In my household growing up, there were no discussions of civil rights, politics, or government reform, though it was common knowledge my parents were Democrats. While both grew up as Presbyterians, my father excommunicated himself from the Church, much to his mother’s dismay, and my mother was the Alto Section leader of the choir at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. Religion was to be respected, but no dogma or creed entered our home.
As children we were expected to be responsible for our own actions, respectful to all, be environmentally conscious, and take our education seriously. While I knew about Republicans and Democrats and independents, I did not know what it all meant. In a mock election in my elementary school in 1980, I voted for John Anderson. I have no idea why I voted for him. It just seemed to be a good idea at the time.
My parents are of the generation born during the depression. The generation between the “Greatest” and the “Boomers”. Both grew up in the northeast in Republican households that held Teddy Roosevelt up as the epitome of a great president. Paying taxes was a matter of patriotism, #whiteprivilege was taken for granted, racism was inherent but not blatant, strong political leanings one way or another were non-existent.
The advancement of women was one area both households seemed to be of a more “modern” mindset. My mom’s mother worked. She was a music teacher. My mother’s parents made sure she escaped her small town and got an education so as not to be stuck barefoot and pregnant before she was 20 like so many of her female peers. My father’s mother had a degree in math from Smith College, was a stay-at-home mother, an avid amature naturalist active in the Audobon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and was an active member of P.E.O., a society of women that encourages the advancement of women through education.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom who struggled with her identity as the pressure for women to enter the workforce and become career professionals came to a head. The stigma of being a stay-at-home mother was intense (it still is) and it affected how she viewed her self-worth. She eventually got her Master’s degree in her early 40’s to enable her to teach voice and eventually be a research associate in a voice pathology lab at the local medical school, but she never fully entered the workforce. To this day, she struggles with this, thinking she was a failure as a role model for her daughters.
Out of the three of us girls, I am the only one who became politically active. Besides the fact I grew up among environmentalists, two things happened to me in high school that influenced me: the manager at my very first job (I was 16) sexually harassed me and when I rebuffed him he accused me of stealing from the till and fired me. Not too long after that, I was raped by a college student. I never reported either of them. Being raised “to be responsible for my actions” meant in my confused teen-aged head, that whatever happened to me I was responsible for, therefore, in both incidences, I became convinced I must have done something to deserve it. It turns out the only fault of mine was being female, but tell that to a confused, depressed 16 year old girl who now had zero self-esteem.
Starting in college, I worked in grassroots organizing. I did this for years, organizing around environmental and health care issues. I became an activist in abortion rights issues with NOW, bumping heads with law enforcement and government officials. I discovered I was not quite straight either. The revelation led me to seek out more information on what it meant to be bi-sexual, which led me to discovering the lgbt[q] civil rights movement. I also rebelled against my white middle class upbringing and in the process found myself as a college student hanging out on street corners singing the blues for tips with homeless crack addicts that were more real to me than anybody on my college campus. Rest in peace, J.B. You will always be in my heart.
Due to a myriad of circumstances I married right out of college to an Air Force officer. In the two and a half years we were together, I experienced quite a different reality from anything I had ever experienced: White Christian Conservatism. My ex was not conservative, but grew up in southern Ohio so he was able to take it more in stride. I on the other hand was appalled. I remember being at a dinner with my ex’s colonel and his wife, who was wearing Jesus Saves and “Abortion is Murder” buttons on her lapel. My ex literally kicked me under the table to remind me to keep my mouth shut. His colonel, against all regulations, offered “voluntary” Bible study during lunch breaks. There was a tacit understanding that if you wanted a good evaluation you better attend – nothing voluntary about it.
The first base my ex was assigned to was deep in west central Texas. I have never felt more vulnerable as a woman before or since I lived there. I was harassed by a male patron at a bar I was working at, and considering my past experiences, I took it seriously. He described an entire scenario where he kidnapped me in broad daylight and took me “somewheres private like to have his way with me.” My reaction was not to flirt with him but to tell him to leave me the hell alone. Unfortunately, he was a regular, and the next time I came to work, the manager fired me, claiming that there were reports I was high on cocaine while I was at work. Believe me when I say, the shakes I had that afternoon were not from cocaine. I never walked outside alone in that town, day or night. And yes, the man was white.
