Trans Moral Panic: Let My People Go (Pee)

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Every movement has its moments of backlash. The current reactions to the increased visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people include presidential campaign platforms that advise against allowing transgender women to use women’s public restrooms legally and safely in some states. These stances also make it potentially illegal and dangerous for an entire spectrum of people read as gender non-conforming to use public restrooms. While laws regulating the mandatory consonance of sex-on-birth-certificate and perceived gender will endanger anyone who becomes the target of gendered suspicion while using restroom facilities, transgender women (described by opponents of gender diversity as “men dressed as women”) are the focus of the current right-wing outcry.

Before writing any further, I do need to take a moment to situate the perspectives and analyses that will follow. I will be making reference to issues of sexual violence. As someone who has committed their life’s work to intervening on gendered violence – of which I believe sexual violence is a part – I offer these reflections in contribution to ongoing public discourse that will hopefully bring us to different moment of agency in better unravelling the ideas, beliefs, laws, relations, and institutions that have locked pervasive forms of gendered and sexual violence in place.

For years, I have discussed issues of sexual agency and sexual violence with middle school and high school students on a weekly basis, and their struggles and triumphs additionally inform my thoughts. I have spent time with dear friends, respected colleagues, and former partners who have survived physically, spiritually, and psychically, with strength, with struggle, with rage, with pain, with shame, with persistence, with silence, with the weight of worlds and histories. All I can say is that I hope my words do not re-injure, and that if they do cause any discomfort, I will do my best to live up to the responsibility of inciting this difficulty. I tread steadily yet cautiously through mine-filled terrain in the interest of demanding more space for collective healing and accountability.

My hopes in today’s writing are twofold: 1) to demonstrate the increasing interconnection of two storied figures: the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’* and 2) to illuminate the ways that discussing our national anxieties around pervasive sexual violence are co-opted through the fear-baiting, transphobic rhetoric of right-wing politicians and organizations.

To elaborate on the increasing proximity of the two images of the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’ (both images having their own history and production), I want to point to the ambiguity of this hybrid figure, whose reality is thought to materialize in the personhood of a transgender woman, within the current public debates regarding restroom access. This new, combined image is that of a bisexual/queer ‘monster’ of gender and sexuality, able to absorb any and all cultural anxieties and fears of sexual predation, simultaneously dangerous to women, men, boys, and girls, adults and children alike. The right-wing agenda of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia would have us hear this narrative uncritically, to the detriment of building alliances across genders and developing accurate representations of transgender people.

This hybrid, fictional figure – who, I must reiterate, is often confused with actual persons who live as transgender women or other gender non-conforming people – is the ultimate scapegoat of the moment, especially in this presidential election season that is so very much about gender, in so many ways, regardless of whether or not we name those undercurrents explicitly. I am afraid of how difficult this storied image might be to undo in the long-run, and I hope that naming the harm of this fictional figure and teasing apart its component parts might help us to more actively and forcefully intervene on it and name it as the lie and slander that it is, criminalizing and demonizing entire genders in one fell swoop.

Furthermore, current political rhetoric is making strategic use of pervasive anxieties and fears of sexual violence. This “weaponizes” sexual discourse in order to instill (sometimes, or often, understandable) fears and anxieties in a public collective psyche, in which many members are survivors of sexual violence or know people who have been immensely impacted by sexual violence. Politicians, like Ted Cruz, use the threat of future sexual assault to galvanize discrimination against scapegoated transgender women. The creation and manipulation of the conflated images of the pedophile and the cross-dresser (which have appeared together before in the image of the gay male who may both cross-dress and seduce young boys and men – a figure of moral panic that predominated in a past era) are specifically used to harness collective emotional states of pain, anxiety, fear, distress, and trauma around sexual violence for political and financial gain.

All politicians making use of this new moral panic of trans women in restrooms are harming people through this “weaponization” of sex, a term used in Joseph J. Fischel’s recently released Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent. I am arguing that when sex is “weaponized,” or put to violent uses, the speaker is performing an act of sexual violence. Politicians, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, is performing an act of collective sexual violence through speech. I say this understanding that what I am outlining here cannot be compared with individual experiences of sexual violence that are physical in nature. I would not be so careless as to draw comparisons of this kind, nor to describe these actions as sexual violence in order to lessen the gravity with which we approach the work of working to mitigate sexual harm as it occurs in person, physically.

When looked at this way, we can see just how normalized this form of sexualized rhetorical torture is, en masse. Because of the manner in which this debate came to articulate itself, many working for gender justice struggle to engage in productive discussions across diverse communities of survivors and non-survivors. This occurs because the originating framework and terms of debate incite painful and understandable reactivity. Pain, upset, and anger must have space, and we will continue to work for moments when we can engage in the forms of collective healing that include thoughtful, calm reflection and discussion as well.

As an educator with youth on issues of gendered and sexual violence, these analyses are seen and felt on a weekly basis as I struggle to discuss issues of sexual agency and autonomy, consent and coercion, communication, interpersonal and institutional violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and so much more with my students. I want to provide them with useful tools and I know that as hard as I try to stitch together some narrative that might sound cohesive, that might make sense, I know I’m also speaking against and alongside all these other overt and covert messages that shape young people’s expectations and tolerance of sexual violence. Back to work it is…

*Special thanks to C.S. for providing me with thoughts and reflections on these important issues. This blog would not have been possible without your valuable insights on gender, sexuality, identity, and violence.

Thrown Off the Transgender Tipping Point: 5 Questions Not on the Agenda

Over the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed the surge in awareness in mainstream culture regarding the struggles of transgender people, what has been popularly referred to as the “transgender tipping point”. I’ve had friends, family, colleagues, and classmates ask me to help them understand new terms, new ways of thinking about gender, and much more. While I usually try to make explanations as clear and relevant as possible, it is remarkably challenging to do so when discussing a category as naturalized as gender.

