This past week I dreamed that I was standing before a group of students, guest-lecturing in a colleague’s class. In the dream, I was slurring and stumbling over words—making little to no sense. The colleague asked if I was confused, and I realized that I had a concussion. Not from any physical injury, but from the semester. The semester had given me a concussion!
Growing up, I had two competing understandings of concussions: (1) they were minor and something to be “played through” and (2) they were major and something that could result in serious injury or even death. Within the school year, I’m too often acting from this first understanding: that mental taxation and cognitive overload are things to be “played through” until summer. By the time I get to May, I’m drained—arguably experiencing burnout. So, my dream of having a concussion gets me wondering:
What would it mean to operate from the second understanding?
What would it mean to recognize the serious risks of “playing through the pain”?
What might be differently required of me as an educator, as someone involved in learning-and-teaching?
This dream reminds me that we need education to be about more than the mind.
To take a cue from our article, it feels especially important to center the body—daily, in and out of school, throughout the academic year, and not just in the summer:
Our bodies and the spaces we inhabit shape our identities and carry legacies of social structuring, power, oppression, marginalization, injustice—deep inequities that are very much a part of our everyday lives in writing centers and in the teaching of writing. And yet through the production of whiteness and other dominant frameworks that render the body invisible, we can become so distanced from our bodies that we fail to recognize these links. We need to reckon with this disconnect across three spheres: (1) the personal sphere (how we relate within our own bodies); (2) the relational sphere (how our bodies relate with other bodies); and (3) the systemic sphere (how our bodies together represent and relate with/in institutional structures and larger body stories). Drawing attention to the body across these three spheres helps us counter the damage done when the intellect or institution is divorced from the body or when certain bodies are made invisible in our educational spaces. (“Body + Power + Justice” 62)
I’m thinking about how we divorce the mind from the body in school, as I am gifted this metaphorical/symbolic “concussion.” Concussions are so concerning because they cause cognitive and emotional impairments in addition to physical ones. A concussion can cause not only nausea, dizziness, and other physical complaints, but also irritability, depression, and difficulty with concentration and memory. A concussion can cause confusion, amnesia, and changes to one’s personality. It can literally disrupt the ability to learn, the ability to be in school. Yet, we continue acting like the body’s sole purpose is to be a head that holds, transports, and communicates learning. This disembodiment is deeply dehumanizing.
If a concussion (or at least my dream of having a concussion) serves as a warning, then it’s asking me to attend to my body, embodied knowledge, and the dangers of disembodiment.
If staying in one’s head can “cause a concussion” (which feels symbolically true), then I must attend to the whole body, the heart, head, and hands.
If I am to listen to my body’s wisdom (as gifted through the dream), then I must commit again to the healing process I’m journeying through with this blog. Doing so asks me to look at my own complicity, for it’s telling that the teacher is concussed. Doing so asks me to notice the relationship between wearing down the mind-and-body and wearing down one’s soul. Doing so asks me to become more aligned with commitments than conditioning. Doing so asks for a serious disruption of the mind/body split.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
People say this is nothing. I disagree. It is a microaggression at worst. Careless disregard for Black films at best. It’s a damn mess. https://t.co/kqqSW7u8JY— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) February 27, 2017
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):
@ShaunKing Last week I used “powerful” when I meant “frustrating.” Both 3 syllables, same emphasis. Misspeaking is very easy + very common.— Megan Phelps-Roper (@meganphelps) February 27, 2017
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.
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.
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”?
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:
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”).
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?
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.
“The search for love continues even in the face of great odds.”
—graffiti message shared by bell hooks (All About Love xv)
I’ve written previously about the roller coaster of emotions I’m currently riding—fired up one minute and laid low the next. My guess is this up-down, high-low rhythm will be my norm for some time to come.
At one point, I’m knocked down by the force of historic, mounting injustice; the next I’m connecting with and inspired by others truly committed to racial justice. One day I’m literally curled up from the HURT of this era of dehumanizing pain; the next I’m filled up with HOPE from seeing people show up in persistent and powerful ways.
This morning I’ve riding high and want to share why, as I hope these resources might help with finding love, fueling justice:
I’m truly inspired after seeing activist Shaun King speak last night here in Milwaukee. I’m deeply grateful for his reporting and calls to action via social media.
I’m feeling unbridled by reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/LaFrontera and planning an experiential gallery walk for class today. I’m committing (again) to working against all forms of injustice, including linguistic prejudice.
Today is a day when so many of us celebrate love. May we search for love in the face of great odds. May we work to understand love better—to truly know and create it in our lives. May we build the emotional literacies, stamina, and resiliency needed for addressing our own complicity in injustice. May we seek to enact love, as we make actionable commitments to justice.
