My Thoughts on Mother’s Day: Reposted

I posted this on Facebook four years ago. Decided to share it again.

 

A lot of people are posting for Mother’s Day, calling for an appreciation for their mothers and the sharing of their happiness that is related to their mothers, which often translates into a monetary purchase. I get that. However, there are many motherless children, and there are those who do not feel happy or good about their mothers. Not all mothers are willing or able to be there for their children.

Every woman is NOT naturally good at being present and loving towards her child. Some women fail miserably at motherhood and parenting. The view that every woman is capable of loving a child because she has the ability to bring one into being is a myth propagated by patriarchal thinking that says that all women MUST desire to bear children and thus aspire to become mothers. Of course, I am proud and thankful for the women and mothers who indeed are present and loving (esp for the ones in my life), but the truth is that many women are NOT present or loving, and to give them credit that they have not earned or do not deserve is something that has always been painful for me to watch amongst my friends and family.

Today [Mother’s Day 2017], please be conscious, especially as you wish others a “Happy Mother’s Day,” that this day is quite constructed for socio-economic purposes, and that that kind of widespread promotion, which encourages a kind of groupthink, silences many and compels them to follow the crowd and lie to themselves as to how they really feel about their mothers and thus about themselves. This Mother’s Day is expected to gross more than $23.6 billion dollars; perhaps the most ever in U.S. history.

If you love and appreciate your mother, honor her, first and foremost, with a life that is lived everyday authentically you and human! And, if there is little to no love between you and your mother, be true to yourself and your experience with your mother by finding an honest way to honor and give voice to the feelings you have about your mother and your experience with her.

© 2017 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Dude, Read My Book! Tanner Colby, Kansas City, and the ‘Psychological Wages of Whiteness’

I was excited when I heard that Tanner Colby was coming to Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss his “best-selling” book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. His being at Rockhurst (a private Catholic/Jesuit institution), held on Monday, April 18, 2016, was promoted to be a “conversation on diversity, inclusion, and cross-cultural communication,” and it was facilitated by Lewis Diuguid who is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

A little bit about my excitement: I had read parts of Colby’s book at the recommendation of my colleagues at the University of Missouri Kansas City. Initially, I thought those parts that I had read detailing what is known locally and perhaps beyond as the “Troost racial divide” in Kansas City (what Colby describes on pg. 77 as “the Berlin Wall of Kansas City”) were worthwhile and compelling. Kansas City is a place that has a very visible racial divide between black and white neighborhoods/residents/communities; and, throughout the city there are many pockets or spaces of uneven development that articulate socio-spatial disparities and the complexities between race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. At one time in Kansas City, black residents couldn’t even think of going west of Troost to socialize and to own own a home. Kansas City’s earliest and most notable racial divisions were set in place largely because of the the infamous developer/real estate practices of J.C. Nichols (and others) who crafted racially restrictive covenants to create exclusive all-white neighborhoods and spaces in areas that were once the white suburban hinterlands of Kansas City and the neighboring suburbs of the Kansas, and thus what we know as the Kansas City metropolitan area is “hypersegregated.” Unfortunately, Nichols wasn’t alone. The landscape and thus many of the neighborhoods located east of Troost are mostly black, poor and lacking in development and resources (you might want to check out this recent video documentary on KC, “Our Divided City,” but please note that I think that it is lacking on several accounts!). They were created through the exploitation of human fears of the other or the unknown. Due to racist real estate practices, white xenophobia about black humanity and any other culturally-othered groups for that matter (including Latinos), the landscape west of Troost has been constructed as white, privileged, and a preferential focal point of local community and neighborhood development. In contrast, the landscape east of Troost has been consistently othered, ignored and demonized by real estate and business developers, .e.g., one might say many areas or neighborhoods east of Troost are consistently underdeveloped.

Ironically, Rockhurst University is situated in 49/63, which is a neighborhood on the east side of Troost. In the 1960s, residents of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition organized against racist real estate practices  and real estate brokers; specifically they stood up to Bob Wood, who rather blatantly took advantage of its white residents’ racial fears. In his book, Colby  wrote about Wood  – a real estate developer – who openly spread the word to neighborhood whites that blacks would be moving to the neighborhood and he then offered to buy their homes at a low rate and then resell them to blacks at a higher rate (This is called “blockbusting and it is what most decent and rational people would characterize as predatory and unethical lending). In an effort to stop Wood, the organization of the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition created a local movement to mitigate neighborhood white flight and the furthering of the “racialization of space” (for more on this subject I recommend Kevin Fox Gotham’s book: Race, Real-Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000).

