonder at black mothers, what they must feel as they watch their little ones being “dealt with a firm-hand” in school and by random strangers who feel the need to “teach them a lesson in how to behave.” Head down, hat-in-hand, a bow and scrape perhaps? What is the proper level of obeisance that must be paid to whiteness?

My stomach roils at the thought of being in these mothers’ shoes, but underneath my empathy is also relief – I can leave and take my kid away from this mindless muck.

On the need to write and to be brave (back to saying what I think)

Some days I feel like I am literally choking on a waterfall of words dammed up between my brain and finding a time and place to release them. Some days there just seems to be so much to say and my body and the hours of the day seem to be so limited at expressing everything there is to be said. This is when I know I need to write. Not that I should sit down and write, but that I actually need to. Usually this feeling overtakes me after reading something particularly good, but sometimes it just sneaks up because I haven’t written in a long while or I haven’t had very strong outlet for releasing everything I’m thinking about in speech.

I have the sense that my brain is tremendously active and tremendously verbal. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m smarter or better than anyone else; actually I think as a culture we over-value verbal facility as an expression of something we call “smarts” that I’m not even sure exists outside of racist classist sexist elitism. In point of fact the tremendous activity of my brain is often painful and troublesome. The inability to find time to actually process everything I’m thinking about can be crippling, along with the accompanying thirst for knowing and understanding more. All this thinking and need to verbalize is basically a neurosis in and of itself, and it certainly contributes to other neuroses (I am exhibit A for what it means to “overthink” anything concerning my body, for example).

Actually I suspect deep down most people could cultivate this same ability/affliction, and sometimes I wonder if they don’t because they are smarter than me and want to avoid the constant rollercoaster that thinking critically constantly can bring. My dear coauthors and I are not, as it were, poster children for the joys of the examined life.

Today I came across the blog of a brilliant sociologist Zandria F. Robinson, and I fell swiftly in love. For me, being in love means the urgent need to a) tell everyone you know and b) talk a lot about why l love what I love. Robinson is not only a gifted, incisive, and funny writer, but I have the sense that she never holds her tongue. Reading her blog I don’t know that I was shocked by any opinion or even way of putting something, but I found her blog shocking because she says what she thinks, without first making it palatable to the uninitiated, and not only uses her real name but often names names. I suspect that from this very radical act she derives not only freedom, but the kind of security that can only come from operating openly in the sunlight.

By contrast, I spend a lot of my time couching what I say in terms that will be palatable to those hearing them and essentially afraid of the force my own words can have. Maybe this is why sometimes they torture me.

Reading Robinson’s work I not only feel like a stodgy, unfunny, timid cultural commenter, but like a cowering mouse, afraid to use my real name or name my university and afraid of discovery in a world where discovery is inevitable.

Binge watching nuns

Every free minute of the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent watching youtube videos of nuns. I’m obsessed with these women: there is light and joy and peace radiating from them, and they burst into peals of giggles at the slightest provocation. As Oprah said in one of the youtube videos “what are they doing for their skin? They glow!” They disarm me with their humility and humor. This is who I want to be. But what is their secret, and is it possible to backward engineer and replicate their joy?

The nuns say God is the secret of their joy. They say the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience are crucial. Obedience is especially important – to negate self, and to bow to the will of a higher power, and to believe that earthly bosses/colleagues/circumstances are vehicles for Godly commands, and to obey, completely and radically. As I watch them prostrate themselves, my body aches to do the same; it is the same reaction I have to the motions of Namaaz; kneeling, bending, prostrating, raising one’s hands to the heavens in acceptance. They say community is crucial, and they have 2 hrs every day when they break their silence to laugh together as they play volleyball, hockey and cards. They say silence and prayer are at the heart of everything; time spent with the Lord listening, being still, allowing for space in a cluttered mind to listen for the still, small voice.

I am struck by the fact of these women, who’ve given up everything the world teaches us we need, and are more joyful than anyone I’ve seen in the world. No makeup, pretty clothes, no tweezing, no pretty shoes, a lot of silence and prayer, no children, no husband, no intimacy, no sex, no pay, no personal ipads, ipods, laptops, computers, and of course, obedience.

What would life be if one overturns a lifetime of assumptions about what one is supposed to be striving for, and simply stops and throws all of these out the window?

Rage away Friend!

The world seems full of possibility, everything doable. I remember when I was a girl and would rail against some sexist thing or the other, fighting with my cousins-uncles-aunts-teachers who insisted that women were an inferior type of human (it was quite normal to hold such views in those days), who told us that if some man pinched us on the bus, it must be because we’d worn Jeans (an immodest western invention) or looked someone in the eye (more immodesty). I once bit one of my cousins, so incensed was I by his unshakable and illogical superiority over me. Another one, I refused to speak to for years after he told me proudly about how he and his friends “rubbed against” the girls on the bus. And all those awful Bollywood movies in which either the woman was burnt to death by her in-laws or was raped before her marriage and had to kill herself to protect her family from shame. And everyone else found these movies perfectly entertaining!