“To truly love we must learn to mix ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”
—bell hooks (All About Love 5)
How do we work to align feelings, thoughts, and actions (heart, head, hands) with the world we’d like to see? How do we go about our everyday lives for the “ought to be,” for justice?
I’m thankful for Jardana Peacock (of the Liberatory Leadership Project) for modeling a contemplative writing practice that I’ve been using to think through these questions. At the end of each day, I’ve been filling in the answer to her prompt:
“Today resistance looks like …”
I immediately connected with this practice and the way I see Jardana enacting it in her life—situating self-care alongside community care and direct action. I see a connection to my focus on the everydayness of living a life for justice. I see how variable answers help us see resistance as many different things, including writing, reading, work, play, connection, friendship, reflection, practice, art, awareness. I see the potential for self-reflection—for noticing and questioning my habits and the privileges associated with these habits. And I see how this writing prompt makes daily resistance seem both possible and sustainable, especially in a time of chaos and uproar.
So, this past week I’ve been recording my own daily (and horribly incomplete and messy) responses. I’ve debated whether to share these responses, engaging in self-doubt, vulnerability, and fear. My inner judging voice has spoken up, lodging concerns that I’m not doing enough, that I’m doing more harm than good, that I’m doing only the sorts of “resistance” I find fun or comfortable, that I’m showing my privilege, that my ego is acting out … and the list goes on. Let me tell you!
Against this backdrop, I’m sharing my responses because I believe we must act, however imperfectly. I really struggle with perfectionism and with all-or-nothing thinking, but I see how both shut down the very real work we need in the world. Instead of listening to my inner judging voice, I want to listen to the still-small-and-quieter-but-brave voice that says, “Share. This might give others ideas or inspiration.”
I’ll always be writing from my position as a white woman with layers of privilege shaping my perspective. Still, I’m coming to believe that my voice is needed, too, if only to get other white folks to think about privilege, to act with the responsibility that comes with privilege, and to develop the readiness and resiliency needed for a lifelong commitment to justice.
So, I’m sharing my responses to Jardana’s writing prompt because daily writing can bring mindfulness and intention (in addition to reflection and recording) toward daily acts of resistance. I’m also sharing some of the stickiness—like my ego getting in the way and my privilege stepping out—that’s come up through this list-making exercise.
Here goes. Deep breath.
What resistance has looked like for me this past week—followed by some observations:
Today resistance looks like …
sleeping in (so greatly needed after a LATE night following nationwide bans, detainments, legal actions, and airport protests);
rewriting an article abstract (arguing for cross-campus collaborations for community-based learning);
enjoying my dad’s first-ever visit to Milwaukee—with brunch at the local café and the afternoon attending a friend’s concert (an activity my dad dearly loves that gave me time to really think and feel with the music);
drafting an initial publicity plan for an upcoming racial justice workshop; and
working to observe and affirm my boundaries by repeating my now-nightly mantra: “I release and bless the energy of the day.”
Monday Today resistance looks like …
taking time for a LONG processing conversation with a best friend;
affirming self-care (sustenance and sustainability for the “long haul”) through emails and phone calls with friends, family, and colleagues;
teaching and conferencing—and then writing about these relational acts through an advising philosophy statement;
starting a new e-course with guided meditation to call back energy by Chani Nicolas;
appreciating a network of campus and community partners who are teaching me about WordPress, Medium, and other important-for-the-work tech stuff;
signing a few more online petitions and continuing to post via social media; and
wearing snow pants to/from school to honor my desire for warmth, especially on a very cold day!
Friday Today resistance looks like …
finding my way back to the gym after almost a week away (it’s been a wild week!);
designing a new course I’ll teach in the fall—focused on writers’ rights and asking, “Who has a right to speak? To write? When, where, and under what conditions? How does our social positioning (i.e., race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and other intersectional identities) impact our rights as writers?”
nourishing my soul with friends and colleagues over lunch and dinner meetings focused on firing things up in writing, teaching, and community engagement;
processing with my mom some hurt through social media and thinking about our own participation (and how to stay in the work and be true to ourselves);
continuing to heal longstanding back pain through acupuncture and cupping;
gathering groceries and pre-cooked meals for the weekend from a local coop;
responding to plans to hold a teach-in on February 17th (in alignment with plans for a nationwide general strike);
curling with my spouse, while sending Reiki for collective healing; and
getting back up after only an hour or so in bed when my heART desired writing more than sleep.
Saturday Today resistance looks like …
reading the first of three graphic novels in the series by/about John Lewis, March;
following up on a campus climate issue involving racial microaggressions;
sending activist love letters and thank you notes and other handwritten mail J;
getting organized for the week ahead, checking in with students, planning classes, and completing service responsibilities;
taking an afternoon walk along Lake Michigan in deep conversation and connection with my spouse (thanks, Jonathan!);
refueling via time soaking in an Epsom salt bath, talking with a good friend, and moving on my yoga mat; and
reflecting and setting goals while drafting this blog post and feeling my way through vulnerability.
