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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.

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Attention White Queers: The As in Anti-Racism Don’t Stand for Ally, Either

art by Emily Safford reads In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.

Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.

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Practicing Polyamory While Healing from Capitalism’s Wounds

This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.

Card reading In the first post in this series, I talked a bit about how some societal norms around the relationship escalator have pushed me into an inadequate framework for looking at relationships, particularly in the practice of polyamory. In this post, I’d like to dig more into those societal norms, and particularly into how we can practice polyamory in a healthy way while healing from the wounds a capitalist society constantly and pervasively inflicts on us. I’ll note by way of introduction that I have some privileges particularly relevant here: I’m white, college-educated, and benefit financially from the capitalist economic system in the United States. While I’m ideologically opposed to capitalism, it’s important to note that I also materially benefit from it (and often allow my 9-to-5 work to get in the way of active resistance). I imagine that many of these points apply even more starkly to working class people and people of color.

So to start, I think it’s no surprise that a capitalist, data-driven culture can affect our romantic relationships. I talked in the last post about the dangers of a framework of equality in relationships, and I think it’s this culture that creates the myth that equality is possible. The bootstrap mentality encourages us not only in work but in our relationships to focus on competition, rather than on community: when we allow this poisoned economic model of relating to gain a foothold in our lives, our romantic relationships become tainted by a feeling of scarcity.

I frequently hear poly folks talking about their struggles with a fear of scarcity, whether the scarce resource is time, energy, or even love. We often forget to talk directly about that fear, though, and are afraid to ask for what we actually need from our partners or our metamours in this perceived scarce environment where naming a need means acknowledging that a scarce resource may not be available to us. Instead, we expect that our needs will be met and feel hurt if they are not. This is no surprise, given how most of us spend most of our time at work in environments with limited resources and no salary transparency. We become accustomed to a culture of hoping that if we do our best (in work or in love) we will get what we need without any direct negotiation.

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On Being Non-Consensually Categorized

I find it funny, sometimes, how folks on the Internet perceive me, for better or for worse. So much of the writing I do is about identity and assumptions–about labels and the importance of not labelling others without permission, on the risk of misgendering someone you don’t know by assuming their gender in advance. I’m pretty heavily “out” online and in the world in general, so it’s easy enough to find out the words I use to describe myself. Every few months, it seems, I tweak my bio for a new gig or article, but some of the core words remain the same: non-binary, trans, queer, geek, femme, poly. Most of the time, when someone ignores these descriptors they’re just responding to one thing I’ve said and making an assumption about who I am, or they’re accusing me of “lying” about one of these words. “Lying” is funny in this realm: for example, it’s hard to list all the things that are wrong with assuming what others assume is in a non-binary person’s pants, and then accusing them of lying about their “birth sex” when they haven’t said much about it at all. Huh?

But then there are other ways of categorizing, used by trolls and serious critics alike, that are interesting in that they’re both wrong and make an important point about privilege, that I can take as a useful way to grow even if I disagree with the label. For example, the idea that I’m a “social justice warrior” or a career activist or one of those people who makes a lot of money to give talks and write books is a common thread. Full disclosure, I do sometimes make a bit of money to write an article or speak on a campus, and I’m highly privileged in that way. I can earn that money because I’m white, educated, and have connections in certain circles. A lot of activists do a hell of a lot more than I do and probably have a hell of a lot more to say (or at least things to say that really need to be heard by those in power), but aren’t invited to paid gigs because of systemic oppression and the discomfort people in power tend to have with radical people of color telling them that they’re wrong. I try to use the platform I have to point to voices of people of color and other marginalized folks, and to encourage white privileged people to do better. But I do accept some money for these gigs: in a given year, the equivalent of about a month’s salary. I want to own and acknowledge that.

