During my senior year, I had three deaths in the family in two months. We had two suicide attempts among my close friends. I directed and performed the precursor to Class Confessions, wrote FLIP’s constitution, participated and spoke at rallies and programs, and advocated for mental health care services for the poor on campus, all while finishing my classes with very minimal assistance from anyone. I managed to graduate on time, a feat I only accomplished because my mom begged me to do so for the benefit of the family. I was a very potent symbol, I entered Stanford and they wouldn’t even use the term low income, by the time I left FLIP (First Generation, Low Income Partnership) had changed its name from NextGen and low income was becoming part of the lexicon. I didn’t do this alone but I was very often in the position where people thanked me for speaking because they didn’t have to. This was definitely my baby in college. And it was a baby I bled for, by the time my senior year had ended my headaches were so severe I had to get weekly shots of Toradol to remain functional and I was going through an absurd amount of vicodin. I gained a great deal of weight. I did real damage to my jaw and neck. By the time the year was over, I was exhausted. I spent a summer trying to rest, only to have my community make jokes about how lazy I was. My favorite ones were bathed in sexism, instead of simply allowing me a break, they referred to me as my boyfriend’s housewife, as if a simple three months off somehow negated my work. I have many rich friends who have taken time off without this kind of pressure, and when I told them I was going to need to take last year off, they didn’t understand why it was so distressing for me. Instead of getting a year off, I had the worst year of my adult life. It was marred by homelessness, a trip in the ambulance, recovering from being wheel-chair bound, leaving an abusive relationship and applying to grad school with minimal basic resources, like the internet, while all of this was going on. In the fall after my senior year, still suffering from daily migraines, I signed back up for a martyrdom I had come to expect in my life. I’ve repeated this process over and over again since graduating.
The most common response to my breakdown last year was, “we had no idea, and we assumed you were ok, you are so strong.” This came from really kind, well-meaning people that I love. People pushed me back into the classroom after a traumatic injury. When I did it again, people still pushed me back. And this was well intentioned, I’ve been given a set of cognitive gifts that I didn’t earn and it makes me especially talented at certain tasks. It is awesome that people are inspired by my work and strength and I get the strong desire to have me continuing to do the work. I also was raised with the belief that my gifts are meaningless if they contribute nothing to others.
At the end of my senior year, after 4 years of activism, one of the deans asked me where I was from as if I was some sort of alien. She had heard me speak for four years but for some reason didn’t ask this question until then and obviously had failed to listen since I was forced to be incredibly open about my background or else I faced the negation of my entire existence and awkward questions about my behavior. It also would have meant less access to the already limited resources on campus since my oppression was not visible to those who don’t understand that poverty that affects white people is still systematic and brutal. She wanted to know what my “deal” was. On average, I get challenged on my origins about 3 times a week, unless I refuse to leave the house, which might be why no one ever sees me outside of my house. This part of my burden I have accepted without complaint for the last decade because I figured it was the price I paid for having the skin color we identify with privilege. I suppose it would be less exhausting to explain my origins so often if people didn’t challenge what I said to them.
“I have a multiethnic family and I grew up poor.”
“But you are white.”
“I care about police brutality because people in my family and community have been victims of it.”
“But you are white.”
“I spoke a nonstandard dialect of English when I entered Stanford”
“But you are white.”
I have many more examples, but you get the point. Insert this conversation for every aspect of my identity, multiply it by nearly every person who encounters me now and you have some inkling of what a normal class period or activist meeting is for me. I understand that I have white privilege, that despite my poverty, disability, history of vile oppression at the hands of authority figures and men, my white skin still matters. As a result of this understanding, I also took the responsibility for educating other people myself so my nonwhite friends didn’t have to. I know my whiteness matters. My family was the target of eugenics, and it still matters. I am so happy to do this, I’ve been fighting my whole life for other people and it feels natural to me and I’m good at it. But at some point, a nuanced discussion about the intersectionality of privilege went from the understanding that my whiteness brought privilege but that I still suffered from class oppression and gender oppression to the absolute assumption that my whiteness negates my class oppression. That, in fact, my whiteness precludes me from participating in the discussion at all. My whiteness matters, I’ve always been aware of it. But I’m not sure it matters enough to dismiss the oppression I’ve experienced. I’m not sure my white skin shielded me enough from hunger, pain, and violence that anyone has any business telling me whether or not I’m doing enough or that I don’t need liberating too.
A lot of things happened in Seattle. My financial aid didn’t go through like it was supposed to because of a change in funding. My disability made it nearly impossible to work, and I had very limited networks and resources. I found myself justifying my existence every day, constantly being re-triggered in a to fight for something that is deeply personal to me. If you knew me a few years ago, you’ll remember what absolute snot I was about my responsibility to the community and what I expected from others. We talk about how important it is to go back, for our most marginalized members to fight the fight continuously, and most of them accept this responsibility because we know what privilege it is for us to be in the position we are in. You know, the representatives of the marginalized among the elite. But we never talk about the cost for people who have already suffered tremendous trauma. It is a struggle I know well, but it was always part of the deal. What wasn’t part of the deal constantly had to have arguments with my fellow soldiers about whether or not that trauma happened. In the fall, I volunteered to be part of a sit-in to talk about school segregation in the west and got politely told that my whiteness made me ineligible for such a task. I got painfully bored in class, talking about things that I have long talked about. Hearing things like, “well, you’re poor so why don’t you tell us why poor people are like this.” Being a token is part of the package. But it was different when I could actually get things done and when I felt like I had a place to contribute to the overall mission.
