unknown, via Twitter

“The police in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
And in a case of mistaken identity
The put a bullet through his heart
Heart breakers with your forty four, I wanna tear your world apart”

-The Rolling Stones, Heartbreaker

Do you worry about what others think of you? I know I do. I worry about it too much. My worries are there because I want people to like me. But imagine if simply being you made others uncomfortable. Imagine if walking around in your skin caused fear. What if upon seeing you a person’s eyes enlarged, they backed away, they avoided eye contact or even turned and walked the other way.

Last summer I read a post by Questlove (Drummer of the Roots) on the Huffington Post blog. He wrote about how he has to worry, all the time -everywhere he goes, about what others think of him. Of how they may react to his appearance. I cried quietly as I read it. He detailed living his life, walking around trying to not be imposing. He described what it’s like to put fear in people simply by looking the way you look…

“All the time I’m in scenarios in which primitive, exotic-looking me (6’2″, 300 pounds, uncivilized afro for starters) finds himself in places that people that look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct?”

He routinely turns down invitations to swanky places because it’s “been hammered into his DNA to not ‘rock the boat’ “

I won’t attempt to summarize any further what he wrote because I won’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to (click the highlighted link above) and read it for yourself. He wrote this right after the acquittal verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

I wish I could say that his story is rare, an anomaly. Sadly it’s not. It is so common that African American parents in our country have to explain to their sons at a young age how people may perceive them and react to them.

They have The Talk with their sons.

No, not the sex talk. This is a conversation aimed at preventing young black men from inciting violence or suspicion or incarceration because of the color of their skin. This conversation informs these young boys that they must tread lightly around white men and police and other authority figures. Tragic stories abound of young black men being roughed up by the police for no reason. Young black men being killed because they didn’t defer to authority even in the face of extreme and obvious injustice. Young black men being shot because they were simply there.

Don’t talk back to white men.

Don’t try to explain, even when they have obviously mistaken you for someone else.

Don’t run down the street, someone might think you stole something.

Don’t hang out on the corner with a group of friends, they might assume you’re in a gang.

Don’t reach for your phone, they might think you’re reaching for a gun.

Move slowly.

Keep your hands visible at all times.

You may say that these are reasonable instructions for anyone. But I don’t know anyone personally who has been arrested or killed who did nothing wrong, committed no crime. Because I’m a white woman living in suburbia.

I have never had to tell my son that if he is running down the street that someone may assume he has committed a crime. Think about the absurdity of that for a minute. Don’t run. Your game of tag or your attempt to race to a friend’s house may be perceived as a threat. Think about telling your son not to run down the street. Ever. That is the reality you face if you are the parent of a young black boy.

This isn’t a new thing. The Talk dates back to 1863 following the Emancipation Proclamation. When slaves were freed in rebel states they were told to not celebrate openly, to essentially “fly under the radar” to avoid giving angry rebels cause to go after them. What I learned after the Trayvon Martin case was that The Talk still exists. It’s still relevant and necessary.

The Talk is a sad part of coming of age in the black community. And I had never heard of it before. Such is the privilege of being white in America. You can say you know racism is still alive in our country. You can have your heart ache with each new story of a son and a brother being shot. But if you’re white in America, you don’t know what it’s like. This is a reality that has been around for over a century and most of us have never and will never experience what it’s like to live in this kind of fear.

Right after the verdict in the Martin case, another trial was beginning. A 76 year old man was on trial for the murder of his 13 year old neighbor. He thought that Darius Simmons, a young black boy, had broken into his home days earlier. He shot him in the chest and killed him.

Recently our national attention was tuned in to the “Loud Music” trial. Michael Dunn faces up to 60 years in prison for firing 10 rounds into a car of young black men, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis.

These are just the cases that make the news. How many cases are there that don’t result in an arrest, that never catch the fleeting attention of the media? Democracy Now reported that in a study of 2012 shootings, that “at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012.”

Becoming numb to these horrific stories, to these appalling tales, is not an option. You can’t be numb if you look at their faces.

The faces of these children who were murdered.

These sons who were loved and adored as much as you and I love and adore our own children.

These are children. And they are gone forever.

Because they went to buy Skittles.

Because they were taking out the trash.

Because they turned the radio up.

For buying Skittles
Walking home after buying Skittles
He was taking out the trash
Taking out the trash
He turned the music up too loud.
Playing music too loud.

You can’t look at these faces and feel numb.

If you’re like me you feel kicked in the gut. Despair.

I see a little of my son in each of them. I feel pain for the parents of these boys. I feel sorrow for them because I know a little bit about what it’s like to lose someone you love at such a tender age.

And I feel enraged.

I feel pulse racing, heat inducing, hand trembling rage.

And I don’t know what to do with that.

But I will have The Talk with my son.

With my white,suburban dwelling, young son.

Not for the same reason and not the exact same talk. I will explain to my son that because he is growing up  as a young white man in our country that this talk isn’t essential to his survival. But that he needs to know that it is essential for many boys his age.

I will explain that some of his friends are having The Talk with their parents because without it they may inadvertently put themselves, their very lives, at risk.

I will tell him that he needs to know that racism, which baffles a young innocent boy like him, is still present. That he needs to know that what goes on around him, even if it doesn’t affect him directly, is still worth his concern and attention. That even if by the time he has children The Talk isn’t necessary, that he can never forget it.

I will tell him that to forget our ugly sordid past with racism in this country is to ignore and deny a threat to our humanity.

