Friday, March 13, 2015

Spirit Animals: Not for Online Quizzes

I've talked on this blog before about my evolution as a spiritual person, and how it has inevitably been tied up in race.  I'd like to return to that theme today from a different angle.

I'm a white girl, and I have a spirit animal guide.

It feels appropriative as shit, and it's not something I necessarily share with people, at least not in those terms.  I will say, "I feel a special connection to badgers," or "Badger really helped me through some hard times."  Yes, sometimes people just think I'm a furry, but ultimately, if I don't have the time to go into detail about why and how badger became my spirit guide, I'm not about to just say "My spirit animal is the badger!" like I took some internet quiz.

My whole life, being in the woods was the closest thing I ever felt to religion, and I've always loved animals. I used to sneak out in the mornings and hunker down behind a hill to watch the deer come through our field.  Even watching squirrels and chipmunks was a pleasure.  I nagged my parents for a dog relentlessly for two years until they gave in.  All of this shaped who I was when my guide came to me.

I was in graduate school and feeling profoundly disempowered.  I felt affection from my colleagues, but also inadequate, like I couldn't live up to the standards they set.  My professors were nice and polite but I felt a lack of advocacy from them at best and antagonism from some.  I didn't necessarily have one distinct spiritual tradition, so I relied on lots of little affirmations in my life to help me through (as well as my close relationships).  One of these came in the form of a youtube video that you may be familiar with: I actually, literally remembered that "honey badger don't give a shit" when I felt like the entire culture of graduate school was organized to prevent me from living a happy, fulfilling life.

During my spring break of my second year in school, I visited a dear friend in Santa Fe.  It was restorative for many reasons (connecting with friends, time in nature).  But I will always remember the day my friend took me to a store selling animal fetish figurines, made by local Zuni artists.  It wasn't just the beauty of the stone animals that made such an impact; reading about the spirit animal tradition in their booklets and pamphlets really made sense to me.  I loved reading about what different animals had to teach, and how observing them in nature gave us guidance for how to handle our own problems.

Reading about badger, too, was like having a lightbulb go off.  Badger is the animal of advocacy, teaching us through its tenacity and protectiveness how to fight for others. It is an animal that has a deep connection to dirt and the earth (think digging) and is the keeper of stories, due to its strong jaw muscles.  These are all elements that have played a strong part in my identity throughout my life, and I truly felt like watching honey badger refuse to give a shit was a way of bringing me to this aspect of my spirituality, coming to a point in the store where I saw it in context of Zuni animism.

I bought a beautiful stone badger fetish (it sits on my desk at home), and when I got home, I did as much research as I could on Zuni spirit animal traditions.  I was determined, if I was going to do this, that I would do it right.  It was very important to me that I not engage in a practice of appropriation, but rather, take the tradition seriously as an earnest expression of my spirituality.

I have since learned that one may tend to have a spirit guide animal that resurfaces often in your life (for me, that's badger), but the Zuni tradition suggests that any animal that appears in our life may have something to teach us at that moment.  I have found this approach to be extremely enriching and important in my life: turtles have reminded me to slow down and reconnect with the earth when I have been frantic, hummingbirds have encouraged me to be more carefree when I was overwhelmed, and rabbits have reminded me that living a life of fear is neither productive nor joyful.

In writing this post and sharing this part of me, I hope to highlight a few strategies I took in order to try to avoid appropriation.  First, I engaged in good faith, meaning that I took the Zuni tradition as seriously as I would any other faith tradition.  I was engaging because it resonated with me.  Second, I tried to get as much of my information as possible from Zuni and other Native sources, including patronizing Native shops and artists (I encourage you to check out any local Native artists in your area, if you are interested, or look for some online).  I also make an effort to be aware of what is happening currently among Native communities, starting in my own state (I've been very lucky to attend pow-wows in my area), and talk to Native folks when I have the chance.  It's really important for non-Native Americans to realize that Native culture is not a thing of the past, but rather consists of many contemporary, dynamic cultures.  Finally, if I ever have an opportunity to discuss with other white folks my spirit animal, I only do so if I have the space and time to explain why it is important to me, and I am careful to include the specific nation (Zuni) and recommendations for contemporary Native voices.

