Fathers, Fairy Tales, and Lies: Why We Can & Should Hold Black Male Celebrities Accountable for Their Crimes

I wrote this back in May of last year, but all the Bishop Eddie Long apologists I’m reading on Facebook brought it back to my mind and renewed its relevancy, at least to my thinking.

I will say the same thing here that I said on Facebook about some people’s refusal to be silent about the sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Long in the event of his death:

You recount the mistakes to distill the lesson.

The black community should’ve held Eddie Long accountable for the wrongs he committed while he was still alive if so many of its members find it distasteful to indict a dead man.

But what the black community shouldn’t do–through its parochial responses to Long’s accusers–is continue to make the black community unlivable for sexual abuse victims or make it a safe space for sexual predators.

That–if you ask me–is a sin.

MRS

Even though I grew up in a household that was an approximation of the black middle class ideal, I still wanted to be a Huxtable.

I wanted more siblings than my one baby sister, who, at eight years younger, could do nothing but annoy the hell out of me; I wanted to live in a brownstone in the biggest and busiest city in the world; I wanted to have all four of my grandparents within walking distance and visit with them regularly; I wanted a mother who allowed my friends to come and visit our home every day after school; and I wanted a father just like Heathcliff.

When I was young, my father was a workaholic with ambitions of becoming the next Johnny Cochrane; he was gone most of the time, and, when he was home, he was still busy with work. He had his own father’s heirloom sarcasm. He wanted his daughters to be ladies even though our mother was raising us to be women. His expectations could loom higher than a Detroit skyscraper at times, but his temper could be as ugly as the Detroit River. He never spanked me once in my life, but he did smack me up a time or two with doctrine—the proxy hand of God—when he thought I was getting too out-of-control with my damned independent thinking and insistence on eking out my own identity.

He was a lot more complicated than Heathcliff Huxtable–less fun and way more demanding–and, since I had that TV image with which to compare him, I often found myself wishing my dad was less himself and more like a sitcom character.

I would fantasize about him reacting to me in the warm, goofy way that Heathcliff reacted to his kids, and I would feel a bit cheated because it was work being his daughter, and no one applauded for me as I did it.

Now, at 39, I realize that work was some of the most valuable that I’ve ever don–that he–my father–and I were building me into a decent, hard-working, and responsible person (with a wicked sense of humor, enviable taste in music, an elegant sense of style, and a deeply-rooted notion of fairness).

I understand now that navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up, and I wouldn’t be anyone close to the thinker, writer, teacher, mother, sister, or friend I am if I hadn’t been my father’s daughter–and mother’s daughter–first.

I also see–in thinking through why Heathcliff Huxtable was such an appealing character to me–what a juvenile concept of the “father” most of black people retain throughout our lives.

This is important to point out because I think it has a lot to do with why so many us, who love(d) Heathcliff Huxtable, are having such a difficult time accepting that Bill Cosby is a rapist that deserves to be punished for his crimes.

Rather than an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering to black people about what fathers are and are not, we have a fairy tale weighing on one shoulder and a pack of racist lies weighing on the other.

These two false images make it difficult for us to be realistic or real about our fathers and father figures.

The fairy tale is of the white father–a romanticized figure that is an amalgam of the Judeo-Christian God and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. This man–because of his social privilege and inherent moral superiority and intelligence–conferred by his whiteness–is the perfect father. He is always there for his kids; he always has to proper solution for their problems; he can provide for his children’s every need; and he never fails them. He is the polar opposite, conceptually, of the paradigmatic black father.

The lies on the other end of the binary are that black men are inherently bad fathers. That slavery stole the ability to parent permanently from them. That institutional racism bars them–across the board–financially, emotionally, and spiritually–from adequately supporting their children. That being the victims of oppression, suppression, deprivation, and violence makes them ineffective and even damaging.

Charles Blow of The New York Times does an excellent job of describing this manifold misconception: “[We believe],” he writes, ” . . . there is something fundamental, and intrinsic about black men that is flawed, that black fathers are pathologically prone to desertion of their offspring and therefore largely responsible for black community ‘dysfunction.’”

Both of these mythoi–of the good white father and bad black father–conveniently–or inconveniently for black men–ignore the facts–which must be considered in order for black people to gain a more realistic–and serviceable–concept of the “father.”

The first is that, historically, many white men have failed spectacularly at parenting. See Joseph Kennedy, who had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized at age 23 without his wife’s knowledge or agreement, or Woody Allen, who had an affair with the adopted daughter—Soon-Yi Previn—of his long-time girlfriend Mia Farrow. They have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that white men in general are not automatically “better equipped” for parenting.

On the other hand, black men are more than just the “serial impregnators” portrayed in the racist mainstream media.

Though 72% of black women having babies are single mothers, this doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the fathers of their children. It actually means they aren’t married to them. Many still live with the fathers of their children. Only 55% of black children live in single mother households.

And even though a lot of black fathers don’t live with their children, about 2.5 million black fathers do live with at least one of their children.

Too, according to the CDC, black fathers–in and out of the home–provide more actual child care than white or Hispanic fathers. Yes–black men regularly feed their children their meals (78.2% black>73.9% white>63.9% Hispanic), dress their children (70.4% black>60% white>45% Hispanic), and read to their children every day (34.9% black>30.2% white>21.9% Hispanic). They are not all flailing or failing to fulfill their parental duties, despite what even a large segment of the black community maintains.

It is fair to acknowledge, too, that many of the black fathers that are missing from their children’s lives are missing because of factors related to institutionalization.

As reported in The Washington Post, “Incarceration [is an]  overwhelming [driver] of the gap [in the number of black women and men in the free population].

“Of the 1.5 million missing black men [out of 8 million] from 25 to 54 [the prime age span for fatherhood]–higher imprisonment rates account for almost 600,000. Almost one in 12 black men . . . is behind bars, compared with one in 60 nonblack men . . .”

These numbers prove that black men are not pathologically neglectful of their children.

Black fathers are still more absent from black homes than white fathers, but their patterns of abandonment can be linked to the historical legacy of slavery–how it has shaped today’s law enforcement and justice system, created genetic pitfalls for black people in terms of their health (which result in earlier deaths), and facilitated the demonization of black men in order to justify its reprehensibility.

Often, it is their internalized self-hatred–their own belief in their badness–that impels black men to leave their children alone–in the wrongheaded attempt to protect them.

Because black men struggle on a lot of levels to be present for their children at the same rates as nonblack men, and black people as a whole have a lot of misconceptions about how structural racism impedes parenting, the absences of black fathers lead many black people to cling to idealized father figures like Heathcliff Huxtable.

They set these father figures, usually found in entertainment, on pedestals because these men seem to have overcome whatever obstacles they needed to overcome in order to “get it right” for their children and co-parents (which are more often than not their wives).

Those that actually are or that just feel fatherless worship these figures in a sense, and this may be because one of the predominant figures in this improvised pantheon of imaginary surrogates is, in fact, the Judeo-Christian God.

Just listen to the way that many black religious leaders speak about God. They very liberally and munificently humanize Him. They do this because they know that so many black people suffer from an acute psychological sense of fatherlessness. They want to fix it, so they offer their congregants a God that is an eternal, omnipotent father.

They take that Biblical address, that ancient, enduring metaphor—“Our Father”—and literalize it–to effect some sort of spiritual healing from parental abandonment. They create a model of fatherhood that–while it may not shape the way that real black fathers do their jobs–shapes the way that the fatherless envision the role of the father. Then, celebrities, cultural icons, and imaginary characters like Heathcliff Huxtable do the same thing, but on a lesser level.

These famous “fathers” provide the fatherless with an unrealistic ideal that they attach to as “theirs” to fill the absence of an actual father. These “fathers” give the fatherless ridiculously high standards for what a father is, but, since they appear to meet these standards, they also inspire immense amounts of love and loyalty. It is this love and loyalty–and the painful prospect of losing yet another “parent”–that make it so difficult for people to accept it when father (or maybe it’s more apt to say “fatherly”) figures like Bill Cosby commit terrible acts.

Since so many black people do suffer from fatherlessness–or even from the idea that their “regular” black fathers are inferior–they do not want to give up their adoptive fatherly figures.

They do not want to face the fact that a character like Heathcliff Huxtable is a personage and not a person.

They want their fatherly figure to be innocent, or, if he cannot be innocent, they want him to be exempt.

So when their fatherly figure is put on public trial, these “children” argue that his positive contributions to society or culture or the black community must outweigh his crimes. They vilify his victims in order to lessen his culpability and depravity. They deny that his behavior is actually harmful, or, worse, they say that his victims are the ones doing the harm, by ruining the fatherly figure’s so-called legacy.

They make that same tired argument every time–that if Guilty Black Fatherly Figure were white, he wouldn’t be held nearly as accountable for his transgressions, as if that somehow justifies his transgressions. But the truth remains.

Despite how prevalent fatherlessness is in the black community, or how painful it is, we—the collective—cannot use it as an excuse to dismiss the crimes of our famous black men. Our imaginary “fathers” are no less responsible for their actions than our actual fathers. Fame, wealth, and talent–while they are rare–impressive–enchanting–still do not cancel out brutality, cruelty, perversity, or decidedly unchecked psychopathy.

