dear california

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Dear fellow Californians, from your friend who left the Golden State seven and a half years ago:

I’m having a hard time with all the posts – both humorous and serious – about California seceding from the union. I’ll tell you why.

I left California with my nuclear family seven and a half years ago so that we could pursue a better future, and it has been a good move for us. It was hard to leave, believe me. I love California, and it will always be my home. I consider myself a native, even though I only arrived from abroad at the age of seven in 1978, also so that my family (of origin) could pursue a better future. I still have my 415 area code, and I won’t let that one go easily. California made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

But for seven and a half years now, I have lived outside of California – in places that have been good to me and my family. I spent four years in historically conservative Southwestern Ohio, where I got to be part of the vote in Hamilton County in 2012 that gave President Obama his victory. After voting in California since I became a US citizen in 1994, 2012 was the first time I could really feel my vote counting. It felt amazing, and I was not alone. I met really good people during our time in Ohio. People who love their children as deeply as I love mine, people who care and who work for justice and hope, people who may speak a different language or have different beliefs or religions than me but who ultimately want many of the same things. When we moved into our home in Ohio, a neighbor I didn’t yet know literally brought us cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood. I know, cliché, but I remember saying to my husband, “I love the Midwest. People are so nice here.” And I was right, they are. For the first time in my life, in the Midwest, I had African American neighbors and friends, and my daughter went to school for the first time where her fellow students did not all look like her. It took leaving my Bay Area bubble for this to happen. Because in spite of the great diversity of California, my world in the Bay Area was incredibly homogeneous, and I take full responsibility for that.

We adopted our African American son just a few months before we left Ohio. He is my gift from the Midwest, and because of him and the people I met while living there, I will always feel a connection to Ohio. To the “Middle America” I got to know for the first time because I left California.

We now live in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the second time I live in a red state. Again, I have African American neighbors and friends. Again, my son isn’t the only black person in our neighborhood or community. He isn’t even the only black person in our Jewish community. Here in the South I have also met good people – heart-driven people who also fight for justice, who are as dismayed by bigotry and hate as my family and friends in California, and as my friends in Ohio. I have friends who voted for Hillary and I have friends who voted for Trump, and both of those friends are raising really good children. I have met GLBTQ friends here in the South. I have met transgender men and women here. I have met friends of all colors and races. I have met friends who are native Southerners and others who, like me, are transplants with other area codes in their phone numbers. For the first time here in Georgia, we were able to buy a home. We couldn’t do that in the Bay Area.

California will always have my heart, and I will always feel like I am home when I land at SFO, drive past the Pacific Ocean and breathe the delicious mixture of salt and bay leaves. But a piece of my heart is also in Ohio. And now, it is also in Georgia.

Dear Californians, I know you know this, but I have to say it: You are not better, smarter, more focused on justice and what is right, more civilized, more progressive, more traumatized today after the election, than other Americans. 26% of people voted for one candidate, 26% voted for the other, and 47% didn’t vote – because either they were disenfranchised or apathetic. But not all of the 26% who voted for your candidate (who was also my candidate) came from California or the Northeast. They also came from Ohio, from Georgia, and from all the states that are so easy to dismiss as foreign, as different, as backward, as stuck in the past.

This is not a time for divisiveness. We need California’s elected officials in the U.S. legislature to partner with the elected officials of all the other states. We need your progressive messages. We need your activism. This is not a time to separate yourselves, to protect your bubble. This is a time to get out of that bubble, to sit in that uncomfortable place and connect, to reach out to understand – not to get to know “the other America” but to realize that we really aren’t different. We are all America. And we need you – not to be separate, but to work alongside us for unity.

it’s personal

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I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

For now my black son is just adorable, charming, beloved, everyone’s friend.

He trusts because he should,

because he is only three years old.

I have a black son and I look at him and wonder,

When will he change in the eyes of those around him?

When will he begin to look scary, criminal, less capable?

When will his teachers begin to overlook his talents?

When will he be punished for misbehaving, considered deviant, while his white friends are dismissed for “just acting like children sometimes do?”

When will I have to tell him that he shouldn’t wear the hood of his sweatshirt on his head?

When will someone cross the street for the first time for fear of him, their heart racing?

What will that do to my son’s heart?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

When we filled out the adoption paperwork we were extremely clear that the child who would join our family did not need to be white.

We knew that he probably wouldn’t be.

We imagined a black son.

We knew – abstractly – that we would be taking on a great responsibility as the white parents of a black child.

I’ve been asked by both black and white friends,

“What is your plan for preparing your black son for this world?”