Upon hearing of Colby’s talk at Rockhurst, I wondered how he would articulate the basis for his book and I was definitely curious about how he would talk about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication (especially given the fact that he did not grow up in the Kansas City metropolitan area nor does he live here at the present time – he lives in Brooklyn, NY). But, I regret to say that Colby’s delivery and conversation about his book and about race, racism, diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication were so disappointing that I don’t know if I will ever use it or recommend it again. Here is why.

Lewis Diuguid, who first-off reminded me of “Grady” on Sanford and Son, was probably the most non-challenging facilitator who could have been chosen to moderate the talk with Tanner Colby. If you know anything about Sanford and Son (a 1970s sitcom – and it re-aired in the 1980s ) and if you know Mr. Diuguid then you might understand why my reference to the character “Grady” is even worth mentioning (if not maybe it will come to you when you watch this link). On the other hand, I do think that Diuguid asked some very useful questions, like “How long did you [Colby] spend in Kansas City researching for the book?” – to which his answer was one month; and ,”What are your thoughts on racism?” I also think the conversation with Mr. Colby would have been very different had the questions been asked by someone who didn’t talk like a therapist, but most of all if the questions were asked by someone who has made the study of racism and urban systems central to his or her life’s work. Indeed, this is NOT to say that journalists like Diuguid and Colby cannot or do not speak intelligently on the racialization of urban space, but, if CNN or other media outlets have anything to show us it is that often high-profiled journalists’ understandings of these issues are often quite limited and often quite elementary.

Secondly, I took issue with Colby’s claim that there is nothing that can be done about the racism or racist thinking of his generation or those otherwise known as Generation X (according to Colby “they are already half-baked”). Much to my dismay, Colby believes that there is hope for his children (he has two under the age of five) to overcome racism and the legacy of racist real-estate practices. This was shocking and beyond comprehension to me. I mean how on earth are the children of “half-baked” parents going to learn from parents who model acquiescence or compliance with the status quo; how will they learn to  make or be friends with black or other non-white people when their parents have admittedly failed to do this? Is it the responsibility of the society at large? Or maybe it is their primary or secondary teachers who must, according to Tanner Colby, have the ability to do something other or greater than their parents? I found it interesting and even compelling that it was the subject of friendship that gave him the initial motivation to write this book. Colby noted that it was his realization that he did not have any black friends that led to this book project (which was accepted by his publisher although initially he did not have an intended audience or an idea of “who would buy the book”). I think it’s pretty clear what Colby needs to do if he wants more black friends – as one person in the audience pointed out quite audibly – : to make friends with black people “you have to go where they are.”

Third, this whole idea of making friends with black people, as the basis for the book, is dripping in white guilt vis à vis white privilege. On the one hand, I do think that Colby has some important things to say to people – mostly white people – who have never thought about why they do not have many or any black friends, nor why they have little to no knowledge about the structural and spatial production and the racialization of space. However, when I did a little research on Tanner Colby he has openly asserted in at least one article that whites have all the power and that blacks are dependent upon whites for this power which leads to access. I found this sentiment particularly condescending and unfortunate. No doubt, this attitude [highlighted in the comment below] is standing in Mr. Colby’s way of making friends with black people. In a very poignant way it reflects what the late sociologist W.E.B. DuBois termed “the psychological wages of whiteness,” or the belief (philosophy) that whites in the U.S. are, by virtue of their skin privilege, entitled to material accumulation and social status.

…The result is that black people end up with integration fatigue. Many black writers responded to [a] Reuter’s poll with essays on why they didn’t want white friends, and didn’t need them. White friends weren’t worth the bother.

This is their prerogative, but ultimately, it’s to society’s disadvantage because white people control the access to, well, just about everything. If you don’t have white friends you might have a decent job and a comfortable life, but all the doors of opportunity in this country are not open to you.

