Does it Matter Where You Shop? Ethical Consumption, Boycotts, and Change

Nike. Denny’s. Tommy Hilfiger. Walmart. Chick-Fil-A. Uber. United Airlines. These are a few companies that come to mind when I think about calls to boycott in my recent memory.

In all of these cases, public pushback was certainly warranted. We do not want to support racist, homophobic, misogynistic, exploitative business owners, executives, or companies. And yet, I can’t seem to shake questions I have about the effectiveness of deleting Uber from one’s phone or going to Big Lots instead of Walmart.

I’m not 100% sure what I think about these things. (I’m going to think out loud/through my fingers here on this blog.)  But I think I have a few starting points I want to articulate.

  1. I won’t take issue with where people spend their money based on their own personal convictions. If you have a deeply-held belief that Starbucks is horrible, and you don’t want to support them, I’m fine with that. I will not try to convince you otherwise. Your personal, ethical convictions are just that, and I don’t think persuading you to do something different is the best use of my persuasive or political energy. The reverse is also true; if you don’t see any problem with Walmart, then shame on you  that is for you to understand and decide for yourself…unless, of course, you ask for my opinion. I do think it’s important to act in accordance with your convictions; that’s integrity. And yet, I recognize that the choice to buy Adidas instead of Nike is–in the grand scheme of our fucked up world–rather negligible. Which brings me to my second point…
  2. Our biggest and most pressing problems are systemic in nature. What I mean is that so many of the problems we encounter are deeply rooted in longstanding structures that inevitably produce inequality, domination, and degradation. This is important because systemic problems require systemic solutions. In other words, our individual purchasing choices–even when undertaken by a mass of people– on a Saturday afternoon are not sufficient to effect long-term, substantive change. That’s just not the nature of the beast.
  3. It is helpful to support fair-trade, environmentally-friendly, democratic, and otherwise ethical companies and products. There are people, groups, and companies that are working hard to do business in just and sustainable ways. And the truth is that in order for them to keep doing what they’re doing, they need to prosper. They will prosper if they are supported. So, I think it is helpful to support businesses who business practices are in-line with progressive values.

So, does it it matter where you shop? I think it matters in 2 ways. Firstly, I think it matters because it is one of the ways you express your values and train yourself to be ever mindful of workers, wealth, the environment, etc. Secondly, it matters because money talks, and it is possible to send a clear message to companies by hitting them in the pockets.

But it also doesn’t matter in 2 ways. Firstly, it doesn’t matter because we are all inextricably caught up in an imperialist, capitalist system. We all have blood on our hands. You would be hard-pressed to make it through one day without using some product or service that would not be implicated. Secondly, it doesn’t matter because it’s not actually the answer to our larger systemic problems. Ultimately, structures have to change in order for the decisions available to us and the subsequent outcomes to change.

A final word about ethical consumption…It’s really important to consider how these choices are a function of access. When you have access to disposable income, you can make the more expensive choice for fair-trade coffee. When you have geographical access to multiple options, you can choose where you shop based on some other criterion besides proximity. And when you have access to extra time, your choices open up, as well.

Whether people decide to spend their money here or there, boycott or not, the critical question is: How are we joining forces to bring about deep solutions and lasting change beyond the trending protest of the week?

What Brings You Joy?

The other day, over dinner, someone asked me, “What brings you joy?” I was caught off guard by the question (despite having asked it many times to near-strangers myself). I responded, “Well, right now, I think what brings me joy is creating things–writing, making music, resurrecting my inner artist.”

Alternative facts!

The thing that brings me the most joy is teaching. Nothing has yet come close to the natural high I get from that. Yet, I didn’t say “teaching”. Perhaps because I was sitting at a table with 3 university professors, I didn’t feel license to name my deepest joy as something that very much characterizes their lives and not mine (at the moment).

Creating things brings me joy in the sense that I feel in tune with myself, and I feel a delightful sense of possibility–making something out of nothing. But I rarely feel skilled enough to actually manifest the things I imagine, and my lack of technical proficiency in any medium of expression  frustrates and paralyzes me. (So, I post pictures of my dog on Instagram instead.)

Presumably, if I practiced and worked at it, I would get better, and maybe that would encourage me to create more.  Maybe if I knew that someone other than me cared about my art, I would feel compelled. (That is the cart before the horse, I suppose. How can anyone care about something  that doesn’t exist?  Why should anyone care about what I haven’t done?) Do I believe in my own art enough to make it for just for the sake of making it, though? For my own  joy?