That to forget allows it to fester and grow and continue.

Questlove’s story has stuck with me since I read it many months ago. It was heartbreaking. And it illustrates the magnitude of the problem. A noticeable famous figure, on t.v. five nights a week for the last five years, still encounters fear and racism.

Yes, racism is alive and well. And it’s ludicrous that anyone would need to be informed of that.

It’s not obvious to those of us who don’t feel the brutal brunt of it on a regular basis. Many people will scoff and point to our black president. Some will recite all of the ridiculous defenses and excuses that have been trotted out by lawyers and pundits in a lame attempt to explain how and why these children were killed.

But denying it is extremely dangerous.

Denying it or downplaying it allows it to continue.

Sticking our heads in the sand may seem comforting at first. Ignorance is bliss and all.

But eventually that sand becomes suffocating as will the cold reality of who we are- what kind of people we become if we can see the faces of these children who have been killed because of how they look, because of their race- and don’t at the very least acknowledge it. If we do that then we become no better than him:

Michael Dunn, upon hearing his verdict.
Michael Dunn, who shot Jordan Davis,upon hearing his verdict.

We become the personification of self righteous indignation when we shrug off the realities that black families in our country still face.

Jordan Davis’ mom put it best,

“You can’t pretend anymore. The blinders are off now. If there is this level of racism, it can’t be under the table anymore. It has to be exposed so we can deal with it.”

I say that we can’t deny racism as long as parents are still having The Talk.

The conversation that’s been a necessity -a tool of survival in the African American community for 151 years- when that conversation is no longer needed, then we can declare victory. Then we can say that it was a part of our past, no longer plaguing our society.

When it’s no longer necessary to “hammer it into (the) DNA” of young black boys, then and only then, will we have justice for Trayvon… for Darius… for Jordan.

Update, August 22, 2014: And now for Michael Brown.

Big Mike Jr Brown via Facebook
Big Mike Jr Brown via Facebook

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“Pardon me while I burst into flames,

I’ve had enough of the world and people’s mindless games.

Pardon me while I burst and rise above the flame.

Pardon me, pardon me. I’ll never be the same.”

-Incubus, Pardon Me

We live in a world where discrimination still happens but it often happens in the shadows. It is done in the way cowards typically do things- when the world isn’t watching or paying attention. And it still happens far too often. But there’s one type of discrimination that is totally acceptable to flaunt, to declare with authority and smugness.

Poor Shaming.

It’s still acceptable to shame the poor. It’s totally ok to stand up in the U.S. Congress and sneer about the “takers.” It still o.k. to go on Sunday morning talk shows and wear an unholy mask of disgust and contempt while talking about welfare and entitlement programs. This is all fine. You can do this and still be a regular guest on a news show. You can do this and still get elected to be a political leader. In fact, some people will vote for you for this very reason.

Souls vs Stomachs

One very powerful Congressman recently said the school free lunch program gave students a “full stomach but an empty soul.” Because anyone who’s ever gone hungry knows that you need to feed your soul. I mean, that’s top on the list of concerns for a hungry child who’s trying to make it through a school day with a growling stomach eating away at his concentration. That is a priority in a life of not knowing when your next meal will come. More than one political leader has suggested that poor kids do janitorial work in exchange for free school lunch. They say that this will help those kids to understand that you must pay for things. That things just don’t come easy. Because, you know, poor kids are so entitled. They don’t understand the value of hard work. Especially when they watch their parents work two jobs and struggle to pay the bills. So, let’s have the poor kids sweep and mop and scrub toilets. While their wealthier peers look on and eat their lunch that I’m sure they worked very hard for. Some people actually think this is a good idea. Teach those little free-loaders that life ain’t easy. 16.1 Million U.S. children live in poverty.

A Combo Meal of Discrimination

Recently, one very powerful Congressman got flak for saying this:

 “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

His assumption- that there were entire swaths of people who have no desire to work, who wanted to receive handouts- was not the problem. The problem was his use of the words “inner cities,” a.k.a., minorities. Yes, this comment was one of those underlying racist comments, indicative of a mindset so entrenched that the speaker doesn’t even realize it’s racist. And it should be derided. But the outcry shouldn’t have stopped there. In one statement, this politician managed to dismiss two disenfranchised entities. It was a two-for-one. But it’s ok to shame the poor, so his comment was called out for being racist, when it should have been called out for exactly what it was. Racist and poor shaming. It should have been called out for the bullying tactic that it was.

Insight and Ramen Noodles

Recently, Karen Weese wrote an insightful article on poverty. She gets to the heart of what it feels like to be on the fringe. She illustrates the perceptions that exist and pokes holes through all of the standard theories. But where she really got me was when she discussed “The Ramen Noodle Effect.” She explains that many of us can point to times in our life when we can all relate to being “poor.” Those years post college of living on thrift store furniture and eating 25 cent packets of noodles. But this is a false equivalency. Having a few years of living in a run down apartment is not the same as growing up poor. Surrounded by a family and community in poverty.

“It is much easier not to panic about tight finances when Mom and Dad have a guest room you can always move back to (even if you never actually do)…. It helps when there’s someone in your family who can advise you about applying to college or buying a home. It’s reassuring to know that, no matter how bare your cupboard, there will be a full spread of food when you go home for the holidays, and family and friends who can help you, standing in the wings.”

