Grace, Gratitude and Growth

Rejection and abandonment are two old friends of mine. I met them both over twenty years ago, and I’ve been terrified of them every since. Despite my fear, and the work I put into avoiding them, I’m coming to realize just how heavily they influence me. In 99% of my relationships, I frequently worry that I will do or say something that makes people leave me. This anxiety can take different forms at different times:  fear I’m not black enough, fear I’m not cool enough, fear I’m not athletic enough or smart enough, but it all boils down to the fear that I’m not enough. The ‘enough’ shifts depending upon the person or group that I’m with, but the fear is constant. As a result, not only do I seek approval and validation from people, but I’m also very guarded. I don’t trust that people can or will accept me until they’ve proven it. Everyone isn’t safe, so I put up walls and keep people at arms length unless and until I feel certain they can accept me. I want people to see me, know me and love me. That is what acceptance means for me. Each day, I carry this anxiety around both knowingly and unknowingly. Seeking the answer to this one question: where do I belong?

As I process this, I’m recognizing that I may always struggle with these anxieties. The constant peace I seek is likely gone for good. The trauma of my childhood produced a heart that is fertile ground for anxiety, doubt and worry. Peace and security can still grow there, they just require more intentional awareness and labor. Even at that, the weeds of anxiety will still spring up periodically.

I shared some of these realizations with someone I love and they were surprised that I struggle with these fears. They thought that because I talk so openly about my past and have strong relationships with other people, that I must have moved on and healed. My response to them was “can’t it be both and?” For those that perceive me as happy, healthy and whole; as having a lot of positive relationships and being well-adjusted to life you’re right. To those that perceive me as wrestling with past traumas and hurts that are taking an uncomfortably long time to heal, you’re right.

I have healed a great deal from my childhood trauma and that healing has allowed me to form healthy relationships and share stories of my past that are deeply personal so that others might be inspired or encouraged…AND…I’m becoming aware of ways in which I’m still healing from past traumas. Some hurts are deeper than others and some anxieties are more persistent. I still operate through my trauma sometimes. I get triggered and respond in ways I don’t like in order to protect myself, and I hurt myself or others in the process. I live in both realities as someone who is healed and one who is still healing.

Life is far too messy to fit into some “either or” paradigm. If we can accept this truth about life and about ourselves, we make room for grace, gratitude and growth. Recognizing how far I’ve come helps me to put my current struggles in perspective, so I can give myself grace when I respond in ways I don’t like. In addition, I’m able to be more gracious when others are operating out of their own trauma. I’m inclined to take their behavior a little less personally when I am aware that I too act or react in ways I dislike but at times, can’t help.

This awareness also makes me thankful for the healing that has taken place in my life and thankful for the many people that have helped to facilitate that healing. It’s taken a team of teachers, parents, family members, counselors, friends, mentors, pastors and many others to get me to the point I’m at today. That is no small feat. Every now and again I need to recognize the distance I’ve traveled, and give thanks for the people that have run beside me. (As an aside, one such person is my wife. I can’t articulate how or why,  but when I’m with her, my anxieties rarely flare up. She operates as my safe space, and has for quite some time. I’m not one who typically believes in divine intervention, but I can’t help but look at our relationship and think surely God had something to do with this. She has been integral to my own process of finding grace, practicing gratitude and pursuing growth.)

Once I put things into perspective and recognize the people that have helped me along the way, I’m prepared to continue growing. I know that one day I will die, and I want to be pushed out to sea in a flaming canoe (yes I want a viking funeral). Before that day however, I hope to live and operate as the best possible version of myself. Meaning I want to be aware of the ways in which I live and move that are oppressive, unhealthy or counter-productive. I’m impatient when it comes to my own growth, but I recognize it is a process. Much like any good video game, life requires you to pass one level of awareness before moving on to the next, so I try to take things level by level, hoping that before the end I will have beaten the game. For me, this means I want to not only heal from my own pains, but create space so that others may heal from theirs as well. That is the work. I want to create cycles of healing that will outlive me. That is the only way this world can become the life-affirming oasis it was meant to be.

I try to utilize this blog as a way to open myself up, and create a little more vulnerability within myself and the world. It is too easy to view people as “others”, but if we begin putting our walls down and making safe spaces for those around us to do the same, we can collectively heal ourselves and deconstruct the oppressive systems that we all live and operate within.

I know some of you will want to tell me I’m loved and accepted, and while I’m thankful for those thoughts, I’m not seeking that affirmation. My hope for this blog post is that you might see me both as one who has come a long way, and who has a long way to go. I also hope that you might read this and know there are other people who have some of the same struggles that you do. If that is you, please recognize that you too have come a long way. Be thankful for your progress, and prepare to keep moving forward. My anxieties may never go away, but they won’t keep me from finding grace, practicing gratitude and pursuing growth. I hope you can do the same.

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Intentional Discomfort

I like to think of myself as self-aware, but for all of my self-awareness, I still manage to fall into some of the same patterns. One such pattern is that of avoiding discomfort. This isn’t entirely surprising to me because we’re not socialized to be uncomfortable. From drive-thru fast food to self-checkout lines at grocery stores, we are conditioned to seek the more comfortable option. Discomfort is not a word we’re comfortable with. Ha! See what I did there?

In my own life, I’m uncomfortable with criticism. Because of my personal anxieties and childhood traumas, I have been fairly thin-skinned for most of my life. As an adult who is becoming more and more self-aware, I’d like to change this aspect of my being. That is the good news. I’m aware of my sensitivity, and I desire to better tolerate negative feedback.