Now I’m imagining Jardana asking, “What have you noticed through this writing exercise?”
Centering Resistance Around Education and Healing (My Work and Spiritual Life)
As soon as I began record-keeping, I noticed that my daily forms of “resistance” center around (1) my work as an educator (writer-researcher-teacher) or (2) my self-care and spiritual practices (e.g., yoga, meditation, Reiki, acupuncture, walking, and eating vegan). This surprised me, though it likely shouldn’t have. I’m an educator and a healer, so it follows that my resistance would center around these activities.
First, these observations help me feel especially appreciative for a job that allows me to engage in social justice work daily—with and alongside others and in ways that encourage both my own learning and my community engagement. I often grumble about injustices I witness at work, so it’s refreshing to feel appreciation. Through my work, I clarify and make actionable my deepest commitments. It’s a privilege to have a job that matters in the world. May I act on the responsibility that comes with this privilege. May I use it well.
Second, these observations help me value healing and spiritual practices as part of (not just the precursor to or the result of) activist/resistance work. Truly, self-work matters, as Jardana argues in “Winning Our Movements Inside and Out: Shifting the Social Justice Back into our Work.” I’ve had a number of conversations with white folks recently about how to be in social justice work for “the long haul,” for the lifetime. If we understand justice as both the end and the means (an idea I hope to address in a future blog post), then we need to enact now the lives we’d like to see. After all, we cannot get to justice down a road of injustice. Such work means healing ourselves and our inherited ways of being in the world (e.g., inherited and internalized white supremacy). Such work means rethinking how we take up, use, and exist within space. Rethinking our ways of being in the world. Rethinking our very being, which has been assaulted through racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of injustice that create deep hurts—trauma—for us all.
This trauma is NOT THE SAME for each of us, as we positioned differently across privilege and power, facing differences in degree and in kind. Yet, this trauma results from/in shared inequities that undermine humanity. For those of us conditioned by and positioned within white supremacy, this supremacy denies human connection, equal rights, and equality. Further, the trauma of supremacy underlies the dysfunctional ways we continue to relate with self, with others, and within institutions.
Together, these observations bring me back to the problem of white folks colonizing the spaces and practices of others. My resistance lists read clearly as the product of a white, well-educated, upper-/middle-class, able-bodied woman in the United States—someone fairly close to Lorde’s “mythical norm.” This means that my resistance involves a lot of un-learning, destabilizing, and upturning of what is assumed to be normative. It also means a lot of stepping in and smelling my own shit (and, interestingly enough, using frequent poop emoticons and metaphors, it seems) … It means getting good with the reality that I’ll always be doing harm, even as I’m trying to do good. It means living in paradox and mess.
Still, here’s the question I’m still not sure about, still wrestling with, still feeling shitty about, even as I press “publish” on this post: Does sharing lists of actions that are clearly “normative” uphold “the norm” that I’m working to de-normalize?
The Problem of Normalizing Particular Notions of “Resistance”
By raising this question, I hope to acknowledge that we not only show up for resistance differently, but these differences also represent inequitable material conditions. My privileged position enables me to participate in resistance more readily and to navigate to, from, and within resistive spaces/acts with relative ease.
To illustrate, this week I read a powerful Facebook post by Sagashus Levingston (of Infamous Mothers). Sagashus addresses how people (especially people with privilege) express a desire for more diverse leadership in social justice movements, yet at the same time, fail to recognize, value, or organize around these diverse experiences. Sagashus provides this insight into how we differently show up for the work:
“But we get uncomfortable when it comes to addressing or even talking about the REALITY of difference—the reality that they walked and you drove to the stage or that they stood in the food pantry line before you all’s meeting. You’re both there—the hero and the antihero—but the pathways to showing up this morning were different. For one, the road was smooth and clear, for the other, it was filled with hurdles and thorns. And while you’re glad they showed up, you’d rather not talk about how they showed up and what they had to go through to get there—even when, for them, their path was as normal as your morning coffee from Starbucks. Why is that?”
To echo Sagashus: why is that?
Because it means that those of us who experience privilege and power within resistance (and I’m thinking of white folks, though there are many interlocking forms of privilege at play) need to do serious self-reflection about our own lived experiences, assumptions, worldviews, and complicity.
Because resistance needs to be more variable. It would need to address and confront different sorts of lived experiences, assumptions, worldviews, and complicity.
Because resistance means rethinking everyday ways of doing things (like choosing meeting locations accessible bus or foot instead of car OR rethinking systems of public transportation and the inequities that stack up around car ownership and the racialization of space).
