Monday, December 15, 2014

What fairy tales can teach about torture and racial profiling

Thorn bush
Photo courtesy of Elsie esq.
Dear readers, it has been more than a year since we last posted. A long stretch, but it seems each of us has moved and/or gone through some other major life change (I got married and then moved twice!).

But for my part, it's been more than that. From Kate Kelly's excommunication this summer, to recent tensions over the relationship between law enforcement and people of color, to the heartbreaking report on the US use of torture, I have found myself in a position that's disorienting for a writer: at a loss for words. The internet is not at a loss for words, and in that swirl of perspectives, I've frequently asked myself what I could add that would offer anything new, anything worthwhile. I don't say this out of a false sense of humility - I say it as someone who hears many bright, intelligent voices, and still wonders what yet another bright, intelligent voice will add.

So I've read. I've listened. I've cried. I've worried. But in writing, I've remained largely silent.

What I have written about over the last year are fairytales. That focus might sound like an escape, but fairy tales teach much more about these issues than you likely imagine.

Take this tale of torture and racial profiling for example:

"The Jew in the Thorns" shows up in the Grimms' collection. It begins the tale with a master who swindles his apprentice out of his fair wages by convincing him that a small amount of money is in fact a generous fortune. When the apprentice sets out with his fortune, he soon encounters a stranger, to whom he offers everything he has. To reward the apprentice, this stranger grants three wishes: a gun that will hit anything he aims for, a fiddle that will force everyone to dance, and the ability to make any request of another person and have them grant it.

Further down the road he sees a Jewish man, who watches a song bird and wishes he could catch it. The "good servant" shoots it down and rudely commands the Jewish man to get it, addressing him as "rogue." While the Jewish man crawls between branches to avoid their thorns, the hero plays the fiddle, which forces the Jewish man to dance in agony. The servant continues to torture the Jewish man until he offers him a bag of gold, and the servant justifies accepting it by assuming it must have been stolen in the first place.

After escaping, the Jewish man runs to a judge and tells him that a man with a gun and fiddle assaulted him and stole his money. When the "good servant" - that is how the tale refers to him throughout - is set to trial, the judge at first insists that the Jewish man must be telling the truth because no Jewish man would lie to the court. The servant is sentenced to be hanged but first requests to play his fiddle - the judge can't refuse thanks to the magical gift- and suddenly everyone is forced to dance. When the servant finally demands that the Jewish man confess where he got the money or risk the fiddle's music again, he confesses to having stolen it and admits "you have earned it fairly." At that, the judge has the Jewish man hanged.

It's a disturbing tale. Unlike most of the stories I cover with my students, there's no debating the bias in this one: a man who is initially portrayed as trusting and generous turns his rewards into weapons when he meets a complete stranger, assuming that the stranger is a thief and therefore deserving of abuse and theft, simply because of the man's religion and ethnic background. Perhaps even more disturbing, the story assumes that Jewish men of the time are at an advantage: after all, the judge initially claims to believe the victim simply because he is Jewish. In that context, the tale of racial profiling and torture justifies using violence against people without any evidence of their wrongdoing, simply because of their background. The confession made under duress facilitates the hero's happy ending, a problem that the story glosses over.

From today's perspective, it's easy to see that the "good servant" is wrong. We recognize that nineteenth-century Germany did not systematically protect Jewish criminals from prosecution and that Jewish Germans were no more likely to be criminals than other Germans. We also recognize that this confession comes through torture, which motivates the victim to say whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear, and we understand that assuming a person is a thief is not justification for a private citizen to assault them.

But when it comes to today's issues, perhaps we're not far from the sentiments of the culture that produced this story. American psychologists designed a system of torture and received an enormous paycheck as thanks, which they likely justified to themselves with similar reasoning: if these men have committed similar offenses against others, is it really so wrong for us to treat them the same way? And if we're sure they're guilty, do we truly need enough evidence to press charges, before we begin torturing them?

Yes, it is wrong.

And similar logic shows up when we suggest in casual conversations and on news stations that we don't need to talk about vigilante and police violence against unarmed black men, since black men are more likely to be killed by one another. Or that black men should focus on a different social problem that they are perceived as causing for themselves. By trying to dismiss the violence perpetrated by our own, we white Americans think like the "good servant": many members of this group kill/steal/commit crime, so is it wrong for us to do the same to them?

