Nov 4, 2015

The Magic of baseball & Mikey

It was a magnificent day of baseball even though the University of Texas Longhorns were losing. While the rest of the crowd was in a funk, I was treasuring every precious second of what I knew would likely be the last game I ever attended.

It was 1994 and I was about to move away from my home and friends of 12+ years--three times as long as I'd ever lived anywhere at the time (Minnesota now holds that record at 15+ years)--to attend graduate school and begin the journey that led to my career as a college professor.

My dad had given me two season seats to Longhorn baseball for Christmas. He died a couple of weeks later before baseball season started. So, the games had always felt like a special time with Dad even though he wasn't really there.

I took a revolving group of friends to the games until my best buddy, Carol (not previously a baseball fan), discovered how delightful a day at the ballpark could be. Our friends Mike and D soon joined us with their own season seats.

Mike always listened to the games on the radio while sitting there watching them. My dad had the same habit while watching football on TV at home. He'd turn off the volume on the TV and tune in the game on the radio because the radio commentators offered a more vivid description. I never asked Mike why he did that, I assumed that I already knew.

I know that a real baseball fan would remember the name of the guy who was at bat that day (or at least the team he was playing for), but the magic of what happened next erased a few memories. Others are so vivid that I can still smell the chili-cheese dog of the guy sitting next to me.

I remember watching the batter knock off foul ball, after foul ball, after foul ball--arcing off over the first base line, firing back into the net behind home plate, pinging off the metal roof over the stadium--all on third strike pitches. He was going to hit something.

While I was rapt with attention, the rest of the crowd was talking about what to eat for dinner, whether to stop at the grocery, an irritating co-worker, anything but baseball.

Suddenly, while seemingly no one but me was watching, the batter fouled off another ball that sailed in sloooooooooow motion straight for me.

The whole stadium seemingly went silent in that moment as I watched the seams on the baseball spiral towards me. I'm positive I glimpsed "For Mary" tatooed on that ball.

For years I had wanted to catch a foul ball. Carol thought I was crazy because I could get hurt. So, we regularly practiced a drill--I handed her my score card and pencil, she ducked out of the way, I lept in front of her (to protect her), and I reached up to catch the foul ball.

But, Carol wasn't there that day. I didn't have my wing-woman.

Mike was there--sitting on the other side of her empty seat listening to the game on the radio.

I tossed my scorecard to the ground and heard the clink of the pencil as it rolled under the seat in front of me.

I stood up and cupped my hands straight in front of me. I didn't lean forward. I didn't lean to the right. I didn't lean to the left. I just stood up and cupped my hands.

No one else seemed to notice the foul ball but me. No one jostled me to try to catch it. I was alone in that moment--just me and the foul ball.

Then, in one utterly magic moment, the ball softly landed in the middle of my outreached hands. I didn't even chip a fingernail.

I stood in absolute awe for a moment. In an instant, the stadium suddenly burst into noise as I lept up and down screaming with glee and waiving the ball above my head.

As if that moment alone weren't joyous enough, the icing on my foul ball cake was Mike leaning over to me chuckling and saying "Hey, Mare. The radio announcer just called you a great ath-e-lete!"

That was Mike--a joyful, kind, and generous man. He could have just listened to the announcer, smiled, and kept that comment to himself. Mike chose to share it with me, adding to, and joining in my joy.

Mike did that everywhere he went. He spread joy and optimism. He was one of the most enduringly positive and exceedingly kind men I've ever met.

When I heard that my dear friend Mike died yesterday, this joy-filled moment was my first memory. I sat and smiled with tears in my eyes as I remembered it.

What a great legacy of a life well-lived and ended far too soon--that another's first memory of you is this magic moment.

They said it was a "heart attack." But, I don't think it was an "attack," I think his heart was just so full of love that it finally burst into light.

Godspeed, Mikey! Thanks for touching my life with your magic.

Nov 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving Reflection: Hello, my relatives. Today I greet you with an open heart.

WARNING Holiday BuzzKill Ahead!   After engaging in a conversation with my best friend about my Thanksgiving reflections this morning, I became aware that I had sucked all of the joy out of her Thanksgiving. So, if you're of similar spirit, you may want to read this after the holiday!

