Two Weeks Later

Two weeks and two days ago, I woke up, along with the rest of the United States, knowing that Donald Trump had, contrary to all polls and predictions, and an increasing amount of the popular vote, won the election. This is what I’ve witnessed, read, and experienced since then, in no particular order and presented as much as possible without judgment (though there are definitely items on the list I find personally repugnant).

  • People texting or messaging me, to whom I’ve rarely spoken before, to express their dismay and terror. People who, knowing 70% of the county in which we live voted Trump, wonder which of our neighbors did, and whether it’s safe to trust them.
  • Within a day, 200 reports of hate crimes against People of Color, Muslims, and LGBTQ+ folks, even in areas of our state that swing fairly liberal. Within two days, double that number. In almost all cases, the perpetrator referenced Trump’s win as the force empowering them.
  • The report that 53% of white women, most of them middle class and above, voted for Trump. Numerous think pieces attributing this development to women “placing race above gender in importance.”
  • A friend experiencing so much harassment after the election that before two days had passed she and her family decided to move to another state.
  • Intense arguments between the conservative half of my extended family and the liberal half.
  • People of color feeling (justifiably) betrayed and saying they will “never trust a white person again.”
  • Think pieces blaming white women in particular for being too complacent.
  • A rally of the “alt-right,” a white supremacist group, at a hotel near the White House, complete with Nazi salutes and slogans in the original German.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on third party voters.
  • Think pieces blaming the election results on “identity politics,” and calling on the Left to empathize more with white working class voters.
  • Arguments about what kind of show of solidarity is “right” or “enough” and what kind of action allies need to take, and who gets to define all those things.
  • A definite absence of acknowledgment from the able community of how much danger Trump’s election and Republican control of (potentially) all three branches of government poses to people with disabilities.
  • Lots of people with activated trauma of various kinds lashing out at each other. Calls for solidarity being met with recriminations.
  • Large peaceful protests of the election results in nearly every major city in the country.
  • A friend frightened and in tears because the protest in her city turned violent.
  • Conservative claims that all the protests are “riots.”
  • People conflicted between maintaining the outrage that motivates them and the urge, as well as politicians’ encouragement, to treat this election as “business as usual.”
  • A huge popular movement to audit the vote in three states where the tallies were incredibly close. Jill Stein’s unprecedented campaign to do just that, which raised $2.5 million in under two days.
  • An acquaintance whose cause celèbre is Universal Basic Income insisting it’s not just “white working class;” it’s working class in general.
  • Lots of advice from various quarters on how to be as safe as possible under an authoritarian regime.

The election stressed me out more than any before, but the two weeks since have aged me in a way I never imagined possible. I’ve always looked and acted (by societal standards) younger than my age, and I haven’t felt much different in my body from the person I was twenty years ago. But lately I’ve wondered if the various passing aches I’ve attributed to other causes aren’t really a sign of my age. If the lapses in memory, which are more frequent, are a sign of encroaching senility. If I’m just as fat old woman sitting on a couch, cursing the kids and dreaming of better times. I have become my father, though still stronger than he was, I think. My husband says if my father were still around, this election would have killed him. He’s right, too.

Except for checking in on particular groups, I’ve stayed off social media. Especially Twitter, which can be a pit of adders if you don’t tread carefully. People of all persuasions are willing to speak in harsher terms there than they might elsewhere, I’ve noticed. Snark is rampant. So are claims of tone policing and “marginalized people can’t be bullies,” which is patently untrue. Anyone can be a bully. People who carry grave hurt are often particularly good ones.

I cried for a week after the election, and I’ve cried many days since. So have most of the women I know. (Yesterday my husband said he wanted to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I told him that was okay, he should cry if he needed to. He said he couldn’t remember how.) On social media, my tears of often dismissed, either indirectly or when the speaker refers to a group of which I’m part in general terms: “The fact that this outcome shocks you proves how privileged you are. My marginalized group knew all along how bad it is; you just didn’t listen.”

It’s not shock that moves me to tears. I have my own marginalizations: sexual assault survivor, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed, financially insecure. Living in a rural, white area where the main two employers closed their doors in the last year and the message boards are full of screeds about “Obummer’s war on coal,” and the persecution of Christians, and the liberal elites with their need to control everything, I never took it for granted Hillary Clinton would sweep to victory. To me the election boiled down to an obvious truth: If Hillary Clinton won, though she might not be perfect, we’d be okay for the next four years. To quote Rebecca Solnit, “Voting is a chess move, not a valentine.” If Donald Trump won we definitely would NOT be okay. None of us. Not women, white or otherwise. Not my family and friends of color. Not the disabled, or the LGBTQ+ community. Not even the people who voted for him. And yes, I ran across more than a handful who voted him because they’d rather the world burn to ash than try to fix it. I always had to wonder if these people saw themselves burn, or if they imagined watching from the top of the heap, unaffected by what they’d put into motion. I suspect the latter. A certain kind of white male never bears the brunt of what they put into motion. It’s the rest of us who do.