The bad news is that the only real way to develop thicker skin is to invite feedback. Therein lies the rub. Growth requires more of me than I’m willing to give sometimes, and in those moments I have to gently remind myself of the things I’m seeking to gain. Why do I want to develop thicker skin? It will help me to differentiate between the feedback that is helpful and that which is not. In addition, I’d like to be able to receive feedback without a storm of internal anxiety and doubt surging through me. It’s unhealthy and I desire a more grounded existence than said storms allow.

I understand what I gain, and I am acutely aware of what I lose. Long-term I will lose the instability that intense anxiety can bring if unchecked. However, in the short-term, I also lose some peace of mind by inviting feedback. Once I receive the feedback, I have to acknowledge and confront my anxiety. Personal counseling has given me strategies to do so, but I assure you those strategies don’t make the process easier or faster. Sustained growth is rarely easy or fast. It requires a sacrifice of you. Moreover, it requires that you make the sacrifice each time the situation presents itself. It isn’t a one-time choice. If I want to truly become better at receiving and processing feedback, I must make the choice to receive feedback over, and over, and over again.

Whether you are seeking to confront a long-held bias or prejudice, become more comfortable in your own skin or more vocally advocate for the rights of others, growth requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is uncomfortable. It is difficult to speak of sacrifice without thinking of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. The reason so many are honoring him today is because he was willing to embrace a level of discomfort that most of us pray we never experience. In fact, I would venture to say we praise King so much because we believe he took a bullet so we no longer have to. As if he accomplished everything that needed to be done. In the same breath that we praise King, we wonder aloud how someone like Donald Trump was elected.

The answer: we have been too comfortable. More accurately, we’ve ignored the discomfort of the very people on whose behalf Dr. King worked. King spoke to the evils of capitalism, racism, and militarism over 50 years ago and where are we today? The plight of the blue-collar worker has not vanished. The epidemic of police brutality continues to ravage communities and the excessive use of violence by the U.S. military has not abated.  What has changed? We’ve become better at ignoring things which make us uncomfortable.

The time for remaining comfortable is gone. We’ve drawn it out longer than we ever should have. As we think about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, let us not only reflect upon the ways that Dr. King and those around him strategically and intentionally exchanged discomfort for progress, but also determine how we can do the same both personally and collectively.

Where can you invite more intentional discomfort into your life today?

Love Must Respond

My Christian tradition has taught me that love is the epitome of life and faith. God so loved the world. Jesus loved us. God is love. Love is the ultimate expression of what it means to be Christian. Perhaps it is even the ultimate expression of what it means to BE. In my life experience, love has been healing. Whether I’ve felt the love of my wife, my parents or of God, love has constantly been at the center of my life and faith.

Love always protects and always perseveres. If I take love, and thus God, seriously, I too must always protect and persevere. This sounds simple, but when lived out, will completely wreck the way you live. Taking love seriously means that I am faced to confront the brutal realities of pain that many experience.

Who can deny that since the founding of the United States people of color have been continuously disadvantaged? I welcome any honest and factual reading of U.S. history that can paint a picture in which people of color have not been targeted, dismissed and abused repeatedly.

Who can say that for centuries women have been silenced, threatened and killed when they defy the established expectations?

Who can pretend that queer people haven’t been treated as objects of scorn and derision as they’ve been harassed, bullied and even tortured for their very existence?

As I read history, and interact with people, I am forced to see these painful realities and respond. Love is not passive, it must always respond. The question just becomes what is my response? As I’ve responded, I’ve learned through trial and error that people who know me may not really know why I react as I do. Some have even wondered what changed within me. The answer is that nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. I’ve always claimed to love people, but when my love was confronted with situations and experiences I hadn’t accounted for, I was faced with a choice: continue to follow love wherever she may lead, or turn and continue living in my box. I chose to follow love, and she is leading me to call out injustice and discern how to fight against it.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, someone asked me what happened to me. The answer is love. Love hears the fears of those who have become or may become targets of racial violence. Love feels the tears of those who have experienced or will experience rejection and harassment because of homophobic bigotry. Love senses the despair of people who have been objectified and made to feel like their only worth is in the pleasure their bodies can provide. If you are connected to love, you hear, feel and sense all of these things and are forced to respond.

I still struggle with the limits that my socialization and culture have placed upon the love I have. There are still people for whom I am not fully embodying the fullness of divine love, but as I become aware of those walls I try to take them apart brick by brick so that I can more fully embody the divine spirit. Love calls me to react when people are oppressed. White or brown, rich or poor, transgender or cisgender, gay or straight, love must respond therefore I respond albeit imperfectly and inappropriately at times. I learn from my mistakes and move forward.

You will continue to see me respond. I’ll be aggressive and affirming, patient and passionate, compelling and comforting. I’ll be whatever the situation calls for; just know I’m responding to love. Love always protects and perseveres. Love must always respond therefore I respond.

What role does love play in your life? What does your love call you to do?

Inside my DNA

Life is strange. Every now and then you are given an opportunity to explore a part of yourself that you aren’t that familiar with. These opportunities may be uncomfortable, exhilarating or a combination of both. I had one such opportunity, and it left me feeling so very many emotions. Where to begin…

I feel as though I’ve just been connected with the missing segment of my DNA. One ninety minute conversation has left me feeling loved, grounded and anxious. I feel more connected to my history than perhaps I’ve ever been, yet I’m also guarded and cautious about what this all means. Still I’m aware that something has been unearthed from within the depths of my being, and I want to know it fully.

