social justice

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Peak Privilege: No, I am the REAL Victim Here

Watching the news cycle has me feeling perpetually ill. It’s not just the headlines, though those are unbearably nauseating on their own. And it’s not the spate of typical reactions – overtly racist and sexist and classist drivel that’s easy to point to as being the bile of bigots. That I’ve come to expect. No, the worst part of it all has been the victimization of the tragically privileged.

Case in point? Mary Ann Twitty, the now disgraced former clerk from Ferguson.

In case you missed it, Twitty is the woman who was fired after the DOJ report revealed she had sent some incredibly racist emails. Make no mistake – these emails were patently offensive. There was a picture of Reagan feeding a chimp a bottle that was described as a rare photo of the former president babysitting Obama. There was one that framed the abortion of a black woman’s child as a boon to Crimestoppers. There were more uncovered by the DOJ, but they only published a handful. There was no doubt that this woman should lose her job.

I’m not going to say that losing your job of nearly 20 years isn’t a terrible experience. It must be even worse knowing you deserved it. But what came out of Twitty’s mouth next… I just… ugh.

Twitty sat down with KMOV in St. Louis to discuss the scandal. When asked if she thought the jokes were funny, she replied:

Funny as in humor wise? Yes. Not because it was racist or biased, just funny because it was just funny jokewise. I feel bad because that’s not, I don’t want people to look at me and say ‘she sent those racist jokes out because she’s racist or biased.’ I am not.

That comment might be funny if not for context. See, the thing is, if you think that the content forwarded was funny, you clearly don’t see the people you were discussing as people worthy of the same respect and dignity you demand for yourself. You see them as less based on characteristics that have nothing to do with worth. That’s racism. You’re a racist. There’s no getting around that. Hiding behind the facade of comedy is the modern Emperor’s New Clothes. You think you’re hilarious; the rest of us think you’re an asshole.

But Twitty didn’t stop there. See, not only is she clearly not a racist, she’s adamant that she is also the real victim here. She was just doing what everyone else was doing. My six year old daughter knows better than to do that. If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you? Didn’t your mother ever throw that one at you as a kid? How old is this woman? Has she not yet learned to take responsibility for her actions?

Apparently not. In fact, Twitty is so invested in her status as a victim that she went on to say:

It took me a while to get over the feeling of being raped and being thrown under the bus. I’m human, I meant nothing bad by it.

Human. Right. Let’s talk about how inhumane that comment was.

Twitty was not raped. Rape is the violation of your body by another human being. There is no consent involved. It’s not a result of something you did; it stems from another’s desire for power and disregard for your agency.

The offense here is high enough that I feel the need to address the offender directly.

Your body was not violated, Ms. Twitty. The pain you’ve endured was entirely of your own creation. You behaved in a manner that showed absolutely no respect for the agency of those who look and live differently from you. You were cruel as a means of building yourself up. The reward for your cruelty? A momentary grin. The consequence was losing your job. Your inability to engage in critical thinking or perform impact calculus (or, ya know, exhibit some basic humanity) brought this on, and is no one’s problem but your own. You consented to the potential consequences when you made your choices. This was nothing like being raped, ma’am. If anything, when extending the metaphor – and rape metaphors suck, so I don’t encourage you to do so – you’re on the opposite side of the coin, claiming to be a victim after committing a crime.

How dare you compare facing the music after proudly broadcasting your racist, classist, bigoted sense of humor to the utter trauma endured by survivors of sexual violence? How can you possibly follow up such a black-hearted comment with a claim of being “human”? Nothing you just said was humane.

I know there are those of you who might feel sympathy in regards to Twitty’s comments about intent. That doesn’t matter. Let me repeat that: intent is irrelevant here. Just because one doesn’t intend to hurt someone doesn’t excuse their behavior. A drunk may not intend to kill someone while driving under the influence. A person throwing a punch in a rage may not intend for their target to sustain significant injuries. Hell, a rapist may not intend to cause their victim PTSD. None of these arguments are foreign to me. None of them are valid excuses. Not under the law, and not as human beings.

Those are extreme examples, but the point remains the same. Even if we take the rhetoric down a million notches, it doesn’t change. Consider it on an interpersonal level. If you say or do something that causes a close friend pain, and they tell you as much, would you ever respond by saying they’re raping you because you didn’t intend to hurt them? Of course not.  Intent. Does. Not. Matter. It doesn’t matter in the extreme, and it doesn’t matter among close friends, and it certainly doesn’t matter when you think you’re not hurting anyone but you are.

