Conversations About Masculinity – 2

What do we want to be?

MacArthurIf people don’t think that race and gender justice are deeply connected, then they are living in a delusional world.  When I first got wind of the horrific burning of an 18 year old gender bending youth, Sasha Fleishman by a 16 year old (unnamed because he is a minor) on a city bus in Oakland, I was stunned and immediately went to the place that most of us go for our news these days…the internet.  But in doing a search for “Oakland youth burned on bus” I came up with, among other things, a site that is called ‘niggermania’ (I will not link to it here because I’d rather not drive traffic to it and who knows what kind of crazies are behind it.)  On this site, there were a lot of people who were very intent on making it clear that because the victim was white and because the perpetrator was black that this would somehow lead to the media not making as much of it as if the race roles were reversed.  There were a lot of mentions of Trayvon Martin and a lot of very sad and bigoted language all around.  I still marvel that my search brought this site up.  But rather than just being pissed off by the existence of this site, I had a good long think about it and realized that this perspective actually didn’t surprise me in any way; in fact it seemed eerily familiar.  Not because, all white Americans are bigots…that is far from the case.  Instead I realized that this was a sampling of the worst elements of the dominant culture invective played out in its most exaggerated and acid tone and as an American, I am accustomed to always hearing about race.  America is obsessed with race.  Regardless of the conversation, somehow, there is always a racial bent on it.  Ask any non-American and they will tell you so.

But that still doesn’t answer the fact that the bigots have been correct in how this story has not had the juggernaut press of other stories of late where black people have been the innocent victims of crimes of racial profiling.  As I see it, there is one reason and one reason only for this lack of coverage: gender.  The sad subtext of the media being more tacet on this story than on the others has a lot to do with a very subtle approval of the suppression and ‘turning a blind eye’ to issues of gender non-conformity.  It is a subtle affirmation, whether deliberate or not, of the act of the 16 year old saying in effect that they agree on a certain level that a boy who does not present socially as a boy is a bad thing.  More specifically, this silence sends the clear signal that when someone who is outside of the gender norm is victimized, it is somehow not as important as when someone who is racially profiled is victimized.  We see this time and again with the non reporting of transgender crimes either to the police or to the media.  Now admittedly, this is part apples and oranges.  The profiling cases we are currently seeing in national media all involve murder and this case is assault.  However, this current situation also involves a minor choosing to permanently disfigure someone and the resulting punishment treats the minor as an adult.  With all of the questions surrounding juvenile justice and the mass incarceration of people of color, there is a significant conversation that could be had here about the fate of this young man thanks to his own twisted decisions.  All of these stories have ghastly and tragic elements and each deserves to be heard by the public.  But we cannot dismiss the Oakland burning as some kind of child’s play gone wrong…’boys will be boys.’ This was a deliberate and gruesome act based on (by admission of the 16 year old) a hate bias against someone’s gender expression.  So where are the marches?  Where are the protests?

Nowhere, because as a culture, we don’t care.

I ask the question, “who do we want to be” in the conversation on manhood, because we have choices.  We have the choice to decide if we are going to be violent and abusive; we have the choice to decide if we are going to put up barriers; we have the choice to decide if we are going to look at someone and call them disgusting, or worthless, or less than us in someway.  We have choices.  But we don’t have a choice in how we express our gender.  This is a completely individual and for some a God given gift.  It is part of the fabric that makes each of us an individual.  Likewise, we also have no choice as to our race.  It is not something we can fix and fiddle after the fact, because, like our gender and gender expression, it came along before us and is defined by who we are.  In no circumstance, can I think of a situation where race trumps gender. Nor can I see a place where gender expression is more important than race.  We must invest in the search for a new language (literally and figuratively) to talk about these elements of our humanness  as part of our basic makeup and it is the struggle toward that language that makes this journey so difficult.  What do we want to be?  We want to be free and safe in both our gender and racial expression.  We want to be whole.

Because I am black, I am not a monster…but I can choose to do monstrous things.  Because I am gender queer, I am not a pervert…but I can choose to do perverted things.  You see, we are who we are, but we choose what we do with it.  The young man who burned Sasha Fleishman is not a monster because he is black (although ‘niggermania’ would have you think so) but he chose to do something monstrous.  Just as Sasha Fleishman is not a pervert for being a man in a skirt, although our media and culture would have us think so through their tacet response.  We have choices to make about our actions and we should be choosing actions that are grounded in love.  We cannot make choices about who we are and we shouldn’t confuse bigotries and biases for identities.  We can choose to be full of hatred, but you must remember that ultimately we are all made from love.

