Protest and Patriotism



Not so very long ago, I stood in an elementary school classroom, my hand over my heart as I faced the flag on the wall and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  As I said the words “with liberty and justice for all,” I felt a deep sense of irony.  I wanted to take my hand away from my heart.  I didn’t want to recite these words by rote with a bunch of children, my son among them, who did not have a full and deep understanding of U.S. history.  I also didn’t want to take my hand from my heart.  I wanted to keep it there, because I love this country.

I love this country because Sojourner Truth asked us if she counted as a woman while Susan B. Anthony and Lucetia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton asserted that all men and women are created equal.  I love this country because Ida B. Wells fought lynching, which was connected to the vote because for God’s sake if you’re being hung from trees you ought to have a vote, that is if you are a human being (and oh yes, oh yes we are all human beings), and I love this country because the Grimke sisters demanded to speak in public as women so that they could oppose slavery.  I love this country because Alice Paul starved herself in jail so that finally, finally the vote could pass.  I love this country because the actions of these women said, loud and clear, We know what Liberty and Justice for All means and we aren’t there.  And they got us closer.

I love this country because we have labor laws that prevent the exploitation of children–well, we have them, and they prevent the exploitation of some children, though not all, and we need to change that, my friends.  But the eight-hour workday, and breaks, and bread and roses, oh those things are here because of the Haymarket Affair and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and because of the protests of Lucy and Albert Parsons and Rose Schneiderman and so many others.  I love this country because they knew that Liberty and Justice for All meant we weren’t there. And they got us closer.

I love this country because black women planned the bus boycott for years and years.  I love this country because women and men of all colors marched and wrote and cried and screamed and promised their way into today, where you and I are wondering just what this country is coming to because they sweated and worked and spoke and died to give us the privilege to wonder.  I. Love. This. Country.  Not because of where we are today, but because of where I hope—still, hope—that we are going.

And, my friends.  I love this country because Colin Kapernick refused to stand for the national anthem.  Not because he has the right to protest hypocrisy—well, yes, I do love that.  But more, oh so much more, I love this country because his protest gave others the courage and the means to protest, and this protest says, We Know What Liberty and Justice for All means and we aren’t there.

And their protest will get us closer.


What Yo Mama Said





The heart of justice is truth-telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.— bell hooks

I’m teaching my book Defining Sexism in the U.S. in my freshman composition course. We haven’t gotten to the book yet, but my students are curious about it, and one of them asked me what motivated me to begin this work. I told her that I started with my own frustration:  I’d been told that I had been handed equality, but that wasn’t my experience. Like most women, I’d had plenty of experience with sexism, but hadn’t been given the perspective or the vocabulary or the societal power to speak that truth. Once I started exploring feminism, I realized that there was much more than my own perspective to consider:  we’re all dealing with the fallout from patriarchy.  For many, it’s a matter of life and death.

After dedicating myself wholeheartedly to learning feminism, I wanted to share what I had learned, to make it accessible. So my books were born. I had plans for many others, but life, as it does, took a turn. I needed rest. So I rested. As it happened, I was resting as we entered the Trump presidency.  Don’t even get me started on that.

After my rest, I decided to pause my other books:  I may write them slowly, as I believe that a translation of academic feminism into everyday language is deeply necessary. In the meantime, I’m going to teach and focus on other writing projects. I’ll drop in now and then with a blog post that seems needed or that I am compelled to write given the moment in history we are occupying, and the fulcrum of feminism upon which we are delicately balanced.

As I was resting, I collected some of my favorite pieces from the years I spent learning and writing feminism into a book. I collected these writings for a few reasons:  to have a record to share with my children and a printed version of the words I flung onto the page so furiously for so long; to remember where I have been; and to share the journey with others.

Because my blog was originally named Yo Mama (’cause there ain’t no Yo Daddy jokes), I have titled this book What Yo Mama Said. It includes blog posts from the five years during which I wrote regularly on feminist topics, grouped by subject rather than chronologically. You’ll find essays on motherhood, beauty, race, politics, sexual violence, the divine feminine, feminism, and culture, along with interviews with other authors and activists as well as friends and colleagues who have a unique perspective on patriarchy. And, because life—and truth-telling—aren’t complete without it, you’ll find  poetry.

