A New Kind of Sustainability Crisis: Eliminating Minority Stress to Grow and Nurture Truly Sustainable Communities

The following lecture (sorry, this is long, about 7,500 words in several segments) was delivered as the 2016 Elizabeth Lockwood Wheeler Lectureship at Central Michigan University, on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Thank you so much to Dr. Leah Markel, Eta Sigma Gamma, and the entire CMU Public Health department for the privilege of discussing this topic with you.

What is sustainability and what does it have to do with embracing difference?

Tonight, I want to push you to think about the embracing of difference as not just a social justice issue, but as truly an immensely under-considered public health issue, and an untapped reservoir for public health initiatives that can build better community health, both in the sense of making individual people in communities healthier, but also in the sense of making the community, as a gestalt, healthier.

Multiethnicity

Communities with room for all kinds of faces are better communities (Photo: Fotolia)

I hope that what I can do is not teach you public health, but rather to contextualize your work in this area, and maybe even convince you that your field is important in ways you haven’t thought very much about. Continue reading

Advertisements

On Being a White Feminist (No, Wait, Please Hear Me Out)

I am a white feminist. You guys*. It’s true. I’ve made the argument before that the idea that I function as a woman of color is at best, problematic and defies any uncritical acceptance. I want to go further, now, and point out that I am a white feminist. This puts me in illustrious company – Amy Schumer, Taylor Swift, that actress** who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show, that other one who said something ignorant at an awards show. Well, you get the picture. And a pretty one, she is not.

dove-women.jpg

You guys, our feminism is WHITE. With just a touch of color over on the far end. Just like this picture. (Source: Unilever)

I don’t actually want to spend this post proving this to you. But let me start with the whitest feminist of my white feminist perspectives. When people say things like, “Can’t we understand that we’re all just people first?” I shut these conversations down, often, particularly recently. I shut them down by pointing out that, precisely because I am a woman, I am messaged in subtle and overt ways, over and over again and since my birth, that I am not a person – that women are not people. The second wave rallying cry, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” was necessary as precisely in that day, because society did not behave in a fashion that suggested it believed this statement, as the phrase Black Lives Matter is necessary in more recent discourse.

This is the whitest thing I have to say, of all the white things I say and all the white things I do – I see myself as a woman first, before all my other identities. This is white feminist precisely because, as I’ve come to be educated, my feminist – even my womanist – sisters of color very rarely see things this way, because race is almost always their most unignorable experience. It isn’t mine. So they’re proudly women, but woman is somewhere lower on their list, most commonly. Often second. In contrast, most of the time, like other white feminists, my race is only relevant in discussing my experience because it privileges and protects me. And like my white sisters, I am more often unaware of it than in any other state. What is important about this is that I am not saying I “pass” for white – I am saying I function as white. These two are not at all the same thing. I benefit from privilege. I did not seek it out.

tumblr_me8dqoTnD41qgiqyuo1_1280.jpg

You guys, this is how far our sisters of color have to go to correct the bullshit that we too often call feminism.

But back, for a moment, to my white feminist identity. I say I am a woman first, not because I want all sisters to say this, but because this is how I experience the world. I stop, later, and recognize, yes, I do have a race, and that it is indeed part of who I am. And that I have a class – actually, I am aware of my class more often than my race. But even that is a relative rarity, while I am almost never unaware of how being a woman affects my experiences.

I’m not entirely saying I don’t experience racial microaggression***. Occasionally, other white people – like really, really white people – can make a play to erase my privilege. In fact, last night, I had one of these conversations with a white woman. You know the one. It began with. “You’re so exotic. Where are you from? Don’t say Michigan.” But this not only happens less and less, but it seems to be less and less effective at marginalizing me.

Sisters of color, if you are not already fed up with me, have not already stopped reading, please know this (and continue reading, if you’d like). My goal is simple: I want to help us white feminists figure out how to stop being such a pain in the ass. Don’t be nice. You know it’s true. That is precisely what we are. My goal is to help us be the good Sisters we are meant to be, and not the bad Sisters we have been most of the time. My goal is not to celebrate the outsize space we take up in movement, but to help us to a path to actually allow us to address our misbehavior and stop stealing your space.

Back to my fellow white feminists. Okay, so a solid chunk into this screed, how am I going to accomplish this goal, if I have not turned you, too, off? I think I have an answer. Like all very complicated things, it is also very simple.

We are faced with a conundrum. We are rightly called out for our white feminism. We are told to knock it off. In fact, we want to knock it off. Badly. Erm. We want it badly, but we actually instead do it badly. Here’s why. We replace white feminism with white intersectional feminism. Which, unsurprisingly, is crap. What do I mean by this? White feminism is the queen of all single-cause social justice movements. Its one cause is to help white women feel less worthless all the time. You see, we take up outsize space within movement, and we take up even outsize space in racially mixed groups outside movement, but we take up far less space than we are due in polite white society. And we do, actually, feel worthless, like all the time.

