Latest Entries »

Image

So today, I went shopping for my friend’s daughter’s birthday. 

I’m no stranger to Target’s girl-toy section, or as I like to call it “The Pink Ghetto.” I’ve had people disagree with this term. Some say that it trivializes or appropriates this term that has been used to describe the horrible conditions that are visited upon history’s most marginalized people, but I think it’s apt. A ghetto is a place that we as society, place those whom we care little for and would like to control. The Jewish people were placed in ghettos during the Holocaust. The Palestinian people are placed into ghettos as more and more of their property is seized and demolished. In the US, the poor are ushered into inner-city ghettos, where we forget about them until we need to make some kind of statement disparaging those in poverty, immigrants and/or people of color. Once we place a demographic into their assigned place, we tell them how they are supposed to act. We don’t do this through laws or legistlature, but through the prejudice of the media, societal expectations, available resources and behavior of authority figures. 

In the inner-city, we have music, movies, fast-food advertisement, lack of quality education, unfair treatment by authority all painting a picture of what people are supposed to be, dress like, value and behave… 

In the Pink Ghetto, we have the same. The boys’ section of the toy aisle, the world is open. Pirates, police, doctors, astronauts, architects, sports stars, boys are encouraged to strive to be any one of these things and more. The girls section has baby dolls and (YES THEY ACTUALLY DO) kitchen and cleaning supply toys. There are vacuums, ironing boards, brooms and dustpans, sinks and stoves, and pots and pans, all in sparkly pinks and purples and marketed directly towards our little girls. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these toys, but the very fact that our girls are limited to dolls and kitchen-stuffs while our boys’ dreams are limitless… there’s something provacative about that. There’s something purposeful about training our girls from a young age that they have a singular purpose, and to want something more is unusual, remarkable, and outside the realm of the strictures of gender binary.

But this has been discussed before. 

We can go further.

My friend and her daughter are African American. I purchased a fashion doll for her birthday. I liked her a lot because she was an African American doll with ACTUAL African American features, instead of a European featured Barbie with dark skin. It got me thinking as I walked through the aisles: why, in this world of beautiful diversity and a rainbow of skin tones and hair textures, is finding a doll with tightly curled hair and African American features the EXCEPTION to the rule? Why is this so remarkable? Shouldn’t it be common to find dolls with a variety of features instead of one single black face in a sea of blonde Barbies? I buy my daughter dolls that represent many ethnicities. She has blonde dolls, but she also has Hispanic, Asian and African American dolls… I pick them out when I find them because I want her microsphere to represent her reality. However, my daughter is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She fits the most readily represented and normative model of this manufactured binary. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be living as another race (and raising children) in a world in which we are considered “other.” If one side of this binary is blonde/blue, and so obviously favored… what must it be like to have to search hard for a doll that represented what my daughter looks like.

So we are told, as females, that our value lies in our prettiness, our ability to bear and nurture young, our ability to care for a home… anything apart from that is straying from normative behavior. Then we are told that we can’t quite reach success in these areas of normativity unless our skin is light and our hair soft and silky.

This year Lupita Nyong’o was celebrated as People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person of 2014, which is a great start to recognizing the beauty that exists in dark skin. The world is finally stating not, “She’s beautiful for a black girl,” but “She’s beautiful!” When Nyong’o was a young girl, she never experienced a world that told her her skin was beautiful, her hair was beautiful, that the way she was born was beautiful without hair straighteners and skin lighteners. “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful,” she said. “I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin and my one prayer to God the miracle worker is that I would wake up light skinned … I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted.”

I want to live in a world in which all of our beauty and worth is represented equally. I want our daughters to grow up knowing that our differences are to be celebrated, not placed one above the other or ignored. I want children to grow up knowing their worth and successes are not limited to a binary or *normativity. I want our girls to never hear, “You’re pretty for a black girl.” or “You’re smart/capable/strong/ingenuitive for a girl.” as if these things were an exception rather than the rule.

Advertisements

People, in general, tend to make a lot of assumptions.

When I was homeless, I heard, “I just wouldn’t expect someone like you to be in this kind of situation.”

Someone like you. What exactly is that supposed to mean? Young? Blonde? Healthy? Female? What exact mold was I expected to fill? Old and burnt out? Was I supposed to be a person of color? Was I supposed to be crippled, unhealthy or drug addled?

I was homeless due to bad decisions and circumstances. I could also go on and on about society, extreme poverty and the state of affordable housing in this country… but I’ll save that for another time. Homelessness could happen to anybody and the assumption that to be homeless I needed to fit certain criteria is more than slightly disturbing. The question that needs to be asked is, if as a young, healthy white woman I am not expected to be found homeless… what does the assumption say about those who are not young, healthy or white? Are those the ones we expect to be homeless? And if society expects that of people who may fit those criteria… what may they expect for themselves? That’s quite the ominous cloud to live under.

