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What do white and minority men have in common?

I’ve been reflecting on this question ever since a lengthy conversation I shared with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about the social issues surrounding public education in the United States. During the conversation, my friend commented on his experience growing up in a small Montana school district in which it was “uncool” for boys to be smart. He expressed feeling like somewhat of an outcast because he was (and is) indeed smart, and his fellow classmates knew it. His comment struck me because a similar phenomenon is commonly documented in minority communities, where black students can be labeled “white chocolate” or “oreos” and native students can be labeled “apples”—colored on the outside but white on the inside—for excelling in school, suggesting that if one is good at school, she or he is less authentically ethnic than others of their skin color.

This parallel prompted me to begin questioning my perceptions of dominant culture and what exactly constitutes it. The typical assumption is that white males are at the helm of society and that the dominant culture is therefore defined and shaped by them. But is it? If it is, why do we see this resistance to education—which advances one within the dominant culture—among so many white men?

I am not a white male, so I cannot presume too much here, but my theory is that there is a large swath of the white male population that is, like males of minority populations, excluded from dominant culture in a way so significant that it stimulates visceral reactions against anything that smacks of white, educated elites, prompting them to reject even common-sense opportunities like public education. This theory makes sense in light of the widespread support for Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate.

So how are certain white males excluded from dominant society? They enjoy all of the benefits of their sex and skin color, don’t they? Why would they have any reason to feel threatened? My sense is that some very similar dynamics have played out in white communities in the old industrial belt and in rural America as have played out in many minority communities over the past several decades, during which manufacturing jobs have diminished and farming has been overtaken by multinational conglomerates. Thousands of white men, like minority men, have lost their livelihoods and their dignity as the jobs they once relied upon have been shifted overseas or to corporate control. They can no longer provide for their families without a second income or government support, and in our culture, when men feel wounded, they are taught to fight rather than to reflect upon and process their emotions. Since there is no single identifiable villain to physically fight, they fight both by scapegoating AND by resisting those who are still seemingly successful: white educated males and females (which explains the vehement opposition to Hillary Clinton).

What I’m suggesting here is that we begin to recognize the ways in which these white men have been made to feel devalued much as we have made it a national priority to recognize the ways in which minorities are sidelined and mistreated in our country. I am not suggesting that their experiences are identical (or that we forget about the very real history of racism in our country), but I am suggesting that white men will only become angrier if we continue to focus our attention on minority issues while diminishing the loss of dignity experienced by white men simply because they are white and we therefore assume their problems aren’t as important or worthy of attention as those of minorities. All human beings feel a strong desire for recognition and worth, and most will fight for that recognition and worth if it isn’t offered to them. So let’s include white men in conversations about marginalized groups because many of them have been marginalized—and we’re only making their feelings of marginalization worse by treating them as if they all enjoy the same benefits that educated white men from wealthy family backgrounds enjoy, because they don’t.

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Wanderlust

Wandering brings us to the wild edges of life, where things are no longer neatly or safely contained. We have to embrace more chaos, more messiness, and discover the sacred even there.

Christine Valters Paintner

Indeed it does. Wandering across the globe has stretched and shaped me into the person I am today, forcing me to confront my own privilege, bias, and, at times, naivety. It has tested, and in many cases, upended my assumptions about people and about life, and it has even tested my faith, for I have wandered to places where people believe differently than I do.

Interestingly, and wonderfully, however, it has never shaken my commitment to the core values I learned as a child growing up in church: that there is no greater purpose or calling in life than to love and care for others and for the planet. Witnessing blatant discrimination, seeing abject poverty, experiencing emotional abuse–none of these things has caused me to abandon my belief in the power of love; to the contrary, they have only served to strengthen my resolve, for there is already too much pain and too much drama in this world for me to add to the negativity.

Although I no longer wander much in the literal sense, my thoughts still often wander to the places I’ve been and to the people I’ve met. While I sit here in my chair in Billings, MT, I yearn for others to achieve a peace as deep as I’ve discovered in coming to understand that this life is not about me but about far greater and more mysterious things, and that feelings of love are at the center of those things: love for family, love for friends, love for neighbors and strangers alike, and love for Creation and the Creator, whoever he or she may be.

There is an intangible order to this world that we haven’t yet achieved as a human race but are hopelessly striving for in all the wrong ways. Order will not arise out of political, economic, or legal systems but rather out of meaningful human relationships. By simply loving one another and embracing ourselves and those around us in our current state of affairs and loving one another to the point where walls and fences come down and bridges go up, we will both fulfill our natural cravings for connection and create harmony in this world.

