What is normal? On the changing of American social discourse.

I was reminded of this post today and decided to re-up it. Because why not?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the broad American social struggle of the past 60-odd years, about what ties the whole messy package together. I’ve been thinking about how for the vast majority of human history, men have ruled the roost, but only men of a certain socio-economic standing — something that has varied from culture to culture (much as the ethnicity, religion, and geographical seat of these men has varied), but has always translated to “power.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in this country, in this time, when white, Christian men of a certain socio-economic standing (and heteronormative identity) complain that something is being ripped from their hands, that order hangs in the balance, they’re right.

They’re right, because ever since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement (or, in fact, ever since abolition and universal suffrage, but more comprehensively since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement), more and more people have been chipping away – tchink, tchink, tchink – at that order, and the central American discourse has become about who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior.

Like everything else in human history, there’s no straight trajectory, if only because the Human Venn Diagram is too messy. Black men are men; white women are white; rich Asian Americans are rich; Christians with handicaps are Christians; and every one of them is something else besides.

But if we look at the arc of American social and political upheaval since about 1955, that’s what it comes down to: Who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior?

Within those questions are, of course, many other questions (not least, of course: Where does your right to help shape our discourse impinge on mine? And: What are the words with which we may reasonably hold that discourse?), and every individual and community struggle is unique. I’m not trying to draw unwarranted parallels, or erase diversity of experience — it just strikes me that when history looks back in 100, 200 years, that’s what people will see: A massive upheaval of norms and mores, from all corners and all comers, a mighty tussle, often with individuals and communities tumbling over and on top of each other and each other’s needs and rights as we all continue to chip away  – tchink, tchink, tchink – at what was once Normal.

Seeing this arc, seeing a unifying question that goes beyond the rather imprecise metrics of “equality” and “perfecting our union,” helps me also to grasp what we in social justice circles so clumsily call “intersectionality” — because really, if in my struggle to achieve the space to contribute to the social compact and determine its parameters, I leave others behind, what have I accomplished? My struggle to achieve, say, the right to decide my own body’s future is entirely of a piece — is wrapped in the same garment of destiny — as that of a black man to wear a hoodie without suspicion, and a trans* woman to live as her most authentic self, and a Muslim in a wheelchair to both wear her hijab and have access to her classes.

What we’ve been saying for the last six decades, with more and more people listening as the years fly and crawl by, is that all of this belongs to all of us. We all get to say what society is and does. We all get to set and then move the boundaries of what’s ok. We are — all of us, even (often) the straight, white dudes — rethinking and reshaping the social compact itself.

This strikes me as a fundamentally American thing to do — wasn’t Independence the breaking of one compact to build something new? Isn’t our very Idea rooted in an ever-expanding circle of rights and interconnected responsibilities? Our system is flawed, positively riddled with imperfections, but it’s structured to allow us to continuously fix those flaws. It’s fundamentally American to do so.

Maybe this isn’t a particularly new idea. Many people have probably said and written similar things, and I’m late to the understanding. But this has been a fascinating notion for me to consider, and, ultimately, a tremendously hopeful one. This is our conversation, and we’re changing the rules — right now. Together. All of us.

Who gets to decide what’s normal?

whatisnormalI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the broad American social struggle of the past 60-odd years, about what ties the whole messy package together. I’ve been thinking about how for the vast majority of human history, men have ruled the roost, but only men of a certain socio-economic standing — something that has varied from culture to culture (much as the ethnicity, religion, and geographical seat of these men has varied), but has always translated to “power.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in this country, in this time, when white, Christian men of a certain socio-economic standing (and heteronormative identity) complain that something is being ripped from their hands, that order hangs in the balance, they’re right.

They’re right, because ever since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement (or, in fact, ever since abolition and universal suffrage, but more comprehensively since the dawn of the Civil Rights movement), more and more people have been chipping away — tchink, tchink, tchink – at that order, and the central American discourse has become about who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior.

Like everything else in human history, there’s no straight trajectory, if only because the Human Venn Diagram is too messy. Black men are men; white women are white; rich Asian Americans are rich; Christians with handicaps are Christians; and every one of them is something else besides.

But if we look at the arc of American social and political upheaval since about 1955, that’s what it comes down to: Who gets to set the boundaries of our discourse, and who gets to determine what is normative behavior?

Within those questions are, of course, many other questions (not least, of course: Where does your right to help shape our discourse impinge on mine? And: What are the words with which we may reasonably hold that discourse?), and every individual and community struggle is unique. I’m not trying to draw unwarranted parallels, or erase diversity of experience — it just strikes me that when history looks back in 100, 200 years, that’s what people will see: A massive upheaval of norms and mores, from all corners and all comers, a mighty tussle, often with individuals and communities tumbling over and on top of each other and each other’s needs and rights as we all continue to chip away  — tchink, tchink, tchink – at what was once Normal.

