Category Archives: identity

Is It Possible to De-Center Whiteness as a White Presenter?

name badge reading "Hello I'm White (and privileged)"The other day, a white friend reached out asking if I had ideas around how to acknowledge as a presenter that a particular course’s content might be especially loaded for Black folks in the room. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the topic, but I have been experimenting over the years with different ways to acknowledge my whiteness and position of power as a presenter, facilitator, or speaker. Some of the things I normally do include:

  • Regardless of course content, mention that the course is taking place on occupied Native land, acknowledge my privilege as a white presenter, and call attention to the number of white people in the room if it seems to be a majority white space. This is mostly for the white people in the room, to draw their attention to whiteness since whiteness is often invisible or the assumed default. I also hope to signal to POC that I’m aware of these things, though I know that doesn’t make me a “safe” presenter.
  • Acknowledge where a particular topic may have loaded or just different meanings depending on cultural context and give examples. I hope that doing this again is a flag both for white folks and for POC, and makes space for bringing up cultural specificity where participants feel comfortable doing so.
  • Explicitly say that as a white person, I can’t comment on some things, beyond offering perspectives I’ve read or heard from POC, because I don’t have that experience. Acknowledge that the course content is less rich because of this. I’m just trying to offer some honesty here, and avoid falling into the “well X culture practices X way…” trap.

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How Travel Has Made Me Uncomfortably Aware of My Racism

sticker held over a map of Asia and Africa reading "MINORITY. A term applied to the majority of the world's population."Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.

But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.

In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.

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Pacifism in the Context of White Privilege

three brown individuals approach a police officer in riot gear, one kicking the officer's shieldI’m a pretty extreme pacifist. Beyond not believing in violence as a general solution, I practice non-violence to the extent that I don’t plan to defend myself (beyond running away!) if I’m ever violently attacked. I’m on a slow but steady trajectory, as well, towards veganism for this reason.

But that said, I don’t advocate pacifism to others. Please, please punch Nazis. And if you are black or brown and your means of resistance is violent, then I fully support your right to use violence as a part of your resistance strategy. White people have systemically engaged in horrific and unconscionable violence against black and brown people for hundreds, and I assume thousands, of years. So any white person who suggests that black and brown folks must resist using non-violent means is frankly full of shit.

I think it’s important for white pacifists to acknowledge that we’re coming from a place of enormous privilege. Many of us have never actually been in a violent situation, or in a situation where our only means of resistance was violence. We don’t have any lived experience of structural oppression and violence of the kind that black, brown, and Native folks face on the regular. So while I still believe in pacifism as a philosophy, my belief has shifted from something universal to something situational and specific. I want to avoid, as an individual, perpetrating violence, while at the same time being aware that I will spend the rest of my life complicit in extreme structural violence and genocide. Pacifism doesn’t wipe my slate clean of that fact, and it’s a choice made in context.

The Cost of Access

A Black person signing in front of a screen with CART captioning.Dear organizers, event planners, and company representatives:

Stop assuming that access is too expensive.

Build access into your budget from the start of planning, not as a reluctantly tacked-on afterthought. When you seek funding or set prices, determine the cost of your event with a range of access services included.

Ask actual people what they need if you don’t know, and be broad in your call for input. Many people aren’t attending your events because they assumed they wouldn’t be included. It takes a lot of energy to reach out and ask for a particular access need to be met when your lived experience has been constant rejection. And not everyone who would benefit knows to ask–plenty of folks who don’t identify as disabled will have a more pleasant event when you consider things like captioning, designated quiet rooms, and nutritional variety. That means that they’ll come back, recommend you to friends, and spend their money on your event. They may think of services as “luxuries” rather than accommodations, but the principles of universal access don’t require anyone to identify as disabled. The point is recognizing that keeping access in mind benefits everyone.

Oh, and if you say you’re going to provide a particular kind of access, but fall through because you didn’t take the cost into account? You look like a jerk.

If you belittle the person asking for services, make value judgements about their request, suggest that they pay for the service, or tell a Deaf person to find their own interpreter? You look like a jerk.

If you say you’ll provide access, but ignore the actual request and provide an alternative (cheaper) service that doesn’t fully meet an attendee’s needs? You look like a jerk.

If you’re a big company and refuse to provide types of access that plenty of small non-profits bend over backwards to provide, even digging into their own limited pockets, because it’s “too expensive?” You look like a really, really big jerk.

Access matters. Do the right thing.

 

How Ingrained Biases Show Up in Data Management

colored squares arranged to read "DATA"One of the little ways I try to apply an equity lens to my work is by being very aware of my own biases, especially around race. This comes up as a practical matter more than you might expect in data management, especially if you’re working with data sets focused on individual people.

