On police and privilege

I said a few years back that I was going to tone down my opinions online. I was going to bite my tongue and figure that you can’t change people who are set in their opinions. I was going to stop “inviting” the nasty comments that my posts elicited, the name calling. I was going to not give people a reason to avoid speaking to me, or to look at me and say something about not approaching situations with anger.

But tonight I call bullshit. I might return to my state of relative quiet tomorrow, but tonight, I can’t keep it in anymore.

You see, I’m a writer. Whatever I post on here about wondering if I’m a real writer, I’m someone who believes inherently in the power of words, who believes that the things we say can have just as big an impact as the things we do. Who believes that the often horrible overabundance of information on the Internet is simultaneously its greatest strength. It gives us all a voice, and tonight I’m going to shout out into the cacophony. Maybe my voice will get lost behind the words of people who speak loudly, or with greater vitriol, or maybe behind people who are just generally more well-spoken and charismatic than me. Maybe. But I’m still going to say my piece.

In the last few days I’ve seen too many posts that don’t check their privilege. Many of these posts (or “likes” or comments or whatever) have come from people I care deeply about and have huge amounts of respect for. They’re from people I like, and people that I know I could have rational conversations with about most issues (some, namely abortion, I’ve stopped even trying to reason with people on, which to me is my own failure of words due to fear rather than a triumph of temperance, but I digress).

The posts also come from strangers, or from general acquaintances, and I’m happy to say that the words that make me most angry come from these people. Perhaps because we don’t have the bonds of history, but mostly I think it’s that the people who are cruelest, who are quickest to dismiss the complexities of life are people I’ve chosen not to allow too deeply into mine. These people—and here I’m including that guy whose post about a traffic stop is plastered all over my Facebook today—too often say something along the lines of “nothing bad has happened to me in this situation, so if something bad happened to you, you must have done something to deserve it.”

It’s about respect, that guy says. And sure, I can support treating people with respect, but too often respect is something we tell minorities, women, and other less-powered people to have. And the people we’re telling them to respect: usually the people who are already in power. As if respect is something that certain people deserve more than others, as if a title, or badge, or life status earns it without question. We have a hierarchy of respect in this country—perhaps in this world—assuming that some groups of people have yet to earn it and other groups of people already have, and we make these determinations with the barest of details.

And to be clear, I’m saying this as someone who bends over backwards to be kind to strangers and acquaintances, often to my own detriment. I’ve never sworn at a stranger or been anything even approaching physically violent. I had to put it as a goal on my Day Zero list to stand up for myself to a stranger, and I accomplished that feat exactly once in 1001 days—and how I “accomplished” that was something along the lines of saying, “Hey, now,” to a guy who joked about getting scored on by a girl at soccer. So yeah. Not even sure that counts.

But I am in a position of enormous privilege. Despite being a woman, I have pretty much everything else going for me on the privilege checklist:

  • No one looks at me and assumes I will be a violent person, or that I would be capable of injuring them if I were.
  • I have been loved every single day of my life and have never doubted that I had people to turn to if things got difficult either emotionally or financially.
  • I have always had a stable physical place to call my home and always have been confident where my next meal was coming from.
  • I have never been physically abused by someone who professed to love me.
  • I have always had a vast support system beyond my family.
  • I have never been told I was stupid, that I wouldn’t amount to anything, or that I was going nowhere in life.
  • I grew up around people who imparted to me the value of books, knowledge, and critical thinking and who without thought exposed me to “standard” English, which means that when I do express myself, people (often) listen to what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it; people do not make negative assumptions about my intelligence based on the way I speak.
  • When I struggled with physical or mental trauma, I had access to a robust team of physicians who did not assume I was lying, acting out for attention, or otherwise incapable of offering valid suggestions for my own care.
  • I look like a normal middle class white girl, which means people don’t tend to automatically assume that I’m lazy, or worthless, or uncultured simply based on the way I look/dress/style my hair.
  • My parents were financially and mentally capable of being constantly present in my life and were able to instill in me what we might consider a traditional set of ethics; their words and their actions matched each other, as did the words and actions of all important adult figures who were present in my young life.