Not Even Close

It’s not the same. Working in a minimum wage job for a few years as a teenager does not give you insight into the lives of people who spend a lifetime in those jobs. Your stepping stone is someone else’s tenuous life line. Your “character building” position as a dishwasher or fry cook is someone else’s shaky grip on survival. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a few years isn’t equal to growing up sharing a bed with three siblings or finding yourself sleeping in your car. Digging for change in the crevices of your sofa for Starbucks isn’t the same as juggling finances to figure out which bills get paid this month. Selling your old shoes or clothes at the consignment store for beer money isn’t the same as selling plasma every month to pay medical bills.

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The Words.

The things people say when discussing the poor. They harken to Dickensian times. “Lazy. Victims. Takers.” These words are used to dehumanize an entire group of people. These words offer justification and comfort to those who wish to keep the poor exactly where they are. Poor people are fundamentally flawed, in character and morals. They don’t want to have better or to do better. They want a hand out or a hand up or a free ride. They enjoy this lifestyle. If they were motivated and ambitious and resourceful they wouldn’t be in this position. These are the statements that are repeated. They are hollow excuses for disdain. They are the rationalization for judgement. They are the lame attempts to lift oneself higher while stepping callously on the backs of those already crippled with exhaustion. They are the words of bullies.

Lack of Empathy?

Some people seem to lack the imagination to understand any circumstance they haven’t personally experienced. They are so self involved and egocentric that they can’t be bothered to consider what any other reality may actually be like. Maybe they were spoiled or grew up so isolated from people who were different. Can we really blame them for their obtuse view on life? Yes. Yes we can. We live in an age of information and access. One only has to spend a few minutes listening or reading to hear what other’s reality is. One only has to pay a tiny bit of attention to the person cleaning up after their office closes or caring for their elderly parent. It doesn’t take much effort at all to shed the notions bred by ignorance to see the good in people versus the bad.

Arrogance?

Some people like to think that they have arrived at a place because they are better than. And those who haven’t reached that place must be less than. I was poor. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. Sure you did. But perhaps you fail to recognize that not everyone experienced life in exactly the way you did, in the same exact circumstances. Perhaps you worked super hard. And perhaps you had a little luck. Perhaps there was someone who gave you a hand up. Perhaps there are some people so caught up in the downward spiral of poverty, scratching and clawing to feed their children and keep a roof over their head that “bettering” themselves isn’t on the bare table they face every night. Perhaps your experience isn’t exactly the same as someone else’s experience. Perhaps you could use your experience to try to be the one to extend a hand. Perhaps instead of tearing people down because they didn’t arrive at the same place you did in the same way you did, you could offer help or encouragement.

Bullying?

Maybe they were the bully on the school bus. Maybe they were the kid who only felt good when they were putting other people down. Maybe a tone of self righteousness couched in policy making and social commentating gives them a sense of power that they crave and need. Maybe they need to understand that the bullying that left them feeling angry and empty when they were younger is not going to fulfill them as an adult. Maybe they need to direct their anger elsewhere. Maybe they need to find another outlet rather than the convenient punching bag of someone who is too busy trying to survive to fight back.

Whatever.

Whatever the reason, it needs to stop. Heaping shame and humiliation on those living in poverty isn’t productive. No one has ever solved a problem when coming from a place of judgement and contempt. But the bullies don’t get this. The bullies need to be called out. We tell our kids to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We tell them to “Stand Up and Speak Out.” Maybe it’s time for us to say something. Most of us are good people. We’re appalled when we hear racial epitaphs. We cringe when we hear a sexist remark. We wince when we hear a gay slur. It’s time we started reacting to the words and actions used against the poor. It’s time we stop accepting the false arguments that have been touted as justification for poor shaming.

Vernacular can be changed.

Mindsets can be altered.

Empathy is a skill that can be learned.

Kindness can grow and spread.

Assumptions can be examined.

Bullies can change.

Poor shaming can be called out as discrimination.

We can vote.

We can stand up.

We can speak out.

 

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This morning I logged on to FaceBook to do some mindless meandering before reading some real stuff. I was numbly perusing postings about the weather (rain, again?) and someone’s cute kid doing something amazingly cute, when I saw an article from NME magazine that made me almost spit my coffee all over my computer. It was an interview with Lily Allen (British pop singer) titled “Lily Allen: Feminism shouldn’t even be a thing anymore”.  What the….??? Now, Allen likes to fan the flames, push the buttons and stir the pot. She’s into the shameless hype schtick and that’s all fine and well, but I think that Allen needs a crash course in pulling one’s head out of one’s arse and maybe a little Feminism 101.

Lily Allen
Lily Allen

In the interview she states that everyone is “equal” in the modern world. Whew. That’s really good news. I am actually relieved to hear that. I mean, I actually agree. We are all equal. Problem is, people- sometimes the government, sometimes the military, sometimes the judicial system- don’t always adhere to that simple premise.

A few cases in point. This week a Massachusetts judge ruled that “Upskirting” was not illegal. So, if you would like to take a picture or videotape a woman’s nether regions without her consent or knowledge, go right ahead. Heck, it’s a fair assumption that if you can figure out a way to get a camera down her shirt that would be ok too!

Also this week, our Senate in the U.S. blocked a vote that would overhaul the procedures for prosecuting sexual assaults in the military. Right now the system isn’t working. According to the Pentagon, last year soldiers were 15 times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by the enemy.

