Proud

Why I Don’t Feel Proud of America


1. HOW DO THEY SLEEP AT NIGHT?

I hear Tom Petty playing in the other room, where Mani’s taking a late-afternoon shower. We just went out for lattes and errands and a little walk down to Sunset Farm, where the bees and butterflies are having a field day, quite literally. We passed a few people walking their dogs, clearly enjoying the spectacular fall beauty of blue sky and October perfection.

And yet, the perfection is pierced by knowing that we are so broken. Relationships are frayed and resilience frazzled even as our resolve to resist becomes fiercer and more urgent by the hour. It feels impossible to maintain equilibrium when the supposedly elected leader of our country shows, over and over, his true colors — colors he never even bothered to conceal in the first place and that not only didn’t keep him from office, helped him get into it.

Comedians, artists, writers, educators — so many people doing more than our elected officials to push for change that is so long overdue as to feel hopeless. An entire party in the pockets of lobbyists. How do they sleep at night? How?

“Running down a dream…” comes a voice that has accompanied many of us for decades.

But whatever the dream once was, it was never everyone’s. And our insistence on self-interest and insane individualism has come at quite the cost.

What does it mean not to give up in times like these? It means not giving up. There’s nothing metaphorical or oblique about it. It means living the fuck out of life, and realizing that your voice really, really matters — especially if you’ve been one to sit this round out, watch from the sidelines, keep the peace that isn’t peace at all but privilege in action.

I am ashamed of this country.

Even writing this feels ranty and useless, but here I am. Sigh.

2. “BE PROUD”

I shared the above on Facebook yesterday. A friend who commented encouraged me not to be ashamed of our country. “Be proud,” they wrote. “It’s our time to make it better,” this person suggested. “We’ve come a long way in a short time. Think about it.”

The following was my personal response, which I’m sharing here after this person and I talked on the phone today for an hour. This is how we do this work, by being willing to invite and enter into honest, if difficult, conversations with friends and family members.

3. LETTER TO A FRIEND

My dear friend,

I love you, too, and I have thought about it. I always feel super supported by you in terms of my writing, so thank you for that. And I’ve been sitting with your comment about not being ashamed of our country. I’m curious where that’s coming from. My fear is that by focusing on pride and progress, we are turning a blind eye to what’s devastatingly wrong with our country.

The suggestion that I “think about it” and focus on feeling proud of our country and on our “progress” is really hard to swallow. I don’t want to just throw words around like “white privilege” or “mansplaining” because I think those just shut people down rather than encouraging any kind of dialogue. And I’m not invested in being right, but I really hope you will consider why this kind of response is problematic from the perspective of just about anyone who is directly affected by misogyny, racism, anti-poverty, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia, and the myth of American superiority on which we were raised — all of which have been totally elevated and normalized by the Trump presidency but have existed as deep currents throughout American history.

Yes, there has been social and economic progress. But you don’t have to look hard or far to see the cracks in this perspective. It’s a distinctly white perspective, and one that rests on tremendous privilege.

What is it about the idea that I am ashamed of our country that makes you want to suggest otherwise? Even many of our veterans have expressed shame. This is not what they fought for. There is nothing un-patriotic about this expression of despair and disgust; if anything, it’s me putting *more* skin in the game and saying NO, I will not stand by while our government systematically destroys people of color, incites violence against women and Muslims, and treats people living in poverty like criminals.

I just drafted the following on my blog but haven’t decided yet whether I’ll publish it. Honestly, I wanted to connect with you one-on-one because I do love you and I care deeply about our relationship. These are the kinds of conversations that our “progress” depend on — people like me and you talking openly and being willing to be uncomfortable as well as to face our own places of internalized privilege and blinders. We have a responsibility to do this, and I really appreciate you reading this and hearing it an invitation to consider a different perspective — one that frankly doesn’t leave a lot of room for feeling proud of America at the moment.

This IS how we will have any chance “to make it better.” It’s not easy but it’s our turn to do this work.

Love,

Jena

4. WHY I DON’T FEEL PROUD

So, coming back to the question of being proud, here’s a sampling of why I find that is so problematic.