Am I doing this right?  I don't know.  I do my best to engage in cultural exchange and support, and not fall into appropriation.  As a white person living in a nation built on violent colonialization, though, part of claiming this spiritual belief means that I must also constantly be aware of how I am engaging with this tradition.  I need to listen. I need to do my best to cede my unearned power, or at least use it to encourage others to do the work of rejecting appropriation.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In Defense of Patricia Arquette's Critics

This post was originally titled, "Patricia Arquette: Thanks, but No Thanks."

On Sunday, Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for best supporting actress.  To her credit, she used her time at the microphone to advocate for equal pay for women, and call on people to stand up for women's causes.  This is what feminists and social justice advocate for regularly: that people of privilege use their voice to raise awareness of important issues.  Unfortunately, Patricia Arquette did not use this opportunity well.

I am not saying that Ms. Arquette is a bad feminist, or that she shouldn't have used the opportunity she had to speak out.  But intent is not the same as impact, and folks noticed.  Patricia Arquette was taken to task for her inability to acknowledge intersectionality, and her implication that "women" now deserved the support of "people of color" and "gays," as if those people are not themselves women.

What fascinates me in this story is the reaction to her criticism.  The enthusiasm with which people jumped to Patricia Arquette's defense leaves me wondering if I saw the same thing.  An upper class white woman, with loads of privilege, did her best to do something good and just really messed it up.  Folks were frustrated and upset, and responded.  In turn, Ms. Arquette seemed to take those criticisms to heart and made an effort to grow.  How is this not what we want to see happen?*

Instead, Arquette's defenders claimed that criticizing her was uncalled for.  They argued that we should simply be grateful for Arquette's intent, even if it was imperfect, at the risk of further alienating allies.  People have suggested that such infighting is not appropriate and hurts the cause of feminism.

Folks, this is where I get reeeeeally uncomfortable.  These are the arguments that have been used to silence women of color within mainstream feminism for generations (It's not about race, it's about women!) and, subsequently, fail to meet the unique, distinct challenges facing women of color.  Additionally, I've seen criticisms suggesting that it was ok to call out Patricia Arquette, but, well, couldn't they have just been nicer about it?  Which is a special kind of irony: to ask us to look past what Arquette actually said and judge only her intent, but to reproach her critics for the intensity of their arguments, as if we do not also owe them the benefit of the doubt after years of being marginalized by upper class white women.

I also find especially distasteful the idea that "infighting" within feminism is inappropriate, as if mainstream feminism is not susceptible to the same oppressive power dynamics present in our culture at large.  If we are not free to criticize the most visible representatives of feminism (and subsequently the most powerful), how are we not participating in the oppression of women?  Suggesting that feminists may be alienating potential allies just sounds to me like we're being asked to give up our values in order to gain more mainstream acceptance.

I guess what I'm saying is: Patricia Arquette's comments bother me far less than the defensiveness displayed in response to her critics.  Arquette's speech was well-meaning but inappropriate; her defenders have had the time to reflect and still refuse to acknowledge that intersectionality is not an additional detial, but a necessary basis for contemporary feminism if we hope to transcend the mistakes of first- and second-wave feminism.

I understand the impulse to defend Patricia Arquette; for many people, it was inspiring to see a woman use the spotlight to advocate for a better world for women.  However, policing her critics for their tone only propagates the same oppression Arquette claims to be fighting against.  And I would rather alienate "potential allies" than the marginalized people that mainstream feminism has failed over and over again.

*Aside from the fact that it should not be the duty of the marginalized to educate the privileged.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sons of One Religion

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing."

