Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Brother's Wedding

I recently went home to Wichita, Kansas, to attend my brother Andy’s wedding. He and his wife already were married two years ago by the Justice of the Peace but this was their church wedding. Andy was a soldier in Iraq and then went back for a couple years to work as a contractor, and that’s where he met his wife Melody (aka Mhedz – pronounced like Meds). She is from the Phillippines and was also working in Iraq as a contractor.

Melody & Andy
 I met Mhedz a couple summers ago when she came along with my Dad and Step-Mom (Andy’s Mom) for a visit to Chicago. We had a great time and I was sad to see her go. She’s a total sweetheart, has a wicked sense of humor, is full of energy, and loves kids. I always wanted a sister and am glad that when I finally got one, she rocked!
After the Rehearsal (impromptu bachelor party w/no strippers - this is Andy, Elizabeth [cousin] and I)
Friday we had the wedding rehearsal, which was a comedy of errors because hardly anyone knew what they were doing, most were unfamiliar with a Catholic wedding ceremony, and the 90 minutes promised for practice & guidance within the church was cut down to around 30 minutes. I think maybe the church was double-booked as there were little girls in elaborate white dresses all over the place – 23 people were being baptized that day! We ended up going outside to practice everyone’s roles and joked about finding a Catholic wedding that night to crash so we could watch someone else do it the right way.

Matron of Honor
Saturday was the wedding, and it was beautiful. The matron of honor realized at the last moment that she wouldn’t be able to take photos of the bridal party walking down the aisle because she was part of the bridal party (they didn’t hire a professional photographer, preferring to use everyone else’s candid shots) so she handed me her fancy camera & asked if I could. I was suddenly filled with terror. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t take good photos, but that I would be a distraction or that I’d do something offensive because I’m unfamiliar with Catholic tradition. I got the shots, though, and even when the matron of honor motioned me up onto the altar (stage/pulpit area in the church) so I could shots of the vows/rings, and the exchanging of coins (Filipino tradition), I did my job.
During the Mass

The camera took around 5 shots for every slight touch of the button, and the shutter was very loud, so I tried to time my shots during louder parts of the ceremony, like when the priest said something to the congregation an they all responded to him. The pew I was sitting on also creaked loudly every time I stood up & sat down (I only stood up to get more shots when the matron of honor gave me “the look”) so eventually I just stood against the wall so I would be less distracting that way. I wasn’t sure if I was breaking rules by being up on/in the altar, as I know some churches consider it offensive for anyone other than the pastor to walk in certain parts of the pulpit. Later on I’d handed the camera back to the MOH & she went right up onto the altar to get a shot of Andy & Mhedz kneeling, while the priest was preparing for communion. I was mad at myself because I could have been taking some great shots the whole time, but I’m still glad I didn’t commit any religious blunders.

Beautiful bride!
Another part of the ceremony that is practiced in the Phillippines is for the bride and groom to be covered in a veil & then for a string of beads called a “lasso” to be draped over their heads. This symbolizes their unity. Then while Mhedz and Andy were kneeling on the altar, Mhedz sang a song. She was facing the priest and many of us in the congregation thought the soloist up in the choir loft was the one who was singing, until we finally realized it was Mhedz. She has a great voice and many of us (myself included) got teary-eyed.

Slow-mo silliness wave
After the wedding we took photos of the wedding party & then headed to the hotel for the reception. There was a great slideshow of Andy, Mhedz, their families and their time together so far. The food was great and the bar was open – enough said! Mhedz’s friend Angela was the host of the evening, she had a schedule, a script, a microphone and the best personality EVAR. She was hilarious and had no qualms about getting people to follow along with whatever was going on – making toasts, playing games, dancing.

