On confederate flags, whiteness, and readiness…

CW: white supremacy, mention of sexual violence (not explicit), racial slurs

My family lives for Halloween. I’m a fan of nostalgic and pun-ny costumes, my theatrical 5yo son is in it for the costumes, candy, and creepy stuff, and my artist husband loves any opportunity to create. Because pandemic time is…what it is (can we use this phrase anymore?), my child has been obsessively preparing for Halloween since mid-August. Last week, despite it being just the start of September, we finally relented and brought him to one of those pop-up stores that appear annually in an otherwise empty retail space to find a costume.

On our way out of the store, my son and I were standing in the entrance/exit sanitizing our hands. My son is taking a last look at the display set up to entice customers to purchase their most scary animated clowns, and I follow his gaze but notice instead the woman standing in front of the display. Her back is turned, but I can see that she is white with dark blonde/light brown hair, an “average” build and height, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I see mask loops around her ears. Her arms are crossed in front and her overall comportment implies that she is waiting for someone to finish shopping. She’s unremarkable.

And then she turns toward the registers and starts fidgeting with what I can now plainly see is her *confederate flag* mask. I am…stunned. I am staring. I am rubbing in the hand sanitizer a little too long. Everything slows down. From somewhere distant (he was right next to my leg), I hear my son say—“mommy, that’s scary!” I’m sure he is referring to the bloodied clowns brandishing weapons, but I take his comment as a moment to teach, to act, to confront. Though, admittedly, knowing my child was right next to me and we are in a seemingly endless global pandemic—I don’t totally know how to act. In the moment after his question, I simultaneously had no time (he is waiting for a response) and too much time (how long have I been standing here staring?). I’m reminded of my colleague Sandra Ruiz’s description of Rican time as “the pause in tight spaces” when/where Puerto Ricans enact various performative strategies to endure trauma, violence, and harm.

Still staring at her, and speaking loud enough for her to hear me, I asked my son “what is scary? The clowns or the woman wearing the confederate flag mask?”

She slowly turns looking for the source of the question. She briefly makes eye contact with me, I meet her gaze intently, and she turns away in that way you do when you don’t want to get caught looking at someone. But in that moment when our eyes met, I am screaming inside: YES, IT WAS ME, I SAID THAT. I stand in silence and am staring at her for what felt like years, but there is no confrontation. She just keeps standing there, arms crossed, intermittently fiddling with her mask, waiting.

I can’t take the silence anymore and address her directly: “How can you wear that?”

Three years into embodied therapy (AEDP specifically), I am actively bringing myself to the present—refusing the bait, refusing to be triggered into fight or flight in response to the violent and harmful symbol standing a mere ten feet away. My body memory is taking over and I feel myself bracing for a fight response. So I breathe. I try to soften. I feel my feet grounded. I remind myself that I am an adult, I am safe(ish) and not in immediate crisis. I am readying myself to handle this moment in a new way; though I still don’t know what that new way is moment to moment. It’s all improv. And my kid is there. My kid. The one who thinks I don’t believe in violence and hitting people. I am readying myself to engage.

She responds to my question (“How can you wear that?”) in a tone so “innocent” that I am once again taken aback: “It has nothing to do with slavery.”

I’m sure she mumbled some other nonsense, but I couldn’t hear because I went rage deaf after that first phrase. It was like she didn’t understand my question. In response, in believe I managed to get out something like “Actually, it does…” But then my husband chimed with a condescending and assertive tone and says “you know what that represents, right?” His vibe redirects my attention, which in itself was a jolt to the system. I was so focused on her that if he remained silent, I’m not sure I would’ve even noticed him standing right next to me. For a moment, his energy distracts me and all I can think is: “why did you do that? I’ve got this.” I don’t like men talking to women that way. Now I’m aggravated by his patronizing and domineering tone, his white savior-like action, and his paternal/protector impulse.

Now she is defensive, but still not angry or threatening. She says “I’m a teacher and have a double master’s degree in history.” Now I’m just confused (a double what, now?) and in that pause, my husband speaks up again: “so then you know that’s literally the flag representing the pro-slavery side of the war.” At this point, grounding be damned, I’m having an out of body experience. I think they went back and forth. I think I interjected. I know I held her eye contact until she looked toward the check-out line and walked away, still fiddling with that damn mask.

I found my child’s hand in mine, and we walked away.

