#vted Reads: Juliet Takes a Breath

Welcome back to #vted Reads! The podcast for, with and by Vermont educators. I’m Jeanie Phillips and in this episode, we’re joined by Dolan, in talking about Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera. Along the way, we talk white fragility, preferred pronouns (and how your students can let you know what’s safe and appropriate for them in different settings), we learn about Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, and answer the question: ‘What can adults do to support students in their activisim?’

Plus, I confess my shortcomings as a meditator.

It’s #vted Reads. Let’s chat!

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Dolan. Tell us a little bit about who you are,  and what you do.

Dolan: My name is Dolan and I go by they/them pronouns. I currently live in Vermont, and I’m in a doctoral program with Jeanie, which is really lovely, in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Before that, I worked for six years coordinating and directing LGBTQ resources and services on college campuses. On different campuses across the country.

And most I recently moved here from California. Before that was Missouri, before that I was here in Vermont, doing my master’s program in the Higher Ed Student Affairs HESA program, just a really transformative experience for me.

I love reading, especially queer-trans, people of color or QTPOC Fiction. It’s really fun to get lost in a book, especially a book that pushes me, or resonates with me, or one maybe I feel seen in.

I am biracial. I’m white and Latinx. My mom was born in Cuba. And I definitely feel that I have a lot of white privilege and white-passing privilege. I am queer. I’m bisexual and I’m non-binary. Which is why I go by they/them pronouns, although some non-binary people go by different pronouns as well. And I’m excited to be on this podcast today.

Jeanie: Oh, I’m so excited to talk to you about this book. We talk about books all the time. One of the questions I asked my guest is what book are they reading now. And you are always reading a ton of books! As you walked in, you are like, I just now finished The Water Dancer — a book I adored. So, I wondered if you wanted to share any other highlights from your reading list?

Dolan: Yeah, I literally, as you said just finished The Water Dancer moments before this podcast recording. It was a beautiful read. Really beautiful POC fiction that I recommend to everyone. Also right now I’m finishing up Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. And also finishing Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist?

And I have a few more that I’m about to read but I can’t remember the names of. I use the Libby app and love downloading audiobooks and listening that way. I’m supporting my local library.

This past winter break since I’m a student, I read a lot of really fun books and one that sticks out to me is Darius the Great Is Not Okay. I loved that young adult novel. So. Definitely recommend that one too.

Jeanie: That’s a great one. And yay, public libraries! Yay libraries. I also just want, for listeners who may not be familiar, could you talk to me a little bit about the shorthand you use? You just used “POC” and that stands for People of Color. Is there other shorthand you might use that we could spell out for listeners as they listen?

Dolan: Yeah! So like I said I sometimes say “QTPOC” for Queer and Trans People of Color. I found living on the East Coast people pronounce it “P.O.C.” for People of Color and living on the West Coast, I found people pronounce it “POC” [pawk] for People of Color. So…I don’t know. I’ve bounced back and forth because I’ve lived in both places. And I’m still readjusting to the East Coast lingo.

But when I say POC or P.O.C., I’m referring to People of Color. So, what I mean by that personally is non-white people. That can be people mixed with white like myself, or others who are not mixed with white, people who are mixed or not mixed in general.

So, usually that looks like Black Indigenous Latinx or Latino / Latina people. And Asian Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern — other people who might identify. I also use the word “Latinx” instead of Latino or Latina, because while some people feel confused by Latinx because it’s less pronounceable in Spanish, it’s a word that was created by Latino / Latina / Latinx people to acknowledge the fact that our language, Spanish, is gendered. That all nouns and adjectives, almost all of them completely have gender. Which is very strange in my opinion. And a little bit constricting for people like myself and many, many others who identify outside of the gender binary, or just generally feel restricted by that binary.

So, a lot of times when words end in “o” and “a” in Spanish people put an “x” there, which again is a challenging pronunciation. But it’s more so to acknowledge that the binary isn’t really real. It’s a figment of our imagination. And that it can be really even violent towards folks. So, a lot of times I’ll say Latinx in this, especially talking about Juliet.

