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.

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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!

Reframing “Independence Day” as a Day for Truth-Telling and Committing to Justice

I really struggle with July 4th. It’s a holiday that presumes to celebrate “freedom,” but freedom for whom? By what means? Under what circumstances?

It’s a holiday that celebrates myths like meritocracy and “the American Dream,” while keeping hidden systemic racism and other ongoing oppression.

It’s a holiday that normalizes narratives and displays of patriotism, which underlie white nationalism, tribalism, and the logics of “we” versus “them.” The “we” must be “better than” or “the best,” even when assertions that the United States is “the best country in the world” are wrong, as Shaun King documented this week. Still, such assertions persist, especially around this holiday.

This year, the 4th of July left me feeling a physical pain (tightening and nausea) in my stomach. Pain at the many falsehoods. Pain at presumptions that this holiday is celebratory. Pain at attempting to go-about-the-day-as-usual when there’s no avoiding the systemic racism underlying all the red-white-and-blue attire, explosions of firecrackers both day and night, closure of public places in commemoration, and other patriotic displays.

So, I allowed myself to feel the pain, to grieve, and to seek sources for reframing this holiday and my experience of it.

I found initial relief through truth-telling—with deep appreciation to the blog “What’s the Meaning of the 4th of July to Marginalized People?” and the video “No Country for Me”:

I found inspiration through seeing friends reframe “independence day” as “interdependence day,” shifting the focus from colonialism and individualism toward a relational worldview.

I found a vision of a what Native Independence Day might look like, a vision of righting wrongs, redressing harm, and enacting equity and justice. Such a vision involves making visible the histories of genocide, human rights abuses, slavery, and oppression in the United States. It also involves acting with response-ability (as in the ability to respond)—moving from truth-telling and remembering to repairing and healing. It involves acting on what the truth compels.

If we in the United States want an annual celebration of freedom, then I’d ask that we wrestle with hard questions about whose freedom matters and why. How freedom can be achieved for all. What response-abilities are needed for collective, shared freedom.

Truly, liberation involves knowledge of the past, reckoning with the good and bad, and willingness to make right. It involves seeing one’s “freedom” in relation with others. How can one person be free when others still aren’t? Appreciating Nelson Mandela’s wisdom: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

We have a looooooooooooooong way to go toward freedom. A long, long way, which is why I can’t celebrate the 4th of July. It’s not a celebratory holiday, though perhaps it could be a day for truth-telling and re-committing to justice. A day for valuing interdependence and everyday practices on the long haul toward justice.

I’m appreciative that this year my body reminded me through stomach pains that I can’t go about the day (or any day) as though it’s business as usual. For the usual is unjust. May I choose to tread another path, a path toward justice.

Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

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As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.

Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!

“Do you consider yourself a writer?”

I’ve been teaching for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I’ve routinely asked this question on the first and last days of the semester (and often in-between). I’ve found my own strong YES to the question, asserting: “I don’t just study writing. I write. I am a writer.” And I hope that students, colleagues, friends, and family will similarly see themselves as writers, as people who write (who do the embodied act of writing). I believe there’s power in claiming this identity, as writers are positioned to speak up and speak out.

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View of my writing activity.
Writing and the relationships built around writing have the potential for countering injustice and bringing about more equitable relations. As I have explored in my dissertation and subsequent publications, writing has the potential to challenge and transform power relations. It has the potential to clarify and make actionable commitments to social and racial justice.

But what about art?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of writing to art, and I’ve been asking myself a twist on the familiar question, contemplating: “Do you consider yourself an artist?”

This question has been lingering since I wrote “It’s Time to Go to Work—Time to Write from the Heart, Head, and Hands” for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL):

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To read this post, visit <aeplblog.wordpress.com>.
In this post, I respond to Toni Morrison’s call for action, call for art in tough political times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

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And I think: artists … Artists go to work.

