Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, July 22, 2013

Race Matters In America: What I've Learned So Far

Here in this post Zimmerman world it has suddenly become okay, if not in fact, necessary to address racism. I venture a perspective from my own particular niche of racial privilege. 

Race Matters In America: What I've Learned So Far

When I came to the US in 1968 (on Labor Day) America appeared to be enjoying a state of progressiveness that infected the whole culture with a vibrancy and newness. And in this context of progressiveness I thought this country of mixed races had this whole race thing solved.

In fifth grade, which was where I entered this conversation, I noted and appreciated the respect being shown by my white teacher during the lessons on black culture. And as I read the story put before me about George Washington Carver learning to read, I also learned something of the plight of black people in America. For in this story black children born into slavery were denied an education, but George Washington Carver had figured out how to get the white boys to teach him the alphabet, by boasting to them that he already knew it. And when they demanded that he recite it, he was counting on them to correct him and that was how he got it right in the end. He did not mind being humiliated in the meantime. This was a lesson I would carry with me for it was quite often that I would find myself in the same position of not knowing something everyone else took for granted. And if you didn't mind being totally clueless and possibly humiliated by those who were in the know, you could learn what you needed to know. This was a big help. Could be of help now.

I don't recall learning to be afraid of black men. My white mother was a fan of Sidney Poitier and the movie Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was used as a teaching point for me since she too had had to introduce her parents to a fiancé who was a man of color. In contrast my Thai father learned to speak in what I would come to recognize as racist terms. He chiefly complained about Mexicans and how inferior they were as fellow immigrants. I disliked his rants because I did not have a Ph.D. like him and my mother implied that I was lazy about just as often. (To insure that I would I live up to my potential, I was sent to private schools where the attention of teachers in small classes would keep me forever anxious about making something of myself.)

At my private high school I was required to read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I did not understand this book at all. The sense of irony was beyond me possibly because I did not realize how being invisible was problematic and I was taking for granted my own invisibility. I better understood Black Like Me which my mother owned. (I also did not understand Crime and Punishment because basically Western thought was still foreign to me, but I didn't know it at the time.) 

I did, however, speak with a British accent identical to my mother's and this was encouraged in my anglophile prep school. (She had actually upgraded her accent from her provincial Yorkshire one when she moved closer to London as a teen.) Post high school the accent gave me another layer of privilege because people listened to me when I talked and assumed I was unusually intelligent or highly educated. I am neither nor am I good at math. I've tried to make up for it with reading. It also helped that I had three different cultural perspectives to choose from, one of which was openly based on class privilege. It gave me more room to observe and understand biases.

Confessions of a Model Minority

And so I came to hold that odd position complicit with white America. I am a model minority. More to the point I am a collectible much like a piece of exotic art. Or as my ex-lover, a horsewoman, put it "I wanted you like I wanted an arabian horse I saw passing by." I had by then acquired a head swiveling beauty that made watching me walk through a room a source of entertainment especially since I was oblivious to the attentions of the men turning to look at me. Beauty brought me social privilege though I was aware that my particular brand of beauty was objectified in a fetishistic way that didn't include being introduced to mom. Not that I'm complaining. On balance my list of privileges, benefits and access to life enhancing experiences amounted to more than your average white person might enjoy. And though I had experienced numerous incidents of stereotyping and inquisition demanding I explain myself, it would be unseemly for me to complain of racism because of this.

I know I tried once and I am still amused and disheartened by the response of my all white, women's writer's group. "Is this an anti-white polemic?" was the first comment. (Love that high brow literary label.) Then several tried to justify, reframe or blame me for all the incidents of prejudice I had described. And I rewrote that poem until all that they were teaching me was included in the rewrite. I had brought up the topic because I thought it might help to add my voice to the issue if I showed my personal experiences of it. I expected them to give me the benefit of the doubt since they had known me for nearly 10 years and it cut me to the quick that they didn't believe me and were defending the perpetrators. The ordeal was so unloving and unsupportive, I knew I would never bring up the topic again. Perhaps they were right, I had too much privilege to complain. And that is how I was silenced because until I figured out some other way to talk about race I couldn't impart what I knew.