I get where this anger comes from, of course. Too often in this country, programs that should have helped the poor excluded people by race. I’m often on the receiving end of co-option attempts because I fit the image and narrative that would allow people to say, “hey she did it” and I carry the guilt of that knowledge with me. Too often, pointing out the suffering of poor white people has been used as a distraction from talking about the very real problems that nonwhite people face under a system that is both classist and a result of centuries of white supremacy. Marginalized people are pitted against each other in a zero sum game and instead of coming together, hunger, violence, trauma, and anger leads to hate. So I understand that sometimes people have very legitimate concerns and responses about the way my narrative is used but I can’t change the basic facts of my existence to fit a narrative. Believe me, if I could I would.
The irony of all of this is the people that have given me the most support are outside of this community. In November one of them came to see me in Seattle, and if I told you his demographic information your immediate presumption would be Privileged White Male. We had spent a lot of time being close friends in LA together during my interim period between schools while I was recovering. He’s stepped in on several occasions when my family couldn’t and when I moved we realized we missed each other and sometime in the process fell in love. My friends hated him because he comes from an incredibly rich family. As they hated him, he spent a good portion of his time listening to me be miserable at graduate school, coaching me through my frustration and anger for several hours a day even when my anger was technically directed at the very people he was born into. I was so bored, I got depressed, my work starting deteriorating and for the first time I lost the motivation to fight. In November, Ross came to visit me and one of my other close friends was hired by an organization in which he would be called to represent a category he wasn’t demographically part of but had worked extensively with. To say this friend was qualified for this particular job would be an understatement. Although he was queer male of color, the organization was specifically focused on women’s issues, which is actually a topic he has researched at a graduate level. He called me to make sure taking the job was ethical.
After the phone call, I told Ross about it and he simply said, “You know they are going to treat him like shit, right? Like they are going to give him so much shit.”
Without much thought, I responded, “Yeah, of course, we know that. We don’t expect to not be treated like shit, you just hope to find a place where the shit is manageable.”
It took about three weeks for me to realize how deeply disturbing that thought was. Is liberation martyrdom? I was always ok with the martyrdom bit, but I wonder sometimes if Joan of Arc might have been less willing to burn if she had spent time having her own people tearing her down the way I’ve watched myself and some of my friends be torn down by the very community that claims to represent us. On the last day of classes, I found out the government doesn’t actually consider what I do research. That combined with the fact that my research focused on class meant an uphill and brutal battle, and it was a battle I was prepared to fight until it became clear to me that it was a battle I was going to feel like I was fighting in isolation.
So I guess what I’m telling you is that I burned out. I’ve been burned out for a very long time and it took a rich white dude literally rescuing me to finally get some rest. I’m hoping and praying that my motivation to fight is going to come back. I deeply wanted to run into a forest and never speak to anyone again but it’s not really an option with the Internet. Maybe someday someone will show up to my cabin and tell me I’m needed and I’ll stop baking shit long enough to hear them out. When? Roughly the same time I stop viscerally understanding why other activists kill themselves.
In the meantime, I’m in LA. I’m happy, I’m writing, I’m working on the design of future school projects; I’m helping former students. I’m making cinnamon rolls from scratch and sleeping for the first time in about 28 years. My headaches have drastically declined and I live with a fellow mutant who seems to be uniquely good at figuring out when I need help. So good that he flew up to Seattle, packed my things and brought me home all without anyone knowing about it except my mom.
Why didn’t I tell anyone? Because I knew what people would say when they found out. The few people this has leaked to haven’t disappointed on that count. Some friends have been incredibly supportive and for that, they have my eternal gratitude. My friends who have questions and concerns have legitimate questions and concerns and I feel an obligation, in my role as representative to explain my choices. So allow me to address those concerns. No, I am not going to change my mind. Yes, it is possible I will return to some PhD program, but maybe not. The following is a list of things I will do with my time: sleep, cook, clean, take care of my cat, take care of my body, finish this book, write other books, do research, make trips to the library, sit on the board of two schools, continue to support my former students, yoga, watch and make cartoons, be a good, focused supportive partner. You know, live my life like a normal person. No, this wasn’t terribly feminist of me, but frankly it says a lot about the system that it took a dude to take me out of poverty and I practice a version of feminism in which I don’t look down on women’s work as if it is beneath me while asking other women to do it for me so I can feel “empowered” at work. I’m as proud of my gender normative skill-set as I am of my other non-gender confirming skill sets. What I have a problem with is people who live and contribute nothing to their families or communities, but I have nothing but respect for the many women (we appalaud stay at home dads, while shaming mothers) in my life who have made their home their first priority . I’m pretty loose with how we define contributions because women have provided vital, unpaid work to humanity since existence. But I also find it deeply disturbing that after only about a month of not working, people automatically assumed that I would suddenly stop doing anything instead of letting me have the break I so badly need. It is a bizarre assumption, especially because I have so many privileged friends who have taken substantially more time without comment and also because I’m fairly certain that no one would assume, “I moved in with someone I love and am taking a break” means, “I’ve had a lobotomy” if I were male. I’ll address everyone’s weird response to my dating outside my class background in a separate post, but for the record, I think y’all are being quite silly about that considering I have two degrees from Stanford. If you are one of the many people that had questions or concerns but now feel happy for me because of my explanation, I appreciate you too. So now everyone has been informed, questions have been answered. If you have some other concern that I haven’t addressed, please think about asking someone other than me before you bring it to me. If for some reason that’s not an option, then keep reading the following sentence and think about whether or not your questions or concerns are actually vital to my well-being:
I am happy. I am healthy. I found a fellow mutant I fell in love with.