Monday, May 16, 2011

What I Know

The thing is
there are a hundred thousand ways
of feeling broken and
and me
and your best friend and
the stranger sitting in front of you and
your cousin’s sister’s best friend’s baby’s mama
all know
what they are.
But only I can know
the way my heart races when I see injustice and the way
my face flushes when I walk the path of righteousness and
only I can know
the way my mind wraps itself around words
heating the inside so they boil and jump and
burble into new creations, then cool as they
settle into poems on my tongue
crispy, delicate,
gooey on the inside

And the thing is
there are a hundred thousand things
people could say that could shake me
would shake me
have shaken me and
there are a hundred thousand things people could do
would do
have done
and I know—as you know and
the soul sitting next to you knows and
hell, even your
great aunt’s second husband’s grandfather knows
that none of those things matter but
we’ll feel them and
believe them and
be crushed by them anyway.
But only I know
the way my soul caresses my body when I move and
the way my god finger-paints
purple sunshine
streaming through my heart into my narrow vision and the way
I love
saving worms from the sidewalk because
I really believe that moment of gentleness
makes the world
a more compassionate place to live.

And the thing is
and me
and the person in front of you you’ll never touch
who is also blinking back tears of self-doubt
go through life
saving worms or
recycling bottles or
smiling at strangers
as though we are ordinary
ignorant to our own worth and even
daring to think
we might be broken or
cracked or

We’re all poems
waiting to be written
heated on the inside
burbling into love-full creations
that cool as they settle into souls
powerful and

the thing is
it all starts with
and me
loving us.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

All social justice?

A few months ago, I was talking to my academic advisor at school. The specifics of what we were discussing aren’t really important, but I remember becoming impassioned about a social injustice I became aware of while writing my dissertation, and was excited about how this related to my work with clients. In the writing of my dissertation, she was fully supportive—acknowledged the truth of the injustice, and spoke to what powerful work I was doing in giving voice to the injustice. When I related it to a client, however, she seemed to fall strangely silent. In attempting to make my point, I probably used big, fancy words like “stimulus value” and “social constructionism” and “privilege” and “institutional oppression,” and she seemed nonplussed. Uncomfortable, even. I made my final point, triumphant, sure that I was bringing it all home and she would also be enlivened or enraged or whatever emotion I was trying to bring about.

Instead, my advisor shook her head and grew silent. “You know, Laura,” she said, pausing. “It doesn’t have to be all social justice all the time.”

I also fell silent, and thought about her words for a moment. In my heart, I knew I disagreed. In my heart, I knew that I was “right,” but also that this argument was not one about being “right.” It was about wanting to be heard. It was about being enraged, wanting to scream “fuck the system!” and instead, translating the emotion into fancy words and making it an academic observation. It was about wanting to find support and, instead, feeling silenced. It was about the fact that this woman pushed me to the point of tears my first year, telling me I needed to “find my voice,” and about the fact that I not only “found” my voice over the past four years, but also that I pushed myself to use it. It’s about the fact that, over the past year, I have learned the power of silence and being silenced. It’s about knowing what that can do to a person, and wanting to be damn sure I never remain silent about issues I have the privilege to speak out about.

But I am still a lowly student and she is still my advisor. I allowed myself to fall silent, and even (*wince*) told her she was right. “You’re right, Dr. W,” I said. “I guess it doesn’t have to be all social justice ALL the time.” I grinned. “Just most of the time, right?” I laughed. She didn’t. After 6 quarters of diversity classes emphasizing speaking out, having the diversity dialogue, advocating for clients surrounding diversity issues, and completely changing my world view, it just feels a little hypocritical to have my advisor and professor of many of those diversity classes indicate that it’s “all social justice” except for when it’s not. Way to make me see the injustices, help me develop the voice and the language to discuss what I see, and then silence that voice on my way out the door. I’m not altogether surprised—hypocrisy abounds in this program, although that is a story for another day. It was just a little jarring to feel the power of being silenced around THIS issue, in HER office.

* * * * *

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I am sitting in an MBA class and we are talking about power and influence in management. The teacher says, “you know, your textbook states that personal appearance has a lot to do with the amount of power and influence you have. I disagree with your textbook. If you are charismatic, and if people just generally like you, you are going to have power and influence no matter what. You can look like whatever, and if you’re charismatic and likeable, people are going to respect you and you’ll be powerful/influential. It all has to do with personality, and very little to do with appearance.”

