Sep 3, 2015 - Psychology    No Comments

Alright

You know what feels really great?

Walking down the very middle of a street.

No, really, I highly recommend it. The first time I ever did it, I was in the company of about 1 million other people streaming down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2004 as part of a demonstration of support for women’s choices in reproductive health care. I’ve also enjoyed many of Minnesota’s fine thoroughfares this way: Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Avenue, University Avenue, Snelling Avenue, I-35, to name a few.

Most recently, I strolled back up Snelling Avenue at a leisurely pace, following the peaceful and successful #BlackFair demonstration. I was still working in my marshal role, but I only had half as many people to look out for. So I was taking up as much space as I felt like, because nobody gets a lot of opportunities to stretch out on this planet, and I’m not one to let them pass me by.

I complimented a fellow marcher on her excellent sign, and we got to talking about the action and what else we were setting aside from our busy lives to participate. I asked what brought her out, in her walking cast boot, and she replied simply, “Activism is my self-care.”

Deep inside, I heard the resounding chime of the Bell of Truth, because I agreed so strongly with that statement. Activism is my self-care too. That’s true despite the physical toll that direct actions have on my thoroughly unreliable body; I would spend Sunday in bed recovering from Saturday’s events.

But as the meetings for #BlackFair and planning for other actions kicked into gear earlier that week, I noticed the immediate impact it had on my depression. The mental and social engagement of planning with old and new friends blew through that dark bank of clouds like a brisk wind. I found myself not only excited to keep building the movement, but the sunshine woke up other parts of me that had slept through the long, sad summer. I made plans to pick up some cloth to make crafts for friends; I opened files for the book I’m writing and started building sandcastles of plot again.

Marshal Mom JessCommunity organizing in the movement is good for me in other ways, too. I don’t really just attend demonstrations as one of the crowd anymore—I’d much rather put on my oh-so-stylish neon vest and work to keep people safe and supported as they take part in the action. This is one of the few things I will admit to being good at, that gives me any sense of pride in my competence and skill.

I like to joke that, “I don’t marshal; I mother.” That’s more true than people realize. I don’t just come ready to redirect traffic or crowds, I come with the Mom Bag loaded for bear: full first-aid jump kit, snacks and drinks, tissues, sunscreen, even bubbles for the little (or not-so-little) ones. It takes all lanes of my busy, pattern-seeking, autistic brain occupied to be constantly scanning the crowd and the environment for potential hazards and those needing help. And solving problems big and small—from checking in with mobility-challenged participants to de-escalating people seeking to disrupt the demonstration—gives me the feeling of protecting and emotionally supporting my Beloved Community. Marshal Mom Jess 2

And I laugh with joy when I see people really getting into a chant, or when we’ve got a sound system on the back of a truck to pump out the jams for a dance party in the middle of an intersection. I see them participating with their whole bodies and souls in acts that center marginalized people and help them take up that space and sound on the planet to which each of us is entitled. It fills me up with powerful hope for the future, and energizes me to create more of those spaces that so strongly affirm every person’s beauty and dignity.

Image courtesy of MPR News (http://images.publicradio.org/content/2015/01/19/20150119_mlkmarch19_53.jpg)

But I realized that I haven’t been IN those spaces for many months now, maybe years. I run the edges, solve problems, help where needed, which is so absorbing that, when I see photos after the fact, I don’t even have any memories of people doing those things. I don’t always get to link hands with everyone and participate in the powerful chant by Assata Shakur that reminds us of our duty to fight for freedom, to love and protect one another. And when “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar starts blasting from the speakers and everyone dances, I’m usually standing stock still in a crosswalk. Last time this happened, I faced down a muscle car driven by an angry white dude who hit the gas three blocks away, to screech from 45 mph down to zero only six inches away from my shins, looking me in the eyes the whole time.

I'm the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I’m the one with the text on the back of my shirt. Photo credit: Chris Juhn.

I hope nobody in that circle of wild, glorious dance really noticed that car, or even me. I hope the music and empowerment blinded them to everything but the other beautiful faces in that crowd. I hope the people I help when I marshal only remember someone kind, not my face, not even my hair.

But I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel missed or wanted in those crowds. And I’m not sure if who I am—the depression, the self-esteem, the knowledge that I’m not who the movement is for (or should be about)—is even capable of dancing to the words “We gonna be alright.” I’m not sure what this movement would mean to me if I could.

Aug 31, 2015 - Psychology    3 Comments

Cruel Summer

I say this with the best of intentions, but I hope nobody noticed how bad my summer was. Because the narrative of a depression relapse in the middle of your vacations, camps, road trips, and lazy days is really what Alanis Morissette thinks irony is (rain on your wedding day, etc.). But I’m more vulnerable to them because summer has always been the cruelest season for my family and me. Summer is when the work dries up. Summer is when child care is too expensive for me to work regular hours. Summer is when even the smallest get-away costs more than we can afford. Summer is when I almost died five years ago when we first moved to Minnesota.