The high potential for failure is what stressed me out so much in the weeks and days before the election. It’s what caused me to dip into my husband’s Valium prescription at times and turn to the Scotch bottle at others. It’s why I cracked dark jokes about the Apocalypse, which I was terrified would come to pass. And when they did come to pass, it wasn’t shock that I felt. It was despair. I had hoped so hard that we were better than this. Smarter than this. More compassionate. I had prayed to whatever gods happened to be around that the crowds at the Trump rallies represented a small minority. The election results dashed that hope to pieces, and I take little comfort in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. A 51%-49% split is far too narrow to suit me. With such deep differences, how will we ever find a place to meet?

My conservative brother-in-law asked my husband the same question the other day. He voted for Trump. He said it was the hardest decision he’s ever had to make, but he knew only two candidates stood a chance of winning and, in the end, Hillary Clinton represented “everything he was against.” He wondered why people who disagree with liberals as to policy are now being characterized as racists and bigots. If I still spoke to him (I blocked him on social media during the 2012 election cycle), I’d like to scream at him that policy has nothing to do with it; that Donald Trump never made any coherent statement of policy at all, but riled his supporters up against immigrants and people of color and demonized his main rival. How is this policy? But Clinton reached out to marginalized people and supported women’s bodily autonomy. That, my brother-in-law says, was his main sticking point; he’s against abortion in any form. He has three daughters. I keep wondering, if one of them were expecting a much wanted child and found out in the twenty-sixth week of pregnancy that her child wouldn’t live, would probably not survive gestation, wouldn’t he want her to have a choice of what to do? Or would he doom her to walk around for sixteen weeks, a whole four months, knowing her child was dead inside her? Having lost both my children early, I can say for a certainty such a situation would have driven me out of my mind with grief.

Two of his daughters, by the way, are married to Black men and have mixed race sons. And he voted for a man who wants to institute racial profiling and stop and frisk laws. How could he do that? How would he feel if it were one of his sons-in-law, one of his grandsons, who got pulled over by a cop for “fitting the profile,” and shot for no cause? Is he so secure in the notion that bad things don’t happen to good people? If the cop claimed later he “felt threatened,” would my brother-in-law think that was enough?

A lot of our differences are of religious origin; BIL is an Evangelical Christian and we are farthest thing from it. 83% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. I cannot fathom why, and neither can most other Christians of my acquaintance, Evangelicals among them. How can people who claim to honor Jesus Christ choose a man who lies, who preaches hatred, who sows division, who admits to being a serial rapist? It seems to boil down to the belief that Christians are being persecuted under the current administration. Even though I know the reasoning, it boggles my mind. It seems obvious to me that if you want to teach your children that the Earth was literally created in seven days and is only 4,000 years old, that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and co-existed with humankind, you are free to do that. But not on the public dime because it’s faith, not science. It’s clear to me that if you run a business that’s open to the public, you are required by law to serve all the public whether or not your religion agrees with the way they live their lives. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Thou shalt not bake wedding cakes for, or rent your venue to, or arrange flowers for, or photograph gay people, nay, not at their weddings or celebrations, or in any other place, for such is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” Kosher delis aren’t allowed to refuse service to goyim because we don’t wear yarmulkes. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t get one. If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it. Evangelicals seem unable to see that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to force your religious views on others,” and when you point it out they cry persecution. It’s baffling to me, as much as the claims that “America was founded as a Christian nation” when one can cite document after document disproving such a statement, and Freedom of Religion was written into our Constitution. And it really doesn’t matter that at the time of the founding, Christianity of one form or another was the religion of most of the West, and it was probably inconceivable to many that other religions would become so prominent. At the time of the founding, only white, male land owners were allowed to vote or hold citizenship. Do we want to return to those strictures as well? At times, I think some do. Or they conveniently forget the parts of the original Constitution that don’t fit into their world view.

But to return to the original question: With a population roughly divided in half as to the way to proceed, and those halves near as makes no difference to polar opposites in stance, how do we ever find a meeting place? Some say it’s incumbent on the Left to reach out to and persuade those on the Right, which has quite a lot of the Left justifiably angry. It always seems to fall to the Left to be reasonable, though I know those on the Right would disagree with me there. Compromising with mule-headed Conservatives has dragged the Left more and more toward the center, until most of our politicians are on a level with Nixon and Reagan. Some would disagree with that, too (my BIL says the Republican party has swayed too far Left for him; what he means by this, I have no idea whatsoever), but you can look up and compare the policies. How loud does the Left have yell that we’re all humans and all deserve the same civil rights before the Right agrees? I’m sure many individuals agree–even my BIL claims to be against mass deportation and instituting a Muslim registry. There seems, however, to be a cosmic disconnect between the individuals and the philosophy, between claiming an idea and putting it into practice.

