I know that might be a controversial statement considering how often I get variations of “Hello sexy” in my inbox, but it’s the truth: I’m not the cause of a man’s erection.
I’ve known this since the very start of my sexual life and it’s been reinforced over time and validated by in-depth pillow talk and post-sex debriefings, men don’t get hard because of me, but because of their ideas about me. This knowledge became a means of liberation, a way to own my own sexual self and encourage my lovers to do the same.
Erections aren’t about or for me
Whenever I mention this, I inevitably get push back: Some insisting that their man is totally into them, men insisting that they’re totally into me. I’m not necessarily trying to convince them that they’re wrong, they have their experiences – but I have mine as well.
My experience spans decades. I was an early bloomer sexually. Over the 30 or so years I’ve been a sexually aware being, I’ve had more crushes than I can count, a diverse array of experiences and lovers from the sacred to the profane, I became familiar with the saints and the demons within us all. My “body count”, while high compared to most, doesn’t begin to encompass those who have never touched me yet still claimed me as the cause of their erection and/or orgasm. I am no stranger to the cis-male boner.
So understand that when I say this, I speak with the authority of some significant lived experience: Most men don’t get hard because of me.
No, they’re hard because of what they’ve imagined with me, a projected muse in the mind-movies of their fantasies. That’s not to say I don’t play a factor, but it’s detached from who I am. I am a channel of opportunity for their desires whether I want to be or not, whether I asked for it or not, whether they can act on it or not. A proxy, a stand-in for the excitement of potential scenarios, the thrill of fantasy, a vessel for playful imagination. A replaceable cog in the vast, sexual dopamine delivery system.
And yet, I forever get messages that look like this: “But baby, don’t you see how hard I am for you? Don’t you have a few minutes to help a guy out?”
No and No. Your erection isn’t my responsibility.
The contextual causality
It sounds cynical, doesn’t it? But consider, when we rely on the false formulas that all erections equal arousal, we skew some important truths.
I am forever amused when men tell me that I’m the cause of their erection. Nah, boy, I just happened to be present either in your field of vision or a thread in your thoughts when you got one. If I was a mind reader, I’d see that while yes, I happened to be part of the field of stimulus, the erection actually came about due to certain thoughts, memories or physiological experiences. Consider the following real life situations (yes, these actually all happened to me):
Ken is self-described boob guy. He was already half hard on his commute looking at the pretty boob-owners on the bus with him. He opens Twitter, scrolling for photos. A photo of my cleavage is one of many that fueled his lust to full hardness. That predisposition isn’t my doing.
John sees me out of the corner of his eye flirting with the bartender. He notices I have a wedding ring. Boom! He’s hard because he imagines I’m cheating. This story isn’t my creation.
Lucas has been bitter and lonely after a painful break-up. I chat with him in line at the grocery store and laugh at his jokes. He gets hard from feeling validated by an attractive-ish stranger. That role could be filled by anyone.
Maurice has been catching up with his ex online, remembering all the great sex they once had together. I come home from work and he is hard and horny. That desire wasn’t because I suddenly showed up.
Steve is out partying with his buddies and was rejected by my lesbian friend. He drinks until I’m cute, imagining a three-way with my friend until he’s hard. That backhanded compliment isn’t flattering
Damian takes me to see a movie for our first date. There is a heavy gay leather sex scene that hits all of his repressed, sexual buttons. That desire is not at all about me.
Ron is on a class camping trip and has never noticed me before. He wakes up with morning wood and I happen to be somewhere in a 200 foot radius. That wood is most definitely not for me.
Simply put: The boner isn’t because of me. The boner is because of the totality of the situation, the thoughts, the feelings, the memories, which only sometimes have anything to do with me.
The nature of my (role) play
Flirting is a better expression of interest for me. Playful banter that fans the initial, energetic sparks of attraction into some juicy mutual desire. Intellectual, witty wordplay with seductive innuendo. The tension of proximity, of express desire, of shared investment in the potential of sexual fireworks between us. Oh yeah…that’s the good stuff.
Good flirting is an art form. Back when I was in my prime, I was a master at flirtation and seduction. I could see a person’s desires as plain as you read these words here today. Written all over their word choices and body language, I could usually tell their deeper needs and I could tilt the conversation in that direction, adjusting myself to their ongoing display of desires. That is where the magic begins!
An erection is the least persuasive demonstration of desire. It limits my influence to a sexual impulse, a fleeting moment jumbled in with a ton of other thoughts and ideas. And even when it’s pinpointed to something I do or say, it still doesn’t say as much as when someone takes an actual interest in me, in my ideals and expression, in the magic I will actually bring to their world. Reductive, physiological responses aren’t enough – they have to be into ME beyond my cleavage and the sway of my hips.
Instead of wearing the costume of whatever image conjured that erection, their assumptions, their need, their aspirations, I prefer to play myself, not be a stand-in for someone or something else. And when someone only points to their erection as evidence of their attraction, it tells me that they know they don’t bring much else to the table – they treat me superficially becasue they are hiding from the depth I inevitably bring out.
At some point in my life I started recognizing that all spiritual exchange requires just that–an exchange. But when I serve as a placeholder, a meantime girl, a port in any storm, the exchange becomes more like a transaction. I was exhausted from providing more than I was receiving.
This caused me ultimately to stop sexual interaction with men who couldn’t see me, value me or be bothered to try to meet me where I am emotionally. Each message I receive I can usually pinpoint the desires. I can see their needs. And while I know I still have the skill to become exactly what they want, to get them hard for their own release, I am just uninterested in being anything but who I am. I don’t waste my precious energy unless those needs and desires align directly (not vaguely) with my own.
Your erection = your problem
In my world, an erection is only evidence a complex system of physiological and psychological responses to stimuli and thoughts. It isn’t evidence of arousal for me in particular. When men send me photos of their hard-ons, what I see is evidence of arousal from the exhibitionist nature of taking the photo. A photo of a hard dick doesn’t prove what someone actually thinks of me. (One man went so far as to recycle his dick pic photos, always claiming they were due to me in that moment. When I called him out on it he disappeared. Seriously, don’t do this.)
There is a certain freedom, as a woman, to know that a man’s hard-on isn’t because of me; it relieves me of any sense of responsibility or guilt to do something about it. How many times as a teenager did boys try to guilt me into oral sex through the coercive excuse of blue balls? Men have tried to convince me that my mere presence was enough to cause a hard on and then tried to make me responsible for relieving them of the burden of it.
“A person does not need a partner to relieve blue balls through sex. People can get rid of the symptoms by ejaculating through masturbation or by doing a nonarousing activity to distract them.”
Someone once said that I was making a harsh, blanket judgment and making arousal too simplistic. On the contrary, arousal is a beautifully complex and dense array of possibilities. It is just as much a conditioned response to cultural stimuli (racists being turned on by POC due to the forbidden nature of the attraction), as it is to physical attributes (an ass man getting an eyeful of cheerleader butts during halftime). It is memory (“Oh, the last time she did this she gave me a blowjob”) and it is hope (a hint of skin leading to daydreams of more). It comes in so many forms and rarely will there ever be one, singular source of arousal. Arousal is ultimately a magnificent cocktail of stimuli.