You’re likely wondering what I did that has left me feeling this way. Well, as the kids say, I did a thing today.

I spoke with my biological father for the first time in roughly 27 years. You read that right.

The last time I spoke with him, Bill Clinton hadn’t yet sexually assaulted Monica Lewinsky. (It was assault y’all. With that much of a power imbalance, it couldn’t have been consensual. Don’t believe the patriarchy…). I digress…

I spoke with my biological father. What is even stranger is that I didn’t know my biological father existed until I was 9. Somehow I had forgotten him. I don’t know how that happens, but it happened. Once I discovered that I had another father somewhere, I was cautioned against ever getting in touch with him because he was “dangerous”. As a result, I never made any attempt to contact that side of my family, and to be honest, I never felt like I needed to. I grew up with a great adoptive father so I didn’t have the typical “I never knew my father” longing that one might expect. I was content with the family I knew. That is until about two years ago.

A combination of the desire to know my family medical history and an increased yearning to connect with my black heritage caused me to reach out to my biological aunt. We connected and over the last two years, she has been slowly introducing me to more of my black family. It has been great! My aunt kept saying she’d like me to meet my father, but not until we were both ready. She graciously kept the door open while also giving me space to discern if/when I wanted to step through. During our last lunch together, she even gave me his phone number and suggested I reach out to him when I was ready. I thanked her, put the number in my phone and it has remained there, untouched for over a month.

I was waiting for something. I just couldn’t bring myself to reach out to him. I knew that once I walked through that door, there was no turning back. I knew that I’d lose a certain degree of control over the situation, and I like control. Previous experiences have taught me that when family members re-enter your life, drama and pain follow, so I waited.

Slowly I felt pushed from inaction to action. The first push came a couple of weeks ago as I was telling a friend of mine about my life. When I mentioned that I might eventually reach out to my biological father, she asked me what was keeping me from doing so. I didn’t have an answer for her, so I decided I needed to do some self-exploration. As I uncovered the reasons for my procrastination, I also realized that the door wouldn’t be open forever. My dad is in his 70s and, I could eventually wait too long and miss the opportunity. The second thing that pushed me to make a move was a little guy named John. As I was babysitting him one morning, I was struck by the fact that the last time my dad saw me, I was the same age as John who is two. I imagined my own father watching me play and explore the same way I was watching this two-year-old play and explore. I then thought of how difficult it must be for that to be my dad’s last memory of me. Needless to say, I’ve changed a lot since I was two, and he should at least get to speak with me as an adult.

With that realization, the last domino fell and I decided to contact him. The rest is history. My history. I feel like I’ve got an opportunity here for something deeper to take place. Perhaps there is an opportunity for deeper healing within me than I realized I needed. It feels as though my dad is the key that unlocks my relationship with the past in its fullest. I’ve stepped through the door and into the unknown. I’m optimistic about what lies ahead. It won’t be rosy and smooth, but it will be beneficial. The conversation I had tonight with my dad and his wife helped me realize that there are deep places within me that I’m not even aware of. I’m thankful for the lure of the divine through people and experiences.

The spirit is working to take me into those deep places. They are places I am either unaware of or unwilling to go, but go I must. I step, process and wait until I sense the familiar pull to step again. Thus with the trail behind me and untouched earth before me, I create my path as I walk along it. Today the path takes me both forward and back as I both form new relationships and reconnect with my history. I don’t remember my father or his family, so this feels like I’m starting anew, yet as I speak with them and hear their memories and experiences, I become aware of the history that connects us.

As I type these words, the lyrics to Kendrick’s song DNA are filing through my mind. “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my dna.” As I journey both forward and back, I feel more connected with all that is inside my DNA.

I’m sharing this experience not because I think everyone should know about my life. In fact, I was tempted to keep this private. In our day and age oversharing is a problem, and sometimes every little bit of privacy you can maintain is a blessing. I’m sharing because there is also value in being open and real with oneself and others. I think we all have these deep places within us that we dare not venture into. Places of “power, poison, pain and joy” that we fear. Some of us have hidden these places so well within ourselves that we’re no longer aware that they are there, yet they still affect us. I’m beginning to uncover, or perhaps better understand, one of those deep places within myself through the experience of reconnecting with my biological father’s family.

I wonder what deep places lie within you that are waiting to be uncovered. What places of pain are you avoiding? Where do you fear the poison that is within you? Are you aware of the power that lies dormant or the joy waiting to be awakened? I hope you’ll take some time to become aware of these deep places. Talk with someone you trust in order to better understand where they might reside. I think counselors are wonderful, but a dear family member, friend or mentor can also valuable resources in the journey of self-understanding. Listen for the call of the deep places, so that you too may understand all that resides within your DNA.

Love is calling

I had an experience last week that still makes me cry nearly every time I recall it. I’m not talking about that little one tear rolling down your cheek kinda cry. That’s my norm. I’m talking that ugly cry; that cry that possesses your entire body and shakes you to your core. It’s that cry that wells up from the depths of your very being and comes pouring forth unless you stop it. What experience could do this?

It was an inclusive/affirming LGBTQ service at the Mennonite Church USA denominational convention in Orlando. I’ll be honest. I didn’t really want to go to the worship service to begin with. On most convention days you attend one or two worship services per day, so the thought of yet another service was daunting. I went because my youth, and my wife, wanted to go. (Side note: I’m finding that my wife is an excellent moral compass). I’m so glad I went. The service was freeing, real and raw in ways most church services fail to be. It opened with an affirming statement of those in attendance that were members of the LGBTQ community. It was a statement of love that transcends bigotry, ignorance and hate. It was a message of God. A message that God is love and that love does not exclude lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, or those that fall under the umbrella of “queer”.

