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.

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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?

Landmines

I just finished reading what my brilliant friend Bodhi wrote for this blog, and I have a jumble of feelings. Outrage, sadness, anger, fear for her and her family, fear for all my friends, and guilt. I wonder why I didn’t know she was such a fantastic writer. Why didn’t I know she was having such a hard time? Is it because this “hard time” is normal for women of color so it’s not like a situation that bears commenting and is just one that even though I try to understand I still don’t really get as a white woman?

How can I contribute to this conversation when my friend is so eloquent in describing her own experience? Paradoxically reading Bodhi’s posts filled me with words, inspiring me to write this response, but now that I’m actually writing I want to sit back and listen. I want to figure out how to encourage the women around me to tell their stories. I want to figure this out so that I don’t have to wait for the chance discovery of this rich, complicated anger after another friend’s exciting idea (to start this blog).

But my friend’s post also made me feel afraid. She asked us before about “quality control,” although I emphatically replied that I didn’t want to screen what anybody said. But now I am filled with questions about whether or not she really wants to post the deeply true things she’s written to the big bad internet where it exhausts me just thinking about how to disguise our identities. Then another doubt surfaces, one I’ve experienced commonly since becoming an academic: am I contributing to her silencing by asking her if she is afraid? I can never tell the difference between helping friends navigate the landmines of appropriate behavior in the academy and further silencing friends by scaring them away from landmines that may or may not be there. But I guess that’s the fucked up thing about landmines—you never know whether or not they are there until it’s too late. And even as a sociologist all I can tell you about socially constructed landmines is that I know they’re out there somewhere, just as I know I expand their reach by trying too hard to avoid them. I know that the more times they’re exploded the fewer there are, but you can never tell for sure if you’re going to set one off.

I’ve experienced this fear of social landmines more times than I care to remember since entering the academy, and almost never before that. Perhaps before that I just stepped on them and set them off without caring much because I was young. Perhaps it’s because my class background didn’t imbue me with enough cultural capital to understand the rules of politeness in this place. Perhaps I find myself on the silenced end more often as a woman here than I did in previous woman-centered workplaces. Perhaps I have finally started listening to those who are being silenced, like my friend.

How can I protect my friend without silencing her? I guess the answer is that I can’t and I probably shouldn’t want to. After all, I’m not out to be a white savior. Ok, more honestly—I’m trying my best not to be a white savior. I will assume my senior colleague knows what she is doing, and perhaps even follow her lead.

With love, solidarity, and rage,

Unamerican

May 15, 2014