I’m simply pragmatic enough to understand that the part that I play in that cocktail is just one flavor of the mixture. I don’t carry the burden to satisfy the thirst completely, only to be who I authentically am in the moment. I get to choose whether he presents a problem worthy enough for me to delight in solving it.
Last week we celebrated National Coming Out Day. I live for celebrating stories of authenticity, courage, and acceptance. But, behind all the love I want to pour out for others on this day there is a tender, bittersweet memory that hangs over me.
It was the same time of year that the choice to come out was stolen from me. Just days before Coming Out Day fourteen years ago I was outed for being #bisexual and #polyamorous by a now-defunct Republican blog.
I cannot understate just how traumatizing it was to lose control over how and when I came out. I didn’t have a chance to approach my family privately. I didn’t have a chance to surround myself with support. On a Friday afternoon at 4pm, I had to deal with it right then and there because a newspaper was already sniffing around for the story. It wasn’t just that I had been outed, it was that they added the false narrative of “a lobbyist who traded sex for votes” to make sure they got the attention they wanted.
Gossip is conditioned humiliation disguised as truth-telling
Eager to make a name for themselves they wanted to expose liberals acting badly. Everyone was fair game, especially elected officials. But I was just a nonprofit advocate quietly blogging in my corner of LiveJournal about my new bisexual and polyamorous journey, a chronicle of those early years of both marriage and motherhood. I didn’t appreciate the gravity of my position or how it might garner unwanted attention. Nor did I account for how much public humiliation had become the official political pastime.
As I was dating, I became downright reckless with my online settings in order to accommodate lovers who didn’t have a LiveJournal, but wanted to see what I wrote about my dates with them. (Yeah, you read that right. My journal was more open to the public in order to appease men who wouldn’t make the effort to follow me. We all make mistakes!). It was low hanging fruit, a salacious glance into my “liberal agenda”, whetting the appetites of conservative strangers locked in an echo chamber of their own sexual repression.
The goal wasn’t just to expose liberals, but to punish them. I was ripe for the picking in 2006 when Amendment 43, a “one man, one woman” constitutional amendment, was on the ballot. They wanted to expose not just the evils of bisexuality and the slippery slope toward polyamory, but liberals as a whole. They couldn’t resist the opportunity to slut shame a young, Democratic woman. When no one took the bait, they invented enticing details constructed entirely from their speculative scrutiny of my life. They wanted a public spectacle, to etch the imagined sins of my private existence onto my skin for all to see.
The truth is far less salacious and far more ironic than the layered embellishments they made up. But, it’s easy to get attention when you wrap the truth in a distortion.
Gossip is about making ourselves feel superior
When you train others in consent and balancing power dynamics for a living, you start to see the micro-aggressions, the small ways in which we tear each other down in order to feel better about ourselves. Gossip is no different. It exerts power and influence to bolster one’s superiority, even passively.
What compels us to expose and share someone else’s story? Who are we to declare ourselves narrator of their life story? What compels us to disguise opinions and empty judgments as facts in order to get the pearl-clutching validation that we want? What is so broken about ourselves that we need to stoop to pulling the rug out from under someone in order to feel better about ourselves? Why are we so intent on making others’ lives our business to the point of punishing them for details that only succeed in making them an avatar of their worst day?
Because we want to punish those who deviate from the norm. We, as a society, have been sold a specific narrative of what we should aspire to be. We have accepted this impossible fairy tale, a two-dimensional image of success, love, happiness, morality. We flatten and distort others’ stories in order for the subtext to tell the story we really want the listener to hear: validation that unlike this person, we are actually normal.
We become desperate for the approval and attention of others. We want to know we’re accepted, that we’re heard, we’re valued. And the less that we see these things in ourselves, the more we draw negative attention to anyone who is “worse” than us. We medicate our fear of rejection, judgment and separation with gossip and passive aggressive communication. Tarnishing others so we appear to shine brighter.
Make no mistake, I was outed by a man, likely one I rejected. A man that now represents the angry, intolerant smallness of men I’ve rejected throughout my life. Men who offered to swing a vote my way if I’d go out to dinner with them, meet them at their hotel room, come back to their car with them. Men who tried to grope me in crowded lobbies or lonely bars after a long day. But this time, I rejected some guy and he were able to exert enough influence to ensure I was adequately punished for it.
We have all done this – spread gossip, whispered in ears, shared private information. Small changes in our tone, our wording, project the image of the story we want someone to hear. We actively contribute to a first draft of an idea that might start with kernels of truth but become embellished with time. The more we let our insecurities play with others’ stories, the more we conjure false realities to soothe and medicate ourselves. These false narratives play on our own fear of judgment and our repugnance to authenticity. The more someone deviates from our expected norms, the more easily we can justify our derision and dehumanization of them.
Gossip distorts our reality to profit off our misery
Remember the days we played “Telephone” in elementary school? You whisper something to the person next to you and it gets passed down the line, whisper to whisper, ear to ear. You start by whispering “I like Ryan because he’s cute when he plays guitar” and by the end of the exercise it becomes “Janet chased Ryan and broke his guitar because he’s cute”. The truth is in there somewhere.
Distortions are inherent in how we communicate, how we listen, speak and describe the world to one another. We miss information and fill in the blanks with whatever our brain conjures as the truth. And sometimes, just sometimes, we intentionally alter one word, one image, one small phrase that tells the listener/reader exactly what WE want them to hear about that person or event.
In deviating from the straight, monogamous norm, I presented an alarming and incongruent reality in their lives – I was living my truth and they weren’t.And when faced with a situation that challenges their reality, exposes their flattened existence, they filled in the blanks to assuage themselves from confronting the depressing default reality they had never questioned before.
The Gossip Establishment, the forces that profit off our desperation to be “normal”, tell us what to think. They snap a photo of a celebrity kissing someone we didn’t expect and we busy ourselves to arrange the scant facts of the story according to whatever will keep our reality intact. We tell the story, filling in blanks influenced a cultural norm of monogamy, for example. Even though we are not actually privy to the details of their romantic life and are sifting through intentionally filtered information, we conclude that they must be cheating!
We project our own feelings onto the situation, crafting a narrative to support our emotional response to this new stimuli. We craft a judgment based on images of what we want to affirm in ourselves. The benefit is that we share the news to the profit of those invested in fueling our lust to prove our normalcy.
Which is what can be so pernicious about gossip. It preys upon the cultural miseries we’ve been fed to snake its way through our relationships, slowly infecting them with anxious judgment and shameful paranoia. It encourages us to overthink, make assumptions, rush to judgment, adopting narratives and stories that help us feel superior to anyone else. We superficially fill a hole that only grows deeper as we punish authenticity expressed outside our norms.
Weaponized Shame: Patriarchy’s Favorite Power Tool
It would be bad enough if it were just privately held distortions, but when we weaponize it with shame, we consistently undervalue the collateral damage it will cause. The Gossip Establishment does not care because so long as we are engaged in examining everyone else’s life, we don’t have to pay attention to examining our own.
My fatal flaw all these years was internalizing the disproportionate hyped-up shame leveled at me by people already predisposed to misunderstand me. It wasn’t that I cared that much about the opinions of those people, I cared about the impact those opinions had on those I worked with, those I advocated for, those that I fell on my sword to protect. While the impact of PTSD, anxiety and depression has at times been overwhelming, it’s nothing compared to the vicarious impact on those I served and loved.
