Years ago, I used to religiously watch Bill Maher’s late night show where he had people on to share their views about various topics–sort of a politically incorrect version of The View–only actually occasionally funny and thought provoking.
At the time, I was very much an Independent voter–a woman who voted for Nader and identified Green–a cynic about the two party system–but in most ways, liberal. Whatever the fuck that means. Most of the time, I agreed with Maher–and when I didn’t–I certainly understood his arguments and…at the very least…respected him for saying what others only thought to themselves.
It’s been years since I’ve followed anything Maher did, so I have zero clue as to where he is politically these days. But I wasn’t really surprised when I saw the clip that got him trending. This was a classic Maher thing, and it was interesting to me that Maher’s use of that word was most of the focus of the outrage–rather than the initial convo that got him to quip in such a way. Without context, it looks like he was just whipping it out when–in fact–he was responding to a seriously passive aggressive, racist comment from a white man who should have known better. While I wouldn’t have said what Maher said–and thought–“Oh, God. Why, Bill, why?”–the other guy was the person I actually had the problem with. Because, based on my knowledge of Maher–albeit from years ago–this was him highlighting what a racist buffoon this dude was–basically refocusing that conversation in a non-threatening (to the privileged white audience) way.
White guys saying the n word is not something new. It’s happened throughout our history–especially when comedians and political pundits are involved. We hear this word all the time, and there are rules about what’s okay and what isn’t. Rules that we, as white people, can’t and shouldn’t decide. And at least on Twitter, among the people I know–most of them African American–this was not okay. Decidedly, fundamentally not okay. No gray areas here.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is, right?
I follow Kelly Carlin on Twitter. She’s the daughter of George Carlin–the amazing late comedian who was known for pushing boundaries. She responded to the controversy by posting this:
It’s her father’s bit about why it’s important to avoid euphemisms and to use the words that reflect the truth. George was known for being anti-PC. He was a brilliant comic, but also someone who truly pushed our boundaries and made us think. In this world, his absence is palpable. And maybe, if Maher had even an ounce of his talent–this conversation would be different.
Who knows if George would have went there with this in this political climate. And while I absolutely understand, and even respect, his assessment of such delicate words–I actually disagree with him.
At the same time, I think labeling Maher as a racist and calling for his firing is not okay either. I don’t really think Maher’s a racist–based on this one conversation–and I don’t think he really did anything that hasn’t been done time and time again by others.
I think, though, that all of this presents a real opportunity for dialogue–which will likely be ignored because we’re not a nation of people who talk or try to understand each other anymore. We’re a nation of reactors–raw nerves–the walking wounded. And while in the past, we maybe could tolerate these tough conversations–right now–we’re in survival mode–fighting like hell for basic human decency.
Which is why I think George is wrong about this particular dialogue.
In a more innocent, fair world–this is a conversation that has teeth…and there is leeway. But in this world, this heartbreaking world–this is a totally different dialogue.
We’ve taken steps backward in terms of our collective understanding of who we actually are as humans.
When the whole election nonsense went down, we had just said goodbye to the first African American president–this magical unicorn of a thing that said we–as humans–might not completely suck. Maybe the stuff we Americans accept as gospel was true. Maybe we were the land of opportunity–the home of the brave. And then we elected Agent Orange–and suddenly our ass was out. All of a sudden, white America–liberal white America–realized who they were.
And it was infuriating for those of us who saw who they were all along.
“You’re just now seeing we suck? Really?”
Had white, liberal America seen that–known that in their bones–they may not have hated on Hillary so much.
(Which is kinda beside the point, actually, since–you know–Hillary actually won–but that’s another conversation).
I was an overweight kid–which was quite ironic given how much I actually starved as a child. Malnutrition is an interesting thing. Your body adapts. And mine did for a long time. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a “normal” metabolism because of it.
My childhood was brutal and chaotic in so many ways, but in some ways, it was innocent. I grew up, primarily, in the 1980s and 1990s. My father was only alive for the first 6 years of my life, but it had a huge impact. He was a strict man who believed in discipline and education. No daughter of his would ever be less than, and he made sure to empower me at every turn–giving me the gift of knowledge. My mother was this hardworking woman from salt of the Earth country. A woman who became bluntly honest at my father’s urging–who had no time for cruelty, but was also a bit naive about the world–about the nuances of difference–who had no mean bone in her body–but was of a time and place where certain insensitive shit was unintentionally embraced as truth. In some ways, my mother was quite ignorant–where my father was probably purposefully so–given his stint in various wars and the traumas he’d face in his life. I mention these things to give you some context. Because it’s not black and white. It’s not easy. No one’s an enemy per se. It’s important to understand who we’re really dealing with.
My parents were both people who struggled with trauma, in their various ways, as well as alcohol. My father, of course, lost that battle. But, upon my father’s urging, my mother–in her way–won. As much as you can win such battles.
