#OITNB: Entertainment or Education



Originally posted at The Frisky

Everybody has feelings about Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.” I have all the feelings. Since the show’s debut, we’ve tossed opinions back-and-forth about the cast of characters and the powerfully written narratives that reveal the unseen lives of American’s imprisoned women. But of the many conversations that have surfaced, the most discernible for me is of the legitimacy of Piper Kerman, the memoirist about whom the show was made.

In brief, after getting involved with an international drug dealer, Kerman (a white woman) was indicted for money laundering and spent a year in a woman’s prison – you know, the usual account of a well-to-do white woman who graduated from Smith. She subsequently wrote a best-selling memoir, which was adapted for Netflix. You can watch all of season one there now; I finished it in less than a week.

The show follows her into prison and tells the backstory of several other inmates, many of them women of color. The storyline is emotionally riveting. We’re met with race-related segregation, which mirrors the actual prison experience where racial categories and separation are often strictly enforced. Piper’s race and class privilege are checked in the first episode when it’s revealed that she “read up” on prison etiquette before she arrived. One inmate gives birth in prison and comes back to her bunk child-free, showcasing the reality thattwo-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers and busting the myth that women who labor in prison get to keep their babies. As a birth justice activist, I wished they’d shown the inhumane way in which many prisons shackle women during labor.

Mental health, recidivism, Christian fundamentalism, substance abuse death, and deep-seated prison politics are all surfaced, raising the political stakes of this well-liked Internet series and forcing some viewers, whether consciously or subconsciously, to realize (at least facially) some hard truths about the harrowing American prison system. In a spectacularly surprising twist, “OITNB” features a transgender woman: actress Laverne Cox, whose lived experience as a trans woman is authentic, not an actor playing dress-up as with many exploitative Hollywood spectacles. Trans-related reproductive health issues, family dynamics, and sexual exploits come to light. (Trans activist and blogger, Kortney Ryan Zeigler writes about ”OITNB”‘s black trans narrative wonderfully.)

Like most popular culture that deals with systemic institutions, the show has been hyper-analyzed and criticized. Some have celebrated its ability to couple prison humor with heart-wrenching anecdotes that hit close to home, while others are horrified that Kerman’s book was adapted in the first place. The crux of the criticism is how Piper’s story is one that people of color in the U.S. have experienced for centuries. This isn’t a new narrative, but by centering an affluent white woman, it has suddenly become all the rage. Additionally, Piper’s plight relies on the precarious stories of women who are facing significantly harsher sentences, whose stories are not romanticized and for whom a lucrative book deal and TV series won’t ever be offered.

Last week, racial justice activist and The Nation blogger Aura Bogado, wrote descriptively about her distaste for the show. Her aversion is layered but centers on the show’s approach, which she says bears great resemblance to 19th century slave narratives in which white people authenticate the black experience. In other words, no one gave a fuck until white folks legitimized the story. Bogado wrote:

… I reject that it’s a guilty pleasure. If we’re addicted to “Orange Is the New Black,” then we’re strung out on the drug of spectacle — jonesing for hateful, racist images created by a white imagination for profit and fame. What most bothers me about this is that so many people have told me they hated the advertising posters and the ridiculous Facebook photos, and they always repeat that they wanted to turn “Orange Is the New Black” off during the first couple of episodes but kept watching — going against inclination, and buying into the garbage that keeps our eyes glued to something we know we shouldn’t be enjoying to begin with.

Bogado and I are not in disagreement here. In fact, I was giving her story all kinds of nods and snaps when I read it. However, where we diverge (or maybe not, because her piece only inferred a difference of opinion and did not explicitly state it) is that I don’t believe that as entertainers, Jenji Kohan, Piper Kerman or the producers at Netflix have a moral obligation to educate folks about the historical significance and implications of the black experience. As a black woman whose experiences are rooted in various oppressions and racism, I’m seething that some producers and filmmakers reject the stories of people of color for fear of how they’ll be perceived or low ratings. But if I am thinking critically about it, professionally, they have no obligation to me, to people who look like me, or to our stories. Which would be less problematic if we didn’t live in a country that’s more invested in popular culture — including the exploitation, and avidity of genocidal, colonial legal institutions like slavery and prison — than education.

Because of the vacillating relationship between popular culture and education, we’ve become negligently uninformed. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is a luxury we cannot afford. As a society we put more prominence on Hollywood than on education and are consciously and unconsciously propagating an injudicious conversation among a nation of folks who have no racial analysis. In other words, because we don’t teach people shit in school about race or other social constructs, they leave receive their education via TV —which sometimes informs their behavior. This kind of edification leaves the most vulnerable people to these narratives — LGBT folks, people of color, women, immigrants, etc. —  at the center of an oblivious shitstorm.

