Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pinkin' Ain't Easy

Pinkin’ Ain’t Easy

Big pinkin’, you spendin’ Gs
Ya think you’re backin’ a cause
Meanwhile you spreadin’ disease
You wanna be sure
that your runnin’ for cures
And you're not pinkwashed and pimped like a whore
Rethink pink and not get pimped
You gotta rethink pink don’t get pimped

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2012, the pink ribbon inundation secretly irked me. I found the entire phenomenon suspicious and unsettling. But then out of guilt, I would buy the pen, USB drive or whatever trinket being shilled for the cause at the cash register. How could I as a woman not support breast cancer awareness and prevention and quite possibly contribute to research for a cure?

Looking back I realize how little the relentless commercialism did for my own awareness. On the contrary, it made me want to NOT think deeply about breast cancer.  The attempt to dress the illness in a traditional femininity and promote consumerism as the path to its eradication repelled me. 
After my diagnosis I did start to investigate, and being a long-time activist, my research eventually led to the unique politics of breast cancer philanthropy and what is referred to by its critics overall as pink ribbon culture. I am still reflecting where I land along the spectrum between pink ribbon culture and its feminist detractors, and that surely will be the topic of a future post or two. I am clear, however, that what I discovered about the way breast cancer is pimped by corporations in ways that run counter to the stated goal of ending the disease made me actively pursue a distance that I already felt from this juggernaut of which I was supposed to be a beneficiary.

And I certainly did benefit from Susan G. Komen’s successful fundraising efforts. At the time of my diagnosis, I was uninsured so I went to Planned Parenthood for my reproductive health care. If not for PPNYC and the funding it received from SGK, I might not have been able to get a mammogram, detect the invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast or even secure insurance and therefore treatment through the the Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program. 
Then SKG lost is mind and temporarily defunded Planned Parenthood on the advice of its former senior VP for public policy who was intent on imbuing the organization with her pro-life politics. That Handel chick was slick, I’ll give her that. Nice tactic to suggest that the impetus to not fund organizations that provided abortions was to stay remain within federal funding policy. Close but no cigar even if it has a pink ribbon emblazoned on the wrapper.
Hence, my hot little letter to the SKG calling out the fact that their decision to defund PP effectively signaled that they only cared about finding a cure for women who were insured and told the rest of us we could just drop dead. Yeah, I went there. I even wrote, “Neither Planned Parenthood nor cancer asked me what my position on abortion was, and neither should you.”
This is also not to say that there aren’t things about so-called pink ribbon culture that don’t resonate with me. But this branding of the cause that raises so much money for anything BUT the cure? No, ma’am, don’t expect me to register for your race any time soon.
Here’s the ironic thing about the color pink; its choice was probably one of the few things SGK did right. As I learned from watching the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. which is based on the book of the same name by Dr. Samantha King, the original breast cancer awareness ribbon was salmon. When the woman who created it refused to get into bed with the foundation, SKG actually asked women with breast cancer what color the ribbon should be. They chose pink – with all its cultural loading. That choice shouldn’t surprise us regardless of how we feel about the color, especially if the members of that focus group were the typical face of breast cancer – White, heterosexual, middle-class women of a certain age. Call me cynical, but when I envision that focus group taking place, I don’t see women of color, queer women or even Goth girls at that table. The cultural loading of the color pink is precisely why the breast cancer survivors in that focus group chose it, and we can’t fault SKG for that.
We can fault SKG, however, for not more actively asking its primary constituency what we want about more substantive things — like where the money goes. Then again, I’m presuming that women in the throes of a BC journey are the foundation’s primary constituency. With all the emphasis on early prevention as opposed to a cure, we may not be. One can have Carte Blanche Healthcare, and cancer treatment still strain finances so perhaps SKG believes that those who have or have had breast cancer don’t have the disposable income as those who have not. Hence, we’re not a lucrative market for handguns and chicken.
All this said, I do pink.  I pink within limits. Like my BC madrina Jenny L. Saldaña, I wear the pink ribbon – usually on some funky attire that’s true to my personality – to identify myself as part of a tribe. To give the illness a different face than what people might be accustomed to.  I find that within certain communities, residual stigma still remains around breast cancer so I wear the pink ribbon to combat that among my own people. Most importantly I realized early in my own cancer journey that my own return to wholeness required that I be visible with both my strength and vulnerability.

