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.

Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

Normal

I spend a lot of my life in drag. I am starting to wonder if we all do, or if at least many of us do. I don’t necessarily mean that I spend a lot of my life passing as a man or performing on stage lampooning gender stereotypes, of course. I just think I spend a lot of time looking at my closet and wondering who it is I want to be today. I think through what meetings, tasks, or activities are planned for the day and then I think through which version of me, which persona, will be most comfortable and most powerful (sometimes those are the same and sometimes they are opposed) moving through today.

Kate Bornstein says that drag is: conscious, self-referential, performance, sexy and/or political and/or self-protective, not all about gender, for an audience, and for a reason (from My New Gender Workbook). She adds that

“We do drag to climb up from under the crushing oppression of race, age, class, religion, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology, and humanity. We do drag to be the best within any of these spaces of regulation—or as close as we can get to being the best. Or we do drag so that those who arethe best in those spaces will like us. Or we do drag so we don’t stand out as the freak we think we are” (2013, p 200).

This is similar to a more generic phenomenon that sociologists might call performativity (and in fact Bornstein is drawing on Judith Butler here too), but it differs in that it is more conscious and thus, I think, more controllable than our typical ideas about performativity.

Reading this section of the book, I felt like this was a revelation that described an experience I’ve been having most of my life when it comes to getting dressed for almost anything. (Unfortunately the students in my class did not have the same reaction to the reading and I stopped just short of blurting out this embarrassing confession to a room full of young people just beginning to understand that “some people” may not have a clearly binary gender identity.)

The best example of what this process is like for me is “cool guy professor,” my most conscious drag persona. A “cool guy professor” wears jeans, usually expensive, well-fitting ones. He often wears t-shirts, but usually under a blazer. The ensemble is topped off by some expensive, stylish loafers. The best part is that cool guy professor wears brown corduroy jackets. This is an androgynous or even butch style, but I wouldn’t say it is too butch since when I do it the jeans, blazers, and oxford shirts were all actually made for women (a change from my earlier tastes). I was careful to select only traditional oxford shirts with a traditional collar, but the shirts were fitted. In other words, the clothing doesn’t necessarily accentuate my feminine figure but it certainly doesn’t hide it.

“Cool guy professor” is a direct attempt to increase my feeling of authority in the classroom, developed when I was a graduate student teaching for the first time. But since reading Bornstein I’ve realized “cool guy professor” is only the most conscious drag persona in my closet. He’s not alone by a long shot. I’ve been working with “indie rock girl,” “record store slouch,” “girly girl,” and a bunch of nameless others for years now. Only I never thought about it as “drag” before.

The big question mark here for me is whether this process is evidence of something conservative psychologist types would call a “confused gender identity.” Liberals might more affirmingly call this a transgender identity, but either term seems to hearken to a relatively essentialist idea that some people (cis people) are comfortable with the sex they were labeled at birth, and others (trans people) are not. But couldn’t this process also just be the logical result of a non-essentialist take on gender and a sharpened observation of performativity in the mind of someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts anyway? Speaking in terms of theory, there is no such thing as a sex/gender binary outside of social construction (the best thing to read if you don’t believe me is Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work). If we buy that, I think we must also buy Bornstein’s idea that we are all transgendered fitting ourselves into a binary universe (or rejecting it). Is this harder for some of us and easier for others?

Is my experience marginal, the minority experience, or is it eminently, deeply normal?

Hello, World

So a while ago I decided that I should start a feminist/critical sociological blog and shared the idea with a group of my beloved sociologist friends.  I received loving support from all of them and Bodhi and Unamerican even started writing blog entries, powerful and moving words. Then I don’t know how to move forward. The thought that my ideas might actually become something, even just more ideas on the Internet, is strange, and strangely paralyzing. What if people who read it get offended? What if we are tracked down by our employers? What if I encourage my friends to charge at all these tall, thick, and cold walls and in the end just break our own heads and bones? What if I am being naïve and unfair when I got angry for the world being fucked up? What if I am just being a bitch?

Then I remember that it is exactly these fearful thoughts that took me here: the moment when my friend commented on a neighborhood being “bad” because it’s not majority white and I did not say anything; the confusion of whether I should feel offended when my English was complimented; the ambivalent feelings toward all the people that I respect and love with my whole heart thriving in systems that I find unjust and corrupted; the exhaustion of over thinking the implication of each and every word and action by myself and by others ; the anger toward myself for always being angry. Small, uncomplicated, insignificant moments that build up and lead me to decide that I need support and companionship in fighting the battle.

Maybe sociology HAS ruined us all as it takes away our ability to take everything for granted, suck it up and make peace with it. Now that we have been ruined for good, maybe it’s time to do some damage to the world as it is.

So here we are, with love and solidarity, and once in a while, rage.

BEWARE OF THE BITCHES.