3 Things I Unexpectedly Learned From Jehovah’s Witnesses to Honor Martin Luther King Jr.

Many people know Jehovah’s Witnesses as “those people who come to your door to talk about the teachings of God and aren’t Mormons.” You may also know Jehovah’s Witnesses as “those people who don’t accept blood transfusions or celebrate holidays, including birthdays.” Growing up, I was part of their world—raised within this minority religion on the predominantly Catholic island of Puerto Rico. From approximately ages 1 to 12, I didn’t really do holidays or birthdays. Reluctantly, I was eventually allowed to attend birthday parties around age 13. So how did my religious upbringing in the JW universe leave me with valuable lessons about celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, life, and death? Read on.

Note: This post isn’t meant to holistically explain JW doctrine or take a stance on their overall existence, but use some of the teachings I digested as a vehicle for remembrance of a key historical figure. Though it’s been ages since I left the faith, my family’s still in the JW world.

1. Beware of Birthdays Being Used for Shady Purposes 

I remember being told that part of the reason we didn’t celebrate birthdays as JWs is because they had pagan roots, and historical birthday celebrations were tinged with violence and “sexual depravity.” I vividly recall the story of Herodias asking for John the Baptist’s head at the birthday of Herod Antipas, and stories of a baker being hanged at a pharaoh’s birthday. Part of my child’s brain didn’t get why we had to worry about ancient history if birthdays were something different now, but clearly roots were important somehow. To celebrate birthdays was to invite paganism and a history of sin into my life. Fast forward to the present day, and though I disagree with many teachings of the JW faith and their interpretations of the Bible, the importance of history is front and center in my life.

The roots of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work are important, as is the history of how he became the only non-White person to have a federal holiday named after him in the U.S., especially for someone who didn’t hold public office. Still, for many people, Martin Luther King Jr.’s day is just an excuse to get out of work and perhaps a reminder to post a half-hearted meme about nonviolence on Facebook. In fact, this is one of the peak days for non-Black folks on social media to misquote and misinterpret a lot of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings.

This holiday is a time when people spin his relentless anti-racism work into a palatable mush. It’s easy and convenient to misuse this holiday and spit out words about “turning the other cheek” and “peaceful activism” to condemn activists doing disruptive protests, to explain why people of color (and particularly Black people) have to be eternally accommodating and kind to those that infringe upon our rights.

I’m not here for it.

the real martin luther king jr.

I am not interested in celebrations, awards, or acknowledgement given as a silencing tactic or as table scraps.  I am not interested in holidays meant to make a community feel complacent or satisfied. Don’t give me a sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s politics. He was a radical and he was considered a dangerous rabble-rouser. Don’t buy the modern-day fairytale that somehow the United States government and its White leaders were welcoming and thankful for his nonviolent approach, especially in contrast to Malcolm X’s.

Don’t forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s comments on White moderates, and how he felt they were one of the biggest threats to Black people in the United States, more so than the extremists and Ku Klux Klanners. Don’t let people flatten his history and use his birthday as a way to squash radical anti-racist work. Don’t let those around you repeat the most general statements about “equal rights” and blatantly ignore past and present calls to specific action.

2. Celebrating Birthdays Can Detract From The Issues And WHO/What Should Truly Be Honored

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, birthdays celebrating individuals detract from the glory that should be going to God, seen as the true and only creator of any life on Earth. Additionally, many JWs stress that focusing on celebrating a person’s birth ignores what they did with their life. The latter is way more important to Jehovah; it has implications for one’s place (or lack thereof) on an earthly paradise post-Armageddon! So what does it mean to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a modified version of that in mind? To me, it means we should look at his life’s work, and that shouldn’t divorce said iconic work from the people who propped him up and helped him become the figurehead he is in our modern day.

There are those who knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a human, and have a visceral, personal understanding of his legacy. There should be space to understand Martin Luther King Jr. as a whole person, flaws and all. However, what he is to most of the U.S. is a symbol, and we can’t forget what that symbol stands for. Here, the man turns into shorthand for a larger story and a struggle for justice. The symbol is useful, but we have to be wary of mistaking the signifier for the signified

So, I don’t generally use the “behind every man there is a great woman” line because it feels really limited and way too heterosexist for my universe, but there is truth in its spirit. Behind our great leaders we have those who support(ed) them in myriad ways (e.g. in the case of MLK Jr., two obvious names are Bayard Rustin and Coretta Scott King). Behind our tireless activists there are the community-members, partners, friends, families, that help feed them, clothe them, tend to their physical and spiritual injuries, love them, laugh with them, cry with them.

None of us are or work alone, even when we feel like a tiny pinprick in the fabric of the universe.