Listening to his lecture, I got that feeling from Mr. Colby. Implicitly, he communicates a kind of superiority and apologetic posture for whites who have fled to the suburbs – and this notwithstanding that he is an Obamaphile. Being a fan of Obama will not solve his dilemma: his lack of or desire for black friends. Rather, what might help him gain more black friends and understand why so many other whites like him do not have many black friends (although I don’t know what number of friends he is trying to achieve) is that he drop the “possessive investment in whiteness,” which is a term enunciated by Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz in his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. Black communities, neighborhoods, people are not waiting on white people to befriend or to save them. Nor are they waiting for Generation X’ers like Colby who see themselves as half-baked and ineffectual when it comes to the problem of race and racial integration but who think that miraculously, somehow, their children will be able to do what they have not done or modeled before them. In response to a rather abrupt question from someone in the audience about whether Colby now has any black friends – asked by a person who actually grew up on the east side of Troost – Colby defensively responded, “Dude, read my book!” And there it was. Colby’s knee-jerk response demonstrated an attitude that is not all that uncommon for journalist-types or writers who believe that because they have written a book, or because they have become “best-selling” authors that that is actually doing something or anything to change things for the better. And, here is the thing: if I go to hear and see an author in person and that author cannot or will not explain the subject of his book in a clear and concise way, or answer tough questions without kind of losing it, then why would I read or buy the book (and on such a hot-button subject for crying out loud)? Because he has written it? Because he is white? C’mon man, really?

And, if reading the book or buying Colby’s book is written by a man who 1) sees himself as half-baked when it comes to changing social and spatial inequities, and who 2) does not understand or articulate how it is that white people have profited from their identity as whites while also maintaining a possessive investment in whiteness and the psychological wages of whiteness that have dubbed them into thinking that black people need them to be valuable or worthy of being in possession of fair and decent housing, or education, or employment or much of anything else that is needed to survive in this terribly racist social and spatial reality that we live in, especially in urban places or cities like Kansas City, then what is the purpose of reading Colby’s book? What words of wisdom does he actually have to give? And why in the world is he invited to speak about diversity, inclusion and cross-cultural communication? What qualifications make him a go-to writer on the subject of race, diversity and inclusion in Kansas City? For crying out loud, just before writing this book Tanner Colby had NO BLACK FRIENDS!

What do I think about Tanner Colby and his book now that I have had the chance to see him talk about it in person? Here is what I think: Dude, if you want friendship with black people you’ve got to make friends with black people. And, unfortunately, history has shown us that when whites have committed to being in authentic friendship with black people (which is not about liking people on Facebook, nor is it simply a matter of being in close proximity to black because of work, church or working on a political campaign); when whites have decided to situate themselves as equal partners with blacks and non-whites they have often been labeled as race traitors and in some cases they have been killed by those who hate to see and know that blacks and whites have aligned and especially when that has been to break down the structural and spatial barriers that have been constructed and placed between them to make them believe falsehoods about themselves (usually upwards or downwards). Reading a book or even writing a book does nothing to change the fact that whites and blacks have been divided, and we will continue to be divided no matter how many Tanner Colbys are remarkably able to write and publish books because they have realized that they have no black friends.

To all the Tanner Colby types out there I will say this: if you want to be friends with black people, you’ve got to be willing to put yourself on the line with black people and to know and treat them with respect and dignity as your equals and you cannot see yourselves as their saviors. On the other hand, I regret to say that doing this, seeking friendship with black people and giving up a savior’s complex also means that you must let go of the the possessive investment in whiteness although doing that in a culture that is dominated by thinking that says that “white is right” will be seen as “treason” to whiteness, and thus if you challenge or offend the ideological power of whiteness you will probably also be targeted, lied on, demonized, hated and perhaps killed by those who have a vested interest in keeping black and white people and their communities separate and unequal. But, Dear Mr. Colby, if you are not willing to break your loyalty to whiteness then…Dude, it is probably best that you stick to writing books while the rest of us get down to the nitty-gritty of stopping racism in its tracks and transforming society and making neighborhoods and real-estate development more equitable and more diverse (like the 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition in Kansas City was able to do many decades ago). In the end it will be because of these people and these efforts that your children will be able overcome the awful legacy of segregation that has led to the construction of so many horrible socio-spatial racial divides. And, unfortunately, they will not learn how to do this by reading your book!

