Category Archives: Current Events
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:
- Layla Saad: “Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor leads readers through a journey of understanding their white privilege and participation in white supremacy so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on black, indigenous and people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”
- Racial Equality Tools – Compendium of tools, resources, and curriculum for examining white privilege and racial equity.
- Katie Couric, “A Detailed List of Anti-Racism Resources” Books, movies & more
- Showing Up for Racial Justice: 5 Ways White People Can Take Action in Response to White and State-Sanctioned Violence
- HealthLine: Anti-Racism Resources for Parents & Kids
As of today, it has been thirty-nine (39) days since my family started to voluntarily stay-at-home/quarantine. Over a month of social distancing, over a month that some have been unemployed, over two months of pretty serious messages about handwashing. Over a month of no contact delivery, masks, gloves, toilet paper, panic, calm, boredom and more.
And while there are some out there protesting that this social distancing isn’t necessary, there are others who view this as an opportunity to change something about the beliefs and systems that brought us here. At the heart of the conflict lies the fantastical hope that “after all of this is over things will return to normal” vying for media space with the growing number of economic, psychological and health care experts who believe that we need to start getting ourselves ready for a new normal.
In crisis we reach for the familiar to regain a sense of control
It isn’t that I don’t understand the deep, psychological needs for us to have a sense of normalcy in our lives. So many of us have worked hard to develop daily or weekly routines that maximize our efforts toward our most precious or mundane goals. Likewise, those in mental health or substance abuse recovery often rely on routines to aid in managing their symptoms, if even just for the built-in reminders for self-care such as eating and hygiene.
Especially difficult is the timing of this pandemic for those who were preparing for or undergoing major life changes – starting a new job, welcoming a new child, recovering from substance abuse, spiritual awakenings, graduations, taking that vacation you actually deserve, starting a new health regimen, moving on from toxic relationships, etc. Even positive events in our life can be stressful and the support of our various social networks (family, friends, even strangers) can get us through these transitions, reinforcing our confidence and self-esteem.
In particular, for me, I was just emerging from the self-imposed emotional isolation I’ve been battling as a result of vicarious trauma. I was coming back into who I am without all the stress and heartache. I have worked so hard toward a revival of my most authentic self, that the disappointment of continuing to miss in that more public celebration was making question whether or not this was really meant to be. The week we were to start self-isolating, I was supposed to meet three different friends for lunch, drinks or coffee. I was finally starting to show back up in the world and then the quarantine hit. I hid back in my old patterns, shutting down and burrowing into my isolation again.
But as much as I would love to declare, “yes, things will go back to the way they were before”, I join many other observers and experts who believe we will not be going back to normal anytime soon. Many pointing out that we are in the situation we are in because we refused to see that what qualified as “normal” wasn’t actually working for us. Specifically, that the inequality persistent within our systems of health care, labor, and coordinated crisis response were not just insufficient, but unsustainable.
It’s hard not to feel like everything is coming apart, because it is. Not just with our governments, but with ourselves. And even with the best social distancing, handwashing and cheerful masks, many of us feel powerless to do anything to control our own destinies. It’s natural to respond to a crisis by reaching for what’s familiar, what’s comforting and “normal”. We want safety, security and we need to know we will be okay. So it’s natural to want to hold onto the idea that we need to “get back to normal”.
Yet was normal really serving us in our personal lives? How many people suffering from toxic relationship patterns, overwork, under appreciation, oppressive internal beliefs? This crisis has exposed not just our official vulnerabilities but our personal ones as well. A lot of us are facing a dark night of the soul whether we ready or not. The universe is reminding us that while we can love and respect others, we cannot hide from the call to love and respect ourselves.
Even in the midst of uncertainty, there is always room for opportunity
We sit at a critical crossroads, faced with a powerful opportunity to decide how we want to rebuild. If we choose to rebuild exactly as it was before, we risk exposing ourselves to the same wounds we’re suffering now. But we could take this opportunity to let go of those traditions, those beliefs, those systems that no longer serve us.
OR….We could take this opportunity to let go of the traditions, beliefs, and systems that perhaps have worn out their usefulness. Designed for a society without nearly the kind of global reach and interconnectedness we have now, it is up to us to re-imagine the world we actually want instead of the world we are stuck with
Can we dare to dream of a world with more inclusive systems, more equitable values, more empathetic societies, more balanced goals, more healing connections? Is it too much to form the strategies around how we emerge with universal health care or basic income guarantees? Is it too bold to decide to let go of what no longer serves us?
