Tales From A Survivor

Chris Brown tried to choke Rihanna. That was while he was threatening to kill her. And the stans are out in force claiming that she deserved it/provoked him/he didn’t do it on purpose. I would say I don’t know WTF is wrong with people, but I see this shit a lot. From men who want to justify it and from women who think it could never happen to them. Here’s the thing, abusers never seem like they’re violent to people on the outside, and in the beginning of the relationship they are the *perfect* partner. I mean it, they are absolutely the best partner their victim has ever had. They have all the romantic touches down, they’re a great listener (the best you’ll ever meet), and before long they have insinuated themselves into every single aspect of their victim’s life. As soon as they can’t imagine life without this person, they’re in deep shit.

Why? That’s when the abuse starts. And it’s not overt or even necessarily something that anyone would recognize as problematic. Because it’s just words, little subtle digs at their self-image that come from this wonderful person who knows them so well and loves them so much. And so they listen, and they lose a little of themselves. It’s that slow chipping away that’s important. Because without it? The first blow will be the last one. And the abuser can’t have that, so they lay the groundwork. But sometimes that chipping away doesn’t work, or at least not fast enough for the abuser. Maybe they’ve been pushed too far too fast, maybe at their base they’re not broken enough, maybe they are just plain contrary, or maybe they get fed up early in the cycle. Who knows? But when things don’t go according to plan the abuser flips their shit. Annihilation time if they can manage it.

And the fucked up part? They’re not necessarily consciously aware of what they’re doing to the victim. So they can tell themselves that they’re not a bad person, and they’ve never been this way with anyone else, that it’ll never happen again and a half dozen other things that add up to not having to face the reality that they’re hurting someone very badly. Because in their own heads they love their victim. Even when they want to control them and crush them. They love them so much that they can’t let the relationship end, or risk their SO meeting someone else, or whatever else is the trigger of the moment. And people will swear that something big must have happened to provoke them, but the reality is that they’re a ticking time bomb. All day. Every day. Whether it is a burnt dinner, a tone of voice, or being successful, there is nothing the victims could have, should have, would have done to defuse that bomb.

And people will say “Why didn’t she just leave?” like that would fix something. Know when most victims die? When they try to get out. And the craziest part is that people will still swear they should have tried harder, left earlier, done something other than whatever they did. Because victim-blaming is the most comfortable emotional reaction for a lot of folks. Here’s the thing, for a whole host of reasons there’s no way to spot an abuser at a glance, and even if you do figure it out fairly early in the relationship, there’s no guarantee that the fuse on that bomb isn’t so short that you’re already in danger. Does that mean no one should date? No. But it does mean that people should stop blaming the victim and start blaming the abuser. Want to get them help? Great. But don’t serve it with a side of justification for the abuser’s actions, or disdain for the victim. Domestic violence crosses every line regardless of money, race, or religion and we need to start treating it like the sickness it is instead of hiding from it. Yes I got out of my marriage, but it was hard and required me to do some things that I’m not proud of even though they saved my life. Luckily I had friends that truly supported me, and now I hope Rihanna (and every other victim) has friends that will stand by them until they can call themselves a survivor and get on with life.

Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary Is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, but one of the comments on the Avatar post finally pushed me to do it.  I am just so tired of people using the dictionary in discussions of complex issues as if the dictionary definition trumps, well, everything.  No, people.  The dictionary is a good tool, but a very simple one.  It will not help you understand complex concepts and it will certainly not win you a debate.

This happens a lot when white people try to have a discussion about the word racism.  Any time the concept of Prejudice + Power comes up, certain folks rush to m-w.com to prove that racism means exactly what it says online.  “See!!” they shout triumphantly, while anyone who’s had this conversation hundreds of times merely rolls their eyes and prepares to begin another session of Racism 101.

