QTIP: Difficult Conversations with (Not-So) Difficult People

A few weeks ago, I had the great honor of having a poem published on poets.org. This is a pretty big deal for poets, since the Academy of American Poets has an email list in the millions. One of these millions of people sent me a rather nasty note about the poem, and I shared this nasty note with Facebook. Why? Because the attack seemed to be an attack against poetry, and more directly, an attack against poets and poetry that addressed race. Why would a stranger attack a stranger via email, I thought? Clearly, the person isn’t attacking me, personally. Everyone thought I was in need of sympathy, and I kept saying, “I’m not taking it personally,” and I meant it. But that’s a hard pill for some to swallow. After all, the email was sent to me, personally. But I rarely take anything personally. My friends often think I’m Buddhist, since I have a natural proclivity for setting the ego aside.

Of course, I’m not immune to attacks, which is why I’ve decided that Marc Anthony is my 2015 Muse. Or rather, his song “Vivir Mi Vida” is my 2015 Muse.

Y para que llorar, pa’ qué
si duele una pena, se olvida
y para qué sufrir, pa’ qué
si así es la vida, hay que vivir la la la le

I’m listening to it now & every time someone attacks me for expressing my realities, I hear it. Just the other night, when I was trying to push some attack or other out of my brain, there was Marc, in my head: “Mi gente!/ Voy a reír, voy a bailar/vivir mi vida la la la la”.

*

I’ve always lived a strange life. From the time I was five years old, I understood that our family was different, at least from the neighbors, who were all White, and most of them were elderly, or at least they looked elderly to a five-year old. The next door neighbor-to-the-left was definitely wrinkled and stooped, but had tremendous energy when he yelled “niggers!” at us. The one young White couple who lived across the street had two young girls who would play with us while their father was at work. One day he came home and we were still playing and he yelled at them to get home right away! They were not allowed to play with those niggers, no siree!

So, I did what any smart five-year old would do: I stopped sounding like a nigger. My mother had gotten into the habit of turning on classical music, to help lull me into sleep. When I woke, there would be some NPR announcer, with their polished radio voices, and unconsciously and consciously, I began to imitate their voices. By the time I was eight, not only was I convinced that I had been kidnapped and replaced with a Better Me, a Whiter Me, my parents were convinced, as well. My mother began telling me stories of me being placed at their doorstep, left in a basket. I don’t blame her. Who was I? This child who had absorbed a thing called “what a nigger sounds like” in her head and worked, nightly, to scrub that sound away.

imposter

To be fair, she did the same to my sister, but the girl really didn’t look like any of us!

Here’s the thing, I’m affecting a humorous tone, because I’m writing in prose, and I have the ability to be funny in prose, but I’m not a funny person and quite frankly, I don’t find any of this stuff funny. However, to make these realities palatable, I have to make them funny. White readers often need the humor so they don’t feel attacked. White Guilt Is Real. White Shame Is Realer. Black readers often need to not be reminded of the Past. They want to Move On. To The Future And Beyond.

I want to deal with the Present. And that often means directly addressing the Past. And by address, I mean call-out. I call-out. No holds barred.

I'll rip  your heart out! (& preserve it for you in a beautiful wooden box.  You can have back, later. Tee hee)

I’ll rip your heart out! (& preserve it for you in a beautiful wooden box. You can have back, later. Tee hee)

I’ve begun to think that the only way to talk about race, as a person of color, is to be apologetic and deferential. Remember that scene in Django Unchained with the shuffling Sam Jackson-character? Yeah, that character. That character has permission to talk about race and racism. The rest of us, those who don’t speak softly or apologetically, do not have permission to talk about race and are often attacked for speaking up.

*

I imagine each of these blog posts will, at some point, mention some interaction on Facebook, and maybe someone will say “Well, why do you keep having these intense conversations on Facebook?” & I’ll say, “Because I choose to,” and someone will say, “Social Media is not the place to have these conversations” and a few months ago, I would have agreed, but I actually wonder, “Why not? Why do conversations need specific containers? What conversation is okay for social media? What conversations need a phone call? A face-to-face interaction? Why can’t people chat in social media about tough subjects?”

So, I was on Facebook & someone posted this article about reading only writing by persons of color and/or queer and/or women and/or writers for a year. The poster wanted to know if anyone had done this. I chimed in that I had done this with writers of color but not with male writers (in other words, I had spent a year reading only writers of color with no concessions to gender and sexuality). I also mentioned that I had also made a decision once to only purchase books by presses whose catalog had at least 50% writers of color. A gentleman took this last bit to heart. He began asking questions, but mostly making statements.  In the beginning, I replied to him with: “We all make our own choices,” and this just prompted him to make more statements, such as, “I don’t see how that helps anything.” Even if I hadn’t seen his image, I would have known that he was a White person. My own personal choice hit him as an attack, so he launched an anti-attack. A White woman eventually entered the conversation and said that the conversation was starting to take a turn towards “forced affirmative action.” What a silly thing to say! A person is talking about her own personal choices, and a listener thinks she’s being pulled by the collar to the nearest Black-owned bookstore.

