Sharing and Seeking New Stories, Moving from Silence to Language, Action and Hope

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Yesterday, for the first time, I gave a public reading from my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered.  It was a powerful experience, offering me a personal taste of what the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers has been giving to other women writers all month.

We met at the Friends Meeting House in Great Barrington, in a meeting room imbued with incredibly peaceful energy and beautiful light, with big windows opening up to the trees, mountains and sky off to the West.  I stood with my back to the view, wanting the audience to see me as I see myself, a small human nestling up to the flank of our great Mother Earth.  The reading started at 4 p.m., so as I talked and read the sun sank slowly behind me, and I was told afterwards that hawks cruised by casually a few times, riding the strong March winds.

Earth, water, fire and air…those are the elements that compose each of us, literally and figuratively.  We are simply emanations of our planet, like the flowers of the field and the fish of the sea.  Remembering that, it becomes easier to see how insane it is to poison and destroy our planet.  It is, quite simply, suicidal.

Last week a beloved member of my local community, a young woman, took her own life and set off a storm of grief.

How powerful it would be if that kind of deeply felt emotional response could be aroused in relation to the slow-moving suicidal ecocide that we are all currently participating in!

Of course, first we have to recognize what’s happening.  As I say in my memoir, most of us are still sleep-walking when it comes to seeing the great tragedy of our times.  We’ll still be sleep-walking, mumbling numbly that “everything is fine,” right off that cliff, unless we can be woken up in time and aroused to channel our emotions into positive change.

It’s not scientific facts and figures that will wake people up to the reality of the Sixth Great Extinction and the human-induced ending of the stable climate we’ve enjoyed for many thousands of years.

It’s hearts, not minds, that must be moved. And for that, it’s stories, not charts, that are called for.

It’s in this spirit that I offer my story in my memoir. Here is a quote that I read yesterday:

“My story is the story of a generation of Americans who grew up with tremendous privilege, so comfortable and coddled that we were not even aware of how very privileged we were.  It is the story of many generations of people who grew up believing that they had the right to take endlessly from the natural world, without fear of exhausting the planet’s resources, and without ever giving anything back. It is the story of my generation’s tremendous alienation from Nature, our reliance on technology and engineering to solve all problems, to the point where we could delude ourselves that we did not need the natural world to make us happy, only our own representations of her, and the resources we could extract at the push of a button.

“My story is the story of how finally, at midlife, I came back to my senses and woke up to the impending disaster that my generation had presided over unthinkingly.  I could share this story in the hopes that the very ordinariness of it would help my peers to wake up as well, and join the great struggle of our time, the struggle to turn our tremendous intelligence to the good work of creating a livable future for ourselves, our children and the billions of innocents condemned to extinction by our thoughtlessness.”

I also read a quote from Audre Lorde, who has been so important in encouraging me to overcome my social conditioning to be quiet, to be polite, to go with the flow, to suck it up, to keep my head down…which women, in particular, get a heavy dose of all our lives.

This is what Lorde has to say about that conditioning, from her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, in the Sister Outsider collection:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you….What are the words you do not yet have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?…

“In the cause of silence, each one of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation.  But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….

“And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our Earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way that we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

Truly we no longer have the luxury of waiting for the time to be right to speak up, to take action, to admit to ourselves and others that everything is NOT FINE, not at all.

All of our stories are important. The more we open up and share with one another, the greater the potential that we’ll be able to find the connecting points that will enable us to work together to create a new story, a bridge of a story to carry us forward into the future and help us create the structures we will need to weather the storms that are coming.

Playing hardball with the fossil fuel industry: if not now, when? if not us, who?

Bittersweet sadness fills me this morning as I read an excerpt at Women’s E-News from Eve Ensler’s new memoir, In the Body of the World, about her long, determined, agonizing battle with uterine cancer.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Her TED talk, “Suddenly, My Body” is one that I have returned to watch several times over, and have recommended to many friends as a pulsating, powerful performance that makes perfectly clear what many of us are coming to realize: that there is no separation between our bodies and the world around us.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Not only is it true, as Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme tell us, that we are the most recent emanations of the stardust that created the life on our planet eons ago, it is also true that our fragile bodies are porous and open, made of the air, earth and water that we move through each day.

If we poison our environment, we poison ourselves.

So many of us are learning that the hard way.

