Against the Tyranny of Positivity

On this day of the lunar eclipse in Aquarius, may we allow ourselves to feel.

To feel whatever comes up.
To feel deeply, expansively, expressively.
To feel a fuller range of emotions than we’re typically taught is appropriate or agreeable or allowable to feel.

To grieve for Nia Wilson, for Markeis McGlockton, and for many people whose lives are deemed expendable.
To rage against white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression.
To push past easy, ready, and first emotions.
To resist “the tyranny of positivity” that limits the ability to name violence, wrongdoing, and injustice.

The question

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what psychologist Susan David calls “the tyranny of positivity,” or the over-valuing of positive emotions to the point of blocking the ability to feel sadness, anger, fear, regret, guilt, and other “negative” emotions. These emotions are needed to reckon with—to remember, resist, redress, reconcile—harms done in the world. Harms done to and also by us.

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity” when a colleague expressed concern about me writing on the trauma of graduate education, cautioning me against being “too negative” and suggesting that “writing needs to stay positive to attract readers.”

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity,” too, when responses to my writing on trauma included statements like these:

  • “Career counselors are some of the most positive people you’ll meet.”
  • “If you look for the good in graduate education, then you won’t feel the bad so much.”
  • “It’s better to invest in building one’s career than to linger over the challenges.”
  • “You did a great job with that piece: you kept it positive.”

Certainly I understand the power of “positive thinking” for leveraging potential, and I believe that a focus entirely on the wrong (the critique against) interrupts our ability to envision more just futures (the critique for). I even wrote “When Everything Is Horrible, Try Slowing Down and Noticing”—a piece about noticing beauty in rough conditions—in the same week as writing about trauma. So, truly, I’m trying to learn and live out a both/and approach that invites attention to pain and pleasure.

Yet, what I see happening here and through broader social expectations for positive emotion is a sort of spiritual bypassing tied to white supremacy. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and other interlocking forms of oppression need denial to operate. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression rely on the policing of emotion, the forgetting of and failure to address deep harms that nevertheless live in the body.

Moreover, policing and blocking of emotions limit healing, creative response, and humanity.

Policing and blocking of emotions contribute to the epistemic injustice of being told you don’t even know what you know, and you don’t even feel what you feel, and you don’t even have the right to know and feel what you truly know and feel. And it’s epistemic injustice that undergirds trauma in graduate education and in so many facets of life.

In contrast, it takes the strength of working with trauma, sitting with vulnerability, and feeling what comes up to counter the tyranny of positivity. It takes love, and it takes anger. It takes a much fuller spectrum of emotions that those deemed “respectable” or “civil.”

So, today, when the astrology is inviting us to break down and break through (as eclipses invite “shadow work”), may we allow ourselves to feel.

  • What emotional work is waiting to be done?
  • When and how are denial functioning?
  • What emotions are asking to be acknowledged and named?
  • How can being truer about our emotions allow us to be truer about harms—those done to us and by us?
  • What emotional realness is needed for the long haul toward justice?
  • How do we break from the tyranny of positivity?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” “5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice,” and “Naming Trauma as Trauma.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Naming Trauma as Trauma

As part of my research on epistemic injustice, I’ve been thinking about the power of naming: the power of having the linguistic resources to identify, describe, and call out varied experiences, especially experiences of injustice.

Systemic oppression works in a way that denies the ability to name experiences of wrongdoing. When experiences are named, they can be acknowledged and addressed. To me, this is part of the power of the word microaggressions: the word allows for acknowledgement of what too often goes unacknowledged. Similarly, phrases like sexual violence, rape culture, and #metoo do important work in raising awareness, mobilizing response, allowing for healing, and calling attention to what’s typically hidden.

This week Inside Higher Ed published my article on why it’s important to acknowledge and address the trauma of graduate education as part of career conversations:

Screenshot of “The Trauma of Graduate Education,” showing the orange Inside Higher Ed page logo and navigation toolbar at the top followed the title, by-line, and first three paragraphs of the article.