Yes, it is wrong.

And what about the master from the beginning, the one who cheated the servant before he set out on his adventure? When I teach this story, my students search for a logical connection that doesn't exist. "Was the master Jewish?" they ask, seeking to understand why the servant targeted that group. But the story gives no indication that he was. In fact, the story suggests the opposite. After all, the servant trusts the master, even as he is cheated by him. But he immediately turns against a man who has done nothing to him, simply because he is Jewish. Clearly his judgment is lacking, even if the narrator attempts to justify the servant's assumptions.

But the narrative about the master is there for a reason: it provides the zero-to-hero plot line that we love to this day. Like in any number of comedies, we watch a hard-working, under-appreciated man strike back at a wealthy, system-rigging representation of the powerful men who have taken advantage of him for his whole life. In this story, he doesn't know he was cheated from the start, but the reader does and can triumph over the ending. But the problem with this story's direction is that it distracts from the people who have actually harmed the servant and instead pits him against other victims. Instead of promoting honest employers or a system of government oversight that prevents employers from abusing employees, the story allows the hero to redirect the abuse onto someone new. By imagining that people from a different cultural group are the ones who hurt honest workers, the story fails to resolve the original problem that it set up.

If we imagine that poor people, or even a particular ethnic group, take advantage of government resources, is it really so wrong to attempt to slash government aid programs and tell minimum-wage earners that their problems are solely the result of their own bad habits?

Yes, it is wrong.

And at the end of the day, when I struggle to put into words my reaction to systemically-reinforced violence that the color of my skin protects me from, that's one thing I can say for sure.

It is wrong.
It is wrong.
It is wrong.

Perhaps some day we will see our own errors with the clarity that this other story from the Grimms' collection suggests: in "The Bright Sun Brings it to Light," a poor man attacks a Jewish stranger in order to steal his money, assuming that he has a great fortune from robbing others. Only as the Jewish man dies does he realize the man had no fortune, just as he insisted. And as the victim predicts while dying, the truth cannot remain hidden but eventually comes to light.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

In the News

Dearest Readers, this long-overdue post is a hodgepodge of links, which I haven't even bothered to proofread. Internet grammar hawks, read at your own risk.

Recently I wrote an article for Patheos about why feminism needs to be about men, as well as about women. One of my major concerns is that far too few conversations recognize the prevalence with which men are victims of sexual assault. When any female feminist tries to banish the topic of male victimhood from the feminist movement, that rejection and denial only adds to the cultural stigma which these survivors are already fighting to tear down. In a heart-breaking but very necessary project, 27 men share what they were told by perpetrators and/or those they confided in [trigger warning]. Far too many were told that "men can't be raped" or to "man up" and simply get over symptoms of PTSD. I've done enough research to verify that these responses are both common for and feared by male survivors of sexual assault.

If you have sensibilities anything like mine, you might not want to hang out at the beaches in Stockholm now that a judge has ruled public masturbation at the beach to be legal. Yes, you read that correctly. When a man was arrested for doing just that, the court ruled that it could not be considered sexual assault, since it was not directed at any one individual. Apparently the city of Stockholm did not feel it had enough negative connotations attached to its name already.

Next up, for the first time ever, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is live-broadcasting the Priesthood Session of General Conference on the internet and television. Some context: the Mormon bloggernacle (and all of facebook) has been alight recently with debates about female ordination and the role of Mormon women in a church whose hierarchy fills all of the highest position with (predominately white and affluent) men. Understand, please, that I'm stating a fact about the demographics in church leadership and not actually attempting to pass judgment on those demographics one way or another. Make of the facts what you will.

While female ordination has been an ongoing debate for years, the Ordain Women website and organization recently sparked new discussions by requesting tickets to the Priesthood Session of the Church's Semi-Annual General Conference. General Conference runs over the course of two weekends and includes four 2-hour sessions for general audiences, plus a 1-hour session for either adult women or teenage women depending on whether it's Fall of Spring. The conferences take place in Salt Lake City in the Conference Center but are broadcast live all over the world. Up until now, only the Priesthood session was not broadcast live on the internet and TV. Why not? I can't really say - maybe to encourage men to watch it together at church, or perhaps to make sure women didn't feel obligated to watch the session.

