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!

Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice

Each year, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day in the United States brings new opportunities for mis-appropriating, mis-remembering, and mythologizing Dr. King’s legacy and the broader Civil Rights Movement. White people get the history wrong in many ways.

Each year, celebrating MLK Day also brings new opportunities for re-reading Dr. King’s words and re-seeing the work that he—and so many people working for racial justice—have envisioned.

MLK offers visions of the ought to be, of engaged activism, and of multi-racial movement-building. Such visions are essential to avoid getting stuck where we are and to spark imaginings of new and more equitable futures.

As a white woman witnessing, learning from, and participating in MLK Day, I’m reminded at this time of year how Dr. King’s legacy and wisdom can guide me in the work of visioning. His words keep me focused on what’s possible rather than thinking only about what’s problematic.

Specifically, three of Dr. King’s often-cited quotes keep me focused on my role in taking steps and speaking up, even when inevitably and always falling short of what I can, should, and want to do. With gratitude and humility, I hope to amplify these words and share how they provide guidance in my life today.

1. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Though I have trouble placing this quote’s origin, the King Center in Atlanta describes how Dr. King combined two scriptural verses into one to create this line. I’ve been repeating it for years, since noticing how white colleagues ask for professional development as a prerequisite to taking action. Ongoing learning is always important, yet I’ve seen how it can be used to delay, dismiss, and excuse away the responsibility to act.

Instead, taking some action, any action, matters. It helps us learn, gets us started, gives us practice, makes feedback available, and opens opportunities for additional actions. It helps us join and build relational networks, and it helps us develop habits or routines for taking action.

Taking a first step and a second and a third and so on adds up to sustained action, and the importance of “Doing Something Small and Sustained” is part of why I’m vegan for social, environmental, gender, and racial justice. Certainly, there are many more steps to take, but a daily commitment to taking steps helps grow momentum, while allowing for rest and self-care along the way.

2. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As part of the Steeler Lecture in 1967, these words remind me of the importance of breaking white silence, as silence does real harm. I remember the gut-punch I felt when watching many white friends and family remain silent after Charlottesville. After writing “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” some sincere conversations emerged with white folks who expressed “a loss of words” and the fear that they could do more harm by saying the wrong thing than by saying nothing at all.

Just as a fear of doing it wrong and the desire to “learn more” blocks taking action, a fear of saying it wrong and a desire to “listen more” blocks speaking up.

To these fears, I’d say that there are many ways to speak by amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who are already speaking up and leading the way. If you’re not reading and reposting feminists and womanists of color, consider doing so. Sharing the work and words of activists, scholars, and leaders of color help promote and make widely visible their leadership. Amplification is an important form of speaking and one that invites listening and learning too.

As a white woman, I also need to remind myself again and again and again to let go of perfectionism. The possibility of a “perfect” or even “right” way of speaking is another lie of internalized inferiority and superiority. I’m sure to trip over the words. I’m sure to do it wrong. I’m sure to confront my own limitations. But I’m also sure that I must speak up in order to practice, to get feedback, and to learn by doing (with the attitude of “try-try again”). And more than the importance of learning, the costs of complicity are too high.

3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I end with this line from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because it reminds me of the costs of failing to act or speak up. It reminds me why I must keep the reality of white supremacy and the commitment to racial justice at the fore throughout everyday living. It reminds me why an intersectional approach to justice is needed and why I have a role to play in this work. And it reminds me why imaginative, creative, critical visioning is so deeply needed.

As I spend MLK Day this year tuning into myself, I’m reminded that, like Dr. King’s words of wisdom, our embodied, lived experiences have much to teach us about how to act and speak up in the world. I’m resolving in 2018 to “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” even or especially when my body hurts and my voice shakes. I’m resolving, too, to use inner listening to learn more about when and where I can direct my energies, knowing that I have a role to play in the work for racial justice.

Version 2
Photo taken during one of several pilgrimages to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice” and “Refueling with Feminists of Color.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses

Several times in recent weeks I’ve found myself in conversations in which things were going wrong. White folks were talking over folks of color. Men were taking up far too much space. White, cis-gender, able-bodied women were sharing their experiences as though they were universal truths. In each of these occasions, I found my stomach churning, my heart hurting, my chest tight, and my mouth dry. And in each of these occasions, I found myself entering conversation simply by naming my embodied responses as a way of identifying that something was wrong.

Essentially, I used my body’s guidance system to enter conversation, saying: “This is scary, but I need to speak up because my stomach hurts.” I then explained what I’d witnessed about the interactions, attempting to name what my body was registering. In each instance, I felt like speaking from/about my body was taking a real risk because we tend to value explanations and evidence from the realm of logic (the head) more than emotions held within the body (the heart and the hands).

What I learned from these occasions is that naming my body’s responses served as a strategy for getting the group to stop and discuss what was happening. This strategy opened space for others to name their own tensions or felt-senses that things were going wrong. Further, because I entered conversation without the language to name or shift group dynamics—but with recognition that the dynamics weren’t working—this strategy invited others to share insights and the responsibility for the disrupting dysfunctional communication patterns.

