Sleepwalking into 2021
My 11-year old sleepwalks, talks, and apparently sleep searches for gold rings in potted plants. A few nights ago, I saw her pulling up my snake plant in the middle of the night. I called out to her surprised in my own sleep haze, she came back to my often communal bed, and we both feel asleep. The next morning we were both surprised to see the 3-foot tall snake plant in disarray, dirt on the floor. She then excitedly recalled the dream. It blew my mind that somehow she was not awake while digging for something precious in a potted plant. She was asleep.
What to make or write about this year so far. How specifically we can be going about our lives, our entire lives so far, and yet some of us can also be asleep. That’s what I’m thinking of. How little attention this country pays to our history so we remain walking in our sleep. Going to the bank in our sleep. Hanging out with family in our sleep. Loving, fucking even in our sleep. Until something breaks, on television, and we have to watch, waking up from our sleep, the damage that has ensued in the meanwhile. Some of us just go back to sleep, it’s easier that way. But the damage will continue.
We don’t just awaken to survey damage. There’s a lot of beauty and healing on the other side of seeing things as they really are.
Dreams are often blurry, the contours rounded and soft. The details bendable. In contrast the waking hours feel at times harshly bright, full of unnecessary details, full of well, just, the specific tragic whatever it is of being alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about specificity. How specific we have to be when we talk about anything, but especially race otherwise we are not really saying anything. When we ask powers that be for accountability, how specific our ask has to be. How if we leave an encounter feeling “better” that’s not the same as a concrete action plan or change being made. How feeling “better” is not the goal in anti-racism work, it’s partly ensuring our lives are not built on caste hierarchies that demean, exploit and kill others. (That usually makes people feel better anyway.) How explaining a specific personal experience of either engaging in oppression or having been oppressed is more useful to you than a social media post about not being racist. So I’m trying to do more of the work of specificity.
In 1982 Audre Lorde said in a speech she gave at Malcolm X Weekend at Harvard University:
“We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets or to our fools, maybe because we do not listen to our mamas in ourselves. When I hear the deepest truths I speak coming out of my mouth sounding like my mother’s, even remembering how I fought against her, I have to reassess both our relationship as well as the sources of my knowing. Which is not to say that I have to romanticize my mother in order to appreciate what she gave me — Woman, Black. We do not have to romanticize our past in order to be aware of how it seeds our present. We do not have to suffer the waste of an amnesia that robs us of the lessons of the past rather than permit us to read them with pride as well as deep understanding.
We know what it is to be lied to, and we know how important it is not to lie to ourselves.”
So much of Lorde’s writing, (I’m reading Sister Outsider - a collection of her essays and speeches), feels like a guidebook on how to remain in loving action against “ the machine which orchestrates crisis after crisis and is grinding all our futures into dust.” Also she speaks about the urgency of action within her times as if she was talking of 2020. Perhaps the urgency has never really dissipated, only time has moved onward, the crises have changed in form.
When I am specific with a friend about my experience as a non-white woman interacting with Whiteness in this country, I am doing them a service. I am choosing to engage in a dialogue, in expressing a reality that at times is painful. At times useful for me to turn over in my mind. At times it’s just boring to talk about again. I do it when it feels like it will land on fertile soil. I expend some energy when I see that the people I am engaging with want to understand so that they can better know how to act.
I do this with my children endlessly. Because I realize what they want from me are less random lectures on morality and more specific stories from my life, where maybe I learned something or maybe I didn’t. One of my biggest gifts to them are my stories. Endless stories until I fall asleep, fully clothed, lights on, teeth unbrushed, until the next pandemic day where we again do it all over again.
The stories I tell my children often aren’t like ones from books, that have a clear plot arch, characters, etc. Sometimes they enter a a story of mine in real-time. I just tell them what they are seeing. I explain it for them. They enter more stories now than ever before because we are hanging out more. So they are getting more from me. I’m getting better at letting them see how I do life. The messy crumpled bits and pieces of it. Which to them I think feel more like the details they want to know about. What I am watching on my lit-up phone, why can’t I put it away, what it makes me feel, how people would tell me, still tell me, I look just like some other South Asian woman they know, sometimes they even would ask if my Desi friends and I were sisters; the names of my boyfriends and what they were like and what happened in those relationships. They learn from my talking about what happened to me. Not leaving a lot out. Being honest about when I made mistakes or didn’t know enough.