Warrior lionesses like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai and Eve Ensler—each one snared by her own body’s encounter with the internal malignancy of cancer.

How many powerful, active, full-of-life people do you know who are no longer with us, felled by cancer?

A quick look at the cancer statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control shows cancer rates soaring, especially for Americans 50 and older, and especially in the South, Midwest and Northeast of the country.

In the South and Midwest, they make and use those toxic chemicals—the ones that lace our food supply and flow into our waters, creating a dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River; the ones that ride the prevailing winds east to fill the skies of the eastern United States and Canada with sooty particulates and airborne toxins.

None of us is immune from this.  No matter how careful we are to buy organic produce or grow our own, to keep BPA plastics out of our kitchens, even to pull up stakes and move to an area of the country that appears to be cleaner—we cannot hide from the reality that we live in a contaminated country, on a planet that is crazily out of balance and on the verge of a major correction.

When the colonizers came to the Americas, they were careful to try to pick off the leaders among the native peoples they encountered, knowing that if you deprive people of their most charismatic, powerful leaders, you will demoralize them and leave them open to takeover.

Although there is no devilish intelligence at work in the cancer epidemic, this dynamic still applies: when cancer takes from us leaders like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler or Wangari Maathai, it leaves the rest of us stricken and reeling, spinning like a rudderless boat.

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber

There are those, like Sandra Steingraber, who have been fighting cancer for a long, long time, and using it as a spur to work harder to save our planet/ourselves.

Steingraber was recently put behind bars for two weeks as punishment for her protest of the fossil fuel companies’ plan to hydrofrack for gas in her home territory of upstate New York.

She wrote from prison that it was her love, for her children and for all livings beings on the planet, that drove her to civil disobedience:

“It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

“My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. “They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.

“The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?”

Yes, we hear you Sandra, and we’re with you!

And yet, so many of us do not act on what we hear and know.

A low-level depression seems to afflict a great swath of the American public, and I would wager that the feelings of powerlessness that come with being unable to control the health of our environment or our selves may have something to do with it.

No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.

Even someone like me, living in what appears to be a clean, leafy rural place, has to contend with farmers who still spray Roundup on their cornfields every spring, or rivers, including the Housatonic, just blocks from my home, heavily contaminated with PCBs from the upstream General Electric plant.

Since there is no way to play it safe, what we need to do is forget about safety now, in these end times, and play hard.

It’s time to give everything we’ve got to the fight to preserve the capacity of our planet to support life on down the generations into the future.

If humans are to be part of that future, we have to rise to the challenges we face now.

Like Eve Ensler, wracked with cancer and yet still leading the charge of One Billion Rising to fight violence against women this spring, we cannot afford to take time out.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Like Kenyan Wangari Maathai, felled so quickly by cancer even as she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preventing the desertification of her country by teaching ordinary women to raise and plant trees, we have to be creative in our approaches, working at the grassroots when those at the top won’t listen.

Like Sandra Steingraber and so many other activists, we have to be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience to those in power.

Playing nice, following the rules, being polite—where has that gotten us?  When the polluters of the planet are playing hardball, we have to respond in kind—although our life-affirming version of hardball might involve planting trees, or raising flash mobs of dancers, or forming human chains of resistance at the boundaries of old-growth forests.

Rachel, Audre, Wangari, Eve, Sandra…we’re right behind you.  Fighting all the way.

Privilege, Difference and the Challenge of Creating a “Beloved Community”

The recent Presidential election showed in concrete terms that the demograhics of the United States are shifting quickly.  The old majority of people of European descent (“Caucasians”) is rapidly shrinking to minority status in numerical terms, although white folks retain a lock on the gears of power and privilege so far in this country.

How do white folks continue to maintain dominance?

The key is still education.

When my Eastern European Jewish forebears came to the US through Ellis Island back at the turn of the 20th century, the adults in the family spoke no English, but they were hardworking and ambitious for their children to assimilate and succeed.

One of my great-grandfathers fixed sewing machines on the Lower East Side; another great-grandmother sold fish wrapped in newspaper on the street to support her children.

Within a generation, the children of these immigrants were living the middle-class American dream, and their children did even better, becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.

My grandmother, a first-generation American whose mother tongue, before entering kindergarten, was Yiddish, got her B.A. and Masters in biology from Hunter College, and became a high school biology teacher.  Her son, my father, graduated from Oberlin and NYU and became a successful professional.  I followed the pattern and got my Ph.D.