You know what does matter? Owning up to your mistakes and facing the consequences.

Twitty did no such thing. After showing a total lack of compassion for those different than her, she didn’t take responsibility for her behavior. After being called out for her total lack of compassion for those different than her, she claimed she was a victim. Worse still, she did so through further callous commentary.

Sympathy is the least appropriate emotion here. Her behavior and reaction to being punished are more akin to a toddler throwing a fit after being put in time out than an adult taking criticism and adjusting her behavior accordingly. In fairness, she’s far from alone. The company ain’t great though: Gamergate folks claiming their hobbies are being ruined by women calling for an end to sexist behavior, White folks claiming reverse racism in the context of privilege conversations, men who think misandry is a real and widespread problem, “Christians” who feel they’re being persecuted because two people of the same sex who are not them are able to get married and see each other in the hospital, judges who think little girls are responsible when raped by their teachers, those organizing defense crowdfunding for the officer who killed Walter Scott in cold blood. I could go on.

Twitty is part of a larger trend among those in a position of privilege who whine when they’re called out for their poor behavior, claiming they are the true victims. They don’t care about history or context. They’re more worried about their own hurt feelings than their role in a problem that’s way bigger than their joke. They don’t understand that their comment contributes to a tidal wave of pain hitting others on a daily basis. They don’t see making people feel uncomfortable or unsafe as a big deal, and certainly not worthy of consequence… probably because they’ve never been made to feel that way.

And for as much agony as Twitty is experiencing in the short-term (while remembering that she brought it on herself), it will pass. Unlike Twitty, the people of color she jokes about face stigma, discrimination, outright hatred, and lethal threats on a daily basis – and not because of something they did, but because of who they are. Unlike Twitty, that’s not something that will go away or fade from public memory.

There is no comparison here. You are not persecuted because someone calls you out. You are being presented with an opportunity for growth, and squandering that by drawing completely inappropriate parallels with people who experience actual discrimination is beyond the pale. And more and more, it’s becoming acceptable to do exactly that.

No headline is more nauseating than this reality.

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A Mother’s Lament

As a mother, I struggle. I look at my daughter – joyful, smart, strong-willed, independent, opinionated – and I am overcome with equal parts love, pride, and fear. I know other parents get it. You care about that kid so much that you want to give them the world… but then you remember what a scary place that world can be.

I struggle with how to teach my daughter to love her body and herself in a healthy manner.

I try to prioritize physical health and strength. I do my best to demonstrate love of my own body with all its stretchmarks, lumps, and bumps, choking back whispers of shame that stem from a world of photoshopped expectations. But there’s a line, right? How do I teach her to prioritize health without leaning on the language that has propped up those expectations for years?

I dream of a life for her where she feels empowered to own her own sexuality when the time comes, but I don’t want her to hide behind it instead of engaging in emotional connection. I’ve seen the damage associated with placing a high premium on sexual “purity,” and I’ve seen the self-inflicted pain of turning off feelings in the name of sexual expression for principle’s sake. How do I encourage her to embrace her sexuality in the face of headwinds that will push her to put up walls around her feelings for one extreme reason or another?

I want her to view her body as her own without caveat, but I know I need to teach her about the dangers that too often lurk behind a corner or a friendly face and their callous dismissal of that truth. How do I help keep her safe while refusing to plant the seeds of cultural victim blaming?

I worry that I’m teaching her the wrong things without saying a word. Does she notice the time I spend each morning, carefully cultivating the appearance required to precariously balance between professional, frumpy, bitchy, and woman? Is she learning to hold herself to the same standards?

I’m a single mother, and she doesn’t meet the men in my life. I promised myself a long time ago that my personal decisions would not impact her stability, and that she would never view having a man in her life as essential to being “complete.” But is the lack of healthy relationship modeling going to haunt her later?

I look at the statistics and the news reports and the lack of news reports and the bullshit legislation and the jaw dropping court decisions, and I am terrified by the trends that dehumanize my gender to the point that our organs are commodities subject to the regulation of men (and some women) who don’t understand how they work. I am heart-broken and tired. How do I help her to understand why these rights are important, the magnitude of the work that’s been done by those who came before us, and the challenges that are rising ahead of us when these feelings are the last thing I want for her and I don’t have the answers?