That said, I won’t be walking, running, kayaking, skydiving, none of that for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure any time soon. I never say never though. When I have a say in where the money I raise goes, I will eagerly sign up, solicit donations and walk my brown ass off for SGK.  Until then I’ll make my donations directly to the breast cancer organizations whose work are aligned with my own values, priorities and politics.



Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stepping Baldacious to Snagglepuss

As I descend my steps, I suspect that's Snagglepuss entering the bodega, but I choose to head there now anyway. Before my diagnosis, not only would I have waited him out, I would have done so in the house, afraid that he might spot me the front porch and start his bullshit. Today I start something in the hopes of finishing it.

Snagglepuss is my primary harasser. I presume all who present female have at least one. His street name is Pooh. I don’t know what his mother named him, but in this neighborhood, his government name just might be Pooh, too.

His MO is to tell me I look good, that he loves me, and that he would marry (at least he knows damn well better than to propose.) Relentlessly. He insists that we went to school together. Chemo brain or not, I know homeboy didn’t go to school. Snags doesn’t even know my name. It’s, “Miss, miss… yo, I’d marry you.”  Eventually, he will yell, “You don’t have to say hi to me, but I’m never gonna stop trying to talk to you.”

And that’s a frightening thing to hear from a man who knows where you live.

As I sit on my porch typing this minutes after our encounter, Snagglepuss is walking out of the bodega back towards the Laundromat. In his red fisherman’s cap, red and white striped button-down shirt and red t-shirt, he’s like Radio Raheim had been styled by Garanimals.

Even though I walked into the bodega knowing that he was there, I find myself hoping he won’t notice me. I consider slipping out and coming back.

But then the kid that works there – a young guy in his early twenties who has a crush on me but engages me with politeness and respect – finally comments on my hair. Or more accurately my lack thereof.

“You look different.” Thinking that the baldness couldn’t be new to him since it’s been three weeks since the Big Buzz, I give him a quizzical look. After all, I am one of those chicks who runs to the store in chancl’as and sleepwear. Then Youngblood gestures towards his own cornrows, and I realize that he’s referring to my shaved head.

Before I can say a word, Snagglepuss turns. His eyes widen as he takes in my baldness and recognizes me. “You still look good!”

I ignore him and say to Youngblood, “Oh, it’s been like this for a few weeks now.” Instantaneously knowing and no longer caring that this will probably make me fodder for neighborhood gossip – especially among those who presumed that I lobbed off eight inches of thick curly hair to get my Amber Rose on – I add, “It was going to fall out anyway because I’m being treated for cancer right now so I decided to shave it off first.”

Even though I say this with a huge and genuine smile on my face, homeboy cringes. “I’m sorry.”

I got to give him credit for consistency. This news doesn’t faze Snagglepuss one bit. “So you do talk,” he says, boring his eyes into my profile. “I’d still marry you though.” 

Operation Ignore continues unabated. “My dad did, too,” I tell Youngblood, trying to chip away at that unnecessary look of pity on his face. “He took me to his barbershop.” Now dude is really cringing, and I want to snap at him to knock it off. Instead I grin on. “It was fun!” At this point, I probably don’t sound so convincing even though that experience was one of the most affirming I ever had in a male-dominated space.

“Why you don’t talk to me?” says Snags. “I be nice to you.”

So now the man has to pay for Youngblood’s well-intended but unwanted pity and his own imposition. “No, you’re not nice to me. Telling me good morning and keepin’ it moving is nice. Chasing after me down the block hollering that you love me and want to marry me when I’ve told you that I don’t like it is disrespectful.”

“OK,” he says with eyes like a remorseful child. Something in me yields ever so slightly. “I’m sorry. You forgive me?”