The Trauma of Graduate Education” shares insights from this research on epistemic injustice, relating how graduate writers (participants in my dissertation research from several years ago) described the need for therapy, counseling, and self-help. In interview after interview, I heard writers (many of whom were white women and women of color) describe harms inflicted through graduate school. Moreover, participants’ stories echoed my own experiences with graduate education, which tore down my confidence, contributed to internalized pain, and kicked off a healing process that’s now taking me away from higher education.

In the article, I describe why it’s important to name these experiences as trauma:

“Often conversations with career advisers are similar to those among graduate writers: it is common to share, receive and even exchange stories of trauma while often not naming it as such. An important part of career conversations, therefore, may be recognizing trauma as trauma. There is power in naming experiences: acknowledging and giving language to describe trauma can lead to other actions, such as seeking trauma-informed care or, in Grollman’s words, “rewriting the trauma narrative.” Similarly, it’s important to name microaggressions as microaggressions, epistemic injustice as epistemic injustice and violence as violence. Doing so validates the reality of the experience (essentially saying, yes, this experience really did happen and really is wrong), countering the many invalidations that cumulate into trauma. Further, giving language to experience helps with developing the linguistic resources to understand, process and describe trauma and other injustice.”

My call to name trauma must have struck a chord with readers. On the one hand, I’m experiencing a new round of graduate students (especially white women and folks of color) reaching out and saying, “Yes, me too!” On the other hand, I’m seeing comment after comment (from what I can tell, all by white men) complaining about my “over-sensitivity,” exaggeration, and misuse of the word trauma.

Alongside these various forms of gaslighting (another powerful word for naming injustice) is a familiar rhetorical move of saying that if the experience of graduate education is too traumatic, then folks should just leave. Here again, as in my dissertation research and my own lived experience, I see readers (folks engaged in academia) making the moves that feed into trauma: those of denial, dismissal, and disengagement.

Such interactional moves point to why we need an “unrestrained” definition of trauma. What registers as trauma to one person may not to another, but to deny the experience is to deny the person. Writing off the reality of trauma is linked literally to writing off the people who experience it. Hence, we see the perpetuation of violence—perpetuation of oppression, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and epistemic injustice—within and beyond higher education.

Though this violence is all-too-familiar, I am encouraged again by the power of speaking and writing UP. I am encouraged that together we can build the linguistic resources to name experiences of injustice, and together we can use the act of naming to mobilize.

Today, tomorrow, and going forward, I’m naming trauma as trauma. And I hope you’ll join me in naming experiences of injustice to acknowledge and address them. We’ll need a lot of creativity and visioning to keep building the words for naming what’s intended not to be named. But build together, we must.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “A Love Letter to Students Surviving Sexual Violence,” “A Barrage of Microaggressions,” and “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Barrage of Microaggressions

Some years ago I began recording everyday microaggressions toward learning to recognize racism, which is so often coded and which whiteness has taught me not to see. This recording project aimed at building a repository of common microaggressions to teach with and practice interventions using Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed.

The project emerged from conversations with colleagues of color, who shared how often white colleagues failed to believe their experiences. Across a number of institutions, colleagues and I began writing what we observed—disguising the primary players, but keeping the details true to life. We hoped this project would help to counter epistemic injustice, or the problem of prejudice resulting in marginalized peoples not being believed about their own experiences.

Word Art

From my vantage point as a white woman, there’s been MUCH systemic racism I haven’t recognized in everyday life, but the more I actively choose to listen and learn, the more I witness. This process of witnessing means that some days are beyond tough. Recently, I had a day that felt like a constant barrage of microaggressions making themselves visible in individual and intimate ways.

To help me process my emotions, to sort through my response-abilities, and to figure out when/where to take action, I returned to the practice of documenting microaggressions—making a list of what I could recognize from the tough day. I’m sharing this list in the spirit of showing how microaggressions are anything but micro. They stack up, cumulate into vast inequities, and feel like a constant barrage or ongoing assault.

Though these scenes are tied to higher education, such scenes happen daily in and out of workplaces, family gatherings, church settings—throughout all of our everyday lives. May sharing them bring attention to the work that’s needed when we talk about standing TALL for justice.