*

Uses-For-Q-Tips

A few weeks into a parenting class, one of the teachers handed us each a Q-Tip. We were puzzled. What did Q-Tips have to do with parenting children in foster care? I thought perhaps some of the more chatty folks in the class were getting on her nerves and she brought Q-Tips to remind us that active listening is just as important as active talking.

She began to tell a story and throughout the story said things like “took it personally” and “it’s not personal”. Finally, one of the students shouted “oh! QTIP! Quit Taking It Personally! Oh I get it! Ok Ok”.

Quit

Taking

It

Personally

*

This is hard, I keep hearing. & I believe it. A few years ago, I began using the term “Whitefolks” to distinguish between White people and White-people-who-promote-White-Supremacy (wittingly or not). I began playing this game on Facebook, a game I totally stole from that Bacon game (replace one word in a book title with the word Bacon! My game was this: replace one word from a film or tv series with the word Whitefolks!). Most of the people who chimed in to play the game were White friends and a year or so after the game was last played, a White friend left a note on my wall. Something like, “I was watching the Oscars & I suddenly thought, I’m watching the Whitefolks”. Months later, when I made note about Whitefolks using my Facebook inbox as a battlefield, a place to attack me, privately, this same friend said, “Oh, I hope I haven’t done that!” I was stunned. Why would this friend think I’d call her Whitefolks? She wasn’t the only one. Every time I made a non-funny post about Whitefolks, at least one White friend would say something odd, like “I don’t appreciate you using this term and I don’t even know what it means!” How can you not appreciate something you don’t understand? Baffling.

Quit

Taking

It

Personally

I was going to leave a Facebook post up today that said “Well, today is the last day of Black History Month 2015. I guess you won’t be hearing me talk about race anymore this year. SIKE!” But instead, I left a lasting note:

Mi gente! Vivir la vida

 

Advertisements

BorderSenses Literary and Arts Journal, an interview

Q: If BorderSenses had a favorite midnight snack, what would it be?

A: I once had a Russian friend who kept a living fungus in her fridge—a clustered organism the shape and texture of skinless grapes. It sat in a Tupperware of milk on her top shelf. She drank and then replenished the milk daily, claiming it could remedy things like colds and acne and cancer.

Her particular strain had been alive for years. Given to her uncle by a man in China, it had crossed three continents to sit in a batch of mid-western milk. It grew with time and could be divided and shared—a perpetually mutating organism with its own unique and complex pedigree.

I like to think that BorderSenses would be partial to this kind of healing fungus milk, though it probably loves chips and salsa, too.

andrea blancas beltran

BorderSenses

BorderSenses is an innovative literary journal based out of my hometown of El Paso, Texas. The BorderSenses organization is also infusing the borderland with important literary projects such as writing workshops for migrant workers and area teens. Following their 20th issue last year, 2015 is proving to be another exciting year for them as they have a new Managing Editor, Lacy Arnett Mayberry, and a new website among other things. Lacy generously agreed to an interview, so without further ado, I’m delighted to introduce you to Lacy and BorderSenses.

Q: What kind of writing and art are you and your editors looking for at BorderSenses?

A: Part of our mission is to promote cross-cultural exchange through the arts. We are interested in a both physical and metaphorical borders. That said, just because a story is set in Tijuana doesn’t make it an automatic fit for the journal. I often see literary magazines stipulate for writers…

View original post 612 more words

Why is it so difficult to talk about bad behaviors?

This week I’m reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s exceptional(ly “gross” and “ewww” in my students’ words) debut memoir, Excavation. Ortiz’s memoir is written with an intensely emotional distance, a potentially protective cape that keeps the past away from her, from touching her skin, staining her, years after her middle-school/junior high school teacher, Mr. Ivers (as he’s referred to in the text), behaves not like an adult who has been hired to help students better understand and appreciate literature and writing about literature, but as a horny, emotionally stunted predator.

I love the image of the sulky teen, a reminder that this teen is a teen.

I love the image of the sulky teen, a reminder that this teen is a teen.

Perhaps it’s these adjectives–bad, deviant, stunted–and the noun–predator–that makes it so difficult to talk about predatory behavior, to call rape rape.

