What Is Justice?

What does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life? This question is front and center for me most days, but especially now, as I’m teaching two undergraduate courses focused on justice and as I’m offering a 40-day practice for a local church on “Building Resilience for Racial Justice.” These teaching spaces—the university and the church—are predominantly white and marked by whiteness that obscures understandings of race, racism, white supremacy, and systemic oppression. To uncover what’s hidden, there’s a need to slow down and examine every assumption, including what we’ve learned (or haven’t learned) about justice.

I start my course, “Writing for Social Justice,” by asking students to define “social justice”—a term we’ve heard and often use without really understanding or unpacking. Together, we cover the board with words and concepts, asking questions like:

  • What’s fair?
  • What’s equitable?
  • What’s impactful for local and global communities?
  • Who do we imagine as community members?
  • Who’s centered/normalized, and who’s marginalized? And why?
  • Who’s considered human, and whose humanity is undermined?

These questions become more than intellectual inquiry. They help us with processing interactions, course readings, and other texts. They help us with re-telling stories and guiding actions and everyday living.

From asking these questions and sharing our felt-sense understandings of social justice, we read Lee Anne Bell’s “Theoretical Foundations”—one of the framing articles from the excellent collection, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.

Book cover for Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism.

Bell defines “social justice” as a process and a goal: both the means and the ends of achieving equitable relations. Justice includes the right to self-determination for all people and the ability for individuals to direct their lives as agents and actors. It also includes social responsibilities and interconnectedness, underscoring the importance of an equitable distribution of resources and shared participation in decision-making. Social justice, therefore, must ensure the rights of individuals, while also positioning individuals to act within larger social networks and communities. Social justice invites thinking about how we—as humans—relate with each other, with non-human animals, and with the earth, as all are interconnected and impactful.

To envision living for justice (equity, liberation, peace, full humanity), we need to understand and spend time tracking the contours of injustice (inequity, oppression, violence, dehumanization). As I’ve learned through research with co-authors (thanks especially to Rasha Diab), we must engage in BOTH the critique against injustice (problem-posing) and the critique for justice (vision-setting). Engaging in either without the other can leave us feeling frustrated or at a loss for how to respond, what to do next.

This spring I’m reminded again that it’s important to move beyond purely conceptual understandings of justice (head) and into emotional and embodied understandings (heart and hands). Using the heart-head-hands reflection prompt, I’ve been thinking with students, colleagues, and community members about how we experience systemic oppression, white supremacy, and other injustices in our everyday lives. To enact justice, we must feel into its definition, considering what opens space in our bodies and, alternatively, when our bodies intuitively constrict or send signals through pain.

There’s always more to learn, and so pursuing justice involves humility, resilience, and other emotional literacies needed for learning and un-learning. With the recognitions of (1) knowing only a little and (2) always needing to learn more, here are three of my guiding principles for pursuing justice in everyday life:

  1. Since justice is not only the goal but also the process, small and sustained actions matter. In the words of organizer Myles Horton: “We make the road by walking.”
  2. A commitment to justice needs to be “actionable” across everyday spheres of interaction: with ourselves, with others, and within institutions.
  3. Justice requires working against dehumanization, on the one hand, and super-humanization, on the other. To pursue justice, we must work with internalized inferiority and superiority and recognize our own and others’ humanity (and related rights to existence, self-determination, and much more).

So, what is justice? And what does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life?

Like the passing of days, answers to these questions accumulate and deepen over time. Still, it helps me to remember these guiding principles—and the teaching conversations, conceptual knowledge, and emotions that underlie them.

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,” “Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice,” and “Going Public as an Educator.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist

During the holidays, I visited family in Tennessee and Florida, where we encountered multiple spiders. They were doing what spiders do in houses: walking along baseboards, in and out of shadows, with seemingly little or no interest in human co-habitants.

From growing up in the Tennessee mountains, I’m familiar with spiders. I’ve studied which spiders’ venom is likely to impact humans. I’ve encountered black widows, watched for brown recluses, and investigated spider bites on my body. I’ve also realized that my fear of spiders—a fear that I’ve quieted over time—is not a rational fear of venom. Instead, it’s a fear of any and all spiders, simply because they are spiders. And I worry a lot about fearing something because it exists. Such fear literally kills people, as internalized fear of black men (fear of black and brown bodies, especially by white women) is well-documented. It’s essential to explore, spend time with, and really understand this fear.

