I had an epiphany last night. I guess it was technically this morning at 4am when I finally convinced myself to look away from stories about the nationwide protests, and their escalation to violence against protestors as the afternoon progressed. I had been glued to my screens all day, watching with increasing levels of despair as the national conversation went from “it is wrong to murder black people” to a debate on whether or not property damage is an appropriate form of protest.
That helps set the backdrop for the state of mind I was in when I glanced at myself in the bathroom mirror and thought about doing the right thing and flossing my teeth before bed. I get that this seems like two very disparate and disconnected concerns, but I was also floating on a magic brownie cloud, so it was all connected in my mind.
Stay with me.
See, flossing my teeth is something I know I should do. I’ve had the privilege of regular, professional dental care for the majority of my life. Even though I have been educated about the importance of flossing and have had dentists begging me twice a year since childhood to floss daily, for most of my life I rarely ever did.
Why? It was uncomfortable. My teeth are very close together, and I have to use a bit of force to get the floss through, and when it hits my gums it sometimes stings and makes me cringe or bleed or both. Also, it took extra time effort and, as a lifelong procrastinator, flossing just always felt like a thing I’d tell myself I’d do “next time” or convince myself wouldn’t make that much of a difference so I could spend a few more minutes doing whatever it was I preferred to do with that “precious” time.
This is how it went until about two years ago when I had to have some significant, expensive, and painful dental work done as a result of my lifelong lack of daily flossing.
After that, flossing became a lot less rare. I’m still working on it becoming a twice a day habit, but it has definitely become a far more frequent, if not a near daily one. In recent months, I’ve noticed how refreshing it feels after I floss. I’ve caught myself wondering why I ever denied myself the satisfying pleasure of of a well-flossed mouth.
The financial and physical discomfort I felt after three months of hour-long dental visits helped re-frame my perspective. Discomfort has an uncanny way of promoting meaningful change.
So, here I am: It’s 4am. I’m tired, but also wired and emotional; and, I hear that little voice in my head tell me to just skip the flosser tonight and get horizontal as soon as possible. This little voice has a lot of influence over me. She’s been with me my whole life, but I only recognized her presence two years ago. Her name is Felicia, and I’ve written about her before. She is the well-meaning, but misguided gremlin that used to sabotage me with laziness, but now has a new job to remind me to practice self care when I’m in distress.
My gremlins arent monsters, but internal advisors. Think of them like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, but I’ve got several and some of them fall short in the areas of wisdom and bravery. When I feel at odds with myself, there’s usually a gremlin voice that I need to address. It helps me to name them and talk to them directly.
Felicia is not a malicious gremlin nor does she intentionally try to sabotage my efforts for self improvement through laziness. What she does is prioritize my physical and emotional comfort over any and all hardship, and the truth is that she was born out of a need to develop coping strategies for depression as teenager. She most often does this by championing the most immediate and satisfying forms of self care (like, taking a bath, taking mental health breaks, masturbating, or eating a pie) over the long term, preventative, and less hedonistic forms of self care, (like exercising regularly, taking vitamins, and flossing my teeth).
In times when I am feeling motivated and strong and hopeful, Felicia does a great job of reminding me that I feel AWESOME after a workout, and ACCOMPLISHED after I’ve completed a complex but necessary project. Since identifying her presence and working in earnest on our relationship with each other, she and I have even come up with some excellent compromises: like when she suggested I try buying gummy vitamins that taste good so that she would remind me every day to take them. It worked. For the past six months I have been consistent in taking my gummy multi-vitamins while bottles of vitamins in pill form still sit in my medicine cabinet collecting dust.
During times when I’m not feeling quite so motivated, however, Felicia’s messages shift to prioritize anything that will just help sooth the pain. When I’m in pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental, she always urges me de-prioritize anything that I find remotely uncomfortable in favor of doing something that feels nourishing. Like eating pie.
So, here I am: It’s 4am. My mind is starting to shut down. I’m feeling drained by the mental and emotional debris that’s been accumulating on my soul all day. I’m also recognizing the germ factory that’s been accumulating in my mouth all day, and Felicia says to me, “Just skip the flossing tonight. You feel heavy and drained deserve to lay down and rest. You’re going to wake up in four hours anyway – just floss then.”
I’m going to admit that she almost convinced me.
Except, in that exact moment I flashed back to the memory of a video I’d had seen hours earlier. During my day-long consumption of media surrounding the nationwide protests, I saw the video showing the Flint, MI police chief making a big inspiring speech about unity and support for peaceful protest and watched how he had his officers set down their batons and help “turn the protest into a parade.”