I see her fascinated by science, reveling in math, reading voraciously, and am buoyed by her love of learning. How do I encourage her to take pride in her mind and go after whatever her dreams may be, while preparing her for the discrimination and harassment she will face as she makes her way?

I hope to see her grow into a young woman who is unafraid to express herself. I don’t want her to dress or act in a certain way because it’s what’s expected by the world around her, but knowing how the world reacts to such audacious agency, I feel compelled to keep her safe from the cruelty. How can I possibly teach her not to run from herself when I know first hand the kind of pain that comes with running head first into a wall of public opinion?

But I don’t want to raise a self-centered daughter, either. I want her to understand what’s happening in the world around her, and be driven to make it a better place.

As the white mother to a white daughter, I don’t even know where to begin explaining the state of race relations in this country. I want her to understand the bloody sins of our past, the structural discrimination they generated, the state of inequity today, the extent to which we’ve turned a blind eye to the poisoned fruits of our stubborn refusal to acknowledge white privilege. I recently had to correct her when she came home proclaiming Columbus a hero. How in the hell do I undo the continuous whitewashing of American history our schools are designed to reinforce without getting her in trouble with standardized teachers, tests, and administrators?

As the straight mother to a daughter who has yet to express or really explore gender or sexuality (outside of her proclivity for playing the role of badass princess in “Let’s Pretend”), I want her to feel safe to define herself as she sees fit. She’s grown up with a cadre of gay and lesbian “aunts and uncles” from my circle of friends; she doesn’t see a different from their love and hetero love, and I’m grateful for that. But even with the legal system and public sentiment swaying in the direction of equality, there’s still a long road in front of us before people who are not straight and cis have equal footing. How do I send her out to walk her own path and be an ally for those she loves with such hateful battles raging on either side of her?

As someone who manages bipolar disorder on a daily basis, I know the strife and stigma associated with mental illness, and I work hard to break down the assumptions our culture broadcasts about those with diagnoses and not. I am pretty open about my illness with those in my life, though we don’t make a big deal out of it at our house. Mommy takes medication; I don’t hide that. When she asks questions, she’ll get answers. But how do I teach her to understand and empathize with the struggles someone with a mental illness faces when these battles are often buried under the burdens of privacy and shame? Given that she is statistically much more likely to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder at some point, how do I steel her for the antiquated notions about mental health that still prevail as the norm? Hell, before we even get there, how do I prepare a little girl on the autism spectrum to filter the bile that an ignorant society spits out?

As an admittedly privileged mother to a surely privileged daughter, I stand unsure of how to explain privilege and its ramifications. I’ve known poverty, known gender related harassment and discrimination, and mental illness stigma, but I’m not arrogant enough to say I understand the experiences of those who reside at different points in the privilege spectrum, nor can I dismiss that my present circumstances require ongoing reflection to combat inherited privilege. I do my best to listen and learn and use my voice to make a difference when possible, but I am fallible, and sometimes I’m just as much a part of the problem as those I’m trying to reach. I struggle with how to advocate without assuming to speak for a group or hijacking the narrative. How do I teach her to be an ally when I’m not even sure what I’m doing?

As someone who has experienced one of the many possible intersections on the privilege spectrum, I’ve grown to understand that the infinite combinations of personal history and inherent traits create a complex network of unique experiences, all of which provide the context necessary to understand and combat the inequity present in the world around us. The experience of a wealthy or middle-class white woman is not the same as the experience of an impoverished white woman, nor is it the same as that of a black woman, or a Chinese immigrant woman, or a Latino male, or a Muslim practitioner, or a gay indigenous person… the list goes on. Navigating these distinctive experiences to better appreciate and address the culture they combine to create isn’t a simple task, particularly with a cacophony of privileged voices in the background demanding a linear explanation for the chaos they’re a part of sustaining. How do I show her how to see the world in prismatic fashion when black and white are still the trendy colors du jour?

As a mother, I struggle, and I will continue to struggle. None of these questions have easy answers, but one thing is clear: I have to continue to seek them out, because, if we want a less scary world for our kids, it is up to today’s parents to make sure we raise our children to be good, self-aware, socially conscientious people. I love my daughter, and I will gladly wade through the uncertainty and stress and mess of it all because I believe in her… and I know all of our futures depend on her and her peers setting right what we’ve done so wrong for too long.

But for today, I will find strength in her smile and her laugh and her 437,298.5 questions an hour, and find hope in the twinkle of her eye that says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.