This is the conundrum in which we’re stuck, much to the chagrin of our sisters of colors. We are white feminists because of our experience of marginalization. Our experience, in which race is a source of privilege and not marginalization, begins young. We are not born hating women, perhaps. We open our eyes and see our mother (most of us do), and we love her. She is, in fact, nearly everything. But soon, we notice that the world does not love her, does not value her. And perhaps we learn to hate women by first scorning her as the world scorns her, or perhaps we do not learn to hate women until we recognize ourselves in the mirror. But hate women, we do, sooner or later. And as we are nurtured on the mothers’ milk of misogyny, we learn that we are needy. Overly emotional. We are told and told constantly, although it seems like we try to take up no space at all, we are in fact taking up far too much space. We are told that, although it seems we give far more than everything we have to others, we are greedy for withholding our bodies, our hearts, even our smiles. This is, perhaps, why we sit on the edge of chairs even when they are made for only one person. Because we are not worth the space of one person – we can at most be a fraction of a person, and even then we are inevitably too large a fraction. This is, perhaps, why we paint our smiles on twice, once with makeup and once with the falsity of “putting forth one’s best.”

Our feminist experience then, white feminist sisters, is that we learn this state, we become awakened (often by sisters and sometimes even by brothers of color, who have always had our back in a way that we have not had theirs), and then we band together with others of like experience – that is, other white feminists (because, help us though they did, our experience did not feel quite like the experience of our sisters of color, because, in fact, it was not quite the same). So we bond with other white feminists. And we do get as far out of privilege-borne narcissism to realize that their suffering is like ours, and that the means to our own happiness and theirs are inextricably linked. This is our feminist experience – it is not quite like the feminist experience of our sisters of color, many of whom are taught to hate their race even before, and far more thoroughly than, they are taught to hate their sex.

Mr._Mister

Kyriarchy, as far as I know, has nothing to do with that annoying 80s song (Source: That annoying 80s artist who sings that annoying 80s song)

Being confronted with the white feminist nature of our white feminism, surprisingly, is precisely where we go most astray. For we are faced, it seems, with two options: White Feminism (capitalizing for the willful practice of foolishness), or intersectionalism. Some of us choose White Feminism. We turn to actively saying things that are destructive. Our feminism becomes a tool of kyriarchy**** and not of liberation. For the rest of us, who would rather die than knowingly put people in chains, the only option we have is intersectionalism. But we don’t know how to stop being white feminists (back to lower case), so we become white intersectional feminists. This, I am arguing, while insidious in its danger, has the possibility of being even more problematic than White Feminism.

The why and wherefore of this comes directly back to how we became feminists – our marginalization histories, and our years of internalized misogyny before we were awakened*****. Sadly, this is the only framework in which we can process the fact that we take up too much space in movement – both in feminist movement and in social justice movement. We do two deeply destructive things in response. They both run deep in us, but for different reasons.

The first, which comes from our marginalization, is that we cover over our need, as we always did before we awakened. We recognize that, in the scheme of things, although we are less privileged than wealthy white men, we are often very privileged. So we place ourselves in a classic old feminine hierarchy, one in which too many of us spent our whole childhood being victimized, deciding whether our pain is of enough merit to voice, and we find that it is not – almost always not. But our silence is precisely what suffocated us before, and it does precisely the same now. And suffocating, dying of asphyxiation, our feminist yearning to survive takes hold, and so even in trying to do this, we lash out. Except now, and precisely because we were holding our breath to try and make space for them (or rather, to try and avoid our habitual stealing of their space) that we lash out at our sisters and brothers in arms. But we know this is wrong, and we hate ourselves all the more for it.

The second thing we do is much like the first, but it comes not from our marginalization but our privilege. We take on the role of Overlady (or Overlord, if your feminism thinks you will be equal when you are a man). I have seen this so many times. White intersectional feminism, unlike intersectional feminism that is not white, is hegemonic in general, like all white feminisms. Its hegemony comes from our whiteness and not our feminism. When she is taught intersectionalism, she “naturally” takes on a conductress role in which she becomes Arbitress of the Intersections. She self-designates her role as deciding who matters more, and who matters less. She silences thus, not just herself, but her sisters as well, for the misguided hope of “giving her voice” to her sisters of color, when indeed, they need not be given her voice so much as she must stop stealing theirs. This, of course, is the prison of internalized and self-policed misogyny in which too many of us were reared – that is, we are leading our white feminist sisters back into precisely the gilded cage from whence we emerged, and we believe it is feminist that we lock them back in the cage and stand guard******.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 11.06.50 AM

This is what that Arbitress role looks like when it is held by a dude. Please overlook the grammatical lapsing in my comment, however, which was originally directed to our new Mayor

It should hopefully have become very clear that she does this because she is white, not because she is a woman or because she is a feminist.