I won’t be proud when there have been 521 mass shootings in 477 days — with NO action from our government to seriously address the problem of gun control and an off-the-rails distortion of second-amendment rights. Our “founding fathers” would not have been able to imagine the likes of more than 500 people being injured by a single shooter.

I won’t be proud when 53% of white women voted for a narcissistic sociopath man who boasts about pussy-grabbing, incites violence against people of color, has zero empathy for human suffering, calls conscientious objectors “sons of bitches,” offers “warmest condolences” to victims of a mass shooting, and tells Puerto Ricans theirs isn’t a real disaster while 3.4 million Americans are facing life-and-death conditions.

I won’t be proud when “individual incidents of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment” have risen exponentially since the 2016 presidential elections alone.

I won’t be proud when women’s bodies are more heavily regulated by law than the purchase and use of guns — including guns designed for warfare.

When congress votes to cut off federal funding that affects “9 million children and pregnant women in low-income households.”

I won’t be proud when “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites

When acquittals and dropped charges are the norm for white police officers who shoot and kill African-Americans — and African-Americans are three times as likely to be treated with excessive force by police.

When the Secretary of Education of the United States of America makes changes to sexual misconduct guidelines at colleges and universities that will protect rapists rather than believe victims.

When the middle class is vanishing out from under us and, according to MIT economist Peter Temin, “this dual-economy has a ‘racist’ undertone.”

When Latinx women earn a full 45% less than white men — and Native women aren’t even represented on the chart of wage comparisons.

When 21 transgender people have been murdered in 2017 alone.

The suggestion that we should be proud of our country at this moment is so problematic and upsetting. To insist that we focus on “progress” implies an ability to look right through reality.  As my friend and fellow writer Emily Nichols Grossi wrote yesterday, “We, the US, are in the direst of straits.”

To say we should be proud, to insist that we focus on progress rather than really looking hard at ourselves and the systems that continue to protect the most privileged and punish the most vulnerable, is short-sighted and insulting. I want nothing more than to find a way to say this that will open minds and hearts rather than cause defensiveness, but that part is out of my control.

I absolutely believe in using our voices, and recognize that there are many ways to do this. But this goes beyond being “a good person.” It is imperative — IMPERATIVE — that those of us who have lived our entire lives in relative ease — with few to no road blocks to “progress” due to the color of our skin — stop defending a country that shows every sign of moving in the wrong direction.

There are millions of Americans with their hearts in the right place. But it’s way past time to confront the reality that there are also millions of Americans who tacitly and overtly endorse ignorance, hatred, and violence every single day.

Proud

Waking Up Is a Prerequisite to Reckoning


What we need right now aren’t fantasies for the future. Calls for unity, healing, and kindness are beautiful, and they may make us feel better for a spell. But my fear is that they are also the stuff of national anesthetization and temporary amnesia that allow too many of us to go about our lives between marches or shootings, numbing out just enough to shrug at the status quo.

We’re tired, we say. There’s only so much we can do, we say. We feel hopeless, we say. There are about a bazillion ways to opt out of reality, and fantasizing tops the list.  I’d like to think we’re beyond this as a nation, but I know that that, too, is a fantasy.

As a younger woman, I used to have fantasies. Lots of them. Not psychic flashes of the future or winning-the-lottery type wishes, but more like a constant, distant mirage of where life was going and wouldn’t it be great when we finally got there?

In these fantasies, my then-husband had a job he loved, preferably one that allowed him to be outdoors a lot. In these fantasies, I had a thriving coaching practice that included Jennifer Aniston as a client, and we lived in a house with stainless steel appliances and a big mudroom. In these fantasies, money was never a source of stress. In these fantasies, I’d “get to” have a sexual experience with a woman, but just one, just enough to check it off my bucket list, nothing that would threaten the life we’d built. In these fantasies, I would reach a lot of people with my words and be known as a writer. In these fantasies, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states (why I cared so much, I wasn’t sure). There was peace in the Middle East. Racism was a thing of the past.

There was more, I’m sure, but those are the parts that come to mind right off the top of my head.

