In Search of Sexually Empowering Feminism

Okay, you guys, I swear this is not an XO Jane Unpopular Opinion piece, but I am not a sex-positive feminist.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified - t's really deep.

This idea Marilyn was talking about, the difference between being sexy and being objectified – it’s really deep.

Oh, I like sex. I like being sexy. I like it when my fiancé calls me sexy*. But I don’t like being reduced to the role of an object, even if I play object roles. And I don’t like being a tool, especially not of the patriarchy. And I am not a sex-positive feminist.

It wasn’t a typo.

So I gave a local training to a family health center, today, and the idea of sex-positive messaging came up, unfortunately advocated for, blindly, by a university nursing professor. Her advocacy of this issue is wrong for one of the most basic reasons I oppose sex-positive feminism – because her embrace of it is uncritical. No feminist – no woman – no person – should be uncritical. Not about sex, and honestly, not about anything. It isn’t safe. Not in a world of criss-crossing power structures and systems of oppression. To make blanket assumptions that sexuality is safe in the sense of its relationship with power has deadly consequences, particularly for women, every day.

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn't mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

This is a question we ask critically, not an assumption we make. And sex being free doesn’t mean free for (men to do the) taking. Source: Hiphoptumblr

I want to outline the reasons why I am a sexually empowering feminist, but I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m not the first one to talk about something like this. In 2012, a feminist from the UK, Lisa Downing (Prof. LD) coined the idea of sex critical feminism. She was writing in response to Fifty Shades of Grey, which many revile as terrible writing, but far more importantly, many feminists and others call out as being not about lust but about sexual victimization (the BDSM community took exception, also). Downing wasn’t the only one. Whether they banded behind the sex critical term** or not, these authors talked about some major themes – how sex positivity feels to them as victims of sexual violence, because it is uncritical, and because it pits women against each other. And yes, XO Jane Unpopular Opinion got on the bandwagon, too***.

  1. Sex is at the very root of sexism. Sex and things related to sex, like pregnancy, abortion, rape, victimization, trafficking, are, of all the spaces in which we fight, the space in which we are most literally fighting over a woman’s body, whether we are feminists who are there to help her stand tall, or tools of the system that are there to violate her. To consider sexuality in an “empowering” way that does not recognize that sex has deep intersections with power structures and systems of coercion that keep the Patriarchy in place is unacceptably ignorant. Now, there’s that much ballyhooed over-simplification of second wave feminism, right? All sex is rape? What was really going on in the Second Wave that is important for us not to forget is that feminists were asking radical questions about how sex could be ethical. They did not blindly assume sex was ethical – rather, one of their most radical questions of all was to ask, “What if it isn’t and cannot ever be?” These questions inform conversations like the question of how living in the gender binary can be ethical, and they remain very relevant today, as exemplified by news like Bill Cosby’s serial raping, women being criminalized for miscarriage, the absurdism of “legitimate rape.” Sex positivity just forgets or washes over all of this. Sure, it recognizes that rape is an act of violence. Sure, it advocates for explicit consent. But again, the idea that men not raping anybody and asking for explicit consent before having sex, just those two things, makes sex ethical, is completely ridiculous.

    I don't mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the

    I don’t mean to call out this radio program, and I just found this doing a Google search, but this is a good example of how the messaging of the “sex positive” movement is often objectifying to women (Source: CKUT)

  2. Sex-positivity all too often sells sexual messaging that is masculocentric. Now this gets into bones of contention among feminists, and I disagree with some women I respect mightily. But for most women, we cannot be truly sexually empowered if we are pretending to be men. And yet, too often, sex-positive messaging is like the “shrink it and pink it” of athletic wear. So sex-positivity forces us to talk a masculine game. If a woman stomps her fist and demands orgasm, that’s increasingly cool, and some very visible women are doing that – Amy Schemer, Nicki Minaj, and others, and this conversation is increasingly going global. That’s cool – I applaud that. But, if a woman – even a woman who has and enjoys many orgasms – says that her enjoyment of sex isn’t centered on orgasm, she is immediately viewed with suspicion, and admonished to demand orgasm from men like these model women. She is never asked: “Okay, then, orgasm isn’t the be all and end all for you. Cool. So how can I make sex more pleasurable for you? What gives you value in sex?” Why isn’t she? Why don’t we believe, in this era of sex positivity, and sex positivity that is supposedly feminist, that a woman could have a viewpoint on her own sexuality? But just like past eras of sexuality where it was a liberating idea that a woman could be on top in heterosex****, all it does is take a man’s conception of what sex should be and put it on women. That isn’t empowering to me.

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women's Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

    It really is entirely too much fifty shades of rape. Source: Women’s Aid and Refuge 24H Helpline

  3. If you’d been traumatized, you might feel differently. Sex positive messaging also has a tendency to celebrate sexuality in a way that is deeply inconsiderate of trauma survivors. Worse yet, sex positivity and the demands to conform to this view that the “movement” places on women place sexually empowered women like me at odds with survivors who do not feel safe with sexuality, when in reality we are sisters and we need to be lifting each other up.
  4. Why doesn’t anyone think about the aces & aros? Sex-positive messaging (and I’ve made this mistake, too, although I do know better, and I need to knock it off) does not recognize that there are some people – including some, but not all asexual and aromantic people, who may not want to have sex, and who may not need to enjoy sex. Sex positivity not only doesn’t recognize that not all people are sexual, it writes over the narratives of the marginalized with the majority’s narrative. That’s so not cool.
  5. The Sexual Revolution All Over Again. And here’s the rub that women know all too well. The sexual revolution was this proclaimed attempt to free our sexualities. But what it did for heterosexual women is primarily create a set of rules to maximize our bodies’ availability***** to men. While the sexual revolution seemed appealing to many women at the time, in the long term, it was deeply problematic for us, and it leaves us a legacy yet today. Look at online dating and “hookup culture” – Tindr was created by two guys (and from the looks of it, not nice guys). The idea that women can either be sidelined by some other woman who is more willing than they are, or they can play the man’s game on the man’s rulebook, is a fool’s choice. Even for women who do legitimately find value or meaning in hookup culture, it’s vital that we understand that we are participating in a game that plays by rules that are deeply patriarchal in their design.

* And Teri is quite the Prince when it comes to tolerating the dissonance between the fact that I love my sexuality yet question its ethicality.

** Notice I used “sexually empowering” instead of sex critical. This is not because I don’t respect Downing’s work – I do, immensely. Rather, I think the name sex critical is problematic. Unlike some of our most radical sisters of the second wave, I see sexuality as something that fulfills a deep, human need for many (but not all) people. Being sex critical to me implies that doubt of the second wave that sexuality can even be ethical. I’m committed to the idea that we can make it more ethical, and I’m committed to the idea that anyone can be sexually empowered, whether they are sexual or not, whether they have sex or not.

*** I kid, I kid, I love XO Jane, I totally click through and read all the articles. And although I disagree sometimes, I love the idea that women can have opinions different than mine.

**** Straight people and their sexual practices are so quaint.

***** I was going to say, our sexual availability, but the reality is that it wasn’t and too often isn’t ours, and it’s not us but our bodies that society wants – this is ultimately the entire concern critically conscious women, even women like me who love sex, have about sex positivity.