Jeanie: I so appreciate you breaking down those words for us. Words have so much power! And so, I’m trying in my life in general to be more intentional with the words that I use? And I just really appreciate you making that accessible to us.

So, let’s dig in to Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I wondered if you could introduce us to the narrator of our story here, Juliet.

Dolan: Yeah. So, Juliet is growing up in the Bronx in the book, she identifies in some ways as gay, as queer or part of the LGBTQ community. She has a girlfriend. You find that out like, on page four. And she’s boricua. She’s Puerto Rican. That’s a word that a lot of Puerto Rican folks use to describe themselves.

She’s kind of coming into herself throughout the entire book. And learning to love all parts of herself, striving for authenticity in all areas of her life. She’s navigating sometimes the harsh terrain of Puerto Rican Catholicism, and Latinx familia. Figuring out what it looks like to be young, to be queer. To be closeted in the beginning of the book, and figuring out how to be authentic in that space. Where she’s really embraced in her culture.

And she’s kind of dodging those questions at home about a boyfriend or a husband in the future. She shines brightly with her girlfriend in the beginning of the book, too. And she’s still learning kind of the hard way that this white supremacist society teaches us that she lives at the intersections of a lot of marginalization. So, she’s still learning that being in her brown, Puerto Rican family, she’s hiding a part of herself for protection: her queerness. And she seems to be desperate for more queer-friendly spaces. To seek protection from homophobia and sexism and the harassment that she’s experiencing a lot. She talks in her first chapter about experiencing some street harassment.

At the same time, she’s expecting — and she has every right to expect — a non-racist queer space, which many of us know is hard to come by. She’s still reckoning with the fact that much of the violence she experiences isn’t just sexist, it’s racialized. And I think she’s learning that throughout the book: that men harass her because of her brown body, her curvy body. Her Latina body is very sexualized by society; not just her woman body.

And so, I think Juliet is still figuring herself out. She’s very open and honest and vulnerable about that, at least with the reader. Very humble in that way: grounded in that humility of “I want to learn about feminism, and queerness; I have this girlfriend, but I still have to pay homage to my, you know, my elders in the queer community.”

And I think she still is learning that she has a lot to give and a lot to teach.

Jeanie: Early on in that chapter, she is struggling with how to come out to her family. And I think especially her mother. And she’s already out to her little brother who is bloody adorable.

Dolan: Amazing.

Jeanie: And also, challenges notions of Latinx masculinity, right? He is a total sweetheart. But, she wants to come out to the rest of her family. And one of the things that I really loved about this book was the tenuous way Gabby Rivera sort of walks this fine line of like, “I need to be who I am and be honest about that” and “I really need to be connected to my family.” Juliet’s not willing just to reject them. And I wondered if that was also her experience as a person of color.

Dolan: I think so. A lot of times queer communities look very white. And part of that, then perpetuates this narrative that communities of color, and families of color are more homophobic or transphobic. Queerphobic. And it’s just not the case, a 100% just not the case.

I just think that it’s a much more complex narrative than reading this book and saying, “Oh yeah, Latinx people are homophobic.” Or, “Juliet’s mom is just, you know, really homophobic in the beginning.” It’s that Juliet’s mom is living in this world; she wants the best for her daughter. And while the best for her daughter is *not* for her to be as heterosexual as possible, that’s the way she’s thinking, right? So we have to hold space for that and hope some forgiveness for that and recognize that this was an act of protection and survival and not *because* brown people are more homophobic.

Jeanie: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think it also leads us along into the story, because Juliet, as a very young college student, is heading out for an internship. She has discovered this author that has been life changing for her: Harlow. Harlow’s written this sort of feminist treatise that really resonates for Juliet. And Juliet’s heading to Portland, Oregon which in the book it cracks me up that her family is always saying, “Right, you’re going to Iowa.” Portland feels so far away from them!

But she’s heading to Portland, Oregon, which is a really white space. So, you’ve set us up nicely to think about Juliet’s experience as a person of color heading to this very white space. She’s *really* excited because she’s also heading to this really queer space.