Happy Birthday

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a pivotal day in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.  Although it had been conceived before (reference is made in the film Brother Outsider to a plan in the 1940’s for a march of this nature) it was the first time any demonstration of this magnitude had ever come together in this country.  A mixing of races and religions and economic backgrounds came together and stood united in demonstration of the need for change for one specific demographic sector…black people.

These kinds of demonstrations aren’t so simple now.  As we progressed from the era of fighting for the rights of one marginalized population, other groups began to find their voices in the song of freedom.  Women, Gays and Lesbians, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims, Atheists.  But eventually people started to realize as well that they weren’t just part of one group.  We used to joke (before political correctness) that if you were a black Jewish lesbian in a wheelchair, you had the ultimate minority status.  But we don’t make those jokes anymore; in fact, we are starting to see the value of recognizing what a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian would represent in the mix.  She would represent the degree to which we all sit at intersections of cultures, demographics and social standings.  Each of us has privilege; each of us has disadvantage.  The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an age of self identity that has now culminated in all of us finding multiple self identities.

As we look back on the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, the brilliance of Bayard Rustin’s organizing and the willingness of the people to buy into the effort and gather en-masse during a weekday, it does seem clear that somethings have definitely changed.  But it is also clear that some things have not really changed at all.  People have died for a cause who’s banners would be just as relevant today.  A white man can kill a black man and walk free.  We talk about how demographics are shifting to make people of color the majority in this country by 2050; but that kind of binary based demographic still leaves white people as the “norm” or the barometer against which everyone else is measured.   Change…but the same.

Progress…real progress, will mean a time when we are able to look at the world through something other than the binary lens: black/white; gay/straight; male/female; rich/poor; able/disabled.  We will look at each other as hearts and minds and we will look at life and maybe even God as a continuum…a spectrum of experience.  We will have no need for demographics because we will no longer be judging each other.  We will fully embrace our selves as black lesbian disabled Jews and our society will actually not raise an eyebrow when it is asked to embrace us back.

But over all, my point is, this day, in 1963 is when it began.  Certainly others fought hard before and after this date, but it is the one date we can point to when we know that at least 250,000 other people were thinking pretty much the same thing: “we need to do something about this mess.”

Today is also my friend Stacey’s birthday…in fact at the exact moment when those 250,000 people were gathered on the National Mall, when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “I Have a Dream”, while Mahaila Jackson sang “How I Got Over,” Stacey sent her first cry to the heavens.  And although both Mahalia and Dr. King are gone, Stacey is still here and still crying to the heavens, singing jazz.  In 50 years, she has changed of course…as we all have, yet she is the same; just like this country, just like our dreams for justice and equality for all.

So, today, rather than lamenting how much things are the same after 50 years, let’s celebrate what is good about those things that haven’t changed…our basic desire for honesty, humanity and humility; our basic desire for good.  Our need to see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.  Our God given talents and gifts that lift one another up and unite us as one people to declare that we ALL have a dream; and of course the fact that we are still singing jazz.  For without dreams, whether they be great or small, what else do we have to live for?

Happy Birthday Stacey!

History

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with campaign supporters   - VA

Michelle Obama recently traced her white ancestry…

This post is part of a series this week that will honor the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.

– For Kimberlee – 

So the other day, a young black friend of mine posted on her facebook about being African American.  She had been asked “what African?” and of course she doesn’t know what the “African” part was because, as she said, well, she’s African American and we basically don’t have any history of our “African” ancestry.  It got me thinking…it is very, very true.  Many people have been oppressed throughout the history of America (both North and South) and particularly in the history of the United States.  The particular brand of colonialism that gave birth to our nation was pretty much all about standing on the backs of whoever was handy.  But in that history, only Africans were sytematically separated from their history and culture by the oppressing majority.  The Irish immigrants were scoffed at and beaten but were allowed education; the Jews were ghettoized and restricted in their movements but continued to practice their faith; Native Americans were outright slaughtered but they fought to the death maintaining their cultural beliefs and practices.  But Africans were denied their language, their religion, their customs.  In fact Africans were stripped of nearly everything except their usefulness as labor.  Referred to as soulless heathens by white society, the accepted concept of the African slave was that they were brutish blank slates and any “culture” they possessed was worthless.  The result of this is that today, those of us who can identify as “African” American have no idea what that actually means.  We carry the pigment and other physical characteristics, but we are absent of that original culture.