While researching this essay, I came across a blog, explaining racism in America written by a black person under a pseudonym that confirmed some of what I knew. It was there that I learned that it is the purpose of the model minority to prove that whites are not the primary beneficiaries of this system of white supremacy in America. That minorities of all races (and white people raised poor) who succeed socially and economically prove that it can be done through hard work, good behavior, dressing and speaking for success and making education a priority. 

But the entire yardstick is an illusion because the benefits afforded both middle class whites and model minorities are superficial compared to the positions of prestige commanded by the uber rich who control the country—the 1% who are invisible to most of America and who have no intention of letting anyone else in. This fully admitted by my ruling-class, horse-loving ex-lover. 

The Invention of White People

The whole idea of white people was invented during the time of slavery to separate the interests of white people who were indentured servants from those of black slaves. I learned this from a black author in her book Learning To Be White which I borrowed from a client (white) who teaches seminars to white people on white privilege. The owning class feared that black slaves and white servants, observed to be fraternizing together, would combine resources and form a rebellion so it became necessary to persuade white people that they were a separate class with privileges based on their race. 

Beginning in Virginia in 1670 (and later adopted by other states) it became illegal for free Negros and Indians to own Christians i.e. "white" servants. From 1680 on it became legal for white Christians including servants to give a slave 30 lashes. Then in 1705 it became illegal to strip a white servant naked in order to beat him. That same year property was confiscated from black slaves and sold by church wardens to poor whites. Masters were also required to pay their white servants at the end of their indentureship with money, clothing, corn, a gun and 50 acres of land. In 1723 free Negroes lost the right to vote, right to bear arms and right to bear witness. Interracial marriage was also made illegal in 1691 although an attempt was made to repeal the law in 1699. And so on until a caste system had been created based on race.

This historical construction of the rights of "white" people convinced me that being white was a construct and the slipperier a construct it was, the more it undermined white people's confidence that they were good enough or white enough to make it in America. European immigrants were also taught to discard their home culture as quickly as possible to avoid discrimination. The behavior of former slaves were used as an example of what not to do. (Which might be why white Americans felt justified in complaining about Black English which struck me as an interesting dialect of American culture that should be preserved.)

As an immigrant I was engaged in conversation by white people who wanted me to agree with their complaints about minorities and other immigrants. It irked me that the same white people who extended themselves to me would not also extend that welcome to everyone. It unmasked my role as a token minority; that I was making them look good in a way that aided and abetted the embedded white supremacy agenda of the culture. I was particularly annoyed by the complaint about the poor English of immigrants because it usually turned out that they themselves had never learned another language. Not having to learn another language in American schools enforces the hegemony of the United States, reduces compassion and increases xenophobia, but it was clearly not my place as an immigrant to complain about the country that was allowing me such access to opportunity and advantages. I already knew that if I initiated a criticism about America the standard response would be "So why do you stay here?"

While I could see that the American system favored whites (and model minorities), white people did not to want to talk about it. We were supposed to be over this whole race thing; it was best to claim color blindness. This is supposed to insure that we would all be treated equally. And though I could see that it was well intentioned it nevertheless infuriated me. Why are you asking me to erase my entire heritage and everything that has informed me thus far? I wanted to know. I consulted my client who taught white privilege. "It is part of white guilt", she said. I consulted Lenore, my white shamanic counselor and civil rights activist. "So they don't have to look at their own privilege," she said as if it were obvious. 

Border Crossing Check Points

Which brings me to another aspect of white supremacy in America. Keeping the races apart. I live in one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan areas of the country where people of numerous nations have shown up to offer their educated skill set to the corporate mother ships of technological innovation here in Silicon Valley. But on the weekends this Star Trek composite of races working together disappear while I find myself among white people. To further study this question of being not white in America I borrowed from Lenore's list and friended several informative posters on Facebook who were black and hoped they would accept my friend request; all did.