Many classify the divide as between Urban and Rural, and if you look at a county-by-county map of votes cast, this seems to bear out. It reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s Hugo-nominated book, The World Inside. I read it long ago, but essentially America’s population is divided between City dwellers who lead rather decadent lives in skyscrapers, and the farmland communities in between, where the inhabitants practice rather bizarre rituals. I hate to think this prophetic, although I, along with many of my circle, don’t see a way we can bring such disparate views of the country into a unified whole. We’ve begun to voice the once-unthinkable: Maybe this country doesn’t work. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge there need to be two, or many. I don’t see how this could be possible. Given the lack of clear geographic lines along which to form borders any division would force people out of their homes. And Urban and Rural areas have a symbiotic relationship; one can’t survive without the goods and services of the other. Negotiating trade agreements would be a nightmare.

Living in a Rural area, I can sympathize with some of the sentiment. We don’t have many of the advantages of an Urban environment. Jobs are low-paying and hard to come by even if you have a good education, which many lack. If the main employer of blue-collar labor shuts down, everyone suffers. I don’t blame scared people for wishing for a return to the “good old days;” however, I know that those good old days, when a person could make a good living and support a family with a high school education, were only attainable for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century. I think when people rally to the cry of “Make America Great Again,” that’s what they want: The dream they’ve been denied. Giving up on a dream is hard. It’s easier to cast blame on one group or another and reach for simple (though not easy) solutions than it is to change an ingrained system of thought. Though Horatio Alger “rags to riches” stories are part of the American mythos, most of the populace are not innovators or entrepreneurs. They’re more secure in the assurance that everyone knows their place. Now everything is topsy-turvy, and it frightens them.

A little while ago, my husband came back from a gig with his Blues band and told me about a conversation he’d had with his buddy, the guitarist. His friend had mentioned reading of a college professor who said “Any white person living in this society is racist,” and how it had put him off. My husband took the opportunity to clarify, explaining how when a certain group of people has power, they tend to construct their society around themselves, paying attention only to the things that matter to them, which pushes people who don’t fit the model further and further to the margins. So, in this case, whether or not a white person actively holds racist views, they benefit from a racist society in ways people of other races don’t. And that, my husband went on, is what’s meant by privilege. He managed to get intersectionality in there, too. His friend understood; in fact, he said it was the first time any of that stuff made sense.

We need more conversations like that and fewer recriminations. But as long as people hold fear and pain close to their hearts and come to the table with minds unwilling to stretch and ears unwilling to hear, I doubt they’ll ever take place.

 

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White Girl Confessions

I try. I try really hard to listen and believe and recognize my own privilege and not take liberties. I try not to tone police. I try not to practice colonialism.

But you know, sometimes it’s really, really hard. Sometimes when I see WoC ranting about “White Feminism” and “White Feminists” on my Twitter stream, it upsets me. Because it gives me the feeling that every white woman is being tarred with the same brush. Now, maybe some PoC would say that’s just Karma, and maybe it is. It seems pretty unfair to me, though, that the people at whom this legitimate anger is directed are so rarely the ones to take it to heart, or even pay it any attention. One time, a Feminist of Colour tweeted, “It doesn’t need to be said, but there’s a difference between White Feminism(TM) and plain White Feminism.” I thanked her for pointing that out. I think it does need to be said, and said more often.

I don’t like the attitude of “We’re screwder than you” that I see so much. It reminds me of junior high. I don’t like being ignored when I ask honest questions trying to get information. Sure, of course, the voices of PoC have been routinely ignored. And one justification I hear is, “It’s not our job to educate you because the information is out there and if you really cared you’d find it.” It’s a justification Feminists use too, and I have to say I don’t agree with it there, either. It’s one thing to respond that way to a troll, and another to hand it out to all and sundry. I do really want to hear individual people’s voices. I don’t want to rely on questionable internet sources for answers to important questions like, “How, in your personal opinion, can we find common ground? Is there even any common ground?” Because those answers can’t be found through a search engine.

Sometimes I want to scream. I want to say, “The word ‘shaman” derives from Tungusic and was originally used by Russians interacting with the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia. Native America people don’t have a monopoly on it, or on Spirit Journeys, or on Totem Animals.” My ancestors were also driven out of their homes and off their lands, and starved, and raped. Their languages were taken from them. Their children were forced into conquerors’ schools. Maybe not in recent history and maybe it’s not still going on. But maybe it is, and it’s wrong to dismiss all that history because my people were (mostly) white.

