Monday, October 24, 2016

A Lump Named Lucille

I sat in the chilly examination room, my legs dangling from the padded table with nothing to shield me from the germ-annihilating cold but a thin cloth gown, opening in the front. My heart was racing, which prompted a warning of concern about blood pressure from the nurse, but I stopped short of arguing. How do I point out that my heart is racing because I'm terrified of doctors' offices, that I dread being poked and prodded, and that I'm here because I found a large lump in my breast?

In reality, I found the lump over a year earlier. The small, marble-sized bump in my left breast was easily discernible, but my doctor wasn't concerned. She noted that I was young and that there was no history of breast cancer in my family, writing off the lump as a simple anomaly. She advised me to monitor it nonetheless and sent me home. She wasn't worried, I felt foolish for overreacting, and I went on about my life.

Over the months, I continued with blase breast exams, grazing my hands haphazardly over my chest once in awhile, checking to make sure the little marble hadn't grown, and finding virtually no change. I began to experience a distinct ache in my chest and beneath my left shoulder blade, but chalked it up to stress and a poor sleeping position. It wasn't until March of this year that I noticed changes in my breast I had never seen before. Distinct dimples had developed over the side, creating a field of pock-marks in my skin. A bulge had begun to distend slightly a few inches from my marble. In a panic, I began aggressively examining my breast, digging my fingers deep into my skin until my chest ached. As I dug deeper, I found that my little marble was not so little anymore. 

I have a large chest, sporting a DD bra, and one of the pitfalls of having such a large chest (besides the adverse effects of gravity) is that detecting changes in your breasts can be extremely complicated. While the little marble felt small on the surface of my breast, what I didn't know was that the lump was extending deeper into the center of my chest, where I could barely detect it. Coupled with half-assed breast exams, anything could grow, any change could happen without my knowledge. I began to panic but tried to reason with myself and rationalize the anxiety away: this lump has been here for over a year, surely if it was cancer some other signs would have been obvious, right? There's no family history of breast cancer. I'm young, it's rare for women my age to develop breast cancer! But the negative thoughts flowed in and overpowered my feeble attempts to set myself at ease: the lump has grown. I have dimples and a bulge, which I learned could be a sign of breast cancer. There's still a family history of cancer in general, and young women can develop breast cancer just as easily as older women.

Initially, I tried to avoid overreacting, fearful I would look like a hypochondriac rushing into the doctor's office again. I noted I was due for a physical, and figured I would schedule one, then mention the change when I saw my doctor. The problem with scheduling a physical is because it's considered a routine examination, the appointment is not given priority, and I wasn't scheduled to see the doctor for another month. I tried to keep myself busy and distracted, but it seemed stories of cancer and diagnoses were everywhere I went, and I couldn't bear the wait any longer. I called the doctor's office to request an earlier appointment and I was in the examination room two days later. 

The doctor, a per diem physician I had never met before, examined me, and like me, had difficulty locating the lump at first. After detection, she considered conducting a biopsy then and there, but noted that the lump was too deep to draw a good sample from. Noting again that I am young and there's no family history, she eventually advised I get an ultrasound and a biopsy done and provided the number. If I have one complaint about Kaiser, it is the extreme difficulty in scheduling these critical tests. I was instructed to call a number, and was informed by the individual who had answered that she would leave a voicemail for the specialist and they would contact me in 2-3 business days. Of course, I was calling on a Friday, so I had to wait the weekend in addition to the business days. My weekend was spent in angst, my stomach in knots. By Wednesday the following week, they still hadn't called. Frustrated, I called again, and was met with the same response: she would leave them another voicemail and hope I get a response. Finally the following day I received a call, and my ultrasound and biopsy were scheduled for the following week.

Another week to wait. Sadly, I've never been one of those chicks who lose their appetite when they're nervous or stressed, and I began to eat my way to an unattainable comfort, gaining a fair amount of weight. I lost sleep, and my hair began to fall out as well. I made the mistake of not telling anyone about my circumstances, which only added to my burden. Though I wanted to reach out to my mom, like me, she tends to jump to the worst conclusions and instantly panic. Given that my mom had just lost her mother a few months earlier, I didn't want her faced with the prospect that her daughter may be ill as well. So I kept it to myself. Eventually I told my best friend, but it did little to relax me. Humor is usually the best medicine, and the only way I could cope was trying to lighten the mood in the dark cloud around me. Having a propensity for naming the lumps and bumps on my body (I have a bunion named Bertha), I found it only fitting that I should name the lump in my breast as well, and the pestilent mass became known as Lucille. I personified her, talked shit to her and about her, and vowed to mercilessly shank her ass if she turned out to be cancer. I could laugh about this at times, and other times, I just cried and hated Lucille with a passion.

When the time for the appointment came, I drove myself to the hospital and checked myself in to Radiology. The technician was friendly, and attempted gentle conversation with me while taking pictures of Lucille (she too had trouble locating Lucille, this bitch is like Carmen San Diego running around the globe that is my boob). She rose and stated she needed to consult with the doctor, which surged my anxiety. Did she find something? Was something wrong? Is it worse than we thought? I lay on the table freezing in yet another paper thin gown with a horrible pattern scattered across it (who designs this shit?) with my heart racing again. Finally she returned, and with a smile on her face, she informed me that I was clear. There was no need for a biopsy as the scan had come back clear. She stood in wait as I attempted to process this information, then cracked a smile and breathed a sigh of relief. I think she expected me to jump up and scream and shout, but after a month and a half of anxiety and stress, I couldn't switch my mood up that fast. I thanked her, she hugged me and guided me back to the lobby. As I walked to the car, I teared up and allowed the emotions to wash over me as I broke down crying. I called my mom that night and shared the news, finally disclosing what I had been struggling with for the past 6 weeks. She chided me for not telling her sooner and I cried on the phone with her for awhile. For the first night in weeks I slept soundly, and the weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

This moment of bliss was to be short lived, as a few days later I got another call from the doctor's office. I sat in my car listening to the voicemail as the doctor informed me that they wanted to run more tests and wanted me to get a full mammogram. Lucille was ruining my life. I yelled and cursed in my car as I was thrust into another episode of panic and distress. I called my mom crying, and this time I had her shoulder to lean on. I went through the disastrous process of scheduling another appointment, again waiting the weekend and the 2-3 business days for a call back, then was scheduled for a mammogram a week and a half later. Another week and a half of waiting on this bitch Lucille. I had my mom accompany me to the hospital this time, and put on the all too familiar, poorly designed gown in preparation for my pancake boob tests. The technician was not as friendly as the ultrasound one. She stuck little metal stickers on my nipples (likely used as a point of reference for the x-ray), and she stretched and pulled my boob like it was a lump of bread dough with absolutely no sense of feeling. She flattened me between two slabs of plastic and demanded I hold my breath and hold still. One photo-shoot for each side and I was sent to another waiting room. The consensus came back and I was told again that Lucille was nothing but an obnoxious presence in my chest, not a deadly one. My ultimate relief was almost overshadowed by trying to pull those super-glued stickers off my nipples (a pain rivaled only by childbirth), but I went home with a sense of peace I hadn't known in two months.

It turned out that Lucille was a mass of hardened breast tissue that had gained considerable density over the year. This contributed to the pain in my shoulder and chest as well, as my breast has become heavier and my body is struggling to adapt to the added weight. But this process has been an important one, and in spite of having a clean bill of health, there are many things to be noted here during this Breast Cancer Awareness month. First off, age doesn't mean shit. I have had many friends, one as young as 16, who were diagnosed with breast cancer, and while it is not as common as it is in older women, it is not impossible for a woman my age to get cancer. Second, while family history is a good predictor for breast cancer risk, it is not the only indicator; clearly you can get cancer even if your family has never had it. Third, breast exams are crucial, and you might as well start them now to get into the habit. Check here for information on how to correctly check yourself, and ladies, if you have big breasts, remember to dig deep! And last, in spite of being afraid of overreacting, don't let your doctor make you feel foolish or crazy, you know your body better than anyone else. Taking time to go to the doctor only to find out nothing is wrong is far better than avoiding the doctor only to find out it's too late when you finally get the nerve to go.

I was fortunate that my journey stopped here. Given the emotional toll the diagnostic process took, I can't imagine the anxiety, the stress, the overwhelming feelings that come with a true cancer diagnosis, and I give all my admiration and respect to women everywhere who have fought and are fighting this terrible disease. The sad reality that I found is the reason Kaiser takes so long to schedule these appointments is because there are so many women getting the exact same tests, some routine, some out of concern, and we should haven't to go through this any longer. Though we edge closer to a cure in the future, self-exams, early detection, and good health care make all the difference today. And if you are fighting, give that lump a name and beat the hell out of that bitch with everything you've got.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Driving Out the Darkness

Our world is drowning in violence. Terrorism, rape, homicide, police brutality, and the aggressive responses such attacks foster in a social existence that is tired of the blood bath we've been wading in. Anger is of course the natural reflex that surges when we see our families, friends, and countrymen harmed by a perceived outsider, and even more so when they're hurt by the very system intended to protect us. But what dangers could this fury unleash when left unbridled in the hands of a nation scorned? What could we possibly accomplish with the draconian eye for an eye mentality that leaves us blind beyond the pupils of our enemy? There are many battles to fight, but there are many paths to victory, and the descending spiral of violence is not one of them.

Many arguments in the history of the world have been settled by war in one respect or another, but while they led to ceasefires and peace agreements, they rarely led to harmony and tranquility. More recently, the wars waged across the geographical lines of international borders have raged on without any possibility of resolution in sight. The war on ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Boko Haram Insurgency, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict have been battling on for years and even decades, with millions dead and more dying every year. Even here in the US, internal combats have spattered our streets with blood thanks to gang wars, drug wars, gun violence, racism, homophobia, and yes, even police brutality.

In a country where law enforcement has been given the ultimate power to protect the innocent civilians of the US, it seems the long arm of the law too often sees color beyond Justice's blindfold, and reaches for the firearm on its hip too quickly. As a result, several innocent black lives have been lost. Violations of the law that include being in the wrong place at the wrong time, following directions, lying motionless on the ground, placing your hands in the air are all things that can get you killed when you are the wrong color in this country. Especially if you are confronted with the misfortune of having a police officer who is quicker to reach for more lethal means beyond a taser or pepper spray.

Of course every time, and far too often, when these stories splash across my computer screen, when they haunt the water cooler at work, the anger rises in my chest, bitter as bile. While I admit I have never faced the onslaught of violence and aggression the boys and girls in blue deal with on a daily basis, I have worked in high intensity environments, where individuals were unstable and as such became violent and aggressive towards themselves, towards others, and towards staff, including me. We were taught (minimally) how to address these attacks, usually involving a quick ProACT restraint, tackling the client to the ground, holding them in place as they writhed and struggled beneath our grips. We fielded globs of spit as they flew in the general direction of our faces, we shifted our hands so they were just out of the reach of their gnashing teeth, we fought to gain and regain control of their flailing arms and legs as we were punched, kicked in the the face and the chest. Sometimes we had to wrestle potential weapons from them, including broken shards of glass, broken bottles, and rocks. Our safety and well being was endangered. Many staff ended up in the emergency room with cuts, abrasions, bleeding bite marks, and concussions. But at the end of the day, we understood this was the job.

We worked with psychologically disturbed clients. Granted the facility was not well run and the clients were out of control, but still we did our best to keep the peace with the little training we had. We were not afforded tasers, pepper spray, batons, or cuffs and certainly not granted guns. We had many opportunities to lose our cool in the heat of the moment and lash out at our attackers, we had every reason to panic in the many crises that flooded our hallways. I even developed mild PTSD after being strangled at work. But this was the job. This is what we signed up for. And this is what police officers sign up for every day when they put on the badge. Now of course I am not asking them to risk their lives, and if the gun is genuinely necessary, they must do what they have to do. But with the extensive training they have to de-escalate and manage crises and the multiple tools in their belt they can work with, what excuse do they have for impulse, for panic, for repeated deadly force?

I can't wrap my head around it. I never could. But as angry as I get, I understand that violence is not the answer. Fighting brutality with brutality brings no calm to the tumultuous sea of our society, but adds to the confusion, the irrationality, and the impulsive decisions that can completely destroy the remaining scaffolding of our crumbling world. In spite of the overwhelming desire to bash in the heads of the guilty parties across the nation, I understand that killing innocent officers during a protest is not a solution. Assaults and arrests are not the solution. Rioting and looting is not the solution. Much like the result of police brutality, violence breeds nothing more than distrust, suspicion, and fear. There are thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the Black Lives Matter movement, but the more aggressive members seek to garner attention, notoriety, progress and respect, these intimidation tactics only breed deep-seated trepidation which will eventually turn to animosity and onward toward hostility. Blame will be placed, distrust will grow, the Us vs. Them mentality will thrive, and violence will build in an ever-growing cycle until it becomes an unstoppable force; before the nation is swallowed in a bloody tidal wave.

Violence begets violence. Martin Luther King, one of the more prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement built his legacy on non-violent approaches to challenging the constructs of social injustice in the 1960s. There were several other leaders in the movement who made their own contributions, but aside from Malcolm X, they have not been as prominent, and unlike Malcolm X, MLK made his lasting mark in history without the "any means necessary" tactics. There were sit-ins, there were boycotts, there were peaceful marches that garnered the attention and the notoriety the movement deserved in order to facilitate change. Many people have turned to his teachings and cited his speeches in their tireless arguments for peaceful battles, not because they're trying to change history or "whitewash" the violence out of it, but simply out of desire to follow the path that he cleared through the decades. Because it was the better path of the two laid out before us.

Now in the midst of these desperate pleas for peaceful strategies, I was called complacent, accused of indifference because I wasn't angry enough to be aggressive. I was even told that my opinion on the ineffectiveness of violence was invalid and unwarranted because I'm not black, and I don't have the right to criticize the way black people address their own issues. I don't need to be black to know that violence is not the answer; I don't need to be violent to prove that I care. I can be and will be a peaceful warrior in fostering change in the world, because this is my tactic: to avoid adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Busting the Senate

In this very moment as I type, in Washington DC the country stands on the precipice of making history. In this moment, Democratic Senators, specifically the Senator of Connecticut, home of the Newtown school massacre, have taken the US Congress hostage in what is currently clocked at a 12+ hour filibuster, a dramatic and divisive effort to move the hands of the nation's lawmakers to draw more stringent gun control laws. For those unaware, Congress opens sessions each morning and closes them each evening, but these sessions cannot be closed if a senator is holding the floor and actively addressing the Senate. No one can force the senator holding the floor to give it up, and if the senator continues to talk, the session cannot close. The other senators cannot leave, Congress cannot close for the evening, and they can continue long into the night and into the next day if they choose. These filibusters are effective tactics to motivate action in the Senate. Following the devastating massacre that took place Sunday morning at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, as the country and the world heaved another exasperated sigh at another mass shooting in the US, people have demanded a change. For once, our representatives have heard us.

Gun control laws have been lax as gun proponents and powerful NRA members have blocked multiple attempts to create stricter laws and policies in regards to gun purchasing and possession, and limitations on types of firearms permitted. Falling victim to the slippery slope mentality, fear of losing their guns completely eliminated any possibility of negotiation on this forefront. Now the NRA has not always been the picture of tact and grace when dealing with their adversaries and victims of gun violence. In spite of the multiple shootings that had taken place, the NRA has even at times been callous in their swift response to secure gun support. Following the Columbine shootings, the NRA had a scheduled gun show in Denver that they refused to cancel, in case gun support waned in the face of innocent children being shot to death. Then just months after Columbine, when a six year old child took a gun to school in Flint, Michigan and shot another six year old, the NRA was there too, ready to represent as the community mourned another senseless act of violence.

But in this discussion, senators are finally breaching above the obstacle in this conversation and clarifying once and for all that guns will remain protected for the responsible, for the mentally healthy, for the upstanding citizens and residents of this country who are trying to live a decent and safe life above and beyond terror. However, we will not allow guns to fall into the hands of those who will do grave harm to innocent people around them. We will not stand for another mass shooting in this country.

I don't particularly expect drastic changes in this single filibuster. As a nation we work in baby steps before we can nudge the opposition in the direction we wish to fall. And what is becoming evident in these ongoing discussions is that the senators are presenting taking on the safer issues and tip-toeing around the more significant and sensitive ones. The broader suggestion that has currently taken the floor is the prohibition of "individuals of concern" or people on the FBI's watch list from purchasing weapons, and prohibiting any form of gun sales without background checks. While this is a good start to achieving change, it is certainly not enough; the senators are grazing on issues that have almost unanimously been decided and supported by the American people, therefore evade any significant risk in standing up in Congress and voicing their concerns. In the hours they've been on the air, not one senator that I have seen has mentioned the ban of assault rifles or high capacity magazines because this a more delicate subject, one that would spark those slippery slope concerns from gun proponents "well if you're going to take this type of gun how do I know you won't take my other guns?" While I commend the senators for taking action, they are also taking credit for a debate that is likely already won amongst the people and the other senators in the building. Edit: Senator of Connecticut finally acknowledged these issues in the 14th hour but wishes to focus on the safe issues mentioned above to start the movement.

As we move forward it will take more time and more initiatives to accomplish what we truly need to make this nation safe again. The senate has discussed but has not proposed changes to policies regarding individuals with mental health issues, which, as I cited in my LGBT blog, needs significant revisions in order to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill; a five year waiting period for a released psychiatric patient does not imply sudden mental stability. Some senators have argued that individual states are making their own laws to handle gun control and this should be sufficient, but it is not. The state legislative process involved and the opposition from the NRA and gun proponents is too long and too strong for many states to achieve this level of protection on their own. They need the power of the federal government behind them to expedite and enforce this movement, and the country deserves the umbrella of federal protection in the face of nation-wide and constant tragedies. But, we cannot deny that this is one giant leap in the right direction.

As the discussions go on and we enter our 13th hour, more and more senators are fueling the filibuster with heart-wrenching stories of the realities we have faced in the last few decades regarding gun violence. The woman above, though I did not catch which state she represented, recounting the mass shootings that have occurred since 2007 and listed the locations, number of fatalities, and numbers of the wounded. My heart ached and I shook my head in disbelief at all the recorded massacres that have been buried in the shadows of the past, buried beneath the headlines of the latest shootings, only the bloodiest worthy of remembrance. So many lives, so many cut short in tragedies, which, for many, could have been prevented with stricter gun laws.

What I do love about this discussion is a point easily recognized around the world and in some places in America, but one in danger of being glossed over: this was not just an act of terrorism. Yes, he claimed affiliation with ISIS, but as more information comes out, this was an act of hate and aggression towards a particular group of people: the LGBTQ community. And it happened specifically during our own month of celebration, our anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. This was not just terrorism, this was a terrorist act embedded in a hate crime, the first of its kind in our sad, sordid history of human violence. And some amazing senators will not let you forget it. They have worked tirelessly in their speeches to remind us that this was a hate crime, an attack on people who loved whom they chose, who wanted to be who they are, and live life as they were made to. Hundreds and thousands of demonstrators around the world held vigil for those who passed, but they did it waving the rainbow flag, not the American flag. This was not just an attack on American soil, on American freedom and lives, this was an attack on the gay community. After everything we have endured, after the hate, the discrimination, the struggles we have absorbed, we must find room in our lives to comprehend one more tragedy and one more devastating fact: that we are not yet safe in this world before us.

But in watching the international response, I find hope. The world I grew up in rallied against any type of gay rights; they shamed us, they beat us, they even murdered us, as some from my generation will recall the brutal deaths of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena. I am still shocked and overwhelmed when I see thousands standing in the streets of London, praying outside vigils in India, holding their own pride parades with their mothers in Asia, and waving their rainbow flags in solidarity. I was still stunned when I saw the hundreds of straight allies who answered the call for blood donations when gay men could not donate. In spite of the message this one man attempted to send, I can see that we have the love and support of millions more, and we can survive and thrive through these final dark hours before the rainbow shines through this storm. But we can't do it alone.

It is currently 2 am in Washington now, and they are still fighting. Filibuster on...14 hours and counting.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Desolation of Cultural Appropriation

As the internet grows ever sensitive to...well...everything, political correctness has taken an ugly turn into a mob of screaming whining children who seem to have nothing better to do than stir up shit storms on social media. Lately the discussion has turned to the copyright holders of various ethic groups and their cries of violations. From dreadlocks to head dresses, from song lines to clothing, the term cultural appropriation has certainly gotten worn out over the past few months. Laying claim to various elements of their own cultures, when an individual of a different culture adopts or uses one of these elements, the group as a whole denounces the use as crossing boundaries. But why do we create these boundaries to begin with and why are we so protective of the cultures we're so proud of?

We all have rich cultures with several wonderful layers and aspects that make our cultures what they are. Exquisite cuisines, hairstyles, clothing, accessories, music, dance, art, architecture, history are the colorful pieces that create the mosaic of our homelands and roots. I'm half Mexican; we have amazing things like tamales and enchiladas, ponchos and china poblanas, charros, mariachis, Frida Kahlo, and the Alamo. And tequila. Tequila es muy importante. I'm also half Irish. And we have beer...and beer...and corned beef and cabbage...and beer. No seriously, there's some Celtic stuff and River Dancing, and Bono, he's pretty important. Okay so my Irish family is probably 5th or 6th generation American and I'm not as incredibly aware of Irish culture like I am of my Hispanic culture from my more recently immigrated Mexican family members, but there's some great shite going on in Ireland.

Anyways I am proud of my cultures, I'm proud of these amazing factors and details that set us apart from other cultures and make us unique, and I want to share these things with people. I want to shout out "hey look how great we are! Listen to U2 and Selena, try our pan dulce (skip the boiled potatoes), check out our museums and kick ass Irish castles, buy this intricately handmade serape, drink tequila, stop at a pub, drink tequila in a pub!" I want the world to experience my history, my home countries, the things that make my life my life.

But it would seem lately some people have gotten a little stingy with their own cultures. Like five year olds who don't want anyone else to play with their toys, the whining babes of the internet are screaming "don't touch! That's MY culture! You can't have my culture! Go away poopy face!" Though the conversation of appropriation has been going on for years, it gained momentum more recently when some little twerp white singer decided to get dreadlocks in his Bieberiffic hair. Now don't get me wrong, I don't like the dude, I never did, and frankly I don't know any white people who have effectively pulled off the dreadlocks look, but I didn't see anything wrong with the move. However, hundreds of people immediately took to the internet to voice their discontent with the hijacking of a hairstyle that is often mis-attributed to the black culture (it originated in the Egyptian culture). Shortly after that in a similar situation of a young light lad and his knotted mane, a black woman became aggressive with him on a college campus because he had adopted the hairstyle as well, and stated he couldn't have the hairstyle "because it's [her] culture."

A few years ago, Pharrell appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in a beautiful Native American headdress, and the NAs were up in arms screaming appropriation and demanding an apology from the musician for his offensive depiction of their culture. There was no war paint, no stereotypical warrior on a horse. Just a beautiful headdress on a beautiful black man. When I Googled the image, I came across the Native American magazine Native Peoples, featuring a NA man wearing a headdress with a boasting comment below stating "our headdresses were featured in NP Magazine!" Even though there was no difference between the beautifully photographed models of either magazine aside from their ethnicity, one was crucified while the other placed on an artistic pedestal.

More recently Blake Lively found herself in hot water as well when she posted a photo of herself on the red carpet with a beautiful front side and a well endowed back side. The caption read "LA face with an Oakland booty" to quote Sir Mix-a-Lot's famous song Baby Got Back. Some claimed the fact that a white woman was quoting a black song indicated her caption was "racially charged"and inappropriate. One person stated she was using WOC's bodies as punchlines and another person wrote "you can never trust the whites." She was just proud of her large ass and quoted a large ass song. Did it matter that the singer of said large ass song was black? Sir Mix-a-Lot recently came to her defense noting women of all colors have curves and should be proud of them, but why did he have to defend her to begin with?

Not one person in all these examples was trying to make a mockery of any particular culture. No one was dancing around making black (Egyptian) jokes in dreadlocks, no one was riding off to war with cowboys in some offensive depiction of violent Indians, no one was claiming superiority or putting down black women's rear ends just because white women can have rear ends too (I don't have one, but some are more fortunate than I in the large ass department). These people only utilized the elements of these cultures because they admired them, because they enjoyed them, because they appreciated them as much as everyone else does. And that, my friends, is what strengthens our unity as a global community. Taking part in someone else's culture gives us the opportunity to learn more about that culture and appreciate the history of those people. It helps us understand that while we have our differences, they make us unique and beautiful and we can learn so much from one another. If we shut that down, if we demand that our cultures remain untainted by the hands of outsiders, we only build up barriers that create racial and cultural divides. Those divides create a lack of understanding, suspicion, and the increasingly detrimental Us versus Them mentality that has become so damaging to our society today.

And remember, each and every one of you that has claimed appropriation has probably eaten a burrito at some point, if you don't want to share your culture, we don't have to share ours. So kiss your chile verde adios bebes...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Responsibility of Rape

Someone I know was raped last week. It was of course devastating for her, as we would expect nothing less after falling victim to such a heinous crime. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women will become the victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, a number incomprehensible when you consider how many women that comes out to in our global population of 7 billion (that's roughly 1,139,353,126 rape victims worldwide). Historically, however, judgment has always fallen on the victim: fingers were always pointed as meticulous investigations sought out every detail of what they felt the victim did wrong. In turn, they cast their eyes away from the perpetrator, often but not always male, who could not be held responsible for his carnal instincts. Now the world has lashed out in warranted outrage in response and demanded a change. A movement has begun to battle victim blaming, to turn the focus away from what the victim was wearing, saying, doing, drinking and simply acknowledging that the victim said no. I wholeheartedly agree that no matter what the circumstances, no means no, and that should end all progressions. But is the movement against victim blaming reaching an unsafe extreme? Is perpetuating the fantasy of an idyllic society that has yet to be created minimizing the need for self-protection and risk reduction? Living in a world of shoulds does not guarantee your hopes and expectations; it may just end them.

Victim blaming is, at its core, a societal problem. Of course, some perpetrators are victims of catastrophic childhoods wherein they themselves may have been victims of abuse, and now, as adults, they seek to regain the control and power they lost by dominating and stripping others of their own control and power. Some male perpetrators, however, are taught from an early age that women are inferior and therefore property to be controlled and dominated by a heavy hand. The latter became clear when I was watching the documentary India's Daughter, the story of Jyoti Singh, an Indian woman who was brutally gang-raped by six men in a bus in Delhi. Jyoti had gone against traditional cultural norms and went to a movie with a male friend at night to celebrate the end of her school term. On the way home, she and her friend jumped on the city bus. It was here that her friend was assaulted, and the six men took turns brutally raping her and penetrating her with an iron rod that left her disemboweled. After 13 days and multiple surgeries, Jyoti succumbed to her injuries and died on December 29, 2012.

The men who were convicted of this crime gave plenty of excuses and justifications for their actions. Mukesh, one of the rapists, told the documentary "a decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy." But while this comment will undoubtedly raise the wrath of hell in any morally sound mind, Jyoti supporters in the documentary take full responsibility for the inhuman spawns of their own society. In a culture where men are revered and women are inferior, how can these men grow to respect them? In these homes, the male child is placed on a pedestal; he will carry the family name, he will be the ultimate representative of his lineage and upbringing, and he sees the benefits of his gender from the beginning. He is first to eat, he gets the largest portion of the meal and the most precious milk, as his sister is left to eat the remaining morsels, the smallest amount of milk, and to eat only when all the men in the home have been served. He goes out to play and study, she stays home and cleans, taking care of her brothers and father. He is the king, she is the servant, there to satisfy his needs. Growing up in such an inequitable environment, why wouldn't they think that these needs extend to sexual in addition to domestic? Even Mukesh could not fully understand the problem with the mentality that he had been indoctrinated with since a small child; he genuinely could not comprehend what he had done wrong. She was, after all, just a girl.

The refusal to hear the word no, to respect the limitations and boundaries set by your partner, is a sense of entitlement that has been deeply ingrained in the minds of these perpetrators by their own environments. While the west may not be as extreme as some eastern cultures in their gendered favoritism, there is still underlying messages about the value of a woman versus a man that have yet to be rectified. As such, even in our progressive society, there is still a savage need to dominate over one another that some people simply cannot suppress, which leads to the most important component of the anti-victim blaming movement: teaching a man to take no for an answer. Teaching respect for any partner you may be engaging with, accepting that sex won't happen tonight and moving on. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg in addressing the multi-faceted gender gap problems of this country, from wage gaps, exclusions, double standards, etc, we've definitely got our work cut out for us to rectify this imbalance. But change starts at home with our own sons and brothers, teaching them the true value of their female counterparts.

Note from the author: I want to clarify at this point that in these examples provided, I am not negating that women cannot and have not been perpetrators, or that homosexual assaults occur as well; however there are limited studies in female rapists and same-sex sexual assaults, and the underlying causes of such likely stem from differing factors. Therefore most supporting points made in this blog focus on the imbalance of power between men and women in heterosexual assaults. 

Of course, tipping the scales of the world and leveling the gender difference is a social movement, which by definition, progresses and evolves over the course of decades and at times even centuries. Being the realist-borderline pessimist that I am, I don't expect significant results in my lifetime, and thus I know that we as women need to be proactive in our own risk reduction. This is where the anti-victim blaming movement gets a little deluded. Granted, there is a fine line between blaming and taking responsibility for our own safety, and more zealous feminists will send up the battle cry for anyone who remotely suggests that we should be cautious, because that indicates that a lack of caution amounts to fault. This became blindingly clear when Nia Sanchez, crowned Miss USA in 2014, was asked a question involving sexual assaults on college-aged women. In response, the Tae-Kwon-Do black belt stated that she believed women should know how to defend themselves. Following this outrageously sane answer, the torches were lit and the pitchforks were thrust overhead as many screamed "victim blamer" at the pageant winner. "Women should not have to defend themselves, men should learn to take no for an answer!" Well that's half-true. But in my career and in life we have learned about the importance of risk reduction, in spite of life's Shoulds.

Risk reduction is simply taking responsibility for preventive measures, to ensure our well-being to the best of our ability and using our common sense and instinct. For example, I often engage in risk reduction by avoiding walking down the street by myself in the middle of the night in case someone may approach me and attack me. If I go to a club or a bar, I do not leave my drink unsupervised, and I never accept a drink from a stranger in case someone might drug me. If I am at said bar or club, I don't leave the establishment with some random person I just met. If I am online dating, I refuse to meet anywhere but in public places and I never go back to their place or take them to mine until I have gotten to know them and feel comfortable with them. It is ridiculous that such steps must be taken; I should be able to walk where I want when I want. I should be able to set down my drink without worrying because I can't dance and hold my drink without spilling it. I should be able to spend time getting to know someone new without keeping a free hand on the pepper spray in my purse, just in case. I should be able to wear what I want without someone thinking it's an irrevocable invitation into my pants. But I don't live in a world of Shoulds. No matter how society should treat me, life simply isn't this way. As Nia Sanchez said, "it would be great to live in a world without crime and without rape or murder. But that's not reality."

I must admit, in being human, as I sat with this young woman who had so recently been attacked, I had to check and re-check myself as victim-blaming thoughts crept into the back of my mind. Didn't we talk about risk reduction just a few weeks ago? Why would you go anywhere with a man you just met? If you had gotten to know him before you went with him, you might have learned he was a registered sex offender! But these thoughts had been swirling in her mind in the countless hours following her attack, most likely during the attack, and she didn't need to hear them from me. So I jammed those thoughts out of my head and reminded her that no matter what choices she made, he was nothing more than a sick, twisted fuck who took advantage of her, and it wasn't her fault.

I see more and more articles and videos of people in protest of victim blaming, and while most of the arguments are entirely justified and unfathomably legitimate, the pendulum is swinging towards the extremist idealist perspective that may end in someone getting raped simply because the Shoulds they had lived by all their lives could not protect them in that crucial moment. We shouldn't have to deal with an issue like rape at all, but in this less-than-utopian world we live in, it is all-encompassing, and since we cannot rely upon the people around us to make the right decision, until society changes, we have to take care of ourselves the best that we can. The choices we make may mean the difference between safety and assault. Of course, risk reduction is not risk elimination, we may take all the necessary steps to protect ourselves and it still may not be enough. Either way, whatever happens, in the end it is never our faults: no still means no, and whomever you're with bears the full brunt of the responsibility for whatever ensues. But if they can't take no for an answer, a karate chop to the throat and a knee to the crotch may just get the message across.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


So this conversation is awkward. It's not an easy conversation to have with the impending fear of being labeled a racist for speaking out against anything that doesn't immediately elevate People of Color in the world. But I'm going to have this conversation because I've been reading the articles and the ensuing comments that followed for the past few days, and I even touched on this issue many, many years ago on this blog: the unforgiving world of Oscar nominations.

Since the nominations were announced earlier this year, there has been an outcry among the people for the lack of color in the nomination pool. Blacks and whites were screaming racism, some actors have vowed to boycott the show, and people have flung accusations of white privilege to anyone who questioned their stance. The opposition, however (also blacks and whites), has surged in rebuttal, demanding acknowledgement for achievement alone rather than skin color, retorting that the majority of films that included PoC cast and crew were not Oscar worthy, others were not Oscar eligible, and they accused the general public of requesting a sort of affirmative action for the film industry's biggest night.

The reality of the situation is that there is an issue of color when it comes to the Academy. The majority of members are older and white, and arguably this can skew what films they're drawn to, what films they're willing to watch, and how they are exposed to different films. This inevitably drives an unfair disadvantage to PoC when the nods are handed out. Undoubtedly there needs to be a change in the racial make-up of these award shows' voters. According to Academy president Cheryl Boon Isaacs, years ago, in the 60s and 70s, the academy began recruitment for younger members in order to "freshen up" the ranks. This was intended to give a more balanced approach to the film industry in acknowledging different works, and she plans for the same to be done in the coming year in order to balance the scales for next year's award show. Isaacs stated she was "heartbroken and frustrated" over the white washed Oscar Class of 2016.

But the Academy is not taking too kindly to being called racists for their film preferences. Penelope Ann Miller, an Academy member, shared with The Hollywood Reporter that many of the older members probably didn't see Straight Outta Compton. She also argued the majority of members probably weren't exposed to Beasts of No Nation because it was premiered on the internet streaming service Netflix and they can't figure out how to use computers, hell they're still getting used to the Talkies! She felt it was "extremely offensive" to be called racist or lumped into a class of white privilege, given that she had voted for multiple PoC cast and crew members this year. Jeremy Larner felt Straight Outta Compton was a good film but wasn't worthy of the nomination to begin with due to issues with "structure and substance." I was able to view Beasts of No Nation, and to be honest, I felt it was one of the best films I had seen in awhile, but there was a total lack of exposure. I happened to stumble across it accidentally without knowing that this small, internet streaming production was nominated for SAGs and a Golden Globe. This $6 million only grossed $51K in its opening weekend, and most people never knew it existed. There have been other arguments for Tangerine, Creed, and Concussion, but again, most claim these were not note-worthy performances.

The issue of PoC films rises and falls like the waves of the ocean when films and actors are denied or granted the coveted statuette, and it's hard to discern when we're up or when we're down. Many, many times in the history of this awards show have incredible films been ignored and passed over, other times they got their nods but never took home the gold, and once in a great while, they get a winner. Upsets have included films like Malcolm X, Hotel Rwanda, Ali, and Boyz N the Hood, but there was probably no upset larger than The Color Purple in 1985, nominated for 11 Oscars and taking home none. Some winners have been films and actors such as Training Day with Denzel, Ray with Jamie Foxx, Dreamgirls with Jennifer Hudson, Precious with Mo'Nique, and The Last King of Scotland, with the fabulous Forest Whitaker.

But a new issue arises when there is such a backlash against the academy and its members, and the fear of being politically incorrect drives the affirmative action of Hollywood. No one could have outlined this issue better than Ellen Degeneres when she opened for the Academy Awards in 2014. "There are two options for Best Picture tonight, Option 1: 12 Years a Slave wins, Option 2: You're all racists." It came as a minimal shock that some of the Academy members later admitted to voting for the Best Picture Winner without actually having seen the film, presumably because it seemed the non-racist thing to do. I'm uncomfortable in admitting that I did not care for 12 Years a Slave, because this is what existing in a overtly politically correct society has done to me, but I will say it did not live up to the hype. I'm uncomfortable stating that Lupita N'yongo, albeit a talented actress, did not deserve the Oscar she won for the three bits of dialog she blurted out and the brutal abuse scenes she portrayed. This was the result of the pity Oscar, which I described in the post linked above, when the award members realize they've been too white for too long and they throw a few statues at a few black actors and film makers and call the score settled. Whoopi Goldberg did not get the Oscar for her incomparable performance as Celie Johnson in the adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which everyone knew was invariably fucked up. So they gave her the pity Oscar for playing a sassy mouthpiece to a dead white guy and got a few good jokes in the dialog. Sorry, Ghost should not have been her winner. The Academy had never graced an African American actress with the Best Actress statue, though many had been dealt out for Supporting Actresses. Whoopi should have been the first. But she was shoved back to Supporting Actress, and after some bumping and grinding with a racist and a minor dramatic meltdown, Halle Berry got the honor with Monster's Ball. Again, in my opinion, undeserved. Oprah also got passed over for her portrayal of Sofia, another big miss by the show. I never saw Training Day, I don't know if Denzel deserved the Oscar for it or if it was his pity Oscar for losing the Best Actor for Malcolm X, but I saw that one and he totally should have gotten it. Sidney Poitier got an honorary Oscar that same night that Denzel and Halle won for all of his work, because the Academy suddenly realized "Fuck, we were supposed to be giving them to him all along!"

Changes must be made, that is is undeniable. A committee that equally represents all People of Color and varying demographics of gender, sexual orientation, and cultures to ensure a more accurate reflection of the faces we see here in America everyday is desperately needed. But change does not mean slapping a band-aid on the problem by awarding some unworthy actor or writer with a pity Oscar either, giving accolades to the films that are sub-par in order to compensate for the Academy's past failures of truly amazing artistic PoC productions and performances. And as Penelope Miller states, the Academy is not entirely to blame: "There were an incredible number of films in 2015 that were primarily about white people. Talk to the studios about changing that, not the Academy. There's only so much we can do." One commentator on an article I read estimated that only 10% of actors in the film industry are black. It's hard to stand out in that glaring sea of white faces, but neither should the first darker face we see get the gold for simply showing up to the party.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Refugee to Terrorist: The True Cost of Islamophobia

Photo by Magnus Wennman: Where Do Syrian Children Sleep?
The attacks in Paris left the world awestruck, downcast, and angry. Three teams claiming to be members of the terrorist organization ISIL/ISIS launched a massive attack of suicide bombings, mass shootings, and hostage stand-offs throughout the capital of France on November 13, 2015. Nearly 150 innocent civilians lost their lives in restaurant shootings, suicide and car bombings, and a massacre at a local concert hall where a California band was playing. Quick to claim responsibility, quick to cheer and celebrate, the Islamic State had plotted for much more than a one night attack.

As with any terrorist attack in the west, what followed the tragedy of 11/13/15 was a tidal wave of Islamophobia: perpetual fear of the predominant religion the IS claims to represent. Citizens and politicians began calling for the deportation of middle easterners, many demanded that borders be closed to the refugees fleeing from Syria and the IS that have taken over their land. Muslims throughout Europe and America were physically attacked and beaten. One woman in Canada was assaulted while picking her children up from school; another Uber driver was hit by a passenger who assumed he was Muslim. Racist slurs were spray-painted on the walls of mosques, many threats have been called in, and some mosques have been burned down. Social media has circulated doctored videos claiming to show Muslims celebrating the attacks (they were celebrating a soccer match). Right wing news stations have been running rampant as well, asking why we continue to tolerate such a violent religion in our land, overgeneralizing the acts of a few crazed extremists to an entire religion of mostly peace loving families. Of course the typical "facts" of Islam come out as well: they beat their women, they engage in female genital mutilation, they want to take over the world, they want their 72 virgins so they blow themselves up, and they do it because it's Allah's will. It's almost as if it's 2001, 2002, 2003 playing on repeat, as if we learned nothing from the last 14 years.

Years ago I was part of Queen Rania's YouTube channel, created 7 years after the brutal attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon in America. Islamophobia was still surging in most of the westernized world and QR (along with her hate fighting minions) worked tirelessly to bring an education, to bring compassion, to bring understanding between the east and west, between Muslims and Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Atheists. We battled it out, we discussed and debated, we fought and argued, and we created videos hoping to spread the word, the truth about Islam, about the east, and stop the senseless attacks on the victims of these terrorist organizations, both us and them. I felt it was successful in some respects, and a useless battle in others; some listened, some learned, and some stuck their heads in the sand and refused to even acknowledge the points made, maintaining that there was no passage, no statistics, no facts, no infallible logic that could convince them that Islam was a peaceful religion. Eventually I realized these were the morons that we had to simply give up on and expend our energy elsewhere. As Islamophobia calmed somewhat in America over the years, it seemed the tide might have been shifting. Perhaps cooler, more educated heads would prevail. Perhaps they already were prevailing, and this may be why ISIL attacked Paris.

ISIL was doing their best to conquer the Middle East, battling in Libya and staking footholds in Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Nigeria. But the biggest war front right now is the showdown in Syria. In a civil war that has left 250,000 dead, this 4.5 year battle has raged on, and the majority of civilians have fled the country in a desperate attempt to save their own lives, to save their families. Many have escaped to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, but the countries have struggled to keep afloat with the influx of refugees that have scrambled to the safety of their borders. Though the world was vaguely aware of the struggle, the reality of this humanitarian crisis slapped us in the face with the death of Alan Kurdi. Alan was a young Syrian refugee who drowned after his family's boat capsized crossing the Mediterranean sea, seeking a safe haven in Turkey. Once the tragedy made front page news, countries throughout Europe were opening their borders to accept the refugees.

Undoubtedly, this was counterproductive to the IS's plan. In their plan, there were only two options for civilians: either join IS and their war against the west, or die. Many refugees had lost their homes and their families, many were weakened, angered, and hopeless with nothing to lose, which is the perfect recipe for an extremist. But hundreds of thousands refused to join, and they refused to die. They escaped. Perhaps this was exactly what ISIL feared: unity in the face of the adversity they bore, support for the Muslim community in the west, the western countries disproving the propaganda IS had fed their supporters for years, propaganda that painted us as soulless, immoral, intolerant capitalistic pigs. In helping these refugees, we were no longer the monster they claimed us to be, and this became a threat to their enlistment process. We provided the refugees hope.

Since they had tried and failed to destroy these refugees themselves, the IS realized the next step would be to destroy the west's trust in them and their trust in the west, to force them to turn back to their desolate, war-torn motherland; to death, or to surrender. This was their plan, and we played beautifully into it. With borders closing, with fear and suspicion filling the hearts of westerners, and with abuse and harassment, shame and humiliation, we are sending these refugees back to the IS in utter rejection, and we are sending them back hurt and angry. The mythical beast of the west has reared its ugly head, we have realized the image ISIL/ISIS has created of us. These poor wretches have lost their homes, have lost their families and friends, have witnessed horrific crimes against humanity, have been traumatized and shaken, and have bounced back and forth between countries and borders, sleeping in forests and gutters, starving and freezing. They are in that perfect, fragile state of mind to join the ranks of other scorned, rage-filled, gun toting, west-hating extremists. If we continue this abuse and suspicion, if we send them packing, we ourselves are helping build a new generation of terrorists and we will only have ourselves to blame.

The ignorance continues to flourish, the morons I met on YouTube back in 2008 have bred, and their little brainless seeds have spawned onto Facebook and Twitter; others made their way into politics. One Facebook user noted that he was Mexican and since Mexicans immigrated to the US and "took over" the country, we should be leery of Syrian refugees because when they come they too will take over, so we need to close the borders (perhaps we should've closed them about the time you came over). Sounds like he and and the Tennessee GOP are good buddies. Others have warned of terrorists bound to blow us all up. Some (Jeb Bush) have maintained we should allow refugees in, but only if they're Christian. Obama called them all a bunch of wusses scared of three year old orphans. He too acknowledged that these anti-refugee sentiments will only be recruitment tools for ISIL that we have forged and handed to them ourselves.

There is never a guarantee of safety; we don't know who is coming in with the refugees, or if anyone dangerous is coming in at all (so far a number of the Paris terrorists were shown to be citizens of the country), but what we do know is that if the world shuts its doors and turns its back on them, they will die, or they will join the ranks of our enemies. Not because they're inherently bad, but simply because in a world as cruel as that, what else have you got to lose? Terrorism is a real threat, there is no argument of that, but this will only provide a false sense of security and condemn thousands of innocent people to die. Closed borders or not, they will find a way in if they truly want one. The question is can you live with yourself if another three year old washes ashore on your beach?