The ugly truth is, then, that Bill Cosby is somnophiliac that–because he prefers to secretly drug women rather than gain their consent to have unconscious sex–has allowed the pursuit of his paraphilia to make him a rapist.

He has admitted on the record to drugging women and raping them. He has paid these women–by order of the court and on his own—as his atonement for raping them.

He has exploited his image as a fatherly figure, his power, and sexist stereotypes like that of the female groupie or gold digger to ruthlessly cover for his crimes.

He has been allowed and–yes–encouraged–by his wife, entourage, the Hollywood establishment, the legal system, the patriarchy, and, yes, the black community–that deifies him–to violate a group of 50 women–that we know of–between 1965 and 2008–without suffering any losses to his fame, wealth, reputation, or freedom.

And before any of you reading can make the reflexive argument that erroneously links the veracity of their accusations to how long it took certain of his victims to come forward on the record, let me let you know–

American culture and the nation’s justice system are criminally inhospitable to female rape victims, and this has a profound effect on their willingness to report their attacks.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to police.

This is because when women are assaulted by a friend or acquaintance (neighbor, classmate, coworker, boss), they fear they will not be believed.

They fear retaliation from the accused, other people finding out they’ve been assaulted, being branded as a rape victim, and/or being disrespected and/or mistreated during the trial process.

They believe that the police will not do anything to help them.

They believe that they have a lack of adequate proof or evidence.

They have their own misconceptions about what actually constitutes rape and do not actually know or believe that they have been raped.

Men may not be able to relate to these reasons–or they might refute them in order to abstain from inverting and being implicated by them–but women–if we’re being honest–know that they are very real.

Too many of us have either been raped or molested and experienced these paralyzing fears or doubts firsthand, or we have imagined being raped or molested and projected these fears and doubts onto our imaginary selves and into our possible futures.

Another reason not listed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that women don’t report sexual assaults is the terrible lack of credibility attributed to them by certain principles of rape culture.

Patriarchal notions that men hold–about how desperately women want to please them, how deserving “promiscuous” women are of punishment, and how important maintaining a “good girl” image is to women–make it easy for men to believe that women are lying when women say they’ve been raped.

Men like this think women are so universally “afraid” of being typed as sluts that any and all of them would lie about having consensual sex–call it rape–to avoid retribution or requital for exercising their sexual freedom.

And these men hold to the unfortunate truth that some women have lied about being assaulted—they have falsely accused men to avoid shame, exact revenge, or hide infidelity.

In the case of Cosby’s accusers, we must also concede they were up against the unlikelihood that a woman that is a “nobody” would be believed over a cultural icon.

Look baldly at how his accusers have been treated, and it’s easy to see why so many of Cosby’s victims felt for so long that reporting him to the authorities would be pointless.

People conflate Cosby with Heathcliff Huxtable. They think Bill Cosby is Heathcliff Huxtable. And, as devotees of the character, it is impossible for them to imagine Heathcliff raping a woman. So they struggle with believing that Cosby is a rapist. Still, the numbers of victims—as well as Cosby’s own accounts of his encounters with them and court settlements to which he has agreed—make it impossible to ignore that Cosby is guilty of a pattern of illegal behavior for which he deserves to be punished.

It looks as if the same thing, unfortunately, can be said about legendary hip hop culturalist Afrika Bambaataa, who has been accused in the last couple of months by four men of sexually abusing them during the 1980s.

Allegedly, he showed them—as boys—pornographic materials then performed oral sex on them.

Along with assaulting them, he gave them shelter, food, and money when they needed it, and he maintained a “father-son” relationship with at least one of them into adulthood. That is—in fact—what the boys called him: “Poppy.”

It’s reasonable to assume that fatherlessness, shame, machismo, and a distorted sense of loyalty are what kept them from reporting their abuse until now.

Again, before those of you that are inclined start doing that victim-blaming “thing” we so often do when we hear that victims of sexual assault have waited to name their accusers, I want to go back to one really significant concept I brought up previously, and that’s loyalty.

I honestly believe that malformed and misdirected loyalty are what keep a lot of black people silent about the terrible things that other black people do to them or in their presence.

We have such a profound mistrust of law enforcement and the courts that we do not want to turn a supposed “brother” or “sister” over to them if we can help it.

So many of we black people refuse to report crimes committed against us by other black people—and we uphold our own abusers in a lot of instances—in order to show our racial awareness and solidarity.

We romanticize our victimization as a sacrifice of sorts, and we shame those that don’t adhere to this dysfunctional “code” of honor and silence. But this behavior is a throwback to the plantation and the inhumane treatment our ancestors often suffered when they didn’t cover and/or lie for each other.

As a people, we have to start moving past our past, in this sense. We either have to abandon this anti-“snitching” ethic and turn the offenders in our community over to the law, or we have to figure out our own ways to hold them accountable for their choices to damage others and refuse to seek help for their sicknesses.

I said it before—navigating one’s relationship with one’s parent(s) is one of the most influential parts of growing up. James Baldwin even said that loving someone—that act in itself—is a growing up.

It’s a process of shedding the pretty, pretend ideas we get from fairy tales, and the hyperbolic or fantastical ideas we get from lies, and embracing new ideas about ourselves—bolder concepts of ourselves—that protect and empower us, female and male.

And here are a few—

We can love Heathcliff Huxtable—what he represents—the will to father black children lovingly and joyfully—without reifying him.

We can admire Bill Cosby as an entertainer, philanthropist, actor, and producer without deifying him.

We can condemn Bill Cosby for raping those women without killing the image of Healthcliff Huxtable.

We can support a conviction of Bill Cosby’s guilt and maintain a sense of our highest and not our basest form of integrity.

We can condemn Afrika Bambaataa without indicting hip hop culture or erasing his contributions to the culture from its history.

We can support a conviction of his guilt.

We must.

Nothing can justifiably counterbalance wrongs like the ones Cosby or Eddie Long committed except confession, contrition, reparation, and rehabilitation.

So we cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood—this concept that black men cannot answer for their actions—if we want black men that ultimately inspire more than pity, mistrust, resentment, or fear in us. Or that can only truly be great when they are standing framed in our blind spots.

We cannot keep perpetuating this cult of fragile black manhood if we want to evolve into a culture that is characterized by more than its pathologies.

In order to grow out of the desperation of fatherlessness and demand what is actually attainable from our famous men–decency–we have to leave the childish notion that fathers are faultless behind us, once and for all.

We have to process the ugly truths about our fatherly figures. Topple them from their pedestals. Let them shatter and clean up the messes they’ve made.

This will help us to not only heal from their abuses, but it will help us to better appreciate our real fathers.

It will open us up to accepting that many of them are bending over backward, being their best for us.

 

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Being the Change: Ryan Lochte, Bresha Meadows, and What Black Parents Need to Do for Their Own Kids

All the clamor over Ryan Lochte has passed, but I still have some lingering resentment of it, so I’m writing this weeks after it may seem relevant.

Please forgive me, though. I’m actually talking about something bigger and more important than Ryan Lochte; I’m just using his bullshit antics as an entryway into the conversation.

Ryan Lochte went to Rio last month to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics, didn’t medal, very probably started feeling sorry for himself, and decided he needed to “blow off some steam”–all good, nothing wrong with any of that, whatever, good for Ryan.

Where he fucked up is he got drunk, tore up a gas station, got caught by Brazilian security, caught an attitude, and tried to get the security in trouble by claiming they were crooked and robbed him.

His horrible, entitled decision making throughout the night of August 14 took him from international idol to international asshole in record time, and the media had a field day reporting on “poor” Ryan as, first, the victim of a fabricated robbery and then the victim of a fabricated developmental delay.

Now, this is where the media fucked up–in its collective decision to portray Lochte as an overgrown adolescent that should be let off the hook without any accountability rather than a grown man that willingly vandalized public property and deliberately lied about it.

By discussing Lochte like an overgrown adolescent, the media exposed just how real and deeply entrenched the racial bias in the portrayal of black males in American news reporting is.

Because when Trayvon Martin (17-years-old), Mike Brown (18-years-old), and Tamir Rice (12-years-old) were discussed in the news, they were habitually called “males” or “young men,” not “kids” or “boys,” and regarded adults, capable of making more “appropriate” decisions in response to Zimmerman (28 at the time he murdered Trayvon), Wilson (28 at the time he murdered Mike and a trained police officer), and Loehmann (26 at the time he murdered Tamir and a trained officer as well).

Ryan Lochte was older than even Zimmerman, Wilson, and Loehmann–he was 32–when he went into that Brazilian gas station, broke the soap holder and a mirror, ripped up flooring, tore down a sign, and urinated all over the property with his teammates.

He was definitely too old to be called a “kid” or extended the forbearance we give children for being relatively unformed in terms of decency, morality, integrity, and responsibility.

And black people all over Twitter and the rest of the world spoke up about this fact. They dragged the American media for the routinely discrepant way it portrays black boys–as intrinsically violent or anti-social rather than age appropriately defiant or immature.

But what I have to say is–black people–we need to watch the ways in which we adultify and parentify our own children because we do, even though I hate to admit it.

