Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal and what it means to be “black”

My one comment in the Rachel Dolezal debacle. This hitherto unknown woman is revealed as passing for African American and it creates a media scandal.

But thousands of people identify themselves as Native Americans, because they’ve heard that they have a drop of Native American blood, and it’s not a big deal, we just accept it.

I think both that racial identity is significant and that it’s complicated.  Being “black” cannot be about physical traits, otherwise blond, blue eyed, fair civil rights leader Walter Francis White, head of the NAACP for a quarter of a century, would not black. Nor would have been his blond, blue-eyed mother, despite having been born a slave.

And surely, African Americans who are not identified as black by others, don’t experience the same degree of institutionalized racism than those that look black do.  So being black also cannot be about feeling racism.

And being black cannot be about the cultural African American experience.  President Obama, after all, grew up within a white family in Hawaii and Indonesia.  While perhaps he did experience some racism as a child, the same cannot be said of the thousands of African and Caribbean immigrants to the United States. Having gone to Africa a couple of times and knowing Africans who live in the US, it’s easy to see the differences between people who grew up experiencing racism and those who did not. It is not unlike the difference between being a Latino immigrant and one born in this country.

Perhaps being black is about genetics. The old “one drop of blood” theory might apply.  Genetically, Walter White was 15% black, after all.  That, of course, is significantly greater than the 1-2% of African blood carried by about 10% of white southerners.  It may yet turn out that Ms Dolezal has that drop of African blood after all.

I don’t mean to speak for a community of which I’m not part. As an fair-skin Argentinian, albeit one with a thick accent that identifies me as non-American, I both embrace my Latino heritage but I’m conscious to understand that my experience does not equate with that of millions of other Latinos who live in the US.  And truth be told, whatever I have to say about the African American or Chicano experience in the US will lack authority – even if I had majored in ethnic studies.  Living is different than studying.

And here, perhaps, lies the answer to the question of why an African-American studies professor and a civil rights activist in lily-white Spokane, would want to live as an African-American woman, with the loss of privilege that that entails.

Facebook Posts Photo of My Sister on her Deathbed – And Forces Me to Grieve

Last Friday, Facebook apologized to a grieving father for posting a “Year in Review” on his feed that featured his dead daughter.

Facebook’s “Year on Review” on my brother’s feed.

On Saturday, they posted this photo on my brother’s feed:

It’s a photo of our sister, Gabriela, agonizing on her death bed. She died later that day.

gabibebeGabriela got sick when she was 9 months old.  She got síndrome urémico hemolítico (hemolytic-uremic syndrome– HUS). I was almost four when this happened and I don’t remember ever not knowing those words. I didn’t know their meaning, of course, because at the time nobody did.  A syndrome, I was told, is a set of symptoms that go together without a known cause.  Now we know that HUS is most often caused by e-coli or another bacterial infection.  Not that it mattered, what mattered was that Gabriela got sick.

Ironically enough, I have rather good memories of the three months I spent living with aunt Gladys and Granny while Gabriela was at the hospital.  My aunt and grandmother doted on me, and I enjoyed the visits to the hospital.  The old, immense Hospital de Niños building was located in front of the Parque Saavedra, a huge park with a lake and plenty of green space.  Later, in fifth grade, I would come back here with my class to do a “study” of its ecosystem.  After every visit my aunt would buy me an ice cream bar.  Back then children were mostly put in large wards.  It was probably for that reason that, upon noticing that Gabriela was sick, my parents had taken her to the private Clínica del Niño.  The doctors there didn’t know what to do with her.  I’ve heard the story thousands of times: they kept filling her with serum while she couldn’t urinate until my father, worried, picked her up and took her against medical advice and without having her discharged, absconding with her to the public Hospital de Niños, where they saved her life.  HUS, you see, is a disease of poor children, the Clínica doctors hadn’t seen it before.  It was rare and worrisome enough, however, that my mother and Gabriela got the only single private room in the hospital.  Some years later, it’d be occupied by my cousin Fernando. Those memories are not in the least bittersweet.