I have no intent to dismiss the anger of People of Colour. I am aware that I am unlikely to be arrested because a cop thought I was a prostitute when I kissed my husband in public. I am aware that my words are more likely to be listened to. I am aware that (mental health issues and poverty aside) I have more opportunities than Indigenous People and People of Colour. But it gets really hard for me to listen and remain silent when it seems no matter what I do or what I say someone is going to attack me.

I just needed to say these things and it was too long to post anywhere else.

Where Did “All That” Money Go?

Right now, I am having a panic attack about money.

The experience is nothing new. I have a panic attack about money at least once a week–that is, whenever we don’t have any.

How does this happen? Payday was just last Friday, less than a week ago. And yet, we’re broke. In fact, we’re about $400 in the hole. More, much more, if I count the money we owe various places that I just ignore because there’s no way of paying it after meeting our immediate needs, and thinking about it sends me right over the edge.

I’m having a panic attack because in the culture in which we live, in the United States in particular, but perhaps elsewhere as well, cash on hand is equivalent to personal worth and personal success. As much as I repeat to myself that this reasoning is flawed and my inherent worth is not contingent upon worldly riches, there’s always the niggling voice at the back of my head telling me I have no right to complain because other people have it so much worse, that I have no right to live because I’m incapable of providing for my basic needs and those of my family. I’m not a Christian, but I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterian doctrine includes the Calvinist notion of predestination. No one talks about it much, but it’s always there, behind everything. You’re damned or saved at birth, nothing can change it, and worldly success or failure is a sign of which direction you’re headed. Success means God loves you. Failure means God hates you. The end. There’s nothing you can do to change it.

My husband is a high school English teacher in a charter program for kids at risk. I am on disability for mental health reasons (this alone, the fact that I have claimed disability for an illness no one can see, is problematic for me. It doesn’t matter that the United States government agrees that working at a regular job is impossible for me and would cause further damage to my health. I can’t help but feel that if only I tried harder, if only I got over myself, if only I stopped being so lazy, I could do the things that need doing). This is the story of where our money goes.

Michael and Kele’s Payday Adventure

Michael gets paid on the 22nd of the month. In August, this falls on a Friday–fortunate, because we inevitably have many errands to do on the one day of the month when we’re assured of having some cash in hand, completing all these errands involves travel, and we only have the one car (a ’97 Ford Escort, in case anyone cares). Also, Michael’s school is on a four-day schedule, so on Fridays he’s free to DO the errands we need to do. When payday falls during the working week, it’s a whole different set of complications actually getting access to the money.

In our household, I’m the one who looks after finances. I’m not crazy about the role, but I’m capable. We’ve tried working with a more equitable system, but Michael is really bad with money and organization and keeping track of dates, like dates when bills are due. So it’s just better if I handle all that. The downside for me is, I constantly have a running tally in my head of what’s in our bank account and what’s out, and what’s owed on what date, and what needs to go where. What can be put off for another month, what needs to be paid now, what utilities are about to get shut off, what’s the last possible moment I can wait before I have to take care of this, that, or the other thing. I did this even during the five years I was otherwise incapacitated with depression and spent every waking moment staring at the walls. It’s extremely stressful, especially when there simply isn’t enough money to go around. Which there never is. I don’t mind being responsible for our finances, not really. But when there isn’t anything to work with, it gets rough.

Anyway, this particular payday we have about $100 in the bank to start. That may sound like a good thing, except it’s not. The reason we have this money is that the cheque I sent to the phone company to keep our service from being turned off bounced; when it came through, we were $10 short. So the bank returned the cheque and charged us an additional $30 for the honour. I also had to spend about $100 on medications that weren’t covered by my disability insurance, but that cheque hasn’t gone through yet.

Sidebar: I hate insufficient funds fees. I suppose, if I’m charitable, I can believe that banks have some kind of cost when there isn’t enough money in an account to cover a cheque, but to me is seems like charging a person who hasn’t got any money MORE money is counter-intuitive and unnecessarily punitive. I saw a meme somewhere to the effect that banks make $30M a year from poor people by charging them fees for being poor.

Another sidebar: I could have let the phone company hang, I guess. We never use our land line. But if I hadn’t paid, we would have lost our Internet service, and the Internet is one of my main mental health lifelines.But poor people don’t deserve DSL connections. What in the world am I thinking by wasting that money?

So, we have a little money, which is good, because we have no gas in the car, and to deal with Michael’s paycheque, we have to drive 30 miles to Delta. We go up to the Stop & Save on the Corner and spend $10 on gas. Then we stop at the diner in Hotchkiss and get breakfast, because we had no food in the house and we’re starving, and we figure it’s okay to spring $25 for bacon and eggs. Because it’s payday.

