The Lessons of Mass Transit

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My bus was late today. No big deal, right? Buses are late all the time. This morning was different though. I walked up to the bus stop, and there was a man waiting for the bus. He was Hispanic, and had a number of prominent tattoos. He was also not wearing nearly enough against the cold Minnesota air. Conclusion: homeless or can’t afford jacket.

I’m generally a fairly anti-social person, and so I sidled up to the bus stop quietly, pulling out my bus card and looking at the ground. As I did so, he asked me the time. I checked and answered, thinking he would stop talking. Instead, he struck up a conversation: when does the bus come? Where are you going? Do you speak Spanish? Eventually he ended up telling me about his failed marriage and his time in prison. Part of me was desperate for the bus to show up already because I am not a happy person before my morning coffee, but the longer we talked, the more I realized that I was grateful for the chance to simply be with someone I wouldn’t normally be with.

To be perfectly honest with myself, I judged this man unsafe when I first saw him. I judged him as someone I did not want to converse with. Because of mass transit, I was forced to rethink that judgment. I was forced to be kind to someone, to listen to someone, to share myself with someone. It wasn’t a big interaction, 15 minutes at most. But I’m grateful for it. I heard an experience that I would never have heard otherwise. I gained a perspective that otherwise would have been lost to me. And these things are not small. I exist in a world of great privilege, with other individuals who are well-educated and well-off. I want to have the best understanding possible of those who don’t live in that world, and this moment was illuminating for me.

This person was real. He had stories. He was vulnerable. He just wanted someone to listen, and that was all I could offer him at that moment. I hope that it was enough.

This to me is the most important benefit of mass transit. It removes you from your insulated world and requires you to exist in the world with all the other individuals that exist around you. We live segregated lives. Oftentimes they are self-segregated, but we spend our lives around people who are like us. Particularly for those who are wealthy enough to buy cars, we rarely venture into places that are full of people of color or people in poverty. When we walk past them on the street, our eyes slide by them. We avoid.

When you are travelling with someone, you cannot avoid them. Oh sure, you can put in headphones or read a book, but you cannot stop seeing them. You can’t stop seeing the person who is talking to themself, or the mother who is hitting her child, or the people yelling at each other. You can’t stop seeing the gentle father, or the man who just wants to talk, or the kind person who gives up their seat for the elderly. These things happen and you experience them. You have conversations with these people and you begin to feel the shape of their lives barely forming beyond your ability to understand it. You are challenged by the actual existence, the actual humanity in front of you, of those people who are different from you.

You might be afraid. You might be disgusted. Or you might allow yourself to be challenged to imagine the rich complexity of how they live entirely apart from you. You cannot hide from the nasty things in life when they are invading all your senses: the poverty, the homelessness, the desperation in people’s eyes.

This, I think, is why so many people are opposed to using public transit. Yes, it can be a hassle, and yes, it can be slow, but in reality, many of us don’t want to mingle. We don’t want to get “dirty”. We are afraid of the lives we don’t want to see.

So as Thanksgiving looms, I am thankful that I am forced to see things. I am thankful that each day as I bus to work, in a job whose explicit purpose is to fight poverty, I see what I am fighting. I see the people behind that title. I am forced to accept those people in my space. I am thankful that they are there, that I can hear them and that in some places, they will not be ignored.

Will Follow Rules for Rights

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“FOLLOW OUR RULES AND YOU WILL HAVE YOUR FREEDOM” IS THE BIGGEST LIE OPPRESSED PEOPLE ARE TOLD IN THIS COUNTRY

 

This morning I was looking at the twitter explosion over the Texas abortion bill and ran across this tweet from @rare_basement. I don’t know how to explain what this tweet means to me or my neuroses. I don’t know how to explain how this sums up all the intersectionality of my gender and mental health. But I’m going to do my best.

