“Are you Muslim?” “Does it matter?”

This past weekend I was at the 2015 Hunger Walk benefiting the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I’m there through my internship, a non-profit that works with the Hizmet Movement (AKA the Gulen movement)–a peaceful civic interpretation of Islam that fosters understanding and dialogue between all faiths, based on the ideas of Turkish scholar Fetullah Gulen.

In such an environment I wasn’t expecting to have the conversation that I did. Before the walk begins, I was speaking with a middle aged woman who, upon learning I’m at the walk through my internship, asked: “Are you Muslim?”

I told her, “No.” I’m not Muslim. I din’t tell her I’m Jewish because I distrusted her.

She attempted to backtrack but didn’t apologize because she didn’t realize she had done something wrong. She then told me, “I know not all Muslim girls wear a headscarf.”

This is true, but it doesn’t justify her question. If she had to ask if I was Muslim it meant she would view me differently based on my answer. She needed to know to satisfy her own curiosity and prove her own goodness and accepting diversity. It’s the same way that by telling me she knew not all Muslim women wear hijabs, she was really telling me was: I’m a good liberal woman, I swear. I’d accept you even if you were Muslim.

And I’m sure she’s a good person, but she didn’t need to prove how liberal she was to me. I talked with her throughout the walk and found out she routinely does walks for Breast Cancer, that she supports gay marriage and that she’s aware of issues of race. These conversations came up naturally and we were having a discussion. I felt more at ease because she wasn’t trying to prove anything.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with one my friends lately about the “good liberal on the street” who thinks that listening to NPR, voting for the democrats and supporting gay marriage or having a gay friend makes them radical and leftist and somehow helping the world. But if this is all a person is doing, if this is all a person sees as making a difference, and if a person is willing to stop there and congratulate themselves on their good liberal lifestyle they’re still part of the problem.

NPR is tame. Gay marriage is the tip of the iceberg.

As long as liberal people feel the need to prove how liberal they are with questions like “Are you Muslim?” then we’re stuck in an unfortunate definition of liberality. We’re stuck with liberals but not activists.  I’m not saying these “good liberals on the street” are bad people, or that being radical somehow makes someone more moral, but we need more than surface level change. We need to arrive at a day where the answer to the question “Are you Muslim?” is “Does it matter?”

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“Onward We March” to Racism

There’s been a recent controversy in Trumbull, CT over a painting in the Trumbull Library which depicted Mother Theresa standing alongside other female activists, including Margaret Sanger, who holds a Planned Parenthood sign. Catholic officials are deeply offended and say that the painting slanders Mother Theresa’s image. The painting has since been taken down.

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However, the real controversy–the one no one is talking about–has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with race. Look at this painting. Women unite under the banner “Onward We March” and yet there are no women of color. Nowhere.

Imagery like this perpetuates the stereotype that feminism and any push for women’s rights is a white woman’s movement, specifically a cisgender heterosexual middle class white woman’s movement. Where are the Audre Lourdes? the Bell Hooks? the Dolores Huertas?

Where are the women of color and more important, why is no one raising the alarm that Trumbull’s attempt at feminism is severely whitewashed. Feminism is for everyone, and the issue with this painting should be about exclusion and erasure rather than issues of Catholicism and slander against Mother Theresa.

That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.

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Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.

We Can’t Segregate “The Gays”

My brother and I don’t talk as much as we used to. Granted, I’m out of state in college for most of the year, but even when I’m home we have a list of subjects we cannot talk about.

  • feminism
  • gay rights
  • race
  • trans* issues
  • gender
  • politics

The list goes on. I love my brother, but we can’t talk about anything that matters and so we just don’t talk. I know I’m not the only one who has conservative family members and I need to ask if anyone has advice on how to have these conversations.

This morning I made the mistake of talking with him about gay rights. I haven’t been home since March 2013 and the last serious conversation I remember us having face-to-face since was trying to show him feminist frequency where he told me he didn’t have to listen because “she’s an ugly feminist.” That conversation blew up into a screaming match and, thankfully, we’ve both learned to much calmer.And we are very calm. We make it a point not to attack the other person only their beliefs. But that doesn’t matter when the subject matter is personal.