Later, after life undid the house of cards I’d so lovingly constructed, I sat in the rubble for a while. In my grief and emergence, fantasies seemed like folly or worse, a form of betrayal. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to trust myself. On the other hand, trusting myself had turned out to be the only solid ground.

Solid ground is where life is real and undeniable and perhaps scary and confusing to confront. It’s where things aren’t working and we’re willing to examine our role in that. It’s where we’re not telling the whole truth — usually out of fear, and usually out of fear that we will lose something. Solid ground is what we willingly trade for fault lines when we gloss over reality in the name of being good and/or trying to “make things work.”

Imagining a fantasy America that has healed (not heeled) from “its painful past,” sound nice — and should give us serious pause. The past isn’t the past when it’s the very ground we’re walking on. The past isn’t the past when it’s present in our everyday lives, in ways many white Americans continue to diminish, downplay, and downright deny.

If only we raise the vibration. If only we come together to sing in perfect harmony. We are the world, we are the children. My 80s are showing; these are the tropes of my growing-up years, and they’re not only tired, they’re dangerous. Why? Because skin color does matter. In a country built on racial hierarchies, it has everything to do with how we are perceived and treated, what obstacles or opportunities our children encounter, and how safe our bodies and psyches are in the world.

To pretend otherwise is its own kind of violence — and too many of us are perpetuating it. Sure, we may be perpetuating it inadvertently — but that is exactly my point. We need not to fantasize, but to be awake. We were taught not to generalize, not to lump whole groups of people together. But what I don’t remember reading or discussing in grade school or in middle school or in high school was the fact that as a person of color, the deck is stacked against you from birth. Period.

I was taught to remember how hard people — black and white alike — had fought for civil rights. In the past. We watched South Africa fight against Apartheid — and it was “over there,” surely something much worse than the racism that still existed in America. We were taught to envision a future where race wouldn’t matter. The privilege deeply embedded in all of this makes me wince.

Waking up might hurt, but it’s nothing next to the millions of ways white supremacy hurts real people every single day. And we most certainly cannot envision tomorrow without first taking responsibility for where we are today.

This fantasy of an America that has healed from its past will never exist if a majority of Americans won’t acknowledge the fundamental premise on which our country’s economy, popular culture, and capitalist ethos depend: That the lives of people of color are worth less than those of people with white skin — or worthless, period.

Fantasy is white people sharing rainbows and hearts and good vibes and calling it “healing.” It’s also the epitome of privilege, to paint pretty pictures of what’s possible but refusing to acknowledging the rot that is destroying us from the inside out — and our role in keeping it that way.

No, we have to do better. How? By dealing with what actually is. Without that, talk of a better America simply feeds this insatiable desire to look away. To not be accountable. To point the finger at “real” racists. To distance ourselves from racism. To insist that “we’re not like that.”

Reality — the only soil in which a true vision can grow roots — is where we wake up and say, “Yes, me too. I am part of this. I have to start looking at and confronting and shattering the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating an inherently racist culture.”

It occurred to me, somewhat out of the blue the other day, that I don’t have a lot of fantasies for my life these days. Sure, I picture my kids getting older and think about their futures, and I imagine the seasons turning and the years passing. But I don’t really spend my time thinking about what I’ll be doing or how things will be different — or better — for us. On the heels of this realization came a quiet knowing: I am actually here, in my life, accepting all of it. The parts that are really fulfilling right now along with the things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary.

When a patient is bleeding out, you don’t stand around talking about how great it will be when they’re all better.

I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself. But what I have written a lot about over the years is being awake. While this may seem like splitting hairs, to me there is a distinction. “Woke” isn’t  my word to use, to claim. To do so is appropriation — just one more example of me, a white woman, taking something that isn’t mine and making it about me.

But being awake? That is a prerequisite to reckoning. And reckon we must, every single one of us.

What beliefs have I internalized about race over the course of my 43 years here on the planet? What myths have I perpetuated that need to be smashed in order for us to have a clean slate as a country? Is a clean slate for our country possible? Not until we deal with what is right here, all around us, and right here, inside of each of us.