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People I respect have called me out, and I am sitting with a big, steaming pile of unwanted self-knowledge. I feel deeply disappointed in myself (oh no, I hurt people!), afraid (oh no, people won’t like me!), discouraged (didn’t I do this work already?), angry at myself (why did it take such pointed, public criticism for me to take it to heart?), and potentially joyful (when I’ve climbed to the other side of this heap). And I know it won’t end there. Spiritual growth is hard, painful work.

Blessings and gratitude to those who consider me, and the world we are trying to create, worthy enough of their time that they have told me the problem, when they could easily have rolled their eyes and ignored me (and that choice would be completely legit). And to my spiritual director, anti-racism coach, and others whom I’ll be working with to help me grow my soul and become a better part of the solution, not the problem.

I’m not intending to vaguebook; if you’ve seen my conversations on Facebook over the past several days, you probably know what I’m talking about. I am not being more specific because I don’t want a debate about the details here, I don’t want any pats on the back, and I really really don’t want anyone leaping in to tell me that these people are wrong- – nor, honestly, to tell me more ways I’ve screwed up (though by all means, drop me an e-mail if that’s on your mind). And it’s too new. Maybe one day I will bring what I’ve learned into a sermon, or our White Folks Dismantling White Supremacy group. When I’ve learned it.

And it’s hard to write anything public without being performative and adding insult to injury. I think I am putting this down here so that those I’ve hurt might feel a bit better for knowing that their protests have not gone unheard or unheeded. It would be arrogant to expect that anyone is feeling burdened by my flaws, but just in case: I hope it helps you to know that I am working on them.

This business of educating a child in the meaning of consent takes longer and is more complex than I realized. Mookie is now eight and I almost felt as if I didn’t need to raise the issue the other day, but I’m glad I did.

We’d had a “jinx!” moment, saying exactly the same words at the same time, and for once I won: I said “Jinx!” first and so she, playing the game according to her rules, said, “What do I owe you?”

I said, “A kiss!” and she kissed me, as she does a dozen times a day, cheerily. Still, I thought, “Hm . . . ” and we had this conversation.

Mama: It’s just a game, of course. You never owe anyone a kiss.
Mookie: But I want to kiss you.
Mama: I know . . .

(I was tempted to leave it here but a certain nagging feeling said “Carry on . . .”)

Mama: . . . but if you ever don’t want to kiss me, you can say no.

(This is when I was really glad I’d heeded the nagging feeling, because the next thing she said was:)

Mookie: But that might hurt your feelings.

(AHA! Oh no! And oh yes! This is a Teachable Moment[TM]!)

Mama: That’s true. But my feelings aren’t as important as your choice about what you do with your body.

Mookie looked a bit disturbed and very thoughtful about that idea. Clearly, this crucial point had not totally sunk in in the first eight years of affirming that “no means no” whether she’s the would-be touch-er or touch-ee. Clearly we are going to have to keep teaching it, not just in actions but in words, as time goes on.

This aspect of consent was so hard for me to believe long into my adulthood–it still is, sometimes. “But that might hurt someone’s feelings”: an important consideration as we make many of our choices, yes, but not a reason to kiss someone, let someone hug us, say yes to a date we don’t want, stay in a marriage that is making us miserable . . .

Girls and women are particularly vulnerable to this pressure, and particularly around romance and sex. Every year at prom time, there’s a story of a boy becoming angry and humiliated because he got a “no”; women repeatedly experience men’s lashing out at them for turning down an invitation to go on a date; and every so often, it ends in murder. Girls are accused of “humiliating” someone who seems to have asked a private question in public partly in order to make it harder for them to say no. There are girls saying yes to dates they don’t want so that they don’t “hurt his feelings.” There is an entire movement of men convinced that they deserve romantic relationships simply because it makes them feel bad not to have them.

We frequently teach women that they are responsible for soothing men’s feelings, at considerable cost, and we frequently teach men that they are not responsible for their own feelings, but should blame “the person who made me feel this way” when they are unhappy or disappointed. The worst results are abuse, rape and murder. The less extreme results are poisoned relationships.

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