I don’t belong to much of an “establishment,” as far as I know, in a formal sense, other than the establishment of privileged folks who need to spend more time educating ourselves and listening down the vertical hierarchy of power. I don’t currently work in an activist movement, though I have previously. I’m not so much a part of social communities (BDSM communities, poly communities, queer communities, trans communities) mainly because I don’t have the time. I miss having more involvement in trans communities online, and if there’s any community I might claim it would be those. But I can understand how I might represent something of a “radical establishment” position to some, and so I’ll take the criticism in a constructive way and focus in 2015 on exploring viewpoints that do not command much of a spotlight, particularly voices of color, and on examining my own privileged position and how I can make difficult decisions towards the ultimate goal of tearing down institutions systemic oppression. Sometimes, the best way to do this may be staying silent and making space. Other times, I will lend my voice to the fray because I do think it has some value–no more or no less value than any other single voice.

Thinking About the #Trans100 in Critique and Celebration

collage of 100 trans activistsI’ve been seeing a lot of social media attention today to the release of The Trans 100, a list which I’m honored to be a part of along with many friends, colleagues, and personal heroes. Much of the attention is congratulatory and positive, some is focused more on who’s not on the list. And I think that both of those things are great. The spirit of the list, as I understand it, is to highlight all the amazing work that is done in our community: to use the 100 people on the list not as an exclusive club but as one handful of examples of people who have done great work in the past year to support trans lives in the US in myriad ways. The idea is to shift the conversation from focusing only on deaths and violence to adding a sense of celebration to our need to mourn those lost. Working in “transland,” as I sometimes call the movement, can be a paradox, as we are so often simultaneously trying to promote and celebrate the work we do as proud trans people while at the same time realizing that the work we do is focused on eliminating huge discrepancies and barriers, on reducing tremendous hate and violence. It can be an odd intersection at which to work sometimes (how do we get excited about a victory that means we are simply more likely to be alive, employed, or healthy at a baseline?), and I believe that it is crucial we never lose sight of both sides of that story–and of the other discrepancies that too often divide success from discrimination and violence along race, class, and ability lines.

I am happy about this list because it wide-ranging and it shows our collective power and ability to do great things in the face of adversity. I’m glad to see many POC on the list, a nice range of local activists, to see those doing cultural work alongside those doing legal and political advocacy. I’m glad that there are many lesser-known names, and that online activists have been included alongside on-the-ground grassrootsers. Though I’m thrilled to see my NCTE colleagues Mara and Harper Jean recognized, I’m also cheering hardcore for those who work with such amazing small radical projects as the Brown Boi Project, the Audre Lorde Project, Planet DeafQueer, and Transformative Justice Law Project. There are too many of my own heroes to name here, and also too many whose work I must. research. NOW. So while I’d like to see even more underrecognized folks on the list, more people of color, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc., I’m applying my critiques to a tone of celebration today. We have this list and it has some attention and hopefully that attention will lead to what we really need–more people nominating next year, more people volunteering to work on the project, an even more diverse and inclusive list. I’m excited to see who made the various breakout groups that will be released in coming months, and I look forward to working with this great big kickass community to achieve things that are bigger and better every year. I’m glad that my friends and colleagues are the kinds of people who recognize gaps in such a list and will bring them to light, because it makes us all better.

¡Viva la revolución trans!