This conversation is largely about the privilege of education and the access to it. I know that when I (and based on her writing, maybe Bogado, too) watch shows like “Orange Is The New Black,” I can choose to wear one of two hats: excited, TV-watching enthusiast who will laugh, cry and emote throughout or the social and racial justice activist who will hyper-analyze every cringe-inducing scene that appropriates the culture and experiences of marginalized people. I can watch and write some kind of analysis. Or I write nothing, yet feel completely satisfied that I know the difference between what the media teaches us and what really exists.

It is entirely possible, encouraged even, to both watch a show and be entertained and to think critically about how producers have the luxury of making money without considering the precarious social implications of their work. Pending your radicalism, you may decide altogether to avoid shows and movies whose historical complexity isn’t coupled with an authentic and comprehensible analysis. Or, like me, you may reconcile that some battles can’t be won. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have a lot of money to tease out their visions. They don’t have to care either way how their work informs public opinion, but I’d argue that unlike many shows, “OITNB” offers some insight to important social issues, despite the exploitative nature.

In an ideal word, we’d have a public schooling system that provides every citizen with a comprehensive global history lesson so upon watching TV or film, we are all equipped with the skill set to separate fact from fiction or to have a critical eye toward exploitation. We would all be better served with more contexts, more education and an opportunity to have more conversations about race and privilege. But for now, the onus is not on the entertainment industry but on us to start critical conversations about the importance of storytelling and how shows like “OITNB” shape culture largely depending on the privilege and point of view of the viewer.

[The Sentencing Project Fact Sheet: Incarcerated Women]

Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com. Follow her on Twitter.

Feminism Is Not Black And White


This article was originally posted at The Frisky

The Internet exploded in feminist calamity yesterday over the racist, sexist, patriarchal, abuse-laden behavior of Hugo Schwyzeran allegedly a self-described* mentally ill (former) professor of women’s studies at Pasadena City College. Schwyzer divulged information that is classically tucked away behind the buttressed walls of systemic white privilege. Anecdotally, it’s akin to the ENRON scandal, the ACORN scandal and the unprecedented shit show that was the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Thematically each of these exposed, in an exceptional way, the clandestine systemic privileges that sustain long-term oppression: economic, racial, civic or otherwise.

Schwyzer, a self-identified male feminist made his claim to Internet fame by reworking and packaging up modern male feminism and selling  it to online publications like The Atlantic and Jezebel, for whom he was a paid contributor, and Feministe, which featured an interview with him. Two of these three are notorious for their insensitivity and, on more than one occasion, outright disregard for the importance of intersectional feminism – that is the focal point where feminism and another powerful system meet, say for instance, race. These cyber tropes, which have staked claim as the premier source for all things feminist, prioritize clicks over everything else, as beautifully explained by blogger Flavia Dzodan. In matters of the heart, their feminist ideology dematerializes – often at the expense of women of color and other marginalized women.

The virtual cataclysm peaked when Feministe editor Jill Filipovic, who is white, was dismissive of one of Schwyzer’s victims, a woman of color named Mikki Kendall, and the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomenbegan to sprawl across the Twit-o-sphere. The hashtag, which in my opinion is not super succinct, called out the many reasons it is important for white women to stand in solidarity with women of color. There are light-years worth of socio-politico dialogue that resulted from this hashtag, including poignant arguments about inherent and realized privilege, but two things stood out for me: I was reminded that traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional – the liberation of women of color was an addendum to the narrowly constructed philosophy. And, that when there are “systems” involved, nobody is to blame for the continual abuse and oppression of people of color, specifically women of color. Therefore no action is necessary, no lessons are learned and we recycle this precarious vortex of shit over and over again.

Allyship (being an ally), a subjective concept that plays out differently for everyone, culminates with the act of “showing up.” Showing up means very different things in the contexts of various situations but the general idea is that if shit goes down you have my back. The devil’s is the details and in the feminist sphere we’ve long struggled with engaging privileged white feminists to show up for women of color – in policy, academia, leadership and often in the media. The operative word in yesterday’s hashtag was solidarity, which is the meat and potatoes of being an ally. While it isn’t my responsibility, nor the responsibility of women who look like me, to coach white feminists on how to show up for us, I’ll hint that negligently perpetuating the systems that oppress us and then opting to be silent about your complicities is the opposite of solidarity.