The bulk of my experience with black people comes from my travels as a writer 20 years ago. I and whatever other minority writers could be rounded up were invited to publish our stories in anthologies about our lesbian experience and contribute to the need to reflect diversity. We were bridge people. People of color who have made it our work to offer our life stories in order to create a literary culture that is more reflective of the diversity of experience in America (also true of white lesbians). And part of that package was to offer ourselves socially to hold and defend not only our own experiences, but all the cultural turf we might represent in the larger context of white America, a role that requires a certain diplomatic skill set and a willingness to defend a perspective (or multiple of perspectives given that there is never just one to represent).

One such writer was often invited to the parties of a white ally I know. Margaret Sloan Hunter was one of the early editors of Ms. magazine. And because I was usually the only other person of color at these parties (besides her lover), she would recruit me as a POC comrade. Once she invited me to one of her parties along with all the white girls. And so it was that I found myself in an apartment in Oakland hiding out in the kitchen because my white ex lover (the horsewoman) was holding court in the living room with her new (white) lover (and all the other white girls plus our host).

In the kitchen were two black women with whom I tried to converse, but I soon realized that I was not getting anywhere. They were not answering any of my questions just looking at me quizzically. These were not bridge people; they were seeking safe space in the home of a black lesbian community leader and I had just invaded it. Had sat down uninvited like I owned the place. Might I be flirting with them? Hard to tell given my usual oblique, provocative style of engagement. With my English accent, unplaceable nation of origin and non regulation long hair, I was a dangerously unattached cultural discrepancy.

I did have a white date I had invited to accompany me that day, but she didn't show up having not realized the critical role she was to play to legitimize my presence. Five minutes later I felt compelled to leave entirely, my record for shortest attendance at a party.

Beginning The Healing

The worse thing about George Zimmerman's acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin I was realizing for myself the day after the verdict was that he was not white. He was half Jewish with a Latina mother. Whatever psychological pathology he harbored, he needed to hunt black men in the name of protecting the rights of (white) property owners. He was a living example to me that the division of the races was working and that broke me heart. 

The verdict also eroded my confidence. Suddenly we were a divided nation on a topic I knew to be full of land mines. I first had to ask myself—is this my issue? Do I have a right to participate? What do I say as a bridge person? It was not until the half dozen white allies on my Facebook page showed up expressing their grief and disgust at the verdict that I could venture a statement that it was hard to believe this was now a country where it was okay to kill children as a pre-emptive strike. May it be that we just hit bottom, I added.

The day after the verdict I drove to Marin Country for a shamanic workshop where I was the only non-white person in this 18 person workshop. Not unusual for a group so small. No one mentioned the verdict and a woman from Florida was not wanting to talk to me when we were the only ones left to debrief an exercise. Nor did I ask her what she thought about the verdict to protect her from her own shame. 

The workshop was on creativity and it was proving to be a struggle for me as a creative person, but then the definition was opened up and we were asked to make a journey to ask a helping spirit to help us with a community issue. 

"What can I do in ordinary reality to heal racism in America?" I asked. "Writing is your strength" said my grandmother spirit as I was afraid she would. I couldn't even find the door to this topic. In the next journey I asked her to show herself to me as a black woman. She did as I asked, her white hair exchanged for black corn row braids falling to her shoulder. She looked at me with a warm smile. I took her hands in mine across her kitchen table, lacing our fingers together so I could look at the hues of our skin against each other. And then I was in her lap as she wrapped her arms around me and held me. And I asked her how I could bridge the gap between me and black women. (Black men are already happy to talk to me.) "Make eye contact", she said, "offer a welcoming expression, make them visible. Read the literature of black women". (In Asia people do not look at each other straight on quite like people do here. It is too confrontational.) All these ideas I had thought of myself, but it gave me confidence to hear a loving black woman say it. 

When the journey was over, a British woman came over to debrief the exercise. Her eyes widened as I told her how I had asked my guide to show herself as a black woman and when I told her the advice I got, her interest grew and I saw we had both been healed a little bit. 

In the week following I learned of the tumblr blog called We Are Not Trayvon Martin where white people were talking about their white privilege and I saw that we could all participate in this storytelling. Finally the system of white supremacy was being exposed. It reminded me of that other storytelling healing meme called "It Gets Better".