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

P.S. I would like to send my sincere thanks to a very important but private person for helping me to develop my thinking for this blog. He knows who he is.

Why I Didn’t Get Married

First of all, this blog is long overdue. I have been meaning to write on this topic for months, but I could never bring myself to do it with everything else that has been happening in my life for the last four to six months. But, from day one, when the words came to me, I felt that it was very important for me to blog about marriage. So, here it goes.

Frequently, I am asked about marriage. The closer that I get to being fifty years old, I guess, for some, it seems an appropriate question for a woman. And, for some, I suppose that it seems strange that a woman has managed to stay unmarried with no children in her adult life. I’ve been close to marriage once. It has been more than twenty five years since I was engaged to be married, but it was an engagement that lasted all of two months. The deceptive actions of my ex-fiance made the idea of marriage – with him – simply unimaginable. Now, when I look back, I don’t regret backing out of that engagement for a moment, but when it happened, when it was clear that our relationship would not lead to marriage, I was devastated. But, that was to be understood; I was in my early twenties and marriage was an idea that I had been taught to embrace from my childhood. To be more exact I would say that I was indoctrinated into embracing and believing in the idea of marriage.

Today, marriage is not a priority for me. In fact, there are times when it is not really an idea that appeals to me; at least not with so many relationships and marriages in the U.S. falling to pieces. One book captures this concern. In Is Marriage for White People: How the African American Decline Affects Everyone, professor of law at Stanford, Ralph Richard Banks queries:

White adults, men and women alike, are more than twice as likely to be single now as in 1970. More American women in their early thirties are single today than ever in our nation’s history. African Americans lead the marriage decline; other groups follow…Still, marriage has diminished more among African Americans than among any other Americans, including whites with whom I typically contrast African Americans for ease of exposition. Black women are only half as likely as white women to be married (11), and more than two times as likely as white women never to marry (12). As others marry, black women often remain alone (13).

I came to terms, years ago, with the idea of being alone, as in being not married. At first I was not married due to a failed relationship – or so it seemed. Later, I was not not married by choice. Why? Well, by my early thirties I came to understand that being alone does not mean being without male companionship or intimacy. I do not have trouble finding men to date. Shucks, “some of my best friends are men,” and I often enjoy the presence of a man for fun and relaxation. However, rarely have I found that many of those men would make good or worthwhile lifetime partners. Yes, every now and then I meet a man who is quite intriguing, but marriage is the last thing on my mind. Most of the time, I’m just trying to ascertain what is possible with that man. Ultimately, I want to know can we get along! Do we have what it takes to last as a couple? If we can’t get through the first month or two, or six, without too much trouble, then, duh, there is no going forward. I am simply not into the idea of getting married just for marriage’s sake.

Today, my approach to marriage is similar to my approach to teaching and to my life as an academic in general. I expect college students to put their all into doing well in a course; and, likewise, I put my all into what I am teaching and writing. Furthermore, I believe that we are all students of life, and with that comes recognizing the lessons we learn about ourselves and love. I try to give my all when I feel love with a man, but, a man who shows me that he is not willing or capable of giving his all and of doing the necessary emotional work of relationship is not, as some might say, “marriage material.” In fact, such a man is not really “relationship material.” I enjoy being in an intimate relationship with a man; it is where I do some of my best work, so to speak. I enjoy talking and working things out, but rarely do I meet men who enjoy talking and working things out. On the flipside, I find that many men enjoy the fun of being in relationships, but they often avoid the not-so-fun part of being in relationship. And there is at least one good reason for that: when you open up yourself to someone of interest, you are making your whole self visible and thus seen. All the good parts are visible, but so are all of the not-so-good parts. Being seen wholly like this makes us all vulnerable and thus open to pain or hurt. Patriarchy and the social construction of masculinity teaches many men (from childhood) to avoid being so seen with such vulnerability. One of my favorite authors, feminist bell hooks, has explained, that boys, especially black boys, are often only seen in part, not wholly. For some, going through life not being seen as vulnerable, often expressed as cold, hard or angry, is a means to surviving traumatic and painful conditions. The downside is that refusing to be seen as vulnerable and making oneself invisible to avoid being seen as a way of life can also lead one down a very lonely and dark path. On the contrary, I have found that being vulnerable is the way to thrive in life and in love. Embracing our vulnerability (being willing to share our whole selves with another) is the lifeline to experiencing a good, healthy relationship. Of course, this kind of vulnerability, which leads to intimacy, doesn’t happen overnight, but gradually and with time and effort it has beautiful and rewarding consequences for those who are willing to make themselves visible to each other, scars and all, and in spite of the fact that they might get hurt. Unfortunately, the possibility of getting hurt goes with the territory of relationship.