What do I mean when I say “naturalized”? To put it clearly, gender is a category of personhood that common knowledge tells us is innate and often connected to biology (anatomy, hormones, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, etc, abilities, personality, etc.). Some go as far as to distinguish between sex and gender, claiming that the former has to do strictly with biology and the latter to do with socialization or individual identity. While it is outside of the scope of a short blog to go into the decades-long debates about the relationship between sex and gender, it will suffice to say that the distinctions between sex and gender are contested, complex, and culturally specific.

Very quickly we see how challenging discussions about transgender people can become, as immediately we are confronted with decades of overt and covert messages about gender, some of them affirming gender self-determination and other messages denying it, or supporting it up to a certain point. We can also see just how entrenched within a binary we are, that even when given avenues of resistance, we still operate within a two-choice model (male/female or masculine/feminine), regardless of how people actually live their lives and make sense of themselves.

Through work and community involvement, I meet a lot of people who want to learn more about how to support gender diversity and gender self-determination, yet a lot of the mainstream information is confusing, incomplete, and heavily skewed towards representing people who have a consistent claim to one clear, ‘true’, binary gender identity. Are these the only people out there placed under the category of transgender? The word itself (transgender) is often used as an umbrella term to include those who may not even use it, or who may make use of it for momentary or strategic reasons. In thinking about all those who may appreciate a more nuanced approach to the discussion – those both outside of and within feminist, queer and trans communities – I will offer some questions further below to bring to light some ideas that deserve attention.

I firmly believe that people should have the right to gender self-determination. I also believe just as firmly that we should question the very terms of that self-determination, not to limit people’s options, but rather, to expand them. This is the difference between my critical questions and questions that seek to reinforce binary gender norms, or to deny people the right to gender self-determination. This self-determination may appear as a desire to access medical transition, to socially transition genders, to change one’s clothing and affect, to engage in study and reflection, to resist relational expectations in day-to-day interactions, or it may not even be recognizable to others at all.

It is also very difficult to write about my own sense-making of gender, as I know that so many who may be reading this have had to struggle, fighting for the right to exist or to make choices to mold themselves into an image that fits them, that they love to see and feel, that they want others to acknowledge and respect. Simply put, we seek a sense-of-self that feels like home, even if only in fleeting moments. Sometimes it feels impossible to write about gender and not offend, upset, or disrupt; yet disruptions are often necessary in a world that constantly demands obedience to official narratives. I anticipate there are others who do not identify as transgender or gender non-conforming who may also resonate with some elements of the struggles illustrated in today’s post. I write remembering how challenging it has been made to be and become.

Are gender norms the same everywhere and for everyone?

I’ve lived in a number of different places, presenting gender in a number of different ways. From this individual, lived experience, I can certainly say that gender norms shift from place to place, as well as over time. Having been exposed to social change work around the world, I’ve also come to realize that many feminist projects that seek to address gendered violence also fall into the logic of assuming universal gender categories and universal gender struggles. What it means to be a man, a woman, gender non-conforming, intersex (people who cannot be easily categorized as male or female), third gender, and more is so particular from place to place. Given these diverse realities, we also have to see how resistance to gender norms are particular as well, meaning that transgender identities in the U.S. are unique to gender regulation here – which doesn’t mean that trans people don’t exist elsewhere, it only means that they may relate to gender differently than we do. This means that depending on class, race, ability, sexuality, age, language, region, nationality, spiritual practices and beliefs, how a person practices gender and how that gender is recognized and regulated will look different. Our analyses of transgender issues should reflect this reality and we should not universalize transgender, gender non-conforming, third gender, or intersex experiences, and not only across location, but through history as well.

What is gender identity?  

The common response to this question usually illustrates a continuous and clear sense of one’s internal gendered self as either male or female that coheres by age four. While many people may experience this, many others do not. Additionally, the way we use the term “gender identity” is relatively new and dates back to the mid-1900s. Confronted with the failure of the medical establishment to develop meaningful guidelines for deciding how to surgically or hormonally alter the bodies of intersex infants, a few medical professionals decided to rely on people’s own sense of gender, which came to be referred to as gender role or gender identity. After the idea of a stable gender identity became more widely accepted among physicians, alongside the technological advancements in aesthetic surgery and endocrinology, more people began to strategically make use of this narrative in order to pursue medical gender self-determination. People choose to medically transition for a number of reasons: to externally affirm an internal feeling of gender, to achieve increased safety in public because of a history of violence against androgynous people, to seriously experiment with new ways of being, to personally and politically resist gender norms, and much more.

Gender identity also relies on the idea of a mind-body split; a person can have a mental sense of gender that is not consonant with the appearance of their body to themselves and others. This idea has been debated through the centuries within Western cultures, with few conclusions. From my own research into these debates, as well as from exposure to other cultural ways of being and knowing, I’m not convinced that the mind and body are split. Given my own immense psychosomatic connections, I just cannot believe that minds and bodies are not intimately interconnected. Furthermore, I also know that the logic of body-mind consonance may not resonate with everyone – why is there not ideological space to experiment with body-mind dissonance that refuses resolution, and to have those practices and senses-of-self supported as well? New research also shows that the notion of “male brains” and “female brains” creates a false divide, and that no single brain is fully male or female, but that everyone’s mind has a diversity of functions and features, making each person cognitively androgynous to one degree or another.

Where do gender non-conforming, third gender, and intersex youth and adults fit into the picture? 

Increased awareness about transgender people has been important for those who have a clear and continuous expression of binary gender, but it has not served those whose sense of gender is not clear (within a binary framework), who are androgynous by choice or not, who live in third and fourth gender categories within their cultural beliefs and practices, or those who have not been given the right to sex or gender ambiguity or self-determination by medical professionals, parents, and communities. Many cultures, both presently and historically, have had gender categories that were neither male nor female, that were seen as in flux, and that had particular social or spiritual importance. Systems of binary gender do not recognize fluidity and androgyny as legitimate ways of being and thinking, and this has had devastating effects on many youth and adults.

