I often think about my earlier resistance to the social justice ideas that I now embrace, and how much of that was due to the toxicity of discourse in academic-activist spaces. A revealing test of this theory occurred this past spring when I attended a university-sponsored gender and sexuality conference. I’ve been to this one several times over the years; sometimes it’s amazing and other times underwhelming. This year, I was openly identifying as queer for the first time, and longing for some new friends and welcoming groups, which I didn’t really find because there was too much posturing about being woker-than-thou.
For example: One of the keynote speakers, a trans man of color (Latinx, I think) was exhorting us not to ask random POCs or nonwhite friends to educate us about racism. I hear this a lot, and it makes sense, because it’s exhausting and can feel invalidating to be confronted about one’s identity in a debate format. On the other hand, given that we’re all steeped in misinformation and unconscious stereotypes in a racist society, I’m concerned there’s a risk of an echo chamber when white allies are mainly talking to each other. Books and websites by POC will only take us so far, since there is no monolithic “black point of view” etc. When, if ever, is it okay to ask for a reality check from a friend or educator from a minority community: “Hey, is this a legit source?” or “These authors from your minority group disagree with each other, what do you think?”
When I posed that question to the speaker, he decided to make it an example of him refusing to do emotional labor for white people, and punted the question to the audience, which was mostly college kids. I don’t really need a 19-year-old to tell me to read bell hooks. Was it such a faux pas to assume that someone who’d volunteered to give a speech about anti-racism work would actually answer questions about anti-racism work in that context? It’s not like I collared him at the bus stop.
(To answer my own question, if it’s the non-reciprocal emotional labor that’s the problem, perhaps we shouldn’t ask for insight from POC without offering something of value for their work, similar to paying a sensitivity reader to look at our manuscript.)
I could be gracious about the awkwardness because I’m twice these people’s age and didn’t need to fit into this community beyond a single-day conference, but it reminded me how the interpersonal norms in social justice culture can feel like treacherous shifting sands. I’m not complaining about the challenge of unlearning racist or transphobic beliefs, but the unnecessary humiliation of pouncing on subtle imperfections in manners, word choices, or misreadings of unfamiliar social cues. It’s an exception to the autism-friendly vibe that genderqueer spaces have been great at pioneering.
I don’t want to be a white snowflake who acts like her trauma history exempts her from hearing POC’s anger. On the other hand, I think activist spaces, especially in academia where people sublimate their feelings into intellectual swordplay, need a lot more introspection about reenacting oppressive relationship dynamics. Your feelings are legitimate and maybe you’re not ready to do this work today without projecting them all over the wrong people. That applies to me as well as to the person doing the call-out.
This is a good reason for offering segregated self-care spaces, such as the workshops at this same conference that were designated for queer and trans POC only. It’s also important for members of a majority group to learn how to hold supportive space for minority group members’ anger and sadness, just listening silently and non-defensively. What bothers me is when an event is framed as an all-comers venue for dialogue and education, but the rules change on the fly, and at any moment a participant might silence and shame someone else for “taking up space” as a white, male, straight, etc. person.
At their blog Witch Cabinet, Tarot columnist and healer Andi Grace has a sensitive discussion of how to balance our trauma history with our need to be accountable for racism and other prejudices. In their February post “Call-Out Culture and Being Too Much”, Andi writes:
when i was experiencing intense call outs for cultural appropriation as a yoga teacher, i remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. to simply cease to take up space – especially space that others could judge as harmful. i was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain i could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.
this is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. this is where i feel nervous and tender and raw. so please, if you’re willing, hear me out. know that i am coming from a place of love.
maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. here goes:
when i have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.
now, if you are feeling defensive, i invite you to please take a breathe.. and hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complex and humanizing than it seems on the surface.
from what i have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. that is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. and often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. i have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. these kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex:
you did something wrong.
something is wrong with you.
you don’t belong.
you have no one you can trust or rely on.
you are unforgivable.
these kinds of call outs are way more common than i think we want to admit to ourselves. i’ve given call outs like this. it gave me rush of power when i did it. i was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.
that does not mean that i think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. sometimes people need to be called out. i have needed to be called out – and in. especially on my racism. i needed this to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. and i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle. not at all.
sometimes calling out is part of survival. sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. and, in my experience, the people who do manage the kind of composure for a gentle call in, are working much harder to calm their vibes than most outsiders could ever comprehend.
even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent)…
…i know i’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because i’ve witnessed it over and over again. i see it in the people i do harm reduction work with and i see it with folks i offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. i see it in women and femmes all the time. understanding this, knowing i am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like i’m “too much” and i take up too much space, i have been pondering: how can i learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love i so need to heal?
Gay Christian activist Kevin Garcia spends a lot of time building bridges to non-affirming and on-the-fence religious people, and is thoughtful about the boundaries we need to put around that work when we feel called to do it. He touches on this issue in his funny and incisive talk at this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, “Owning Your Story”. In a blog post last month, “Brave Spaces and Bigger Tables”, he observes, “We have a bad habit of shitting on our allies” in progressive activist culture.
This past weekend, at the Wild Goose Festival (which, I know, is a SUPER white space), I got to sit through two workshops with Mickey Scottbay Jones of the Faith Matters Network. She talked about this idea of “brave space.”
In Brave Space, we abandon the notion that any space is safe for everyone. Because what is safe for me as a queer guy might not be safe for my trans friends, or for my black friends or for the women in my life. In Brave Space, we acknowledge our imperfections and work hard to be sensitive while also acknowledging that we’re going to mess it up. All of us.
But rather than just totally breaking community with those who don’t have all the right language down, all the right tools in their social justice tool belt, we choose to be gracious. We choose to love bigger. We choose to give space to learning, failing, and reconciliation. We choose to give ourselves to healing. (And yes, that is asking something of those of us who embody marginalized identities.)…
…Don’t get me wrong —I’m annoyed anytime another straight (white, male) pastor gets a book deal or gets invite anywhere to talk about being more inclusive when people could be passing the mic to marginalized folks. And we should be calling out our allies when they aren’t making a concerted effort to do so. We should absolutely call them out when the fuck up, just like I hope people will call me out when I fuck up.
But I know so many people, people who strive to be allies to our community who are too afraid to do more work, to be more visible, to fight more fiercely for justice because they know they’ll likely get their heads bit off and/or get dragged on Twitter if they mess up, or they know that no matter what they do, they’ll still get accosted by us. They’ve seen how we roll, and sometimes it’s beyond brutal.
I know were the salt of the earth, but damn y’all, we can really heavy handed with our saltiness. Maybe we should focus on being light a little bit more. Perhaps we could create spaces that are lined with grace and love, opportunities to grow instead of social excommunication?
For an in-depth look at the concept that Kevin references, see Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens’ academic article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. The piece was prompted by their work as diversity educators in the Department of Residential Education at New York University, training the resident assistants who facilitate student life in the dorms. They contend that “safety” may not be the best word for the ground rules of nonviolent and respectful communication, because every discussion of controversial issues and privilege differentials still involves emotional risk. Assurances of safety are misleading, both for marginalized-group members who already know they’re not safe in this society, and for privileged-group members who feel betrayed by the discomfort that arises from the lesson. The authors go on to discuss common “safety” rules for discussions and how they would tweak them to avoid false unity and silencing.