And while many of us are rightfully directing our energy toward ensuring our leaders don’t leave anyone behind with our next steps, we also need to see this opportunity for ourselves. What are we holding onto that is no longer serving us? What toxic patterns have been interrupted because of this pandemic? What baggage are you holding onto that you don’t want to be part of your post-pandemic life?
This is a beautiful and powerful moment for us to take leadership over our own lives so we emerge from this crisis the strong, resilient and radiant people we not only want to be but deserve to be.
It’s the night after Super Tuesday. Supporters of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are drunk with glee and supporters of Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren are processing their sadness. Each camp doing their thing in their own way – some are conducting outreach trying to bring displaced supporters into the fold, others are blaming anyone who dared to not support their candidate, and still, some others are just plain celebrating or mourning.
For what it is worth, I supported Elizabeth Warren in the primary (Castro had been my first pick) and like a good true blue Democrat, I’ve pledged to support the eventual nominee. At the time of this writing, Bloomberg has already dropped out and I’m hearing whispers that Warren might do the same. Yes, I’m disappointed that my candidate didn’t win more delegates, but I’m far more disappointed in the way each candidate’s followers are treating the relative winners and losers of this big political match-up.
And while this message applies to all (hi Republican friends!), tonight I focus almost solely on Democrats. It’s the party that raised and trained me, the party that has inspired and encouraged me. It’s also, right now the party most in danger of eating themselves alive.
I am a lifelong Democrat. I started in 1992, when I wrote a letter to Bill Clinton’s campaign asking some pointed questions about his stance on the environment, education and homosexual rights. I was in 8th grade. When I got to high school, I was involved in the campaign against Amendment 2 and organized around issues affecting our Latinx-majority school in the off years. I was devastated when Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched parties (he warmly responded to the letter I wrote him encouraging me to stay involved to fix things). I was one of the youngest delegates to the 1996 county and 1998 state conventions. I attended a handful of candidate training programs when I once thought about running for office. Over the years, I’ve grown more choosy about which candidates I’ll support; I will prioritize supporting good policymakers over the sparkle of pristine politicians.
Sometimes that means I’m on the losing end of things. And sometimes I actually win! But mostly, I’m used to my candidates of choice losing. I’m used to disappointment when my more progressive choices (Romanoff) don’t win, with a smaller experience of elation when others (Polis) do. I have seen great politicians make horrible policies (or not even care about it at all) and great policy minds lose at politics (because they care too much). I’ve also been blackballed by the party when I dared to work for and share passionate support for education reform. I have seen most aspects of how state and local campaigns work and how easily national campaigns can drown out the message.
The only reason I bring up my background is to remind you, and maybe also myself, that I’ve been a liberal Democrat for most of my life, trained by union leaders and involved in so many aspects of politics and policy to have some lived experience under my belt to evaluate emerging patterns. And what I see now scares me.
Because if we don’t stop inflicting shame on each other, we will never win, much less repair our fractured country.
First, a little about Shame
Shame by definition is a personal and painful emotion, aligning with a sense of failure to live up to some standard or expectation. Once experienced, the feelings of inadequacy can linger within us weighing us down with persistently resistant thoughts and self-judgments.
“Although we often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, those who study these emotions are careful to distinguish them. Guilt is an emotion we feel about a specific behavior, while shame is an emotion we feel about who we are. Shame is a corrosive, destructive emotion that leads us onto the path of self-loathing where, in defense of ourselves and in a desperate struggle to break free of our painful feelings about our self worth, we justify our actions—and our identities—as caused by something or someone else. According to psychologist June Tangney, the more shamed we are, the greater our anger and the less we are able to feel empathy—because we so want to stop the painful feelings of shame that we realign our perceptions of the world so that we are not ashamed. It’s not our fault. We aren’t bad people. Everyone does it. We had no choice. Others made us do it. The process is called cognitive dissonance—our ability to distance ourselves from our pain by altering the way we perceive the people and events surrounding it.”Dr. Janice Harper, “Bullying, Mobbing and the Role of Shame” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-bullying/201309/bullying-mobbing-and-the-role-shame) (Emphasis added).
And while experiencing this emotion may be inevitable, inflicting it on others is entirely optional.
Using shame as a weapon isn’t at all a new concept. It has happened throughout history and even in our everyday lives:
- The co-worker who sneers at our new haircut.
- The parent who tells us we’re “not good enough”.
- The boyfriend who fat-shames us into dieting.
- The wife who calls our fetish “disgusting”.
Regardless of whether the expectation was expressed or not, whether someone said something mean or something nice, our exposure to conditions that inspire shame is a chronic experience for us all. And while shame can occur from really innocent things such as forgetting someone’s birthday, I’m fairly certain almost all of us can recall a time when another human passed along their own pain to us through shaming words and actions.