During this time of increased awareness about transgender rights, it is also important that we think about the impact these rigid ideas of transgender and gender identity may have on young people. Childcare professionals can attest to the ways that infants, toddlers, and young children have complex ideas about gender and gender categories. While historically, many have believed the idea that gender identity develops by age four, I have trouble believing that a four year old’s ideas about gender are the same as adult’s – not to place them within a hierarchy, but to recognize that children’s cultures are distinct from our own as adults. One concern I have is that young people will be coerced into not only accepting, but expressing desire for medical interventions on their bodies without being given other options, similar to how intersex infants and children were operated upon without their knowledge or consent. While it is quite complicated to question a person’s claim to gender identity – especially because they are young – it is also essential that young people are given a fuller range of perspectives on gender so that they are not left with either-or decisions that frighten them into claiming a clear sense of gender to assuage adult and community concerns regarding androgyny or experimental gender. Children do have a right to self-determination, but we cannot always take claims to identity to be the final say, especially when translating across age, experience, and biases towards gender normativity. Youth, families, and communities need support when standards of gender are questioned or made unstable.

Are transgender people the only ones with “gender dysphoria”?

Gender dysphoria is a term in psychology and psychiatry used to pathologize a person’s experience of discomfort or uncertainty in relation to expectations of binary gender norms of appearance and behavior. From what I have observed, many people experience gender dysphoria; the difference is that transgender people are given specific medical and psychological language and solutions for these experiences, though non-transgender people – also called “cisgender” – may seek aesthetic surgery or hormonal treatment as well, for reasons not explicitly named as gender dysphoria. Transgender and gender non-conforming people hold the cultural responsibility to explicitly deal with gender dysphoria, which is a very heavy burden to carry, given how many rigid and contradictory expectations many of us hold about binary gender. Working with middle school students has also given me a particular perspective, as I see many similar struggles between middle school-aged youth and adults in transition; I say this not to infantilize adults, but to draw connections between groups of people who are in various states of social and bodily shift and how little support there is to make sense of these experiences and shifts of gender. I’ve been witness, as well, to adult male bodybuilders who similarly obsess over their gender presentation, seeking to portray the ultimate manifestations of Western masculinity. Seeking a sense of gender security seems to be a never-ending battle for so many, and more explicitly so for trans and gender non-conforming people. While the consequences are very different across genders for not fulfilling the expectations of a given gender role (and these are important to learn about), consequences nevertheless exist for us all.

If I’m a feminist, shouldn’t I find out which people are most vulnerable to anti-transgender violence and support them? 

For decades, some feminists have heavily invested in splicing up marginalized groups to decide which ones to support and which ones to silence, ignore, or demonize; simultaneously, other feminists have invested themselves in expanding their approach and methods to solidarity work, leading to important and impactful shifts in politics and practice. Some of these harmful divides have occurred along lines of race, nationality, class, spiritual belief and practice, and even gender. For a long time, many cisgender feminists have discriminated against transgender and gender non-conforming people because they believed some of them to have “masculine energy” that was contaminating their pure feminist spaces. While there are many cultural and spiritual practices that foreground elements of divine femininity, it is also important to problematize these ideas as they are put to use by Western, U.S. feminist communities. Who gets to decide who and what is masculine or feminine? How do our ideas of masculinity and femininity reproduce binary thinking and ignore the complexity of gender for so many?

Cisgender feminists have a long and complicated history of wanting to support groups of people because they claim to identify with the oppression of those groups. This has resulted in the collapse of the struggles of women of color in the U.S., queer women, Third World women’s issues, and many others – including transgender people – into cisgender women’s narratives of oppression, which can often defer to norms of binary gender and heteronormativity. Past and current generations of feminists excluded trans women because they said they were not real women; past and current feminists also accuse trans men of betrayal and of becoming oppressors. We need to learn to distinguish between transgender people asking for resources and attention to address issues their communities face and cisgender people deciding which of these groups are more deserving and more authentic, or even worse, deciding which groups to silence or not based on how much they claim to resonate with a marginal group’s experience. The ground of ‘sameness’ is treacherous and violating; claims of difference can also lead to their own violent ends.  Creating divisions between transmasculine and transfeminine people may make some feel included, and yet it is far more likely to exclude many more others, including androgynous, third gender, and intersex people. We need to “queer” our perspectives on gender, even in feminist, queer, and transgender spaces.

It is crucial that we come to acknowledge the many complicated reasons people present gender in the ways they do, and to resist the cultural compulsion to splice diverse groups into simplistic, binary categories that ignore forms of gender self-determination. Additionally, because it is incredibly difficult to use traditional social science and statistical methods to gain accurate information about different groups of transgender and gender non-conforming people, we should be vigilant and careful as we attempt to distribute attention and resources in ways that do not perpetuate oppression-olympics politics. Learning about a diversity of ways people are harmed by binary gender norms can only help us to better address both urgent and long-term needs.

Confronting androgyny with hospitality is not our strong suit; culturally, we are made very uncomfortable by ambiguities of many kinds in the United States. I can see that when people are confronted with androgyny or gender ambiguity, all the unconscious messages of gender flood into our conscious thought and many of us are made uncomfortable as we struggle to acknowledge just how immensely our perceptions of gender shape our thoughts and interactions with another person. Additionally, because gender is constructed in social and relational settings, how we interact with others based on assumptions of gender also shapes how we see ourselves. Policing gender ambiguity in others is also about policing gender ambiguity in ourselves.