One of my beloved Minnesota State Senators, Amy Klobuchar (the other is Al Franken), emailed me today and proudly shared the news that Caramel and Popcorn, the two turkeys up for "pardoning" by President Obama in this annual White House tradition, are from Badger, Minnesota! You can go to the White House website and cast your vote for which turkey you want pardoned, and then post your vote to Facebook and Twitter accounts, too. (Don't worry, they both get to live no matter the vote count--too bad politics doesn't work that way.)

So, here's my beef (pun intended). I like a cute holiday traditions as much as the next person, but I'm also coming to this fresh from multiple events at my university in honor of Native American Heritage Month--one of which was a Winter Clothing Drive for Pine Ridge Reservation.

File:Woundedknee1891.jpgOn December 29, 1890 in what is now Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation, hundreds of Lakota men, women, and children were massacred.

On February 27, 1973 at this same site, hundreds of Lakota and other American Indian Movement (AIM) followers made a 71-day stand to draw attention to the horrible conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Today, over 40 years later, Pine Ridge remains one of the most impoverished areas of the United States.

For a nation whose story is that we're the land of the free, the world's greatest democracy, the place where anyone can make their dreams a reality if they only work hard enough, I find the way in which we tell the story of our relationship with the original inhabitants of this land particularly shameful.

And, every year at this time, we repeat that shameful behavior by retelling only part of the story--the story of "happy savages" who shared with starving Pilgrims. I don't doubt that that happened since the concept of "givaways" and Potlatches are deeply rooted in many Native American cultures. But, that's not the whole story.

The whole story of our relationship is far more horrifying. It's been a relationship built on lies and disloyalties that regularly culminated in horrifying acts of violence. Treaties made and broken, land was confiscated and never returned (this is still being done today), whole populations of people were relocated to places with which they had no spiritual connection, and women and children were senslessly slaughtered in repeated acts of violence over hundreds of years.

If your formal education was like mine, you've likely learned little of this history.

Have you ever heard of the slaughter of the Lenape by Dutch settlers in 1643 on what is now the island of Manhattan in New York? Neither had I until I heard Steven Newcombe (author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Fulcrum, 2008) last week. Unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered by the Dutch for not agreeing to pay tax on the land they'd occupied for centuries.

Have you ever heard of the 38 Dakota men who were executed in a mass hanging on December 26, 1862 (the day after Christmas? really?)? Neither had I until I moved to Minnesota where there are many vibrant survivors of these atrocities working to heal their communities by telling this story. For more, watch this remarkable documentary Dakota 38.

And, yes, I understand there was violence on both sides. What I don't understand is our perpetual refusal to tell the more complete history of how we became these United States of America.

I don't intend to set up a rigid either/or here--Thanksgiving, love it or hate it. I simply intend to inspire you to pause and reflect on the very real both/and of this holiday. It is a time of both gratitude and regret, both generosity and miserliness, and both truth and lies (at least of omission).

While I am grateful to take this time every year to give thanks, I also regret that this holiday rarely includes honoring our Native American sisters and brothers. While I appreciate the story of Native American generosity that is retold each Thanksgiving, I'd like to hear the story of white miserlieness as well (unwillingness to cohabit these lands together). While I know some of the truth of this U.S. history, I'm annually troubled by the absence of other stories.

My simple request is this. As you give thanks for the many blessings in your life this Thanksgiving, could you pause for a moment to honor those cultures who lived on these lands, reared their children here, buried their dead here, and still survive to do these things today in spite of systematic efforts to eradicate their cultures and their histories?

Haƞ mitakuyepi. Anpetu de cantewaŝteya nape ciyuzapi ye. (Hello, my relatives. Today I greet you with an open heart).

To learn more

Sep 17, 2013

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer shoves another boulder on women's path towards leadership

Since this issue felt so personal to me, I've chosen to write in the form of a letter to Marissa Mayer.
Dear Marissa:
Whether you pay attention to it or not, being only 1 of 21 woman CEOs of a Fortune 500 company puts you in a position of great responsibility in more ways than one—you hold the authority to shape people’s perceptions of women in leadership. Sadly, your choice to strike an alluring pose in the September 2013 Vogue has the effect of adding to the distorted perspective many already have of women in leadership.
I’m not naive. I understand that public relations is about drawing attention to the company and selling an image. I can guess why you’d want to present an image of yourself and Yahoo! as edgy, non-traditional, and unconventional.

The problem is that this sexualized image of you does not help pave the way for other women in leadership. It shoves giant boulders on their paths—one that is already strewn with many other obstacles.