I think there’s something to be said for having people in your life that see your potential, your gifts or talents, and summon them. They notice them. They name them. They ask for them. I aimless and disheartened. I have an overwhelming feeling of unimportance–like whatever I do or do not do on any given day is largely inconsequential. I wish I knew what I had to offer the world at this time in my life. I think that would bring me great joy.

 

How My Thoughts on (Non)Monogamy Evolved

First things first: I grew up in a household with faithful, married parents. Both sets of grandparents were married for decades before my grandfathers passed away. So, I was socialized (like most of us) into a worldview of committed, monogamous marriage as the norm for relationships. And the marriages I saw were “successful”.

I start there because whenever someone expresses a nontraditional view of relationships (as I am about to do), a little suspicion creeps in about their family of origin, divorce, broken homes, etc. In other words,  there has to be some painful reason for divestment in normative relationship models. That is not the case for me. My reasons are borne out of an exceedingly positive view of relationships rather than a negative one, and I want to outline my evolution on this topic here.
“How do you feel about non-monogamy?” In 2011, my partner asked me this question about one month into our relationship. I said, “I have no ethical objection to it, but I don’t think I share well. It’s not for me.”

Fast forward to 2016. We are sitting at our kitchen table (we now live together)  with colored markers, creating charts that depict our boundaries and expectations concerning (hypothetical) relationships with others. We come a mighty long way!

Here is what I’ve learned about myself: I deeply appreciate people. I am drawn to a diversity of people for a variety of reasons, and I value the ability to connect substantively with people in all kinds of ways. Even when I am in a beautiful, life-enriching partnership (as I am now), I still desire a multitude of rich connections in my life. This came as a surprise to me 2 or 3 years into our relationship, but it was an important realization. Most of those rich connections are platonic or quasi-familial, but I notice and respect my capacity for nonplatonic connections, as well. I do not feel shame for the bigness of my heart.

Here is what I’ve learned about partnership: The most amazing person in the world can not be everything to anybody. As humans, we have complex emotional, physical, and spiritual (to name a few) needs. I  do not think it is reasonable or healthy to expect one person to completely meet these needs all the time. We can respond to this reality by conditioning ourselves to live with some amount of constant, low-grade unfulfillment, or we can explore other ways to increase our fulfillment. Consciousness, creativity, and consent open up other possibilities for us in that regard. Dispersing our needs amongst multiple people may reduce the stress any one individual feels.  I should add here that I do not believe in “the one”. I believe there are many with whom I could be compatible, and every relationship takes work. You just decide where and how to devote your time and energy.

Here’s what I’ve learned about society: Historically, monogamy has not been the standard. Historically, economics–not love or even companionship–has been the driving force behind the relationships we now call partnership. Romance, emotional satisfaction, and equality are relatively new expectations in this realm of life. This historical perspective ought to give us pause when considering the “norm”of long-term, monogamous relationships.

To be clear: I am not against monogamy. If relationship partners consciously decide that that arrangement works best for them, then I respect and celebrate the life they pursue together.

However, far too often, we take monogamy for granted as a given. I certainly did. In my mind, “legitimate” relationships were committed, monogamous ones. As I’ve reflected on myself, my life, and my relationships, I’ve come to view “legitimate” relationships as those that are consensual between adults who do no harm.

There is certainly no shortage of ethical concerns when it comes to non-monogamy. I won’t pretend to know the full range of those concerns, and I don’t have the experience to speak to them here in a meaningful way (although there some good books out there). Anyone who seriously ventures into the domain of non-monogamy has some serious and sustained work to do on themselves and on their relationships in order to create healthy, ethical relationships in every direction. Frankly, I think it’s a lot of work, and I am unsure if I am up to the task, even as I philosophically embrace it.

I want to end by stressing that non-monogamy is not necessarily about sex. Sure, plenty of people do non-monogamy in an effort to experience more variety and more sexual pleasure. However, that is not always everyone’s motivation, and the focus on sexual “licentiousness” is part of the stigma. For me, thinking about non-monogamy is primarily a matter of the heart; it is a matter of giving and receiving love abundantly. Love need not be scarce to be special. It is a matter of autonomy and self-determination. (Old civic laws based on property and old religious mores based on who knows what no longer call the shots.)  It is matter of believing that there is more than one way to live a good life, and there are lots of incredible people on this planet with whom I would be so privileged to connect.

 

 

My Thinkpiece on Why I’m Sooooo Tired of Thinkpieces

When Stacey Dash showed her true colors.
When Raven Symone fucked up.
When Rachel Dolezal was outed for doing that thing she did.
When Frank Ocean said queer things.
When Lemonade dropped.
When Moonlight showed.
When Adele won instead of Queen Bey.