Radical Reading: We Are Many

The We Are Many anthology, edited by Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire and published by AK Press, is an ambitious project. In 435 pages, it attempts to both document the historical activist moment that is Occupy and provide a collection of practical lessons for activists. The editors acknowledge that the book is a work in progress, rather than an end, and I would agree with that assessment. This is an accessible book, but it is not a practical manual. The work of assembling all the relevant voices necessarily stands in contradiction to the work of providing something that on-the-ground activists can easily use. That said, the collection is full of gems, some of which could be extracted for a future more practical guide.
What the anthology does excel at is the work of documentation. I was impressed by the diversity of voices included, and the unique “conversational” format that lends itself well to a work that positions oppositional views in one place, for example on race in Occupy or the role of the police. There are no sections in this book–instead there is an editorial ebb and flow where themes come up but are not explicitly labeled. I really liked this technique, and the way journalistic pieces, personal accounts, practical tips, photos, and drawings were displayed alongside each other.
The style of the book gives the reader who was never present at an Occupy a real sense of the movement, an important task given the way on-the-ground activism and writing/reading are sometimes divided and the unsurprising media bias around Occupy. As a writer/reader type who does most of my activism through this blog, Twitter, and public teaching, I found the book incredibly valuable in this sense. The stories included give a picture of the breadth of Occupy both geographically and in form/focus (for example, see the pieces on Occupy Research or the occupied farm on land owned by UC Berkeley). The pictures and personal accounts are powerful narratives that place the reader at the center of the movement and lend both frustration and inspiration. I particularly liked Michael Andrews’ detailed account of one New York march, capturing the joy and collective spirit of a group that confounded the police with its size and evoked a sense of hope for the future. I also flagged Janelle Treibitz’s piece for future reference: her documentation of specific examples of how cultural resistance works is the kind of thing we need to see more in writings from radical organizers.
Of course, this is not a movement without its problems. Authors in this volume at times question the utility of the 99% model and some of its particular issues: are the police really part of the 99%? What about successful artists and gallery owners? How do 99%ers treat each other? Racial tensions are of course a big part of this picture, as is the treatment of certain groups within the 99%. In an excerpt on Rochester’s Take Back the Land occupation, Hubert Wilkerson comments on those occupiers who complained that homeless residents of the occupied park were “stealing” donated food. “So I’m saying whoa, it’s the reality of an occupation where people are trying to change the world, but haven’t started changing themselves.” (p. 53) This uncomfortable theme of hypocrisy within the movement also comes up in the CrimethInc Ex-Workers’ Collective contribution, which discusses the idea of a “black bloc” of violent protestors within occupy that was described by a non-violent occupier and then used to Other fellow occupiers. The Collective suggests that this tactic might explain why Oakland lasted longer than other movements: when protestors used this language, they handed the FBI a very useful device for a divide and conquer strategy, allowing the FBI to extrapolate from a type of action to a type of people “terrorists” that it could then condemn. Rose Bookbinder and Michael Belt discuss the importance of labor in their piece: while many occupiers were young protestors from the suburbs, organized labor represents the actual community being occupied, and it is crucial that labor therefore be included. Similar critiques have of course been made of the idea of “occupying” already-occupied Native land.
If it were possible to summarize Occupy, this would be a much shorter book, but I like the three logics Joshua Clover describes as considerations to use in considering future activist strategies: Occupy had no single demand, no one body could meet Occupy’s demands, and any demand with meeting could not be met by the current social arrangement. (p. 99) This is, as I see it, an essential statement of what it is to be “radical.” Though I was not an Occupier and had many questions about the utility of Occupy, We Are Many has helped me to understand its value as a manifestation of this radical vision: community microcosms with not one vision but many, impossible to achieve through simple government action, grounded in the need for tough conversations and revolutionary paradigm shifts.
We Are Many is available through AK Press.

Review: Feminism for Real

I’ve been struggling for over a month to write this review, not because I didn’t like the book–it’s an amazing anthology, in fact, and I think it should be a mandatory part of the feminist/activist canon–but because as an activist and a writer, my mode is always “do, do, do.”  “Here’s how to make change.”  “Here are five things you can do to improve your world.”  “This is my experience and why it’s relevant to you.”  This review isn’t going to be like that.

Feminism for Real is a challenge to white feminist academics and activists to stop doing.  It’s hard for a lot of us to listen actively and compassionately.  It’s hard to say “I am wrong, my ancestors were wrong, and I cannot fix it.”  I’ve known this for a while, but it’s such a depressing thought, such a disempowering thought, that it’s hard to know what to do with it.  And maybe that’s the point.