A girl came in to the tattoo parlor I was getting work done at. She obviously knew the artist, as she came right back and began talking to him. They joked and bantered with each other for quite a while, and I noticed she spoke quickly with a “valley girl” type accent. I however, as people who personally know me are already aware of, speak using vernacular (slang) and swear a lot.. like a whole lot. The tattoo artist joked to her, “Girl, you black, but you talk like you’re white. This girl right here whiter than hell, but she’s blacker than you!” They both laughed, but I got to thinking. What exactly does that mean?

If I think like a man, talk like I’m black, spend like I’m rich, live like I’m old, dress like I’m young…. where do I fit if I’m none of those things? Do I not have an identity? How exactly am I supposed to act, dress and speak like? What assumptions are made about me because of who people think I am?

It’s extremely limiting to think of yourself or of other people in that manner. When we assume, we are almost invariably inaccurate. When we try to squeeze ourselves into an assumed image, we spend valuable energy on something that doesn’t matter one iota. Furthermore, we limit ourselves to a sphere of expectation that wasn’t made for us.

Every man, woman and child that exists is unique. Not one is like another. Therefore, any assumptions a person may make based on the way another person looks, speaks, dresses or acts like are without merit. In fact, these things are harmful.

How many girls have never tried hard at mathematics because “girls aren’t good at math”? How many poor kids have not succeeded in school because “kids from that neighborhood never do well”? How many victims of abuse have perpetuated the cycle because it’s readily accepted that they will? How many people have given up because not much was expected from someone “like that”?

Assumptions are unreliable and harmful to so many. Those of us who are purported to be of open mind make a concerted effort to not judge other people in that we do not know what a person has been through in their life. To assume that we know who another person is is just as big a folly.

 

“Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

I’ll go ahead and say what we’re all thinking.

Don’t worry, I’m good at that… you could say it’s one of my things.

Parenting is fracking hard. Not hard like opening a jar or driving in rush hour traffic, but hard like hiding in the bathroom crying, wondering whoever thought you could be trusted with kids should probably get fired. Kids by their very design are made to test your limits of endurance, intelligence and ability to function on little to no sleep.

When a person first begins this journey, they are elated, their heads are filled with ideals and plans. It’s exciting having a little person for whom one is responsible for shaping. Visions of organic produce and no television and violin lessons float through your head. You’re going to do things differently than your parents did. This child will be the most exceptional little person the world has ever seen, due entirely to your superior genes and innovative parenting.

I seriously can’t be the only one who, two years later with my kids sitting in front of Dora for the second straight hours, eating microwaved chicken nuggets, realizing I haven’t taken a shower in three days at the same time realizing before I had these little carpet monsters, that I was an absolute…complete…idiot. I even bought a baby food grinder. Go me.

See, here’s the deal. Kids are people.

Wow, what a concept. But stay with me here. I know that you, the reader, know that. However, you need to think about what that means. People come with ideas, issues, talents, problems and a real healthy sense of screw authority. And you, as a parent don’t get to choose what in that list of people-hood your kid has. Oh, also… you are now the authority your kid is fighting against being oppressed by.

Thank you nature… please come back when you can’t stay so long.

And there is no break. Actually, even crying in the bathroom time is interrupted by little fists banging on the door screaming for inane things or insisting on use of the facilities. It was during one of these non-breaks that I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home-mom. I’m not bashing on stay-at-home-moms here, I was one, and I found it was way too difficult for me. If you can do it, kudos. I have the utmost respect for you, you do the hardest, most varied, most involved thankless job in the universe. I just can’t. Instead I thank god it is 2013 and that brave women before me made it possible for women to have a choice.

Women who don’t work or go to school outside the home sometimes mistakenly believe that those who do are abandoning their children to the care of others, which is untrue. We simply utilize the “it takes a village” philosophy to our advantage. But this post isn’t about the SAHM/daycare mom debate, I’ll leave that to people who feel a need to compare their way of doing things to others. This post is about the surprisingly difficult nature of caring for one’s progeny.

How many times have I thought I was a terrible mother? Just steps away from those crazies who lock their kids in closets and leave them inside locked cars on hot days? I can’t even count. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has laid in bed awake at night telling themselves, “I could have handled that better.”

The other day I was on the phone with my mother and she told me I was a good mom. I literally almost pooped myself. “What? Are you kidding me?” To give a concept of my mom, imagine June Cleaver but more insanely perfect in every way… then imagine that person telling her tattooed, foul mouthed, short-tempered, preoccupied, liberal college activist daughter that she was a good mom.