That's how Yusor Abu-Salha began her interview on WUNC last summer.  My heart has ached with every new detail that is released, whether it's examples of the kindness and light that emmenated from Yusor, Deah, and Razan, or information on the horrifying ways Hicks threatened his neighbors.  I've been thinking about how to write about the shooting here, but I decided that I'd rather do what I can to spread the words of those closest to the victims instead.

1.  Listen to an interview with Yusor Abu-Salha, on WUNC.

2.  Watch the Deah and Razan's family's statement, made by Suzanne Barakat, to the press:

3.  Suzanne, again, with Anderson Cooper:

4. Their brother, Farris, talks about the outpouring of support from the community.

5. Amira Ata, one of Yusor's best friends, talks about her experience with Hicks' threatening behavior:

6. Shafi Kahn, a colleague of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, speaks about the work they did for their community.

I myself don't have anything to say.  I can only look for some solace in my community, and try to hold close words that remind me of what is beautiful in the world.
I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church.  For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.    
                           -Kahlil Gibran

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

White Folks in the Film Selma

I saw Selma on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I went by myself and sat in a sparse theater for a matinee.  I was enthralled and moved by Ava DuVernay's work, and the many talented actors that brought the piece to life.  As I watched the movie, I was struck by the vast range of Black faces and bodies on screen: tall folks, short folks, old, young, fat, thin, beautiful, tired, sad, joyful. And I realized how amazing--and rare--it was to see a movie that not only starred Black characters, but displayed a world that was largely populated by Black folks.  It was like a breath of fresh air, or a glass of water when you didn't even realize that you were thirsty.  This, in many ways, is the definition of privilege: it's hard to realize the extent of the dearth of stories of color until we actually see an example of centering those stories.

But I'm not here to talk about DuVernay's ability to honor the movement, or Oyelowo's nuanced portrayal of Dr. King's humanity.  It's not my story to tell.  I want, of course, to talk about the white people in Selma.

First, a lot has been said about the film's portrayal of LBJ; some critics claim that it is too critical of him, and portrays him as less enthusiastic than he was about the Civil Rights Movement.  I was surprised (though I probably shouldn't have been).  I thought they portrayed Johnson as a president who was doing his best to hold together a country he loved in a time of turmoil, and though he didn't perhaps understand the intensity with which King made his demands, he eventually came down on the side of good (signing the Civil Rights Act) when he was forced to come face to face with the ugliness of white supremacy (a skin-crawlingly racist George Wallace explaining his point of view).  It didn't flatter LBJ, but it wasn't insulting, either.  It was an honest, nuanced version of a white man trying to do the right thing, but still inhabiting the most privileged position possible in his society; as such, it took him awhile to come to the right conclusion.  Isn't that what we, as white folks, should strive for?  To recognize that our reluctance has no place in this world, and learn and grow and change?

Well, that may be what we should strive for, but it isn't what we want.  For better or worse, we white folks are uncomfortable with such a realistic portrayal of white privilege.  In fact, we are far more comfortable with George Wallace's blatant racism; it's much easier to deal with somebody that we can discount as "evil" than it is to realize that any of us--no matter how strong we proclaim our allyship to be--may still be getting it wrong.  What if we're the ones King was talking about when he stated:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order'; than to justice."
We don't know what to do with a white character who is neither villain nor savior.  The truth is, we would rather play a villain than a supporting role, so terrified are we of ceding even that small piece of narrative power.  Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally, and not a knight in shining armor, offends us.

I suggest that we listen to that disquiet, and challenge ourselves to move beyond it into action, as LBJ did in the film.  Growth does not occur without discomfort.  It is hard not to react to that ache with an attempt to push it away, but I have found that my most rewarding moments have been when I invite it in.  If white folks want to be allies, and want to claim that we're "not racist," that means examining why we are so reluctant to embrace these portrayals of whiteness.