Whatever the reason for making the session more restrictive than others, OW's plan of showing up at the conference center unleashed enough harsh responses on the internet that I'll admit I'm trying to forget which of my friends proudly wrote (or shared another's writing) about feeling angry at or hating all the feminists who wanted to be ordained. Let's just say that I've officially lost all patience for anyone who dismisses another's desire for ordination. Disagree with their methods all you want, but don't you dare assume their desire for greater power to serve the Lord is inherently wrong. Granted, some of the tension happened within Mormon feminism, much of it in response to Patheos articles written by Margaret Young. Young has written a lovely follow-up post with ideas on how we can all be more inclusive.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ask a Mormon Feminist: How Do You Feel About Mormon Women and the Priesthood?

I published this post last year, but it seems like a good time to revive it, what with all the recent buzz about the question of whether Mormon women should be ordained and whether it's a good idea for Mormon feminists to demonstrate at the upcoming Priesthood Session of General Conference (a semi-annual broadcast of advice from church leaders).

Last week my friend Mark asked me this question on facebook:

Hi Emily! This is completely random, I know. But I saw your post and I wanted to get your perspective about women holding the priesthood. It's something I've considered but never felt conclusive about, one way or the other, though part of me certainly gravitates to the idea. I guess what I'd like to know the stance you've taken and why, so I can take a step closer towards understanding the issue as completely as I can myself.

The post he referred to was an article I linked,  which describes a moderate stance on the issue of Mormon women and priesthoodno, we don't need to be ordained in the Priesthood, most women in the article argue, but we can empower and strengthen women and families by returning to practices that were once common in the church. Surprising as it may be to most people, the early days of the LDS church (or early days of the restored gospel, as those in my faith would see it) saw women more proactively engaged in the priesthood. Women blessed one another and participated when their husbands blessed their children. So these recommendations have historical evidence to back them up, though the fact that the church once did something is probably not in and of itself a reason to do said thing.

For any readers who aren't LDS, here are a couple brief things you should know to help clarify this discussion: being ordained to the priesthood is available to (and expected of) every Mormon man who is 12 or older and who is living a "worthy" life - worthiness is determined  by obeying commandments that include having no sex outside marriage and not drinking alcohol. This policy plays a role in the lay clergy of the church, as it allows for a flexibility in leadership that is revolutionary.

When asked why women are not ordained to the priesthood, most LDS people you talk to will give you one of a few answers: Men have the priesthood while women have motherhood, they may say, or men need it because they'd slack off  and women do all the work if everyone had it, or even women don't need the priesthood because they're inherently more spiritual. The only accurate answers, mind you, are "God has asked us to fulfill these roles," and "We don't know why." But people love speculating, which is why you get all the drivel-presented-as-doctrine answers.

But I still haven't answered Mark's question - what is my perspective?

My perspective is a mostly-stable jumble of contradictions. When I was younger (I'm talking elementary through preteens) I was vehement in pushing for women to have the priesthood. I probably made my poor Bishop uncomfortable with my letters, and I tortured unsuspecting Sunday School teachers by instigating arguments between the boys and the other girls in class. Somehow, they never seemed to notice that I was the instigator. My perspective changed as a result of seeing the priesthood in a different light, and to this day I have some strong feelings about the way we, as members, discuss gender and the priesthood. 

For instance, few things bother me more at church than the kind of stupid speculation I described above. One time I was in a lesson taught by another woman in the ward, where she decided to address the question of why men had the priesthood and not women. On the one hand, I suppose it's laudable that she was willing to address an issue that we often ignore. But here's what happened: she brought this up, and I raised my hand and  explained that this issue had bothered me a lot when I was younger and that what had nearly destroyed my testimony were all the speculative "reasons" people gave and that it took learning that the speculation was unsubstantiated for me to feel okay with just not knowing the reason. And she thanked me for my thoughts, before offering her speculation on how brain chemistry explained the need for this difference in male and female roles. 

Not helpful. 

Guess what else isn't helpful? Saying things like, "It's separate but equal!" First off, God does not ask for husband and wife to be separate. Quite the opposite. Second - what educated American uses the phrase "separate but equal" as if it still carries positive connotations?