“Are you okay, mom? Do you want me to call Dad?”

“No, I mean it. You work very hard every day to give your kids everything they need to be healthy and successful.”

“But… all the… and the….”

“We all parent differently, and what makes you a good mom is that you care deeply for your kids and do what it takes. It sometimes takes a lot. In your case it takes a whole lot.”

“Um.. thanks… I think.”

“Um… you’re welcome I think.”

“No, actually… thanks a whole lot. Hearing that from you means a great deal to me.”

After the conversation with my mom, life went on as usual. I didn’t stop bellowing at my kids, but I felt less like I was holding on for dear life. They still fought, forgot things they had been reminded of multiple times, chose to go to bed early than finish the dinner I had worked all day on… same old crap. The only thing that had changed was the way I was thinking about my parenting.

This morning, they started in early. I awoke at 6:30 to screaming about coloring books. I was to my limit before my first cup of coffee. I even lost it for a second when my words fell on the deaf ears of fighting kids. Then, as I realized that nothing I was trying was working, I separated them. Kendyl sat in front of Dora and Tyler got a children’s dictionary. They were told not to make a sound until both of them came to me with three things they had learned.

Tyler spent 5 minutes sulking but then came to me with how a chicken lays an egg, that a harvester is used to cut grain and a radiator keeps a racecar’s engine cool.

Kendyl told me that “salta” was “jump” in Spanish and that purple is made by mixing red and blue.

When they were allowed to go, they were calm and interested in learning more about things.

And I realized, maybe I’m not such a bad parent after all.

I’ve never wanted to be a teacher.

I don’t particularly like kids. I don’t like people, and kids are simply uncensored versions of us. All our ugliness, selfishness, meanness and obstinance with no filter, no politeness, no propriety. All those things that make it possible for us to be around each other without killing everyone outright.

I’m currently attending school to become a librarian. (I know, right?) My plans included getting my teaching credentials and teaching my way through grad school. Teaching was simply a way to lighten the financial load while I was pursuing my doctorate.

As some of you may know, I switched schools this semester. I moved from a suburban to an urban setting and my current school, as well as the subjects I am taking, touches on certain subjects having to do with urban issues. These issues include but are not limited to race and ethnicity, economic inequality, reduced opportunities and undereducation present in certain urban areas. These are subjects I was not entirely unfamiliar with, but nothing that I have ever experienced, having grown up in a predominantly upper-middle class white area.

I have also made a lot of friends at my new school. Some of my friends have come from very limited opportunity as well as many roadblocks, yet have preservered despite numerous points of opposition. I have repeatedly been impressed by the intelligence, hard work, ambition and talent among populations that have endured and continue to endure neglect, under-funding and blatant oppressive action perpetrated by both government and society.

Yet a question… The Question lingers in my mind.

This Question nags and pricks me as my friends go along their every day lives, working and studying and caring for their families. They are not impressed by themselves the way that I am. They carry an attitude of, “Of course I did… what was my other option? I didn’t want the alternative for myself. I’ve seen the consequences of inaction… and so I acted.” However, I have seen the other side. I have seen those with every opportunity at their disposal, throw away those opportunities. I have been one of those.

That Question needs answered, The Question that remains at the forefront of my mind.

How incredible the achievements if my friends had received an equal education? If the roadblocks had been lessened or removed? If their success had been considered by society the norm rather than the exception? How much could they have accomplished had they not had to battle everyday to simply stay afloat?

And how many amazing minds and glaring potential has been drowned in this fretful sea? How many have been caught in the crossfire?

Have we lost the next Einstein? Did we miss out on another Tesla, another Margret Thatcher, or another Louis Pasteur only because that person grew up in Watts, Compton or East LA, and the pressure was too much to bear? The schools they attended were underfunded, the neighborhood too dangerous to venture out into, and not much was expected of them anyway. We will never see what those minds were capable of had they been nurtured and allowed to grow, that wealth is lost to the world forever. Those for whom this is a factor will live very different lives than if they had been guided down a path of education, and the lives of their children and their children’s children are also deeply affected. By not offering everyone equal opportunities to learn and progress, we are taking part in shaping yet another generation shrouded in untapped potential.

I am currently being offered a spot in the comprehensive Urban Teacher Fellowship Program here in Los Angeles. I had never had any aspirations of becoming a teacher, although I already had plans of attaining my credentials. I am going to participate in the program, regardless of the career path I ultimately choose.

But I know myself. I know that the more I learn about these subjects, the more I am obligated within myself to work with those who struggle to resolve the issues standing in the way of people and progress. It is fair and right.