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday can be a way to elevate those connections rather than a way to erase MLK’s sins, prop him up as an exception, and/or spread misinformation. We can take this as an opportunity to reflect on the past and current civil rights movements he influenced, and those he did not live long enough to witness. We can take this as a time to hear about and honor other influential (and often under-praised) figures like Miss Major, Sylvia Rivera, Maria Elena Durazo, Mary Church Terrell, Dorothy Height, Dolores Huerta, Audre Lorde, Diane Nash, Marsha P. Johnson, and Claudette Colvin. What would our struggles for justice be without the femmes, without the women, without the queer and trans people? Let’s give credit everywhere it’s due.

3. We Shouldn’t Wait For Birthdays To Rejoice And Remember

Being part of a minority religion with “weird rules” like no birthdays meant that I had to defend my views pretty often. Though not a religious institution, my K-12 school operated under laicism, or “French secularism,” but still somehow managed to have a catechism class, a place in the yearbook for First Communion pictures, and participation in Christian sports leagues. Birthdays were often celebrated in the classrooms, and by the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, I had vast experience with deflecting criticism and annoying questions. Heck, I had stock answers ready, like “I can receive presents all year round, so I’m not missing out!” or “My family can have other celebrations, and we don’t need to wait for a birthday!”

Though I’m no longer part of the JW faith, those ideas have stuck with me. Anniversaries, birthdays, other holidays can serve as convenient markers of experiences and excuses to party, but it’s silly to relegate all our joy, love, and sharing to those dates. While I can use, say, Valentine’s Day to tell my partners and loved ones how much they mean to me, I don’t wait until that date to do it. Furthermore, in a capitalist society, I should get creative with how I honor the people and values I cherish rather than defaulting to just buying things.

Similarly, we don’t need to wait until Martin Luther King Jr. Day to acknowledge the history of White supremacy in this country. We don’t need to wait until this holiday to acknowledge the great strides being made by the Black Lives Matter movement. We don’t need to buy something to signify our commitment and wear it like an empty promise. We don’t need to wait until Martin Luther King Jr. Day to speak about racism, raising the minimum wage, the importance of climate justice, or any of the other areas of inequality and injustice King talked about.

If this holiday is the only time during the year that we discuss anti-racism and Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, we’re doing something wrong.

Let’s discuss these issues and individuals year round. Let’s use this annual date to expand our celebration and acknowledgement, to provoke brilliant and multifaceted conversations!

martin luther king jr. and BLM protest

Use of this unchanged image is allowed under a CC License. Click through for the original.

So, Go On, Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s LEgacy For Longer than Just 24 Hours:

  • Learn about Martin Luther King Jr.’s history.
  • Teach the little humans around you about MLK Jr. and the civil rights movement.
  • Listen to a Spotify playlist merging his famous speeches with music inspired by his work.
  • Witness the queer activists of color taking disruptive action to protest.
  • Read about the activists reclaiming this holiday in a way that acknowledges the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
  • Support actions to restore voting rights to all, particularly in light of the impending elections and some of the egregious candidates running for office.

martin luther king jr. clippy quote

Stop Saying “Poly” When You Mean “Polyamorous”

Quick clarification [Added 09/05/15]:  Please read the full article before commenting. This post is primarily meant to explore the confused, defensive, and sometimes outright racist/sexist/etc. reactions to a call-to-action around language use in the polyamorous community. The specific linguistic issue is concretely addressed in the final section.


Doesn’t it suck when someone tells you to stop using a word you’ve been using for years because they say it’s oppressive or harmful to their community?

Do you feel personally angry and/or persecuted when a term you use suddenly comes under attack? Do you think “this is political correctness run amok“?

That’s how a bunch of polyamorous folks felt when they were asked to stop using “poly” as an abbreviation. In case you haven’t stumbled upon this (I just heard about it two days ago myself),  here’s the scoop—a Polynesian person on Tumblr made the following call to action:

Hey, can any polyamory blogs with a follower count please inform the palagi portion of the community that “poly” is a Polynesian community identifier, and is important to our safe spaces.
Using “polyamory” is cool just like using “polygender” and “Polyromantic” and or Polysexual” is cool. But the abbreviation “poly” is already in use.

Then, when people pushed back saying “chill out, lots of words have multiple meanings” or “people have been using poly as an abbreviation for polyamorous for decades already,” they responded with this. Now, do I agree 100% with their statements? Nah. And regardless of my post’s title, I don’t actually want to obliterate “poly” from your vocabulary. But before you breathe that big ol’ sigh of relief, keep reading.

Poly: Polynesian, Polyamorous, PolyWrath?

People are now discussing this debate on various Facebook groups dedicated to sexuality education and polyamory (one of the biggest has over 18K members), on Reddit  (as well as the cesspools of Reddit) and on Tumblr. It’s apparently been brewing for a few months, if not longer, and some people are PISSED. Those under the delusion that polyamorous people are all kinder and more open-minded than the general population clearly hasn’t been in one of these circles and looked at it through a social equity lens.  But that’s a post for another day. Back to the anger.