I didn’t catch the relapse as quickly as I might’ve because I don’t just have depression, I have significant levels of anxiety. Even when you’ve been okay, part of your mind as a person with depression is constantly standing on a foggy dock, straining to see through the mist for the first solid emergence of the prow of a relapse that might crush you. That’s exhausting by itself. But when you’ve got anxiety, things are constantly emerging from that mist—it’s just that most of them are giant piles of overinflated worries that cleverly take the shape of a ship, and pop like soap bubbles when they hit the dock. This time, behind the endless stream of bubbles, there was a ship.

I’m a good patient. I noticed the pattern in my sleep and appetite, my restlessness and constant exhaustion, and told my therapist. I stay on my meds, I don’t miss appointments, I don’t try to hide what’s going on from my medical team. But I don’t talk about it much, because I feel certain that people want to know the energetic, laughing me who accomplishes things and supports others. I don’t even want to know the other me.

And I’ve learned things this time around. I’ve named two of the voices in my head who live there and tell lies. One is The Critic. He (yes, he) tells me that I should be doing more, doing better, using my time differently, spending my energy more wisely. The Critic points out mistakes and replays conversations over and over so I can see where I should’ve handled it well, instead of how I did. The Critic is not interested in reason or evidence; The Critic’s lens distorts everything beyond recognition.

The other voice is The Stalker. The Stalker is full of patience, and never needs to raise his voice. The Stalker hangs back in the shadows, creating his own if I’m trying too hard to use sunlight as disinfectant. The Stalker waits for The Critic to chip chip chip away at my memories and sense of accomplishment. The Stalker feeds kindling to the cold fire of Doubt. And then, The Stalker says, quietly and calmly, “You really shouldn’t be here at all. You make work for others, you contribute nothing. No one would care if you disappeared right now. Someone better would take your place, someone with a body that worked, someone with a mind that focused, someone whose voice is needed. You cost your family more than you bring in. They could live better when your debts were erased and your insurance paid off. You’re more useful dead than alive.”

And the problem is that neither The Critic nor The Stalker are wrong all the time. Depression registers their input as just as valid as any other outside source, more than some. And depression makes you too tired to call them liars all the time.

So I hope I’ve seemed okay this summer, when I found myself making bargains with myself to put off death by another hour at a time. And I am getting better, only now when there’s another lost summer to mourn. I hope my kids don’t inherit a sense of dread for this time of year from a mom who naps in the day because she worries all night, a mom who says no and gets irritable at them for being kids with the bad luck of having someone with depression as their parent.

I hope, when you saw me this summer, you remember my laugh as I joked about my new hair color or cheerfully threw down with the revolution. But I guess I also hope that, through all that, you understand that you were also talking with someone who thought about suicide every day, and battled through the heat of summer in the cold of depression. You never know who else you talk to who might be fighting the same battle.

May 19, 2015 - Ancient History, AV Club    1 Comment

Looking for a Moment of Zen

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Connor around the time we bought our first TiVo box.

We bought our first TiVo machine when Connor was about 7 months old. This turned out to be the single best purchase we made as new parents. It allowed us keep up with our favorite shows so we still felt connected to popular culture through the following months of sleep deprivation and unpredictable schedules.

We developed the habit of watching The Daily Show over Cam’s lunch hour, when he came home from his library job just five minutes up the road. Connor would sit in the cradle of Cam’s crossed legs and watch the show with us. Soon, Connor was laughing along with us, even though he didn’t understand the jokes—he caught on to the rhythm of the comedy, and the funny faces helped too. We didn’t know about his autism yet, but his ability to perceive patterns was already strong.

By the time he was two, Connor had started folding Jon Stewart into the epic adventures he played out with his action figures, as important to the story as his other superheroes. He would even hook a clip-on tie to the collar of his t-shirt, then stand tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could see his reflection. He babbled in his “moon language,” but with a very peculiar rhythm that ended in maniacal laughter. When I asked him what he was doing in there, he replied with some exasperation, “I Jon Stewart!”

Only a week or two after his second birthday party, he announced very clearly, “For my next birthday, I want Jon Stewart party.” Cam and I found this hilarious, and we assured him that we would make it happen. For our amusement, we checked in with him every few months: “So, what kind of birthday party do you think you might want for your third birthday?” And he steadfastly replied, “I want Jon Stewart Party!”