Sometimes I wonder why my life has taken certain paths. Why, with a silver spoon in my mouth, I chose instead to take a path down homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence and poverty? And if I believe in any destiny at all, I have to believe I experienced those things so that I could use my talents to help others find the strength to escape those harsh realities.

I will not be able to achieve that in the dusty corners of a research library, no matter how much beautiful information lies within those hallowed walls.

I can only achieve this within the classroom.

Image

I Drove Away

I decided to get some Starbucks today. I needed the extra caffeine with cleaning, final essays and packing for the move all needing to be done today. I ordered a sandwich too.

I pulled over to the shade to eat my sandwich and I witnessed a scene that could have taken place (and did) in my own life just two years ago… or four years ago… or six years ago. How deeply this morning’s events affected me is going to sit inside me for a while, like a stone in my stomach.

The couple was homeless. She, noticeably younger than him, was collecting cans. She bowed her head submissively as he berated her.

“You’re always carrying around garbage! You need to forget that shit and get me a pack of goddamn cigarettes. You better get me my cigarettes! You’re useless!”

She never replied to him. Her head was bowed. She emptied the contents of the can and tucked it neatly away in the bag she was carrying, recognizing it for the value it had. She knew that a few more and she could get the man his pack of cigarettes and maybe then he would be happy with her.

I knew better.

I looked at this woman and I saw myself. She was me. For those who don’t know me, I was in an abusive relationship for eight years. He beat me, he kicked me, he choked me until I blacked out and had pissed myself. This didn’t happen once. This didn’t happen occasionally. This happened at least three times a week for eight whole years.

The worst was the way he made me feel. He called me stupid and fat and useless. I felt like I was stupid and fat and useless. He told me that no other man would put up with the crap he had to deal with from me, and I bowed my head and I accepted it.

Just like the woman outside of Starbucks.

I looked at her and I saw myself.

I remembered being homeless. I remembered being helpless. I remembered thinking if I could only work harder to make him happy, then things would be better.

One day in February, two years ago, my husband bashed in my face. I lost a tooth, not in self-defense, but because I bit him and held on tight. I hoped that he wouldn’t be able to rear back for another hit. Blood was in my eyes and mouth and all over his hand that had just hit me and shattered my skull. I held that hand firmly between my teeth until he wrenched it free, taking my front tooth with it. That was two years ago. I lived a life of fear, of helplessness and self-loathing.

When I got rid of him, (which is a whole story unto itself) I went through a period of extreme anxiety and agoraphobia. I was petrified of even leaving the house. However, I knew that I needed to. I needed to push myself out for my sake and for the sake of my children. I checked out what it would take for me to go back to school, and I enrolled in the local community college. I realized then, as my grades soared and my self-esteem followed, that I was powerful. I would never again allow myself to be controlled by a man, because I knew I was strong enough, smart enough and good enough to do it on my own.

So there I sat on a Friday morning, watching myself bend and scrape to please a man who would never be assuaged.

I wanted to get out of my Jeep and tell her she was beautiful and strong and that she didn’t need him. I wanted to tell her that the only reason he treated her like that was to keep her down and that he knew if she ever gathered the strength to leave him, that he would be nothing. I wanted to give her some of what I had. I wanted her to have the strength and knowledge that she was good enough and she didn’t need him.

But I didn’t.

I had him fixed in a cold, hard stare. He made eye contact with me and held it. He knew that there was something in me that could threaten his tenuous hold on this false power he wielded. But she never even looked up at me. To her (just like to me all those years ago) there was nothing else. It was her lot in life. She only had the ability to think as far as trying to please the man, who would never be pleased. His displeasure and disapproval being his main tool of control. She had no way of knowing she was beautiful and strong and that she could make it and she could rid herself of this horrible man who hung like an anchor around her neck.

Perhaps no one had ever told her. Maybe no one had ever held a mirror up to her and let her see her own power and radiance.

I could have done something, or said something, or anything. I was afraid for her. I was afraid if I said anything that it would be worse for her. Maybe he would start on her with his fists instead of just his words. I wondered about her. Would I have listened to me all those years ago? I wondered disjointedly if my voice could even be heard, a well-dressed white woman in an SUV, clutching a Starbucks cup. Never mind that seven years before I was panhandling at that exact same corner, trying desperately to get my man a pack of cigarettes and a beer.

In my moment of fear and indecision, I put my Jeep in reverse and drove away. I almost turned around several times before getting home.

I put my head in my hands against my steering wheel and I cried.

I didn’t cry for myself. I found the strength to get out.

I cried for the ones left behind. I cried for the women who didn’t know they had that strength within them. I cried for them that didn’t know their worth. I cried for those left behind.

I cried because I drove away.