The Place of Female Chauvinism in Feminist and Women’s Movements

This is something I’ve been struggling with. So, I’m a female chauvinist. And I’m not really sorry.

Well, sort of. You know I’m sorry about everything, except for being sorry about everything. I should be clear about what I mean. Because I don’t hate men, at least not in the sense that you think of that term in the context of feminism (slash basically no feminists really do*). Sometimes I think I’m better than them (okay, kind of a lot, you guys make it too easy) and sometimes I think they’re better than me (okay, only occasionally). But saying I love being a person wouldn’t cover it – I love being a woman. And that’s on the short list of things for which I’m not at all sorry. I’m thankful to have been born born all kinds of other things – fast, smart, trans, pretty, occasionally funny but not when I tell dirty jokes** – but particularly, I’m thankful to have been born female.

So, chauvinist but not exactly a chauvinist pig.

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of ... I don't like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of … I don’t like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

And I think there is room for restorative pride in the feminine experience, pride in womanhood, pride in girlhood, that recaptures the imbalance in society’s objectified, distorted, and sexist ways of patterning everyone’s thoughts about us (including us). The idea that pride is restorative is really bedrock to this. Pride in womanhood is fundamentally different than pride in manhood because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places manhood above womanhood. Pride in femininity is fundamentally different than pride in masculinity because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places the masculine above the feminine.

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women's health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women’s health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

In this way, talking about pride in being a woman – female chauvinism – is not only a good and radical thing, but it is analogous to other pride in the context of other kinds of struggles. So white folk get uncomfortable at the idea of #BlackLivesMatter, wait wait wait, uh, you mean all lives matter, don’t you? And please don’t mug me – I listen to Beyoncé! And straight people can’t understand why gay people need a pride. Why don’t I get a flag? And when they do have a flag, they have distorted reasons about what it means within a system of oppression from which they benefit. 

But, while “good feminists” embrace the idea of black pride, they reject the idea of female pride. And I’m saying they shouldn’t.

I believe these phenomena arise from a really interesting side-effect of marginalization, which I want to be the focus of this piece. In many ways, the mechanism of marginalization – of all these isms – tends to attribute all the diversity to the dominant group. So we pay lots of attention to differences in hair color and eye color, because they vary a lot in white people, but we ignore all the things that are different about the billions of us black haired, brown eyed peoples. Guys are individual, identity-laden agents of change, but women are interchangeable hoes***. And there are a million and one straight love stories, every one of them different, but society-killing, Christ-denouncing, global-warming-causing same sex marriage can be simplified into a unitary construct, as if there’s no diversity among LGBT love stories.

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

Now you’re really going to think I’m crazy, but what I’m going to do here is say that the dominant culture – the white guys – also have a point. Don’t worry – it’s not the point they think they have. The interesting phenomenon is that, simultaneously, dominant group mechanics, while seemingly attributing all the diversity to the dominant group, actually whitewashes**** much of the really meaningful diversity in the dominant group. You can see this in white folk who cling to the 1/64th of their ancestry that is Chippewa or Cherokee – because they recognize that being “white” does not confer them a really meaningful racial/ethnic identity in the way that being Indian-American does me. This is why every white person wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s day. You can see it in how all the clothes all the straight guys wear looks exactly the same, but it’s really important to them to be distinctive by having those shoes in just that shade of brown – again, the process of marginalization makes the world all about men, but it whitewashes men in some special and perhaps hard to realize ways. And they don’t want to be whitewashed (and I’m glad of it!).

This isn’t just a case of the grass is greener, of all the straight haired girls want curly and all the curly girls want straight. This is a fundamental characteristic of that asymmetrical relationship.

To me, the solution to this is radical, and it comes from chauvinism. I actually think that straight people should have a Pride. It’s just that it’s the LGBT Pride we’ve already got. As we become a cultural force with which to reckon (oh, we will / we are), I think it’s right to think about making the centerpiece of Pride be about gender and sexual diversity, but to emphasize that not only LGBT people are diverse with their gender and sexuality. Of course, our diversity is the most obvious, but straight people are diverse, too. I’ve taken to pointing this out, every time I talk about the concept of gender expression. You take 100 straight girls who work in the same industry, and some of them don’t even own pants, and some of them wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt. Some of them don’t wear makeup to interviews, and some of them wouldn’t be caught without false eyelashes at the gym. That’s diversity of gender expression. And you don’t even need to understand LGBT people to get that it exists. And if you really celebrate it, to me, you’re welcome at Pride, not as an ally, but as a full blooded sibling. Even if you’re straight.

So, my answer, radical as it is, is to not only embrace chauvinism in my womanhood (and the idea that I can be proud of being a woman but that pride does not bind me to a course of being sexist), but to embrace the idea that you can be proud of who you are. Even if you’re a straight white dude! But you’re going to need to re-capture who you are. Because you’ve been defined in this sexist way that makes you everything and makes us nothing, and surprisingly and unintentionally, also makes you nothing and makes us everything

This is a big part of the reason I really nudge Teri and his friends along in this idea of developing a robust, future-compatible concept of manhood, not just for themselves, but as a gift to all men. Sure, I benefit, because if men weren’t tools, feminist movement would be so much easier. Obvi. But the truth is I benefit directly, because Teri is a man, and moreover, he’s my fiancé, and the better man he is, the better my life will be – not because I need a man anymore than a fish needs a bicycle, but because my life and his are wound together. Just as the better woman I am, the better his life will be. That’s the shared destiny of our selecting each other as mates, and it’s the consequence of the commitment we make to each other, the one we will consecrate someday soon in marriage.

And finally, yes, I glossed over it so I could pack in a not very funny joke, but I did say born female. As a trans woman, I take some relatively strong views. One of them is that I am biologically female, irrespective of the sex to which I was designated, irrespective of anything, period. I don’t know what my karyotype is – I haven’t and don’t need genetic testing to know who I am. Moreover, that very concept is backwards – my genes have the potential to explain the diversity of sex, because they probably aren’t typical female genes, but they’re carried by a woman (me). I’m a woman irrespective of how they look – and I know this from years of trying to deny this simple truth. In embracing authenticity, I’m not living “as a” woman or or somehow changing to my gender identity – I’m simply accepting reality*****. For this reason, I reject terminology****** like male-to-female or female-to-male, for myself, anyways.

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy's. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don't know the word karyotype... Source: fineartamerica

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy’s. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don’t know the word karyotype… Source: fineartamerica

The relevance of this strong view is that I reject the idea that I was a man, or even a boy. Which is important, because it allows me to be unabashedly a woman – I think everyone who knows me knows I don’t identify as anything, and I don’t prefer things, either.

So I’m proud to have been born female. And I’m proud to be a woman. And I’m not sorry. And I want you to be proud, too. I just want you to be proud in your identity, and I’m willing to help you find your identity. Because you can’t be proud in your privilege.