Dolan: And I think that Juliet doesn’t know to look for both of those things. She sees, “Oh wow, this is some queer haven where people are saying this. This writer is writing all these queer-friendly, queer-affirming things. That must be what I need, right? Because I’m held in my brownness at home, but I’m not necessarily being held in my queerness right now. So, I need to go be held in my queerness, right?”

And that’s where I think we need to be thinking intersectionally because I feel for Juliet, this is so real, so valid, that she would run towards that and not recognize that she, unfortunately won’t be held in her brownness in that space.

Jeanie: Right, and the intersection of the two. One of the people that lives in the house with Harlow, early on in the book, takes her out. I think it’s her second day in Portland, her first full day in Portland. And he takes her out to sort of get to know the town and he, you know, he’s having a rough time himself. He gets really adversarial with her. And he starts asking her about her preferred pronouns. She’s never heard this phrase before. So, for our listeners who maybe haven’t either, could you talk a little bit about what we mean when we say “preferred pronouns”?

Dolan: Yeah. So, pronouns are this very simple yet very complex thing. We use pronouns all the time in the English language to refer to people in the first, second and third person without using their names. And so, when we’re talking about pronouns, we’re talking about third person pronouns. Those look like “he” and “she”, right? In the singular, right? So, when we’re talking about people we’ll say, “Oh, I met up with him / I went to dinner with her / know her” whatever it might be, right? And we have to recognize the gendering that happens in those third person pronouns.

So queer folks, trans folks created this new way of talking about ourselves. Because a lot of folks have said, you know, we can’t be what we can’t see. We have to be able to create language to talk about ourselves because we’re creating new ways of being and living. And if we’re not able to talk about it, other folks won’t see us. We are paving paths for others to be able to see themselves in us.

And so, gender-inclusive pronouns are ways that we asked folks to refer to us that aren’t misgendering to us. Because not everyone identifies as a man with “he” pronouns or a woman with “she” pronouns. And so, gender-inclusive pronouns often look like using they/them pronouns, which, again is kind of a repurposed plural pronoun that we all know, if English is our language of use.

They’re ways of acknowledging people that we wouldn’t be able to acknowledge. And I have to say as a person who use they/them pronouns and is non-binary: when people misgender me, it hurts. Not just because, oh, they made a grammar mistake. It’s never about that, right? I fully recognize that it takes a lot of re-learning in order to use these newer words for folks or using old words like “they” in new ways.

When English is not our first language and we’re really having to think through each word, I’d recognize that’s really tricky, especially folks are translating in their heads as they’re speaking, it’s complicated.

So I think the most important thing and the most amazing thing that folks can do is recognize that we can’t know someone’s pronouns without asking? And to provide some space for folks to name their pronouns. So when you’re in a meeting or a class, in the beginning if people are introducing themselves asked folks to offer their pronouns as well, right? If you’re making name tags for a conference or for a one-day thing or for permanent name tags for people’s offices names and pronouns, right? If we couldn’t guess your name, we couldn’t guess your pronoun.

One more thing I’ll share is that they can change over time and in different contexts, right? Let’s say Juliet wanted to use they/them pronouns for themselves. But at home, maybe that wasn’t safe. So when we’re talking with Juliet’s mom, we’re using she/her, right? When we’re talking with Juliet in class, we’re using they/them. And so checking in with folks and saying, “Hey, I just want to be a support to you, let me know if it shifts for you or if there are ways that I can support you.”

And a lot of times if you have a young student, for example, I see this a lot in youth, where they’re [in the Gay-Straight Alliance] they’ll say,

“Oh, I want to use these pronouns. But when you’re meeting with my parent at the parent-teacher conference, use these [other] pronouns, right?”

And that’s a way of protecting someone and letting them play with their identity and their language a little to see what fits.

Jeanie: Yes, I’ve had that experience actually in schools of using one set of pronouns with the student and a different set of pronouns on the report card or with the family and it’s super important to keep LGBTQ folks safe.

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I’m going to insert into the transcript to my yearly public service announcement, which is The LGBTQ Bill of Rights for Students (.pdf) which is an important document that I think should be at schools everywhere.