I could go on, but the point here is that I’ve always had a lot going for me. The point here is that there are many stressors I’ve never had to worry about in my life. There are many things I’ve never had to face and many more that I’ve never even considered having to face.

So I don’t care that so many people can’t conceive of a valid reason that might cause someone else to lash out. Because I’m fairly sure that even if I went out tonight and started acting belligerently to a police officer, they would use the most minimal force to restrain me. I’m sure they wouldn’t pull a gun on me.

We all give in to these stereotypes and snap second judgments at times. I’ve done it myself. One of my most shameful memories is of a time I was in a car accident in undergrad. I was rear ended while waiting at a light, and when I got out of the car and saw that there were two other cars involved in the accident—the one behind me driven by a black man and the one behind that driven by a white woman—I automatically assumed that the black man had rear ended me and, as a result, been hit by the white woman, despite the fact that there had been only one moment of impact. When I expressed this point of view to the other female driver (the whole time we were waiting for the police, I sat and spoke with her, but I never approached or said one word to the black man), she asked me if I would lie to the police and say that was what had happened. Only then did I realize that she had been the one at fault, and though I told the truth to the police officers (one impact), I felt guilty for doing so.

I’ve thought about that day a lot over the years. I was startled and shaken, and in that moment I resorted to pure prejudices. I wonder sometimes how the situation might have changed had the races been reversed, had the accident been caused by a black woman and had the other driver been a white man—and I’m sure that in that moment I would have gravitated toward the white man.

Admitting that to myself leaves me so ashamed, but I can’t do anything to change how I acted in the past. Instead what I can do is take compassion and listening and understanding forward with me—things so much more powerful than blind respect. I can try to spot my own privileges, and the moments where those privileges impact how I see the world. I can try to stop thinking about what I would do were I in someone else’s shoes, because the collection of experiences that make me me don’t exist for anyone else, and the things that have had the most powerful impact on me are often the same things that others are missing from their experiences.

I’ve heard that the girl in South Carolina recently entered foster care, and from what I can tell, it’s not due to the death of her parents. Which, hey, I don’t want to say one proves the other, but this certainly suggests that she’s having, or perhaps has always had, a very different situation at home than the one I’ve had, than the one most of my friends, family, and acquaintances have had.

Look. I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but to suggest, as some have, that the girl deserved this because she’s a “brat,” is, to me, a failure of human compassion. It’s a failure to see that there are other ways to look at the world than the one we see first out our own eyes, to acknowledge that other people have different, and sometimes irreparably challenging realities.

As that man’s Facebook post about his traffic stop suggests, we are all culpable, we are all able to make the world a better place, but I contend, and will continue to contend, that the way we do that is by trying to understand with compassion, not by punishing. We do that by wondering, even for a few seconds, what it would be like to live a different reality. We ask what might have pushed someone to such a place rather than crying for their punishment. It means we try to listen to people, especially when our first reaction is to assume they have nothing important to say. And when they don’t speak, we invite them into the conversation and believe what they say, and when they don’t want to speak we let them stay silent.

It means we stop assuming that everyone who carries a badge or wears a uniform automatically always has the best interest of others in mind, stop assuming those people can make no mistakes. It means that we recognize the power for good and evil (for lack of better terms) in all of us.

Maybe that police officer in South Carolina regrets what he did, or maybe the girl does. Maybe one or both of them acted beyond their normal behaviors that day, or maybe one or both of those behaviors is normal for them. I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter.

What I do know is that there are so many people who have it worse than me, who have not had the wonderful combination of privileges that I’ve had. I know that privilege sometimes blinds us. So to all of my friends and family, to all of my acquaintances who want to dismiss the violence of people in power toward people who are distinctly lacking it, I say this:

Taken collectively, these and other issues of police brutality are not about respect. On the whole, this is not about people “asking for it.” It’s about fear of the other, it’s about letting our prejudices—all of us, all of our prejudices—interfere with our decision making skills. It’s about fear and turning fellow human beings into others. And maybe, just maybe, sometimes it’s about preemptive revenge, just in case. There’s a trend occurring about who does the hurting and who’s getting hurt, and pretending that trend doesn’t exist isn’t going to fix anything. Pretending that this country doesn’t have real issues of privilege and discrimination based on that privilege is just going to make it worse.