* I found this article while I was looking for another article, and it’s so amazing that I have to make sure I mention it, by creating a footnote to nothing (cue the bridge to nowhere hyperbole), and I’m going to have to figure out some way, before I publish this piece, to footnote something with this. Because this is amazing. The truth is that, although she uses aggressive language (very Dworkin-worthy), I pretty much actually agree with her. Except that I, unlike her, am kinda cutesy. Well, more than kinda. And I don’t fight, I play fight, and most likely, I don’t hate, I play hate. No, not player hate. Ahem. She explains by the end of the short piece (although apparently too long for the men’s rights folks to finish reading it) that she doesn’t actually hate men, which would also have been obvious from the rest of the piece if one were actually reading it (slash if one were a woman). Also, in solidarity with her, I hate refrigerator magnets. Ask Teri. Or better yet, ask me about the whole situation with having to clean rust off my stainless steal dishwasher that I hardly ever use because of the giant stupid refrigerator magnet someone put on it. Ahem. No, we’re cool, actually I totally love her, we’ve since become really good friends, that one and I.

** Okay, I told one dirty joke that was actually really, really funny, and totally on point. But it’s the only one I can think of. The punchline was “Let me introduce you to my Beaver Cleaver.” You kind of had to have been there. Erm.

*** Or, all too often, interchangeable holes. Oh, you thought I couldn’t be that radical? But seriously, this idea is rife in the “makeover” element of every movie where some mousey girl gets a makeover and looks like she came off the cover of a young woman’s magazine – it’s important, because the dominant culture messaging of men says that every woman could be that girl, if she just toed the line a little harder.

**** Only here to be funny to Teri: Well, that’s an unfortunate name.

***** Truth be told, I still use the term transition – the thing about having a reclaimed identity is not just that I didn’t make up the language, but that I must find a way to describe who I am in a language that wasn’t my choosing and that wasn’t designed to include me in the range of possibility. So, I still use transition, but I’m predicting that you’ll see it appear less and less, and although it’s been in many of my posts, and in this case, I’m relegating it to a footnote. Baby steps.

****** I kind of had a moment of annoyance at an event I did a few months ago – a local activist asked me to be on a panel to “speak about the transgender,” and she had an “MTF” and an “FTM” and a “non-binary” and anyways… I told her, sorry, I don’t do talks about the transgender, and I don’t share stages with MTFs or FTMs. Mostly being flippant, but I think, in the long term, you’ll like my language better, because you’ll like the identity-validating message underlying it. And also the simplicity. Because seriously, like, I can’t keep it straight, whether I’m an MTF or an FTM or an MTFTMTF. I’ve got a little pea-sized girl brain, give me a break.

Our Model of Suicide and Maintaining Mental Health Stigma

This is one of those short posts that started life as a comment on someone else‘s timeline on Facebook. My friend, Tania*, asked for people’s thoughts about the idea of legalized euthanasia, suicide, and/or physician assisted suicide. Her questions follow this article from the NYT last weekend.

Anorexia is my personal experience, but it's also relevant to me because there is so much policing around the expression of and fear around the honesty of us as women who are there (and to a lesser extent who were there) Source: @daniellehelm on Flickr

Anorexia is my personal experience, but it’s also relevant to me because there is so much policing around the expression of and fear around the honesty of us as girls or women who are there (and to a lesser extent who were there, and of course, of the men who’ve been there, too) Source: daniellehelm on Flickr

There was one book**, back when my struggle with anorexia was much more active, that was about a young woman who did eventually die (passively) – the young woman made an argument that, in her case, anorexia was terminal. Her argument was based on her experience trying a wide variety of both outpatient and inpatient treatments, and getting progressively sicker. It was a pretty sophisticated argument – it wasn’t a simple brinkmanship kind of argument. The anorexia world is full of these stories of people who drop down to unimaginable weights – like a person who weighed 120-130 lbs dropping all the way down to the sixties – who go on to survive and thrive. Marya Hornbacher is just the most widely celebrated of these stories***. But the young woman… well, actually, it wasn’t her making the argument – if I remember correctly, the book was written by her surviving father, who was telling her story, bravely even including her feelings about the terminality of the illness. Again, if I remember correctly, he didn’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly with what his daughter said, but he had given it deep thought, and he had come to the conclusion that it could not be cursorily written off (as many people are wont to do – for instance just cursorily saying the young woman in the NYT story shouldn’t be “allowed” to “choose” suicide). And, importantly, he recognized that he did not understand the illness like she did, because he had been there as an observer, but the battlefield had been her body.

As survivors (and proud of it!) we know an elemental joy of surviving that you, who have never survived, may not be able to understand. But in having survived, we come face to face also with the knowledge that our survival was not guaranteed, and if we take pride in our survivorship, that pride must recognize the sisters we lost. Source: @Rega Photography on Flickr

As survivors (and proud of it!) we know an elemental joy of surviving that you, who have never survived, may not be able to understand. But in having survived, we come face to face also with the knowledge that our survival was not guaranteed, and if we take pride in our survivorship, that pride must recognize the sisters we lost. Source: Rega Photography on Flickr

What’s important about this view is also that she was not saying that all people who are suicidal should end their lives – people who find this to be their solution are not saying, for instance, that no suicide prevention work should be done, or even that our efforts to prevent suicide should not be intensified. Rather, they are merely saying that an expectation of survival of their illness may not be reasonable.

I read this book more than ten years ago, and so it’s taken me a long time to evolve how I think about this. But, what stuck with me for a long time is that, when we talk about diseases and disorders that affect things other than the emotional brain, there are many, many things that don’t have a 100% survival rate. My fiancé had leukemia twice – he survived, and I am thankful, but we accept that a minority will not. For all kinds of leukemias integrated together, the five year survival rate is now just over 60%, meaning we accept that almost four in ten will not make it. Death may not have been a certain outcome in Teri’s case, but neither was life a certainty. If one ignores whether death was “one’s fault,” then the reality is that several mental illnesses – anorexia is one of them – have known rates of mortality. Anorexia is one of them.

When we talk about mental illness, there is not nearly often enough the kind attitude of survivorship mixed with pushing us all to do more, be more clever and resourceful, to help more people survive. My experience, anyways, is that this attitude is very different when talking about a non-mental illness that might take one's life vs. a mental illness that might take one's life. Source: A Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Light the Night Cancer Walk, Dave Overcash on Flickr

When we talk about mental illness, there is not nearly often enough the kind attitude of survivorship mixed with pushing us all to do more, be more clever and resourceful, to help more people survive. My experience, anyways, is that this attitude is very different when talking about a non-mental illness that might take one’s life vs. a mental illness that might take one’s life. Source: A Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Light the Night Cancer Walk, Dave Overcash on Flickr

In contrast, we assume – without a clear basis other than that we believe that people are responsible for their mental illness in a way that people are not responsible for their physical illness – that mental illness cannot be terminal (maybe, excluding dementias, although I think we mostly consider dementias neurological and not psychiatric).

That basis – the belief that people are responsible for their mental illness – is a deeply problematic one for a variety of reasons. The fact that psychotherapy can help people help themselves feel better really does not validate that idea – all manner of disorders and diseases are amenable to behavioral “treatments,” not just mental illnesses. Schizophrenia is not only significantly more heritable than, say, hypertension (compare this and this), but although both are amenable to behavioral treatments, behavioral treatments (like weight loss, diet, exercise) have higher effect sizes by far for hypertension. Infectious diseases are not given the stigma of mental illness based on one’s having “chosen” the illness, even though they are clearly essentially completely behavioral, whereas almost no mental illness is considered completely behavioral by scientists****.