We need to be vigilant about our own tendency to regard grown black men as “kids” that cannot make responsible decisions and cover for their lapses in judgment or into dysfunction, which puts a rubber stamp on head games like the one the media tried to play in its defense of Ryan Lochte.

I say this because at the same time that Ryan Lochte was touring the morning talk shows, trying to slip out of giving a proper apology for what he had done, a 14-year-old black girl named Bresha Meadows was being peripherally discussed; she was standing accused of having killed her father for being abusive toward her mother.

Her father was a 41-year-old man that had reportedly battered her mother for years.

After years of witnessing this, and some say being abused herself, on July 28, Bresha allegedly shot her father with a gun he routinely used to threaten the family–a girl with no history of personal violence.

The family immediately rushed to her defense, justifying her actions by corroborating reports of her father’s abusive behavior, and her mother made sure to tell reporters, however sincerely and/or strategically that Bresha was “[her] hero.”

“I wasn’t strong enough to get out and she helped me,” Mom said. With tears in her eyes and sorrow written all over her face, I’m sure.

And this is where I want to insert my argument–right in this place where Mom allowed circumstances to become such that Bresha–a kid–had to step up, stand in, and do a woman’s job.

Or a man’s job if we buy into the concept that as someone with an obvious problem, Dad, too, could’ve and should’ve sought help. Which I do.

Either way you want to look at it, the bottom-line is Bresha Meadows is not an adult. She isn’t a woman. She’s a little girl.

And so she shouldn’t have had to end her father’s abuse; she should’ve been cloistered from it by the other adults in her life.

Her father, on the other end of it, wasn’t a child; he should’ve been held accountable by his wife and other adult family members for his unwillingness to seek help for his obvious issues with violence.

It’s important that black people take time to reflect on these concepts because if we do not want white people or people in authority positions to adultify our children, then we can’t adultify our children. We have to acknowledge, protect, preserve, and respect their childhood just like we want other to do.

Black kids are often perceived as less “child-like” because they are physiologically more developed than their white counterparts, yes–they are heavier and undergo puberty much earlier–but a lot of the time they signify as older through psycho-social cues–the way they talk, the way they act, the way they appear to think.

This is because too many black kids are made to deal with situations that are “older” than they are or than the situations with which they should be rightfully dealing at their age.

I’m not talking about having to go without the new Pokemon game for your Nintendo 3DS because the electric bill was higher than usual this month, and the discretionary or miscellaneous budget for the house is smaller. No. That sort of thing is understandable, minor aspect of life for working or poor families with limited resources.

I’m talking about having to take care of your younger siblings because of your mother’s incessant dating and/or partying or adamant refusal to use birth control.

I’m talking about being made to get on the phone and ask your father about his child support payments because your mother refuses to do it.

I’m talking about having to fend off your parent’s predatory lover because he or she doesn’t have high enough self-esteem or a high enough level of self-reliance to separate from this person and put you out of their reach.

I’m talking about having to shoot your father to protect your mother because she won’t get help to grow mentally strong enough to leave her abusive marriage, your father won’t get help to stop battering your mother, and the other adults in the family won’t intervene and take you and/or your siblings out of the household in which the abuse is taking place out of some misguided notion of “respecting” your parents’ rights.

If those of us that actually walk the walk of adulthood know one thing, it’s that being an adult necessitates that we make tough decisions and deal with painful circumstances as a matter of course.

But if we have decided to take on parenting or the custodianship or guardianship of a child or multiple children–if we have adduced our status as “adults” in that way–in order to “qualify” for that level of responsibility–then we have to be women and men about it.

We have to be the adults that we claim to be.

Black people love to talk about how “grown” they are. That’s a favorite phrase of ours. “I’m a grown-ass woman/I’m a grown-ass man.”

But being a grown person is more than a matter of standing in the middle of the floor and making declarations.

And claiming to be an adult then displacing responsibility for a situation onto a child, or simply leaving a problem for a child to solve, because you don’t have the guts to do it yourself is unfair and actually somewhat unsavory.

If you create a problem using the autonomy and agency that adulthood affords you, then you should solve it, not leave it up to your kids to solve.

Because I believe that when we adultify and parentify our kids in this way, it makes it that much easier for white people to do it–to propagate a concept of black children as pathological that they can then use to frame them.

The reason Zimmerman was able to get off in his trial is because it was easy for the jury to believe that a 17-year-old black boy can pose a lethal threat to a 28-year-old man.

It was easy for the jury to believe this because so many 17-year-old black boys are forced by their home situations to act like men–to physically defend their mothers and siblings against older men, to physically care for their siblings like a father, to work full-time rather than go to school so they can earn enough money to pay bills, to fend for themselves in the streets for survival because they were kicked out by frustrated or overwhelmed parents–I can go on and on.

This isn’t exclusive to our boys, and it isn’t exclusive to our kids, either, but I do think that adultifying and parentifying our children may have more dangerous ramifications than we like to entertain as we go about our day-to-day lives. Serious cultural ramifications.

This is why we as actual black adults should do everything we can to allow our kids to live as kids while they are kids and develop into adults at the natural, appropriate pace, in as much as we can do so.

Whether we want to admit it or not, when we don’t slay our own dragons, we are inviting our children to do it for us out of love and loyalty, and this isn’t conducive to anything but causing them undue damage most of the time.

Let me say that more plainly: It’s not our children’s place to be our heroes, rather it’s our obligation to protect and take holistic care of them.

That’s what raising kids is. Bracing their backs and picking them up when they fall. Bandaging their wounds and kissing away their tears.

Ryan Lochte is not a kid, but Bresha Meadows is, and, now, she’s being charged with aggravated murder.

There is no lie that can get her out of this, and the truth, though moving, might not acquit her either.

She doesn’t belong in prison for what she’s done, but it’s very likely that she might end up there, considering how little anyone seems to believe in black innocence or value black lives these days.

And I’m guessing one of the arguments the prosecutor will make against her–to get her there–is she should be punished as an adult since she acted as one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mind Over Matter: On the Killing of Korryn Gaines

One of the most difficult things to teach students, as an instructor of composition, is how to avoid making sweeping generalizations in their writing.

Take abortion, for instance.

I’ve lost count of how many papers I’ve read with the thesis that “Women shouldn’t be allowed to have abortions because having an abortion is taking the easy way out of being sexually irresponsible.”

This thesis ignores the facts that 1) many women get pregnant while using birth control methods that just happen to fail; 2) many women get pregnant as a result of rape or incest; 3) abortions can be physically damaging to women; 4) many women choose to get abortions because their pregnancies are threatening to kill them; 5) many women choose to get abortions because there is something drastically or even fatally wrong with the fetus; 6) abortions are costly and difficult to obtain under all of the new laws instituted by Republican leaders over the last few years; and 6) the shame and stigmatization that many women suffer after having an abortion can be emotionally and psychologically traumatizing.

Hence, abortion is not easy. It’s complicated. Like most things in life are complicated.

When students engage with issues dogmatically rather than critically, though, they often arrive at theses like this–theses that fail to engage with an issue in the whole of its complexity.

I think that many of us engaged in the struggle against police brutality–as admitted students of its history, sociology, psychology, and criminology–are doing the same sort of thing as we attempt to have a meaningful discourse about Korryn Gaines.

Yes, the killing of this poor young woman, and the shooting of her son, by Baltimore police, is yet another example of how law enforcement in America makes undue victims of black people.

However, this is not an instance in which the police killed an unarmed person for committing a minor infraction.

The conversation that we have about what happened to Korryn and how the police got it wrong shouldn’t be conducted in the same terms as the conversations that we’ve had about Mike Brown or Eric Garner or Sandra Bland.

If anything, it should be more along the lines of the conversations we’ve had about Tamir Rice, but, even then, there’s more to Korryn’s situation than his.

But I understand the desire to keep the paradigm simple.

If we admit that a black person killed by the police might have done any tiny thing to incite the violence used against him or her, then we risk losing the argument that cops are disproportionately and excessively violent towards blacks.

However, if we don’t talk about situations like these in exact and accurate terms, then we risk losing that argument anyway, because we are undermining our credibility.

If we do not stick to facts and logical principles in our discourse about racism in law enforcement and police brutality, we make it that much easier for politicians and pundits to discredit and ignore us.

And the facts are these–

The police had access to court records that indicated that Korryn Gaines had suffered acute lead poisoning, and she had developmental disabilities and brain damage as a result.

This meant that she could not process her dealings with the police or court officials at the sophisticated level necessary to make sounder or safer decisions about how to handle herself.

Developmental disabilities, according to the CDC, include autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability (what we formerly referred to as mental retardation), and various learning disabilities.

Imagine someone with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, or a severe learning disability trying to process all the media coverage of the recent spate of racist police murders.

Children often mimic what they see on TV and in movies, and it seems to me that Korryn Gaines was incredibly child-like in her thinking, as a result of her exposure to lead.

She thought she would fight fire with fire, and this would somehow save her from becoming another BLM hashtag whose murder would go unanswered.

Even though black people balk at others’ binary thinking about us, there is an oversimplified binary to which many of us subscribe when thinking about the type of black people we are–

You are either a punk–a disgrace to your people, both intimate and formal–or you are a G.