We need, very simply, to stop being white intersectional feminists and engage in a more assertive******* dialogue in which we embrace our feminism but learn to undo our whiteness. Our white feminism tries to say, because race marginalization is so much more onerous a burden on others than gender marginalization is on us, womanhood doesn’t matter. That is not a feminism at all. This is not an assault on our sisters of color – only we white feminists say anything this stupid. Note that our sisters of color who reject the label of feminist call themselves womanists. But we create a feminism that liberates others but does not liberate oneself, and this encapsulates, inevitably, that most unfeminist sentiment of all. If I do not believe I matter, then I cannot truly believe women matter, for I am a woman. I learned this years ago but forget it, time and time again, with surprising alacrity.

I become the proverbial empty pot from which no tea (but much hatred) may be poured. But likewise, a feminism that says that race marginalization is not real, or, astoundingly, says treatment by society is better when one is poor and black in America than rich and white, is just foolishness masquerading as feminism. Of all the intersectional feminisms, only white intersectional feminism would make either claim. The problem is not that we white feminists do not occupy intersecting identities, but that we occupy a great many privileging ones, and the still-profound marginalization we experience is due to just the one or two, having to do with our womanhood and femininity, that are not privileging.

We thus cannot simply drop the white and be intersectional feminists, which would be a simple answer and of great service to our sisters of color if it were possible. We do not know how to do this. We might, someday – this would do so much, if not everything, to stop racism. This is because, and we must learn this, race is entirely about the fact that our whiteness makes us “matter” in the kyriarchical system of racism, and the non-whiteness of others makes them not matter, or at least matter much less. Thus, if we could stop being white******** – that is, not stop having a racial identity, but stop having an hegemonic racial identity, then we should undo racism itself, because it is precisely the hegemonic nature of our racial identity that created and maintains racism.

It is not incidental but paramount in understanding the situation, to realize that white is not a single racial identity but a cluster of racial identities into which groups have been privileged, over time, and it, itself – not our skin color but the in-group powers we are conferred when our skin colors are granted the privilege of whiteness, is the source of the hegemonic systems that hurt us and with which we hurt our sisters and brothers in arms.

This is the non-parallel nature of the system. One does not need to learn to stop being African or Latina. But one must learn to stop being white. It actually does operate much in parallel with the hegemonic nature of manhood, into which one is privileged, and the captive role of womanhood, into which one is cast. Just as we have learned that eliminating sexism, even from ourselves, is no easy task, eliminating whiteness, even from ourselves, will be no easy task. One does not need to learn to stop being a woman. One must learn to stop being a man in the hegemonic identity sense, if one wants not to be a tool of patriarchy. African and woman are not hegemonic identities*********. White and man are. We white feminists have a foot in both worlds. The wealthy white feminist is like the child who leads far and periodically darts back to base to tag up and avoid being thrown out by the pitcher for stealing.

Two_girls_playing_baseball_Brisbane_1940

I make, dear sisters, a sporting analogy (source: Wikimedia)

What is different about this line of sentiment is that it recognizes we cannot fiat our way out of whiteness nor expect others to do so. It allows us to confront the domineering nature of the discursive system our whiteness creates, while continuing our own liberation as women, and reducing gender-based oppression. I am neither asking us to magically stop being white, nor asking us to accept our whiteness as “the way things are.” So in the end, I offer no magic bullet, but rather a turning into the sharp points. I call us as white feminists to do the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, and learn how to stop being white, and in this way, and this is precisely why I am recognizing my white feminism, I believe we can learn to stop being white feminists and finally become feminists.   

Notes:
* After all, I do say “you guys.” Like, a lot. And like, like, a lot. And it labels me as in group instead of marginalizing me.

** Another post, another time, on why it is not such a feminist victory that we say actor instead of actress, but I will respect the preference of others, and it seems that Delpy uses actress, which is admittedly the term I would also use, were I an actress instead of a provocatrice.

*** And I’m certainly not saying that all my Indian-American feminist sisters are white feminists. Probably most of you don’t feel you are, and the circumstances of my experiencing life in such a white fashion are a complex thing that still remains much shrouded in mystery, even to me.

**** If intersectionalism is the recognition that we operate in intersecting identity spheres that confer on us layers of privilege and marginalization, and that make our experiences, each of us, unique, then kyriarchy is that kissing cousin who reminds us that patriarchy itself is one of intersecting systems of dominance and marginalization that, itself, interacts with other systems, such as racism and classism.