So what does that leave us?

On one level it leaves us with young black people who grew up in this world with no sense of belonging or feeling as if they had something great to aspire to that belongs to them; they’ve assumed that they will always be “the other” and vilified; their only future is in what they “take” from society that is made for and by “the man.”   They live on the margins of society with maybe a glimpse here and there of something called success, only to see it taken away or held just out of reach.

But maybe there’s another way to look at it…

When our “African” history was obscured, and when we were raped and shuffled around and traded like so much grain, true to anything as resilient and old as the human race, we were still fertile…so fertile that even in a place with no soil and no nutrients, we grew.  We grew not just in terms of finding and equaling our education, not just in terms of flourishing creatively, not just in terms of discovering our political and communal strength, not just in terms of evolving spiritually.  We grew as a brand new and unique race with a unique set of potentials that is still waiting for us to acknowledge.  Like jazz music, we were a blend of everything we carried in our genetic code, plus all of the hardship and obstacles put in our way.  Eventually, we had to ignite.  We are not just “African” Americans, we are Native, Irish, German, Spanish, Asian…and we are the only ones who can truly lay claim to being all of those things…the embodiment of the melting pot.  We are the worst nightmare of colonial European cultures that prided themselves on racial “purity”…we are the combination of all of the strongest parts of all of the cultures that have mixed here in the United States; and we are irrepressible.

I had a lovely conversation with a friend recently where we were talking about potential.  We were discussing how some people can look at someone based on one world view and see them as a “waste” of potential.  On the contrary, potential is never wasted.  Potential is a well that is always ready to use.  Each time you access any part of that potential…any time you dip into that unfathomable reservoir of ability, you will pull out something that is far beyond what those with less potential are capable of achieving.  Whether it is Nobel Prize winning diplomacy or cooking dinner.  This is how I view the black American; a people who contain the richness of many cultures, visible in skin and facial features, but also language, faith, creativity, aptitude and a host of unmeasurable gifts.  These aren’t wasted.  They are present and ready to use at any moment in time.  It is simply up to more young black Americans to use them.

The different and distinct cultures that people lift up and identify with so strongly are beautiful and deserve their spectacular place in our modern society; but so does the melting pot “African” American. So to Kimberlee, I say, yes, you may have no idea where your “African” really comes from, but you have something that is completely unique.  Think of yourself as the “Jazz American.”  You can swing and waltz; you can paint and calculate; you are mother and father, child and parent.  You are the dynamic blending of all of cultures that are gathered here as one.  You more than anyone, own this American experience and with it you can change the world.

Un-mugged

Sometimes all it takes is one word to start a conversation.  This is an invitation to start the conversation.

Choose a word, write it on an envelope or similar sized piece of paper, take a picture of your self holding that word like a ‘mug-shot’ and post it to your facebook wall, twitter account or here in my comments.  Share it everywhere you can.  We need these words if we’re ever going to get past the current conversation.

What ONE word would you use to start the conversation about race in America?

Listen - Un-muggedIn the last few days, I have seen people writing and posting about how hurt they are, or how justified they feel; I’ve heard people speak about feeling abandoned and feeling angry and also feeling proud and honored to be American.  My friends sit on both sides of the Zimmerman verdict and I have resisted the urge to unfriend those I disagree with because I believe in dialogue.   But REAL dialogue.  No matter how I feel, I refuse to discuss the case because I was neither victim, accused, judge, jury or witness.  The dialogue we can all legitimately have…and that we NEED to have, is the conversation about race, today in our society.  America has a problem. When communities start destroying their own property because of how impotent they feel in the system and when the media chooses only to talk about that destruction instead of the beautiful way those same communities that have come together to hold and reassure their children that they are safe and loved, we have a problem.  When we start comparing only black and white, not just in skin color, but in actual issues, we have a problem.  When we start whispering how we really feel instead of speaking it aloud, we have a problem.  This is how we know we have reached the end of the silent road, of suspicion and hatred.  This is the end of silence and the beginning, hopefully of millions of voices shouting “let me be heard!”

