Category Archives: activism

The Coding of Resilience

Image result for resilienceI’m starting to get tired of how often we describe oppressed communities and individuals with an awed praise of their “resilience.” Yes, oppressed folks are often resilient, and there are positive things in that recognition–it’s impressive how creative people can be under stress, how we can survive and sometimes even thrive in remarkable conditions. But praising resilience also hides a lot.

What does resilience really mean? That you’re strong? That you’re connected enough to survive? Who gets to choose who’s resilient and who isn’t? What conditions create resilience? This isn’t a word that we use for everyone. It has an undertone of “hey, good job not crumbling under the horrible thing we just now did to you!” and shifts the spotlight away from the oppressor’s culpability and even tries to reframe a terrible experience as positive. Yes, resilience is impressive, but you know what would be even more impressive? Not subjecting entire groups of people to slavery, genocide, torture, and other forms of oppression in the first place!

When we focus on resilience, we don’t focus on accountability. We’re not talking about how conditions of oppression are created by real live oppressors. We’re not talking about ongoing culpability or solutions that the oppressing group can enact to get the weight off the oppressed person’s back. Instead, we’re saying, please perform daring and magical feats for us with this weight on your back. We’re so impressed by your skill! Framing certain communities–often black women, trans folk, Native people–as “resilient” can be harmful and fail to recognize the harm actually done to those communities.

So when you read the word “resilient” to describe these communities and individuals, if you’re in an oppressing group, take a step back and think twice. Ask yourself, if these survivors are so resilient, who hasn’t survived? Who from the same community have we killed through war, environmental degradation, the criminal injustice system, and similar tactics? Instead of offering back pats for survival, let’s offer changed behavior and meaningful reparations for communities to rebuild.

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Amerikan History Is White Imperialism: Pass It On

Over the past couple of weeks, I read a couple of critical autobiographies–those of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur. Reading them together, I was struck by a lot of things, but perhaps especially how enduring false narratives of this country are and how those narratives are perpetuated by white people. We hear this time and again from folks of color, how white people are often surprised by actions of the state or the actions of their fellow white folks, rather than recognizing these as enduring historical patterns that folks of color are plenty used to. Why are we so surprised? Why does our ignorance persist so doggedly?

Well, racism, obviously. But part of that racism is the way we reproduce stories amongst ourselves, as white folks. This probably starts before we arrive in school, but it is heavily reinforced by curricula, both formal and informal. School isn’t just about the whitewashed lessons we learn about literature and history, but it’s also a civic education in how to be a Good White American. School teaches us that America is a democracy, that voting is a civic duty, that the cops are the good guys, that prisons are necessary, that participation is important. We learn all these insidious little lessons and then we learn not to listen when black folks and other folks of color are shouting the opposite from the rooftops. School teaches us to turn a blind eye at best, to argue loudly against the truth at worst.

So what can we do about it? Yep, it’s that simple piece of advice yet again. Talk to other white folks. But a layer I’d add is not to assume that the white folks you know, your fellow liberals etc., are as aware as you think they are about race and particularly about the lie Amerika represents. I’ve often found in conversation that folks are surprised by the degree of deception they’ve been living under, once the historical facts are presented. A lot of white folks think of themselves as anti-racist, but read very few books by people of color. So drop some of those facts into the conversation. Recommend relevant books by authors of color to your friends. Challenge civic participation. Keep on grinding on those little bits of resistance and education within your white circles, so that we can make some space as folks of color are doing the revolutionary work.

Trans Surgeries Are Not Cosmetic

Image result for trans rightsI wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.

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What If White Dominant Culture Was Covered in School?

Image result for white teacherDid your elementary school ever celebrate those “culture days” where kids were encouraged to dress up in some native costume, do traditional dances, sing traditional songs, and eat foods associated with a given culture? Maybe this is a 90s artifact, but I read something recently that mentioned them and cringed remembering my own school days. I used to love learning words of a foreign language and trying new foods, but I was never encouraged to consider the implications of those days that painted other cultures as strange and foreign. It certainly never occurred to me, as a white kid, whether the children who were from those cultures wanted to experience a day where they were so visibly othered, asked questions they might not have known the answers to or might not have wanted to answer for inquisitive white kids and teachers.

What if, instead of these awkward “culture days,” schools actually covered white dominant culture as a topic? Never in my school days was white culture acknowledged with any specificity, it was just background noise. But I now know that there’s plenty that could be covered, if schools wanted to be thorough. I’m not sure that it would necessarily be possible to avoid children of color and immigrant children again feeling othered in this unit, but with training it might be possible for teachers to normalize discussion of whiteness as something to consider, and to frame culture as something we all have. If such a unit were offered alongside history and literature lessons that fully incorporated cultures outside North America and Europe, I’d imagine that white kids would grow up to both be much more conscious of their privilege and much less freaked out when discussing race. And maybe kids of color would get to avoid at least a few of the awkward moments.

I Never Had a Professor of Color in College

Image result for adrien wing

Professor Adrien Wing, one of those three professors of color in law school

In education, the voice of the educator is important. The lessons we learn are shaped by those who pass them on to us, just as they are shaped by the writers chosen for curricula. It’s telling, then, that as an undergraduate, I never had a single professor of color–but also telling that I didn’t realize that until recently.

I was thinking about my undergraduate education, and how I didn’t really start reading many works by people of color until law school, and didn’t start to tip the balance of my reading more towards a 50/50 split between white authors and authors of color until much later. This was my own fault, but I also noticed when thinking about the books I read at that time that I couldn’t think of a single undergraduate professor of color. When I went systemically through all the classes I took, I realized that there wasn’t one.