It was a powerful message, but it isn’t what made me cry. That came later. We read the names of the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and paid honor to them while recognizing the violence that members of the LGBTQ community still face. That was immensely profound, but it still wasn’t what brought tears to my eyes. To close the service there was an anointing. This wasn’t your regular holy oil anointing. It was a glitter anointing. Yes. A glitter anointing. I’ll admit it seems unusual and strange, but I understand why glitter was chosen. It’s a radical and subversive way to claim that God’s love extends beyond the traditional understandings of sexuality and gender. My wife and one of our youth who is a member of the LGBTQ community went to get anointed, and as soon as they left, the rest of the youth were looking around wondering if we were going to join them. As I stood to walk towards the anointing circle, our entire youth group rose as one and went too.

As I looked around the circle at the faces of our youth, I felt overwhelmed. I don’t even know that I can capture the emotions that moment triggered. You have to understand that this issue of inclusivity has been and still is a contentious issue within the church. It is dividing denominations and families today. To see this group of 15-18 year olds rise without any hesitation in a show of love and support for their friend was incredible. In that moment, as my pride swelled, I thought to myself “they get it”.

Folks, when I was their age, I hurt people and nearly lost at least one friend over my views on LGBTQ issues. It took me years for my heart and mind to be captured by love, so that I could have a vision of life that is wide enough to understand that sexual orientation and gender identity are not binary and that homosexuality is no more “natural or unnatural” than heterosexuality. What took me years to understand, these teens innately know and live out.

People have lost their lives over the hate and negativity that are tied to issues of inclusivity. Others have been so emotionally hurt that their capability to love themselves, let alone understand that God loves them, is greatly diminished. In that one act of solidarity, our youth group reminded me that there is hope that one day soon, people will no longer commit suicide because they hate themselves due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. They gave me hope that soon the CHURCH, will one day wake up and be so possessed by love that we recognize the ways we’ve failed for so long. They gave me hope that healing is coming.

That hope causes me to break out in an ugly cry every time I think of it. I’m proud of our teens. I’m proud to attend a church that has helped foster that love within them. I’m proud that they let me walk with them during these formative years. Love must be the main thing. When love is the main thing, it is difficult to demonize the innate qualities of another person whether you understand them or not. Our youth are leading by example. Will we follow?

I recognize that many may read this and think: I don’t hate members of the LGBTQ community. You can “love the sinner, but hate the sin”. While that mantra sounds logical, it misses something. I believe you can love someone while hating their actions. For instance, you may have a friend that cheats on their significant other. You love your friend, but recognize that what they’ve done is wrong and has hurt someone. The “love the sinner” mantra works in that situation, but fails when discussing issues of LGBTQ inclusion for three reasons.

  1. To characterize one’s sexual orientation or gender identity as “sin” is to denigrate the very core of their being and to demonize their identity. Adultery is an action you can choose to do or not do. Your sexual orientation or gender identity are not. I don’t choose to be attracted to my wife. I just am. I can’t help or change that. I don’t choose to feel like a male. It is how I feel and thus how I identity. Those aren’t choices I make. They are manifestations of my most inner self. When we characterize such manifestations as sin, we are, in effect condemning one’s person-hood rather than their actions. This is immensely damaging and definitely not love.
  2. A sin, as I understand it, is something that brings harm, or the potential for harm, to oneself or another person. It is a useful construct that helps people build/maintain healthy relationships in order to foster whole communities. Adultery may be classified as wrong or sinful because it causes harm to someone. Theft, likewise, may be classified as sinful because it has the potential to cause harm. It is an emotional harm that is triggered at the loss of one’s property, or the loss of one’s sense of security. One’s sexual orientation or gender identity do not cause harm to others or oneself. On what grounds then should any sexual orientation or gender identity be labeled wrong/sinful?
  3. For those that wish to fall back on using the Bible, and a particular translation/interpretation of certain biblical texts, to classify the sexual orientation and gender identity as sins, I’d encourage you to recall the example the gospels show Jesus setting. Whenever tradition or Jewish law contradicted God’s intentions (love), Jesus offered an expanded understanding or interpretation. We aren’t bound by our previous understandings or revelation. If the spirit of God is alive among us, then surely that spirit is working to expand our hearts and minds so that we align more perfectly with the way of love.

There is still much that I am learning about the LGBTQ community, so if I’ve missed or misunderstood something, I hope you’ll correct me, so that I can continue to grow in love. Love must be the main thing. Our youth are leading by example. Will we follow?

History, Heritage and Blackness

The pain of those who first carried my melanin speaks to me as a symphony of hurt.
The stories of those who have gone before draw me deeper.
History calls to me and heritage beckons.

History and heritage are asking one question. It is a question I thought I had dispensed some time ago. A question I once entertained due to insecurities and uncertainties has returned without that same baggage. The question which history and heritage are calling forth is this…

Dare I say I’m Black?

Such a simple question on its face, yet it is not now nor has it ever been a simple question for me. What makes one black? That, my reader, is a question for you. When do you decide whether or not someone is black?