At last, summer rolled around again, and we worked hard to make his wish a reality. With a birthday so close to July 4th, it was easy for us to get flag party supplies. We handed out invitations with a picture of Jon Stewart on them and the message “WE WANT YOU to celebrate Connor’s third birthday!” to the other kids at his preschool. (We got a few disapproving looks from other parents who thought we let Connor stay up ’til 11pm to watch the show as it aired; a quick explanation of the magic of TiVo resolved things.) The technology where you could get a photo scanned onto a cake’s frosting had just come to town; we got some strange looks at the bakery when we brought in a cast picture, I can tell you.

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The day was everything we could’ve hoped for. His preschool teacher made him a t-shirt with Jon Stewart’s face on it. We played episodes on TV while the other 2- and 3-year-olds ran around whacking each other with American flag thundersticks.2015_05_19_10_21_52

And when it was cake time, he announced with a certain cannibalistic glee , “I eat Jon Stewart face!”

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It’s hard to believe that that party was almost 10 years ago. Connor will turn 13 this summer, a milestone I sometimes wondered if we’d ever reach. His love of comedy is still integral to who he is, and his senses of the absurd and satire come as much from Jon Stewart as they do from us his parents. Whenever we wonder whether he can understand a concept with complicated emotional nuances that can be difficult for autistic kids, we know he’s gotten it when he makes up a joke about it.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

To be fair, Connor (bottom left) comes by his weird sense of humor naturally.

It would close a 10-year circle beautifully if we could figure out how to get tickets to one of the remaining tapings of The Daily Show. We had heard that, through friends of friends, one of the birthday party invitations had made its way to Jon Stewart himself. I doubt he still has it, but maybe he remembers it. And if this story makes its way to him in a similar fashion, maybe he could see his way clear to make a kid’s lifelong dream come true.

Mar 2, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Road to Selma: Why I’m Going

Wednesday morning, I leave for Selma, Alabama.

I’ve had this dream for longer than I could remember. I saw grey pictures of its arching bridge in LIFE magazines at my grandparents’ house, magazines that were already old before I was born. The people in their prim, archaic clothes were darker grey than the bridge, darker than the pavement on which they fell when beaten and gassed by racist police.pettus

I didn’t understand why walking would get them beaten. They looked tired and strong and wise and full of grief. And the white people—the people who looked like my family and my neighbors and my teachers—looked enraged. I didn’t understand at all.

Selma135 years later, I’m not sure I understand any better. I still fail to understand why white people treated them with disdain and cruelty and brutal indifference. I fail to understand why white people still treat black people that way.

I mean, I know. In my head, I know all the reasons: the history, the psychology, the structural imbalance, the crackpot pseudo-science. And I know it comes down to power. I’ve read, I’ve listened, I’ve studied, I’ve debated, I’ve considered. I’ve even done something close to praying, praying for insight like a lens I never owned.

If I understand anything, it’s why the marchers braved that bridge. I’ve been moved to take up the middle of the street with other people, insisting on being seen, shouting truths that had to be said. I’ve locked arms with people as different from me as possible, yet the same, and refused to be moved until we felt heard.

But I’ve never been as invisible, as endangered, as unvalued as the people in those black-and-white pictures. That’s my privilege.

So why am I compelled to walk in their steps on this fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday? The atmosphere there couldn’t possibly be more different—it’ll be a re-creation of that march in geography only. The road won’t be grooved with the weight of their footsteps, like pilgrimage stairs furrowed by centuries of the faithful. City and state leaders will be there in support. Police will block cars, not bodies. No one will be injured. No one will risk their lives to be there.

But the names of men and women killed by racism are fresh in our mouths today. Explosions and gunshots and dying words ring in our ears right now. Social and economic pressures choke communities of color into slower submission, and still white people refuse to see the oppression that parades in front of us at this very moment.

So, like a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, I ride south to answer the call. Like Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. James Reeb, I go with those of my faith who place justice for the living on the same altar as reverence for the dead. But I’m not a Freedom Rider or any other brave person doing dangerous work. I’m not trying to expiate white liberal guilt. It’s not about me.

I just want to look out from that bridge, through the crowd of strong shoulders, and see the water and trees that stood there 50 years ago. I want to be a witness to the powerful flow of history, and its maddening intransigence. I want to take pictures in full, living color of black and white people marching together to remember, to resolve, to recommit to the necessary work of being fully, fairly human to one another. And I want my grandchildren to see those pictures, and know that I was there.

10 Things My 30s Taught Me

On December 28, I turned 40. This came as no surprise, even to one as math-impaired as me.

It’s virtually impossible to throw a birthday party on my birthday, since everyone is exhausted from Christmas and saving up energy for a big New Year’s Eve blowout (if they’re even in town). There’s even an Old English word for it: symbel-werig. It means “feast-weary,” and that’s what everyone is on my birthday.