What makes this nebulous relationship even murkier is that women of color are inherently responsible for honoring the implicit sodality between women. In January of 2008, long-time feminist activist Gloria Steinemcalled for women of color to vote their gender and support Hillary’s bid for president because, according to her, “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Melissa Harris-Perry consequently intellectually annihilated heron “Democracy Now,” but her assertion sets a piss poor example for feminists who admire her wisdom and replicate her behavior. Especially because time and again when it’s time for white women to return the love, women of color are left hanging. The insidious misunderstanding around feminist solidarity is perpetuated and sustained because of the tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done; this is otherwise known as self-justification bias. And then your justification is further confirmed by using a selective filter to see a reality that matches your interpretations – none of which forces you to own your shit.

Because traditional feminism is not inherently intersectional and its principles have been known to preserve implicit biases, it is the onus of white feminists to shrug the cloak of privilege and “lean into” discomfort. That is, speak the fuck up. Even if your platform doesn’t traditionally address issues of race (except perhaps in the instance that it incentivizes clicks or benefits you monetarily) you can name the issue, acknowledge it happened and make an editorialized statement that validates the dehumanizing experience that women of color are having – like Bitch Magazine did phenomenally here.

Tangentially what feels even more egregious than complicit silence is that ultimately, at the end of all of this, no one is accountable. Schwyzer’s mental illness will be the scapegoat and T.F. Charlton brilliantly discussed the precarious nature of this: “It’s perfectly possible to both acknowledge that someone is experiencing severe mental illness and also name their behavior as abusive if that is what it is. It is in fact imperative that we name abuse and not talk around it,” she said poignantly.

This particular tragedy is deeply tangled and the Internet, in all of it’s awesomeness, can be a spectacularly bad place to have a deep-seated conversation about solidarity – chiefly because it is sometimes difficult to discern emotion.  However, no matter how Tweeters stumbled upon the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag it surfaced a nuanced conversation (trolls aside) that reminded us that we have to be honest about our willingness or unwillingness to lean into discomfort; we have to invest in thinking critically about how our silence is complicit in the oppression of others; and we have to stop self-justifying and looking for people to confirm our biases. We have to speak up. We have to use our voices and our platform to call out reckless privileged behavior. Even if you’re unsure how to address it, say that.  Say “I’m not 100 percent clear how to show up in this particular situation but I want to acknowledge that there is some fucked up shit happening.” That is 139 characters of solidarity.

For other ways to be a good ally and show solidarity I point you the always-on point, Melissa Harris-Perry.

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Wiesel

* Hugo Schwyzer emailed and asked us to remove “allegedly” when referring to his having a mental illness, offering to send along hospitalization records. As we don’t feel comfortable unequivocally describing Schwyzer as mentally ill, we’ve opted to use “self-described.”

Read more from the author at ShanelleMatthews.com.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, The Frisky had a cross-posting partnership with the Good Men Project, and some of Hugo Schwyzer’s work from that website was published on The Frisky. At one point during that time, he wrote a piece specifically for us, and was paid a small monetary sum for that piece. All of these pieces were published on The Frisky before I personally learned about Schwyzer’s egregious past actions and current behavior, and before either became widespread public knowledge. — Amelia

Standing up for transgender students


Shanelle & Ashton at the Capitol

Originally posted on the ACLU of Northern California blog

Many of us get a little nostalgic for high school sometimes: long summers off, overnight trips for sports competitions, pep rallies, and football games. For many, it brings back fond memories of a time with fewer responsibilities and a faster metabolism. But unfortunately, for some students, the memories they make in high school aren’t so warm.

Meet Ashton

Meet Ashton, a 16-year-old who is an aspiring author. Ashton loves video games, fishing, martial arts and playing with his dog. He’s enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, which means he takes some college-level courses and is eligible to get college credit before he even graduates. But unlike other boys, Ashton’s physical education period is spent in a class full of girls, because he is transgender. This means he lives his life identifying with a different gender than the one he was born with.

Transgender students often face challenges at school like bullying and isolation. Most transgender students experience some kind of harassment in school, more even than lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students.

Ashton is a bright, young student. He’s ambitious, good-natured, and involved. Being transgender is only one part of his identity but unfortunately his schools policies are narrow and outdated and make him feel stigmatized. Ashton shouldn’t be excluded from school activities because of discriminatory policies. Every student, no matter their gender identity, deserves to feel safe and welcomed in school.

Continue reading.


Mourning The Death Of Trayvon Martin & Reevaluating Racial Politics In America


As I sit in my living room, the familiar sound of rotating blades of a helicopter whoosh above me. I can hear them, hovering. They’re following the Oakland protestors who have taken to the streets outraged by the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. “No justice, no peace,” they shout as they embark on a mile-long march for justice. This custom is a byproduct Oakland’s long legacy of dissent. To outsiders signs that say “Fuck The Police” seem entirely unrelated to the trial, but the relationship between the department of justice and local law enforcement is one that Oaklanders understand very well.