Here is what has been helpful to me: no longer thinking of Mormon men as "the priesthood," and therefore no longer viewing "the power of the priesthood" as male power. I view the office of priesthood as service and obligation. Yes, it is a privilege for any man to have access to such great power, but it's a privilege in the sense any gift from God is a privilege. And if a man ordained in the priesthood wants to be blessed through the priesthood, he cannot use his own access to that force. He must go to others who have that authority. When I view the priesthood in that light, my feelings alter significantly.

Now, when people take the hierarchy that exists within church leadership and try to apply it to families to argue that husbands should be in charge, that's a different matter. I see room for official language within the church (including language in the temple) to continue evolving, to the point that egalitarian Mormon marriages are not just the norm (as they currently are, based on my experience) - but also to the point that there can be no confusion among members about the fact that contemporary Mormon leaders have instructed us to have egalitarian marriages. Currently, there are some who still use concepts like "separate but equal" to justify marriages where the husband makes major decisions with only input from the wife. Still, I don't even see that kind of family as a large minority. It seems more and more rare.

In the long term, I do believe that women will be ordained to the priesthood. Maybe not during my mortal life, and maybe not before The Second Coming, but there's pretty solid evidence in the temple to support that theory, both in the language of the Endowment Ceremony, as well as in the fact that some women have access to priesthood authority in order to administer to other women within the temple. 

In the meantime, I wish everyone would stop stating speculation on this question as if it their speculation were doctrine, and I also wish men would think twice before saying that the church is democratic because "anyone who's worthy can hold the priesthood." I know plenty of women who are worthy but still not eligible to be ordained in the priesthood. I'm not asking to be ordained to the priesthood (though if I were offered the opportunity, I'd comply in a heartbeat) - I'm just asking for a little more sensitivity in the way we discuss it. 

Update: just as I was about to post this article, I encountered Joanna Brooks's recent post in response to people who have criticized her for bringing up this issue on TV. Joanna argues that Mormons are capable of providing much better answers than the knee jerk "women have babies and men have the priesthood" we hear all too often. With her thoughts in mind, I want to clarify that I absolutely welcome and encourage discussion on this topic. But like Joanna, I'm interested in thoughtful discussion, not empty statements that are meant to shut down the question. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anxious Mormon Singles

Graduating Single: A Support Group

I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University when I saw the sign, advertising a support group for students who were worried about graduating single. Inwardly I chuckled and thought about the non-LDS friends I’d attended high school with on the liberal New Hampshire Seacoast, who had grown tense and silent when someone mentioned that a fellow class-mate had recently gotten engaged. Only when someone added, “Don’t worry – they’re waiting till after they both finish college,” did the car full of friends relax. “Good girl,” someone added. “The last thing a college student needs is marriage.”
            Meanwhile, by the start of my sophomore year of college, two of my former roommates were already married. At the religious BYU, marriage was considered a top priority for students. To a few, marriage was the most urgent goal in a student’s life, more urgent even than academics or finances. This goal was so urgent that the church split the student body into congregations based on our marital status. Instead of attending congregations with adults from all walks of life, we singles attended church only with each other. Our leaders and lay clergy were middle-aged marrieds from local “normal” congregations (also called wards), but the congregations themselves were filled with nothing but singles between the ages of 18 and 29.
            At church, local clergy warned us of the evils of postponing marriage and family. If we waited, we were warned, we’d grow complacent with a single lifestyle. We’d grow selfish and self-centered and find it even more difficult to get married down the road, locked into our own idiosyncrasies and unwilling to adjust to a spouse or welcome children into our lives. And when all the pressure brought us to tears, we were encouraged: don’t lose hope, you’ll find someone, 21 is still young, so you have plenty of time.
            In this marriage-hungry culture, I watched many friends find the love of their life and settle in together to build a life together. I also watched friends go on a first date in March and get married in July, with no idea how their new spouse would behave in the middle of winter. I watched roommates get engaged before discussing something as basic as how their new fiancĂ© budgeted money. And in a few cases I watched friends get divorced within the year.
            So when the above TED Talk that discourages 20-somethings from postponing adulthood showed up in my facebook newsfeed, I wanted to throw my hands in the air and shout, “That’s not the problem.” In the video, Meg Jay, a therapist, describes the nonchalance that she’s witnessed many 20-somethings bring to the early part of their adulthood. “20 is the new 30,” one former client would say, to justify stalling her career and dating men she had no intention of partnering with in the long term. So in this TED Talk, Meg Jay calls on 20-somethings to stop passing time and start building the stable, long-term lifestyle they’ll find satisfying in their 30’s.
            At first the video didn’t seem applicable to Mormon single culture in the way it was perhaps applicable to mainstream single culture. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Meg Jay’s observations apply to Mormon 20-somethings as much as they apply to other 20-somethings – just in very different ways:

  1. Isolation
One of the greatest concerns Jay expresses in the video is that by clumping together with other single 20-somethings, millenials will miss out on opportunities to network and further their career. According to her, major life changes are facilitated by friends-of-friends and diverse networks, so single 20-somethings will lose opportunities to grow and change by only spending time with each other.

And yet, for LDS 20-somethings, congregations are arranged with the express purpose of clumping singles in that age-range together, in the hopes they’ll pair off, marry, and then enter the local “family ward” in couples. Sure, LDS singles have the right and option to attend a local ward, but the family congregations are often unsure how to fit singles into their family-centric framework. When I moved to Georgia and called the family ward I wanted to attend, the clergy encouraged me to attend the student congregation instead.

In other cases, I’ve heard married friends fret about the singles in their family congregation. “I just feel so bad for them,” one friend said. “They don’t have anyone to date in our ward.” It’s not hard for singles to pick up on this discomfort, so many young professionals return to congregations filled with starry-eyed undergrads, while others simply stop attending church meetings. But even for those who contentedly attend singles congregations while waiting to marry, it isn’t helpful to spend so much time away from families and the elderly and small, squealing children.

  1. Postponed Adulthood
For Jay, postponed adulthood is the crux of the problem. She meets with 20-somethings who don’t feel a need to settle down and take on adult responsibilities like marriage, children, and a career. But for LDS singles, adulthood becomes postponed on a psychological level. To our leaders, we’re not really adults because we’re not married. At 27, I have several years of professional experience in my field. I have taught college courses (and even graduate courses) for four different universities and hold an MFA. But LDS adult congregations are much more welcoming of my 20-year-old, newly-wed, former students.

To say that this attitude has damaging psychological repercussions for LDS singles is a drastic understatement. From the surface, it can be hard to see how much this attitude hurts us, because we usually hide our hurt. We know that the people encouraging us to marry mean well. We know that when we meet a young couple and ask, “So how did you meet,” they’re not trying to insult us by offering dating advice as part of their story. We know they’re trying to help. But this attitude that single adults belong in temporary, transitional religious communities suggests that a single’s current life is temporary and transitional, that our lives will only begin when we get married.

It didn't occur to me how many LDS singles were secretly waiting for their lives to begin until this summer when a mid-20’s friend, frustrated by yet another negative dating experience, said that she was sick of failed relationships. “I’m ready for my story to begin,” she said. And it was only then that I realized that on some deep, hidden level, I too was waiting for my story to begin. Not because I was stalling like Jay’s clients, but because I’d learned to view my current life as a transition. And I realized that if I maintained that attitude, then no matter what professional, academic, or creative successes I accrued, somewhere deep down I would still feel that my story had not even begun.

  1. Rushing to Marry and Missed Opportunities
In terms of marriage, Jay’s greatest concern seems to be that single 20-somethings who view this decade as a time to party will panic at 30, when all their friends get married, and settle for an unhappy marriage with whoever is nearby. And it’s this area of her advice where I don’t think she fully understands the problem that leads to these rushed, settle-for-it marriages. For Jay, the solution is to think about marriage earlier. But anyone who’s spent time in marriage-hungry Provo, Utah knows that a person can turn desperate and rush into marriage at any age.

So maybe the problem is more complex. Maybe it comes from thinking that marriage must happen on a deadline, or that any marriage is better than singlehood. I can’t say what that experience is like for my non-LDS contemporaries, but among single LDS women my age, I sometimes hear shocking despair about the future. By 25, 26, 27, many feel like spinsters. We’re often spoken of by married friends and family with pity, or accused of being too picky. When I told a married friend that I was tired of constantly giving chances to men I wasn’t actually into, her response was a worried, “But you still have to say ‘yes’ to a first date.” When this friend married at 23, she was surrounded by single Mormons her age, and a first date was often the way to spend time alone with a man and get to know him a little better.