Morning

  1. Even before arriving to campus, I recognize that my university is reeling from white supremacist hate speech (photos circulating as clear threats against students of color) that’s drawn campus-wide and beyond-campus attention.
  2. While hearing from students of color how little the university is responding, I see that my participation in the YWCA’s annual #StandAgainstRacism campaign has been used to give the optics that the university is responding.
  3. A white campus leader goes completely colorblind on a situation disproportionately impacting faculty of color.
  4. Another white leader says that a faculty member of color will be fine, professionally, because they’re “well liked,” making clear that white folks LIKING a person of color is what determines career viability.

Afternoon

  1. A panel on the school-to-prison pipeline names numerous problems rooted in racism, including that the majority of K-12 teachers in Milwaukee are white women who play into the savior archetype and expect students of color, therefore, to play the victim. Students’ behaviors that show strength and independence (not victimhood or gratitude for being “saved”) are considered behavioral problems.
  2. Following this panel, a white professor posts to social media how proud she is of white students (pre-service teachers) for buying school supplies for “underserved communities,” playing into this savior script and celebrating altruistic charity instead of teaching ways to re-route power.
  3. Another white pre-service teacher tells a white student colleague that she’s doing an act of Othering by designing a teaching unit with literature by authors of color. The student receiving the feedback takes it seriously, expressing concern that she might be marginalizing white authors. (Short answer: that’s not possible.)

Evening

  1. In a Facebook group, white feminists say they don’t appreciate me citing/amplifying Alice Walker in a recent blog post because she’s not vegan. When I take time to engage in discussion and calling-in, I have to ask: “Do you take seriously only the ideas and experiences of vegans?” before they get just how shitty their dismissals are of a womanist of color (in fact, of the feminist leader who coined the term womanist).
  2. A colleague of color is asked to bear emotional labor that goes uncompensated, while financial compensation is offered to white faculty/facilitators doing similar work.
  3. And all of this is happening against ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate speech, while the Supreme Court “weighs” the Muslim ban, Chikesia Clemons is assaulted in Waffle House, and Starbucks plans a day of anti-bias training.

Such a day calls attention to why a commitment to racial justice needs to be actionable in everyday life, why it asks us to be in it for the long haul (not quick fixes), and why self-care and community care are so important for bolstering ourselves against the constant barrage of microaggressions.

May we—especially those of who are white, who hold power and privilege within this white supremacist world—do more to name and speak out against injustice.
May we do more to find humanity in the midst of dehumanization.
May we do more to recognize and counter ongoing, everyday microaggressions.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” or “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Expect Miracles

Of the many lessons I’m still learning, an important one is to trust life as it unfolds. I struggle with trust because I struggle with letting go of perfectionism and perceived control. Despite these struggles, whenever I soften attachments to my preferred timing and open instead to possibilities, miracles occur. And the more I open to miracles, the more I find HOPE, which is so greatly needed on the long haul toward justice.

Recently, I’ve had an important reminder to expect miracles (or at least miraculous timing) in everyday life:

A few weeks ago, I lost a mala that Marty Tribble custom-made for me after several Reiki sessions of discussing my desire/need for greater grounding, spiritual connectedness, and trust in divine protection. Marty created this garnet bracelet and shipped it in a box with stenciled arrows, at the same time that I’d had an arrow drawn onto my hand during a summer retreat (pictured here).

2017-07-03 21.17.56

I took the arrows to be a sign of the mala’s significance for decision-making and directional guidance.

The mala must have been helping me trust, because when I lost it, I trusted that it was where it needed to be and would reemerge at the right time. I was somehow sure that the mala wasn’t lost to me, but just buried from my view or consciousness.

This loss happened about a month ago, before I started 40 days of yoga nidra—a meditative practice that I’ve been doing at bedtime. I often fall asleep during the guided practice, and I’ve been having especially vivid, symbolic dreams. These powerful dreams, I believe, have been a continuation of yogic sleep in actual sleep.

Through this process, I’ve become more aware of how much self-work and self-healing happen through dreams and sleep. I’ve also become aware of the mala’s hiding place.

