What would a white man do?

Being multiracial and openly queer in a straight, white world, I keep getting wounded and it's tearing me apart

By Cary Tennis
Published August 2, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


My life, while not necessarily in a rut, has been in one helluva transition for the last few years. I'm in my early 30s, worn out and just making it -- barely. I hate it. I remember when I thrived, dreamed and sought possibilities, and now all I want to do is sleep, smoke and write overwrought slam poetry.

I moved to the Midwest three years ago after seven years in Northern California. I moved for a job that hasn't panned out as promised: no contract, living check-to-check and serving folks who have no qualms about breaking you down at every turn. And yet, there are days I love my job. But emotionally, I am a live wire of stress and extreme grumpiness.

When I moved, I quickly became involved with a man I met through mutual friends. The connection was quick and visceral and, upon reflection, I shoulda known better. We made plans -- living together, he would adopt my daughter, looked at property together. I dreamt big, Cary. Saw so much possibility in him, with him. I loved hard. My heart went completely Cream of Wheat over this man: an angry, bullish, sensitive, overly analytical, silly, spiritual, extremely intelligent man. My daughter loved him and she isn't an easy sell; she's a pragmatic, oddly shrewd 13-year-old with penchants for Angry Birds, spiky bleached hair, fedoras, mixed-media art, Mad Libs, extreme bike riding and giving the best hugs known to humankind.

This man -- G. -- won her over, and won me over with his mix of old-school masculinity and impetuousness. He would grab our hands and sprint across the street, laughing with an open-throated beauty that made my heart ache. He sang my daughter to sleep with "Tangled Up in Blue." Taught her how to play bass. He listened to her, to me. She told me he was good. I trust my kid.

Problem is, I can't trust my heart. Cary, it's a needy beast. I wanted this man, loved him without reserve. Coming from me, that's something. My last relationship was with a queer minister who danced coyly with me. I returned the favor. Let her in bit by bit until the floodgates opened and I was bum rushed with enthralled ... until she realized she was straight. Before that, I was with a graphic artist who loved quickly, unequivocally until her parents expressed disapproval at our queer relationship, at my race (I'm black, Jewish and Irish) and the fact I am an openly queer, ardently activist momma with a daughter, who flouts gender norms. They expressed concern about our interracial relationship (Thai-multiracial) and the fact I have a daughter while not following a prescribed path.

And all the worries that haunted my ex's family still dog me. Dogged me and G. No partner/wife/husband, several exes and me: mother-artist/teacher, feminist theology nut, prone to bouts of sadness, works way too much, plays just as hard ... that's a hint of me. And those hints that at first interest my partners eventually worry them down to the teeth.

And Cary, shit. I thought life would be different. A path appeared. I moved, met a man, fell in love, he fell in love with me, my kid -- just the hint of possibility. I thought my little family would have a place, a groove after years of disapproval, failed relationships -- a place where we could be traditionally untraditional.

Cary, I got pregnant. Twice. I miscarried twice. And I became lost -- that for-sure path leveled me with sadness. I separated from G. His bullishness and old-school machismo had real anger behind them. He berated my increasingly apparent vulnerability and my need to talk it out. He didn't understand why I cried and took long walks with my kid. He told me those pregnancies weren't meant to be. I left him in March.

I needed to grieve and love on my daughter.

Cary, I need. It's deep. It keeps me up at night. I know I keep talking about this path, finding my way but I feel so scared. So tentative. I tense even when my daughter hugs me. The tethers are loosening and even the best hug-giver in the universe knows it. I can't keep pretense and can't keep snowin' my kid. She deserves a present momma.

I just don't know my way out of all this: my still bruised love for G., my miscarriages, living in the Midwest, financial funkery, making it here with my daughter in a sea of all kinda normality and just an utter lack of urgency/agency. If you can grease the wheels a bit, I'd appreciate it. I have grooved on your empathy and winding vines of advice-giving for years. I appreciate your words.