Like Oakland, the rest of the country is in mourning. People everywhere are trying to reconcile how no one is being held accountable for the untimely death of a teenage boy. We’ve taken to the streets, the Internet, to church and community, but one thing that social media has made apparent is that we’re mourning for very different reasons.

For many, we mourn because this case crystallizes how the legal system does not provide equal protection of the laws for everyone. Some mourn because the not guilty verdict means Martin’s parents will not be vindicated in their son’s death. Others mourn because another young boy of color was robbed of his life and it could have just as easily been their son. And of course, some don’t mourn at all — the death of a black boy is insignificant to their life.

Read more at The Frisky.

The sacrifices I was raised on: how empathy brings us closer to a radical politic of family


Art by Micah Bazant

Art by Micah Bazant

Originally posted at http://www.reproductivejusticeblog.org

Also cross-posted at Feministing

My biological dad was in prison when I was little. My mom, single at the time, would drive me, my brother, and sister to see him. Because I was little, I don’t have a lot of memories of this time, but I do remember one thing. At the prison, an impassable glass partition separated my dad and me. I couldn’t touch him and he couldn’t touch me. We talked on a black, scratchy phone that connected the two sides of the glass. It was brief and sad. 

During the time my dad was in prison, my mom worked several jobs. She was a single parent to my siblings and me and was forced to work around the clock to support us. Because of this, her time with us was limited. When she was away at work—which was often—Dora and Betty and another woman whose name I can’t remember cared for us. My mom was committed to making sure we had food and clothes and somewhere to live, things got to take for granted. Betty and Dora and the woman whose name I can’t remember were all undocumented immigrant women from Guatemala. They spoke little English and sometimes spent the night at our house. One of my brother’s first words was zapato (Spanish for shoe). It wasn’t until I became aware of the fight for domestic workers’ rights that I realized that these women from Guatemala were taking care of us so they could take care of their families. How maddening to recognize that the cycles of poverty that we face today are the same as those our parents experienced decades ago.

Writing this I started over two and three and four times. It wasn’t until the fifth try that I understood that my mom, my biological dad, and the women from Guatemala shared a common thread—their lives were divided by partitions, literally and figuratively. But the fight for a living wage, to end mass incarceration, and to create comprehensive policies on immigration and a pathway to citizenship, all of these threaten to topple the barriers affecting our most impacted communities: immigrants, poor people, and people of color—often one in the same.

My biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala were kept away from their families by partitions, fences, glass ceilings, and social prejudices. What held these dividers in place was bureaucratic red tape; the kind that builds on outdated notions of what families look like and what they deserve. The kind of red tape that forces immigrant families to wait fifteen years for health care; the kind of red tape that keeps same-sex couples from marriage, second-parent adoption, and spousal benefits; the kind of red tape that limits access to comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, reproductive healthcare, and culturally appropriate resources for families of color; the kind of red tape that allows border patrol officers to shoot and kill families desperate for a better quality of life. This red tape is responsible for the deaths of millions. In the process, we’re becoming desensitized to empathy.

No matter how hard we fight, when we are denied fair and just opportunities to care for our families and ourselves we can’t thrive. Erosive policies don’t just punish rather than protect—they break us. They break families who travel thousands of miles, leaving their homes, everything they’ve ever known, only to be slaughtered at the border; they break the mother who sold her last possession to save her dying child because health care policies failed her; they break the black teenage boy who before he’s old enough to vote is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; they broke my 25-year-old cousin, Candace, who died one year ago next month, her beautiful life cut drastically short, because of healthcare policies that erase the experiences and needs of poor people. Our families, my biological dad, my mom, and the women from Guatemala ask for basic human rights—healthy food, affordable healthcare, and the opportunity to make a living wage. It can’t be in good conscience that decision makers refuse us the rights, recognition, and resources we need to thrive.

As we approach mother’s day, I’m thinking about my mom and the women from Guatemala and the millions of other mothers who are undermined because of inhumane policies and practices. Our democratic processes are not enough; we must share our stories and create a culture of empathy, and we must make visible the invisible experiences of the poorest among us. By gathering and sharing our stories, we can build a culture that recognizes and respects the wide variety of strong families that build our communities.

