Am I a house cat?

Cats are stupid.

I find them disagreeable and silly. They just lounge around all day. Though they never have anywhere where to go, they still insist on whining and pawing at the door to go in and out every five minutes. Given that they generally do little more than provide minimum entertainment for their owners, I’m not really sure why anyone would want to keep one around.

Given my general distaste for these animals, the thought of being told that I am in fact one of these feline nuisances is not what I want to hear. So when I recently read an article that referred to us white women (the author and I) as the house cats of society, I was a bit distraught… distraught and also alarmed.

Despite my hesitation to compare myself to these undesirable creatures, I did in fact realize the parallels between us are disturbingly strong.

As a white girl, I can cry (a merit within itself) and the expected result is that someone rewards me with comforting pats on the back. Sounds pretty cat-like to me.

Let’s see, what else… If I make a mistake and don’t feel like crying my way out of it, I can instead just conjure the most innocent face complete with saucer-pan startled eyes, thus immediately relieving myself of all guiltiness in one killer white girl blink. Seriously, don’t ask me how many times I’ve wide-eyed a police officer on the verge of giving me a ticket.

Innocence is so deeply entrenched the way we are perceived, mostly by men. We’re just like those aggressively “adorable” cat pictures that cat owners always insist on showing while murmuring, “look, look, my princess, isn’t she cuuute?!”. Of course what they’re neglecting to also tell you is that the cat sh*ts wherever it wants and that the scratches covering the owner’s hand are indeed from this “cuuute” beast. (Point being, we can all be a bit vicious, mean, and selfish when we feel like it… regardless of our biological make-up.)

And just wait, the cat-white girl parallels only get worse.  When my innocent, helpless white girl self ventures outside the confines of my home country, the powerful title of “American” is assumed in my whiteness. When this identity combines with the disgustingly vulnerable, incapable identify as woman, I am granted an immense ability to weasel my way through most tricky travel situations (such as losing four $120 bus tickets or crossing a border with smuggled foods not officially permitted). Being a rich American/guiltless female, I am totally unsuspected of crime and am moreover able to deflect any potential issues with feigned confusion and uselessness.

In this way I’m just like a collared cat permitted free reign of the front yard; I am too cute and too cared for to cause any real damage. However, did you know that cats are something like the number one killer of birds in the U.S. (this could be a Grace Fact, but it’s what I’ve been told). Number one or not, cats kill a lot of animals, but no one does anything about these lethal killers because cats are just so damn accepted in their “household” nature. This is to say, there are a whole lot of things white girls get away with that we shouldn’t.

Indeed, I have been bequeathed with an identity that enables me in way, way too many ways.

It also renders me with the sense of being completely useless in society.

Let’s think of the scenarios here. If I chose to go to Wall Street (not that I personally ever could manage such a feat, but if), then I’m a selfish bitch whose just using the system to stay on top. If I teach at an underserved, minority heavy school, I’m a white colonizer who’s abusing the system. If I sit at home, well, at least I don’t hurt anyone or push my whiteness on anyone. But then I’m literally the human form of a house cat, gross.

Now let’s be honest, this isn’t a real problem. I have absolutely positively nothing to complain about. My biggest complaint is in fact that I have enough knowledge to live in discomfort with my feline privilege. THAT’S NOT A REAL ISSUE.

So what am I going to do? Certainly not sit at home. YOLO… obviously. But as a teacher, I’ve got to be real careful in the way that I teach, in the content that I teach, and in the system with which I align myself (including the current one in which I’m working… which is painfully white). And I’ve also go to be immensely aware of my presence in the world, including in this blog. I am not trying to make the issues that I write about to be bigger than they seem, because woman or not, I’ve got more then enough tools to fight whatever forms of sexism I encounter. And the last thing I want to do is further trivialize my cat-like self.

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White people talking (in Maine?!)