The reverberations of that event are in my face everyday in the weight I gained as emotional armor, the startle response when the phone rings, or my household’s deep aversion to watching the nightly news. I internalized the judgments about my perceived selfishness (“isn’t one man enough for her?”) and culpability (“If you didn’t want to be judged, you shouldn’t have put your information our there.”) continuing my punishment long after those men forgot my name.
It wasn’t until Harvey Weinstein was arrested that I started to see how easily men who follow cynical formulas of privilege are threatened by self-possessed women. They routinely have to lower themselves to manipulate and force an outcome. They tarnish and cajole, coerce and undermine to ensure their superiority, to make the rest of us suffer for their narcissistic wounds. It wasn’t until we had the moment of justice that I started to reclaim my own story.
Liberate Our Authenticity to Reject the Gossip Establishment
Honestly, my story is kind of bad ass. Here is how I have reframed this story to take back the narrative once again:
I was a fiercely compassionate, systemically minded, endearingly hot Chicana do-gooder on a mission to serve as the hands of the goddess. In only my second legislative season, I demonstrated that I could master chaos and make it my bitch through honesty, transparency and love. I took the wild, impossible dreams on our legislative agenda and made them a reality. I owned my sensuality but tempered it with regular re-examinations of my own ethics. I nurtured my family and spoke from the heart. I was a true believer and a lead by example in both politics and in love.
How dare I live such an authentic, substantive, open-hearted life?
When I internalized their victim blaming narratives, their weaponized shame, it corroded my confidence and kept me trapped in cycles of self-loathing and woundedness. It blocked me from seeing that it wasn’t my existence that was the problem, it was that it made them aware of the painful truths they might otherwise avoid. My life made them aware that they were living an empty existence fueled by rage channeled into an obsessive pursuit of “winning”. My openness showed them they were just making excuses for abusive, deceptive behavior to cheat on their significant others. They building a carboard empire that was vulnerable to the faintest whiff of a woman’s fully-deserved success.
All of this makes me wonder how much of our history is just gossip that has been preserved, aggrandized and exaggerated into legend? How much of the stories we tell years later are told to gain the reaction of an invisible audience or control over a real one? How willing are we to consume the worst of others as a balm for the worst in us? How much are we willing to sacrifice to the anticipated rejection of the Gossip Establishment to continue our passive, default lives? How can we tell a new story?
Only when we are willing to see ourselves and each other for the valuable, complex people we really are will we truly be free. We must be willing to let go of the shame narratives that manipulate our sense of self. But in freeing ourselves to recognize the goodness in each other, to witness stories of courage, empowerment, and resilience, we can finally break apart the systems that depend on our collective insecurity and ignorance.
Shine your light, my friends. Celebrate the true you to create a more nurturing world for us all.
Fact: The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is trying to leave the abusive relationship. Expect the abuser to escalate his threats and coercive control tactics to force the abused party to stay.
We are witnessing these tactics first hand in real time for the past four years. Survivors are quite familiar with the ways in which this power hungry lump of a fool will make everything all about him in order to gaslight us into staying. He will get more dangerous, more sinister, more reckless through Election Day. And just like an abuser, he won’t willingly go. He’s throw our stuff to the curb and call the police on us if we don’t comply.
It will likely take force to make him leave. He will never want to let go of his unearned importance and fallow mental real estate he occupies on a daily basis.
Some don’t yet know they’re being abused – and at this point we can’t do it for them. We can’t open their eyes or do their reasoning for them. We just have to make sure the resources are there when they are ready to reject him.
But others are absolutely complicit in allowing this abuse to occur. Those with power who have either said/done nothing or worse, helped him gain more power make excuses for his behavior as they rush around to please his every whim, making him comfortable in his delusions of grandeur. And as such they share responsibility for advancing his abuse tactics on those who are most vulnerable, making his continued presence even more dangerous and ruthless. They had an opportunity to be the grown up in the room and instead they gave him more weapons, more praise, more groveling and more power.
It is beyond time…it will get dangerous…but even more reason to stand united together to get this man out.
There is something so pure about sitting down to the computer, the pad of paper and purging myself of the attachments and expectations in my life. A torrent of words flowing without restraint. The blessed opportunity to be fully free with my expression, my words, my voice.
But for a long time now, my words have seemingly dried up, my voice too parched with anticipated embarrassment to speak. I have plenty of ideas and none of the energy to communicate them appropriately. I keep believing there was some magical time in my life where I didn’t feel that pressure, that potential for rejection, and where I could just pour my heart out.
As nostalgic as I can get, when I look back through my own journals, I now see a clear pattern of memories that remind me that even back then I wasn’t telling my full truth. I was documenting a prepackaged response designed to align with the person I always wanted others to see me as, but not necessarily what my full self truly was or would become.
My life has been a series of self-conscious, half-remembered events that reinforced how neurotically awful of a person I believed I was. I was careful to avoid ever expressing anything that indicated I was anything less than a perfectly faithful, compassionate, and accommodating soul. Even in my obvious struggles to take the high road with the boys who were breaking my heart, I blamed myself. Not misogyny by proxy, but because I believed it was the holy thing that a visionary would be expected to do. Even though I was seeking out deeper truths and meanings, I rarely spoke about my spiritual calling and especially kept very quiet about the sexual component of it. I would only mention it to shame myself for any perceived failures to be a girl worthy of that calling. I wrote, not for myself, not to document the truth, but to set the narrative for the story I wanted to be told instead of the true one that sits in my heart. Yet I still treated that as truth.
For as creepy and paranoid as this sounds, I have always lived my life as if I’m being watched and will be judged throughout. Mindful that someday any of my writings might have an audience who would be critically unkind, I always aimed to demonstrate my self-awareness, my willingness to accept responsibility for my actions and bad deeds. My journals were a companion piece to the sanitized confessions I was making to the priests. As I read through those journals, I could remember the places where my pen hesitated, the specific decision points where I could have given voice to my truth, in my own space, but didn’t. What was important to me, even then, even in the words I used to describe my own experiences and feelings, is that I was portraying myself in accordance to the avatar of a visionary I wanted people to know about me. It was an image that denounced my childish anger and my greedy needs. Hands clasped in prayer (but in a cool way) “Lord, I need nothing from you but clarity. Please give your servant clarity so I don’t mess up everyone’s life”.
I was trying to contain myself in a vision of what I thought people might want from me, instead of admitting and dealing with the actual pain I was feeling. It was another way to justify the sacrifice and suffering.
It is also why I believe the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” is complete bullshit. Even when I thought I was being true to that vision, I wasn’t. I was only hiding my truth from myself, punishing myself for what I lacked instead of celebrating what I had.
I remember one specific journal entry from April 1994, the entry right after I gave my virginity to someone after breaking up with my boyfriend. Not only was I beating myself up about it, but I also understood why it was bothering me: “I guess as an only child who had to be in control all the time, I find it hard to be out of control.”
