Friday, July 22, 2011

Picking From Many Battles

Last week, my ten-year-old came home from camp upset. She said that during a team game, one of her teammates didn't want to hold her hand because "she's a black girl". This was not in the sixties, it was not in the "pre-racial, pre-Obama era" - this was last week.

Normally, I would go to the parents of the child in this situation, just to inform them of what's been said, and hope that they deal with the issue in the best possible way. But I don't know these parents, so I went to management. My daughter will be in this camp for the rest of the summer and deserves to be in a safe, comfortable, non-toxic environment. Not to mention the arm and leg we're paying to have her there.

But this post is about picking your battles - and there are so many to choose from. This morning I learned that, at this same camp (a gymnastics camp), girls are required to wear leotards under their T-shirts and shorts while boys have no clothing restrictions at all. I asked my girls what they've been told the reasoning is behind this rule and they said it's because "when girls do flips and cartwheels, their shirts go up and it's distracting."

None of the girls at this camp are over the age of thirteen. If there are counselors who are "distracted" by a little girl's bellybutton or midriff, those counselors should not be at a camp for children. This is all about accountability. Grown men are responsible for their own actions. What a novel concept!

I grew up in a culture that hammered home the need for "modesty" in girls' and women's dress. God forbid a man should happen to see a naked elbow or ankle and be sent into a mad frenzy of lust at the sight of it. It would be the girl's or woman's fault of course, because, hey, she was told to dress properly. A man shouldn't be expected to take responsibility for how a woman dresses, or his response to her naked parts! And here I am again, in another culture that is hammering home the same message to my girls. As many times as I've encountered this line of logic, it still never ceases to amaze me.

So I'm struggling now with whether I complain again and become That person - the one who complains of everything and has a problem - the one you can discredit and shrug off because, well, next week she'll be complaining of something else - or whether I say nothing and let this one go.

I know, quite clearly, that the issue is not just with this particular camp. The problem is that most of the world is immersed in unchallenged, unexamined racism, sexism, homophobia, and all kinds of other abuses of power - with no accountability at all on the part of the person in the position of power. When you're someone who is not only aware, but actively challenging such power abuses, you become the complainer. Or the trouble-maker. Or the conspiracy theorist. Or the [insert other silencing descriptor here].

I like being happy. I like having joy in my life. I like to laugh and joke around. I HATE having to confront things like racist bullshit and misogyny. Truly - nothing bums me out more than having to go at it with someone wielding unearned power and privilege. A someone who is almost always ignorant of said power and privilege. All I want to do in the morning is drop my kids off at a safe place where they can learn and have fun. And I want to go home, have a nice breakfast and some tea, and get on with my day. Seriously. That's ALL I want to do. I hate complaining. But when you have kids, speaking up or staying silent takes on a whole new significance. Because now I am modeling how to deal (or not deal) with abuses of power. My children are watching what I do and learning from it. Either way, I will have to explain to them why I spoke up, or why I did not, in the face of clear inequality or injustice.

I'm not going to change the current system single-handedly and overnight. But I can at least challenge and question things *in the home*. If I don't, my children think the way things are is they way they ought to be. If the people they trust to protect them and guide them are not challenging "small", everyday infractions like the ones above, then everything is as it should be and the children are simply over-sensitive - they should swallow their pain/anger/fear and move on as if no violation has taken place. In other words, the entire emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact on their psyche becomes their responsibility. And the violator gets away with his/her actions, words, and behaviour, without ever examining it or being accountable in any way.

I haven't yet decided how I will proceed, but at the very least, the girls know there is something to be questioned - something not quite right about the scenario - and that their mother is mulling over how to deal with it.


Helen's Book Blog said...

Hands down I would fight the race issue. My daughter did gymnastics and, if all goes well, they can be upside down for long enough that their shirt might show their chest (not just belly button). By age 13 some of these girls are wearing bras so have more to show than our 10 year olds. Oh wait. If they wear bras they can wear sports bras and not worry about it.

Hmmm.... I still go with the race issue as much more important. You can always ask other parents how they feel about the leotard issue and if enough care, it can be a group complaint.

Neesha Meminger said...

See, that's the thing, Helen - there are only two girls even close to the age of thirteen, and these girls *are* wearing sports bras (even some of the nine and ten-year-olds are wearing them). And let me tell you - those sports bras cover more than most bikinis. Yet the girls are still required to have full coverage. But I hear you--this is a tougher battle to take on in so many ways. Thanks for weighing in!

Anonymous said...

Hi Neesha
It seems that it would be more equitable as well as a bit safer to require all the children to tuck their shirts. Options could work too. All childen must tuck or wear a leotard. I would expect most girls at that age to be so shy that they would wear leotards if necessary!

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