Microaggressions, Missouri and what have you

Several times this week, I missed the UPS driver who was trying to deliver some wine to my house.

He or she tried three times, but never at the same time of day, to deliver the box. Someone 21 or older needed to be home to sign for the delivery, but the sticky note left on our door never gave me a sense of when the driver would return.

Three days in a row, I second-guessed wrongly. On Thursday, the note left behind warned there would be no more attempts.

So I called UPS and found out I had five days to hoof it to the customer center in Kansas City’s West Bottoms to pick up my parcel. Mama needs her wine, so I went on Friday.

Which is what brings me to my post today. I presented myself and my government-issued ID and asked for my box o’ wine, please. There were two middle-aged (and by that, I mean my age) white dudes working the counter. One pleasantly told me he’d go find my box.

The other gave me the once over and left the room, too. But I could hear him in the next room, talking to a third person whom I never saw.

These guys proceeded to make small talk, which revolved around a woman pulling a gun on a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Then one guy started talking about his own concealed-carry class, telling a story about a woman who was in the class with him.

He launched into a narrative about the “black lady” and mimicked her accent while the other guy laughed. I couldn’t quite get the point amid all the laughter.

I guess someone else walked by back there, because the first guy then said clearly, “I cannot stand her. Dragon lady. She really thinks she’s something.”

To which the other gent replied: “Well, she’s the chosen one. So you’d better watch out.”

And those, my friends, are examples of microaggressions.

Much has been said about microaggressions in light of the recent protests at the University of Missouri and elsewhere regarding how minorities are treated.

Mu protests

Sure, as a society we’ve come a long way since 1950, the year black students first gained entry at MU. By and large, we don’t have lunch counters that won’t serve minorities or separate drinking fountains. On paper, we have integration everywhere from schools to churches to neighborhoods.

But the reality is that it’s the everyday, casual racism that’s gnawing away at the progress our parents and grandparents made and that threatens to create massive unrest across our nation.

If you’re white and middle class (and male, especially,) you might not recognize a microaggression. It’s a term coined by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue to describe “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Like this one that I’ve encountered personally, aimed toward me, when I was a young journalist: “A female reporter? I don’t get it. What does a woman reporter do?”

I was so shocked at the question that I couldn’t come up with a snarky comeback.

Or how about this one, asked of me during a job interview at a major metropolitan newspaper by someone who now teaches journalism at my alma mater: “So you’re interviewing for the night cops reporting position. What does your husband think of that?”

Who the hell cares? And why would that ever be any of that guy’s business?

Those are egregious and pretty obvious. My friends of color encounter many more subtle microaggressions, such as being referred to as “articulate” when he or she is able to succinctly and intelligently express himself or herself. Or someone expressing surprise when he or she finds out a person of color’s parents went to college. Or are married.

In her excellent essay about her days at MU, Mashable.com political editor Juana Summers describes her attempt to gain entry into a white social sorority. She matriculated at Mizzou 20 years after I did, yet that bastion of college life still had not opened its doors to people who looked like her. She was made to feel that she was the wrong person in the wrong place.

If you’re a member of a marginalized group, you learn you can’t become angry at every slight. To do so would drive you completely nuts. You’d become paranoid. So you brush them off, you work harder, you tell yourself you don’t care what others think because you are better than they are.

But every little microaggression hurts, like a tiny drop of acid rain on the hood of a shiny new car. After years and years of rain, the finish gets worn. You get tired. And you don’t want your kids to have to go through the same things you have.

That’s what students are protesting about at the University of Missouri and Yale University and Claremont-McKenna College and Southeast Missouri State University and colleges everywhere.

Click here for a two-page guide to recognizing microaggressions.

Let’s use some critical thinking skills, folks

Let’s use some critical thinking skills, folks

PLAYING SOCCER

For two years, the once-vibrant St. Mary’s High School building and grounds have sat empty in the middle of my neighborhood – the oldest neighborhood in Independence. Poised to become one of the area’s greatest eyesores, the empty building and grounds can only deteriorate property values. Each day that it’s empty makes it less appealing to many potential buyers.

I’m a social worker, so for a while, I dreamed of turning the school into a shelter for homeless families and single adults, complete with programs like GED and budgeting classes; reliable, 24-hour daycare to encourage and enable homeless parents to work; a massive food pantry; and a large community garden.