***** Awakened with a kiss, doubtless, this is a white feminist fairy tale, after all, and one reposes gracefully to be woken by kisses in our world. It’s just a fairy tale of the proper, Grimm sort. That is, the fantasy is more warning than pleasant distraction.

******  Right outside the cage door, since someone must be free, after all, and it might as well be me. And we fool ourselves that, because we are in the prison as wardens and not prisoners, we are free, when we can never be free as long as there are prisons.

******* When we teach communication, we teach that there are three principal styles – aggressive, assertive, and passive. A passive style – which is nadir and birthplace of most of us white feminists – is one in which the needs of others matter, but our own needs do not. We know this too well, but our feminism was liberating to us entirely because it exposed this lie, and it will never be a source of liberation for anyone if it returns to it. It is the style of the self-made martyr. An aggressive style – in which our needs matter but those of others do not, is the quintessentially White Feminist style. The white intersectional feminist style tends to be a mixture of the two – passive aggressive. Which you’ve probably been taught is not a compliment.

******** Here I reveal that when I talk about being white, I am entirely talking about privilege, and the harm done to the world because I am given it. I do not aspire to whiteness and claim to have reached it – I find myself stuck in it and am trying to escape it.

********* At the risk of having a ridiculous number of footnotes, there are some rare but notable exceptions to this statement. In the context of exclusionary feminists who operate not in the context of women and men, but in the context of cis women and trans women, woman in their usage becomes a hegemonic identity into which one must be privileged. In general, in this way, Straight is a hegemonic identity and queer identities are generally not, but a like exception in the context of queer women’s culture is when lesbian friends reject a woman whose partner comes out as a trans man, perhaps because he will now have to struggle with having moved into a hegemonic category as a man. I feel like I have to run the risk of footnote perversity and explain this exception, since I was reminded of it by a couple I just met yesterday, who had that latter experience.

Changing the Conversation: Re-Defining LGBT Community Values

The following is a speech I gave at the Cadillac, MI Pride, yesterday (August 22, 2015). Cadillac is a town about two hours away from Grand Rapids by car. Its population is about 10,000, although it serves as a hub for rural, outlying communities. Thank you so much to Karen Prieur, David Roosa, Tiffany Robinson, and everyone at Cadillac Pride for having Teri and me out!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

Good afternoon! My name is Mira Krishnan, and I’m so happy to be visiting with you today from Grand Rapids. I want to ask you to share a little bit of your time on this wonderful day with me, to talk about what Pride really means, and what it means to embrace and celebrate, instead of fear or loathe, diversity. To do that, I’d like to start by telling you just a little bit about my personal story. I could go on for this entire time about me, but I do that a lot. Rather than just talk about me, I want to tell you about me more briefly, to provide you context, and talk about some other things.

Probably some of you in the audience today know a trans person. But, I’m guessing, many of you have never met one of us before, or really gotten to know us. That’s important. We know that a majority of Americans who know a trans person – 66% – support trans rights, but that only 16-20% have met us*. That does make me an ambassador, because I want you to join the “know a trans person” group. Don’t worry, if you’re already there, I think I have a few things for you, too.

I represent one trans story. The story I represent has a simple moral: being trans can be a wonderful thing. Although, like most trans people, I “knew” since I was little, I didn’t come out to anyone until just a little less than two years ago. That first time, I was really aware of the risk that coming out entailed. I practiced what I would say. I didn’t sleep all night after that first time I came out. Similarly, coming out to my company was scary. Coming out to my parents was scary. But for me, what magically happened, is every single person of importance in my life, embraced me. Every single one. That really meant something.

I went fully public in July of last year – it’s just been 13 months, and it has continued to be like this – not only does no one object, but over and over and again, people tell me that they understand me better now, feel closer to me. I see in their faces that they take pride of ownership in my success. Good people – and I believe most people are  good, with some occasional help – they use the way they respond to new situations as a way to learn to be more good. That kind of unanimous, unambiguous support and love has really changed a lot of things for me. It’s been what some people call a virtuous circle: as their responses got better and better, my coming out experience got simpler and simpler, and more and more authentic. In the Bible, it’s written as, “Iron sharpens iron.”

Thanks to that kind of support, I don’t doubt if I’m a woman any more. I just am a woman. I don’t use apologetic or defensive language. This might be new to you. For me, I reject the notion that I am now or have ever been anything other than female (and nobody really argues with me). I’m not almost as good as anything; I’m amazing. I wasn’t born in the wrong body; I was born in just the right body. And I don’t apologize for being trans – I rejoice in it. That first night I came out, I planned and I planned, and I thought about all the details. Now, when I come out, it’s pretty much, “I’m trans. Get over it.” And people do! That comes from people not just accepting me, but embracing me.