The current system forces the victims to report assaults to their commanders.  The problem is that the commanders often know both the victim and the accused. In some cases, the commander is the accused. Add to that the Department of Labor’s statistics that 62% of victims who reported a sexual assault were retaliated against.

An Army General just this week pled guilty to sexual assault.

A Brig. General pled guilty to inappropriate relationships with two female Army officers and is being investigated for forcing another to have oral sex and threatening her family.

And the Army’s top sex crimes prosecutor is being investigated for allegedly groping a female lawyer at a sexual assault conference.

So you can see the problem with victims reporting these assaults when the very people at the highest ranks are sometimes guilty of the thing they are supposed to be investigating.

But our Senate chose to block a vote.

Not vote it down.

There was majority support for this bill. But they blocked the vote from even happening.

One has to wonder if it was primarily men being raped by other men, would this vote have been blocked? One has to wonder if there would be a bigger sense of urgency on the issue? Meanwhile women in the military are left to fend for themselves in an incestuous system that is clearly not serving their needs well.

Allen offers the theory that women are the problem because we are inherently envious and judgmental of each other. Yes, that is a problem. We need to build each other up, not knock each other down. But it is not The problem.

The problem is that women are still viewed as commodities. As less than. Even in the Western world. It is estimated that 1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years.

The problem is a society, of which we all are a part, that doesn’t tackle misogyny. That objectifies women. A problem this big doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The men that perpetrate these crimes seem to have the view that women are there for their use and disposal. And too many times our judicial system doesn’t see fit to investigate or prosecute these crimes.

Then there’s this piece of sage wisdom from Ms. Allen:

Feminism. I hate that word because it shouldn’t even be a thing anymore,” she said. “We’re all equal, everyone is equal. Why is there even a conversation about feminism? What’s the man version of feminism? There isn’t even a word for it. Menanism. Male-ism. It doesn’t exist.

You hate that word, Ms. Allen, because you don’t understand it’s meaning.

You have willfully and blindly gone the way of the sheep and bought into the misinformation and propaganda that has been slowly oozing it’s way through our culture over the last few decades. Like a bad smell, this has been wafting around enough that you don’t even notice it anymore or realize it’s noxious nature.

Feminism isn’t some foul thing that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

That would be the bitter taste of lies and obfuscation.

Feminism is the basic fight for equal rights for women.

Equal pay for equal work.

The right to vote.

The right to join the military and not be raped.

The right to not have your body exposed and recorded by some creep with a cell phone.

The right to go to college and not be sexually assaulted.

Basic human rights of decency.

And here’s another thought, Ms. Allen.

While you’re sitting in your comfy home enjoying the life of a woman of privilege, please remember that feminism is not only a Western construct. To assume that Feminism is no longer a “thing” because we have the right to vote, we hold political office, etc….  well, that’s just ignoring about half of the world isn’t it?

There are women around the world who are fighting to not be stoned to death for having sex out of wedlock.

There are women fighting for the right to drive.

There are women fighting to stop the heinous act of female circumcision.

There are women fighting for their lives, to not be a piece of property under the law.

The fight for basic human rights is still going on in too many parts of the world.

And any time you or any other woman who is riding high because of the very cause that you demean, you are diminishing the battles these women are still fighting.

We’ve come quite far in the west, but don’t be fooled into thinking that we’re done fighting here. I know what world I want my daughters to grow up in. And it’s not a world that gives them a 20% chance of being raped in college. It’s not a world in which a woman who’s been raped is shamed and told that she’d be better off just letting it go.

And it’s certainly not a world in which we turn a blind eye to the injustices happening to our sisters around the world.

If you don’t want to listen to me, then please hear this from a truly wise and brilliant woman. Amy Poehler was asked in an interview with Elle magazine, about being a feminist and about feminist deniers. She said this:

But I don’t get it. That’s like someone being like, “I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.

In her succinct and magnificent way, she’s telling you, Ms. Allen, that you are driving the very car that you love, that gets you where you need to go. But at the same time you don’t believe in it. And in your case, maybe you’re confused about what it is. But trust me, you’re driving a car that wasn’t built by Detroit, you’re rolling through life on wheels that are powered by an engine that wouldn’t be possible without feminists.

So, please reconsider Ms. Allen.

Consider the victims fighting for justice in an ambiguous system.

Consider that feminism is not an issue just for the modern world.

Consider why there is no male version of feminism.

Take a minute and ponder that.

You may, without even realizing it, see that you made your own case for feminism.

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“Stand up like a man, You better learn to shake hands, You better look me in the eye now, Treat me like your mother.  Come on look me in the eye, You wanna try to tell a lie?  You can’t, you know why?  I’m dressed like your mother.”

-The Dead Weather, Treat Me Like Your Mother

When women are being called names, something’s not right. When women are being harassed, something’s wrong. When women are being threatened with rape and death, something’s got to change. Right? Most of us can agree on that. But what if these things are happening online?

Is the fallout any different because the words showed up on a screen rather than in the mailbox or on a voicemail?

Is the emotional toll and the fear any less because it was done electronically?

Does the vehicle by which a threat was issued even matter?

Is a threat not a threat?

Journalist Amanda Hess wrote an article titled,“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet”. She goes into great detail about the vile comments she has received over the years. She has an active presence online as a writer and has endured angry rants, threats of rape and threats of death. She has had one individual in particular stalk her online.