If you know anything at all about alcohol or any kind of addiction–really–you understand–fundamentally–that it’s about numbing. It’s about disembodiment–about the disconnect of a physical body to a human soul and an emotional being. It’s stalling–not living. Enduring–not growing. Severing rather than connecting.
This was my childhood, in a nutshell, and I learned all the ways to do those things. As a kid, the reality of my body was never discussed or addressed–though it was a real problem. A source of pain–something that severely limited me. Something that made me different. Another way to weep. But also a tool to survive. A litmus test. A suit of armor that kept me safe in ways. Until it got too heavy to keep dragging it along with my heart and mind.
In some strange way, within that context, severing my body from my brain and my heart–living in such a compartmentalized way–was a loving thing that allowed me to stay innocent–yet wholly ignorant to the reality in which I lived. A state of denial that allowed me some semblance of esteem rather than the devastation that came with the chaos of my childhood.
As such, I never had a good appreciation for who I was physically. I knew I was “big-boned” as my Mama called it–but that was just our family. That was just normal. And there was good reason for that–so it wasn’t my fault–and therefore was not something I could do anything about. It was just a fact of who I was. But it was also a lie. I wasn’t “big-boned” naturally. The weight was the result of my traumatic childhood. It was an intentional way to numb out reality–to disconnect and protect myself–and it just so happened that poverty supported it in being an easy way to do all I was taught to do. So, while my Daddy drank himself to death–literally–I ate crap. It was a way to be blameless and a victim all at once.
I was always a curious, smart kid who got things–though–so I knew…at some level…that it was crap. That it wasn’t mine. But I needed to be blameless. And I needed to be someone other than who I was. So, I never identified as fat. It wasn’t me. Which became a HUGE problem when I made the decision to deal with it, years later. Mostly because I was never a functioning adult when it came to food. That was a real struggle–and sometimes, it still is.
So, while I was aware of my difference, and while I noted the changes in my body–I was also very sheltered from it–for years and years and years. It was the elephant in the room that I chose not to see. And when you’re living in that kind of self-deception, it’s easy to be gutted and manipulated.
When I taught, I learned about a lot of different learning theories. I built my lesson plans based on these theories. When you’re devising things, you can’t just start with complex things. You have to work your way up to various degrees for the knowledge to stick. In working on myself and getting rid of bad habits, I’ve learned that my all or nothing approach to life is a symptom of the things that keep me stuck in less than. You can choose to go for the big goal all at once–but you will almost certainly fail–and that failure might derail you forever. It’s much better to backwards plan. I learned this from TFA. You set your biggest, most impossible goal–because you always will underestimate yourself. It should fucking terrify you. And you think of it as a ladder or a staircase. I prefer the staircase. And you set milestones based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The bite-sized pieces. Small goals that can change your reality slowly while the rest of you catches up. Each new thing creates a domino that makes the next new thing real.
But, as I’ve learned from therapy–all of this can only really happen if it’s all working together. The mind, the body, the heart, the soul–all of it has to work in unison. And it’s the same in educating young minds. If your resources aren’t working in concert–you can’t climb the damn ladder.
Trauma has a way of disconnecting things. When trauma happens, your brain compartmentalizes reality. Your body is no longer communicating with your heart or your mind or your soul. Why? Because disconnection requires a certain degree of numbness–non-communication–a lack of feeling.
For white, liberal America, for years now–and possibly most especially after Obama’s election, there was this misconception that–because we as a country elected an African American–the time for social justice and civil rights advocacy was over. But it was actually just setting us up for the next rung.
When you’ve climbed a few steps on the ladder, it’s easy to forget that the journey to the big goal is a long and winding one. It’s easy to say, “Well, I’ve done a lot. Maybe this is good enough.” Because climbing the rungs to that scary big goal is hard and fucking terrifying. Doing hard work is traumatic in, and of, itself. It requires all the things working together. It requires vulnerability and transparency.
If you look at the whole of our country, you will see that–while we climbed those first few rungs–achieving real progress–they only came about because the pain of trauma was too great to bear. And once change happened, we all wanted to stop weeping. So we recovered for a while. This recovery can be tough–because it means embracing what is to a degree…and often, when things are still sick or imperfect–it’s easy to tell yourself lies or to ignore the elephant sitting on your chest.
You can’t breathe, and you notice it–because it fucking hurts and sucks–but you tell yourself it’s normal and fine. That it’s just life. And your mind and body adapts to that reality. Usually by disconnecting from it. By numbing out.
I’ve learned you can endure basically anything. Literally anything that should kill your soul and heart and everything else can be endured if you turn off your silly mind and heart.
But there is a cost to this. Any progress you made–well, suddenly, you’re at the last rung all over again.