 

This is the lie I’ve believed all my life. No, I am hardly the most oppressed person in the world, but I grew up in the 90s, when girls were told that “you can be anything if you believe and work hard!”, despite the fact that sexism is still alive and well and making life incredibly difficult for women. But boy did I fall for that line. I still believe it, despite trying to make myself grow up over and over again. Because you want to know what happens when you buy into a cultural myth that disappoints you repeatedly, one that tells you that you’re responsible for your disappointments? You begin to think you’re the problem.

 

The line that oppressed minorities are fed is that hard work will get them whatever they want, including the rights and freedoms that have been denied to them in the past. This is the myth of meritocracy. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and minorities simply are denied rights and freedoms, as well as opportunities, because of their status as oppressed. But the myth puts all of the responsibility for these problems back on the oppressed: it tells them that they haven’t followed the rules appropriately or they have not worked hard enough.

 

This is the worst form of victim blaming because it can make everything an individual’s fault, and it can obscure from the individual the larger forces that are at work. And in my mind, the most insidious part of it is that it essentially sows the seeds for mental illness. One of the traits of many people with mental illness is personalization: thinking everything is either your fault or aimed at you. This myth directly tells you that everything is your fault. It builds personalization from the ground up and repeats it over and over until it’s been hammered into you. What’s worse is that it doesn’t just wait around until something bad happens and then tells you it’s your fault. It points to structural inequalities that already exist, and when those begin to affect you it tells you that you should have known better and followed the rules so that you didn’t make these problems for yourself. It retroactively blames you for problems that were there before you were born, so you are suddenly responsible for a disturbing amount of things.

 

An additional problem with this is that the “rules” for oppressed populations are contradictory and impossible to follow. No matter what you do, you’re doing something wrong and thus don’t deserve rights and freedoms. An example of rules for women: Be good looking but not shallow, and definitely not overly sexy, and definitely don’t flaunt your body but don’t be a prude either.

 

Is it any surprise that we have a generation of girls who have grown up thinking that they are constantly not doing enough, not right, or need to be perfect? A generation of girls who catastrophize everything? If you were told throughout your whole childhood that you’ll be treated with respect, dignity, and liberty if you follow the rules and then are NOT treated with those things no matter how hard you tried, doesn’t it seem logical that you would conclude that you had done something wrong? What amps up the anxiety of this is that you don’t know what it is you did wrong. You can’t figure out what went differently between the times when you got what you wanted and the times you didn’t (hint: the difference was probably not you, it was the circumstances outside of your control), so you get paranoid that at any point you might be doing something horribly wrong and you don’t know it. You might be messing up the rules which can have disastrous consequences. And if you don’t follow the rules exactly perfectly, if you don’t get straight As and no detention ever and dress modestly and act politely, then it’s your fault if you get raped or harassed or if you get denied a job.

 

This is an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt for any individual to take on. It leads almost directly to a paranoia about one’s actions, to a sense of personalization about everything, to perfectionism and to anxiety. For a while I wondered why nearly every girl my age was a budding anxious perfectionist, but this quote makes it so clear to me: we are because we know we have to be in order to be deemed acceptable and in order to try to keep ourselves safe.

Another problem with this message is that it tells minorities that their feelings are not valid or right. When your rights are denied, you have every right to be angry and upset, but this myth tells you that feelings of anger are always wrong because you are always at fault. You don’t get to be angry ever, except with yourself, because society can never do you wrong if you play by the rules. This undermines so much of an individual’s identity, confidence, and emotional understanding that you can be left with no conception of what an acceptable feeling is. In DBT when we talk about the circumstances that can trigger a mental illness, an invalidating environment is one of the first things that comes up every single time.

 

It’s no surprise that oppressed populations have some mental health problems different from those of privileged groups: they’ve been put into a situation where perfection is expected of them, everything is personalized, and their feelings are invalidated. It’s the perfect storm, and yet we sit around wondering why women feel so bad about themselves. This is somewhat akin to leaving tripwires everywhere and then asking why people keep falling.