Now, is there a role for ally ship in this? If I’m with you and somebody misgenders you, what’s my role as your friend, as your ally?

Dolan: I think it’s tricky because you may be with a youth. Or you may be with someone in front of their family. Like I said, it can change based on the context. So a lot of times, I say one of the best first steps can be to check in with the person afterwards.

“Hey, I was in that room and I noticed that someone misgendered you. How can I support you?”

Right? And I think that’s huge because that non-binary person that trans person definitely noticed that they were misgendered. Very rarely I’m I like, “Oh, they did?”

I almost always know that: yes, you’re right. Thank you for noticing. I felt alone in that moment. I felt isolated and unseen and you saw me. And that is a big deal to feel seen even when others are kind of harassing you, right?

Jeanie: That is so helpful. I just so appreciate this conversation. And I think Juliet, in the book, could have really benefited from a friend like you to sort of help them navigate, like. because she sits there for a long time and struggles with like, what even is that?

Dolan: That’s a big undertone of that interaction that she has with this man! And there’s something to be said about her being consistently marginalized around even not being queer enough — which is a big narrative in our communities, unfortunately — for this space. And Juliet is not able to see herself reflected back in this community and feel like she can contribute and teach and be part of, you know, that spac. Because she doesn’t *know* enough. Which is not fair when we webinars our own work against each other, right?

Jeanie: This reminds me of a conversation I had last night with a friend of mine who works with a lot of ELL students, and this student who is Nepali, is taking a Spanish class. And the student said to my friend who’s working with her, “All of the white kids in the Spanish class are *so* good.”

And, my friend Jory says, “Well, do you think it’s because that this is your third language you’re learning? Do you think they would be as smart in Nepal?”

Dolan: Ooh.

Jeanie: I bring this back to Juliet because in a way what Juliet had seen is like, “Oh, is it because I’m brown that I don’t…?” Right? And she is really seeing this white perspective and feeling like she doesn’t know enough. Meanwhile, nobody in the whole place is acknowledging anything about her Puerto Rican background.

Dolan: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they don’t feel like they need to take responsibility for that learning. It’s a very complex pattern throughout the book.

Jeanie: It’s a double-standard, right?

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: You need to know all of these things to fit into the queer community, but we don’t need to know anything about your cultural background.

Dolan: Right, exactly. And we will punch your card when you’re ready, right? Your queer card. And that’s just nonsense, yes.

Jeanie: But not all the spaces Juliet experiences are like that. She gets taken to a Writer Warriors workshop. And I wonder maybe we could read a few pages of it. To introduce this space.

Dolan: So before I start reading, for those who you are following along at home, it’s on page 106. Juliet is in this space being hosted by Zaira. And Zaira is a Black queer woman.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. First before we go anywhere else, can we just express our mutual appreciation and love for Octavia Butler?

Dolan: Yes, she’s so amazing. I really want to just beg everyone to please read all of her books. Kindred is currently on my nightstand and I’ve only read her Earth series so far, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. But holy-moly, it’s just amazing dystopian fiction that will feel way realer than 1984.

Jeanie: So, we just needed to get that out of the way because we have talked about Octavia Butler a bunch. But let’s go back, because what ends up happening is and I’m going to read this part because it’s the white woman’s part. Okay.

So, on page 110, you know, they’re finishing up this workshop, where Juliet is like, she’s a writer, but she’s doubting that she’s a science fiction writer. And she’s rediscovering Octavia Butler’s brand of science fiction, which is a little bit different.

But as they’re leaving, Juliet overhears a conversation and here it is.

You’re cracking up over there!

Dolan: I am!

Jeanie: Tell me what you’re thinking.

Dolan: Just the, “I know reverse racism doesn’t exist, but…”

You know it’s never going to go in a good place after that. I just know that. And literally the line right after you stopped reading Juliet kind of says, as the narrator, “I didn’t really know what was wrong from what they said, but it felt weird.”

And I want to acknowledge that. It’s so valid. I love that she shares that with the reader.