It is my sincere hope that the questions above can come closer to the fore of our increased awareness of gender diversity and self-determination. I say this as someone whose life has been so immensely shaped by gendered expectations and my resistance to them; it can be challenging to discuss because these issues are charged and because people have had to struggle through so much adversity just to be able to stake a claim to a sense-of-self that will be recognized and respected. It is with this in mind that I ask that we all make space to delve a bit deeper into these questions, so that practices of being and becoming do not have to be so constricted or policed by those who benefit most from the imposition of binary gender norms.

“Jail Killer Cops”: Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform

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She sat there looking at me, gauging how honest she could be with her question, before quietly asking:

Mr. Mauro, when they say “justice” why do I hear “revenge” in my head? Like, when they say “We want justice for Michael Brown!” I just hear “revenge” in place of “justice” – why do I hear that?

Mia’jhane was a seventh grader in West Oakland last year. During a short break from a violence-prevention session I was facilitating in her classroom, I was engaging with the young people, asking them if they had heard about Black Lives Matter, and what it meant to them. Some had heard of it, some had not, surprisingly enough, especially given all the direct-action work that has taken place in Oakland over the past couple of years.

But Mia’jhane’s question has stayed with me, even if my lessons on cycles of violence have not stayed with her and her classmates (though hopefully they have, at least with some). Over the summer, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the overarching culture of retributive justice in the United States, a system that disproportionately harms poor people and people of color. Mia’jhane was pointing out the ways that disempowered communities rejoice when this system of retributive and punitive justice is turned on those who harm them – and she is highlighting her discomfort with the limitations therein.

Let me be clear: I am not here to dismiss the responses of family members and communities to indictments and convictions of police officers who kill armed and unarmed civilians while in the line of duty; when deaths have been ignored and lives have been disregarded, reveling in the recognition provided by our one official avenue for redress – the criminal justice system – makes a lot of sense. Neither am I hear to provide a defense of the abuses of power demonstrated by large swaths of police officers across this nation, abuses that disproportionately harm poor people, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, as well as people with developmental and emotional disabilities.

I am writing in order to lift up the foundation of Mia’jhane’s question, or what I interpret to be at the foundation of her question: is reliance upon a retributive and punitive system of criminal justice the best and only option? Thinking on this question has allowed me to come up with some of my own, as well:

  • What institutions of retributive justice do we strengthen when we call for the jailing of killer cops?
  • Can we call for prison reform or abolition while also demanding that people be jailed?
  • Do we want to assume the responsibility for deciding who should be jailed and who should not?
  • Does jailing “killer cops” actually allow us to hold police departments, communities, and the United States at large responsible for the racism and classism endemic to all our social institutions? Why or why not?

Many in the U.S. have discussed other forms of justice – the most popular in progressive and radical circles being restorative justice, a diverse collection of responses to violence that includes looking at those harmed, the offenders, and the impacts of violence on entire communities. This form of justice has been discussed by many, and has even been institutionalized in some ways in Oakland public schools, and yet, it still carries some assumptions.

One of these assumptions is that there were pre-existing conditions of safety and justice that need to be restored and that it is possible for those harmed and those offending parties to be able to commit to such a process, which is not usually the case in many of the cases of police officers killing armed and unarmed civilians. Another assumption is that we have communities prepared to hold one another accountable to these often difficult and drawn-out processes that require non-violent commitments to refusing acts of retribution.

Internationally, there are those experimenting with forms of transitional and transformative justice, though these approaches are so particular to each context that it is not useful to delineate them here, given that we have not yet had a national-level awareness that forms of justice outside of our current law are even possible. I encourage readers to investigate different approaches to transitional and transformative justice in areas of ethnic and armed conflict.

Returning to the questions above, I’m thinking about why our calls to jail “killer cops” are both understandable, and not enough. To begin with, our sense of hope in the current justice system has left us asking for steps as small as indictments and convictions of individuals. I say “small” not to dismiss how meaningful the recognition of wrongdoing can be, but because in the bigger picture, holding one individual accountable within police forces where racism and other forms of discrimination are woven into the fabric of their day-to-day functioning does not feel like enough. Allen Feldman, an anthropologist who has studied conflict in Northern Ireland, has said that “arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder.”

If this is not enough, and we push for police re-training or body cameras, we find ourselves in our present circumstances, where municipal police budgets are increasing, especially in places like Oakland, which has a long legacy of police misconduct and corruption, both on the individual and institutional levels. When calls for police indictments and convictions, more training, and body cameras become part of the rallying calls for justice, those requests are easily responded to.

It is my understanding that many are calling for much more than the above. Some are calling for a national reckoning with legacies of racism, and anti-black racism in particular. Many leading the movement work are queer and feminist women of color. To contribute to many of the feminist critiques of past organizing around issues of racial justice, I would like to add my own: jailing individual men has punitive effects on more than just the man.

Poor and working class communities of color have been devastated by the jailing of large proportions of men aged 16-50 years old, and are well aware that the person who is imprisoned is not the only person who is harmed. Is the aim in jailing “killer cops” to punish more than just the officer, or are we also aiming to harm women, children, and entire families as well? Are those people guilty by association?

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep numbers pertaining to veterans employed in police departments, anecdotal evidence points to estimates that between one third and more than one half of police are veterans, reserve personnel, or national guard personnel. While we discuss the actions of police officers and the enculturated racism and classism of police departments, we must also confront the ways that lack of adequate employment opportunities for veterans returning from overseas – combined with the mental health and social needs for those who have served in combat zones – must be a part of our analyses.