This is what’s known in Americanese as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

What is too often unacknowledged is how the privilege accorded to whiteness in America has helped families like mine succeed.

It starts with where you are able to live, because property taxes still determine the quality of the primary and secondary education you’ll receive.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were a lot of places in the U.S. where Jews weren’t welcome, including many selective colleges and universities.

But just like the Irish and the Italians, soon enough Jews became “white,” and that was all that mattered—they were welcome in all but the snootiest bastions of American WASP-dom, and their privileges were helped along by the exclusion of others.

The color of one’s skin still matters in this country.  We still live in largely segregated neighborhoods, and thus most of our children attend largely segregated schools.

And they’re not “separate but equal” schools either.  They are, as Jonathan Kozol so eloquently documented, deeply unequal schools, where children with darker skin tones—who are often the most in need of support–are given less, financially and  intellectually.

The fight over “race-blind” college admissions is so fraught because what tends to happen without any affirmative action policy for Americans of color is that the people with the best “grooming” win out, and the best-groomed high school seniors tend to be those from affluent families, living in affluent neighborhoods, going to affluent schools.

As The New York Times noted in a recent editorial, “Those from the top fifth of households in income are at least seven times as likely to go to selective colleges as those in the bottom fifth. The achievement gap between high- and low-income groups is almost twice as wide as between whites and blacks,” and “blacks and Hispanics are also substantially underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. In 2004, they were 14.5 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of those graduating from high schools, but only 3.5 percent and 7 percent of those enrolling in selective colleges and universities. The underrepresentation has gotten worse over the past generation.”

***

All this is on my mind today because of a recent stir at the college where I teach, which has made a strong effort over the past decade to recruit more students from under-represented groups.

We have more people of color on the campus today than we’ve ever had, which should be a cause for celebration.

But this semester has brought some simmering tensions to the surface, showing how difficult it can be to put a group of passionate young people together on a campus and expect them to “just get along.”

The flashpoint this semester was Diversity Day, a day started several years ago by a group of disgruntled students who felt that not enough time was spent during regular classes focusing on issues of social diversity.

Students, staff and faculty organized workshop classes on a range of topics related to the experience of marginalized groups in America, and theories and praxes of social justice.

The day was so successful that it was subsequently institutionalized, with regular classes cancelled and all students required to attend at least three workshops.

This year, an influential group of students decided they were going to “boycott” Diversity Day.  Many of them were the student leaders of workshops, which meant that they were actually sabotaging their own event.

They took this extreme measure because they were angry at what they perceived as a lack of strong response from the college administration to the provocation of a student who questioned not just the value of diversity day, but the value of diversity itself in American society.

This student distributed posters on campus asking students to “Take the Diversity Challenge” by answering the following question: “Name 5 benefits of Diversity (besides ethnic food and music).”

His challenge was taken as a white supremacist assault on students who wear the mantle of diversity with pride, and he did not do much to dispel that perception, according to students who said he also sent them a link to a You-Tube talk by Jared Taylor, the controversial founder of the New Century Foundation and editor of its American Renaissance magazine.

The anti-discrimination watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center, which keeps tabs on Taylor, says that he “regularly publishes proponents of eugenics and blatant anti-black and anti-Latino racists,” and also “hosts a conference every other year where racist intellectuals rub shoulders with Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.”

In the video link shared on our campus, Taylor argues that because there is often friction when you put different social groups into close proximity (and he’s especially attentive to different racial groups)—say, in neighborhoods or schools or college campuses—the better thing to do is to back away and re-segregate, thereby eliminating the sources of tension.

This attitude is wrong on so many levels that I find it hard to know where to start.

Besides the obvious truth that race is just an illusion, as far as a real biological marker of human difference, it’s also true that ghetto-izing certain individuals, for whatever reason, has never been a good social strategy in the past, and it won’t work now.

We don’t want a balkanized, fearful, hateful America any more than we want a bland, homogenized America.

We want a society where, as Audre Lorde put it, “difference [is] not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.”

In her famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Lorde continued: “Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being” (Sister Outsider, 111-12).

***

Audre Lorde

At my college, we like to say that we teach “critical thinking skills,” by which we mean that we encourage students to question authority and think for themselves.

We shouldn’t be surprised or upset, then, when they do just that by questioning our own institutional authority.