Dear Maine,

Oh how I love you, you splendid land (of white people). I love you for your natural wonders, your “upta camp lifestyle”. I love your work ethic, your spaciousness, and your sense of community. Yes, you are a great state indeed.

But, I’m afraid Maine that you’re teaching your children a HUGE LIE.

Or at least, you definitely taught this child one. You taught me that race didn’t matter, and you sent me out into the world blissfully ignorant of and tremendously uneducated in the racialized nature of our world.

When I was six years old, I actually thought black people had darker skin because they had lived in the southern part of the country where the sun made them more tan. Why else would people have different skin colors? Who else could live in the world other than white people made darker by the sun?

Well eventually I figured out that black people living in the U.S. didn’t just happen to tan a lot, but there was a thing called slavery and that it sucked, and that a lot of America’s black population lives in a reality still burdened by this ugly past.  But I also came to believe that ended long ago and that we now live in a happy equal society.

In high school, I believed I could date a guy of another race and it didn’t matter one bit. And for all intensive purposes, it didn’t matter to me then. Maine is so overwhelmingly white that in my community there is little option but for anyone else to assimilate into the dominant white culture to a large degree. And so, well, I barely even took note of his skin color. If and when I did, I was simply proud of my “post-racial relationship” (not that I knew the term at that point, or that that term appropriately describes what transpired then).

So wow, when college hit I was ahh-mazed. People of different races often sit together at different lunch tables!? People often date within their race, and can experience difficulties when they date people of other races!? The city of Providence is divided by socio-economic lines that just happen to align perfectly with racial lines!? Our public schools are still majorly segregated!? People have more or less difficulty getting jobs based on the assumed ethnicity of their names!?

Wait… race still matters? But, but… I thought that ended with Martin Luther King.

I had some serious learning to do.

Mid-way through freshman year I went to a meeting. A group called “White People Talking” was hosting a gathering for white people to talk about race. I had seen a flyer and I was intrigued. So one Friday afternoon I snuck off to check out this very foreign concept.

When I went to that meeting I felt dirty. I of course associated white people getting together exclusively as part of a long history of segregation, inequality, and general horribleness. But I am so thankful I went.

What I found was a group of primarily white people talking about their experiences as white people. To me, being white from a white state, this awareness and deliberateness about race was a definite first. Indeed, the exploration left a permanent mark on my understanding of being white (in that I am in fact white and that I can in fact talk about it). I can’t remember exactly what was discussed because I was so swept away by the sheer fact that such an event was transpiring before my very eyes. But I do remember the sensation of rather uncomfortably observing tricky moments of white people trying to express experiences and feelings. And that feeling hasn’t gone away. In fact, I’m still feeling it right now.

Until recently, I’ve never just sat around and discussed whiteness with friends or family. It’s just something I had never learned how to comfortably talk about, for fear of sounding racist or naïve or dumb.  (Note to self: make sure my future kids acknowledge and grapple with whiteness.) Moreover, I was never forced to talk about it. It didn’t consciously factor into my existence as a person.

BUT HOLY CRAP ITS PART OF MY EXISTENCE!

In conversations that I have had with white people in more recent years, I’ve enjoyed discussing the “challenges” of being white, or better put, the lack-thereof.  For instance, reflecting with those very aware of the fact that sometimes the privilege of “finding yourself” is an experience limited to those with the resources (who in the race/class spectrum are largely white) available to travel, to work for nearly nothing, and to do that soul searching (yayyy Fulbright!).

Which is to say, what more can white people possibly have to talk about, other than privilege? We don’t have a culture, right? (Or… do we?). We definitely don’t have a fight, a struggle (other than consumerism/imperialism). We don’t have to talk about our experience with whiteness because we are the oppressors, and oppressors are taught not to talk about their dirty oppressing acts.

And plus, in white dominated spaces, what would spur us to talk about whiteness? White people can go days without thinking about race. I mean, maybe you think, “oh, there’s a __________ person”, but rarely are we forced to think “how am I representing my race right now? Are people judging me on my clothes or my skin color? Will I have any white friends who get where I’m coming from? How can I make my race not an issue at this meeting?”