All through breakfast, while we’re discussing our plan for the day, I hear my father’s voice in the back of my head: “Why do you think you deserve to sit down at a restaurant and be waited on when you keep having to ask hardworking people to bail you out of your financial troubles?” I try to tell him everyone needs treats from time to time and $25 isn’t going to make a difference to our finances one way or the other, but he’s very loud.

After breakfast, we drive up to Garnet Mesa to pick up Michael’s paycheque from the school office and then into Delta to cash it. The reason we have to do this: Michael doesn’t have a bank account. Michael doesn’t have a bank account because our previous bank charged off a credit card balance we ran up paying for my medication before I qualified for disability (at one time I was on medications costing in excess of $1200/month), and there’s some Federal regulation that you can’t open a bank account if you owe a bank money. Our new bank account is in my name only. But we can’t have Michael’s paycheque direct-deposited, or even have him sign it over to me for deposit, because the current bank is afraid if my name isn’t on the cheque Michael will one day make a fuss about “his” money ending up in “my” account. Despite the fact that we’ve been married twenty years.

Michael’s net pay this month is $1571.00. For anyone who still thinks teachers make loads of money, this is how it works. His salary is actually $19K a year, for ten months, four days a week, seven hours a day, trying to teach the most difficult students in Delta county the rudiments of the English language. A lot of the time, his teaching does not look like teaching. It looks like counseling, because the kids with which he works have problems ranging from poverty and homelessness to substance abuse. Their school is the one safe place in their lives and their teachers are the only trustworthy adults they know. Michael does not get any benefits. Contrary to popular belief, teachers do not get 2-3 months “paid vacation.” His yearly salary is spread out over twelve months, only ten of which he’s paid for. This month he got an additional $150 for a week of mandatory “training”–a euphemism for a bunch of meetings that had very little bearing on what his job actually does. At least they paid him for sitting through them.

We cash the cheque and walk up the block to the crafts store, where we spend $30 on beads and a book of knitting patterns. Then we walk around the block to our insurance agent’s office and pay them $71.00 to keep our car insurance up to date. After that, we run up to City Market and fill up the gas tank, a thing we only get to do on paydays. Because we earn “fuel points” for shopping at City Market, the tank of gas costs just over $30.

While we’re there, I notice that our car registration expired in April. Great. I’ve been waiting for the notice with the mail-in renew form since January, and we never got it. Okay, good thing I noticed. We can stop and take care of it at the County Annex in Hotchkiss on our way home.

We’re now at $1440, if anyone was keeping track. I definitely am.

Our next stop is the health food store on Rogers Mesa for vitamins, face cream, and a deodorant rock. I also get a pound of peaches and a couple cookies, because breakfast is wearing off. These five items cost $85.00. Again, I hear my father’s voice. My father was one of those people who would drive 30 miles to get a double coupon deal and fill the closet with boxes of crackers he got on sale. He says, “Why do you need to waste that money at a health food store when you could get vitamins and face cream at the normal grocery for twenty bucks?” Well, Dad, I’ll tell you: I’m allergic to every face cream the grocery store sells, and the more expensive vitamins work better. They’re a mediation for me, and medications don’t come cheap. I also don’t think spending $20 every six months on a nice face cream is out of line. I value my skin. But maybe people in my financial position don’t have any right to vanity, either.

The bank envelope now holds $1355.

Next stop, the County Annex to renew our car registration. This is where we find out that 1. The County isn’t responsible for sending out the renewal notices. The State does that, and sometimes they forget, and they’re phasing our renewal notices anyway, so we’re just going to have to keep track and 2. There’s a $25 fee for every month you’re late on renewing your car registration. So, instead of the $75 we’d have paid if I’d done this on time, we have to spend $150 to bring our car into compliance with the law. I don’t like it, but it has to be done.

Our bank envelope now contains $1205, and I’m beginning to get short of breath.

We stop at the Credit Union and deposit $1000. If you’ll remember the beginning of this adventure, $300 of that is already spent on the phone bill and on medications. Another $550 goes to pay our mortgage. When we make the deposit, I find out that the phone company cheque came through a second time before we got the money into my account and bounced again to the tune of another $30. Shit. I was praying that wouldn’t happen. I’ll have to make an Internet payment when we get home.

If you’re keeping track, which I am, we now have $205 in cash out of the original $1571 and $150 available in the bank. Usually at this point we’d go grocery shopping, but I’m so freaked at the sudden depletion of our funds that I can’t cope, so we just head back to Paonia. We stop at the market to pick up something for dinner ($30) and at the Post Office for me to mail some packages ($10), leaving us with just over $150 in hand at the end of payday.

