Nothing’s Changed But We Must: An Election Results Reflection

I wanna know who my enemies are so that I can look them in the face when I kick their ass. 

These were the words of my professor on what it means to have a president-elect who brings to the surface and legitimizes the hatred and ignorance we’ve seen in the last year and reveals the true colors of America. We had an hour-long discussion in class about the election, one of the most rich discussions I’ve had since the results. It indicts both sides and issues a clarion call to those of us who are truly committed to change. Below is my synthesis of our discussion:

 
One of the most powerful things she said is that with Trump nothing is different, it’s that everything is revealed and heightened. We now look each other in the face knowing who we are. It’s not that Clinton or a third-party candidate would have abolished the issues now brought to the forefront, it’s that everyone would have remained polite and shrouded in the process of procedurals. But the masks are off now, the racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigots, who always were are now empowered to come out of hiding. As she said, “Culture doesn’t change, it distracts us by pretending to change.”
 
I asked her what it means to “kick their asses” and she suggested that kicking their asses resides in the work of being broadly and deeply read on the issues, not just the glamorous ones that the media disseminates but the ones no one is talking about that has the most impact on lives. The work of kicking asses is unglamorous and won’t be anything the media wants to write about– which signals that everything the media writes about and packages to us represents very little of what we ought to be concerned about. 
 
uburoiiidayk_905Trump’s ascent represents a country taken in by the spectacular, the spectacle and, I think the grotesque–think Ubu Roi for those familiar with Jarry’s work.  But we have to move away from that and begin extremely dirty work that we won’t even be able to talk about for a while—this is important, reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron’s “Revolution Won’t Be Televised. The work we need to do is heavy, we all have to become students and read, comprehend, and synthesize the system more deeply than we have ever. This will be unglamorous that we won’t be able to hashtag, but it will be necessary to dismantle the power currently in place, Trump, Clinton–yes Clinton had the kind of power that must be dismantled too, it wasn’t so obviously insidious but it would have still ensured we didn’t tackle head-on what is ailing this country–and others. The work of resistance and revolution that will get us over in the next four years ain’t gonna be for or on social media. It’s going to be on the backside of the mountain studying, strategizing, and executing plans. It’s the kind of work no one will pat you on the back for because they won’t even know your name. It’s the kind of work that will necessitate we sacrifice our comfort en masse as some of our sisters, brothers and others have already been doing. It’s the kind of work that will require collectivity and building together, no independent rogues and cliques, but cooperatives across communities, cities, and states. This is anti-absorption, anti-visibility, anti-legibility work. And it starts with getting your political weight up and learning how to read this system.
Here are a couple of places to start, as a warmup to the much heavier lifting to come:
 
The people must know before they can act.
Ida B. Wells
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Haiti Doesn’t Need Our Hashtags…

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew’s landfall massive suffering has hit the country of Haiti. With a death toll of at least 800 people and the danger of a cholera outbreak, the country is in dire straits. This past week many of us sat and watched the coverage of the destruction from the comfort of our homes, some wondered where the Facebook filter is. The lack of response by Facebook, the empathy generator for most causes–except those that affect people of color–seems discouraging. Yet it seems like we, too, miss the mark by staying in the realm of praying and sharing stories and our discontent about the lack of filters, hashtags, and other social media symbols of empathy and solidarity.

Empathy is necessary but insufficient.

This is a message I received from a professor last week who, while talking about the way white people respond to the systemic oppression and violence against Black people, stated that she wasn’t interested in empathy but in policy and structural changes. For her, the expression of empathy and the corresponding affect is only a starting point, it can’t stop there. In the same way, as I watch people voice their concern about the lack of Facebook filters and hashtags or saying “Pray for ____.” I wonder if we’ve become comfortable in these type of responses to tragedy.  “Pray for ‘X'” seems to serve as a kind of script that facilitates the performance of empathy and solidarity but does no actual work. It’s time to stop praying with words, sending our petitions out through social media and up to God and start praying with our feet. We’ve been praying for a longtime about a number of things and this isn’t to dismiss the efficacy of prayer or the power of God, but it isn’t sufficient of itself anymore either. God placed us here on earth to be actors in the world, to do more than throw our hopes for healing, restoration, and liberation back at God or project it onto to anyone else. It’s time to become actors who shift things more with deeds than words. We also need to move away from waiting from the great “them” to stand in solidarity for us.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

It is time to stop putting our hope in systems and people that aren’t interested in consistently supporting us. I think we do ourselves a great disservice by waiting for “them” to care about us when we already care about us. Self-determination and empowerment is important in this season and it’s time for us to stop looking outside of ourselves for recognition when we already recognize and know what is necessary. We have to move beyond chastising people for not coming through for us. We need to come through for us and spread the information about how we can wisely and tangibly help.