May these writings illuminate your journey as they have mine.


Take Them Down

By Juanita Giles, founder of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.

This is a guest post, originally written as a Facebook status by Juanita Giles. I share it with her permission.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone more tied to the Confederacy than I am. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Taylor Pettus, was a Captain in Co.B, 34th Va.Inf.Regt.-CSA, who lost his left leg to a miniball at the Battle of High Bridge. His father was the largest slaveholder in Mecklenburg County. His wife, Mary Eliza Whittle Puryear, had two brothers, one, Alexander, was sent to Alabama (where he became Emmitt Smith’s great-great-great grandfather), to run a plantation because he was too violent to stay home. Mary Eliza’s great-uncle, William Puryear, had moved from Mecklenburg County to Jackson County, Georgia (later Clarke County) in 1793, where he was killed by his slaves before the end of the century.

And me? I live on a large farm, the remnants of a plantation, in a house built by the first white man to settle in what is now Charlotte County, and my bedroom window faces a slave cemetery that lies in a grove of hardwoods just across the drive. As a child, my class would go to the Confederate Cemetery on Memorial Day and sing “Dixie” and “Goober Peas.” In middle school, the Civil War was referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” When I was a senior in high school, I had my superlative picture taken at the Confederate statue in Farmville. In college, I often wore a Hampden-Sydney College t-shirt that had the flags of the Confederate states emblazoned on the back. As an adult, I kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee on my mantle.

And now I want his statues to come down.

For the majority of my life it never occurred to me that the everyday reality of the Confederacy was offensive or wrong or desperate. I never thought about what those songs, those portraits, those statues, meant to anyone but me, a daughter of the South. Even as I marched against Apartheid as a middle-school student, I didn’t think about it. Even as my circle of friends grew to include people of color, I didn’t think about it. Even as I campaigned for Bill Clinton, and later Barack Obama, I didn’t think about it. I am ashamed I didn’t think about it.

I didn’t think about it then, but now I am thinking about it a lot now.

I am thinking that my not thinking about it before comes solely from a place of white privilege. There is no other explanation. If it’s not white privilege to erect statues to men that fought on the side of slaveholders, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege to incorporate those monuments into the fabric of everyday life, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege for a liberal, like myself, to fight for equality but never give those statues a second thought, I don’t know what is. If it’s not white privilege to cling to the myth of a benevolent slaveholder, I don’t know what is.

And I’m thinking about more than that. I’m thinking about what a conundrum it is to be Southern, especially a Southerner that loves her home, her commonwealth, and her region. I’m thinking about how that love informs the need to cling to the myths of the gentile Robert E. Lee, how we Southerners need heroes of our own, and will tell ourselves as many lies as necessary to keep them.

The South is a poor region and has been for a long time. We have the lowest educational attainment in the United States, the shortest life expectancies, the highest poverty, and the most obesity. Long before the Civil War, inequality reigned in the South, and despite the powerful landowners in government, the majority of whites did not live on plantations or have a vote. It was an agricultural society at its most toxic, and after the War, that long-standing inequality gave rise to a culture of white nationalism, because losers still have to feel they are better than somebody. That white nationalism didn’t just birth the KKK, but also a different kind of Southerner, one that decided to take race out of the narrative, to deny the truth of what had happened and was happening here, one that, like me, believed in equality and justice, but kept a portrait of Robert E. Lee on the mantle. That white nationalism birthed a lie that “liberal” Southerners like me clung to desperately.

Why did I believe the lie? Why did I need to? Was it because it was all around me? That it was a given? Was it because as a Southerner I felt superior? Because I felt inferior? Was it because the shame was too hard to bear? Was it because questioning the lie was too hard? Was it because the lie was never challenged? Was it because I didn’t know it was a lie?

In truth, I think it was all those things, but the root of it is that I believed the lie because I could. The half of me that is white gave me that option. It gave me the option of not facing the shame, the responsibility. It gave me the option to not see the truth, because the truth is a horror. The truth makes me culpable and complicit, and brings a level of complexity to my life that I don’t know how to resolve.

