Breaking Commitments and Recommitting through Mindful Reflection

A little more than a year ago, I wrote the following statement to describe this blog project:

“Embodied knowledge matters. So do commitments. And especially acting on commitments as part of everyday life, BIG and small. This blog shares ongoing efforts of feeling, thinking, and doing for justice. Posts include reflections, recipes, research, and resources: all seek to make sense of what it means to live a life for justice.”

This language signals that, at best, I’m attempting to live for justice and to share these attempts. What this means is that the everyday-ness of lived experience goes hand-in-hand with seeking or striving for justice. Striving means that I experience moments of getting closer to living in alignment with a more just, truer, and committed life. And I also experience moments when I’m far, far away and out of alignment with this goal. My hope is that I learn from my own incongruity and that the moments of alignment grow more regular. This learning—along with attempting, seeking, and striving—builds resilience for “the long haul” toward justice.

Such a hope leads me to reflect on the moments when I fall short of my commitments. Recently, I broke a commitment to a co-author and close friend, and I contributed to a larger pattern of co-authors falling away from important projects, a pattern that calls up pain. And I’ve been reminded again that pain can be an important teacher.

As a white woman (a white, cis-gender, able-bodied, U.S.-born, upper/middle-class, raised-Christian woman), I’ve inherited internalized inferiority and superiority aligned with the narrative of being a “good person”—a narrative that I’m always needing to unravel and unlearn. The more I let go of the need to be a “good person,” the more I can be just a person—a whole, human, and messy person. And as a person (not a super-human and not a dehumanized being), I can see and confront the harm that I do.

Breaking my co-authoring commitment did harm in my friendship, and it did harm by contributing to a pattern of broken commitments around justice-oriented research. It also did harm because of the material consequences for my co-author, who’s already experiencing precarity, overwork, and a particularly stressful semester.

As is so typically the case, my body told me that something was wrong. From tight chest and stomach ache to what felt like the inability to breathe, I could feel my heart hurting.

Grateful for embodied knowledge, I turned to contemplative practices that help with sifting through the harm and figuring out how to know and align with my commitments more often, more of the time. These practices have included gentle movement, yoga nidra, and sitting meditation. They’ve also involved the RAIN meditation that I’ve learned for working with difficulties.

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Photo credit to Matthew Grapengieser (creative commons licensing).

As I’ve explained previously, RAIN involves four steps:

R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).

Here’s what RAIN has looked like for me, as I’ve been exploring my broken commitment:

Recognize that I’ve broken the commitment; that I’ve done harm to my friend, and because I love my friend, to myself as well; and that this harm is painful. Recognition feels important for taking responsibility and also for naming the complex dynamics within the larger situation. It feels important for seeing the links between this particular broken commitment and larger, systemic injustice.

Accept the pain. Like joy, pain is part of life—not something to push down or pretend isn’t there, but to see, experience, and get curious about. I keep asking: “Pain, what do you have to teach me? How can I learn from you about making commitments I can truly keep?”

Investigate the fuller situation. The more I get curious (instead of shutting out the pain), the more I can see how I’ve been operating in contradiction. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to follow my “strong YES,” and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to please others. On the one hand, I’ve been wanting to redirect my energies (away from this particular project and direction in my life), and on the other hand, I’ve been wanting to keep what’s familiar and comfortable about this established direction.

Though I’m aware that I get into trouble when not listening for/to my “strong YES,” I didn’t act on my intuition at the time of committing to the project, and that’s likely when incongruity entered the scene. What I see now is that instead of investing in meaningful relations with other people (including with my co-author and friend), I’ve actually been creating trouble for others by not honoring myself and my “strong YES.” Do I really want to undermine myself and my relations in this way? What will I need to change in order to trust, act from, and speak aloud my “strong YES”?

Not identify with judgments about being a person who keeps or doesn’t keep commitments, who does good or harm in the world, or who is static in ways that limit the complexity of full personhood. Not identifying means that I try to see this moment as though I’m floating above it at a distance. It won’t look or feel like this in the future, though it’s part of the many experiences that I’ll carry forward and hopefully continue to learn from. It’s now part of my history, but it also doesn’t singly or solely define me.