My university (UMBC) was a medium-sized public school in Maryland that emphasized diversity in the sciences, in particular. Our university president was a brilliant black man who was a frequent guest on NPR. But in the humanities and dance, all my professors were white. I never took an “ethnic studies” course, but I also never had a professor of color for any “mainstream” subject. In law school, I had three professors of color out of maybe twenty.

I wonder how common this experience is for white folks, and how many of us don’t even notice. I’m certain my classmates of color were noticing. So if you get a chance, white folks who attended an undergraduate institution, think back and see if you can recall how many professors of color you had. Let me know in the comments.

Privilege and Receiving Bodywork

I don’t know about y’all, but when I was growing up, massage was always something rich white ladies did. Sometimes kids I knew would pool together their money in multi-sibling families and get their mom a spa appointment for Mother’s Day, but in general I thought of massage as being part of another world, one I wasn’t likely to ever have access to. I associated massage with fancy hotels, spas, and all-inclusive resorts, and never thought of it as healthcare.

Fast forward to today, I’ve been getting semi-regular massage for over a year now. Shout out to Aviva Pittle at Freed Bodyworks in DC, who is amazing. The whole business is super awesome, and much more inclusive-feeling than what I used to imagine. I only started even thinking of massage as a possibility when I saw the Freed business card with its emphasis on all bodies and being friendly to trans and other marginalized folks.

On the other hand, I’ve had to work through some guilt about doing this thing for myself—a thing that is pricey, and sometimes feels frivolous. Am I just one of those wealthy white ladies (ok, people) now? Is this a justified expense?

Here’s how I’ve decided that the answer to the latter question is “yes”:

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Pinterest as a Social Justice Tool

pinterest logoYou might be surprised to learn that I’m a Pinterest early adopter and still a fairly frequent user. Pinterest gets a reputation as a place that’s mostly for planning weddings or posting unrealistic food porn, but that’s not the only thing it’s useful for. While I’m also pretty into fannish content and nail art, I primarily use my Pinterest as a social justice curation tool.

The nice thing about Pinterest is that it’s heavily geared towards curation. I find that when you get creative about the theme of a particular board, it can be a really good way to assemble a collection of activist messages, or find inspiration from images of marginalized bodies, or make a statement with a kind of curated art project. For example, one of my favorite boards is Gender Expressions, which is really just a bunch of images of people, but the point is that gender expression is incredibly diverse. On a series of “Education” boards, I’ve tried curating interesting pins on one particular topic, such as this one on Radical History and Geography. And of course, there’s a Radically Queer board that mixes thought-provoking words with simple representation in images.

Even if you’re not explicitly using Pinterest for social justice like this (and I wish more people were!), you can also do some sort of guerilla activism by simply focusing on representation in your boards. For example, I have a couple of dance boards where I try to keep images of thin white women down to less than half of the content. I don’t think this kind of thing is likely to disrupt Pinterest’s core market, but I would love to see more activism happening there–self-care in an age of Trump boards, anyone?

Why Won’t the Media Listen to Non-Binary People’s Actual Words?

screen-shot-2014-03-28-at-2-15-18-pmThis is another post that is so five years ago, but it’s about a bit of media coverage that’s still annoying me in 2017. Specifically, it’s about the mainstream media coverage of model Andreja Pejic back before she came out as a woman and was being intentionally vague about her gender in interviews. Throughout that year or two of heavy coverage, the media was completely obsessed with its own invented idea of Andreja as terribly androgynous and the fun of a tired old “surprise, it’s a man!” storyline, while completely ignoring what was revolutionary about Pejic: the fact that she openly talked about a non-binary identity in interviews and asked mainstream readers to question their understanding of gender.

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Queering Immigration

a group of people holding signs stand behind a Queers Without Borders bannerWith everything in the news lately around the Muslim ban and other potential disastrous pieces of immigration policy in the U.S., I keep thinking about what it means to queer immigration—how can we queer the narratives, whether “left” or “right,” that we hear about immigration in the mainstream press?

Queering, as a verb, is all about disrupting narratives and shifting perspectives. It’s about questioning the premises of an argument, not just arguing the “opposite.” It’s a lens that leads me to think less about gradual immigration reform and more about the very concept of states and borders in the first place. What do the stories we tell about immigration say about us and our values? How are immigration arguments used to normalize settler colonialism, slavery, heteronormative family structures, and white supremacy? These are some opening thoughts, but I expect I’ll have much more to say on this topic as the great fascist Amerikan state keeps rolling on.

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A New Queer Year

a unicorn silhouette slumped over with a rainbow trailing behind it from the general posterior region, reading "happy new year"It probably says something that I’m doing a New Year’s post two weeks into the year, but as John and Sherlock would tell you on the BBC, it is what it is.

This post isn’t about the clusterfuck that was 2016 in the world, or the Trump presidency, but rather a short collection of personal thoughts about what 2017 might mean for me and what 2016 did. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been quieter in public in recent months. A large part of this has to do with wrestling with what actual accountability means as a white person trying to be involved in countering white supremacy. I’m less comfortable with public activism than I used to be, because I don’t want my voice to be one of the loudest. But I expect that I’ll continue to write, albeit at this slow pace I’ve settled into, for many years to come.

While I do less public speaking and writing about general queerness, wanting to make space for QTPOC voices, I have been still thinking about areas where my contribution might be more appropriate. So I’ve done a few talks on trans-inclusivity in data, melding my day job with my side hustle, and I’m excited that B Cordelia Yu and I will be presenting together at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March on that topic. I’ve also toyed with a podcast idea, but it burned bright for a few weeks and then energy drained away, much as it’s been with wanting to learn to draw comics, designing games, etc. And that brings me to the real point of this post, which is figuring out how to make contributions when your mental health just doesn’t want to let you.

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