This is a long one, but it’s important. It’s very important.
Back at the beginning of May when I was in Atlanta for the Mom 2.0 Summit, I was sitting next to the main stage in preparation to join the others who would be speaking with me on an afternoon keynote. Before our discussion began, however, the event organizer Laura Mayes invited a fellow blogger named Kelly Wickham to the stage to read aloud a post she had written last July after the jury delivered its verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The title of her post is “Calling Out My Sisters” and to declare it one of the most powerful things ever written in blog format would be doing it a total disservice. Anyone who has any sort of platform either online or off should be required to read this and fully experience the burn of recognition crawl up from their stomachs and spread from the neck into the face in a flaming burst of red.
She was talking to me:
Guess what? I don’t live in Pakistan and I supported and talked about Malala Yousafzai.
Guess what? I don’t live in New Delhi and it didn’t stop me from donating to the Red Cross the day a building collapsed and killed 46 people. It didn’t stop me from refusing to spend money in big box stores that profit off those places.
Guess what? I’m not a homosexual who wants to marry my partner but I still signed petitions, called my state and local representatives, and used the hell out of my social media accounts to voice that opinion.
Guess what? You only have to be a human being to find interest in places all over the world that threaten our humanity, politics, and beliefs. Why so shy about getting involved with Trayvon Martin?
And even though she didn’t specifically turn her head in my direction, she continued to talk directly to me:
You have words, sisters. You can’t use them for this?
I love you, sisters, and I’ve been disappointed in the quiet corners where you find me to talk about race when I’ve seen you in the public arena defend marriage equality.
You let everyone know, with your words, what’s important to you.
Are you mad? Are you grieving, too? Or is it your fear that’s keeping you from amplifying the messages of Black parents right now.
I’ve seen it, sisters, and it’s a powerful thing when you make your friends go viral and when you jump on bandwagons, but when race is painted on the side, you tell me you’ll jump on the next one.
You hashtag the shit out of stuff. I see you.
If you were to search my archives you would find not one word about Trayvon Martin anywhere on this website. In fact, you won’t find me talking about race or approaching anything within 500 yards of that subject. I’m terrified of what would happen if I expressed any emotion about race, be it outrage or sorrow or frustration. Because who the hell am I? I am a white woman raised in a white household, a white woman who has experienced nothing but privilege her entire life. I have never known persecution or been maligned because of my minority status. I have never had to worry that the color of my skin would in any way cost me the slightest luxury or basic human right.
And yet, I am not a homosexual, but I will attend parades and rallies and write about the injustice my friends and their community continue to suffer. I have access to and can afford high-quality healthcare, but I will sign petitions and join organizations and write about the work they are doing to provide access to those who do not. I will even travel to the other side of the world to bring attention to the fact that pregnant women routinely die because they are alone and surrounded by squalor when they go into labor.
(Photo of a hand-crafted mural by local artisans in the lobby of Hopital de Mirebalais, Haiti)
My concern about the topic of race has been that the backlash would drown out anything I could possibly add to the conversation. Just another privileged white woman wringing her hands in a physical manifestation of her white guilt. No perspective, no experience, no right to say a word, not when I get to walk away from the keyboard and go feed my white children a lavish meal in a sprawling kitchen with windows overlooking one of the whitest pockets of the American landscape.
But then… there’s this part of Kelly’s post:
I’ll let you in on a secret, though, in case you haven’t experienced this before: Mentioning racism gets you called a racist. That happens to me all the time. You’ll survive getting called one, too.
I have survived being called a poverty tourist. I have survived hundreds of pages on the Internet claiming that I am homophobic, that I visit developing countries specifically for the purpose of exploiting their culture for money, not to mention lengthy critiques of my body, my face, my parenting, my lack of talent, the appearance of my children, my abuse of power, and my impending public meltdown. People have written discourses online diagnosing me with both Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders. This isn’t persecution in any sense of the word, it’s just a job hazard.
So, why then am I so petrified of being called a racist?
I actually pulled Kelly aside after my keynote and told her all of this, told her that I had grown up in the South and had been taught by many adults around me that African Americans are different. I’d been taught subtly and not-so-subtly that they are lazy, that they take advantage of the system, that they are dangerous. I was a racist. And those prejudices followed me and informed me up until a linguistics class I took my junior year in college that obliterated the foundation of my entire belief system. A four-paragraph essay explaining the logic behind Ebonics opened my eyes so widely and violently that for the fist time in my life I was able to look at everything that I had been taught as “truth” and abandon it completely.
Kelly mentioned that nuance here is the key. No matter what I say about race or poverty or marriage inequality, someone or multiple someones will pick it apart or call me names. I have lived that for the last 13 years. But approaching any of these touchy subjects as gracefully and as thoughtfully as I can is all that is required, that and approaching it at all. APPROACH IT.
I will admit that I have not always been as graceful with my words as I should be when discussing these things. I’ve made bad jokes. I’ve been too earnest, too dramatic, too flippant. But I hope that I have learned and listened to those who have more experience, who have perspective, who have said to me, listen, I know you mean well, but here’s a better way to say it to those of us who are living it.
A couple of years ago Leta came home from school and was excited to tell me a story about something that had happened on the playground. She’d recently mastered the monkey bars, swinging herself the length of them and back, and a group of kids waiting to take their turn was standing nearby. That group included a boy she had a crush on.