The worst it ever got was my 18th birthday. My parents had dinner theater tickets, and my brother was at his friend’s house (after his birthday, the day before mine. No, really.). My sister and I were home alone. She made a Pyrex bowl of raspberry Jell-O and stuck a taper candle in it. We watched Schindler’s List. Whoop-de-doo.

For the big one this year, though, I decided that nothing said “me at 40” like riding rollercoasters. Thanks to Nickelodeon Universe, the indoor theme park in the middle of the Mall of America, it’s actually possible to do this in a Minnesota winter. Also, yay for half-price unlimited ride wristbands from 5-10pm. There was the entertaining possibility that I’d get a mall security escort because I’d been a marshal at the #BlackLivesMatterMOA protest two weeks earlier. I planned to lure him onto rides, in case I felt like chanting anti-oppression slogans on the loop-de-loops. Alas, no joy.

Rolling over the odometer also made me think about what can happen in just one decade of living. I don’t feel older, or even different, just more like the person 30-year-old me hoped to be eventually. Still, I learned a lot of lessons in the last 10 years, so here’s the top 10 lessons I learned in my 30s.

1) Having a second child is nothing like having the first. I had my first son when I was 28, and my second one when I was 32. Instead of throwing up 20 hours a day for 5.5 months, I threw up 24 hours a day for 7.5 months in my second pregnancy. My labor couldn’t have been more different, too. And you needn’t look any further than this blog for how different the boys are from one another. Motherhood: what a weird, wonderful ride.

2) The key to my kid is the key to myself. When I was a kid, my parents and teachers told me I was “socially backward” because I was intellectually advanced. Slamming doors and balloons popping gave me migraines. I preferred the company of adults. And I recognized a lot of these traits in my older son; we joked that he inherited those traits. In fact, what we both were was autistic. Learning that unlocked memories and mysteries that plagued me my whole life, and understanding those helped me translate the world for my kid. We’re all so much better for knowing ourselves.

3) Intersectionality is everything. I’ve felt this way forever, but didn’t know there was a word for it until I read a Flavia Dzodan blog post that introduced me to the term, coined by UCLA prof Kimberlé Crenshaw. I also didn’t realize it was such a controversial idea until I started advocating it. How is this difficult for people to understand? We are all so many different people, and all of our selves are bound together when it comes to liberation. How can you be a feminist who excludes trans women? How can you be anti-racism and simultaneously suppress the contributions of women? How can you demand an end to oppression but hold planning meetings that are inaccessible to disabled people? In Flavia’s words, “My activism will be intersectional or it will be shit.”

4) Don’t move without a safety net. I learned this one the hard way. In Minnesota, you have to be a resident before you can apply for state health insurance. We had paperwork ready to go the day we moved, but we encountered a four-month wait. We’d saved money for an appointment to get me set up with bridge coverage for my fibro and depression. What I didn’t do was research doctors—the one I went to refused to continue the treatment plan I’d had for over a decade. The decompensation that happened without my prescriptions resulted in a summer lost to pain and despair, ultimately landing me in the hospital. Lesson learned? You cannot overplan for your medical care when moving–your life literally depends on it.

5) Family is what you make it. I grew up so close to my family that I refused to even consider moving to New Zealand to be with my Darling Husband, because I couldn’t imagine going so long between visits with my parents and siblings. But after I called out my family about 4 years ago for treating my autistic son like crap and undermining our parenting, everything changed. My brother and sister still won’t talk to me for hurting my mom, even though she and I are fine now. Thankfully, we’ve built a family of friends, old and young, near and far, who more than make up for the love lost. All that’s left to mourn is the continuity.

6) Sharing knowledge is more than the letters after your name. My grad school department kicked me out in 2005 because my area of study didn’t match their idea of subjects that build a “world-class history program.” Despite that, I have 15 years of teaching experience, and knowledge that I use everyday—with my kids, with other kids, with other adults, and in my organizing. Teaching is my vocation, plainly put. Even if the flood of post-recession Ph.D.s makes it unlikely I’ll get a college job again, I’m always looking for ways to share what I know in engaging ways.

7) Caucusing is hazardous to your health. Until we moved to Minnesota, I’d always lived in states with primary elections, so I was extremely excited to attend my first caucus on February 2, 2012. It was weird and idiosyncratic and strangely wonderful; I was too hyped about democracy to sleep until midnight. At about 1:00 AM, I woke with abdominal pain. By 5:00 AM, it was worse than labor, and Darling Husband took me to the ER. I had acute pancreatitis, caused by a gallstone. I spent a week in the hospital, and they surgically removed a bag of rocks from my gut. I now view caucuses as highly suspicious and potentially life-threatening.