Why “un-mugged?”  I have spent a lifetime of watching women clutch their purses when they are alone with me on a subway car. I have also (just this weekend) watched someone cross a street because we were the only two coming toward each other.  I have spent 30+ years watching police cars slow down when I’m alone on a street, or follow me when I’m driving.  I am no criminal, no mugger, no thief.  But I have brown skin and dreadlocks and I look young.  I fit a profile.  And although you may think this is something in my imagination, there are millions of black American men who will back me up.  I should never expect to have a “mug-shot” taken of me unless I’m in a protest, but the odds say that my chances of that happening are much higher than any other demographic in the country.  I shouldn’t have to live like that.  I don’t intend to ever see it happen…and neither should you.  This is the only mugshot that will ever be taken of me.  This picture represents my way of eliminating that chance…being ‘un-mugged’.

Let’s get rid of both the racism we endure and the racism we ignore.

Colonial Fool Part I: Are You Being Served?

So, I just have to be cranky for a minute.  This morning when I went into ‘Sweet Inspiration’ cafe in the Castro for a nice cup of tea before meeting with friends for brunch, I experienced something that is unique for black men who frequently have to navigate white worlds.  The gentleman before me was greeted by the counter person with the words, “how can I help you sir?” to which the patron replied with his order.  This customer probably looked to be a fairly typical Castro-ian (35, white, male, decent income…judging by his backpack, etc.) he was wearing tennis shoes and a t-shirt.  When it came my turn for service, I was greeted with “Hey, man…”  As far as I know, I look fairly typical if even a bit affluent as Californians go (shorts…it’s 70 degrees, sunglasses, casual linen shirt) but I do have dreadlocks and brown skin and these I believe are the exclusive reason for not being greeted without any kind of deference of respect.  I was greeted according to my race and not to my status as paying customer.

Why am I cranky?  Because this happens to me every day, everywhere I go…except for black establishments, where I am always greeted as “sir.”  I feel a right to be cranky about this because, for many years, I was in the service industry.  I learned early on, that if I didn’t greet a customer as “sir” or “ma’am”, it would surely show in my tip.  I am greeted this way by both young and old, male and female.  The only consistent thing among these service professionals is that they are all white.  Now, this isn’t everyone.  I think there are some people who have gained a little bit of a clue and realized that by greeting me as “man” or “bro” or “dude” or “blood”, they are not showing me any kind of solidarity.  Instead, they are only showing me the fact that they are aware of my skin color and the history in this country that surrounds my skin color…oh, and their deep rooted fear of being in relationship with me.

I suppose I could be happy to be greeted at all. My parents have shared stories of traveling to the South in the 1950’s and not being served at all.  I have also experienced the “we’re just not going to serve you until you leave” thing in more than one state north of the Mason Dixon.  But somehow I thought we had passed a law against that…

So with this brief blog entry, I will begin a series of pieces all about deconstructing American colonialism.  For me, colonial rule is alive and well.  Not only in white people trying too hard, but in where faith sits in our culture and how it divides us racially and culturally and economically.  Colonialism is also alive in how we continue to purpose women toward sex and procreation.  Colonialism guides us in how we see masculine and feminine and it continues to create systems of “us and them” that began with the decimation of the native peoples of this land. On top of it all, I own part of this way of being; I am at times responsible for perpetuating the legacy of colonialism as any “Taylor the Latte Boy” who calls me “man” or a black woman “sister” or greets Latinos with ‘hola’, etc.  As far as I can tell, more than any other ill in American culture, it is the continued perpetuation of colonial values, ethical priorities, relationships, social definitions and a host of other cultural perversions that stands in the way of our living into the most important value that is espoused by both lofty world thinkers and children everywhere: to be loved.

Therefore, dear ‘Sweet Inspiration’ Barista, cute though you may be, you have a lot to learn.  For although I do identify as a man, I am not your “man” and you can’t relate to me better by assuming a linguistic posture that you think might be “familiar.”

You can call me “sir,” thank you very much.

Kristin Chenoweth singing “Taylor the Latte Boy”