Monday, November 7, 2016

The Personal Is Political

Dear Jules,

Politics is a messy game, but, as a famous person once said, the "personal is political."  In other words, people can say that they won't "talk politics," but the life choices they make, the people they choose to accept, the way they feel about government, the roads they use, even the schools they attend, are all political choices.  As a woman, the clothes you wear are often construed as a political statement; it's interesting, for instance, that a woman wearing a "pantsuit" is a big deal for some reason, whereas for me, a suit is just a suit.  Or that a woman can wear something and be "asking for" rape...I honestly hope that, by the time you read this, you won't understand that one.

This is my third try at writing this, but I want to explain to you why this 2016 election feels so intensely (even more than usual) personal.

Some people are born with privilege: they are men, born in the United States, are white, speak the language perfectly, and don't have any (visible) disabilities.  I honestly don't think that there are as many of these people as we would think, but these are the people targeted by the Trump campaign this year.   To be honest, I'm one of these people, but even those of us with privilege should be cognizant of those who don't have it: people who, like my parents, were immigrants to this country and had to prove themselves over and over again.  My mom used to tell me that, every time she spoke, people would answer her slowly, as if she couldn't understand them.  She had the equivalent of a Masters degree from a Hungarian university (a good one!), but she would have had to go back to a community college to teach in the USA.  The constant need to prove yourself wears you down and makes you feel like less than.  

My African-American friends also have to prove themselves all the time.  It's sad when my friend, a brilliant violinist, isn't appreciated for her talent, or when she has to teach her teenage daughter to be especially careful around the police.  This same friend attends Emanuel AME church, where her friends' kids knew to "play dead" during the deadly massacre that happened over a year ago.  Constantly afraid of the police, having to prove that you're not a criminal, having to prove that you are smart and talented, makes you feel less than.  

Our gay and lesbian friends have also struggled with this.  Only a few years ago, they were finally able to be married (some of them have been in relationships longer than my straight friends have). If they want to have children, they have to either pay a lot of money or try and find an adoption agency that will work with them.  Many of the "Christian" agencies will not.  And if they are "lucky" enough to have a child, they have to prove that their child will grow up "normal," whatever that means.  As my friend Leigh Moscowitz observed in her book, they have to take on all the conventions of a straight marriage.  Constantly being afraid to hold hands with your loved one, having to prove that your marriage is valid, that you are entitled to be a parent, makes you feel less than. 

As a woman, I've struggled with this.  I'm 5'3", and I look young for my age, so people constantly question my intelligence.  People at meetings have talked over me, people have called me "Julia's mom" without learning my name, people have even called me "Ben's wife" or, worse, "Mrs. Benjamin Rogers."  My students call me "Miss Rogers" all of the time, but they call male colleagues without Ph.D.'s "Doctor."  Constantly having to prove that you are equal, having to prove that you can handle being a mom and a career woman, makes you feel less than.

And then there's you.  While life for people with Down Syndrome is better than it used to be, it's still, as you know all too well, not great.  Right now, as you go to Kindergarten, we have to prove that you have "what it takes" to be included in a regular classroom.  However, you can't have too much, or your services (we have Medicaid to handle the therapy and the constant doctors' appointments) get taken away.  Other students don't have to prove that they are worthy of being in a regular, public school, Kindergarten classroom, but you do.  Constantly having to prove that you're good enough, that your Down Syndrome doesn't define you (you're NOT always happy!!!), that you are a worthwhile member of our society, makes you feel less than.

Finally, I get to "equal to."  Hillary Clinton's slogan is "better together," which implies working together:  not trying to prove anything, but using everyone's strengths for the greater good.  Whether she means this or not, I can't tell: the problem with rhetoric is that it's hard to tell.  But I DO know that you wouldn't be in Ms. Walpole's Kindergarten class if Hillary Clinton had not co-sponsored the IDEA Act: the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Basically, this act entitles you to be educated in the "least restrictive environment" possible, which, for you, is a regular education classroom.  We had to work hard and argue hard to make this happen, but without this act, you wouldn't even have the chance to prove yourself.

None of us should have to "prove" that we are worthy of being in the world, in the United States, in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces.  By virtue of being who we are, by virtue of being diverse, we are making our communities stronger: better.  So if anyone is reading this, or if, in future years, you have no idea why I voted the way I did, I want you to think about the IDEA act, about the wonderful work that Hillary Clinton has done for African-Americans, lesbian and gay Americans, female Americans, and Americans with disabilities.  The political IS personal, and her actions say far more than words ever could.

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