At first, Felicia jumped right on that. Immediately she started to say things to me like “Seeing this felt good. It felt hopeful. Let’s let that be the last bit of news we take in tonight, so that we can sleep well, because a good night’s sleep is important for self-care.”
She came so close to convincing me to do just that, but then another video popped upon my feed. This one was a compilation of footage that showed, with alarming brutality, how often the police in this country were the ones to escalate to violence against protestors. It has hard to watch and heavy and I recognized that Felicia’s advice was based on prioritizing my immediate emotional comfort over my long term spiritual health.
The shit that’s happening in the world? It’s not parade activity. It’s protest activity, and my many friends in the LGBTQ+ communities pointed out all day long that Pride started as a riot. The parades came later.
My heart sank. Even though I thought I understood what was going on I realized that all the times I’ve heard black voices talk about white complacency within the system designed to silence them, I hit let the words hit my brain, but I didn’t feel them in my body. I understood why Black Lives Matter and I understood why tone policing is wrong and I understood all of that not because I instinctively did – but because black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people had the patience and the generosity to explain it, and I had the desire to listen.
And I’ve never really confronted the fact that I wasn’t instinctively on the side of right all along. I had to be taught, and even then, the lessons didn’t always land where they needed to.
I am disappointed in myself for momentarily forgetting that the other insidious form of privilege I have is the ability to “turn it off” for the night (or ever). I believe this situation we are living in warrants my personal discomfort. It believe it should never feel “okay” to live and thrive in a racist society. I do not believe I am entitled to the relief of allowing a single “hopeful” video to lull me into a false sense of serenity so I can sleep more soundly. I do have the ability to do this, but I understand now that comes at a price and I have not always paid the toll out of my own pocket.
Even as I write this, I’m terrified to post this essay. If I do, I might get some trolls or nasty emails or worse. But I can’t, in good conscious, accept that I should remain silent in order to avoid potential trolls and harassment when I know that my silence is read by the people in power as well as by the people suffering in oppression as acceptance.
And then I was once again in this moment: it’s 4am. I am staring at myself in the bathroom mirror paralyzed by a decision about whether or not to floss my teeth before bed. I had been on the brink of capitulating to Felicia’s advice to put it off until morning, when this epiphany helped me push back against that decision.
I flossed my teeth like the fate of my soul was at stake.
Obviously, this is a metaphor, and a really weird one at that. Metaphors help me make sense of that other little voice in my head (Alice), that reminds me that something that can feel right can also be wrong and vice versa. Metaphors help me understand that “good” isn’t always synonymous with “right.”
There is a difference between understanding something and living it. I will never, ever, ever be able to fully comprehend what it’s like to be a Black person in the United States. I will never know what it’s like to feel that level of unsafe every single hour of every single day of my life.
As a woman, I can comprehend the idea of feeling unsafe around men; but I know that within my circle of friends and in my home, I am safe. Did Breonna Taylor feel safe in her home? Would you? How good would “hope” feel if every guy who ever inserted his fantasies into my inbox also had my home address and a skeleton key? What if it wasn’t every creeper, but just one “bad apple” with the propensity to violate me and the authority to kick down my door if he felt like it?
Would you expect me to feel safe, even at home, under those circumstances?
Would you feel safe under those circumstances?
And now it’s today. Sunday morning. Since waking up a few hours ago, I’ve seen the Flint video posted a dozen times (mostly by my white friends), along with a few other wholesome and uplifting reports of people around the country doing the right thing or saying the right words. I’ve seen images of uniformed police officers marching with the protestors, holding signs, and taking a knee. I saw white protestors form a barricade between a line of police in riot gear and the Black protesters behind them. I’ve also seen images and video footage of black protestors protecting individual police officers, condemning violence, and chasing away white people who are defacing property. I saw the meme that said this isn’t about white vs black; it’s about racism vs anti-racism.
These images initially feel good to consume. And that is what we do, isn’t it? We consume the media, and the hopeful stories taste like sunshine and energy while the brutal ones taste like mud, but we need them both. It reminds me of the Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers in times of crisis. I’m glad these reminders of hope exist to keep us from falling into the depths of despair.
But then I get to thinking about the side effects of the consumption of an all-hope diet. I thought about how often I’d allowed hope to serve as a panacea for my discomfort with the status quo. I knew shit was bad, but I felt like anything I could do wouldn’t make that much of a difference and anyway my cat is sick and coronavirus killed my business and I can’t get my hands on any arugula and I’m tired and I can make a $25 donation, email my representatives, and go back to my regularly scheduled binge watch.