Seeing this arc, seeing a unifying question that goes beyond the rather imprecise metrics of “equality” and “perfecting our union,” helps me also to grasp what we in social justice circles so clumsily call “intersectionality” — because really, if in my struggle to achieve the space to contribute to the social compact and determine its parameters, I leave others behind, what have I accomplished? My struggle to achieve, say, the right to decide my own body’s future is entirely of a piece — is wrapped in the same garment of destiny — as that of a black man to wear a hoodie without suspicion, and a trans* woman to live as her most authentic self, and a Muslim in a wheelchair to both wear her hijab and have access to her classes.

What we’ve been saying for the last six decades, with more and more people listening as the years fly and crawl by, is that all of this belongs to all of us. We all get to say what society is and does. We all get to set and then move the boundaries of what’s ok. We are — all of us, even (often) the straight, white dudes — rethinking and reshaping the social compact itself.

This strikes me as a fundamentally American thing to do — wasn’t Independence the breaking of one compact to build something new? Isn’t our very Idea rooted in an ever-expanding circle of rights and interconnected responsibilities? Our system is flawed, positively riddled with imperfections, but it’s structured to allow us to continuously fix those flaws. It’s fundamentally American to do so.

Maybe this isn’t a particularly new idea. Many people have probably said and written similar things, and I’m late to the understanding. But this has been a fascinating notion for me to consider, and, ultimately, a tremendously hopeful one. This is our conversation, and we’re changing the rules — right now. Together. All of us.

Because I’m pretty sure that in its heart, that coat is brown.

wendy davis big damn hero

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Obligatory link for those who don’t get the reference: Firefly, “Big damn heroes, sir.”

Photo source: Patrick Michels /TexasObserver.org 

UPDATE: Please note this comment by Neocortex just made in the previous thread – all those folks in the gallery last night who yelled and stomped and cheered and brought it home in the last 10-15 minutes are giant Big Damn Heroes, too. Can’t stop the signal!

On the evolution of the political class regarding marriage equality.

stonewall-300x202I’m seeing a lot of moaning, groaning, dismissal, and general snark about the fact that ALL OF A SUDDEN, it’s politically expedient for national politicians to say that they support marriage equality.

Coupla things.

First of all, these are politicians. These are people whose literal bread and butter rests in judging the public mood and working to achieve a political end which will enable them to continue to earn their bread and butter. For the most part, radical politicians don’t get remembered because they don’t get elected, and elected politicians who think outside their party’s box either have to walk very carefully and learn how to pick battles and balance needs, or they get primaried. You will recall that Barney Frank himself didn’t come out until he was already in the Senate House, and he reports that he “almost lost on suspicion.”

Second, this is how society goes. There’s a problem — A Big Problem — such as slavery, or women’s right to participate in the democratic process, or the denial of civil rights to LGBTQ Americans, and outliers recognize it before anyone else. They lead their people to freedom on dark roads, or they risk violence to go to Seneca Falls, or they build barricades outside the Stonewall Inn in heels and a feather boa, and they shout righteousness to the world. They shame us, so we ignore them, we demonize them, we try to silence them, we often try to kill them. We do this, again and again, with varying levels of violent intent, but even as we do, a few more people hear the shouts, a few more people see the humans doing the shouting, and a few more people come around. A little. They come around a little, and then a little more, and then they bring a few more people with them, because while they may not be shouting, they’re speaking, and now, now, now, the edges of the mainstream are talking and seeing the world in a different light, and the shouts and the speaking goes on, and now, now, now, the edges close in closer to each other and we still try to ignore them, and demonize them, and silence them, and we still kill them, but there are more and more voices, more shouts and more whispers and more people standing silent witness and now, now, now — the mainstream sees. The mainstream changes. The outliers, the freaks, the demons become the pioneers, the leaders, the role models. And now: That’s where we are. The mainstream has changed.

The world would be a better place if all people could equally value the shared human dignity of all people — but we don’t do that. We never, ever have. We have to be taught, again and again, not to hate (whatever the song from South Pacific might have us think). And the only way people will be taught, is if other people do it.

I’m not contained in any of the letters in “LGBTQ,” so if someone who is wants to tell me to take a seat, I will find a seat and take it. But for my money, this is not a day for snark, but a day for genuine joy — let us rejoice and be glad in it! (To borrow a phrase).