Lauren Mayberry of the indie band Chvrches wrote an op-ed that appeared in The Guardian. She wanted to shed light on the misogyny that she has been subjected to on-line. Her band gained notoriety and acclaim after posting some of their songs on a music blog. The internet has been a crucial part of their success. For this reason they find it important to keep communication going between their fans online. Among the gushing fan postings were some hostile comments. Name calling. Threats of rape. Details of lewd acts that men promised to do to her.

These two women are not alone. They unfortunately are in good company.

There are writers, singers, actors, business women, students, executives, and kids who have all experienced the same thing. They are mostly women.

And they are considered targets by some simply because they have the audacity to log on to the internet.

They are told to shrug it off, laugh it off, don’t engage, move on.  In other words, suck it up.   Good girls stay quiet. Don’t make a fuss.  Just smile. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

It’s a response that women have heard for ages. Don’t make a fuss about voting, just try to sweetly influence your husband’s vote. Don’t complain about your boss grabbing your ass, just be grateful you have a job. Don’t bother reporting that rape, everyone will just think that you did something to encourage it.

There has been talk of taking the anonymity out of sites like Twitter. Sure. Being anonymous makes it easier for these perpetrators to be more brazen. There have been questions asked concerning who should be tasked with investigating these threats….  the police? The companies that own these websites like Twitter, Facebook and AskFM? Sure.  An avenue for women to report these assaults could give them a way to fight back. While these things could be helpful, they are merely the tourniquet on a bleeding wound. The only way to truly change the dynamic that is festering online is to find the source of the bleeding.

Where is all of this coming from? Is it the continual and persistent objectification of women in all parts of the media? Is it the rampant disregard for other’s feelings? Is it a culture that views women as easy targets, the weaker sex? All of the above?

One issue is lack of empathy.  Recent studies have shown a decline in empathy in our youth.  This disturbing trend is not just some factoid for psychologists and behavioral specialists to be concerned with.  We should all be worried.  As parents, it’s our job to teach these skills to our children.  I believe it is the most important thing we teach them.  Socialize them at a young age.  Set an example of compassion.  Talk to your children about social issues that demonstrate the need for caring and understanding.  If kids don’t learn these lessons, they may be more likely to bully.  They could see a sexual assault of a drunk girl at a party and take a video of it instead of trying to stop the crime.  They may be the person who sees such a video and posts it to social media.  Without any apparent remorse or concern for the victim.  These kids will laugh.  They will ridicule .  They obviously don’t view the girl who has been violated as a living, breathing, feeling, real person.

There’s the detachment that is part of the online world.  Typing a message on Twitter is a little easier to do than screaming it in the person’s face.  Harassing someone on Facebook takes a little less nerve than doing it in person.  Behind the  keyboard, a person is likely to feel more bold.  Some people feel that the lack of physicality gives them a license to be a little meaner, a little more cruel, a little more threatening.  They are able to act out from the safety of their home, they can say things they may never say in person.  The scary fact that for the person on the receiving end of these kinds of messages is that they have no way of knowing when or if the perpetrator is going to take it to the next level.

Does it matter that these threats are online?  No.  The threat is no less real.  The only difference is it is easier to hurl a lewd comment or convey violent intentions over the internet.  It takes less effort than the more traditional means of harassment or stalking.     But the result is the same.  A woman is belittled.  A girl is shamed.  Their safety is threatened.  They feel violated.

The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.  The internet is an integral part of all of our lives.  It is a part of our work, our education, our entertainment, our socializing.  We have more access to more information.  We can reach more people with a keystroke.  While all of this access to information and people affords us all kinds of benefits, we can’t ignore the risks.  We can’t enjoy the fruits of the digital world and turn a blind eye to the uglier side of what is taking place.  Social media has become a way for journalists and artists and business people to promote their craft. But it has also become a breeding ground for abuse.

It’s time for us to come to a collective reckoning.  These things need to be addressed, scrutinized, understood.  We need to understand that the person we see on the computer, tablet or phone screen is a real person.  A living, breathing, feeling, real person.  They are not a character in a video game.  They are not a “virtual” anything.  They are women, they are girls.  They are Amanda Hess and Lauren Mayberry.  They are your mother, your sister, your friend, your daughter.  And they deserve to be treated as such.  They are trying to bring this issue to light, they are starting the conversation.  It’s our job to continue it.

“You gotta cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice…”

-U2, Running To Stand Still

Be firm, but be polite.  Be funny, but tactful.  Be hard, yet soft.  Be strong, yet understatedly so.  Be direct, but soften it with a smile.  Be smart, but don’t be too obvious about it.  Run the board room, but do it with humility.  Isn’t this what we’re taught?  Those of us of the “fairer sex”?  Not necessarily by our parents, although sometimes that is the case.  But by society.  We have surely come a long way in the last century.  While there are still these unwritten rules by which polite society would like for us to abide, we are far better off than we used to be.  Women are CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.  Women hold key positions in national government.  We have opportunities and options and choices that women of the early 20th century couldn’t have dreamed of.  They couldn’t have imagined these things because many of them were fighting simply to be considered a relevant member of society.  To have the right to vote.  To be land owners.

You may wonder why, in the waning days of  2013, I feel compelled to write about this.  It all started with a blog post I read a few weeks ago.  The writer was a mom of young children.  She was lamenting the loss of control of her life and her body to her children. She was speaking to the lack of sleep, the forgone plans, the neglect of one’s self to care for young children.  I read this with a little smile on my face as I drank my morning cup of coffee.  I am for the most part past this stage of motherhood, but I remember it all too well and the moment one of my children is sick I’m right back there in the trenches with stained clothes and un-brushed hair, forgoing all hygiene and sleep, not fit for public consumption.

