I kick it with shit-talkers pop-lockers non-stopping hip-hoppers/kings, queens, seasoned fucking witch doctors medicine men/… trendiest trend setters and tenement-den dwellers/Tienemen square fellows/revolutionaries brilliant/resilient with hella truth to carry/I kick it with gay guys and women so queer they leave a homophobic rapper crippled with fear/My mother showed me hatin’ was fruitless/stupid and my God-brothers are Jamaican and Jewish/I never write you off for being white – not what my life’s about/but if white supremacy’s personified, I’ll gouge its eyes out
A friend is, right as I type, participating as a facilitator in an experiential history project for queer youth. For a week, queer youth are guided around the city (a US city with lots of queer history that will remain nameless) and facilitated through workshops and programs that, it seems, are designed to give them greater appreciation of the kinds of queer genealogies and histories we can draw. I think. Or something like that.
It almost doesn’t matter exactly what they’re doing, except to know that it’s politically progressive/radical(maybe?), and involves queer and trans youth.
And, apparently, it also involves lots of workshops on oppression, and the trauma of oppression. And lots of intention, on the part of some of the facilitators, to make sure that the white gay cis boy doesn’t take up too much space. Or as they’d probably describe it, trying to make sure folks with identities that have been marginalized throughout history (remember this is a history program) are given space/platforms/support/etc. Which, you know, is important. Don’t get me wrong, I think this really matters. Platforms and space and centering oft-silenced voices.
I think what’s more important, though, is actually listening to people’s voices, rather than thinking you understand them because you’ve read about/heard other voices coming from people with bodies like theirs. And it sounds like that piece might be missing here, as it is far too frequently. When the white gay boy, this youth (so let’s be real, he’s probably not older than 17-18) has all eyes on him at all times, because he’s white and gay and a cis boy – and yet people don’t seem to notice that he is consistently stepping up to support the whole community in ‘unremarkable’ and unnoticed ways. Like ensuring that the dishes all get done, & one person isn’t left to do them. And calling out words of encouragement and support to his peers any time they seem to hit a rough patch. And participating in/encouraging spontaneous fashion shows in their downtime. Aren’t those acts of kindness as much who he is as his intersecting (and largely privileged) identities?
I’m not trying to needlessly attack other people I don’t know, participating in a program I’m not a part of, doing what sounds like mostly really exciting and valuable work. And I’m not trying to completely deride anti-oppression work, because I think it’s important. Necessary but insufficient.
It’s just that, in hearing about & talking about this program, and some of the dynamics coming up, I was reminded how damn common those kinds of stories are. How frequently those of us who try to incorporate an understanding of historical & contemporary institutionalized oppression & marginalization into our work end up doing so at the expense of the people involved. Because it’s not just about the white gay (seemingly economically advantaged) cis boy. It’s actually not even mostly about him, although I think he matters, too. It’s also about the poor trans woman of color – and what it means to distill who she is down to those identity labels, as though they could ever encompass and describe and communicate to anyone else the central tenets of her personhood. The labels we place on people, or those they/we take on themselves/ourselves, will never quite do us justice. When I tell you I am a radical queer fetch Jewish feminist environmentalist – you might be able to start to sketch a rough outline of some things that might matter to me, but you know nothing about how I love the people I gather to my heart. It tells you so little of what brings me joy, the moments for which I get up each morning, and even less of how the challenges I’ve faced have shaped me, what struggles I’ve overcome and what I’m afraid of.
Those boxes we can tick are not enough. Which is not to say that they don’t matter. Because I think they do matter. And I think there is great utility and importance in building community around points of intersection – but when those labels, boxes, and identities take precedence over each individual’s humanity – aren’t we, really, replicating a pattern of dehumanization? Aren’t we, once again, saying that the color of your skin/ the genitals of your lover/ your gender identity/your class background/your [dif]ability is more important than understanding who you are as a person?
Typing this, I’m afraid that it’s going to read like “anti-oppression work is BS and we just need to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and love each other” which is really not at all what I’m going for. I’m not talking about a lack of accountability, or pretending that we should all just be friends and that it would be enough to right the wrongs in the world. What I want is to remember the humanness within each person we interact with; that they will always be more than their boxes and their elbows will always poke through the sides. And sometimes that humanness will manifest itself in beautiful moments of compassion and community, and people will surprise you. And also that humanness will be flawed, and people will make mistakes and be thoughtless and crass and they will have trouble learning and they might hurt you, and often those gaffes will be compounded by and entrenched with years of built up institutional inequity and privilege. And that privilege and inequity will probably make thoughtless mistakes more painful for those on the receiving end, and easier to ignore for those committing them. And we need to encourage learning and growth and accountability in those moments. But those are human errors, always. Not just straight errors or misogynist errors or white errors. Which, again, is not to say it is immaterial how heterosexuality and whiteness and cisgendered-ness and masculinity and ability and wealth play into the whole thing, or that they should be obscured, apologized for, or ignored (I’m all about identifying isms for what they are) but that those qualities of a person will never be the be-all-end-all of them.
When we let those labels become all encompassing, when we allow them to take priority over personhood, even if we are doing so in an attempt to counteract past wrongs – aren’t we going to make it impossible for us to see the person in our midst?
I guess I’m just thinking about so many of my friends, the people I love, and what would happen if you were to say to me, “describe _______ to me,” and I answered with “well, they are a queer person of color with relative economic privilege” – it wouldn’t tell you jack shit about what I love and value and treasure about them. It wouldn’t really do them justice, at all. And I mean, isn’t that the whole point? Justice?
PS The rap quoted at the top of the post? Follow the link beneath it and download the album. It’s phenomenal, and free.