Choosing to Tread Another Path

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently on paths. Established hiking trails and sidewalks, escalators and even rock crawls marked by arrows.

And I’ve been especially appreciative for the healing that comes from this time walking—not only hiking, but standing, marching, experiencing the mobility associated with movement, strengthening and using my body, contemplating my embodied existence, and examining the various privileges and positionings associated with this embodiment.

While walking these varied paths, I’ve also been thinking about how much needs to change about our current world. Making change isn’t as simple as swapping out elected officials or taking part in the political process. Rather, I think we’re at a critical point of needing to re-rethink everyday and taken-for-granted ways of being. To de-routinize the routine. To let go of what’s become normalized.

Because oppression is everyday. Marginalization is routine. Violence is normalized.

Choosing Alternate Paths

Thinking about paths—and the ways that we’re conditioned to follow established ones—I’m wondering, as Sara Ahmed does, whether we might need to stop treading on familiar paths and instead create some new ones. Ahmed observes the possibility that when we abandon well-trodden paths, their lines fade:

“We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. The path is made out of footprints—traces of feet that ‘tread’ and that in ‘treading’ create a line on the ground. When people stop treading the path may disappear. And when we see the line of the path before us, we tend to walk upon it, as a path ‘clears’ the way. So we walk on the path as it is before us, but it is only before us as an effect of being walked upon … Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created.” (Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, p. 16)

There are important functions to paths, such as making the world easier to navigate. Yet, “going along with” the established path is the sort of “going along with” that prevents questioning, much less interruption, of the everyday route and routine. And questioning seems important to noticing, imagining, rethinking, and healing. When I walk down a different sidewalk, I certainly see different bits of the world. How might I see the world differently—and change it—just by choosing alternate paths?

Walking Backward on Moving Walkways

Paths offer a useful way to imagine resistance. Beverly Tatum describes systemic racism as the airport’s moving walkway, using the metaphor to help us see the different consequences of actively pursuing/doing harm, remaining still/complacent within an existing system, and intentionally taking action (like turning around and walking backward) to resist:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go in the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, p. 11-12)

Like following the established path, standing still on the moving walkway perpetuates systemic oppression that is already part of everyday life. Such metaphors help us think about how everyday and familiar actions—like walking—can do harm, even when the intention isn’t to harm. And this distinction between intention and outcome is important for understanding how we all do harm. Microaggressions happen many times throughout the day, often without the intention to harm, but are harmful nonetheless.

From my recent experiences hiking, I think about how trails cause erosion. When the land becomes too hurt, signs are put up asking hikers to stay off fragile areas and to use bypass routes toward helping with restoration. Like recognizing that erosion comes from simply walking on established trails, I hope to explain that harm can be done by simply “going along with” what’s familiar, what’s already established, what’s already moving forward.

Certainly, walking off trail or turning around to walk against the moving walkway requires many kinds of strength. And I believe the emotional strength for de-routinization and de-normalization requires courage, self-love, and willingness to see one’s self doing harm. Rather than denying that my hiking causes damage to the earth, I recognize that I contribute to erosion, and I try to figure out how to hike with lower impact. Similarly, in recognizing my own contribution to systemic –isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.), I commit to ongoing and necessary steps.

Together, may we let go of the established paths and work to build new, more equitable, more just walkways. In other words, may we choose to tread another path.

 

Appreciating Rahawa Haile’s “Going It Alone” for the Hiking-Justice Connection

As someone interested in and impacted by the outdoors, hiking, human connection, harmful historical legacies, and ever-present white supremacy, I absolutely love and highly recommend Rahawa Haile’s article “Going It Alone”:

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Haile shares her experience through-hiking the Appalachian Trail as a queer black woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • “By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.”
  • “Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American ­history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.”
  • “There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy.”

In trying to figure out why this piece so deeply speaks to me, I realize how much I crave stories of hiking (like Amanda “Zuul” Jameson’s Brown Girl on the (P)CT and Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black”) that challenge the assumptions of whiteness, walking as white activity, and the outdoors as white space.

I crave so deeply ways of re-seeing and relating differently with my childhood home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Haile names places where I’ve spent much time and where I’ll be visiting again this summer: the Smokies and Shenandoah, Roan Mountain and Gatlinburg. These are places I feel within my body, both in the sense of heart expansion and heart ache. These are places I’ve fled and yet still seek again. These are places with deep legacies of racial, colonial, and other traumas that underwrite contemporary white nationalism.