The RAIN process has been helpful in looking at my actions, in staying close to tough emotions, and to investing at this moment of pain. It’s often the moments when we’re noticing gaps between our everyday actions and our goals that real growth takes place. It’s also moments like these when there’s a lot of potential for developing resilience and long-term, staying power.

So, in the midst of processing a broken commitment, I’m re-committing to everyday attempts and the ongoing process of striving to live a life for justice. I’m sure to mess up and cause harm in the process, but may the moments of alignment become more and more. May I better align my actions with my beliefs. May I know and follow my commitments and my “strong YES.” May I stand TALL and true (truer and truer) for justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting” and “Listening for/to the ‘Strong YES.’” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Rape Culture

It’s been a few weeks since the #metoo hashtag prompted discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of sexual violence. As I’ve shared stories and listened to others’, I’ve been struck by frequent questioning: “Does ______ really count as sexual harassment or assault?” And that question has led me to consider the many moments of sexual intimidation that aren’t harassment or assault per se, but constitute violence and are part of rape culture nonetheless.

Here are a few examples from my life as a professor interacting with undergraduate men:

  • A student waits until everyone has left the classroom to confront me about his grade, raising his voice and moving closer until he’s towering over me.
  • A pattern emerges in which at least seven students (all men) walk into my faculty office and shut the door (only for me to re-open it), making me aware of the tension that arises in my body from their assumed control of space and uninvited move toward intimacy.
  • A student enters an otherwise empty elevator and stands in front of me, blocking both the exit and the keypad for selecting floors. My body stiffens up so that I wait until he’s left the elevator before moving forward to the keypad and pressing the button for my office floor.
  • A student brings his friend (another man) to his writing conference late in the evening when the department is empty. This friend sits outside my office, essentially guarding the hallway.

Whether intentional or not, intimidation operates in moments like these because they play into larger understandings of agency, ownership, intimacy, and control of physical space. They obstruct efforts to maintain distance, to meet in public, to plan exit routes, and so on.

While none of these experiences constitute sexual harassment or assault, they show how presumed ownership of space communicates domination. They show how rape culture, which is based in domination, operates in classrooms, offices, elevators, hallways, and other spaces. They also show how no one is immune: even the professor who holds institutional power can be intimidated and over-powered.

rape-culture-pyramid
Rape culture is rooted sexism, heterosexism, and other interlocking systems of oppression, which we see reflected in attitudes, inequities, and everyday realities. Source: http://www.11thprincipleconsent.org/consent-propaganda/rape-culture-pyramid/.

I share these moments with the hope that we might better understand rape culture as a cultural phenomenon that is constructed and performed in everyday interactions. Moments like these aren’t ones I report to our Title IX coordinator, but they are ones that stack up the longer I’m in higher education. They are moments that come to mind when I think about how gender-based intimidation and invalidation—like other microaggressions—play out in many seemingly small yet consequential ways.

I share these moments, too, because they’ve become memories that sit alongside those of harassment, assault, and other sexual violence. When I think of my own stories and those shared by others, I see how moments like these are part of larger narratives of rape culture, or a culture that perpetuates deep injustice through sexism and heterosexism, including the objectification and exploitation of women’s and marginalized peoples’ bodies. Truly, such everyday moments make up the larger culture and have cumulative impact. They erode trust, provoke fear, and increase inequitable demands for emotional labor, among other matters.

I also share these moments because they reveal patterns—like the pattern I noticed of men shutting the office door. Just as there’s potential in looking for themes and outliers for everyday divination, there’s potential in identifying patterns of sexual intimidation and other violence. Identifying patterns allows us to better witness, name, and intervene into injustice. And the patterns supporting rape culture desperately need intervention.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence” or “Microaggressions Matter.” 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!

Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence

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

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

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

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

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

At what point do we say ENOUGH?

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

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


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

Holding Space and Being Present: Two Resolutions Following the Las Vegas Shooting

I woke yesterday morning to news of the Las Vegas shooting, continued calls for aid needed in Puerto Rico, and boos for kneeling NFL players at Sunday’s games. Though seemingly unrelated, these news stories relayed a larger message about the presence of everyday violence in our lives. My social media feeds were naming and critiquing this violence. People were already calling for action, for donations, and for prayers—for linking individual narratives with larger social ones, for recognizing the alarms of this moment, and for acting accordingly.