Just before leaving town for a full month’s travel, I changed my bed sheets and moved my mattress away from the headboard. That night, when practicing yoga asana on the floor, I saw the mala under the bed. It had likely been tucked within the bed frame, near my head for the past weeks of yoga nidra. Despite my perception of having “lost” the mala, it was exactly where it needed to be: physically in my bed, supporting yoga nidra practice, and present for self-work during sleep.

The timing of its re-emergence has felt divinely orchestrated, too. Since I’m now traveling for a month, my home bed is no longer my practice space. By making its presence known, the mala is able to travel with me. I’m again wearing it as a bracelet during days and keeping it near my bed at nights.

I share this story of the lost-and-found mala because it’s the sort of everyday miracle that gives me hope at this time. It’s a reminder, especially in this week of the winter solstice and many religious celebrations, of the importance of trusting divine timing, especially when choosing to tread another path.

I share this story, too, because it’s opened for me a series of new questions:

  • What needs to change in my approach to everyday living if I am to act as though miracles are already present and possible?
  • What does it mean for miracles to be present at this time of great injustice? Might the recognition of miracles help with recognition of other often-dismissed phenomena like microaggressions, systemic racism, and epistemic injustice?
  • How do we undermine or block ourselves from noticing miracles and other magic that can give us life, even in the toughest times?
  • How might the expectation of miracles (or at least miraculous timing) aid in building resilience, commitments to justice, and long-term staying power?

I am excited to see what emerges as I learn to expect miracles. I hope you, too, will look for the miraculous in everyday life.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Everyday Divination,” “Attending to Anger,” or “Sieving Life: Keeping What Nourishes and Releasing the Rest.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Few of My Favorite Things

December. It’s a hard time for folks walking on wires to please others. It’s a hard time for folks finishing semesters when running on fumes. It’s a hard time for folks grieving family hurts or losses. It’s a hard time for processing what comes up in contemplative moments and social interactions alike.

This December is especially hard because it punctuates a year of great injustice, dehumanization, and the increasing visibility of wrongdoings. Now, as so many of us personally and collectively are doing (and being asked to do) “shadow work,” there’s a heightened need for self-care/self-work that embraces both/and.

How do we both honor the ways we’re falling apart and go about surviving? How do we both recognize the possibility of human extinction and invest in living more authentically, courageously, and lovingly? How do we both unlearn oppression (including internalized inferiority and superiority) and build new, more equitable relations? How do we both stay centered in gratitude and committed to justice? How do we experience both the depth of grief and the height of joy? How do we get by in the midst of inherent contradiction, paradox, incongruity, and change?

One answer (for me, this December) is that I’m getting by with a few of my favorite things. Specifically, I’m making “play dates” to hike with friends, to eat nourishing foods, and to read books and blogs that fill me up like adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy and Chani Nicholas’s weekly horoscopes. (I even happily found this recorded conversation between adrienne maree brown and Chani Nicholas!)

My most frequent, almost-daily “play date” has involved listening to a new podcast while sipping peppermint cocoa and soaking in an Epsom salt bath. Here’s what this looks like:

1. How to Survive the End of the World Podcast

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been falling in love with the podcast How to Survive the End of the World from the Brown sisters: Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown. And I mean falling in love as in feeling my stomach sink when I’ve listened to all the episodes and getting super excited when a new episode is released.

These recordings are directly about living within both/and, as episodes focus on “learning from the apocalypse with grace, rigor and curiosity.” Truly, episodes give deep insights, rich storytelling, and committed calls to action—modeling ways forward and asking how we show up for ourselves and others to be in “right relationship.” If you’re not already listening, check out the trailer here:

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.57.24 PM

It’s not by chance that this podcast is offered by two women of color at a time when the hashtags #TrustBlackWomen and #FollowBlackWomen are trending on social media. May listening to feminists and womanists of color do more to counter epistemic injustice and to honor the lived stories, experiences, and knowledges that need to be trusted and followed.

2. Peppermint Cocoa

Chocolate, I’ve found, makes falling in love even sweeter. Because I’ve also got a complicated relationship with sugar, I mix raw cacao and stevia so that I can enjoy chocolate daily, especially when luxuriating in a warm bath with my favorite podcast. Here’s the recipe for this month’s peppermint hot cocoa.

