Category Archives: accountability

Decolonize Safety (part 2): Alternatives to Arpaio

The internet world is abuzz with the Department of Homeland Security cutting off Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office access to 287g and S-Comm, agreements which enable them to work as an arm of the federal immigration system.  Arpaio and his deputies are notorious for misconduct, racial profiling, excessive force, corruption, horrific treatment of incarcerated people, retaliation against those who speak out against them, and aggressive raids that sweep thousands of undocumented folks into the immigration system dragnet.   Janet Napolitano (Obama’s hand-picked head of DHS who has supervised over 400,000 deportations in the last year) says that the reason DHS is finally doing anything to hold Arpaio to the barest of standards is that the Department of Justice just released a report denouncing civil rights violations perpetrated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio, including “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States.”  As the headline of this Colorlines article aptly puts it: “DOJ confirms Joe Arpaio is a Racist Sheriff.”  In this same week, his deputies have beaten and tased a man held in their jail to death.  Some say it’s bad timing, others that it is just another signifier of the culture of abuse and brutality that pervades the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio.

I feel honored and humbled and amazed and inspired by all those who have worked and fought so hard for what the National Day Laborer’s Network is aptly calling “A People’s Victory.”  All the hidden and not-so-hidden acts of resistance that have contributed to this small but notable victory against the repressive monster of a system that Arpaio represents.  This resistance has taken many forms: by living and caring for each other, by defending communities and supporting each other, by educating those of us not immediately directly impacted by deportation and incarceration, by organizing and speaking out and bearing witness and shouting truth to power.  There are so many ways that so many different people have created this moment, by the daily practice of living and surviving and by the more public acts of organizing and denouncing and marching against all that threatens our communities.

The struggle to get Arpaio out, which will have huge real impacts on people’s lives and an important symbolic rippling, is far from over.  The Puente Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization in Phoenix that has been a huge part of leading the fight against Arpaio,  is now calling for an end to all cooperation and all ICE Access agreements with Arpaio, criminal charges against Arpaio, and the shut-down of Tent City.  Yes, sometimes we win a little bit and there is so much more to win.  The way is led by those most impacted by Arpaio’s reign of terror and the rest of us would do well to join the struggle that is turning the tide towards justice and collective liberation, a world that works for all of us.

In addition to his horrific treatment of people he’s locked up and his racist terrorizing of undocumented people, Arpaio has been getting tons of media attention recently for a related, but different violation of human rights:  between 2005 and 2007, his deputies either didn’t investigate or barely investigated over 400 sexual assault reports, many of which involved children and/or undocumented people.  It’s a travesty and tragedy and unfortunately completely in line with Arpaio’s upholding and extending of systems of domination, power, and control that feed him and he feeds.  It’s also extremely common for police departments to ignore reports of sexual violence: we live in patriarchal rape culture that in so many subtle and overt ways deems sexual violence acceptable.

When sexual violence is reported to the police, it should be investigated: it seems so basic, but it’s unfortunately not to the MCSO or to other police departments, invested as they are in maintaining the power dynamics of the world as they are.  It is such an act of bravery for a survivor to report a sexual assault and it is often the only the option for folks to begin to achieve some kind of safety, to tell their story and make the intimate horror they’ve experienced public and seen.  Most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, and therefore any reporting or going public with the story can lead to severe consequences, including loss of family emotional or financial support, loss of immigration status, more abuse, isolation, alienation, etc.

But all the attention to this brings up lots of questions about safety and responses to sexual violence:  because we know that most acts of sexual violence go unreported, because we know that the police (not here, not anywhere) never have oppressed people’s best interests in mind, because really, even an adequate and appropriate investigation into a sexual assault is unlikely to keep a survivor safe, or to center their needs and desires, or to hold the perpetrator accountable in a way that means they will never assault someone again and transform into someone who is also struggling against the interlocking systems of oppression that allow sexual violence to happen.

When we see the ways that OF COURSE Arpaio and his deputies didn’t investigate sexual assaults because that would be undermining the power and control that they thrive on, as well as the fact that any Sheriff’s Office is a poor solution to the epidemic of sexual violence and culture of rape (1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted during their life), we can honor the further silencing around sexual violence that occurred due to Arpaio’s misconduct and also recognize what our work is moving forward.