Our cries for hashtags may be affective for us but not effective for the people we are allegedly advocating for, and this is a problem. Those affected by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas will not see our filters, they cannot eat our hashtags, there will experience no consolation from our efforts to gain them solidarity on social media all the while neglecting their immediate needs. They won’t care who didn’t see their struggle and how we fought to get people to recognize them, they will care about who took the time to respond, who moved on what they knew to be right, true, and just.

And with that, I conclude with a compilation of some of the sources I have shared through my social media pages:

Help Haitians, Not Disaster Capitalists (Includes a good list of Haitian-led and international NGOs)

How to Help the Victims of Hurricane Matthew

Hurricane Matthew: How You Can Help the Victims (I recommend CARE as well as Catholic Relief Services)

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#BlackPeopleSpeakUpinClass

Yesterday in a class, a student aired a complaint about the way they believe white people infiltrate spaces not meant for them. They spoke in general about situations on campus but then brought it to the particularity of the class, a class which by name alone, might suggest an all-black space but by the university’s student population would make that an impossible feat. The professor issued a gracious rejoinder that took a little edge off–without this the snaps in agreement to the student may have escalated to a conflict. Yet what was disappointing was when the student was encouraged to speak about the lecture at hand and the readings, they were silent. Granted the student might have been flustered and frustrated in the moment, but it made me think about an issue I struggle with being a Black person in mostly white spaces, particularly a Black PhD student in mostly white spaces. I’ve been uncomfortable with the ways that White people fill spaces too, so I understand the student(s) concern.

What I’ve discovered is, white people are going to fill spaces, especially the spaces where they’ve been privileged to be all their lives as we struggle to figure out our worth in the space. Even if it is a 20-something college student, they benefit by being a descendent of people who’ve always had access and never had to question their belonging in the world. I realized that I can’t continue to spend my time worrying about the ways they move around in the world because it won’t change, immediately–if it ever. What I can do is worry about myself.

In the first semester of my doctoral program I spent a lot of time being frustrated by the ways White people, specifically White men, take up space with their command of the scholarly lexicon and their body language. The ease with which they walk into a room, pull up a seat at the table and make seminar rooms their own–even when they don’t realize they’ve monopolized and exploited spaces for the sake of gaining social and intellectual capital with the professor–rarely is it ever to the advantage of their colleagues given the level of obscurantism present in their speech. I spent a lot of time complaining to family, friends, and colleagues about this phenomena all the while being silent in the classroom because I didn’t think what I had to say was worthwhile–because I didn’t speak or think like “them.” But I realized that the time it takes to worry and complain about them, while remaining silent, ensures I don’t move the needle forward in gaining my own social or intellectual capital or putting forth my own ideas. I realized I couldn’t spend another day talking about the ways in which I feel white people are silencing me in the classroom. I have to say it and say it without apology. Not sheepishly, not with disclaimers, not with cowering voice but with courage, certainty, and a little bass in my voice. It took me a whole year to learn that and I’ve since gotten better in the classroom because I believe I have as much as right to the space as “they” do. Now I try to take up space with my blackness and by that I mean with my perceived difference, with the determination of my people, on the prayers of ancestors, the dream and the hope of the slaves, and every freedom fighter without whom, I may not be here.

So I’ve learned that what the classroom doesn’t need is black and brown people who will idly sit in silence because they perceive the White voices in the room as too big. No voice should dim your light regardless of how big its performance–because remember, a lot of this is a performance. What the classroom needs is Black and Brown people courageous enough to decide that their voice, their ideas, their thoughts are worth hearing. Black and Brown people in the classroom, at a base level, must believe what they have to say is worth saying and worth hearing. No longer can we sit in silence or in circles after class complaining about white people and their voices and their bodies claiming spaces. We have to claim and re-claim the space against all odds and believe we are as entitled as they are–and sometimes we are even more entitled than they are.

Lost in Trans-Relation: A Reflection on a Bathroom Encounter

She and I are in a seminar together and during introductions she, who I originally thought was he because of my perception of her presentation, stated her pronouns as “she/her.” I accept this and made the note to self that anytime I speak of her, if I’m not using her name, I will use her preferred pronouns.

Before this, it had been three years since first I encountered the concept of preferred gender pronouns. It was during a week-long sexuality institute at San Francisco State University that I discovered there was such a practice and that someone who I perceived as either male or female would go by another pronoun. I remember hearing someone who I perceived as a woman saying their pronoun is “him/his/he.” I remember the moment when I heard someone say that they prefer to be called “it” and I was incredulous because I couldn’t understand why someone would choose to eliminate their human being-ness to be called “it.” Nevertheless I decided that all I needed to do was accept and embrace the pronoun someone chooses for themselves. That was three years ago and, since then, I haven’t held close space with many people, that I know of, who are explicit about preferred pronouns, until now. But this isn’t just a story about preferred pronouns…