Is it the amount of melanin or the shade of their skin that tips you off? Do you gauge the texture of their hair or the width of their nose to determine how they identify? Must you listen to them speak and thereby judge if they have a grasp of Ebonics before pronouncing them black? Is it the sag? The Jordans? What is it? How do you know when someone is black?

Maybe you only know by the fear their presence spawns within you….

Only you know when you know, so I ask again. When do you know?

I’ve been judged many times in many ways and there is no consensus on whether or not I’m black. Sometimes the verdict has come back that I’m most certainly too white to be black. Ironically, this is something both black and white folk have agreed on at times. Wait, is that irony? Someone ask Alanis Morissette. Shit. That reference cost me credibility within the black community. Add it to the list. Any guesses what has cost me credibility within the white community? If you guessed anything related to my appearance, you are correct.

Of course I’m saying most of this tongue-in-cheek because the question with which I wrestle now isn’t if others will accept me as black, biracial or some other identification. The question is will I accept myself as black, biracial or some other identification. Which way of identifying resonates most deeply with my own experience, reality and history?

Don’t let me deceive you. The opinions of others complicate these questions. Whether it is other black people reminding me of the reasons I don’t fit, or my own white family members perceiving my identification as a rejection of them, there are ramifications for however I identify. I’m aware of those ramifications, yet I’m also aware that no one gets to walk in my shoes but me. Therefore, the only questions of any real consequence deal with me, myself, and I.

Most days I identify as biracial, yet that hasn’t been sitting well with me lately. I feel Black. For those that have never wrestled with their racial identity that phrase may make no sense, but it is true for me. There is some combination of the reality of black oppression within the United States, my Afro-leaning physical features and my personal history that makes the label of biracial seem incomplete for me.

Those that know me well know that throughout the last year, I’ve been undergoing a journey of self-discovery. Each day I seem to peel back the layers a bit more and gain new insight into who I am and why I am that way. Thus far that journey has focused heavily upon my religious identity, and I can once again place myself within the Christian tradition. Perhaps now, the focus will begin to shift more towards my racial identity.

What I know without a shadow of a doubt is that these questions aren’t leaving anytime soon. I feel my heritage pulling and I hear history’s call. There is something incomplete about the way I’ve been identifying, but I can’t quite name it at the moment.

What I can name is that persistent and yet beautiful question with which I wrestle daily.

Dare I say I’m Black?

P.S. Please don’t feel compelled to answer this for me 🙂 I share these thoughts not because anyone else can provide an answer, but because I believe there is benefit to being real and, to a point, transparent with people. You may not be able to walk in my shoes, but you can listen when I tell you what my shoes feel like. Thanks for listening.

The Cost of Courage

I was challenged this week to be more courageous. While attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference on social justice, I was listening to Dr. Keri Day speak about racism and sexism. She issued two challenges: one to white people and the other to men. Both challenges were roughly the same-“talk to your people about these issues”.

White people must talk about racism and systemic injustice with other white people. Men must talk about sexism with other men. Why? Dr. Day didn’t say explicitly, but I gather it is because we live in a society that is too eager to blame or discredit victims of injustice. We want to pretend things are improving. We want to believe that if we haven’t experienced something, it must not exist. We want to hope that people are “snowflakes”, and if they were less sensitive, we wouldn’t have so much division.

Why do we pretend, believe and hope such things? The alternative is too uncomfortable.

If things are as bad as they seem…

If our experiences are not the only reality…

If people aren’t being too sensitive…

…Then some action is required of us.

Indeed action is required daily. As a man, it is easy to pretend that sexism isn’t as pressing of an issue as some would make it out to be. I exercise, shop and travel without giving any of those activities second thoughts. These are examples of male privilege. I have the luxury of going outside and running by myself without fearing that I’ll be abducted or harmed. I have the luxury of going to the grocery store without being cat-called by a stranger and fearing his response when I ignore him. I have the luxury of getting into a cab, uber or lyft without fearing that I’ll be sexually assaulted before I reach my destination. This is something I take for granted.

Not to mention the fact that women still make less than men for doing the same jobs. Black and Latinx women are paid even less than their white counterparts. Women are underrepresented in positions of power. Their sexuality is scrutinized. Their bodies are judged. Their personalities are mischaracterized and they’re constantly forced to accept the patriarchal models of success whether it fits them or not.

This is the world my wife lives in. This is the world my sisters live in. This is the world my mother, grandmother and my many female friends live in. That is only the tip of the iceberg. The issues are even more complex and the oppression more severe for lesbian, transgender, bisexual and questioning/queer women. Having said all of this, I also recognize that there are and will always be gaps in my own understanding. I’m not a woman, so I can only try to grasp what their lives are like.

I don’t face any of those issues because I am a heterosexual/cisgendered male. However, I claim to be a feminist, yet I often fail to live out that claim. I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and we were discussing carpet. Several women seemed to notice that the carpet needed to be cleaned while myself and the guy next to me had no idea. At that point, he leaned over to me and said “this is why we need women”. Implying that women are more inclined to notice things of that nature.

It was innocuous. It wasn’t harmful, but it was wrong. Instead of saying something or correcting him, I just chuckled lightly. A few seconds later, one of the women in the room got wind of the comment and gently corrected him. He accepted the correction and we all moved on. This still bothers me because I had the opportunity to say something and I didn’t. I was nervous. I didn’t want to come off as too uptight. I didn’t want him to think less of me. I didn’t want to be too judgmental of him, and I feared being perceived as if I was overreacting, so I said nothing.