The brilliant Opal Tometi recently pointed out how much Arpaio has stolen the definition of “toughness,” with his identity as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”   He claims it with pride to mean brutality and injustice, racism and violence.  When I think of toughness, I think of survivors.  I think of communities in resistance, together fighting all of what Arpaio does and represents.  I think of the courage it takes to keep living after facing violence that has torn you down, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  I think of survivors speaking out and knowing we deserve the justice and safety we are fighting for.  I think of speaking truth to power, even when that same power has pushed us into the most hidden and trembling corners of ourselves.  I think of the small part inside myself that, on some days, is tough, as I learn to be in survivor community, standing strong and powerful against the interlocking systems of oppression which depend on and enable violence, including sexual violence, as a way of keeping us silent and chained.  I think of toughness as the world we are breaking open, the one we are building, the one in which we can all be well and together and our best selves, the one we move a little closer towards with each small victory, the hidden ones and and the not-so-hidden.

So at this moment, when some silence is being broken around the prevalence of sexual assault, around the systemic reasons why the system of police and policing will never end sexual violence, we also have an opportunity to break the silence about responses.  We can break the silence about what would truly end sexual violence for all people, about how we can turn to each other and build responses and communities that do not rely on the police as the only way to keep us safe, knowing that for most of us, that is something they can never do.

We are at the moment when we get to dream and vision and plan and enact alternatives to Arpaio.  This doesn’t mean 50 federal immigration officials being sent to Maricopa County to continue the violent, racist work of deportation that Arpaio is being cut off from.  This means abolition, in all the senses of the word: ending detention, deportation, incarceration, the Prison Industrial Complex, rape culture, and all its tentacles that rip communities apart.  It means communities coming together to fight sexual violence and denouncing any violence as unacceptable.  It means self-defense and community-defense, learning how to feel at home in our own bodies and that we are worth protecting.   Abolition also means accountability: it means growing resilient communities that can respond to intimate violence and sexual violence in ways that do not rely on oppressive systems that also perpetrate violence.  It means learning from all the hard work that has been done to imagine what a world without sexual violence, without any violence, would look like, and beginning to enact that, every day, growing the world we need alongside the struggle to tear down the one we need to end.

If you are in Phoenix, come join the Puente Movement on Thursday December 22 at 4 pm in Cesar Chavez Plaza to hold vigil for the 432 survivors who were ignored by Arpaio and the system he upholds.  Together we bring Arpaio down, and together we build alternatives to Arpaio.  Jen Cross, from Writing Ourselves Whole, writes: “ for those who can, we also have to put our bodies in the place, on the ground, together, linking arms, raising voices, physically manifesting our resistance. For those who can and wish to, this is deep self care. We give ourselves the bodily experience of resistance together, of revolution, we allow our bodies the memory of solidarity, we give our hearts that message: we are not alone in this struggle. Look, look: we are not alone.” 

We are tough.  We are resilient.  We build a new world with each breath we take.


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Filed under #alternativestoarpaio, accountability, decolonize safety, ending sexual violence, healing justice, prison industrial complex, rape culture, resilience, self care, story telling, violence

What does healing look like?: To all the white people talking about unity in the Occupy movement

Sometimes we need to spend time apart in order to come together.  Sometimes we need to be angry in order to heal.

It’s like this: I’m facilitating a workshop at Occupy Phoenix about colorblindedness and privilege on the Left and a middle aged white man compares “healing” the divisions created by people of color trying to create caucus space to overcoming the systems that divide our communities, like policies that bar migrant kids (or kids with migrant parents) from attending public school in this state, like police violence that works against black-brown solidarity in our neighborhoods, like a corporate media that works to convince us that most of us don’t have health insurance because poor people are using emergency rooms too much when really we know its because of corporate healthcare that puts profit over people.

It’s like this: race was invented by the few in power (referred to in the language of Occupy Movements as “the 1%”) to keep poor and working-class white folks from allying with everyone else because that alliance had (and has) the power to topple global capitalism.  It’s only if we work together that we can transform the world into one that works for all of us.

But Occupy movements and rhetoric are missing something huge in order to get there.  A lot of really smart people have written deep analysis of the problems with unacknowledged privilege at specific Occupy sites and in the broader Occupy movement and about how people and communities are working to unpack and resist that.  I think a huge part of how we move forward is to reframe how we talk and think about unity.

I hear lots of talk of unity at Occupy Phoenix and from the wide internet world of access I have to other local Occupy movements.  When I hear the word unity, my brain immediately goes to the word healing, because I think they are intrinsically linked.  Like that we are working towards a world and a movement in which they mean the same thing.   But what’s different about the word healing and the word unity is that healing implies a process, it implies something that must righted, it implies we are not there yet but we are working on it, it implies a history and a present and a future and work that must be done to move between those three points in time.