And this was all just 15 years ago – all of these seem so bizarre now that I find myself questioning whether these actually happened or whether I’m exaggerating. And no! This and more happened routinely. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would change so much, so fast. I never dared hope – I assumed the world would remain what it was, and the most I expected for myself was to escape being burnt alive or raped.

And today, I look around me, and my family whatsapp group is filled with people tripping over themselves to proclaim their support for feminist ideals. The cousin I bit – he is the most vociferous of them all! The Indian girls in my class are loud and don’t seem to feel the need to mute.

So today, the world seems so full of hope. Everything can change and will change.

None of these changes, of course, can be traced back to anything I specifically did. But I believe that all my constant fighting and arguing and railing and hoping and praying and raging and supporting those I thought were on the “right side” and sometimes-sneaky battles against those I thought were on the “wrong side”….I believe that all these actions somehow helped create the world I see around me. Today, I go into a road-side restaurant in Chennai and there are young women sitting alone at tables ordering meals – 15 years ago, I was the only one I knew who did such “shameless-forward” things. It makes me want to crow and jump for joy seeing this. And of course, this does not mean that all things are great; clearly they are not….But I feel so certain that the thankless task of arguing and fighting and raging will bear fruit; perhaps not in any direct tangible way, but it will bear fruit and much much sooner than we expect or even dare hope for. So rage away, my friend! The world shifts and changes and reforms itself every time you do.

rage not gratitude

Recently I have been thinking a bit about the role of anger in political struggle and specifically about social justice framing that seems to eliminate the constructive role of anger. Ironically my reflections have been prompted by wondering why certain things seem to fill me with rage.

For example, those “gratitude” posts a lot of my friend network is doing on Facebook. They make me roll my eyes and make it harder for me to like the friends who do them, even though I know and love those people, and I understand that in most cases my friends are just trying to search for the beauty in this beautiful, terrible world we live in. They are just trying to find their own reasons for getting out of bed every day.

Nonetheless, they have a stifling aspect as well. When people make a conscious project out of only posting – to others as well as for themselves – only the things that happen in their days for which they are grateful, it seems a bit self-righteous. It is certainly sending the message to “be grateful for what you have,” which is followed by a silent “instead of complaining about what you don’t.” I guess in some social circles complaining about what you don’t have might take the place of wanting a new toy or a bigger fancier house, but generally I use Facebook to complain about things like the fact that Black people in the United States don’t have the right not to be executed on the sidewalk by state- and public-sanctioned violence. Or the admittedly less tragic fact that capitalism makes me a sadder and more anxious person by requiring me to have a job for which I either feel a survivor’s guilt for my adjuncting friends, or in which I feel underappreciated because the state government which employs me is actively involved in ridiculing the value of what I do and teach, or where I must walk the line between “doing what I love” and allowing myself to be taken advantage of by an institution that certainly does not love me back.

I recently attended an event which honored the lives of Black men and women who have been murdered by the police across the United States. While the program was inspiring, no sooner had the possibility of anger been touched on than the (African American) organizers began to sidestep the blunt truth in an effort to make sure the police officers in attendance felt included and heard in the conversation. In fact, the officers in attendance were more profusely thanked than just about anyone else. Simply for being cops at a community event. I was personally enraged by the bending over backwards on display to make sure the cops at the event did not feel somehow personally implicated in these stories. Shouldn’t we be working to make sure that cops DO feel personally implicated so they can begin to reflect on the role they are playing in such an obviously racist institution? Don’t we need cops who can at least face the facts of what their colleagues across the country are guilty of if we have any hope of a less racist future for policing? Certainly love has a place in my ethos of struggle, but I’m not so sure about gratitude.

I am agnostic about the strategy of building bridges with oppressors in an effort to bring about change. I cannot say with assurance that there’s never a role or necessity of doing so, or that nothing good ever comes of it. What I can say with confidence is that this is most certainly not the ONLY way of bringing about change and that often this is a way to de-escalate successful radical tactics.

If we’re going to survive within a poisonously racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist dominant culture, don’t we need to cultivate some rage to keep ourselves sane? Melissa Harris Perry draws extensively on the metaphor of the crooked room where women of color spend all of their time adjusting their behavior to the crooked room in which they stand. While there may be a place in such a struggle of radical love for oppressors, mustn’t we permit ourselves and other to first feel the rage that surely must attend the daily insults to our sanity in order to recognize ourselves as the fully human people that the dominant culture cannot see? How can we recover our own dignity without feeling anger at the systems and people who steal it from us on a daily basis?

As I write this I notice I’m feeling somewhat defensive about my embrace of rage. I wonder if my own vacillation between embracing my rage and trying to quell it can even be untangled from all of the bullshit sexist messages I’ve received over the course of my life about being such a polarizing, shrill, person. Actually I spend a lot of energy trying to shield others from the full-on, gale-force level, shrieking harpy brunt of my real rage at the hideous and preventable injustice I see at work every. fucking. day. in our world.

Why should I protect others from outrage at injustice I haven’t caused? Fuck that; rage it is.