Punks walk away from fights. They pause to weigh the possible consequences of a confrontation and often decide that they are too risky, so they don’t engage.

They damn pride and ego and opt for safety. They use sensibility and justification to camouflage what many regard as weakness and cowardice. They are said to lack “heart.”

According to the G’s, they’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that there is no winning if you fight The System, so they don’t.

They accept that they are powerless. They choose their lives over their prospective legend.

They don’t care what people say about them, only that people can continue to talk about them in the present tense. As in “He’s a punk.” Rather than “He went out like a G.”

G’s don’t walk away from fights. They don’t flinch at threats. They don’t care who has weapons or what those weapons are.

G’s are hard. They don’t turn their backs on anyone talking shit or getting in their faces. They may not start fights, but they certainly aim to end them.

The only adverse consequence they seem to consider when facing a confrontation is looking like a punk if they opt out of fighting.

They don’t allow fear to dissuade them from doing anything they think will gain them respect or make a point about who they are or what they value.

G’s will stake their lives on their pride or their ego. They fight for survival rather than opting out of a fight in order to survive.

Survival for them, though, is more metaphysical than physical. They care about surviving as a symbol or example, of strength or resistance, rather than living to see another fight.

They choose legendary status over the preservation of their lives.

Tupac was a G. Cleo in “Set It Off” was a G.

Past tense.

There is a miniscule grey area between these two archetypes, but it is a space in which most adult black people navigate.

From what I’ve seen, and read, punks and G’s are people that have experienced exceptional privilege and comfort or exceptional pain and loss. In either case, they’ve developed a skewed sense of how the world works and how they fit into it. If they are not very educated, or they are disabled, or they struggle cognitively, then they are less likely to enact their archetype with any sort of nuance. They are more likely to misunderstand how workable each of the archetypes is. They don’t get that a black person in American will be forced to fight to protect himself or herself, but he or she should do this fighting strategically and with more than brute force and weapons if he or she seeks to make a lasting impact or walk away with his or her life.

When I look at this shooting that just occurred in Baltimore, I can’t help but think of this binary. I can’t help but think that Korryn Gaines took a decidedly adolescent route to dealing with all of her interactions with the police and courts, and, then, when she was forced to be accountable, decided that she would go out like G.

I can imagine this young woman–with her mental capacity–watching all the news coverage of the BLM murders–reading countless tweets and IG and FB posts–and deciding that if the police ever came for her, she would be ready for them.

News reports that I’ve read have even included a link to one of Korryn’s 2015 social media posts, in which she bragged about acquiring the shotgun that she held on the cops on Monday.

“Hope they sending in clones,” she wrote on Instagram. “I’m waiting tho [sic].”

This post doesn’t just convey Korryn’s intense distrust of the police and their willingness to use restraint–her expectation of excessive violence from police and fear of dying at their hands–all of which are perfectly understandable.

It conveys a profound miscalculation of what she could do to protect herself against the police as one woman with one gun. It conveys a deep flawed sense of what is justifiable, plausible, and ultimately in one’s one best self-interest.

It conveys, too, a profound miscalculation of just how deeply entrenched police training and procedure is in the preservation of cops’ lives and the extent to which cops’ racist attitudes can influence their actions.

Now, before anyone gets up in arms about victim-blaming, internalized racism or patriarchy, anti-feminism or anything like that, I want to be clear:

I’m not saying the cop was right to kill Korryn Gaines for the misjudgments and mistakes she made. I don’t believe that.

However, I’m not going to be generalize for the sake of making arguments or points that parallel those made in other discussions of other police victims.

I’m not going to say that the cop that shot Korryn should’ve waited for her to fire her gun before he fired his.

That’s just not realistic.

And I can’t say that I would’ve waited. Even with her son there.

I hate to that this is true, but it’s true. I wouldn’t have waited.

Self-preservation is among the strongest animal impulses, and humans are animals. We have a tremendous gift for objective analysis, but fear cancels out our ability to access that gift at its fullest capacity.

Whatever else Korryn did or didn’t do, she held a shotgun while she was or wasn’t doing it.

She presented a tangible and plausible threat to the lives of the cops inside of her apartment.

Yes, they had SWAT backing them, but I can imagine the cop that shot thinking, “What if they’re not fast enough? What if they miss, and she doesn’t? I don’t want to die.”

These are natural thoughts for someone to have when faced with an overwrought person wielding a weapon.

That said, I don’t think the argument here is that the cop could’ve waited for Korryn to shoot because that’s not an argument that can be won, really.

We can only make assumptions about the truth of the claim that Korryn threatened the police and the actual impetus for the cop’s decision to shoot.

We can’t say for certain how serious a threat to one’s safety a person can endure without making a move to protect him- or herself. That will always depend on the person.

So, no, I don’t think the argument here is that the cop killed Korryn in the same heedless way that the cops in Missouri, New York, Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota killed all the others.

There is the undeniable and very complicated mitigating factor of that shotgun, and it prevents us from defending Korryn in the same way that we defended Mike, Eric, Tamir, Sandra, Alton, and Philando.

I think the argument is that the cops knew, from court documents, that Korryn had developmental disabilities and brain damage, and they made a huge professional mistake in treating her like the “typical” assailant.

I think the argument here is that law enforcement needs to adopt different ways of dealing with people with different intellectual capacities.

I think the argument here is that they probably didn’t employ any alternate methods of dealing with Korryn Gaines, if they knew any, because she was black, she was recording the incident, she had a record, and she had a history of expressing anti-police sentiments on social media.

That’s where the racism and failure to effectively and fairly do their jobs entered into this situation–at the point where the cops’ knowledge of her background should’ve informed their interaction with Korryn.

I don’t know whether the cops dealt with Korryn like someone with a typical intellectual or cognitive capacity because they failed to do their research; they felt “stuck” to procedure; or they allowed racism, sexism, or some other discriminatory attitude to override their empathy or willingness to improvise a peaceful solution.

But I do believe that a white man or woman with Korryn Gaines’s same challenges would’ve been given the opportunity to talk with some sort of intervention specialist before he or she made the mistake issuing a death threat and inciting that cop to kill her.

And that’s the problem–that I can imagine the cops giving that sort of preferential treatment to a white man or woman, for having a psychological or psychiatric issue–not even a cognitive issue.

I don’t even have to imagine it;  there are actual instances in which cops apprehended, without killing, white people with toy guns or real guns and seeming disabilities or mental issues.

However, I can’t imagine them giving this same benefit of the doubt to a black person with a mental issue–putting themselves at risk to keep that person alive.

Tamir Rice wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt, and Korryn Gaines wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt. He was killed. She was killed.

And there’s only one absolute commonality in their situations. They were black suspects. They were more susceptible to racist profiling or stereotyping.

I can’t be sure, but it’s not implausible or improbable that the cops in Baltimore failed to exhaust their options in dealing with Korryn Gaines because they allowed their racist assumptions (that blacks are intrinsically defiant and combative and culturally anti-authority and anti-police) to override their factual knowledge about her particular case.

Nevertheless, in discussing the tragic shooting of Korryn Gaines, I think we need to be precise in saying that this is our grievance–

The cop(s) killed someone that couldn’t fully grasp the ramifications of what she was doing rather than helping her to remain safe, which is their job.

I don’t think we should “lump” Korryn in with the other victims of racist police murders because her case has some very singular, significant factors.

By playing past them, we miss the opportunity to hash out how mental illness or special needs put blacks at an even greater risk of becoming victims of police brutality and the opportunity to fight for interventions and solutions that will help sisters like Korryn and brothers with the same wild cards stacked against them.

 

 

 

Chewing (and Swallowing) the Fat

A few years back, I enrolled in this weight loss program with my sister.

The administrator was a very sharp, dynamic black woman that took pride in personalizing her approach to each of her clients.

She had developed a new program that she was trying out for the first time on my cohort of clients, and I remember at that first meeting of all of us, she went around in a circle, talking to each of us about what she perceived as our strengths and potential obstacles to weight loss success.

When she got to me, she said my biggest obstacle was that I could “be OK” either way. I could do the work and lose the weight, or I could not lose the weight and accept being fat. She wasn’t sure that I was motivated enough to push through the difficult parts of the journey.

At the time, I didn’t see in myself what she saw in me. I thought I wanted desperately to lose weight, and I would stop at nothing to lose it.

I was wrong.

I am 39-years-old, 5’4″, and 248 pounds. According to my BMI, I am morbidly obese. According to the mirror, I’m not horrible-looking, but my waistline is a definite thing of the past. According to my knees and lower back, my blood sugar and bladder, my energy level and level of body confidence, I’m too heavy. I am what one would definitively call “fat.”

The irony of this? I’ve been calling myself that since I first hit 155 pounds, some 26 years ago. It just dawned on me, literally yesterday, that the reason I’m fat now may be because I needed to validate my psyche, in order to feel sane.

See, I’ve come to realize: Human beings need to be right about things. It gives us a sense of control. We are so threatened by our actual lack of control over the universe and its workings–our lives and the actions of others–that many of us will seek to be right before we will seek to be happy.

When I entered fourth grade, I became a social outcast. I was bookish, daydream-y, awkward, eccentric, and new to my school. The kids there didn’t quite know how to take me, and I didn’t know how to like myself without the validation of my peers, so, when they began to tease and make fun of me, I began internalizing it.