I don’t know what will help. Not for sure. But maybe it’s time to try looking inward, to see the ways all of us with privilege are responsible for continuing to uphold a system that benefits those on top the most. To think about all the times we hurt those around us by painting the world with a single brush. To look in the mirror and say, “I can do better by my fellow human beings.”

No writing tip this week

I’m still fighting off the last vestiges of whatever nasty thing I came down with a few weeks back, and after overdoing it with some physical activity today (soccer game and a run), I’m feeling crappy again. And next Friday I will be at the wedding of one of my best friends, so I’ll be back with writing tips the first week of October.

Stitch Fix #2

September Stitch Fix

I took a picture of all the things from the box that I was going to put here, but it turned out blurry, and since my dog threw up all over my living room in the last few minutes AND gmail stopped downloading new attachments, I’m just going to use this one instead.

I got my second Stitch Fix box today. Technically I asked for it yesterday (my thirtieth birthday), but it came today, which is fine, since I was pretty busy yesterday. Today is the day FedEx estimated it arriving from the beginning, too, so I was prepared for the slight delay.

I made one special request in this box: I wanted a pair of pants that weren’t dark blue denim, since that’s really all I own. Seriously. I have six pairs of jeans, and two are skinnies, but they are all dark-blue denim. I figured it was time to diversify a little bit. My stylist completely delivered by sending me an amazing pair of grey skinnies. In fact, she nailed my style again with this box, and I loved every single thing in it. There were some small problems, but I’ll talk about those below. So without further ado, here’s what I received for my special birthday Stitch Fix. Continue reading “Stitch Fix #2” »

Halloween costumes

It’s early August, just over three weeks to the start of classes, classes for which I am not yet ready for. I have approximately a million and twelve things to do, but what am I up to tonight? Looking for a good Halloween costume. Naturally.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Halloween. I loved getting dressed up as a kid, but as I got older, it got harder and harder to find good costumes, and so I attended Halloween festivities less and less often. As an adult, I’ve had exactly four costumes: a sorority girl, a rabbit, a cat, and a unicorn. They were all half-assed costumes, and looking around at what all my peers were wearing made me a little bit ashamed of my last-minute ensembles.

So this year I’m going to start early and try to put together something awesome. Something literary, I think, or maybe just plain geeky (a style I much prefer to sexy). I’d love to go as Red from Once Upon a Time, or Tris from Divergent. Zelda would be pretty sweet, and so would Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon. Only you can’t really buy these costumes premade (at least not for anything I’m willing to pay), which means I’m left to put them together myself. Tris looks the easiest, since there’s no sewing involved (I can sew on a button or stitch up a small tear, but other than that I’m hopeless), but I get the feeling there will be a fair few Tris costumes running around this year. Here’s the complete list of what I’m considering.

What awesome literary and/or geeky costumes have you put together? What are you thinking of doing this year? And where on earth do you get the pieces for your costumes?

my first Stitch Fix box

my first Stitch Fix clothing

The clothes from my first Stitch Fix. I also got a purse, but I forgot to pull it out for this, then I was too lazy to reshoot.

Those of you who have known me for a while know that I’ve never had much fashion sense. I’ve always valued comfort over cuteness, and for most of my life you were more likely to find me in jeans (or sweatpants!) and a t-shirt than anything else. But then I started teaching, and I realized I would have to look at least somewhat different than my students. Over the past few years I’ve slowly been upgrading my wardrobe, but I’ve pretty much stayed within my comfort zone. It’s gotten a bit stale, to say the least. It was time to try something new.

I’d been hearing about Stitch Fix for a few months (though apparently I was still way behind the rest of the Internet), and after seeing some friends have positive experiences, I thought I’d give it a try. I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

For those who, like me a few months ago, might be unfamiliar, the basic premise is this: you sign up for Stitch Fix, fill out an extensive style profile, set a date for your box to come, and you wait. While you’re waiting, a stylist goes through your profile (and your Pinterest style board, if you have one) and chooses five articles of clothing and accessories for you, puts together a handy style cheat sheet, and ships it to you. Then you try on the clothes in your own home, pairing them with your own wardrobe to see how they work, and you send back (free of charge) anything you don’t want. They charge you $20 for the box, but if you choose to keep anything, that money goes toward your order. You also give them feedback on what you liked and didn’t, and why you did and did not like those things, and they use that to improve your next fix, if you choose to get one.