Social media is one thing. But it’s not great at specificity. We see a post with a quote or video clip and feel fired up to repost. We have been shocked by each successive act of violence by white supremacists over the course of the past 4 years where by a racist President has only emboldened them. Not created them. I think about how we could also talk honestly about the times we didn’t do enough. The times we learned something or not.
The times we felt the full discomfort of being a home-owning gentrifier in a Black neighborhood of which we are not really a part and how we are moving through that. The ways we struggle with home ownership in American capitalism period. All the times we mistook lighter skin color for leveling up in dating in our younger lives. The times our own communities of color would joke with a dark-skinned friend about their skin color and over time the friend would have to laugh each time because otherwise the joke would reveal itself. The times we had to examine what we were doing in interracial relationships, what we thought it said about us. All of the problematic things we do in the name of our children, that negatively impact the lives of other children. And how we choose to close our eyes to the actual contours of that impact. Basically all of the bits we leave out in the answer to “how are you”?
A white friend of mine told me recently that when she was called out in previous years by POC friends who said they were not going to continue a friendship due to perceiving her actions as racist, she considered these communications to be a gift. And I understood what she meant. Because I do not always engage in the labor of telling people the reasons why I can no longer do what we were doing. Because the number of times I have been confronted with racism towards me, or when a white person had said something racist to me assuming I was basically white (because Whiteness in this country often erases you) is just a lot. So if I had to have a full-on breakup conversation with every person I don’t really feel comfortable with anymore, I’d go insane. So I consider the time taken to put into words the specific nature of a person or entity’s problematic nature, before having to extricate myself, a gift for them. It’s exhausting work to just maintain yourself amongst Whiteness, educate yourself on its impact on you and the world, to recover, to finally thrive. To then educate White people about the ways they are harming others (others maybe like you), for free? That’s a service. Think of it like therapy, but where the therapist is in the category of people that are hurt by actions like yours, and where that therapist doesn’t just make you feel better at the end of the hour. They tell you what part of your shit is because of White supremacy, systems of oppression and racism. In short really good fucking therapy. [Pay people who do that labor for you: Especially Black people.]
I was recently reminded this week of a time when I was 10 or 11 feeling offended by a confrontation with Whiteness but not being able to fully verbalize why yet. That sort of never stops, the feeling kind of icky, and realizing why much later. My immigrant parents had recently moved from Forest Hills, Queens to Sayreville, NJ. In all honestly the only upgrade was space. We were suddenly the only non-White family on our little suburban block. I recall being at the white neighbor’s house across the street, and the man asking me if I wanted to clean their house for money. I remember even at the time thinking what the hell? Why would I do that? I hated cleaning as much as the next 11-year old. I got weird vibes and left and don’t remember hanging out there much after that. When I asked my mother about this incident she said that yes, it sounds like that family. She said they had other family troubles like fighting and drugs. As if maybe that explained away the racism (a totally natural response which all of us engage in). To be clear their racism consisted of the idea that the thing that made a skinny little brown girl’s existence on the block palatable, was my potential service to them. She also said the first week we moved to our house someone burned a cross into our lawn with fertilizer, and she suspects it was them because our other two neighbors were very friendly.
Who knows who actually welcomed my family to the nabe with a little tailored landscaping. I think the true thing that you learn over the years, is that it’s easy to avoid the overt racists, the one who stupidly say the things that highlight they are are to be avoided. But the so-called nice ones cause more damage because you don’t know to avoid them. You realize you are welcome everywhere while you service dominant culture. Once you stop you become too loud, too quiet, too privileged, too uppity, too smart, too dumb, too ugly, too attractive, too brown, too white, too whatever to say what you just said… so just go back to your lane. The thing with being a child of immigrants though is we never had a lane created for us here, we were always making shit up as we went along. You understand like few others do that all you’re doing when you move from one country to another is making trade-offs. You know how gorgeous the dreams of our countries can become when people are still sleeping.