Early in my life, I was quick to call myself an artist. I loved painting, drawing, sculpting, storytelling, and dancing. One of my earliest memories (around the age of three) involved being in big, big trouble for decorating the apartment door with crayons. Throughout elementary and middle school, I loved visual art, photography, calligraphy, and clogging classes. I put myself in charge of constantly changing seasonal decorations. I created my first books—a novel and scrapbook—in fourth grade. My mom found the owner of local bait and tackle shop to teach me crocheting one summer. I designed my first science fair projects to focus on art: understanding the color wheel and visualizing rock sediments with layers of colored sand. I submitted photographs to 4-H youth competitions. And I learned to bake, to make bracelets, and to write poetry. My memories of youth are full of creation. (Growing up rural East Tennessee pre-internet days, creation came naturally.)

Yet, somewhere along the way, I began to struggle with this self-definition, as I internalized a sense that only some people could be artists, and those people were ones who produced “great works” recognized by others. Though I still flirted with art and briefly considered minoring in visual art, I let go of the self-identification of “artist.” I considered friends—those who really studied and perfected their crafts—to be artists. I learned to hold the identity of “artist” at arm’s length—likely for the same reasons that many of my students hold the identity of “writer” as something “out there,” something that others can claim only after recognized achievement.

Today I’m wondering if my reluctance to claim “artist” might be another form of playing small. Might this be another form of internalized inferiority, especially since my art was often feminized and I’d learned not to associate myself too closely with the feminine? If so, might claiming the identify of “artist” be another way to embrace feminine energy and feminist activism?

Recognizing the need for encouragement, I’ve started speaking to myself as I do when mentoring students, urging myself to claim the identity of artist. Since childhood, I have continued to create art—writing, storytelling, taking and editing photographs, designing cards, creating recipes, crocheting, and now blogging. I choose to believe the identity of “artist” is in the doing, just as I believe that one becomes a “writer” simply by writing.

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View of my artistic activity.
As further encouragement and a great synchronicity (or “god wink”), I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and this week’s queued episode was titled: “Who Gets to Decide Whether You’re a Legitimate Artist?” As you might imagine, the episode made the sort of argument I’m making here: it’s important to focus on the doing—the verb—of creating, making, writing, artist-ing.

So, if I embrace this identity—artist—and want to answer Morrison’s call “to go to work,” I can ask some new questions:

  • Where do I find inspiration, and how might I inspire others?
  • What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
  • Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
  • What am I called to create, and how might I listen to and hear the call more clearly?
  • How might creation help to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be”?

I ask these questions on a day in which students and I have generated lists of the genres (types of writing) through which we “write for social justice.” We showed each other the work we’re engaged in and the possibilities that lie ahead. One student urged me to “blog about this class”; another suggested creative nonfiction; and still another encouraged me to keep working on my academic book project. This encouragement reminds me that students see me as a creator (a writer, researcher, and artist), even as I’m encouraging as them to step into and claim these roles—to become writers and artists for justice.

I also ask these questions on a day when a friend shares the article, “Finding Steady Ground: Strengthening Our Spirits to Resist and Thrive in These Times.” Of the seven behaviors outlined here for strengthening ourselves and taking strategic action, #5 pops out to me: “I will be aware of myself as one who creates.” How about this for an affirmation? For a reminder that art isn’t frivolous, but part of resilience and resistance?

As I create—as I write, teach, research, blog, and share my work with others—I must say, “I am an artist.” And as an artist, I encourage artistic activism. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll claim the identities of writer, artist, and activist. I hope you’ll create and act in the world, countering passivity and taking up Morrison’s call.

Refueling with Feminists of Color

My last post shared blogs I love—blogs by feminists and womanists of color. I was motivated to write this post while working on a related one for the YWCA Southeast Wisconsin:

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Refueling with Feminists of Color” shares books, blogs, and events to refuel the activist fire or to get fired up. Especially at this time of ever-increasing violence (symbolic, cultural, structural, and direct violence), I seek ways to keep commitments alight, to keep visions burning brightly.