I was convinced at the time that my feelings were out of control. Staying up late at night worried that my sex drive was out of control. Not only did I believe myself to be selfish and jealous but I was strategic in how I portrayed it. Hesitating as I wrote to choose whether to take the high ground or tell the awful truth. In my mind, I was a flawed, immature, and insecure girl who was chosen, likely by mistake, for a big spiritual calling. I started from a place of unworthiness for such a grand mission that I spent the past 30 years trying to beat myself into submission to become a person worthy of such a demanding role. I modeled myself after others who stood for equity, justice, under an umbrella of divine love. I was brutally honest with myself so that others wouldn’t have to be. I conformed myself to what would most allow others to forgive my inevitable lapses when my human flaws leak out and sour my good intentions. I control the reader’s point of view of me. And so in my expressions, my deeds, everything I said to even myself about who I am was meant to conform to a model that was aspirational at best. A constrained and captured essence of deeper realizations that helped me survive the chaos of my world.
I admit I’m so very confused by the spiritual people who complain about wearing physical masks and yet won’t address the mental ones they continue to wear. Aggressively declaring “Love and Light” as they actively resist attempts to listen to someone else’s truth is as restrictive as face coverings. Just like the ones I wore in my journal. Portraying myself to be all about “love & light”, who was I trying to convince?
“I have sinned so much. Give me the strength to get through the days. Help me see my many failures. Help me trust in you. I will not promise, but I will control myself according to your will. Help cure me of my selfishness, greed, and pride. Let me just fall into your arms. ”
April 13, 1994 (my 16 year old self)
And yet, those words were chosen, deliberately to prove to myself that I was the problem, not the men who were fucking with my heart. I manipulated my own intentions, begging forgiveness instead of demanding apologies, showing how contrite I was for my transgressions even though theirs were worse. God, or Spirit or the Divine, knew the content of my heart just as well as I did, but instead, I was trying to convince myself and the future, the unintended audience of the sincerity of the responsibility I felt to have acted better. I can still feel the rage I was suppressing, the excuses I had to forcefully set aside to defiantly turn a harsh mirror on myself. To prove I could withstand it.
Those restraints on even my own history, my own view of myself are worth seeing in context. I deliberately made myself small so I would never be too big for anyone else, so I wouldn’t exceed the small container of tolerance that I imagined others would give me room to occupy. I deliberately robbed myself of the triumph of all the ways in which I exercised control over that moment in my life, so I could meet the finger-wagging judgments of those who came after me.
I deprived myself of the miracle, the true awakening of womanhood, where I was able to truly choose my sexual expression with someone else. I got to choose how, when and who I was going to give my virginity to, but I also chose why. I chose to a path the showed me an innate power I have. But despite what I remember and felt, the words in my journal barely even hint at the awakening that this was for me. The mask I designed to fool even myself actually diminished the true joy I felt and instead punished me with unearned shame and guilt. A way to fit in to the image I thought I needed to maintain to make everyone else happy with me. The truth was far too expansive than I ever was willing to document or admit; I needed to control the narrative, constrain the truth in order to fit in the small container I restricted myself to.
Part of what I see happening around us is that our illusions of control, the containers that we used to compartmentalize, and thus, the ways in which we think we exercise direct control over our lives, are breaking down. This aligns with these changes of the Tower (that i’ll be posting about in the next two weeks), where our overall systems of power and control, are crumbling past the point of meaningful repair. But even more specifically, whether it be in the jobs we’re doing or communities we’re sharing in, we are starting to feel the squeeze of trying to fit into the containers that once held our lives, or rather the image of our lives, together.
The family feels different now that we’re all working and playing in the same space together in drastically different ways. Work feels different when the office politics are now seen through the unfiltered lens of Zoom. We feel more raw and numb than before, an awareness we hadn’t noticed before. We’re noticing that not only are those masks meaningless, but the ways in which they contain the full complexity of us, reducing us to two-dimensional avatars of ourselves is no longer a comfortable place to live.
So, my promise tonight with this post and all others that come behind it is that I will share more than the mere impression of my truth. I’ll get into the nitpicky, down and dirty truth of my perspective, my experience, my background, and my vision. I’m tired of pleasing audiences who view me through the cracked lenses of their own self-pity or defense mechanisms. Their truth isn’t mine, but I will listen to it nonetheless. Because witnessing the truth in one another is the only way we’ll survive the challenges coming our way. Living in our truth, breaking out fo the containers meant to keep our lives in tidy conformity to the whims of a collective world that is on its last legs.
Today’s hashtag is #NeverForget – tributes to 9/11 flood our feeds. So many Americans have shared what they were doing that day, what their reactions were, how it affected them, how it affected the world around them.
All I can remember is the shock. Pure, unfiltered shock.
My mom was in town to help me choose my wedding dress for my May 2002 wedding. I was babysitting my step-son-to-be (he’s now 23 as much my son as anyone could be!). My husband-to-be was driving back from Utah with his family after attending his grandfather’s funeral, a Pearl Harbor vet. I had just started my first class in my master’s program for public policy. I was excited, full of promise and happily planning out my new life.
The husband-to-be called me from the road early that morning waking me up. “Turn on the TV,” he said, “a plane has hit the World Trade Center.” The words didn’t make sense until I reached for the remote and saw the enormity of what he was trying to tell me.
I screamed to get my mom’s attention, my kid still asleep in his room. She turned on the TV in the living room and gasped. We just couldn’t comprehend what we were seeing. And then, right then the 2nd plane hit. The shock, the magnitude of what we just witnessed was too much to describe. Hearing about the Pentagon and Pennsylvania only added to the confusion and dismay.
I personally didn’t know anyone who died that day, but I know two people that fate chose to save that day. My cousin, who is like a brother to me, worked in that building (and fortunately was at the coast celebrating his son’s 1st birthday). My mother-in-law was supposed to have been there that weekend but she was called out to Utah with the family instead.
And then the waves of grief finally started after I saw people throwing themselves from the building, escaping the fatal onslaught of fire, smoke, and falling debris, my heart broke with a permanence I still can’t fully describe. Empathy for the loneliness and desperation fueled by primal fear and a haunting inevitability. Witnessing someone’s last moments like that over and over – too many to count – so many I will never know the names of. When the kid asked why they were jumping, the tears couldn’t stop. I stood in the shower for 30 minutes just crying, letting the sound of the shower drown out my wailing sobs.
We kept the dress appointment that day because as mom said, we needed something to look forward to in the midst of sorrow. Trying on wedding dresses that day, knowing I made the right choice for the modest wedding of my dreams sounds like the most selfish, self-absorbed thing to do. But it was the only thing that could replenish the outpouring of empathy that was drowning my spirit.
Little did I realize that as an American, my heart would continue to break over and over again in the years since.
9/11 exposed some of America’s deepest vulnerabilities
As Americans, we felt vulnerable, exposed, and indeed, traumatized. We went through a collective mourning period – classes were suspended, we were allowed to be human beings with feelings, at least for a little bit. There was a precious moment of recognition in one another’s eyes about the unspoken horrors we had just witnessed. At the gas station, at the grocery store. For a few days we honored that flicker of recognition in one another.
