Here is what I dreamed two nights ago:
A friend and I are by-standing outside the glass and polished wood doors of a fancy white-people church, watching people stream in for morning services. Along comes a group that includes a blonde woman in her thirties, her husband, his siblings and their mates, and her parents-in-law. The woman’s hair and makeup are perfectly done. And yet, all that she is wearing is a set of pearls and a pair of shiny, skin-tight, completely transparent pedal-pushers, with lace cuffs at the calves. I can see her butt, squeezed and varnished by this absurd garment. Of all the people entering the church, she is the only one who turns back to look at me, noticing that I have seen her. I feel her self-aware eyes and embarrassed, constrained body-language. I turn to my friend and say, did you SEE that? But I am ashamed. The woman is sentient in her predicament, and rather than gossiping about her, I know I ought to reach out to her. The inner doors of the church close for the beginning of the service. I look through a strip of glass, and a big, thuggish man glides up to confront me from the other side, as though being slid into place on a dolly. He has a shaved head, a thick body, small eyes, and a fixed expression of hate and contempt. Is he real? Not really, but I feel fear in the pit of my stomach, nevertheless. End.
When I was a kid, growing up in Atlanta in the 1980’s, rich, white Protestant Christian male supremacy wasn’t something anyone needed to spell out: it was just the way things worked. If you were a vaguely Catholic, nerdy white immigrant girl like me, you knew in your own heart of darkness where in the official social hierarchy that put you. You were not as important as the white boys, or the white girls from good families, but you were more important than most of the Asian, Latino, or Black girls. Where you ranked in relation to boys of color was a confusing tossup, the upshot of which was: stay away from them.
This social schema fit right in with the way the academics were organized at the prep school I attended from sixth grade through high school graduation. You had your smart-smart classes (I mostly lived here); your smart-dumb classes (I lived here for math); your dumb-smart classes (no idea how these went, except that they dissected cats, and AP Bio didn’t, thank God); and your dumb-dumb classes (which is where I would have lived for PE, except that, since physical prowess mattered less than intellectual accomplishment, the most kinetically gifted kids were lumped in with the most physically dissociated, like me).
If you were a person in my position, you could consciously align yourself with the white boys, in a bid for secondhand access to their privileges. Or you could simply fall in love with one of them, and find out the hard way that they, as persons, mattered more than you did. Their freedoms and stories were never intended to be yours. You could be a nice girl, and support the white boys in their accomplishments, cheering their sports games, their grunge bands, or both. Or you could be a not-nice girl, and rebel. In this case, you would not be chosen for awards and positions of leadership. You would disappear from official view, except for insistent reprimands. If anything bad happened to you, it was certainly your fault. You were no one’s.
Really, this landscape offered no refuge for the human heart. Personal connections – especially those that broke with officially accepted categories – were subjected to intense pressures. You could love someone, and have a private space of understanding together, but then that space would smash up against the rigid contours of The Way Things Are.
Ten years after high school, when I returned to Atlanta after living in Hong Kong and in England, my first post-monastic relationship was with a fellow art student, a beautiful Black man who chose the name John Blue Sky. Going out in public together was inevitable performance: people could not resist either telling us how great they thought we were, or conversely, giving us the major side-eye. Intimate space proved difficult, too. My lover wanted to assert his manhood over me, and – though I loved the contact of our bodies – I found his need for dominance repulsive. I moved house and didn’t tell him where I was. We broke up hurt and bewildered, unable to establish a safe haven of shared space.
My dream says, Wherever there is ornamental submissiveness, there is blunt domination. Wherever there is rubbernecking, compassion in action fails. Wherever prayer is done behind closed doors, wherever boundaries between holy and not-holy spaces are drawn, we set ourselves infinitely apart from one another.
Judging by the contents of my FB feed, right now many well-meaning people think that an orgy of liberal-white self-blame is helpful. Compared with nuanced self-inventory and vigorous shadow-eating, I think this strategy is pretty useless. Blame teaches nothing about finding courage to raise one’s voice, and to risk one’s hands, reaching out beyond fear and false categories. Self-loathing is poor practice for learning to stand up for what is right.
At the moment, I’m feeling drawn to learn how to fight. Tai chi practice has been life-changing, and now I want to enter the path of sparring and moving energy with a partner. A few days ago, in the last blue light of an August evening, my friend’s little son shared his karate kata, with two three-pronged knives, and I thought, I want that. I want to keep moving towards what is difficult, with curiosity and humor, and if martial arts can help me do that, then, sign me up.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.