Acts of white supremacy

Sometime in the early summer of 2015, I found myself on the back porch of my apartment, on a Saturday night, at 3:00a.m. It was the fourth time I’d come outside in a tank top and underwear since 10pm.

I’d spent most of the night, and now early morning, negotiating with my neighbor about the volume of the music blaring from his patio, at what appeared to be, a pretty fun celebration. I’m a deep sleeper and noise doesn’t much bother me but for some reason the orientation of his speakers and my bedroom window made it sound like the beats were playing, at full volume, from my bedposts.

First, I tried to do the kind-but-assertive lady neighbor thing. Then used my “don’t fuck with me” domestic violence attorney voice, and finally got sassy, and fed up, and pretty pissed off.

So there, in the dark-but-light-enough that I probably should’ve put some pants on, leaning over a rickety wooden railing, I told my young, black, male neighbor that “If you don’t shut this down immediately, I’m going to call the cops.” And, in one of my darkest moments in recent memory, I continued, frankly, “I think we both know whose side they’ll be on.”

I’d been on crutches for five weeks and it was six hours past my bedtime. My knee hurt and my heart hurt and things all over my life were more painful and miserable than usual. I like to think in better physical and emotional form I would have acted better.

But I didn’t.

What I said that night was an act of white supremacy. I took my white privilege- in this case, my ability to live in a world where law enforcement is unquestionably my ally- and applied it to subordinate a person of color. My neighbor, for god’s sake. I didn’t intend it to be, but in acts such as these, it is the impact, not the intention, that matters.

Over the past few days, I’ve had a lot of thoughts but not a lot of words I felt fit to outwardly express them. There’s a piece of me that feels like I gave up my place at the discussion table of racial politics, years ago, when my life first started to resemble that of all the other affluent white people I know. I live in a gated community in a predominantly white neighborhood a mile from where I went to a high school lacking so much in diversity, when I was a teenager I thought we referred to people of color as “minorities” because they were rare.

True story.

I work with white people, practice yoga with white people and date white people. I grocery shop with white people, drink coffee with white people and recently, spent a week on vacation with nary a non-white person in sight.

I don’t aim to compare myself, or any of the white people described above, to white supremacists and neo-nazis, but I do think it’s important to examine the shared root causes of the type of hateful violence we witnessed last weekend and the fact that I can dwell in a diverse city, in a diverse state, and still only know, and interact with, white people. To ignore the institutional realities that create the conditions for each to occur is to oversimplify a complex set of historical and cultural issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the contours of race in this country.

I have mostly progressive friends on social media and I’ve appreciated a variety of articles, insights, charts and memes used to describe how we got here and how we might move forward. But for all of my consumption of them, I still feel empty, and a little lost.

On the plane ride to Hawaii I finished “between the world and me” practically in tears, moved so deeply I was at once stirred to action and totally paralyzed. Then, as our plane, mostly filled with white people, made its final descent, I promptly shut down my iPad and went right back to the same life I’ve been living for the last four years.

I don’t know what meaning I can bring to the conversation about race but I do know I want to be in it. I don’t know how to reconcile the life I choose with the politics I believe in. I still don’t know how to speak eloquently, and inclusively about race at my job, but I know I want to learn how to.

I don’t know what to tell my nephews about their whiteness but I do know it’s important for them to understand their place in racial politics, and history. It’s not enough to describe racism as overt acts and language of hate and superiority, they must understand the small and big ways their actions and choices and inactions work to affirm and reproduce, a system that has never created all men equal.

I don’t know what comes after this but I’m trying to stay open. Listening for what’s needed and trying to play a role in the solution, while observing how I remain, at least passively, a part of the problem.

talking to women

Tonight a friend and colleague of mine posted about an experience she had being shamed by her Uber driver for not having kids. She’s happily married. In her 30s. Living a life she loves in a city she loves in a career she loves, and is good at.

My instant reaction was to feel frustrated and pissed off. I rolled my eyes thinking about all of the times I felt wrong, or weird, in the awkward silence following my “no” response to the question, “do you want kids?”

As the night wore on, I thought about how hard it is to meet the expectations of being a woman. How much judgment and scrutiny is applied to mothers of all kinds, while the decision of women to not be mothers is equally, if differently, criticized.

We are expected to be thin and flawless and beautiful forever, while time, and child rearing and things like stress, and the sun, are known, unavoidable assailants of those qualities.

We ought to be kind, and compassionate and loving and gentle but we should also lean in and stay strong and stand up for what we believe in.

We have to hustle harder and speak louder than our male counterparts but we also have to be more likeable, and collaborative and always put together.

We are tired, but we can’t complain.

When I was a summer camp counselor I tried to avoid telling young girls I liked their shoes, or their dress, while I turned to their older brothers and asked them to show me their muscles.

It was harder than it should be.

As an adult, I’ve adopted a similar commitment where I try to avoid asking women in long term relationships when they’re getting married and asking newly married women when they’re having kids.

It is a perfectly normal way to engage each other but it is also an important, invisible way that we reenforce the ever growing expectations we have of each other, and ourselves.

Just as easily, we can ask women in long term relationships about their five year goals and ask newly married women what in their lives they are most proud of. Or excited for.

We can ask little girls the same things we ask their brothers.

We can create space for women to be tired, or loud, or quiet or angry. We can accept them if they are thin or beautiful, or perfectly made up, but also if they aren’t that day, or ever.

We can celebrate more and criticize less. Each other, and ourselves.

afraid of the ocean

Until I was in my twenties, I was afraid of the ocean. The sound and the force of the waves always felt too big, and too strong for my tiny body and lifelong anxiety made me a prisoner of my own fear. I’d watch my brother run at full speed towards the breaking tide then dive, head first into waves, that from where I was standing, looked twice as big as him. I’d hold my breath until his sandy face surfaced, beaming and triumphant. He’d glance towards the shore for a moment, only to disappear again, right away.

Discipline and moderation and work ethic were easy for me, even as a kid. I was so envious of how he made fun and adventure look effortless and energizing.

I spent my early adulthood in west Los Angeles. I chose college at ucla for a million reasons, none of which were proximity to the pacific coastline, which still felt threatening and intimidating. But, as the whole of the city often does to transplants, the ocean seduced me.

No matter the chaos and noise and busyness of everything else, the ocean always felt quiet, and comforting, and peaceful. In a place where I struggled to feel belonging, the shoreline always felt like home.

My “only the mountains” love for nature evolved to include sunsets on the beach in Santa Monica, cartwheels in the freshly wet sand and even, eventually, diving through the waves.

We’re leaving Kauai today so last night I walked to the beach at sunset. The familiar sounds and sensations, thousands of miles from where I first fell in love with them, reminded me of our infinite, undeniable connection to everything. It brought me back to what I’m seeking on this vacation: connection to myself.

My life now is busier and noisier than it ever was in Los Angeles. I live in a small town, but my mind and body race at the exhausting pace of the big city. I’ve mostly lost touch with nature and months, sometimes years, bridge the time gap between visits to the ocean.

Among the many things I take away from this vacation is the reminder that my life is of my own creation. If I only choose work, hustle and grit, that’s all I’ll ever experience. If I don’t make space for peace, it can’t make its way in.

Sending you love and ease and stillness, or whatever it is that you know you need, but haven’t taken the time to seek.