8) I am committed with my whole heart and soul to equity. This isn’t about rights, or even history. It’s about empathy. If anyone’s potential is oppressed for who they are, then my potential is also less. I see the beautiful humanity in everyone, and want for them the joys I’ve found and the opportunity to be all of themselves. And yes, I’m willing to block traffic, invade public spaces, and commit civil disobedience to make this happen. I consider it a sacred duty.

9) Together, we win. I’ve never been very competitive, and I always plan for failure so that, as Lloyd Dobbler wisely advised, “…everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” But with the campaign for marriage equality, and against Voter ID, and for a new anti-bullying bill and a higher minimum wage, guess what I discovered? I like to win. I like it almost as much as the conversations and organizing it takes to come out victorious. These efforts and the folks I’ve met in them evaporated any cynicism I had about the potential of people power. I highly recommend it to everyone.

10) It’s never too late. I didn’t intend to really go balls-out for the last year of my 30s, but I accidentally did. I learned and performed burlesque dance, even in this imperfect body. I got two big tattoos, the first I’ve ever had. I went to a national convention for community organizers. I shut down highways, corporate offices, and the largest mall in America. I made my kid’s middle school change their negative, reactive response to common autistic behaviors, and re-centered them on positive reinforcement that nourishes all children’s education. All this with my physical and mental limitations. It’s never too late to do important things, and if you forget that, just ask me for a reminder.

Dec 15, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

No One Left Behind

A lot of the social justice work I do is about making spaces–everything from housing to the whole of Minnesota–more welcoming to people whom society often forces out. Sometimes, that’s practical stuff, like urging schools or cities or events to offer gender-neutral bathrooms where trans*/gender non-conforming folks can feel safe. And sometimes, it’s more abstract, like working against police profiling and brutality toward people of color in their own homes and neighborhoods.

The basis of that work is education and empathy. I read, I listen, I ask questions, so when I walk into a new space, I see the ways that place values and welcomes all different kinds of people and their needs. And I also see the ways those spaces exclude and isolate people, which makes a good starting place for effecting change.

So I’ve attended community meetings, planning sessions, trainings, and seminars. I regularly participate in protests, which might include rallies, marches, and sit-, stand-, or die-ins. And the saying in the groups where I organize is that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth debriefing,” so I’m learning how to observe what does and doesn’t work well, and share constructive feedback.

But it’s possible for a space that’s been engineered with great intention to include a typically excluded group to unintentionally exclude a different group. Some feminists say they don’t feel safe from patriarchy and misogyny if trans* women are included in the space (I happen to think they’re wrong, for the record). Often, queer people of color feel uncomfortable in the largely white LGBTQ activist movement. Class barriers manifest often in community meetings, where those with more income and education assert themselves as more worth listening to than their less privileged neighbors. We all need to do better, even if we think we’re doing the right thing just by showing up.

As I see intersectionality championed in the powerful, new spaces we’re constructing, though, we’re missing the mark on disability. I’m physically and neurologically disabled, thanks to the Wonder Twins, fibromyalgia and autism. I’m not the most restricted person at a gathering, but I do face barriers that others don’t. I’m also used to being in the company of someone with more intense disabilities, though, so I’m attuned to obstacles so I can help them negotiate our environment.

And the new movements need to do more. I’ve had to choose which breakout session to attend based on which didn’t require me to climb a flight of stairs. I’ve had to leave valuable trainings early because the bright lights and unchecked noise level wore me out. I’ve also sat through meetings which taught me nothing because I couldn’t hear or see the speakers. And I’ve both hurt myself trying to keep up, or just fallen out completely, with marches that followed a route and went at a pace that left all but the able-bodied behind.

And I’m full-sighted. I’m not in a chair. My lungs and heart are strong. I have 40 years of coping skills to manage sensory input. I hear exceptionally well. If I can’t keep up, who else is bejng left behind? And what knowledge and wisdom are we losing when they’re abandoned?

I have a lot of thoughts about accommodations and modifications to make the spaces where real, radical, revolutionary change is happening accessible to all disabled people. I’ll probably break them into separate posts.

But I’m asking each of you who reads this to spend a bit of time thinking and examining your surroundings with renewed curiosity. Think of the physical gestures that literally embody the movement: raised fist, raised hands, bodies marching and lying down. Imagine that you can’t make those gestures in solidarity. Think of the speaker whose voice and insights you most want to hear in the world. Imagine the flight of stairs that keeps you from getting to see them. Imagine seeing that person but not knowing what they’re saying.

How welcome would you feel? How valued? How powerful?

If the answer is “not very,” well, the revolution’s got to change.

Nov 25, 2014 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Each mother’s sons and daughters

I talk, write, and think a lot about structural racism in America and the wider world. I know that I’m still just an apprentice in this work, and a privileged one at that. Take as many grains of salt with that as you feel appropriate.