Past research has produced mixed results regarding whether or not education levels impact an officer’s willingness to use force; however, recent studies have shown that there is a significant relationship between officers with 4-year degrees and those who only have high school diplomas when it comes to resorting to verbal and physical force with civilians. I am not writing to advocate that education requirements should be a part of police hiring processes, a practice which is likely to mirror demographic discrimination found in most universities. Instead, I am asking us to consider the ways that education and class privilege contour our popular representations of racist attitudes and behaviors; we think of the high-school drop-out turned police officer who shoots a black man as one of the greatest manifestations of racism rather than the Ivy League-educated executive whose signature condones corporate practices that endanger and kill workers in fields and factories, both in the U.S. and abroad.

I strongly believe that we need to create mechanisms that confront the racism and classism – as well as the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia – that target poor people and communities of color, often with life-ending consequences. I also acknowledge the sense of validation that can come from having the offender, the “killer cop,” brought to justice within the only popular framework that exists in our society.

For me, I cannot also allow myself to remain ignorant of the contradictions that Mia’jhane’s question brings to light. It is important that we make space to discuss these issues and to name the limited avenues for official recourse when institutional class and race discrimination shows up in ways that harm those most vulnerable to homicide at the hands of police officers. And in order to prevent future violence, we also need to see the deep roots of harm that jailing individual officers will never rip up.

Thank you for reading. Part 2 of “Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform” will focus on the challenges and consequences of reducing California’s state prison population, and how the reduction of these state prison populations is impacting Central Valley county jails.

Love and Friendship: New Models for Social Change

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Today’s writing must begin with a caveat: I’m being unreasonable and I’m asking for too much.

Recently, I’ve been struggling to think about how much we draw upon feeling, upon emotions, in order to make sense of social and political reality. When confronted with experiences that are complex and layered, I often turn to those whose words and thoughts are more careful and nuanced than my own; this usually means turning to social thinkers, historians, philosophers, and cultural critics. While I will often insist that this blog live in the realm of the concrete, from time to time I will ask for the indulgence to run and skip and fall through the playground of ideas, and I must trust that my readership knows that I will continually grapple to actualize these ideas, and to find better words so that I may translate such thoughts for ever-widening audiences.

Cultures of Love

Why am I thinking about love and friendship? To begin, I realize that feelings are not usually thought of as a part of culture, as culturally specific. And yet, how we learn to feel and to relate to feeling is not universal, despite many claims within the field of mainstream cognitive psychology. Two examples: feelings of grief and feelings of affirmation. In my first example, I contrast expectations around grief and mourning within white, middle-class U.S. culture – which has, in fact, made it pathological to express grief for longer than an ‘appropriate’ amount of time – and within Armenian culture.

Having attended a number of Armenian funerals, expressions of grief and mourning are effusive and fill entire orthodox cathedrals, as mourners are culturally given space to wail, throw themselves into one another’s arms to evade collapse, and huddle together in clutched embrace. These funerals have contrasted so starkly with what I have witnessed in white, middle-class funerals, where a sense of controlled grief saturates the air.

In my second example, I look not even at cross-cultural differences, but generational differences within a culture seen as ostensibly the ‘same’: Baby Boomers and Millennials. Baby Boomers often lament what they describe as the lack of emotional resilience displayed by Millennials, citing a cultural ‘softening’ and heightened social responsiveness to feeling that contrasts with their own post-WWII upbringing. While I have many thoughts around this, in this particular moment, I only wish to cite this difference in order to demonstrate that cultural difference is not only ethnic, but generational as well.

Eva Illouz, a Moroccan social thinker, in her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia, tells us that:

Culture operates as a frame within which emotional experience is organized, labeled, classified and interpreted. Cultural frames name and define the emotion, set the limits of its intensity, specify the norms and values attached to it, and provide symbols and cultural scenarios that make it socially communicative.

From this, I gather that when we use terms like “love”, we might be using it in different ways: to refer to romantic attachment, family commitments, aesthetic pleasures, group (self-)identification, and more. Often, in social change work, people refer to love for community, or love for one’s own group or people. While many consider love to be an emotion often associated with positive qualities or outcomes, I’m left thinking about the ways that feelings have been so frequently co-opted for political ends.

Many of us remember the Terror Alerts set up by the George W. Bush administration as a way to activate public support for the increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11. This literally capitalized on fearful emotions, and used this fear to render the American public complicit in atrocities abroad, as well as complicit in bloating an already large military budget. Looking to history, one can see the ways that “Christian love” has been animated in order to prioritize the “saving of souls” over the saving of lives (resulting in such violent campaigns as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the mission projects of California) –  we can see quite clearly that conceptions of feelings can never be divorced from historical or cultural contexts that put them to use for particular ends.

Love: Understanding Its Implications

Recently, I have written about the limits of empathy and compassion, and how resorting to appeals to individual’s emotions and attitudes is limited by the inherent disconnect between feeling, action, and appropriate action to change conditions of violence or harm. Given this, how can we make sense of contemporary uses of love and friendship in social change work, and what can we do to reconfigure our expectations of love through this?

Conceptions of love range from identification and affirmation, to commitment and responsibility, to negotiation and tension. While some of these frameworks of love feel immensely limiting, there are a few I would like to highlight in order to begin to reframe what political love and friendship can look like. Veering away from notions of love that rely on identification and affirmation feels important to me, not because there is anything inherently problematic about identifying-with and affirming the object of one’s love – in this sense, friends and communities – but I am doing so because of the effects I have witnessed.

Too often, relying on a sense of identification and affirmation when speaking about love of a group or community can produce a fixation on self-discovery or self-understanding. Though these can be important endeavors, when they become the crux of a social or political ethos, we are treading on dangerous ground, particularly when we take time to notice how unquestioned narcissism is, in part, a result of limited social and political cultures of resistance, which I have discussed before.

Trends of self-discovery and self-understanding are part of a larger cultural imperative to “know ourselves” as one of the highest personal achievements. Love, within this context, becomes part of a search for utopia and sacred ideals, which Illouz points out in her writing. Again, we turn inward and step away from an immersion in social realities, even as this turn inward often necessitates external affirmation that we can easily mistake for social engagement.