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When I think of fear (and spiders), I think of this wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni (who also grew up in the Tennessee mountains):

I killed a spider Not a murderous brown recluse Nor even a black widow And if the truth were told this Was only a small Sort of papery spider Who should have run When I picked up the book But she didn't And she scared me And I smashed her I don't think I'm allowed To kill something Because I am Frightened

Giovanni’s “Allowables” reminds me that when fear is in the driver’s seat, it can do real harm. Fear is linked with violence, with the limits of coming to see or care about another being, another person. Fear is linked with dehumanization, with injustice, with denying life. Literally, such fear undermines another’s right to exist.

Though fear has a role in play in our lives, that role needs to be considered and measured. For author Elizabeth Gilbert, fear belongs in the backseat. Though it can offer suggestions and give information, we must determine how to act with that information.

More and more, I realize that whenever I’m tuning out fear, it grows louder in its insistence to be heard. And the louder fear is, the greater its potential for taking over and short-circuiting mindful, committed action.

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It’s taken me years to shift my attitude toward spiders, but now when I see spiders in houses, my instinct is to observe them and, typically, leave them be. I’ve learned that their self-determined path is to disappear into nooks and crannies, and their presence won’t harm me. That’s why I was taken by surprise by my family’s reaction to spiders.

In one spider encounter (after some yelling and shoe-throwing), a family member challenged: “If you don’t move it, I’ll kill it.”

At that moment, I heard my fear speak loudly: “Beth, if you try to move it, it might bite you.”

I’ve learned from educator Margaret Wheatley that looking at what surprises and disturbs me is a good way to see my assumptions and beliefs. In this moment, I could see shame that my old fear of spiders was still driving (not backseat-riding). I could see how fear was preventing me from interacting with spiders, much less seeing myself as truly in relation with them. Even the language of “it” held the spider at a distance, making me question the depth of my relations with other humans and non-human animals.

Thanking fear for these lessons, I luckily found a glass and a holiday card to trap the spider and move it outdoors. After a few deep breaths—of feeling how fear was undercutting relations—I looked down to see that the card held a much-needed message:

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That line—“to every creature great and small”—is the sort of holiday greeting that communicates a desire for connectedness with all beings. It’s a sentiment offered to snow-people and birds, but what about to spiders? What about to humans deemed less-than-human? What about to those who are deemed expendable, whose right to exist is constantly called into question?

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As a framework or orientation to the world, veganism helps me recognize and relate differently with fears. Through striving to relate with “every creature great and small,” veganism helps me notice when I’m afraid of others and to question—and not continually perpetuate—those fears. Veganism, too, helps me notice when fear is driving instead of backseat-riding. This noticing arises through a commitment to ecofeminism: a commitment to counter exploitation, oppression, and injustice and to affirm social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.

It’s not by chance that Nikki Giovanni, a Black woman born “during the age of segregation,”  wrote “Allowables.” Lived experiences facing dehumanization and white supremacy provide insights into the experience of being feared, killed, and written off. Of being dis-allowable. And such dis-allowing is why veganism must be intersectional—working not only against speciesism but also against racism, sexism, classism, -isms.

When I think of what’s most urgent in the world at this moment, I think of what’s allowed and dis-allowed. I think of who’s allowed and dis-allowed. And I think of the urgent need for a white woman to leverage courage toward combating fear. For, truly, white women’s fears have historically bolstered white supremacy, and so working with fears is essential to countering dehumanization and super-humanization (inferiority and superiority).

My hope is that by relating more humanely with spiders, we learn to relate more humanely with humans. May valuing spiders’ self-determined paths allow us to value all humans’ rights to existence and to self-determination.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including environmental justice, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caterpillars and the Butterfly Effect: Noticing Small Signs and Taking Small Actions

2018. New Year’s Day. I am with family in Florida and noticing many interesting insects, including these caterpillars and moths:

Curiosity leads us to watch, take photographs, and later look up the species, learning that these are oleander caterpillars transformed into oleander moths.

I keep seeing caterpillars and moths, so I begin researching their symbolic significance. Suddenly I realize this is another example of everyday divination and miraculous timing, as caterpillars are helping me see the potential of birthing new projects and ways of being in the near year. They ask me to look more carefully at changes in my life and to ask what transformations I’d like to experience this year.

The symbolic significance of seeing caterpillars may be small (like the caterpillars themselves), but what’s small can have BIG impact.