Thanks for what you do and share,


Dear Spinning,

Thank you for a letter that tells it all, from the heart, and helps me hear it and feel it.

What I hear is exhaustion. I hear that you went fast and flew high and crashed hard. Now you are bruised and hurting, not bleeding but not strong either. Bruised and hurting. Bruised and weakened by the battle. Grieving too. Grieving and hurting and bruised and weakened and not aware just how weak.

So I think you need rest. This may require a conscious choice. My guess is you don't ordinarily rest. Instead, you push yourself to the next revelation, the next passionate, mind-bending, world-changing encounter. Now you need to burrow deep into the equivalent opposite of that: some lush cocoon of healing.

Out there in the Midwest it may be hard to find the visible signs of this lush cocoon of healing -- not like in the Bay Area where earth mothers peddle their balms and herbs in shops and at flea markets and up in West Marin and on street corners and at cosmic, lefty, tie-dyed Universalist meeting houses from Berkeley to Olema. It may be harder to find but that doesn't mean you can't find what you need in the Midwest. The spirits you seek are everywhere. Everywhere there are seekers and healers; everywhere there are blurred edges and people whose faces ask questions. You will have to find them. Such encounters are unexpected wherever they occur.

This healing may take an unusual form. You may not know it is healing. You might end up working at a used car lot for a year, or for an insurance company. You might think it's more bad luck when in fact it's a strange balm from the heavens. Why would that be? Because what you really need right now is not victory in your identity struggle but respite from it.  As an athlete wears out a muscle by overuse and needs to rest it, you need to rest your soul, weak from overuse, torn in struggle.

What healing and grieving must be done? Maybe we should look at you as an overloaded emotional circuit and ask, Where can you shift the load? Say if each miscarriage is 15 percent, and the loss of G. is 20 percent, and each prior relationship is 10 percent, that's 45 percent of your emotional energy devoted to stuff that's already happened. That's a lot of grieving and getting over things.

So what can you do? Give your spirit a rest. Do not tax your spirit. Just let yourself be. Concentrate on your daughter and on your own spirit.

Now here's an idea. What if you were a white man? What would a white man do? That is, what would somebody who's never had to question himself or his place in the world do? Someone who's never had to ask before he takes a cookie, who's never had to worry about giving up his place in line, who's always known that if things get really bad he could fly to Barbados for a week? What would he do?

Maybe he'd say screw it and and chill. Maybe he'd apply for a grant to study his navel. Maybe he'd get a high-paying, non-taxing job for a while. Maybe he'd join a gym and hang out with cops.

You get what I'm saying? What would a person of privilege do?

Let's pursue this a little. I find this an interesting question: Why are you the one who has to explain yourself? Why are you categorized as "the different" and others as "the regular"?

What if you were to strut out there and just assume the gravy? Just assume the fat piece of pork? Just assume the last piece of cake is yours if you want it and know that others will stand by and wait for you to decide? That if you want to stay in your next relationship you will, and if you lose interest then you'll be the one to leave?

I'd like to see what happens if you just assume the power.

But this must come after a period of rest. And you may have unconscious, buried resistance to even taking that small period of rest. You may find yourself resisting. It's possible that because of your unconscious burden of racism, you unconsciously see even the basic human need for rest and recovery as a luxury meant for others but not for you.

It's no laughing matter. There is real danger in being an uppity "other" and taking what should be your natural right as a human. There is political danger. You may get beaten down if you stand up. That's an old story.

But there are other old stories, too, stories of people who passed unnoticed into glass-walled offices of power, who slid through the cracks or blinded and stunned the world with the sheer voodoo of their audacious presence.

This is my hope for you, once you have rested and healed: That your audacious presence will be clear and strong in the world once again, that someone marvelous will come along and see you for who you are and not drop you but hold you;  that you will be held; that you will be carried; that you will be taken care of.

Cary Tennis

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