Haile gives voice to the struggle of craving the expansive mountains, the blue ridges, and the relationship with birds and bears, while confronting Confederate flags, Trump signs, and stores selling blackface soap.

Haile gives voice to the differential risks, to the differently embodied realities, and to the significantly different threats that she (a queer black woman) and I (a straight white woman) face when walking in the woods.

Haile also gives voice to the need to keep going, to keep walking, and to keep writing. To put one’s “boot to the granite face of white supremacy.” Haile reminds me to commit yet again my body, my words, and my actions toward justice.

So, how do I “make actionable” a commitment to racial justice, especially as a hiker?

I certainly don’t have a full answer, but the work includes:

  • Intrapersonal work: ongoing reflexivity and introspection, especially toward noticing more, disrupting biases, and changing my own limiting self-talk;
  • Interpersonal work: writing, teaching, and interacting—with others and often in relationship—to raise awareness and to make change; and
  • Institutional work: channeling time, talents, and financial resources into organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rethinking Schools, the YWCA, and America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which work for larger institutional change.

When I’m out on the trail, I’m engaged mostly in intrapersonal and interpersonal work—talking with myself, with hiking partners, and sometimes with others I meet along the trail. Part of why I love hiking is that it allows for long timespans that become more meditative, more contemplative as the body and the brain tire. I find that the more removed I am from my everyday habits and habitat, the more I can de-normalize damaging scripts that have become internalized. Like the meaning I find on my yoga mat, time on the trail is essential for healing, reorienting with gratitude, confronting my shadow self, and refueling my commitment to justice.

As I reflect on these components of making my commitment actionable, I’m thinking also about the ways my privileged positioning (e.g., as white, U.S.-born, cis-gender, able-bodied, economically secure) makes the trail a space of such possibility for me and for people who look, talk, and move like me. And this a reality—that outdoors spaces are made inaccessible and inhospitable for many people—makes the need for justice all-the-more urgent.

A case in point:

Last summer I had too little water at the trailhead for Big Schloss, a trail running a ridgeline between Virginia and West Virginia with outstanding views on clear days. My partner Jonathan and I thought there’d be water at the trailhead; yet, the well was dry. We asked others for water, and two white hikers returning to their cars emptied their bottles for us. I felt a sense of comradery with these other hikers, and I felt courage (surely from white privilege) in asking for help.

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I also was sure that if we couldn’t get water from fellow hikers, we couldn’t do this day hike (the closest gas station was miles away, so we’d spend our time driving instead of hiking). On the drive into Big Schloss, we’d passed many confederate flags (easily more than 10), and I couldn’t see myself knocking on any doors to ask for water. I remember feeling fairly vulnerable in this rural area.

And here’s what I want to remember and communicate more widely: my feeling of vulnerability arose from a trauma that’s shared, that’s part of the U.S. collective, yet is experienced so differently and with such potentially different consequences. As a white woman—especially when hiking in partnership with a white man—my concerns are primarily about emotional hurt. In contrast, hikers of color face the U.S. legacy of lynching (the hate crime of murder) that is part of America’s Black Holocaust that continues today through both microaggressions and macro-structures like unchecked police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the cycle of poverty, voter disenfranchisement, and many other institutional issues. Haile addresses how such legacies impact not only human interactions but also basic choices like how to protect one’s body from cold and wind and not be perceived as a threat/target of hate crimes.

My pain of traveling in the Appalachian Mountains, which are so in my blood, involves being re-traumatized with each confederate flag, each Trump sign, each park or trail name that celebrates “founding fathers” and other prominent figures who took part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, forced Indian removal, colonization, genocide, and other atrocities. I think it’s important, though ever-painful, to take notice of such physical manifestations of ongoing dehumanization, especially as they show up in “the outdoors” or “the wilderness.”

Truly, all spaces are social constructed, so it’s important to keep asking: Whose stories do these spaces tell? Whose stories aren’t told? And why? What can be done toward recovery, retelling, and rewriting?

It’s important, too, to inquire into and take notice of the racialization of space and spatialization of race. As a white woman, this means asking about how my body works within spaces, especially along trails and the roadways that connect and supply trails.

Thank you Rahawa Haile for “Going It Alone”! This is an article I’m sure to come back to again and again. I so appreciate how it’s shaking up and shedding light on the connection between hiking and pursuing 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”?