The pathway to citizenship is not paved with chocolate. Breakfast in bed doesn’t replace affordable healthcare. Flowers won’t keep the lights on or cure hunger. This year give moms something they really need. Join strong Families in celebrating Mama’s Day Our Way, a campaign set out to reach and highlight the mothers who are often overlooked in the mainstream celebration of Mother’s Day. Send an e-card that reflects what our families really look like. Add a message that calls out policies that punish rather than protect. Take action to support comprehensive immigration reform. Families are the basic building block of our society and the support of a strong family makes it possible for people to thrive. Help us make that a reality for all families.

This post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

Soapbox: Writings from The Frisky

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 4.54.04 PM


Embracing the idea of writing for different kinds of online mags/spaces, I’ve started contributing to The Frisky. Check it out:

The Soapbox: Should White Women Be On The Cover Of ‘Black Magazines’?

The always-inquisitive Jada Pinkett-Smith recently posed a question that has many people scratching their heads and some folks outright upset. In short, she’s wondering if black women ask to be represented in mainstream media, on the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, shouldn’t white women be represented on the covers of traditionally black magazines like EssenceEbony and JET?

The answer? Yes and no.

It’s not enough to have this discussion without a little bit of context. We didn’t come to this dilemma out of nowhere. There is a long, difficult history that informs our current dynamics around race that can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked. This country has a long history of exclusion and the many movements for equal rights and access including the women’s movement and the Civil Rights movement (both of which black women fought in) reminds us that every person is not considered deserving and some of us had to, and still have to, fight for representation. Read more

The Soapbox: Lisa Lampanelli’s Racist Schtick Abuses The Art Of Comedy

Insult comedian Lisa Lampanelli has made headlines again – for all the wrong reasons. Last week during the Writers Guild Awards, she shamelessly tweeted a picture of she and HBO “Girls” producer and star, Lena Dunham captioned “Me with my Ni**a @LenaDunham of @HBOGirls – I love this beyotch!!”

The interwebs erupted with rage as yet another privileged white comedian made a “joke” at the expense of the Black experience. The ubiquitous nature of racism means while we see and hear it everywhere, we’re rarely given the opportunity to understand the motivation behind it. Lampanelli’s entire shtick is to exploit the sensitive nature of race and homosexuality and to make money from abusing the art of comedy, not taking responsibility for the social implications of her “work.” Read more

The Soapbox: On Getting A Black “Bachelorette”

Pediatric dentist Dr. Misee Harris of Kentucky is petitioning to become the first ever Black “Bachelorette.” This prospect means a lot is surfacing for me regarding the harmful stereotypes reinforced by women of color on reality television. How would she be received? If she did get an opportunity to be on the show and chose a non-black man, what would the social implications of that be? But more than that, I feel disheartened because I know that this reality reflects how America feels about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t.

Author and commentator Keli Goff argued on The Huffington Post that “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”‘s collective 25 seasons with no Black people in the coveted role isn’t an act of racism. I disagree. Society tells us that marriage and the supposed happiness that is derived from it aren’t meant for everyone — hence the multi-decade struggle to legalize the right of gay folks to marry. This reality reflects how Americans feel about who deserves to be happy and who doesn’t. Whether these exclusions are purposeful are irrelevant; many of us consciously reject stereotypes yet still hold subconscious negative associations about people who are different than we are, TV execs included. It’s an implicit bias (subconscious prejudice) that informs their decisions about who they choose to be on the show. These  executives genuinely fear what putting a Black man or woman front and center might do to their ratings – and as voyeurs, we’re often not privy to those kinds of conversations. Read More

The story that’s taken ten years to tell: On abortion, race and the power of story

Originally posted at Crunk Feminist Collective on Jan 22, 2013 
by Shanelle Matthews
“Are you in college?” The doctor could tell from my face I wasn’t at all interested in having a conversation. “You speak well. I mean, you’re articulate.” The wrinkles in my forehead deepened. I wrung my fingers tightly around the scratchy, blue exam gown and briefly thought about the woman who wore it before me; what was she like? I looked at him, desperately wanting to not have to actually speak, wishing he could just read my mind. “Yes. I’m in college,” I responded shortly. I was really thinking, “That’s none of your business and really, is this the time to make small talk? When your elbow is deep in my vagina?” But I was grateful for him so I frowned and looked away. The room didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable. I mostly gazed at the ceiling tiles, counting square by square. Occasionally I peeked down. Over the long sheet that draped my knees I could see my feet, not really manicured, resting awkwardly in the titanium stirrups, straddling the doctor’s full head of curly hair. “We’re just about done.” I sighed out a breath of relief. My abortion was almost over.