Public humiliation. Abandonment. Rejection. Mockery.
The best way I can describe weaponized shame is self-loathing inflicted by third parties. And to distinguish from bullying for my purposes, I’m focusing on using hostile means (shame) to reach a righteous outcome (get your candidate to win). It has become more than just a strategy, it’s become the currency of our current debates. It’s so familiar, we hardly even recognize it.
Face it, even with the best of parents, we’ve all experienced what it feels like for someone else to go out of their way to make us feel small. Even if our first moments of shame weren’t inflicted by parents (“You should be ashamed of yourself” after some minor transgression), it was likely inflicted by peers in school (“Smelly Suzie” taunts in the schoolyard) and even teachers or coaches (“Well, Jonny, are you happy now? Now the whole class loses the pizza party because of you“). It continues through adolescence when our first crushes reject us (“eww…who would want to be seen with you?“) and throughout our college lives (“Alpha Cow Omega” instead of Alpha Chi Omega) and into our workplaces (“If you can’t handle that client, .that sounds like a you problem. No one else had had an issue“)
For folks with anxiety or depression, for example, shame is particularly tortuous since we already worry about what others think of us. Hearing and reading those comments directed at us only amplifies those fears and gives them a face, a voice.
When I was outed by a small GOP gossip blog, I only had read a handful of comments about me before I started having panic attacks. One mused how much he might pay for a blowjob, several called me fat. But the one that detailed why my kids should be taken away from me sent me over the edge. The idea of losing my kids was terrifying and I couldn’t bear to read the rest. I shut down my life, I stopped going out, I stopped actively engaging in politics. I felt radioactive, only reinforced by the abandonment of my friends in the party elite. The experience of being so publicly ridiculed, dismissed, mocked, and scorned for being who I am was enough to drive me toward suicide as a last resort. And while I’m grateful I stopped myself, the experience is a major source of PTSD for me, a source of nightmares and one of the biggest reasons I’ve held myself back for so long.
Whether purposely or carelessly, when we choose harmful words, a disciplinarian tone, a rageful attack, make no mistake, the intention whether realized or not, is to make the person pay for their opinion with shame. Our pain, our hurt is so justified, so great that we have to make sure others have to suffer too. Our pride, our egos, our decisions are superior and thus we must righteously defend ourselves whenever they’re under perceived attack. And any mistake, no matter how small, will not escape our scrutiny. We will pile on until they acquiesce or leave public life entirely.
Because I left public life, outed for my “liberal agenda”, my persistence, my presence, and my insight also were absent from public life. So was my passion to bring people together. So was my energy for canvassing and phone banking. That one act of weaponized shame (by what I now suspect was an intern out to make a name for himself), not only removed me from politics entirely, it removed what some thought was a valuable voice from our party.
I stopped showing up because it was no longer safe to stand tall in myself.
We can’t win if people don’t show up.
And there is the problem, when we shame, when we destroy, when we wield punishment as if we have some authority to pass ultimate judgment, all we are doing is hazing others because someone hurt us. I was hurt, so you should hurt too. “Only the strong survive” is all well and fine, except with the 2020 election, we actually need everyone to show up. Not just those who can endure our punishment, but those who we’ve estranged as a result of it.
When we inflict shame on others, all we are doing to spreading the pain around, not to heal it, but to maximize its blast radius, to make the people like those who hurt us feel the same pain. Weaponizing shame by pushing people into a corner so we can control their thoughts, feelings, and decisions is abusive AF. Just another bully living out their revenge fantasies by proxy – since the candidate has no idea we’re doing this on their behalf. Controlling others, manipulating people into feeling shame and guilt might give us a temporary surge of power, but won’t change anyone’s mind. When we punish people for not meeting our expectations, we are telling them that we’re in control, we decide who gets in or out and we can destroy you if you step out of line.
Isn’t that exactly what we say we’re fighting against?
This has happened forever in party politics, but with social media has just grown louder, more persistent and with better documentation. We have the receipts now. So we can keep this going on forever. We can schedule tweets to piss you off hourly. We can post evidence of your mistakes and faux pax on Reddit and pop some popcorn as we watch them burn you. We can stalk, harass and pressure even more than before. Because we have to win, so the ends justify the means, right?
Bullying is bulling, no matter what cause we’ve attached ourselves to.
After a while, people are going to tire of the targeted shame and harassment, the inherited pain and collateral damage and will just stop showing up. Our democracy and indeed the entire Democratic agenda of defeating Trump depends on us being able to unify in large numbers against this rising tide of hatred.