It may seem like a pipe dream, but I believe very strongly that love is the only way. Indeed, as William Barclay wrote in his study of the Book of Mark,

Every economic problem would be solved if men lived for what they could do for others and not for what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if the ambition of men was only to serve the state and not to enhance their own prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear the church asunder would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its office-bearers and its members was to serve it without caring what position they occupied. When Jesus spoke of the supreme greatness and value of the man whose ambition was to be a servant, he laid down one of the greatest practical truths in the world.

The rest of the world may continue to seek solutions to its problems by electing the right people and passing the right public policy, but as for me, I will continue to strive to love and serve others with a full and open heart whether I change the world or not, and whether it loves me back or not. Call me crazy, but doing so feels so right to me that I know there must be a God out there planting the seeds.

Loneliness

Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.

~Henry Rollins

I recorded this quote years ago because it resonated so strongly with me. It captures the way I feel when I hike up to the top of a hill on my own, or when I bike or drive across the countryside with only God as my companion. Traveling alone has opened me to opportunities and conversations I never would have had traveling with a partner, and living on my own grants me the peace and quiet I need to reflect on life.

But loneliness also has its drawbacks. I read a post today on a friend’s Facebook page entitled “Being single is hard.” The article linked to the post discussed the usual pros and cons of singledom but zeroed in on the author’s perspective of the worst aspect of being alone: never getting touched. She went on to write,

Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.

We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone. Most people in relationships have their need for touch met incidentally, but when you are single, it is very hard to get this need met. And, I have it better than most. I am female, I do massage trades sometimes. I have the type of liberal friends I can talk to about this openly with, or liberal friends I’m even a little cuddly with sometimes. I have a cat. But like, my god, years of not being touched is fucking hard and no one admits this.

After reflecting on the article for awhile, I realized that this is not the hardest aspect of being single for me, although it is certainly challenging: the hardest thing for me is not having someone to talk to about the ups and downs of my days. Yes, I can talk to friends. And yes, I can always talk to my mom. But there is no single person in my life who is primarily concerned with me. I don’t mean that in a selfish way, as if I want someone’s life to be devoted to me. What I mean is that I am not the person anyone else is calling or texting just to say “hi” in the middle of the day; I am not the person anyone else is checking in with about dinner or weekend plans; I am not the person someone else is rooting for when I leave for work in the morning and checking in with when I return home at night.

I realize that my circumstance is partly a predicament of my personality. As an INTJ/INFJ (sometimes I test as one, sometimes as the other), I hover somewhere between a loner and a socialite, not really quite one or the other. Indeed,

INFJs are deeply concerned about their relations with individuals as well as the state of humanity at large. They are, in fact, sometimes mistaken for extroverts because they appear so outgoing and are so genuinely interested in people — a product of the Feeling function they most readily show to the world. On the contrary, INFJs are true introverts, who can only be emotionally intimate and fulfilled with a chosen few from among their long-term friends, family, or obvious “soul mates.”

To complicate matters more,

Beneath the quiet exterior, INFJs hold deep convictions about the weightier matters of life.

…meaning I am never thinking about the sorts of things that are conducive to finding a best female friend that could preclude the need for a male partner. I don’t think about clothes or makeup or hair–not that that’s all other women think about, but it’s certainly an “in” of sorts to get a conversation and a relationship going. Few people–except for other INFJs or INTJs (and we are apparently in the extreme minority) want to launch right into a discussion on the meaning of life or on what it will take to save the world the very first time they meet someone.

So, I’ve never really had a best friend. I’ve had good friends, but they’ve all had someone else who is their best friend. They have someone else they call or text first to vent about their fight with their boyfriend or husband, or to tell about their latest parenting victory or job promotion.

I’m not complaining, and I’m certainly not criticizing anyone in my life for my circumstance. I am who I am and most of the time I’m happy to simply sit by myself and listen to my little girls breathe quietly in their sleep as I read into the evening. But on some nights–like tonight, when I’m without my girls–the loneliness gets to me just a little, and so I do what most INFJs do best: I write.

Don’t complain, participate

This past week I traveled to Spokane, WA, to testify at a public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Millennium Bulk Terminals, a proposed coal export facility to be located along the Columbia River. I testified because I believe strongly that increasing coal train traffic through Montana and Washington to support a dying industry unnecessarily puts people at risk who live in areas cut off from emergency response vehicles when trains pass by–not to mention the environmental impacts of increasing fossil fuel consumption.