I dreamed, but I knew that idea would go over like a ton of bricks in my neighborhood, where residents routinely call homeless folks “vagrants” and look for ways to discourage them from using things like public parks and sidewalks.

Then last winter, my 17-year-old daughter’s Blue Springs-based soccer club discovered the St. Mary’s gym. It was a perfect spot for the team’s winter practices. My daughter was ecstatic – no more driving to Blue Springs for indoor practices. She could walk the five or so blocks from our house near the Truman home to St. Mary’s if she had to.

The first night, though, she came home perplexed. Many of the girls on her team told her they were nervous coming to our part of Independence, just blocks from the Square. Maggie, my daughter, got the feeling they seriously thought they were slumming.

So when I heard that her soccer club, Alba FC, was considering purchasing part of the St. Mary’s complex, I crowed with delight.

Finally, I thought, a chance to bring suburbanites to this historic Independence neighborhood at a time other than Labor Day Weekend, when it’s difficult to really get a feel for what we’re all about here in the Queen City of the Trails.

I’ve been extremely disappointed to hear the negative take some of my neighbors have of this idea of soccer coach Chris Dean’s. Dean wants to repair bathrooms and locker rooms in the gym and possibly offer fitness classes for adults. Outside, he wants to replace the grass field with turf and install some lights, which would allow for outdoor practices and possibly tournaments.

Some of my friends and neighbors worry that allowing soccer practices and games on the grass field will cause a “ruckus,” and that streets will fills with cars and trash during soccer events.

I’m thinking maybe they don’t know much about the soccer crowd. We’re talking suburban (mostly) parents with children, some of whom routinely only think of Independence when they read about another high-speed chase or meth-house bust. Law enforcement here has been on top of the meth scourge for years now, but it’s hard to live down that reputation.

This is a chance to do that. It’s a chance for Independence to shine, to show those folks who abandoned their hometown for Blue Springs and Grain Valley and Oak Grove that we’ve got something special, from the historic homes in my neighborhood and others near the Square to the Square itself and its bustling businesses.

A few years ago, before Studio on Main opened, I had to drive miles and miles to find a quality yoga studio. A student at the studio I frequented in Midtown Kansas City turned up her nose when I mentioned I lived near the Independence Square.

“Oh, the Square,” she said dismissively. “It’s always so dead there. There’s nothing going on.”

Au contraire. There’s plenty going on. And we’ve got the perfect chance to show those who left for greener, newer pastures what they’re missing. If they drop off their kids for soccer practice, they can head to the Square to shop. They can drive around our neighborhood and admire the work we put into our historic homes. They can remember the myriad Square restaurants the next time they’re thinking of a cool spot for dinner.

I urge the Independence Planning Commission and my neighbors to challenge the status quo and take a chance on this soccer facility.

Progress doesn’t happen by standing still!

A tale of two sons

Display_with_Racist_Quote_from_Murderer_of_Emmett_Till_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA
Display with a racist quote at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (Credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Today marked my oldest child’s first day of college classes.

I intended to blog about my ambivalent feelings, sending my firstborn into the world, how I’m happy for him that he’s chasing his dreams but sad for myself because his departure means that a certain phase of my life has passed.

Over the summer, my mind raced, trying to decide if my husband and I had imparted all the wisdom we needed to give him to make it on his own.

But today, as I ruminated on those themes, it seemed like so many first-world worries. Woe is me, the white suburban mom sending her privileged kid to college, while across the state the mother of another 18-year-old boy was planning a funeral.

A Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, a Saturday. That day, my husband and I were helping our 18-year-old son, Joe, pack for college. That night, while Michael Brown’s family grieved, my parents and inlaws joined us for a special send-off dinner for Joe.

On Monday, Aug. 11, we packed Joe and our other two kids into the car and headed for the small liberal-arts college a few hours away, where Joe now is a freshman. That was the day Michael Brown was to have started classes at Vatterott College, a technical school in Ferguson.

Two 18 year olds. Two young men on the cusp of adulthood. Two sets of parents.

Two very different stories.

At times like this, I am intensely aware of my whiteness.