And I think it also reminds me of the magic that we have, right? Our intuition, how Juliet maybe hasn’t read a book about privilege and whiteness and white supremacy, but she knew in her bones, in her gut, in her heart, her soul that what just happened wasn’t right, you know. She didn’t need that academic training on the topic to know it, right?

And just a few pages after that, Harlowe gets in the car, with Zaira and some others, and she had just talked to some white women who were fawning over her writing–

Jeanie: –and Harlowe is a white woman, a white writer.

Dolan: Exactly. And she sits in the car. I think she’s the only white woman in the car. Everyone else is a woman of color after this session and she’s just kind of like humphing. And Juliet talks about how she’s all pointy and all edges and very sharp, you know? She’s just making the stink, right? And how a lot of times white women, white feminists, white queer feminists can’t really acknowledge that racism still exists right now, still, in all of us day-to-day in our interactions we’re witnesses to it and we’re perpetrators of it, right?

Jeanie: Yes.

Dolan: And I say that as a person who’s half-white, half-Latinx, super white-passing, right?I’m totally part of the problem *and* experience it sometimes. And so, it’s a real thing. And I love the way that Gabby Rivera walks us through this because it’s so dally. *laughs* And the way that Juliet makes meaning of it? Because she doesn’t have all the words and all the jargon but she totally gets it in her gut. That what happened was wonky, right?

Jeanie: Right. And we’re so used to being centered in our histories, in the literature that we read in school and out of school, in the news, on television and movies. So suddenly when our experience isn’t centered or when we’re asked to, you know, stay a little quieter, make a little space — and I say that we as a white woman, me “we” — when we as white folks are asked to do that, it pinches. I think it takes a lot of self-awareness and practice to get used to being like, “Oh, other people experiences all the time and we don’t even ask it of them, it just happens.”

You’re making me think of something. I am a very novice meditator. I should meditate more, probably. But when, you know, when I’m learning meditation, when I’m focusing on meditation, one of the things is when your mind wanders –which it will — the work, the practice is really about coming back to the present moment, right? And so, what you’re making me think about is the practice here is about like, “Oh, there’s my fragility again.”

Dolan: Yes, it’s the noticing and naming, just like in meditation, right?

Jeanie: And that comes back to pronouns.

Dolan: Yes.

Jeanie: When we mess up, it’s the noticing and the naming. Oh, I so appreciate the way you’re reading this together for me.

So Juliet, besides going to Writers Workshops with cool people and other social events around. Portland also has a job to do and one of her tasks is to investigate this, like, weird collection of paper slips with the names of powerful women on them that Harlowe has collected. And one of the women she seeks out is Lolita Lebrón. She’s at the local library where there’s a bit of a love interest, that was really fun to read about! And she gets really angry because she didn’t know about Lolita Lebrón who is a Puerto Rican revolutionary. She gets like, ticked. She’s like, “How do my family never talk to me about this? My Puerto Rican family, where is this story? How did I never learn it?”

It reminded me, at the Middle Grades Conference, a teacher in the room asked some Edmunds Middle School students who were presenting on equity, “What could adults do to support them in their activism?”

And one of the students responded, “How come nobody ever teaches us about inequity? I wish adults would teach us about what is going on in the world.” And so, I’m just curious about how you reacted to the Lolita Lebrón’s section.

Dolan: Yes, it’s so real. We don’t realize how much we’re centering white people in our history and in our pedagogy until we read something else. And it’s like, “Oh, my God, how did I not know?”

For me, this makes me think immediately about learning about Gloria E. Anzaldúa for the first time, way too late in my life, when I was like 24 or 25 in grad school the first time. She talks about living in the Borderlands in her book Borderlands/La Frontera. And this book cracked me open and made me feel whole at the same time.

So, as a biracial, bisexual, non-binary person — also a Gemini — I feel Juliet’s words on a visceral level, this living between sometimes in different lands never truly belonging, perhaps only belonging in the liminal space of the border itself and not knowing who our people are.