This weekend I made eye contact with a young black woman sitting at a table at the Chipotle restaurant in Palo Alto; she smiled back. On my morning dog walk in my mostly white neighborhood, a white woman jogging by in the customary black spandex, cheerfully said hello to me. I was so taken aback at my sudden visibility I knew it had to be a Trayvon Martin effect. I smiled and said 'hi' back. Then it happened again as I rounded the corner; another woman I had talked to once about a lost dog hailed me from across the street and asked me how I was. I felt more like I belonged in this neighborhood than I have since I moved here 18 years ago. It reminded me that this is a country where people believe that an individual can make a difference. It gave me hope that America would overcome this. 

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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Occupy Marriage

My partner Catherine asked me to marry her the day of gay pride, three days after the ruling came down allowing the quest for marriage equality to proceed. I said yes, but after so many years of being against marriage as an institution I have to write myself a 3,000 word attitude adjustment.

What Cost Marriage Equality?

The gay and lesbian community won a huge victory this week. With no help from me. (Unless you count being publicly open about being in a long term relationship with the woman I love.) When it became clear a decade or more ago that the gay community was going to run with the marriage equality issue I looked upon it much as I did the issue of gays in the military. That this was a niche issue relevant to the few rather than the many and I decamped. I no longer called myself a gay activist. (I became a climate change activist.)

In the late '80s I chose the political identity of lesbian over bisexual because I realized that the straight people I worked with and came out to needed an unambiguous identity in order to address their questions to me about being gay. (The idea that everyone had a fluid sexuality, I quickly realized was too difficult to explain.) As a gay activist I lived the phrase made popular by the feminists of the '70s that the personal was political. And  in the '90s I wrote about my lesbian household as a columnist in the relatively conservative arena of a weekly newspaper in Palo Alto. 

My last point of contact as an activist for the gay community was as a panelist going into high schools (including my own) to talk about the trials of being a lonely, frightened gay kid whose future seemed severely curtailed. The reactions of parents to my appearance began with "I get it about the gay kids, but why does my kid have to be exposed to that lifestyle". Umm, no not getting it at all. Who, after all, was likely to do the bullying?

I often spoke alongside speakers from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays). This group was of immense emotional support to the gay community in the days when parents were just as likely to disown their gay children. The emotional outpouring as PFLAG marched in the Gay Liberation parades of the '70s onward did much to heal this wound. The support offered to parents was equally important. When kids came out to parents, parents typically went into the closet tearfully grieving what was essentially the death of a heterosexual child.

With the fight for gay marriage, the issue polarized the nation much like the abortion issue continues to do so. We made the Christian Right stronger by giving them a unifying enemy. Christian leaders admitted that homophobia and the fear of homosexuals brought more money into their fundraising campaigns than any other issue and they continued to write those letters perpetuating the hatred. And the hate trickled down and was made personal in the dialogues of families of the Christian right and into the schools where they already had a foothold on school boards. The fear of gay marriage was translated directly into the fear that children as young as six would be forced to learn about homosexuality in school. (This was a gross misinterpretation. In actuality it would only be in the sex ed classes that homosexuality would be mentioned at all and only in passing as an acceptable condition.)

At the height of this power of the Christian Right it became popular among the teens of those families to be a "hater". It was something to be proud of. I saw in their ranks, t-shirts that said "I (heart) haters". And because of this turf war being waged in our schools I believe that the fight for gay marriage had a direct correlation with the increase in bullying and the rise in numbers of suicides among our most vulnerable population. A population very hard to help because they were under the age of consent and the fear of being labeled a child molester kept the gay community from reaching out to these teens.

When I came out in high school it was difficult to consider a gay identity when it was an emerging movement in the public eye, but it did not feel nearly as dire as what gay and questioning kids were reporting from their lives in the '90s going forward. I make this conclusion because the generation before me had a different experience than I did. The idea of a gay identity was so exotic in the '50s that there was no need to consider it at such a young age. The '50s being a time of chivalry and protection of those smaller and weaker than ourselves, those who were stronger protected the weaker as a point of honor. The bigger boys took under their wing their weaker (more effeminate) counterparts. And the message to the bullies was that bullying was for the weak of heart and the insecure. 