 

We as a society need to start discussing and addressing the mental health effects of these expectations of women and other oppressed individuals because they are creating mindsets that are rife for mental illness. They are creating expectations of perfection in individuals, they are telling individuals to personalize everything, they are heaping guilt and responsibility on individuals who should be looking at the societal discriminations for their difficulties.

Social Justice 101: Color Blindness

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Since the civil rights movement, we as a country have been enmeshed in a struggle to understand how to move forward from our history of race motivated hatred, bigotry, and oppression. Today, many people (particularly those people who are privileged enough to be white), adopt a feeling that if we could all just stop thinking about race and stop judging each other on race, then all these problems would disappear and we wouldn’t have to worry about racism anymore.

 

The concept of color blindness has been around for some time now. This is the idea that we should not even see what people look like, what color they are, but simply treat them as human beings. On some level this is a nice idea. It rests on the desire to put the past behind us. Unfortunately for us, the past is not really gone at all and it affects the lives of every person in the United States today.

 

The first reason that color blindness is an unhelpful attitude is that it ignores the fact that historical prejudices have left large sections of the black population of America in poverty, without jobs, incarcerated, and otherwise disenfranchised. These cycles of poverty reinforce themselves. In a recent book written by Mahzarin Banaji, the concept of modern prejudice was revealed to be more about helping those with connections to you. Because people of color have traditionally been denied connections to powerful institutions, they don’t benefit from connections and personal favors in the way that many white Americans do.

 

In addition to these historical cycles of poverty, color blindness ignores the fact that many prejudices are still deeply held and that race does matter, particularly for people of color. African-Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white peers, and are often given harsher sentences. Things like stereotype bias (the tendency of an individual from a stereotyped demographic to perform more poorly in testing when reminded of a stereotype) can hold back individuals of color by affecting their performance in traditionally white fields like math and science. Subtle types of bias exist that we may deny are even at play. In a sociolinguistic study, researcher Anita Henderson found that hiring managers were more likely to hire individuals who phonetically and syntactically sounded white. John Baugh conducted research which showed that individuals who spoke with an African-American speech pattern were more likely to be denied housing. By promoting color blindness, we ignore the fact that life has been made more difficult for individuals of color explicitly because of their color. We erase those experiences and do nothing to help individuals recover from them.

 

Overall the largest problem with color blindness is that it is passive. The forces that have created the race segregation and discrimination in our country for so long are far from passive. They have been as active as can be in the form of laws, community enforcement, segregation in education, lack of voting rights, and hundreds of other things. Unless we actively step up to fight those things which have served to push a large number of people in our country downwards, we are perpetuating the problem. Sitting idly by while others struggle to get out of the mess that we helped to make for them is the same as continuing to hold them down.

 

As Malcolm X said “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” We need to actively work to take the knife out.

Social Justice 101: Racism

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So one of the reasons I decided to start writing up this social justice 101 series is because of the word racism. In the dictionary, racism is defined as “Prejudice or discrimination directed against someone of a different race based on such a belief.” However within social justice and sociological circles it is understood that that is not really how racism works, and that racism is a much more insidious and deep-rooted thing than that. What many people term “racism” (or reverse-racism) is extremely different from the sociological concept of racism, or what minorities experience as racism. Calling them by the same name is demeaning to the experience that minorities have of real racism.

What most people term racism, and what the definition above provides could better be called prejudice or discrimination. Racism as minorities experience it and as it is understood in most social justice circles is a systematic kind of oppression. When we use racism as a term in social justice conversations, it is impossible to be racist against white people (at least in the US). Racism as minorities experience it is the lack of privilege that every minority person has by dint of being a minority. White people as a whole are born into this world with privileges: they are considered more trustworthy, they are far more likely to have connections and money, they are more likely to be born into a better neighborhood, teachers treat them differently, they are not affected by stereotype threat, and their families have not had to struggle to get out of the poverty caused by slavery. Racism is all of those entrenched things that make it easier for whites than for anyone other race in our society.