Uhhh . . . where did those groomsmen go? SOMEONE ddidn't want to catch the garter.
Oh, the dancing. If you know me, you know I love to dance, but it was my son Bennett whole stole the show (repeatedly) with his dancing. He’s a serious ham, loves the spotlight, and wasn’t shy about challenging the rest of us to dance battles. We Wobbled, we Shuffled, we Slid. We even Boot Scootin’ Boogied . . . well, we tried, but no one could remember how to do it. We sang into fake microphones on Journey songs, we Jumped Around, we busted out our best Molly Ringwald and got Footloose.
Break. It. Down.

Then most people left and there was a group of 20-30 somethings left to really break it down, and that we did. I lost count of the number of times the other chicks and I went to the bathroom or outside to cool down. We’d just rounded up the stray bottles of champagne & were headed to the pool when . . . tornado sirens went off!

Good times during the tornado.
We (and all the other hotel guests) were directed to a central, first-floor hallway on the interior of the hotel, where we sat on the floor, drank champagne, ate whatever snacks people had brought from their rooms, and tried to calm those who aren’t from the area & were freaked out. We were out of danger as the tornado never came in our direction, but many of us had family and friends or homes and jobs that were right in the path of the storm. From what I’ve heard so far, those we know suffered minor damage & power outages, but no one was injured or lost their home.

My brothers (Andy and Mike) are both military guys, and Mike is also a firefighter/EMT, and they basically ran the entire situation at the hotel because the staff didn’t know what they were doing. It’s great to have people who are trained & experienced in crisis situations when you’re faced with taking care of a large group of people, many of whom don’t know each other, in the face of something dangerous like a tornado. Mhedz sat next to me in the hallway, in her swimsuit & coverup, saying the funniest stuff. She’d barely eaten but people kept handing her champagne all night, so she was a little loopy. We all said that no one will ever forget this wedding!

It was a super fun couple of days, the MOST fun wedding I’ve been to, and I’m really glad I was able to be a part of it all!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Privilege of Taking It Slow

In one of the racism discussion sessions recently at work, we were talking about the different levels of awareness and understanding we all bring to these sort of discussions, and to the broader experience of our graduate school. We were discussing how we often have to slow down or “soften” a discussion about racism or privilege so that White students will feel comfortable participating. A Black, female student was asking why we have to do so much “hand holding” when it comes to these topics. A White male student responded. (I’m about to paraphrase):

“I come from an area that isn’t diverse at all.  I had zero knowledge about diversity before I moved to Chicago to go to school here. So when I get here, start school, it’s overwhelming. I’m faced with learning about things I didn’t know existed, things I didn’t know were problems. As I learn more, it’s really hard. I feel guilt, I think about things I’ve said or done in the past. It’s emotional. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t learn about them, I’m just saying – when you come from where I come from, it’s overwhelming. That’s why I think you get a better response when you don’t come at it so hard. When it’s in your face, when people are pushing at you, you just shut down and stop listening. That’s just the way people work. If you want them to listen you can’t shove it in their face.”

The Black female student responded (again, I’m paraphrasing). “I think what you’re saying is evidence of your White privilege. When I’m out in the world, and when I come here and am sometimes the only student of color in my classes, when I’m the only African American student in my Diversity class, no one slows down for me. I don’t get to say, ‘Wait, this is too much for me. This is emotional for me and I’m not ready to deal with this yet. Please slow down.’ I don’t get to say those things, and the world doesn’t care. They just throw it in my face. You have the luxury of asking the people around you to slow down on a difficult topic because you’re not used to it, it causes you pain, you feel guilt, you need to process, it’s overwhelming. I don’t get any of that. This is in my face all the time and there is no slowing down for me so I can learn how to handle it at my own pace. I just have to deal with it.”

The students really listened to each other and considered what each other were saying. That gives me hope. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What is a "Safe Space"?

In the discussion sessions I’ve been attending on my lunch hours at the graduate school where I work, one issue has been brought up a few times. It is the idea of a “safe space” to have the difficult discussions about race, racism, racialized violence, racism in our world and in our school. We’ve started many, many discussions over the years with a mention of the room being a “safe space” to discuss things, i.e. “Be respectful, don’t laugh at someone’s thoughts, it’s ok to disagree but not to disparage someone else.”