But our consciousness can only handle so much darkness and trauma before it starts seeping deeper into our system, a quiet code of disquietude flipping switches on a dime, sometimes to protect us, sometimes to manipulate us. It happens in our everyday lives all the time. We swallow the words of the bully until they’re embedded in our system, stopping us from speaking our truth, maneuvering levers to spoil our successes long after the bully is gone. Victimization giving rise of paranoia, distrust, and a new system of “normal”. Our deep underbelly, both in corporate America and in our mundane, empty lives was disrupted by the coordinated and deliberate hatred of others.
It wasn’t long before things started shifting, before we started looking at one another with suspicion. Many were manipulated by lies about weapons of mass destruction. How many of our soldiers carry trauma from this fabricated war? But our vengeance must be served, is the programming we’ve been taught.
The pre-existing rift between left and right began to grow both between and within parties. We saw a growing rise of hate crimes and targeted discrimination against those of Muslim faith and Middle Eastern descent. We allowed compromises to both civil liberties and human dignity in the name of national security. Terrorism added a new violent layer of fatalistic aplomb to our public discourse.
And it has been growing exponentially ever since. We have been fed a steady diet of gradually paranoid narratives, the inspiration porn of populist one-upmanship, tolerance for the most extreme interpretations of the truth. Constantly exposed to provocative images of fear, nefarious gaslighting narratives we soaked up the stories that personalities that justified the weaponized surety of our own private victimizations.
9/11 felt personal
9/11 felt more personal than many things we’ve gone through as a nation. Yes, the rest of the world witnessed it, but we were the victim of a crime so heinous in reality and symbolic in identity that I think we are still uncovering layers of it. Unlike a natural disaster, we were targeted, we were unexpectedly knocked in the gut, costing thousands of innocent lives. Not on the battlefield. We were ambushed at work, on a commute. A normal ordinary day of no true significance other than the date these men collaborated to choose. This wasn’t a distant declaration on foreign soil, this was here, this now, this was personal.
We grew to see shadows in every corner of someone else’s life but failed to expose our own to the light of day. We resisted looking at the ways in which we center ourselves on narratives of pain and struggle but fail to empathize with the pain and struggle of others. We both want our pain recognized and we want it protected. We want someone to witness it, but to do so would be to expose it to the light of our own attention, exposing the uncomfortable depths to which it has embedded itself into our daily world.
The memory of that exposure of our vulnerable underbelly still hurts after all this time in some big and small ways. And in so many ways as a nation, we are still guarding this wound, lashing out at anything, anyone that might threaten us again. We want assurances of our safety and have been willing to even sacrifice one another to have it.
No matter how much we might have progressed and emotionally healed since then, there is a festering wound at the core of our political and cultural life. We all have expressed a deep distrust in the collective will of our nation to move forward together, hypervigilant ideological stubborn wars waged against one another with alarmingly high consequences. Each side battling for control over unwieldy systems that are crumbling under the weight of inequality, failing to deliver on the promises of this nation, the chosen promise on the declaration of inalienable rights.
We think we’re playing at tug-of-war, when in fact, the rubber band holding our planet together is about to snap from the pressure of containing such fiercely repulsive polarities of our illusions of separateness. All to protect ourselves from confronting the collective compassion fatigue we have steadily been experiencing since 9/11. It’s not that we don’t care…it’s that we’ve been through so much unacknowledged, unhealed pain that our capacity to care is overwhelmed by the state of “way too much” always.
I want more than anything for us to we recognize that these vulnerabilities are easier to bear when shared and recognized in our connections with others. We don’t have to understand what someone else has gone through in order to extend empathy and understanding. Instead of adding doubt and denial, we can choose to accept and recognize a shared reality – that we have been through some shit together.
It’s critical, now, more than ever, for us to find and create places for community and connection. Not to gossip and hate on others, but to share lived realities in the comfort of those who get you. More than ever we’re invited to share our truth, to open old wounds, and heal ourselves to save the generations to come.
As we carry forth the memories of this day to the next year, may we find the strength to stand up for one another.
May our lungs be full of the breath of inspiration to speak our truth.
May our minds be clear enough to recognize the truth in one another.
May we each find a pathway to create a better reality than the polarized forces we’re sponsoring today.
May those we choose as leaders prioritize the healing recognition we need and actively choose not to add more trauma to our already overloaded lives.
The rubber band of our uneasy tolerance holding the country together will snap unless we show up with our full integrity, our full honesty, and our full humanity and demand the same from our leaders.
If we can do these things, we will have honored those who died this day, we will have recognized the pain and tears of every mother, father, husband, daughter, or best friend who lost their beautiful love that day. We will have honored the brave rescuers who saved lives and sacrificed themselves in pure selflessness and duty to humanity.
And we will have moved a step closer to bringing us into the resolute safety of truth…the foundation for rebuilding ourselves and our country.
I started law school twenty years ago this week, in the fall of 2000. During that first year, where they program you to “think like a lawyer”, I realized that the practice of law was never going to be compatible with who I am, so I chose to pursue a dual degree with a master’s in public policy.
Our very first class was on the evening of September 10, 2001. The next class, the week after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, our curriculum had changed from learning the details of social and financial norms in policy to a new focus on homeland security and domestic surveillance. The syllabus and readings were changed, guest speakers rescheduled. It was a somber awakening to a new, grim reality.
One of the most useful classes I ever had during that program was “Analytic and Critical Thinking Skills for Public Policy”. We were given a topic to research and for each resource we used to form our opinion, we had to analyze the bias that it provided and journal about how we reacted to discovering that bias. We had to walk through the steps of how we analyzed this information and why we relied on it to form our opinion. We had no choice but to brutally encounter our bias, admitting when we saw a shift in our thinking.
The point was to recognize the how and why of the information we were reading and the policy positions we were taking. I learned how to research funding sources for think tanks, patterns of bias from academic researchers, and truly had to pick apart the logical fallacies of the evidence I used to recommend certain policy positions. Nothing could be taken for granted, especially our own confirmation bias (our tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of our existing viewpoint). And while I am known for my intuitive approach, the scorching scrutiny of real life pubic policy has given me an analytical framework that I continually evaluate and improve upon.
I say this now because over the past several months I’ve seen an alarming influx of misinformation coming across my daily feed. Often it’s positioned as “truth” with wording that often aligns with “do the research” without any guidance for what that might entail or how to navigate the sources found. I often keep an open mind to new information and have a history of changing my position if I find evidence that is compelling or challenging enough. Yet, when I read these theories most of these sources just don’t pass muster for how I professionally analyze information.
Media Literacy Basics
I am grateful that a few of you have reached out to ask my opinion on some of the more concerning and mysterious theories out there. I feel flattered to be seen as the intellectual Dana Scully to your “I want to believe” Fox Mulder. And while I could sit here and tell you what I personally think about each pet theory, my goal is toshare how I do this, so we all become better at drowning out the noise and clarifying the truth.
As part of my heart-centered leadership practice, I help emerging leaders understand how to solicit and evaluate evidence to become stronger, more resilient voices for their communities. However, media literacy is one lesson I am offering free for anyone who comes by here because it’s so important now between COVID19, the election, and climate change, to recognize reliable information. It is important that we’re working from at least a similar set of facts and concepts to create a better world without further victimizing one another. This is my mission.
The last several months have been a whirlwind of activity in my world. I have transitioned from grant writer to business owner, from private visionary to public spiritualist. I didn’t set out to do this, at least not in this way. But sometimes opportunities present themselves and you get that inner knowing that if you don’t say “yes!” that you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. This was the same feeling I had when Warrior and I first got together.