The students who organized the Diversity Day boycott this year—many of them women of color–were angry that a student advocating white supremacy was allowed to remain in our campus community.

While the administration deliberated over whether this student presented any danger to the community, and whether his words had crossed the line into hate speech, they said, they felt unsafe and unheard.

So they staged a protest, quite in keeping with Audre Lorde’s injunction to “transform silence into language and action.”

“I have come to believe,” Lorde says, “that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”  She urges her readers to ask themselves “What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? ….We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid” of speaking out.

But, she continues, “We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….

“It is not difference that immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, 41-44).

On our campus, Diversity Day originated as an attempt to break the silences between different social groups, including students, faculty and administration, in the cause of mutual understanding and communication.

But this year, it was the boycott that spoke loudest, and what it said, loud and clear, was that there are still so many silences to be broken.

Speaking as a faculty member who teaches classes in human rights and social justice, and who has organized many Diversity Day workshops over the years, the problem is that it’s often too little, too late.

By the time Diversity Day rolls around in November, tensions between social groups on campus have often already come to the fore, and the workshops provide opportunities to let off steam that can end up sparking further conflagrations that take place in the dorms or on social media sites, without the mediating influence of faculty and staff present to help channel discussions productively.

One day out of the school year is not enough to create the social bonds necessary to establish a cohesive, harmonious diverse student body.

We are going to have to try harder, to do better.

***

An opening has been created for us by the students this year. From my perspective as a faculty member, this is a prime teachable moment, an opportunity to advance our ideals of social justice and strengthen the ties of community on our campus.

Those with more privilege, on whatever grounds, must stand as firm allies with the less privileged.

Every class, every conversation, every interaction is an opportunity for respectful communication that encourages the breaking of the deep-seated silences that separate us.

The truth is that every college campus is a microcosm of the larger society from which our students are drawn.  In the small, sheltered community we create—a kind of Beloved Community, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s terms—we have an opportunity to envision and manifest new frameworks and understandings that our students will then carry with them out into the broader world.

In this struggle, as in all others, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time for thoughtful action is now.

Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

Moving from suffering to pain to resistance

“Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience…to be transformed into…strength or knowledge or action.  Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.  When I live through pain without recognizing it…I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it.”

Audre Lorde,  Sister Outsider, 171

Too much of the time, we who are sensitive, aware human beings on the planet feel the burden of suffering, the “nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

For example, when I read in the current National Geographic Magazine that 25,000 elephants have been killed this year in East Africa by poachers and even government soldiers who want to make money on their tusks, the nightmare of suffering descends upon me.  When I hear that the president of Kenya has declared that “elephants must pay for their room and board with ivory,” I begin to feel physically sick.

The same kind of nausea descends on me when I hear about the melting of the ice in the Arctic or the permafrost in Greenland—even more so when the loudest response to this calamity comes in the form of rapacious, competitive cheering and jostling for position to be the one to extract the greatest amount of riches now revealed beneath the ice.

Or when I read about the ongoing sexual abuse that is occurring rampantly on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a kind of externalization, upon the defenseless bodies of small children, of the unmetabolized suffering of generations of Native peoples trying to survive in unspeakable conditions.

Brooding over all the news of suffering that comes my way each time I take a look at the daily news, I can quickly feel myself overwhelmed with a sense of my own powerlessness.

That is where I need Audre Lorde’s fierce courage to pick me up, dust me off and send me on my way again.

The challenge is to remain open to the suffering, in order to, as she says, recognize, name and use it “to fuel some movement beyond it.”

For many of us right now, the greatest challenge is the awareness that we don’t know what to do. And maybe, even, that there is nothing we can do.

I cannot heroically save the elephants, any more than I can refreeze the polar ice caps or swoop in to rescue the frightened child who is being raped right at this moment.

No.  But what I can do is to try to leave myself open to the suffering—in other words, to not turn away, not deliberately turn off my empathy in order to try to hide from a reality that is hard to confront.

It is my belief that if more of us were to commit to recognizing and naming suffering when we see it, we would find the strength and the right channels to collectively metabolize suffering into the kind of pain that leads to action.

Each of us needs to become a vortex through which the pain can be transmuted first into resistance, and then into an active seeking for alternative paths.

It is not necessary that tens of thousands of elephants die.  It is not necessary that we see the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels and heat up the atmosphere still more.  It is far from necessary that the children of Spirit Lake are tormented by their elders.