I find much inspiration among feminists and womanists of color—in the books highlighted in this post for the YWCA, in the blogs I read on a daily basis, and in the events that allow me to connect with and learn from others.

I’m also returning this week from a professional conference, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Powerful presentations reminded me, yet again, of how much I have to learn from feminist and womanist scholars, particularly women of color and indigenous women. Scholar-activists are enacting, modeling, and sharing with us (white folks, able-bodied folks, cis-gender folks—those of us who have much to learn) what it means to do feminism.

To do feminism as an act of love. To do feminism for racial and social justice. To do feminism toward humanizing, recognizing, and valuing all people. To do feminism that rewrites the world as it is and imagines the world as it “ought to be.”

At this moment (a moment when words feel far away and hard to find), I say simply: thank you!

Thank you to the many feminists and womanists of color who teach through words, through actions, and through lives on fire. Thank you for sharing fuel for the fire. And I commit again—today and as a daily practice—to listening, learning, and striving to live a life for justice.

Microaggressions Matter

Sunday evening, night of the Oscars.

I’m not watching TV, but Skyping with my friend and co-author Rasha Diab, as we work on an upcoming presentation and related academic article. The article’s focus? Proposing a rhetorical framework for countering microaggressions, or everyday and seemingly small, yet cumulative and consequential, actions.

Among others, psychologist Derald Wing Sue explains that microaggressions communicate denigrating messages to people of marginalized groups and typically take one of three forms:

  • microassault—verbal or nonverbal attack (typically conscious and intentional);
  • microinsult—insulting messages, rudeness, or other insensitivity (often unintentional); and
  • microinvalidation—interactions or communications that exclude, hide, make invisible, or otherwise invalidate people or their experiences (also often unintentional).

Sue and his colleagues find that microaggressions happen persistently in the lives of marginalized people—through slights, through lack of recognition, and through many other means. Microaggressions matter. They happen again and again. And they add up to macro-injustices, both resulting from and perpetuating systems of inequity and oppression.

Why the Microaggression “Hidden Fences” Matters

Against this background of writing about microaggressions and imagining the knowledges and practices we need to intervene, I take a break to check social media. It should come as no surprise that I see talk focused on the Oscars—and hope for what turned out to be historic wins. And, given the prevalence of microaggressions, it should come as no surprise that I see renewed use of the hashtag #HiddenFences:

Shaun King explained this racial microaggression back in January when multiple presenters/hosts at the Golden Globes combined two Black films (Hidden Figures and Fences) into the one name (Hidden Fences), essentially hiding or micro-invalidating both films and their casts and crews:

I’m glad to see real rhetorical engagement around microaggressions—calling out and calling attention to this phenomenon. I’m reminded of the ever-present need to name, identify, and teach about microaggressions. And I feel affirmation for a Sunday night spent with research writing, as we need truly to step in before, during, and after microaggressive moments if we are to intervene.

At the same time, I see on Twitter white folks wanting to excuse or explain away “Hidden Fences” as a misspeak; hence, the microinvalidations are now multiplying (with invalidations of the initial invalidation):

In terms of just thinking (or what’s in my head), I’m seriously confused about why there’s even debate about whether “Hidden Fences” is a misspeak. Sure, it could be a misspeak, but misspeaks are often microaggressions. Often microaggressions are unintentional. Still, unintentional + misspeak = microaggression … These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Even if the intention is not consciously or overtly malicious, harm is done, and we need to acknowledge that harm. In other words, it’s important to focus on impact, not intent. To try to diminish or invalidate the harm perpetuates yet another microinvalidation.

