doing justice

29 07 2009

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

Senbei, Chameleon

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.


Fellows and growing and building and justice

13 05 2009

Life has been taking over, and leaving me little-to-no time for blogging and writing. I literally have five or six posts that I’ve started in the last month and a half and never finished. I’m going to finish this one, dammit.

A couple things, mostly personal. There are other important not-about-me things to write about too. I care about them. They are mostly contained in those aforementioned drafts. I am going to try to get some quick hits up soon, at least.

Like something about the Allied Media Conference. And how you should support people doing really important radical media justice work. And throw a little bit of money their way, to help mamis of color get to Detroit. I can’t be there, but those links above are to people whose work and writing I love reading, and on whom I have serious activist crushes, so you should probably go or help more people go, because it should be awesome.

And there are other things, too, of course.


me with a look of deep concentration, routing the edge of a piece of rough-cut lumber

me with a look of deep concentration, routing the edge of a piece of rough-cut lumber

I like building things. And, huzzah, I get to build things this summer!

I’m going to spend 2-3 weeks of June working in upstate New York, doing natural building. We’re going to be in a little town called Hartford (I think), it’s about 60 miles north of Albany, just over the Vermont border. The job is a strawbale installation, which, explained very loosely, means using strawbales to build a house, and no it’s not going to blow down. Google it to learn more, it’s really interesting. I actually don’t know if the job is a house, or some other sort of structure, or a wall, or part of a building, or something else. But it’s a pretty awesome building technique, I’m super excited to learn more about it, and it also is a really great use of a resource that would otherwise be used for Halloween decorations and pumpkin patches.

Plus I’m working with someone for whom I have just overflowing respect and admiration, and a perpetual friend-crush.*


I got a job! And a fellowship! Well technically, they go together and were contingent on each other. I don’t want to talk too specifically, because this blog isn’t totally anonymous, but I’m going to be participating in a community organizing fellowship program, and working with a local organization that is, quite literally, down the block. (Assuming our landlord doesn’t raise the rent so much that we have to move in October.) I can bike and walk to work in less time than it takes me to drive or take public transit work now. Plus, it should be a great and challenging and rewarding experience.

It will also mean being part of a Jewish community that is really committed to incorporating an anti-oppressive political analysis and critique into social justice and community-based work, and I am SO amped to build that kind of a community. My Judaism and my radical politics go hand in hand, but they are often forced apart, so it feels really good to see them coming together outside of just me and a handful of friends.


Our garden is growing! We got off to a rocky start, but my partner’s parents were visiting, and her mom helped us replant some things, and now we have seedlings!

close-up of a nasturtium leaf in a metal pot.

close-up of a nasturtium leaf in a metal pot.

the first leaves of our one-day-to-be-a-bush raspberry plant

the first leaves of our one-day-to-be-a-bush raspberry plant

assorted pots with growing plants

assorted pots with growing plants

We have assorted vegetables and other edibles growing in our little pots, and most of the plants in the peat pots are ready for transplanting into larger containers. Hurrah!


And finally, on something not so self-centered…

The Angie Zapata murder trial feels like old news, in the rush of blogging, but I think it’s still important to be talking about. My feelings were really complicated and conflicted, and really they still are. The first US hate crimes trial for the murder of a trans woman resulted in the highest possible guilty charges and sentencing. Ray Allen Andrade won’t receive the death penalty, which I’m also glad about, but I have no sympathy for him and I think he is the lowest of the low despicable people in the world.

And yet… there’s this. Which is just so right on. And my stomach tightens because even as I feel relief hearing the verdict, I know two things:

1. This verdict won’t bring her back. If it brings any measure of comfort to her family, friends, and loved ones – that is something – but it won’t bring her back. I’m also not convinced it will do much to reduce the threat trans people, especially trans women of color, live with every day.

2. The prison industrial complex is NOT the answer. Another man of color locked up, even one who did a terrible awful cannot be excused disgusting heartbreaking thing, is not how I envision justice. Does that mean I think Andrade should get off scot free? Absolutely not. But I don’t think the current criminal justice system is the answer to bigotry, hatred, and violence. I think the prison industrial complex is further dehumanizing and degrading, and breeds just those evils.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know it’s complicated and I feel conflicted. Because I think that every message that says that trans people’s lives are valued is important, and mattes. And I think that every time another man of color is thrown in jail, it matters, and serves to perpetuate individual and institutional racism.

Nezua has a post including links to other people who have been writing about the trial and verdict. Go there.


There’s more. Always more. But I’m wrapping up for now. Good night.

*I’ve found that the term “friend-crush” is not always clearly understood. It means the feeling you have when you are very excited about building a friendship with someone, and it sort of feels like you have a crush on them, only it’s platonic. So it’s a friend-crush. I might have one on you.