Dictionary definitions are problematic, particularly online definitions.  Merriam-Webster Online’s free version is abridged.  For those unaware, abridged means:

1: to reduce in scope : diminish

2: to shorten in duration or extent

3: to shorten by omission of words without sacrifice of sense : condense

Most inexpensive print dictionaries are abridged, too.  And though I don’t think they say so on the site, some m-w.com definitions are even more abridged than the print version.  Most of the time people looking to get the gist of a word don’t need the full, unabridged definition and etymology of a word. However, anyone looking to prove that a word does or does not mean something absolutely, or to say “You’re making up definitions, X word doesn’t mean that!”, cannot turn to the abridged definition to prove their point.

Beyond that, not all dictionaries are created equal.  Merriam-Webster is a good dictionary, yes.  But comparable to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?  Not quite. Will you find a more thorough definition of racism in the OED than M-W unabridged?  Probably.  (I can’t say for sure as I do not own an OED.)  It certainly won’t be less complex.  These are not the only two dictionaries of the English language around, either.  And while they certainly will have many of the same definitions, there is a reason why there are more than two.

And then we come to words whose many facets are beyond the scope of a dictionary definition.  This is what encyclopedias are for, in part.  If you’re looking for a deep understanding of a word or a concept, the dictionary isn’t going to provide it.  That’s not a dictionary’s job.

In his essay “Defining Racism“, Daniel Hindes points out that “dictionary definitions are all short and unambiguous (traits desirable in a dictionary),” and take a lot of key things for granted (due to shortness).  For the definition of Racism, this includes the existence of Race.  Hindes then brings up the functional/sociological definition of race, something that requires a lot more words than you’ll find in most dictionaries.  The functional definition is a lot deeper and more involved — not a surprise — and is the result of people’s actual experience with racism and many, many discussions about the issue, amongst other things.  Sociology is complex.

One final point to consider:  I’m sure that the people involved in editing and updating various dictionaries strive to be impartial and unbiased.  After all, it’s just about the words and what they mean, right?  There’s no way that could be biased or skewed in some way.


Though I don’t ascribe some vast conspiracy by “The Man” to “Keep us down” or anything like that, I am well aware that if you’re a member of a majority or privileged group, the fact that racism is not just about how one person feels about another might not occur to you.  If it doesn’t occur to you, then having that as a definition wouldn’t strike you as odd or incomplete or even wrong.  The thing to remember is that not all definitions are absolute or true to the core.  The English language is mutable, changeable, evolving.  Don’t believe me?  Then go throw a faggot on the fire and rape your neighbor’s lawn gnome.  The former will not require having to interact with a gay person and the latter has nothing to do with sexual assault.  Look them up.

Bottom line: whipping out a dictionary definition during a discussion of complex issues is ill-advised at best.  I would even go so far as to say it’s dumb.  It doesn’t put you over on anyone else and it doesn’t win the debate.  It usually shows that you don’t have any kind of true understanding of the concepts under discussion and usually leads to people either working to educate you or dismissing you outright.

There’s a fine line between trying to understand a foreign concept or different point of view and just being an ignorant ass.  Avoid the latter by leaving the dictionary alone.

Update: Here’s video of an amazing talk lexicographer Erin McKean (who is an editor of the OED) gave at the TED conference.  Really amazing stuff on language, dictionaries, and the English language.

Sexism, Chivalry, and POC communities

So one of the things that’s been working my nerves this election cycle has been the rush to paint every single bit of language uttered by Obama that could be gendered as proof of his being sexist. The furor over the word periodically was wacky enough (as was the hype over him saying the claws are coming out) but I think Sweetie-gate has officially taken the cake. Was it the brightest thing to say? No. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was sexist. Like a lot of MOC Obama has been raised to be very polite to women. Almost ridiculously so. Can you guess why? It’s very simple. He’s a MOC and women (especially white women) are being raised to perceive him as a threat. I can’t tell you the number of time black male friends of mine have shifted their body language so as to be perceived as non-threatening even though they weren’t being threatening in the first damned place. Or the the number of times black men I didn’t know have felt the need to tell me they weren’t a threat if I glanced at them as I was walking alone at night. Hell, the number of comments I’ve gotten about my husband “letting” me walk alone at night from other MOC who have clearly been raised the same way he was to think that protecting women is part and parcel of being a man is a story in and of itself.