It is a fine thing when the bandwagon jumpers jump on the wagon of social justice. It is a fine thing when politicians begin to repeat the words that we’ve been saying for years. Evolution is a damn fine thing.

So rather than snark, maybe send a thank you note and a donation to GLAAD or Lambda Legal, or any of the folks who have been on the front lines all these long years, and will continue to be on the front lines, long after the rest of us (especially the straight of us) think we can sit back and don some laurels.

And allow yourself a smile. Because it is a fine thing to be alive at a time such as this.

President Obama at the Newtown vigil.

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Please – call the White House and Congress and tell them that you support good gun legislation. We have to flood them with our support, and we have to do it right now. Please.

White House: 202-456-1111

US Representatives & Senators: 202-224-3121

On code switching.

The other night saw yet another in what is shaping up to be an endless series of right-wing efforts to find something that’ll stick to the President and reveal him as (make him look like) an evil no-goodnik. Given that last night’s effort involved a speech given in public, five years ago, before he was even President, which had already been covered multiple times in multiple venues, both print and broadcast — it was, shall we say, a particularly weak (if loudly trumpeted) effort.

That didn’t stop Matt Drudge, The Daily Caller (Tucker Carlson’s joint), and Fox News/Sean Hannity from reallyreally trying to go all-in, though. Like, to the extent that Hannity briefly performed his version of what he believes to be Al Gore’s version of sounding “like” a Black preacher, and just – wow.

It would all be quite comical if it weren’t so damaging. I think that we tend to forget just how much air gets taken up by this kind of bloviating, how much effort and energy that could be better spent elsewhere, not to mention how exhausting I can only guess it must be for that 12-18% of Americans who happen to be black and for whom this kind of dehumanizing nonsense is part of their daily lives.

As I understand it, the outrage that Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity were attempting to gin up is rooted in the fact that our black President (who, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this? Is black) speaks like a black man when speaking to black people. His vocabulary changes, his cultural touchstones and references, his cadence and rhythm, are not quite what they are when speaking to groups that are not made up entirely or mostly of African Americans. In the argot of our day: He code switches.

And that drives them nuts.

Because no black person should ever say anything that a white person (/man in power) can’t understand.

No black person should, let’s see, reference a Common song, or the jokes told at their last family reunion (oh, the black folks and their family reunions, mirite?), or, I don’t know, make any direct reference to the fact that their experience in this country is not the same as that of white people and in fact has been objectively more difficult than the experiences of most white people. What with the slavery. And the segregation. And the Jim Crow. And the being targeted disproportionately by police. And the being expected to not be as smart. And the being presumed lazy. And the voter suppression. And your whatnot.

So yeah. Black folks code switch. When speaking among themselves, they make reference to ideas and experiences to which white people often have no access, switching to a more white-friendly mode of discourse when the audience changes. In the not-very-distant past, code switching was, in fact, a survival mechanism, both in the sense of “I need to keep this job,” and in the sense of “I’d rather not be killed.” You know how many years passed between Emmett Till’s murder and the birth of our current President? Six. Six years. Do you think the knowledge of Emmett Till might still be ringing in the ears of some African Americans today? Maybe?

But here’s the other thing: In attempting to ding our first black President for code switching, not only do people like Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity refuse to acknowledge a reality that is everywhere before them — they are continuing to indulge in an essential dehumanization of this country’s black citizens, from the President on down.

Because you know who else code switches?

Everybody.

Every single person on earth who is in a society of more than one is required to code switch in the course of his or her day if they are to stand any hope of successful communication.

As a woman, I code switch with men. As a Jew, I code switch with non-Jews. As an adult, I code switch with children.

But people like Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity feel they have a right to demand the access to everyone’s code. They have a right to over-write and nullify code they don’t like. And if you continue to insist on your unalienable right to your humanity and autonomy, they will deny that right to the heavens. Because they don’t like your tone.

The good news is that the African American in question today is in the White House, and not a 14 year old boy, beaten and drowned in the Tallahatchie River. And that those who would deny his right to the same humanity they enjoy are widely perceived as having thrown a tantrum — trolls, who over-reached.

That difference is of almost incalculable importance.

But it clearly hasn’t ended the problem.

We need to continue to stand up to and reject the racist, dehumanizing tantrums thrown by the likes of Drudge, Carlson, and Hannity — and the indulgence they are offered by people who continue to nod their heads.

There’s a fair bit of perfecting that we still have to do in building this union. And an entire class of people who aren’t particularly interested in seeing that happen.

