Sunday, October 26, 2008

Social Justice: Learning from Love

A lot of hate is spread on the Internet - which in many ways is therapeutic and democratizing – but often the hate can grow unchecked and come from places of pure ignorance. I’m excited that the Internet can bring marginalized people together so that safer spaces can be created for discussions, however I get wary when too much space is spent on hating other people and not a lot of space is spent celebrating and thriving. At times, particularly on LGBT blogs, I notice a certain desire to ignore the struggles of others and focus solely on how oppressed a specific identity group is, rather than realizing that all struggles are interconnected. I see a pattern of ignoring the validity of a person or group's struggle.

When I began Coffee and Gender, I never wanted my blog to be a space where unchecked hatred would be allowed. I try with incredible difficulty to never completely dismiss the works of other people, and I attempt to always see the viewpoint a person I disagree with is coming from. Especially when the individual is an outspoken advocate for many issues and simply hasn’t yet understood certain prejudices. There’s a balancing act of not forgetting an individual or organization’s prejudices and acknowledging that no one person has an easy life in our capitalistic white supremacist hetero-patriarchal ablest world.

It takes a lot of courage for people to speak out about oppression. So even when they get the message wrong, we should support them and try to gently guide them towards a more nuanced understanding (Also, entertain the notion that we could be wrong too. Perhaps our statements are too sweeping, etc.). A good example of this is the murder of Matthew Shepard. A lot of folks are angry at Matthew’s memory for getting the attention he received after his death. Advocates point towards the ridiculous lack of coverage for folks of color, women, transfolks, sex workers, and working class people and ask why they don’t get a national outcry as well. However, sometimes we ask the wrong question. We ask “why did Matthew get that coverage?” which suggests that he didn’t suffer enough or give enough or feel enough oppression to be cared about.

There’s no doubt that Matthew’s whiteness, his class privilege, his cisprivilege and maleness got him more coverage and respect. No doubt. But that doesn’t mean we should spend our time hating his memory, or as too often happens, saying awful things about him. Instead we should turn our anger to media corporations, LGBT organizations, community officials and religious organizations etc and ask why didn’t you cover the murders of Sanesha Stewart, Simmie Williams, Sakia Gunn and so many others? But hating Matthew doesn’t make us stronger or happier or more whole. Hating Matthew has us turn our hate against our own community. And that’s troublesome and destructive.

Now, bringing up his brutal death to make a point may be a little disrespectful, and I want to acknowledge that. His suffering shouldn’t be used for my gains – but I wanted to illustrate how a tragic event can become twisted because the organizations we work with and the organizations we rely on (the media, our elected representatives, doctors, etc) have become so de-compartmentalized. Gay groups don’t focus on women or folks of color, trans groups forget about sex workers, etc. And then those of us who exist within multiple identities (which is most of us) have unfiltered anger that we are never seen or fully acknowledged in our chosen social movement spaces. Often times we use that anger against our allies, or we make sweeping statements that suggest anyone of a specific identity group can’t possible understand our struggles.

These attacks make logical sense. They even feel good, too. I couldn’t tell you how many disparaging comments I’ve made about straight people, people born into class privilege, and folks without transgender or gender non-conforming experiences. Too many times when I am frustrated by the systems I work in I regress to name-calling and sweeping statements that make me temporarily feel good. But I know that’s wrong. I know as a transman and as a white person that my experiences of privilege are nuanced and that I struggle against them everyday. I shouldn’t be given sympathy or pity, or an easier time because of that – but neither should I be completely dismissed because of my privilege. Being a person with privilege doesn't make a person a jerk, the excercise of that privilege in the face of udnerstanding how it is oppressive makes them a jerk. Consciously not understanding other histories, languages, or traditions should make someone disliked, not a reaction to a perceived identity.

Consider how many other organizations dedicated to social justice specifically ask that members of majority populations or historically oppressive populations participate in consciousness-raising efforts. What this does is encourage these individuals (such as myself) to engage our privileges while still telling us “we need you in this fight too”. Including men – or white folks, able-bodied folks, folks with class privilege – in a movement towards social justice allows for total community growth. Alice Walker’s definition of womanism* is specific to black communities** but I feel that all of us can learn and grow from this strong term that places the oppression of women at the center of a larger discussion that is fundamentally inclusive.

Walker specifies that men – young and old alike – need to be included in any discussion of gender equality, specifically when you consider the racialized oppression of men of color. If you consider the definition of womanism as the basis for understanding interconnected oppressions and identities then it makes pinpointing individuals or specific groups as “the enemy” incredibly difficult. When you consider that all social justice movement is inherently interconnected – that we have to talk about all of our needs in order to address any of our needs – it makes no sense to bash any group or specific sub-groups.

I’ve written about this in previous posts, but I believe it is worth discussing again as all of us will inevitably encounter people still dealing with inherent privilege – such as myself – and it’s good to have a strategy. From reading the Combahee River Collective Statement, bell hooks, Chela Sandoval, Gloria Anzaldua, Zachary Nataf, Cherrie Moraga, and countless others I have concluded that the best forms of social change happen because of a personal connection to the experiences of oppression. The love that we feel for another person can become radicalized – to use Sandoval’s term*** – when we use it to make our world better.

When we use our love to explore our privileges, our oppressions, our intersecting identities and to join and listen to leaders across social justice movements. In order to create this love, however, we need to treat those who disagree with us with respect and courtesy. We need to understand that no single person comes from a place of absolute privilege. I made that mistake several times early on in my activism, and I probably continue to make this mistake from time to time. But we can try not too, without becoming Polyanna's, all of us cans till approach each other as potential allies and friends - placing our movements on equal terms and realizing that all of us in specific justice movements need the other movements in order to thrive.


* Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Santa Rosa, CA: Harvest Books, 1984.

** Alice Walker doesn’t capitalize Black, so in talking about her definition I won’t either, although I normally would.


***Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

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