It was powerful for me because… I had embodied so many experiences but didn’t know how to name it? And also felt so isolated. And so, it comes back to this: you can’t be what you can’t see, right? Or this way of when someone names and experience you feel seen and you feel less alone, right? Because I was like, “Wow, I’m not the only person who lives on some Borderlands, right? And so I read her book. I think I was assigned one chapter for something. But I read the whole thing. I just couldn’t put it down.

And it had so much Spanish and Spanglish in it that she just unapologetically wrote in both languages and a mixture of language and some words she made up and I just loved.

And I just cried.

I cried hearing the words of my people and reflecting on the colonization of language itself. This idea that Spanish had came from the conquistadores and is really not the indigenous language at all. And [Anzaldúa] identifies as Indigenous and queer–

It was *so much* for me, for her to analyze some and all of that in different passages and talk about queerness in those spaces. And even gender. It really helped me kind of split open and begin to heal?

And I realized how much I had been *thinking* I was self-protecting. By building this, you know, deep shell of protection: The Shield. But really, when I read someone else who had a similar experience? Again, I have a lot of privilege and I don’t want to pretend like my experience is the same as Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s, but she spoke to my soul.

Jeanie: What you’re making me think about is the importance of being seen? Being seen in literature, in history, in story. And what you talked about earlier about being seen for who you are and how your gendered. How your pronouns are used.

And as a librarian like for me, my mission was really to make sure that all of my students could be seen affirmatively, appreciatively, in my collection. So, that just like really touches me. And I think that Lolita Lebrón helps Juliet feel seen, in a way, for her heritage in this place where you’re talking about she wanted to be seen for her queerness. Now, she’s in this white queer space and now she gets to be seen for her Puerto Ricanness.

Dolan: And how even when Juliet probably learned about Puerto Rican people, it was probably on like a half-page in a multicultural section of our social studies book. And on top of that, it was probably this very whitewashed or normative narrative of someone assimilating to white culture and not Lebrón’s narrative, which is like attempting murder and, you know, assaulting the House of Representatives. And really, I mean, being incredible, right? In some ways. Like, fighting and not taking no for an answer for liberation, right? And how that is kind of taught to us as like not really worthy of true history. Or maybe it’s not as notable or, you know, as loving as a Rosa Parks story. Or the way that we sanitize people like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?

There’s no real sanitization of Lolita Lebrón, right? And so, when she reads about this person, she’s just like,

“I’m allowed to be unapologetic?”

And there’s so much power and empowerment in that.

Jeanie: Yes. She stays in the library for, like, full days reading these books and she’s even distracted from the crush she has. She’s so interested in Lolita. So I’m going to move us along a little bit further. There’s a really interesting point in the book on page 182, that I want to ask you about because I need help thinking about it. And you sort of mentioned it before, about the ways we expect queer folks and people of color to sort of educate us all the time.

And so. At this point in the book, Harlowe is asking Juliet for her opinion about a racial issue. And here’s what Maxine, Harlowe’s partner says,

“Now, hold on just a minute,” Maxine said, ‘Are you going to write me and Juliet checks for an analysis on race? Because our labor isn’t free.'”

Dolan: *laughs* And it’s important to note that Maxine is also a woman of color, right?

Jeanie: Right.

Dolan: So, I think there’s this really interesting juxtaposition, for me, of Juliet learning about pronouns from this very, like, white normative lens of like, “How did you not read them the right books about pronouns? How are you not hip enough with this elitist academic knowledge?” And this white woman asking about a race issue, right? A racialized feminist issue. And expecting the folks of color, the women of color in her life to constantly just fill in those gaps.

Jeanie: To do all the work.

Dolan: And use it for myself. That’s the other piece. It’s a lot of times white folks learn things from folks of color. Not even from like taking the time to read a book and really situate themselves in some context, they’ll ask their friend a question, their friend will give an individual answer — as a person, right? As me — not as all brown people, right —  I will tell you the answer to this question. And then that white person will then use it in all the spaces and be like, “Well, this one brown person told me that it’s totally okay to say this.”

Jeanie: “I have black friends.”

Dolan: Exactly. And they said I could do this and that or say this and that or show up this way or that way or that whatever. Wait a second!