But I am the mother of two sons. We’re white, so that’s an undeserved and unearned shield that lets me sleep more easily than the mothers of black and brown sons. But I want my kids to grow up awake and aware of racism in their world, in age-appropriate ways, the same as I want them to grow up knowing that LGBT people deserve love and respect.

Why expose them to the brutal, hurtful truth about race when they’re as young as eight years old? Because their first friends included black and brown children, and already there were systems labeling and tracking them toward vastly different outcomes. By middle school, my son’s friends are encountering suspicion, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunities. And by high school, they’re nine times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than my white sons.

So here’s how I’ve talked about race with my kids. I hope other white mothers can find helpful thoughts here, too.

  • I’ve taught my boys to vocally oppose bullying whenever they encounter it, because we believe that every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
  • We try to teach them that we don’t call people by adjectives. No one is stupid or bad, but we all do stupid and bad things sometimes.
  • If you have to refer to someone in a crowd, point them out with neutral identifiers, like height, clothing color or pattern, etc.
  • If I hear my kid using language that would be hurtful, I pull them aside immediately and ask where they learned that word/phrase. I explain why that might be hurtful to someone, and ask them not to use it anymore.
  • Sometimes, that leads to bigger discussions about why anyone would hate someone for the color of their skin, or who their parents are, or who they love. Be clear and honest. I’ve said it’s because some people think there’s only so much goodness in the world, and they’re afraid of losing their share to people who are different from them. I’ve said it’s because, while some of us find new and different things and people exciting and interesting, some people find them scary and hard to understand. But everyone can learn to be welcoming, because that’s how we all start as kids.
  • Be honest about white privilege, too, starting when they ask questions about racism (this may come during or after the general existential crisis many 2nd graders experience). I’ve used metaphors like running a hurdles race, except that on both sides of the white runners’ hurdles, there are old, wooden steps built long ago by people we don’t know. Would you use them if they were right there? Would you use them if you saw that your black and brown friends not only don’t have stairs, but might even have big holes dug on both sides of the hurdle instead? How would you help your friends: stop running, move the stairs away, invite them into your lane?
  • Let your kids see you doing things in your community with black and brown folks, especially against racist structures. This may mean going way outside your comfort zone, but it’s never not brought me richer, deeper ties to the place I live. Start by attending a rally or march; they ARE safe places for kids. Other invitations and opportunities will certainly follow.
  • Make this learning journey intersectional. Talk about freedom and privilege, and the ways those things have been denied to women, Native Americans, immigrants, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, the homeless, people of other religious and political beliefs, and many other “Othered” groups. They’re not all the same struggle, but they have a lot of common lessons about humanity to teach us.
  • Encourage your children to read diverse books, play diverse games, watch diverse movies, and listen to diverse music (I know, I hate the way I’m using the word “diverse” here too, but it comes from the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Watch, play, read, and listen with them, always. Talk about how those things make you feel, and ask your kids how it makes them feel. Look for opportunities to encounter these things in person: in museums, art galleries, concerts, and libraries.

 

I hope someone finds something helpful here. I’m always on social media to talk, too. Don’t let the pain of these setbacks in our movement toward equity and justice keep you from engaging your children. Let it fuel you and yours to do better, now and in the future.

Update: The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers have posted a page with extensive links to materials for teachers on how to address Ferguson and racism in the classroom. Many of these resources are also filled with info that adults need to know, too. Read and learn together.

Oct 17, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Wade in the Water

Last Sunday, I attended a training for white folks who do racial equity work. The organizers called it “Solidarity Training,” and that’s as good as anything, but what it really meant was this: “How not to be a racist asshole as you try to improve things for people of color.”

You’d think that would be easy—every person in that room was there because they have the very best of intentions. We were all pretty far along our own personal journey from ignorance that white is even a race, toward leveraging our privilege to help dismantle systemic racism. Many of us had been doing that work for years, some even for decades.

But the hardest thing for people who are in the group in power is to realize that intention is not enough. Just because you *meant* it to be flattering when you tell a woman she’s sexy as she walks by doesn’t make it so to the women who experience unwanted street harassment every day. Just because you *meant* it to be a compliment when you tell a young black man that his speech was “so articulate and inspiring” doesn’t mean that won’t feel condescending to men who meet with surprise every day when they show that they’re educated. Intention does NOT get the job done.

But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between fighting the system and benefitting from the system. One of the trainers, the inspired and inspiring Ricardo Levins Morales, used an analogy out of the physics world to explain how we can be oblivious of something so pervasive. When you jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he says, you feel like you’re falling at first. But after a bit, the feeling changes to be something closer to floating, because you’re falling at the speed of gravity.