The word healing is often really loaded coming from the mouths of white people, privileged people in political spaces.  It often is about reinforcing colorblindness, about erasing histories and current lived realities of oppression in an attempt to pretend we are all “equal” in the present moment.  It’s a word that has been co-opted by the individualistic, depoliticized self-help movement, a word that white culture often tells us means just taking care of one’s own.  The work of personal and collective healing within Occupy movements is justice work and is work that must happen for these movements to succeed.

When I say that we need healing in our movements, I don’t mean the same kind of healing that the Occupy Phoenix participant I mentioned earlier in this post meant.  I don’t think unity means pushing everyone together without paying attention to different levels of power and privilege, to different experiences we have every day because of systems that treat us so differently based on the color of our skin, the language we speak, the amount of money and resources we have access to (even within the 99%), the gender we are seen as, our histories and experiences and the options we have been presented with.   Capitalism hurts us all, but it hurts us all differently.

I think the Occupy movements have the potential to be a liberating space, a transformative space, a place where movements come together and form and swirl around, getting even just the littlest bit closer to the world we want to create.  The only way we can build this is if we only call healing what is actually healing: creating space to acknowledge our different experiences of global capitalism, of the economic crisis, of histories of economic crises that last for generations in communities of color.  Yes, healing comes from unity, but not unity that only comes from silencing.  It comes from unity that is built, that is carefully, slowly, and painfully constructed, by listening to each other and realizing we have a lot to learn.  Unity-as-a-healing-process is built on spaces that center those most impacted by the systems of oppression that harm all of us.  It doesn’t always feel good, it is not always easy and it is NOT constructed on anyone’s back or at anyone’s expense, or by leaving anyone behind and telling “them” “we” will “deal with their issues later, once we fix this more important thing.”

Unity as a healing process doesn’t necessarily start with all of us together.  We have to grow our capacity to really share space, to listen to each other, to create room for all of us together.   Vanissar Tarakali, a longtime white anti-racist organizer, talks about why she has seen it be so important for people of color and white people to meet in separate groups to when beginning to learn about and heal from racism: “The purpose of this is for white people to build community, and support each other to challenge racism and white privilege; and for people of color to build community, and support each other to heal from the daily trauma of racism and internalized racism.”  The process of healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of oppression and internalized oppression is different than healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of alienation, guilt, self hate, defensiveness, and sense of superiority associated with privilege.   Like both people who perpetuate violence and people who survive violence need to heal from that trauma, but they are really different (and initially incompatible) processes. The end goal can still be (and to me, still IS) building unified multiracial movements that reflect ALL of our experiences, including the most marginalized among us, as the end goal.

But we have some work to do to get there.

So if we start to see unity as a process instead of a forced assumption, if we start to understand the way that systems have been intentionally designed to divide us through the use of tools such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, how do we move forward?

The synonymous healing and unity I want to be part of creating has to center those most impacted by the problem at hand, has to lift up our differences and the ability to listen to and truly hear each other’s diverse experiences, has to acknowledge and learn from our histories of trauma and violence and oppression and resistance.

White privilege, the system of unearned benefits and advantages that is granted to white people by systems that deny these same things to people of color, teaches us white people that we know everything.  In order to heal from the harms global capitalism has inflicted on us all and to build real unity, we have to learn to challenge these basic assumptions that we have been taught.  We need to learn to breathe before reacting to something that challenges our worldview, our perhaps invisible assumptions of superiority and knowledge.  We need to learn how to take the time to thoughtfully respond, instead of reacting out of places of defensiveness and hostility to proposals and ideas that we might see as “divisive” or “diluting the message.”  This is not to say that anger does not have a legitimate space in the process of overcoming unchecked white privilege that is rampant in Occupy movements.  People of color are rightfully pissed off at being yet-again marginalized in a space that is supposedly by and for the entire 99%.    Actually hearing and taking into account this legitimate anger can help us as white people move forward in a way that is more accountable to the systems that grant us feelings of superiority and unearned benefits, often in ways we don’t even notice.

We white folks at Occupy need to engage in really listening: both to the lived experiences of folks who bear the brunt of global capitalism as individuals and communities, as well as to the histories of resistance, struggle, and movement building that have come before us.    We need to build our understanding of what’s really going on in this world, how they got there, and figure out how to lift up the voices and needs and skills of those most marginalized among us so that we are truly moving toward a  transformed world that works for ALL of us.  We need to challenge the assumption that white privilege teaches us that our experiences and ideas are the most valid and important.