Do not turn away from this suffering.  See it, name it, and turn the pain that these events awaken in you to a righteous force for change.

You don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do with the pain.  Just allow yourself to feel.  Allow empathy to flow.  And then see what happens next.

Coming to Voice, Saving the Planet

Yesterday acclaimed psychologist Carol Gilligan paid a visit to the class I am currently co-teaching at Bard College at Simon’s Rock with theater professor Karen Beaumont, “Human Rights, Activism and the Arts.”

Gilligan’s ground-breaking book, In A Different Voice, was the first to examine the psychological development of girls.

Yes, you read that right.  Before Carol Gilligan, American psychologists who studied child development based their model of the stages of human psychological development on their studies of boys.  Not until Carol came along in the early 1980s did anyone think to point out that girls and boys develop differently.

In her new book, Joining the Resistance, Gilligan explains that while girls start to silence their own voices in their early teen years, in conformity with social dictates about proper behavior for “good girls,” boys go through this self-regulation much earlier, around 5 or 6, when they learn that “crying is for sissies.”

Boys learn to suppress their caring, nurturing side because it’s too “feminine,” while girls learn to suppress their active, aggressive side because it’s too “masculine.”  In the process, both genders lose something crucial to their humanity, and our society as a whole is impoverished as a result.

Lately, Gilligan has been relating boys’ and girls’ resistance to the suppression of their natural androgynous voices to adults’ resistance to what she sees as a very destructive patriarchal culture.

She defines patriarchy as “those attitudes and values, moral codes and institutions, that separate men from men as well as from women and divide women into the good and the bad,” and argues that “as long as human qualities are divided into masculine and feminine, we will be alienated from one another and from ourselves.  The aspirations we hold in common, for love and for freedom, will continue to elude us.”

So much depends on whether we can come to voice.  And how we do so.  In the context of my human rights seminar, coming to voice may mean being able to speak out in an informed, passionate way about justice and injustice in specific circumstances, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

In the personal sphere too, we need to learn to express our needs clearly, without apology.  We women need to learn to value ourselves and insist on being treated fairly and with respect whether in the home or in the workplace.  Men need to demand that their emotional, nurturing sides be honored.

If it is hard for men to express emotions, it is hard for women to speak with authority.  As sociologist Michael Kimmel has shown, boys and men tend to over-estimate their own abilities while girls and women tend to have less self-confidence than their skills and talents warrant.

Boys and men need to learn to listen, to others and to their own innermost voices, the voices of compassion that were shut down when they were just little guys and learned that boys don’t cry.

Girls need to learn to speak up, to let their innermost voices out, to share freely what they know and what they imagine with the world.

My mother reminded me recently that when I was a young girl of 9 or 10, she considered me a “know-it-all.”  I used to read Ranger Rick and the National Wildlife magazines with voracious attention, and apparently I had a lot to say about the natural world and human beings’ role in it.

As I shared with my class yesterday, sometime around age 14, just as Carol Gilligan saw with her research subjects, I lost my voice.  I became the quiet girl in class.  I earned A’s on every literature paper I wrote, straight through grad school; but it was so hard for me to say out loud what I knew.  It’s taken me years to overcome that self-silencing and begin to recover the spunky, feisty voice that came pouring out of me naturally when I was a child.

As adults, knowing what we now know about the importance of voice to healthy psychological development, we should be working hard to encourage the boys in our lives to stay in touch with their emotional, caring, listening side; and the girls in our lives to continue to speak their truths even when they enter the maelstrom of puberty.

As Audre Lorde wrote long ago, “My silences had not protected me.  Your silence will not protect you…. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

You got that right, Audre.  If anything, the dangers that you perceived back then–before you, like so many others, succumbed to cancer–have gotten worse.

If we care about our children, if we care about our Earth, we cannot afford to stay silent.  Indeed, there is more risk to staying quiet than to speaking out, with all the passion, emotion and authority we can muster as men and as women.

Cat got your tongue? Not mine.  Not any longer.

Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?

Last night I participated in a panel discussion on Virginia Woolf and Margaret Mead called “Who’s Afraid of Women(‘s) Writing,” with Bard College of Simon’s Rock colleagues Maryann Tebben and Asma Abbas.