But I remember that we’ve been here before, and nothing changed.  “You and I have had this conversation before, but you don’t listen to me,” I remind him. “That’s why I don’t talk to you.” The bodegüero looks at me as if to say Give me your order, nena, so I can get you outta here.Un cafecito regular, por favor.”  He hustles behind the counter to the coffeemaker.

 “I’m sorry,” Snagglepuss repeats. “You forgive me?”

And I do want to forgive him. A major strategy in my journey back to wellness from breast cancer has been practicing forgiveness. One indicator of my healing has been the way men have responded to my baldness.  At Junco’s barbershop under my father’s protective and loving eye, my barber Richie and most of the other male employees and patrons held the space while I gave up one of society’s most cherished symbols of femininity. Now as I walk down the street, men compliment me with nothing but appreciation and respect. No sleazy undertone beneath their remarks, no dissecting the rest of my body with their tongues, no invasion of my personal space.  They say, “I like that look” for no other reason than to gift me that affirmation.

Oh, some men still harass me, proving the biggest lesson of this chapter of my life: cancer both changes everything and nothing. The power dynamics of the pavement remain the same. The men who articulate their awareness of me in a way that makes me feel safe make the choice to do so, and that is why to some degree I feel compelled to call it a gift. They decide to not harass me.

By the same token, I have found – no… recovered - and seized whatever agency I do possess on that unlevel playing field that is the street, and that more often than not has altered the potential scenario.  By choosing to walk these blocks literally stepping unapologetically into my proactive baldness, I say I’m more beautiful and stronger than ever. I dare you to talk sideways to me. I’m kicking cancer’s ass, and yours can be next.  Therefore, I’m radiating something that the men who compliment me merely choose to mirror back to me. To that extent, they aren’t giving me anything as much as they're reflecting what I have given myself. 

Please know that I have not lost sight that there are people out there who make other choices at the sight of a bald woman. Hurtful even violent choices. I do not mean to say that those they violate are somehow responsible for those transgressions and crimes. I do mean to acknowledge that I am not the first, the most vulnerable or even the bravest in the risk to be this authentic.  Empowerment – especially of one’s self – always entails risk.  As long as we live in a world where domination is normalized be it personal or political, authenticity will always necessitate risk. If anything, stepping baldacious is a choice that I can make, in part, because others have blazed a trail for me so that I can follow a road that is less treacherous. The only credit I can take is the choice to take that road.

“You accept my apology?” presses Snagglespuss.

And because cancer changes everything and nothing, I lay down the rules of engagement. I may be bald and have only one natural breast, but I neither want nor need Snags' validation. “You want me to forgive you? Don’t just tell me your sorry,” I say as I slide my change across the counter and take my coffee. “Show me by the way you talk to me. If you see me and tell me good morning, I’ll be nice back and say good morning, too. I’ve got no problem being neighborly witchu. But if you start with the BS about how much you love me and want to marry and are never going to stop harassing me, it’s gonna be a wrap.”

I punctuate that by slashing my hand across my throat. I don’t know what that means myself. I can’t stop Snagglepuss from saying things to me on the street, and now he knows that I’m being treated for breast cancer. That information in his hands can either shield or backfire on me. But in a way, how he handles my truth isn’t really my business.  I have a new truth now: I’m no longer going to be dipping behind cars and waiting on my gated porch to do me because he’s ambling down the avenue.

“OK. I’m sorry. Have a nice day.”

“You, too.”

In the past, I have willed myself to feel compassion towards Pooh with rare success. Now that I have set boundaries with him, it comes easy. It even feels a little like love. My more compassionate suspicions about him move from the back of my mind to the front of my heart. He’s probably struggling with some kind of mental illness. You don’t see him for stretches at a time because he’s in and out of institutions of some kind. Pooh really doesn’t mean any harm.   

Does this mean that I don’t expect him to completely forget or ignore our conversation and act the same way the next time we run into each other? Not at all. But I pray that the power I feel now is still with me whether I’m bald or not. Even more so, I hope that should I need to reinforce my boundary, I can do so with the newfound compassion I have now as well. It is so human to desire visibility without becoming a target.