And that means I get to focus on things that really matter, and say, maybe surprisingly, that being trans (in contrast) is actually kind of boring. Let me take a quick pause there. One theme that comes up, over and over again, is allies asking for education. I love that. You might feel, though, at this point, I’m not educating you, because I’m not talking about all the “stuff” – hormones and medications, gender marker changes, surgeries, clothes – that you think of, when you think of transness. This is not mistake nor oversight. You think you need to know the wrong things. Unless you’re trans, or a healthcare provider or close family member helping a trans person make decisions, this stuff really is not what you need to know. That’s like, when people want to get to know black people, my friends point out, we always want to, you know, touch their hair or know how they make their hair look like it looks. That’s really, seriously, don’t be touching people’s hair, it’s creepy, but it’s also wrong-headed, because what they’re telling you when they’re saying not to touch their hair, is that that’s not how you get to know them. Talking about this “stuff,” is not how you get to know us. I am telling you the important stuff. And it is kind of boring, because although there’s a richness in our trans experience, we are diverse creatures in a diverse world.

Let me tell you what's not boring!

Let me tell you what’s not boring!

So, you might ask, what isn’t boring? Let me tell you what isn’t boring. For me, personally, I’ve gotten to spend the last four years building a world-class Center for Autism, at Hope Network, my base camp for changing the world, back in Grand Rapids. We get to change kids lives, and we’ve been building life changing therapies at a quality level you just couldn’t get, and often still can’t get, around here. And I’ve gotten to help waves of young clinicians develop their skills – not just creating dozens of full time jobs with good wages and benefits but building and launching dozens of careers.

What else isn’t boring? Right in the beginning of my coming out process, wobbling still, as I walked in my true identity, I met Teri, my Prince Charming. I got to see that, at least once in a rare, rare while, love at first sight is real. And although everlasting love can take work, we’re up for it. Last summer, about this time of year, Teri came out to me, as a trans man. That makes us the strangest hetero couple maybe you’ve ever seen, but I say also the cutest. Two months ago, he proposed, and I look forward to spending happily ever after with him, although you know, that’ll be a lot of work, because happy ever after is something you’re not totally just given – it’s something for which you fight.

And finally, what else that isn’t boring, my advocacy life has blossomed. I don’t have to advocate for feminist movement while denying my own womanhood, any more. I’ve made so many friends in the women’s and LGBT movements. I’ve gotten to speak alongside amazing speakers, and like everything we do out in the community, feel like, when I get invited to talk to people, I learn so much that I’m the one getting away like a bandit.

That’s my trans experience. It’s not a lot of things. I don’t represent all trans people. I’m what we sometimes  call “binary” – meaning my identity fits much more closely to the male/female gender binary than some people’s do (I’m a feminist, radical down to my roots, so don’t worry, I rock the boat a little too, and I challenge for sure all the things people say girls and women can’t do). But, people tend to react to me with, “Well, if you’re trans, whatever that is, it doesn’t sound very interesting,” and I recognize that I evoke that response more than a lot of other trans people. But while non-binary identities, genderqueer or gender fluid people, may seem more “exotic” to you, they’re actually really cool, regular people, too, and I hope you get to meet them, and they’re not as different or other-worldly as you might fear. For all the things my trans experience is not, my trans experience shows one thing I need you to know. That one thing is: being trans, and loving a trans person (like my guy), can be delightful. Not just survivable, not just okay. It can be a privilege – I’m lucky to get to be who God made me, and I’m lucky to get to love who God gave me to love.

Trans people, before, during, and after they come out, can live joy filled lives, and when we embrace them, and give them room, sometimes they can really fly.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it's all about. Little kids get it.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it’s all about. Little kids get it.

There’s a catch. What’s so important about this event is that what can happen is not what always happens. You knew that. You didn’t need me to say it. But I am saying it. This relates closely to the next thing I want to talk about: a much broader notion of diversity, within our LGBT community and allies, and also a much broader notion of what it means to advocate for a world that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and finally, a broader notion of Pride.

A big part of the reason my life has been so great, is something called privilege. Privilege is all the things that make my life easier, but I didn’t earn them. Privilege, for me, is coming from a middle class, highly educated family, which meant that I very naturally slid into being highly educated and affluent, myself. Privilege has always kept me in safe neighborhoods. Privilege means being able to access the best resources, easily, whether they’re anywhere here in Michigan, or anywhere else in the nation or the world.