What is my plan?

Nobody asked me what my plan was when my white daughter was born 12 years ago.

I didn’t have to have a plan beyond loving her and giving her the world.

But my black son?

I want nothing more than to love him and give him the world.

And I know how brutally that world can be taken from him – in an instant – because of his gorgeous brown skin.

How do I prepare him for that without taking the world – his promise – from him?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

His ancestors came to America on slave ships.

The racism that binds him – something he doesn’t yet know – is systemic and has not ceased for two and a half centuries.

I have a black son and I have a responsibility to teach him that.

How do I give him that knowledge, that understanding which is his right, without the promise that things will get better

for his people who are not “my own,” but to whom I am still accountable?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he is a lover.

When he was three days old I held his tiny body inside my shirt, brown skin to pinkish skin, his head against my heart.

I promised my black son that I would care for him and protect him until my final breath.

I promised him that I would teach him how to be a good man.

How to be a black man.

Can I teach him that as his white mama?

What does it mean to be a black man, now, today?

What will it mean for him when he turns 18?

Will he remain safe – will he remain alive – until then?

Will he get the long, full life that is his right,

His promise?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he likes to wrestle, to tackle, to do karate chops, to yell, “Hah-YAH!”

How will he be seen for that, how will he be judged, as he grows older and becomes “a threat?”

How will I teach him that, around people in positions of authority, he will need to be submissive, compliant?

And that even then his safety – his life – is still not guaranteed?

Still not protected?

Still considered by some to be less sacred than mine,

or his sister’s,

or his father’s?

Why should I have to teach him that?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

Those men, those boys, those women who have been killed for being black,

Whose names are a list we read and reread and speak and call out

to remember,

Those precious lives that matter,

They could be my son.

They are my son.

My son’s life matters.

 

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

women’s bodies, women’s power

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I’ve watched Beyonce’s Formation video several times. It’s amazing. I’ve read the lyrics. I’ve followed along with the lyrics while watching the video, just to make sure I really heard what she was saying. I recommend watching it more than once to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time(s). It’s challenging. It blows me away every time. It also makes me a little uncomfortable, which I experience as a good thing. I like getting out of my comfort zone, especially my white girl comfort zone.

I saw Beyonce own the Super Bowl halftime show, preaching black empowerment – on television – in front of millions of Americans. And was that a stadium full of rainbows at the end, in support of the freedom to love whoever you want? At the Super Bowl in the San Francisco Bay Area? Perfect.

I read discussions in my social media universe and in the larger media among women who were disturbed by how revealing Beyonce’s outfit was in the halftime show. These are intelligent, sensitive and feminist women, and they were understandably troubled that their children had to see a woman dressed in so little – showing so much skin, so much leg, so much ass, so much cleavage – while expressing her power. They wished out loud that we lived in a society where it was okay for women to be powerful while also fully clothed. I get that, I really do. And I agree – women should be able to be powerful and regarded and HEARD however they want to dress. I will never deny that our collective culture dishes out some messed up and contradictory messages to women and girls about our bodies and our voices.

But I wasn’t outraged because my 12 year old daughter was watching with me, seeing all that skin Beyonce was showing. To be honest, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Wow! Check out her strong-ass legs!” Followed by, “That woman is a total BAD ASS.” Followed by our own discussions in the week that followed about what the messages were in her performance, and why it’s a big deal that she is daring to and able to share those messages.

How often are women told it is beautiful to have real legs, thick legs, muscular legs, even short squat legs? When does it feel safe to show off those legs to the whole world – knowing the whole time that you will either be critiqued for your flaws, dismissed as the victim of a system that controls you and tells you what to wear and how to look, or condemned for being a slut?

Apparently it’s not that safe for a woman to be sexy and proud and loud and powerful. A Google search for “Beyonce post-Super Bowl backlash/commentary” shows that. Thankfully I’m not the only woman defending a woman’s right to be powerful and to make a statement in public – in whatever she wants to wear; the same Google search leads to some great commentary against the backlash. Commentary that also acknowledges and honors Beyonce’s blackness, rather than fears it.

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The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail this week, one out of 52 issues that is not about sports. Well, sort of not. They actually had real athletes in this issue – female athletes with strong bodies. No lengthy stories about them, but photos of athletic women in the same skimpy bathing suits worn by the issue’s other models, along with short blurbs and quotes. And they had “plus size” model Ashley Graham, who in her little blurb spoke about cellulite; even if said cellulite was airbrushed away in her photos. She may be proud of her body exactly as it is (as she should be), but clearly we’re not quite ready to communicate a larger message to the public that cellulite is actually okay. I would love to see us get there.