The result is that, when we think about some other health problem, that has a death rate, we assume those deaths might be preventable, if we get cleverer and come up with new technologies and new medical practices and new ways to help people with prevention. In contrast, when we think about suicide, we assume that those deaths are preventable, and that nothing needs to be done to prevent them except to coerce people to not commit suicide, to call people who commit suicide cowards, to criminalize suicide, etc. To me, that’s deeply problematic, whether or not one believes one should be able to “choose” suicide.

Moreover, it should be deeply problematic to everyone who is trying to reduce / prevent suicide, as well. It pushes suicide into a deep taboo. And it’s hard to treat something that’s taboo. And, of course, it’s deeply problematic for people with mental illness even when suicide is not a part of the conversation.

So, to me, do I support the policy Belgium enacted? I probably do. But the thing I support far more firmly is destroying stigma around mental health. I believe in it for me. I believe in it for all the friends with eating disorders who saved my life, time and time again, ten years ago. And I believe in it for all my friends who live with mental illnesses that I haven’t experienced in the way I experienced anorexia and so don’t fully understand.

I believe in it for all of you, too, who have never been there, and so who find it easy to pass judgment. At times, I yearned to be back in your blissfulness of ignorance, although today, I include my experience with anorexia alongside all the many things I am thankful for in my life. It made me the woman I am today. I am glad – daily – to survive, all the more because I know my survival was not guaranteed.

* God, what is it with me, I can’t even get past the italicized intro without a footnote. Just pausing here to say that Tania is such a heroine for the AutismFamily. Her particular passion is autistic (she coins “Aspien”) girls and women, and I love her work so much.

** Comment or message me if you know the book. I think it’s one I borrowed from the Jacksonville Public Library, the summer before grad school in psychology, which was the time of my rock bottom with respect to my own struggle with anorexia / disordered eating.

*** And I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much of a heroine Marya is, and how amazing it was to, if only for a moment, meet her when she was here to speak.

**** Getting overly technical, susceptibility to a wide range of infectious disease is heritable. But again, the heritability of many mental illnesses is far higher than the heritability of many infectious diseases, if not most/all of them.

Embracing Imperfection while Celebrating the Pursuit of Liberty

Celebration of American independence must always have been fraught with complexity and inner turmoil. Our forebears sought a response to the British tyranny of that era, but, having spent all their days as subjects of that crown, they could not have had much knowledge of what life without tyranny might mean*. Our forebears sought to create a “more perfect union,” but they did not create a perfect union, nor have we perfected it with any of the changes we made, in the more than 200 years of our nation.

Harper's Weekly Covering the triumph of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Source: LOC

Harper’s Weekly Covering the triumph of the passage of the 13th Amendment. Source: LOC

We have certainly tried. We have tried through giving voting rights to the landless, the abolition of slavery, reconstruction of the South following the Civil War, women’s suffrage, our many attempts to improve our immigration system, affirmative action, hate crime statutes, and other attempts to reduce the harms of racism, the granting of choice to women, our steps to make sure all may access health care, and most recently, marriage equality and other steps to enfranchise the LGBT community. These have all made our land a better and freer land. Sometimes, they were unalloyed good. More often, they were imperfect attempts.

It cannot - must not - be a sign of our patriotism that we pretend that our errors were right or justified, or that we fail to analyze the weaknesses in our values and actions that led us to commit injustice. Source: Wikimedia

It cannot – must not – be a sign of our patriotism that we pretend that our errors were right or justified, or that we fail to analyze the weaknesses in our values and actions that led us to commit injustice. Source: Wikimedia

Certainly, we have failed, too, and failed not just by doing too little, but failed by refusing to do what was good and just, and by actively pursuing what was and is wrong. Failed in our treatment of Native Americans. Failed, time and time again, in our response to hate crimes, even with all the statutes we’ve put in place. Failed the Tuskegee Airmen. Failed to guarantee equal rights to women. Failed in fighting unjust wars. Failed in our reckless pursuit of the imprisonment of vulnerable populations. Failed in our systemic and reckless increasing of economic disparity. Failed in our inability to lead the world in life expectancy, and not for want of throwing money at the challenge**. Failed in our approach to terrorism. Failed by creating classes of people whose rights we refuse to recognize and pretending that this is good or true.

Interestingly, when this video is shared on Facebook, where I originally saw it, the first minute or so is usually clipped. It’s good, but it’s actually way better with that additional context.

At times and in places, we have led, do lead, and most certainly will be leading the world. At times we have followed. At times we have not only not led or merely followed, but we have ignored the wisdom in proof of better ways embraced by other lands. I was at a wonderful party, last night. A friend mentioned in passing that she had, to her embarrassment, largely ceded the idea of patriotism to extreme conservativism. We talked about how this had come to happen – because I see it in so many people in the Sisterhood, and in other movements of which I am part. How did we come to think that wearing red, white, and blue is patriotic, shooting off loud fireworks is patriotic, but making this country a better place is not patriotic? I ask because so many of the people in my life, these days, are in the nonprofit sector (and in for-profit pursuits) that are actively focused on making the world a better place. I have friends who do this by making sure all Americans can have homes. I have friends who do this by making sure all women can be safe from domestic violence and that all women can have access to healthcare. I have more than a few friends who do this by trying to bring the Autism Revolution. And most of them are cautious about embracing the concept of patriotism.

I quipped that the situation is much like my relationship with organized Christianity, as an openly, proudly, authentically LGBT person. How did it come to be, that if I see a verse from the Bible – even, and often, Jesus proclaiming radical love for all, starting with the self – my mind instantly and rightly goes to fears that this person may be aggressive or even violent? When did Christianity*** become this vessel for hate and this bully pulpit for intolerance, instead of love? This situation is much the same about American patriotism – it is presumed now to be an attitude of haughty tyranny over the rest of the world, secured with our advanced army, our nuclear weapons, our economic might, and now even drones. It is predicated on the idea that we are perfect, that our union is perfect, and that it is our right to rule by force over others. It is, in short, and much as Christianity today is frequently striving to be everything Jesus exhorted against, modern American patriotism is, all too often, everything the dream of our forebears, to live in freedom, to be brave, was not.

We do not know full well the minds of early American heroes or heroines, like our sister Sybil Ludington, or even our even our sisters like Julia Ward Howe, who left behind a lot more of their thoughts in their words and speeches, but it does rather seem that they did not see bravery as something relegated only to soldiers, but rather, as a fundamental American virtue.

We do not know full well the minds of early American heroes or heroines, like our sister Sybil Ludington, or even our even our sisters like Julia Ward Howe, who left behind a lot more of their thoughts in their words and speeches, but it does rather seem that they did not see bravery as something relegated only to soldiers, but rather, as a fundamental American virtue.

And beyond just recognizing the tremendous injustice of this, how do we take back the night?

Certainly a great claim to patriotism lays at the feet of all the men and women who have fought, shown valor in combat, have risked and sometimes met death on the battlefield. Although I love peace, and I never myself served in this way, I recognize the need for their bravery, and I celebrate it. I do not see a contradiction between my love for peace and my love for our service-members. The two enhance each other. But I also recognize that, alongside these brave souls, countless other Americans are, everyday, fighting to make this country great, and even if they do not risk untimely death, in dedicating their entire lives to this country, they, too, ultimately die in service of it.