Jeanie: “My black friend says I can use the N-word.”

Dolan: No!

Jeanie: You saw my sarcasm there, I hope.

Dolan: Oh yeah! And so: no, no, no. First of all, that’s co-opting some space and some power. That’s just violent, right? But also, it creates this weird monolith asking this brown or Black person to speak for all brown or Black people and that’s just garbage, right?

But I think there’s this, yes, this interesting thing around the unpaid labor. It’s just like: people of color as marginalized people are expected to know the norms of white culture and society, right? But white people are not expected to know their norms, right? Of communities of color.

So, folks of color are living in their own brown norms, their own cultural norms at home, with their communities, whatever that looks like. And then they’re also having to code-switch into white norms and white society, right? And then white people are like, “Oh, how do I act around brown people? Hey, brown person explain this to me.” Or: “Is it okay to do this as a white person? Why not?” Right? Not recognizing sometimes it’s really harmful to hear that stuff come out of a white person’s mouth. To sit there and go,

“I still need to tell you that? I need you to go write that in your journal instead.”

That’s what I like to tell people sometimes because it can be really harmful to hear that and feel objectified and tokenized.

Jeanie: “Go Google it.”

Dolan: Exactly! Yes. So it’s this tricky piece.

Jeanie: You’re making me think about, you’re making me think about how the extra emotional labor people of color do as educators, right? Because not only are they code-switching with norms and community, not only are they making sure the needs of their students of color are being met, but they’re also dealing with racism all day every day.

Dolan: Absolutely. And making the white people around them comfortable about it, right?

Jeanie: Yes. Well, speaking of tokenization, this stuff really goes down in this book. In fact when I got to Page 206, when I got to the end of page 206, I remember texting you like: “Oh my god Harlowe just did whaaaaaat?”

Dolan: Yup, uh-huh.

Jeanie: Because here we are, Harlowe is giving this big book event for Raging Flower, her feminist tome, and Juliet has helped set up this book event. And I’m just going to read a portion of it. Harlowe gets challenged by a person of color about the color-blindness within her feminism, is what I’ll say.

So, part of her answer is:

“‘Do I think that queer and trans women of color will read my work and feel like they see themselves in my words? Not necessarily, but some will and do. I mean, I know someone right now sitting in this room who is a testament to this, someone who isn’t white who grew up in a ghetto, someone who is a lesbian and Latina and fought for her whole life to make it out of the Bronx alive to get an education. She grew up in poverty and without any privilege–‘”

And– It goes *on*.

But oh, my goodness.

I felt this on so many layers and I’m not going to begin to compare my experience to Juliet. But I will say: the first time I brought some college friends home to my house in Pennsylvania, one of my friends said, “I didn’t know you live near the projects.” And I had no idea.

So I felt this word, “ghetto”, to my very core. Because Juliet doesn’t think of her home as a ghetto. None of these things are how Juliet would describe herself.

Dolan: Absolutely. And so it’s so many layers. It throws Juliet into this: is that all you see me as? It shows the reader this pattern of behavior from Harlowe of not just her white fragility, but the ways that she uses brown and Black bodies as tokens of her “wokeness” and the ways in which she’s able to say, “See, I’m not just for white people because I surround myself with brown and Black people. And I use them as pawns.”

Gabby Rivera is pointing to a group of people who have been acting this way for a long period of time. White queer feminists in general. Right?

Jeanie: My take on this which is totally different than yours because we, our identities are different, right? And so our experience of reading this book is different? Is that I think that there was this moment when I realized that I hadn’t picked up on the pattern at all.

Dolan: Yeah.

Jeanie: That the things that the slides and the transactional nature of Harlowe’s friendship with Juliet?  …Wasn’t obvious to me until it was suddenly *so* obvious. And then I had to go back and really think about it. Like, you’ve really helped me think about all of the ways of the like, death by a thousand cuts. That all of these little itty bitty pieces throughout the book, lead to this. Because it wasn’t obvious to me. I’ll be honest.