In addition to Lyndon Johnson, the film also included one of my favorite white allies, Viola Liuzzo.  I first learned about Viola in the book At the Dark End of the Street.  The book describes how she became an ally and advocate by working with the Civil Rights Movement.  She did not seek leadership positions, but rather came to offer her service.  She was heavily criticized by many, and in fact, when she was murdered by Klansmen for giving a Black man a ride after the march from Selma, over half of the readers of Ladies' Home Journal felt that she brought her death on herself.  Actress Tara Ochs has some amazing insight into playing this role and being "the white girl" in the cast.

The reasons Viola Liuzzo is such a hero of mine are some of the same reasons she is not well-known.  She did not seek power within the movement, or ask for special recognition just for doing what was right.  She acted out of her prescribed role, because not doing so would make her implicit in a system of racism.  In doing so, she had her life taken.

I want a piece of that bravery.  I want to break out of the expectations laid on me as a middle-class, educated white woman, and fearlessly advocate for justice.  I also want to humility to recognize that, though my allyship may be powerful, it must be done in service to those who have been marginalized.  I may be a leader among my privileged colleagues, but I strive to surrender power and leadership to those who have disproportionately had it stolen from them.

Go see Selma.  Embrace the subtlety of the actors' performances, the exquisite timing, the lush soundtrack.  But note the examples of good allies.  And if something in the movie makes you uncomfortable, don't rush to react.  Invite it in, and see what it can teach you.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Guilty Pleasures

I remember watching Downton Abbey for the first time, and thinking, "Wow, this is some really fascinating commentary on the insidious nature of the class system in post-WW I Britain!"

It slowly dawned on me, though, that it wasn't commentary.

There's a whole genre of these shows that seem to glorify the waning days of the Empire, with old war heroes staring wistfully out of the windows of their phenomenally huge homes.  We're supposed to feel sorry when they have to leave their huge, castle-like buildings and go live in regular, human-sized houses somewhere else on the massive property.  They don't understand this new world--women working in factories!  wealthy daughters marrying servants! jazz!--and we're kind of supposed to feel bad for them.  It revels in a creepy nostalgia, and our protagonists are always unusually progressive for the time, and the effect is that of relieving the viewers of ever really having to question the larger implications of what all this wealth is built on.

The thing is?  I eat that shit up.

Downton Abbey isn't my favorite, but I am a big fan of what I call Sedate British Period Dramas.  Maybe it's because they remind me of my parents watching TV after I'd gone to bed.  Maybe I like the lush-yet-gloomy English countryside.  Maybe it's the accents.  For whatever reason, there is nothing that relaxes me like watching British people in historically accurate clothing keeping a stiff upper lip while our boys go after the Jerrys.  And I feel really guilty about it.

It's not just that it's problematic; I'm a feminist who lives in the world and consumes media, so I'm used to enjoying things and still looking at them critically.  These shows, though, directly depend on a history of colonialism for their appeal.  There's nary a person of color, and when there is, there's only a surface-level examination of race that paints each white character as either "racist" or "not racist," with little subtlety and understanding of how racism is enacted at a social or institutional level.

So what's a white girl to do?  Well, I don't necessarily think the solution is to stop watching, or to try to force myself not to enjoy them.  Thus far, my solution has been to incorporate a little analysis into my viewings, even if that only takes the form of making fun of the most egregious offenders with my partner ("Thank God for rich white folks, amirite?!")  Additionally, when people ask me for recommendations for media, I try to use that opportunity to signal-boost artists of color and shows that look at social issues with more nuance, instead of recommending a show whose demographic and stories have already gotten enough play.

In that spirit, I present to you two shows that you should check out!

First, if you aren't already watching The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, you should be.  Starring the hilarious Issa Rae as J, ABG is funny, creative, and, well, awkward.  The show features vibrant, complex portrayals of women of color, and focuses on that oft-hidden demographic: Black nerdy women.