My abortion experience isn’t the kind that might be featured in a Lifetime movie. By that I mean I was 18, technically an adult. I consented to having sex, although I had never learned how to really protect myself. I lived in California, which is a state that provides emergency Medicaid for women who need financial assistance to help cover the costs of abortion care. The circumstances in which I found myself were not particularly difficult but only because at the time I didn’t know any better.

I was 6 months out of high school, a full-time student-athlete living away from home. I was privileged enough to be going to college and receiving some scholarship money to do so. One day during practice I found myself violently ill. Workouts were hard and often induced vomiting but not like this. I counted the days since my last period and realized I may be pregnant. 

I was dating my teammate who was several years older than me. He was sexually experienced and while I wasn’t a virgin, I had dated mostly women and not been very sexually involved with men. He said he used protection. I believed him. 

Upon receiving my pregnancy test results at the student health center the nurse searchingly said “Congratulations?” Her quizzical tone confused me. I gave her the side eye and told her that I was on the track team and wouldn’t be celebrating this pregnancy. She pointed me in the direction of Planned Parenthood.

I walked and sobbed. I could hear my dad’s harsh, deep voice. “Keep your legs closed! Boys only want one thing from you!” My parents meant well but in my home sex education was a combination of scare tactics, none of which taught me how to effectively and safely prepare for sex. I can’t remember learning in school the importance of contraception or the implications of becoming pregnant or getting an STD. I do vaguely remember coming to school some days and someone would be missing. The hallways were filled with whispers that “she’d gotten knocked up and sent to the school for pregnant girls.” In hindsight, how fucked up is that?

Abortions are expensive. I didn’t have any money and even though I knew my parents would probably help me, I was scared to tell them. They’d be so disappointed. Planned Parenthood sent me to see if I qualified for emergency Medicaid. I did. The office was bustling with people desperate to get financial assistance for themselves and their sick family members. The clerk was helpful but blunt. She couldn’t be bothered with details and why should she have to be? 

I had to lie to my coaches. I couldn’t tell them I had an abortion. What would they think of me? I kept it from all but one or two of my teammates. I felt a lot of shame about my decision. Not because I thought it was morally wrong but because I had to hide it from so many people in my life. The stigma around abortion meant that I had to lie to people because telling them opened me up to unnecessarily punitive judgment. The hardest part about having an abortion was the stigmatizing environment in which I was having it. I knew it was the only decision for me and even though I didn’t know a lot of women who had them, I knew they were ashamed—so I was ashamed too. We’ve created a culture in which we’ve attached a certain set of feelings to a specific set of circumstances. I was ashamed and grieving out of obligation when all I really felt was relief.

Ten years later there is so much about my abortion story that’s more fucked up than I could understand then. The shame that is associated with abortion and other difficult reproductive health decisions forces women to display an act of grieving whether they feel that way or not. The alternative meaning you’re entirely morally bankrupt. The doctor’s comment about my being articulate meant he had made some assumptions about me, (and other women who sat straddling his head full of curls). What the implications of those assumptions are I didn’t know but it felt unnerving. Every day I work in reproductive justice trying to compel other people to be brave and share their stories but it has taken me a decade to tell this story and that’s because even within the “movement” there is stigma. 

I identify as a Black, queer woman. My Blackness makes my story all the more problematic for some people. The assumptions that are made about Black women’s reproductive decisions mean that I will receive less compassion and acceptance than my white counterparts for having had an abortion—especially because I’m not repentant about it. As organizers we are not always aware of our implicit biases but there are plenty of white people who in an effort to make abortion safe and accessible are reaffirming negative stereotypes about women of color. This happens through negligent storytelling that says there is a right and wrong way to have the need to access an abortion. 

The narrative that abortion gives women and transpeople an opportunity to live the rest of our lives, to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever isn’t true for everyone. For some of us, abortion just provides one more day. One more day to live our lives exactly the way we want to. For some of us the decision isn’t political, it’s essential. It is essential to taking care of the children we already have, to circumventing difficult medical experiences or to just not be pregnant. There is nothing heroic about having an abortion. It is an essential part of reproductive health care.

Every year on the anniversary of my abortion I take off of work. Not to grieve but to celebrate: because of my right to choose, I am living my best life. Making the decision to have an abortion didn’t mean I had the rest of my life, it just meant that I had one more day to live exactly the way I wanted and for that I’m grateful.