A Black student challenged the idea of a “safe space”. “What is unsafe about this space?” she asked. (Excuse me while I paraphrase her). “When I think about safety, I think of growing up in Cabrini Green [a notoriously dangerous housing project that used to be in Chicago], of violence, drugs, gangs. What is dangerous about having a discussion about racism? Who is in danger?”

We worked on breaking this down. When we talk about safety or danger, the idea is that there is a threat somewhere. Who needs to feel protected by the mention of “safe space” and what about the discussion is threatening? When students of color enter our majority White graduate school, they don’t have anyone looking out for them, trying to make a “safe space” for them. This also doesn’t happen outside the school. The world isn’t worried about protecting their feelings – why should they be concerned with protecting the feelings of the world? Especially if protecting the world’s feelings means never challenging the world to examine its perceptions and beliefs about people of color. Why do White people need an assurance of a place being “safe” in order for them to agree to talk about racism?

What we came up with is that the perceived threat in these discussions is the threat of being called out. There is a threat of being labeled a racist for saying something offensive or uninformed. There is a threat of having your beliefs challenged or questioned. There is a threat of discomfort.

So what does “safe space” really mean? Does it mean you can listen to a discussion about racism and no one is going to challenge you on something you’ve said? Does it mean you should be free to listen and never contribute to the conversation?

I think at best, a “safe space” can only be safe in terms of respect. We should be able to have difficult discussions, we should be able to disagree. We should be able to challenge one another and push them toward a more-informed and thoughtful perspective about things. And we should do it respectfully. Respect doesn’t have to mean there will never be tension, or tempers, or emotional responses.Respect doesn’t have to mean you will convince others of your opinion. It simply means that in the midst of emotions, in the midst of calling someone on their attitude, you don’t call them a name. You don’t say something derogatory about them. You don’t curse at them or use body language that shows you think what they’re saying is total crap. That’s all respect is. That’s all safety can be, in this context.

You don’t get to be safe from having your views challenged. Not if you want to grow. And not if you want to engage with others who want to grow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Learning to be an Ally

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or follow me on Twitter, or are a Facebook or Livejournal or Real Life Friend, you know I care about racism. Combating it, that is. You also know I like to talk about race in general, ethnicity, background, socio-economic class, poverty, religion and the various issues that touch all of these.

In certain circles, I would be called an “ally”. An anti-racist ally. A White ally. I haven’t used the term a lot myself as it’s not mainstream enough to be recognized by everyone, and rather than talk about my own status I’d prefer to talk about my experiences & the experiences of others. I also am not really sure I have earned the title of “ally”. Can you be an ally if you care deeply and have lots of conversations with people? Do I need to put in X number of hours protesting to be an ally? How many books about anti-racism do I need to have read to be called an ally? I’m not sure of the answers to these questions. Deciding on a title for myself isn’t a big deal to me but the term is coming up often lately, and not just in blogs or books I’m reading.

The graduate school where I work has been hosting dialogue sessions on various diversity-related topics for years, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen attendence skyrocket. One session, which is designed for groups of 2-3 people to partner up & answer a set of questions about themselves (so we can get to know each other better), broke from its normal programming to host a session about White privilege and the “unfair” campaign. www.unfaircampaign.org is an online campaign to educate people about White privilege. Its tagline is, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” Faculty taped posters from the campaign to their office doors, with mixed reactions. The posters show White faces with handwritten statements across their faces – statements that detail some of the things that are hard to see when you have White privilege, some of the offensive things people say to or about people of color. Some faculty and students reported feeling offended at the posters. Some felt the message was important but the execution was poorly handled. Others (including myself) thought the posters were a great conversation starter, and thought, “Finally! It’s about time we talked about this.” Our weekly “get to know each other” lunchtime dialogue sessions have turned into a three-weeks-and-counting series of discussions about these posters and White privilege. This week we’ll have session #4 and we’ll probably continue the series each week through the end of April, when students and faculty go on break before the summer semester.