So, before I close this blog I will say openly that I am not against getting married, nor do I think that it is something that is only for white people. However, I will say that until people – men and women no matter what color or class – are willing to be seen as vulnerable then marriage is not something to be embraced or taken seriously. That said, I will also say that instead of constantly finding paradigms to fit ourselves into, such as marriage, we must endeavor to find the wherewithal to construct healthy social or relationship paradigms that work for us in the here and now. And, whatever relationship paradigms we construct for ourselves, must be specific to who we are, what we need and want from ourselves, others, and life in general. Indeed, the relationship paradigms that we create must be a reflection of our own lived experiences; and that will include the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In conclusion, if a person is not good at developing healthy relationships – ones that are based on respect, honesty, equity, and loving kindness –  then how is marriage imaginable? No marriage will survive if there is disrespect, dishonesty, inequity or animosity for the other, unless, I suppose, there is some kind of covert arrangement or transaction at work, or, unless the person is willing to live with such expressions. On the other hand, it is very important to recognize one’s own autonomy or worth and completeness apart from anybody else. Thus, what I have learned from life is that I, as a black woman, do not have to be married to be happy or fulfilled in life. Being happy or fulfilled is something that is up to me to cultivate, and so far I do not require or need marriage or children to find fulfillment or happiness in life. Yes, it is always great to share myself with a man that I care about, and I have known some very interesting men, but I can love a man wholly without being married and without bringing children into this world. There is nothing wrong with being alone and the happiness that I feel and know for myself is something I know and create from within, alone. And, right now, there is nothing more important than cultivating my own happiness for myself.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

 

Are You Coming Back Tomorrow?

Recently, I have been substitute teaching in public schools, and just as I was leaving an assignment today one of the administrators turned to me and asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Immediately, I was struck by her question and by the look in her eyes. On the one hand, she looked at me with the expectation that I would say no (which is not all that unusual for substitute teachers). On the other, I could see her hoping that I would say yes. Upon my answer: “Yes, I will be back tomorrow,” she seemed pleasantly relieved.

As I walked out the school doors, the question stayed with me: “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Of course, I knew it was about the need to fill a teacher’s absence. I also knew that she was familiar with the challenges facing substitute teachers. Today’s young people are quite troubled, and they are difficult to understand. There have been times that my patience was short (or not long enough); but, then there have been days, like today, where I wanted to be there for the students, regardless of their outrageous behaviors.

Today, while we were playing outside, as a sort of reward for making it through a tough day, I saw the students’ eyes light up as I announced that I would be with them for the next two days. In their facial and bodily expressions, I saw that same pleasant relief that I saw in the administrator’s eyes in response to hearing that I would be back. Some young students are not used to seeing the same substitute for more than two days in a row. Many substitute teachers are there just for the day, and they have the option to accept or reject an assignment. And sometimes that is a rejection or the refusal to deal with the students’ behaviors. However, in that moment, when I said that I would be back, I could sense a subtle kind of trust in the eyes of several youngsters. And I thought, yes, there is something about continuity and dependability that makes us all feel good. When someone assures us, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” it conveys a sense of safety and companionship; which are feelings that we can all appreciate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and companionship these days and what it means to travel through life with willing and mindful partners. Being in the role of a teacher, I often look into the eyes of children who have seen more abandonment and loneliness that most of us would care to know about. Sometimes, after a trying day as a substitute teacher, my own life experiences seem very small compared to what I imagine theirs to be. Every now and then, when I see a young student fighting or crying, I know there are things happening that are beyond their control and behind the scenes that cause their acting out and defiance. As an adult I have a lot more control over my environment and my outlook on life. Today there was one young boy in particular who was fighting and being disruptive the entire time. Finally, when the day was almost done, I stood next to him, called his name, took a deep breath and said, “I know you can do better.” Just in that moment, he looked at me out of the side of his left eye with pleasant relief, and it was the same expression the administrator gave me on my way out. Remembering that, walking out of the building to my car, I felt good about the day and about that school and about that young boy. And, I said to myself that I would write this piece, because sometimes a simple, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” is enough to give us some relief.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Shoulda Been Gone: When Is Enough Enough?