See what I did there? You're welcome.

See what I did there? You’re welcome.

Being on the receiving end of “stop using a word” or “you’re being oppressive” isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Whenever I get called out for something—most likely ableism since it’s an axis of oppression I don’t personally experience and am still learning a lot about—there’s often a knee-jerk reaction in there. A “don’t tell me what to do” demon on my shoulder who loves getting self-righteous and hates being wrong, whose first line of defense is “it’s not even that big of a deal.” Heck, I’ve definitely felt it as a sexuality educator when I’ve merely read up on newer sexuality labels and no one is even talking to me. Though most of the time the reaction is “COOL, NEW WORDS,” I’d be lying if I said I never think “this is just going TOO FAR” or “WHY SO MANY LABELS” when hearing some new categories of identity, especially if people are getting defensive about them. That gut reaction is normal…

But then I take a breath and realize I’m being ridiculous even if it’s normal.

I’m not being my best self in those moments, and I need to hold compassion for my own feelings but also push past them if they’re not serving my values of kindness and justice.

Overall, individuals and communities are perpetually trying to find ways to describe themselves and their lives, and that can be really tough especially if the words are related to identities that are devalued and marginalized. While “labels are for soup-cans” and we’re so much more complex than words could ever describe, language is a powerful thing that helps both reflect and create our world. It helps build communities, express our emotions, and even pass down our histories. It helps us name our struggles, craft banners for solidarity, and connect for change. It makes sense people have a lot of feelings about it!

Language is ever-evolving and it’s a beautiful thing when more words can become available, when more ways of understanding our world are accessible. But that doesn’t happen without friction. Sometimes our knee-jerk reactions to new words or identities come from a place of holding onto what we’ve been taught and being uncomfortable with change. Sometimes the new labels contradict, criticize, or make obsolete other labels we’ve been using—or even identifying with—and that can feel like a punch in the gut.

WAYSA

Art by Amanda Watkins, my other boo. Click on the image to check out more of her art!

Often, and as I recognize is the case with me and my pride,  immediate rage comes from not wanting to think that we’ve been ignorant and/or messing something up THIS WHOLE TIME. If XYZ person is right that usage of a particular word is oppressive, then what does that say about me, who has been using it for years? Does that mean I’m an oppressive, irredeemable jerk? (The answer is often “no, it just means stop using it” but the visceral reality doesn’t allow us to understand that quickly.) For more on this phenomenon, check out this video by Ian Danskin [one of my partners] and his overall series “Why Are You So Angry?

Point is we need to evolve with language and work through our gut reactions to change.

Now, that’s not to say we should forget about the roots of certain words or suddenly say that terms like the n-word and the r-word are chill because “we’re past them being a slur” [hint: we’re not, and racism/ableism aren’t over either]. What I mean is that we need to hold space for growth and be willing to move in new directions with our terminology—that regardless of how defensive our initial “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” shoulder-demons might be, we MUST move in a direction of empathy and kindness, particularly to those in marginalized communities with long legacies of experiencing colonialism and other forms of structural oppression.

“But Poly Is a Latin Prefix; You CAn’t Claim It…”

Yes, poly is a prefix for dozens of words and it actually comes from Greek. Even the “poly” in the naming of Polynesia came out of super uninventive naming schemas (Polynesia means “many islands”). So? No one is saying the prefix needs to be eradicated. When talking about polycarbonate lenses, polygraphs, polygons, or polydactyl kittens, they’re not being referred to as “poly[s]” on their own. There’s the qualifier afterwards, but that is not always the case when talking about people. If someone states “I’m poly” you can’t immediately tell if they’re saying they’re Polynesian, polyamorous, polysexual, polyromantic, polygendered, or a host of other identity labels [without further context]. Heck, they could be a FEW of those labels.

So what we’re talking about here is clarity as well as empathy and willingness to listen.

Whether these Tumblr folks represent a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand, the questions remain the same: what are we, non-Polynesian “poly” people and our allies, going to do to provide clarity to our language and stand in solidarity with however many Polynesians want this change? More importantly, what does this situation, and the pushback from members of “the polyamorous community,” tell us about language adoption and resistance to change in our communities?

When people say this is “being politically correct,” they are trying to make basic decency into a politically contested issue and make it sound bad. Some people even think they’re brave if they’re politically incorrect, conflating deep-rooted anti-authoritarian work that seeks to dismantle structural power with, like, flipping the bird to someone on Tumblr talking about racism. Being a jerk and using oppressive terminology isn’t brave. Whining about trigger-warnings and “preferred pronouns” and “social justice warriors ruining fun” isn’t bold or radical. Saying we’re “coddling our new generations” and actually harming survivors of trauma by being more thoughtful is missing the point (and it’s not even medically accurate). Being unwilling to even consider a minor shift in language to give space for another community to flourish is not living in a space of goodwill.