It’s not over. I have to spend $100 on books that I promised people as part of various promotions–giveaways, pre-orders for which I may or may not get paid, a copy for the firm that holds the license to a song a quoted. One for the Library. It’s another place I hear my father’s voice: “What gives you the right to waste time and money at this unprofitable hobby? Can’t you write in your spare time while you do something worthwhile? And how do you imagine you deserve to SPEND anything when you have no guarantee of making anything back?”

Well. At the end of payday, we’re about in the same place we were at the beginning. $50 in the bank, $150 in hand, which will have to go toward food, because we don’t have any. That’s where all the money went.

And my mind is full of the electric bill, and the water bill, both of which have to be paid immediately. Not to mention the $500-odd I owe the local clinic and the extra $500 that got tacked onto the bill for my surgery last January because reasons. The $200 outstanding to the company that provides the oxygen condenser I have to use at night. The $10,000 some collection agency is demanding within 10 days or else they’ll take me to court, again from credit cards we had when we weren’t quite as poor, which we ran up paying for my $1200+/month medication. Michael’s student loans, which I think started out at $10,000 but now have accrued interest up to about $20,000.

I get my disability payment on the 3rd of next month. It’s $384, and it’s already spoken for.

That’s where all the money goes.

 

 

White Girl Writing

This post has been fermenting in my brain for about a month now. Maybe longer. Then I read this article from Buzz Feed, and I started thinking about it more. So I’m going to try to get it out of my brain and onto the (virtual) page.

Diversity in writing. Diversity in books. I see the plea for it everywhere. I see agents and editors describe themselves as “open to LGBTQ and characters of color.” I see writers tweet about their LGBTQ books and their Black/Hispanic/Indigenous protagonists. I worry about it in my own writing. And I also can’t help but notice how many of these writers and agents and editors are white, heterosexual, and cisgendered (at least on the surface–I realize I may be making assumpti0ns here about people I know mainly from their Internet profiles). Now, I’m not saying that white, cis, het people can’t write about characters who are different from themselves. Part of our work as writers is to go outside our own experience and into the hearts and minds of people who are different than we are. But I ask myself all the time how effective we are at this, and how can we truly convey the experience of people who are different. And where are the voices of people who have different color skins, different backgrounds, different sexuality. It’s not to say they aren’t out there. I follow a number of gender-queer writers and writers of color. It seems to me, however, that the number of these voices are far fewer than the ostensible demand for diversity. It’s as if diversity has become a buzzword, but the industry may not be doing all it can to foster truly diverse points of view.

And I wonder if begging for diversity while at the same time possibly dismissing diverse protagonists and situations as “not relatable” creates an industry where the diversity we see is confined to stereotypes and two-dimensional situations, because a white, cis, het writer is never going to KNOW the experience of others and will have difficulty portraying the day-to-day struggles others face.

Getting back to the personal: I’m aware of differences. I kind of always have been. I grew up one of the few white kids in a mainly black neighborhood in Detroit. I played with Donna and Darnell, the black twins down the street. I remember one time Darnell needed to use the bathroom and I told him my parents didn’t want me to have friends in the house. He told me we were racist. I think about that now, and I’m pretty sure I said what I did because he was a boy and the thought of foreign boy parts alarmed me–not because of his skin color at all. But I was seven. I don’t know. Anyway, it got me thinking. Not long after, I got some personal experience of my own difference when I had my mom give me a pixie cut and the kids at my new school wouldn’t let me hear the end of it (which is one of the reasons I won’t wear a short haircut to this day).

Long story short: I’m a weirdo. I dress weird, and I have weird friends, and I practice a weird religion, and I eat weird food. I’m a woman, I’m fat, and I have a mental illness. So I get difference. But I still don’t feel qualified to write about a protagonist of color, or the life of a trans person. My writing is grounded in my own weirdness, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

But my experience is my experience, and as a white, cis, het woman I have a certain experience that is NOT that of a trans, gay, Native, physically disabled or otherwise different (or any combination thereof) character. Even though I’m also a fat Geeky witch. I do include characters of different backgrounds. I went back and rewrote my last book, The Cruel Mother, to change a secondary character’s race, and I made a point of putting more diversity in my next book, Demon Lover, than in any book before. However, I make choices that later seem terrible to me. My white, male protagonist is a practitioner of Native American Shamanism. I made him one because I’m rather intimate with a person who has studied the Red Road, but maybe it was a bad choice, smacking of cultural imperialism. I justify it to myself by saying I’m not making any claims and not trying to teach it to anyone–very few things annoy me more than those New Age books you see where some white person purports to pass down secrets he or she learned from some mysterious Indigenous mentor (because obviously only a white person is qualified to pass on the wisdom of brown people). Sage Randall, a friend of my female protagonist who appears in several books, is very much the “sassy black girlfriend” trope.  And John Stonefeather from The Parting Glass: What was I thinking??? A Native person with a drinking problem who has to be rescued from the consequences of his mistakes by white people? How problematic can you get? Again, that character was based on a real life person, a real Indigenous person of my acquaintance with real substance abuse problems. So I didn’t just go for the Drunk Indian cliché. But readers don’t know that. And I worry that it’s racist and offensive. When I brought it up to a friend, she assured me the thought has never crossed her mind…but she’s white. And when I sent a copy to an acquaintance who’s married to a Native man and who has lived on the Rez, I never heard from her again. Of course, she’s not the most reliable correspondent. I still wonder.