Unfortunately, at this same time, I began putting on the weight that many girls put on right before they begin puberty.

I became “fat.”

I couldn’t tell it was happening at the time, but my mind seized upon that as the “reason” why the kids didn’t accept me. I think I needed to believe that the thing that set me apart from them was something I could change or control, and so I decided it was my weight because I subconsciously understood that if it was my personality, I might never be accepted.

Even at nine, I recognized that my gifts were my intelligence, my sensitivity, my compassion, my imagination, and my irreverence. I guess I also recognized that if these things intimidated or alienated people, then people would always have a difficult time dealing with me.

I didn’t want that. I wanted to be liked. I was boy crazy, too, so I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be adored, actually. So I put all of the rejection I was experiencing on my weight. I began to identify myself as “fat.”

I began to hate the way my body looked and to compensate for it by dressing in certain ways.

I became less active as I grew less comfortable in my body.

I began eating in a way that “matched” this concept of my being “fat.” Eating without being hungry. Eating to self-soothe.

I think the reason being “fat” at that age didn’t have a horrible effect on me was that I wasn’t fat. I had all of this drama going on in my head, but, in the world, I was a relatively normal-sized girl.

I wasn’t getting treated as badly as I felt–as badly as fat people really do get treated–so I didn’t feel that badly about myself. Yet.

Also, I was a high achiever. I had other things going on to balance out the whole “fat” thing. Good grades. Scholarships. Awards. These bolstered my self-image and self-esteem.

I was “OK,” like the weight loss coach said, until I turned 25, and I had a serious bout with Crohn’s disease.

I dropped 25 pounds in about eight weeks, and I was 135 pounds for the first time in my adult life (I hit 155 pounds at 13 and stayed there until 25). I was suddenly “skinny.” My entire world was turned upside-down.

Because people treated me differently. More girls sized me up and rolled their eyes at me in that sick, competitive way so many of us have, and more guys tried to talk to me. People gave me more compliments. Clerks were more helpful in stores.

Now, the only reason that I don’t think this was attached to a rise in my level of confidence is because getting “skinny” didn’t cause a rise in my confidence. It raised my level of bravado.

I wore skimpier clothes, I had public sex, I danced at clubs–I did a lot of things I wouldn’t do when I was heavier–but inside I felt the same.

I felt like a “fat” girl who’d been given an incredible break from her “fatness.” I felt like the whole thing was a fluke, and I treated it like a fluke.

I fully expected to get fat again, and I was afraid of getting fat again. So I began dieting for the first time in my life. I began obsessing over my weight, which I honestly didn’t do before that. Because I just accepted being “fat” before.

But I couldn’t accept it anymore after being “skinny.” Being “skinny” was like having surgery to restore my eyesight then losing it again.

I had never known what being “skinny” felt like, but a lot of it was just as wonderful as I had always imagined.

I could wear what I wanted. I could shop off the clearance rack. I could sit on my boyfriend’s lap without worrying that I was crushing him. I could walk around naked in front of him. I could have sex with the lights on.

I had so many “rules” for governing my “fat” body, and I wasn’t obligated by them anymore when I was “skinny.”

Moving around in my body didn’t embarrass me, so I would go to the gym. I would exercise. I would run and play around with my boyfriend.

“Fat” me wouldn’t draw that sort of attention to my body for anything in the world.

Still, with all the wonderful freedom that came with being “skinny,” what didn’t lose its hold was the isolated feeling of being “different” I had.

Because like I said, in my heart, in my head, I was still a “fat” girl.

And even though I was educated and a feminist, I equated being fat with being unattractive.

I believed I was fat because I lacked self-control and even strength, and that felt unacceptable to me.

I even wrote about all of this in the introduction to my book of poetry (Ariel in Black):

Blackness is a really complicated thing for a hetero woman in America.

It has enough rules to put the U.S. Code to shame.

You are not allowed to be sad because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they were never sad; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be crazy because so many that came before you suffered so much more than you, and they never escaped into madness; they were strong.

You are not allowed to be ambivalent because there are only two acceptable things to do as a black woman—you can stand or you can fight.

You are not allowed to have any problems that weren’t doled out by your history or anatomy.

You cannot cry except at death, and it is the only sort of loss that you can linger on.

You cannot despair, no matter how desperate you are.

You cannot lament your blackness, no matter how it blinds you to your beauty or blocks the sun from you.

You have to love men when they spurn you.

You have to love women when they spurn you.

You have to love every black person you meet, whether their greeting is happy or hateful. Whether they want to join your parade or piss on it.

You have to keep secrets that claw at the insides of your guts and throat to be told.

You have to swallow complaints that going down can rip your insides like a rusty nail or screw.

You are not allowed to be honest at the cost of being dignified.

You can only tell your story as a myth or legend, fable or fairy tale.

These are not rules, for the record. They are The Rules. Spelled out for me by my respectable mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother that came before me.

I grew up with the demands for strength, goodness, decency, and solidity hanging over my crib like a mobile. I understood by six that I had very few acceptable choices for my future beyond getting an education and forging a successful career. I could marry if I wanted to, and have children if I wanted to, but being a certain type of woman wasn’t an option.

I was a talky, antsy, moody, sassy, nasty girl that was expected to grow into a stoic, stable, suitable woman.

I was supposed to be able to control my weight. I was supposed to be able to juggle all aspects of my existence with so-called dignity and grace. But I couldn’t, so I began to feel like a failure.

It didn’t help that at the same time I quit school–the vehicle for all of my so-called achievements, the thing that I was “good” at, the thing that structured my life so effectively–gave me such a sense of purpose and direction–that it hid the fact that I have ADHD for a full 30 years.

When my Crohn’s went into remission at 27, I began putting on weight. Like I said, I began dieting and obsessing, but it didn’t help because, you know, thermogenesis and shit.

My body fought its way back up to 170 from 135 because I wasn’t consistent with my efforts, and I wasn’t consistent with my efforts because I resented the fuck out of them.

Eating had become my main coping mechanism by that time–just blotting out any undesirable feeling with the uncomplicated pleasure of taste. Dieting meant controlling my eating. Not eating meant feeling my feelings.

I didn’t want to do that, so I began the push-pull of dieting and hating it. This has lasted pretty much since then. So that’s 12 years. A long time.

Now, add life to that. The death of my grandmother that I loved dearly–my biggest cheerleader. The cluelessness I felt about building an adult life. The twists and turns of a long-term romantic relationship with someone five years younger than me. An unplanned pregnancy. Job insecurity. A 22-month clinical postpartum depression. Undiagnosed anxiety. Undiagnosed ADHD.

Add to that the unrealistic yet full-on expectation that I should be–oh, I don’t know–fucking Toni Morrison since I’ve been writing and claiming that I want to be a writer all my life.

(I’m a bit of a perfectionist and drama queen–I will admit.)

By the time I arrived at the weight loss program from my first paragraph, I was well over 200 pounds. I had developed full-blown binge eating disorder without even knowing it. And I had made a certain peace with, now, actually being fat (no more quotation marks).

There was a part of me that still wanted “skinny,” but there was a part of me, too, that was so exhausted of disliking my body and myself because of what I had allowed my body to become, that I didn’t want to lose the weight.

I wanted to learn how to live with it.

And so I lived with it. I left the program. I regained the lost pounds. I gained more pounds.

I got all the way up to my current weight. I developed pre-diabetes. Stress incontinence. Arthritis in my knees. Lower back pain that might be degenerative disc disorder or spinal stenosis at this point (I’m afraid to go and see.) Frequent shortness of breath.

And you know what else?

I stopped taking pictures from the neck-down. I stopped wearing jeans, then heels, then skirts, now dresses. I started eating in my car and bedroom, away from people, so as not to feel judged.

I started shrinking, ironically, inside my fat body.

Because regardless of the whole “body positive” movement, my own intellectual understanding that fat doesn’t equal ugly, and my admiration for so many of the big, beautiful black women out in the world who embrace their size, I don’t want to be fat.

Because for me it’s emblematic of how unhealthy I am emotionally.

And it has begun to make me physically unhealthy.

I was walking around the mall yesterday, on my lunch, looking in stores, admiring all the clothes I can’t fit and the accessories I can’t even buy because I’m only an adjunct right now, and I’m broke as fuck.

My back started hurting. Then, my feet. So much so that I had to sit down at several intervals on those benches arranged around the kiosks out in the main corridors.

That got me to thinking about my weight, of course. And that got me to thinking about why it’s so hard for me to focus on recovery from my BED.

And I realized that on a subliminal level, I either want or think I deserve to be fat.

I thought: You have made yourself into that outsider. You have literally “embodied” that concept of yourself. You have made yourself right about all these misguided thoughts you’ve had since you were young.

You punish yourself by ruining your health with your bad habits. You’ve even stopped wearing jewelry and making yourself up every day because you feel “ugly.” You make yourself “ugly.”

You walk around in the world feeling too big for it–feeling undeserving of it–but that’s all right on a certain level because that’s what you already thought.

I saw–and it stunned me–that I have finally made myself into the “fat” person that I only felt I was in fourth grade.