I was then taken aback when she equated her devotion to her children as anti-feminist.  That is goes against feminist teachings.  She ends with,”Maybe that’s why by far the majority of women today reject the label feminist.  We kind of like being happy.”  I actually had to re-read the entire post to see what I missed.  I am no morning person and it can take me a while to be fully functioning in the morning.   I assumed that I had misunderstood something. But no. The fact that it took me a second reading to realize that she was implying that feminists can’t or don’t believe in being devoted to their kids, that perhaps they can’t choose to be stay at home moms…. this doesn’t speak to my ignorance or even my groggy morning fog. It illustrates her warped view of the definition of feminism.

I’m not sure when feminism became a four letter word.  And I don’t know why so many people have collectively bought in to it.

fem·i·nism noun 1. the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

This is what feminism means.  That women are equal to men.  I naively thought that this was a non-issue, that this is one that had been resolved.  That we’d all collectively agreed on this:  women… men… equal.  I thought this was filed away in the annals of history as one of those things that no longer warrants discussion or debate.  Then I read this.  Then I started seeing other writings, articles and videos on the subject of feminism. I don’t know if  it was a weird coincidence or if my antennae was raised, but either way I realized that some how this was still a thing.

Can a word have a public persona?  If so, then I think this is one word that has become so twisted in the public consciousness.  How else do you explain celebrities who shy away from it? Katy Perry: “I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women”. Taylor Swift, when asked if she was a feminist: “I don’t really think of things as boys vs girls”.  Marissa Mayer (CEO, Yahoo):  “I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.”  Lady Gaga: “I’m not a feminist, I love men.”  Let’s just consider for a minute that none of these women would be who they are and even quoted in a blog post if it weren’t for feminism.

I would like to clear up some misconceptions about feminists.  This is an attempt to dispel the myths that seem to abound.  To quiet the fear that if we all declare ourselves feminists that we will all grow out our armpit hair and shave our heads and start kicking all the men in the balls.

  • Feminists aren’t man haters. Men are awesome. The world would be boring without men. I know a lot of great guys.  In fact, I’m married to one.
  • Feminists aren’t butch. There’s nothing wrong with being butch, if that’s your thing. But this former tomboy has embraced her “girly” side.   I enjoy being feminine.
  • Feminists aren’t anti-marriage.  I like being married.  I got married because I fell in love and wanted to.  I didn’t hand over my feminist card on my wedding day.
  • Feminists are allowed to be stay at home moms.  We are allowed to be anything we want.  That’s kind of the whole point of feminism.  If you’re a stay at home mom, a working mom, or not a mom at all, embrace your choices.  Be proud of your choices.  And never, under any circumstances judge another woman for her choices .

So, for all of you feminism apologizers or deniers- you don’t have to tattoo it on your forehead.  But for the sake of your daughters, your Mothers, the women who went to jail or were beaten so that you could have the options you have today, please don’t be ashamed of it.  Please don’t quantify it with a “but”.  Please don’t let someone else’s misguided notion diminish your staking of your claim of what’s yours in this world.  I am a feminist.  It’s part of me.  I believe in the equal rights of women.  And I’m in good company.  There are feminists all over the world, fighting right now for  the most basic of rights:

  • On October 26th dozens of Saudi Arabian women protested the ban on women driving in their country by getting behind the wheel of a car and risking arrest.
  • There are women fighting right now against female circumsision, a barbaric and mutilating act designed to inhibit a woman’s sexual feelings.  This horrific mutilation is common throughout parts of Africa and usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 8.  It is still, in this day and age, performed on about 3 million girls a year.  Brave women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Waris Dirie are fighting this, often under constant threat of death.
  • Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese writer, was arrested and beaten for wearing pants. She asked to go to trial, refusing immunity offered her as a U.N. press officer.  She risked 40 lashes and imprisonment.  Despite death threats, she continues to speak out on women’s rights in her country.
  • Malalai Joya, of Afghanistan, helped to set up secret schools for girls in her country. She now lives in a series of safe houses and travels with armed body guards for her protection.  She rarely sees her husband for fear of him being killed by his association with her.
  • Rana Husseini, a Jordanian journalist, is fighting the act of “honor killings” by reporting on every case she came across, even though these killings were largely ignored by the media.  She has won numerous awards for bravery in journalism for her work.
  • Malala Yousafzai.  She spoke out about the rights of girls in Afghanistan to an education and the Taliban saw her as a threat and shot her in the head.  Her story is one of undeniable courage, strength and grace.  She addressed the U.N. in July, “Here I stand not as one voice but speaking for those who have fought for the right to be treated with dignity, their right for equality of opportunity, and their right to be educated,” she said.
  • Sampat Pel Devi, and her Gulabi Gang.  They are a vigilante force of women who are fighting injustices against women in India.  They have stormed police stations when officers refused to register complaints of violence against women. They have attacked men who have abused their wives. They have stopped child marriages. Devi travels around Northern India on an old bicycle holding meetings and recruiting members. The Gulabi Gang now has over 20,000 members.