When all of these things happened, everybody rushed to the Internet with something to say. Now, to be clear, I deeply believe in the power of words. I believe we create and find meaning through reading and writing. And, as evidenced by my longstanding proclivity for blogging, I believe there is value in sharing our thoughts. So, I’m not anti-thinkpiece. But I can’t help but feel like it has ratcheted up in recent years, probably for a number of reasons. Alternatively, it could be the case that I am just paying more attention now to that kind of writing than I used to. Whatever the situation, I feel inundated with thinkpieces, and I’m sooooo tired of it.

I have a hypothesis that thinkpieces constitute a particular genre of writing (particularly on the Internet) that typically have the following characteristics:

  • A “call out” tone: issuing a corrective but often in an aggressive or ridiculing way
  • Sardonic humor
  • Quotable/”Retweetable” turns of phrase
  • An attempt to push forward a counter, subversive, or non-dominant perspective

Are any of these things bad? No, not necessarily. However, in my opinion, we are seeing more and more people adopt the form of the thinkpiece without the substance of it. Like bad slam poetry. I feel the frenetic energy of people clamoring to be the first, smartest, or funniest person to have something to say on the latest trending topic. Is this helpful? How much of it is actually thoughtful? Are there other avenues for expressing our thoughts that aren’t simply adding to the noise?

 

Chocolate Crosses and Choosing

The Easter stuff is out in the drug store. An aisle of pastel everything and generic religious iconography. I walk down that aisle, pulling my basket behind me. The little handbaskets now have wheels on them. It’s nifty and also makes me feel like a child pulling a red wagon (that happens to have in it toothpaste for sensitive teeth and packing tape–stuff no child would need). My eyes begin taking inventory of the Easter miscellany and then glaze over as I take stock of my own feelings. This holiday used to mean so much to me. Now it is strange the way marshmallows are strange–soft, amorphous, artificial. What do I even believe anymore? I spot a chocolate cross and feel a twinge of dismay. Why would anyone do that? That’s like a chocolate electric chair or a chocolate police officer. Hm. I believe in resurrection. This whole business about Jesus getting up out of a grave? I don’t know about all that. But I do believe that good can come from bad. And I believe that things that are dead (figuratively speaking) can be brought back to life if we believe in them in and dedicate ourselves to them. In these ways, I think I’m as Christian as one can be. They can keep all that other stuff about sin and hell and fornication. Ha.

Maybe I will send them a card. I don’t slow my walking enough to actually see the cards on the shelf. (In some sense, I’ve seen them all before.) I start mentally drafting the message I would write on the inside. Something about resurrecting our relationship. Something about a new season. I assume my parents still have the same mailing address.

I round the corner and see bottles of Snapple Lemon Tea in the cold drinks section. This may be the closest thing to Southern sweet tea that I’ll find around here. I want it. I open the large glass door and pull out a bottle. I delight in choosing for myself. Choosing my beverages, choosing my partner, choosing my path. And that is the heart of the matter. I chose for myself.

The idea of sending them a card stayed in the Easter aisle as I continued to weave through the store, collecting various things I didn’t know I wanted until I saw them. I made my way to the cashier. A box. Packing tape. Candy. Popcorn. Toothpaste. Gum. Snapple Lemon Tea.

No card. Not this year.

 

How White Fragility (Almost) Depoliticized Me

In recent years, some folks have boldly tackled the topic of white fragility. If you are at all concerned with racial justice and are not familiar with this term, start HERE.

In this post, I just want to talk about how white fragility affected my political consciousness. Although my personal experience may not be generalizable, I think it likely has implications that extend beyond me.

Over the past few years of my life, I have intentionally distanced myself from people who can’t engage conversations around race without a high emotional cost to me. I have distanced myself from people who lack a robust, historically-grounded, and systemic understanding of racism. I have distanced myself from people who lack the ability to hear my experience compassionately. As a result, my up-close-and-personal experiences with white fragility are increasingly rare.

But every now and then…someone slips through the cracks. A few months ago, I made a comment on Facebook about an incident of a police officer killing an unarmed citizen. My comment triggered a response from an acquaintance I have from college. It was an antagonistic comment, and my Facebook friends took him to task in an epic, social media fisticuffs. Meanwhile, in a private conversation with him, he got all in his feelings about the way people were talking to him. He avoided discussing the actual incident with me and instead focused on how he felt mistreated by the way my friends called him out, etc. It was fucking textbook white fragility (and probably also gaslighting). After attempting a constructive dialogue to no avail, I very candidly explained my disinterest in convincing him, bridging the gap with him, or remaining Facebook friends with him. And then we were done. Just like that.