While I choose to assume that your knowledge of technology and your business savvy are what landed you your spot at Yahoo!, many others will not be so generous. These comments in response to a Business Insider piece about your Vogue pose are just one example of the pervasive attitudes about women in leadership:
  • amt on Sep 12, 8:14 AM said:  Obviously she's too wrapped up in herself and her ego to put that aside and focus on running a company. Terrible idea to make her a CEO.
  • Sportsguy on Sep 12, 8:55 AM said:  Maybe she should concentrate on fixing the Yahoo Sports site which is now an unusable mess.
To be fair, everyone’s not so clueless, as evidenced by a slightly more enlightened commenter:
  • Laser Guided Loogie on Sep 13, 5:40 AM said:  Marissa Mayer is a good looking lady. I don't see why some people think that is at odds with the fact that she also smart and competent. So go ahead and pose Marissa. If you can give Google some competition in the search market again, maybe you can even put out a bikini calendar. Give them out with your stock offerings and I'll buy both. -Ken
Here are just a few of the obstacles girls and women who aspire to leadership face today.

Young girls and women face an even more hypersexualized image of themselves in media than ever before (and young men face a hypermasculinized image of themselves). If you doubt these facts, view these documentaries, each of which is full of data from scholars who study these issues: Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 (2010), Jackson Katz’s Tough Guise (1999), and Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s MissRepresentation (2011). (The last is available to stream on Netflix as of the date of this post—September 17, 2013).

If you think the images of women in media are too trivial to worry about, consider this estimate that American teenagers spend 10 hours and 45 minutes a day consuming media images and messages. That’s a lot of time to absorb ideas, especially when they are far more focused on women as the sexual object of men’s desires than they were even just 20 years ago.

If you think that doesn’t influence adult’s perceptions of women in leadership, consider the woefully poor representation of women in leadership in the U.S. In education, women are only 14% of college presidents at doctoral-granting institutions, and 29% at two-year colleges. In politics, women are only 20% of the U.S. Senate and 18.3% of the U.S. Congress. In business, women are only 4% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

I’m sure you’re aware of the low numbers of women in technology at all levels. If you think these images don’t contribute to that problem, I point you to the 50 years of data from the Draw-a-Scientist-Test (DAST) showing the remarkable persistence of stereotypes about who belongs in science and technology. Researchers have now tested many populations including elementary students, college students, and teachers of math and science in the U.S. and internationally with woefully consistent results. DAST participants have repeatedly imaged “a scientist as a middle-aged or older man wearing glasses and a white coat and working alone in a lab.” Unless they’ve been shownotherwise, most just can’t even imagine a women scientist or technologist. For more, see my essay Nerds, Geeks and Barbies: A Social Systems Perspective onthe Impact of Stereotypes in Computer Science Education.

Apple CEO Tim Cook on a chaise
There’s nothing wrong with you celebrating being an attractive woman. What I find problematic is that you flaunted that attractiveness to market your company.

Can you picture Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, or Larry Page wearing tight pants and uncomfortable shoes, striking an uncomfortable and submissive pose upside down on a chaise, while holding an image of their pouty lips on an I-pad? Neither can I.

They would never pose that way because they don’t have to. Like most men, they’ve learned that their worth is primarily measured by their achievements. Most women still learn that their worth is primarily measured by their physical appearance.

The problem is that most U.S. American women are not model-thin and stunningly beautiful. That doesn’t stop many women from wasting their time and their financial resources trying to meet an unachievable standard in an effort to feel “worthy.” I point to the massive earnings of the fashion and beauty industries (supported by Vogue), and the exponential growth in cosmetic surgery in the U.S.

Meanwhile, we still live in a country where 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. And, many will still be erroneously accused of “asking for it” because they were busy trying to meet this oppressive standard of female beauty by dressing in alluring ways.

Forty percent of those rapes will be perpetrated by men who knew the woman they raped. There is a connection between these hypersexualized images of women (focused on being the submissive object of men’s desires) and hypermasculinized images of men (focused on being the active subject who holds power over others), and the fact that too many men still think it is acceptable to commit this type of violence against women.

How did I get from an “innocent” photo on a chaise to rape? It wasn't hard because yours isn’t the only hypersexualized image of a woman in mass media. They are everywhere and they have power.