And to do that we need people to show up!
If we want to be the voice of inclusion in this election, we have to live it.
In an era where we are challenged to come together to address collective and global crises (Coronavirus and climate change, for example), we are so distracted by our worst impulses and fears that we likewise succumb to our lowest selves. We classify our opponents and critics as “haters” or the “enemy”. We paint them with a wide brush and feed them hatred hyperbole for breakfast. And we feel satisfied like we’ve done the world, and our candidate a favor because we put the other guy’s supporters in their place.
“Guess what? That wasn’t your job, jackass,” says the universe.
We were supposed to bring people to the Bernie/Biden/Warren/Bloomberg party, not set them on fire because they didn’t show up to ours right away. We were supposed to persuade people to join our cause, not push them further away when they voiced concerns. We were supposed to sow seeds of growth for our vision of the party, not destroy everyone else’s.
We are far too quick to inflict emotional pain, and far too slow to listen and keep our mouths and keyboards shut. I have been dismayed at how easily we resort to belittling, mocking and bullying behavior. We push the boundaries of dignity and make veiled threats and jump to slurred half-cocked conclusions. But more than anything, we are damaging our own credibility – how can we say we’re for diversity if all we’re doing it shouting down anyone who expresses a different idea or priority?
But more than anything, we are damaging our democracy.
Democracy relies in no small part on the cooperation and trust of others. In a functioning republic, the representative democracy that we have, we elect people to faithfully represent our interests and work together toward the good of the nation. In my experience, trust and cooperation are necessary components for success. And because there will always be more than one way to solve a problem, more than one opinion about what to do, and more than a few feathers that are ruffled no matter which decision is made, we have to have something to anchor us in our collective purpose. Thus, we recognize and accept that to resolve conflicts and failures of trust and cooperation inherent in bringing disparate parties together for the good of the nation, we agree to be governed by a core set of rules and values and we put our trust in that.
We have opponents, we have rivals and even sometimes a nemesis might persist, but we are not enemies. We all are governed by the same rules, participate in the same systems, but have differences in how we experience those, augmented by the very authentic differences that make us so damn shiny – our identities, our communities, our lived experiences, faith, values and so much more. We each have a reason to shine and our political success should not depend on suppressing that authenticity but harmonizing it. That’s sort of the beauty of being a nation based on the core freedoms we’ve identified – we have such an array of experience, backgrounds, and insights that we have all the tools we need to succeed. Together.
Except we don’t want to be together. Because, as we all learned in school, group projects are hard. We get frustrated when we’re not heard. We hate when people don’t pull their weight. Our ego gets bruised when the group decides on something different. We have such poor conflict management skills as a society, that we would rather seal ourselves away in our echo chambers that we wouldn’t recognize a good idea unless and until it pierces that sacred space. We burrow ourselves in our false sense of righteousness and punish anyone who tries to share their insights. And so we shame, we belittle, we mock, we antagonize, we point fingers and call names.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t call out racism and sexism when we see it or that we shouldn’t correct ableism or transphobia when it shows up. We absolutely should call that out. Generational patterns of unhealed trauma and systemic violence has heaped a ton of unbearable shame onto communities that are righteously and gloriously fighting back. But that well of strength and energy are not self-replenishing. And sometimes, we need to tap into the talents of others who can either help us build a bridge or enforce our boundaries. We are not in this alone, which is sort of the beauty of it all Others feel the same, but have different talents, different stressors, different tolerance levels. Not everything needs our control or input.
Right now, our passion for our causes and candidates has caused us to take a weed whacker to the whole garden, cutting down all the new growth and ideas that we were cultivating. And with the amount of invincible ignorance we encounter, sometimes it feels like we’re playing a neverending game of whack-a-troll. We are only human – it is okay to step back, put the spade and shovel down and let nature take its course.
We can plant the seeds, nurture the message, leaving some room for the light to get in, pulling out the weeds of shame and fake news when they threaten the growth of a better world.
You can’t fight darkness with darkness. Limiting access to only those who have the perfect point of view, the right ideas, and the right opinions only serve to further exploit and marginalize others. By limiting the voices at the table, forcing them into lockstep with us, we are in danger of becoming the very opposite of what we say we’re here to do. We blur facts and with opinions, problems with solutions, feeling with reason until there’s so much dissonance that people start dropping out.
This is literally the opposite of what we want.
If we want to win, people have got to feel welcomed enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel valued enough to show up & grow.
If we want to win, people have to feel safe enough to show up & grow.