When Warrior and I got together in 2008, I was so overwhelmed by the New Relationship Energy (NRE) that I wanted to step back and refuse the relationship altogether. But in the early days of that romance when Warrior saw so clearly that we were supposed to be together, it was the messages of spiritual ascension, of creating a more loving and sustainable earth, that ultimately convinced me to stay. The divine messages we both received made us throw caution to the wind and hook our fates to one another. We believed so much in a shared mission of raising consciousness that we were willing to endure the ire of anyone in our way to make this vision a reality.
Our spiritual re-union was founded in joy and calm we created together in the midst of pain and trauma. When we got together it opened old wounds for each of our partners and within each other. Many tearful nights were spent agonizing over how we could be together in the midst of all this pain and finding solace in each other’s embrace. Neither of us shrank away from that pain, but neither did we shrink from each other. We found healing joy and we hoped that in celebrating this love we have created together that our partners could likewise participate in that joy eventually. We didn’t ignore the pain that we and others felt, but found a anchor in one another to endure that pain and help them with theirs.
Neither Warrior nor I let ourselves forget the suffering of others. He worked in community mental health treating convinced sex offenders and crisis counseling for 15 years. I represented some of Colorado’s most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness and living with severe disabilities. His clients had to take regular polygraphs to uncover their full sexual history and identify other victims. My clients had to live on $189/mo and navigate complex systems designed to keep them down and out. We both have trauma histories as well, so we both are very attuned to the impact of human suffering, especially when inflicted by unhealed wounds and systemic pressures of inequality. Our spiritual union works because we choose to care about a world beyond our protective bubble and use the bubble to make us stronger to help the world.
Over the past week, I’ve been working on quite a few projects that align with the work I really want to do in the world. From launching a Patreon to recording a Divine Feminine Roundtable, my heart’s calling is taking off in ways I wouldn’t have dared imagine even a year ago, much less 9 years ago when I first started this blog.
Originally, it was a way to transfer my energy away from LiveJournal, to continue writing and share with anyone who might be listening. It was a way to reclaim myself after being outed for using my voice. This journey has been long and difficult, traumatic, and even heartbreaking at times. But it has also given a safe space to stretch out my voice and connect with people in ways that I hope help them feel less alone. It’s given me an opportunity to cultivate a vision and speak deeper truths.
But it’s also noticeable that I don’t post often. Perfectionism often gets in my way, but so has this burgeoning new project of me. So, I’m making a few changes and updates that hopefully will give us additional ways to engage with one another.
Welcome Warrior (aka Ted Morris/AudaciousGrowth)
Yep, the man you’ve read about on my social media posts, my polyamorous partner of 12+ years, is now going to be adding some of his own posts to this blog. Audacious Growth aka Warrior aka Ted Morris will soon be posting his own perspective on the SharpSweetBella blog.
Ted Morris is an experienced therapist, having worked in community mental health systems, working primarily with men engaged with the criminal justice system. He recently launched Audacious Growth, a personal development coaching business specializing in working with men who wish to deprogram toxic beliefs and patterns to more fully integrate the Divine Masculine into their lives.
Here is a video of Ted in action during the June #OneHeartOneEarth summit, presenting about the Shadow Masculine
I can’t think of anyone better suited for this work than Ted. Welcome, my love!
Patreon-Only: Password Protected Posts
You may have noticed that a new category has popped up called “Members Only”. I have made the decision to put some of the more NSFW (Not Safe for Work) or more personally deep or revealing posts behind password protection.
Part of the work I’ve been doing on myself includes holding better boundaries with the outside world. This includes how often the general public gets to access, use, and judge my image and words. There are some posts that are meant for the public, that align with my calling that will always stay public, but to get access to a deeper part of me, I need a way to ensure the safety of that content by ensuring that those who use and view it are more than casually invested in this aspect of me.
The launch of my Patreon campaign seemed a good time to start this process. This level of access is $12 and available to a limited number of patrons. There are other levels of support as well that get access to monthly messages, a community Discord channel and more. All of this contributes to the overall vision I am creating for my business: Rose Connections.
When I started this blog 9 years ago I didn’t have a specific vision of what I wanted it to be. loving the grey areas, the overlapping concepts, and celebrating being present in the flow of life. But I want things to be easy to find – for you and for me. So many categories will become tags and some really big tags will become categories. Most of you won’t notice, but hopefully, if you want more info about a topic, it will become easier to find.
Rose Connections YouTube Channel
Yes, you can now listen to me in addition to reading me on our various forms of media. My new venture focuses on three main tenants I view as the building blocks for creating a better world:
#RadicalReflections These are videos that are about self-reflection, growth, authenticity in truly knowing, and owning your own story. It’s about climbing your own mountain to see the world from a new perspective. You’ll hear me refer to this as “Silver Mountains”
#RelationshipReboot These are videos that discuss how to transform our connections with others. Whether it be professionally or personally, these videos reframe all of our human relationships to be more productive, understanding, and connective. You’ll hear me refer to this as “Rose Gold Flames”
#RadiantResilience These videos focus specifically on the leadership skills and analysis required to leverage our lived experiences into meaningful social change. Embracing vulnerability and humility, recognizing the patterns that have hurt humanity, and encouraging the authenticity of others is how we can create a better world for all.
You will also find a monthly Divine Feminine – Divine Masculine exchange with Ted (posted later today). I will also be posting Trauma-Informed Social Change videos from time to time as well – just my personal commentary on policies, ideas, and trends that highlight this new project of mine.
Looking through old journals tonight, I realized that one year ago today I went on a personal pilgrimage to our mountain cabin in the high country of Colorado. I was actively trying to avoid suicide, too traumatized and exhausted to see straight, too hopeful to completely give in. And what I needed most was a solo journey past the foothills to restore the truth of myself.
I talk often about how I am a Colorado Girl. My dad, who worked his way through college as a fire lookout near Boulder, did his best to try to teach me what he knew about cross-country skiing, building a fire, hiking a 14er (I still haven’t accomplished that – it’s still on the list). And when I had nightmares, which I inevitably did, he would lay on my floor and talk me through visualizing the meadow he and I hiked every year until I fell back asleep.
I spent all of my summers getting dirty in Colorado. I’d spend a week with my grandparents where we’d pick chile peppers from a local farm and I’d spend a week at the cabin exploring old mines and new paths with my parents. These memories are more vivid and memorable than the ones I have of even my friends and teachers, with whom I spent more time. And while I’m not a camper (I have reasons) I could spend all day exploring and soaking in the quiet of my beautiful mountains.
During those summers when I’d have time to wander on my own with my walkman, I’d end up at a specific rock formation on our property that I used to call my Castle. I’d set up my teddy bears, ask them to bring me a pretty stone (rose quartz typically) to show “tribute” and their commitment to being in my kingdom. And yet, I ruled alongside them, taking care of the business that is a human’s prerogative (like travel arrangements) and they took care of their own business (like marriages or bear disputes). My bears and I each ruled our own kingdoms in cooperation and in harmony with one another. And in some ways, that was always the heart of my ideal vision of leadership.