I still remember, as well, the names of the doctors who saved her life back then and kept her alive afterwards: Silver and Rentería.  Their names would be replaced by others a few years later.   While Gabriela survived HUS, her kidneys were permanently damaged. By the age of six, they were giving out on her.

The three of us celebrating a doll's birthday, c. 1978?
The three of us celebrating a doll’s birthday, c. 1978?

The CEMIC.  The Center for Medical Education and Clinical Investigations in the posh Palermo Chico neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  It became Gabriela’s home-away-from-home from the moment my parents found out about the possibility of a kidney transplant.  There were so many tests; my father had a different blood type; my brother and I were too young; my mother’s kidney was not fully compatible.  A German drug could work, perhaps, to bring down her immune system and prevent it from rejecting the kidney.  Working with the insurance companies to get them to import it and pay for it.  Getting Gabriela to gain weight so she could withstand the operation; getting my mother to lose weight to make it easier to take out her kidney.  My vacaciones the invierno, winter break, that year were spent in a nice apartment close to the calle Florida, in Buenos Aires.  It was owned by tío Héctor, one of my father’s college friends.  Mamá and Gabriela were in the hospital, papá working and visiting them, I was pretty much on my own.   I strolled the calle Florida, browsed at the toy stores and Harrods, ate the delicious pear jam that tío Héctor’s cousin was working to distribute. I visited Gabriela at the hospital some times.  She was in an isolation room, all by herself.  To enter, you had to cover your clothing, your head, your face and even your shoes.  You had to wash your hands with disinfectant and then put on gloves.  After her death, I discovered a letter I wrote to her while she was in the hospital, telling her about some little dolls I’d bought, advising her to be good to the doctors and nurses.

We celebrated Gabriela's first transplant with an asado for doctors, patients and family members.  1979.
We celebrated Gabriela’s first transplant with an asado for doctors, patients and family members. 1979.

The rest, well, the rest is history. She got the transplant, a year later she started to reject it, two years later we had come to the US in search of a second kidney.  It would take a year, two at the most, and we’d be back home.  That’s what we thought.  Instead, it was six, and I was a sophomore in college by the time it came.  Before and after, well, there were health problems after health problems.  My freshman year in college I wrote a poem about her death, I don’t even remember what particular health crisis she was growing through then.  Peritonitis, convulsions, infections, my mom actually kept count of the hospitalizations, she’ll probably comment and say how many they were.  My mom was with her on every single one.  Every medical crisis presaged her death, but she didn’t die.  Then she lost her second transplanted kidney, around the time I was having my second child; she refused to go back on hemodialysis so we waited for her to die.  At the last minute, when the toxins in her brain were giving her painful hallucinations she consented to be treated, and there she went on until she had her third transplant, this time from a girl she met on the internet.  The Wall Street Journal even wrote about that (years later, my husband would also be featured on a WSJ front page story, on a completely different topic).

Throughout my life I have made my peace with Gabriela’s death so many times that when it finally happened, it came as an enormous surprise.   Truth be told, I believed she would outlive us all.  She gave proof to the adage that death comes like a thief in the night, when you least expect it.

My relationship with Gabriela had deteriorated over the years.  I loved her, I hope she knew that, but we clashed too much.  I won’t speak ill of the dead because it serves no purpose, so let’s just say we did not get along.   In part I was happy to say my last words to her after she died so she couldn’t talk back.  But I think she knew what I would tell her: that I always loved her with all my heart, that I had given her as much of me as I could give her and still remain a person, that I lived every day with the guilty of the unfairness and senselessness that she had been sick and I hadn’t been, that she didn’t get to live a full life, and I did.  As she laid dead, I spoke those words for myself, of course, but I also spoke them for her.

My family back in 1980, Gabriela is at the front.
My family back in 1980, Gabriela is at the front.

But don’t get me wrong, while Gabriela and I were not close anymore, it’s in relative terms.  There is a closeness in my family which I think is very unlike  what I see in others, for better or worse.  When we were young and my brother and I would express jealousy about how much more attention my parents paid to Gabriela than to us, my mom would say that her children were like her fingers.  When one was injured, that’s the one she paid attention to, but the others were just as important and loved.  I think that the five + 1 of us (Kathy, my younger sister, was born two years before I left for college) are like fingers.  Too much part of a one to be individuals by ourselves.  I don’t think I can grieve for Gabriela without grieving for myself, for my brother or for my parents.