Shame threatens to remove some of our most vulnerable, valuable and marginalized voices from the conversation, thus removing our greatest chance of a solution. So if we are serious about winning, serious about repairing our nation and our earth we have to be in this together. We cannot afford for anyone to be left behind.
Since I now have some time on my hands, I’ve been going through all my various writing projects. Shortly after my son was born, 16 years ago, I started an online blog at LiveJournal. As I’m evaluating all of my current projects, I’m starting to look at some of my past ones. I think to get past the cringe factor, I need to spend a little bit of time with my past self so my future self has a better idea of where she’s headed.
I only intend to share the more relevant tidbits, the ones that have insight or perspective that is worth sharing. So, consider this a Rewind back to a more innocent time, a younger me, hopefully with some new insight and wisdom.
January 11, 2004
So, this year I am in the process of completing my master’s degree in public policy. As one of the requirements, I am taking a class that teaches us how to discern the bullshit from the real good policy information. While I believe this class should be absolutely essential to anyone who wishes to engage in public policy, it is interesting how many students in the class couldn’t be less interested.
Most of the students in the class need to wake up and inform themselves. Many of them have lived out their public lives under the impression that their view of the world is the right one–the only valid viewpoint. Most of them have entered public policy with the intention of conforming the world to their version of reality, not adapting the world to match the lived reality of others.
Most of them lack vision of any depth and even worse many of them will one day wield power and will become the rule-makers. They will have ignorance in their arsenals and hatred at their sides. So how can a class teach them to become enlightened individuals? Most of them reject the very notion of reason and instead cling to some far off belief system that has no basis in fact. Most of them live in this second level of reality which is only one step above pure ignorance. They can rattle off statistics to bolster their cause, but they have yet to answer whether it is a cause worth fighting for. We’ll see what this quarter brings.
Which brings me to another question–if someday I am to become a policymaker and shaker, how should I incorporate my knowledge and love of counter-culture in my policy considerations?
Where I am 15 years later
It’s jarring to think of where we are now. Where we are with “fake news” and climate change. Where are with what counts as leadership and what counts as outrage. Too many of us have been trying to make the world conform to our personal point of view, instead of taking the opportunity to see how the world is (or isn’t) working for others. Seeing what makes them successful, what stands in their way.
I have always felt out of place in the world. I don’t see things the way that others do, nor am I eager to learn how things have always been done. When I see the world not working for people of color, for survivors of trauma, for members of the LGBTQ+ community, for immigrants and educators, for public servants and nonproits…I feel justified in my resistence to conformity. When I see people bend public policy to suit their will, instead of creating it to be responsive to the needs of the people served, then I know it’s just an exercise of ego.
But ego is killing us right now. Our pursuit of the temporary glories of soundbites and ,ikes carry far greater consequences than we allow ourselves to imagine. We focus so much on the micro that we’re never questioning the macro. What is worth our time and attention, our collective consequence and action?
Since I was a teenager I’ve gotten into the habit of not giving much weight to compliments. I don’t absorb them easily, don’t take them seriously and I try to avoid a lot of situations that would result in ever receiving them. As I age, now in my 40’s, I give them even less attention than I did when I was younger. I have fallen into a habit of dismissing them as useless noise in otherwise great conversations.
It’s no understatement to say that I don’t accept compliments very well. Whether it’s my intellect, my beauty or my impact, I’m very reluctant to accept positive feedback about myself no matter who it comes from. But when I receive romantic or sexual compliments, particularly from men, my reluctance turns to suspicion.
The men who came before you ruined it.
My first job was at an ice arena in the 90’s. For a while I was the only female under the age of 50 who worked there, so most days, I was working with 3-5 men at any given time. When I wasn’t on the ice or behind skate rental doing my homework I was shooting the shit with the guys.
Leaving alone some of the more unsavory and illegal aspects of that job (the sexual harassment & uncompensated hours), every afternoon, when the rink was closed and we were between events, we sat in the box office or my boss’ office and talked about everything. I felt accepted in a way that I didn’t with others. The geeky boys at school rejected me, the jocks ignored me, the smart guys were weirdly protective over me and the beautiful boys didn’t know I existed. Not only were these guys paying attention to me, but they were giving me advice, insider information on how to attract guys.
My sexual education mostly had consisted of Catholic judgment tempered by access to a library with loads of books about puberty and sex. But even though I had resources I felt like a freak for my bisexual desires, the frequency of masturbation, the obsession over wanting to show off my body. I was able to contain the freak enough to date, to learn from the boys that I was with, but most of those messages revolved around seeking the approval of men.