Shanelle Matthews is a creative, blogger and all around communications enthusiast. She is the Communications Manager at Forward Together and is a participant in the Strong Families project,Echoing Ida. Follow her @freedom_writer 

This post is part of Still Wading: Forty years of resistance, resilience and reclamation in communities of color, a series by Strong Families commemorating the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

Opponents of Medicaid Expansion Adopt Reganesque View of the Mentally Ill

photo (6)

Sasha Matthews watches as her 4-year-old son Gavin sleeps soundly in his bed. The soft, paisley printed blankets hugging his small frame – his left foot hanging loosely off the edge. She watches his chest rise and fall and wonders when, if ever, Gavin will look her in the eye and say, “I love you.” Gavin is one of many children born with autism, a spectrum disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.  Like many other parents of children on the spectrum, Sasha is optimistic that through rigorous therapy and treatment, Gavin will lead a healthy and happy life – free of the stigma that often plagues the mentally underdeveloped. However, she doesn’t have many people advocating for her, especially not the Governor of the state where she and Gavin call home.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is one of several Republican governors who have vowed to reject the federal plan to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The national health laws Medicaid expansion says that the federal government will pay the full cost of the expansion through 2016. After that, the states will only pick up 5 percent of the cost through 2019, and 10 percent of the cost thereafter helping to cover an estimated 7 million more Americans. States would benefit tremendously from this federally supported subsidy and millions more Americans would have access to healthcare.

Louisiana is facing is a nearly 860 million dollar budget cut to its Medicaid program as a result of a change in the state’s Medicaid funding formula to correct what has been characterized as an error in the funding that allowed the state to draw down more federal money than it should have. The state of Medicaid coverage in Louisiana is already dismal. Most states base Medicaid eligibility for parents on household income and how it compares to the federal poverty level, which was $18,530 for a family of three in 2011. In Louisiana, the eligibility cutoff for a working parent is 25 percent of federal poverty or $4,633 for a family of three. Effectively if you make more than $5,000 a year, you do not qualify for Medicaid.

Due to these cuts, Southeast Louisiana Hospital (SELH), home to over 200 mental health patients, will soon begin the closure process.  Officials of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals have been vague about how they will provide services for the psychiatric patients (including adolescent and adult patients with Autism). Without insurance, Medicare or Medicaid these patients will be displaced. This places a burden on the poorest and most impacted people in the state, a burden that policy makers are familiarly dismissive of.

During his post WWII tenure as Governor of California (in an effort to realign the economy) Ronald Regan began closing all state funded mental facilities and cutting aid to federally funded community mental health programs. This left the country in a haze of confusion as those with little to no mental capacity were discharged with nowhere to go. Patients were left homeless. Families were burdened with relatives they could not care for overall confirming the fast growing notion that those with the least mattered least.

52% of all the money Louisiana spends on Medicaid services is allocated to people with disabilities. Similar to Regan’s economic realignment policies, the state budget cuts will leave the mentally ill in a precarious limbo.  The cuts, coupled with the rejection of the Medicaid expansion bill, will leave hundreds of thousands of psychiatric patients and their families guessing about their access to quality healthcare, including Sasha and Gavin.

Accessing quality resources to help Gavin hurdle the barriers of autism is a constant struggle for Sasha. Yet, knowing they live in a state that refuses to prioritize the needs of people with disabilities leaves her gravely concerned for his future. If hospitals like Southeast Louisiana, that have serviced patients with disabilities for over 60 years, fall victim to unfair budgets cuts, where will people like Sasha and Gavin go for help?

The elusiveness of being well-adjusted. A reflection on my 28th birthday

Photo on 6-28-12 at 10.00 AM #6

I’m fumbling tremendously over my words; feeling insecure about exposing some of the intimate details of my dysfunctional life, but I’ve learned the hard way that only in vulnerability will I find reprieve. As someone who has made a profession out of communicating, I feel anxious to put out such an inarticulate, emotionally-driven, fact-less, messy tirade but really that’s all I ever am on my birthday; a sobbing, crazy inarticulate, cerebrally-scattered mess. And this birthday is no different; in fact I’m more unsure than ever about who I am and what my purpose is and I am not okay with that but am defenseless against life’s constraint to inform self-awareness with experience. Fuck you Benjamin Button, you lucky bastard.

The theme by which I’ve found myself consumed by is reconciliation. Reasoning with myself about the many experiences I’m navigatingand whether or not I’m doing it “right.” What is right? Wrong? And then I end up here; in the familiar face of existentialism despite learning long ago that it isn’t valuable to me, a queer, Black, working-class woman. Of course there is a right and wrong, my mere existence if proof of that. Whether I acknowledge it or not, there are social constructs in place that inform the way I move through the world – stories were told about me long before I was born. It’s no wonder being a “well-adjusted” adult is so hard. In a world that pushes back on my every breath, “well adjusted” isn’t tangible. It’s an illusion. 