      3.5.  Missed Opportunities

But for a 27-year-old woman living outside the Mormon singles hub, dating is a different scene altogether. In most parts of the world we outnumber the single Mormon men our age, so for those of us who are determined to marry in our faith the prospects can feel bleak. When I first visited the LDS student congregation at the university where I’m working on a PhD, the single female grad students listened attentively while younger friends described dating dilemmas. “We hear about the dating world,” one told me with a smile, “but we’re not part of it. That’s kind of fun, but also – you know.”

When I returned to the congregation after enrolling in the PhD program, I heard other female grad students in the congregation express worry that by attending grad school they’d chosen a career over a family. But it was only when I read a post by a single doctoral student at BYU who was tired of being berated by dates for attending grad school, that I realized I’d never once heard a Mormon man express the fear that in attending grad school he’d miss out on opportunities to marry. Even then, I couldn't really articulate the problem until I read an article by a female divorcee who was tired of constantly being reminded to “search for her eternal companion.” For Mormons, the person we marry is meant to be someone we spend all of eternity with. So it’s not a decision to be made lightly. And yet, after years of being told to always be on the lookout for that eternal relationship, it can reach a point where on some deep, subconscious level we’re afraid that we’ll miss our one chance at love if we so much as blink.

And for me, that worry manifested itself as a fear that if I enjoyed my life as a single, I’d never find the will to settle down when I eventually did meet the right person. That I’d become the cautionary bogeywoman of singles congregations, a woman who enjoyed traveling and spending her time on hobbies and friends, rather than putting her energy into the lasting family relationships that would bring her satisfaction in old age and joy in the next life. When low Georgia rent allowed me to move into a 3-bed, 3-bath townhouse and split it with just one roommate, I felt a little guilty about having so much space. When I made plans to travel during vacations to visit friends and family, I wondered if I was missing out on dating opportunities by not spending enough time in one place. I felt all this in the back of my mind, but it still impacted me. It still left me holding back, on some level, while outwardly living my life.

  1. Solutions
For Jay, the solution is to stop treating the 20’s like throwaway years. But for most LDS singles, we’ve never seen our 20’s as a responsibility-free time to party. So for LDS singles, maybe the solution is to stop defining ourselves – and allowing others to define us – by our marital status. And to stop letting well-meaning leaders corral us into social isolation. If we want to attend a family ward, we can set our foot down and politely tell the local clergy, “Church policy allows me to choose between a singles ward and a family ward, and I’m choosing the family ward.” And if we do attend a singles ward, we can turn down ward activities that involve Frisbees and Slip-N-Slides if we so desire and plan activities that involve serving the community and learning skills we’re interested in gaining.

We can say, “No, thank you,” when married friends offer unsolicited romantic advice, or we can simply say, “That hasn't been my experience, but I’m glad it worked for you, personally.” We can make friends with other people from all walks of life and simply share our experiences with them and listen to theirs. If they have kids and a spouse and we don’t, that’s just one area of difference to learn about. And we can unapologetically live and enjoy the life we’re living. Not because we’re partying or shirking responsibility, but because we’re each growing in our unique way.

Note: when it comes to romance, I'm not currently accepting any unsolicited advice. But feel free to comment with your own thoughts and experiences.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Racial Bias and the Lenses We Use to Interpret Zimmerman's Trial

I was in Georgia when I first heard the story of Trayvon Martin's death, though a few days earlier I'd glimpsed the headline on a newspaper that had been delivered to my hotel room in St Louis. After a week on the road, traveling first to St Louis for an academic conference and then to Georgia to visit a campus where I'd been accepted into a PhD program, I wasn't paying much attention to the news.

So my first real exposure to the story involved seeing African American student protesters in GA, who were holding up signs that called for justice. This was all before Zimmerman had even been arrested, a factor that horrified a national audience who knew all of the incriminating details (such as Zimmerman being told by a 911 dispatcher not to pursue the young man in the hoody) without knowing about the fist fight that would eventually clear Zimmerman's name in court, if not in the public eye.