Navigating Toxic Masculinity
So during those times at work I fancied myself a spy who had been given a glimpse into a deeper thread of masculinity. I gained access to the spaces where sexually dysfunctional assumptions are embedded in deep currents of shame. I knew even back then that these men were wearing masks to impress each other. Yet they were playing a game designed so that none of them would ever really win. I knew that a lot of them felt pressure to brag and boast, to put up walls and hide their needs with a well-placed wink at their friends.
I also saw the men underneath. The ones who really wanted a happier relationship, the ones who were working through issues of self-worth and managing stunted independence. I eventually got to see the vulnerability, sometimes more acutely than their wives or girlfriends – because after a while, they forgot that I was a spy and they considered me one of them.
And while all of that would be ample reason to not trust their advice about boys, I was working from a skewed sense of self, insecurities run amok. Specifically, I paid attention to their strategies behind compliments. They taught me their code for how they talk about women and how to get what they wanted from women:
- Tell a smart girl she’s pretty
- Tell a pretty girl she’s smart
- Beautiful – when you want her to fall for you.
- Gorgeous – to keep her attention or get out of trouble.
- Cute – girl next door that you want to fuck but might have to play the friend zone for a while before you can.
- Hot – to get her to act sluttier.
- Sexy – the more breathless you say it, the more she’ll want to please you.
- Nice/sweet – clingy woman who you’re trying to gently let down.
All of these strategies and definitions overlapped to a certain extent and varied from person to person. But the lesson was clear – compliments were manipulations used to reinforce desired results.
From there I always had reason to doubt the sincerity of the compliments I received. I developed a deliberate response system, using this code to uncover hidden intentions and build strategies of my own. I started seeing through the strategic use of eye contact when told I’m “gorgeous”. I could hear the impatient expectation hidden in their voice when told I’m “hot”. Poems and platitudes dismissed over and over. It’s all bullshit, packaged and sold as smooth seduction and I wasn’t going to get emotionally drawn into the value of the compliment.
I got to the point where I could anticipate each compliment through seeing the corresponding intention. I could easily weave through the different road signs and guideposts, avoiding pitfalls of falling for just any guy who called me beautiful. I modeled the frankness about sex that I wanted for myself. If I wanted to date someone, if I wanted to have sex with them, I just told them. No pretense, no seduction by compliment; I would just call it out. It didn’t always work in my favor – definitely got turned down a lot, but at least it was honest.
Expect and deflect.
Sincerity plants seeds of growth
Eventually and especially after going through sexual trauma, any compliment became seen as dangerous, a potential manipulation I had to guard against. And while I was only trying to keep myself from getting hurt, I know that this was also hurting those who really just wanted to connect with me by expressing their interest. I’m honestly ashamed to think of all the really wonderful people who I’ve rejected because of the advice of these men.
I wish I could go back to the girl I was and tell her that the real lesson to take from the guys at the rink was how to discern insincerity from genuine interest. To notice that the way they treated women was more reflective of how they treated themselves. They manipulated because they were constantly wearing a mask that denied them the experience of connection. It was easier to define women and pussy as grotesque and mysterious than it was to admit that the 4 minute fucks they were hustling weren’t impressing anyone.
I would tell her that the people she would most value in her life, who would rock her world sexually and spiritually, would all have one quality in common:
An open heart, an open mind will always be the epitome of sexy for me.
Whether it’s maturity or confidence, I know myself better than I did back then. I still have insecurities, but I no longer allow them to decide how I feel about myself or what boundaries matter to me. I simply don’t have time to waste on those who offer half-truths and generic innuendos. Nor do I care about the opinions of those who bring nothing but their desperate emptiness, no matter how much they try to hide it behind compliments.
I am most strongly attracted to those who are genuine within themselves. I care most about those who express empathy and even simple curiosity. Those who act consistently to express their own truth in a way that connects, rather than destroys. Sincerity always contributes more energy than it drains. And those who embrace their truth, no matter how ugly or damaged they feel it is, these are the people I want to know. These are the people I want to share myself with. And fuck, sincerity is just so damn sexy.
Manipulation doesn’t have the power to change someone. At best, it temporarily deprives them of the ability to make a conscious choice. Manipulations are the tools of the weak, those who can’t stand on their own with confidence. Yet, compliments shared from a sincere heart are hard to ignore, kind of impossible to dodge. Once a sincere person shares their truth, it plants a seed of connection that give us new life, new energy, a change for the better.
Sincerity forces us to take off the mask and be seen for our honest selves. It is vulnerable and intimidating for certain, but it is entirely what our world needs more of right now.
