My Visible Life

I want people to like me.

I want people to like me, and understand me, and it stresses me out.

This is a problem I admit to having, and it is a problem that many people have. It is a problem because it interferes with and bogs down my ability to see real life in full-blown clarity.

The problem is not that I don’t like myself — I love myself, and I say that with maybe a little bit of narcissism but also with the genuine comfortability of who I am, and acceptance of my personality. I don’t always love what I do, but I do love myself. But I sometimes worry about whether or not other people love me.

Which is so dumb. There are plenty of people who show me that they care about me, but perhaps they’re not the people whose affection I search for — a fact that kind of makes me an asshole. I sometimes worry so much about everyone else liking me that it overshadows my respect for those who really do care.

This worry also prevents me from getting work done. For example, I spend so much time sitting on Facebook, thinking of something clever to post or liking other people’s posts… All that time could be spent writing, or going outside and enjoying the moment. But instead it is spent feeding myself to society, hoping that it will somehow improve my likeability.

Which has really been a problem in the past few days, because this week, I deactivated my Facebook account.

I plan on login back on at some point in the future; and I even still use the Facebook Messenger app (go figure, you can still contact any of your Facebook friends even when your account isn’t active). But I needed a break from the actual, physical thing that Facebook has become.

There were multiple factors in my decision — one of which is that I allow myself to get sucked into ridiculous comment-arguments that serve no purpose but to fortify the opinions that we already have, while looking down our noses at the “other” arguing against us. It’s stupid; it’s petty; and yet I continue to do it. It’s because I’m passionate about certain subjects; and I get that. I’m willing to deal with the fact that sometimes I act out of emotion instead of ignoring things that aren’t worth my time. But with that acceptance, I realize it’s probably not a good idea to put myself in those scenarios.

But deactivating Facebook has also led me to understand something extremely freeing: I use Facebook as a device to feel more liked, more connected.  This sounds great, given my desire for likeability and connection. But am I actually obtaining these things? Maybe, but in terms of quantity, not quality. Facebook allows us surface-level interaction with multitudes of people, but it never allows us to deepen our relationships. Sometimes we get caught up in the quantity part, and forget that depth is even a thing to be achieved.

In the three days since I’ve been on Facebook vacation, I have felt a pretty visceral amount of withdrawal. My fingers still automatically type Facebook into the browser when I’m bored; the amount of times that I’ve found myself on the login screen without even realizing what I’m doing is alarming. I’ve also felt at times like I’m missing out on things — I don’t see the updates of my acquaintances from high school and college, for instance. I could just message people and ask them what’s new with their lives, but I don’t feel close enough to do so — a point that is, actually, literally the point. I like reading about their lives, but I don’t want to interact with them.

The weirdest thing, however, is that not having Facebook sharply decimates the amount of people who know about my life. I have a Twitter, but only a handful of friends follow me there; in the past, I would always divide my attention between Facebook and Twitter, knowing that I garner a larger audience from Facebook. Now, I feel a slight tension in the fact that my life is going by nearly unnoticed.  To the eye of social media, I am nearly invisible.

That will be the truth even for this blog post. A lot of people would typically read my blog via Facebook. Posting now will significantly decrease my readership (as if it was actually significant in the first place).

Why am I saying all this? Am I bemoaning my decision to deactivate Facebook? Actually, no. It’s a freeing thing, to realize that the things I do now are for my own benefit, not for the world’s. Sure, right now it’s a bit painful, but I look forward to the time when that pain is replaced with liberation. I want to be a little bit more me, and a little less other people’s expectations. I want to stop worrying about whether something is funny enough to say, or will evoke the right amount of tenderness, or anything external instead of how it makes me feel. I want to start viewing life as something to look forward to, not as something to craft into something more visible.

So I’m sticking to my guns on the “No Facebook” thing. I’ll be back eventually… Just not until I’ve stopped viewing Facebook as a lifeline. Not until I strengthen the friendships of those who still keep in touch with me (read: those who are worth staying connected to). And not until I’ve steered myself to do better things with my time than worry about my visible life.