My husband and his brothers have all been taught a specific way to interact with women. Now that lesson comes from a few places. Some of it is just what’s referred to as good home training, namely that you’re supposed to be polite to women at all times, you’re not supposed to intimidate them with the difference in size or make them think they’re unsafe in your presence. If someone else is making a woman feel unsafe then you’re supposed to step up and put a stop to that behavior. You open her door, you pay for dinner, and you generally follow the script that says that even though you know she’s strong and can take care of herself, you’re showing her respect by being willing to take care of her. Our communities tend to run off a paradigm where the only men that are likely to show us respect and engage in chivalry are MOC. We’re not objecting to it in the same way that white women might because we get enough of being ignored, treated like one of the guys, or disrespected by men outside of our communities, and by the knuckleheads inside our communities. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to deal with that crap at home and it’s exceptionally nice to be treated like a princess when the rest of the world wants to treat me like a pack mule. Do we always agree about his attitude? No. But, I know he doesn’t think I’m less than he is or incapable of taking care of myself so much as he is trying to show me love and respect in the way that he knows best and I love him for that effort.

Some of that aforementioned training is an acknowledgment that MOC (particularly black men) have gone to jail or been lynched behind looking at a white woman the wrong way. My sons are being raised to engage in the same behaviors because I want to protect them from being a statistic. Look up the Ryan Harris case if you’re wondering what can happen to young MOC that the police decide are predators despite all evidence to the contrary. There’s this perception of black men in particular (though it extends to other MOC) that they’re sexual predators at all times. Look at the reaction to hip-hop as though it was the first genre of music with songs bearing misogynistic lyrics to hit the airwaves. Apparently people have forgotten rock and roll, heavy metal, and country music’s contributions to the sexism that is part and parcel of our society. Not to mention the reality that hip hop ≠ sexist any more than every country song is sexist. Somehow sexism is a major problem when MOC are engaging in it even though quite often according to internal cultural standards they aren’t being sexist or their “crime” isn’t particularly egregious. It’s not really a surprise of course. After all it’s par for the course for imperialistic cultures to refuse to consider the validity of other cultural norms or to recognize that their standards are not necessarily the best option. I’ve got no problem with Obama being called out for engaging in overtly sexist behavior (which has yet to happen) but this rush to condemn him for engaging in behavior that is already pretty subjective (periodically as sexism? really?) while ignoring the reality of life as a MOC in America is ridiculous.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America. Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.

Things You Need To Understand #9 – You Don’t Get A Cookie

When a person or group does something to address the biases and imbalances in our culture, whether it be on a grand scale, in their own sphere of influence, or in themselves, this is a good thing. But doing so isn’t cause for celebration, congratulations, or a party. Why? Because it’s basic human decency. And people shouldn’t be over-praised for doing something they should have been doing in the first place. That leads to them doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — personal or professional accolades. i.e.: Cookies.

This is not to say that people won’t notice when you’re being basically decent. Sadly, in our society, those who do the right thing as regards bias, prejudice, sexism, racism, etc. stand out because so many others around them aren’t doing the right thing. Still and all, your goal should not be to call attention to yourself but to the injustice that you’re now fighting against.

Does that mean you can’t make apologies and state your new intentions? No. But it does mean that you should be prepared for people to not fully care until you start doing instead of talking about doing. Is it going to be uncomfortable for you for a while? Yes. Will you just have to suck it up, because anti-racist and anti-sexist work is more important than your hurt at not being given a cookie? Yes.

Seal Press, Amanda Marcotte…Proof That Feminism And Racism Go Hand In Hand

So, I had just about decided not to speak on the Amanda Marcotte issue and the Seal Press issue because I figured everyone knew I supported BFP and didn’t think too much of Seal Press or their tactics. And I know I am absolutely not capable of much in the way of diplomacy or tact so I left commenting to the people that could say the necessary things without the profanity. But then I saw this post with images from Amanda Marcotte’s latest book and I decided that the time for diplomacy and tact was over. Because when a so-called feminist puts out a book where she shows the empowerment of white women involving rescuing a white man from the evil brown people? Yo, the boys and girls over at Stormfront have lost track of one of their members. When the editors from her press feel the need to try to silence WOC bloggers for saying a resounding Fuck You to a company that is willing to put out this shit while calling themselves welcoming to WOC writers? The sheer ridiculousness of it is choking me. Or is that just vomit?