I eventually landed in L.A. broke and alone. I relied on public health facilities to tend to my chronic healthcare issues and Planned Parenthood for everything else. I first lived in heroine alley up in Hollywood, then moved down to Venice Beach, eventually landing in a Crypt hood, with the MS-13 (they called themselves the Venice 13, so I had no idea what gang they were actually a part of until well after I left) on the other side of the neighborhood park. I had a crack house next door to me “guarded” by teen-age boys who were recruited by the Crypts. This was their probationary gig, being look-outs and runners.
They called me the crazy white bitch because I was always nagging at them to leave my friends alone (“not every white person who comes through here is looking for crack!”), threatening to call the cops (I always warned them first so they could get the hell out, they were kids for Christ’s sake!), and one time berating a white man in a mercedes who was in the hood buying drugs with his 4 or 5 yr old son asleep in the back seat.
Along with all that, I also talked to the boys. I got to know one kid in particular who should have been on his way to Stanford, not guarding a crack house. One thing they all had in common was pride – pride of neighborhood, pride in their work they did for the gang, pride in themselves for being special enough to be recruited by the gang. Yes, that’s right. It all boiled down to the fact that the adult gang members were some of the only adults they knew that made them feel worthy, respected, and important and gave them some kind of hope for a future beyond mere existence.
They were teenagers. They wanted what all teenagers want: a feeling of worth and belonging and some hope for a better future. The white world wasn’t giving them that. The white world ignored and sneered at them. School wasn’t giving them that – the boy I grew relatively close to, Patrick, would tell me stories about how he was treated at school by teachers. He was a black boy from the hood. He was written off before he even had a chance. I said hello to him the first time because I was curious. I had seen him reading books while guarding the house, and wanted to know what a gang recruit might read. When I first approached him he was reading James Baldwin.
All these experiences and more have influenced my political philosophy today: our country will never get beyond where we are now until cis white straight men stop being in control of our political and economic systems. White men in this country have absolutely NO idea what it means to live in a society that constantly devalues them as individuals. Intersectional politics is a necessity in this country. Being open, up-front, and truthful about our nation’s history of white male supremacism and the lasting effects it continues to have on the well being of our nation must happen.
Equity does not happen if all you do is pass laws that apply to everyone equally. Someone in poverty has different needs than someone who is rich. Someone who is rich has the ability to contribute more to the running of our society than someone who is middle class. A demographic who has historically and many times still is only seen as disposable cheap labor is going to need a hand up to correct for that mindset. That mindset will only go away if those that have it change, but in the meantime, those who suffer from it should be protected by the law. I could go on, but hopefully you have an idea what I am talking about.
Recent calls for unity due to the incredibly extreme conditions we find ourselves in politically at the moment are important. But all too many times, I have seen the calls being made by white men declaring that in order for unity to work, we must “set aside our differences and find common ground.” Common ground for them always ends up being something about economic issues. Setting aside differences always means that we must stop talking about issues surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation because these are issues that don’t concern white straight men therefore they are not common ground. This is not unity, this is once again forcing the white male supremacist agenda onto everyone and declaring that is what is best for us all.
Polarization is not good for this country. But in order to get rid of polarization, people have to start LISTENING to each other and start sharing power. White men need to stop assuming they have all the answers. White women need to stop assuming their issues are the only issues that are important for women. White gay men need to stop assuming their issues are the gold standard for the lgbtq community. Conservative Christians need to stop assuming their version of morality is the only one possible. And I could go on and on.
Unity will only come when we as a nation make human rights the central tenet from which everything else is derived. Human rights are not left or right. They are human. Human rights are not based on what is best for cis white straight men or what is dictated by someone’s interpretation of a religious text. They are based on what is best for each individual and in turn for humanity as a whole. Until our country comes to that conclusion, any cries for unity will only leave this country even more divided.