The climb

The climb
Climbing together

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Fifth Race: Tolerance for ambiguity

From this link that talks about the Society for the Study of this awesome human:

La Conciencia de la mestiza (Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa) struck me in a very visceral way. “In a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways, la mestiza is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another. Being tricultural, monolingual…and in a state of perpetual transition, the mestiza faces the dilemma of the mixed breed” (p. 100). Which collectivity does the child of two cultures speak to?

My father came from the Appalachian Mountains, in a rural town that is literally clinging to the side of a mountain, surrounded then by tobacco farms and now by the desolation of deep mineral mining spotting the landscape. There is a deep-rooted culture there, born from the Scotch-Irish-Welsh immigrants that settled there after the first wave of Western expansion into the New World. The land is not welcoming enough to strangers to encourage an influx of new blood, except perhaps in the flatter, more urban areas. The music, the lilt in the voices, the food, the ritual, are soaked in every aspect of living. The breakdown of the social structure is evident in the upkeep of the homes. Those that are tidy, even in poverty, have not yet succumbed. 

My mother is from the other side of the world, was raised in a country that had known colonialism, revolt, and civil war without respite. Being the active, take-charge person that she is, my memories of childhood are saturated with her presence, and the strange knowledge that this person who was as intimately familiar to me as myself, who I had known before I had even known that I was a person, was considered foreign and alien to the cultural context that I lived in. I never hear her accent. I mean I do, but I don't. This is the first voice I heard, and knew. It can't sound accented.

A tolerance for ambiguity might be the title of my autobiography. I have a curious capacity to maintain psychological fortitude in the face of overwhelming complexity and ambiguity. I live in a world of flat gray, where black and white and moral high ground cannot exist. I can’t even have a proper argument without being consumed with shame at my temporary blindness to this reality.

The 5th Race?

Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959) was one of the most influential Mexican intellectuals of the 20th Century. He theorized, in a manner that was quite contrary to the white supremacy of his time, that the Latin American mestizo constituted a new, "cosmic race," marrying the virtues of Indians (in the idealized manner of the "noble savage") and Europeans. Vasconcelos believed that this fifth race would be the race of the future.

Vasconcelos was, by no means, some utopian genius who was born before his time. His description of this ideal 5th race is rife with stereotypes and simplistic, two-dimensional misconceptions: "His soul resembles the old Mayan cenote [natural well] of green waters, laying deep and still, in the middle of the forest, for so many centuries since, that not even its legend remains any more. This infinite quietude is stirred with the drop put in our blood by the Black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust. There also appears the Mongol, with the mystery of his slanted eyes that see everything according to a strange angle, and discover I know not what folds and newer dimensions."

However, the idea of this 5th race has gummed up the works in my thinking cap. As a person of mixed race, living in a country that is still tearing apart at the seams because of the consequences of racialized a person involved in researching and understanding health behavior...I find it curious that we continue to parse out race as we do.

The Curious Case of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Pictured here with one of his fav skulls
Blumenbach, a German anatomist and naturalist, was the student of Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carolus Linneaus. He is responsible for creating the single most influential of all the hierarchical race classifications - and it was not only NOT based in science in any way, shape, or form, his process was riddled with errors! So, there's that whole bizarre aspect of the reality we currently exist in. He basically had a lot of skulls. Let's not really explore why or how. That's probably for another blog.

In the third edition of his seminal work On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1795), Blumenbach was the first to propose five generic and hierarchically arranged racial groups specifically named “races” based on the study of human skulls: (1) the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race (Europeans); (2) the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race (Asians); (3) the Malayan or “brown” race (Polynesians); (4) the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race (Africans); (5) the American or “red” race (Native Americans).

Ironically, Blumenbach opposed slavery and professed to believe in equality, but he chose the place the Caucasoid at the top of the hierarchy because a skull that he found in the Caucus mountains was particularly beautiful and pleasing to him.

The influence of Blumenbach's Taxonomy on the US Census is partly related to the adaptability of the taxonomy to a sociocultural contract that centers whiteness, it was also just a matter of timely coincidence.

In her book Raising Mixed Race, Sharon Chang explains this event in more detail. It's breathtaking to consider the sweeping implications of the legislative posturing that characterized congress at that time, when slavery was still a central component of the American economy and tensions were escalating between the North and South. "Right between publication of the first (1776) and third (1795) editions of Blumenbach’s On the Natural Variety of Mankind. 18 The requirement for population enumeration, based on racial categories being solidified by white scientists at the time, was aggressively pushed by southern slaveholders seeking to insure that the South’s growing white and Black populations would be carefully counted for the purpose of increased white representation. Northern delegates actually opposed the provision, but it was passed, and the federal census has become the national template for racial categorization."

The "new" mestiza consciousness 

In 1993, this was the cover of TIME Magazine. Of this oft-cited image, Chang criticizes: "I seldom see recognition of the fact that the magazine used mixed race to operate out of age-old white racial framing and push an age-old white worldview on the future. First, Time sidelined contemporary multiracials by coopting their experience with a voiceless, lifeless avatar. Then the magazine fabricated a mixed race Galatea who was really “two thirds” white when the world’s actual population majority is Asian and African."

The idea that a post-racial utopia can be founded merely on the intermingling of the races is simplistic at best. Although race mixed challenges the mutable frames of whiteness that come from the racialized society, and while in many ways racial mixing reproblematizes concepts that had been assumed to be dead, it has not at all meant the end of race. Post-raciality is colorblind idealism; relying on some future racial utopia founded merely in racial mixing and bottom-up approaches that come from the community rather than from policy and legislation is incredibly loaded, dangerously unseeing, and potentially reinforces those racialized ideologies we see to escape.