Because resistance invites some serious self-work—personal and collective healing that goes layers and generations deep.
Because … the reasons continue, on and on …
As I end this week of tracking my acts of resistance, I’m thinking about how much needs to change, especially in how we conceptualize this word: resistance. Jardana writes about the need for change, asking:
“We need to honestly ask ourselves and consider: what does it means to build towards love and liberation for the long haul? What needs attention individually, in our internal structures, interpersonally, and collectively in order to realize more balance? What does wellness really look like for folks across race, class, sexuality, gender, and ability? How can we expand our definitions and imaginations to create a more dynamic and expansive understanding of healing? What needs to shift, change or be enhanced within ourselves, our communities, and in our movements in order for social change to be actualized inside of ourselves and outside in the world?”
Jardana’s writing prompt “Today resistance looks like …” has invited me to explore these questions and to take notice of my habits. I’m encouraged to see that I’m getting stuff done, despite feeling especially distracted, ungrounded, and emotionally roller-coasting through this chaotic time. I’m also encouraged to see the centrality of my work and spiritual life in resistance.
At the same time, I’m going forward with serious questions about how to upset normalized notions of resistance. I’m looking for broader definitions and depictions of resistance. I’m questioning how to write about resistance—how to encourage other privileged folks to act without taking over or taking up too much space. I’m thinking about how to shift from the stance of power over into stances of power to and power with. And I’m questioning the links between resistance (critique against) and vision (critique for).
Perhaps you’ll join me in these inquiries. Perhaps you’ll join me through contemplative writing. Perhaps you’ll join me by filling in the prompt: “Today resistance looks like …”
This post wasn’t planned. It wasn’t the “next up” in my drafting schedule to write a new piece weekly in 2017 (#52essays2017). Yet, it’s flowing forth this morning, as I try to make sense of this day before me. An inauguration day? A general strike? A media black-out? A ramp-up to coordinated global demonstrations?
What I worry about—and why I feel the need to write—is that I’m experiencing the day as a day like any other. A day that makes complicity possible. A day of routinization. A day that normalizes what should never been normal.
Today I’m in Madison (Wisconsin), where I’ll march with friends tomorrow. As I set up for daily writing in a local coffee shop, I overhear a number of conversations—all among white people (or at least people who appear white). Among the conversations, people talk about an upcoming football game with excitement (apparently, the Packers are doing well in playoff games). And the “chunky monkey” smoothie is the best someone’s ever had, leading to discussion of various smoothie recipes (and would you believe that I planned to post a smoothie recipe next?!?). And two older white people are talking about Trump’s election.
They just don’t understand, they say.
Racism was a “non-issue” when growing up, they say.
They remember class mattering—they knew whose parents worked at the local plant and whose didn’t—but even then, they treated everyone with respect, they say.
And they know they’re biased “a little,” but not in a big, “harmful way,” they say.
They just don’t understand what’s happening these days. “Is it this younger generation?” They say.
And their conversation reminds me of another …
As a teacher, I so often have conversations with younger white people, people who express shock, confusion, and anger when realizing their own power, privilege, and sense of security (as opposed to vulnerability and precarity).
After Trump’s election, I was told by someone around the age of 20 that they’re really proud to be a millennial, that their generation is really open to talking about racism, and that they’re certainly “less racist” than their parents and grandparents.
I’ve been gifted access to these two conversations side-by-side. So, what do I make of them?
I’m wondering if white people are beginning to realize that white people are doing and have done harm, but it’s still easier to imagine other people (i.e., other generations of white people) as responsible?
I’m thinking about the title of this blog (heart-head-hands) and wondering how white people develop the emotional intelligence—the heart space—to do significant self-work. Such self-work would involve rewriting narratives rooted in white ignorance. It would also involve thinking about why we talk about football or smoothies instead of the day’s inauguration, strikes, media black-out, or forthcoming demonstrations. It would involve mobilizing this feeling and thinking toward acting.
When I started writing this post—this totally unplanned post—I began with a single line: “We’re all mired in the muck.”
I kept looking at this line and seeing myself literally covered in mud, as I so often am when hiking (and, ironically enough, am a bit today, as I trucked through melting snow in what’s likely to be the hottest year on record).
The thing about mud is that the more you try to wipe it away, the more it spreads or gets deeply ingrained in fabric. It certainly can slow movement, add extra weight, and look unpleasant. And yet it’s absolutely possible to keep walking with and through mud. If I let the mud stop me, I would miss out on so many trails, so many sights, so much time in my most reflective and relaxed state.
So, yes: we’re mired in the muck, but I hope we’ll keep walking/working right through it. If we’re truly committed to the long haul toward justice, then we must attend to the terrain (to see and understand the muck or mud), but also not get so tripped up in it that we fail to move forward, to accept responsibility, or to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be.”