And thus we go back to Facebook’s ill-timed photo.   It didn’t appear on my feed, and for that I’m thankful, but it did appear on my brother’s. I understand why it did.  I come from a large family, with tons of aunts and uncles and cousins and second and third cousins.  Gabriela’s death was shared by everyone who lived her struggles.  They couldn’t be there in person, so they were virtually around her.  So they liked the photo, they commented on it, it was significant.  Which does not mean that seeing it again was welcomed.

My biggest issue was not that this photo was posted by facebook on my brother’s feed, he can deal with his own traumas, but that it was posted adorned with bright colored circles and squiggles that look balloons and garlands.  It’s a design that celebrates, that shows joy… at my sister’s agony and death.  How incredibly crass is that? How cruel?

It’s bad enough that they did it, but it’s worse that they did it with full knowledge of the pain this could cause.  After all, just like Friday they apologized for doing pretty much the same thing.  When you apologize for doing something wrong, you are supposed to change your behavior, not do it again and this time with happier designs!

Some good has come of this, for me.  I had been avoiding thinking about Gabriela this whole Xmas season, I didn’t want to break down and cry and I

have now done so, repeatedly, as I composed this post.  I didn’t want to think about the fact that next year, when my whole family comes to my house for Christmas, she won’t be with them, I didn’t want to think about how there is a finger missing from that hand now and it will never be reattached, but I know I did both of us a disservice by avoiding thinking about her.  I’m glad this forced me to and I can say Merry Christmas to the memory of that little girl that Gabriela was once upon a time.

Feliz Navidad, Gabriela!

Christmas 1975?
Christmas 1975?

Bill Cosby Should Not Get Away with Rape

billcosbyLike seemingly everyone else, I used to have a lot of respect for Bill Cosby. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Cosby Show – though I watched it off and on for years – but its spinoff A Different World, about students at a black college, started during my freshman year in college and I was an instant fan.

Somehow I missed the news in 2006 that fourteen women had accused Bill Cosby of drugging them and raping them.  He was being sued for sexual assault by the former Director of Operations of Temple University’s Women Basketball Program.  They had met through her job, they’d become friends and she saw him as a mentor.  One evening, he called her and invited her over to his house to discuss her desire to change careers.  When she told him how stressed she was about changing jobs, he offered her some “herbal medicine”, which she took.  Next thing she knew, she was dizzy, couldn’t walk and Cosby was helping her lie down on his couch, and then he was sexually assaulting her.  She lost consciousness and woke up feeling raw in her vaginal area.

After the woman came out with her story, the Cosby team proceeded to demonize her in the media.  But that caused other women to come forward with their own similar experiences .  In all, thirteen women said they would testify to being drugged and raped by Cosby.  Other women reached out to the victims also with similar stories, but were not willing to risk the public opprobrium that came with testifying.  At the end, they didn’t have to.  Cosby settled for an undisclosed amount.  None of the other women sued him.  The story resurfaced again when Cosby announced he’d star in a new show playing a wise family patriarch.

This is the kind of story that I don’t want to believe. As one commentator suggested, who wants to live in a world where Dr. Huxtable is a serial rapist? But Dr. Huxtable was a character as is the Bill Cosby we know from the media, whose image was undoubtedly carefully crafted by public relations agents and managers. The reality is that when thirteen women who have nothing to gain, put their careers and reputations at stake to speak their truth about a powerful man, I believe them. I’m disgusted at Bill Cosby.

I’m also disgusted that he’s given a pass. Brian Copeland, a local comedian whom I consider a friend, proudly posted a photo of himself next to Cosby on his Facebook page. I commented with links to interviews with two of the women whom Cosby raped, Tamara Green and Barbara Bowman.  Brian deleted them, as he deleted other comments about Cosby’s sexual assaults, arguing that “Bill Cosby is a friend”.  If someone is famous enough, rich enough, or is your friend, the fact that he drugs and rapes women apparently is of no consequence. It’s of even of less consequence to NBC and anyone else who hopes to make money from him.