Hundreds of people showed up at the hearing to state their views. To the left of the hearing committee sat proponents in a sea of light-blue, sporting t-shirts with the slogan “BUILDING IT RIGHT: WASHINGTON JOBS.” I sat in the middle of the auditorium amidst a swath of red, among the opponents. Those in blue shirts advocated for the 135 new full-time jobs that would be associated with the port as well as the coal mining jobs that would be preserved in the Powder River Basin that spans the Montana-Wyoming border. Those in red shirts stood up to cite the traffic delays, rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and health hazards posed by coal dust blowing off of the uncovered trains as they rumble from coal mines to coast through countless towns and cities. One opponent held up a jar of coal dust she had gathered from areas of her town that lie along the rail lines (coal cars travel uncovered) while another pleaded for the panel to deny the permit on behalf of her asthmatic son, who suffers from the coal dust.

While those of us on either side of the aisle held differing opinions on the proposed project, we had one important characteristic in common: we cared enough to stand up and speak. We took the time to analyze and opine on an issue of concern to ourselves and our families, engaging in an important public process.

One of the major criticisms I maintain about our political institutions does not have to do with flawed processes or officials but with ordinary people. Most folks seem to have forgotten that we are part of the establishment in this country–we have an important part to play, but we rarely play it.  We allow ourselves to believe that our voice doesn’t matter, that it won’t be heard, but that simply isn’t true. One by one, each of the proposed coal export facilities in Washington have been denied permits thanks to all of the ordinary people who have come out by the hundreds to testify against them. Government and big business have not prevailed in this case, and they do not have to prevail in others–but it’s up to people to speak up and act on behalf of our beliefs. Griping at politicians on TV doesn’t count. We need to inform ourselves about decisions being made at the local and national levels and tell our representatives what we think about those decisions so that they can act accordingly–and they will act accordingly if they know what their constituents care about.

The problem is not with our system, it’s with our lack of engagement with our system–it’s with our “I can’t make a difference so why bother trying” attitude. That attitude is defeating our spirits and killing our country, which could very well be the vibrant democracy it was intended to be if more people stood up, took notice, and took action. It’s time we get off our laurels (and our entertainment devices) and decide to do something about the issues we care about.

We can’t wait for the next president to make change because it’s not up to him or her to do so–it’s up to us. Participating in a democracy requires more than voting at election time. It requires continued, consistent engagement with the decision-making processes that are constantly ongoing in our communities. If we simply leave that work up to our elected officials, then we can’t complain when other voices win out over our own. Special interest groups remain in constant contact with legislators, so when we don’t remain in touch, we shouldn’t be surprised when their voices win out over ours.

Instead of scrolling through your Facebook feed in your down time, browse the webpages of your elected officials; read the newspaper; listen to public radio; check out your local government websites. Find out what issues are up for vote and let your representatives know what you think about those issues. Make phone calls. Write letters. Attend hearings. Join organizations that will keep you abreast of decisions that matter to you. Be a part of the process, don’t just watch it from the sidelines and then wonder why it’s going awry.

And, lastly, respect those whose opinions differ from your own. We must do better at engaging in dialogue rather than deadlock if we hope to move our country forward. If we genuinely listen to one another with an ear for understanding and not just an ear for arguing, we can come to mutually agreeable solutions to many of our problems. We can learn from one another. Assuming the other side is ignorant is snobbish; even if others are ignoring obvious facts, it is not out of stupidity that they do so but out of genuine fear for what change will mean for them and their families. If we fail to understand that fear and come up with ways to ameliorate it, we will continue down the divisive path that is already damaging our democracy.

 

Single parenting is (NOT) a piece of cake

A while back, a friend of mine made a comment about “actually working a full-time job” and therefore not having time to cook all his food from scratch as I do. Even though I know the comment was unintentional, it stung because it reflects a pervasive and damaging assumption in our society that women who choose to “just” be moms must have it pretty easy.

I can’t speak for other moms, but I can assure you that parenting is the hardest endeavor that I have ever undertaken in my lifetime. Working a full-time job while completing a master’s degree, which I did before I had my two girls, was a walk in the park by comparison (and, just for the record, I managed to prepare all my food from scratch then, too). I may have had to put in an eight-hour workday and then come home to more reading and writing when I was in grad school, but at least when I shut the lights out at bedtime I knew I could sleep through the night.

Now God only knows whether a child—or two—will wake me at some point during my slumber, or will crawl in bed with me an hour earlier than expected, cutting off crucial sleep I had anticipated accruing. And I can definitely forget going to bed on time, especially when I have to spend an hour or more camped in the hallway each night ensuring that my three-year-old doesn’t keep jumping out of bed after I lay her down to sleep. Losing one of the two hours I give myself between their bedtime and mine means either not getting enough sleep or not getting done the backlog of chores that have accrued throughout my day of feeding children, changing clothes and diapers, emptying training potties, cleaning up spills, doing laundry, playing games, refereeing spats, … you get the impression.