I was floating toward the car in some kind of haze, reflecting on how NOT confrontational the whole exchange was. Why didn’t I just rip the mask off her face? Why did I try to talk to her? And why did my husband feel the need to interject? Driving home, I asked him and he said he chimed in because my tone and body language told him “it was on.” (So, perhaps, I *wasn’t* as grounded and steady and calm as I thought I was being?) I told him I felt uncomfortable with the tone he used to speak to her. We talked about his readiness as a white man to do the work with white people so I don’t have to (a project we’ve worked hard on in our relationship), and how that kind of went sideways into the land of white savior-ness in this instance. Next time, I tell him, please just ask me if I’m good before stepping in.

After processing with him, I started processing the whole event. I begin by scanning my body. There was no pang of pain or tightness in my chest or belly; I was not angry. I thought it was rage, but it wasn’t. She didn’t hit me, but she did hurt me. The feeling was sadness. It was grief. Being vulnerable enough to feel things outwardly is something I actively work toward; I was taught (directly and indirectly) that hard is how you survive. But hardness just traps trauma in the body. Even “little” racial traumas such as this can seed an ulcer, a hard to diagnose disease, a cancer. Rather than lashing out and hurting her (the fight response), I readied and softened—making myself vulnerable to being hurt by her.

The next morning, I tried to chop, sauté, knead, and bake my way out of the processing loop I was still stuck in. But you can’t cook grief into your food, so I tried to sew my way out of it. But again, sewing masks is an act of love and protection, not an expression of sadness. These were ways to keep busy as avoidance. Productive avoidance.

My mind, perhaps regretting the softness, was VERY busy intellectualizing the experience. Since March 13th, we’ve had the privilege of a pretty strict #StayAtHome lifestyle. Is this what it is like being out and about in the Hudson Valley now? If so, maybe I should just keep staying home. But then, am I hoarding my privilege and ceding public space to white supremacy? Was I somehow letting my people down by letting her walk away? I hate respectability politics. I do not believe “civility” is the way. I am not a passive person. I consider myself militant about many things. I always thought I was on team #punchanazi.

But she wasn’t a nazi. She had not bothered to ready herself with the hard of explicit white supremacy, the self-righteousness I imagined would be required of someone flying a confederate flag in public. Her demeanor was more akin to a settler move to innocence than an outright torch-wielding move to claim (more) space. As my therapist pointe out while we processed: that was her white privilege, the ability to be nonchalant and careless about wearing a symbol of hate on her “average,” “unremarkable” white woman face.

She did not have to be ready.

Despite walking through this life as a light-skinned Puerto Rican, relatively unscathed in comparison to my dark/er skinned family and friends because of my white privilege, my readiness is tied to how I’ve been conditioned to survive aggressive, confrontational white supremacists: the ones who take pride in their prejudice, the ones who celebrate their racism. The ones that have called me a spic. The ones who’ve threatened me with sexual violence because I’m a “fiery Latina.” The ones who called my mother a monkey in Boston. The ones who jumped my dad in New York. The ones who tell us to “go home.” But I was not ready for her. I wasn’t ready for her casual racism.

I think that’s why I my first inter/action was a questionhow can YOU wear that?—instead of a re/action, a declaration about her bigotry. Many friends asked me what I *wished* had happened. I wanted her to take her mask off. I wanted her to understand the violence she was enacting. I wanted to pop that white privilege bubble and reach inside…

All of this reaching and softening in order to connect, to talk to someone causing me pain feels so foreign to me. I posted on my various social media feeds while processing and the general consensus in the comments was that I provided a good example for my son, that I modeled acting in the face of injustice without enacting more violence. I have to note that the majority of those responses came from white women and when that happens I always sit back and reflect on what that means. I’m still reflecting. I’m still sitting.

My friend/mentor/colleague suggested that maybe, just maybe, having a white (passing) child call her ‘scary,’ a white man say she was ‘representing slavery,’ and a white passing woman asking her ‘how she could wear that mask’ means that maybe the next she goes to put on her confederate flag mask she will pause.

And next time, cause there will surely be a next time in the days leading to the 2020 Presidential Election, I’ll be ready.

About that trauma that lives in the body…

Content Warning: PTSD in real life, abortion on TV, sexual assault on TV, same-sex intimate partner violence on TV

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When I was 18 or 19 years old (1998ish), I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for an introduction to women’s studies course at UMass Dartmouth. The class was held in the Women’s Resource Center (now the Center for Women, Gender & Sexuality), which was tucked away in the ground floor suite in one of the dorms. To enter, you had to walk down a wide paved path on a slight hill surrounded by trees. At the bottom of that path, and at the entrance to the building, is where I had my first trauma response as an “adult” (that I now know is called vasovagal syncope common in folx with PTSD).