My husband and I chose to raise our children in a neighborhood that’s less affluent than some in the Kansas City area, among families who are not all white and middle class. We’re smugly proud of that choice and quietly judge those who flee the urban core and inner-ring suburbs for the greener pastures of exurbia.

But are we really much different? We still enjoy certain privileges that come merely because our skin doesn’t have as much melanin as that of others.

The advice I gave my son as he left home was so pedestrian. It was along the lines of making sure he doesn’t mix reds with the whites when he does laundry and to ask for tutoring help as soon as he has questions about what’s going on in class.

I’ve never had to sit either of my sons down and tell them that people are going to be afraid to enter elevators if they’re the only ones in there. I doubt many people will cross to the other side of the street if either of my sons walks down it.

I don’t have to impart to my sons the lesson that if the police stop you for any reason, keep your hands visible at all times. And God forbid you’re wearing a hoodie.

As I watched coverage of the ongoing problems in Ferguson today, I realized that I didn’t send my son out into the world with those words of advice because it’s likely he’ll never encounter any situation in which he’ll have to use them.

I don’t know if Michael Brown robbed a convenience store early in the day on Aug. 9. If he did, was his killing justified? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

This is what I do know – he was 18. He was starting life, just as my 18 year old is. He had dreams and aspirations, just like my boy. He had a mother and father, just like my son. He had a life.

And now he doesn’t.

Miss Invisibility

Last week, while we were on vacation, my young adult niece jokingly told me she doesn’t think she’ll live past 30.

Now, I think her comment was mostly aimed at inspiring shock, but I think there’s a little bit of truth in it – as in, she can’t imagine what it’ll be like to be 30, which seems half-way to dead to her.  I mean, she’s just echoing her grandparents’ generation, in which youngsters vowed to never trust anyone over 30.

And she made me think, because I’m decidedly over 30. Way over.

And then I was reading this book during our trip, and a middle-aged character described herself as reaching the age of invisibility – she’s there, but no one notices. She’s not young and beautiful anymore, and she doesn’t inspire the awe that the longevity of senescence does. She’s just…there.

That’s how I feel much of the time these days.

Not that I was ever a raving beauty. And I’ve certainly not reached hag stage (unless you talk with my teen-age daughter.) But I’m definitely feeling invisible.

The week before vacation, I had a bunch of errands to run. And one of these was partaking of a sale at a well-known store that specializes in ladies’ unmentionables, if you know what I mean. Victoria’s Secret, if you don’t.

I’m definitely not the VS type – maybe if I were, I wouldn’t be so invisible. But they do have really nice underwear that is a particularly good buy when they’re on sale. So I dashed in there between trips to Old Navy and Bath and Body Works to grab the 5 for $26.50 panties.

I was the store’s sole customer that Monday night. I wandered for a bit, looking for the aforementioned panties. All I saw wherever I looked were various other items of lingerie at ever-increasing price points. Not a salesperson in sight.

Finally, I happened upon a couple of VS clerks near the PINK merchandise , deep in a discussion about the finer distinctions between 54th Street Grill and Bar and Chili’s. I cleared my throat and looked appealingly toward them. Nothing.

In another room, I found another young clerk, humming to herself as she straightened out a table of thongs (not the sandal kind.) She never looked my way as I, the store’s only customer, walked past on my way to the table of 5-for-$26.50 panties I’d finally spotted.

For a good 10 minutes, I pondered my choices – patterned or plain? Hip-huggers or high-waisted? Regular bikini or low-rise bikini? No one bothered me.

Finally, selection made, I headed for the cash register. A tall blond in her early 20s glided over. Never making eye contact, she asked me if I’d found everything I was looking for. I assured her I had. Then she asked – again, never looking at me – whether anyone had helped me.

“Not a flipping person” was what I wanted to say.

“Nope” was what I ended up responding.  And that sealed my fate as an invisible person as Miss Congeniality put my receipt in my little pink-striped bag and pushed it toward me.

It might not be all bad, this invisibility thing. Today, I saw a young woman, the daughter of an acquaintance, in a store with her new husband – the one she dumped her previous husband for. For some reason – I just like watching train wrecks, OK? – I wanted to know what they were buying. So I began perusing the items on their aisle. And they never noticed me. Never even looked my way. It was awesome.