I sat for a few minutes, as he continued talking, weighing my options. To speak? Or not to speak. I raised my hand.

“Mr. M,” I said, “I agree with you that factors such as likeability, charisma, and personality are going to have a big influence on interpersonal power and influence; however, I also think that personal appearance, as discussed in the textbook, is going to have a huge impact on a person’s perceived power, and how they are able to influence others. I would think that factors related to appearance—things like race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, size, disability status—these factors are all going to have a significant impact on how a person is perceived and regarded, and the amount of influence they are going to be able to have over others. It seems to me that, given what we know about the pervasiveness of sexism, racism, homophobia and how these institutionalized and internalized “isms” affect everyone…it seems to me that this would, naturally, carry into the workplace as well.”

I think I tacked a “…but I could be wrong” onto the end because, at that point, I felt embarrassed and like I was telling him he was wrong, which he was, but it wasn’t my place to say so, so I felt I had to qualify my statements. No need. He had an answer.

“Well,” he said, patiently, as if talking to a small child, “I hear your point. However, those things are really only going to be a problem if you’re focused on difference. You need to know yourself, and know if you…you know…if you don’t like gay people, you need to know that about yourself. If you focus on the similarities between people, it won’t be an issue.”

He advanced to the next slide. “So anyway…” he continued.

I sat and steeped in my anger and frustration for a bit because, well, I’m in an angry place these days and don’t handle ignorance well. On the break from class, I talked to the other girl from my program in the class.

“Did I make sense? Was I respectful enough? Was his answer as ridiculous as it sounded to me?”

She told me I did, indeed make sense, and that I was “brave” for speaking up, and even that she appreciated my point. In response to my frustration, she said, “just think, though…the class is all business majors, and business is really primarily all white men. All you have to do is look around to see that. So…he’s a white man teaching white men, and it’s probably not even really going to be an issue for them because they’re going to be working with other white men.”

“So we should just perpetuate the status quo?” I asked.

“I’m just saying…you put up a good fight, but I don’t think you need to make a social justice issue out of it.”

I sat through the rest of class, contemplating why I was in another situation in which I was being too social justice-y or something. I called my sister after class, but mom answered and sister wasn’t around. I was frustrated, and mom could tell, so I told her the story. She laughed and I’m pretty sure I heard her shaking her head.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh Laura,” she sighed. “I just keep realizing that men just don’t stand a chance with you.”

Ah. Right. Because clearly that is what this is about.

* * * * * *

So, I’m confused. I care. A lot. I’m passionate. Very passionate. I’m probably idealistic and na├»ve and, most of the time, I probably don’t really have a clue what I’m talking about. I am probably turning into someone who is going to speak when she shouldn’t, and is over zealous in talking about topics she cares about. I care about too many issues, and I am too invested in caring. I can’t stand ignorance and, for the first time in 25 years, I am really, genuinely angry. In an attempt to deal with this anger in an appropriate manner, I am refusing to be silent. All my life, I have cared—deeply cared, even—cared so deep it hurt. But I was silent in my caring. I have made the active and conscious choice to no longer be silent. Anais Nin wrote, “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” For me, this is true on many levels. Do I still need to grow? Oh, absolutely. I have so very, very far to go. But I also know that staying inside the bud is painful—too painful, even, to be worthwhile.

Dealing with being silenced—and silenced on multiple levels—reminded me of what I had only understood academically: choosing to be silent is a privilege. It has taken me being silenced to be angry. I can channel this anger into action, into social justice, into writing and questioning and giving voice. I refuse to say that the events in my life over the past year happened “for a reason.” I will say, however, that it has catapulted me forward on a journey that would have taken me a longer time to travel. I will say that on some level, now, I “get it.” Staceyann Chin puts it far better and more succinctly that I ever could in this poem titled “All Oppression is Connected”:

Because that really is it: all oppression is connected. For me, at least, there is a moment when you realize that the pain you feel is the same pain that another person in a similar situation feels, is the same pain that another person in a completely different situation maintained by the same societal constructs feels. It’s this crazy “click” moment when, for a moment, you feel like everything makes sense, and then you realize life just got a whole lot more complicated.

So I ask: what’s wrong with being all social justice all the time?

And I also ask: how the hell do I deal with caring, being angry, and being active, without burning out or losing faith in humanity?

My current answer for both questions? I don’t know.