My first box came today. I was pretty excited for it, and also a bit nervous, but it turns out I had nothing to be nervous about. My stylist somehow understood the hodgepodge of information I’d given her and knew just what to send me. Some things I loved, some I didn’t. Some thing I would have picked out for myself, and others I would have passed over so far (and, perhaps not-so-strangely, the things I didn’t like were not the things I would have passed over). In the end, though, I can understand why she picked out each piece she did. I’ve never though of myself as having a style, but apparently I do, and she nailed it.

So without further ado, here’s what my stylist sent me, and what I thought of each piece. Continue reading “my first Stitch Fix box” »

changes afoot

I have a confession: this blog has never been what I wanted it to be.

I’ve written irregularly, and the sporadic nature of the posts has, understandably, resulted in a low readership. Not seeing brag-worthy numbers in my Google Analytics account made me feel discouraged and resulted in my writing posts even less awesome.

About a year and a half ago I decided it was time to do something to break out of the spiral. The problem, however, was that I wasn’t sure what that something was, and so I let the blog sit, only posting every month or two just to remind people that I was indeed still here.

And then it finally hit: I was trying to do too much. I realized I’d come up with ideas for posts and then never write them because I was sure there was something more interesting, or more blog-worthy. I needed a focus. I’d been toying for a while with the idea of writing a teaching blog, but I didn’t like the idea of limiting myself that much, especially when I still identify as a writer who teaches rather than a teacher who writes.

Can you see where this is going? I can’t believe it took me this long.

My blog, which has only been kathrynhoughton.com up to this point, has now been reborn as read. write. teach. I’ve switched to a new theme, and I finally posted information about my freelance skill set. Next I’ll be tweaking and personalizing the design, and hopefully there will be some new content up before too long as well. I hope the few of you who stayed with me this far will continue to follow me as I transition to an exploration of all things language.

Day Zero: a month without (buying) takeout

I haven’t actually been paying a lot of attention to my Day Zero list since I started it (in December 2012), but after a random series of reminders, I took a look at it again a few weeks ago (I’m really not doing well), and decided it was time to start working toward some things again. And because I don’t believe in easing my way into things, I figured I’d start with one of the harder goals on the list: going a month without buying takeout.

June, I thought, would be a perfect month. I’m not teaching so I have time to cook. My schedule is lax enough that I can easily plan it around meals. Also, June only has 30 days.

Now, when I say takeout, I’m not just talking about Wendy’s (although I do love their french fries and Frosties). No, for me I defined this as any non-service restaurant or establishment where I might buy pre-prepared food in its final state (so things like Meijer rotisserie chickens are still okay). This means no fast food, no delivery (or pickup, I suppose) pizza, no soft pretzels while I’m at the mall, no Panera…

I’ve made a few exceptions, though. I’ll eat the food on the above list if someone else purchases it for me, or if I’m invited out and it would socially unacceptable to sit there looking sad and hungry. Mostly, these exceptions are just so that my already-lacking social life doesn’t die completely during this month. Oh, and I’ve also made an exception for movie theater popcorn because, come on!

To a lot of people maybe this doesn’t seem that hard, but it has been a challenge for me so far (and I’m not even halfway done!). I don’t grab burgers every day, but I eat probably more than my fair share of takeout, and I have a horrible soft spot for Auntie Anne’s Pretzels every time I go to the mall. But I did go through a phase in February and March, when I was moving and traveling, where it seemed that almost every meal was restaurant or takeout, and I swear I’m still feeling the after-effects of that (both health- and money-wise).

So I’m hoping this will inspire me to cook more, and help me get back on the right track health-wise. It might be a bit early, but I’m tentatively calling this goal a success!