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Just as caterpillars transformed into butterflies can influence weather patterns miles away, the butterfly effect reminds us that actions can create far-reaching ripples. A flap of the wing matters.

With the caterpillar’s reminder, I’m entering 2018 attentive to small moments. I’m asking myself in what moments am I closer to my best self. When am I truer to my commitments? When am I standing TALL? When am I acting in ways that might ripple outward toward social action and social justice?

I’ve noticed in the past days a few moments that might be small flaps of my butterfly wing:

  • Talking with a white family member about how the frame of whiteness limits our understandings, experiences, and relational networks.
  • Witnessing sexism impacting me and repeating to myself: “That’s not mine. I’m not taking it in. I’m investing my energies toward building gender justice.”
  • Instead of blowing up in a hard conversation, noticing myself get angry, allowing the anger, stepping away, and then re-engaging when ready.
  • Preparing and sharing yummy vegan foods for kids who ask for more: more strawberry smoothies, roasted potatoes, pancakes, tempeh sticks, and other foods creating memories.

The small signs of seeing caterpillars and moths are reminding me to appreciate small actions like these. In 2018, I hope to amplify, multiply, and learn to sustain these small actions. And I hope that like asking for more yummy foods, we ask for more of ourselves and our collectives. A sort of “more” that manifests in everyday, seemingly small, and consequential ways.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Why I’m Vegan: Doing Something Small and Sustained” or “Today Resistance Looks Like …” 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!


For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville

This post is for white friends who’ve remained silent or continued social media posts as though there’s not a national crisis. Certainly, white supremacy is systemic and personal, historical and contemporary, everyday and ongoing. Yet, this weekend it’s especially visible and sanctioned, immediately resulting in intimidation, terrorism, injury, and death. The events in Charlottesville have wide-reaching impact, and to deny (or fail to engage/recognize) the significance of these events is to deny the trauma and ongoing threats facing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

As I’ve watched white friends posting updates of cute animals and kids, of beautiful sunsets and delicious food, I’ve felt disconnected. I’ve felt betrayed.

As a rhetorician, I think about intention and impact—what words, photos, and actions say about the author and what they communicate to audiences. Through status updates and social media, we indicate affiliations—who we see ourselves in relation with, who we stand with and alongside, and who we see as part of our relational networks. Bottom line: our communication indicates who and what matters to us.

Status updates acting as though there’s not a major crisis—as though the display of white supremacy doesn’t need comment—undercut the possibility of cross-racial relations, affiliation, and solidarity. These updates communicate relations with other white folks and lack of care for BIPOC.

Thinking metaphorically, imagine showing up at a funeral in bright colors, laughing, and pulling out videos of fluffy chicks. Now, certainly I’ve been to family gatherings where grief turns to humor, and the desire to look at fluffy chicks takes center stage. But not until there’s real recognition of loss, hurt, anger, resentment, regret, and a range of emotions that can fold the lighthearted into heavy grief. And not without relational connectedness that involves ongoing recognition that the grief remains and needs attention too.

So, when I’m seeing white friends share vegan recipes, food pics, and arguments, I’m just not there. Yes, I’m vegan too, and yes, I write these posts too. But unless I’m going to make an intersectional argument about how veganism is connected to my stand against white supremacy and why vegans need to act for racial justice, this isn’t the time. My post about tahini dressing can wait.

And when I see white friends posting photos from summer vacations, I’m wondering who gets to celebrate or depict joy right now. I get that vacationing makes it easy to be out of touch with national events, but any engagement with social media reveals the trauma unfolding. And vacation photos aren’t time-sensitive.

What is time-sensitive?

  • Signaling deep care for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
  • Believing the experiences, insights, and knowledges of BIPOC.
  • Recognizing the deep hurt of this moment.
  • Doing the self-work involved in countering internalized white supremacy.
  • Acknowledging white shame and the “ghost of whiteness” lingering over everyday interactions, including those in social media.
  • Self-regulating by asking with each new post: “Who am I relating with? Who am I imagining this post will connect with? And who am I alienating?”
  • Considering how everyday “stuff”—like food and vacations—is shaped by the ghost of whiteness.
  • Taking action to learn more about allyship and what allies can do.
  • Saying something to acknowledge that this really is happening, and it matters.
  • Committing to racial justice. Again, and again.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” “Reframing ‘Independence Day’ as a Day for Truth-Telling and Committing to Justice,” 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!