But my being able to find resolution is not what’s important, and believing it is is just another benefit of white privilege. Recognizing the lie for what it is, and acknowledging the immense pain and suffering it has caused and is causing is far more important than any complicated feelings I may have for Captain T.T. Pettus. Laying waste to the myths that have made it possible for me to never THINK is more important than any misplaced Southern pride. Because humanity is more important. Because people are more important. Because yes, black lives matter. They matter more than any lie, any myth, any statue, any monument. They matter.

They matter more than any lie I ever told myself.

Take the statues down.

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
― Søren Kierkegaard


White Silence and White Supremacy


Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via Reuters

I’ve spent long enough sitting uncomfortably with my own whiteness that I know what is at its core, when I freeze up and am not sure what to do or say in a situation involving race. First of all, a word on whiteness itself:  like all skin color, it is more a cultural and political designation than a physical reality.  My skin is usually rather peach-colored, and in the summer it can head toward a definitive brown.  But even then, at my brownest, I am white.  My ancestors were Scotch-Irish and Dutch and English and, somewhere in there, Mediterranean (so, not all white—but most white people aren’t all white). In other words, like most white people, I come from a mix of heritages.  But my whiteness, like all race, isn’t about my ancestors so much as it is about our dominant culture:  I blend in all over the place. Like white on rice.

In confronting my whiteness, in coaxing myself from uncomfortable silence to sometimes equally uncomfortable speech, I have learned what is at the core of white silence:  fear, ignorance, guilt, and a sense of helplessness.  Let’s take these one at a time:

  1.  Fear:  In matters of race, white people are sometimes afraid we will do or say the wrong thing. We are also afraid of confrontation, both with people of color and with our own families and friends. We are afraid of churning up controversy, of rocking the boat, of being so incredibly irredeemably rebellious that we would speak truth to the greatest power we have ever known—the dominant power of our own culture, which is stamped as plain as day on our skins. The skins that look just like those of our forefathers and foremothers, who told us to keep the status quo, who told us America is great, who never mentioned whiteness and pretended it didn’t exist—only color existed, and whiteness was its obvious foil, as inevitable as the sun and just as powerful.  White people must put our finger on the pulse of these multiple fears, now, and wade in: we must feel the fear and do it anyway.
  2. Ignorance: I recently shared an article by Ijeoma Oluo entitled “White People: I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves.” It’s an excellent article, explaining the kinds of interactions she gets from well-meaning white people who haven’t spent time in self-examination or cultural examination, but who want to respond to her comments on race and culture.  She makes the point—central to understanding whiteness—that white people are steeped in ignorance about what it means to be white.  That word, ignorance, sounds like a bad thing:  no one aspires to be ignorant.  I considered using another word, but ignorance is accurate—it isn’t bad or wrong, it just means a lack of knowledge, which fortunately can be remedied by learning.  Just as men of all races need to examine masculinity to understand the ways in which it depends on homophobia and sexism, white people need to examine whiteness to understand the ways in which it is privileged and given cultural power, and the ways in which our collective unwillingness to examine it further that privilege and power.  Facing ignorance is always difficult—in this case, it is linked to that sense of helpless I mentioned. For example, you might see a post from a friend–black or white–that makes a statement about the institutionalization of power that makes you uncomfortable or that you aren’t sure you agree with (my favorite from yesterday:  a tweet by deray mckesson that read, “If black folks were carrying torches on a college campus right now the administration would’ve already called the National Guard.”  True that.  But maybe you read it and aren’t so sure.  If so, examine what makes you uncomfortable about it, and why.  Examine what that statement says about whiteness.) White people must educate ourselves about how whiteness functions in our society:  in doing so, we are helping to dismantle one of the foundations of white power and privilege.
  3. Guilt: Many of us, both on a deeply subconscious and an increasingly conscious level, know whiteness affords us power and privilege. That, coupled with our history, makes us feel guilty—it makes us uncomfortable in our own skins. As I discussed in my post Beyond White Guilt, guilt of any variety is paralyzing. The good news is, we don’t need to hold onto it: we can let it go.  It isn’t my fault I was born white, and I didn’t invent patriarchy or the race hierarchy related to it.  Guilt about things I have no control over just gets in the way.  White people must let go of our guilt so that we can speak constructively, and with knowledge of how institutional racism and white power interrelate, without feeling bad about our own whiteness, or making our white listeners feel bad about theirs.
  4. Helplessness:  This, I believe, is the true cork in the bottle of white silence. White people have been trained to believe that we are helpless in the face of our own whiteness:  we might feel guilty about it, but on some level we know we didn’t invent whiteness, we didn’t create the system, and we think there is really nothing we can do about it. But here’s the kicker:  it’s our job to fix this.  So we can’t be helpless.  You know which American principle, in combination with whiteness, gets me the most here?  Free speech.  Every time someone—conservative or liberal, I’ve heard it from both—brings up free speech, I freeze for an instant.  My hand wants to fly to my heart, my country ’tis of thee, o sweet land of liberty, of course free speech I would never impinge on free speech.  And I wouldn’t.  But there is a lot more to say than that:  how free is the speech of a woman of color in the midst of a KKK riot?  Hmmm.  Now there’s a thinker.  And even mentioning it means I’m not helpless, and we are not, I repeat we are NOT, obligated to privilege the speech of white supremacists (by providing them spaces on University campuses, for example) to use their free speech to suppress the speech and rights—the very lives—of others. White people must face our sense of helplessness about whiteness and white power so that we can counter claims that white power is inevitable because America.