So What Should We Be Doing?

As someone in the sexuality field AND a polyamorous person with a big tech geek streak, I value useful search terms and disambiguation. Heck, as a super Type A person that drools over nice spreadsheets, regardless of other sexual or racial identities, I think it’s crucial that we make the Internet an easier, more organized place to browse. I already avoided using “poly” online in any meaningful capacity  because it felt too ambiguous for searches and helpful tagging, and this debate is just another great reason to avoid it: because it’s a term that a racially marginalized community uses to self-identify and build community. If “poly” on its own works for them, more power to ’em. Even in sexuality-specific circles, using “poly” can be possibly misunderstood because there are other labels that start with poly- as well, so again, not the most useful.

Some have suggested “polya” or “polyam” as possible abbreviations that don’t conflict with usage by other groups. Personally, I think “polya” looks ugly as a word and makes me think of Dubya [never a good thing]. I feel “meh” about “polyam” but could see it as a better alternative, I guess. To each their own, and I won’t be adopting either of these abbreviations soon, but what I do advocate for is mindfulness around when and where we use “poly” to mean “polyamorous.”

Here are some questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Is the word being used in a space where the meaning is clear to everyone witnessing the content?
  2. Is using “poly” for “polyamorous” making it harder for another community to disambiguate and find “their own kind”?
  3. What impact does the term’s usage have on search results, tagging systems, and online spaces?
  4. Is the decision to keep using “poly” for “polyamorous” coming from a place of spite and thoughtlessness or from a place of informed compassion?

Personally, I will continue to use “poly” in private situations or verbal conversation where people know what I mean, BUT in tagging things online—a place where categorizing information is important, where people use those systems to search for others like themselves, and so on—I will use polyamory specifically and avoid “poly.” Again, this is work I was already doing, but something that is generally not a huge effort for folks to start doing if they hadn’t been. I encourage this level of specificity in others, for the sake of more than just random Polynesian folks on Tumblr.

But in regards to those “random Polynesian folks” on Tumblr, it doesn’t matter if most of us “don’t think about Polynesian people when we say poly” or that “our Polynesian friends don’t care.” While that may inform how radical our changes are and where we enact change, it shouldn’t mean that we ignore the issue entirely or dig our heels in the dirt because we don’t want to change. To questions of “couldn’t they just as easily pick a new tag/abbreviation?” my answer is just “maybe.” But when it’s a horde of predominantly White, Western polyamorists asking that question and refusing to consider where they may change, that says something.

At the end of the day, these are people asking for us to collaborate in making the Internet and its communities easier and better to navigate for all.

If you live in a place where you are guaranteed free speech, calls for space and respect like this aren’t censorship—they’re calls for consideration. You still have the power and right to make whatever decision feels best for you, but my hope is that you will prioritize the expansion of kindness and reduction of harm in the process.

One of my favorite poly-related words. This image by Robert Ashworth used under Creative Commons license. Click through for original.


Header image of Moorea in Polynesia shot by Loïs Lagarde and used under Creative Commons license. The only change to the image is that it’s cropped a bit differently.

Update 09/04/15: Poly as a prefix actually comes from Greek, not Latin as I originally wrote. Made the correction. I always get those mixed up because they’re both present in the full word [polyamory]. Thanks for the person that caught that!

Update 09/05/15: Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard from Polynesian folks on both sides of the issue. Some use “poly” while others don’t. Some think it’s useful while others don’t. Some use the ‘net regularly while others don’t. Interestingly, the “poly-as-Polynesian” definition got added to Urban Dictionary back in ’06. Anyway. I clarified a bit of language in the post, most notably in a sentence that could be interpreted in two ways and most people were reading it differently than I intended it [the one about calling something “‘poly,’ period”].

On Facebook Silence Regarding Charleston Shooting

I usually post a lot about current events on Facebook, and I have no qualms about bringing POC struggles into White spaces, but my Facebook friends list has a lot of POC and I’m going to be limiting these posts for a while [or, if needed, put them under heavy content/trigger warnings]. It’s important to raise awareness, and White people shouldn’t use “I don’t wanna traumatize POC” as a cop-out to NOT talk about these issues, but right now I am taking a step back and hoping my wall can offer more healing for my communities, and especially the Black folks with whom I stand in solidarity because even in POC spaces we aren’t the same.

To my Black loved ones:

I see you, I witness you, and I stand with you.