If a young girl has a family that teaches her to value herself in different ways, these images may have little impact on her. But, if she does not, these constant messages about the “real” measure of a woman’s worth can be crippling. If a young boy has a family that teaches him to have compassion towards others, then he’s less likely to turn women into objects. But, if he does not, the constant messages about women as objects of men’s desires, and men as the actors upon those objects, can be consuming.

Your actions demonstrate why it’s not enough to just have women in leadership. We need women in leadership who understand the ways in which gender socialization still negatively influences women’s and men’s perceptions of themselves and others. We need women who are aware of the ways in which their actions powerfully influence the future for other women—by creating possibilities or making things less possible.

Your photo is like a giant boulder for the next woman to climb over on her path to leadership. It represents the ways in which you just made it harder for her to be taken seriously as a leader—and to take herself seriously—especially if she is not as physically attractive as you are.

Aug 25, 2013

The Butler, the Patriot, and the Patriot’s Daughter: A Tale of Three Servants

Eugene Allen with the Reagans
(Family photo)
Yesterday, I went to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler—a film inspired by Wil Haygood's Washington Post article titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Haygood’s article highlighted the 34-year long career of White House butler EugeneAllen in the context of a brief history of African-Americans in the White House.

In fact, it’s only thanks to Haygood (who once played a butler during his short-lived acting career) that any of us have ever heard of Eugene Allen's courageous journey against hatred. Prior to President Obama’s first election, Haygood went in search of someone who had lived inside the White House when “the very idea of a black man in the Oval Office seemed impossible.” Just a few days prior to President Obama’s historic election, he found Eugene and Helene Allen. Sadly, unlike in the film, Helene never got to cast her vote for the first African-American president. She died on November 6, 2007, the night before the election.

Since the film was only “inspired” by Allen’s life, much of the story was altered for dramatic effect, but some of the more touching moments were true. Allen was actually devastated by President Kennedy’s death. His only son Charles shared that that day was the first time he’d ever seen his father cry. Nancy Reagan did invite Allen and his wife, Helene, to a state dinner for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Allen’s character and ethic of impeccable service really was as depicted. And, Allen was actually invited to attend President Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
Although screenplay writer Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels took liberties with the facts, the spirit of the story remains true. It is a story of incredible courage in the face of nearly unbearable hatred that is sadly rooted in our nation's history, and still bears fruit today. Many families really were torn apart by the generational differences between parents and children over the burgeoning modern Civil Rights movement, both African-American and white families.

As I sat watching this retelling of these often horrifying events (some played by the film’s actors and some actual news footage), I grew increasingly uncomfortable with a painful reality. Although I lived through most of these events, my whiteness allowed me and my family to avoid and/or be largely unaffected by this dramatic history unfolding around us.

I was two months old when teenager Emmett Till was murdered for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, and barely 6 months old when civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Only a year before, the Supreme Court had opened the way for desegregation by striking down the long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education. And, these were just a few early events of what was to become the modern Civil Rights movement.

As the white, blue-eyed, blond-haired last child of four born to a middle class family, I have only vague remembrances of most these events, such as the day I saw black and white images on our home television of African-Americans being beaten by police while cities burned, and heard one of my parents commenting on the looting of stores with "there's no excuse for that."

What is most notable about these remembrances is the absence of thoughtful conversation about what was unfolding before our eyes on TV (but not in our neighborhood) because I spent many hours in conversation with my dad about other things. I can only assume that this was another manifestation of white privilege. It wasn't discussed because it wasn't considered part of our world.

As a Baptist minister’s oldest son, my dad grew up with a profound ethic of service. But, he also grew up with many unanswered questions about the meaning of life. When he left home for college, he began studying other religions and philosophies, and that quest for understanding continued until his last breath. I can't know if he ever found his answers, but I can look at the way he lived. Like Eugene Allen he lived a life of service, albeit a very different kind of service due to race privilege.

He started out in ROTC at Virginia Tech, and was later admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1941 and his first duty was Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where he was asleep on a destroyer the morning of December 7th when the first Japanese bombs flew. He ended the war as a fighter pilot on the USS Essex from which he flew a sortie over the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945 as the Japanese signed surrender documents. I only learned of these experiences a few years before he died, when a historian gathering oral histories from Pearl Harbor survivors interviewed my father.

Dad resigned from the Navy a couple of years before I was born, but he continued to work for the government—indirectly via defense contractors as an aerospace engineer and directly in several government positions. For most of my life, I knew very little about my father’s work except that it caused us to move more than I liked.