So it is with racism. White people are born onto a nice, big, comfy raft that floats atop the stream of racist oppression. Because we’re on the raft, we don’t feel the constant pressure of the water that wears down the hearts and souls of our brown and black siblings. We don’t feel the struggle. And even if we climb off that raft and join hands and weather the stream together for a bit, somehow—maybe it’s with a job referral from a friend, or a previewed house listing before it’s really “on the market”—we find ourselves back onboard, despite our best intentions.

The raft ride has been particularly bumpy at various points in history—now, since Ferguson, is one of them. It happens because some people in the water try to climb on the raft. At the same time, some of the raft’s riders are trying to dismantle the raft itself, or jump into the water in solidarity. And the people who never even knew they were on a raft of history and privilege get nervous and frightened at having why they thought was a solid, level surface become so unstable.

Naturally, this made me think of GamerGate.

See, sexism is another river, and patriarchy is another raft. Movements like GamerGate and the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) exist in a moment where the rather splendid vehicle created by cisgendered, heterosexual, white patriarchy is under attack from all sides. Its riders didn’t notice that the river around them was rising, or that the ship’s own crew was changing. The new crew wants to park that vessel for good, and move everyone to a bigger ship with room for all the groups who’ve had to struggle upstream for centuries. That must feel terrifying to people who thought they were on solid ground, riding as they were at the combined speeds of so much privilege.

The fact is, though, that the river’s already flooded its banks. There are too many oppressed people, and allies who prefer to be in the water, to float along in ignorance anymore. Women have been in games for a long time, and all the yelling and threats in the world can’t make that river flow upstream.

Toward the end of the training, Ricardo announced that he would be distributing cards. I could see the little deck in his hand, but I had no idea what he meant to do with them. A surprising, somewhat unnatural ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, though; I wondered if they knew more about the cards than I did. When I got mine, it had a piece of art on one side, with a slogan from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” On the other side were some check-in questions to help us stay grounded when we feel compelled to act in a racially charged situation: “Why do I feel an urge to act/not act?” and “Who will benefit from my action/inaction?”

The ripple quieted down as people examined their cards, and I wondered if the people who’d been a-flutter with excitement were disappointed by the card they got. I wondered if the one they’d wanted would’ve just said, “I’m one of the good ones.” That’s what white people doing racial equity work really want, after all—a card that credentials them as not racist, as a proven ally. The problem is, it doesn’t work like that at all. “Ally” isn’t a title you earn; it’s a status you have to prove over and over again, mainly by just continuing to show up for what matters to communities of color. And nobody’s going to give you a cookie for doing the right thing, just like nobody’s going to give you a free pass when you mess up (and you WILL mess up, over and over).

I know a lot of guys in the world of games who probably wish they had that a “One of the Good Ones” card too. If I had them to give out, I can think of dozens of people who deserve them for living and working and playing by the guiding principles of inclusion and equity.

But that’s not how it works. Nobody gets a free pass; nobody gets a laminated card that’s good forever after. We climb off the raft, and we join hands with the people in the water and weather the current for as long as we can. At the same time, we accidentally get back on, and sometimes even block others from climbing aboard with us.

Maybe the card we really need is the one that says, “Time to get in the water again.”

Aug 27, 2014 - Game Theory    2 Comments

Any Way She Wants

Social media is afire after the latest Anita Sarkeesian video resulted in renewed rape/death threats against her. Sarkeesian makes the seemingly uncontroversial statement that women’s bodies are abused and killed for little or no reason in video games. As a result, some men are so enraged that they’re driven to hurl sexist, violent abuse at the very idea of women who come within fifty feet of a game.

The problem with that is that I am a woman gamer. So are many of my women friends. Many of them run games for their friends, and a growing number are designing their very own games. I am wildly proud to be included in all this. Many of those friends have written wisely about the unfettered misogyny and racism that plagues the electronic and tabletop game industries at the same moment when we see more women and people of color entering the hobby than ever before.

So I don’t have much to add to their insightful commentary. But I do want to say this to my fellow women in games:

Play whatever games you want.

Yes, of course that means the button-mashing robot invasion game, or the minmaxed mecha pilot, or the Napoleonic cavalry officer trying to win Waterloo. War games and LARPs and Minecraft and Burning Wheel–all of it belongs to you as much as anyone else in the world, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise.

But you can also play the magical space princess romance game. You can play a game where the only measurable objective is to get the boy (or the girl). You can play a game that’s all about middle school gossip. You can play a game with no boys allowed.

You can play games with fluid, barely there rules, and super-crunchy tables of staggering detail.

You can play games of scientific discovery, and life in the military, and the pursuit of katana mastery, and young love.