When we began the conversation this morning, my brother said how sometimes peoples’ lives are too different and therefore they cannot co-exist without fighting. He gave gay rights as his example. Though he said he believes “those people” are people too and shouldn’t be denied housing or employment, he also believes we should not exist in his line of sight. If a gay couple lived on a street where he was thinking of buying a house he wouldn’t move onto that block. He wants “those people” on one side of town and the rest of the world on the other side where there would be no contact. In his view a country that is homogeneous in race and ethnicity is the most stable country.

I told him that was segregation and he said “Yes, I don’t deny that. I’m honest about what I believe.” And he is honest, I have to admire that, but he kept saying “those people” and he knows I’m queer. That was the most hurtful comment. If he does not want to live on the same block as a queer couple, does he not want to live in the same house as me, a queer woman?

I do not mean to place myself as a victim or as a perfect person under attack, but I explained that separate spheres would inevitably be unequal. In the gay/straight binary, straight is valued more (rightly so, my brother claims, because straight people are the majority–as if having the majority is the deciding factor on what is valued). Because straightness is praised, straight individuals have an easier time getting and keeping a job, and straight (cis-gender) couples, if they are married, have an easier time buying a house and living their lives. Just by being straight, my brother has untold advantages he believes he rightly deserves. Even if he did not mean to cause direct harm to other people, that is what he is doing by protecting his privilege and believing gay people should be pushed into a separate sphere.

Segregation is never the option. I cannot believe this is a topic of conversation in 2014. But it is. And more importantly it should be, as I am well aware racial segregation is still a major issue, and I’m sorry I do not have the time to devote to that in this blog post. All the same, segregation based on sexuality is just as bad and just as prejudiced. Instead of having the conversations to overcome hatred and reach an understanding, my brother and so many others who share his views, would rather gay people go be gay and do their “gay shit” as he says where he cannot see it. There is no dialogue and no room to change this opinion. Straight is right. Gay is wrong.

He says that if he ever has children he does not want them growing up in an environment where they would see queer people. He hates “gay shit” and in his perfect world gay people would not exist. I am glad he knows being queer is not a choice, but it doesn’t matter if he wishes we wouldn’t exist.  Other than myself I don’t think he knows anyone who is queer and he is ready to pass judgment.

I have never felt more devalued as a human being than during this discussion. I was saying words and it did not matter. He was right. I was wrong. And I stood there and we spoke calmly like adults. I was screaming in my head, but I didn’t tell him that “those people” are “my people” and even more they are people and that should be enough!

Segregation is a form of hatred. And my brother acknowledged it as such. He said that “Well maybe it is, but at least I’m honest. Other people will lie and say they love everyone. I hate most people.”

How do you debate that? Please, if someone knows, tell me. How do you debate when the person is coming from a perspective of hatred and admits it? There’s nothing to win and there’s nothing to prove. There is no debate and I know I can act the adult if I must and remain under control, but why? If someone can tell me how to debate this please let me know.

Tense Discussions

I post a lot of blogs about things my brother has said that have been offensive and sexist. But I spent this past week at home for Spring Break and I love my brother. The line between conservative and liberal is barely there.

Although it seems impossible sometimes to hold a conversation with him, as we both believe so strongly in opposing positions, we make an effort to not step on each other’s beliefs.  Our relationship is not built on political views. It can be easy to assign the opposition of your viewpoint as someone who is stupid, or misinformed, or even evil. It gives you a sense of justice and moral superiority. It’s easy, but that’s what makes it terrible. If I have learned anything from discussions with my brother it’s that his opinions are well thought out and grounded in his perception of reality.

If I want to be heard for my beliefs I must first listen to his.

Whenever my brother and I debate, we know we won’t come to any conclusions. We know we won’t change the other’s mind.  But when we can, we have a dialogue going, and I appreciate this. We love each other no matter where our discussion leads.

Not everyone is having these tense “discussions” with family members. When we argue with friends or even strangers the stakes can be higher. I just want to say that no matter who you debate with, try to see that your opponent is more than just his or her opinions. We are not limited to liberal or conservative as our only markers of identity.