We were talking about how women’s writing is often oppositional, representing an outsider’s point of view to male-dominated mainstream discourse, whatever the discipline.

One of the students in the audience asked whether women’s writing would therefore always be reactionary, simply responding to the dominant rather than staking new ground.

I have been thinking about that question all day, off and on.

What I answered at the time was that while women’s writing is often a response to the dominant discourse, it also goes off in its own directions, which are not simply reactions to the mainstream, but rather true departures.

Of course, all writing occurs in dialogue with other writers, so even a departure is part of a larger conversation.  But I do believe that women, as outsiders, have something unique to contribute to any conversation.

Indeed, it is staggering to think of how impoverished literature, philosophy, history and all the other disciplines have been (and still are) in cultures where women have not been allowed to add our voices to the chorus.

Worst of all is that so few people (read: men) even noticed our absence.

I can recall so many times when have I had to fight for the inclusion of texts by women in our General Education curriculum at Simon’s Rock, arguing with colleagues who could say, with a sad shake of the head, that it was just too bad that women had never written any great, canonical literature.  For the past 20 years, out of the 16 required texts in our Gen Ed canon, which stretches from Gilgamesh to Achebe, only three are by women–though as of this year, after much lobbying, the ratio has finally improved slightly.

First deny women literacy and keep those few who do manage to become literate tightly locked in the private realm.  Then look back over history and note complacently that, as Woolf has the “odious Mr. Tansley” tell the artist Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse, “women can’t write, women can’t paint.”

In our time and place, young women now outnumber young men in higher education, and no one would dare to argue that women are innately less intelligent and talented than men.

But still, women in the U.S. earn 78 cents on the male dollar, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that we still shoulder more responsibility for housework and child care even when we work fulltime.

Women are still valued more highly as ornaments and service workers than as autonomous creative agents, and we still have to struggle harder to make our voices heard, especially if what we have to say is not what the mainstream wants to hear.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe worries that her painting will be rolled up and thrown under a couch to gather dust.  Today, women still seem to have less self-confidence than men, perhaps because we’ve absorbed the prevailing ethos that considers a strong woman to be a “ball-breaker” or a “bitch on wheels.”

As MaryAnn Baenninger, President of the College of St. Benedict, wrote in a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, studies continue to show thatwomen underestimate their abilities and express lower levels of self-confidence than their abilities suggest. Men overestimate their abilities and express higher levels of confidence than their abilities warrant. This difference arrives with them as first-year students and leaves with them as seniors. When I talk about this, or I hear researchers describe this finding, the audience always chuckles (boys will be boys, after all).”

Baenninger concludes that while American women “have access to just about every educational opportunity and every career…access doesn’t guarantee outcomes. A gendered culture, mostly in unconscious ways, limits women’s expectations for themselves and our expectations for them.”

In other words, our gender role conditioning as women too often tends to silence us, while amplifying the voices of our brothers.

Soon after the great poet Audre Lorde was diagnosed with the cancer than would eventually kill her, she gave an address at the 1977 Modern Language Association annual convention in Chicago, called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” later published in the collection Sister Outsider.

In thinking back over her life, she said, “what I most regretted were my silences.”

“In the cause of silence,” she continued, “each of us draws the face of her own fear–fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment….But most of all we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….That visibility which makes us most vulnerable…is also the source of our greatest strength.

“Because the machine will try to grind us into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.”

What we need to do, she said, is to “learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

So many women today are still feeling the same fear and insecurity Lorde wrote about in 1977.  So many of us will go through our entire lives not daring to utter the truths we can hardly bring ourselves to acknowledge even in our most private thoughts.

In the same way that the richness of the Earth is diminished every time a species is lost, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant to the bigger ecological tapestry, the great canvases of literature, philosophy, science and all the other disciplines are impoverished and dulled when 50% of the population is not enthusiastically welcomed into the conversation.

Yes, we women can have our own conversations, outside the male-dominated mainstream.  There’s always “women’s writing.”  But what we should really be striving for is what Virginia Woolf called “androgynous writing,” where the masculine and feminine energies are brought together in a fecund explosion of cross-pollinating difference.

As Lorde put it so memorably in another of her important essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.  Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.”

Maybe there will come a time when interdependency and androgyny will be the accepted standard of gender relations.  Until then, we still need to meet periodically and consider questions like “Who’s Afraid of Women’s Writing?” and why? and at what cost?

 

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