I’ve made no bones in the past about my feelings that feminism by and large has very little to do with actually helping all women and is really just for white women. Oh, I know it espouses anti-racist ideology, but it has never failed to escape my attention (or the attention of other WOC) that feminism has a distressing tendency to focus on the concerns of middle class white women while ignoring the realities of racism and colonialism and anything remotely to do with intersectionality between gender and race. It doesn’t help that I’ve seen white feminists assume a very paternalistic attitude with WOC particularly when it came to discussions about issues involving MOC while ignoring their own internalized racism. I once sat in a class on the psychology of sexual harassment (the only black woman in the class) and had the lovely experience of a white woman trying to challenge black women on their support of black men despite the misogyny in rap music and the Clarence Thomas case. She literally could not see (despite my efforts to beat reason into the conversation) a problem with her attitude. When I pointed out that white men weren’t immune to misogyny and no one was asking white women to abandon them? Yeah, there was a whole riff about how enlightened the men in her life were and so clearly there was hope for white men. Another white woman who had been sitting there listening politely pointed out her racism and suddenly she could see it. Because clearly the 20+ times I’d pointed it out just did not matter at all. And at this point it’s clear that WOC talking to Seal Press or Amanda Marcotte are actually beating their heads against a brick wall. Because the bigots never listen to POC. They absolutely cannot manage to get past their prejudices long enough to see us as people, never mind as intelligent or capable of critical thought.

So where does that leave WOC and feminism? Frankly we’re at a point where it’s time for feminism to either get it together, or for us to leave it where it is and continue on with our own progressive movements. There’s been some talk for years about how feminism is comprised of multiple movements and until now that’s been enough for me. But I think that I’ve been deluding myself by thinking that the behavior of the allies that do get it trumps the hurt spawned by the bigots calling themselves feminists. I can’t take calls for sisterhood or solidarity seriously from white feminists at this point and I’m sure someone is going to call that attitude racist. And that’s their lookout, but I can’t stand in sisterhood with someone that’s (maybe) willing to knife me in the back and it’s taking too much effort to try to weed out the ones that are really allies from the ones that are only claiming the title.

And yes, Holly at Feministe has spoken up and I do see plenty of white feminists that are acting as allies. I also see people talking about the need to give Amanda Marcotte a safe space from which to respond. Maybe it’s just me, but why exactly is it that WOC aren’t entitled to the same calls for safe space? If we’re supposed to be sisters then shouldn’t safety for us be a priority? AFAIK there is exactly one community devoted to safe space for WOC on the internet and I created it. My co-mod and I work very hard to keep the voyeurs, trolls, and bigots out and the community members guard the space jealously from anyone that might slip past us. And I wish we didn’t have to do that, but I look at this book and the responses to it and the original Seal Press fiasco and I think that we are operating in very hostile territory and the only choice WOC have is to pull back and operate our own spaces in our own ways because we can’t expect anyone to fight for us. And yes, I know many of the people reading this are truly allies and I’m not saying this to hurt you. But we’re going to need you to commence cleaning up your house before you can help us clean up the world.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America. Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.

What is this “protection” of which you speak?

“Sexual assaults are frequent, and frequently ignored, in the armed services.” I have this insane urge to email Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA)and say “Duh!” This is old old news, but every few years someone rediscovers the reality that rapists join the military and we get a bunch of op-eds and exhortations for the military to do more to protect women. The military isn’t all that interested in taking care of male soldiers (see Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and those LSD experiments on unwitting soldiers) since we’re really just here to protect everyone else. I’m a disabled vet that has spent years going back and forth with VA over my leg injuries despite it being documented by a stack of tests from military doctors that gave me a medical discharge because “the damage is too extensive and it will just get worse as you get older” and that was at 19. I’m 31 now. I’ll let you guess how my leg feels now.

