Week 32: Boundaries

Respect for the people who learn in public

Hey all, Quick note: This week is different and starts with a much deeper-than-usual dive into one corner of my brain and heart. Usually I make sure to attribute each article in the same paragraph or sentence where I link to it, both to give credit where it’s due and also so you have a heads up about paywalls and such. Because this is so long, this time I gathered all of the links into a list at the very end of the email — below a shorter-than-usual links/recipes/etc list — to try to make skimming a bit easier.

Not cancelled, but unfollowed

Last Wednesday in this newsletter, I shared two links related to former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and her allegations of unwanted touching by then-Vice President Joe Biden back in 2014: an interview on NPR and then an essay by Nelini Stamp for Glamour. I shared the links because Biden’s behavior was unacceptable and because Lucy Flores was brave and I believed more people should listen, really listen, to what she was saying. From Stamp’s piece:

The absurd response to Flores’ revelation—from Biden, his supporters, and the inevitable brigade of defensive white men—has been entirely focused on Biden’s feelings. You see, they explain, Biden felt the situation was perfectly appropriate.

…The conversation around Lucy Flores is not a debate over what happened on that stage. Even Biden himself doesn’t deny it. Instead Flores is forcing us to look in the mirror as a country and think: Whose feelings matter? Why is the pain and discomfort of women, and especially women of color, so often dismissed?

The next day, I sat in the dark in my toddler’s bedroom. I’d finally gotten her to nap in my arms and began scrolling through feeds on my phone. I came to an Instagram post by Pete Souza.

For the uninitiated, Souza was the chief photographer for the Obama White House and has since gained a huge cult following on Instagram. He often responds to the Trump administration outrage of the day by going through his archive, choosing a beautiful, cutting, well-timed photo of the Obamas being gracious and graceful, and posting it with a side-eye caption to remind people to #ThrowShadeThenVote.

On Thursday I was rattled to see that Souza had posted a photograph of a handwritten letter from Joe Biden to his (Pete’s) 90-year-old mother back in 2016. It was the kind of thing that a busy national politician wouldn’t write for just anyone. It read as a warm, genuine gesture toward someone whose son had helped make him, or his team at least, look really good for eight-plus years. The kind of thing that instantly becomes a family keepsake to be passed down for generations. As of this writing, the post has more than 52,000 likes and almost 1,400 comments.

Ughhhh. Et tu, Pete? The timing was obviously not coincidental. This was meant to say: Uncle Joe is kind and good. He was kind and good to my mom, and thus it’s impossible that he did something unkind and not good to Lucy Flores. And anyone tearing her down right now is just standing up for a kind, good guy and — as commenters were hasty to pile on — anyone critiquing him is putting our democracy at risk, because he is President Material.

The good thing about being stuck under a sleeping kid and afraid to wake her up is that it gives you a moment to think. So I sat there quietly, wondering if there was any point to leaving a comment on a celebrity’s post about another celebrity, with the words “Anita Hill” running through my head.

Then I thought about my friend Prerna, who does an excellent job of calling people in and out on social media, sharing insights that could put folks on the defensive but instead draw them in to listen and learn. She is also humble enough to share her own learning process when other people ask her to reconsider things. (Follow her on Instagram.)

And I remembered this piece called On Joe Biden that Rachel Wilkerson Miller (writer of a lovely newsletter that just moved over to JustGoodShit.com) shared on her site The REWM back in 2017. In it she chronicles her experience at an event called Glamour’s Women of the Year Summit where Joe and Dr. Jill Biden turned out to be the surprise guests. As the Bidens recount aspects of his track record from the stage, Miller grows increasingly frustrated. She debates whether to challenge the former Vice President in this particular public space and decides to go for it.

So I got the mic and I stood up and said to Joe Biden, “My name’s Rachel Miller and my question is for the former vice president. In the context of changing the culture and women being brave enough to come forward [which he’d also said], I’m wondering if there’s anything that you would do differently with regards to Anita Hill if given the opportunity.”

And he said, “No.”


And then he said, “Let’s get something straight here.”

Which — sure, is a thing an old white man can say to a black woman asking him a question at a women’s event about the shameful treatment of a black woman on a national stage. He is certainly allowed to say that, if he wants to. 


Biden then went on to say a lot more words, but what he was really saying was, “I’m a good guy, I’m a good guy, I’m a good guy.” (The entire event was live streamed, and you can see the Bidens’ panel here; my question is at 25:53.) And here’s the thing: I have had eerily similar versions of this exact conversation several times over the past six weeks, and I am sick to goddamn death of men who have demonstrably not always been good guys immediately jumping in to defend themselves and tell me that I’m wrong — that they ARE, in fact, good (GREAT, even!!!), and I just don’t get it. They get emotional, they get belligerent, they get nasty as they try to get me to listen to the story of that one thing they did for a woman, like, three years ago. And they do this instead of, I don’t know, being introspective for one fucking second, and considering that maybe they are wrong.

Please go read the whole post. It won’t take long since I excerpted so much of it! But it’s worth getting the full context.