Oh, and those meals from scratch? Dinners that used to take me an hour to prepare now easily take two or three due to the constant interruptions that occur when rearing two toddlers—and that’s if I don’t accidentally burn something while attending to the girls and need to start over.

But I’m not writing this post to garner sympathy for myself; rather I’m writing in an attempt to engender empathy for other parents who have it much harder than I do. Sure, I’m now a single mom working a part-time job while raising two little girls, but at least I have an ex-spouse who is responsible enough to help with child support and to take the children several days each week. To imagine the stress that single parents without any financial assistance and without periodic breaks from parenting must be under makes my heart ache.

What would I do if I had to sit at Libby’s door every single night until close to 9pm, never having another parent to trade her off to on occasion? What would I do if I never had a night to catch up on much-needed sleep without having to worry about a child awakening me?

And, most crucially, what would I do if I didn’t have any financial assistance during this transitional time between being a stay-at-home mom and getting back into the work force? I’ve run the numbers and it would be financially impossible for me to support the three of us on the full-time wage I earned as a math aid in the Billings public schools prior to Libby’s birth. Just paying for daycare would eat up more than half of my wages; forget paying the rent on my two-bedroom apartment or putting gas in my car, or making those meals from scratch—I’d be scrounging around for scraps! I would have no choice but to accept some sort of public assistance: SNAP benefits, housing vouchers … welfare? I have heard and read that many single mothers find it more economical to live off welfare while their children are below school age than to work a full-time low-wage job, and I believe it. I have a masters degree and I still wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

The next time you feel inclined to scoff at a parent on public assistance, or at a parent losing his or her cool over something seemingly insignificant that their child has done, think twice before judging. That parent may well be suffering the unimaginable stress of raising a child alone, with no support from another parent and little support from society. Your judgment is likely unnecessary anyway, for the parent is probably one provocation away from shedding tears that will surely flow once they are alone at night, feeling overburdened and guilty from all the times during the day when they lost their temper at their children despite trying with every ounce of their energy to hold it in. Being a parent is hard enough; being a parent alone is doubly difficult, especially when one feels the added weight of society’s stigmas.

Not of this world

A disquieting realization has settled upon me over the course of the past several weeks as I’ve spent time processing my marriage, divorce, and new life alone. It is the realization that the more I get back to feeling like my old self again, the less connected I feel to most of the people around me.

It’s odd to think that I could feel more connected to society when I was in a relationship that wasn’t right for me—but I had this sense of camaraderie with others as I went through the motions of marriage and motherhood. I had a house with a white picket fence (almost literally—it was a white post-and-beam fence), two kids, two cars, a horse and a dog; the standard American Dream. I had ordinary, everyday concerns to chat about with people.

But I wasn’t me; I was dying inside, losing touch with a part of myself that I’ve never fully understood but that is nonetheless integral to who I am. As I reclaim that part of myself, I feel more whole—but I also feel more disconnected.

It’s hard to put all of this into words. For as long as I can remember, I’ve walked through life feeling like a participant-observer, taking part in many of the day-to-day rituals of American life but feeling ill at ease with a majority of them and, consequently, engaging in a constant silent critique of the culture around me.

I remember attending parties in high school and college, watching friends imbibe and let loose and wanting no part of it. I’ve sat in on countless lighthearted conversations with my own heart feeling heavy, never able to escape my own thoughts of the overwhelming work there is to do in this world to save it from going to hell in a hand basket.

At some point about six years ago, I got lonely enough that I decided maybe I did need to loosen up; maybe I needed to realize that I can’t save the world, never will, and that I might as well enjoy life while I’m living it. So I did that and I met a man who I thought I enjoyed doing that with, a man who I eventually married and who I had two beautiful little girls with, only to realize that I didn’t enjoy letting loose. I didn’t enjoy letting go of my “uptightness,” as some have called it; I didn’t enjoy believing that it was okay to just focus on my own little life because I wasn’t going to be able to save the rest of the world anyway.

The truth is, I enjoy being serious. I enjoy being analytical and critical and quiet. I do enjoy laughter and music and spending time with friends as well, but the problem I’m beginning to reencounter is that to talk about what’s truly on my mind at any given point in time seems to suck the life out of other people’s enjoyment. My thoughts and critiques aren’t always welcome even among like-minded people because even like-minded people, unlike me, want to let loose sometimes and forget those heavy thoughts I seem to thrive on.