These include overt bias and prejudice. But these also include things like the prejudice against AAVE, things like the fact that neighborhoods that are primarily black quickly lose funding for schools, things like the fact that tests and measurements of success are often subtly biased against people of color, things like the disproportionate number of people of color in prison or the unequal treatment of people of color at the hands of law enforcement, things like the differences in health care access or diagnosis between people of color and white people, things like the expectation of black bodies to be public property, things like accusing hip hop of being sexist but ignoring sexism in predominantly white music…all of these things are things that white individuals will never experience in the same way.

These same arguments are relevant to terms like sexism, homophobia, cissexism, mental health stigma, ableism…any of those terms. Each of these is a systematic oppression and until the oppressed have enough power to systematically oppress the other group, the terms will never make sense the other way around.

For a more in-depth explanation see here: http://urbanviewsweekly.com/2013/02/26/what-is-racism/

Social Justice 101: Intersectionality

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So here is the beginning of my attempt to create a backstore of blog posts that I can whip out at a moment’s notice so I don’t have to go through the work of re-explaining privilege or intersectionality or institutional sexism again and again. I’m going to do my best to explain intersectionality in a nutshell, although it is an incredibly complex topic. I’m also going to try to link to a few articles that get into a bit more depth or explain particular aspects of it as well.

SO. Oftentimes when we think about social justice problems we think of them as separate. You might be a feminist, or an advocate for the rights of disabled individuals, or working on race issues, or fighting for GLBT rights. Most often we see these things separated out in the practical work that advocates do (at least partially because it’s really hard to tackle more than one thing at once). But this can also be a serious problem. In feminism in particular, there have been many instances throughout history and today in which feminists use certain kinds of power and privilege to oppress other women: in general, feminism has been for white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, upper-class women, and for people who don’t fit those definitions it has been incredibly difficult to gain recognition in the feminist community and have their concerns heard.

And so out of this problem, the concept of intersectionality was born. Intersectionality is the idea that all of our kinds of privilege interact. It’s not a simple question of having privilege for one thing, and then getting part of your privilege pile taken away because you’re part of a different marginalized group. Different oppressions can build on each other, like trans-misogyny, or they can affect each other in really complicated ways (for example being black and having a mental health concern is very different from being white and having a mental health concern). In some cases, even though you have a lack of privilege, you may be using your other privileges to oppress others in the same marginalized category as you (white women do this to black women in feminism all the time by silencing their concerns).

Intersectionality is also about understanding that we exist in a variety of different systems, and sometimes one system is acting on us more strongly than another. For example if I enter into a conversation with a disabled individual about able-bodied privilege and I try to say that I understand because I have mental health concerns, or that it’s just like ____ or say that they’re ignoring my perspective because they’re talking about their own issues, I’ve just effectively used my oppression as a silencing technique for someone else’s oppression. Intersectionality requires a great deal of listening to all kinds of experiences, and yes, even respecting the one black, Jewish, lesbian, trans-gendered woman you know and understanding that her experience of privilege and oppression is different from other experiences of privilege and oppression.

While there is no time in our lives that oppression doesn’t exist for us because we are female or a person of color or disabled or fat or lower class, that doesn’t mean that all of those oppressions exist in the same ways at all times, or that they are pertinent to all other forms of oppression. Intersectionality asks us to examine what privileges we may be using at any given time, and how that interacts with our oppressions, as well as how it can create unique forms of oppression for other individuals.