On the other hand, there’s the fact that men of both colors have always written characters, even POV characters, who are women and we don’t seem to have a problem with that. Sure, sometimes, especially these days and especially in genre fiction, we hear about male authors who have relied on social stereotypes and looked no farther. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on this, because I don’t tend to read those books. Or if I do, I don’t get farther than the first chapter or so. Looking back on older literature I’ve read, especially “The Classics,” I see one of two things: Either women don’t exist as POV characters, or the men who write them have succeeded pretty well for their times (disclaimer: I have not, in fact, read every book in the world). I haven’t read much critical analysis of say, Anna Karenina, that claims she’s an unrealistic stereotype. I didn’t like her or sympathize with her, but that’s my problem. This is not to say there is not a huge issue with sexism in literature. I’m remembering the guy who took issue with a fantasy novel featuring a female pirate of color because “female pirates didn’t exist in the real world.” (Like dragons do.) Which is demonstrably historically untrue. So, yeah: there are always the resistant asshats. But I can balance that against men who do a fine job, like Joss Whedon, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman et al. And the scales tip even.

I guess my point (Oh look: She’s coming to a point!) is: Diversity in fiction is in a hard place and it’s hard to achieve. I don’t think it’s realistic to proclaim that only people from a certain segment of humanity have the right to write about the experiences of that segment. And I laud writers who are trying to expand their horizons–and those of their readers–by writing about characters who are unlike them. But sometimes we will FUCK IT UP, I would hope inadvertently. And there are some aspects of life as experienced by those dissimilar to us that we will never be able to describe. The rise of self- and hybrid publishing has given rise to many new avenues through which different voices can come to light, and that’s a good thing. Still, in the traditional arena, the bulk of the responsibility for making available the diversity that is so important lies on publishers, agents, editors, and the like. And, because traditional publishing follows the money, on readers to demand it.

Edit to add: My friend, Stef, reminds me: This is an excellent book on avoiding some of the pitfalls of writing about characters unlike yourself: http://www.writingtheother.com/

 

 

A Brief Digression About Linguistic Imperialism. Or Something.

A person I follow on Twitter posted today that she was unfollowing Wil Wheaton everywhere because he had “used his position as a celebrity to bully an innocent young girl.” I don’t follow Wheaton myself, but from everything I’ve seen/heard from him, this didn’t sound like him. Of course, I have personal experience in the fact that even the most personable and…socially enlightened of celebrities can make serious blunders regarding things they’re just not educated about or haven’t experienced. Anyway, I was curious. Fortunately for me, the person I follow reblogged the original post, which you can see here.

This exchange triggers me on many levels. In fact, it has been enough to get me up off the couch, where I’ve been recovering–not very graciously or patiently–from reconstructive surgery on my sinuses and drive me to write down some of my process. I’m kind of sure my thoughts on the matter will open me to reaming from various quarters, but, well, there it is.

In case you have decided, for one reason or another, not to follow my handy link, here are the basics of the exchange: Someone, apparently a woman of color (I deduce this from comments late in the exchange) addressed Wil Wheaton’s use of the the term “Spirit Animal.” As I said, I don’t follow Wheaton so I have no clue when, where, or how he used the term. I get the impression (also from things mentioned later) that he uses it often and sometimes as kind of a toss-off, not talking about an actual Spirit Animal, but applying the concept to a person or persons he would like to emulate. The woman posing the question pointed out that he was practicing a kind of cultural appropriation by using a term from Native cultures in this way and suggested he use a different word. Wheaton replied, in effect, that he doesn’t think he’s taking anything from Native Peoples by using the term. Which, yeah, is problematic. But that’s not what triggered me.

What triggered me was someone else’s response to Wheaton’s response, and this is why: It was obvious to me that she had already decided what kind of response she expected to the original question. Several times she reiterated, “Wheaton should have said THIS.” And then she proceeded to tear apart his “apology” for not being what she thought it should be. In fact, it wasn’t an apology at all, and that’s one of the things with which she seems to take exception. Here’s another white guy practicing cultural imperialism through his thoughtless choice of words and not taking responsibility when someone is kind enough to point it out to him.