This vision became part of a larger ambition to serve this state, improving the lives of its people. I am so very much in love with this state – the beauty of its diversity, the elegance of its quirks, the passion of its people. I wanted to bring the same harmony that the state provided to me without even trying. I know I can find myself both in my my hometown of Pueblo, which preserves the roots of my public service dreams, and the mountains, which preserves the earthy connection to my freedom-loving soul.
Transformation starts when we decide we are enough
As my life went on, as I went through trials, the idea of the mountains, the appearance of a clear lake against a backdrop of the Rockies, was always a calming force for me. To dip my toes in the cold rush of Boulder Creek, to smell the forest air after a summer monsoon, to be humbled by the vastness of the galaxy laid before you in the purest of night.
A year ago I was on the verge of suicide, a constant battle day after day. The stress, the retraumatization was too much to bear. And while I held a leadership role in our organization, I felt too exhausted, too tapped out to be effective. I stopped taking care of myself, a passive aggressive self-destructive mechanism that added to rather than relieved my misery. Sleep deprivation, one meal a day, and high stakes decisions at work with active, daily reminders of trauma? This dangerous cocktail felt much like the anxious uncertainty, dread, and anger that we see around us today. Where the injustices, the wounds, the betrayals, the disappointments, the dramas became so heavy, so intolerable that I had to burst out of that cage and get above it all.
In a dramatic climax, I left my job, got back into therapy, tuned into an 11:11 spiritual enlightenment call with my friend, Lisa Gunshore, in November and began shedding the perspectives and patterns of the past. And what I noticed more than anything was just how often I was making myself small so that others wouldn’t be hurt by the power of my light.
I was first called to this journey on December 13, 2012. There was a massive shift in my life, an urge, a drive to finally feel worthy of carrying a larger light in the darkness of our world. I was scared, I was small, I was contained. But even then I knew it would be profound.
I am in a period of increased sensitivity to my calling, my purpose but in particular, to the needs of others. My challenge is to become a light, to allow my heart to glow with the gifts I naturally possess. I need to stop shrouding my light, inhibiting my heart. I must trust my own wisdom. And I must trust that my needs are always met.
And while I’ve been steadily leveling up over the years in response to that call, something was always holding me back. A persistent thread of self-denial, of sacrifice, qualities I thought I needed to be a good leader. And yet, when I chose to prioritize my own life, to leave my job, take control over my health, and allow myself the rest my body and mind so desperately needed, my life changed, started to shift dramatically. The potential of my life started to unfold.
My life since November has been like a big, giant rose opening fully for the first time. Even in my wildest dreams I couldn’t imagine what has taken hold.
This rose is unfolding faster than I can keep up with. And I love it. I have never felt so alive and vibrant in all my life.
Accepting the Rose Quartz Crown
On June 25th I celebrated the 3oth anniversary of my calling. And while a post detailing the origins and insights of that calling is certainly in the works, suffice it to say that after 30 years I needed a huge shift like this to still be able to do the work I was called to do. I was resistant for a number of reasons, but the biggest was that the new archetype I was being asked to embrace was that of the Queen.
The Mountain Queen.
I’ve talked about this shift a lot, particularly on Instagram and Twitter, but even back in 2017, when I was fresh in a new job, I could feel the call of this image, I could feel myself inching closer to accepting the crown. But messages about deservingness, embedded deep in my psyche unraveled the opportunities I could have taken to make that a reality.
The image I have in my mind always moves and humbles me. Crowned with rose quartz, I offer a Temple of Acceptance and Unconditional Love. I offer a structure, training that works with the heart instead of against it. I have a rose in the palm of each hand. A white rose in my right palm, representing the Divine Masculine, active, legalista, wit, and knowledge. A luscious red rose spilling out of my left, representing the Divine Feminine, receptive, intuitive, earthen healer. And from my palms, I create a bright pink, crystalline rose, an integration of Masculine & Feminine, a compassionately powerful union. And in this image that shows up in my meditations, this beautiful, pink crystalline rose atop the temple acting as a lighthouse calling seekers to a new home.
I fought myself over this for a long time, feeling unworthy of the role. Feeling too small, too insignificant, too egotistical, too unprepared, too inelegant. And yet, and yet…the signals never stopped, the imagery only grew stronger, the inspiration to reclaim my deservingness became impossible to ignore. I had to be all in or I would continue feeling out of balance forever.
We are all being called to offer our beautiful and unique talents to creating a better world whether we think we’re worthy or not. We are all being called to accept the divine purpose within, and the responsibility we have to give of our true selves, not the ones others told us who we should be. And the only way we can do that is by stripping away the structures within ourselves that have been holding us back. Stripping these away brick by brick, intentionally and compassionately until the true self shines through.
Last week when I was up at the cabin with Warrior, Husband, and my kid to celebrate the 4th of July in some peace and quiet, I was also there to give thanks to the Mountain for always being there for me. For always providing a safe space for me.
As I sat at my Castle settling in for a mediation, my foot slipped and uncovered a cache of rocks that I had collected as a child. Evidence of the tribute I had asked from my stuffed animals. I suddenly laughed out loud. Because I realized in that moment that all this fretting over my purpose was for nothing. For I had been training for this all along. I had set this path into motion from the very beginning.
All this time I felt I was unworthy of a role like the queen, yet when as a kid, I had already been living the exact thing I’m trying to create. What am I fretting for? I just needed to remember Who I Really Am and I could stop being so afraid. I literally asked for and planned for this as a child and now the grown-up me was trying to stop it from happening? Oh hells no. I ended up creating a circle of those stones, to protect the innocence of that vision, the earnestness of that calling, the purity of my intentions to serve others.
That’s when I decided that there was no turning back. When I chose to truly inhabit that space, to accept the Rose Quartz crown being offered to me, the blessings immediately started to flow. It’s been thrilling and so rewarding. The public ownership of my story. Sharing a declaration to the world about Who I Really Am. This unlocked a future that I’m has exceeded all imagination.
By recovering myself, reclaiming my dreams I have been able to become the person I most needed in the midst of my darkness. In embracing my own authenticity, owning my own power, leading with vulnerability, I am living my life in the way I wished I had seen more of growing up. It was only in surrendering to the call of the universe, reconnecting with my soul that I truly found the me that had been there all along.
I am sharing this to say – Shine on, you crazy diamond. Trust in the truth of your vision, in the authenticity of your voice and the magnificence of your vision. Accept the sparkling crown being offered to you and become the person you most needed in the middle of your darkness.
About a month ago, I taught a group of folks about trauma-informed care. During the presentation, I talked about the impact of inter-generational trauma. Specifically, I delved into how racial inequality, food insecurity, and other systemic injustices, such as police harassment stack up to create a traumatic effect. The goal was to get the group to realize how significant the impact of systemic inequality can be on the human system.
And when I spoke those words, in the Zoom chatbox came the phrase “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder” from the only black man in the group of 22. I was floored because it was so poignant, so true, so shockingly accurate. And I was honestly unprepared to be met with such a hauntingly visceral example of one if the most obvious systemic injustices.
This provided the perfect opportunity to touch on the concept of what some schools of thought call “cultural humility”.