There was a time in my life, though, when I would have expended much more energy on him. Why? Because I would have seen his white fragility as a personal indictment of my civility and diplomacy. I would have seen his white fragility as an impetus to disprove the “angry black woman” trope and an opportunity to display my humanity, humility, and care for others.  And I think one of the most dangerous things about this dynamic is the way that it quickly makes race issues interpersonal instead of structural and systemic. I have awakened to this danger, and it’s an ongoing process to abandon this pattern of behavior.

It’s true that we experience discrimination, prejudice, aggression, and micro-aggression at the interpersonal level, but that is not ultimately the level at which racism needs to be addressed. When white people make a societal conversation into interpersonal disagreement, I find myself having to defend my character and prove something to them. This is an insidious interaction wherein I am (yet again) subordinated. These interactions take the wind out of my political sails and re-route me into conversations that are not dealing with root causes. In other words, they are not radical in the truest sense of the word. And a diversion or preoccupation with something other than root causes would, over the long term, depoliticize me.

I no longer devote energy to dealing with white people’s discomfort or fragility concerning race. Doing so drains my limited internal resources and sterilizes my political vitality. I do think there are serious interpersonal issues that need addressing. However, if the interpersonal becomes the primary focus (largely in response to white fragility), then we are not having a radical conversation. And a conversation that’s not radical is a conversation that’s not dealing with power. And if we’re not dealing with power, then we’re not dealing with politics.

3 Alternative Commitments for the New Year

My Facebook timeline is awash with meal prep photos, workout goals, and self-addressed pep talks, because this year…ya know…we’re  all gonna kill it and be amazing. 😉

Nothing wrong with those goals or those habits. I’m working on some myself. But I’m also challenging myself to think beyond goals and consider my commitments. I think commitments have a deeper impact on how we orient ourselves to the world and to each other.  So, here are 3 commitments you may consider making for this year:

1. Commit to a cause. 28087609562_f1dec3c492_b

Is there a political issue you are fired up about? Is there a social problem you know is important but haven’t taken the time to understand? Is there an organization doing work you believe in but you haven’t done anything to support that work yet?  Maybe this is the year that you donate consistently, volunteer your time and/or skills, or study the issue in depth. Now, more than ever, we need people who cultivate a robust understanding of the complex problems we face and dedicate themselves to creating a better world. How will you participate?

2. Commit to a community. community-988898_1280

Have you been flaking out on your friends? Have you been neglecting important relationships in your life? Have you been missing meetings for that group you joined? Have you been sending your phone to voicemail when people try to reach you? It’s true that we all need a break from engaging people, and sometimes an extended break really rejuvenates. But maybe this is the time to return to or create commitments to a community–your book club, your religious group, your political organization, or even simply your friends. Show up. Call them back. Send that email. Invite them over. Meet up for coffee. Commit to being there. People need you.

3. Commit to character development. Stones Relaxation Wellness Meditation

Have you worked on yourself lately? Have you spent time examining the person you’ve become? Would you benefit from working through that pent up anger and resentment? Do you need to work on your confidence or tactfulness or generosity or assertiveness or communication skills or honesty or authenticity or conflict management or…? Maybe this is the time to introspect and commit yourself to developing your inner self.

It is so easy to divide our attention and energy, to “keep our options open”, and to underestimate the consequences of not committing to people and things that matter. What will you commit to this year?

Most Folks are Like Fog

I am always learning to let go.   I am always learning to let go without any sense of closure. It happened with my family. It’s happened with jobs. It just happened with my therapist. (I think I’m still a little mad about this one.)  And it is now happening with some of my friendships. People say they want to keep in touch, but then they don’t. And I put forth a valiant effort. I go many extra miles to nurture the relationship…until the day I realize that I am the only one trying, and what is a priority for me is a pastime for them. Then begins the long, slow process of grieving and letting go. I have a few solid friends, but most folks are like fleeting New England fog. They float in, they linger, and they disappear. And I am standing there wondering why everything looks different now.

You know, the thing about people is that they are irreplaceable. So, you could lose 10 people, gain 40 new people, and you have still lost 10 people. Like, no matter how many new people come along, it is no recompense. I truly feel the empty spaces. It’s like my heart runs its fingers in the dusty indentations of my life where beloved friends used to be…reminiscing on the shape of their presence, missing their particular magic.