We have also held two discussion sessions about Trayvon Martin, racialized violence, and our profession’s role in these issues. The first session was a packed house and being only an hour long, way too short to really get into the discussion the way we wanted to. So! Another one-time-only session is being turned into a discussion series. We held our second session this week and while less people came, we still had a good turnout and a fruitful discussion about race, “safe spaces” and the necessity for students and faculty who belong to the majority group (Whites) to stand up as allies alongside our peers of color.

Essentially, I have been following the Trayvon Martin story in the news, continually bringing up stories, articles, blog posts about racism to my friends and family, and going to one or two group discussions each week where we hash out the difficult feelings and thoughts related to race and racism in the United States. It has been invigorating, frustrating, overwhelming, rewarding and clarifying for me. I wish everyone could experience this. The thing is, everyone can. You just have to choose to talk about it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

It's Hard to Make Friends When You're All Grown Up

I recently had lunch with a new co-worker. It turns out that she’s very close to my age and we have some similar life experiences, perspectives. I am going to try not to smother her and force her to be my new BFF, but it’s exciting to have what looks like a promising new friendship.

Like so many others I know, it’s been harder for me to develop new close friendships now that I’m all grown up with a job and family. Making friends as an adult is just not as easy as it was as a kid, teen and even in college, at least the really solid, I-can-tell-you-anything friends. I remember the first time I experienced this. I’d transferred from a 2 year junior college where I’d been involved in all kinds of stuff to a large state university where I knew almost no one, and where I was involved in nothing on campus other than attending classes. Most students there had spent their freshman & sophomore years in the dorms and joining different activities, getting to know other students in their majors. I was brand new – trying to find someone I clicked with out of 20,000 other students was daunting. I did make a few friends but none that were like my old friends who I knew so well. Then I met a guy, we began dating, I got pregnant, I dropped out of school, our daughter was born, I started working full-time, we got married . . . HELLO GROWN UP LIFE!

Since then I have made many friends: co-workers, people I’ve met online, people from church, people involved in Etsy here in Chicago. Most of those friends, however, have been “just acquaintances”. Interestingly, the friendships I’ve developed with people online have been the deepest – I suppose because online you can quickly give a person a glanceover to see if you think the two of you’ll be a good fit, and it’s just easier to jump right into conversations that help you get to know people, than it is in person. You probably wouldn’t jump into a stranger’s conversation about marriage when you overhear them in a restaurant, but if you see someone talking about marriage on a blog the social rules are different. You can join the conversation without looking weird and it’s socially acceptable to share personal things about yourself much faster online than you would with new friends in person. Maybe it’s the kinda-sorta anonymity of the internet, the safety of not having to meet the person face to face, or the understood difference in social etiquette. At any rate, since moving to Chicago from my home state of Kansas, and commuting daily for over seven years, I’ve found it difficult to become close friends with people that I see on a regular basis, outside of a couple people at work.

I hear this from other adults so often that I know it’s not just me doing something wrong – it seems to be a problem for a lot of people, especially those who no longer live in the area where they grew up. I’ve joked around about starting an online “friending” service so I could find friends in my area – the type you can invite over for wine and reality TV, the type you can talk to about your sex life, the type who doesn’t care if your house is a mess. The type whose kids play with yours because you drag them along when you hang out, not because you’ve scheduled a playdate. I’ve been told about people who have written articles, blogs and books on their own attempts to make new friends as adults, they had varied results. Someone told me of a friend-finder website & I created a profile, but it doesn’t look very promising.

My current set of co-worker friends – the ones I socialize with outside of work occasionally, and hang out with at work functions – are mostly younger than me, mostly unmarried and they’re not parents. They live in the city and have more disposable income and time than I have. We have a lot of fun together, don’t get me wrong, but we’re in different stages of life. When I go out with them, I get a taste of the freedom of being young and unencumbered that I walked away from when I got pregnant in college. Still, I would like to have more local friendships with women who are married or have kids, who are closer to my age, who I don’t have to trek all over the earth just to see. I’ve been craving a more mature friendship for a while now and have struggled to find the time or courage or whatever magical ingredient I need to find that out in my suburban neck of the woods. If I could order a friend from a catalog, she’d live down the street, be married with kids, my age, and we’d be enough alike to get along well, different enough to keep things interesting.