Once out of high school, of course, it was a different thing altogether and those who found themselves in the gay lifestyle would have to fight the good fight that we came to know as the gay liberation movement. Meanwhile for those under the age of consent, the more homosexuality became visible as an identity the harder it was for kids to ignore this possible option and as their parents expressed their homophobia to the TV as mine did, so did homophobia grow in schools.

One Nuclear Family Can Ruin Your Whole Day

Since gays were largely unwelcome in their families of origin, the lesbians and gay men of the early gay community created their own version of family that was inclusive of their entire community. Marriage was considered an archaic institution in the Marxist days of lesbian feminism. And there was much experimentation as to what a family might be. It included polyamory, extended families and the raising of children within these extended families. Meanwhile the feminist movement fought to redefine marriage and raise women up from the status of property owned by men to having their own identity and equal economic rights within a marriage. 

With the devastating years of the AIDS epidemic, the party gave way to a funeral and issues of inheritance of a dead partner's things came into play. The very real threat of a partner's family coming to claim all his/her belongings and the home you had built together was foremost in our minds and driven home by countless maudlin movies. 

A woman who owns her own house is a dangerous proposition I concluded when my ex lover asked me to leave her house, my home of five years, in favor of the new lover who had moved in. Once I made my home in Catherine's house it did make a difference to me, when after many years of cohabitation, Catherine offered to set up a living trust guaranteeing my ownership of the house should she meet an untimely demise. It made a difference to have that piece of paper because, rather than being prepared to leave at any given time, I was more inclined to put my effort and money into our home.

Marriage from a legal standpoint, without all the sentimental and religious overlay is essentially a matter of property. It is no accident that the woman who sued DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was a wealthy woman protecting her financial interests after her female companion died leaving her a sizable estate on which taxes were due to the tune of some $363,053 because her Canadian marriage to her spouse was not recognized on a federal level. With that amount at stake I would sue too.

The Taste of Victory

When the victories of DOMA and Prop 8 were announced there was an immense outpouring from my straight contacts on Facebook. It felt as if everyone had suddenly become PFLAG. Love was love, welcome to the American family. All this support and love moved me to reconsider my stance on gay marriage not just as a gay victory, but as a heterosexual victory. Marriage had been redefined by the presence of gay people into something cool and desirable. The struggle for gender equality within marriage would get a boost from those who have no gender inequality to consider. (There would still be inequalities related to education, money, class and possibly race, but at least these were gender neutral.)

This long fight for marriage equality (which is not over until every state has joined in) feels very much about privilege for some and not a lot about improving things for everyone. My health care has for many years hinged on Catherine's job and my status as her domestic partner. One of the insights of activists during the time of AIDS was that the gay community would see fit to use their alliance with other social justice movements and their growing political clout to mobilize for national health care. This was so threatening to the powers that be that during the Clinton era a bone was thrown to the LGBT community regarding gays in the military. In practical terms the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy enforced a closeted existence. In the run up to discussing gays in the military it created a diversion that divided the queer community against itself and installed a false gay agenda. LGBT activists were forced to accept the DADT policy as a win for all. Not.

The marriage equality campaign has trained a generation of lesbian and gay activists to work hard to write themselves into what is basically a non-inclusive institution based on the property rights of white men. As mainstream a convention as you can get — one that does not include any benefits for those not married. 

Speaking of a privilege every American should enjoy with few exceptions, the pinnacle accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act was gutted the day before marriage equality peeled across the land. By the same Supreme Court. I did not see any sentiments expressed in the ranks of the privileged that we were all less American because of this. But the Voter ID laws that states are now allowed means that getting the required ID stipulated by these new laws costs money and time which translates to more poor people of color prevented from voting. (And trans people who may be accused of voter fraud because their ID does not match the gender they are presenting.)

No longer does the LGBT community identify with its most vulnerable, most disenfranchised members, but with its most privileged in what basically amounts to a trickle down promise. Now that we have our right to marry, goes the promise, we can get back to the rest of the gay agenda. Which was what exactly?

