It’s a feature of my persistent narcissism that I have often assumed I’m the first to discover something inexplicable. I’m the first to stumble into the vortex of writing, that out-of-control spiral of need and greed and forward motion. I’m the first to dice up my skin in the name of despair (though I never felt any pressure relief from cutting; I was an intensely practical self-mutilator, rehearsing for the inevitable main event).
I didn’t come to adolescence loving myself. I got breasts at nine and shit went downhill from there. The sense of body that I’d had before—the body that could climb trees and scale the sides of the creek by my house—vanished. Now I had this brand new vehicle I didn’t know how to drive.
It had never really occurred to me that I was a “girl” and thus not a “boy.” Until puberty any differences between those two states were negligible. When I was the leader of the girls’ tag team in grammar school, I enlisted my best friend Tommy to play on our side. I vividly remember standing on the playground while the other kids tried to explain to me that Tommy couldn’t play on the girls’ side.
Since I wasn’t convinced, I said, “Then I’m not gonna play.” So they gave in. And Tommy played on the girls’ team.
Then I’m not gonna play could accurately asses most of my responses to things that are assumed. If anyone had told me masturbation existed, I probably would have avoided doing it out of sheer antagonism.
I had no idea. I thought I was a fucking genius. This body, that was all sorts of screwed up, which I could only vaguely relate to the bodies of others (while maintaining a level of mental foreignness that served to alienate me from myself), could, when played just right, feel fantastic. Better, in fact, than running the bases at softball, and almost as good as that burst of energy I used to get jetting clear across the soccer field to stop the opposing team’s offense from scoring.
There was a problem, though. A relatively large problem.
I was fucking terrible at masturbating. Oh man. Really, really awful.
I stumbled into physical pleasure through ignorance and experimentation, like I’ve stumbled into most things worth doing. And when I say “ignorance” I’m not kidding. I’d somehow made it to eleven years old without really understanding my own anatomy.
How much I can blame the world for this is debatable. I don’t remember anyone ever using words like “labia” and “clitoris” and “vulva,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. In my early memories, I didn’t inhabit my body. I inhabited other people’s bodies, on a somewhat random basis, usually having to do with how cool their bike was, or how interesting I found the way they talked.
Had I been a more social child, I would have probably decided to be an actor. The line blurs between acting and fiction writing; I put on other people’s clothes all the time, I walk in their shoes, I think their thoughts. I have made rather a lifestyle of playing with imaginary friends, and the roots of all that was how I saw the world as a child: as an observer, an outsider, constantly trying to assemble from scraps a complete picture of how things worked. I thought if only I could figure that out, I might be able to find my place.
Not everything I’ve ever experienced is down to being genderqueer; then again, absolutely everything is down to gender. Masturbation was a way to test and observe myself as if from the outside. Finding the key to that particular lock seemed like the holy grail: if I could work it out, maybe everything else would become clear.
But hell, I didn’t even know where the lock was, let alone what kind of key it required. My early efforts at pleasuring the body I happen to have were arduous, exhausting, and frequently acrobatic.
I’ve never had a good sense of maps, of visual representations of physical space. Perhaps if I’d had a mirror I might have made sense of what I was doing. As it was, each time I hunkered down—in the dead of night, when the rest of the house was assumed to be unconscious—it was like wandering into the desert anew, disorienting and somewhat hopeless. I was by no means always successful at finding the delicious, indulgent, inveterately sinful feeling of flying, for which I had absolutely no name. (The word “orgasm,” like the word “masturbation,” did not exist in my world. They were ephemeral concepts without anything so concrete as language attached to them.)
How much of my ignorance was because I was so afraid and ashamed of this body? How much was an intentional shying away from everything that reminded me that I was stuck in it like a prison? A prison with, of course, no directions, and constantly changing corridors.
Listen, I know it’s something of a hush-hush thing, but I’m just going to put this out there: I spent a lot of time trying to get off when I was eleven and twelve and thirteen years old. Insomnia has frequently led me to profound increases in productivity, and that was no exception. I had, at the time, a television with cable in my bedroom, so when my eyes were tired of reading I’d shut off the lights and watch late-night movies.
And masturbate. Because I have always been very good at multitasking.
Remember that I thought this was a sin I’d invented, that I was the only one with the mechanics to do this thing, whatever the hell it was, and that since I had this bit of magic, I’d damn well better learn how to wield it.
I didn’t learn to love my body through masturbation. This body—with its inconvenient shapes, its fat stores, its annoying lack of length—continued to confound and irritate and enrage me for years. On some days it still does. What I did learn, stumbling around in the dark of my brain while vainly attempting to pleasure my body, was that despite how alternately horrifying and transcendent my physical experience was, my emotional journey was oddly ascending.
I understood myself as kinky through fantasy long before I discovered that other people were also freaks. (I never thought I’d invented tying people up and fucking with their heads, though—got enough of that in different forms on primetime.) An extended period of solo experimentation also allowed me to explore gender in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to if my sexual initiation had occurred with other people. In my brain I could play any role, and I did. I was not saddled with the expectations that partners later had, in the dark days before words like “genderqueer” and “gender fluid” and “gender nonbinary” were in common use.