Dad and me after tennis, 1979
One sunny Saturday afternoon in the late 1980s, I was sitting on the back porch of my parent’s home talking with dad about life as we frequently did. I said, “Dad, I have this story that I tell people when they ask why we moved so much and what my father did. But, how would you describe your career?” Dad paused for a moment to puff on his thick Bering cigar, and then quietly said “I was a patriot.”

That simple, but profound, reply said it all. My dad, the son of a Baptist minister, had found his call to service, but it was service to the ideal of the United States of America. His every professional choice was in service to this country. But, he was also wise enough to question some of those choices when merited.

I remember him sitting and weeping when the secret cables leading up to World War II were finally released under the Freedom of Information Act. He was heartbroken to discover that President Roosevelt knew the Japanese planned to bomb Pearl Harbor and had let it happen.

I remember another time when after reading a history of events leading up to the war in Vietnam (where he served as Science Advisor to General Abrams) he sorrowfully said “we never should have been there.” He also found it shameful that a disproportionate number of young African-American men died in that war because they were unable to get the draft deferments that many whites received.

These two stories demonstrate how my dad was always willing to reconsider his previous understanding when given new evidence. And, that’s why I’m surprised that we never talked about the Civil Rights (or women’s) movement that was unfolding right before our eyes. No one alive at that time could have avoided knowing about the dramatic changes that were happening for people of color in the United States. The only explanation for not discussing it is that it wasn't considered "relevant."

In fact, the only time I remember discussing these events was in 1971 shortly after we returned to the United States after two years in Southeast Asia. For me, living as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed US American in Southeast Asia, gave me a glimpse of the experience of being the “other.” I began to understand (admittedly, only as much as any young white woman could) what it was like to be judged by the “color of your skin rather than the content of your character.”

When I returned to the United States, I attended Newton High School which included mostly white students from the middle class suburb where we lived, and a few African-American students who were bussed to school from Roxbury—a working class neighborhood in Boston. During this period, I became close friends with an African-American student, volunteered for the Shirley Chisholm for President campaign, and began reading books about the Civil Rights movement. That was when I had the only conversation I remember with my dad about race in America, and it was just some questions about why I was reading these books.

Looking back, I understand that my experience of otherness while living as an American in Southeast Asia had created a natural empathy for the African-American experience in the US. I say this knowing full well that I can never really understand the brutality of racism in a lifetime where I have transited the world as a white person. However, my activism was short-lived as I struggled to readjust after living overseas so my dad could participate in what had become a very unpopular war.

Ultimately, my adolescent angst and need to belong trumped my quest to understand what African-Americans were fighting for. And, that’s the hallmark of race privilege, I had the luxury of making that choice to quit paying attention and to stop contributing to constructive change. My African-American friend did not.

Almost 20 more years would pass before I would pay attention to these issues again. Those years were marked by the actions of many courageous men and women who stood up to oppression and made a real difference—they changed laws, but more importantly, they changed our hearts and minds as a nation. My interest was reawakened when I returned to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, and that was quickly followed by a master’s and doctorate that focused on social justice.

Today, with more experience and more knowledge, I can say without equivocation that there are no black and white answers (pun intended) to the question of how so much hate can still survive in this country that serves as the model of democracy for so many in the world. The history of race privilege and oppression in the United States is a long and complex one, and it will take more than my lifetime to unravel those twisted threads.

However, amidst the persistent hatred, there are those who choose a different path and their bright spirits light the way for us all. Although they worked in very different social spheres in large part due to what race oppression and race privilege made possible for them, the lives of Eugene the butler and John the patriot are woven together by a shared thread—their lived commitment to service. Each served with quiet dignity. Each served with courage. Each positively transformed the lives of those who knew them. And, each, without ever knowing it, has demonstrated the profound difference that one life can make.

Both of their lives have taught me that whatever path unfolds before us, if it is lived with care, empathy, and respect, one life can help tilt the social scale away from hate and toward respect.

Me with Cheryl Espinoza
As for me, the patriot's daughter, my service has taken a different form. As a teacher, I strive to create a beloved learning community within which each student's innate capacity for care, empathy, and respect is reawakened. I hope that by teaching them some of this history, I am applying my white privilege toward a greater good.