This is not our battle.  What white feminists can do is show some respect, be conscious of history, make space for indigenous feminists and other people of color to do good work, and make an effort in our own communities to stop harming others.  We need to recognize how colonialism and imperialism continue to impact huge segments of our societies, and we need to constantly fight against these forces.  It isn’t our job to trumpet indigenous feminism, tell everyone about how the cool ideas native people have about women and other genders, or talk about how down we are with indigenous causes.  Indigenous people are doing that just fine on their own.  It is our job to address the pervasive, continuous, active harm we are perpetrating.

There are a thousand ways to do this.  Attack bad government policy, attack the media, attack educators who wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the face.  Support indigenous communities by giving indigenous people room to work–by speaking out against policies that take away land, culture, and freedom; by fighting rape; by challenging patriarchy.

As Robyn Maynard explains in her piece, “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!” it is important to recognize that the problem is not just marginalization but exploitation.  The harms discussed in this book are not historical, rather we continue to actively perpetrate them.  This is a structural problem for which we need to take collective responsibility.  Maynard explains:

Justice means–justice has to mean–an end to people deliberately destroying generations of cultures, of women, of lives, and of dignity, for personal political and economic gain.

We can do this, but only by taking responsibility and recognizing where law and policy actively harm rather than help.  I would encourage other white feminists and academics to join me in this self-critique, and in the challenge to listen without appropriating.  Feminism for Real provides a collection of essays, poetry, and interviews that are a great first step to listening.  You can find others on the web at Racialicious, SisterSong, INCITE!, and People of Color Organize, to name a few.

You can purchase your own copy of Feminism for Real from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  The centre provided me with a copy of this book, and I was not otherwise compensated for this review.

The Potential of Google+ for Activism

I’ve been on Google+ since early last week, watching the numbers swell dramatically and getting to know the service.  There are definitely some problems, especially when it comes to policies about real names and pictures, that make me leery of Google+’s potential for feminist and queer work.  But as far as the site structure goes, I’ve been thinking of a number of ways it might be more effective for activism than existing platforms (or at least, a good complement).

  1. Self-selecting Circles.  Google+ Circles are secret, so people can see who’s in your Circles if you allow them, but never see who’s in which Circle.  This is obviously very helpful when it comes to categories you don’t want everyone to know about–your family will never find out about your Sex Geeks circle, and no one will know that they’re only an Acquaintance, not a Friend.  But Circles also can be helpful in the way filters are often used on Dreamwidth–you can ask who wants to be where, and broadcast relevant news only to those people.  If people have been hiding your Facebook posts because they’re interested in your posts on disability, but don’t really want to read about immigration or prisoner’s rights, you can at least get them to read what’s relevant to them now.  I have a general Activism Circle where I’m sharing the most crucial stuff to everyone, but I get more in depth on specific Circles.  Asking publicly also helps you find folks you don’t know, or folks who you don’t realize are into activism.
  2. Hangouts as a form of consciousness-raising.  Not too long ago, I read the book Manifesta and was trying to figure out a way to bring back feminist consciousness-raising groups, especially as a way for diverse feminists to share experiences and community priorities.  That can be hard to arrange in person, but Hangouts have a lot of potential for this.  You can arrange a Hangout on a particular topic, or just throw together a group of activists who don’t know each other and moderate a discussion.  Hangouts could also be used for strategizing, for book groups, and for free online classes or workshops.  There are some limits in terms of accessibility, because those who have a webcam are an even smaller group than those who have a computer with Internet access (also relevant, I don’t think most mobile devices could run Hangouts, and mobile Internet use alone is more common among people of color and working class people).  They’re also still hammering out how it can be used by deaf Google+ users.  But, it’s a start.
  3. Integration with Google Reader.  I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I get most of my news through Google Reader.  My typical process is to read news sources and blogs, bookmark stories with del.icio.us to share later, and then post those stories on Facebook or Twitter.  Often, I forget to ever post them.  The new Share button in the upper-right hand corner of any Google screen is going to make this a lot easier for Google+.  I can read an interesting blog post, copy the link, click Share, paste the link, write a comment, and post, all without ever leaving the window.  That upper right hand box also just makes things easier to follow, as you can read new comments to entries there, and reply to them, without leaving your Gmail or Reader.
What benefits have you found to Google+ for activism?  Any downsides?