Cultural Competency vs. Cultural Humility
Professions that often must deal with “diverse” (read: difficult) often have to take some class, workshop or continuing education course in diversity and inclusion. For many, the result is assumed to be “Cultural Competency”, a mastery of the ins and outs of how to work with diverse populations and workforces. But what “cultural competency” truly has become, is a massive cop-out for a lack of true inter-sectional solutions and equalized outcomes.
As an employer. especially in the social justice and nonprofit sector, the number of times I’d read a cover letter or resume that listed “culturally competent” was about as common as the word “passionate”. It doesn’t really say much to me, so when I’d interview, I would toss them a question or two about “why do you think people are homeless?” and watch as their supposed competency was revealed to actually just be complacency. The judgment and derision, the inability to grasp the systemic problems that contribute to if not directly causes homelessness and poverty were appalling for folks with masters’ level degrees.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with vulnerable populations it is that there is no single-serving, one-size-fits-all knowledge that prepares you for the rich variance in circumstances, stories and attitudes that we will encounter. We must be open, teachable and prepared to realign even our most cherished paradigms to the lived realities of those that we serve.
Of the people I hired or had a hand in hiring, 100% of them had lived experience in the system – such as personal experience with poverty, homelessness or disability or systemic barriers caused by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, For many, their experience included being shoveled to lower paid positions or denied meaningful opportunities for advancement. Of the folks I hired, roughly 40% were black, 45% were white and 15% were Latinx. Within those races & ethnicities, 10% were Queer or Trans (self-identified) and 10% were immigrants and 35% disclosed a disability. I found them each to be highly qualified and worth hiring.
But I’m not going to applaud myself for my hiring practices, because I also know that for all those numbers, I was not always the best boss. I am constantly working through my conflicted feelings with being Chicanx from one side of my family, but wholly white in appearance and privilege from the other side. This often blocked me from seeing how I was using that to talk over others’ experiences or centering myself in discussions of race or bias.
I was a new supervisor, a new leader who was wholly insecure about my worthiness to even be in that seat. That insecurity often played out as arrogance and erratic decision-making which made work life miserable for some of my employees. This contributed to white supremacy in ways I was not even aware of at the time. It’s easier to see now that the stress is no longer clouding my reactions, I can see even more clearly where I still have lots to improve. Devoting sincere energy to better unfuck my own paradigms, dismantling the entanglements I have with white supremacy on levels I might not have seen before is just one way I can fix the impact of my mistakes.
Cultural humility is admitting that I do not have all the answers, that I’m not “competent” and thus, I have more to learn. It is about admitting when my own stupid white-influenced entitlement and pride can get in the way of hearing and seeing someone fully for who they are, letting them have the floor to share their experience without interruption or needing to tell my story. It is about listening, integrating, and implementing that knowledge to shape an even better framework.
So, what does this have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
Where cultural competency says, “You’ve said enough for today”, cultural humility says, “Please tell me more?” One is a constraint, the other an invitation. Competency is a shield to vulnerability whereas humility is an open-hearted embrace of it. And when we are dealing with traumas as deep as racism, for example, where centuries of ancestors are calling out for help, it is a big risk for them to trust us with those soul truths. We must prove our worth for that trust by being open, vulnerable, and willing to be good stewards of that precious fragment of their soul they choose to share with us.
As discussions have accumulated and unraveled online, I see too many white friends and acquaintances declaring “I’m not racist”. Definitively. As if they earned a degree and were granted a ribbon bestowing the title of “World’s Best Ally”. They flaunt it, like it is a settled fact. Except it’s not. It’s an opinion and a woefully incomplete one at that.
They are neither teachable nor rational. Racism is bad, they are good, therefore they aren’t racist. Their lizard brain says “danger! Someone might expose the evil racist we have within and it will make me feel bad about myself”. So they threaten, they point fingers and prove in every meaningful way that being seen as “not racist” means a hell of a lot more to them than the work of actually NOT BEING RACIST.
And when it comes to racism and systemic inequality, we MUST remain teachable and open to learning more. As we encounter more stories, more people who are awakening to this gross level of inequality, as more data surfaces and systemic biases become easier to recognize, we cannot truly say that we are “competent” in knowing how someone’s myriad of cultural experiences have molded them. There are no shortcuts or declarations that we’re done unfucking our own paradigms. We need to listen, learn, integrate, evaluate. Lather, rinse & repeat for the rest of our lives.
Humility requires us to turn the mirror on ourselves
After 2 years as a lobbyist, 3 years negotiating contracts, 5 years as a mediator and 5 years in disability and poverty law, the greatest lesson I learned is that we cannot ever assume anything. People will always surprise us with a lived experience that is counter to what our formal knowledge and personal experience has taught us. And yet, our personal experience isn’t any more valid than that other person’s – unless, we have chosen to value them less for some reason, to assume they are lying or exaggerating. Is that really about them, or it is really about just bolstering our own confirmation bias?
Right now, the most dangerous thing we could do is white-out the lifetimes of experience our black friends, co-workers, neighbors, and celebrities are sharing with us. There is no integrity in indulging our denial, our obstinance, our vanity by denying that we directly benefit from racism. It was codified, allowed, protected and none of us, particularly those of us who are white, are immune from its bloody inheritance. Not only does it dishonor the authenticity of that other person’s story, but it likewise absolves us of the responsibility of learning how to dismantle our own white supremacy to ensure it doesn’t continue.
We must challenge our internal echo chamber that presumes our own innocence and white-as-light purity. We ignore the vulnerability required to recognize, admit and understand our own roles in propping up white supremacy. Our ego resists, clinging desperately to the illusion that “I would never say something racist.”
And yet we do. All the time. Including and especially me.
We try to shift the burden because racism is so distasteful to us and yet, we aren’t the ones bearing our share of the load. We must dig deep to unroot it from the core processes of our own lives because we benefit in some way from this patriarchal, racist system. For all our presumed “cultural competency” we are awfully quick to uphold a system of inherent inequalities to avoid the humility of confronting our own racist attitudes and behaviors. We would rather trust the broken systems, the social and legal contracts of our nation, than fully examine the mortar and bricks that are crumbling under the ethical and moral weight of justice withheld.
I often say that all people want in life is to be heard, seen, and understood. And yet, the ability to do this is entirely dependent on our willingness and skill at setting our own opinions aside for a moment and being present with another person as they tell their story. The humility of that moment, to de-center yourself to listen to another, is where empathy awakens. And as we see things through someone else’s eyes, this is the start of a more transformative, connective and collaborative healing. Only in humility can we find hope.
We cannot survive unless and until us non-black people can humble ourselves enough to listen to the lived experience of black communities that we have silenced and talked over for so long.
Resources for more reading
Want to know how dismantle white supremacy in yourself and these arcane systems? Here are some resources to get you started:
You know me. You always find me at the crossroads. Smoldering sweetness. Transient memory. Dark benevolence.
I have burned with you in the fires; I have resurrected you from the despair. I've held your hand in the depths of your darkness. I've given you light to lift you. I've been here each time you've prayed out loud or cried silently.
Sweet and bold. Powerful and quiet. I will never leave you, my Love.
Blissful and melancholy. Radiant and cursed. Sensual and familiar. Rough and blessed. Vibrant and smooth. I embrace your duality and all the space in between.
Strike at the soul and be consumed within these flames.