Want to hear something shocking? Putting on that uniform does not automatically make the person in it a decent human being. Much like active pedophiles seek out positions that give them access to children? Rapists, abusers, and your run of the mill misogynistic assholes seeks out the military because it’s a place where being hypermasculine is rewarded. And as long as you’re not too careless you can get away with hurting women every day without fear of repercussions. The Army cracks down harder on drug smuggling than it does on rape and spousal abuse. I was a soldier. I married a soldier. As some of you know he hit me the first time for the crime of being pregnant and not wanting to deliver my child alone in Germany while he was slated to be deployed. I told him that I wanted to come back to the States in my last trimester and all Hell broke loose. A neighbor called the MP’s when she heard him kicking down a door to get at me. His command gave him less than a slap on the wrist (I don’t think he even got extra duty) and I was admonished to be more understanding of his stress levels and encouraged not to do anything hasty like leave him. We were sent to counseling (Did you know on every base there’s a group for batterers and their spouses?) and he made all the standard moves (complete with flowery promises never to do it again) and that was the end of that as far as command was concerned.

A friend of mine was attacked by a guy she liked hanging out with while I was stationed at a base in Texas. Despite the fact that she was covered in mud and bruises, our command initially acted like she’d somehow provoked the attack (while wearing that oh so sexy set of BDU’s) and when it became clear that she wasn’t going to let this slide (So as to not ruin his career. After all since they’d been friends before the incident didn’t she care about his future?) they made a desultory show of an investigation and he wound up on extra duty and losing a few weeks pay. Mind you, she didn’t shower, he’d torn her uniform and she’d put up one hell of a fight judging from the bruises I saw and the blood all over her fingernails. But, somehow there wasn’t enough evidence to merit pursuing a criminal case. Meanwhile the guy that drove down to Mexico and got caught crossing the border with a kilo of coke? They threw the book at him. AFAIK he’s still in Leavenworth and won’t be going anywhere in the next 5-10 years.

The only time I saw any real justice meted out for a guy assaulting a fellow soldier it was done by another guy that was friends with the woman that had been attacked. Of course he just beat the shit out of the would be rapist and dared him to report it to Top. It wasn’t (obviously) the best response, but we all knew that it was the only way anything substantive would happen to him. Note, I am not saying that every male in the service is a rapist or that every woman is going to be victimized. Your MOS will make a huge difference (my 1st MOS was the equivalent of being a stevedore so I was with a lot of males and very few females) as will your appearance and your willingness to drink. Those of you that know me in meat space are well aware that you’ve never seen me drunk in public. That was a habit I picked up as a petite woman in a male dominated social environment. Mind you, I can drink more than the average woman my size (courtesy of a flirtation with a drinking problem in high school and hanging out with women that drink whiskey), but unless I’m in a situation that’s completely safe (like my house) I’m not getting sloshed.

Women that look feminine (think nice clothes, makeup, doing your hair, smelling good and all the other frilly things that you can start to miss after three weeks of running around in the mud and muck) and fall into specific gender roles (what better way to feel feminine than to flirt a lot and play wife to the guy of the moment?) in their off time get a lot of attention in the military. Some of it is good. A lot of it is not. Women who serve become aware very quickly of all the ways that shit can go wrong. If you happen to be exceptionally lucky at your first duty station someone may well run down the facts of life for you. What are they? You need to avoid getting drunk, avoid drinking anything you did not pour for yourself, and avoid being alone in a room with a bunch of guys no matter how well you think you know them because that is always a bad idea. You may get warned about which members of command to avoid at all costs and what guys have already engaged in some ugly behavior. Is it fair that the onus is on the women to protect themselves? No. But this idea that the military will actually protect them is so ludicrous all I can do is laugh like a hyena at the thought. Unless we’re planning to overhaul our entire society, women that sign up need to be aware that the predator concentration is much higher in the closed environment of the U.S. military. It sucks and I’d love to buy into the delusion that military = hero, but I knew too many assholes in uniform to lie to myself that way.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America. Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.