Certainly, there are times when I have asked myself: why did I stay in that place, that job or that relationship as long as I did? Weren’t there signs or events that happened that should have made it easy for me to move on or move out? I suppose that out of a genuine need to feel that I did all that I could do in a certain place or in a relationship that I have struggled with timing an exit or an ending. Like many, I have struggled with drawing a line in the sand and letting it be. Leaving that line there or saying enough is enough in a place (such as a city) or even in an employment situation is especially difficult when others don’t want you to go or when they expect you to stay (perhaps stuck and unhappy in a city, a job or a relationship like ~ ahem ~ they are). Detaching, particularly where human relationships are concerned, is not always an easy or pleasant thing to do.

I don’t think my struggle with detachment is all that unusual. Compassionate, healthy, loving human beings want to make good decisions, and they worry about others’ feelings, not just their own. On the other hand, selfish, unhealthy, or worse yet, narcissistic, dishonest and delusional human beings could care less about how their decisions affect others; they want and justify what they want no matter what and no matter who suffers in the process, and they frequently inflict a lot of emotional pain and confusion upon themselves and others. How I appreciate displays of compassion and mindfulness. When it is a personal decision (and not the result of emotional or physical intimidation or violence), I respect that sometimes we as human beings keep trying or hoping for better situations or better behavior in people (all the while as we too are doing our best to improve or address our behaviors). Committing one’s self to gaining the best possible outcome is a very respectful, humane effort.

Nevertheless, back to my question: exactly when does one pack it all up and move on down the road? When is it time to let go of a place, a job, a person or even an idea (like a god or a religion) that is no longer fulfilling or that has run its course? There are times when people, places or things are only temporary; when they no longer provide us with a sense of meaning or safety. When that happens, it is time for me to let go, and I have learned that saying “enough is enough” is, at the end of the day, my decision. On the one hand, in making decisions of whether to stay or go, I often talk it out with others ahead of time, but it is not up to the situation or the person or the idea who is no longer enough for me to determine whether I should stay. A conscious movement away from a place, person or idea (especially one that is causing me unhappiness, stress, confusion or misery) is never easy, and to be sure, the act of severing ties with anyone or any thing can be accompanied by unbelievable grief, anxiety and loneliness. But, moving on, no matter what others might say or do to keep you from leaving, or pressuring you in to not doing what you want because they are afraid to end or bring closure to undesirable or outdated relationships with people, places or ideas for themselves (which is something I have personally experienced when exes and/or children are in the picture…and when it comes to gods or religion), is a very powerful act of self-love and self-affirmation. In a world that is constantly abandoning us and encouraging us to abandon ourselves and our agency and to conform to the status quo, it is important that we learn how to 1) take ultimate control of our own lives and choices, and 2) exhibit that power when necessary. When should you be gone from people, jobs, places or ideas that no longer work for you? Be gone when you have had enough, and only you can be the one to say when that is. The others, the ones who are left behind and not happy with you for moving on and taking charge of your own life and destiny will just have to get over it. Or not.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

On the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.: From an Atheist

On occasions, I am asked if I would date a believer, or a person who believes in a god or supernatural being, such as a Supreme Being. Being an atheist, there was a time that I said unequivocally no to that question. But, about two years ago I began to soften my response. For example, in 2012, in an NPR interview with Jamila Bey, I said openly that I was “flexible.”

Recently, I met someone who is a believer, and we connected. Although he is not what I would call a religious enthusiast or fanatic, at times he talks about his god and his faith with subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to inform me that his god is real. Because of my feelings for him, I overlook it, and there are times when I engage him gently with questions about his religious thoughts and philosophies. I am willing to be in this kind of critical engagement with him because 1) I understand his actions; I once did the same kind of thing – used every opportunity to “witness” or share my faith (often when it was not requested) with others; and 2) because it is another way for me to get to know him and the basis for his everyday actions or behaviors in life. And, I have yet to encounter a Christian who does not feel compelled to be vocal about his or her faith. It goes with the territory.