As luck would have it (or wouldn’t, I suppose), my new co-worker looks like a great match except that she doesn’t live anywhere near me, and I get the feeling that she isn’t going to be up for much going out after work (she’s got a full life in the suburbs just like I do). Still, I’m excited at the idea of having a new friend, someone I can talk to face to face, every single day if I want to, who is closer to my age, has a similar way of looking at things, has gone through some of the same things I have and lives a lifestyle more like my own. I’m looking forward to getting to know her beter.

I will do my best not to ask her if she wants to wear matching outfits on Fridays.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the Court of Public Opinion

As I follow and participate in various discussions about Trayvon Martin’s death, I’ve noticed quite a few people expressing frustration that this case is being tried in the “court of public opinion”. They feel Zimmerman isn’t getting a fair shake and that we should all shut up about the case and let the legal system do its job. I contend that the court of public opinion is a normal part of our legal system doing its job, and has been since the first time humans were asked to make a judgment call about something.

Those complaining about legal cases being hashed out in the public and media are usually those who support the person "on trial" in public. I’m sure I’ve made that same complaint at one time or another. The thing is, our legal system never operated in a vacuum. The court of public opinion is, and always has been, simply one more tool in the legal system's "toolbelt". Public opinion influences the creation of law, the interpretation of law, it influences verdicts, sentencing, appeals.

Would we really want it any other way? We elect our judges, district attorneys, attorney generals, and so on and by doing so, we (the public) set the tone for the sort of judicial system we want. What if our lawyers, judges and others in the legal profession paid absolutely no attention to what the public wanted, what the public believed? Surely I’m not the only person scared by that thought. Unfortunately, there are many constituencies that already feel as though our legal system does not consider their wants and needs, but that is a blog post for another day.

I should note that this is not just my opinion. I took at look at the law school websites for Harvard and Columbia. Both have courses, centers and faculty publications that focus on or incorporate the notion that public opinion plays a real and vital part in our legal system and that the legal system has a major impact on public policy. Consider Columbia’s course on Law, Media and Public Policy or their faculty member’s book, Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy,  or Harvard’s courses on Social Movements and Media, Race and Politics and their faculty member’s publication Court of Public Opinion: Government Accountability and Judicial Independence . Obviously law schools consider the court of public opinion to be relevant to their industry and and an important part of their students’ education.

When it comes to Trayvon Martin, is it appropriate that the public weigh in with their opinion before George Zimmerman is given his day in court? I certainly think so, and the reason is very simple:

Our legal system had already determined that Zimmerman’s actions were within the bounds of the law before the national public ever got wind of what happened to Trayvon. The legal system decided this the very night that Trayvon was killed, when they took Zimmerman at his word that his actions were legally justified and chose to not perform a standard and thorough investigation.

Even in the weeks that followed Trayvon’s death, the Sanford Police Department acted in the interest of George Zimmerman and against the insterest of Trayvon’s family. It was not until the public got wind of the story – through media and especially through social media – that the SPD’s incompetence was questioned. It wasn’t until the court of public opinion lost its mind over this case, that the FBI took at look and said, “You have messed this up and we’re taking over.” We still don’t know whether Zimmerman will face trial for a crime related to Trayvon’s death, but we have a much better chance of that happening now that the FBI is involved.

When you have a system that is already biased and structured to support one segment of the population over another, the court of public opinion is vital to the service of justice. It also facilitates public discourse on difficult topics – in this case, topics like racism, profiling and violence. These conversations are vital to the progress of our justice system and our national health. Do you really want a justice system that has no interaction with the will of the public?
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