The 2014 US Census projected that non-Hispanic white people would comprise less than 50% of the population by the year 2040. It's important to remember that the white racialized ideological frames that became part of the legislative foundation of the United States did not evolve in a vacuum. Just as trade has forced globalization, so too must our contact with other cultures and ways of knowing force an evolution in the concepts that we have tried to cling to so strongly that the forces of this delusion are literally ripping the fabric of the nation apart.

In 2013 roughly 12% of new marriages in the US were between spouses who reported different races. Photographer Martin Schoeller captured the changing face of America in a photography series featured in National Geographic Magazine.


The thing about identity is that it is not solid or immutable. It changes according to context, place, time, circumstances, and your own personal growth. Dr. Nina Boyd Krebs used the term "edgewalkers" to describe those who can move between cultures and traditions with a certain degree of comfort. Krebs envisions Edgewalkers as happy ambassadors who welcome questions regardless of the intent of the questioner, and who have the capacity to respond with equanimity and calmness. They enjoy confounding people, relying on humor and patience to use racial encounters, whether positive or negative, to spark authentic dialogue about dominant historical narratives and counterstories. 

As with most things, though, the work must begin at an individual level. Anzaldúa does an excellent job of characterizing this invisible labor: “The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in the healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.” (Borderlands, Anzaldúa, p. 102)

Soy un amasamiento – I am an act of kneading, of uniting, and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings. (p.103)

She becomes a nahual, able to transform herself into a tree, a coyote, into another person. She learns to transform the small “I” into the total Self. Se hace moldeadora de su alma. Según la concepción que tiene de sí misma, así será. (p.105)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Yellow Peril and Black Lives Matter

Again, this topic bloomed from my Critical Race Theory class yesterday. I had seen a photo online - a sign with the phrase "Yellow Peril Supports Black Power". I mentioned it in class and gave a brief description that didn't really delve into the history of the phrase, so I thought I'll blog about it because it is a pretty fascinating topic, and it also brings up the issue of cross-sectoral collaboration in the advocacy world.

Image from Love InshAllah

Whiteness as Property

Dan Truong explored the topic in a Huffington Post piece. I think it's important to reinforce the concept that whiteness isn't the same thing as being white. The concept of "whiteness as property" is one of the central tenants of Critical Race Theory. In 1993, Cheryl Harris, wrote an article that laid out the conceptual framework of whiteness as property. In the era that followed the slavery and conquest that characterized the infancy of the United States, whiteness became the prerequisite for access to racialized privilege. We refer to this as white privilege now, but the concept is the same - the term describes the often unconscious process of allocating both public and private social benefits based on the perceived degree of whiteness. 

It was the very racialization of identity that allowed the United States to be established - without this embryonic concept, the ideological justification for slavery and the conquest of the First Nations may have been impossible. As Harris writes, "The hyper-exploitation of black labor was accomplished by treating black bodies as property" and indeed, it was the very act of objectifying black people that conflated race and property. Similarly, it was the objectification of Native Americans that allowed the government to confer the rights of property to whites who settled in Native territory.

Yellow Peril

Check out this WOC in Solidarity Tumblr, Yo!
The idea of the Yellow Peril/Terror/Spectre/<insert terrifying association here> originated in the late 19th Century. As the fantastical story goes, Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany's leader at the time) had a nightmare involving the Buddha riding a dragon and threatening to invade Europe.

It was the threat to imperialism that initially drove the Yellow Peril phenomenon in Europe. In the US, however, the narrative was driven by social consequences from the surfeit of Asian immigrants providing cheap labor for the Westward expansion. The essentialism involved in reducing a human being into a color is part of a larger trend of othering and perceiving nonwhite features as alien. In the book Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fears (John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds), the editors trace this particular brand of racism back to the European colonialism during the Enlightenment.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Tchen's outline of the origin of the harmful Asian caricature image that is still considered acceptable in many circles as a source of entertainment and amusement today:

“From my research, the transplantation of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism into a potent Anglo-American Protestantism is key. This was the underlying, interlocking political culture which formulated a particular notion of the property-owning, white, male, superior, rational male benevolently (and by right) presiding over an expanding north America—with Canada in their sights, south into Mexico and the inferior Spanish colonies, and westward into the Pacific with the luxuries of ‘the Orient’ always beckoning.” When part of that “manifest destiny” ideal was threatened, “the fallback position was to promote what historian Alexander Saxton called a ‘white republic’ with a racially exclusive form of wage labor and industrialization excluding those deemed too ‘lazy’ or too ‘hard working.’”

The 1917 Immigration Act was passed by a majority of Congress, sufficient to override President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The 1917 Act seems to have been written by previous incarnations of the current sentiment that has seized control of the GOP - the presidential candidate who shall not be named, and added to the long list of "undesireables" who were barred from citizenship in the United States. The list ranged from homosexuals, idiots, imbeciles, epileptics and also created an "Asiatic Barred Zone" prohibiting anyone from "any country not owned by the U.S., adjacent to Asia"

None of this was repealed until 1943, when Chinese were allowed admittance. Other countries within the Asian continent were added until the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (aka the McCarran-Walter Act), which shifted the focus on control of immigrant inflow from country of origin to more nebulous, ideological reasons such as those who were deemed immoral, unlawful, or politically radical. "Good Asians" were now allowed admittance to the US; "bad Asians" - the Japanese that we had recently fought against in World War II - were still barred. Interestingly, this was also overwhelmingly passed by Congress, in a majority sufficient to override President Truman's veto.