The pastor at my church brought up an apropos Bible verse this morning during his sermon: “Dear friends, you are like foreigners and strangers in this world. I beg you to avoid the evil things your bodies want to do that fight against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). I do feel like a foreigner in this world; but truth be told, I don’t mind. It gets lonely sometimes, but if I’ve learned one thing from the past six years, it’s that being a little bit lonely is far better than being someone I’m not.

My struggle moving forward will be to remain true to the person God created me to be and to not again fall into the trap of allowing myself to be someone I’m not just to have a relationship. If my only fulfilling relationship is with God for now and for the years to come, so be it. He blessed/burdened me (it feels like both) with my serious, contemplative nature for some reason; I simply have to trust that it’s a good one and that my life will be more fulfilling if I follow my nature no matter the cultural conflict it seems to entail.

On divorce

Not too long ago I wrote a post on marriage. I wrote that particular post, in part, to keep myself from making any decisions I’d regret—to serve as a reminder of my values so that I didn’t compromise them in moments of weakness.

Several months later, I’ve come to some important realizations that have changed everything. Beau and I will, after all, be getting a divorce. I’m making my feelings public both because I know people will be curious to know the reasons why and because I’d like to offer my friends and family an explanation.

When I wrote my post on marriage, I was under the influence. Not of alcohol or drugs, but of voices other than my own. In my search to do the right thing, I got hung up on other peoples’ opinions and advice and on a literal interpretation of the Bible; I forgot to tune into my own intuition. I talked to a lot of people who know Beau in an attempt to better understand him but I failed to talk to people who know me and could remind me of the person God created me to be. In the process, I succeeded in making Beau happy enough to stay married, but I lost myself.

I knew it was happening but I forged ahead anyway, thinking that saving the marriage and trying to love unconditionally as God loves us was more important than being me. But recently I had an enlightening conversation with a pastor of the church I attended throughout high school and college, a place where I made a family of friends that helped me to be the best version of myself that I could be, who encouraged me, questioned me, motivated me, and validated me. And it dawned on me as I spoke to him that a marriage should mimic the relationship I had with the State College Presbyterian Church: it should light my fire and make me come alive in Christ, challenging me when necessary and urging me ever forward in my walk of faith.

My marriage with Beau doesn’t do that for me, and it doesn’t do it for him either. We snuff out each other’s lights as we struggle to make a life between two polar opposites work (and we are literal opposites: our Meyers-Briggs personality types are INTJ and ESFP, with not a single dominant trait in common). Knowing this, I inquired of my pastor what, in his reading of the scriptures, he thought God would want: to save the marriage at all costs or to save ourselves? He responded in this way: God gave each of us unique gifts and capabilities that we are intended to tap into and use for His service. To suffocate those gifts for the sake of a relationship—any relationship—would be a disservice to the Creator.

Sometimes we make mistakes and for that reason, God has granted us grace. Neither Beau nor I want to feel like failures, so we’ve held on to our marriage through three and a half years of pain, pain that I now recognize not as resulting from a resistance to love unconditionally, as I suggested in my previous post, but from an incapacity to love one another as God intended a man and a woman to love—for it is impossible to love another person fully when we are not fully ourselves. We made a mistake getting married, and I believe God will forgive us for that. To squelch two individuals for the sake of one marriage would be another mistake, one that we aren’t going to make.

Beau and I both have gifts from God—unique and very different gifts that neither of us is skilled at supporting and encouraging in another person. I can’t keep up with Beau’s desire to be here, there, and everywhere all at once, aiding anyone who asks for help at the drop of a hat. It is a gift—Beau’s gift—to be able to say yes to whomever asks for his service at whatever time of day or night without feeling off kilter. And Beau can’t match my analytical mind and my desire to have my knowledge, wisdom, and understanding be constantly challenged so that it may be ever growing. Whenever I’ve tried to help him thrive by allowing him to say yes to everyone, then one of two things happens: I am not able to use my own gifts of writing and contemplation because I’m never still enough as I follow him around; or I’m lonely because I stay at home to nourish my gifts but have no companion to share them with. When we do our own thing we become disconnected from one another; and when we try to do what we need to do in order to be a part of the other’s pursuits, we become disconnected from ourselves.

So have my values changed? Not really. I still believe that if you’ve found someone who can help you to be the best version of yourself, then that person is worth making your number one priority in life and is worth working through the muck of marriage with. The mistake I made in my previous post was to suggest that spouses should be selfless in a marriage, which is what I was trying to be with Beau—and as the word implies, I lost myself. I don’t believe God wants us to be selfless because He granted each of us a sense of self and a sense of purpose for a reason. It is our duty to discover our purpose and His reason so that we may put our gifts to work in His service; even more so, I believe, than it is our duty to stay in a relationship just because we uttered the words “until death do us part.”