Let’s take this as an opportunity to learn from other individuals and communities and organizations.  To realize that our personal experience is important and not the end of possible personal experiences in the world.  Let’s really listen and hear what people are telling us, especially those who capitalism has silenced for centuries.

One of the things about white privilege is we are taught to see our work and ideas as individual, as arising purely from ourselves and our own intellect/smarts/genius.  Really movements are informed, whether we acknowledge this or not, by all movements that came before, by all organizations that have been throwing down and building for years.  Let’s connect to our personal and collective histories.  Let’s realize that we have a lot to learn.  Self determination is a crucial value of Occupy movements and one that I share.  But the systems that hold white privilege in place tell us that self determination is an individual process, one in which we only think about ourselves and our own needs and wants and desires and expect everyone else to do the same, starting from the same options and power and feelings of entitlement to advocate for ourselves.  I see growing self-determination as lifting up the power inside all of us in a way that moves us closer to our selves and to collective liberation.  I see self-determination as something that fits perfectly inside the framework of centering the voices of those most marginalized by capitalism: migrant people, formerly and currently incarcerated people, people of color, queer and transgender people, women, disabled people, and especially folks who fall into more than one of those identity groups.    If we create a world in which those of us most marginalized by capitalism are free and have our needs met and our voices heard, then we have a created a world in which that is true for all of us.

One of the important lessons we can learn from movement history is that we’ve already seen what happens to movements that marginalize those already marginalized.  They fail.  Many of us who can sell out do, many of us who can compromise our ways into cushy non-profit jobs and pretend like we are helping “the less fortunate” do and we are someplace so similar to where we started.  There may be some change, but there is no healing.  There may be a false sense of unity, but there is just all this hidden (or not-so-hidden) division.

We can pretend to be doing this together, but until we do the work to make sure we are all at the table and that the table is even set in a way that anyone can come to, where anyone’s voice can be heard, we will just be doing this as alone and as divided as we are in the rest of the world.  Until we center those who of us who are currently and systemically pushed to the margins, we will not be able to create a resilient and lasting unity that is BUILT ON our differences, instead of in spite of them.

The divisions among us are created by systems.  Let’s learn to understand those systems by listening to each other and learning our collective history in order to build real unity and healing in the face of all that tries to keep us apart.  Building true unity and healing will be painful, but it will also be liberating.  Mad props to everyone who is already engaged in this work.  It’s hard as hell and it takes all of us, so let’s get moving.


Filed under #anti-racism, #occupyphoenix, #occupyracism, #whiteprivilege, accountability, healing justice, racial justice, resilience, story telling, unlearning privilege

on leaving New England

It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve left.  It’s old news to talk about how most of the cells in our bodies replace themselves every seven years.  I could break down which organs and tissues do it quicker but that’s not the point.  It makes sense to me to come back to New England at least every seven years so that part of my composition is of hemlock, wintergreen, rolling hills, and the people that are so familiar in their ways.

I leave and am not a refugee.  I have not been displaced, my right to return has never been challenged in any way.  I can’t even know how lucky this makes me, what it means to have a home to return too, in all its complexities and memories and layers of feelings and experiences.

It’s complex to talk about origins as a white European-American.  I come from peoples that don’t necessarily stick around.  I come from peoples that have taken the story of a homeland and used it to steal other people’s places of belonging.  None of my family comes from New England: my dad is Ashkenazi Jew raised in Queens by way of Austria and the Phillipines; my mom is Kansan through and through.  Her mother was an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and therefore committed to genealogies and documentation, to proving white settler legitimacy.   Through her, I know I have some ancestor from Gloucester but that is not at all what makes New England feel like my home.

It’s home because I spent the first 18 years of my life here, and granite mountains make my heart stir and so do the Red Sox even though I don’t care at all about professional sports.  I can’t imagine a more beautiful place than Head of the Meadow Beach on Cape Cod at sunset with the seals barking and the hemlock and Ericaceae (rhododendron, mountain laurel, blueberry) forests that I played in as a child, the birches and beeches and oaks.  I cry every time I watch Good Will Hunting and sometimes when I listen to “Dirty Water.”  The dreamfantasies I have of growing old involve looms and Vermont mountains and mist that rolls back many times a day, the ghosts in the woods that look like birches and old stone walls and crumbling foundations.  They take place in Wise Child, the book that takes up as much space in my brain as the few real childhood memories I have, but transposed from Cornwall to the places I know.