I love Rowen Atkinson. 

I know that two similar incidents don't make a pattern. I'm already quite biased against Congress because of the utter ineffectual nature of our current "do nothing" Congress, as they call it these days. I suppose this is actually progress, when you think about it. Progress in the most incrementalist sense of the word. Yay incrementalism.

Those mischievous scamps in Congress! They are always good for a laugh. President, schmesident. Once you get a good mob mentality simmering, you don't even need executive participation. Free pitchforks for all comers.

Yellow Peril Supports Black Power

From Dan Truong's Huffington Post piece
The image above shows a famous image of Richard Aoki, a famous Japanese member of the Black Panther Party who is purported to have helped arm the group and more recently was publicly outed as an FBI informant by journalist Seth Rosenfeld, although the veracity of this claim was obtusely denied by Aoki himself in one of the last interviews he gave before he committed suicide at the age of 71. The evidence for Aoki's involvement with the FBI is superficial at best. I'm no conspiracy theorist by any means, but exaggerating the truth to sell books/get clicks is not a new phenomenon. 

Aoki's image, as he stands in an Oakland protest to free one of the Black Panther Party founders, Huey Newton,  is juxtaposed with a 2014 photo of Ara Kim, a Korean-American member of the Black Lives Matter LA and SoCal Outrageous Organized Bomb-Ass Koreans (SOOBAK) at a Mike Brown/Ferguson Protest in LA.

Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter

Colette Gaiter does a fantastic job of drawing comparisons and contrasts between the Black Panther and Black Lives Matter movements, so I highly encourage that you check her out.

Shortly after the back to back deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, a series of Tweets by Christina Xu spurred a strange and wonderful thing involving Google Docs.

I don't know that we will ever see another time where the words "strange and wonderful thing" are paired with "Google Docs" but considering the sheer madness that 2016 has delivered thus far, never say never, my friends.

Hundreds of Asian Americans crowd sourced a letter to their parents, explaining why it is important for Asians to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This snowballed into an awesome website called Letters for Black Lives, where Canadian, Latinx, first gen children of African immigrants, and yes, Asians of all types can get translated and tailored letters that can serve as a springboard into a deeper discussion with our elders.

This is very significant, because traditionally there has been a noticeable rift between Asian cultural values and the process of assimilation. Insert comedic relief here - shout out to Just Kidding Films on YouTube.

So there you have it, folks. The origins of the term "Yellow Peril" and the evolution from racial epithet to solidarity focused protest slogan.

Next week I'll be prepping for the United States Breastfeeding Committee National Biannual Coalitions Conference, and I plan to do a little bit of live streaming on the Milk and Equity FB page if I get the gumption. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Compartmentalize at your own risk

Troubling times, reflected in the tumult we see outside ourselves, and when you feel the same tumult within, you know you are allowing these observations and experiences to touch your heart. And that, my friends, is not a bad thing.

Today I ended up writing about something completely different from what I originally intended. An exploration of trauma bloomed from my head.

Compartmentalizing tragedy and trauma

African Americans experience more stress than their white counterparts. I know this raises hackles, but hear me out. The truth is, it's the same for most subjugated populations that are suppressed by a dominant cultural narrative. Coping while black is a thing. Monica Williams of the University of Louisville refers to this as race-based trauma, or race-based traumatic stress. This phenomenon focuses specifically on the increased stresses that people of color experience due to being unfairly targeted by law enforcement, the constant barrage of violent images associated with black bodies in media and entertainment, etc etc. Feel free to add more examples in the comments.

Hall (2010) used a grounded theory approach to explore the coping mechanisms of black women. In her section about coping, one statement stood out to me:

"...this participant’s coping mechanism provides insight into how most African American women manage stress: ‘‘I try to compartmentalize everything; that way, I manage the priorities. So I put things that are not so pressing on the back burner and sometimes just leave them there."

Indeed, in the days since the shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I have heard many black friends communicate the need or instinct to do just that. Compartmentalize. Move through your day. Because I am still a toddler mother, I can't help but think of the words of Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen, because I have memorized the songs against my will: "Conceal, don't feel. Don't let it show."

I experienced this viscerally, as this was something that my father - a career military man with several active tours of duty during the post World War II occupation of Japan, the Korean Conflict, and in Vietnam - often tried to impress upon me. He felt it was a critical skill to develop in order to survive the " slings and arrows of outrageous fortune " (Hamlet Act III, scene 1, lines 1749-1783). He was convinced that this allowed him to maintain a degree of functionality in the world that he would not otherwise have.

The Risk of Compartmentalizing

There is inherent risk in taking this pathway, and considering our current climate, where social media allows us to repeatedly view traumatic events and talk about them ad nauseum and ad infinitum, perhaps we could all benefit from being aware of this - and for our Black friends and family, even moreso.

Compartmentalization is sometimes considered a subclinical manifestation of dissociation. Dissociation is commonly associated with trauma survivors. Traumatic dissociation has been found to be highly associated with the development of PTSD and depression in rape survivors. Among veterans with PTSD, those with the dissociative subtype reported more severe PTSD symptoms, comorbid depressive and anxiety symptoms, alcohol use problems, and hostility than those without the subtype. Adjusting for PTSD symptom severity, those with the subtype continued to report more depression and alcohol use problems.