So, what did it for me? How could I allow myself to be in an intimate relationship with a man who believes in something that I don’t? On what grounds is it conscionable that I get along or share myself with a man who does not share the same ideas or philosophies that I hold? These are questions that I am contemplating at length on the 29th anniversary of the Martin Luther Kr., Jr. national holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who challenged the white racist ideology or philosophies of his time. By the 1950s and 60s, those white racist philosophies and socio-political expressions of whiteness were incorporated into federal, local and state policies and institutions, such as urban renewal, which was a federal housing policy that had a disparate impact upon former urban Negro communities, and at a time when urban blacks were fighting institutional oppression at an alarming rate. Throughout my lifetime, I have come to understand Dr. King as a man who stood against social division and exclusion on political and personal grounds. I have also come to know him as a man who believed wholeheartedly in achieving a peaceful coexistence despite everyday unjust behaviors and inhumane practices, here in the U.S. and beyond.

With regard to my political and personal commitments, I have come to realize that I do not want to section myself and my life off to only those who think or behave like me. I want to meet and know others whose lives and philosophies are different from mine and without the compulsion or the need to willfully mock or dismantle their thinking or beliefs, just because they are different from mine. On the other hand, there will be times when I will be openly critical of ideas or philosophies (including religious ones) that are expressed in public that I reject or disagree with; that is something Martin Luther King Jr. did with the power of the spoken word, and he did it mainly from the pulpit, as an American preacher. Likewise, I am fundamentally empowered by the freedom of speech as we know it in a Western way. And, it is that freedom of speech that I rely on, as an atheist, to say publicly that I do NOT believe in gods of any kind. I have that right, even though the majority may respond to that statement or position with hate, rejection or discrimination.

In addition, what I have come to learn is that I am not responsible for the thinking or the belief of others, which, I think, is one reason that I can spend my personal time and person with a man who believes in a supernatural god or ideas. I am not his keeper. I am not responsible for what happens to him when he dies or really at any time for that matter. I do not choose an intimate partner on the basis of what he believes, but on the content of his character. In other words, my being with a man is essentially not predicated on where he lives, or how much money he makes, or how supportive he is of my thinking or behavior. My decision to be intimately involved with a potential partner is not determined by whether or not he believes in a god or whether he shares my worldview. Rather, my being with a man, or being with any person for that matter to accomplish any goal, is rooted in a healthy engagement of ideas and critical thinking. At the end of the day, I want to know who a man is overall. I want to know if he is committed to doing good; to being the best person he can be; I want to know if he is willing to use his talents and skills to help and empower others; and, is he a peaceful, loving person, even when his ideas are not supported or he does not get what he wants.

Indeed, this is not the kind of behavior that I have seen from many atheists or theists who use their positions and philosophies like weapons to discredit those who don’t ascribe to their ideas or theories of reality. These are extreme and unjustifiable attitudes that I cannot support, because the truth of the matter is that others may not choose to walk in the paths that I have taken. We each have our own paths to attend to. When I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., I don’t worry about whether he was a Christian believer or not. I respect and honor him because he was a great human being who courageously endeavored to bring about fairness and equality, and not exclusively for his own clan or Christian friends. Of course, I know that there will always be those who choose to remain divided over philosophies and ideas, but I have lived long enough to know that there is no future in divisiveness, and fortunately I know that there are those who have found the wherewithal to accept those who are different or divergent in thought, word and deed without resorting to contempt, hate and violence, but they are also not willing to let injustice and hatred go unconfronted. This kind of boldness and willingness to speak compassionately and thoughtfully, I think, is a significant part of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And it is, in my humble, atheist opinion, one of the attributes that made him one of the greatest human beings who ever lived on the face of the Earth.

© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

Love, American Style: Valentine’s Day and the Commercialization of Happy

Every two or three months there is a “holiday.” These are special days that are nationalized or christened by the government whereby the public is encouraged to go out and spend money, en masse. Whether it be Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, Americans and those living in these 50 states and I suppose those in American territories, are encouraged to do something that almost always necessitates the spending of money (hence the “political economy” of U.S. holidays).