My melancholia is sort of embarrassed to be here and just sweeps through my days, trying to remain unnoticed. But I notice. I notice the grief. I notice the loneliness. It’s so rare that anyone calls/texts/emails just to say hello and hear how I’m doing. Everybody has shit going on–I get it. But you have time for whatever you make time for. And I guess I just wish that the people who I came through for, who I cared about, and who professed to care about me would simply make time.

I think it might just be me. I mean what I say. I say what I mean. I open my heart. I show up. I do the things that feel right to do when you love and care about people. And people seem shocked, even put off, by this.

A reasonable response seems to be to make new connections here. But in a few years, when I leave this place, I will go through this same quiet, clumsy, sad process of letting go of ephemeral relationships that I wish would crystallize instead of evaporate.

Perhaps I do not leave the same indentations on others’ lives; there is nothing to remember or miss. There is no residue of my presence. Maybe all that I give to others should be reserved for me. Love, nurture, and support myself. I know for sure I would appreciate it and reciprocate it.

Stupid Sh** Racists Say at the Post Office

Sigh. I have two or three blog drafts in my queue right now–about the election, about Standing Rock, about hair as a “text” for reading queerness…
And perhaps I will get back around to those.  But for now, I want to talk about what happened at the post office yesterday.

I went to the post office to mail something to someone in the U.K.  I picked out a priority flat rate box because…I don’t know why. Actually, I find the post office immensely confusing, and the people who work there always seem irritated that they have to explain what the hell the difference is between priority and first class (which in airline land, both mean you get on the plane before everybody else). Sigh. So, I pack the contents into a flat rate box. I stand in line. I get to the counter and ask for tape. I step aside to tape up my box. I return to the counter, with a different employee helping me. She looks at my box, sees that it’s going to the U.K. and says to me, “This is going to be expensive. You need to fill out a customs form but I’ll tell you how much it’s going to be. It’s going to be expensive,” as if to warn me or give me an out. She announced my total out loud. I stood there, looked at her expressionless, and said, “OK.” She handed me a customs form and shooed my aside. I said, “No problem. I’ll be right back.”

Thankfully, when I returned to the counter, a different employee was helping me, and my box was mailed without an issue. Nevertheless, I left the post office angry. Angry about this woman who felt the need to caution me that something was going to be “expensive” and announce my total (something I did not ask her to do) before I even conducted my transaction.  Angry that this woman did not feel the need to warn the white man behind me that his transaction was about to equal $87.71–much more than my transaction total. Angry at the assumptions, the passive aggression, the (pre)judgment. Angry that this fucking town doesn’t know what to do with my Black presence.
Am I overreacting, being hypersensitive? Maybe. But these little experiences accumulate, and each one compounds the effects of the aggregate on my psyche. These are the low-grade, everyday, racist micro-moments that sometimes make this place so unpleasant and erode my willingness to engage people with a sense of trust and goodwill.

She probably voted for Trump.

 

A Military Kid’s Mixed Feelings About Veteran’s Day

By the time I graduated high school, I had attended 8 different schools–4 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 1 high school. This is par for the course for military kids.

Today is Veteran’s Day. I can immediately think of 4 people in my family who served in the military for at least 20 years, including my grandfather and my father. My grandfather passed away 8 years ago, and my father walked out of my life 4 years ago. Nevertheless, I am thinking about them today.

I have complicated and mixed feelings about this day (and not just because it conjures memories of beloved men in my life who are now gone). On the one hand, I am grateful for the many experiences I had as a military kid. I think those experiences shaped me into a person who is aware of the bigness and diversity of the world, who faces change and adapts quickly, who is sensitive to “new kids” and outcasts, and who creates home wherever I go.

And yet, as I evolve and develop intellectually and politically, I am acutely aware of the imperialist function of the U.S. military and the ways my family has participated in that for generations. More disconcerting, still, is the realization that this complicity has been chiefly motivated by lack of economic opportunity. Both my grandfather and father come from big families and small towns. The military was a way out.

I do not think the men in my family joined the military out of love for country and desire to “serve and defend our freedom”. I have literally never heard my father say those words. My grandfather was quite patriotic but also the fiercest critic of American racism and classism. (How very James Baldwin of him!)

So what does it mean to honor veterans today when “serving our country” has often had devastating effects on other parts of the world?  How do I grapple with my deep appreciation for the ways the military created a safe and stable life for my family alongside my deep rejection of the economic inequality that made enlisting look like the best choice in the first place? How do I appropriately respect the hard choices and challenges veterans have faced while rejecting this militaristic empire?

I really don’t know.