In this light, it seems, to me, deeply unpatriotic to me to recognize this day by mere waving of a flag, by engagement in braggadocio, to make idle claims that our country is the best in the world by birthright and as a privilege, and not a country that can be the best in the world because we make it so. In short, it seems deeply unpatriotic to me to recognize this day in any way other than to say that I love this country sufficiently well that I am willing to live and die to make it great, and that I do not merely offer this service as a hypothetical, but I engage in it, every day.

What I am asking you, today, is to consider changing your approach of shying away from the conversation around patriotism. To tell the truth, if you are one of us, in trenches or lofty estates, fighting every day to make this country great, patriotism will do no good to our mighty flag until you are an open and proud patriot. Your patriotism must not mean that you ignore the imperfections in our union, or that you do not fight to make this union more perfect, but rather precisely that you study and learn these imperfections, and you devote your life to righting them as best you know how.

And, although we can, should, must – always – be mindful of the sacrifices so many soldiers and others have made around and before us, so that we could live in the land of the free, we must recognize that living in the home of the brave is not a privilege granted to us by their sacrifice, but a sacrifice demanded of each of us, every day of our lives. In that recognition rises the great hope of this most unlikely of nations that we call home. In that way, declaration of independence becomes not a static event  some 239 years ago but a living call to arms to all of our people. And that is patriotism.

* I argue previously that this conception is much better than the currently widely accepted tradition of interpreting, for instance, Rousseau, as making a claim that freedom is innate and that we know how to be free, instinctually, but get tricked into chains. No, freedom is a technology, and is the most shining innovation humanity has created. There is also great danger in engaging in a presentist attitude that the “founding fathers” (or Jesus, or anybody) would think precisely like I do about freedom, or about anything. However, our forebears – not just Washington and Franklin, but many, many more of them – clearly did conceptualize governance as being a thing in which one actively participated, not a thing done to one. They saw freedom as a thing not just worth believing in, but worth thinking about, meditating on, advocating for, and yes, fighting and risking their lives for.

** We are, embarrassingly, not only not first, but thirty fourth in WHO’s ranking of some 200+ states.

*** Christianity as an organized entity, or as many organized entities. Not Jesus – I have commented on this in great detail, already.

Civility and Authenticity in the Workplace

Thank you, in advance, for listening to this perhaps half-baked thought – this is one of those, “No, I have way too much to say in a Facebook post,” kind of blog posts.

This article has been open in a tab in my browser at work for several days now while I stewed on it, and particularly how a call for civility meshes with a call for authenticity, something I’ve been talking abouta lotlately.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

I’ve been arguing that we have a huge untapped sea of potential in our own people that is blocked by failing to let them be authentic – not just in the sense of the way we treat LGBT or ethnic minority workers, but in a much broader sense of masks we wear, masks we force each other to wear, without reason at work. Now, I’m generally a composed, civil person at work. I get mad relatively rarely, and I don’t swear or shout when I’m mad, although I do raise my voice (very rarely*) and I occasionally do say things I regret (and for which I consistently apologize). I will also admit to being uncivil in my professional / work life at times, and it is something I want to continue working on. And I’m still fairly new to having these kinds of formal leadership responsibilities – particularly managing large teams and overseeing increasingly large budgets. Apropos of that, this paragraph is particularly striking to me:

Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their ‘role’ in the organization and ‘title'; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behavior, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help, hold back.

Certainly this is not authenticity, or anyways a kind of authenticity we should encourage (that is, we should not be making a place for people who think like this, or we should do so with great caution, in our congregate lives). So there’s a sobering question there for me with respect to how to be a good leader. Certainly, if you met me five or ten years ago, I’ve made a conscious investment in being more poised and careful about what I say, in part driven by all the times I’ve engaged with the media – although I will push hard for what I believe in, I am more considerate in many ways of others concerns and priorities, and even if I am more assertive about what I think needs to be done (whereas I might have been a pushover, ten or twenty years ago), I try to do it in an inclusive way.

Really, the problem cited above is a problem that (for me, for instance, since this behavior is inconsistent with my values) I should be avoiding during recruitment and retention. It is not evidence that I should not let people be authentic (because that authenticity is authentically dangerous!) but rather that the risk or lack of safety (apropos of my much favored Mr. Beaver quote from C. S. Lewis) associated with this is that an authentic organization can be better, but with the greater unleashing of agency as well as progress through community amongst one’s team, there is also greater risk associated with bringing on board people whose values disrupt the authenticity ecosystem. So, I also argue that, rather than opening us to these kinds of dangers, when we let people be authentic, we also give them the keys to our real mission (not just our mission statement), and that lets them take a level of ownership in the organization they’ve never had before. And if they’re the right people, who belong in our ecosystem, magic happens.

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think... besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity - personnel factors - that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think… besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity – personnel factors – that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

I also tweeted about this striking comment from the piece:

According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.

Again, expressing these feelings in this way is not authenticity. It is bullying, and bullying is not okay**. In some cases, it reflects selecting for the wrong things at the entry to the ecosystem (and there has been much discussion about how we choose people for grad school, medical school, etc., and some of the dangers inherent in our implicit value matrix). It is perhaps also a sign of creating an environment in which frustrations cannot be aired (civility and honesty are not always good friends), and in such a situation, “bottled up” frustrations may explode in unwanted ways. Finally, this situation is not authenticity-positive in the sense that, when one person is a bully, or coercive, and they are allowed to do this with impunity (a situation I’ve personally encountered / to which I have been victim) they have a chilling effect organizationally, and that chilling effect destroys value that a whole sea of talent, who could be authentic, but are not, because of fear, are not demonstrating.

This is where it gets dicey for me. I’m personally not a big fan of cell phone boxes at the door (and I’ve been in meetings with them). My experience is that, much more often, the problem is excessive meetings, without clear agendas (especially routine meetings). And it seems to be particularly those meetings that are disrespectful abuses of our time that have cell phone boxes. There is also the danger that expecting people to be instantly and perpetually available, but then disrespecting them when they make valid business decisions to prioritize other issues over talking to you, itself, is more than a little, itself, uncivil.

Another way in which I’m concerned is that I have a strong sense that I want to develop an investment in the idea of family and shared identity with my team. And I want people to be real, even if real means they have feelings, although I want to empower them to be real but focused. I’ve said very clearly, that I feel that a significant contributor to how I’ve accomplished the things I’ve accomplished is that I take things personally. I also tell my leadership team that we are precisely who and what we are, because of unique factors each of them brought to the table. We wouldn’t be where we are, for instance with the Center, if I didn’t take things personally, and if they hadn’t brought their personalities into what we built, together. And taking things personally does include leveraging not only my thoughts and rationality but also my feelings. This doesn’t mean being mean – but civility can often be a call for a certain kind of dispassionate engagement that some majority culture men engage in, particularly, and more than once, it’s been a way to gaslight women in professional life and to roadblock the development of other minority talent.

So the article gave me a lot to think about. I do think, that as we help people be assertive (which enhances authenticity), to own their perspective but recognize others disagree, much civility naturally follows – because people are generally pretty cool, in the absence of a reason to get heated up. I’m not sure that civility, in itself, though is the right goal, organizationally, to seek – I think at this point incivility is a symptom of an underlying problem.