Pro-Life/Pro-Choice

I was previously unaware that October 16th is the Pro-Life Day of Silent Solidarity. Although my college campus is for the most part quite liberal, there were quite a few fliers and supporters decked out for the occasion  I found myself angry at the Pro-Life supporters who waved fliers with slogans like: “1/3 of our generation didn’t make it”. Some of my friends were involved, wearing red duct tape with the word LIFE scrawled in black sharpie.

What surprised me the most though, was not that the campaign was going on, or that I had friends who participated, but that I was angry at these individuals. My own reaction frightened me. I am used to being able to debate calmly, accept the views of others even if I inherently disagree, but I couldn’t as soon as I saw the posters and the duct tape.

I hated the flyers, where a woman’s mouth was taped over to emphasize the silence of the generation who “didn’t make it”. Why silence the mother? Why not have a poster with a baby with the tape? The advertisement tells me that women should be silenced. I can’t reign myself in when this is the promotional material of the opposing argument. My friends who are women were in support of the day and saw nothing wrong. If our moralities contradict so clearly is it wrong to be upset?

The argument between pro-life and pro-choice sometimes seems as silent as the Pro-Life Day of Solidarity. Political candidates won’t breach the subject because their opinions are so clearly split down party lines. Why would a democrat need to say he or she supports pro-choice when their opinion is written in between the letters of their party? I am angry at this day of solidarity because I do not feel that communication between the two sides is open and I fear that even if it were nothing would be accomplished. I’ve talked to other, far more vocal, women in support of pro-choice who tell me horror stories of debates with those in support of pro-life where the pro-life individual calls them a baby killer and the debate ends there. I’ve had conversations with people who think abortions (like birth control) are a girl’s ticket to be a slut so the government should not support it. In their words: let women claim responsibility for their actions.

I feel I need to address these two arguments separately, and although these are not the only arguments made, I feel  I must address the baby-killers in a different manner than the slut shamers.

First, the baby-killers. Perhaps this is why I fear opening up communication: even the labels people choose to identify themselves with put each other more than at odds. If we are at odds, the two sides would either be Pro-Life and Pro-Death, or Pro-Choice and Con-Choice (for lack of a better word). But    instead by choosing Pro-Life and Pro-Choice it doesn’t feel that we’re even having the same conversation. I personally hate the term Pro-Life because it implies anyone who is of the opposite opinion, must be Pro-Death. Now, I know a lot of liberals and none of them are racing off to kill babies, neither before they are born or after. The ‘you’re a baby-killer’ argument fails on multiple accounts: it not only distances the two groups from having any semblance of a reasonable discussion, but it also uses the wrong terminology because the fetus is not yet a baby, and perhaps not even yet a fetus. So long as these lines are up, separating those who believe in life and those who believe in death there can be no open dialogue.

But perhaps if the labels were changed there could be a discussion with the Pro-Life supporters of the above argument. Things get a bit more complicated when the second argument comes into play. Denying women access to abortions because they deserve to be taught a lesson for having sex is rooted in a deep seated misogyny rather than in labels. Though the two arguments of baby-killing and slut shaming are very often entwined, I feel I must separate the two because my anger feels quite different for the second argument. Perhaps I can forgive those who are bound by labels and associate Pro-Choice with choosing death, but it is much more difficult to forgive those who not only deny women access to reproductive health care on multiple levels, but justify through the age old belief that women’s sexuality is dangerous and immoral. I do not believe that when people make the argument that a woman needs to pay a penalty for having sex that the issue is actually about the unborn child. It is so much more likely that the issue is about controlling women and what better ruse to hide behind than the sanctity of life? Pro-Life then has the advantage of both a religious moral high ground and being on the opposing side against feminists. It makes me sick the lengths people will go to in order to keep women domesticated and sexless objects for the sexual pleasures of one man.

Until I got to college I knew I was Pro-Choice, but I didn’t know why. I would not have gotten angry at those of Pro-Life. I hoped writing this would help me understand my anger, and it has helped to get my thoughts out. Still, I do not know if my anger is justified. I want an open dialogue, but I do not know if I am ready to have this discussion. I present my thoughts to you with the question of anger and where it belongs in morality and politics.