So consider this my main post, and read this news roundup by Autostraddle. I’m not quiet and I will never be quiet about these issues, but right now, my wall will not be the place for them. That said, as someone on Twitter so eloquently put, if you’re calling 21 year-old Roof a “child” and had no issue calling 18 year-old Mike Brown a man, you need to check your internalized racism. If you call Roof “a lone wolf” and focus on “wow, he must have a mental illness” instead of on the fact that this was a hate crime against Black people in a country that wholesale devalues Black people while it appropriates their culture, you need to check yourself. You need to recognize that the narrative of White crime is always “lone wolf” and “mental illness” whereas any POC get immediately labeled thugs and terrorists. As someone IN the mental health field, discussing mental health and care is vital, but NOT when it’s a tactic to derail conversations about hate crimes and structural racism, or try to explain away actions like the shooting in Charleston.

Beyond our U.S. borders, we need to open our eyes to see the connections between the mass planned deportations of residents of the‪ #‎DominicanRepublic‬ who are of Haitian descent and the “social cleanses” in other countries. The Holocaust is not our “biggest and baddest” systematic extermination of people, and we need to stop pretending it is or was. We need to see the connections with mass deportations and ICE holds here in the U.S./Mexico border.

If you think that racist jokes are harmless, and that “it’s not like my friend Joe Schmo would actually hurt Black people or something,” remember that that’s the same exact thing Roof’s friends thought. Think of how many POC have been forced to leave spaces they once considered home because of racism, big and “small.” Think of how many POC on social media now are needing to take breaks from all their platforms because this is too much to bear—too much violence, too much hate, too much White silence and complicity. Think of how many POC feel an undercurrent of fear and anxiety every day due to White supremacy in this society. Think of how many POC are not even in a PLACE to avoid most racism in their lives even if they try. Microaggressions are violence, period, and we need to stop acting like the only “real racism” requires a massacre to qualify.

If all you see when you look at videos of police brutality—and especially of police beating up 12 year-old Black girls, of police arresting and dragging Black youth at pool parties—is “police in a tough situation making the best of it,” you need to crack open a newspaper, read a good history book, open up social media sites, look around, and see what’s actually going on and has been going on for years. If you reply with “All Lives Matter” to Black cries for justice, accountability, and visibility, you need to stop and understand that BLM exists because in our current society, all lives are NOT seen as mattering, and that’s what some of us are seeking to change. If you “don’t even see race, and didn’t even realize the races of the people in the videos,” it’s time that you bucked up and acknowledged you do see race unless you are LITERALLY VISUALLY IMPAIRED and you’re pretending it doesn’t matter in this world. Your “postracial, colorblind” rhetoric helps no one but White supremacy and those who benefit from it. If you think this post involves or implicates you, it certainly does.

If you know the name of ‪#‎RachelDolezal‬, but don’t know the names Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi [the founders of the‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement], learn them. If you know Roof’s name, but don’t know the names of the people he murdered, you better learn them today:

  • Cynthia Hurd, 54, branch manager for the Charleston County Library System
  • Susie Jackson, 87, longtime church member
  • Ethel Lance, 70, employee of Emanuel AME Church for 30 years
  • Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University
  • The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, state senator, Reverend of Emanuel AME Church
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26, earned business administration degree from Allen University
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, retired pastor (died at MUSC)
  • Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, track coach at Goose Creek High School
  • Myra Thompson, 59, church member

I try to channel as much empathy as I can muster, and I work hard to educate others, and I remember when I was a teenager who had no clue how racism was still so very real because I was consistently told “it was still there, but mostly a thing of the past,” and I try to be compassionate…but once you see the belly of this beast, it is the most tiring of endeavors to have to unearth it again and again for people who claim there’s not even a beast in the first place.

It is painful, and often even lethal, to have your humanity and the humanity of those you consider family denied. It is horrifying to have friends, family, siblings in fraternal bonds, co-workers, colleagues, deny these realities and try to explain away these inequities. If you don’t see this pain manifested, it’s probably because the POC around you don’t trust you to share their pain with you. Just because you don’t easily see it around you doesn’t mean it’s not there. How many POC friends do you even have, if you’re White? For a great majority of Americans, the answer is zero/few. Think about that.

If you do have POC around you, especially Black folks at a time like this, don’t ask them to explain racism to you. Don’t force them to discuss these issues. Ask them how you can help. Work to honor their feelings, their likely rage, and their inevitable sadness. Help them heal, or give them space if that’s what they need. Respect their words, as well as their silence. Stand in solidarity with them, with us, and ACTIVELY do something to make the world better and less racist. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.


 

A version of this post was originally published on my personal FB account. Never fear: I will continue actively blogging on here and other platforms about these issues.

Header image source.

Honoring MLK: Racial Justice and Social Work

Martin Luther King Jr. getting quoted out of context is one of my pet peeves. Thankfully, that did not happen on Tuesday, when I attended a panel on racial justice in honor of his legacy.

The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers organized a forum to discuss the current state of racial justice and the social work profession in Boston. It was originally scheduled for January, but as luck would have it, Boston faced the snowiest, most bananas winter in history and the well-laid plans had to be changed.