Then I’d see some hopeful thing, like my representative tweeting a meaningful message of support for the cause, and I’d read about the overwhelmingly supportive response to crowdfunding efforts that will cover bail and legal fees for those arrested during the protests, and I’m like – hey – yeah. I did something! We did something! There’s hope!
I should feel good about that, right? We all should, right? This level of uprising is unprecedented in my lifetime. Obviously it’s different this time, right?
Wrong. There are no degrees of “better” that can rationalize any amount of acceptance within a system that has been designed to oppress Black people (or the Native population, while we’re at it) whether that oppression is fueled by hatred, greed, guilt, or misguided ignorance. Not only this, but I need to wrestle with the fact that I’ve been hearing black voices explain exactly this for years, but the full breadth of the message didn’t sink in until I had a magic brownie and dental floss-fueled epiphany about comfort-based self-sabotage.
I get it now. Hope isn’t a cure for sadness and despair when it’s used as a crutch to keep us docile. I’m choosing to now identify and name a new gremlin: Hope. Just like Felicia, Hope is a well-meaning, but ultimately short-sighted internal advisor that wants to help me feel more comfortable within the confines of the unjust the world I live in. Hope isn’t evil or malicious. Hope’s purpose isn’t to support racist institutions by suggesting I allow myself to celebrate a small victory and get a good night’s rest.
But Hope’s methods have consequences. Right now the images of police solidarity with the protestors are a few drops of hope in a bucket filled with ample documented evidence of shameful police behavior. I now feel a sense of responsibility to not allow Hope to ease my guilt or discomfort around what people who look like me are perpetrating on people who don’t. Right and Good are not synonymous. It might feel like a good thing to wish that this was all over and that nobody would get hurt and that property wouldn’t be vandalized, stolen, or burned; but it doesn’t feel right – knowing that nothing will change until shit gets uncomfortable or inconvenient enough for those of us who don’t seem to be willing to do the right thing until it affects us directly.
It doesn’t feel right to suggest Black rage should be quelled by a meager stipend of hope while everyone else is walking around with a healthy helping of have. I’m not even talking about disparities in money or education or access to health care, because somehow people have decided that having access to any of that is debatable. Then I’ll get the short-sighted folks who start saying that because they’re not rich, these words don’t apply to them
I’m talking about the simple fact that human beings, regardless of color, nationality, religion, gender or politics, should not have to weigh the risks of going for a jog, bird watching, watching TV at home, or having a backyard barbecue against the likelihood of being murdered.
And yet, here we are.
We should all feel rage. At the very least, we should not suggest that their rage is anything but completely appropriate.
I, for one, am not okay with feeling like I’m doing the very least.
I’m going to have a chat with my Hope gremlin and work on a new job assignment for her. I no longer want Hope’s primary responsibility to be try to my soothe my anger or despair. There may still be times when I need her for that; but, she’s now also going to take on the added responsibility of reminding me that hope can be more than a spiritual xanax – it can also serve as fuel. I want Hope to remind me what’s at stake. I want Hope to be the little voice in my head that says “you can’t lay down and rest until you’ve done at least one thing to prioritize care for the people in this world that need your support. Not just once. Not just sometimes. Every day.”
Like flossing. Because I know it’s the right thing to do, and I shouldn’t have to wait until it affects me personally or financially before I do it – even if putting in the effort is harder some days than others. Even if it hurts or bleeds.
And, even as I type this from the safety of my comfortable quarantine bubble in the suburbs I know that I am far from being able to say that I am helping to the best of my ability. Donating toward, raising awareness of, and championing this issue from my recliner is, at best, not standing in the way of progress.
I have a long way to go to overcome my own fear, privilege, and comfort before I can comfortably say I’m doing everything I can to make a difference.
But today I have a little less ground to cover than I did yesterday.
I’ve now spent seven hours writing and revising this essay and still have a lot of fear around posting it. Nothing I have written here is groundbreaking information. There is no point that I am making in this post that hasn’t been made countless times by the people most affected by racism. This is an examination of my own intellectual and emotional processing of the years of conversations, articles, statements, and memes generously authored and shared by marginalized communities, and a recognition that there will always be value in personal growth, especially when its hard.
In simple terms, this essay is me trying to translate what I’ve absorbed and learned so far about systemic racism and reflecting on what my role has been in upholding it. It’s not meant to serve as a forum for debate on the merits of civil disobedience or the existence of racism in the world.
A lot of what I’ve processed here has also helped me make some sense of my discomfort with the concept of the “polyamorous community” and my alignment with said community. It’s the reason I’ve pulled back from this blog since the coronavirus hit, and something I plan to write about soon.