* There is a famous-ish story, that involved perhaps mild voice raising, but not yelling or shouting, about an interaction with me and our HR people, related to arbitrary decisions that affected my operations and caused threats to our sustainability. I will admit to getting uncivil (apparently a co-worker of the HR person thought I would become violent and was ready to call the police… seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever even thrown a punch in my life, and I’m not about to start). If there was incivility, I will not say it was all my fault – I felt completely unheard, and in a situation with which any operations leadership can sympathize, others were making decisions but I, to me, seemed to have all the responsibility of their impact. The person talking to me (we’ve since had many pleasant interactions) could certainly have worked harder to understand why I was concerned, and take my business interests, particularly, and my organizational stake in the situation, much more seriously.

** In this case, the price of that bullying is ultimate for the patient, in the form of loss of life.

Living Like Black Lives Actually Mattered

Let me start by stating what will be obvious to some and make others uneasy: We aren’t. We haven’t. We don’t.

Seriously, this restaurant is such a marker for pretty much everywhere crime and poverty happens in this city. And I refuse to not drive by it because I'm afraid. Crime happens in the locus of every Chicken Coop not because black people are criminals but because every Chicken Coop is ensconced in an entrenchment of poverty, and those of us who have always had enough to eat have no idea how hard it is to climb out of poverty.

Seriously, this restaurant is such a marker for pretty much everywhere crime and poverty happens in this city. And I refuse to not drive by it because I’m afraid. Crime happens in the locus of every Chicken Coop not because black people are criminals but because every Chicken Coop is ensconced in an entrenchment of poverty, and those of us who have always had enough to eat have no idea how hard it is to climb out of poverty. Source: WZZM

It’s endemic in the way we talk (leading to terms like microaggression). That part of town. Don’t get caught with a flat tire over there. My neighborhood is bordered on the northern side by a street that is a huge racial and class divide, with mostly white lower middle and middle class people (and a few affluent people and a few poor people) on one side, with modest, but stable housing values, and systemic impoverishment and deprivation of American lives on the other side, mostly visited on black people. A food desert, with roads that somehow magically never get fixed, and a clear lack of opportunity. Not a coincidence – no, this situation is all too common in all too many towns and cities, as a result of redlining (not just conceptually, but redlining was real, here, in Grand Rapids). Not just for black people, but for our Hispanic family, too. So there’s this fabulous restaurant on Division here in Grand Rapids – it’s an old drive-in, with a big awning and picnic benches for eating outside, a very “hearkening back” kind of vibe, makes you feel safe and wholesome. Taqueria San Jose. We’ve known about it forever, but somehow it seems like a light, summer thing, and when we’re hungry, we end up someplace else (we go to a number of other restaurants right there, just never this one), and when we drive by it, we’re forever saying, “We should go to that place!” A lot of my hipster friends know about it (and it was full of white hipsters on lunch break when I went). But I get surprised that many of my white friends know this part of town incredibly poorly, and are surprised I go there at all. “Oh, I don’t get out to that part of town very often.” You should know a few things about Division. One is that a disproportionate number of the violent crimes that happen in Grand Rapids happen on stretches of Division, typically late at night (but it’s totally safe from inside my car, for me, any time of day, and particularly in the middle of the day, because, of course, this violence isn’t random violence but violence that exists in a racist system that impoverishes groups and classes of people). You should also know that the Hispanic community has invested greatly in their money, and their sweat, and their tears, in building businesses in this part of town, something that has changed rapidly even just in the six years I’ve been here*.

I loooved Hyde Park. And my favorite Hyde Park memory was the elderly women who had Barack Obama tees pulled over their church dresses at the bus stop, and the look of optimism on their faces.

I loooved Hyde Park. And my favorite Hyde Park memory was the elderly women who had Barack Obama tees pulled over their church dresses at the bus stop, and the look of optimism on their faces. (Source: Wikimedia)

I had another similar experience – back when I was in the business of dating straight girls** – I was on eHarmony (okay, you guys, I really didn’t know about this, and I’m sorry), and I was living in Hyde Park in Chicago. Hyde Park is kind of a unique place. It and its sister neighborhood, Kenwood, are predominantly black, but also affluent, and there are very few places like Hyde Park in the US that are congregations of black affluence. Which is too bad, because y’all should really have the opportunity to live in such a place. The University of Chicago is there, along with the Museum of Science and Industry, the former being what brought me to town. I lived in a brownstone rental two and a half blocks from the Obamas’ home. But I remember at least once, a woman couldn’t believe I lived in Hyde Park and made it really clear that she would never come to Hyde Park, because of the danger, with heavy racial implications. I politely indicated that I loved living there, and I made it really clear that she and I would not be dating (#TaylorSwiftVoice Like, Ever). Many of my white friends in the city told me I had a different experience living there, because while neither black people nor white people think I am them, they both have a stronger tendency to just be themselves and be comfortable around me than they would around each other, but I had a beautiful time, as an outsider living in a black neighborhood, and I’m so thankful for having had that opportunity and for the graciousness with which black neighbors accepted me. For me, I spend much of this American life surrounded by people who don’t look like me (that’s you) – but it’s still good for me to be in a place where all the people are black and don’t look like me, and not only in places where all the people are white, and don’t look like me. If you’re white, you should have this experience, because particularly if you’re a white man, you may not have any idea what it would be like if the world didn’t belong to you. If you’re black, you should have this experience (again, there are so few of these kinds of places in the country that most black people haven’t), because you need to see black power.

Driving while black is real, even if it doesn't happen to happen to you (and particularly if it doesn't happen to happen to you because you're not black). Source: NY Daily News.

Driving while black is real, even if it doesn’t happen to happen to you (and particularly if it doesn’t happen to happen to you because you’re not black). Source: NY Daily News.

There’s a story I’ve told a number of times – it’s one of those stories I tell because I don’t really understand what it means. There’s some funny business to the driving while black / driving while brown phenomenon. One of the funny things is that I don’t get profiled as an Indian American (and I’ve rarely heard of my Indian American friends getting profiled, either***), even though from a distance, I can’t look that different from the range of appearances of Hispanic people. When I was starting to come out – this was two winters ago – I went out for drinks, with Teri, and I was driving home down Division (the same street Taqueria San Jose is on), and this big SUV pulled up next to me at a light. There were these two big, white guys in it, and they were clearly staring over their steering wheel at me. And I was scared, as a newly visible woman out by herself. I reached for my cell phone, to call the police. And we made eye contact, and I realized they were the police. And as soon as we made eye contact, they lost interest, drove off, and pulled someone else over a block up. What was that all about? For one thing, it was about the racial order of things – as I’ve commented before, although I am not white, as a mostly non-marginalized minority, in the racial ordering of things, I am placed**** in the category of the people who are protected and served, whereas Black and Hispanic people are often placed immediately in the category of the people from whom “we” are protected. To me, it is also about the insidious nature of racism. I am, somehow, subtly, read consistently in this process, through a mixture of minute signals. I think sometimes those signals are wealth signals (I was driving my cute VW Eos, for instance), although I think even wealth signals are subverted by the process of racism – for instance, clean cut and made up, in a fancy-ish car, I might be read to be a professional, whereas my car might be read as having been the result of my work in the drug trade or some other illegal enterprise, if I had been read other.

The biggest problem, to me, the biggest barrier, in talking about these realities is that we want to talk about them without talking about racial/ethnic diversity. So, we point out the obvious – that, biologically, race is a marginally meaningful construct at best, that all lives matter, that everybody deserves respect and dignity.