The Gospel of Race in America

Just so I can be safe in addressing Obama’s speech on race in America that he gave this morning, I’ve posted the video for those that haven’t heard it yet. Since he gave the speech I’ve been checking out the reactions in various places and while some folks are still saying “Rev. Wright hates white peepul! He wants to kill whitey” or they’re saying “Slavery is over, why are black people still talking about racism?!” for the most part people seem willing to at least look at the elephant in the room. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. Black people are angry and white people resent their anger because America likes to pretend that history doesn’t matter at all.  Were all white people complicit in slavery? No. But they did benefit from the free labor and not just in the short term. Are black people angry about racism? Yes. But then slavery wasn’t their last brush with overt racism. 

There’s this idea that it’s not okay for black people to react to racism except in ways that make white people comfortable. It’s an idea that makes no sense to anyone that grasps that the black community is comprised of people with their own individual agendas and agency. But then the idea of the black community as a monolith is one America has never been able to shake, instead there is an effort to lump us all in under one umbrella and pretend the totality of our experience can be summed up in a few stereotypes. White America is perceived to be made up of individuals with different goals, backgrounds and upbringing all of which can impact their decisions. But when you start talking about black culture there seems to only be two options available, and that’s black people who are “past” race (i.e. don’t discuss it or pretend racism doesn’t affect them) or black people that won’t “let go” of the past by continuing to recognize the reality of modern day racism.  

Racism isn’t a contest with specific rules that say that you’re only racist if your ancestors held slaves, or if you come right out and say you hate black people. White America tends to want to shy away from the impact not only of institutional racism, but also that of individual racism. This creates this weird thought process where discussing race and racism in any straightforward fashion is forbidden despite the fact that it’s a huge part of American society. Few white people wants to address the anger or the pain that it causes, and so they ignore it, or get upset when someone starts talking honestly about the issues in a way that’s not comfortable for them to hear.

Meanwhile for black people (and other POC) race is ever present because it impacts every facet of our daily life. From access to appropriate hair care products (or lack thereof) to the way we’re treated by police officers, to the way in which our grooming is judged and discussed at work, school, or even in the media (don’t get me started on being a black woman with natural hair that I wear the way it grows out of my head) as though our bodies are still available to be evaluated for sale. Race is never off the table for us. This is a fact of our life in America. At some point in order for America to really move past it’s history it’s going to need to examine the past, and the roots of so many societal ills that tie into institutionalized racism.

That means talking about redlining, gentrification, discriminatory lending, discriminatory sentencing, racial profiling, and even about what has happened to successful black communities in the past. It means looking at why school district lines are drawn the way they are, and examining why some neighborhoods have more liquor stores than grocery stores. It’ll mean talking about the Welfare Queen myth and looking at who is actually receiving aid, and talking honestly about affirmative action and the primary beneficiaries of the program.  

Thus far the accepted American approach seems to involve emulating an ostrich rather than facing the problem head on on a daily basis. This idea that pretending unity can be achieved by ignoring reality has always struck as me as completely ridiculous. We are a society composed of so many individual backgrounds and experiences, and we need to recognize the value of that patchwork even as we address the gaps those differences can cause between the people of America. It’s not enough to talk about being colorblind or tolerant (and let me just say that this idea that POC need to be colorless or tolerated to be accepted as equals is just racism in a different context) we need to address the wrongs and make steps to prevent them from remaining (or becoming) an endemic part of our culture.

It’s time to pull those heads out of the sand, and start participating in the most important conversation America has had in a long time. It cannot just be about this one speech or this one candidate. It needs to be a part of our daily lives for all the years to come, or our kids will inherit a mess that’s comprised of the same garbage that we’re wading through right now.

Karnythia is a writer, a historian, and occasionally a loud mouth. In between raising hell and raising kids she usually manages to find time to contemplate the meaning of life as a black woman in America.” Her posts on any topic can be found at her Livejournal.