And I was incredibly sad.

Because that made-up “fat” person wasn’t a fat person.

She was a dejected little girl trying to have some hope that things would get better for her.

So if I am an older version of her, it means I am still sad. I am still dejected.

Which makes sense. The world is a hard place. For black people. For women. For poor people. For fat people.

For people with the uncontrollable, unsolicited combination of genetics and biology that makes them susceptible to things like mood and brain disorders.

And I am black. I am a woman. I am poor. I am fat. I am a depressive. I do have an eating disorder. I have adult ADHD. I have anxiety. I have low self-esteem.

I am also incredibly hard on myself and pretty unforgiving of my struggles. I have high expectations of myself and a strong desire to make the people that love me proud.

So there’s a feedback loop controlling my life now.

Get disappointed in myself, eat, get disappointed in myself, eat.

I gain weight and feel even more unworthy of happiness.

It fucking sucks.

And the crazy thing is–I can articulate it here. As I sit, writing about it. But in those moments when I’m sitting on my bed with the chip bag, all I know is that I should be better, I should be more, and that feeling is so unbearable, I want it to go away.

I am literally wearing the weight of my issues, which is why I can’t get comfortable with being big.

I want to be better.

It doesn’t help, either, that people very casually treat you like shit, the bigger you get. Particularly when you’re black and female.

But I don’t blame them. Because I buy into the bullshit too. I wear my weight like a badge of shame. I punish my self for it.

I fight to stop it from becoming so big a problem (I threw the pun in to lighten the mood–typical me) that it swallows me up.

I sift through all of this “stuff” not to give myself an excuse, but a level of understanding that can lead to a breakthrough–a better way.

Blogging has definitely become one of my outlets. One of my ways to be unencumbered. To feel like me. Pure and simple.

I say it in my book, in the intro:

I write to free myself . . .

 I am too much of a black woman to surrender such a hard-fought thing as my life to something as common as sadness.

But then I am too much of a thin-skinned girl to pretend that sadness doesn’t act like a slow poison on my heart and mind.

 Poetry is my antidote.

And sharing things like this blog post.

I feel better when I’m working through the truth of what I think or feel rather than sitting and brooding on it.

So, the truth about my weight, for me, now, is this:

I am fat, but I don’t want to be.

I am fat, but I don’t deserve to be.

I am fat, but I don’t need to be.

I can be whatever I want, and I deserve to be, because, if I’ve ever hurt anyone terribly enough to deserve punishment, it’s myself.

But I don’t deserve punishment.

I deserve love.

Pure and simple.

I deserve life.

I deserve to breathe easy. To be easy in my body and my mind.

To exist as something more than my own biggest problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clothes Don’t Make the Man

So–

I won’t recount the videos circulating on social media of DeVon Franklin defending his wife, actress Meagan Good, at a talk where an audience member told her to “cover up” in magazine photo shoots or Amber Rose arguing with hosts Tyrese and Rev Run on their TV show “It’s Not You, It’s Men” about how women should dress.

I, quite frankly, don’t want to get into a religious debate about the necessity for or virtue of so-called “modesty” in women’s attire.

I want to talk in secular–in political and sociological–scientific–terms about this whole issue of society policing what women wear.

This idea that women invite sexual harassment and assault by dressing “provocatively.”

I think it’s crucial that women in this culture induce a shift in the way men perceive our clothing almost exclusively as a form of sexual messaging.

I think we should keep telling them (men) until they finally understand and accept: interpreting the things that we (women) do with our bodies–including how we dress them–as sexual signifiers is unfair, shiftless, and irresponsible.

It forces women to act with a degree of mindfulness that is unrealistic and oppressive and places the responsibility for men’s depravity and criminality on our shoulders, where it does not belong.

It makes us culpable for crimes that are committed against us, and it reduces us to the lowest common denominator of our “fuckability,” which is repressive, dangerous, and sickening.

To a certain extent, American culture is rape culture. Rape is normalized or at the very least justified as everything from a male behavioral reflex to a necessary plot device in a TV show due to our attitudes about gender–our stupid obsession with hypermasculinity.

Time and again, we hear college administrators, religious leaders, law enforcers, pundits, and politicians–male and female–say that women need to do everything that they can to avoid being harassed, molested, or raped.

We need to cover our bodies (though Muslim women that wear traditional garb are denigrated for covering their bodies); we need to drink less alcohol; we need to use less recreational drugs; we need to avoid dating web sites and social media hook-ups.

We need to stay out of elevators with strange men; we need to stay out of parking garages with strange men; we need to run during daylight hours in well-lit, crowded areas; we need to go to gas stations and ATMs during daylight hours in well-lit, crowded areas.

We need to refrain from kissing, hugging, necking, petting, or doing anything remotely sexual with any man with whom we’re not prepared to have intercourse.

We need to carry guns or other weapons.

In other words, we should live on a tightrope–within a range of decisions and circumstances no wider than a wire.

All of this in the so-called Land of Free. The Land of Liberty.

We hardly ever hear these same authorities address men about rape prevention.

They never tell them to stop assuming that women are signaling their sexual availability, willingness, or predilections with their clothing.

They don’t tell them to stay sober so they can make better decisions about whether or not to have sex with someone or navigate the intricacies of sexual consent with a clear head.

Men are never told not to take a kiss, hug, or even a hand-job as a guarantee that full-blown intercourse with a woman is forthcoming.

They’re never even told the easiest, simplest message that you can give a person about handling his aggression, which is “keep your hands to yourself.”

No–they’re told it’s perfectly understandable that you would touch that absolute stranger’s body in an intimate way without being told that you can.

She was wearing a tank top/shorts/miniskirt/bikini after all. Exercising her right to wear whatever she wants. Or maybe just trying to stay cool on a hot summer day.

She must’ve wanted you to invade her space and privacy, violate her sense of safety and sanctity, and make her feel uncomfortable and powerless to protect herself from unwanted attention and/or contact.

That woman that agreed to go out with you? Or make out with you? She must’ve wanted you to penetrate her body and possibly infect or impregnate her against her will.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true. In so many words and ways, that’s exactly what certain sexist authorities do.

They assure men that their failure to regulate their urges or control their actions is natural and forgivable.

They make excuses about testosterone, and they blame women, either purposefully or inadvertently, for making it difficult for men to refrain from attacking them.

They ignore what anyone that has studied rape knows about its reality, and they act as if this very complicated problem has a very simple solution.

They say, “If women would just cover themselves, then men wouldn’t be tempted. Rape wouldn’t happen.”

I’m sorry. We say this. Americans in power and Americans outside of power. Men and women. Boys and girls.

But this is the most egregious and convenient inversion of patriarchy that exists in our culture. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.

Because every female victim of rape is not a scantily clad party girl that’s had too much to drink and is flirting outrageously with her potential attacker.

Every women wearing a short skirt or bustier or tight jeans isn’t trying to seduce someone. Many are just trying to be rebellious in a culture that says “good girls”–yes–cover up.

Every rape that occurs isn’t the result of a woman being inappropriate or even imprudent.

Infants get raped. Elderly women get raped. Lesbians get raped.

Women in sweatpants get raped. Women in turtlenecks get raped. Women in nun habits get raped. Women in nurse’s uniforms get raped.

It’s not a woman’s appearance that makes a man rape her. Men rape because they want to rape. Many rape because they think they can get away with it. Many do.

Men rape on impulse.

They rape because they’re drunk or high and rationalize their decision to push past a woman’s “no,” or her intoxicated state, with an impaired sense of judgment.

They rape for revenge.

They rape because they’re violent and do everything with an excessive degree of dominance and force.

They rape because they are impelled by psychiatric disorders like pedophilia or conditions like somnophilia (a paraphilia in which a person is sexually aroused by someone that is unconscious).

They rape because in the eyes of the law the sort of paraphilic sex they want is a crime, but they have it anyway. They force themselves on people that are not qualified to consent because of age, state of mind, level of cognition, or degree of lucidity.

Yes, some men rape because they’re sadists. Some rape because they’re misogynists.

Some rape because they’re insecure or “unattractive” or have a terrible track record when it comes to finding willing partners.

Some even rape because they believe in the myth of rape (that in order to rape a woman, she must be a stranger; you must jump out of the proverbial bushes; you must beat her up and then force her at gunpoint or knifepoint to have sex).

So when they force their date or girlfriend or even their wife to have sex when she’s saying “no” and doesn’t want to have it, they don’t think they’re raping her. They’re just doing what they’re entitled to do as a man that has spent money or time or both on her.

Men rape because they believe that they are more important than women, and they don’t have to respect women if they don’t want to. They rape because they think of women as sexual objects more so than people with the same sort of ideas and emotions that they have.

Even still, there is no prototypal rapist, and no prototypal rape scenario. So to generalize that “women tempt men” with their clothing is to ignore the sociology–the psychology–of rape.

It’s a much more complex phenomenon than we like to think, which makes it scarier–yes–but so it is.

You cannot prevent rape by forcing women to cover up. You cannot blame rape on women’s appearances.

Generalizations about women tempting men with their clothing ignore the biology of rape, too–the truth about testosterone.