The SI swimsuit issue made it to the bottom of the recycling bin before my daughter could see it. And I thought to myself as I buried it underneath flattened cereal boxes, “Why am I hiding this from her? Is there a difference here between the messages conveyed in the magazine and what Beyonce was saying in her halftime show when she bared her skin? If so, what is the difference?”

There’s a lot of sex in the SI swinsuit issue. The message is sexual, tiny bikinis cover large breasts, women posing in a way that makes their boobs and booties stick out the most. Waists are Photoshopped to be extra narrow so that everything else looks extra wide. There is desire in their faces, girlish innocence mixed with come-hither looks. They are sweaty, their hair is wet. It’s sexual. It’s confusing. And it contributes to the ways in which boys and girls grow up confused about how to relate to each other and to their own and each other’s bodies. I don’t want my daughter to grow up afraid of sexuality; at the same time I want her sexuality to develop in its own right time, in a healthy way.

She is 12 years old, almost an adolescent. Do you remember adolescence? Am I the only one with such deep imprints from that time, still, 30 years later? That time when girls and boys start to notice each other – girls noticing boys noticing boys noticing girls noticing girls. Girls competing with other girls, boys competing with other boys. Insecurities. Bodies starting to change, many girls finding themselves suddenly a head taller than many of the boys around them. Flirting starts, shyness grows and is overcome, first crushes happen and happen hard. Young hearts break for the first time. Sexual identity starts to form, in all its complex layers.

I don’t envy my daughter that she has to go through adolescence with social media everywhere – and I’m postponing letting her have her own phone for as long as possible because I’m not ready to navigate that yet. But for some reason I’m still trying to understand completely in myself, I don’t worry about her sense of herself and her body and her self-confidence. Maybe I’m mistakenly not preparing myself enough – or her – for the years ahead, maybe there are things she thinks about herself that she doesn’t share with me. I doubt I’m missing the important things, though. She and I talk about things, these conversations began many years ago.

And my daughter is different than I was at her age.

She is confident – in her skin, in her sense of herself, at school, in the world. She is outgoing, friendly, and not remotely shy. She is loud and funny and full of energy. She is athletic and active. Basically, she’s totally cool. Cool to her core, from the inside out. She is unique, she has always had her own style. And she is whip smart, strong willed, opinionated. She questions what she sees.

She has understood since she was little that women don’t look like Barbie or Bratz dolls. She knows that models in magazines are airbrushed, that their bodies have been manipulated by Photoshop. She knows what eating disorders are, and calories for her are units of strength and energy, not things that need to be counted or measured or controlled.

I don’t speak around her about the parts of my body I don’t love – and being her mother makes me question why I feel that way about those parts in the first place. I am very aware that I was even younger than her when I started hating my thighs.

My daughter once asked me why I never wear shorts. My answer is always the same: I prefer skirts. Maybe when she’s older, or maybe soon, I will tell her the truth and we can talk about bodies and women and all the complexities of being a woman in a body. I will tell her honestly that I am constantly remembering to love and cherish my body exactly as it is. That I care for my body because of that self-love. I will tell her that if I had Beyonce’s legs, I probably would wear shorts.

It’s so confusing being a woman and a girl. The messages are constant contradictions:

Be feminine. Be sexy. Be smart and unafraid, speak out. Don’t be too loud or people will think you’re bossy or whiny.

You are flawed. You are imperfect. There is always something you could improve about yourself. Get fit. Get strong. Get thin. Get toned. Watch what you eat. Dress in a way that flatters your body type.

Love your body as it is. Accept yourself as you are. Natural is beautiful. And if you try to fix something about your body so that you feel better about yourself, you will be judged for being shallow, insecure, vain.

I’ve done it, I’ve judged. I confess. Women and girls are each other’s finest critics. And we are hardest on ourselves.

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So I’m watching the Super Bowl with my family and out comes Beyonce and her shorts are shorter than her backup dancers’, and no one can deny that she is a beautiful woman who looks completely hot. She dances and she sings while the whole world watches – and her music has a message, a powerful message. Her costumes even have a message. And all I notice is her POWER. That this bad ass BLACK woman (with real, strong legs) has all eyes on her in that moment, and she is communicating something powerful, something that challenges the status quo. At the Super Bowl.