When we focus on love as identification, affirmation, discovery, and understanding, we often turn away from some of the more challenging conceptualizations of love and friendship: tension, debate, respectful disagreement, responsibility, unconditional commitment. When working for social change, these latter aspects are the notions of love that we must nurture so that we can expand our capacities to negotiate differences in opinion and experience.

Reframing Love

At this point, I am already beyond my own capacity to respond to a complex premise. Instead, I will rely on those who have thought about these issues and written about them with more conceptual and verbal deft. Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish Holocaust refugee and social thinker, and James Baldwin, a gay, Black American author, playwright, and social critic, both offer understandings of political love that surpass my own. They were in conversation with one another, both directly and within an intellectual milieu that was asking difficult questions of social change work of the 1950s and 60s in the United States and beyond. Responding to critiques that she did not love her own people because of her critiques of Zionism and the new nation-state of Israel, Arendt said:

…I am not moved by love of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective…I indeed love “only” my friends…Secondly, this “love of the Jews” would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person…What good could come out of [this people that believes only in itself]? – Well, in this sense I do not “love” the Jews, nor do I “believe” in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.

What Arendt might be saying here is that for her, love is reserved for that which is outside of the self, a love for what is other to oneself – an important part of a Jewish ethic of hospitality toward a sacred Other, toward incommensurate difference, toward the unknowable and ambiguous. This does not mean that one is self-loathing – an accusation often leveraged against self-critical Jews – but simply that concepts of love are inextricably connected to concepts of difference and diversity. What might we learn from this concept of love, and how might it impact our political organizing work? What does it mean to have been a person exposed to imminent death in Nazi Germany and to still refuse to place herself and ‘her people’ at the center of her love?

This concept of love urges us to consider the benefits of tension, respectful disagreement, responsibility, and commitment. In response to this, I additionally offer James Baldwin’s comments on love in his “Autobiographical Notes” in the volume titled Collected Essays:

I do not like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Again, we see a social critic who decries a love focused on affirmation and homogenizing identification; Baldwin, as a gay, Black American writing, in part, against the racism of his time, does not want to be loved – by anyone – simply because he is Black. He wants to be held in high regard because of how he thinks, resists, and writes in contestation to the injustices of his time, which traversed lines of nation, class, race, gender, language and sexuality. Baldwin reserves the right to be critical of that which is closest to him, maintaining the freedom to have a selective relation to legacy in order to highlight liberatory potentials within America, rather than maintain a wholly affirmative, nationalistic stance.

Approaching love from this perspective, we can see how it opens space for diversity-within-diversity and refuses the homogeneity in representation that often overtakes marginalized groups. Complex relations to group identification are affirmed through these approaches to loving, and allow us to see how when love for oneself and one’s group borders on romanticizing, or sees group intentions and actions as only good, we develop a disingenuous relationship to the present and to history (and to our own complexity). I will not be forced into revising history, neither my individual legacies nor my cultural legacies. Loving America and loving our own micro-nations of community need not necessitate revisionist history to write in moral purity where it never existed.

Who do we want to be, and how do we want to love? Wendy Brown, a political scientist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview, “We have to learn to love again. We also have to recognize that the ‘we’, the ‘I’, who will be doing that loving…will be a different ‘we’ than the one we are.”

What will we be? A ‘we’ invested in collective governance, hospitality toward difference (within and without), or isolated groups filled with self-love that is individual and rooted in fictive ideas of sameness? A ‘we’ that loves contingently, or committedly, and responsibly? Reconceptualizing political love and friendship must be an item on our organizing agendas as we seek to explore new possibilities and approaches to the much needed work of social justice.

Black Lives Matter, Clinton’s “Yankee Stadium,” and Morality Politics

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Last week, there was a highly publicized discussion between a small group of the de-centralized leadership of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton. While much debate and analysis has ensued over many parts of the discussion, there was a comment Clinton made that has been playing itself over in my mind: “You can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer.’ That’s not enough…”

Clinton went on to urge BLM activists to present workable policy and program recommendations, playing into already existing critiques of the movement as one too-focused on spectacular demonstrations rather than substantial social change through legal and policy initiatives. Others have offered a thorough critique of Clinton’s chiding on these points, so I will not spend time duplicating those insights. Additionally, throughout this debate, others have drawn upon the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to leverage arguments against the many women of color who have invested their time, energy, and intellect to increasing the visibility of the BLM movement work. In light of that, I would like to make use of Dr. King’s social and political insights to momentarily buttress the critiques of Clinton:

Underneath the invitation to prepare programs is the premise that the government is inherently benevolent – it only awaits presentation of imaginative ideas. When these issue from fertile minds, they will be accepted, enacted and implemented. This premise shifts the burden of responsibility from the white majority, by pretending it is withholding nothing, and places it on the oppressed minority, by pretending the latter is asking for nothing. This is a fable, not a fact. Neither our government nor any government that has sanctioned a century of denial can be depicted as ardent and impatient to bestow gifts of freedom.

– Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community

I will leave this particular point of strategy aside, one that pits direct-action against the drafting of law and policy, a divisive strategy that often ignores the importance of engaging multiple tactics of resistance and movement building. I would instead like to return to the “Yankee Stadium” comment in order to tease apart the issues underlying it that bring me to my first of two purposes today: questioning the efficacy and sustainability of a moral plea within the broader context of social change work.

Empathy and Morality: The Limits of Individualism and Psychological Empathy

Many of us raised in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were brought up with the idea that developing a sense of empathy is one of the most important tasks before us, as inheritors of multiculturalism. Learn to feel for others, and patterns of social behavior will change, so long as we listen and understand how different groups continue to struggle to achieve the American Dream. How many times did we hear this growing up? How many of us continue to hear this?