Policy Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?

In my last post, I asked the theoretical question, do gender differences exist?  I concluded that there are observable trends that group people more-or-less by gender, but that identifying with a particular gender doesn’t mean that one identifies with every trait society assigns to that gender, and that gender categorization can be damaging both to those who do and do not identify as male or female.

Next, I’d like to consider the policy implications of the question.

The challenge here is to question whether gender differences have any utility from a policy perspective, while still respecting the lived experiences and claimed identities of those who identify as male or female.  I can say that gender differences are illusory, that the “box” created by a lump of traits is in many ways artificial, and that the weight put on certain traits such as secondary sex characteristics and hormones obscures the actual diversity that exists in our society.  But while saying this, I have to recognize that the categories “male” and “female” do mean something for many people, perhaps most, and that these categories can be useful when setting policy, organizing, or doing activist work.

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International Anti Street Harassment Day: Living in a Culture of Fear

If you’re lucky enough not to live in a culture of fear, then I’m happy for you.  It must be really excellent.  Today, for International Anti Street Harassment Day, I want to focus on what it’s like to live in a culture of fear, and how we can all contribute to reducing that culture, little by little.

Street harassment is a pervasive problem.  Of course, its degree varies drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, and country to country.  Some of us fear being raped or mugged when we walk home late at night or take public transportation, even though our actual odds of being attacked are slim.  Others know that leaving the house is more than likely to result rape, but do so because the family needs food or water, or a single woman has no choice but to work.  Obviously, it takes different tools and resources to combat different problems along this scale.

However, I do think that there are some common techniques we can use to address pervasive, systemic fear, and I want to mention a few of these today.

  1. Respect for difference. So many things fall under this–eradicating sexism and patriarchy, fighting homophobia, racism, ableism, etc., teaching tolerance and acceptance of those different from us, including divergent opinions in educational curricula.  Not all street harassment has to do with difference, but a lot of it does.  Hatred for women, or a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, is a huge problem.  Discomfort with gender and sexuality alternatives often leads to violence, which is then supported by an insecure peer group.  Racism can contribute to everything from inappropriate comments shouted from a car to systemic rape in times of war.  Education and discussion are crucial to making these behaviors unacceptable.
  2. Building community. It’s scary to be alone on the street.  It’s much scarier when it feels like there’s nowhere to turn, like there’s no safe house to run to if someone gets violent, like a bystander is unlikely to help or may even join in.  We’ve all heard stories about the rape that took place on the street where people heard a woman’s screams but did not come to her aid or even call the police.  We need to build community around our schools, neighborhoods, and wider environments.  The more someone feels a sense of belonging to an area, the more people someone knows, the easier it is to seek help and the less power the perpetrator has.
  3. Identifying perpetrators. There have been some great activist steps in this direction, from ad campaigns designed to shame bullies and cat callers to the amazing Hollaback movement that was started to identify harassers and share stories of street harassment.  Identifying those who cat call, touch without consent, bully, assault, rape, and otherwise harm individuals on the street is important because it takes the feeling of safety away from the perpetrator and starts to build that sense of safety around the victim or potential victim.  Telling stories builds community and pushes back fear, while showing harassers that their actions are not okay and will not go unpunished.  I’ve always loved the sense of community justice that exists in many cultures, and is in my opinion far more effective than the penal system.  The stronger a community, the more effective the threat of community banishment or shaming is.  Hollaback brings this concept to communities all over the world.  If you’ve witnessed or been a victim of street harassment, I encourage you to report the incident here.  We need to stand together and say that no form of street harassment is okay, whether it’s a word or a casual touch or something more.  We all have a right to our bodies, to our privacy, and to our safety on the street.