This isn’t what I was planning to write about today, and I’m feeling extremely nervous about what I’m about to say. I’m worried about accusations that I’m a privileged white woman who can’t understand what the African American community has gone through at the hands of some of the police force, and those people would be absolutely right. I admit that I am privileged as a white person in the United States, and I feel ashamed of it.
Yet, events in the news recently, including the murder of George Floyd by police, and Amy Cooper consciously weaponizing a call to 911, make me feel ashamed and helpless in the face of murderous hate by people who look like me. If the world were not in the middle of a pandemic, I would be looking for a march to join, and creating picket signs, but things being as they are, I feel compelled to use my blog to make a statement.
As I thought this morning about what I wanted to say, I considered how I could possibly say something insightful about a criminal justice system that is not truly about justice because the people in it do not apply the rules evenly. Then, I thought about the rioters in Minneapolis and what they must be feeling at this time, and what they must want, and I found my answer. Please bear with me while I connect the dots.
One of my heroes, Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist earned my devotion when I saw a clip of him answering the following question, which was posed by a gray-haired white man:
“What’s up with chicks and science?”
In the film clip, the room erupts in nervous titters of laughter, and the man smiles, smugly. The mediator asks if anyone wants “to field if maybe there are genetic differences between men and women that explain why more men are in science?”
Neil Degrasse Tyson speaks up and says the following wondrous thing:
“I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So, let me, perhaps, offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a white male dominated society.
When I look at–throughout my life–I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old–a first visit the the Hayden (sp?) planetarium . . . So, I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And, all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands-down the path of most resistance through the forces of . . . society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, ‘Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete?’
I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And, so, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curve-balls I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel, and I kept going. And now, here I am . . . one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me and say, where are the others who might have been this? And they’re not there.
I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn–to the point where I have security guards following me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief. I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off, and so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting exploitation of this–what a scam that was!
So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks, and when you don’t find women in the sciences–I know that these forces are real. I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So, before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”
Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comparison between the forces that oppress African Americans and the forces that oppress women resonated with me, as did his description of the barriers that are put in front of both of these groups of people to keep them from realizing their dreams. So, I’m going to talk about this issue from that perspective–from the perspective of a woman in a white male dominated society. While I realize that this isn’t perfect, and I do recognize my privilege as a white person, I feel that it does give me some insight. I’ve never been African American, but I have been a woman all of my life.
I grew up in a conservative, Christian, white family. Every Sunday, we would get up early, get dressed up, and go to church. I went to Sunday school, was an acolyte, and was confirmed as a Christian before I really had any life experience. One of the messages that I absorbed from this upbringing was of strict, traditional, 1950s style, gender roles. I have no idea if my parents meant for me to absorb this, but I did. In my mind, the perfect woman was married and took care of her husband and their home by cooking and cleaning. She also stayed home to raise their children. In return, the perfect man worked outside the home, payed the bills, and benevolently loved his family.
When I married my high school sweetheart at age 18, I had every intention of becoming this mental picture of the perfect woman. As I write this, I cringe a little at my 18-year-old naivety, and I know now just how ill-suited I am for the type of life I thought I was supposed to live.
The first week of my marriage, my beautiful mental picture was destroyed by an act of domestic violence, although I didn’t recognize it as that at the time. The man I’d married became angry with me over a minor issue that I offered to fix. Instead of allowing me to fix it, he started screaming at me, calling me names, invading my personal space, and pointing his finger in my face threateningly. Terrified, I backed away from him until I came up against the living room wall, where he pinned me and screamed at me for what felt like 20 minutes. I was certain that he was going to hit me, and I braced myself for the blow. It never came, and I told myself that the incident was a fluke. It wasn’t.
The same scenario repeated over and over, escalating in severity and frequency. I began to dread my husband coming home from work, and at the same time I tried to fix the situation, and create the life I’d expected to have when I married him. I told him that the way he was treating me was wrong, and that he needed to stop losing his temper and threatening and berating me. Instead of listening to me, he took my confirmation Bible off of the bookshelf and turned to Ephesians 5: 22 through 24 and read to me:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband has authority over his wife just as Christ has authority over the church; and Christ is himself the Savior of the church, his body. And so wives must submit themselves completely to their husbands just as the church submits itself to Christ.”
While my husband looked at me with triumph in his eyes, my entire worldview crumbled around me.
As far as he was concerned, he could do whatever he wanted to me with impunity because it was the will of God.