An eternal live-tweeter and sharer of information, I documented the event and created a Storify where people can, essentially, virtually tag along for the ride after the event. You can find it here. The panelists were as follows:

MLK Racial Justice Panel Cohort

Left to right: Melendez, MacArthur, Belkin Martinez, Copeland. Photo credit to Shabnam Deriani.

I don’t generally go to panels on racial justice to learn new information, as someone steeped in this on the daily and who also presents on anti-racism. I go to these events to have more bodies in the room, to hear my colleagues speak, to nourish my spirit with the shared passion of those dedicated to social change. However, I often do learn new nuggets of wisdom—new quotations, new strategies, new frameworks—and this event did not disappoint. The biggest takeaway? The work of Whitney Young Jr.

Dr. Phillipe Copeland—one of the panelists and one of the professors at the Boston University School of Social Work where I’m pursuing my Master’s in Social Work—quoted Whitney Young Jr. and his thoughts on the social work profession as it connected to racial justice and social justice overall. I wanted to share that with all of the budding social workers and seasoned vets in my community, because they are POWERFUL.

Here’s an excerpt from from Young Jr., in “Social Welfare’s Responsibility in Urban Affairs” [emphasis mine].

Let these words ABOUT RACIAL JUSTICE/SOCIAL JUSICE sink in, marinate, and transform you and your practice.

It is not enough for the social worker to teach the poor how to survive on a substandard budget. We must plant the seeds of indignation and of desire for change in the mind of every citizen suffering in want. We must be the catalysts of change, not the maintainers of the status quo. Establishing rapport, cutting through defenses, is the only way we can achieve anything of value. We must let people know that we are not just interested in establishing eligibility or in granting minimal services. We must see them as individuals.

We must help them understand that we are not just a part of the faceless bureaucracy which regulates their lives, but that we are concerned with helping them, as individuals, get into the productive mainstream of society. We must fight against red-tape restrictions and requirements which deny people their humanity. We must tell the unemployed that they have the right to work, the right to education of high quality for their children, the right to be trained, and the right to support themselves and their families at a decent level.

We must tell families in poverty that they have a vote and can use it to secure a more sympathetic ear in our corridors of power; that they must broaden their children’s horizons; that change is a law of life, and reform must be a way of life. These are the basic means of humanizing the city.

In a society which has succumbed to an excess of professionalism and technology, materialism and theoretical concepts, we must, in order to redress the balance, succumb to an excess of feeling, of courage, of caring, and of decency. I believe the time is ripe. The problems of our cities are begging for solution. Our profession is now mature and secure enough to provide leadership in this effort. A society that would call itself civilized is at stake.


 

The photo at the top/banner of this post illustrates Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, D.C. [and is in the public domain].

The REAL Origin of the African Birth Song: Surprise, It’s Racist

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr. Though it has a ton of problems (like refusing to shut down blogs being used to harass women, trans folks, and people of color), I’ve had an account since 2008 and it has accompanied me on my journey through college, years in the working world, and now—graduate school while I juggle staying in my field with expanding my horizons. I’ve found brilliant things on there, and while some posts only garner a tiny modicum of attention even if they’re wonderful, other posts can spread like WILDFIRE and go hugely viral. One such post is this one, about an “African birth song,” which almost has 150K notes:

[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well. You may feel a little warbly at the moment, but so have all the great singers. Just keep singing and you’ll find your way home.

Heartwarming. Much inspiration. Wow. So beautiful we could all cry a thousand tiny tears.

So what’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The “African birth song” is a half-baked invention of a White man that essentializes the “African experience” and does not event attempt to give any real details because it relies on collective ignorance about Africa that centers the world on a White axis. The text above does not provide any sources or even NAME this African tribe (though other versions do, but I’ll get into that later). The story uses exotification, the Noble Savage Myth, and people’s ignorance to make others feel warm n’ fuzzy and perpetuate incorrect narratives in the name of New Agey birth BS. This Tumblr post specifically, as many others have when they get reblogged, also uses the image/body of a RANDOM, unnamed indigenous woman from the Himba tribe. The list of problems goes on, because in the eyes of many non-African people, Africa is apparently just one huge jungle where everyone looks and acts the same, and all women run around topless feeling super connected to Mother Earth or something, giving birth in The Most Spiritual Ways We Should All Be Inspired By.

Himba woman who always remains nameless in reblogs of this stupid story.

Himba woman whose picture is used in reblogs of this story and always remains nameless.

Though this post focuses on Black and Indigenous folks, the same rule applies when discussing all other communities of color: we are not here to be your nameless, faceless inspirational memes. We want to be seen for who we are, and we want our own voices uplifted, not those of White folks who cannibalize our histories and profit off inaccuracies and tall tales.