I’m grateful to have the mental capacity to pen this, the rational to know this will look very different next year and the humor to be able to laugh at all the ways in which I am completely fucked up. I believe so strongly in the power of friendship, vulnerability and openness to heal and guide us, so I’m opening myself up to share some of the experiences that have helped shape me.

Growing up, my dad would tell my sister and I “You have two strikes against you, you’re a woman and you’re Black” (and later a third strike when I came out). As I’ve evolved, I’ve challenged the metaphors he used to describe the challenges I would face in my life – but the point came across; life wont be easy for you because of what you look like – and later, because of who you love.  Moving through the world as a queer, woman of color has proven to be both difficult and extremely rewarding. I’m advantaged in that I’ve been given the opportunity assess what privileges I’ve been denied and those I’ve had access to and what that means for me and the people around me.

The daily circumvention of sexism, racism and homophobia is an emotionally draining exercise. Realizing your worth in a society that doesn’t place any value on you can be not just arduous, but dangerous. But once I understood, fundamentally, the root of my struggle, I knew I that it was mine to keep. No amount of bargaining or brokering could get me to trade it or give it away – because in this struggle is a legacy more potent and powerful than any other. A legacy rooted in strength, self-awareness, resiliency, humility and well-being and through this struggle and legacy I’ve found my purpose and that’s an unparalleled lesson worth every tear.

This purpose doesn’t come without a price. Sanctimoniousness aside, I’ve got a lot of crazy and dysfunction (relative to my character) to work through – in no small part because of the many landscapes I’m required to navigate. The illusiveness of online communication can lead us to believe that no one but us is completely fucking up this life thing so I’ve spent countless hours over-analyzing why I’m the only person I know having a hard time becoming a “well-adjusted” adult; why my anxiety can sometimes run my life or why it takes me multiple tries to learn the same lesson, why I judge and then pretend I’m not judging , why I take up a lot of space in conversations, why I rarely finish books from beginning to end, overextend myself and am somehow just now learning to say “I don’t know.” Why I start projects and don’t finish them, why I’m self-conscious about my body but pretend not to be because “that’s not strong,” why I’m negligently direct or why I judge myself for finishing a bottle of wine in one sitting. I’m also not always honest about the fact that I don’t like some people for no good reason. There is a long laundry list of other shit I have trouble sitting with in silence and most of the time I have no idea how to “fix” it.

What’s saved me from the pits of self-loathing has been commiserating conversations with people. I rely on hearing stories about the hard parts, taking a deep breath and exhaling with relief that I’m not the only crazy one, that the fights, struggles, disappointments and embarrassments are not unique to my dysfunctional life and relationships and that everyone else is just as fucked up as me  – only better at hiding it. Learning that other people have a hard time saying “I don’t know” “I was wrong” “it was my fault” also reminds me that my instinct to protect myself and in some cases my selfishness is innate in other folks too. There is relief and growth in swapping struggle stories.

Through these conversations (and a lot of self-reflection) I’ve made some adjustments to the way I live that have not saved me from the fight for “well-adjustment” or making mistakes but have given me some cushion so I don’t fall so hard.  

  • I’m more honest than ever about what I’m good at and in which areas I need improvement. Lying to others and myself about my abilities is counterproductive and can be wounding.
  • I realize that traditional institutions like marriage require a compromise of self that I can’t and should not be asked to deliver. My relationships require a radical form of decolonial love that must be shaped specifically from my experiences – not templates.
  • I have vices. I like them. I am lucky to not have addictions, but only marginally so.
  • Awkward silences don’t need to be filled with monotonous conversation.  That kind of exchange often leads to insincerity. 
  • Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. There’s almost always a chain of events that we have some control over. Things happen because we make them happen.
  • My energy isn’t compatible with everyone but few people are willing to openly acknowledge that lest they become as couth-less and tactless as I. 
  • I’ve spent years fighting stereotypes only to realize that some parts of me fit wholly and completely into that neat, little, compartmentalized box and that’s okay. We need to shift our language, not ourselves.
  • I’ve made so so so so so many mistakes. Mistake after mistake after mistake. But it wasn’t until I understood more readily the reasons behind my actions – my uncertainty, my mistrustfulness, my fear – that I could have more control over what kind of mistakes I made and the impact they would have on my life.

To add one more thing to this jargon[y] post I will say this: My perspective of what is “right, functional and well-adjusted” has been rooted in white supremacists ideology and up until now I haven’t had the mental capacity to reassess that how I move through the world reflects my determinants of success.

I am happy with my progress and grateful for the stability to ink this and reflect next year on my continued growth.