Dr. Cécile Rozuel discussed the moral threat of compartmentalization in detail in her 2009 paper:

"Even if we can safely store in the back of our mind a particularly negative feeling so that it will not affect our behaviour and perception of self, the feeling remains present and real. We have not dealt with it, we‟ve simply put it aside. We may no longer be affected by this feeling consciously, but our unconscious bears its marks. And it usually happens that one event or one sentence during a casual conversation, sometimes with little or no connection to the situation or the feeling we worked hard to dissociate from, will immediately trigger an uneasiness reminding us that the original feeling remains, notwithstanding the amount of conscious efforts to suppress it. We do not forget because we cannot forget. The most compartmentalized person nevertheless stores all of his or her cognitive and affective experiences in their psyche, whether at the conscious or unconscious level.

Jung examined this phenomenon through the concept of complexes. A complex develops when we have failed to integrate the dual energy of a particular experience or thought. This energy is then captured by an archetype (possibly the shadow which is our primitive, darker side) and remains unprocessed."

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of the school of analytical psychology. During his career he briefly worked closely with Sigmund Freud (1907-1912), but he split with Freud over the significance of sexuality in human life. The term analytical psychology came from his later examinations into the symbolic meanings of the content of the unconscious.

This is getting woo, but stay with me!

Jung cautioned against compartmentalization, because it is an act of making some conscious emotional process unconscious, which can act as a force that splinters the self.

"Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual‟s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions." (p. 76)

Channel, channel, channel

Rozuel argued that "In particular, compartmentalization challenges the possibility to ascribe personal responsibility to an individual and only provides a temporary and superficial relief from pain and distress. More importantly, it limits our ability to connect to our values, to be moral agents, and to act with moral courage and moral integrity."

This last bit struck me mightily.

My personal value, based on past experiences that significantly shaped my worldview in an extremely negative light and led to a lifelong relationship trauma processing, has for the last decade been about unification. Not outwardly, inwardly.

I've purposely been mucking around in all the deepest, darkest, forgotten, forlorn parts of my mind to try to shine a light on the dark parts. Just get to know them. Let them know I see them. Things I once feared, hated, or disliked about myself won't disappear if I try to battle them into submission. I don't want to conquer my demons with force. I mean, I've tried that and it doesn't really seem to end well for any of the parties involved. As above, so below, I suppose - you see that play out again and again in the world, throughout history, and within yourself.

Leshia Evans in Baton Rouge
It is possible that the very act of compartmentalizing trauma and authentic emotion can be an active barrier to participating in social justice efforts. To act with moral courage and moral integrity is the very foundation of what it means to be a social justice warrior. To connect with our values and be moral agents means that we are charged with the responsibility of seeking out those dark parts within ourselves and at least making peace with the purpose that you created them with, either intentionally are not. Coming to peace with these parts of yourself is a way toward nonviolence that tends to be less shaken by external events or complications, because the work is within, and you can pick it up and put it down at any time. My hope is that by doing this shadow work, within, I can externalize these efforts and so become a lantern to help light the way for others to see that this is a way. Not the way, by any means. But ... a way.

Sun Tzu's seminal and essential classic The Art of War has been a great comfort to me. Seriously. For all my social justice warriors out there, for all my friends struggling with anxiety and depression, for all my Black brothers and sisters who are struggling to come to terms with some troubling and earth shaking truths that have existed for some time and are only coming to light now because of the efforts of strong willed individuals, please take a moment to think on these tidbits. The whole book is good, but I know y'all busy.
  • The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. 
  • If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle.
  • The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting.
  • Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
  • Swift as the wind. Quiet as the forest. Conquer like the fire. Steady as the mountain.
Unity with and Respect to all my fellows who are risking so much to help those who are in need, Black Lives Matter, my LGBTQ and Latinx friends and peoples, our Disability Rights Advocacy warriors, and my social justice fam.

UPDATE July 16, 2016

Check out my facebook ramble that contextualizes the blog post a little bit more. And follow milk & equity on facebook for more of that kind of stuff, if you're into it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Woman Who Rode Away

Photo of Frida Kahlo by Isamu Noguchi
Pic for cuteness (just kidding, Photo of Frida Kahlo by Isamu Noguchi)

This was the title of an entirely different blog, but since I recently read that short story by DH Lawrence and I'm talking about my own existential angst in this post, I decided to keep it. If you like florid, visually decadent writing infused with spirituality and liberally seasoned with exoticism, I recommend it. Nice poolside reading while your kids play.

Recently a friend posted publicly about how she failed quals and dropped out of her PhD program. She felt like it was definitive proof that she wasn't intelligent enough. This was my response:

Graduate school is in no way a measure of intelligence or how smart you are. It's completely politicized. You have to know certain people, and get x number of publications and present at x number of conferences and "be visible in the department" - this is about 8000 times harder if you have a family and children. Then square that if you have a child with special needs.

I've been repeatedly warned about my lack of visibility in the department (so I showed up to a meeting with all the other grad students WITH [eldest child who has autism] in tow and monopolized the conversation while managing him by using the iPad mini, Doritos, Gatorade and popcorn chicken.) It's taking a toll on my body and my sanity and I wouldn't wish this on anyone. I just happen to have given in to my type of insanity years ago so I will probably crawl across the stage to get my diploma and then promptly drop dead.

so no. I don't think it's about how smart you are. it's about how well you play a game whose rules are made up as you go by people in positions of power of you who may or may not behave in ethical manners. It is ENTIRELY a craps shoot, like so many things in life.