During the film festival my friend Dave and I watched as a representative of a short film about the age of consent attempted to remind the largely gay male audience of the vulnerability of not only gay youth, but all youth. 

"As you celebrate this marriage equality win", he said, "please consider that in order to support our youth we need to lower the age of consent." 

Yes that would certainly help. If young people had the right to make their own decisions about their sexual activity at least by the age of 15 as it is in Denmark, then they would have social services to turn to. The response of the audience was to literally shut him down. "Show the film," someone shouted. Followed by applause and then clapping in unison to drown him out. 

"Don't you see?" their arrogance seemed to say, "we are mainstream now. We will never again be mistaken for child molesters. We will show by our fine status as married couples that it will get better for gay kids. But we will in no way help until they have made the harrowing passage to the legal age of consent." Meanwhile there were weddings to plan.  

If anything had helped ease the passage of gay youth it was the entertainment industry which put more gay and lesbian teens in TV shows over the past few years than adult characters. There was also Brittany McMillan, a Canadian teen and self identified Christian straight girl who launched Spirit Day from her tiny tumbler blog in October of 2010. On that day we were to wear purple to show our support for LGBT teens who were victims of bullying. Over 1.6 million Facebook users signed up for the event which became highly visible as celebrities and TV anchors were seen wearing purple. I bought myself a purple ribbon that day and tied a bow around my pony tail to wear to my karate class. It was duly noted by my teen classmates and the head instructor gave quite a long talk after class about sticking up for your friends.

Occupy Marriage

Catherine had long ago become a proponent of marriage equality and felt it entirely unfair that there were some 1,049 benefits to marriage that were denied to us as domestic partners much of them with a financial impact. I had to agree with her that the benefits were substantial. I stopped arguing against the marriage equality campaign, but neither did I speak in support of it.

And now that  marriage had been made available to us, the political was suddenly made personal. I knew it was only a matter of time before she was going to pop the question. The differences in our incomes made our tax returns substantial as a married entity and that compensated for the time I put into our household chores. I had also proven my worth as a partner in the year that I accompanied her all those many hours during her cancer treatment.

I began to view marriage much like I had viewed becoming a citizen of the United States. As a legal platform from which to both protect myself and occupy a nation whose policies and treatment of others I did not entirely agree with. We were already living in the state of marriage, we had our green card—we were registered domestic partners, but to really occupy this construct we would need a passport, a marriage license.

On the day of Pride, while all those celebrants of marriage marched in record breaking heat downtown we sat in the cool of the Castro Theater for our final four hours of queer films as is our custom. It was there that Catherine asked me to marry her. And I said yes. She was very happy and so excited about this news that over dinner she wanted to know how I would announce it. It hadn't occurred to me to go that far, but she was eager to make it public as soon as possible. It made her happy to celebrate our commitment to each other and have it acknowledged in the eyes of the world. It was an expression of her love for me.

Forced to consider how we would play out this new status I knew it wouldn't be right to keep it secret after all I had said against marriage. This was too big an about face. And so I allowed that she could announce it in the most public way possible—on Facebook. She had taken a picture of me with her iPhone from across the table and when we got home posted it with her announcement. It was actually a nice picture (though we were not talking about the prospect of getting married at the time). Perhaps we could also do our wedding on Facebook. Okay maybe not.

I did attend a wedding once that informed me on the topic. It was a marriage of a middle aged straight couple, the bride a prominent environmental activists in our community. The wedding was held with a wildly dressed congregation of Faithful Fools. And a woman in a clown's nose got up to protest the union on the grounds that love was dangerous because if people committed to taking care of each other it would lead to political unrest and possible attempts to stop global warming. And if marriage was performed as an act of community activism who could stop the power of love? 

Okay, put that way I'm almost convinced. A relationship made stronger was a good base from which to love the world more. And the planet and all those we worked with and collaborated with for the good of all. It was also my hope that now that the queer community had attained this level of respectability that we would remember ourselves and become more wildly queer as an occupying force rather than behave as though we had succumbed to the sedate values of our captors. Yes this was a model I could expand upon to occupy marriage. Champagne anyone?

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