“So I hopped off the monkey bars because I wanted to say hello to him, ” she explained. “But he was talking to another boy in my class, um… I forget his name. They’re best friends.”
“Which boy?” I asked, curious because
I AM A NOSY I had done a lot of volunteering that year and wanted to know who was best friends with whom.
“You know,” she said. “He’s taller than me. He’s got brown hair. What’s his name…”
“Leta most of the boys in your class have brown hair.”
“He’s got brown eyes, and he’s always wearing a blue shirt,” she explained.
I spouted off a few names, none of them right.
“No, not them. This boy has skin that is darker than mine. Do you know him?”
She was talking about the only African American in her class. In her description of him, the first thing she thought would identify him was his height. Then his hair color. Then his eye color. Then the color of his shirt. When I was her age the first thing out of my mouth would have been, “The black kid.”
I was so overcome with the differences between her childhood and mine. She is surrounded by teachers and adults who have made it so that she does not associate skin color as a signifier of class or character or as any noteworthy differentiation. As her mother I feel hopeful, but I also feel a huge responsibility to her and to her generation to reinforce this view of the world as her own experiences expand and grow.
A few months ago my good friend Kristen Howerton told me about an organization that she works with called The Exodus Road, a group dedicated to fighting human trafficking and sex slavery in Southeast Asia. This is a subject that I know absolutely nothing about, and so I was surprised when she said that they were organizing a trip to this part of the world and would love for me to be a part of it.
First, I don’t know the first thing about this issue. I know I already said so, but it bears repeating. Two, while the Exodus Road is not explicitly a Christian organization, its founders are motivated and guided by their devout Christian values. And here is where I will say something that I have never said on this website before:
I am an atheist. I do not believe in God.
I’m sure that does not come as any surprise, but I haven’t ever written those words because I didn’t think it needed to be articulated with that kind of detail.
But here right now, I think it does. This organization that is informed by Christian beliefs is so dedicated to ending the nightmares of so many innocent girls and boys that they would associate with me, an atheist—an often crass, irreverent, “Mormons like to sacrifice kittens” atheist—in order to move the fight forward. And when I say “associate” I mean use me as a means to raise awareness. I am a marketing tool. I have no illusions that I woud be doing anything other than that.
So I sat down and read what I could about this issue and this organization just to get a working sense of what this trip would mean. In 2013 blogger Jamie Wright joined The Exodus Road on undercover missions in SE Asia:
Now, I know some of you want to tell me that I didn’t need to fly to SE Asia to find sex for sale, pedophiles, ping pong shows, and trafficking. I totally get that. But the U.S. economy doesn’t rely on tourism generated by selling our sons and daughters. Our children’s bodies aren’t counted as part of our Gross Domestic Product. Our government (while super flawed) has the will and the means necessary to investigate, arrest, and prosecute criminals who sell, enslave, or traffic human beings.
I do not want any outbound links from my website to any of the places set up online luring would-be takers to indulge in a very specific part of the economy of Southeast Asia, but you can google “Southeast Asia sex tourism” just to get a sense of what I’m talking about. The scope and magnitude of the human trafficking problem is compounded by the number of migrants fleeing neighboring countries because of poverty or military repression. These migrants are often defrauded and forced into commercial sexual exploitation to pay off debts. These are women and children helplessly enslaved in dark brothels, bars and slums with absolutely no advocate.
As Jamie wrote:
[The Exodus Road is a] young but healthy organization, with a big picture mentality. They honor the local government, and value partnership with sister organizations (including those working in outreach and aftercare) who agree to high standards of practice. Pushing the long-standing but broken Christian model of “good intention” aside, they’ve carefully chosen trained investigators with unique skill sets to do the best work on the ground, contracting men and women with a wide range of ethnic, religious, and professional backgrounds.
In just two years while working with teams on the ground, they have supported the rescues of 253 sex slaves through the work of the 53 undercover investigators. Small but very significant steps forward, especially for those 253 individuals.
On Monday morning I leave for a trip to that part of the world with Jamie, Kristen and Roo Ciambriello to join The Exodus Road and witness their operation in motion. The trip has been designed to give us a clear view of the three main areas of fighting slavery: prevention, intervention, and after care.
We’ll be visiting red light districts, entering brothels, and learning about the remote village sex trade. We’ll be meeting several partners including a Buddhist man who runs an after care shelter, several special forces investigators, and an American couple running an outreach center for street kids.
There is some down time worked into the schedule so I hope to use that time to keep you updated, to take you along with me. Again, this is an issue that I hope to handle as carefully as I can, especially since the majority of my education about it will be while I am on the ground, but it is most definitely one that is worth approaching with the full force of what I can bring.
No, I have never been forced to have sex to pay off a debt. No one I know has ever been trafficked or held against their will or marched in their underwear in front of a leering group of tourists eager to pay for their services. But what was it that Kelly said? “You only have to be a human being to find interest in places all over the world that threaten our humanity, politics, and beliefs.”
I may not believe in God, but some lingering religious part of me thinks, well, it could be luck, could be hard work, could be a combination of both or neither, but for some reason I have a platform. And I tell myself, never stop exploring that reason.