This is something I didn’t fully appreciate until I came to Colombia and felt, well, what I imagine what a black person feels like in Maine (or so I’ve been told at least). EVERYONE LOOKS.

Here in Colombia, when I consider drinking a lot, or speaking in public, or well, doing anything, I always think… white, white white. What will people think of white people based on my actions? I am the sole standard in this situation so I better not mess it up.

Let’s put it another way. For all you white readers… write a list of five adjectives to describe your identity. How many of you put your gender, your occupation, your familial status? How many of you put white? (Or how many of you wouldn’t have put white if I hadn’t prefaced the question with this essay?).

Why don’t we see our whiteness? Why don’t we feel it? Identify with it? At least in the case of Maine, maybe its because we’ve come assume that we’re the common standard and that “race doesn’t matter”.

Which is probably the biggest lie ever told. 

So, how should we identify with whiteness? How can we be aware of race in such a way that doesn’t just otherize everyone else? How do we avoid dangerously de-racializing ourselves?

Now, go talk about it. 🙂 

Paper Hearts and Butterballs

In the midst of our farewell dinner last night, a sudden flood of paper hearts fluttered through the air and gracefully scattered our water glasses, plates, and hair. The swell of thin red paper accompanied a charming restaurant band, prompting us all to smile goofily and sway our shoulders to the music. 

After a few minutes the music lulled and the question became: what do we do with all these little red hearts everywhere?

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One of my new favorite people proposed a game. She told us to gather the hearts nearest to our seats. The hearts were now to represent tokens of gratitude, and we were to spend them on the people surrounding us.

One by one we began offering affirmations and thank yous to the now familiar faces after five short but very full days in Bogota.

“I admire your sense of community and your leadership abilities that draw in everyone around you and make you an amazing leader.”

“I love you because you love me and even when I’m being the biggest bitch in the world you understand why.”

“Thank you for your honesty in our discussion tonight, I learned a lot.”

“I love your stories about your students because they always show how much you love them, and I love to hear them.”

By the end of the activity we were all radiating in our compliments both given and received.

And the best part of the story is that this wasn’t the first recent experience I’ve had with conscious acts of gratitude this week. A couple of days ago at the lunch table we played Pass the Butterballs. The name really just originates from the fact that a small plate with two butterballs resting on it was the easiest feasible object to pass from person to person. As was such, we took turns holding the plate and responding to a couple of different prompts conjured to make us more aware of our positive experiences in Colombia (and in response to a lot of negativity we heard from people convening after two months in their designated locations around the country). 

Amongst other things we shared what about Colombia inspired us, (for me it was dancing in my kitchen with my roommates). It made us all a bit more appreciative of experiences, and a lot more happy than listening to complaints.

And speaking of complaints, I often use this blog to express varying levels of discontent with myself and/or my society. So I wanted to write something positive today, something that expresses my appreciation for the people with whom I just got to spend a wonderful week talking about all the things that I just cannot express in my broken Spanish. I’m not sure if it’s the people I’m lucky enough to be around, or the fact that we spend way too much time in each other’s company at restaurant tables, but one way or another, I have benefited from deliberate attempts to recognize the gifts we receive in each other and from our live experiences in this new country we currently call home.

And conveniently enough, there has been a recent push for empathy and emotional education in articles from NY times and Huffington Post, as well as this amazing video. So it’s nice to be able to write a testament to the experiences I’ve recently had that, at least to me, accurately reflect the arguments written and shared around the internet. 

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Yes, I know this is a very cheesy post.  But I really just want to get in one more act of gratitude before I fully get back into my Cali life. And I want to share it not just with the paper heart crew, but with all the people who listen, share, and love in my life every day. Next time I get some butterballs in my hands I’ll send them your way. 

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