Privilege is a big part – maybe the biggest, but not the only part – of what makes my life so easy and so wonderful. And I didn’t earn it. This is the first kind of diversity I want to talk about. Opposite privilege – that advantage I didn’t earn that makes life easy for me – is marginalization – the disadvantages that I didn’t ask for, and I don’t control, that make my voice less hearable and block my agency.

I started this by telling you about my privilege. If you’re familiar with this idea of privilege, and particularly if you’re, oh, I don’t know, white, straight, male, maybe you might be surprised that I’m the one talking about my privilege. And you should turn to the person next to you, who’s not straight, and get them to notice, too. That’s right. A lot of us the visible, hearable LGBT voices come from highly privileged gay people.

This is why you’ll hear more and more outspoken advocates in the community, like me, shift and balance so that we’re not just talking about, say, trans rights, but we’re also talking about how black lives matter (even if we’re not black). We’re talking about how, and to whom, and when they don’t matter. Which is precisely why we need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is a big change – you look around Pride events, and usually, there aren’t too many Latino or Black faces in the crowd. That’s what happens in Grand Rapids. That’s what happens, entirely too often, throughout LGBT community. And if we’re really talking about a world where gay people matter, then we need to be talking about gay people who are Latino or Black. To give you an example, you might have heard about the epidemic of violence against trans people. This year, we believe twenty hate murders in the US have occurred, already, and there’s a quarter of the year left. These are hate crimes, although the law doesn’t always recognize them that way (here in Michigan, it doesn’t). What you may or may not know, is that here in the US, the lives lost are almost always black and Latina trans women. So if we’re real about ending this, we have to be more cognizant about this. We have to realize, for instance, I’m not the one whose life is in danger – even if that statement isn’t always popular among my non-Black/Latina trans family members. You hear this same story again and again – the vast majority of all violence against LGBT people motivated by intolerance of their gender/sexual identities, is against black and Latino LGBT people, and we can’t fix that if we’re not honest about it.

The other major shift we need to make is talking about poverty and how it relates to the LGBT community. The visible image of us, all too often, is a limited image of a small segment of us – you know, the stereotypical young, pretty, toned, gay men on a yacht. They have a lot of disposable income. They know all the best places to get brunch**. They’re the kind of person your business wants as a customer, and the kind of person you want as your new gay best friend. Right? I mean, yes, I know people who actually fit that stereotype (and I fit too closely to that set, myself). But that’s not a representation of the whole LGBT community. While many of us have high earnings, many more are highly impoverished. They might have the education, the talent, the skills, but they can’t get the job. Or they might have had their chances cut off way before all of that, when they were just kids. And here in Michigan, where you can get married on Saturday and fired the next Monday for being LGBT, that’s a big deal.

Cadillac Pride, and Prides like it, are particularly important, because we’ve got to recognize that every queer person does’t live in San Francisco or Manhattan or London. Right? We’re everywhere. The Network brought Pride to Grand Rapids, from Washington, D.C., a little less than 30 years ago. Because it turned out that there were gay people in Grand Rapids, too, not just big cities. And that same message goes to the importance of not just the legacy they left us in Grand Rapids, but what you are building here in Cadillac, and also how we reach out to all those little communities up here, you know, the ones that think of Cadillac as the “big city,” and look at you like you’re city slickers? Yeah, it turns out, they can be gay just as easily as you or I can. But they can’t get resources as easily as we can. And we need to support them better.

The second kind of diversity I want to talk about is what it means to truly embrace and celebrate people who are different from “us.”

At the Network, in Grand Rapids, in partnership with MDCH and organizations throughout Michigan, one of the exciting things we’re working on is talking about LGBT wellness. We’re starting with smoking cessation. What? Well, smoking kills more LGBT people than hate does. And while there are still people out there who do hate us, the tobacco companies love us. They’ve been studying for decades how to get minorities and gay people to smoke and keep them as loyal customers. You know, like, to the grave. It’s time to remind them, we don’t die easy. And that’s just a start in a broader message that we have to take care of our own community in order to be able to take care of our towns and cities. At the Network, you’re going to hear us talk more and more about health and wellness for LGBT people. At the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, we launched Our LGBT Fund last year, with more than $350,000 committed so far. What are we going to do with it? Help support the most vulnerable LGBT people. 40% or more of homeless youth are LGBT or questioning, and it’s time to say NO MORE, and engage to help families of LGBT youth stay intact, help parents through their children’s coming out, end the practice of kicking kids out of the home because they’re different (this isn’t some hypothetical situation – it didn’t happen to me, but it did to my fiancé). And if LGBT youth do become homeless, these are kids who hold our society’s future in their hands, not refuse to be thrown away, and even though they’re more likely to be homeless, the system often doesn’t accept or help them, because they’re different. We’re going to put an end to that.