I’ll certainly continue to reflect on this strategy, and I can imagine times it wouldn’t work … but I share what I’m learning because I know that it’s too easy to remain silent in the face of injustice because the words (the explanations for the problem) remain out of reach. What if instead of identifying the problem, we simply identify our body’s signals that there’s trouble underway? What if we commit to speaking aloud our embodied responses—whether they involve anger flushing heat or sadness leading to a contraction of one’s shoulders? What if speaking up took the form of saying, “Hey, my heart is hurting, so something’s not right”?

Going forward, when I can see that conversations need disruption but I’m not sure what to do, I’ll try naming my embodied responses with the hope that saying something—even if it’s only that I’m nauseous—might reroute conversation and the direction we’re headed.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split” or “Heart, Head, Hands: Explaining the Blog’s Name.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice

This week I returned to teaching First-Year English (FYE), a course focused on information literacy, academic writing, undergraduate research, and the first-year college experience. This course helps students in making the transition to college, asking research questions, and navigating academic disciplines and the larger university system. The goal is for students to see themselves as critical readers, writers, and researchers—agents with response-abilities to make change.

With the start of this new school year, I’ve been thinking about who I was as a college student and who the students I teach might be. I’ve been considering what hopes I hold for the students and myself and what I might say to encourage students to conduct inquiries that really matter in the world. Teaching at this time feels especially important and even urgent. How might I spark students to social action? How might I play a role in helping others identify and act on their purposes? How might I teach in a way to inspire speaking and writing UP?

And wouldn’t you know that in the midst of such reflection, I come across a poster that speaks to me (and in a gas station bathroom, of all places):

2017-09-01 14.19.25

I can’t count the number of times I’ve repeated mantas about grounding and growing tall:

“I am grounded. I am safe and protected. I am securely rooted.”
“It is safe for me to be seen. It is safe to speak my truth. It is safe to be me.”
“Even when scared, I show up. I stand TALL.”

Stumbling upon this poster felt like confirmation that there’s value in sharing these mantras as wishes, hopes, and goals for students. There is real power in standing TALL—steady and true, like trees—in our commitments … in acting as our best selves, witnessing injustice, speaking truth, countering dehumanization, honoring ourselves and others, asking for more, and demanding justice.

Standing TALL, as I understand it, includes more than physically standing as part of a protest or demonstration. Yes, that physical presence is important, and it helps us see how presence—where and when to put one’s body, words, and actions—is always already political action.

Two examples:

For a student of color, attending the predominantly white university already makes a claim of one’s right to belong within that space. Attending classes already involves standing TALL. It already involves resilience and courage in the face of everyday microaggressions.

For a white student, choices to speak against microaggressions, to study white supremacy, to build cross-racial relations, to embrace marginalized stories, and to rethink one’s worldview similarly involve standing TALL. To shake up/off what’s been inherited and normalized involves the groundedness to be true to one’s self, while striving for change.

In other words (words I’ve encountered through yoga asana practice):

To stand TALL, we must “root to rise.”

This wisdom is more than metaphor. The deeper the trees’ roots, the taller, wider, and more expansive trees grow. Similarly, the stronger the feet and the firmer their planting, the higher humans can stretch—literally, becoming taller.

Growing roots can be hard because it requires stability and resolve—and at a time when students are uprooted. Transitions can feel especially unsettling, as though the ground is constantly shifting and the horizon always unknown. The transition to college, whether from high school or work or parenting or another place in life, can take us to new ground, too, literally and figuratively.

When so much is shifting, it can help to come back to grounding, again and again. And it can help to remember why we’re needed in the world, standing tall among others, a voice against racism and tyranny and violence and what’s wrong.

To the students in my FYE courses and, truly, to all of us as writers, speakers, and actors in the world, I share some mantras for finding the courage to speak, write, and act:

May we get rooted in what’s true, what’s peaceful, what’s equitable, and what’s humane. May we be grounded and courageous in our commitments. May we write-speak-act for justice. May we stand TALL. May we root to rise. May we rise to what is asked of us at this time and in the times to come.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice

This week has been INTENSE. As a writer, educator, and person committed to racial justice and the work of healing internalized white supremacy, I’ve been following and affected by the dysfunction, injury, and trauma on display. I’ve been confronting my own shadow, while watching collective shadows in the United States come into light.

And these shadows ask us to reckon with legacies of colonialism and slavery, institutionalized racism, and deep dehumanization. These shadows ask no less than for us to answer: Who are we as a people?

With this question in mind, I share five lessons I’ve been learning (and re-learning) this week. I share these in hopes that they may be of help to others, especially other white folks, as the work for racial justice is ongoing far, far beyond this week.

1. To make a commitment is to make a long-term investment.

Yes, tactical, improvisational, and immediate responses are needed when intense events/emotions erupt, but these must be paired with strategic, sustainable, and long-term plans to make commitments actionable for the long haul.