In terms of feeling (what my heart understands), I can see how white fragility makes white folks feel so vulnerable that clinging to intent is a way to avoid (admitting) wrongdoing. It takes emotional intelligence, emotional literacies, and emotional resilience to realize that one can do harm and not be bad. As I was exploring in last week’s post, it’s a tricky thing to embrace the truth that “I am enough,” but believing that truth allows us to see and admit wrongdoing (e.g., to see and take responsibility for white supremacy and other forms of oppression). Therefore, I can feel (even if it makes no logical sense) that the need to explain away microaggressions as “misspeaks” is rooted in deeper, embodied emotions like guilt, shame, fear, and regret. And there’s much, much self-work to be done, including truth-telling to un-learn and re-learn histories, legacies, and local and (inter)national narratives.

One starting point could be watching Jay Smooth’s “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race.” Jay Smooth addresses emotional literacies (and the need to stop worrying) through a metaphor of simply having “something stuck in our teeth”:

From Thinking and Feeling to Doing:
Some Starting Points for Countering Microaggressions

In terms of doing (what my hands are aching to do), I can see the value of documenting microaggressions, as documentation speaks to skeptics, who still see misspeaking as small and insufficient. In contrast to seeing microaggressions as “small,” we need to recognize that “misspeaks” and other microaggressions compound (not just adding up, but exponentially growing like interest on a loan). When microaggressions are persistent, they undermine one’s credibility, confidence, and ultimately humanity.

A number of recent Twitter hashtags have tried to show the frequency (the widespread occurrence and widespread impact) of everyday microaggressions. Here are just a few examples:

These efforts help to show the complexity, variety, scale, and impact of microaggressions. Truly, they show that microaggressions are anything but micro.

Still, I’m wanting to do more than document microaggressions. I sometimes feel that we’re stuck in trying to convince others that microaggressions really do matter. In fact, I titled this blog “microaggressions matter,” as it’s fairly common that I’m asked—and sometimes in roundabout or coded ways—why I’m studying microaggressions.

What if we could already take as granted that microaggressions happen everyday; that they cumulate, feeding into large-scale injustice; and that truly they matter? Then might we train ourselves to see microaggressions when they occur? Might we begin to notice our participation in or perpetuation of microaggressions? Might we begin to rehearse and enact interventions?

To prepare, we might orient ourselves to actions like creating different institutional conditions and seeing our interests as aligned with others’—actions that can help to prevent microaggressions.

To respond, we might speak up/out in the moment or soon after a microaggression has occurred. We might also catch ourselves in “misspeaks,” “missteps,” or other mistakes and resolve to learn from these moments. Rather than moving on (failing to act or minimizing harm), we can slow down and build emotional intelligence, literacies, and resilience.

To process, we might step into the role of believer—not only validating the truth of and documenting microaggressions, but also imaginatively replaying and writing scenes as intervention practice. Here I’m thinking of the value of Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed, particularly forum theatre.

These are only a few examples of the many sorts of actions needed. I invite you to think with me about what sorts of thinking, feeling, and doing are needed for intervention. What would shift if we were widely to assert “microaggressions matter”?

Countering the Lie of “I’m Not Enough”

I like following the blog Raising Race Conscious Children because it helps me relate with the young people in my life, including my own inner child (my younger self). Among the blog’s resources are examples of scripted conversations and sample statements that align with racial justice. Such language helps me think about the language I use with myself, including language that reinforces an old lie: “I’m not enough.”

I’ve been thinking about this message—“I’m not enough”—as a lie since a student recently shared Jim James’s song “Same Old Lie.” At the start of my “Writing for Social Justice” class, we typically listen to protest songs. Students bring into class music that they enjoy, music that shapes their understandings of justice.

When the student shared this song, I listened carefully, following along with the lyrics. Then the student asked us each to identify a “same old lie” we’ve been taught.

At first, I wrote about internalized sexism: messages that my value is tied to being thin, pretty, and white; messages that I should wear make-up and should not have body hair. I could see how these “lies” are wound up with a much bigger one: that, as a woman, I’m not enough. Constant efforts to reshape, refine, and re-create the body all indicate this not enoughness.