I kind of get it, as much as I can being a white woman. That is, being part of the dominant culture of the United States. I’m generally not subject to “Whitesplaining,” but I have been and am subject to “Mansplaining,” which in my experience is every bit as crazy-making. And I live most days with “Mental-Health-Splaining.” It sucks big time to have someone not of your culture/background/experience, from whose social progressiveness in other areas you might expect to have a clue, not fall in with your attempts at education. It’s HARD to address this shit, to put yourself out there instead of keeping your mouth shut. And it hurts when someone to whom you look up just doesn’t seem to get it, or even WANT to get it. Honestly, I have been there.

On the other hand, getting defensive and ripping someone a new one when s/he doesn’t give the response you want and/or think you deserve isn’t productive. That’s no longer about education. It’s about you venting your feelings of frustration. And it isn’t conducive to good communication. Okay, yeah, you’re angry at having to explain the same things OVER AND OVER AGAIN. I’m sorry to say this, but SUCK IT UP. Working for change takes saying the same things over and over again. It takes being civil when you want to break things. The message isn’t magic. You have to repeat it more than once. And the more condescending you get, the less people are apt to listen to you. Because when you say shit like “Why am I always the one who has to be civil? The Oppressors never have to worry about being civil to me!” you sound like a kid throwing a tantrum. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! Yeah, life ain’t fair, and the people dealing with oppression and abuse have more on them than the people dishing it out. That’s something I learned my first time in  a mental hospital. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now, but it’s what is.

The respondent’s tone isn’t the only thing that triggers me about the whole exchange, though, and this is where I think I may be accused of being white. I think about this a lot, too, in case you assume that I don’t, but am just writing out of being triggered. I think about it because as a novelist I write about peoples and cultures I am not a part of. I have black characters and Native characters and Latino characters and gay characters–quite a few in my work in progress–and I worry that I can’t do anything to get it right. My male protagonist is a man of Scottish heritage who was the student of a Native American shaman and practices a particular form of shamanism. He has a Spirit Animal. Is it not okay for me to have made this decision because I’m not of Native descent? Or should I have made him Native because of his spiritual system, even though that’s not how I saw the character? I’m not a Native Scot, either. Maybe I should have just stuck with everyone being white American, because that way I wouldn’t run the risk of getting something wrong or being unintentionally offensive. Except then I’d be open to accusations of not being inclusive enough.

I don’t mean any of this as snarky. These are really questions I ask myself. I do my best to be respectful and honest. I do my research. But I sometimes feel that there is nothing I can do to “get it right.” And I get tired of having to keep my self-censor active all the time because I’m white. There. I said it. I’ll say it again.

I’m tired of having to censor myself so much because I’m white and I’m afraid of getting reamed by someone who thinks my skin color equals my thought process.

A while back I read a blog written by a Pagan man who had participated in a conference with people from varying spiritual and religious backgrounds, including Native American. He recounted how he led an opening ritual which included invoking the directions and casting a circle, as we Pagans do. Later, a Native man confronted him about the practice, accusing him of stealing a Native system for his worship. The blogger tried to engage the man in conversation and explain that many religions share similar methods of setting sacred space, and that doesn’t mean that anyone stole from anyone else. He wasn’t sure the Native man accepted his explanation.

It’s really easy to look at anyone who bears the outward appearance of the dominant cultural mode and think they’re the enemy. At the risk of sounding like I’m making excuses for us poor white folks, even those of us who are trying hard have a lot to keep track of and we can’t always get it right. Sometimes we have to choose our battles, and sometimes our choices are not going to satisfy every single person who can find fault. Rudeness doesn’t win any allies.

I see this tendency toward being reactive all over the place, not just in matters of race. Last spring I read where members of a sorority at a college back east posted sticky notes on the mirrors in the women’s bathrooms. The notes read, “You’re beautiful as you are!” and other variations on this theme. It was the sorority’s attempt to do something positive and affirm women’s rights to come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. The next day, the internet was full of op-eds descrying this gesture because “We don’t have to be beautiful. Beauty for women is a construction of the patriarchy. We need to affirm our right to be ugly if we want!” And you know, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. But whom does it serve to shame a group trying to do something body-positive because it doesn’t fit your idea of what they should have done?

I don’t think I have anything else to say about this right now. I don’t have any answers. I guess I would just ask all activists, please, the next time someone makes you angry, I don’t care what about or where they’re from, just stop. Take a breath. Show a little more compassion and be a little less ready to blame. Anger is a good place to start change, but a poor work horse.