You can play games of death-defying feats and fearless daring, where you do everything you can’t ever imagine doing in the real world.

You can play games with sex: grand, towering, chandelier-swinging heights of passion that include superhuman flexibility and magical potions of endurance.

You can play games where you get to hunt down and beat the shit out of your rapist.

You can play games that capture a perfect, impossible childhood with nothing scary at all.

Because games contain everything we are–right now, fragile, flawed, unfinished–and everything we could possibly be–brave, magnificent, powerful, unstoppable. So nothing is beyond the scope of games. If you use a game to tell your story, there’s a very good chance that it’s a story others want to play too.

Because these games exist in the dimensions of ourselves and our world, the dark things do creep in: racism, sexism, ableism, bullying, abuse. Some of that is unintentional, but we’re coming to grips with the reality that others don’t always see these things as a problem. Some even see it as a solution, a boundary fence to protect an imagined definition of games that’s confined only to their tiny vision.

Games are bigger than these people. Protecting our games from criticism smothers them until all the fire goes out. Improving games improves us all, and the world we play them in.

And nobody gets to say your game is less worthy because of what you want to play. You are participating in one of the oldest common human experiences in the world. Play it all, women. Play all the games, then make your own.

Aug 20, 2014 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Why We Fight

Gen Con is always hard work and outstanding fun. When I first started going over 20 years ago, my days were filled with back-to-back games. But over time, long hours with friends from all over the country overtook games. These days, work for Atlas Games and speaking engagements mean no games at all, and lots of friends mean bigger parties and shorter visits. All the same, I’ve got to say: it’s still a week with some of my favorite people, all in one place, and the love is bigger than our host city.

The mental dissonance was strong, though, for many of us. While we reunited with old friends and played new games, many of us were distracted and upset by news from Ferguson, Missouri. Conversations frequently went something like: “Hey, it’s great to see you! How have you been? Man, it’s messed up, what’s happening in Ferguson.” We felt outraged and helpless, and often uncomfortable at having to keep doing what we were at Gen Con to do.

There are other things I’ll probably write about as I process this year’s experience, but two things really stand out as unusual and fantastic (and they’re actually the same kind of thing). Two friends got engaged to smart, beautiful, graceful women in public proposals at Gen Con this year. One was a cool scene in the convention center’s hallway performing area; the other, a large, orchestrated affair at the ENnie Awards ceremony. Both women accepted enthusiastically, and in both cases, the onlooking crowd went wild. Here, don’t take my word for it: watch and (if you’re like me) cry-clap.

But almost immediately on Twitter, people began accusing the couple who got engaged at the ENnies of insensitivity, because they were happy while horrific events were happening in Ferguson. How dare they choose that moment to celebrate? How could they be so selfish as to think of their future, when the future of Mike Brown had been cut so terribly, unfairly short?

Here’s the answer, though: You celebrate when you can precisely because life is uncertain and short.

People in war zones know this. Love and babies and anniversaries all happen in places of oppression and violence. People go home from protests and watch dumb movies. People have sex in between airstrikes. Life keeps going on.

The people fighting for justice and racial equity in Ferguson probably know this better than those of us who haven’t had to fight systemic racism every day of their lives. We got the phrase “jumping the broom” because, even during slavery when families were torn apart everyday, African-Americans still fell in love and got married, defying the laws that said those marriages were illegal. To this day, some black couples choose to honor this tradition and jump a broom to seal their wedding vows.

Terrible, terrible things are happening in Ferguson, and Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria, and Iraq, and other places too. If it would be even remotely helpful for me to go there and support the protesters fighting for immediate and lasting justice in their community, I’d be on the next Greyhound bus. I’ll keep turning out for those goals in my own community—no justice, no peace.

But everyday things are happening in those places, too, because the thing they’re fighting for is the right to live an ordinary life, unencumbered by oppression and strife. A lot of people are fighting that battle in other ways, every single day.

What the people who criticized my friends may not have known is that we almost lost one of them to suicide this year. As soon as I finished hugging and crying on him after the proposal, my first question was, “What’s today’s number?” He answered, “192,” and I replied, “Well, that’s your magic number now, isn’t it.” 192 is how many days it had been since he’d almost died. How many days he’d survived and kept fighting depression, in the hope of living himself into all the things that make life worthwhile.

His marriage proposal wasn’t in ignorance of the tragedy and brutality happening in Ferguson. It was in direct defiance of the despair and violence that almost cost him his own life. There’s not a thing wrong with celebrating the kind of progress that looks in every way like resurrection and restoration. We fight for hope, in many ways, everyday—on the streets of occupied American cities, and in the dark corners of our own minds. No, they’re not the same, but the goal is: to find love and meaning in peace.

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