Combine and stir the following ingredients:

2017-12-10 09.31.57

 3. Epsom Salt Baths

Truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed baths, but I didn’t give myself permission to take them daily until struggling for several years with chronic back pain. It’s amazing how often pain has been a motivator for doing what I desire, what gives me pleasure and joy. Now, whenever my body or soul hurts, as they do when facing systemic racism and other institutional violence, I immerse myself in salty water. This is a privilege I am grateful for everyday.

I add several cups of Epsom salt to a warm bath, and soak while listening to awesome podcasts and enjoying hot cocoa. The combination, I’ve found, grounds me, while also lifting my spirit.

When we talk about building resilience, I wonder if we should talk more about Epsom salt and warm water for grounding and clearing energies. As a white woman, when I think about building fortitude to counter white fragility, I definitely think about Epsom salt baths for crying, releasing, recommitting, and re-emerging ready to work again.

2017-12-10 09.46.51

Together, (1) the How to Survive the End of the World podcast, (2) peppermint cocoa, and (3) Epsom salt baths are a few of my favorite things. As favorites, they help with refueling and with readying for ongoing resistance.

I talked recently with my six-year-old nephew about his “favorites,” and I realized that I don’t often have this conversation with adults. How often do we, as adults, name our favorites? How often do we take time in the day to enjoy something simply because it’s a favorite? Recognizing and honoring favorites feels important for navigating the both/and of life, especially at this time and especially in December.

May these or other favorites bolster you in personal and collective shadow work. May these or other favorites help with surviving when falling apart. May these or other favorites help with feeling what’s hard and also with feeling what’s incredibly beautiful, amazing, and possible too.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Sieving Life: Keeping What Nourishes and Releasing the Rest” orBreaking Commitments and Recommitting through Mindful Reflection.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence

I didn’t learn to drive in drivers ed. In fact, I never drove the car that whole semester because the teacher was a creep.

When girls would drive, he’d start off complimenting perfume or jewelry or clothing. Then he’d lean into the driver to observe them better (the perfume or jewelry or clothing). From there, he’d put his hand on the girl’s leg, sometimes leaving it there and sometimes moving it higher along the thigh. All of this with two additional students in the backseat. All of this with students feeling powerless to do anything.

That semester he asked me multiple times when I’d like to drive, and I always made one excuse or another. In the meantime, I sat in the back of the car and watched. I never told another teacher because everyone at school already knew, and nothing would be done anyway.

My parents knew, and they knew I wasn’t learning to drive. That became the immediate concern, as it seemed to relate to my physical safety. To me, physical safety meant never getting in the driver’s seat next to that instructor. I’d take my chances on the road itself.

This is one of many, many stories that come to mind as I add “me too” in solidarity on friends’ FB posts. This is one of many, many stories of sexual harassment, intimidation, and violence that are so normative, they are simply everyday. This is one of many, many stories that bring to mind the costs and consequences of this violence—with the loss of drivers education a small piece of the stories I hold, stories I bear witness to.

At what point do we say ENOUGH?

I see posts online saying that the past 24 hours of “me too” responses have been triggering as hell. I see posts online saying that one person facing this violence is too many. I see posts online questioning the political efficacy of this outpouring of raising hands and storytelling.

As I sit with the emotions, memories, and physical pain that arise, I also feel deep gratitude for the storytelling, as it feels like a moment of building trust when trust is so corroded. It feels like a moment of affirming that “yes, this really did happen” and of countering the epistemic injustice that underlies women (and people facing prejudice) not being believed. It feels like an important moment for saying aloud—again, STRONGLY—that no one should face this violence and that we must stand TALL in the commitment to justice.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter” or “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly “Alarmist Rhetoric”

There are numerous alarms about how far off the tracks we’ve gotten as a people. While many people are facing insurmountable odds, injury, and even death, many are also desensitized to violence and going about business as usual. Against a background of ever-increasing injustice, I’m still hearing people caution against “alarmist rhetoric,” and I’m wondering:

If we’re not alarmed now, then when?

I don’t believe the alarm is coming at the wrong time, with the wrong urgency, or under the wrong conditions. Rather, I believe it’s a matter of choosing whether or not to trust the alarm that’s being raised. That is, choosing whether or not to dismiss urgent and life-saving alarms as “alarmist rhetoric.”