I’m sure there are more egregious examples, but one thing I’ve seen and found particularly jarring is the abbreviation “BG” in front of an ethnicity. What does BG stand for? Best Guess. In other words, whoever collected the data or set up the database structure to include these value options decided that having ethnicity data on a person was more important than their own racial/ethnic identity. This insidious little practice takes away individual autonomy and conflates ethnicity with skin color, erasing actual identity in favor of having more complete statistics.

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No End State: Thoughts for Otherwise Marginalized White Folks

raised fist on a red background with the word "solidarity"In this post, I’m addressing my peers: white folks who are marginalized along some axis other than race. Poor and working class white folks, queer and trans white folks, white folks with disabilities, etc.—we need to be honest about whether we’re leaning into the identities under which we’re oppressed, at the expense of doing honest work around our whiteness, racism, and anti-Blackness.

I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience to focus on how we’re oppressed and marginalized, nor is it blameworthy on its own. Of course we notice those identities more—that’s what white privilege is. It makes whiteness the invisible norm, whereas our other identities are what make us targets of slurs, violence, economic disparity, and other injustices. But at some point in our journeys, once we get through our excitement of consuming all the literature about queerness/class/disability/etc. and sharing in righteous anger with our comrades (or ideally, even before then), we need to also address the fact that we are white and therefore in a position of extreme privilege. We need to read what people of color have to say, to listen to what people of color have to say in our communities and workplaces. We need to sit with the discomfort of our racism and fucking do something about it.

If your reaction to reading the words of people of color on racism (and particularly black people, as anti-Blackness is its own thing in this culture), is guilt and a desire to run back to the safe enclave of writing about your own people, good. Keep reading.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Queer Femme

picture of the author with shaved head, looking contemplative and wearing a shirt that says "my gender is infinite"I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.

Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.

To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.

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Radical Reading: Dirty River

Confession time: I’ve actually had the book reviewed below for quite a while, and with apologies to the Arsenal Pulp folks. I spent so much time thinking about it and how to write about it that this blog has been stalled out for a while as I go through that process. But hopefully, better late than never, as it’s a volume I think many of you should absolutely pick up.

cover of Dirty River, drawing of a brown femme with a flower in her hair, leaning on a cane next to train tracks with industrial buildings in the background and a river flowing from themOne of my favorite poets, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, recently released a memoir that is somehow both a gut punch and a sweet femme-of-color lullaby, telling a story that is neither completely linear nor what you might expect from what frames itself as a survivor’s tale, but bursting with sense memory and relevance—particular for QPOC and migrant readers. Dirty River (published by Arsenal Pulp Press) focuses mainly on a period of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s life in the late 90s where she lived in Toronto struggling with both poverty and relationship abuse, but it is neither a sob story nor a clichéd “overcoming adversity” narrative. The complexities of the story are conveyed with a tight relationship to geography, the confusing nature of memory, and a sense of celebration for queer brown crip femme survival.

Like many great books, particularly those by women of color, this memoir made me think about the nature of storytelling. The path to healing is often not very simple, and this story wrestles with that. It’s a narrative complement to all the great radical books on violence in the context of racism and colonialism published in recent years — with all the references to Courage to Heal in the text, I actually found myself thinking much more about how Piepzna-Samarasinha’s story lines up with the lessons of The Revolution Starts at Home. 

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Taking a Break From Whiteness: My 50 Books Challenge

Last March, I decided to try something a bit different with my reading. This wasn’t for any particular online challenge, but just an exercise for myself to clean out the constant din of white voices for a while. I decided that for the next 50 books, excepting those required for work or reviews, I would not read any white authors. A couple of months ago, I somewhat anti-climatically finished the fiftieth book, and I thought I’d do a little write-up about the experience to end the year.

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Mental Health Is Messy and Variable, But Still Important

comic showing physical illnesses treated like mental illnesses (ignored)Greetings. It’s time for a somewhat odd end-of-year post, but bear with me. As anyone sticking around here can tell, I’ve been struggling for years to update this blog regularly. I’ve considered writing about the process many times, because I think it’s important to talk about mental health and capacity in activist communities, but it’s also tough to put myself out there and be vulnerable about my own mental health. I wanted to speak up today, though, while I’m in a particularly introspective place with regard to my mental health, have a good support structure to back me up, and have been reading some really thought-provoking work that’s made me think about how we rate our own “issues” as serious, or not serious, “enough.”

The posts I’ll reference here have very little to do with one another, at first glance. One is about executive function, another about sex-negative feminism, and the third about strategizing when to “call in.” The common thread, though, is that all three got me thinking about things in my life that often seem too “mild” or trivial to focus on or use as justification for behavior. And this is a thread that’s been incredibly prevalent and challenging for me in my attempts to practice self-care.

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