Those are two different takes on diversity. Here’s a third. Back to Pride. Be proud. Don’t come up to me and apologize – I don’t want to hear it, and I’d much rather be your friend than hear your apology. Yes, I, like a lot of LGBT people, I do struggle with being one of the “lucky” ones, survivor’s guilt. But I’m here. And you’re here, and you’ve made a choice to be a part of this family. Be proud of it. Whether you’re gay or straight, Pride belongs to you – it’s a birthright – if you are invested in a world that celebrates difference instead of fearing it. And although the sexual and gender diversity you straight people bring to the table may not be as visible as what we bring to the table, diversity belongs to you, too. Being heterosexual is a sexual orientation. Being cisgender is a gender identity. It’s okay to own yours, even if it isn’t like mine.

So thank you for giving me the opportunity, especially those of you who’ve never met a trans person before, to let you get to know me. And please, stay in touch. Come talk to me and to Teri. Connect with me, if you’d like, online – my blog is at miracharlotte.com and you can even hear Teri and I tell a part of our story in an audio excerpt I’ve got there from StoryCorps. You’re very welcome to find me on Facebook, etc., too, and stay connected that way. And please keep being a part of embracing pride in gender and sexual diversity, and making the world better for all of us, straight or queer, by making it more inclusive of all of us. Thank you.

* I said 61% from stage, sorry! Well, the numbers are approximate, anyways.

** Right now, it’s TerraGR, people. But that’s really not the point of this story.

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.

Am I a Woman of Color?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this question, both the variant asking whether I am a person of color, and more to the point, if I am a woman of color (I think less about “Am I a Woman?” … I’m at peace that I am)*. When I’ve asked Caucasian feminists to weigh in, they usually answer with an immediate (and cursory?) “yes.” I think this is correct, but an equally resounding “no” is important, and I think the full story is not told without both the yes and the no.

20140428-074210.jpg
Before it became fashionable to be Irish once a year for St. Patrick’s day, and whenever Guiness is poured or Celtic music is played, or just because one always fancied red hair, Irish Americans were the targets of a lot of racism by the “white” minority, who were somewhat less white than them

Let me start with the “no.” First, it’s important to consider that, much like the question of whether pink is for boys and blue is for girls, or vice versa, the answer to the question, “Who is white?” has changed. Riots among Anglo-Saxon (“white”), Irish, and Italian Americans in the early 20th century were characterized as race conflicts. The concept of being “white” has always really been rooted in Colonialism and control of people. “White” people were Europeans who exerted control, and “colored” people were the othered people they subjugated – predominantly Africans and indigenous Americans. Asians have long played an indeterminate role in this equation. Some of us, and sometimes, were othered as colored people, but other times, we were not. Even in the Colonial era, India had a more complex and different relationship with the crown than any other nation predominantly peopled with “colored folk.” This did not stop us from getting called names – you will occasionally even see the “N word” used to describe my ancestors by Britons (e.g., in passing in the wondrous Passage to India by E. M. Foster). I don’t want to get too sidetracked on this – complex is really a key word, and it has the funny consequence that, were in the UK instead of the US, there would be a lot more Indian faces around me, and certainly far more Indian food, but I would also be far more marginalized than I am here. I simply want to say that our experience was far different than our sisters and brothers in Africa and South America.

More recently and humorously, the mid-2000s pass-time that was Stuff White People Like listed things, well, that white people like, and I’m embarrassed to admit how many are true of me (this is part of the gag, incidentally – the blog was created by an Asian American). So, much like Othello, I am called often whiter than many of my unequivocally “white” girlfriends (I’ve only ever had one non-Caucasian girlfriend, although I’ve gone on dates with people of a variety of ethnicities). Many of my less-grounded-in-feminism women friends have told me they think of me as white. It’s not as simple as that.

20140428-073519.jpg
It’s fantastic that Stuff White People Like ended on My So Called Life. And I may be the stupidest woman alive in listening to all this Dallas Buyers’ Club debating and not realize that Jared Leto was Jordan Catalano

However, all of this should actually be easy to think about by analogy for my feminist and LGBTQIA+ friends – there’s a lot of complaining about traditional gender roles within the “binary.” (I was caught by surprise at a recent support group meeting – someone didn’t know the word; it’s come up in so many conversations in the last half year that I guess I forgot it was not a household concept. That binary is the gender binary that misrepresents maleness and femaleness, or masculinity or feminity, as being opposing states of a binary system, most crudely represented by “1” signifying the “presence” of masculinity and “0” representing the “absence” of femininity). If anything, the white/colored “binary” is far more, not less flawed and nonsensical than the male/female binary. The latter has existed across time and culture and is likely a basic (but malleable) part of the human competing strategy, and many animal ones as well. The former is rooted in an extremely narrow and Eurocentric conception of history. So, while I endorse the gender binary (for me – I am a femme and attracted to moderately masculine/butch people – I don’t push the gender binary on others or police their gender), the “race binary” is just dissonant with my experience, and in this way, I am leery of identifying as a trans woman of color, because it endorses the underlying binary.