It’s been 25 years since I took Women’s Studies in college, even longer since I woke up to the concept of feminism. I was a photographer for the women’s newspaper in college, met female students who were putting themselves through school doing phone sex in the evenings. I learned about the first wave of feminism, the second, the third (my generation). I’m not sure what wave we’re in now. But feminism has changed, it has evolved, it is constantly evolving, and it cannot be just a movement of and for and directed by white women.

This is the thing I know now that I didn’t know in college: Nothing is black and white. You can’t say that women are always objectified if they are showing skin. I’d bet money that Beyonce felt amazing in that stadium a few weeks ago, or when she saw the final cut of her Formation video.

And then there is the race and color piece: White women or men – or the dominant white culture – don’t get to tell black women or men – or black culture – what they should or shouldn’t wear. Period. Bootie shorts or black hoodies. Skin or no skin. I don’t care how much of a feminist I have always considered myself to be: It will never be up to me as a white person to have an opinion about how Beyonce should dress or what’s appropriate for her. And I don’t want to dismiss or ignore her power because it is delivered in clothing that might make me blush or might feel inappropriate. The only female I’m in charge of besides myself is my daughter (until she is 18), who doesn’t wear short shorts because she is 12 years old.

I don’t see Beyonce as a victim of the messages she has been taking in all her life, thrown at her by our mysoginistic society. I see in her a powerful, successful, intelligent, iconic superstar who actually gets to decide – herself, for once – what she wants to wear when she shares her message of substance on the national stage. Maybe we can spend less time debating her clothing choices, and give more attention to HEARING what this empowered black woman is trying to tell us. Recognizing that her message is one we need to hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

In the very last line of Formation, Beyonce says, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”

Think for a minute about the power and feminism in that statement…

opening the ivory tower doors

Ivory Tower

Deeply imprinted into my psyche, the Ivory Tower from my favorite and most-viewed movie from adolescence, The Neverending Story

When I was in my mid-twenties, I began my career in the social sector working in philanthropy. I worked in a foundation that helped progressive individuals give money away to social change organizations all over the world. The internet was barely a thing back then – I think I had an AOL email address – and I got the job looking for an administrative assistant position in the newspaper. When I was called for an interview, I asked if they could send me information about the organization so that I could learn more about what they did. I didn’t know anything about foundations, about donors, about non-profit organizations and NGOs, or about grantmaking. A few days later a packet arrived in my mailbox – it was a grants list of the organizations the foundation’s donors had supported in the previous year, but it only listed the name of the donor funds and the names of their grantees. That’s not a lot of information to explain the work of an organization if you don’t have the ability to look them up online, and online didn’t really exist yet.

So off I went to my interview, and I sat in a small room with two of the foundation’s program officers – I didn’t know what a program officer was, either, and they were kind of intimidating. I was 24. The intimidating program officer who chose me to be her assistant has become one of my closest friends and most cherished mentors. From her and my other colleagues at the foundation – over four and a half years and afterwards when I branched out on my own – I learned everything I know about the world of giving and the incredible non-profit organizations that do so much to sustain and balance out our world. By the time I left the foundation to start a consulting practice working with non-profit and philanthropic organizations, I had become a program officer. Talk about the school of life.

During one of my first weeks working there, I was asked to contact a list of past grant recipients to ask for their reports on how they had used their grants so far. I left phone messages for the ones who didn’t answer, telling them I was calling from the foundation and could they please call me back. In under an hour, all of my phone messages had been returned. I was stunned, and when I shared this with my boss, she smiled and said, “That’s because they know you have the money.” “But I don’t have the money,” I replied. “I’m just an assistant.” “But you’re connected to the people who do, and money = power.” And she explained to me that, in our work, we were trying to redistribute some of that power to make things more equal – at least that was the goal of philanthropy.

We had a staff training during my time working at the foundation, and the theme was privilege. I’d worked there a few years by then, and I was aware of the incredible privilege of the philanthropists we worked with. But we weren’t talking about their privilege, we were talking about ours. It was uncomfortable. We were asked to think of the ways in which we had grown up with privilege, and no matter how rich or poor each of us were, just by virtue of being there, gainfully employed doing meaningful work managing great resources, all of us were privileged. And my list of privilege was so long, I realized, especially after listening to some of my colleagues share the challenges they had grown up with in disadvantaged communities or as immigrants or as people of color.