I view teaching and learning as a never ending spiral. And, my journey of service has led me to believe that we are all in service (or, at least, we should be)—to each other.

PLEASE COMMENT: This piece began as an effort to honor the real butler Eugene Allen while discussing white privilegea concept that is difficult for many whites to understand. When I started writing, it took on its own life and this is what was born. I especially welcome comments from folks of color since I worry that it may come across as white-woman-why-can't-we-all-just-get-along pandering, which was not my intent.

Jun 4, 2013

Rape and the Courage to Love

We are 13 years into the 21st century, and what defines us as a human species? Launching spaceships to chart our solar system? Mapping the human genome? Electronic libraries with the potential to educate millions? What progress have we really made when we have yet to learn basic respect for the integrity of another? There were four stories about rape in The New York Times today:
  • Neha Thirani Bagri and Vishnu Varma's American Tourist Gang-Raped in Manali, Police Say --A 30-year-old American woman was raped by three men in the northern resort town of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India.
  • Sally Armstrong's In Kenya, a Victory for Girls and Rights --160 girls (3 to 17 years old) sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped. They won and changed the future for 10 million girls in Kenya.
  • Shelly Burgoyne's Why Haven't the Marines Shown Stronger Support for Women ...--Burgoyne challenges the U.S. Marine's to take action on Congresswoman Jackie Speier's complaints about Facebook pages promoting sexual violence, rape and degradation of female Marines. Burgoyne found that the sites had more than 50,000 Marine “likes.”
  • Kirby Dick's Don't Trust the Pentagon to End Rape --On the day of senate hearings on rape in the military, Dick shares insights from his 100s of hours of interviews for his documentary film on rape in the military titled The Invisible War. 
First, with regard to the current conversation on rape in the U.S. military, any effort to create change on this issue is a good one. I'm grateful to the women senators who got the issue some serious traction this time--many have tried before without success because their numbers were too small. This is a great example of why we need more women in leadership positions in all professions.
It's not that men can't or don't care. I profoundly appreciate those who do. It's that one in four women in the U.S. (a number that's likely way too low due to underreporting) know about rape personally because they've survived it. Most have survived it at the hands of a man to whom they've given their trust--their coworker, their boss, their date, their boyfriend, their husband, their cousin, their uncle, their priest, their brother, or their father.
Me at 25
Every woman handles rape differently. For me, uncertain of my path at 25, it was the ultimate testament of my worthlessness as a person other than as the object of someone else's will. Not even earning my Ph.D. could erase the valuelessness instilled in me that night. Many things were taken from me in that ultimate act of violation--things I've found difficult to restore. Although I moved on, that experience changed me in ways I'm still unraveling 33 years later.
However, as we all must do to survive the trials of this material existence, I ultimately turned inward toward a deeper truth. The lessons from that night, along with many others, have led me to understand what really matters.
Violence (of which rape is only one example) will not end as long as we construct a world around power and who holds it; as long as we hierarchically rank human beings according to gender, race and other traits that have nothing to do with character; and as long as our human relations are about fear and control.
We are capable of so much more as a human species. We are capable of donating a kidney to someone we've never met, as many are doing daily in the U.S. We are capable of jumping off a bridge into a roiling river to save a complete stranger, as a man in my town did on July 4th a few years ago. We are capable of forgiving the man who murdered our son, as one woman did recently.
We are capable of creating the beloved human community that we all seek. But, first, we must believe that is possible. This is NOT just "the way things are." Riane Eisler and others have demonstrated that before we created our current domination social system (only prevalent for the past 5,000 years), we lived in partnership with each other. For tens of thousands of years, human beings lived in a climate of care, respect, and empathy--a climate in which rape would be inconceivable.
But, how do we get there from here? It starts right where you are. Instead of making your human relations about power, fear and control, make them about love, trust and respect.
There's no question that in a world that revolves around power, it takes courage to shift the paradigm. It takes courage to extend respect, even when it's not given to you. It takes courage to trust, even when your trust was violated. It takes courage to love, especially those who hate. But, I've come to understand that that is the only work worth doing in this life.
To the man who raped me in my own bed that beautiful San Diego night: You may have controlled my body, but you couldn't diminish my spirit. You may have scared me, but I haven't lived in fear. You may have exerted power over me, but you didn't extinguish my capacity for love. I am still learning to love, and will continue to do so. I hope you have found the courage to do the same.