For some more resources on intersectionality, I suggest Natalie Reed’s blog (although it may be taken down soon, so get over there while you can), or these websites:

http://blog.twowholecakes.com/2009/07/101-thoughts-on-intersectionality-or-why-theres-no-dark-skinned-fat-black-women-on-more-to-love/

http://www.reddit.com/r/SRSDiscussion/comments/p8k1z/effort_intersectionality_101/

http://lipmag.com/opinion/broadening-feminisms-intersectionality-101/

Tattoos and Embodiment: The Power of Self-Mutilation, Piercing and Tattoos

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There are very few ways that we get control over our physical bodies, particularly our appearance. We don’t get to choose things like height, build, weight (much), skin tone, eye color and shape, facial features…we can barely even control out hair most of the time. And philosophically speaking, people today rarely view their body as really THEM: generally it’s considered more of a house for your soul or your mind, broken away from the real you. And so it seems to me that asserting ownership over our own bodies is something really extremely important.

Particularly for traditionally marginalized groups whose bodies are considered public space, having a way to mark your body as your own, or physically change your body in order to feel more in tune with it or to connect it to your emotions is a powerful action. When you change your body in some physical, permanent way, you are loudly declaring “This is mine. I can do with it what I will. I can change it to suit my desires, and I can brand it as my own”. It’s liberating to see your body changed in some way that you have imagined and then acted out on your flesh. It’s sensual in its own way, and the pain that often comes with it is a visceral reminder that you’re alive, you are embodied, and you are solid. It creates an adrenaline rush of knowing what’s about to come. It can be a powerful emotional experience that connects you very deeply with your body.

In addition, for those people who have powerful negative associations with their bodies, tattooing or piercing over the site of negativity can mean a lot. I have scars from self-harm on my hips and legs, and have plans to tattoo over at least some of them as a metaphorical way of reclaiming that territory. Our bodies go through a great deal that leaves us marked in ways that we can’t undo. Some of this is by choice, some of it isn’t. But the choice to cover or change the marks from the past is a strong statement about who we would like to be in the future.

Many people view tattoos as “rebellious”, “tacky” or “low class”. Many of the reasons they’re viewed that way is because marginalized groups often use them to assert their autonomy or their belonging in a group. They mark someone as different, as particularly themselves, and as a BODY. We don’t like being marked as bodies. We often view it as objectifying. We don’t like to be viewed aesthetically, we prefer to be judged based on our intellect or personality. But the fact  is that a major part of our selves is our body. The inherent recognition of this in the act of bodily mutilation or piercing or tattoos is deep, and you can’t escape it when you’re undergoing the process. You feel more connected to yourself in certain ways. It’s one of the reasons that self-harm can be so grounding.

Tattoos also signify a great deal to others: they can tell about our experiences, our emotions, our aesthetic taste, our interests, our values, and our group membership. They use our own bodies to convey messages of our identity, something which is extremely powerful in integrating your body into our identity. In addition, they can signify things to ourselves. They can remind us of our past, of something we care about, of self-care, of good or bad things we’ve experienced…especially for those people whose voices are rarely heard, using your body as a canvas is one of the loudest ways to get a message across.

Some people say that the body is beautiful and shouldn’t be tampered with. But for those who are in marginalized groups, they haven’t really hard this about their bodies in particular. Their bodies are often viewed as wrong or bad. The few times they do hear these things, their bodies are generally objectified. It can be hugely empowering to make your physical presence different to fit your conception of self. It changes your narrative about self, takes your body away from the societal narrative of beauty, or brands visibly on your body that you have autonomy and are more than a body. Of course these are all comments about tattoos personally chosen: being forced to get a tattoo says the exact opposite of all of this.

It reminds you that you’re a body, but also that your body is yours, and that it has its own needs and desires and some autonomy. It’s not just an object. Its senses are how you navigate and manage the world, and the act of the tattoo reminds you viscerally of your senses and your physical boundary with the world. The constant reminder of that is an act of asserting yourself into space.

Reminding ourselves of our bodies, of the ways we can control and identify with our bodies, and of how we can present our bodies to others as part of our identity is a big deal.

Also I really want the tattoo in the picture, so I felt like I had to write this.