At the time, I couldn't have imagined how polarizing this case would become in national discourse. Even after hearing details about Zimmerman's injuries and the fist fight that he was using as his justification for shooting and killing Trayvon, it seemed clear that there was enough evidence to at least pursue a criminal trial. Whether Zimmerman was ultimately determined guilty or not guilty in court, the situation merited that day in court. And the local law enforcement's delay in arresting and charging him disturbed me because it was hard not to interpret that oversight through the lens of our nation's historical distrust of black men and disregard for their lives.

It takes little research to uncover that history, a history not nearly so far in the past as most white Americans like to think. And it doesn't take much observation to note the bias with which so many friends and acquaintances treat the phrase "big black guy" as a redundant description of African American and black men. And so what has disturbed me about this situation, more than the outcome of this one individual trial, are the dismissive remarks I've heard others make, where some have even claimed that Zimmerman was only tried because he was not black.

Such remarks reflect great ignorance about American history, including recent history and the role that even subtle racial bias plays in the way Americans make decisions that affect other people. Decisions ranging from which job applicant to hire, to which contestant on The Voice to vote for, to how much pain killer a patient will need. And we're often unaware of the role these biases play, because the bias is only one factor in how we interpret a situation. So it's easy to focus on the other factors in the situation and never recognize that we'd have preferred a different job applicant if only she had lighter skin.

As a white American, I understand that it can feel exhausting to be reminded of our racial privilege and to be frequently asked to recognize that privilege and change our actions accordingly. I recall how I felt the first time a black friend held white Americans as a group responsible for what had been done to her ancestors - we were both ten years old when we had that conversation, and it was not the most eloquent discussion to ever take place. I recall replying, "I know, and it's terrible," while inwardly feeling a bit frustrated by being blamed for things I had not contributed to as a ten-year-old child.

But I also recall the conversation my entire fourth grade class had when that friend was called the N-word by a stranger at a gas station in our rural New England town. And I recall hearing my father and his mother refer to black people as "darkies" or even by the N-word on one occasion. And when I came to college and a friend from North Carolina told me that as individuals black people could be wonderful but that "when they're in large groups they turn violent," another friend from South Carolina insisted that I simply didn't understand his remarks because I wasn't from the South. I can attest that southern states do not have a monopoly on racism or on the ability to recognize it.

And my perspective was necessarily expanded when for three of my years in college I lived with a black roommate, who first of all insisted that I add "black" back into my vocabulary, since not all black people are American and not all black Americans identify as African American. And I heard stories from her about the struggles her mother went through to get medical treatment for teenage sons whom inner city doctors assumed to be high and not ill. And I heard a very complicated take on Rudy Giuliani's efforts to decrease crime in NYC, efforts that were largely effective but at the cost of harassing innocent black men and even turning a blind eye in cases where police officers killed innocent black men.

And when I dated a black man while living in Utah, I saw the looks strangers sometimes gave us when we were in public. And one night when I had stayed on campus late and he jogged to campus to walk me home so I wouldn't be in any danger, I watched as a security guard ignored the other students who were leaving campus along with us and focused on me and the man I was dating. As we held hands and laughed together, the security guard trailed us for awhile before approaching to ask, "Everything okay?" Before that incident, this man had expressed fear of being falsely accused of assaulting a white woman, and I had rolled my eyes because I didn't understand the vulnerable position in which the color of his skin left him.

So if you're a white person who's tempted to think that we're living in a post-racial America or that racism would fade away all together if black people simply forgot about events that happened to their parents and grandparents, that might just be because you're enjoying the privilege of not being followed across a crowded parking lot simply because you have darker skin than the woman you're walking home late at night. In other words, it might be the racial privilege you're denying which is preventing you from seeing that privilege in the first place.

In the following video, Obama gives what I think is a fair but helpful response to the national dialogue surrounding this trial. What's of most interest to me is the first ten minutes or so when he explains the type of heightened scrutiny that most black American and African American men experience regularly and which white people tend to simply overlook.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Colorado Fires and Body Memories: What is Trauma?

This post by our very own Erica also appeared in Go Girl Magazine.