Yeah, that isn’t going to work. Really. It’s not going to end racism. And racism really can be defeated.

What should we be doing? One, we need to stop expropriating issues. I mentioned this in the context of Lana Wachowski at the Trans100. 84% of hate crimes against LGBT people are against trans people. Of hate crimes against trans people, almost all of them in the US are committed against blacks and Hispanic people, largely impoverished black and Hispanic people. In a similar way, ignoring the fact that violence and crime in general, in many of our cities, like Grand Rapids, is not evenly distributed – that there is no unitary concept of how safe a city is, explaining how Grand Rapids can be simultaneously the best place to raise “your” children and the worst place to be black. We need to stop talking about crime like risk is unitary and talk about the people most at risk and the factors placing and keeping them at risk.

Two, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, we should talk about it as a duck. Whatever else turns out to be the truth, Charleston was either an act of terrorism, or there is no such thing as terrorism. It is not only racist and ethnocentric to operationally define racism as only acts committed by radicalized people of Muslim background – it is nonsensical. When a white person shoots up a church – not any church, but a church that has burned down, been attacked many times, because it is a seat of anti-racist movement – we should talk about it as an act of racial terrorism unless some mysterious countervailing evidence appears.

Three, we should learn about and embrace the cultural heritage of others. I have been telling this story recently, in the LGBT context, as queering the value equation – but we have to start understanding that embracing the fact that people are different from “us” (and perhaps that there really is no “us”) – is one of the greatest sources of power available to us in a diverse country like the United States. So stop telling minorities (or women or LGBT people) they’re just as good as you. They’re already aware of that, and they’re aware of the ways they’re better than you, too.

And four, we need to be showing up in these impoverished communities – supporting them. Not just at candlelight vigils for their dead (as a trans person, much as I love our own TDoR and the importance of remembering our fallen, our story is not just about loss but is a story of hope, and we have to accept that marginalized communities are not a sob story for which to have pity (I hate pity), but a wondrous source of resilience, creativity, and innovation. So, stop saying you’re sorry, and show up. Don’t just show up at the vigils and the protests – don’t just tweet the rage hashtags – show up at the shops and restaurants. Make your own business open and inviting to people who aren’t like you, too. Again, not for the purpose of pitying them or showing them charity, but because you embrace them as sisters or brothers or … whatever.

Because you actually see their beauty, because the truth is, people who don’t look like you are beautiful.

* I actually just joined the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of West Michigan. I believe it’s the right thing to do to serve underserved families, including black and Hispanic families, but I also know that, demographically, we are going to have more and more young Hispanic kids over time, so being perceived as the best partner for this community is cold hard business, too.

** I know more than a few trans women who still try to date straight girls, after they transition, which is the joke… for the record, I think this is a really bad idea and more likely than not will be invalidating for everyone involved. But, hey, live and let live.

*** There was an incident when I was in maybe fifth or sixth grade, when my mother was driving us home from some youth activity – she went through a series of ridiculously cheap giant station wagons – if you’re much younger than me, you don’t get this, because they were rapidly becoming relics already by then, but the 40+ crowd knows what I’m talking about. Anyways, we were driving home in this big lumbering station wagon, and my mother used the turn signal, and slowed down to take the left onto our street off of the two lane road leading up to it. This truck came careening from behind and tried to pass us on the left, while she was turning, and it knocked our car into the woods. I suppose we could have been seriously injured, but miraculously, the car slowed down and neither of us were hurt. She sent me home on foot while she dealt with the situation. She felt that the driver of the truck was obviously drunk, and even though he, himself, said that her taillights and turn signal were clearly visible, the other (white male) driver wasn’t tested for intoxication and was not ruled at fault. My mother had a couple other times like this when she did feel discriminated against, and I take her more seriously with age. Clearly, there are also awful hate crimes against Indian men, particularly Sikh men, absurdly***** mistaken for Muslims (as if it were okay to kill Muslims), but I do argue that, in many contexts, most notably Nikki Haley sitting over South Carolina during this crucial time, in much of America, this is how things are, and as I argued before, there are dangers in distracting us from the dangers and depredations visited on Hispanic and Black communities.

**** This is the very point of the idea of privilege – I did not place myself in this category, and I did not decide how this was supposed to work. But I derive benefit from it, whether I like it or not, even if I make myself part of trying to pull the system down.

***** Deserving of my vaunted (and ridiculous) footnote-on-a-footnote, absurd because these men are thought to be Muslim because they wear turbans, whereas men who wear turbans in the United States are almost invariably Sikhs. Made more absurd because of the history of relations between Islam and Sikhism. And of course, and sadly, made far more absurd, yet, by the fact that most of the acts of mass violence in the United States are committed by white men.

Towards a World Where Every Child Belongs

A few weeks ago, a mom brought her tween son in to the Center without an appointment, to ask about resources. I knew, since I know all my families, that she wasn’t the mom of any of our kids in the ABA clinic, and we weren’t seeing new patients at that day or time, that she wasn’t someone we knew. I caught enough of her facial expression to gently interrupt and offer to help in any way I could. They came back to my office for a chat. Her son told me about his experience being bullied by kids in his school. I spent some time getting to know them, what’s he’s good at, and what he likes. I told him briefly that I had been bullied at his age, too – I don’t talk about it a lot, but when I was in sixth grade, there were these boys who used to gang up on me and hit me. I was too ashamed to complain. My mom ultimately saw bruises, and then she went on the warpath, much as this mom was doing now. If you know me, you know I have an ugly mamma bear side, that doesn’t come out often, but it comes out when someone bullies or threatens our kids, so maybe this is where it came from. So, I supported mom in her warpath – you fight, sister, tooth and nail. I gave them some resources – my friend Anthony Ianni’s Relentless Tour to stop bullying, a toolkit from a national anti-bullying center, and also some resources for places to go to be social with people who won’t bully you or tease you and adults watching over who wouldn’t stand for that – our friends at the local YMCA, I told him about cool things going on like Autcraft. And I wanted him to know that there are people who think autistic kids are cool. We cried a little bit and he gave me a big hug, and to be honest, I haven’t seen him since then, and I don’t know how the story turns out. It seemed like an imposition on my time – there are lots of demands on my time – but it turned out to be a really healing conversation for me, too*. And it’s a good introduction to this topic.

Yeah right, you're going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn't 6' 9

Yeah right, you’re going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn’t 6′ 9″ and he didn’t know how to stand up for himself, you did.

Teri and I watched this movie last night, After the Dark (it’s on Netflix). It’s about this senior philosophy class, and their last gedanken is that they are in a remote place, and atomic bombs are about to go off, and they have a bunker that can only save ten of them, and they have to decide whom. We really liked it – I gave it five stars on Netflix.