So, the next time you feel the need to demure about your feminist leanings or hear someone diminishing this word- perverting it’s meaning by whittling it down to a caricature- think about these women. Think about the women who fought to give us the rights we enjoy today.  We no longer have to have our ass groped in the work place. We no longer have to defer to our husband’s opinions on matters of politics.  We no longer have to shelve our dreams because society doesn’t allow it.  None of this just happened by chance.  There were women, and sometimes men, who fought for every little bit of it.  There are women right now,  who are fighting for the most basic rights.  To be treated as a human.  To not be abused, forgotten, traded, mutilated, attacked, killed.  Feminism is alive and well. It’s heavy weight is being carried on the backs of these brave women around the world.  We have come so far, here in the U.S.  We have come so far that so many of us have forgotten what this word really meant.  Maybe some of us  never really knew.  What a luxury to not have this as part of our everyday lives. What a luxury to enjoy the options available to us and not consider the pain and sacrifice that made it possible.  What a luxury to be a CEO of one of the largest companies in the world and reject the word and the women on who’s shoulders you’re standing.  What a luxury to be able to write a blog about being a mom and the sacrifices it entails and not have to parse your words or fear for your life based on the things your write.  We have many luxuries for sure, here in the west.  The very least we could do is not forsake the very thing that is giving strength and power and possibly inspiration to those who are still in the midst of the fight.  We can at least honor the people who came before us by not withering under some false notions.  The least we could do is to own this word, to take back the meaning.  Equality.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

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“Yesterday, lost in a crowd, yesterday lost in a crowd, I was lost…. now I’m found.  Yesterday I was lost, and you kicked me some food. Boy it was nice, to be here with you.”

-Rusted Root, Lost In A Crowd

My childhood was one long awkward period. Most people have a few awkward years, I had about a decade. I was a total tomboy who didn’t care about clothes or looks. By the time I entered Middle School in 7th grade, I started to notice boys and decided I should get with the program. This also happened to be when I found out that I had severe scoliosis and would have to wear a not so cute back brace. This lovely accessory consisted of a hard plastic shell that wrapped around my torso, covering everything from my shoulder blades to my hip bones. It was not subtle or discreet. Big shirts and sweaters did little to camouflage what could best be described as a large plastic turtle shell.

I was a good patient, I wore the brace for the prescribed amount of time, 23 hours a day. I could only take it off to shower and do my back exercises. I tried to make the best of it. Luckily, the kids at school were pretty cool about it. For some reason they spared me of any kind of harassment. They actually were pretty supportive.

Still, I had a decent amount of self pity. I rarely ever voiced it, but I definitely thought it and felt it. I was pissed that I had to wear this thing, I hated that it cut into the top of my thighs every time I sat in a chair, causing my legs to go numb. I hated that it made me look like a hunchback. I hated that I had sweat trickling down my back even in the dead of winter. I hated that when lying down I could barely get up without someone’s help. I hated the two giant velcro strips that held it in place across my stomach. In all, I really just hated everything about it.

Every few months we had the pleasure of meeting with the doctors to hear how everything we were doing was not working. The S shaped curve of my spine was getting worse. Surgery started to come up more each visit.  I wouldn’t say I sulked when we went to these appointments, but I was not my usual chatty self. I basically buried my nose in a book and tried to ignore my surroundings.  One day I looked up from my book long enough to notice a little girl bouncing around the waiting room, talking animatedly to anyone who would listen. She was about 5 years old and all the nurses loved her.  She seemed to know everyone in the office.  A nurse confided in us that the little girl’s spine was so severely curved that it was in danger of crushing her lungs and heart if it wasn’t corrected. A case like hers at such a young age was extremely rare. Surgery basically stunts the growth of the torso, and the doctor’s weren’t sure how to proceed.

It wasn’t long after we learned about this little girl that the doctors informed us that I would have to have the surgery. Even though it wasn’t unexpected, this was not what we wanted to hear. The doctors started detailing the ins and outs of surgery, risk of paralysis, two weeks in the hospital, a cast for six months. At some point I stopped listening. All I could think was  that I wore that  *$#@-ing brace for over a year for nothing…”  Mom and I had a tearful moment in the car after that appointment. After we hugged each other and cried,  I remember thinking about the little 5 year old in the waiting room. The adorable little girl who walked around like she owned the place and knew all the nurses and staff by name. She was this little spunky ray of light in a dreary institutional office. She was also going to have the surgery. Except her growth was going to be stunted at the age of five. They didn’t know what would happen after that.   Even though I was scared and I knew my Mom was scared, I also knew that I would be ok. That little girl had a much rougher road ahead of her and no one could tell those parents that their daughter would be ok.

The surgery took 8 hours. They placed a steel rod from the top of my spine to my tail bone, tightened it with screws at each end to instantly lengthen and un-curl the S shaped curve of my spine. Everything went well. But the pain was beyond description.  Every nerve in your body is attached to your spine. My entire spine had been tampered with in a somewhat brutal way. There was no part of my body that wasn’t screaming in pain.

Probably the worst part of the whole experience was when the nurses would come in to my room to turn me. I had to be turned over every two hours to prevent bed sores. The bed I was in was a special bed designed specifically for these kinds of surgeries. It was a narrow bed, and when it was time to be turned over, the nurses would lay an identical bed on top of me, clamp a large wheel down and lock the two beds together, with me in the middle, unable to breath. They would then spin the wheel until I was rotated to the opposite position. Not only was this ridiculously painful, but it had to happen 12 times a day.  Once I became lucid enough to know what was going to happen, I would start to panic whenever I saw two nurses enter the room. Two nurses meant I was being turned.