Some of you are thinking that this isn’t a big deal, and perhaps you’re right. It matters to me because I know that jokes can contain nuggets of truth and falsehood. If those nuggets allude to oppressive opinions or ways of thinking, they should be challenged. I understood that joke to have contained the stereotype that women are aware of things which need be cleaned while men are oblivious. Not too harmful on its surface; perhaps even complimentary depending upon whom you ask.

However, the stereotype is part and parcel to the thinking that women are meant to be in the home. It is one step removed from the argument that “a women’s role is in the house”. That thinking has resulted in thousands of women being denied the opportunities to pursue their passions and dreams. For some women, it has even caused them bodily harm or cost their lives. Not so innocent after all. Have you ever gone to pull a small garden weed only to discover that the roots are embedded firmly and deeply into the soil? In the same way the roots of oppression run deep in this country. Many times we only see what’s on the surface and assume what we’re dealing with isn’t significant. This causes us to ignore the problem until it has spread beyond what we can handle.

In that moment, I should have been more courageous. I should have gently corrected my friend. Again, it is a small moment, but if I shrink in the small moments, how can I be sure I’ll rise in the large moments? When I see a woman being cat-called, will I say something? When I hear a sexist joke, will I respond? Will I refrain from participating in activities and industries that objectify women?

It is one thing to say I’m a feminist. It’s another to live that out.  Just being female, let alone openly advocating for equality, has cost many their families, friends and lives. If my beliefs cost me nothing, they’re too cheap to even discuss.

Men-we must be courageous. Listen to the women in your life and try to understand how their world is different from yours. Do some research so you can learn how sexism and misogyny have harmed and continue to harm them. Women will lead the charge for equality, but we can ride shotgun. We can be their “ride or die”, but we must first be courageous.

There is a cost to courage…what are you willing to pay?

 

 

Goodbye to decency

As I sat and listened to the farewell speech of President Barack Obama, I was again reminded of why this man inspires me so much. From his genuine appeal for us to place ourselves in the skin of those we disagree with, to the way he shed a tear when speaking to Michelle and proudly doted upon his own daughters, it was clear that I was listening to a great man.

Perhaps it is the contrast with our incoming president that made this stand out to me most, but the example he has set as a person and man is remarkable.

Was he progressive enough with his policies? No. Did he transform the day-to-day realities in black communities? Not at all. Did he do all that he promised? Of course not. I’m not saying Obama should take all of the blame for this, but we can’t deny these realities, however; where his campaign promises fell short, his inspiration did not. He’s been the national cheerleader when times looked grim; reminding us of our potential as a people and a country. He shed tears for all of us after tragic violence gripped our families and communities time and time again. He lectured us when we failed to live up to our lofty ideals and challenged us to see the way forward when discord clouded our vision.

Obama has been the voice of reason that has risen above the noise time and again over the last eight years, and we should miss that. Not since FDR’s fireside chats has a president been able to capture the attention of a nation in such a positive and impactful way. I recognize that the way he has impacted me is likely different than the way he’s impacted others. When I look at Obama, I see the following…

…A successful biracial man

…A father and husband who takes more pride in performing those roles than anything else

…A moderate-progressive politician who has managed to appeal to people across political, racial and economic divides

…A man of both reason and faith in the midst of a world that despises both

…A man who remains calm, cool and collected in the midst of the most stressful situations

Most importantly…I see myself. I’m not Barack Obama, and I shouldn’t strive to be, but I think we share some traits.  As I read of his search for racial identity, his stubborn optimism about overcoming our inherent divisions or his belief in the transformative power of collective action, I heard a voice that sounded eerily similar to my own. I don’t hear my thoughts echoed in the writings of Dr. King, nor do I see aspects of my personality mirrored in the lives of LeBron James, Common or Corey Booker. I admire each of these men, but I’ve never seen myself in any of them. As I’ve watched Obama over the last decade, I’ve repeatedly felt as if I could be looking at a version of the man I’d be 25-30 years from now.

He is imperfect. He has made mistakes and broken promises. He’s compromised when I thought he shouldn’t and failed to act when I thought he should. He promised a great deal; perhaps it was more than anyone could have ever lived up to. Despite those realities, he has also succeeded in ways I’m still beginning to grasp. After the morally dubious presidency of Clinton and the intellectually dubious presidency of Bush Jr., Obama has managed to restore both a high moral and intellectual standard to the office of the presidency. He did that amidst political opposition which was fueled by racist ideology. That is no small feat.

In 2008 “Yes We Can” was the cry of a country that dared to hope it could finally begin to turn it’s lofty ideals into concrete realities. Today, “Yes We Can” is the cry of a country that dares to recognize the division, injustice and prejudice that engulfs it, and still believe it can overcome those obstacles and follow the moral arc of the universe as it bends towards justice.

On January 20th, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and that thought still greatly disturbs me. However, Obama’s legacy and this recent political cycle have convinced me that I need to run for political office one day soon. While racism and bigotry helped deliver the presidency to Mr. Trump, they were also the very forces that our 44th president overcame en route to each of his electoral victories. Obama has shown me that a biracial man who has struggled with his own identity and faced racial discrimination can ascend to the highest office in the land. He has proven that optimistic realism can withstand some of the worst tragedies that this world has to offer. He demonstrated that you can attain celebrity status, economic wealth and political power without compromising your values or abdicating your responsibilities as a husband or father. It would be a logical fallacy to claim that because Obama did all of this, I can do it. I try not to be illogical. What I can now say with certainty is that each of the above things are now possible.