We all have our heroes. The people we look up to and who give us inspiration when times are tough. All of us have a mix of personal, professional, real & fictional heroes that are part of our lives. And this week one of my first heroes hits the big screen to fill the void of women’s voices in superhero fandom. In honor of Wonder Woman finally getting her own movie (and at that it appears a movie worthy of such an icon) consider this an ode, a love letter of all the reasons why this particular icon is my first and my favorite.
I’ve been a fan of Wonder Woman for as long as I can remember, dating back to at least 4 years old. Back then we had comics and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. I was too young back then to pay much attention to the story line, to know the patriarchal evils she was truly fighting. All I knew in those early years is that she was a woman who was beautiful, powerful, honest and looked a lot like me with her dark hair and light skin. She was the earliest pop culture example of the type of woman I wanted to grow up to be.
Wonder Woman also fits in to some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories.
I was raised by mostly the Mexican half of my family both in tradition and in frequency and depth of connection. Every summer I would usually spend a week with my grandparents in a small rural community north of Denver. During the day I’d go to my grandma’s prayer group with her or join my grandpa at the library. At night, I’d get to play dress up after dinner and the evening news. Sometimes grandma and I would play cops & robbers or I’d dress up like a queen and we’d have a tea party.
But the fondest memory i will always have is when my grandpa, a tough, well-read and witty state patrolman, made me a golden lasso, a crown and bracelets just like my beloved Wonder Woman. He had spent the day cutting out the forms from cardboard and painting them to match Wonder Woman’s costume from the TV show which I would watch religiously on syndication every afternoon. When dinner was over and the dishes had been done, he came upstairs and presented me with my very own Wonder Woman gear to wear for that night’s dress up. It is still one of the best gifts I have ever received and one I wish I had been able to keep to show my kids.
Dawning Awareness & Adolescence
It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that I identify as a geek. I grew up on comic books, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was a child of the 80’s where our popular culture started moving from B-movie sci-fi to a more pronounced market for nerddom. Dungeons & Dragons, Goonies, Thundercats and Revenge of the Nerds gave us a language to start uniting our nerd culture. Technology was about to make it much easier to find our people, to find communities of people who enjoy the same things as we do.
This was also the time that I was just starting to wake up to sex. I was an early bloomer (I grew out of training bras by 5th grade). And as the boys teased me and girls started to exclude me and make me the butt of their jokes, I clung to my traditions of sci-fi, comics and fantasy. I hollowed out a place for myself locked between childhood and adulthood. A place where I acted out fantasies with my Jem dolls, where the Misfits were sly seductresses tempting our heroes into sin. A place where I imagined Q could make me do anything he wished.
But even here, Wonder Woman still had an influence. It only took a few comics to realize that there is a trend of her always getting tied up. One comic in particular, Issue 296 (“Mind Games”), features General Electric forcing Wonder Woman to play along with a mind control video game. And oh god, this image still gets to me. The force by which the villain is trying to control her and yet, she still overcomes and is able to reject his desire to enslave her to his will. And yet, that force, the bondage, the temporary overpowering of someone’s will was the first time I remember ever being turned on.
It’s 9:45 pm here on October 11th. I got home late and am making an ambitious (for me) dinner of shepherd’s pie. So as I wait, I think back on another marginally bad day. It wasn’t horrible, it just was angsty. And most of the angst was mine. I was impatient, unorganized, forgetful and foggy all day. And it wasn’t until later in the workday, when I was beyond the point of salvaging it that I finally realized why I was so on edge.
Today was National Coming Out Day
For the past 10 years I’ve been flirting with various forms of outness, to varying degrees. And to the point where I’m essentially out to everyone except extended family. Even professionally to some degree it’s been know how I identify. Especially over the past year or so I’ve become far more comfortable with being out.
But today it was scary and triggery. It brought back memories of a workday interrupted by a call from a friend telling me that a website had posted my online journal and that it was circulating. It brought me back to the pacing through the hallways going mad from the ringing of the phone. It brought me back to 8 months of unemployment and 10 years of trying to scrape my way back to believing that I deserved to make an earning even close to what I was making before. It brought me back to the rumors, the panic attacks during the news, the fear, the cowardice, the ignorance, the victimhood and the punishment. It brought me back to a night where I was as close to suicide as I’ll ever get and breaking down to ask for help before I could finish the act.
I didn’t come out on Facebook today like I had wanted to. I have family who, as well intentioned and loving as they are, tend to call my parents over ever minor quip I post. As much as I love my parents, my coming out isn’t worth them having to field phone calls from worried family members and well-intentioned, but clueless friends. The choice to come out is mine and not theirs.