Today’s Alarms and Why They Matter

People in the United States and around the world are being killed daily and in many ways: directly through hate crimes, police violence, military force, and other means AND indirectly through denial of healthcare, living wages, stable housing, quality foods, and so on. Through direct and indirect means, we’re undermining the basic value of life, of humanity. And this undermining happens at a time when humans as a species are facing extreme precarity—arguably, unlike any we’ve seen—of “accelerating extinction risk from climate change.” Life is devalued. Life is at risk. Life is written off.

This devaluing impacts most greatly the very people who are raising the alarm: people who are dehumanized, exploited, and oppressed. People of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, poor people, and other marginalized peoples. These are the people who are sharing first-hand knowledge to raise the alarm. This is why we hear repeated assertions: #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that Trump’s election occurred alongside the DAPL protests. It’s also no coincidence that the language of staying “woke” to name social awareness originates within the black community. It’s no coincidence that black news sources and journalists report on the everyday realities that are ignored, minimized, or glossed over in “mainstream” (read: white) news sources.

Communities of color and other marginalized communities are constructing and sharing new knowledge, naming what’s otherwise hidden, obscured, or unknown. Yet, this knowledge is systemically devalued, just as marginalized peoples are systemically devalued. Similarly, distrust of the alarm is rooted in distrust of the people raising the alarm. And the alarm calls on all of us—especially white folks, folks with privilege, and folks with power—to WAKE UP.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Alarms

In February, I saw activist-journalist Shaun King speak here in Milwaukee, and he called us to action, saying: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

It’s one thing to ignore an alarm clock, which creates annoyance and noise as a wake-up call. It’s another to ignore sirens or fire alarms, alarms with the purpose of saving lives. These alarms help us see the importance of recognizing and responding to emergencies. They also help us see the relationship among denial, disbelief, and the costs/consequences of deferring responsibility.

In terms of denial, here are some ways I’ve found myself literally ignoring alarms:

  1. I’ve been conditioned to expect sirens as part of regular equipment testing, and so when I hear a siren, I believe it’s only “a test” and not a “real alarm.”
  2. I haven’t changed the batteries in months, so when the fire alarm goes off, I assume it’s the fault of old batteries and not an actual fire.
  3. I’ve set off the alarm when cooking because it’s located too close to the stove, so I believe it’s simply too sensitive and not a true predictor.

For various reasons (these and others), I’ve had occasions of choosing not to trust a siren or alarm. At times, I’ve chosen to believe it’s not reliable or precise enough; I imagine it to be broken or malfunctioning; or I imagine that it’s incorrectly programmed. These are beliefs that motivate dismissal of the alarm: beliefs that provide reasons for not trusting the alarm. And the costs of not trusting can be especially high, because sirens and alarms serve as warning systems—to alert, caution, and prevent serious harm.

One time I told my mom that the tornado siren was “just a test” because it was during a weekday and the skies appeared clear. We found out afterwards that a tornado was indeed in the area, and it had caused real damage only miles away. We never took shelter, much less looked around or acted with real care/caution. My dismissal of the alarm could have had real consequences for my mom, who was trusting me when I told her with certainty that it was only a test.

Thinking metaphorically, I can see how fables like “the boy who cried wolf” lead to a cultural expectation for not being too “alarmist” OR too sensitive to alarms. This story leads to the justification of idleness or lack of response. It’s as though we worry more about being falsely alarmed than we do about failing to heed an alarm. Yet, alarms have real purposes—often connected to the preservation of life—and so we have real responsibility to listen and act.

At this time—a time of emergency—we’re hearing alarms and being asked to respond. Complaints about “alarmist rhetoric” are like me saying “it’s only a test.” The distrust of alarms is preventing recognition that there is an actual emergency.

Building Trust in the Alarm

To respond to the alarm—to wake up, to evacuate, to fight fire, or to take other action—we need, first, to trust the alarm. And if trustworthiness is the matter, then I must ask: Who do you trust? And why?