I decided that if Miller could be this brave, I could leave a dang comment on Pete Souza’s post. I opened Instagram back up. (I can’t remember if I’d managed to get my kid into the crib at this point. Sorry, kid! My clicktivism = your future?! 😂😭)

And wouldn’t you know it? Today (as in the day I’m writing and sending this email), I went through the comments on the post looking for mine so I could remember what I said, and…couldn’t find it. The activity history tab doesn’t go back far enough for me to get there directly, so I sat there and scrolled through the entire comment thread and couldn’t find mine anywhere.

Now, I could be wrong — see above: 1,400 comments! — but I looked through it three times, to no avail.

selina meyer veep GIF

But from what I remember this was the gist, written to the other commenters, with an ask that they consider Googling and reading both the NPR interview and Miller’s piece:

  • You can have warm, fond, fuzzy feelings toward a beloved uncle, and you can also be honest with him when he disappoints you. You can “respect your elders” and still explain to them clearly that consent isn’t just some trendy buzzword, and that you will not brush aside their previously-tolerated behavior if it causes/caused harm, and you can hope and expect that they might listen and grow. You don’t have to do those things, but Lucy Flores had every right to do so and shouldn’t be punished for it.

  • And you can simultaneously be furious that we have an actual sexual predator in the White House and still hold every single Democratic candidate responsible for understanding “intent vs. impact” and what it means to respect boundaries. When we elect people we. do. not. have. to. settle for candidates who aren’t humble enough to learn in public. Wouldn’t we rather elect someone who publicly acknowledges they caused another person harm, and then publicly works to un-learn their old behavior? I’d rather we do that than pretend certain candidates, the only ones who can “save us,” are harmless in their bumbling.

  • You can also appreciate the artistry of Pete Souza’s photography and his commitment to voter turnout, and still unfollow his account. Which I did. And I mentioned that offhand in my comment, which I suspect is why (I think) it was removed.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be a person who “cancels” other people.

There are lots of in-betweens, right?

  • I’m a longtime fan of Jane the Virgin. I can watch the show’s final season and I can also make sure I’m actively listening to the criticism of star Gina Rodriguez about her public statements being anti-Black (The Cut). And I can bring that up in conversation with fellow fans and also hope that she is learning — and preparing to show her work.

  • Pete Souza has photographed the musician Brandi Carlile for a long time. Carlile jumped into the fray in the comments section on the Biden post, equating her love and cuddles for her own children with Biden’s kiss on the back of Flores’s head at the beginning of a public campaign event when he was Vice President. If you’re a Brandi Carlile fan, you can listen to her music and you could leave a comment challenging her defense of Biden. If that’s the kind of thing you think might reach her and/or get through to lurkers watching this play out in their feeds.

Right? I think this is right. I genuinely get muddled about these boundaries sometimes. (It’s why I appreciated the NYT’s Still Processing episode about Michael Jackson so much.) You might decide to boycott Brandi forever. You might think I’m a chump who’s choosing convenient entertainment over my principles if I continue to watch Jane.

But I found this piece by Zander Tsadwa (published last April) helpful: We Can’t ‘Cancel’ Everyone.

A part of me was really tempted to keep following Pete Souza. I miss photography, and I like to follow some professionals to kind of passively learn about composition and equipment and to be reminded of the power of a single, well-timed, well-chosen image. As the race toward a Democratic 2020 nominee continues, I wouldn’t be surprised if Souza resurfaces some really fun images of lots of candidates, not just Biden, that have the potential to humanize them, using his platform in creative ways to encourage people to learn the various platforms and make up their own minds.

But here in my self, in the blue chair, I am also on a lifelong quest to learn to quickly and decisively set healthier boundaries. And seeing that someone with such influence had posted that particular letter from Joe Biden at that particular moment made me feel like crap. And so I left my kind-but-firm comment on the post and then I cut this account out of my feed so that my escapism doesn’t come with a side of gaslighting.

I also started following @LucyFloresNV and her organization, @TheLuzCollective.

As for Biden, it’s possible that he really is on a learning journey. And I like to think that Rachel Wilkerson Miller played one role in pushing him along. The Q&A session where she called him out took place in fall 2017. One year later, Politico would publish a piece called Biden confronts the ghost of Anita Hill. And in the last week or two, I’ve seen pieces like this: Biden Expresses Fresh Regret Over Anita Hill Treatment. And we can ask ourselves, is this too little, too late? Are these just political moves to try to win over certain voters?

If I hear that Biden sincerely and thoroughly and publicly apologizes to Anita Hill, maybe I’ll believe it a little more.

What do you think?

If I’m missing things or off base, I’d love for you to hit Reply and let me know.

Recipes, (some) lighter links, and endorsements


A note to new readers: Hello! I’m writing an email every week for 35 weeks. After that, TBD. If a friend forwarded you this email and you’d like to subscribe, sign up at julia.substack.com.

I’m also on Instagram at @juliaseesmith and (less often) on Twitter at @juliacsmith.

Photos: Can you believe Lake Michigan looked like this yesterday?!