As I wrote about the work I’m constantly doing to unlearn sexism, I thought about a different but related set of messages I’ve inherited about class, education, and even productivity. I often try to shore up my sense of self (to shield or secure myself) through credentials, educational attainments, honors, and other markers of “success.” I fall back on degrees and measurable productivity to create a sense that I’m doing well, that I’m meeting my next goal, and that I’m worthy. In doing so, I’m unintentionally upholding the Protestant work ethic and the social stratifications it creates. These old patterns are related to my perfectionism (something that’s served me well in the past, but is now tripping me up). They are also related to the deeply internalized message that I’m not enough as I already am—that I must be striving for something more, something better.

I’ve been working with mantras to let go of this not-enoughness discourse, affirming daily:

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Still, I’m finding something new, something powerful in this exercise of naming “I’m not enough” as a “same old lie.”

I can see more clearly that this internalized and seemingly individual issue perpetuates and is perpetuated by larger systems of injustice—the holding down (denigrating) of some people and the holding up (elevating) of others.

I can also see more clearly the relationship between being rocked by internalized sexism (feeling that I must shield myself from awful feelings of inadequacy) and the inability to confront white supremacy and other forms of privilege (experiencing white fragility when faced with seeing one’s position as more-than-enough—that is, socially constructed as superior—within race, class, religion, ability, and various other social hierarchies).

It feels especially important to name the dualistic problem of not-enoughness facing people who experience both internalized oppression and internalized supremacy (for example— white women like myself). Imagine a single coin with two sides, one facing up and the other facing down. We can see only the side that’s exposed to us (this side representing lesser-than messages of “you’re not enough”).

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What happens if we don’t ask what’s on the other side? If we don’t turn the coin over? If we only focus on the feelings of being lesser-than? Then we fail to see the still present, though hidden, side—the side in which we’re actually positioned as greater-than (in a position of privilege, power, and supremacy).

My sense is that too often we don’t flip the coin, which explains why white women can deny or fail to explore participation in white supremacy. It’s as though the fixation on the lesser-than side makes it impossible to turn the coin over. Perhaps it feels too painful to touch the coin at all?

Though we may only look at one side of the coin, the other side is still present and simply hidden from view—though perfectly visible to others who are scratching their heads, asking why folks just can’t see what’s going on. What I’m hoping to explain through this coin metaphor is that there’s a close relationship between internalized oppression and internalized supremacy.

To step back for a moment, it might help to name the warrants (or assumptions) this metaphor is built on. I’m assuming the following:

  • That readers share a commitment of working to attain equity and justice.
  • That though we’re socially constructed as unequal, we as humans are equal (all valuable, worthy, and human).
  • That there’s a relationship between buying into internalized oppression (e.g., buying into sexism, even while feeling/experiencing its harm) and buying into the conditions of inequity (which keep us feeling/experiencing separation).
  • That buying into internalized oppression is closely related to buying into internalized supremacy, so that these ideologies can co-exist within the same individual, even when trying to hold ourselves accountable through self-work.

In my life, I can see that I’ve bought into internalized sexism at the same time as using class, race, and other positions of supremacy as a shield from gendered oppression. Only when looking at feelings of not-enough straight-on can I see my own participation in perpetuating the lie. Then possibilities emerge for seeing and changing my own participation in passing along the lie to young people—to my own inner child and to children in my life.

So, there’s BIG TROUBLE in the lie that “I’m not enough.” This lie limits the ability to see systems of inequity, injustice, and violence. It limits the ability to act. It limits the potential of undoing sexism, classism, racism, and other -isms. It limits the potential of imagining alternatives—a vision of the world in which we all are already enough, already worthy, already valuable.

To stop telling the lie, I affirm today that I am enough. I speak to myself as I would to a young child, affirming my humanity. Being human is messy, sure, and I’m sure to mess up. But the mess does not make me less. I remind myself to that I am worthy. And to step into worthiness, I step into the ability to stand TALL, to speak UP, and to act with COURAGE.