It fit really delightfully with this recent business of using personality inventories for leadership at work (in our management development series, we did a profile called the DiSC – see more in a prior blog post of mine). Elyse kind of went crazy on this, and may possibly have taken it multiple times to get the results she wanted. We had a couple of our newer leaders who hadn’t done the profile do it, and on a profile wheel, she mapped out all of my leadership team, so that we could see how our styles as twelve different people were similar or complementary. It turned out that many of our people were clustered together, and it taught me some important things about their desire for harmony and dislike for open competition (although, apparently not in the context of really long, admittedly slightly dorky board games, but that’s another story that’s apparently happening next month). We talked a little bit also about how we cluster leading to a gap space in our wheel – it turns out that we lack someone who is comfortable as a conductor, and this is true. I bring to the table at least some ability to inspire and motivate, and to give people a really amazing vision, that enables them to achieve explosive growth. Elyse brings to the table uncanny acumen and a brilliantly scientific mind that pushes us to be technically excellent. And a big group of our leaders bring steadiness and harmony – they are critical, because the pace of what we’re trying to accomplish can burn people out without steadiness and harmony. But, when there are things that would go more smoothly if someone just implemented a concrete process and held everyone to it, like schedules and managing our productivity and stuff like that, we honestly kind of struggle. This is a concrete way in which more diversity would help us, even if we also generate strength from what we have in common. Rather than being in conflict, the dynamic balance of the two is what makes us strong**.

One of the barriers in getting to this kind of realization, often, is reticence to accept the idea that people, in their dimensionality, bring both strength and struggle to the table. There are these questions, right, when you interview, and someone asks you what your weakness is? And you’re supposed to say something that sounds loosely like a witness, but which you can spin into a strength, to show that you know how to make lemonade out of lemons. But you can’t say you’re a perfectionist, because everybody says they’re a perfectionist. And, of course, you can’t admit to a weakness from which you don’t know how to benefit, because that’s the way the Bizarro world of interviewing works. One of my biggest weaknesses, which is hardly hidden from anyone, is that I take things personally. When our kids suffer, I cry, I feel it along with them. When an injustice is done to them, I rage. I don’t ask for ownership in the things going on in my life – I take it as a birthright. I’m unapologetic about my weakness – I know that it inspires people to both extremes in their feelings for me. I know that it can make things difficult. It really was also how and why I came to do the things I’ve done in the last few years, when I had the biggest chance in my life to take something personally.

1054179588_4731d4d2b3_o

Like MLK, I argue that a world where your children and mine can play together, side by side, is a better world for your children and mine, for you and me, … for everybody.

After the Dark also took on this topic of weaknesses in an interesting and critical way. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the kids in the movie are repeatedly pressed to be analytical, to accept that one person can objectively be classified as better than another, and to make choices based only on that kind of holistic and reductionist value judgment. And this goes wrong – terribly wrong. There is something to be said for seeing in our whole strength, our unified personality, that even when we come together, we are not just a collection of strengths, but also a collection of struggles and challenges and weaknesses, and that doesn’t necessarily just make us weak – it is also what makes us beautiful.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

I feel like there’s some of this with the model of diversity and inclusion that we have. “We’re” afraid “them,” rather than thinking about how a broader definition of “us” would make us all better. And we set really exclusive ideas of things, and we set them in kids’ minds really early. Another example – I can’t talk a lot, yet, about this project, but I got to spend Friday morning on it, and it’s soooooo cool – I’m collaborating with some people on a  really cool science education project. I was brought in to help with things like sensory sensitivities the autism community may have, and to help make it accessible to a neurodiverse audience. But as it unfolded, I really saw some cool opportunities to be inclusive in so many more ways. For instance, telling the human story of sciences like physics is a great opportunity to critically address the fact that, if you talk about this stuff to a group of early grade schoolers, all the girls will be engaged and raise their hands, but if you talk to the middle schoolers, many of them will already think this is boy stuff and not really participate or identify. They ought to know stories of women like Shirley Jackson or Lise Meitner. Or even the great Marie Curie herself. If they do, they might get to see that doing science like a girl is pretty great, and that if they’re interested in science, they should be able to feel like they belong in science***. And people who are different in the way their brains are wired – well, there is more than a passing interest in the possibility that Einstein was autistic, and he, Feynman, and some of the others even among the most famous of that era, were nothing if not unique. So I’m taking the opportunity to go beyond making this project neurodiverse in the sense of sensory supports, but I’m pushing the team (and they’re being really receptive) to the idea that inclusion starts with how the story is told, and that stories like the one we’re working on can be a powerful vehicle to help make sure that those girls, those ethnic minorities, those autistic kids, those whoever is different for whatever reason – who might make really good scientists, don’t get faulty messaging from a bad value equation that tells them that they don’t belong.

People need to belong not just in professions, or, say, with the diversity of the leaders in my leadership team, in a place in leadership if they want one, but that they also deserve to belong, socially. Back to the young man’s who paid me an unexpected office visit a few weeks ago, the problem is that kids in his school don’t know how much better their life would be if they had an autistic friend. I live in a bubble, especially where I work, where every single person I interact with loves someone autistic. Where every single neurotypical person is aware – my fifty staff, our parents, our kids’ siblings – of the beauty a child with autism has brought to their life. And it’s more than that – some of our graduates, who are older now and in school – are rock stars. So many other kids have found out how cool it is to be their friends. In one case, a boy who was at our Center was in a class with a bully. But the bully didn’t have any friends. And our boy made friends with the bully, and the bully stopped being a bully. That’s the kind of magic I’m talking about. That’s what makes me dream that someday, we’ll all belong, we’ll all be a part of community as a birthright. I dream of a day when every kid has a friend with autism. And a world where everybody, more generally, has a friend who is “different” from them. And like all the people in my life who know and love someone “different,” I think you’ll all love it, when it comes true. Because it will. That’s what I mean by taking things personally.

* This boy wasn’t my patient, but this does also bring in this whole topic of therapeutic sharing – which is primarily for the patient’s benefit but sometimes also benefits the provider. I shared because there is a powerful cloak of invisibility around abuse, and breaking that cloak down helps the victims of things like bullying. In a recent panel discussion, I also, however, made the argument that some, particularly in psychology, of our ethics models and the way we think about multiple relationships with our patients, actually makes things worse instead of better and is ill thought out. As I say later in this piece, I am unapologetic, often, in positions I take, and in my defense, I’m not just saying this now because I’m a full grown clinician and no one can victimize me – I said the same thing during the ethics segment of my board certification oral examination.

** One example of this, I make fun of calls to have a “Straight Pride,” but just as many white people don’t really understand that they have a race like anybody else, I think maybe a future direction for enhancing our understanding of Pride as a celebration is that, when we celebrate nature’s diversity of sexuality and gender, plain old straight people are part of that diversity as well, and as I said in my Sorry, Not Sorry Conversation, one of the problems with the I’m Sorry movement at Pride is that the straight people who are part of it have failed to understand what Pride is about, and they don’t belong because they don’t understand what they’re celebrating. So, increasingly, I think we need to teach them to have pride, too, much like feminism is not about hating men, and anti-racism is not about hating white people. Not a Straight Pride event, but it’s okay to enjoy your identity as heterosexual.

*** When I applied for engineering and physics graduate programs, one of the physicists who wrote a letter of recommendation for me shared that, when she herself had applied to grad school, she had found out after the fact that one of her professors, who had agreed to write her a letter of recommendation, had put, in it, that she, as a woman, had no place in physics. She found out about the letter, thankfully, because it made someone at the university to which she applied livid, and they leaked it to her. And, obviously, she managed to make it to being a professor of physics at Michigan, so she did not half badly for herself. And in case it seems like this is a problem of yesteryear, we have the current inexcusable behavior of a Nobel laureate.