Many white people are doing just that. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman, was killed when a white terrorist (suspected to be James Alex Fields) intentionally drove his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville yesterday.  My first thought:  She’s somebody’s baby.  My second:  She would have been my friend.  My third:  Bless her, and let her protest not be in vain.

There is so much I could have written about what happened in Charlottesville yesterday, a town I love dearly.  The day broke my heart, and breaks it still.

I chose to write about whiteness because that is my job as a white person:  to help other white people who are struggling with what to do or say in the midst of this, and to denounce white terrorism.  To help us stand, together, to shake off the things that paralyze us—and some of the things I’ve named sometimes paralyze me still—and become an engine for change. In addition to speech, we can use action:  here is an excellent list of things white allies can do.

When white people denounce white supremacists (in our own voices and in our own words), when we acknowledge that we are white and not sure what to do with whiteness but we won’t stand for this, when we commit ourselves to dismantling the pieces of our society—including Confederate statues and other memorials to the foundations of racism and colonialism—when we wade in to face our fear, ignorance, guilt, and sense of helplessness—we knock a hole through the seemingly impenetrable wall of white power.

And through that hole, we let the light in.




After publication of my most recent book, Sexism and U.S. History, I have decided to take a hiatus from writing about feminism.  I have recently gotten a new job with Letterpress Communications, and expect to be busy balancing work and family.  But I’d be lying if I said that was the only reason I am taking some time off.  I need the time—to absorb, to think, to ponder next steps.  To allow all that has been to sink in—all the ways I have grown as a person since beginning this work—and to allow all that will be to take shape.

As I am taking this hiatus, I will of course still be paying attention to what happens politically, especially after we inaugurate Trump as our 45th president. I recently read a wonderful article by the Reverend William J. Barber II, “We are witnessing the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction.” This article gave me both hope and perspective, and I highly recommend it.  Reverend Barber has a book entitled The Third Reconstruction, and I intend to add it to my reading list for 2017.

As we move into 2017, I will be thinking of things I can do to make a difference where I am—ways to spend time, money, or both to further social justice.  Reverend Barber emphasizes the grassroots nature of change in his article:  “…we must recognize the need for indigenously led, state-based, state-government focused, deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, and transformative movement building. There’s no shortcut around this. We must build a movement from the bottom up.”

We do this—local movement building—by showing up and joining hands within our own communities. There are many people already doing this is the small town where I live, and there are ways in which I have joined them.  I will continue to expand my community involvement in the coming year, and I hope you will too.  Here’s to a happy, healthy 2017 for each of our communities, and for our nation as a whole.