I know a lot of people with PhDs who are complete and utter muppets! The colloquial modifier "a lot" is not used with any intention of literary hyperbole, here, either. I've sat through presentations that were utter shite, I've bitterly gnashed my teeth about the fact that getting an NIH grant has nothing to do with the fantastic innovation or idea but is entirely dependent on your ability to sell your idea and who of the two people selected from the study section happen to skim the proposal that you pour your soul into.

I'm having an existential crisis moment over here, don't mind me. I'm a year from quals and feel like I'm dying

So, two years from now I could be dunzo with this whole PhD program's stress and strife. I don't want to quit because I can honestly see how tremendously I have grown as a professional, academic, student, human being. I can see myself applying things I am doing now in the real world.

But I'm also struggling through a "dark night of the soul" a la St. John the Cross.

John of St. Mattias (later, of the Cross) lived in 16th Century Spain. He had a reputation for being mystical and actively taught contemplative prayer techniques similar to modern day "mindfulness methods". The people in power of the church at the time were not happy with his idea that regular folk could commune with God without the assistance of some intermediary (read: priest). He refused to stop, so they persecuted him, flogged him, and eventually imprisoned him in a 6 x 10 foot room where he was fed nothing but bread and water. Also, he was occasionally removed from his isolation to be publicly flogged again, weekly, over the course of  9 months. He somehow managed to escape his torment by squeezing through the small window of a cell.

I supposed this was the time honored tradition of forcing a person to relent by tormenting them. Yay Catholic church, good on ya for that one.

John continued to write poetry to God, and these poems/prayers were later titled "Dark Night of the Soul" - but it's somewhat of a misnomer. I've heard comparisons drawn between Mother Teresa and John of the Cross, but Mother Teresa had some serious doubts about God's existence. According to some sources, John never wavered in faith. He was tortured because he loved Jesus, but the Lord didn't rescue him. He prayed for delivery, but his prayers went unanswered. He got out of his predicament through his own actions, and went on to do more work with the charismatic Teresa of Jesus, but eventually fell ill and died of Erysipelas, a particularly painful and gruesome way to die.

"What matters most to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him." (Goethe)

The entertainment industry has poisoned me. I have this persistent belief that no matter what, if I just try hard enough, I will find that happy ending. But this is "special snowflake" type thinking, right? The self-esteem bolstering of the 1990s Western parenting style led to narcissism and an inability to empathize with others.

People work their entire life for things that crumble into nothing and fade away. They spend their life building a career that they thought was meaningful and saw it drift away into dust. They put everything into a fight and lost. They endured tremendous pain, suffering, agony, and died horrible, painful deaths for no good reason, even if they were the brightest, most beautiful pure light in the world for their short time.

So I have scanned the government job listings for agency positions that my current level of education could qualify me for. I could waste away into blahness shuffling pieces of paper from one entity to another and attending employee enrichment seminars.

Indeed, in DH Lawrence's short story, the woman rode away (the title is not witty). She left her children and husband behind in relative comfort and lost herself in the wilderness with no more than a naive wish to "know the Gods of the natives". She was, in turn, very viscerally allow to know their God as she is sacrificed and passes into oblivion in a way that struck me as similar to Albert Camus' The Stranger. There is an existential ecstasy that is only approached with literary description.

Lawrence's unnamed heroine is also weirdly blank and laconic, only moved to rage in the face of perceived insult to herself, but otherwise blank, passive, struck mute by the intensity and richness of experience that had previously eluded her in her 33 years of life? Or maybe mute out of sheer dullness?

This is where I am right now. I have flashes of emotions, clouds that skitter across a blank sky. Why am I doing this work? It's important. I love it. I have a mind that is uniquely suited to observing systems in large scale.

I can't expect success. I can't expect anything. I can just do the work, and do it in a manner than sets my heart at ease, listening to that tightness in my chest and using it as a compass.

I don't do this work because I have any faith that things will shift in the direction that I wish things would move toward. I do this work because I do the work. Full stop.

I am working on the second part of that Goethe quote, still not there. It matters lots to me that the right thing comes to pass. It matters tons.

This was an unsuccessful essay. I am still unconvinced by my own stated position, that it simply shouldn't matter what happens as long as I fight the good fight, as long as I can be featured in some 3 minute AJ+ uplifting viral video that shudders through the digiverse in a manner of nanoseconds.

But I'll post this blog anyway as part of my commitment to share failures and successes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"Pain is a sign that something is wrong"

Feeling compelled to spill my guts, literally, today. I'm doing an experiment at the moment where I am delaying my morning dose of medications as long as physically possible to explore the chronic pain I am experiencing more thoroughly. Like most people, I am hard wired to shun pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong, I say this in my mother to mother breastfeeding support often. Like a mantra. Get help if it hurts. You don't have to do this alone. You've got a team.

Those words feel hollow to me. I am low. "My heart is low, my heart is so low, as only a woman's heart can know." My experience with navigating the systems involved in asking for help is that you kind of do really have the capacity to advocate for yourself, and this isn't a comforting thing to hear when you are in pain and struggling to find a resolution. You really do have to do a lot of things on your own to get access to appropriate help, in many circumstances.

This is so not cool, I can't even. But this is the reality of the medical system that we currently exist in - and it is something that we really need to get together on to advocate for change.

I was listening to an NPR call-in show the other day that was featuring a panel that discussed the high rate of medical error and related mortality in the United States. It's the third leading cause of death, just behind heart disease and cancer, but is not currently listed or tracked by the CDC using an instrument that is sensitive enough to capture the true impact of human error. So there is this invisible thing that is killing a lot of us while we also simultaneously operate within a system that deifies the judgment of doctors who are, themselves, working within a flawed system.