Renting, 2013 edition

My lease at Beacon Lake will be up at the end of March, and while I have the option of resigning—at a higher rent rate—I’ve spent a fair bit of time lately looking for something else. There are a variety of reasons I don’t want to return. Mostly, a lot of little issues have sort of coagulated into a larger dislike.

First, I tried to buy a house. I figured I could afford a decently priced house since I’m doing just fine spending a decent amount on rent each month. But then the bank decided not to count a large chunk of my income, since, as I understood it, I’m in a risky profession. Anyone could lose their job at any time, but I guess it only really matters if you’re a professor. Also, despite the fact that I made a certain amount of money last year, the bank doesn’t agree that I’ll make anything near that this year. The bank said I can only afford $400/month in housing expenses.

Then I thought about renting a house. There are probably great, realistically priced houses out there for rent, but I have no clue how anyone goes about finding these places. I’ve used every Google search I can think of, asked tons of people for recommendations, and I have yet to find a house for rent in a good neighborhood at a decent price. Continue reading “Renting, 2013 edition” »

New year, new plan

I’ve been thinking lately about this blog and how it functions. When I started it back 2009 (I actually had it before that, but someone hacked and infected my blog site), I had wanted it to be a blog of reading, writing, and popular culture. And while I said popular culture, I really wanted to talk a bit about issues important to me, such as politics, women’s rights, etc.

But over the four years I’ve had the blog, I haven’t actually done much writing. There are posts here and there than I’m happy with, but mostly, it’s felt like an unwelcome commitment to me. The  more I think about this, the more I realize it isn’t that I don’t want to blog, it’s that I’m unhappy without a clear blogging purpose. So my goal this year is to fix that, to find my purpose. That means I’ll be experimenting with what I post. I’d like to talk more about the reading I’m doing, but I’m also going to let myself write about different types of things (such as my teaching, or the hunt I’m on right now to find non-apartment housing, or the fact that I’ve started a second Day Zero Project). I’m also going to try to take and post more images. Basically, I’m going to try to turn this blog into something I’m happily committed to.

My first order of business will be to do my annual year-end review in books—something I genuinely enjoy writing each year—but then, I’m going to sit back, relax, and try something new. Hopefully, after playing for a while, I’ll have a clear idea of what I want this space to be.


Once, in middle school, I spent an entire lunch period walking away without saying anything every time a girl—Lindsey, I think her name was—approached me. I didn’t want her to join my group of friends, so I found a way to make her feel unwelcome.

Once, a friend I trusted had another girl hide in her closet and then prompted me to say bad things about the other girl.

Once, when I was really young, a friend, Katie, locked me in her parents’ trailer.

Once, on my twenty-first birthday, a group of friends sang You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling to me at karaoke. One guy got down on his knees and serenaded me.

Once, in high school, a girl—also a Katie—took a detention she didn’t deserve rather than turning me in. (She sat in the same seat I did the hour after me, and we used to write messages to each other on the desk.)

Once, a friend accused me of being the reason her parents fought at home.

Once, a friend told me about something horrible that had happened to her, and I didn’t know how to react, so I smiled.

Once, a friend stole my date to a high school dance before we even got to the restaurant.

Once, I met with a girl every week in the park to do homework and talk about class. It was my third term of grad school, and I think she realized I hadn’t made any friends yet.

Once, a friend moved to California without saying goodbye.

Once, a friend—Ashley—came over to my house and kidnapped this talking Stitch stuffed animal I had. She left a ransom note with directions to her house so that I would come see her, all because I’d been completely depressed lately.

Once, I had friends that could make all my problems go away—at least temporarily—just by taking me to IHOP.

Once, I had a friend that told me the reason he’d been so mean to me lately was because I was easy to take advantage of.

Once, I had a friend who drew up funny signs to leave on my dorm room door. A year later, she left me a wonderful good luck message on the day I tried out for the marching band.

I have a friend who still sends me a text message at exactly 7:12 a.m on my birthday each year to commemorate the exact moment I was born.

Once, I had a friend whom I drove away by always complaining about the problems in my life and never asking about hers.

Once, I had a friend who moved away. I found her years later on Facebook and added her, but she never responded to my friend request. I had another friend who moved away around the same time, and I’ve never been able to find her again.