Dolan: I don’t know if it was obvious to Juliet. Because Juliet is so gracious and humble, really came into this internship with: I have everything to learn from this hero / heroine (whatever) of mine. Like, “This feminist icon, she knows everything, I have everything to learn, nothing to teach.” And I think this moment helped her go:

“Holy moly, none of this is what I signed up for. I’m realizing now that not only do I hold others on a pedestal and not believe in myself enough because I have so much potential and capacity. But I gave this person too much benefit of the doubt. And every time that she disappointed me or rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I couldn’t quite figure out why my gut was telling me this was wonky.”

It’s connecting.

Jeanie: That helps me. I still think that I could fine tune my own capacity to see this.

Dolan: I hear you, but yeah, it’s a lot.

Jeanie: One of my favorite characters in this book is Juliet’s cousin, *sings* Avaaaaaaaa.

Dolan: Yes! She’s so rad.

Jeanie: My goodness. So, Juliet needs a break obviously, from Harlowe, after… *sighs* that epic fail at the bookstore. And so, she goes to visit her cousin, Ava, in Miami. And I got to say, when I was reading page 225, I wanted portions of it written in the sky in big, bold letters.

Dolan: Yes!

Jeanie: And so, Ava very graciously, is sort of educating Juliet about trans folks .And so here’s Juliet’s question. Could you read from page 225, there’s just this one part that I just want written in the sky in big bold letters?

Dolan: Cool. So,

I clasped my hands over my belly, mulling over what Ava had said. Before this summer, I’d never considered there was anything beyond he or she. Or that folks could experience a multitude of genders, within their person. Like: what? That sounded amazing. Beautiful. Wild, like the universe. ‘Why not just ask someone straight-up if they’re trans?’ I asked. “‘Girl, how rude do you plan to be in this life?’ She questioned, stretching out on her big-ass bed. ‘Your one job is to just accept what a person feels comfortable sharing about themselves. No one owes you info on their gender, body parts or sexuality.’ Mind blown.”

So, yeah, I love that part as well. I thought that was really beautiful.

Jeanie: I love, no one owes you. No one owes you.

Dolan: Yeah. I loved the way that Ava explained pronouns in such a real way, right? And juxtapose that with the way that Juliet was exposed to it in Oregon — which was very confusing and abrupt and condescending. The way Ava explains it in this like, come on, you know this already, kind of way. A very inviting way. But also a challenging way like, come on you got this, you’re better than this.

And then the way that she says like, what are you just going to ask somebody if they’re trans, are you rude? Come on, you know better than that, right? And doesn’t shame her. Just blows her mind. And I loved that.

But, we have to remember where we come from and I think that Ava teaches her this in such a beautiful way. It really helps Juliet see: you already know this in your bones. You just needed to be introduced to this. And not in a condescending, paternalistic, white supremacist way of “How did you not know what a pronoun is? How do you not know who Sylvia Rivera is?” But: “Hey, you don’t know your history because you don’t have access to this. I had to seek this out, let me teach you this.”

Jeanie: We are out of time. We have, listeners, Dolan and I have curated a ton of books because that’s who we are: readers and curators of books.

Dolan: Love books.

Jeanie: And we’re going to put a list up on the transcript of some queer and trans, people of color fiction, some non-fiction, some books that you might read on your own, some books that you might provide in your school or in your library, in your classroom. So many books, we’re going to put up some great lists for you on the transcript.But we’re out of time to talk about them even though we feel like we could talk for days about his book.

Dolan: We could.

Jeanie: It’s a great list. Dolan, I want to thank you so, so much for coming for talking about this book, for talking about your personal experience, your lived experience for sharing that with us and for answering all my questions.

Dolan: Thank you for having me. I adore this book and it’s not the most well-known book, which makes me sad because when it came out I remember feeling really excited. I was like, bought it immediately and thought that it would be a big book. And I’m surprised by how few libraries or other places have this book.

I really appreciate you going on your way to read it and loving it and talking about it with me because this book brings me a lot of joy and also peace.

Jeanie: I adore this book and I adore you. Thank you so much.

Dolan: I adore you. Thank you Jeanie.

 

 

 

Author

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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