My other recommendation, I have to admit, I haven't seen yet.  Since I don't have TV, I have to figure out a way to online stream Fresh Off the Boat.  Making headlines for being the first television show to feature an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho's 1994 sitcom All American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat is the story of a Taiwanese-American family moving to California.  It's based on the memoirs of Eddie Huang, and if it sounds interesting to you, I really recommend reading Eddie's piece about watching his memoirs get turned into a TV show.

Happy viewing!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Choosing My Religion

Religion has been an intense topic for me for as long as I've been aware of it.  It wouldn't be fair to say I was "raised atheist" (which is what people assume when I say I was raised in a secular household).  My father was confident in his un-belief, and my mother somewhat insecure in her agnosticism; it was clear to me that both of them had been burned pretty hard by organized religion. However, neither of them assumed I would believe as they did, and offered several times to take me to church if I wanted to.  

I grew up in a very Christian town, and a very conservative, evangelical Christian town at that.  Kindergarten was the first time a classmate told me my family would burn in hell, and things just kind of went downhill from there.  I never got any sense of community from religion in my hometown, and was mostly angry at the hypocrisy I saw (I remember one instant of a friend in high school telling me that her mother told her she didn't have to invite me to anything since I wasn't Christian).  

Let me take a moment to say that I do not need anybody to tell me that this is #notallChristians, or, even worse, that these were not "true Christians."  Christianity, as with any community, is a diverse  culture.  While I understand now that their are loving, accepting Christians, it disappoints me when they don't take ownership of the less savory parts of their community.  Never once did a "true Christian" stand up for me or my family, in the entirety of my memory. 

I present all of this to provide some background for the position I found myself in a few years ago, and why I made the choices I made.  About three or four years ago, I realized I wanted a sense of community and a home for spiritual reflection and guidance (because sometimes meditating in the woods and reading Kahlil Gibran just doesn't cut it).  

The truth is, I wasn't looking so much for a conversion, sign, awakening, or whatever; I was balancing a lot of factors in my mind and heart in order to make a conscious decision about which faith community to join.  Basically, my requirements were that the community reflect my authentic values, and that the religion be non-appropriative.  I was pretty open to the idea of attending any kind of service, especially since I hadn't even thought of "converting" to anything.   I was, however, continually wary of Christian communities, both because of my past, and because of Christianity's history.  

Christianity and race in the United States are complicated.  For starters, Christianity and colonialism are so intertwined that they have their own joint wikipedia page.   When I studied abroad in Mexico, every trip to a cathedral or mission was accompanied by a bloody history of subsuming and oppressing local people and religions; it speaks to the strength and vibrance of those indigenous spiritual traditions and practitioners that they found ways to endure within the framework of Catholicism, in many cases.  

However, in the United States, Christianity has also been a movement of social justice and freedom.  Indeed, the religion of Black Americans "from the period of slavery through the era of segregation provided theological resources that motivated and sustained preachers and parishioners battling racial oppression."   

In my own personal experience, I found the only form of Christianity that resonated with me was the version I saw reflected in the African American Civil Rights Movement and its subsequent tradition.  I felt like this would violate my "non-appropriative" requirement.  Additionally, I was still uncomfortable with actually identifying as Christian, despite what the community may have to offer me.  This is similar to how I felt about Buddhism.

It's important to say that I believe that white folks in the U.S. are capable of practicing Buddhism, or becoming a part of a predominantly African American Christian tradition, without being appropriative.  I ALSO believe that it is the white person's responsibility to ensure that they are not being appropriative.  Since our cultural default is that white folks can help themselves to whatever inaccurate version of other cultures that we like--including holy beliefs--simply ignoring this risk is tantamount to participating in that appropriation.  At that point in my life, the result of this conviction led me to avoid identifying as Christian or Buddhist. 

So I looked for services in my area.  I found the names of some Christian churches that I thought would be nice to attend (as a guest), and similarly a Buddhist temple.  I started out, though, by going to a Quaker meeting.  One of the reasons I chose the Religious Society of Friends was because I felt like I had ownership of it: I'm Pennsylvanian born and bred, and my great-great-greats were Quakers.  I also knew that Quaker services consisted of silent worship (1), which appealed to me at a time when I was seeking both internal and external stillness.  