A corollary to this: it is vitally important for people like me to remember that marginalization and oppression actually make up a relatively small part of our life histories and experiences. I mean, let’s be real. My Brahmin ancestors came from significant privilege even under the oppression of the British Raj. My parents are black sheep in my family, to some extent, because neither have a doctorate (both have masters degrees in Chemistry – in my family, when you tell an auntie you have a masters degree, they ask why you dropped out). My experience of being a trans woman is far more Coach purses and flash sales at the Limited than homelessness or poverty. It’s the kind of experience being trans where, in more than six months of coming out to more than a hundred people, I’ve had no negative responses and only actively felt gaped at twice. By this standard, arguably the President’s daughters are not women of color, either. I recognize that’s an audacious thing to say, and I don’t want to police their choice to identify or not identify as women of color. I just fear that we privileged (but non-Caucasian) women talking about oppression of racial minorities, as if our direct experience of it is enough to offer a fully informed perspective, run a risk of doing something almost as bad as “mansplaining.”

But that answer, by itself, is simply not complete.

There is also the obvious “yes.” I don’t quite have “skin the color of mocha” (my life is much closer to a queer Taylor Swift song than a queer Ricky Martin song). It’s more like honey, but it’s for sure not alabaster. A woman (of whose ethnicity I am unsure) came up to me at a support group recently and said she was glad another woman of color was there (this town is not so non-diverse, but some of it’s spaces can be amazingly over-representative of Caucasians compared to our city population).

20140428-073913.jpg
I clearly need to consider the subset of products marketed at “women of color,” or at least some of them, anyway, and scads of makeup trends will just never work for me, oh well … I could do worse than these women

Let me go briefly back to leveraging my certainty that I am a woman. I don’t have a uterus, and it’s unlikely I ever will. To my regret, I will never have a child grow inside me. This does mean that I should defer to the voices of women with uteruses (and those who used to have them) in many matters reproductive. But it does not mean that it is not an important part of my experience as a woman to co-advocate with these sisters (I love my sisterhood), and when I do so, I do so in a meaningfully different way than me advocating on behalf of other oppressed groups, in that I am advocating as a fellow woman (just as women stand up for me as a fellow woman – that night I met my girlfriend, her ex did this for me, and it was so amazing).

Furthermore, while I have not experienced so much oppression, I know what it’s like to be othered in subtler ways. I know what it’s like to not conform to the magazine image of beauty, my transness even aside – all the hair colors or makeup that don’t work with my skin, not having the “it” blue or green eyes, and so on. (In spite of having a purely Brahmin Indian lineage going back hundreds of years, I don’t exactly look like most other Indian Americans, either, that’s a topic for another time.) Interestingly, I serve and, in past settings, worked alongside many African American people, and every once in a while, one of the women compliments my having the “good hair,” (if you don’t understand what the phrase means specifically…). To be honest, I am immensely flattered that they sort of considered me one of them, since it’s not a comment they would make to Caucasian people, and certainly not to most people nominally perceived as male, as I was at the time! I know what it’s like to have a name that’s different (the name I chose occurs in several languages, including Sanskrit, but my birth name is common to Indians but not to most Americans, and instantly foreign and “exotic” sounding to Americans… to have fun with them, I point out that it means “mesmerizing” or “charming,” like a snake charmer!). I know what it’s like that the food and customs in my home were “foreign” to my peers.

In essence, I co-advocate with women not only on the basis of our co-humanity, but on shared experiences and interests and perspectives shaped by shared experiences (past, present, and future), which we have in common as women, but which men do not generally share. I do co-advocate, in this very same way, with other women of color, even if we have non-overlapping histories. There are even some ways in which my history as a woman of color (or those of other less marginalized women of color) may be uniquely informative – Lindsey Yoo makes a great case for this. I willingly and gladly take my place alongside other women of color (some of whom were oppressed a lot, and others, like, me, oppressed little or not at all), because I think the world will be a better place when these sisters and I experience less oppression and othering. While doing so, I remember my privilege. I remember that each of us occupies a unique intersection of different forces that privilege us and predispose us to oppression and marginalization. And I stand in the doorway and bid you in – because we are all better together.

* This blog post has an embarrassing number of parentheticals. Radical feminists love parentheticals almost as much as we love footnotes. I just love you so much that I can’t leave the good parts out on you.