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“Mumma, that dark man saved me!” (And Other Labels)

When I was maybe seven years old, I went to the beach with a group of people from my church. I was wading in the water at about shoulder-level, when I accidentally walked right into a large hole. As my feet plummeted downward, so, unfortunately, did my head. Shocked from the abruptness of the fall, I could not get enough of a bearing to actually start swimming — though I was at least smart enough to put my hands up so that they stuck out of the water, like little beacons.

One of the members of our party, an adult named Lenny, saw my hands and came over, lifting me out of the hole and placing me in more shallow water. I sputtered a bit, shyly thanked him, and then ran over to my mother, and as the story now goes down in history forever and ever, said, “Mumma, that dark man saved me!”

Lenny is Cape Verdean, a nationality which refers to the cluster of islands off the northwest coast of Africa. Cape Verdeans have skin tones ranging from light to dark, a result of the blend of African and Portuguese history of the country. While many darker-skinned Cape Verdeans identify as black, many of those living in the US take offense to being called African American. I’m sure there are a hundred different answers for what a Cape Verdean would categorize themselves as, depending on their own personal connection with their heritage… but to seven-year old Sam, Lenny was a “dark man”.

Labels are a funny thing. They are supposed to be a tool to identify, but so often they become tainted by social stigmas. There was a period of time growing up that I was afraid of identifying someone as black, in case it came off as insensitive — I would often resort to describing black friends as “the girl with the really big eyes” or “the guy who always wears a sports jersey” over calling them black, picking any feature over the most easily discernible one to help the conversant identify them. This is more embarrassing than calling someone a “dark man”… I was avoiding a person’s blackness by ignoring it.

This kind of “color blindness”, while intended to be inclusive, just made things worse: ignoring the way that someone identifies themselves is not doing them any favors. In fact, ignoring is sometimes the biggest slap in the face. So is mislabeling. Lenny doesn’t like being called African American; he identifies as Cape Verdean — though he never lived there, it is his heritage. Additionally, I used to work with a Brazilian black man who also hated being called African American — “I’m Brazilian,” he would say. He had lived the better part of his life in Brazil, and that was the cultural definer that he connected with.

imageI used to be a little bit embarrassed when my mother would tell the story of Lenny and me, but at some point I realized that at the time, all my brain was doing was reporting what my eyes saw. I didn’t understand the difference between African American and Cape Verdean, and for whatever reason, the word “black” didn’t even come to my mind — as a seven-year old, I was probably still thinking in terms of Crayola colors, and Lenny was certainly not black in that sense. And luckily, my label was not insinuating anything — just identifying. If I were to talk about how “every time I walk down the street in Harrisburg, some black man will ask me for a cigarette” (yes, man who came into the Cinema with this vendetta, I’m calling you out), that is an insinuation. There is a specific message that you are conveying by singling that imagined person out as black.

We’ve seen these insinuations scattered throughout daily interactions. Sometimes it’s verbal — as in the previous example, people will tack on a descriptor that incriminizes or targets someone, often without even realizing they’re doing it. Or maybe it’s a physical reaction — old ladies clutching their purses when a black man walks by, or a gas station attendant suddenly becoming more alert when someone walks into the store.

It is the same subconscious message officers send when they react differently to a black man than a white man at a traffic stop; it is the same subconscious message that people send when they see the flashing lights of a police car and immediately freeze up, regardless of what they’re doing. Humanity is known to attach extraordinary amounts of meaning to simple labels, whether they mean to or not.

So the original purpose of labels — to differentiate, or identify the unordinary — can easily be distorted. But what if we went back to the basics? What if we used labels to understand each other, to break down barriers? Sounds pretty contradictory. But whether it’s your race, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs, labels can be a point of connection just as much as they can be an insinuation. If labels can be used as a construct for negative associations, they can also be used for the positive — they can be helpful in navigating your own world, in pinpointing what you personally identify with.