Everyone says the medical system is flawed. Well, lots of people do - except one of the callers to the NPR show who was a healthcare provider himself, whose only compliment to the system was, "Look, the US healthcare system is....[pregnant pause], pretty good!" Yes, friends. An ad slogan to get behind:

How do we compare to Canada, or Germany? Well someone bothered to answer that question in a very detailed article. I'm not going to re-invent the wheel. As expected, the US scores lower in comparative epidemiological statistics (life expectancy, infant mortality, the cost of healthcare per capita). Hey, at least we aren't stepping over people dying in the street, right? Amiright? !! LOL, nope....awkward.

I've had a few bouts in the ring with the US healthcare system. Once, early in my life, left me with a disdain of the system that resulted in a 10 year hiatus from any kind of preventive care or checkups aside from the prenatal care for my unborn children. Once I had a steady job that provided, well, insurance, I went to a checkup. I was greeted with a system that was stymied in the problems that had initially driven me away. But this time was going to be different, I thought. I am armed with a level of education that matches that of any doctor, and I am more able to advocate for myself now as an empowered, adult woman.

Story time...

I had a nagging lower back pain that I attributed to the normal issues related to aging. I think the first time I really was bothered by it, I went to my OB-GYN who had delivered my youngest child in an unplanned hospital delivery after a failed attempt at home birth. He examined me, did a pap, explained that "as women age they may feel more discomfort in that area." WTF that means, no one will ever know. This doctor suffered a family loss and I was lost to followup in the intervening months, attributing my random abdominal/lower back pain to whatever, I don't know, getting old? I'm 36, so I'm actually not REALLY old. In Hollywood terms I am geriatric.

Anyway, months went by. I saw two primary care physicians, three psychiatrists, an internal medicine specialist, a PA, a nonsurgical spine doctor, another OB-GYN, and I've done chiropractor visits and 4 weeks of physical therapy. I've had an X-ray, an MRI, urinalysis, metabolic panels, an ultrasound of my uterus and ovaries, an ultrasound of my lower back. I'm now even more affected by pain than I was 6 months ago. 

The Complaint-Based System doesn't work for healthcare


I can see very viscerally that there are some issues with the system that I have to navigate. Would that I could offer my input and not be considered a complete dipshit...but, really, the insurance billing scheme controlling the way in which tests and preventative care are offered seems a bit backwards. Wouldn't it save money to just do an MRI of the entire abdomen, rather than one that is both complaint and specialist-specific? Rather than this that and the other test? But testing can only be complaint-specific under the current billing scheme.

Specialists operate in silos completely independent of one another, and it is up to the patient to bring all these people together and facilitate their communication process. Error in something as simple as writing the instructions on a prescription can cause a patient literally hours of extra work communicating between go-betweens. 

The issue of silos in healthcare is not new, by any means, Look at this white paper from 2011. There is a really established literature base detailing how silos in healthcare are making us sick, and possibly even killing us...but these models perpetuate because of how we approach care, based on the billing schemes that have been established by the insurance industry. Providing care based on how you are paid or reimbursed will never result in a high quality of care across the board. The most vulnerable and the poor will always suffer in these situations.

The people who directly offer care are overworked and their ability to be compassionate is fatigued beyond repair. The people who manage the care that is offered by the overworked, compassion-fatigued direct care providers are too removed from the process to understand the holistic impact of the narrow field of care they attend to. 

This is a complaint-based system. These rarely work. The epidemiological statistics show that as a society, we are in pain. If pain is a sign that something is wrong, I suppose it follows the current medical model that we continue addressing the symptoms rather than the cause, until the whole thing comes tumbling down.

If we truly want to cut healthcare costs, we need to revamp the complaint-based system and re-work our approach to truly commit to the shift to preventative strategies. These will not flourish under the existing schemas. This will require a massive shift in the way we think about delivery of healthcare. Can it be done? Right now I'm not so sure.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Do we really need another term for White Privilege?

Kiran Katira, Ph.D., program operations director, Community Engagement Center, Institute for the Study of Race and Social Justice, University of New Mexico in her presentation at the WK Kellogg First Food Forum 2016

First, I must acknowledge that it has been a hot minute since I've written on here. For a number of reasons, not entirely related to my longstanding obligations on the boards of two nonprofits, as a doctoral student, as a mother, as an advocate for my son who has autism, as research assistant. I had a sort of existential slump. Going through the motions, feeling ill at ease and very unmotivated. This resulted in some sub-par project results. I was not in a good place.

Anyway, as I forge ahead with no clear promises to regularly posting this blog but with promises of exhaustive updates when I finally straggle back, let's talk about White Privilege.

I had an exchange on Facebook (as we often do, don't we? Don't even play.) It was, ironically, while I was in sessions at the WK Kellogg First Food Forum focusing on achieving health equity.

To me, immersed in rooms chock full of established and emerging leaders in the field of First Food, breastfeeding advocates I have grown to know and love through the fabric of social media, among philanthropic professionals who center racial equity as a key factor to creating a better world, there was no question about the use of the term "white privilege." It was a fact of life acknowledged by the entire room because, of course, the attendees work with issues related to racial equity and health equity on a daily basis. The epidemiological, population-level statistics are clear.

But to those who are not surrounded by the evidence and the data, this term can apparently be incendiary and can incite a tremendous amount of resistance. An individual requested that I stop using the term "white privilege" because she was compelled to tune everything out associated with that term. I was gobsmacked. What other word could I use? Didn't she realize that this was discussed in every single sessions I had attended at the Kellogg Forum? I had some colleagues join into the melee, but at the end of it, no real progress was made. Those on either side of an issue that is fraught
with contention were merely more entrenched in their initial positions.