Time will tell whether or not I’m looking at Obama through rose-colored glasses, and I may one day write saying my views have changed or that he’s failed to live up to his own lofty standards as countless others have before him. That day may well come, but it isn’t today. Today, I sit with a surge of pride, hope and optimism about the road ahead. I’m proud to say that I’m biracial, despite the fact that I’ve never felt and will never feel fully accepted by one side or the other. I’m hopeful that the millions whom supported Obama during both of his elections are still out there and ready to continue challenging the systems of injustice that oppress many. I’m optimistic that I have a role to play in bringing into existence a more just and healthy world.

I feel all of this after listening to President Obama’s farewell speech. Say what you will about his legacy, but I’m certain we will miss that man. On January 20th, we will watch Obama leave the oval office, and we will say goodbye; not only to him and his family, but also to decency. We will miss you.

Progress-an unruly child

I’ve just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”. It is a powerful book. Arguable the best book I’ve read in the last few years. The last chapter was especially moving and challenging. Without sharing any spoilers, I’d like to offer some reflections.

I’m reflecting upon the importance of the marriage between patience and perspective. Patience, in and of itself, can be good and bad. Patience helped the Vietcong outlast U.S. forces during the ill-fated Vietnam War. In that sense, it worked against an imperial power. Patience may also be the reason the systems of slavery and Jim Crow lasted as long as they did. It worked against the disadvantaged.

Perspective is useful  because it helps us see things from vantage points that are not our own. Perspective was instrumental in helping white people stand with people of color during the Civil Rights movement. In the same way, perspective has helped thousands of people join with those at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Perspective can be very powerful. However, it can also be useless. Some of our founding fathers understood the perspectives of slaves to a degree, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep slavery from being institutionalized within the Constitution.

When patience and perspective are wed together, progress is birthed. Progress takes the knowledge and empathy of perspective and fuses them with the strength and drive of patience. In short, perspective is able to help channel the wisdom of patience and the fire of impatience. Let’s not forget, that patience has two sides. Both can be beneficial and both can be destructive. Perspective is what keeps both in balance. Progress comes about as a result of this balance.

It doesn’t come about quickly or easily. It must be conceived, gestate and eventually be birthed. Progress is complex though. It can be the undoing of peace and the fulfillment of faith. Progress is friend to some and foe to others. We who call for progress often forget what that means. In order for progress to grow and mature, there must be pain. Stretching and breaking will occur as structures are split and systems are rapidly changed. Emotions will run high and tempers will flare. Growing pains will be felt as progress continues to into maturity, but the process must take place. These growing pains should cause us to come face to face with the things we want most hidden.

I’m reflecting upon this because I am a work in progress, and as such I take time to change. I’m not yet the man I hope to be, but I believe I’m better than the man I was ten years ago. I’m not knocking the old me, but I’ve grown and matured in many ways. In many others, I have a great deal of growth and maturation left to achieve. In the same way, I’m reminded that it will take time for this country, and world, to live into its fullest potential. I need to keep that in mind. I can get so angry and frustrated with the blatant injustice that I forget progress takes time. That is where perspective comes in.

Progress is slow, at least it can be. Progress is painful, at least it should be. We must wed patience/impatience and perspective. Do not become so complacent in your patience that you forget what is at stake, nor should you be so impulsive in your impatience that you distract from the real fight. Find that balance, and progress is born. The first step in the wedding of patience and perspective for this country is an acknowledgement of our situation. There are deep divides that fall correlated to race, economic class, and gender identity to name a few. In some way, we’ve each played into these divides with our language or actions-at least I have. I’ve perpetuated anti-gay ideology. I’ve belittled the progress of racial/ethnic minorities. I’ve scoffed at the homeless and judged those who don’t conform to my middle-class standards. These truths are painful for me, but I must acknowledge them. We must all acknowledge our role in these problems-especially those of us with privilege.

Without acknowledging how we may be impacting the situation, we will fail to gain perspective. In that vein, I ask you. What are the painful truths you’d prefer not to face? If you’ve read to the end of this post, I’m guessing you’re ready to begin asking yourself those tough questions.

Hope and Anger: A Necessary Union

I shared something on Facebook yesterday that angered a lot of people. In short it said, “society will keep getting browner, querer, witchier, angrier, etc…and watch the old dinosaurs die off”. As you might imagine, those who felt they might be the “old dinosaurs” didn’t take too kindly to this message. Others wondered if I was contradicting my normally hopeful messages and thus damaging my reputation. I thought that anyone who has read more than that one post will know where I stand, but perhaps I shouldn’t assume anything. The questions people were asking were indeed valid, and I’d struggled with some of them myself. In fact, most of last night I wrestled with the weight of all I was feeling. What kind of message do I wish to send? What type of leader am I meant to be? After speaking with a good brother, I found some answers. In that spirit, allow me to explain myself.

I am angry. The last few months, I’ve only grown more angry. What makes me angry you ask? During the reconstruction era black congressman were removed from office and replaced with white congressman. The era of Jim Crow saw voting rights impeded with things like literacy tests. As of October 29th, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nearly 38% of its of prisoners are black, despite the fact that black people are less than 15% of the U.S. population. As of 2014, nearly 26% of black people and 23% of latino/a people lived in poverty. Those numbers were 10% for white people. Housing discrimination still takes place against black and Hispanic renters. On average, they’re shown 11% fewer available units than equally qualified white candidates. As recently as 2011 in Mississippi, a lynching occurred.The victim? A black man. Yes, lynchings still happen. Shall we continue? Educational outcomes differ according to race or ethnicity. Schools that are predominantly black tend to be funded at lower levels and have worse academic achievement (as measured by standardized tests) than schools that are predominantly white.