The litmus test for what is okay or not okay has to come from those affected by it.
For example–about a year ago–I tried online dating again. It’s taken me years and years and years of hard work–climbing those rungs–to get to a point where I am comfortable with my body. I sleep naked pretty regularly now when years ago I was terrified of it. I don’t care who sees me in a bathing suit–though I will never do bikinis–no matter how great I look in them. I make no apologies for enjoying what my body can do. I am a sexual being, and it’s an important part of any relationship I have. But I’m only here because all the parts connect. It’s taken years of therapy–learning to connect to my body–not living in my head all the damn time–to get there.
The site I was using at the time had a bunch of questions you could answer to determine your match to people based on algorithms. I am a big lover of questions–since I am so curious about people–so I would often casually answer these things–forgetting that people are often assholes.
At some point, I answered a question saying I’d have sex on the first date–with a note saying I don’t live my life based on arbitrary rules about propriety. A guy who seemed decent and actually someone I’d want to meet messaged me, and I was hopeful that this guy could be a possible match. I responded back and was then greeted with a nevermind–some bullshit about how we are not aligned. And I was sort of confused by that–and the guy basically called me a slut. In his nice, evolved SF tech bro sort of way. (Which–oh God, don’t get me started).
Now–I will often call myself a whore for whatever. A slut for cupcakes. Any number of unsavory names directed at women for any number of reasons. My friends do the same with themselves and each other. It’s humorous. But it’s also us reclaiming the words.
But when that man said that to me–I was seriously offended. And I’m not one to ever get offended. As an INFP–while I may hate what you say–I always want to understand–so offense is usually well-earned with me. You have to do a lot to get me there. I usually assume innocence.
And even in that state of offense, I figured he had his reasons–so I asked him why he thought I was a slutty woman who wasn’t serious about finding love. I didn’t go off on him, as I really sort of wanted to. I was genuinely curious what it was about me that made him–this seemingly perfect match–think that about me. Because I certainly didn’t want to convey that–and it must have been some huge misunderstanding–and even then I was willing to clear it up and give him a chance to rectify it. I was certain–whatever it was–he would see it was a misunderstanding…this preposterous idea. Because of all the people in the world, I am probably most known within my network of humans as a good, decent, upstanding woman. Friends actually make jokes that I am some closet so and so because I can’t be that good of a human. A lot of my friends were shocked when they discovered I curse. All the time.
But he withheld exactly what it was–saying only that it was some response I made to a question. And I tried to tell him–whatever it was–no–I’m a good person. I don’t sleep with people I don’t have a serious connection to. I am not fucking promiscuous. But he didn’t believe me!
Do you know how infuriating that is? So, I went through all my answers and figured it out. And then I got pissed off. And then I was relieved to have dodged that bullet.
My point here is this–when you’re a member of a disenfranchised class who is constantly told who you should be and constantly treated as less than human to the point that who you fundamentally are has to align with someone else’s opinion of your worth–only you can decide if a word that is used for that purpose uplifts or stings.
And sometimes, you’ll be shocked by what triggers the sting. For me–being called pretty is a stinging word. So is nice. Mostly because of the context of being a woman in this day and age.
I don’t want those words to hurt me. I’m not a reactionary person. I’m someone who is careful about her words, always–sometimes in contradictory ways–but someone who is always mindful of vulnerability and intimacy in those words. Words fucking matter to me. I am picky about them. But I am also a forgiving person who gives people lots of room. Who tries to assume the goodness of people. Who wants to understand.
I tell it like it is–diplomatically. Friends and even clients keep mentioning that lately. The truth matters, but so does kindness.
I don’t want to be offend or to feel the sting of that offense because I want the truth–always. I want to be vulnerable and intimate in my language. I’ve worked too hard to overcome my past to let lazy language stop me. But that’s what happens when offense happens. It’s a slap. And your first instinct isn’t to stand there and let them slap you again. It’s to push them back–or turn away. It’s numbing.
And I can be a master at numb. At the shut down. At the push back. In all the ways that have nothing to do with my body. It creates ripples of toxic disconnection. So, I work hard to stay there in that suffering…to explain that I am not that word–and why. To talk about it. Because as important as it is to understand? Being understood is the only way to relieve the sting.
Because even if they don’t get it–or value your opinion about your own experience? You do.
We, as white people, don’t get to say it’s okay for a white man to use that word. We don’t get to excuse it because he’s probably not racist.
Not here. Not now. Not when we’re ten feet under the bottom of the first rung. Not when there are black men being murdered by cops on FB live. Not when there are white people asking me–a white person–why I marched for BLM. Not when you say “all lives matter.” Not when we’re seriously talking about wall-building.
We have not earned that right. We haven’t done the work.
But we can help the sting stop hurting. We can try to understand. We can shut up and listen.