Where did this idea come from? “Empathy” is a term that has only existed in the English language for a little over a century, and was a concept in psychology that received little attention until after World War II, when an explosion of empirical research appeared in an attempt to understand the ways that German citizens failed to intervene on the quotidian forms of Holocaust violence against Jews. Decades of research from the 1950’s to present day have been unable to demonstrate any clear causal connections between an individual’s self-described experience of empathy, the willingness to intervene on violence, and possessing the capacity to carry out an intervention that is actually effective in preventing or intervening on violence.

I am sure that many did not previously know about this history of the social construction of ‘empathy.’ These ideas of the beneficence of empathy also came into increasing cultural popularity during an era where faith in collective social movements was on the decline, and an era of individual self-help and interpersonal empathy was on the rise. “Being a good person” took the place of efforts formerly occupied by involvement in community building and social change work.

The preeminence of the individual replaced a focus on collective governance – governing the individual self is a recurrent theme in modern and contemporary history, and finds its origins in ideas of individual salvation found in dominant Protestant Christianity (acknowledging the boldness of this claim, as well as the need to further develop it in later writing, I ask both secular and Christian readers to see that while I am not demonizing an entire spiritual legacy, I am hesitant to only see the hopeful aspects of hyper-individualism).

Many of us colloquially refer to ‘morality’ in the way I refer to ‘ethics’ – as a practice of navigating the multiple effects of our words and actions, and reflecting on our responsibility to act in social worlds. When I use ‘morality’, I am more specifically referring to a set of dogmatic truths that shape ideas of how we should think and behave, irrespective of the complexities of context, history, and dynamics of power. In this sense, I am anti-dogmatic as well as anti-moralist.

From this elaboration of morality, in combination with the ways moral claims often rely on a misguided conception of our empathic capacities, my hope is that it is increasingly clear why I am skeptical of approaching social change work primarily from a place of moral politics. I am also not alone in my skepticism. While many thinkers and social change agents from the Civil Rights era are quoted in order to silence critiques of dominance, I offer the words of Bayard Rustin, a behind-the-scenes organizer who – despite all attempts to sideline him – never faltered in his commitment to community-building, human rights, and a multi-front approach to social change:

Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency [to feel a sense of isolation] survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions [to the problems of racism]. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts – by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may gleefully applaud…Malcolm X because… they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even if unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes – a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions – social, political, and economic institutions – which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

– Bayard Rustin, in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement”

And here we find the limits of empathy, of the psychology of individuals, and moral pleas. We currently live in a country full of the racist effects of policy, law, and institutional harm with few – especially in elite settings – who would admit to being “a racist.” Though those hearts have ostensibly been changed, we do not have institutions that reflect this alleged change. We have also placed ourselves in a position of moral righteousness, which often makes it difficult to reflect on our own complicity in systems of oppression. Rigorous discussions of economic and class disparity have not been actively engaged, bringing me to my second purpose in writing today: understanding the role of privileged people of color.

Yankee Stadium and Liberals of Color

Alongside an imaginary Yankee Stadium filled with white liberals who espouse an antiracist morality, one can find a Yankee Stadium filled with another group of people to which I, myself, might belong: middle class and college educated people of color.

For too long, I have stood by and watched this second Yankee Stadium refuse responsibility and acknowledgement of the politics of class at play in much of the BLM public movement work, though I do acknowledge that these discussions are taking place in more quiet corners of Black organizing. Many middle class and college educated people of color use comparative analyses of poor/working class people of color and poor/working class whites as a shield against critical self-reflection on how privilege is operating in movement agendas.

We hold up poor people of color and say: “Look! The white poor are doing better than the poor of color. Racism is still an important analysis. Do not talk about white poverty and re-center white people.” In that moment, when those making such claims come from class or education privilege, we are allowing for poor people to become objects of persuasion, a violent tactic of deflection.

I do not offer these reflections as a way to denigrate the efforts that are ongoing and ever-expanding. I offer them as a form of engagement and support, to encourage even more work to happen, work that I myself participate in, given my various commitments and capacities. I write to reflect on alliances that need to be built to support and further the work of BLM, which from its inception has refused the reduction of racial issues to the plight of the straight, able-bodied, gender-normative man of color, already a huge shift from much of the Civil Rights rhetoric of the 1950’s and 60’s.

“Where Do We Go From Here?”

We need to continue to expand our analyses to include open critiques of capitalism, militarism, and economic and cultural imperialism, connecting our issues to the global impacts of our often-invisiblized U.S. privilege. Focusing on the narrow – yet still important – goals of ending police brutality will make our movements all too easy to quell by jailing “killer cops” and increasing police spending for equipment, including body cameras, and training. Our calls to de-militarize the police need to publicly and continually ask fundamental questions about why the United States is in possession of excess military supplies and to interrogate the national budget expenditures on the military, while also holding leaders accountable for veteran care and protection of active-duty service members.

The Black and mixed students I am in community with have told me that they do not always want to feel like they are “at the bottom of the barrel,” through hierarchical identity analyses that posit Black people as the “most oppressed.” If we are to believe statistics, even they show that Native Americans and immigrant refugees experience conditions atrocious enough to warrant heightened public discourse. Our fears of attention- and resource-scarcity cannot shape the complexity of our racial justice agendas.

It is crucial that we do not disempower Black youth by socially and intellectually isolating them by disallowing their participation in building mutually beneficial alliances with other groups of people. Alliance is a two-way street and commitments to social change are unsustainable long-term without everyone staking a claim to the benefits of our collective labor. Black America has inherited more problems than they can undo in isolation, and we all must contribute to antiracist work on multiple fronts, taking time to learn about the particular ways racism impacts different peoples.

What does this work look like? Part of it involves intervening on our own impoverished education through building independent study groups to learn from social change movements both within and outside of the U.S. We have to value the development of our collective intellect as much as we value direct-action work. Learning and studying together is action, though the effects may not appear as direct. In time, they will.