Yes–men do produce 10-20 times more testosterone than women, and testosterone affects sex drive, competitiveness, aggression, and confidence, but men’s baseline levels vary.

So you can’t say that testosterone “makes” men rape when not all men have the same levels, and some men are capable of stopping themselves from assaulting women or have no desire at all to assault them.

Too, testosterone levels typically spike when risk or a threat is detected, not necessarily when men are sexually aroused.

If men’s testosterone levels are affected by sexual stimuli (and this is not all men or does not occur in response to all forms of stimulation), it usually takes 15-20 minutes for this to occur–more than enough time to remove themselves from whatever situation is getting them all worked up before they do something unwanted.

(For the record, this information is coming from the Archives of Sexual Behavior–the official publication of the International Academy of Sex Research.)

For whatever reason, America has a really hard time admitting the things that we do wrong. We like to lie about things to cover for our failures and shortcomings.

The truth is women don’t invite men to rape them, no matter what they’re doing, and they shouldn’t have to curtail anything they do in order to keep from getting raped.

Rape shouldn’t be so “normal” in America. It shouldn’t be something that one in every three females experiences. It shouldn’t be something handled so incorrectly and ignorantly that hundreds of thousands of women won’t even go to the police when it happens to them.

It shouldn’t be something that we blame on clothes or anything other than the cultural attitudes, conditioning, and practices that encourage and allow it to happen.

With that said, America on the whole needs to do a better job of teaching our boys to respect girls and women, view sex as an act of love and reproduction and not conquest and recreation, and channel their urges in harmless and unobtrusive ways.

We need to stop making excuses for boys’ and men’s sexual misbehavior and get help for our family members and friends that are struggling with disorders and conditions that make consensual, legal, and healthy sex difficult for them.

We need to stop indulging ourselves as parents by allowing our children to learn about sex from pornography and pop culture rather than from us through honest, informed discussion and exposure to academic sources.

We need to have explicit talks about consent and rape–what they are and what they are not–with our sons and our daughters–before they reach dating age and/or become sexually active.

We need to refrain from talking about sex in stereotypical ways–saying a girl “asked” to get raped because of a certain behavior or a boy “couldn’t help himself.”

We need to stop being lazy and relying on sexist myths and stereotypes to govern ourselves and our sex lives rather than dealing with each other as individuals–getting truly intimate with each other.

We need to destigmatize female nudity.

We need to put sex education back in school and teach curricula that cover sexual violence, legality, consent, and healthy ways to channel sexual energy and frustration.

We need to work to ensure that the full range of self-expression is available to American girls and women, and the full range of self-expression is available to American boys and men, but that does not include sexual harassment, molestation, or rape on either side.

We need to stop falling back on bullshit, sexist rhetoric like “cover up” when we have enough information and resources to actually address gender differential problems like rape in ways that are much more intelligent, realistic, and productive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Lives, Double Standards, and Why I Think Kanye Can Say Whatever He Wants

So I wrote about Beyoncé’s “Formation” video a couple of weeks ago and got an overwhelmingly positive response from a surprising number of readers.

And it felt amazing because I’d never gotten so much attention for my writing or been told by so many people outside of my actual circle that they enjoy what I do.

Still, as my boyfriend says “haters gon’ hate,” and I got one commentator that had to make the point that a “white girl’s anthem” or “White Lives Matter” movement wouldn’t be tolerated in American society. That there is a double standard.

To which I responded–

1– The song is written from the first person POV–she uses “I”–so if “Formation” is a bigoted anthem then so is fucking “Roar” by Katy Perry or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift;

2–Nowhere in the song does she degrade, deride, or even discuss white people, so even if it were an official anthem, so what? It’s not inciting black people to do anything but appreciate their hair, noses, Southern roots, and cultural customs a bit more and pursue material success as a means of social aspiration, i.e. the American Dream. There’s nothing morally wrong, criminal, or discriminatory about that; and

3–Since white people have hegemonic power over the US, and their legitimacy as citizens of this country has never been in question (as all the Constitutional framers were white men), then the banner “white lives matter” could only reasonably be perceived as saying “(only) white lives matter.” Its superfluity makes it a statement of exclusiveness.

(The only reason there is a #blacklivesmatter movement is because black people have been systematically devalued as human beings since being trafficked to America back in 1619. It comes out of the compulsion to “remind” people that we are in fact citizens of the United States, and entitled to the same rights as all other citizens that are not black, since we’re being shot in the streets for crimes like selling loose cigarettes and playing with toy guns of playgrounds (neither of which are punishable by death according to the law). Nobody needs to campaign about the importance of white lives because white people are the majority in America and hold the most political and economic power. They’re the only ones in the position to oppress others; no other race can oppress them. So they don’t need to protest to anyone about how they shouldn’t be unlawfully murdered or profiled by police or have their churches burned down in the night or be negatively sterotyped in the media or made the object of exclusionary housing laws, I could go on and on. White people don’t have to tell anyone that they matter because the powers that be are white and pretty consistently work to preserve their lives, protect their bodies, and ensure their rights. The question of whether or not they are worthy human beings is never begged on a large scale in our culture; no one ever questions whether they “deserve” to, say, be the President or whether they got into college on their own merit. Most white people assume that other white people are worthy people. And if the racially-based occurrences that we see in the news are any indication, then white people DON’T assume that black people are worthy people. So we say to you all: #blacklivesmatter. Whether you want them to or not. Whether you like it or not. Whether you like us or not. )

Then I rather confidently blew on my smoking index finger.

But the comment still got me thinking about Americans and all the false analogies we throw around about race.

It got me thinking about the actual double standards that govern our perceptions and help to perpetuate so much of the misunderstanding between the races.

It, weirdly, brought me around to Kanye and Donald Trump.

Not directly–but still–let me explain.

Donald Trump is white. Cis. Straight. Baby Boomer. New Yorker. Father was a real estate developer. Went to Fordham and Wharton. Graduated with a worth of $200,000 (*coughprivilege*). Joined his father’s firm Elizabeth Trump & Son right out of college (*coughnepotism*). Built himself over the next 40 years, through real estate investing and “entertainment,” into the institution we see now, running for President.

He has built his campaign and political persona on what he and his supporters label as “telling it like it is,” and even though a large segment of the American public appears to think he’s not qualified to be the next President, and may even be a bigot, he has enough legitimacy in our society to be the front-runner for the Republican presidential candidacy.

This–despite the fact that he has jumped back and forth between political parties since 1987 in a most opportunistic fashion (Democrat up until 1987; Republican 1987-1999; Reform Party 1999-2001; Democrat 2001-2009; Republican 2009-2011; Independent 2011-2012; Republican 2012-now).

Despite the fact that he was fired from the TV show he created (“The Apprentice”) in 2015 for his controversial remarks against Mexicans.

Despite the fact that he said Mexicans “[bring] drugs . . . crime [and] rap[e]” to America.

Despite the fact that he has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Despite the fact that he has called Arianna Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Press, a “dummy”; Megyn Kelly of Fox News a “bimbo”; Ana Navarro of CNN a “flunkie”; Clare O’Connor of Forbes Magazine a “dummy,” Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post “one of the dumber bloggers,” and global warming a “total hoax,” and he has claimed that the American people “know nothing.”

Despite the fact that he’s been married three times, and Wife Number Three once posed for British GQ on a fur rug in Trump’s private jet butt-naked in a diamond necklace.

He is still treated like a serious contender in the presidential race. He is still regarded as someone that could potentially run our country.

Kanye is black. Cis. Straight. Gen X. Migrant Chicagoan (via Atlanta, Georgia). Father was a photojournalist. Mother was a professor and department chair (English). Started writing poetry at 5. Started rapping and recording at 13. Started making beats at 15. Got his first musical production credit at 19. Won a scholarship (*coughmerit*) to the American Academy of Art in 1997. Studied English at Chicago State University (maybe a little nepotism here–Ms. Donda was the head of the English Department). Dropped out of Chicago State at age 20. Produced on The Blueprint (Jay-Z) in 2001. Broke through into mainstream culture. Survived a near-fatal car crash in 2003. Put out his debut album The College Dropout in 2004.

Still, even though he willed himself into existence as a celebrity and icon through creativity, work, and sheer confidence–he is a high achiever, artist, businessman, husband, and father–Kanye is regarded as “crazy.” He has been literally called a “fool” in news headlines, and even the President called him a “jackass” in an interview.

People regularly speculate in the media that he has a mental illness and depict him as everything from a traitor to the US (for saying that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) to a sexual assailant for disrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech in 2009 and calling her a “bitch” on his new album “The Life of Pablo.”

With six Grammy awards and five Billboard awards, he is perceived as a joke. A punchline. A one-man minstrel show.

Now–I don’t condone a lot of what Kanye does. I think it’s in extremely poor taste and insensitive to both his wife and ex-girlfriend Amber Rose when he makes disparaging comments about Amber Rose in the press. I don’t think he should be making profane and/or sexual lyrics about Taylor Swift. I don’t necessarily think it was appropriate for him to disrupt Taylor’s speech, although I think his claim that Beyoncé’s video was much more deserving of that award at that time was correct. I don’t think it was necessary or kind for him to say that Beck didn’t deserve his Grammy win last year.

