Where do I plug in?

Tyler Milligan

Tyler Milligan

Mister and I have been talking a lot about leadership.

Hm. That’s not really right. We’ve been arguing. About why he’s so passive and I’m so aggressive in public.

The scene: a grocery store. It’s a Sunday, so even more crowded than usual. Mister is steering the cart, I’m behind him, holding onto his t-shirt, and we’re threading our way around displays of crackers and moms with carts that are too big (like, with the race car on the front, I know shopping with small kids with short attention spans is a pain, but really the idea to stick a race car on the front? Nope), and young folx distracted by their phones and not paying attention to the space around him. We reach an opening, and instead of stepping into it and through it, Mister pauses, and lets one, two, and now THREE people cut him off, delaying our forward movement. On top of which, one dude is JUST STANDING THERE, and doesn’t move until I ask him to.

It makes me so angry when I’m among other people who take from me what I haven’t offered, and do it without acknowledging me. I’m not proud of it, of how angry I get, or how petty it might be, but it just steps on so many of my buttons. I’ve spent a lot of life feeling invisible, feeling like people can’t see me, which is hard to pull off, because I feel like a large, dynamic being who takes up a lot of space. I’ve never blended in, and while I didn’t always love what sticking out meant, I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. It makes me furious when people spend energy ignoring me on the street, and at the same time assume I’ll just move out of their way. I’m not afraid of folks running into me, and it happens a lot because I don’t move out of the way of folks who pretend I’m not there.

Mister, on the other hand, said that invisibility was a kind of protection for him, coming up. He stuck out like a sore thumb, he said. Learning to be invisible, to avoid the fray, and wait it out, is how he likes to roll. He’s the kind of person who knows not making a decision is its own decision.

I think I can understand this. We were both raised in the Midwest, as people of color who grew up in cultures of white supremacy. I feel like I have to say, in case it’s not clear, that the dominant culture in most of America is one of white supremacy (and really, that “most” is just me soft-pedaling): the culture around us perpetuated systems, institutions, and privilege that made white people and white culture “better” than us. Because we were one of few, if any, people of color in our classrooms or schools; because we were new to the neighborhood; because our parents looked different or sounded different than the other parents in after school pick-up or open house nights; because we had different hair or different skin, ate different food or wore different clothes; because we were anything other than what the white folks around us defined as “normal” (white): we stood out. Sometimes that means teachers misspelled or mispronounced our names. Sometimes it meant kids—and adults—touched us without our permission, treated us like objects and not people. Sometimes it meant we experienced verbal assault, threats, intimidation, and violence at the hands of white people who saw us and noticed us as not-them, who sublimated their fear and confusion into rage and put us on the other end of it. Sometimes we watched our parents rage and seethe at the fear and frustration that they experienced, that they couldn’t hang onto the dignity due to any human being because someone else had snatched it from them and made them feel hurt, scared, alone, and that they couldn’t protect their kids from it. Sometimes we experienced that same rage and fear without our parents, and we couldn’t tell them about it because of the shame.

This is just how it is to grow up as a person of color in America.

It’s not an exaggeration. It’s not even a unique story.

(I’m supposed to say things are better now, right? The world is smaller, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and our first black president, and all the ways we see and understand each other. But that’s not a story I can tell. I write this less fresh after shooters in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio (not that far from where we both grew up) killed people, citing racist, xenophobic rhetoric that has also com from the White House. What has happened is that lynch mobs have gotten more sophisticated: they have semi-automatic weapons, and corners of the internet where they goad one another out of dealing with their own struggle and into hatred and destruction of others, and they have an emboldened body of subculture that believes that hatred of and violence against others is their right. )

So when Mister says that being invisible serves him, I think that’s the alternative he’s remembering, and who wants to stay in that experience.

But I can’t. I don’t like living in a world where white people ignore me and dismiss me, where I pretend that if they can’t see me then it means they won’t shoot at me. Because I don’t believe it’s true.

Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family, and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt.
— David Whyte, "Consolations"

It’s also is worth mentioning that when I discussed this frustration with a dear friend, when I told her that i have to take up space, because concession feels like being made to shrink, and not like generosity or sharing, that she pointed out that my husband is a man. In some ways the world parts for him in a way it doesn’t for me: there is some permission, some space, some access that he has that I don’t. That’s worth me remembering. He certainly doesn’t exploit this fact, he doesn’t lead his movement through the world pelvis-first, as it were—and he could, because I have encountered (we all have) men who literally and figuratively move through the world this way, and it’s only because women and folx can no longer tolerate being subjugated by that misogyny and patriarchy that it’s starting to change. But despite the fact that Mister doesn’t abuse his male privilege, he’s identified as male all his life and that’s been privileged all his life, so he doesn’t always recognize it either.

I want to say that I can acknowledge that there’s a difference between a white guy cutting me off in a grocery store or shoulder-checking me on a sidewalk, and a white guy gunning me down in an act of domestic terrorism.

But is there?

The victims in El Paso were in a Walmart. Shopping. Buying chips and soda and peanut butter. Smelling peaches to see how ripe they were. Calling their eight-year-old over to see if this striped shirt would fit him so he could wear it back to school in a few weeks. Picking out a card for their Abuelita’s birthday. They were just doing life. What if the shooter had done them the same way—unflinching, thousand yard stare fixed on his face, striding around and demanding with his energy that folks move out of his way. And the first person who wouldn’t would eat the first bullet he fired?

I don’t want to hide, or soften, or wait as a strategy for self-preservation. I deserve to exist as much as anyone else who is drawing breath on our planet, their first or their last. I want to be treated as fairly for my presence.

You never know what someone else is going through, Mister says. I was walking down Diversey Avenue one day, east of Lincoln, and I saw this car parked at a really odd angle, like straight up, perpendicular to the street. All kinds of wrong. And I walked by and looked in this car, and I saw this woman : SOBBING. You just never know what someone else is going through. So if it means they get to the counter faster, or we have to stand behind them and wait a little longer, it’s okay.

He’s right, I think. And: we don’t get the benefit of that doubt when we are going through. We get attitude from the dominant culture and lectures about being good neighbors. If I pull over sobbing, the best I can expect is a verbal assault from someone about “women drivers” and the worst is a run in with the local police, which could end in any number of terrifying and tragic ways.

I don’t know yet if I believe that people are basically good or if they are desperate, hungry primates with no real capacity for altruism. But I know that I am angry. I have a deep, like the-layers-of-my-heart-muscle deep, desire for all of us to experience fairness. When that is violated, even in a small way with small consequence, I am furious. My husband’s capacity to allow others to treat him (and often by extension us) in ways that I view as unfair is at once mystifying and maddening. It’s hard for me to articulate how mad it makes me.

I believe that there’s an endless capacity of patience and compassion available to me, to all of us. I that all I have to do is choose to connect to it, to open up to it, and out it comes.

But that first step is a doozie.

I don’t have it in me to give when others are taking. I lack the capacity to wait when my turn has been stolen by someone else. I can’t wait quietly while I watch other people steal, rather than share. So if that’s really what I’m being called to do, that gift has to come from Elsewhere.

Where is the overlap where justice triumphs, where power surrenders, and where compassion forgives? Where is the space wherein our up/down, majority/minority, have/have not dualism is just no longer relevant? Is it Socialism? Is it Heaven? Is it in relationship with others, or on the mountaintop all alone?

I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for this. I read something today about a kind of split that can happen when we awaken to our Divine nature but fail to integrate it into our conditioned, everyday self. Perhaps I’m in this split: feeling torn between the ardent desire to see God looking back at me when I look into the eyes of others, and furious at instead seeing their small, petty, desperate nature, and responding to them out of my own small, petty, desperate nature. I sit and ask for the capacity to integrate, I ask for growth on how to treat others better than I want to; and I know this means opening myself up to more behavior that is hurtful.

There’s a balance point on the tip of this somewhere. I’m trying to find it.