The subtle sculpting of identity has roots in Boston for me.  I was never out when I lived here, but my femme, which is queer as hell and more geographically-based than maybe any other part of me, comes from here.   My femme is New England.  Sometimes she’s not there when I’m not here, but when I’m here, that’s who I am.  My femme is being the only person so many people talk about their feelings to, is bleakness and settling into my bones, is wearing flannel shirts with sparkles in the winter and charming the pants off small town husbands without ever sharing more than I want to.  It’s fabulous and covert as needed, sometimes both at the same time.   It’s dreaming of myself with white hair and wrinkles, a vegetable garden overflowing with things to put up and at least seven signature jam recipes under my belt.  It’s trying to know when and how to talk to my mom about class privilege and resource hoarding, when her mom dies and all she wants to talk about when I visit her is which family heirloom punch bowl I’ll inherit when she dies.  It’s my generosity and my boundaries.  It’s me learning to change as I come back here over and over again, learning to stick with it with people and places even when it’s hard and what my body knows best is leaving.


Birches have white bark so that they can sufficiently photosynthesize even in far northern climates where there is very little sun.  It’s hard to talk about a place and not talk about the trees, even though so much of me is city kid.  Hemlocks are dying from the woolly adelgids and this place is changed, so many times over.  Trees as the lungs of a place, a vital organ, surface area of a football field folded in us to let us go on.  I took a tree identification class through the extension school of the community college in Greenfield, MA, where I’ve been living, and the teacher, who wore pants that zip off into shorts and made us do too many guided visualizations of trees for a three-part class, talked about how we think of forests as static, or as only susceptible to busted human intervention but how truly forest succession has always been a dynamic process that is both cyclical and looming.

You’d think leaving home would get easier each time, because you leave with more and more certainty that it will be there when you return.  It doesn’t feel like that.  It feels like the older I get and the more I settle into my own skin, the more of a New Englander I become, wherever I am.   The harder it is to be anywhere but here.  The more I want to stick around.  I have a lot of choice about where I go, a lot of resources that enable me to move for lots of different reasons, to have the option to move.  There are also the tides of life sweeping through and around me, the eddies and currents and whipping branches that sometimes send me in directions I never imagined.

I moved back this time at a moment of need: my sweetie and I were trying to swim through grief and floating above it all with no ability to land.  I pulled us here and tried to hold us both to ground through some dark winter times, tried to tether us to someplace that I knew how to be in.


It’s a bad stereotype to talk about New Englanders as being mean.  I kind of hate it when people talk about it.  Geographical stereotypes obviously don’t always work because they erase all our other differences and boil us down to ONLY shaped by the land and the climate we inhabit.  Relevant, sure, and in some ways the only way dominant North American culture talks about the ways that people are shaped by the world that is beyond the control of people.  A tiny shred of connection to what it means to be land-based, but without the necessary critique of colonization.

Partly I hate it because I just really don’t think that New Englanders are mean.  I think an expectation of charm and a certain brand of exuberant politeness just isn’t our style.  There is something about certain kinds of reserve that I think are elegant as seashells.  That are about maintaining yourself as whole and boundaried, about actively choosing which parts to share with who and how and when.

There is something I that just makes sense to me about the slow work of getting to be friendly and intimate with New Englanders.  Alex says, don’t think you can win us over, but we will, on our own time, decide if you are trustworthy and/or fun and/or an ally.  We will wait and watch and let it play out and we understand that through and around us processes go on beneath bark and skin.  We watch maple sap flow and make it into syrup.  We watch each other grow older and settle into our selves.

What I mean by elegance is knowing who we are our selves and letting winter and summer pass over and through us.  What I mean by elegance is a birch tree and an elder in flower.  What I mean by elegance is active choice, and taking responsibility for ourselves and our own action, is accountability without necessarily having to talk about it all the time.

When I think about leaving this time, something wells up in me that is too heavy to spill out as tears.  It is something that doesn’t know how to settle anywhere else, because despite all of it, this is home.    It’s like all the old stonewalls and cellars you happen on when you walk in the woods anywhere around here: so low you could step over them but a wall nonetheless.  A border, a boundary, a reminder of people and history and different lives that happened here and made it through the bleakness alone and together.  That also existed in complicated relationship to displacement and colonization and who lives here still, at the margins, who lived here before and was forced away and killed.  There is nothing simple or easy about white people claiming home in the United States.  And yet however much we think and analyze and critique, isn’t part of home under the radar of tongue and brain?  Something we settle into as our bodies integrate the bits of where we are into our very nuclei, something that once it’s caught us, doesn’t really ever go away?


I just went to Boston for the last time before I leave: I saw my family of origin and my friends from high school, who were and are my first chosen family.   I had a lot of feelings that I wasn’t prepared to have: feelings about what’s hard about families, the places of silences and disconnect, the places of imperturbable comfort and trust, the stories we have created together over the years of weaving in and out of each other’s lives.   As a queer person, family feels integrally related to struggle, both as comrades and as challenge.   There are the newer friends, the ones who share queerness and political critique, ways of living and a certain want of family that is more than nuclear, a desire for and commitment to a different world, collective struggle, liberation, transformation.  There is a certain closeness that comes from that, and a whole other kind that comes from long history, from the intricate dramas we have played out and continue to weave, from the things we don’t say to each other, from the ways we have gotten under each other’s skin, itching and soothing.

My family is not all biologically related to me, but aren’t we?  Haven’t we spent so much time around each other that we have inhaled fragments of dead skin and aligned our circadian and other rhythms?  When do we reach the point when so many of our cells have replaced themselves with splinters of each other that we can know down to the marrow that biology is not an objective fact?

We learn to stick around with each other as we inhale each other, as we fight and untangle silences, as we throw down for each other, as we have fun, as we remember, as we tell our stories that diverge and converge like a creek bed.  We learn to stick around even when we are not in close proximity, even when we feel like skeletal tree memories of summer to each other.


I just finished reading Ethan Frome, because my mom was shocked that I’d never read any Edith Wharton and she sent too many of her books to me.  I tried reading others first but got bored by Gilded Age New York City high society, but this one I love even though it’s maybe the most despairingly miserable book I’ve ever read in my life.  I see its tragedy and it is resonant with what I know of these small towns, of harsh and lonely people who have each other and don’t, of the way we get through winter.

I lived in California and felt an expectation of gushy honesty that I bristled against over and over again.  Yes, I think that there are ways our emotions and emotional communication have been stifled by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, but for me, the answer to that is not to let it all out.  It is to take the time I need to thaw before I give up more than I mean to.  It is to know that nothing and everything is urgent, and winter is long but spring always comes again just like peaches ripen with their fuzz.  It is knowing that we killed too many of the whales and wolves that live here and now are left with little to check us but ourselves, trees and stones, and those too are going.

I’m not interested in being won over, and really, I’m not that interested in leaving these hills and fields and people.  They made and make me who I am, tough and guarded until the sinking happens.  The less we talk about it the more comfortable I will feel, the more the ways we are close will ride over us like waves—of so much note and also routine.  And I’m also learning to talk about it, learning to grow relationships like perennials where we can tell each other the hard things and still laugh together.   How to be in relationship, in friendship and family and the ambiguous places that circle around both of those things, with people who have so much the same and so much different from me, who are not going anywhere, to whom I want to prove that I can stick around.  I want to grow my capacity for permanence in the face of ephemeral consumer “need” and erasures of people, bodies, histories.  Someday soon again, I hope to do that in New England, surrounded by people from so many layers of my own history, where my roots run deep even as I uproot myself and head west, again.


The mornings and evenings are starting to get chilly, and my toes are eager for warm socks and the crunch of leaves.  My body is preparing for fall here and I am preparing to leave.

I want this to be a poem full of the things that fill my heart, of salted roads and looking down on old church spires while tossing handfuls of wild blueberries into my mouth, of the parking lot where I learned how to ride a bike and to drive a car, of mosquitoes biting my legs so hard that I can’t stay in the field to key out that plant and then the scabs I get every summer when I itch too much.  It’s cobblestone streets and eating ice cream in the Herrell’s bank vault, walking along the Charles river at night and riding the 78 into Harvard Square or the 62 to Alewife, the new sign in front of my elementary school named for the crossing guard who worked there forever.  It’s the things I never got around to and never will.  It’s how I’ll keep coming back and all these places that skim into my heart like skipping stones and sink will change and shed themselves as I will.  How some of that shedding will make it’s way into us, as we make our ways into each other.  It’s how I already miss my home.  Oh New England, why is it always so hard to stay?


Filed under accountability, family, femme, home, New England, story telling

values and truths, or my chief complaint is oppression

So it all started when I got obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy.    I don’t watch that much TV, but when I do, I can get wrapped up in melodramatic plot lines like the way a cat can get into a ball of yarn.  There are some really smart critiques of it out there already, but what about  the ways that doctors depicted on TV shape how we relate to our own healthcare? As a health worker committed to untangling the lines, lessons, wisdoms, and scars we all carry in our bodies, as well as deciphering the impacts of trauma and oppression on individual and collective illness/wellness, this latest incarnation of The Heroic Doctor Show fascinated me.

Pop culture is a collective story.   It not only reflects dominant culture, but shapes it by embedding its stories, myths, and tales in our individual and collective heads.  Humans love stories, we are social, we like to tell each other what our days were like, we like to share words and names.   We tell each other stories as the basis of interaction, communication, figuring things out together, and just knowing what’s up in each other’s lives.  Stories are a foundation of community and of our selves.  We tell stories in order to understand our experiences.  The telling of stories is a way we actively make sense of our worlds.

The way stories spin out of television is obviously different than the way they come to us out of the mouths of our friends, families, communities.  We don’t get to talk back in any kind of meaningful way.  Sure, we can and do yell at our screens, but… Pop culture presents its stories as definitive: as normal, natural, trumping all of our individual experiences.  It tells us what our world is like, as opposed to asking us how we experience it.  It is the difference between speaking WITH and being spoken TO.  It is the difference between a conversation and a performance of which we are always and only the audience.  So the stories that the racist, sexist, heteronormative, classist, ableist media industry decides are worthy are portrayed on television.  The rest of our stories are invisible.

And we believe it—contrary to everything most of us experience daily, we believe what television tells us: that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that being fat is about a disgusting lack of self-control, that young men of color are just waiting to kill all of us, including those of us who are young men of color ourselves.  Television’s insidious ability to wrap itself around our subconscious and deeply affect how we think is well-known: it is the basis for advertising.  Mainstream media is one of the primary tools that embeds white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and capitalism into the cores of us.  It is a huge part of normalizing such an unjust system as the one we live, making invisible the privilege some of us receive at the expense of others, permitting the violence around us to go on.  It tells us which stories are true and which are not, or at least not worth paying attention to.   All of this shapes us, and therefore, the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.

So it’s a small leap to realize that the way hospitals, doctors, and the healthcare industry are depicted on television shapes how we interact with and perceive them.  Meaning medical dramas on TV affect how we think of our own bodies, capacities for healing, what we need in order to get well.  They shape our understandings of ourselves as people who interact with healthcare, creating  a world in which healthcare is done TO us, in which we receive it, in which we passively wait for doctors to cure us, to fix us, in which we give up our own intrinsic wholeness.     Grey’s Anatomy and other shows teach us to value a mainstream medicine that is high-intervention—meaning surgery, elaborate technology over wellness care, prevention, holistic medicines.

When I started watching Grey’s Anatomy, I started thinking about all the ways that we get information and form ourselves, our relationships to our own bodies and the bodies of others, our relationships to healing, to the healthcare system, to those we turn to for advice or authority or expertise or support, or some confusing combination of all those things.   Television is just one way, but it’s big.  We watch these shows, the many medical dramas around us, and we think, oh, it’s a little glamorous.  Patients are objects.  Doctors are just having hot sex and romantic escapades with each other all the time.  They are so sympathetic and sweet and well-intentioned.  We ask dumb questions.   We are moments that are either dull or life-changing in their stories.  The center of the healthcare experience is the doctor, the doctor, the doctor.  It’s not just that doctors star in the world of medical dramas: they star in real, live healthcare as well.

When I worked as a medical assistant at a community clinic, the paperwork I filled out every day included a space for writing the “chief complaint” of whoever was seeking medical care with us.  This terminology is commonly used in medical settings in the United States.    Complaint implies not fact, untruth, something that is subjective.   Everything I wrote down from the “patient’s” perspective was qualified with “patient states…”  Everything that was written by a doctor or nurse practitioner, even a medical assistant or nurse (lower on the hierarchy of knowledge) was stated as fact, as if it were objectively known, indisputable.  This most basic, taken-for-granted word choice matters.  It implicitly sets up a framework in which some people’s stories are more valuable/valued than others.  Some realities are just more real.

This plays out in concrete ways that affect our health and well-being, historically and currently.  Health disparities exist for many different reasons, but evidence and experience tells us that doctors don’t listen to most of us, in large part because of power and privilege differences.    Research has shown over and over again that doctors treat different clients differently based on perceptions and experiences of privilege and oppression. Doctors spend less time with, prescribe life-saving treatments less often, answer fewer questions from, and communicate differently with patients from marginalized communities. (In this link, check out especially the study called  “Physician communication style may depend on characteristics of breast cancer patients”.)

Most of us also know this from shitty doctor’s office experiences, when we haven’t been believed or listened to, when our knowledge of our own bodies has been questioned, when we have been talked down to, when no one has even taken the time to explain to us what is going on, when we have been subjected to things to which we did not consent.  Those of us who do not fit society’s ideal of the perfect body (white, straight, cis, male, rich, able-bodied, etc.) receive different care, different diagnoses, different treatments.  Our “complaints” more often go unheard because they are treated as just that, complaints.  Medicine is not objective: doctors exist in this racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and ableist society just like the rest of us.  Their enactment of oppression and ignoring of our stories when we turn to them for care has killed and harmed marginalized communities and individuals for centuries.   The medical industry is just one more system that works violence, oppression, and trauma against our communities.

As a white person, I have been taught that I can trust doctors/the healthcare industry, but as a fat person, I avoid going to the doctor because of the ways I know serious things will be attributed to my weight as opposed to what’s really going.  A podiatrist wouldn’t treat me for a disabling foot problem unless I returned twenty pounds lighter.  One time I got a letter from my doctor’s office (ahem, Kaiser) saying that I had all the symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome, a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes.  The symptom set includes elevated blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.  I checked the numbers and saw that both my blood cholesterol and blood pressure were well within the normal limits, low even.  Because of my weight, I got sent a form letter claiming that I had a serious health condition that I didn’t actually have.  These are pretty small examples, compared to legacies and current practices of misdiagnosing, experimenting on, and denying people treatment in really severe and fatal ways, but it proves the same point.  Doctors have been actively taught to not listen to us: our stories have no value as compared with their interpretation of lab numbers, our appearance, what they expect our problems to be based on assumptions and stereotypes manufactured by oppressive systems.  It’s one of the problems with evidence-based medicine, but that’s another post.

This extends to our collective experiences too: the healthcare industry is not accountable to us and our health needs.  Controlled by corporate/pharmaceutical funding, when was the last time a hospital asked the people living around it what they most needed before constructing a new wing or starting some new research?  Someone, tell me please, if you can see any concrete ways in which the mainstream healthcare industry tries to be responsible to the communities it supposedly serves.

There is a new movement in mainstream medicine that has to do with listening more.  I remember an old co-worker telling me that she chose which med school she was going to because they had started having classes in which they teach doctors to listen to their patients.  How novel.  Narrative medicine is the academic discipline related to valuing the stories that patients bring with them into the doctor’s office as real and true and worth listening to.  Sure, that is all great and should be encouraged, but I think it still misses the point.  Even on Grey’s Anatomy they have a lot of conversations about listening to patients, some lip service to valuing our experiences and feelings.   Truly listening, hearing, and respecting stories includes owning up to the ways you have and continue to mess up.  It’s not enough to just start listening today, without unpacking the ways in which your personal experiences of privilege make you literally unable to hear what other people are saying and while still not being accountable to the trauma, violence, and oppression that the mainstream healthcare system has done.  What about the forced sterilization of women of color throughout the U.S. and led by the U.S. around the globe?  What about the invention of the speculum through violent, unconsensual experimentation on women in slavery?  What would it look like for doctors/healthcare providers to be accountable to oppression and violence that has been literally enacted by their own hands?

I want it all.  I want healthcare that meets our needs and I want us to create our own autonomous systems of healing.  Part of health/healing justice looks like those who provide healthcare actually listening to and respecting all of us.  There is no way to actually hear us without being committed to developing a healthcare that is actively struggling against racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, classism, and homophobia.  When we take for granted the framework and language of mainstream healthcare and the oppressive systems intertwined with it, there is no way that we can hear what is really being said or work towards creating safer spaces where we want to start sharing our stories in the first place.

Part of health/healing justice also looks like us learning to trust and value our own stories and experiences, the wisdom in our bodies and minds.  It looks like sharing our truths and listening to others as a way of healing, living more deeply in our bodies, being able to trace the outlines of our own scars.  As the brilliant Adrienne Maree Brown writes,

“in my experience the best storytelling is the best organizing…it’s rooted in a truth people have experienced, has some magic in it and something to long for, and a moment of beauty. but it is co-created as it is lived, no one can see the end of it. that allows people to stay in the present moment, and attend to the work before them with intention, seeing the story unfold with themselves in it, rather than directed, with themselves just outside the frame.

I see truth and magic and beauty in the many medicines we can and do and will create, medicines that are by and for us and our communities, that challenge oppression wherever it exists, that allow us space to truly heal from our trauma and our grief, that support us in building ourselves up, that unfold with our stories, with our lives.

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Filed under accountability, chief complaint, greys anatomy, healing justice, health justice, medical drama, medical psychiatric industrial complex, pop culture, story telling