Going Deeper: Opposition to the use of the term "White Privilege"


What could be done? I lamented internally that no progress can be made, and succumbed momentarily to the defeatism that likes to linger on the outskirts of my emotional landscape and prey on opportune moments. But, as I have taught myself to do, I sat with my discomfort and buckled down to research these areas that cause discomfort in me.

What is the problem with the term? This Facebook friend of mine is not the first to question it's utility. Daniel Cubias blogged on this issue in 2015 and suggested a different term: "White advantage." I think the essence of the term remains the same in his breakdown of the obstacle, and if people can be more open to the use of a term that still retains the essential quality of what is being described, I'm down with that.

I also discovered that there are people out there who unironically use the term "race deniers." This is an entire platform. Prior to this I can honestly say, I had no idea that this even existed. Call me naive. But the further I went down the rabbit hole, the more grateful I was that I had been pushed to examine this further. You can't rightly establish a counter-message until you know what you are up against.

Unfortunately for my Facebook friend, most of the evidence I uncovered related to those
who oppose use of the term "White Privilege" suggests that opponents are largely white, and they often stand for the idea that there are genetic differences in the races that establish a ground for supremacy among the "subspecies" of homo sapiens.  Basically, the lion's share of those opposed to the term are either uninformed about the historical contexts and socioeconomic realities that we live in today, or they are outright, overtly racist pundits and thinkers.

Why is this problematic?


There is evidence to suggest that white people often react to evidence of white privilege by claiming their own hardships - the automatic knee-jerk reaction of othering that happens when we find ourselves affiliated with a group that doesn't jive with our personal values is a natural coping mechanism that people use to compensate for living in cognitive dissonance. We see, hear, smell, taste, feel the inequities and injustices, but rationalize (in sometimes bizarre, nonsensical ways) why this is how it is, why we have no part in it and oppose it on principal, and ignore our own complicit reinforcement of the very system that we intellectually oppose. This is survival within the dominant culture. This is how inequity and inequality persist.

Allan G. Johnson has an eloquent description of this process in his essay "Where White Privilege Came From":

"Most of the choices we make are unconscious, it being in the nature of paths of least resistance to appear to us as the logical, normal thing to do without our having to think about it. This means, of course, that we can participate in systems in ways we’re not aware of and help produce consequences without knowing it and be involved in other people’s lives, both historically and in the present, without any intention to do so."

Simran Noor, Vice President of the Center for Social Inclusion, also mentioned this in her speech at the Kellogg First Food Forum. None of us present today are responsible for how the system was established, but who but us can be charged to change this? And how can we fall back on the status quo as a reasonable path forward?

So what now?


Another great essay on the topic of The Racism of Good, White People is also a telling read. I would recommend to anyone willing to sit with discomfort and keep it warm and acknowledged. Sit with the discomfort until it composts into some really useful perspective and a deeper ability to empathize, connect, and make change.

I was introduced to the documentary three-part series Race: The Power of an Illusion, produced by California Newsreel, in my first training as a participant of the Center for Social Inclusion's National First Foods Racial Equity Cohort. This series is available for rent on, and can be purchased as well. Although it's now nearly 15 years old, the series powerfully contextualizes the concepts of structural racism and systematic oppression based on appearance that is sometimes heartbreaking and often terrifying. PBS built a companion website with activities related to the content of the film that can be useful to apply concepts.

Tim Wise, an anti-racist activist, also put together a perspective on white privilege from a white person called "White Like Me: Race, Racism & White Privilege in America" and there is an accompanying study guide for those who are interested in delving deeper and using interactive thought experiments and tools to internalize the necessary shift in thinking that must accompany the work we are all charged with in achieving a society that can truly be considered racially equitable and accessible to all communities and citizens.

And I leave you with a delightful photo of the women that I am privileged to work with for the next two years with the facilitation of the CSI. Stay tuned for more blog posts. At some point. I promise. As I said to my kiddos before I left for a 5 day work trip, Mommy will always come back for you. ;)

These women are change-makers!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lactavism? Adaptive guilt, Shame, and the myth of the Just World

The health outcomes associated with breastfeeding are weaker when breastfeeding is not exclusive. And I think this is part of the objection to "Lactivism" - the intense emphasis on exclusivity and increasing breastfeeding duration. Rather than viewing early breastfeeding cessation or cessation of breastfeeding exclusivity as a personal failing, I feel that it's more an indictment of the lack of structural supports and access to quality, evidence-based information that can best support the breastfeeding dyad. It's easy to conflate the finger pointing at the system's shortcomings with the individual, especially when mother guilt is in full effect.

Is guilt a bad thing? Not according to shame researcher Brene Brown, nor other shame researchers. When processed positively, guilt is adaptive and helpful - shame, however, involves holding what we have or have not done up against our values, which leads to discomfort. Indeed, labeling (such as the use of the term "Lactavist"....) is part of what transforms the adaptive response of guilt into the emotionally crippling reaction that is shame.

Adaptive Guilt?

Yes, guilt can be adaptive and serve a function. According to Tangney, Stuewig and Mashek (2009),"Guilt appears to motivate reparative action, foster other-oriented empathy, and promote constructive strategies for coping with anger". Previous interpretations of guilt as maladaptive were due to the conceptual frameworks applied that did not differentiate shame from guilt. Once this differentiation is made, and guilt is understood as a response to a specific failure or transgression while shame becomes an emotional reaction applied globally to a person's self-concept, with a broad stroke. Instead of understanding the thing that you did as something that did not meet your expectations, shame is the reaction to feeling that who you are, fundamentally, is not worthy.