Sometimes people have a genuinely difficult time deciding which label they identify most with, and sometimes people don’t want to be labeled, period. So how do we know what to call someone?

We ask, guys.

This is actually more difficult than it sounds, because a lot of people worry about offending, or looking stupid by asking a question. But dialogue like this is kind of what it’s all about — it strips away stereotypes and gets people relating on a more personal basis.

I know I’ve talked about categorization multiple times in different blog posts, but this is an idea that I am kind of a fanatic about: putting people in boxes to understand them is not a bad thing. It’s when you keep that person in a box after you’ve made your analysis that is dangerous. So, for example, if I were to look at a black woman and say, “This woman is black,” then that tells me something about her. That hints about some aspects of her life — what interactions she may deal with on a regular basis, that she may use different hair products than me, etc. BUT. That in no way insinuates that by knowing she is black, I now know everything about her life — her upbringing, her world views, etc. That kind of assumption would be keeping this woman in the box — the stereotype. Many people dip their hands into many boxes, but those boxes do not singularly encapsulate who they are.

Asking someone how they would like to be identified is the first step in taking someone out of the box. The more we know each other — the more we humanize each other — the less likely it will be that we fall back on the stereotypes, and make inadvertant insinuations about someone. Maybe it will gain you a new friend. Maybe it will save a life.

Ask someone what they’d like you to know about them, instead of just assuming you already know. You may get a really fascinating conversation out of it.

 

Divided We Fall

Two more black men have died from police brutality.

I know that statement has a lot of weight to it, and I know there will be a lot of people who find fault in the words that I use. But Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside a convenience store, and he was pinned to the ground and shot to death. And Philandro Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light, and he was shot to death. By police. So call it what you will, but I call it police brutality.

I feel like the majority of people who will cry foul at that comment also cry foul about concepts like systemic racism; they probably hold the belief that white people are persecuted just as much as black people, if not more. Perhaps even the idea of more gun restrictions gets them riled up. Is this you? Are you angry that people are placing so much emphasis on the lives of black people? Go ahead, argue your point. Your voice has probably already been heard, when their voices have so often not.

I know I take my own medicine when I assume the above statements to be true about the same people. But again and again, I see these correlations, and again and again it troubles me that prejudice shades the eyes of those willing.

You say that anyone should have the right to carry a gun, but when a black man carries one (legally, and doesn’t use it), that qualifies him to be shot by the police.

You are against a series of higher gun control measures which would prevent suspected terrorists from obtaining weapons, but you will most likely blame a black man’s death on his prior convictions (for possession of marijuana, of all things).

Stop making excuses. Stop trying to hem and haw through the specifics of the events that continue to happen, generalizing when it suits you and pulling out the specific details only if it proves your point. This nation is divided as it is. Why do we have to further divide the trenches with more blood? Why can’t we see people as people — not as objects that strengthen our arguments, not as stereotypes that will further ingrain our prejudices, but as people? For the love of all humanity, why?

I’m so sick of people trying to justify their prejudice to make themselves feel like they’re an okay person. I’m sick of people saying, “Oh, they’re hurting? Well, look at what has happened to me.” We try to cover up the things about ourselves, about our country, that make us feel guilty, and say, “Well, that’s not racism. That was just an accident.” Or even worse, we say, “He deserved it.” Both of these things fuel the fire. If racism really is systemic (which, for the love of God, it is), then it’s going to continue to be that way until the system changes.

I don’t know how to accomplish that. But I do know that those trenches still exist. The fact that they do is a blatant cry for help in a place that puts unity in its name. How dare we call ourselves the United States of America, when there is still segregation in our midst, still a lack of understanding of whose lives matter, still oppression seeping into everyday life for so many people. Get your act together, America. Otherwise, I don’t want to know the path we’ll go down.