After years of vigorous, dedicated practice, I got good at masturbation. Damn good. Getting myself off isn’t better than sex with other people, it’s a totally different sport. And it’s the only one that leads to genuine moments of self-acceptance, the kind of wholeness that you actually need a social vacuum to cultivate. Finding yourself through the medium of your body, your skin and nerve endings, the endless fascination of your own responses to stimuli, is a journey with no beginning and no ending.
If you also manage to find love in that place, where you are the only one who matters, where your needs meet your desires and are answered, that’s a lucky fucking break.
Obviously, I assume I’m the only person who’s ever managed the trick.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the writers of Roseanne, whose episode about DJ whacking off induced zir to look up “masturbation” in a dictionary—literally, a big heavy hardcover volume of Webster’s—and marvel that, in fact, other perverts had already worked out how to do it. It was quite shocking. The dictionary has been a suspect form of literature ever since.
My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.
Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.
I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.
“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”
In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.
Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.
My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.
I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.
I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.
These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.
My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.
Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.
Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.
An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.
In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.
They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.
This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.
Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.
Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.
My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.
Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.
One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.
“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.
At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.
Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.
Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.
Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?
My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.
If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.
In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.
Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.
She digs anyway.
My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.
In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.
For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.
When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.
It started as these things usually do, I guess. A Susan Johnson paperback left out at the home where I was babysitting. A friend’s mother with a subscription to Harlequin Temptations that she kept in the top left hand section of her book shelf. She noticed my fixation, the way I couldn’t walk past that shelf without slowing down to a crawl. She loaned me one and that one led to…this.
My bookshelf was under my bed. (It still is.) And at that time, with my McNaught’s and Garwood’s I also had the Stephen King starter kit: Salem’s Lot, Pet Cemetery and It; the first three books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and a tear-stained copy of Ordinary People.
What I’m trying to say is I wasn’t genre-specifc.
And then my sophomore year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend committed suicide. My world fell apart. In every possible way. And I couldn’t fix anything. Nothing made sense. Except those romance novels under my bed. I dove deep into those Happily Ever Afters. The heavy, wild and hard emotions that all got tied up at the end gave me some closure at a time I could not find any of my own. They gave me a safe place to experience my grief and my guilt and fear.
When I went on to college my box of books came with me and slipped under the bed in my first dorm room and then again in my first apartment off campus. My sophomore year of college (honestly, what is with sophomore years) a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. And again, I dove deep. Thank you, Elizabeth Lowell, for getting me through that time.
Romance would have my undying devotion for getting me through those two years alone.
I would look back at it fondly, if I’d somehow left it behind. But I didn’t. Romance has grown up with me. College graduation, my year abroad, negotiating a long distance relationship and then a marriage that we can’t say WASN’T begun for immigration purposes. My parents. My brother. Unemployment, first jobs. Pregnancy. Babies. Toddlers. Musical beds. Sleepless nights. Bullying. Etc… etc… etc…
There was always and without fail a romance novel illuminating something powerful about the experience I was in. Even if it was just hope for an easier tomorrow.
Romance has comforted me and excited me. It has eased my boredom (which let’s not pretend that’s not a HUGE deal in those days at home with a baby) and kept me up nights with its drama. It’s walked me through thorny parenthood problems and made me a better friend. A better wife.
And I could make some winky joke about sex, here. But that’s far too easy. And romance deserves so much better.
The romance authors I love are like deep-sea explorers, sending their submersibles down into the murky deep only to return with their hands full of language for things that are all too often considered unimportant. Or trivial. They show me – over and over again, how important nuance and specificity are to describing how we feel so we can understand what what we feel.
(If you don’t think that is a big deal I would argue that maybe you’ve never suffered from anxiety or post-partum depression or even something as mundane as shame. Or fear.)
Guilt is a very big word. And so is love. And fear. And desire. And my favorite authors show me time and time again the far reaches of all those emotions, where everything overlaps. And we’re all just humans trying our best and sometimes screwing it up. And, perhaps the real gift is that those romance novels have shown me that we are all deserving of love. And happily-ever-afters. And forgiveness. And orgasms.
I don’t know what I would do without romance novels. And if you’re curious… these are the best I’ve ever had:
Elizabeth Lowell: Only You, Only Mine, Only Him, Only LoveJudith McNaught: Something Wonderful, Once and AlwaysLaura Kinsale: Everything she wrote, ever.Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Dream a Little DreamJR Ward: The Black Dagger Brotherhood SeriesMegan Hart: Broken
It’s something I’ve heard since I was a child: Go to school, get an education, get a good job. It’s a mantra recited by Black parents to Black children ever since we were allowed to be educated and gainfully employed.
So much of Black history is about celebrating Black firsts: the first Black to reach an executive position at a corporation, the first Black head doctor at a hospital, the first Black ambassador. Reference books are full of sepia-toned photos of dignified-looking men and women of color who overcame prejudice to graduate from Ivy League schools or obtain government appointments. Education and hard work was the only approved way for respectable African-Americans to get a piece of the American dream. The background of iconic Black entertainment is all about coming up. From The Jeffersonsto The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airto Black-Ish, the message is that upward mobility is the way out of poverty and discrimination.