Pronouns and all introductions aside we take a break before jumping into a discussion of the readings. I run to the women’s restroom where a line of my classmates is already forming and we pass the time by talking about how we like the seminar thus far. As we are talking she walks into the restroom and I’m certain I do a double take. If not a double take with my head, an internal double take. “What is she doing here?” I thought to myself. I was conflicted. She stated her pronoun yet, what I perceive to be a male-gendered presentation wouldn’t let me be comfortable with her in the women’s restroom. Nevertheless, she joins our discussion and I ease up, but still I wonder what she’ll do when she walks into the stall. When it is my turn to use the toilet I linger wondering if I will see her toes facing the toilet or facing the door. Alas, I also had my phone with me so, in no time, I forgot to watch her and I end up reading an e-mail instead. I finish up in the restroom and go to send a text to two close friends that says, “Can I just say, the first time a trans person comes in the bathroom with you is jarring as hell.” I don’t send the text, instead I sit with the thought for the rest of the seminar. Why was I uncomfortable with her in the restroom when she claims she and not he?

The second portion of our seminar presses my thinking on this further as we discuss authenticity and blackness as presented in an article by Michelle M. Wright entitled, “Can I call you Black? The limits of authentic heteronormativity in African Diasporic discourse.” Wright focuses on the assumptions of a normative and authentic blackness that exists in the dominant discourse in African Diasporic studies. This skewed focus results in marginalizing anyone who falls outside of those categories. Wright analyses the aftermath of the discovery that Olaudah Equiano’s was born in North Carolina and not Nigeria and how that shifted people’s perspective of his authenticity and place in the annals of history. She talks about Black Brits and how their authenticity is tested by Black Africans and how these views of authenticity are deeply rooted in the practices of a Eurocentrism and patriarchy. Of this she says,

“…the origin of blackness as an identity does not begin in Africa (and why should it? Why would millions of people with distinct histories, cultures, languages, and the like invent a generic term to categorize them all?) rather in prejudiced writings of European Enlightenment figures going through yet another era of deep historical amnesia that produced Africans as an undiscovered primitive rather than a continent whose coastal nations were central to the story of Mediterranean civilizations in antiquity” (Wright, 9).

Our professor welcomes a discussion on authenticity and blackness but encourages us to also think about the purpose of a demand for authenticity in relation to other identities integral to the study of women, gender, and sexuality. I didn’t recognize this as an immediate opportunity but realized it when I came home that day and am still reflecting on it now as I write. The discomfort I experienced in the restroom was caused by a few things one of which was my particular claim to an authentic womanhood that I didn’t believe my classmate possessed because of what I perceived about her. Another part of my discomfort is a reckoning with the so-called Other. (I use “Other” with great discomfort. I dislike the language but I’m using it here because I believe it goes toward my point.)

What is an authentic woman? This is the question that must follow my own claim to authentic womanhood over and against hers. I can’t answer that question right now, but I acknowledge it as part of the problem with my issue of her. The more I think about her and my reaction to her, which is unbeknownst to her, I wonder how it would make her feel. I’m troubled by the fact that it would make her feel anything less than welcomed and affirmed when she must hold close space with me. I dare say that my inability to accept and affirm her ought to make me the one who is not an authentic woman–if we want to define the authentic woman as one who unconditionally embraces all. I’ve been socialized to believe the only women that truly exist in the world are those who are born as such and only recently am I learning what it means to take someone at their word. Her word ought to count and, to an extent, it does count theoretically, but practically speaking I have catching up to do. I’m challenged by what it means to lend theoretical support but to falter practically.

I’m so certain that, rationally speaking, I’m here for her using the women’s bathroom, but my reaction to her actually using suggests otherwise and that is troubling me. In general I support the rights of trans people to use the restroom that they identify with but I recognize my ability to say that has been mostly abstraction, something I can say because I’m not faced with the so-called Other. And now here I am, having to step away from the abstract into the real and make my theory of advocacy into, not only, a practice of advocacy but, more importantly, of care and embrace. This seems like the missing step in the academic’s project of advocacy. We know how to theorize from above but we don’t travel below to work it. I know how to theorize and speak well for the marginalized and oppressed of this world, but I’m still working out how to be well with them. So here I am. I’m wrestling with this and find irony that I’m wrestling with this in context of a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar. That is the last piece of this narrative puzzle.

I met her in a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar where the core question of the class is, “What is Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” That introduction I mentioned earlier included answering the question, “Why Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies?” My answer to this question in the seminar was all about the practice of engaging women, gender, and sexuality studies as a field of inquiry useful for bridging what I perceive as gaps in theology and ethics. But given the chance to answer this question again, I would say that Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is as much a personal project of inquiry as it is an intellectual project. I need Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to interrogate myself and deconstruct years, if not decades, of closed theory about what constitutes woman, womanness, gender, and sexuality because my life is steeped in dominant views of normativity and authenticity about those categories. I need it as someone who has both a personal and professional commitment to the Christian tradition who wants to truly welcome all. I need it because I don’t just want to speak about welcoming and affirming all, I want to be about the business of it; a business undergirded by the discipline/field’s knowledge, nurturing understanding, and, most importantly, cultivating relationships, starting with my relationship with her.