So, yeah. Middle age sucks in so many ways. Stuff is starting to sag. I will never, ever be able to eat an entire medium pepperoni pizza ever again. I have to measure everything I ingest – even my wine – in order to attempt to maintain my weight. Don’t even get me started on why it is always SO FLIPPING HOT in here.

But this invisibility thing…I definitely could use this to my advantage. Stay tuned.

The Volunteer Score Card

Love me some Snarky in the morning!

Snarky in the Suburbs

12316(I wrote this opinion piece for my local newspaper last week and as of today I’m still getting hate mail. I’m a little confused to what ticked people off so badly. Oh sure, I knew it would tick some people off but just wow on the number of emails I’ve been getting.)

As a parent you scribble your name on a lot of stuff – everything from reading logs to band practice sheets. But one thing I won’t sign my name to is anything that has to do with volunteering or community service. I won’t sign a piece of a paper, a diary, a journal, a ledger – basically if it tracks and tallies up how many hours my kids spent doing “service” I’m not interested. It’s not because I don’t fully believe in giving back and I’m certainly not anti non-profit – my husband works for one. What I’m against…

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When a bully isn’t a bully

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.

It’s quantity, not quality

Way back in the misty, far-away time that was my early 30s, a slightly older friend gave me a bit of sage parenting advice.

I was debating whether to spend an upcoming holiday schlepping my little preschoolers to a fun family-oriented festival at the art museum or to let them run through the sprinkler while the hubs and I putzed around the yard and caught up on some chores.

I didn’t want to waste the day off, I explained, and I could make the case that I was with either of those scenarios.

“It’s quantity, not quality,” my friend said, turning on its end the parenting mantra of the day. (He was also locally famous for this assessment of our local Labor Day street fair: “The gene pool’s pretty shallow there.”)

Quantity, not quality. That flew in the face of everything I had strived for during my first five years of parenting, when I worked long hours as a newspaper reporter and my children spent their days in daycare. Back then, I slept little but threw the most outrageous birthday parties, if I do say so myself. Only now do I realize that the princess birthday party with the homemade castle cake and the pirate birthday party complete with a treasure the hubs and I buried were symptoms of my overfunctioning.

I wasn’t around much, but by golly, when I was on, I was ON!

But by the time my friend suggested short spurts of quality weren’t enough, I was already past that stage. I had quit my full-time job a year before because I wanted to slow down and spend more time with my kids. And pretty quickly, I had realized that the days were l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g when you had to figure out something to do with a 3 year old and a 4 year old every.Single.Minute.

So a year in, I was running out of ideas. I feared I’d become one of those mommies who watched soaps all afternoon (they still were on then,) cracked open a cold one around 4 p.m. when Oprah came on and let the neighbors worry about my kids.

Quantity, not quality. What did it mean?

I really wasn’t sure, but I kept it at the front of my mind when I began stressing over whether I was enriching my children enough. Should I be teaching them to read instead of reading to them? Should I enroll them in a kiddie cooking class instead of baking cookies with them? What about signing them up for Ceramics for Children instead of letting them just play with the Play-Doh at the kitchen table?

Quantity, not quality.

And then we had a third child, and I really didn’t have as much time for my neuroses because the older two entered school. And life got busier. And frankly, the birthday parties became quite a bit less elaborate. And “quantity over quality” faded from my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, when I was driving my daughter, younger son and a niece home from the mall. My daughter and my niece began talking about a mutual friend who had been in their Girl Scout troop.

“Wait a minute,” my son said to my niece, “you were in Girl Scouts?”

“Duh,” she said.

“Why aren’t you still in it?” he asked.

Before she could answer, I piped up. “Because she had the worst leader ever. Didn’t even like kids, really.”

Then my daughter spoke up. “Mom,” she said, “you were our leader.”

“Exactly,” I said.

And then…

“I thought you were a good leader,” my daughter said. “I loved it when you were our leader.”

I was so stunned I almost hit the car in front of me.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, flooded with memories of the dread I felt each week as I prepared for the Girl Scout meeting, my panic when the cookie money didn’t add up, the sore on my tongue from the many times I had to bite it to keep from snapping on a hyper kid.

“Yeah,” she said wistfully, “it was great. We had fun. I always thought you planned fun stuff.”

Quantity, not quality. My friend was right.