I think I know and will remember the importance of pairing tactics with strategies, but then a major event arises, emotions take over, and I get pulled into the moment, burning myself out through the immediate response. So, I’m learning again that a commitment to justice is a commitment to long-term investment.

Commitments ask us to put in the work regularly and not only when there’s a crisis.
Commitments ask us to look within, recognize what’s hard, and engage in healing work.
Commitments ask us to ready ourselves with response-ability (the ability to respond).
Commitments ask us to look to the future, readying ourselves with the willingness to act.

2. Self-care really, really matters.

It’s a tough time to talk about self-care because it can be used as the exit line to disengage from racial justice work. Still, I’ve been reminded this week that if I’m getting depleted and not refueling, then I’m no any good to myself or anyone else. I need to practice self-love in order to write, speak, and act with love.

What I’m re-learning is that while I can skimp on sleep for a night or two, by day three or four, I’m a crying, complaining wreck. If I sugar binge for more than a few days, my body rebels, and I truly don’t want to be doubled over in the bathroom or aching all over! And if prioritize play/pool time and meditation/movement, I actually come to more creative solutions and more compassionate stances sooner.

The more that I ride the roller coaster of emotions, the more I need self-care to support critical self-work that’s required for unlearning conditioned racist crap.

3. It’s important to name lies and look at my own complicity.

I’ve been living with so many lies (many I’ve internalized), and the more I identify them and call them lies, the more they lose their power. Countering the BIG lie of “I’m not enough” feels especially important for building the courage, resilience, “willingness to be disturbed,” and other attributes needed at this time and going forward.

When I see myself as “not enough,” then I need to be sure of my goodness (that I’m a “good person”). And that need to be “good” keeps me from recognizing, much less befriending, the “bad” within. To confront my shadow, I need the certainty that I’m already enough, worthy, valuable, divine. From this certainty, I find the courage to visit my inner dungeon, looking where I’ve actively and passively participated in white supremacy. I see that racism is here, at home, and within me. It’s not just out there, with them, with “THOSE racists.”

This blog post that’s been circulating—“How America Spreads the Disease that Is Racism by Not Confronting Racist Family Members and Friends”—includes a racism scale for plotting attitudes and internalized beliefs. In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about this scale, and I believe it’s helpful for digging into internalized lies that need to be named and reckoned with. To name racism only as covert, explicit, hateful acts—as only Nazis marching—is to perpetuate another damaging lie. And I’m invested in naming and owning my own lies, my own complicity, and my own responsibilities.

4. I keep learning from feminists and womanists of color.

This week I’ve been especially inspired and challenged by Adrienne Maree Brown, A. Breeze Harper, Sagashus Levingston, Vanessa Mártir, Mia Mingus, Docta E Richardson, and Loretta J. Ross, among other colleagues and friends and scholars. (Deep, deep gratitude!)

So, when I’ve been asked by white people this week what I believe are authentic questions—like “How can I learn about racism?” and “I know what I’m seeing wrong, but what can I do?”—I’m clear that the answer must involve reading and learning from feminists and womanists of color. If you’re white and reading only white authors, changing this is one good place to start. Check out these blogs by feminists and womanists of color, and please add other resources/links to this post’s comments.

I’m learning again that sharing resources can help with building community and capacity. And it’s clear that we need each other—we need community—for the long-term investment.

5. Truth-telling can feel shaming when the truth if shameful.

So much is written about white fragility and emotional resilience, I believe, because of lies associating whiteness with “goodness” (that I am good, that the United States is good, that our neighborhoods are good, and so on). And when goodness needs to be complicated (because, really, how could there be a single, flat narrative?), realizations about dirty, ugly histories and ongoing, violent injustice raise intense emotions of betrayal, hurt, anger, guilt, and shame.

This week I’ve had some tough interactions in which I’ve blushed red. I’ve felt anger and heat rush through my body. I’ve felt both defensive and like a guard or bully on the offensive team. And what I’ve realized from these interactions is that truth-telling can feel like shaming when there’s deep shame around internalized white supremacy. Unpacking this shame is important healing work.

Like naming lies lies, it’s important to name shameful histories and realities as shameful.

It’s important to engage in truth-telling work that is sure to be messy and involve messing up. I write in other posts about countering perfectionism, in part, because perfectionism is a construct of whiteness. Letting go of being “good” or “right” (much less “perfect”) is central to racial justice work, and I can’t help but notice it’s central to my own healing work as well.

This is to say that I’m learning yet again that it’s important to say something, even when saying it awkwardly. And to do something, even when doing it wrong. And to show up, even when showing up incomplete, imperfect, and truly as “a mess.”

May we keep learning together.
May we keep speaking, writing, and standing up.
May we listen more openly than ever before.
May we keep committing to racial justice.
May we resolve to the work that lies ahead.
May we ready ourselves and be ever-ready.

In solidarity! ~ Beth


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” and “Microaggressions Matter.” 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.

2017-07-28 20.47.20

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!

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.