Now, you’re probably saying that isn’t the intention of that verse, and coming up with all kinds of reasons why what he said was wrong. And you have a point. If someone could use the Bible, which I’d always believed was a tenet of kindness and compassion towards fellow humans, to justify abusing me, there was something terribly wrong with this foundation. In that moment it sunk into my soul that the world I’d been raised in was built on a foundation of misogyny.
I wonder how many African American people have had this moment of realization that their world is built on a foundation of racism. My sense is that most of them do considering this country’s history.
Eventually, that man left me for another woman. Sometimes I worry about her, but I’m glad that he left because I don’t know how much longer I would have stayed with him, or how much more damage I would have allowed him to do to my psyche. The damage was bad enough as it was. After he left, I went through a terrible depressive episode where I couldn’t stop crying. As a Highly Sensitive Person, it doesn’t take a lot to bring me to tears, but that depressive episode was way over the top. I once cried over a pair of slippers in a department store. It was so bad that I went to the doctor thinking that something was medically wrong with me, and he had to explain that this was depression. I’d had no idea.
The doctor prescribed antidepressants and referred me to a therapist. I was terrified of therapy, but with my doctor’s encouragement, I went anyway. Therapy helped me to build a new foundation for my world. Ever since my now ex-husband had shattered the foundation I’d been raised with, I’d felt un-moored. My therapist helped me to release the internalized misogyny of my upbringing, and I was so relieved to feel solid again that I decided to become a therapist myself so that I could help others going through similar experiences.
As I went through the process of getting my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and then getting the 3,000 supervised hours of treatment that I needed to have under my belt in order to take my licensing board exams, I happened to get an internship at a domestic violence shelter.
My faith in God had already been shaken, and I no longer attended church, but I hadn’t released my faith yet. However, my experience in that shelter moved me all the way out of Christianity. One after another, these horribly abused women, who had severe and chronic physical problems from the abuse they’d suffered, told me that they had gone to their pastor, rabbi, or priest for help, and had received the same message: “If you were a better wife, he would stop abusing you.”
This message is bullshit.
I can tell you first-hand that nothing a woman does in an abusive relationship leads to the abuse stopping, because the abuse is not about the woman’s behavior. I did everything I could think of. I made elaborate meals. I cleaned the house with a toothbrush. I feigned interest in things my ex-husband cared about. It made no difference. Later, I learned the truth. Abusers abuse because of their own internal state, not because of anything the victim does.
I think this is true of racism as well. Racists hate because of their own internal state, not because of anything that their victims have done.
While I worked in the shelter, I started my own personal survey course in religion. I read about the major Middle Eastern religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I also read about Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism. For a while I suspended choice, but over time I settled on Buddhism because it seemed to be the kindest of the major religions. Still, it didn’t quite fit.
Recently, I’ve been exploring the history of the ancient goddesses, and I’m in awe of their power. I’m in awe of a society that revered such powerful females, and I want to live in that society. I think I’m a pagan.
I haven’t told my family how I feel about Christianity up to this point, but they read my blog. (Perhaps only they read it). So, in a way I’m outing myself, which is a bit terrifying for me. So, why am I telling you this? I’ve been holding these feelings secret in my heart for years. Why now? And what do these experiences have to do with what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots in Minneapolis?
Well, I’m telling you this to illustrate the process of changing one’s mind and worldview. I went from being raised in a conservative Christian family to being a liberal feminist because of a series of experiences that showed me that what I’d been raised to believe didn’t fit the facts of my world.
It takes time and pain and a willingness to talk to those that you wish to understand, just as I did with the women in the domestic violence shelter. It also means a willingness to experience the rejection of the people in your life who wish to maintain the status quo, just as I’m now risking the judgment of my family.
Even when the status quo is shameful and cruel and unjust, separation from people with a different worldview, and fear of being ostracized by your social group, can often keep people from admitting the wrongs right in front of their eyes. Even if they do admit them, often people will say, well, racism is terrible, but I can’t do anything to stop it.
I’m here to say you can. If I could confront the inherent misogyny in my culture and my religion and choose to turn away from it, you can take the great leap of attempting to understand why someone whose world shows them nothing but hate and violence might choose to tear that world apart in a riot. You can talk to those who have experienced hatred and hold space for their pain. You can shut down people who tell racist jokes. You can do your best to examine your own bias and admit that it is there. You can see that the world that you live in is not the world that others live in. Changing yourself is the first step, and it spreads from there.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [or woman] changes his [her] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him [or her]. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi