Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Originally posted on Pamela Helberg:
Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties…

I is for Imagination

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I often say that I write non-fiction essays and memoir because I lack imagination. I’ve never been good at making stuff up, and whenever I sit down thinking I’m going to write a short story or embark on writing a novel, I get a few pages in and stop, overwhelmed by the apparently limitless options.

Taylor, my youngest daughter (she’s nearly 20 now), loved to watch SpongeBob SquarePants when she was little. She loved SpongeBob so much that we had a SpongeBob bathroom (The Little Woman painted it SpongeBob blue and yellow with hand drawn and painted replicas of Patrick and SpongeBob on the walls) complete with a SpongeBob shower curtain and SpongeBob toilet seat cover. Taylor’s bedroom was also SpongeBob yellow, and she had SpongeBob posters, blankets, pillows, sheets, Legos . . .

Of all the characters populating childhood during those years, I found SpongeBob endearing and definitely the least objectionable. He was happy, undaunted by failure, cheerful, a good friend, a hard worker, compassionate. But most of all I loved SpongeBob because he had Imagination.

That Taylor loved SpongeBob made sense, because she too had a great Imagination. I could give that kid two sticks and a small rock and she could entertain herself for hours, making up stories, creating characters, playing alone in her own world.

When Taylor was eight, the two of us went on a three-week camping adventure across Washington and Oregon. We set off without much of an agenda, except that we were going to see Grandpa in Bend, OR. Other than that, we were footloose. We started our trip by meeting some friends and floating the Yakima River. I worried a bit that T would be bored, hanging out with three adults and our friends’ high school-aged son, but she proved to be an excellent traveling companion.

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As I set up camp, pitching the tent and getting the camp stove ready for dinner, she played in the hammock, creating entire worlds from just leaves and twigs. What amazed me the most, I think, is that on her own T wasn’t much of a reader. She loved for me to read to her, but she wasn’t one to sit in camp (as I would have done as a child) with her nose in a book. Instead she was engaged, making up her own stories. I so admired that quality.

We spent a lot of time at the beach on that trip, and while I went to the beach to read, T went to the beach to play, to create. Every foray was an adventure for her, a chance to create new worlds, to see everything in a new light, with new possibilities. I stopped taking my books with me because I ended up pulled into her world each time, building sand castles, searching for agates, creating new worlds.TaylorORvacay1

When we had fires on the beach at night, they weren’t just for roasting marshmallows or for keeping warm.TaylorORvacay2 2  Each fire presented an opportunity to create, even fleetingly, something new—Taylor delighted in burning sticks and then running to the water to put them out, creating steam. Or, drawing in the sky with the red ember end, writing words for me to guess.

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One of our stops, a little town in Northeast Oregon called Shaniko, had been a ghost town and was now just a town stuck in time for tourists to wander through. I didn’t find it particularly interesting, but I made a point of walking around with her, reading some of the historic descriptions. I think we got ice cream cones that melted rapidly in the eastern Oregon summer sunshine. I didn’t think it would hold much interest for T, but she still talks about “that town that was just full of old people.” Something there captured her imagination.

Our last stop on our adventure was Manzanita. We pitched the tent at the campground on the beach and walked the shoreline into town to have some dinner. We’d heard about the great pizza place, and found it jammed. We finally got a table, one that could easily seat more, and so when I saw two women come in who wanted to sit down, I invited them to join us.

Taylor started telling these women about our trip. She didn’t leave out a single detail. And when I thought she might run out of material, she started embellishing, sprinkling in details about my personal life, adding a few false statements, entertaining the women who joined us. No one else could get a word in. On our walk back to the campground, I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss the difference between talking about our adventures and sharing personal and/or made up details.

She looked at me and said, “It’s just imagination, Mom.”

That’s it–just imagination. No need to be overwhelmed or caught up in the details. Find some kelp to turn into palm trees. Make the sticks talk to the leaves. Just put my stick in the fire and write in the sky.

 

Lovefest (forewarned–gratitude alert)

Today I spent a lot of time in the car–two and a half hours to Seattle this morning. Only and hour and half (maybe less), to get home this afternoon. Lots of time to think. So, I did.

Tomorrow, The Little Woman and I are leaving for Phoenix (along, apparently, with all of the college kids in the whole universe–I did not realize it was going to be spring break when I booked these tickets back in the fall). We are going to see Cher at her first stop on the Dressed to Kill tour. I have loved Cher as long as I can remember–back to when I got my first record player in 6th grade and somehow go my hands on a “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” 45. Bliss.

I have wanted to see Cher forever. And now, thanks to my mindlessly flipping channels on the night when Dancing with the Stars had her on, we are going. I was minding my own business, just flip- flip- flippin, half an ear on the tv and half an eye on my Facebook feed when I heard Cher. I stopped flipping and watched–there she was,  talking about her music, and then I watched the rest of the show and ALL the couples had to dance to a Cher tune. Further bliss. i watched until the very end. And then I looked up her tour dates and bought tickets to her concert because, jesus, she’s my mother’s age and how much longer could she possibly have?

As I drove this morning, I turned off the Cher CD that has been blasting in my Jeep since before Christmas. When I bought Cher tickets, we got two (not just one, but TWO) CDs of her latest album, Dressed to Kill. I started playing one right away but since this was a surprise for TLW, I couldn’t let her know or give her her copy. (Because she’d be asking me why in god’s name I’d buy it on CD and not iTunes and why TWO copies?).

This morning though, I muted Cher and I turned on the Sirius Radio Spa Jazz channel–lovely new age-ish, flowly, soothing, happy instrumentals mostly that really do a nice job of keeping my road rage in check. Thus soothed, I pondered love. I pondered erotic love. Familial love. Kid love–I don’t think there is a more enevloping love than the love we have for our kids. Agape love–which makes room for those we don’t want to sleep with and to whom we are not related. (Agape has been co-opted by the christians, but really, it means love for our fellow man–like I said, everyone who falls outside of the realm of family and lovers). It’s a pure love (if you can believe Wikipedia).

I love my kids.  I love TLW. I love my parents. I love Cher. I love that Pat Benatar is opening for her! Life is full of love. I love school, I love the personal work I’m doing. I love the path my life is on. I love doing Haikus every morning. I love the writing I’m doing (even though most of it is for school), and the challenge of a blog every day (mostly). I love the written word and books and reading books. I love sharing what I read. Sharing my writing process.

I love that I have a writing community and people who support my work. People whose work I adore and applaud. I love the team of  folks who care for my mind and my body (it takes a village these days, truly), and my spirit (yeah, this last one, it’s new and still a little awkward for me–it will be a blog of it’s own at some point). I love that I have this adventure in grad school ahead of me and and then some.

I feel very fortunate–for all of this because, really, it’s so much. So much. A whole lot of love. Thank you. Sincerely.

Peace.

 

The F Word

On the days that writing a blog every day seems daunting—which truth be told is pretty much every day—I think about my dad and my grandfather who were journalists. Not only did they have to write every day, they had to write multiple articles that made sense from beginning to end every single day. Not only  made sense but had facts and accurate quotes. And they couldn’t call anyone names (except for once my grandfather wrote an op-ed column that said only this: Jane Fonda is an idiot. She had just gone to Hanoi to sit on the tank. I was very young at the time and had no opinion about this then).

I started my college career as a journalist—I started writing for the Western Front fall quarter of my freshman year, and for a while I found the whole experience exhilarating.  Journalism classes met in an old crickety house on the edge of campus and were taught by rumpled old men in questionable tweed jackets. One professor was the son of Lincoln Steffens, famous muckraker. There were not a lot of women in the program, not a single female professor in the time I was there (a good three years).

We only got two credits for a quarter’s stint on the campus paper, though the time commitment warranted far more than that. The paper came out twice a week and we met constantly it seemed—two nights a week to write headlines. I loved writing headlines—the section editors would give us the space and we had a formula for how many characters the headline could be. I excelled at writing headlines with active verbs and punchy nouns and that skill garnered me a little respect among the scruffy editors—male upperclassmen all. Everyone seemed to smoke and back then no one cared. Ashtrays overflowed with butts and the smoke hung low in the living-room turned newsroom.

Twice a week we had to show up at the print shop on the other end of campus to work on putting the paper together, literally. The section editors were responsible for pasting up their pages, but always needed help cutting and waxing the pages for paste up. I loved the waxing machine, and having grown up the daughter of a newspaper publisher, I knew my way around the layout tables. Exacto knives, blue pencils, the mockup sheets.

And of course we had to write stories. As much as I loved the atmosphere of the department and the headline writing and the paste up process, I wasn’t a big fan of writing the stories. I didn’t really like interviewing people. I was shy for one thing. And I didn’t really have a nose for news. I did great in classes where the local newspaper writer would give us the details and we’d pound out a story in class. I aced those, but I just didn’t seem to have a knack for sussing out the story, and I seriously lacked confidence when it came to calling people and asking for information.

I found my niche in the sports and op-ed pages, finally.  While I could give a damn about student fees and faculty senate stories, I did have a thing for the women’s basketball team (shocking, I know) and I knew my way around the gym. I made a small career out of covering the track and field team and putting together features on the women’s basketball players and coaches. Some dude had beat me out on covering the actual women’s games, a fact that chapped my ass to no end. The track coach once told me that he was impressed with my stories, surprised that I understood and wrote about the events as well as I did. I wasn’t exactly John Reed or Louise Bryant (the movie Reds came out my freshman year and I so wanted to be a journalist covering the Russian revolution), but I wrote good copy. I published humorous op-ed pieces, ala Dave Barry though not anywhere as funny (my mother often told me I’d be the next Erma Bombeck). Eventually, I became sports editor and one summer I was assistant editor. Lots of work for two credits. I suspected the real world wouldn’t treat us much better.

By the time my senior year rolled around, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to make a living as a journalist. My father had been out of the business for a few years by that time and my grandfather had died, though he had been successful as a writer, then editor and owner of a large suburban weekly. At one point I thought maybe if I could drink more and take up smoking, I’d be able to cut it in the newsroom, so I went out and bought a pack of Camel Unfiltereds and a bottle of Jim Beam. I sat on my little 8×8 foot apartment deck and smoked and drank like I’d seen the guys in the newsroom do. All I felt was sick and not long after on an election night it became clear to me when we were all (all of us Western Front reporters) were supposed to go downtown and cover the local, state, and federal elections. I just couldn’t see myself in that role—asking the pressing questions, taking notes, paying that close of attention. I froze at the thought. As much as I loved my name in the byline, I panicked under the pressure. So, I dropped that last 400 level reporting class the next day, just a few credits shy of completing my major and went to the Humanities building to switch to English, with an emphasis in writing.

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            As I think back on this choice, I realize that I didn’t then have a really clear reason for leaving journalism, but it’s becoming clearer to me now. I didn’t have any role models. There wasn’t a single female reporter, professor, mentor, or local professional to whom I could point and say, “She’s who I want to be like.” I remember only one or two other young women in the program, one a photographer and one, slightly older than me who I didn’t ever get to know. I just didn’t ever see myself reflected back to me anywhere in that world. I couldn’t imagine a future there because I couldn’t see anyone like me. So, I joined the relatively cushy ranks of the English department to finish out my college career. I found enough mentors there that I continued on to graduate school and into teaching English composition. I could see myself as an English professor, as a novel writer, as a reader of great fiction and poetry and creative non-fiction. I had role models, finally.

I’m thinking about this all now because I just finished a paper on Karen Horney (pronounced Horn-eye), the founder of Feminine Psychology. She started out as a Freudian in the early part of the 20th century but soon broke ranks with Freud in part because of his limited view of what comprises human nature (sex and aggression and penis envy). As part of this paper writing adventure, I had to find a relevant online video to review and I ended up with this one: The Changing Face of Feminist Psychology. This video traces the struggles female psychologists faced as recently as the 1980s in getting jobs, being taken seriously, being admitted to graduate school. Even though Karen Horney published her work on Feminine Psychology as early as the 1930s, it took another 50 years for women to advance in the field. And then, even as they began to make inroads as part of feminism’s second wave, the 1980s rolled around and everyone declared feminism dead or over with or moot.

But feminism is not dead. As long as we have daughters, we need to keep making sure they know that they can be whatever they want to be, that they can choose whatever career they want, and they will only know those careers are available to them if we make sure our faces are there to reflect back to them. We need to make sure we are the ones writing the editorials explaining perhaps why Jane Fonda went to Hanoi to sit on that tank. That perhaps, as one half of the world’s population, we can have a voice as well whether in the papers, online, in the classroom, the boardroom. Our daughters must see us out there to know that our voices and theirs matter.

Gender, George Kelly, and the Coming Revolution

A number of years ago, when my nephew was four we were at the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I was wearing my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, sitting on the edge of the hot tub where he was enjoying a soak and roughhousing with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.” I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I had big boobs for one thing but I wasn’t going to go there with a four year old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie, not Uncle.  I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious. My genitals were not up for discussion. Not poolside, not without his parents’ permission. Probably not ever.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. Also, it has jangled in the back of my mind since that day. I was not like his mother and the other mothers in the neighborhood. I didn’t wear make up, heels, ruffles, dresses or skirts. I didn’t even wear girl jeans or shorts. I wore t-shirts and shorts—I dressed more like his dad, my brother. I drank beer with his dad when I visited. I did not sip wine with his mother. I worked with computers for a living. I drove a Jeep.  My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite. He had no social construct for me. (if  you haven’t seen Ash Beckham or iO Tillet Wright’s TED talks on gender, check them out here).

I have to write a paper by tomorrow on one George Kelly, one of a dozen or so theorists of the last 100 years or so who have impacted the field of psychology. In one of the classes I’m taking, our weekly papers go along the same lines each week—choose one of the theorists concepts (our favorite concept) and write up a paragraph on it, summarizing it. Then we write another paragraph in which we analyze another source on the same concept.

I started the quarter loving this assignment—first of all it was pretty easy initially to pick and choose concepts that intrigued me from among the early theorists. For Freud, I chose to analyze his theory that anatomy is destiny. I took him to task on that. I had no trouble finding other sources out there on the world wide web to support me in my analysis of his so-called theory. I ran across a TED Talk by Alice Dreger entitled Is Anatomy Destiny which nicely expanded Freud’s discussion on the matter.

In her talk, Dreger, an anatomy historian and advocate for patients whose body types challenge social norms (i.e. conjoined twins, dwarves, intersex folks) refutes Freud’s “anatomy is destiny” assertion. Dreger posits that there is “no such thing as stable anatomical categories that map  . . . simply to stable identity categories.” She goes on to describe how science is now revealing that gender and sex categories are overly simplistic.” For example, Dreger describes a patient who presents as male: looks like a man, acts like a man, has apparent anatomy that is typically male but who has a uterus and ovaries due to androgyne insensitivity syndrome. Dreger has patients whom surgeons want to “normalize” in her words, “not because [the surgery] leave them better off in terms of physical health” but because “they (the anatomically atypical patients) threaten our social categories.” In other words, our cultural, like Freud (and maybe partly because of him) doesn’t know what to do with people whom we don’t understand.

Which brings us nicely back to George Kelly, who in spite of not having written very much, basically established the entire concept of social cognition. Social cognition is, according to our text (Feist’s Theories of Personality) the examination of “the cognitive and attitudinal bases of person perception, including schemas, biases, stereotypes, and prejudiced behavior.”  In other words, people make judgments and base their opinions on what they believe to be true—they form their opinions based on their experiences, how they were raised, their backgrounds, their way of being in the world. They form a social construct.

When Kelly’s theories were used to measure how people viewed gender, it turned out that most people use gender as a means of categorizing other people. Among those who do have biases about gender were more likely to apply gender stereotypes to strangers in social situations. And finally, the study concluded that those who stereotype strangers are more likely to ascribe stereotypical gender behavior to family members, friends, and acquaintances.

What’s the issue, you may wonder? The problem is that gender isn’t binary. According to Dreger and other researchers, gender occurs along a continuum. We might like to neatly categorize people as male or female and attribute behaviors thusly, but I would posit that gender behavior is a social construct foisted upon us by a culture interested in easy answers and quick categorizations. When we judge people according to our own narrow beliefs, we limit them and ourselves. When we believe our dreams are not valid because they fall outside of the gender norms, we cannot reach our full potential.

We are really touchy about gender. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than not being able to place someone as either male or female. Even me, a lesbian, who despite being of a certain age, has a wide-open mind and tries not to stereotype anyone, still squirms a bit when I am faced with gender ambiguity. Even me, who spent a large portion of my 20s and 30s being called sir (I attribute the confusion to my then narrow hips).

But, the next revolution might be in the offing as transgender rights begin to take center stage. A new discussion and awareness is beginning and I am looking forward to a new unpacking of gender stereotypes and some talk about what it means to be male and female. Imagine doing away with our social constructs around gender—imagine a world in which a four year old doesn’t care if his Auntie Pammie is a boy or a girl, or have to worry about if he likes “girl things” or “boy things.” Imagine a world in which we truly are not judged by the sort of women or men we are, but on our humanity and on the ways in which we treat one another regardless of differences. Freud might be rolling in his grave, but I think George Kelly will be proud.