We were watching If These Walls Could Talk (1996) in the lounge where class was held and during the scene with Demi Moore’s botched abortion, my body became increasingly hot and light; I felt like I was suffocating. (Just looking for the clip on YouTube just now made me queasy.) From what I can remember, I thought I was going to throw up and I ran out of the center and out of the building desperate for fresh air. I landed on the pavement in front of the door. I remember moist air, wet ground. I don’t know exactly what happened after that. I’m sure people followed me (certainly the professor and perhaps my then-girlfriend?) and got me back inside safely. I don’t remember how I got home, but I do remember the profound visceral sensation/knowledge that I had personally experienced what I just witnessed in the film—a “back alley” abortion. But I hadn’t, not in this body. Instead of brushing it off as a fluke/unexplained medical thing, I let myself feel/believe that I had died from a botched abortion in a previous life. I know. That’s delusional, right? I didn’t share that feeling with many people at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that perhaps my body knew something my mind didn’t. I don’t mean to say that my body and mind are distinct in the Cartesian mind-body dualism, of course, but as a survivor of various forms of violence in this life/in this body I know that there are experiences that your mind protects you from, and who’s to say past experiences from other lives aren’t included?

I was a baby feminist and still learning my way around the issues then, but that experience turned me into a fierce advocate for safe, legal, affordable, and accessible abortions for all.

I’m writing about this here—where I usually write about women in graffiti art or Puerto Rican Rican identity—because the other night I had a vasovagal response triggered by the Silent All These Years episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (I should note that there was a trigger warning at the beginning of the episode but I missed it.)

There are 20 years of living, loving, and surviving in between these instances, but this time I was better prepared to handle my response. Aside from putting my thoughts somewhere, maybe this blog post will be helpful because I’ve got coping tools and I want to share them.

The episode is described fully here, but in a nutshell the episode centers survivor studies of sexual assault and intimate partner violence through an estranged bio-mother/adopted daughter narrative and a ER patient/doctor with a history of abuse narrative. I can’t type out more than that, not only because of spoilers but also because the episode was so difficult for me to watch, and honestly I missed a lot of it.

I was sitting on the couch, and from the moment Abby (the ER patient) walked into the ER and bumped into Jo, I was nervous. She had a cut on her face and the way she was describing what happened was textbook IPV rationalization—just fix it so I can go home and get on with my life. Jo—a survivor of intimate partner violence herself—sensed there was more to the story and asked to examine her more fully. They lifted Abby’s shirt and revealed her abdomen and that’s when I got dizzy…all I remember is blue and purple and ribs and pain and fear coming through the television screen and sticking to my body, now heavy. Abby, it turned out, was brutally sexually assaulted.

I’ll be 40 this year and I can sense when I am about to faint way before it happens; I can make sure that when/if I do faint, I can do it “safely.” I did not faint, but I did disassociate from my body momentarily (flight of the fight/flight/freeze phenom) right there on my living room couch sitting next to my husband. I curled myself into a ball to ease my stomach, turned away from the screen, and closed my eyes to try and regain my composure. He checked in and I said, “this is so stupid I haven’t even experienced this.” He quickly responded “well, maybe not this trauma and not in this way, but other traumas happened.” His affirmation actually helped me move through the symptoms that were obviously a result of being triggered. I realized I was trying to move out of my body so I didn’t have to feel what was going on. By acknowledging that I was being triggered, that other traumas happened, I was able to come back to my body using the skills I’ve developed in my embodied therapy sessions.

I unrolled myself from the fetal position, sat up, slowly, because the blood was not yet returned to my brain and I put my hand on my chest—the part of my body which felt the heaviest, the most suffocated. This is the hardest part of being in your body for me: finding where the body has mapped the memory, finding where it holds the weight of the trauma. I took a deep breathe and it only went so far as the tippy top of my sternum. I began breathing through the blockages by imagining my breath as white light until I could feel it deep in my belly and then coming out of the crown of my head (yes, like you do in yoga). I brought compassion to that trauma response. Instead of running from it, I ran to it. Embraced it even. I sat upright and planted my feet firmly on the ground. I reminded myself that I am here, I am safe, I am an adult, and I kept my hand on my chest until the fainting sensation passed and I returned to a non-triggered state. This took most of the episode.

I will never really know if my triggers are from this life or from former lives. If they are from my personal experience or from an intense capacity for empathy. But I do know how to work through the triggers in a way that empowers me because it gives me back my body. It gives me back a relation to my body-those triggers are alarm bells from a body that is trying to protect me from further harm. I don’t have to leave my body or escape it. The work is realizing I can feel safe in this moment, in this life, in this body by recognizing that I survived, I am surviving, I am survivor.

And surviving is a practice, a journey not an end.