Privilege: I grew up speaking two languages. I went to schools with small classrooms and brand new textbooks. I grew up around technology years before technology was in every home. I grew up in a town influenced by a major university. We owned our home. I got to travel all over the world. I had a doctor and a dentist and a retainer for my overbite. My mom took me to her hairdresser to get my hair cut. My dad helped me buy a used car when I turned 16 by getting me a summer job filing receipts in his company. College was paid for and my grades and activities got me into every school I applied to. I grew up in a home filled with books and art and music. I had piano lessons and saxophone lessons, tried ballet and jazz dance, took art classes. I grew up in a safe place free from violence where I could ride my bike or take the bus all over town without a care. I had friends whose families came from all over the world – doctors and professors and researchers and tech executives. I had an allowance. I went to summer camp. I am white.

Privilege.

What an ivory tower I had always lived in! And what an ivory tower did I now find myself in, giving money away to communities in need. Those words: In need. They made me uncomfortable. I didn’t like the dynamic – that some people have and others don’t, and no matter how much we might try to redistribute the resources, there are always some with privilege and some without. And there are levels of privilege – we each fall somewhere on a continuum.

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I still think a lot about privilege. I think about it as the white mother to a black son. I think about our choice to move to a town with higher property taxes and excellent public schools for our children. I think about it every time I go to a doctor’s appointment or to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and I am able to afford my co-pay. I think about it as I make the monthly payment for our mortgage, for our cars. I think about it as I look at the packing list for my daughter’s summer camp.

As a child, my favorite subject in school was social studies – that wonderful topic that encapsulated all things having to do with human beings and societies: history, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology. The things I was most curious about. I wanted to be a psychologist, and I would watch Afterschool Specials and any Nine O’Clock Movie that had to do with a social issue: mental illness, addiction, homelessness, school reform, runaway teens. It was the eighties during Reagan, the years of This is your brain (camera zooms in on a whole intact egg). This is your brain on drugs (camera zooms in on egg frying in a pan).

I entered college as a psychology major, at some point changed to anthropology, changed again to sociology, and finished with a BA in history; so I got a nice well rounded liberal arts education and have done absolutely nothing related to my degree. But what draws me, what compels me, hasn’t changed since I was my daughter’s age. Social studies is still my favorite subject; it’s what I think about, read about, write about and try to teach my children about. It’s what I’ve been blessed for 20 years to have as the focus of my work.

I spent time in my daughter’s fifth grade class this morning, helping a group of kids with their end-of-the-year presentations about community and global issues. I was in social studies heaven. 11 is an incredible age because you can start to talk about the grey areas, the nuance in between black and white. You can start to talk about the complexity of issues like gang violence and global responses to natural disasters. You can start to talk about privilege.

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I thought about privilege a lot last night. I was the moderator for a local UNICEF event about the Eliminate Project, whose goal it is to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus worldwide through UNICEF’s incredible immunization and health programs. We watched a video and listened to first-hand stories about babies dying – 140 each day – from this vaccine preventable disease. I moderated a panel of speakers who spoke about how entirely possible it is to completely eliminate this disease – and how this has already been achieved in 36 countries, with 23 remaining. I thought about places where babies die each day from poverty and violence and lack of health care and sanitation. I thought of my own baby who had died, and all of the resources we were able to rally to give her every possible chance during her two months of life.

And I thought about tetanus here in the U.S., where babies don’t die of this bacteria that lives in soil. I remembered getting my tetanus booster as an older child, again as an adult. I thought about a conversation I had with a friend when my daughter was a toddler, how this friend who had been a pediatrician explained to me that tetanus isn’t just in rusty nails, but also in the dirt all around us.

I thought a lot last night about how privileged we are in this country to even be able to have a conversation about whether or not it is safe or necessary to vaccinate our children. We don’t see on a daily basis the diseases that kill children and adults in developing countries; some, like polio, which used to exist here. We don’t see an infant suffering from or dying from tetanus, so we have the luxury to actually consider whether or not our children need that vaccine. I know how much I wrestled with those questions when my daughter was little.

I just felt privileged, and I sat with that feeling as I drove home last night. And I’m sitting with it today. It still makes me uncomfortable – things that are unjust, unfair, unequal make me uncomfortable. And to be honest, I hope that never stops, because the moment I get too comfortable is the moment I stop caring, and I don’t plan to stop caring.

It makes me feel grateful, too. Grateful for my health. Grateful for clean water and a warm bed and my home and abundant nourishing food that is refrigerated. Grateful for the washing machine that spins my bedsheets as I write. Grateful for my children’s pediatrician, always available. Grateful for my safe neighborhood. Grateful for the school bus that picks up my daughter in the morning to take her to her wonderful school. Grateful for green space. Grateful for the community and culture and diversity I get to be a part of.

And grateful to be able to play my very small part to make things just a little bit more just, fair and equal.