I’m not saying Kanye is a “normal” guy or the grandiose claims he makes about his level of talent or the range of his abilities aren’t off-putting and/or narcissistic.

What I am saying is–or rather what I am asking is–how is Kanye so different from Trump? Why is Trump taken more seriously than Kanye?

Trump has had multiple business failures. He’s made multi-million dollar mistakes in what is supposed to be his area of expertise. He’s had bankruptcies and foreclosures.

He’s so painfully out-of-touch that he actually said that starting out in life with “small loans” of $1 million from his father and $1 million from his grandfather was tantamount to starting from the “bottom.”

He has that ridiculous hairstyle. He insults people like a five-year-old. He obviously has problems with maintaining intimate relationships. He even once claimed he’d date his own daughter if she weren’t his daughter because she’s so good-looking.

He has also said things that made him sound, alternately, like a xenophobe, homophobe, and flat-out asshole on the journalistic record and repeated many of them multiple times when pressed about them. He’s verbally gone after every one from Rosie O’Donnell to Whoopi Goldberg to President Obama.

Yet he’s respected enough in our culture to be a presidential hopeful. Let that sink in. A viable candidate for the fucking presidency.

And all Kanye wants to do is make sweatshirts and records, and people skewer him in the press like his antics are single-handedly responsible for sending this country to hell in the hand-basket. He’s “psycho.” He needs “help.”

That is a double standard. Right there. Where the white man’s “individuality” is the black man’s “illness.” Where the white man’s “honesty” or “opinion” is the black man’s “insanity” or “blasphemy.”

Where the white man’s “confidence” is the black man’s “delusion” about who or what he is and he can do.

When Dave Chapelle went on “Inside the Actors Studio,” he talked about all of the people calling him “crazy” in the media after he left his show on Comedy Central. He said calling someone “crazy” is the worst thing you can do because it’s dismissive. It ignores what might actually be motivating the person’s behavior, and it measures his or her behavior by your lack of understanding, not necessarily its lack of logic or causality.

None of us knows what goes on behind closed doors–behind the curtains–in show business. We don’t know what people have said and/or done to Kanye. We don’t know what might have happened to him physiologically and psychically after that car accident or the loss of his mother or anything that’s ever happened to him.

He might very well be mentally ill. But he’s also incredibly talented. And he makes no less sense than Donald Trump and a score of other white male celebrities that are given a ton more respect than he gets.

And this is not an encomium to Kanye because he’s not a personal favorite of mine. I like some of his songs, but I don’t like the things that I’ve read about the way he treats women or the things I’ve heard him say in interviews about Amber Rose, who is a personal favorite of mine (sue me).

But I write all of this to say that there is a huge double standard in America when it comes to race. That black people regularly get vilified for things for which white people do not get vilified.

That black people are almost always laboring against a pervasive perception that they are in the wrong.

And that is why we have and need a Black Lives Matters movement.

Because when people assume that you are in the wrong, they never pause to think about whether or not they are right to punish you, castigate you, block you, ban you, dismiss you.

They shoot first and ask questions later.

You die for being in the wrong skin, at the wrong time.

 

 

 

 

 

The Terms of Our Relationships

The other day, I did a no-no. I watched an episode of “Love & Hip Hop.” And it was just as disturbing as I expected it to be.

In the scene that rattled me the most violently, Tara and Amina were arguing yet again over Peter Gunz–the poster child for masked misogyny and acute irresponsibility.

I could make an encyclopedic list of all the things about the scene that bothered me, but the main thing was that Amina kept saying she “loved” Peter as an explanation for why she was subjecting herself to his mistreatment.

It made me think of how horribly misunderstood and misused that word is.

As so many people have said, in so many different ways, love is not a source or cause of pain.

It’s the ultimate balm.

I’m a teacher. So misunderstanding presents to me like a puzzle. When I see that someone doesn’t “get” it, I try to figure out why so I can help her to “get” it. That’s what I consider my job.

So when I saw Amina on the screen, screaming about her “love” for Peter, I started thinking about how she could’ve gotten there. How she could’ve arrived at such an incorrect and harmful definition of that word.

What I concluded is that we–people generally and black women particularly–need to study up on the lexicon that exists for so-called romantic feelings.

There is the thing called love, yes. It exists. It’s real. But it often isn’t what we feel for the people with whom we become romantically (by that I mean sexually) involved.

There are other, more accurate words for what we feel–that are uglier, yes, but more illuminating–more useful–more truthful.

We need to know and use those words so that we’re not fooled and subsequently fucked over by our feelings.

One such word is attachment. Attachment is a “deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.” Attachment is not necessarily affectionate; it’s not necessarily reciprocal; and it’s not necessarily healthy.

When you’re attached to someone, you respond sensitively to them. You feel something when a person enters your space; you feel something when a person leaves your space; and you feel something when that person draws closer or more distant from you emotionally and psychologically.

Attachment isn’t love, though. Because love is a strong and constant affection for a person. It involves sexual attraction, but it isn’t solely that. That’s attraction or desire–another word. Another feeling.

Love contains desire, but it isn’t just the desire to have sex with someone. The desires of love are to protect, support, connect with and provide for someone.

Love is reciprocal and built on respect, understanding, acceptance, care, and health (freedom from sickness).

Attachment can be built on fear, insecurity, loneliness, or any other negative emotion.

Attachment is not love. Love is not just attachment.

Attraction is not love. Love is not just attraction.

Another feeling that gets mistaken for love is codependency. Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.”

Codependency is a dysfunctional need to help or be helped by another person, that is linked to a person’s inability to function on his or her own.

So when you need a partner to feel attractive or loved or whole or alive or even just seen, that’s codependency, not love.

When the only way you derive a sense of your worth is by “being there” for someone else, even when that person is disrespectful, abusive, cold, or ambivalent toward you, that’s codependency, not love.

We romanticize codependency in our culture. We praise and admire people for their willingness and ability to “be there” for others without examining whether that is a healthy thing for them to do.

If you’re getting swallowed up in your efforts to “be there” for someone, then it’s not healthy, and it’s not romantic, and it’s not admirable. You’re not “loving” the person for whom you’re “there.” You’re enabling that person.

Fixation is another dysfunctional emotion that we romanticize in our culture, that isn’t love.

Fixation is an obsessive attachment to another person. It’s being continually preoccupied with thoughts of another person and responses to another person–to another person’s words, actions, needs, and desires.

Fixation isn’t love because it usually doesn’t come out of affection for the other person. It wears a loving disguise, but it’s actually addiction. Addiction is disordered, compensatory behavior, not love.

So when a person has problems, but diverts attention away from those problems by clamping down emotionally on another person or a relationship, that’s fixation, not love.

A person that allows someone to fixate on them is not “in love,” either. That person is likely a masochist, if not a victim.

Masochism is receiving pleasure from the experience of humiliation or pain. Psychologists debate why some people are wired this way, but they don’t dispute the fact that many people are. They don’t say whether it’s “right” or “wrong” either; they only acknowledge that masochism can be dangerous because it opens people up to physical and emotional abuse.

Experiencing a person’s display of anger or dominance toward you as “he loves me” or “she loves me” is masochistic. It’s not necessarily wrong, but even if it’s tied to sex, it’s still not love.

Love doesn’t hurt. Love doesn’t seek to hurt. Love doesn’t seek ownership or control. Love doesn’t own or control you.

When Amina says that she “loves” Peter Gunz–a man that pursued a relationship with her while cohabitating with the mother of his two sons, married Amina in secret, hid the marriage while he continued to have sex and emotional dealings with the mother of his sons and Amina, then continued to bounce between the two women even after the marriage was exposed–she’s speaking incorrectly.

The message that she’s sending herself–that her feelings are good for her–is a dangerous one that keeps her locked into a cycle of self-abnegation and abuse.

Amina may be attracted to Peter; she may be attached to him; she may be fixated on him; she may even have masochistic feelings about the way he treats her; but none of that is love.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right, or she isn’t “right,” to be with him, but I think it’s important to be clear.

Most of us are seeking love–that thing which will bring goodness to our lives–help make us happier and better.

So we need to be clear on what that is. We have to understand what it does and doesn’t do.

Otherwise, we create and perpetuate connections to people that do the opposite of love–that bring sadness, anger, bitterness, grief, depression, deprivation, loneliness, and sometimes even injury into our lives. All in the name of “love.”

The terms of our relationships are ours to define. We do not have to be trapped in relationships that don’t suit or serve us.

But we have to be clear on what those terms are.

Let me say that again because of how deeply I mean it:

We have to be clear on what those terms are.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on any old feeling just so we can continue having it.

We can’t slap the label of “love” on a feeling or relationship that we’re too weak or afraid to give up in order to make that feeling or relationship seem “right.”

We shouldn’t falsify love. We shouldn’t lie on love. It confuses us, the people that seek to love us, and the children that are watching us and learning about love from us.

That’s why we have to be honest about what we are feeling, even if it exposes us in ways that make us uncomfortable or ashamed.

We can’t fix what we can’t see as broken, and we don’t typically keep looking for what we think we’ve already found.

We have to be real with ourselves in order to find love that is real.

In my English classes, I say it all the time: “Terminology is everything.”

Love is not an all-encompassing term.