What is white privilege, pt II.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, I wrote a post called “What is white privilege.” As of today, I think that post can pretty well be summed up thusly:

If you watch the following and realize that you have never needed to share any of these tips with anyone you love, you’re living with a very particular kind of privilege.

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This is our America. What are we going to do about it?

For more about the song and the clip, click hereh/t @elonjames and @jasiri_x

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Please also see: 

What is white privilege.

Abraham Lincoln as he was.

I am not a fan of colorization.

When Ted Turner raised the specter of “colorizing” Hollywood classics back in the day (I’m pretty sure “the day” here refers to the early-mid 1980s), I was horrified. Scandalized. You do not take an artist’s work and scribble on it with your magic markers, because you think it might make you some money. Just: No.

However, I am an enormous fan of found-color-photography, such as these stunning photos out of a Wyoming internment camp for Japanese Americans or these equally stunning shots of small-town American life, circa 1939-1943 — that is, color photography that few people guessed existed, and which provide us a much better glimpse into the lives that people actually lived.

And then I recently found a colorized picture of our sixteenth President, and it did my head in.

I’ve seen colorized photographs of Abraham Lincoln before, and my response has always been — Just: No.

Either he looked like someone had applied rouge, or I felt someone was essentially making fashion choices for someone they’d never met, or – whatever. Just: No.

But something about the subdued, very realistic rendering of the coloring of his face and hair, and the fact that his suit has been left a crisp (and, by my lights, appropriate) black had me just staring at this picture, and suddenly seeing everything I know about Lincoln in color. His wife, his children, his walk to his law office in Springfield, the drapes in the White House. It made him – bigger, somehow. Fuller. More real? More real. Because that Legendary Lincoln we’ve built lives in black and white — but Lincoln lived in color.

So anyway, here’s the shot – I’ve printed it out, and it now hangs right next to my desk. I wish I could hear his voice, too.

Yaaaaaaay!!!

I’m a wee bit weepy, I’m very excited, I’m not really surprised, and I’m covered in goosebumps.

I’ve long suspected that the President was taking a Lincolnian tack on the issue of gay marriage, keeping his support in his back pocket, so to speak, until such time as he saw that the rest of the country wouldn’t be completely thrown for a loop by it, and then: Boom. And I believe that’s what he did — and I don’t really believe that Joe Biden’s “gaffe” was a “gaffe.” Biden meant it, and if the President hadn’t wanted to reply, he wouldn’t have.

After all, this is the administration that repealed DADT, de-fanged DOMA, has hired/appointed (if memory serves) more than 200 out gays and lesbians (not to mention the first out trans-gendered person in history), so on and so forth. This is completely of a piece with what’s been going on under Obama’s watch since day one (and indeed, since that first time he said he backed gay marriage, back in 1996).

So I’m not surprised. But I am absolutely thrilled.

On the ground, of course, it means nothing. North Carolina still has a vile new amendment to its Constitution, and gay men and women can’t run out and get hitched on the President’s say-so.

But when the President says a thing, it is huge. This, my friends, is a big fucking deal.

And a very, very proud day for America.

image source

President Obama & Charles Hamilton Houston, pt II – a guest post by socioprof.

My friend and fellow denizen of Ta-Nehisi Coate’s Golden Horde, the lovely and delightful socioprof, took President Obama’s 21 year old “Black History Minute” and moved the ball forward in a comment that evening in the Open Thread – and her comment is so full of win, that I had to make a post of it. Thanks, socioprof!

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There is such a beautiful (and long) thread here, socioprof wrote after watching the clip.

The man that our President lauds some 20 years ago is Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston attends Harvard Law and is the first Black person named to the Harvard Law Review.

He later trains Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who (along with Houston and others from the NAACP) successfully argued before the Supreme Court, convincing Warren and his Court that separate was indeed unequal, and was ultimately the first Black person appointed to the Supreme Court.

Marshall has a young, female law clerk while serving on the high court. After Houston’s death, there was a professorship named at Harvard in his honor. Marshall’s young, female law clerk – Elena Kagan – held that professorship.

In a parallel stream, a Harvard law professor, Charles Ogletree, teaches a Black woman from Chicago’s South Side named Michelle Robinson, and then some skinny kid, also from Chicago – though by way of Hawaii and Indonesia – with a funny name, famously big ears, and a White Kansan mother and a Black Kenyan father. That kid with the name and ears goes on to become the first Black person to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review.

Ogletree continues to mentor the kid and goes on to found the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law with the support of Harvard Law Dean, Elena Kagan.

Five years later, that kid with the ears is President of these United States and appoints Kagan to the Supreme Court.

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I’m sorry, sometimes American history is just a little bit grand.

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