I found out that Quakers similarly have no clergy, and indeed, no hierarchy (though there is deference to older members or "weighty Friends").  Historically, Quakers were on the forefront of social justice issues like prison reform and women's rights, and look to nonviolence in all solutions.  In the United States, they were well-known as abolitionists.  Additionally, Quakers did not name themselves: folks subscribing to the tradition described themselves as Friends of the Truth or Friends of the Light (hence "Religious Society of Friends.")  This was, in part, because they sought to break down barriers of sect that separated people, because they believe that ALL people carry the light of the divine in equal measure, regardless of their chosen or inherited faith. 

I realized that this history was as important to me as any prescribed dogma (of which the RSF has relatively little.)  I could be proud of a history of social progressivism, and a tradition of encouraging dissent within the community.  I could take ownership of a tradition--a tradition that was started by Anglo whites but included people of color from the very beginning--that refused to turn a blind eye during slavery (2).  

In other words, it was a religion where I felt like I could be white, but not fixate on white supremacy.  I had the space to work out what my history meant to me.  

I have since gone through the process of becoming a Quaker.  My meeting has given me the strength to participate in civil disobedience, and the curiosity to learn more about my own nation.  Importantly, it has given me a framework with which to examine my whiteness: a framework that does not rely on guilt, but does not flinch away from responsibility and self-examination. 


(1) I have since learned that silent worship--or unprogrammed meetings--are somewhat rare within the worldwide population of Quakers.  This is in part due to a split within Quakers during the U.S. religious revival during the mid- to late-1800s, when some Quakers wanted a more...lively service and took to hiring clergy and including sermons.  This is the sect of Quakers who then went on to evangelize worldwide; as such, the old-fashioned unprogrammed meetings are more common in the United States.

(2)I'm certainly not denying that some Quakers owned slaves; William Penn was one of them.  But I'm used to white supremacy getting all over the things I love; this, at least, I could work with.

Note: This post is a tiny piece of my spiritual journey and its intersection with race.  Please feel free to share similarly; however, posts asking for further justification of my religious choices or attempts at conversion will be deleted.  Additionally, "corrections" about how I identify--as a non-Christian Quaker--will be deleted. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Welcome to my first post.  This is a blog about being a white person.

No, please, don't go!  It's not like that, I promise.

Throughout the past several years, I have come to the conclusion (as have many before me) that whiteness is defined only in opposition to non-white bodies.  That definition is enacted through violence against people of color, from microagressions at an individual level to colonialism on a global scale.  The result of my realization is a desire to be a good ally and advocate for people of color, and to do what I can to signal-boost those voices in my community.

At a personal level--the level of identity and personal history--this comes up short, though.  "White guilt" doesn't seem to do it justice; how can I embrace a history and heritage, a whole culture, that I see as rooted in violence?  Where does that leave me in terms of my identity?

I know, poor me.  I understand the irony of complaining about a loss of heritage as a white person in the United States.  In no way do I think people of color are responsible for assuaging my guilt, or whatever it is.  In fact, the intended primary audience for this blog is other white folks who are trying to disentangle violence in their history from their authentic values, precisely because I don't think folks of color should have to hear us complain about it.  I feel that it is the responsibility of white folks to do this work, to examine our own identities and how we may be perpetuating our tradition of racialized violence, and in turn replace it with a culture of love, respect, and appreciation.

(Of course, if any POC are interested in reading, I'd love to have your thoughts!  I just don't think I'm entitled to them.)

In this blog, you can expect to see my personal reflections on a variety of topics related to racial identity.  I'll also provide links to the works of people of color as a way to practice advocacy and signal-boosting.  I'm hoping that folks will feel encouraged to comment, but I will be monitoring commenting pretty closely.

Thanks for reading!