Jul 14, 2009

Dancing on the Razor's Edge: Judge Sotomayor, Sexism, Racism, and the Confirmation Hearings

I've just sent my fourth email to a U.S. Senator today--all in response to what I've heard at Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. While most of my day has been spent writing my upcoming book on teaching and spirituality, I watched part of the hearings over coffee this morning and more over a late lunch this afternoon. Those brief exposures to the questioning sent me straight to my email (and now, this blog).

Politics is hard for me. It's not good for my blood pressure. I know that things are often said "for show" because there's another agenda that these comments will support, but I find it troubling nonetheless. Distortions disturb me.

My first email was to Senator Jeff Sessions regarding his questioning of Judge Sotomayor's "wise Latina woman" comments in a speech. What disturbed me most about Senator Sessions' line of questioning is that he either refused to hear or really just didn't understand Judge Sotomayor's explanation of her comments. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter.

I believe that the difference between Senator Sessions' poor understanding of Judge Sotomayor's comments and her (to me, very clear) explanation of them lies in an unamed core assumption about the belief in pure objectivity, which underlies most of our knowledge tradition in many fields of thought. However, as a feminist science studies scholar, I know that this assumption has been challenged by many. Notable among them is philosopher of science Dr. Sandra Harding who argues that our subjective experience must be considered in our judgments if we are ever to even approach objectivity.

Our experiences shape our perspectives, attitudes and beliefs in many ways, and lead us to form (often hidden, but deeply held) assumptions about many things. Without illuminating and naming the ways in which our hidden assumptions (based on past experiences) may influence our current perceptions, we are even less likely to make truly objective decisions.

It is not enough to merely assert that one is unbiased and is making objective judgments. In fact, to determinedly ignore the ways in which our subjective experience may influence our judgments leaves us even more prone to biased judgment. For example, for Senator Sessions not to name the ways in which growing up as a white male in a rural town of then racially-segregated Alabama may influence his perception of race and gender is to leave himself open to precisely the type of determined misperception and misinterpreation of Judge Sotomayor's comments that he has engaged in.

This is the very thing that most who operate from a position of race, gender, and/or class privilege miss in these types of conversations. Pretending that racism and sexism don't exist will not end them. The fact that we live in a hierarchically structured society that still institutionalizes difference influences how we all move through our world. If we don't honestly examine those differing influences and bring them to the light, we may never really eradicate racism, sexism, classism, and all of the other members of what Gloria Yamato calls "the ism family."

My next two emails were to my Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken. I hoped that sharing this language and way of thinking about this discussion of Judge Sotomayor's comments might help them make a better case in her favor.

My most recent email was to Senator Lindsey Graham. I found his seemingly warm and friendly questioning even more offensive in content than that of Senator Sessions. I was actually physically pained by the contradiction in his thinking regarding the focus of his questions.

On one hand, he implied that Judge Sotomayor may be biased regarding race and/or gender based on comments from speeches, not on her record (in my experience, actions speak louder than words). On the other hand, he demonstrated condescendingly sexist bias himself in instructing Judge Sotomayor to "tone down" her personality in her court. This "advice" was inspired by evaluations of her as a judge by New York attorneys that referred to her as "tough" and a "bully."

Sadly, this so-called data may offer a classic example of a sexist (or racist) double bind. In our hierarchical dominator society, we've defined leadership largely in terms of characteristics that almost directly correlate with how we define "maleness"--assertive, strong, task-oriented, etc. However, women in leadership must dance on the razor's edge--attempting to be assertive may get you labeled as arrogant, attempting to be strong may get you labeled a bully, and attempting to be task-oriented may get you labeled uncaring. It is far more likely that an assertive, strong, task-oriented woman will be criticized than any of her male colleagues who display the same behavior.

It is also not trivial to report that 17 of Judge Sotomayor's other 20 colleagues on the Second Circuit Court are male. Clearly, attorneys rarely have to come before a woman judge. When they do, they are far more likely to be critical of her behavior. If she doesn't walk the razor's edge carefully enough, she'll bleed.

We will never have more women and people of color in positions of power in this nation, until those who are already in leadership positions take the time to really educate themselves about how we keep inviting the dysfunctional "ism" family to the dinner table. We must engage in ongoing learning about the insidious ways in which we all participate in keeping this flawed social hierarchy in place.