The flip side of that aspiration is less spoken of. It’s the unwritten but universally understood employment contract drawn up between White employers and Black employees in America: To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made. You will have to dress a certain way. You will have to speak a certain way. There are certain behaviors of your employers that you will have adapt to or overlook. That contract has undergone amendments and modifications over time, but the primary stipulation remains the same: if you’re Black and want to get—and keep—a job, you will have to compromise.
In my early twenties, I was working the third shift at Johnny Rockets in Jacksonvillle, Florida. One night I was running the dishwasher with a coworker, a Mexican guy who had been there some months longer than me and was unofficially in charge of the night crew. The restaurant manager, a white guy, poked his head into the door, and he and my coworker went over some closing procedures. The subject of a lack of supplies came up, and the manager placed the blame on the stinginess of the district manager, whom I had to assume was Jewish from the joke the restaurant manager made about him.
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace. I looked at my colleague and he rolled his eyes, a gesture I interpreted to mean that I was to ignore the manager’s comment, which I did.
The next year, I worked a summer job at a warehouse, and one of the foreman handed me a note to give to a shipping and receiving clerk. It said to be sure the “dago truck driver gave her an invoice.” Obviously, the foreman thought nothing of giving the note to me and had no fear of me reading it and saying anything—and he was right, as it turned out.
Both Johnny Rockets and the warehouse job paid minimum wage, and I had no intention of making a career out of either, but the idea of quitting or confronting a manager and getting fired because I felt offended was unthinkable to me at the time. Jacksonville was, and is, a very conservative southern city, and jobs were hard to get if you were Black. I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.
Things improved when I moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, the Black success mantra manifests itself like no other city in America. You could say Atlanta was built on it. Here was a city where Blackness wasn’t defined by survival, but by prosperity and its display. There were Black people in positions of power, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms. Black culture was Atlanta culture.
The economy was booming, and I landed an office job not long after I arrived. The casual displays of racism I saw in Jacksonville were nonexistent here. But in the “Black Mecca,” genteel condescension can be as bad as blatant hostility. In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it. White coworkers would make coded comments about other coworkers’ mistakes being due to their ethnicities in my presence.
I hid my displeasure behind nervous smiles and shaking my head. I moved from one corporate job to the next, and very rarely did I speak up. I was making a very nice income for a single man with no kids in a major city. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
I grew up proud and aware of my heritage. My immediate family shared stories with me about our ancestors from the time I was old enough to understand them. As a teen I devoured the words of Malcolm X and the music of Public Enemy. In Atlanta I was surrounded by examples of Black empowerment. Me and my friends were heavily into Afrocentrism and got into discussions about racism that would last for hours. I knew what Black people suffered and how they fought to gain access to gainful employment, and I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.
But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.
What’s a paycheck worth? If someone makes a racist remark in a social setting, it’s easy to call them out on it. In a business environment, how do you handle that? Do you go off on the person or ignore it? Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot—your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.
A couple weeks ago, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry publicly parted ways with MSNBC. On the day she left, she released a statement saying that the tone of her show was being compromised and that she refused to be a “token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Her experience is not unique. In workplaces across the country, there’s still an expectation that people of color who rise in their chosen professions should be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to work—as if they didn’t get there on their own merits—and that they are obligated to maintain a safe, nonthreatening image.
Recently, I was talking to someone being groomed for a management position in a company I work with. He was a younger White guy, and he often came to me for mentorship. We weren’t close, but we got along pretty well. I enjoyed having someone to talk to about my work and exchange ideas with. One day, in the middle of one of these conversations, a client approached us. She was a Black woman, in her early forties if I had to guess. Her speech and dress gave the impression of being poor or working-class. She asked a few questions about a product, then left. Once she was out of earshot my colleague said, “Leave, and take your nappy weave with you.”
I was stunned. I’d never felt anything from him that would have made me expect a comment like that. I can only guess that he felt comfortable saying that around me because I was seen as “safe.” I felt anger rising up inside me, and right away the professional and social indoctrination about not making waves rose up to check it. This time, however, outrage won out. I pulled him aside and confronted him, and he gave me a weak half-excuse, half-apology.
Our relationship hasn’t recovered. I cut off any conversation not pertaining to work, and I stopped mentoring him. I may have betrayed my own “safe” image, but I don’t care. I’m at a point in my life where the one-sided compromise of the Black success mantra no longer serves me.
Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.
I have a pretty good professional life. I have mentors of different backgrounds in various fields, and I’ve made connections that I hope to be able to cultivate for years. But I’ve also had enough contact with clueless and casually racist people in business settings that I have my guard up, anxious for the day when someone I thought knew better makes a hateful remark couched as a joke and I’m expected to laugh about and shrug off.
I shouldn’t have to accept that, and I don’t intend to.
I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.
I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.
The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”
He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.
I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).
Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.
You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.
I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).
I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with
I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.
I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.
I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.
But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.
I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”
For. Whose. Security?
I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.
I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.
Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.
I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.