So, instead, I came out on Twitter, reminding all 686 followers of who I am.
Those things are some of the easier to identify things about me. It’s what most people care about when they talk about coming out. But identity is such a rich and powerful blend of concepts, stories, and aspirations that simply saying I’m bisexual, polyamorous, kinky, queer, Chicana, femme, Mother, wife, lover, educator, lawyer, spiritual and geek is just a superficial part of the story. Some of it is the sensational part of the story because ooooh—bi, poly and kinky–that’s out there. But it’s just scratching the surface.
There are other aspects of identity that go beyond the census items of nationality (American), race/ethnicity or income. There are the aspects of self that evolve over time but create the refinements of self that truly identify us closer to our core. Those aspects of ourselves are just as precious and vulnerable, worthy of being spoken as personal truths.
So tonight, I define more of who I am. Coming out as the woman I truly am at heart:
I am a public servant. I have always been drawn to government, politics, and the business of policymaking. But moire than anything I have been drawn to a life of being in service to the public in some capacity or another. Right now I provide direct services through a nonprofit,. but in the past, I’ve served in capacities that were more about the public good than my own advancement.
I am half white and half Mexican but identify as Chicana. This is very important for me to distinguish. I love both of my families, but the Mexican half of my family was the most influential in my upbringing. My dad’s family valued education but watching my Mexican grandparents’ pride when my mom earned her master’s struck a chord with me. It told me the legacy that was going to be passed to me to build upon. It is a responsibility that I take seriously. My father’s family is full of intelligence, accomplishment, and distinction–my role with them is less to carry on their legacy and more to just not fuck it up. But what I accomplish for the Mexican side of my family, like a law degree, creates a path for others to follow. I’ve already helped one family member with his law school application and LSAT prep. We rise together.
That said, I am also very privileged. Because my last name is white, my skin is light and freckled and my hair turning gray faster than my more indigenous parts of the family, I’m a dead ringer for your standard, run-of-the-mill white girl. That’s not what I feel inside and so I get somewhat defensive during conversations about race. I am so eager to relate to people that I end up ignoring my privilege, the same privilege that makes it easier for me to be heard. It has been an uphill battle for me to remember that my story isn’t more important than anyone else’s, particularly those who don’t get the benefits that come with passing for white, cis, het and able bodied.
I am bisexual and married to a man. So another privilege I carry is that I at least am always perceived as heterosexual. I’m not, of course, and that’s where some mental health issues come into play for many of us–being misidentified, ignored and rebuked within the LGBTQ community (mostly getting derision from the Ls and Gs) creates an insidious amount of hardship as we try to navigate our way through the world.
I am bisexual and I have known it since I was 12. But to the outside world, I had a fairy tale wedding and lived happily ever after. And while I love my husband dearly, part of why I love him is that he’s never had an issue with me living my life as fully as I am able. He’s always given me support and encouragement, to pursue what makes me happy–including exploring my attraction to women and non-binary/gender nonconforming folk. Ultimately this is aided immensely by being polyamorous–we negotiate the terms of our marriage and it decidedly doesn’t look at all like the heteronormative ideal. And I am happier for it.
Finally, I’m coming out as a visionary within the Catholic meaning of the term. Again, from the age of 12, I believe I was called to something powerful. This calling initially spoke to me through the images and rituals of the Catholic faith–I was strong in my devotion to the Church at the time (see, I still capitalize it). But as I grew into the woman I am, I recognized that Catholicism at its core no longer fit with the calling that I was given. It was just too large for such a narrowly-defined faith structure. So, I departed from the Church. I still miss it sometimes–going to Mass and adoration, praying the rosary, the cleansing I’d feel after confession. It is like my hometown. I’ll always have a connection to it. It’s part of my story. But it’s not where I choose to live now–I have moved on. My calling is what matters most to me, not ascribing to any one issue of faith.
With all of that said, I have an update on the shepherd’s pie: I burned myself making it last night which is why this is posted late. i’m doing better today–but I guess I also need to add clumsy to the list of identities that I have.
Earlier tonight a friend of mine posted this article criticizing the #FeeltheBern fervor drowning out all of those Hillary supporters who are just as passionate about their candidate.
I took an hour to pen the following response while my kid waited patiently for supper. I decided to post it here because I needed a place to expand on these ideas that I have felt too inhibited from proclaiming to a wider audience. In the 10 years since the event described below, I have changed my view on politics and what I expect from our system.
And here I talk very frankly about being forced to create new ideas about myself and about the concept of loyalty. Take from it what you will, but it is my story and my reasons for believing we are on the precipice.