My academic research has been teaching me that some people—by virtue of positioning within systems of power, privilege, and prejudice—are listened for and believed over others. That is, people with institutional power and privilege already benefit from what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic excess.” Think, for example, about assumptions in a hospital space: without ever having met a physician before, it’s likely that if a white man in a white coat walks into the room, he will be assumed to have the credentials and expertise to be a physician. It’s also likely that if the patient is white man—especially one who’s younger, well-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and thin—he’ll be taken seriously, and his health complaints will be assumed to be true.

In contrast, people marginalized within institutional power and privilege—people who are further away from what Audre Lorde has called the “mythical norm”— already face assumed “epistemic deficit.” In the same hospital space, we know that white women and women of color, men of color, people with visible disabilities, and others are more likely to be questioned. Think, for example, about when a woman walks into the room and is assumed to be a nurse instead of a doctor. Her credentials are further undermined when she is challenged about her diagnosis and questioned about her recommendations. Or consider if the patient is a woman instead of a man: then we know that complaints of pain are likely not to be taken seriously. She may be left waiting for longer periods of time, not given medication, assumed to be experiencing only emotional and not physical pain, and called “hysterical.”

I give these hospital examples to explain epistemic injustice, defined as harm done to people in their capacity as knowers. Epistemic injustice is always already operating in the world and shaping what we hear (and don’t), how we listen (and don’t), and who we believe (and don’t).

These assumptions highlight prejudice that we all carry with us, which is why it’s so important to develop bias literacy—an understanding of the unconscious, internalized, and structural bias that shapes day-to-day life, including ideas about ourselves and others. The question isn’t whether we have prejudice (we do), but how we can work to unlearn prejudicial judgments. How can we learn to see and experience the world differently? How can we short-circuit unjust assumptions? How can we undo the problems associated with assumed epistemic excess and deficit?

Whose Alarm Is Listened to, When, and Why?

Getting back to alarms, epistemic injustice helps to explain why some people’s voices are listened for and trusted over others. Some people—by virtue of being positioned with privilege, power, and epistemic excess—already have a louder volume, are already pitched for reception, and are already placed in homes or other places where their alarms can be heard.

In contrast, other people—again, by virtue of being positioned within inequitable and oppressive systems that perpetuate epistemic deficit—aren’t being heard. Their alarms are already called into questioned, assumed to be unreliable, or perceived as mis-programmed. They are already “presumed incompetent.” It doesn’t even matter what the alarm conveys; it’s already facing disbelief and distrust.

To counter epistemic injustice, we must ask ourselves often: Whose voices are we listening to? Who are we trusting? And why? In the case of raising alarms, we must similarly ask about who we choose to trust and who we don’t.

Those who are best positioned to raise the alarm—people of color, indigenous people, and other marginalized peoples—are saying these are urgent, desperate times. “The earth is in crisis.” “Shit’s going down, and it’s going down now.” “They’re killing us. Our lives don’t matter.” Or, in Shaun King’s words: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

Certainly, the inability to hear the alarm can be deeply emotional—like the desire to remain in a warm bed, blissfully asleep, snoozing the morning’s alarm, and not yet “woke.” It can also be about conditioning—about cautions against raising alarms too often or too soon, or else face the creditability loss of “the boy who cried wolf.” And, undeniably, it can operate unconsciously without awareness of the prejudice, racism, and perpetuation of injustice associated with unearned epistemic excess/deficit. Acknowledging these emotional and unintentional dimensions of the problem softens my heart, as I see my own complicity as a white woman with varied privileges and prejudices. I soften my heart as I see how deeply mired in the muck we all are.

With a soft heart and a lot of love, I affirm: Yes, it’s time to be alarmed.

2017-07-28 21.21.07

A Final Note

The only people I’ve seen criticize “alarmist rhetoric” are white folks, which is why this critique seems so clearly about epistemic injustice—about the denial of experience, knowledge, and earned expertise within communities of color. I want to ask, therefore, all of us but especially white folks to listen for, acknowledge, and choose to trust the alarms. For alarms lead to action, they demand response, and they ask us to wake up. This moment is about no less than who we want to be, how we want to live, and how we see ourselves in relation to others.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” “Today Resistance Looks Like …,” or “Swinging from Sweet to Sour.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!