There is a large body of research showing that children, adolescents and adults are not more prone to depression, anxiety or low self-esteem when they demonstrate adaptive guilt (Gramzow & Tangney 1992; Leskela et al. 2002; Quiles & Bybee 1997; Tangney 1994; Tangney & Dearing 2002Tangney et al., 1992, Tangney et al, 1995). Shame can be a crippling experience, and potentially robs an individual of the ability to take action, express empathy towards others, and interferes with the ability to develop more constructive emotional strategies.

Tracy, over at Evolutionary Parenting, had a blog post that debunks and delves in why 'mommy guilt' is actually a good thing.

The Risks of Labeling

I've written previously on the topic of in-groups, out-groups and the psychology of crowds. This is my main criticism of the idea of "mommy wars" and the us vs. them mentality that characterizes much of the dialogue surrounding motherhood. Dr. Thomas Scheff explores labeling in the context of mental illness in his theory of labeling, and I may be reaching by extrapolating - but the process of labeling is reductionist, and the stigmatization inherent in using a reductionist label as an insult, or grouping an entire subset of people into an out-group characterized by a single label, naturally involves subtle (and not so subtle) acts of emotional violence.

This emotional space - chaotic, violent, and irrational - is a well-spring for monetary profit. Companies make money off the wars we wage amongst ourselves, and over time what may have initially begun as an impulsive cash in can become something that must be fueled and facilitated. The UK has compiled a list of websites and organizations funded by the artificial baby milk industry. You would be hard-pressed to find a resource like this in the US, but the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Healthy Foundation have all received significant funding contributions from formula manufacturers. Artificial baby milk manufacturers also provide substantial discounts, in the form of rebates, to state Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Programs in return for the exclusive right to provide their products to the state’s WIC participants. WIC's bidding system saves the federal government a substantial amount of money, and in return, artificial baby milk manufacturers obtain dedicated customers who often, due to poverty and systematic, structural inequities,  also lack access to a real choice when it comes to infant feeding.

The Just World

Is the world a just place? Absolutely not. I tell my children this on a regular basis when they insist that I'm not being fair. Often, I'm not being fair. I'm asking them to reduce the severity of their emotional displays for personal convenience, or rushing them through something that would normally be a rich learning experience because we have to be someplace at a certain time...and I always respond that the world is not fair, and that they shouldn't have any expectation of justice outside of their own actions (yes, I'm a super fun mom /sarcasm). The Just-World Phenomenon is part of the cycle of unconscious bias that perpetuates victim blaming, and it is so ubiquitous that many of us have internalized this bias.

So, for example, the view that early breastfeeding cessation that happens before a mother has reached her own personal breastfeeding goals is somehow related to the shortcomings of the mother herself, can be an unconscious assumption that is actually a form of victim-blaming. In this way, we direct culpability to the victim and distance ourselves from our own feelings of vulnerability that can often be elicited by observing another person's trauma. Indeed, secondary trauma - a post traumatic reaction to witnessing the trauma of another person, is a real thing, although the degree to which this phenomenon becomes a disorder rather than a reaction is highly individual.

If we lived in a just world, infant feeding choice would be a real thing, and quite frankly it's not. The choice to feed your infant formula or breast milk is something that is a privilege. Many people dislike the term 'privilege' (more specifically it tends to be those who have the privilege to be in a place where they have the choice to dislike it! haha metacognition, ftw). Privilege is a condition that naturally arises from circumstances of social inequity. It's something that can only be ignored or denied if you are in the position to benefit from privilege.

And so it follows, if you believe in a just world, you will probably unconsciously engage in victim blaming, and you may also feel uncomfortable with the concept of privilege or strongly assert that you are not part of this system (maybe you, too, grew up in poverty or you also _______. Something to that effect.)


There was an entire book recently published with this blazoned as a title. I dismissed it immediately, because I knew that indulging in a reductionist label as a book title comes from that emotional space of chaos, aggression, and subtle violence that characterizes the attempt to financially capitalize off of facilitating an ideological conflict. The idea that new mothers are pressured brings circumstances that are a reflection of structural and systematic shortcomings back into the realm of victim-blaming, and asserts that the feelings of shame that are rampant in a culture and society that doesn't do a very good job creating emotionally healthy people are a reflection of those people making us feel bad.

We are a culture that suffers from an epidemic of anger. Anger can be leveraged towards something that is adaptive and leads to growth, but that requires a high degree of resilience (which is often the result of developing a health attachment to caregivers at the primordial stages of emotional development in infancy and early childhood) and a high degree of self-awareness.

Dr. Melissa Bartick proposes the abandonment of the term altogether, and I tend to agree. Using this term perpetuates divisiveness and justifies the micro-aggression (and overt aggression) that characterizes the current depiction of motherhood. If you had the privilege to make an informed infant feeding choice from a place of freedom, understand that your experience is the exception rather than the rule in our nation of multitudes. Advocacy for families is rooted in providing others with access to that same place of freedom to make an informed choice themselves, rather than being forced into a specific direction due to circumstances beyond your control.

Perhaps the facilitation of secure attachment and the acknowledgment of the sacred space that exists in the bond between parent and child is the foundation from which a peaceful and truly just world can be built upon, and maybe this can make a real dent in the anguish evident in the American psyche of today.