Body Memories: What is Trauma?
Experiencing a fire can cause trauma. But what can help? Image from
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s somatic memory. It’s what makes your stomach ache, your throat close off, and your muscles clench when you remember something bad. It’s what makes you feel awful when you encounter stimuli that remind you of that bad thing. Maybe you remember a rape. Maybe you remember a pickpocketing. Maybe you remember being laughed at. Whatever the cause, it feels awful because your memory — your past – is impacting your present in an uncontrollable way.
Here’s a recent example:
Last year, running from the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, I remember spending days wandering around in a daze, exhausted but unrefreshed by sleep, constantly fighting a cringing, sickly feeling in my stomach. It took several months before I felt normal again. I thought I’d finally recovered when the sight of campfire smoke no longer sent me into a spiral of fear. Then the Black Forest Fire broke out just last week, and the same sleeplessness and nausea returned. Even though I was less attached to possessions this time around — detachment as coping, anyone? — I was still a walking bundle of nerves.
Trauma happens all the time, whether through violent acts or surprise disasters from nature. Whilepost-traumatic stress disorder has very specific diagnostic criteria, “trauma” refers to a much broader range of psychosomatic symptoms that can show up in the aftermath of an unusually stressful or threatening event. Here are a few:
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Unusual physiological sensations, like jangling nerves or nausea
  • Constant worry
  • Hyper-awareness of your surroundings
  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping, including nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Numbing out, including using self-harm or substances
  • Avoiding anything or anyone that might trigger a memory
Anxiety is a common symptom of trauma. Image from

Why are somatic memory and trauma showing up in a column on sexual politics around the world? Because this is what happens when people are harmed. This is how we, as humans, remember acts of violence and situations of terror. Even when our brains seem to have rationalized themselves into calmness, our bodies continue to carry the experiences forward. Thus, when we are reminded of the original situation — by a plume of smoke, a predatory glance, etc. — we are sent back into the spirals of fear that created these symptoms in the first place.
These symptoms can keep us safe, sometimes, but they can also interfere with our ability to be bold explorers of our worlds. So what can we do to cope? Here are some ideas:
  • Engage with counseling, especially EMDR
  • Use physically active techniques, in keeping with your level of ability, to help your body work through its symptoms
  • Talk to other survivors, knowing that you each have your own experiences
  • Accept your symptoms as being a natural part of the healing process
  • Find a trauma-sensitive yoga or meditation class to re-connect with your body
  • Write or draw a journal of your experiences
  • Take time to focus on yourself and your own needs
Healing from trauma takes a lot of time and patience. It’s unpleasant and doesn’t happen overnight.But when you can recognize it, and nurture yourself in its aftermath, you can empower yourself to take on the world once again.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Feminist Taylor Swift, Fragile Men, Porn Wars and More: Links My Friends Send Me.

While many people complain about the political drivel that shows up on facebook, I've somehow been gifted with friends who share any number of interesting links, so this is a new column, links my friends send me. Like all columns that we currently publish, this one will show up sporadically and when you least expect it.

First up, a fascinating article on the academic wars surrounding the study of pornography. A new academic journal will study pornography in depth and with the nuance that the material probably merits, but the journal's 100% pro-pornography board has others in the academic community skeptical about its  ability to interpret data without bias. If you've been following the blog for awhile, you might recall that Erica and I tend to disagree on this subject.

New research about female desire suggests a lot of our perceptions of gender and sexuality are inaccurate, perhaps even in terms of how women perceive their own sexual desire. That factor alone suggests we need to have a more nuanced discussion on topics like pornography, but that discussion needs to be honest about negative impacts too.

In a similar vein, you can also read about a debate surrounding "naked protests" in the Middle East, though in this context the nakedness in question is women who protest topless. Even Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy supports nudity in protests when used to subvert a culture that restricts women by restricting how they dress.

Next, an article that discusses the phenomenon of men dying younger on average than women do, a phenomenon that applies throughout all stages of life, including childhood.

It's also worth reading this article about obesity, which explores research that breaks down the myth that obesity is merely the product of poor self control. In a nutshell, the author points to how complicated weight loss turns out to be in reality and to surprisingly high increases in obesity rates among animals, including closely-monitored lab animals, and suggests that something more complex is happening on a chemical level.

And lastly, I'm sure most of you have already seen the Taylor Swift Feminist memes. If you haven't yet, do yourself a favor because they're pretty delightful.