What is the picture I’m painting? If you’re black or Hispanic in the U.S., you’re more likely to live in poverty, attend an under-performing school, be incarcerated and be discriminated against when searching for housing. None of this is ancient history. It is all happening today. In our cities, towns and states. I haven’t even mentioned the disparity in mortality rates or the overt racially charged violence that takes place.

What makes me angry you ask? The fact that members of the LGBTQ community are still treated as if they’re less than equal. We finally have marriage equality, however; suicide is still a significant problem for LGBTQ youth. An LGBTQ youth is between 2-4 times more likely to attempt suicide than a straight youth. While many people think they can “love the sinner and hate the sin”, what they forget is what that message sounds like to the ear of the “sinner”. It translates to a denigration of their worth as an individual. It’s a message that connotes an inherent flaw that can damage the psyche and break the heart in ways unintended. Outside of religious groups, it is still common to hear the phrase “you’re gay” thrown around as a derogatory statement. As if being gay were bad. A member of the LGBTQ community is twice as likely as a straight black person to be a victim of  a hate crime and over ten times more likely than a straight white person. What subtle messages are we sending?

Instead of teaching our youth, and our adults, to love who they are, we’re debating about the morality of their emotions or life decisions and determining if civil rights protections are necessary. We fear the transgender person, so we create laws to “protect our children” while forgetting that “our children” are also transgender. What subtle messages are we sending?

Why am I angry you ask? Women still earn less than men for working the same job. Not surprisingly, the disparity increases for black women and latinas. On average, one out of every six women will be a victim of rape in her lifetime. While the rates of sexual assault have decreased dramatically, this is still a significant problem. In  August, a young woman was visiting her mother’s home in Princeton, Massachusetts and decided to go on an afternoon run.  She never returned. They later found her body in the woods around 8:30 that evening. Stories like these are still too common. Her name is Vanessa Marcotte. Yet we elected a man who bragged about kissing and groping women without consent, insulted the appearance of his female counterparts on the campaign trail and intentionally walked in on beauty contestants while they weren’t dressed. What messages are we sending?

I could go on and on because we haven’t yet talked about the First Peoples or Native Americans. We haven’t addressed environmental issues, the mistreatment of religious minorities or a host of other issues. I think you are starting to get the point though. I’m angry because far too many people are still hurt and marginalized on a daily basis. This marginalization costs many their lives. Our society is not yet a safe place for racial or ethnic minorities, women or members of the LGBTQ community. That alone should be enough to infuriate all of us. However, we then elected two men that have historically played active roles in continuing to marginalize those same communities. I ask again, what kind of messages are we sending?

So yes I am angry. Do I display my anger in the most constructive ways, not all of the time but who does? There seems to be a double standard in today’s world. It is this idea that if you talk about peace or hope, you can’t be angry. Yet I’ve watched angry politicians spread fear for the last eight years. I’ve heard white supremacists promote hate, in anger, over and over again. I’ve seen people at political rallies hurl racial insults at minority groups in anger; just for being present or daring to protest. Yet it raises questions when I get angry. Having said that, I’m sure my recent surge of indignation has surprised many who’ve known me for any length of time. I’m typically fairly level headed, and often trying to unite people rather than divide. Those things are still true. I long for true unity, however; we cannot be unified when so many are fearing for their basic safety. Peace cannot be achieved while we ignore the plight of those who lose their lives because of discrimination. Hope is great, but unless accompanied by action it is of little use for those most at risk today.

Patience is the enemy of the oppressed. Those whose lives are in danger don’t have time to wait. Whenever I hear people who aren’t oppressed talk about peace and hope, I realize how cheap it is. I look back at some of the things I’ve said and I realize how cheap my words were. You don’t know what hope is until it’s all you have. There are millions who are genuinely afraid of whether or not they will become victims of hate crimes or continued discrimination. They may hope that things improve, but they have every right to be angry at the current situation. They have every right to struggle for true racial and economic justice. I’m not looking to incite one group against another. That has already happened. Systemic oppression and injustice have separated us and awarded punishments and benefits accordingly. I’m saying we have two choices. 1) We recognize the role we’ve played in oppressing others or contributing to their oppression and actively fight on their behalf. OR 2) We get out of the way of those who are willing to take the first choice.

Above all, I hope you’ll understand that I speak against injustice and that alone. If you support injustice, encourage oppression or sow violence with your words or actions- I will oppose you on behalf of those whom are suffering. Whether you have been encouraged by my hope or perturbed and turned away by my anger, I hope you understand the source of both emotions. They are wed together, for it is my anger that fuels my hope of a better world and my hope which helps me channel my anger against injustice. This is my new reality. I hope you’ll join in my indignation so that we can more quickly address the social issues and concerns of those that have been historically marginalized. I know that many won’t. To them I say, please get out of the way.

P.S. I’ve listed some places I referenced for the above information. These aren’t the only places you can look, but I’ve provided the links if you want to keep digging.

Hate Crimes: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/16/us/hate-crimes-against-lgbt.html

Vanessa Marcotte: http://www.wcvb.com/article/loved-ones-gather-to-remember-vanessa-marcotte-1/8246187

Sexual Assault: https://www.rainn.org/statistics

LGBTQ: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide

Housing Discrimination: http://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012_execsumm.pdf

Poverty Rates: http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/