Origins Of “THE AFRICAN BIRTH SONG” And Its Variations

While the story sounded cool and all at face-value, I knew there was more digging to be done because this smelled pretty fishy. What’s the real root of this “African Birth Song”? Beyond Tumblr and Facebook,  I found some other birth/parenting websites linking to this story, and that it has even been translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. It has been called “Your Song,” “The Song of Men,” “Remember Your Song,” “The Song of the Soul,” and more. The Birth Psychology website sources this book (“Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” by Sobonfu Somé) as the origin of the text but, SURPRISE, I looked at it and the book doesn’t actually make mention of this story—though it does describe other ritual birth practices in certain African tribes.

Some don’t even try to source it to a person, and say this tradition comes from Namibia as a whole. Others say it’s rooted in the Himba people (the picture above, and the “featured image” for this post by J. Gerrits, are Himba women), even though the location of that tribe is apparently in an arid area, so there wouldn’t be a “jungle” to go to as the story say. Meanwhile, other Internetters say the source is the “Ubuntu tribe” even though there is, uh, no such thing—Ubuntu is a philosophy. Again, we see a trend: folks ascribing things to peoples they do not know or understand because they sound “appropriate” or “distant enough” to be credible (and again, such credibility relies on assuming the audience is NOT from Africa or any of these communities).

Aminata Traore, not Tolba Phanem

This is actually Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali, NOT Tolba Phanem.

Those that try to credit an individual (aside from Sobonfu Somé) cite “Tolba Phanem (African poet), 2007” and use another image of a Himba woman to accompany the post. Some websites say that Tolba Phanem is a great women’s rights activist, and show off her “picture.” Except a reverse image-search on Google shows me that the picture they are using is actually of Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali.

It actually looks like Tolba Phanem doesn’t actually exist, and the person who truly originated this story is a dude named Alan Cohen*, who published it in Issue #33 of Pathways to Family Wellness—”a quarterly print and digital magazine whose non-profit mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.” (If someone does find that Phanem is a real person, do let me know. I found nothing on her that was accurate/unrelated to this “poem/story.” And even the websites that cite very specific sources for this story don’t seem to return any hits or information—AND they also show incorrect facts that I *can* verify easily which makes them less credible from the get-go.)

[*EDIT 4/19/16: Commenters have been kind enough to keep digging and sourcing further. There seems to be another thread to this story linked to a White, Jewish man named Jack Kornfield which you can read about in this comment thread. I reached out to him but never received a response. Seems like HE may have been the originator of this story before Alan Cohen, but there is still no information about legitimate connections to actual tribal practices.]

So there we go. This story is a load of crap being adorned with “exotic” origin stories in efforts to legitimize it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who was skeptical, but not everyone’s skepticism drew them to my same eyebrow-raising and frustration. For example, this person was also skeptical, but much to my facepalming, this was their conclusion:

I’m an artist. A spontaneous, story-singing artist.
I work in the abstract and unproven, the ethereal and profound.
I make up stories and songs all of the time.
And they’re true.
They are invented and (sometimes) nonsensical, and maybe they never happened, but at the heart and at the center, they are true.
Because when we hear them (or tell them), we can imagine and believe that they really happened.
Or wish that they had.
This is a true story.

On some level, I get it. I used to do a lot of art, and I am surrounded by artists, writers, and storytellers. I know not everything that gets written down has to be non-fiction, and that we can spin stories out of grains of truth and blah blah blah. I get it. But to use THAT as an excuse for writing racially busted stories, and especially those that go viral on social media? No. Your art is not an excuse. Your art does not exist in a vacuum. Your art is not separate from the systems of racism and oppression in which we live, and to be an artist is not to be exempt from cultural critique and social responsibility. If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.

Connections To Reality & Healing/Justice

So is this “African birth song” remotely related to actual tribal birth practices in Africa? Or indigenous work around healing? Sort of. Does the idea of being “in tune with our song” sound deep, and like it would be amazing to find ways of achieving justice that don’t just rely on punitive measures, but instead look beyond that and aim for reintegration and accountability? Heck yes. But none of that erases the racist mess I describe above. However, let’s leave that behind for a bit so we can look at what connection this actually has to reality.

Because I don’t know much about birthing practices in Africa, and I doubt I could do ANY sort of justice to an entire CONTINENT in a single blog-post, I’ll focus on the healing/justice portions.

Indigenous/ABORIGINAL/FIRST NATIONS healing circleS

  • Here’s a quick explanation of what healing circles are all about and where they come from. Though there are not a ton of studies about them as far as “evidence-based research” goes, there are some folks working on this kind of thing (example!), and I was honored to meet a group of them at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference.