Of course, every now and then, there is nothing wrong with spending money or offering a kind gesture to acknowledge someone you know and care about. However, Americans tend to take these special days to the extreme. Valentine’s Day, for example, is packaged and marketed for lovers and the words “Happy Valentine’s Day” roll freely from the lips of perfect strangers. Notions of being “happy,” “loving,” “in love,” or headed “towards love” are promoted quite indiscriminately. Nevermind the fact that we live in one of the most violent if not THE most violent nation on the PLANET, especially when it comes to gun violence. What nerve we have to promote the idea of love with a special day called Valentine’s Day, which is named for a Greco-Roman festival that made sport of violence against women!

Those who know me personally and via social media know how I feel about love. The experience and the feeling of love are topics that I often feature and discuss. To love (whether social or individual) is one of the most revolutionary things one can do in a violent or loveless society. And, it is something that we ALL can do. Love, however, is not limited to the expression of positive acceptance or approval, sometimes we love self and others by setting clear boundaries, detaching, or by resisting the abuse of power or position. I have learned from life and from black feminist bell hooks that to love is to do justice; it is to be and act in a manner that is equitable and fair. And I assume that most mature adults know from experience that achieving or articulating fairness, equity, or even justice is not always comfortable or pleasant, especially in personal relationships – because it is there that we learn about ourselves most acutely. There is a cost and sometimes a sacrifice associated with love, and, there is a responsibility that goes along with love and loving, which I suppose is why so many suck at maintaining healthy, loving relationships.

Truth be told, many are not very good at being honest and thus taking responsibility for one’s actions in a relationship is minimal; dishonest people avoid love because it requires a certain degree of accountability to self and to others. Love, American style encourages those who consume more than they give and those who live beyond their means along with many veneers. Love, American style appeals to those who are afraid to be vulnerable and present because, most likely, they are afraid of getting hurt, which is inevitable. Ironically, such people who don’t want the responsibility of love, or the ones who are very afraid of getting hurt tend to be the biggest consumers of special days like Valentine’s Day even when they know that most American marriages end in divorce; and these same folks seek after “the institution of marriage” as if it were not failing exponentially. Love makes the world go ’round, not marriage. And, if you don’t genuinely love yourself before you come to the idea or the question of marriage (by being true to yourself and your feelings), if you are not emotionally able or willing to be loving, vulnerable, equitable, and if you have never truly committed or invested yourself emotionally in another person in or out of marriage, then call it what it is, but don’t call it love. If you are not successful in pre-marital relationships, don’t look to be successful in marriage. It is hypocritical of men (or women) who say they want marriage – that they are “looking” for a wife (or a husband) – when they are not remotely interested or active in establishing committed relationships (i.e., when from day one they say, via words or actions, that they are not looking for anything serious…that they are just “going with the flow”).

In addition, don’t call it love if all you’ve really got to give are “happy” days and quick commercialized, capitalistic arrangements of time and events where, for instance, “happy” is bartered, bought and sold with dinner to the highest bidder, or with the one or ones who cause you, the buyer or financier of all that stuff to feel good, for the time being. In my book, love, American style is where happiness is tied primarily to personal, material and economic success and thus commodified. As far as I’m concerned, you can have all the money in the world; you can own the tallest building, or the biggest mansion, or the most luxurious car; you can be as good looking as Denzel Washington and have everything to achieve the “good life,” and still that would not mean to me that you are good at loving yourself and others. Love, American style, thrives on material-oriented and vapid social interactions that exploit the desire for the accumulation of things, possessions or attention/approval from others; and, the powers that be will market any and everything that is important to us as human beings for profit, because they know that many people will do almost anything to feel loved or happy. In contrast, the practice and the art of loving do not work like that, and the expression of love needs no special day to be apparent or tangible. Love is a feeling and an action, and if you feel love then acknowledge it, act upon it, today and everyday. The hyper-commercialization of love or a day for love will not bring us any closer to the ones we consider special or the ones that we care about. Rather, articulating love and being loving are things that we courageously do on a day-to-day basis to affirm and sustain our humanity and that of those around us, even if it costs us nearly everything to do so.

© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.