One time in particular I decided I’d had enough. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would not be turned again, bed sores be damned. I kind of freaked out. I had no control over what they did, but I freaked out as much as someone who can only move their mouth and eyeballs can. One of the nurses calmly knelt down next to my bed so that I could look her in the eyes. In a gentle, yet firm voice told me about another patient who was down the hall who’d just had the same surgery as me. He had been in a horrible car accident and experienced a devastating impact on his spine. He was lying down the hall experiencing everything I was experiencing. Except he was deaf and blind. He was in the same situation as me. Except he couldn’t hear or see. I was stunned. This shut me up pretty fast. What she was telling me sounded like hell. To be in this kind of pain. To be in the dark, in every way, while lying immobile in a hospital. To be in this, the most vulnerable of positions, and to not know what was going on at all times, to have to rely on someone else being there with you to communicate everything that was going on….   the thought of this man and his experience haunted me the whole time I was in the hospital. As bad as this all was for me, I still could see who entered my room. I could communicate with each person that entered my room. I could refuse medications that I knew would make me sick when a new nurse came on duty. I still had some control. This man they told me about was vulnerable in every sense of the word. This man’s story didn’t make my pain or my fear go away, but it sure put it in perspective.

As a parting gift before I could leave the hospital, they put me in a “body cast”. It could be more accurately described as a “torso cast”. It was a hard shell, this time of woven plaster. But this shell didn’t stop at my shoulder blades, it came up over my shoulders, covering every part of my torso. And this was permanent, for six months, at least. This one wasn’t coming off until it was sawed off. As much as I hated those loud obnoxious velcro strips on my brace, I really missed them now that I had to live in this contraption.  I cried for a while back in my hospital room after they put it on. No one really had explained what it would look like. And it was so bad. And I would have to wear it for six months.

I had to be on bed rest for a few weeks after returning home from the hospital. Finally the day came when I was declared liberated and could leave the house. I should have been excited, but I was dreading going out in the real world. I had always been on the go, spending all my time outside. I got stir crazy really quick, so it wasn’t like me to want to prolong my confinement. But I was terrified of people laughing at me, of looking ridiculous. I knew that my cast was going to attract a lot of stares. I tried to give myself a pep talk. I knew my parents were excited for us all to go out to eat. I’m sure they felt liberated themselves. I tried to will myself to not care what people thought. The old me, the tomboy who didn’t care about looks, she would have come in handy at that time.

When it was time to leave I broke down. I confessed my vanity to my parents. I was so ashamed to feel the way I was feeling, but I couldn’t help it. Of course they understood. But they also knew that I couldn’t become a shut-in for 6 months. My mom tried. She told me that I was strong and after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t let what other people thought stop me from enjoying my life. Everything she said made sense, but it didn’t cut through the stubbornness that had taken a hold of me.

A few minutes after she left my room, my Stepdad came in to my room. I was braced for him to order me to get up and get in the car. Instead he sat down on my sister’s bed and put his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to talk and it wouldn’t be easy for him. This was unusual. Emotional matters were always handled by my mom. He started explaining that he knew exactly how I felt, that he had actually felt the same way many times. I had no idea what he was talking about. He held up a hand and kind of waved it, trying to clue me in as to what he was referring to. Ohhhh. That. He had been born without fingers on his right hand. Of course I always knew this, but I never really thought about it. I never thought of it as something that would bother him. It was just part of him, it seemed normal to us.

He explained the looks he gets from some people when they see his hand. The reactions he gets when someone reaches out to shake his hand and pulls their hand back startled.  He had been teased when he was younger. And his hand was there forever. It’s not something he just had to deal with for six months. He pointed out that it never stopped him from doing anything. And it didn’t. He played football in high school. He built a deck on the back of our house, he could fix just about anything. I guess that’s why I never thought too much about it, he never let it stop him.  He goes on to tell me that he had to learn at a young age to shrug off people’s reactions.

As he’s telling me this, I feel like he’s sharing something really important with me. He is a quiet man. He doesn’t share his feelings or emotions easily. But he was talking to me about something I’m sure he didn’t really like to discuss. I felt honored. He approached me with understanding and love and patience and he shared a piece of him that I had never understood or even really thought about. And he got through my insecurity, my nerves, my anxiety. If he could go out in the world and deal with people’s reactions and not let it affect him, then I could too.

I got through surgery. I got through the ordeal of wearing a cast for six months. I survived the humiliation. I was incredibly lucky that once again all the kids at school were totally cool about it. My friends weren’t embarrassed to hang out with me. I was so lucky that I came out unscathed. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the brave little girl in the waiting room. I am grateful that the nurse told me about the patient who couldn’t see or hear. But what I’m most grateful for, the part that has stuck with me all of these years later, is that my Stepdad shared his experience with me. I since then have paid a little more attention and I am amazed at all the things he’s accomplished.  So many of them are things that are especially difficult to do with a disabled hand. I kind of wonder if he subconsciously chooses hobbies like golf, rebuilding a car engine, making specialty bullets for his collectible guns, precisely because they are difficult for him to do. It’s like he is continuously showing himself and the rest of us that nothing’s going to stop him. In addition to helping me leave the house that night, he also gave me an even better gift. He showed me that he loved me, that I was his daughter, that I was worthy of sharing a very private part of himself with. At the end of it all, this scoliosis….  this surgery….  it showed me just how lucky I really am.