Last summer, the hashtag NotAllMen was floating around social media, a reaction by men to counter the very obvious rape narratives that permeate our lives. Not a day has gone by in which a woman hasn’t been raped, although I can recall several days in which news outlets haven’t seen these stories as newsworthy, as click bait. However, the bold social art activist work of Emma Sulkowicz, caused a reactionary backlash that seemed to reverberate around the world. NotAllMen! came the outcries from men who wished to deflect the conversation, to hold-fast the image of men as The Great Protectors of Women. NotAllMen invaded every discussion of Sulkowicz’s art, a sickening piece of art that put her rape on blast, an extraordinary piece of art that called attention to the very fact that her rape was not taken seriously by campus administration. Instead of these men seeing the weight of the rape, the ways in which her body mind and spirit carried that rape with her everyday & everywhere, they countered with #NotAllMen.

I’ll never forget a story a poet told my students about a film he’d gone to see with his wife, a film in part about a man who cheated on his wife. The poet’s wife said, “Men are cheaters” and the poet countered, “I’m not a cheater” and the wife retorted “All Men!”. When the poet told the story, he shrunk (and let us know that he shrank in his seat), remembering how he felt attacked. I felt compassion towards him, and I also wondered why he felt the need to put himself on the line. To take her assertion personally. What would have been so hard for him to say, in commiseration, “yeah, that dude deserved what happened to him!”

A few months ago I posted a question, in relation to the Bill Cosby scandal, a very simple question: “Why do men have a hard time calling men rapists?” No men responded, but at least there were three men who “liked” the comment. I can’t count, however, the number of men who immediately took to social media to say that Cosby’s wife must have known & what is wrong with her and why did she stay and oh by the way, I don’t think Cosby raped any of those women. There was Max S. Gordon, in the thick of all of this, contemplating the protection of Cosby by people who have never met him, and then the exquisite essay. And yes, there was at least one male friend who said, “I don’t stand by rapists.”

Why can’t the NotAllMen catch-phrase be used for good? If, in fact, not all men are rapists (and we know this, of course, by the statistic that 1 in 33 men have attempted to or have committed rape), why aren’t there more men who stand against rape culture? Another friend posted something on Facebook and hashtagged EndRapeCulture and a man came in to say that all cultures involve rape, that rape isn’t a culture, and that her hashtag isn’t nuanced, etc etc. I wanted to smack him. I did, with words, but I wanted to physically smack him, to tell him to wake the fuck up already.

23d

I’m sitting in my office at work, listening to TGIF on Spotify. I’ve heard about 4 songs so far that call women Bitch or Trick or Ho. I’ve been listening to these songs since the late 80s. If I complain about this, my men friends start looking for the bartender or the door or start talking over me. BuzzKill, they want to call me, KillJoy. But hey, I’d rather kill your joy than pretend that calling women bitches cunts pendejas and such is not advocating violence against women.

When I made the great mistake of posting about the joy of reading and discussing Ortiz’s book with a class of women students, a male poet took to the feed to attack one of the student’s reactions to the text. He said she should grow up. He’s since removed his comments, I hope that he understood that he was being a complete jerk and that attacking a person’s valid reactions to a text is akin to, well, smacking her.

My life is one filled with reverberations. One thing connects to the next to the next to the next; ping ping ping. There was that time that a male poet posted about Harvard’s decision to ban intimate relationships between undergraduate students and faculty. All but one man criticized the decision. One man even went so far as to say, “well, 50 years ago, 19 year olds were married with kids.” Far-reaching claims like this make me worry about the future. How can we progress when we still have men who refuse to accept not only that they have positions of power but that we all see and recognize their power positions? I fear for young girls. I once dated a man who had three daughters, one was 16 & he’d began to have lustful feelings for her 16-year old friend. “I know it’s wrong,” he said, “but when she turns 18, I’m gonna ask her out.” We were polyamorous and often discussed our attractions to other people; at some point he began to date a friend of mine who I set him up with. Maybe he though we had a connection that transcended basic morals. I was disgusted by his proclamation and completely confused. There I was, thinking that men who had daughters understood how young 18 actually was, how easily manipulative an 18-year old is, how an 18-year old is still a child. Naïveté. I can only be grateful that I still had some.

One year, I heard from a colleague that another colleague had “crossed the line” with a student. I expected to hear “he slept with her”; instead, I heard, “he threatened suicide because she broke up with him.” I was stuck on “she broke up with him,” but my colleague made it quite clear that the line that he had crossed had to do with him threatening suicide. The colleague was fired for putting a student on the line like that, not for having an illicit affair with her but for frightening her with the suicide claim. It was with great relief, then, to see a current essay that addresses the problems of crossing the line between teacher and student, of mentor to mentee. Chatting with my students about Mr. Ivers’ bad behavior, I was surprised to hear how gross they felt about his behaviors. One student summed it up perfectly, “He was her teacher. Students trust their teachers.”