Though I know the dangers of going about business as usual, I spent only a little time processing before turning to my to-do list. My heart hurt, as it does with heartache, but it hurts so regularly these days, I imagined the ache would simply dissipate or accompany me into the work itself.

And I did begin to work, but I couldn’t settle into writing. I began to check off small tasks. Order humidifier filters, check. Update calendar events, check. Upload recommendation letter, check. Call museum about upcoming event . . .

So, I called to register for a Halloween party at a local museum. I called because it was a simple thing to check off the to-do list, and I thought checking it off might make me feel better. I called because I was still processing the morning’s news, and I was feeling emotionally and mentally congested (definitely not clear enough to write), even if I wasn’t admitting this to myself.

After pressing buttons through automated phone prompts, I was connected with the person who handles event registrations. Perhaps if I’d been more present, I would have heard that this person sounded weary and worn down. Instead, all I heard was a voice asking, “How may I help you?”

“I’d like to RSVP for the Halloween event,” I said. Then I proceeded to answer questions about the date, time, and registration: Yes, I’m a museum member. Yes, I’m aware my membership is for just two adults. Yes, I’m registering just two adults. Yes, I’ll be attending without children. (I’m prioritizing play for self-care, after all.)

The registration person then apologized: “Oh. It’s truly fine to come without children. I’m just having a tough day.”

Again, if I’d been more present, I might have made the connection linking our tough days. Instead, I responded, “I know Mondays can be hard. I’m sorry it’s a tough day.”

Luckily, my wrong assessment—that Monday had anything to do with the “tough day”—led to a correction: “Actually, I have friends in Las Vegas, and I’m upset about what happened.”

I rebounded: “I’m so sorry! Have you heard from your friends?”

“Yes, they’re ok, but I’m shaken up. I’m having trouble concentrating today.”

“Me too! I decided to call because I was having trouble concentrating on work.”

We laughed and finished the event registration. Before ending the call, I tried saying something more: “I really appreciate you sharing how you’re feeling today. I was going about the day struggling, but not naming it, and you’re reminding me that I need to hold space for myself and others. I want to be more present.”

“That’s what we can do for each other: hold space, and be present.”

Though I wish we’d said more and somehow continued to hold space (more than just acknowledging it’s important to do so), we wrapped up quickly with the customary “thanks for calling” and “have a great day.”

The conversation was short and felt full of missed opportunities. It was also the thing I needed at that moment, the impetus for me to stop working, to sit on my yoga mat, and to consider how better to hold space and be present—for myself and for others.

If I’d been more present, I would have been thinking about the person on the other end of the phone line and email threads and social media posts and other interactions throughout the day. How might I have interrupted my business-as-usual approach to recognize the NOT-OK nature of the day? To humanize interactions, to allow for more genuine connections, to understand this mass shooting (and me turning numb to it) within broader desensitization to violence?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville” about our relational responsibilities when communicating with others. In that post, I describe the sense of hurt I felt when seeing white friends’ photos of food, sunsets, and cute animals that, in effect, communicate that there’s not a collective crisis around white supremacy. Today I’m thinking that registering for the Halloween party was a lot like that. I can imagine how the registration person experienced my call very much like I was experiencing these social media posts. The stark juxtaposition of a party and mass shooting can’t be ignored.

Rhetorically and relationally, I’m thinking this wasn’t the right time to call. Or if the call needed to be made, it needed to be made with mindfulness and care.

I’m glad I could learn from talking with the registration person, and the conversation was perfectly timed as a true gift for me (a gift to reflect, learn, and set new goals). But because I wasn’t holding space or being present for myself, I wasn’t holding space or being present for them.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting—and with a lot of humility and love—I’m asking myself how I can better hold space and be present.

In times of extraordinary injustice, violence, and pain, it feels especially important to check in regularly with my heart, head, and hands. It feels especially important to relate more mindfully and compassionately with myself so that I can relate more mindfully and compassionately with others. And it feels especially important to de-automatize myself so that I can recognize my humanity and the humanity of others.


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.” 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.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Alarms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Trust in the Alarm

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

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

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

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

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

Whose Alarm Is Listened to, When, and Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-07-28 21.21.07

A Final Note

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


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