Restorative justice, transformative justice, and community accountability

The line “The [group] recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity” encapsulates a big part of the RJ, TJ, and CA models. While different organizations may have different definitions of these concepts and how they relate to each other, at its core, the ideas behind these models and principles are that a) communities as a whole must be involved in eradicating violence, b) perpetrators of violence should not just be “passively responsible” for their actions, and c) healing must be directed by survivors and those impacted by the violence. Finally, a tenet of TJ (though not always RJ) is  the idea that we must transform—not merely slightly modify—our societal structures that currently enable violence and set up punishments for it.

  • Here’s a great resource that explains both TJ and CA with text, graphics, and a list of resources. It also gives credit where credit is due (read: to groups like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation Five for their work theorizing, writing, and operationalizing these concepts). This other resource also gives more historical background on it because our current police state wasn’t always what it is now, and this one discusses how the RJ model has been co-opted by the criminal justice system in certain ways (and thus how TJ can be an alternative to that).
  • Another slew of resources aggregated by Critical Resistance on addressing harm, accountability, and healing. It lists books, toolkits, zines, websites, articles, and more. While CR focuses on the prison industrial complex (PIC), this list of tools is about multiple forms of violence, including sexual assault, DV, state violence, and so on.
  • Here’s the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which “embracing the values of social justice and liberation, is a space to re/envision solutions to domestic or intimate partner, sexual, family and other forms of interpersonal violence.”
  • The Revolution Starts at Home is a fabulous book, and here’s an excerpt on these kind of strategies from a grassroots lens.
  • Here’s another CA wheel that focuses on domestic violence and explains what kind of actions should be taken by men, media, educational systems, the justice system, clergy, etc. (though it’s heteronormative and presents men as the only batterers).

SO IS THIS STORY WORTH IT OR NAH?

I think the ideas about healing and community-building in this story are awesome, but Mr. Cohen is not the originator of the concepts AND he’s using a racist, colonialist, tired ol’ lens to share his regurgitated opinion. Thus, I think that while this story has some good nuggets in it, there are WAY better resources and texts out there to illustrate these concepts in ways that are historically accurate, relevant, and non-oppressive. We ALL deserve better than this story.

[Added 2:15 pm EST] While this may seem small to some of you, this is part of a larger trend—this is a pattern, not a story in isolation. If you’re an educator, activist, teacher, parent, speaker, power-wielder of some sort, imagine incorporating this into a lesson about media literacy in a classroom, so students can find appropriate sources of information for projects. Imagine incorporating this into a workshop about birthing practices if you work with expecting parents. Imagine bringing this into a discussion about POC solidarity, or a lecture about art and social responsibility, or a class about international feminism.

When the Professional Is Personal: Calling Out the Whitewashing of the Sexuality Field [Updated 12/3/14]

NOTE: First time reader? Skip the text between the two horizontal lines below. Already read it? Most recent updates are summarized at the top but you can also see their expanded form within the text. Barring any huge developments, there will be no more updates to this post.


12/3/14: Further updates, in summary form: Reid [a contributor] wrote publicly about this (video is still forthcoming). His partner, Allison Moon (of Girl Sex 101 and Tales of the Pack) has written a post as well. Carl Frankel has once again revised his statements. Sadly, the process has still not been transparent. For the curious, here are the various iterations of it (and note the comment section): version 1, version 2, version 3, and the currently live page. Finally, for a variety of reasons, neither I nor WOCSHN as a collective are engaging with advising or collaborating on the Secrets of the Sex Masters revisions process any further.

12/2/14: Key updates in a new section have been added. Click here.


On first glance, 95% of people can’t tell I’m Latina, or that I’m bilingual—born and raised in Puerto Rico until I turned 18 and came to the continental U.S. for my undergraduate degree. My face adds exactly zero racial diversity points to pictures because I’m pale as heck, and due to my  knack for languages, I don’t have an identifiably non-Anglo accent. However, I identify as a person of color (POC), and more importantly, a woman of color (WOC) due to my ethnic and cultural background, as well as my political leanings and activism around these identities. That means a lot of things, particularly because even in POC spaces, colorism and anti-blackness still exist, and being Latina in the continental U.S. is very different than being one in PR.

So when I saw a recently-published book that highlighted 16 “sex masters” and noticed everyone was White (with no one bringing it up publicly), I figured I needed to do something as both a WOC and sexuality professional. (I didn’t focus on other oppressions because I hadn’t read the book and didn’t know more about the personal IDs of the contributors around axes like gender ID, ability level, etc. but maintain that inclusivity along these axes is also critical).

SOSM

If you know me, you know I’m an activist, but also pretty damn diplomatic, so regardless of whatever I was feeling, my first step was to publicly ask the author and some of the contributors (including some I consider friends as well as professional colleagues) what the deal was. This set off a chain of events that continues to be in motion right now, and I want to share with you. [If you’re looking for the official, collective WOCSHN response which I worked on with some fierce ladies, peep it here instead.]

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