Just saying "I'm not sexist or I'm not racist" is not enough. We each have to daily scrutinize our own behavior. If you want to understand more, I recommend Allan Johnson's wonderful little book Power, Privilege and Difference or bell hooks' Feminism is for Everybody.

Apr 30, 2009

Permission to Grieve: The Healing Power of Public Art

My tour of duty began shortly after my 14th birthday when my father arrived home from his job in the Pentagon’s Office of Southeast Asian Affairs to announce that he had accepted a two-year assignment in Vietnam. My parents began discussing where Mom and I should move in order to see Dad more often. Our choices were to remain in Virginia (and see Dad once a year), move to Hawaii (and see him every nine months), move to the Philippines (and see him every six months), or move to Thailand (and see him every three months).

On August 24, 1969, we boarded a plane in San Francisco bound for Bangkok. Twenty-four hours later, I looked out the window as the plane descended toward an expanse of bright green rice paddies. Thus began what remain two of the most remarkable and challenging years of my life. Mom and I lived in Bangkok while Dad was in Saigon. For two years, we flew to Saigon or Dad flew to Bangkok every three months or so. During that time, I volunteered for the Red Cross at U.S. Army hospitals in Bangkok and Saigon.

On one trip to Vietnam, Mom and I flew with the American Red Cross “donut dollies” to several fire bases within chopper distance of Saigon. Every time I hear a helicopter now, I’m transported to vivid memories of that day. They flash by in snippets. A young American soldier strapping me into a seat next to the doorless opening in the helicopter. Another soldier climbing up behind me to man the machine gun pointed out the door. The relief of the hot air rushing through the open cabin as we cut through the suffocating tropical heat. Banking to turn over dense green jungle after we were diverted from visiting a fire base currently under enemy fire. The awareness that the “enemy” might be below in the jungle and that I should be afraid. But, I wasn’t. I wondered why, but couldn’t explain it for many years.

I was a young, white, middle class, U.S. American girl travelling on a diplomatic passport which meant “special” treatment. I assumed that just being my father’s daughter would protect me. I assumed that race and class privilege would protect me. In my ignorance, I assumed many things. But, the experience of living in Southeast Asia was the beginning of the end of such ignorance. I remember Edna Cohen, a well-travelled neighbor in our apartment building who had moved to Thailand from Iran, saying “You may not understand it now, but in a few years you’ll begin to see all that you’ve learned from this experience.” Edna was right. And it didn’t take very long.

As soon as we returned to the U.S., I realized how different I was from other teenagers due to my experiences in Southeast Asia. The differences cost me. But, as is often true in life, the greater the sacrifice, the greater the benefit. The problem is that you have to recover from the sacrifice, before you can appreciate the benefit. It took me years to recover.

Over the years, I’ve pondered how to write about it without sounding like a whiner. After all, I didn’t have to carry a gun and I wasn’t asked to risk my life or to take anyone else’s. But, I did experience death. Like all U.S. Americans, my Vietnam experience consisted of many deaths—the death of my unchallenged patriotism, the death of my unquestioned idealism about democratic government, the death of my unwavering belief in my father’s infallibility, the death of my high school years, and the death of my innocence.

I had never grieved any of these losses until I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. nearly 20 years later. In the presence of Maya Lin’s black modernistic gash through the capitol city of white classical marble, I realized that I had always felt like a Vietnam veteran, too.

What made Lin’s memorial so powerful was its color and placement among the other monuments to U.S. history. Lin’s simple black memorial was buried in the earth, unlike the classical white memorials that towered over it—disrupting the orderly relationship of the monuments to each other. So, for me, Lin’s memorial felt like an honest and moving tribute to the Vietnam experience that similarly disrupted and left its scar across the heart of so many U.S. Americans.

And, then there were the names, the names, the endless walls of names. Was one name the soldier who helped me into the chopper that day? Was one name the solider who manned the machine gun that day? Lin’s wall, buried in the earth and reflecting a sea of losses, made it impossible for me to continue burying such questions and my own losses rose up like the tide and crashed on the shore.

As the tide of my losses ebbed, I looked around and saw how Lin's black gash helped so many honor their different losses. Some lost their lives. Some lost their limbs. Some lost their lovers. Some lost their brothers. Some lost their sisters. Some lost their fathers. Some lost their mothers. Some, like me, lost their innocence to the grief of a nation. Like the rest of the country, I needed to mourn that loss. Maya Lin’s art gave me permission to grieve.