The impunity that Bill Cosby enjoys does nothing but encourage other  would-be-rapists to act on their drives.  People who support Woody Allen, have argued that his daughter’s allegations that he molested her as a child are not credible because other children have not come out with similar allegations.  In this case, fourteen women tell similar stories, showing a pattern that spanned decades.   But if you like Bill Cosby, it’s easy enough to dismiss them, make up reasons why they don’t deserve to be believed.  By doing so, of course, you help support the culture of rape in which we live.

Sexual assault is different from other crimes in that it most often happens in private, without witnesses.  When the rapist and his victim know each other, it usually becomes a “she says/he says” scenario, with consent as the main issue.  Indeed, Cosby did claim that he had consensual sex with the woman who sued him.  Whatever physical evidence there is, can, after all, only prove sex – even bruises can be argued to come from consensual “rough sex“.   So-called “date rape drugs” dissipate from the body so quickly, that prosecutions in those cases are extremely difficult.   

Bill Cosby is a rapist.  Fourteen women have said so, and there is no reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t be believed.  He will not go to jail for what he did – and, given due process considerations, he probably shouldn’t -,  but he should at least suffer the same social opprobrium that he subjected his victims to.

 

(This article has been modified for grammar).

Open Letter to Judge Marco Roldan

Missouri Court Cites Woman for Bringing Breastfeeding Baby to Jury Duty

A Missouri judge has actually cited a breastfeeding mother for bringing her baby with her to jury duty!  This is the letter I sent him about it.

Judge Marco Roldan
Judge Marco Roldan 

Dear Judge Roldan,

 Like many other women across the nation I’ve learned about your mistreatment of a breastfeeding mother that was called for jury duty under you.  The woman, like any other breastfeeding mother in her situation, brought the baby with her.  Your response was to criminally cite her.
I don’t know you, so I don’t know if your actions are based in a complete disregard for mothers, for breastfeeding, for babies or for women.  It’s difficult to believe that you did not realize that the options that you offered the juror were not realistic and that they would put the baby in danger.
You suggested that the mother leave her baby at home or bring someone with her to take the baby and feed it during breaks.  Leaving aside the question of where the mother could find a babysitter to do this job and how she could pay her, which is not a trivial matter for a stay at home mom, these suggestions show a complete lack of understanding and concerns for the needs of breastfeeding babies.
First of all, breastfed babies are often fed on demand.  The baby cries or behaves in a distinctive way letting the mom know she’s hungry, and then mom picks her up and feeds her.  How often this happens depends on the baby, some do it every half an hour, some every 2 or 3, but the idea of letting a baby cry itself out and be hungry until the mom is ready to feed him has been proven to be cruel and traumatic for babies.
Your suggestion that the mother “pump” is equally ignorant.  Pumping is not something that breastfeeding women, in particular first-time mothers, can casually do. Pumping is an extremely inefficient way of getting milk out.  I was fairly good at it and it would take me 20 minutes hooked to a hospital-grade pump to get 4 oz of milk. If I used an electric one-breast pump, I’d be lucky to get 1 oz in 20 minutes.  That is definitely not enough for a baby.  And it takes time to learn how to pump efficiently.  A mom who has never done it, is unlikely to take on to it immediately.  I did not read that you offered her the services of a lactation consultant or to buy her a state of the art pump so she could serve.
Even if she could pump (and assuming that she would have stayed up the night before to pump so she could leave the milk for the baby), how do you know that the baby in question would take a bottle? Many breastfed babies don’t. It’s either breastfeeding or going hungry.  Do you actually believe it’s OK to let a baby go hungry?
Frankly, your lack of concern for this mother is deeply troubling.  If you treat a woman who is trying to fulfill her civic duty – she actually showed up to jury duty! — with so much contempt, how do you treat criminal defendants? How do you treat any other woman that comes before you?
As an outsider, I cannot believe that you can possibly be a fair judge.  Your lack of concern and humanity prevents that.
Honestly, I think you should resign and find a career where you cannot so easily harm others.
Sincerely,
Margarita Lacabe
a mom