We need to explode open the biological, anthropological, geographical, and religious studies of the past and present that have justified racism and formed rigid racial categories. We need to acknowledge the salve of materialist consumerism that unsuccessfully wards off the burn of labor and advertising exploitation of our hard-earned income.

We need to fight for a national budget that re-allocates funds to antipoverty and antiracist programs that also understand nuances of gendered oppression and violence, including that experienced by the (fictively united) LGBTQ communities, as well as the particularities of urban, rural, poor, and immigrant communities. Developing prisoner-release support networks for housing, employment, and mental health will have to be a part of our efforts. All our calls for racial justice ought to also be infused with the knowledge that survivors of racial and ethnic genocide live among us: indigenous peoples, Jews, Armenians, Hmong, and so many more, each having diverse cultural practices we need to support.

We also need artists, healers, and beauty-makers to feed our aesthetic and emotional needs to see our lives represented and cared for in all their diversity and struggle, hope and pain. We need community-led programs to feed hungry kids and elders. Social spaces need to multiply where we can practice bringing our ideals to life without shaming ourselves and one another when we don’t get it right immediately.

We need to commit unconditionally to showing up, even in some moments when we are asked not to. Too many are looking for excuses to give up reflecting on privilege, or for excuses to refuse legacies of isolation, and we have to continually remind ourselves that nothing will change unless we let go of our need to feel constantly affirmed and wholly ‘good’. As deserving as we are of immediate change, this cannot happen without reflecting on the privileges we carry, nor will it happen while ignoring the plight of others who may struggle so differently than we do.

Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Tuesday and Thursday.

Back on the Grid: Connecting via Smartphones and Facebook

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In February of this year, I deleted my Facebook account after needing to take some time away. Two and a half years ago, after cracking the screen on my SmartPhone and fending off an anxiety attack, I exiled myself to the land of DumbPhones, relying only on calls and texts to stay in communication when mobile. I had been relishing what many might call my “disconnect,” when a series of decisions led me back to both Facebook and a SmartPhone.

When my SmartPhone broke, I was confronted with a number of challenges: how would I find directions when lost? How would I find out when the bus was coming? What would I do to pass the time when working mentally unstimulating service jobs? How would I share my most recent witty thought while on-the-go without having a phone with a Facebook application?

After taking a deep breath and noticing the sense of panic and overwhelm, I stopped myself. I told myself that I had lived twenty-four years of my life without a SmartPhone and that I was perfectly capable of doing so for another twenty-four years if necessary. Even though social and professional expectations have changed and many things – such as applying for jobs and schools, managing personal accounts, responding to email rapidly – require near-constant internet connectivity, my life at the time did not require mobile internet. I had a computer at home and decided that would suffice.

If I’m honest with myself – and, therefore, with you – I have to admit that I had developed a relationship to Facebook that concerned me. So much of my daily and weekly moods depended upon seeing posts from friends, on the kindness or hostility of comments I witnessed, and on the repetition of violent news stories that multiple friends were sharing about issues of great importance to me. My world felt like it had shrunk, as though the circles I ran in were closing in on me. This feeling is not the fault of any one group of people, but it still left me with the sense that I needed to take a conscious step away to recalibrate my expectations of how I wanted to relate to social media. So, I closed up shop and fully deleted my account, with no intention of coming back online any time soon.

Two weeks ago, I launched this blog by posting my first piece of public writing in over a year. On that same day, I opened a new Facebook account, ready to start fresh. The week before, my DumbPhone had given up on me after over two years of faithful service. After a series of seductive maneuvers, the Sprint customer service representative had managed to offer me a brand new iPhone 6, fully furnished with case and screen cover, for a pittance. I had walked into the store prepared to activate an old iPhone 5s I had been gifted, but lo-and-behold, through some intricate equation relating to supply and demand of various iPhone models, it was financially beneficial for them to buy the old iPhone from me and greatly discount a new iPhone on a no-contract lease plan.

The very kind service rep tried his best to help me set myself up in the nebulously-named “Cloud,” but I firmly declined the offer. I had preemptively set up specific boundaries for myself regarding how I wanted to maintain a certain degree of freedom from constant internet connectivity when out and about during my day. No email. No Facebook application. No using the phone while in transit, either for directions or for distraction. Some might derogatorily refer to me as reactive, as resistant to changes that I cannot stop, and some might even go so far as to insult me by labelling me a Luddite. While colloquially, “Luddite” is often used today to refer to someone who is technology-averse, historically, it refers to a movement of people who (sometimes violently) opposed not only the mechanization of labor that displaced and impoverished thousands of workers in 19th century England, but the forms of social alienation that were produced as a result of the displacement of labor and communities. Frankly, I don’t mind the insult, given its proper political associations.

My main purpose in writing today was to discuss the shifts in myself that I have noticed since coming back on the social media and SmartPhone grid. Because my first tenure on Facebook had extended back to the launch of Facebook to all university students in 2005, all the gradual changes made to include Likes, Shares, photos, and advertisements came in such staggered increments that I had stopped noticing them. Having taken the time to get some ginger for my social media palate, my perspective on it feels fresh and my critique feels less pained than before. But my hesitations remain, nonetheless.

I have felt more anxious and distracted these past two weeks. After posting a blog, I nervously and compulsively check Facebook to see if anyone has taken interest, launched a knee-jerk critique of my writing, or been interested and left a kind comment. There is much more of a focus in my mental life regarding how I’m perceived by others online. Am I posting often enough? Too much? Am I boring? Trying too hard to be interesting? What do my friends think? Did that person just add me because they read my writing? Or because we have twenty friends in common? The self-absorption is difficult to ward off, but I must also confront the fact that it is quite possible not everyone is as susceptible to it as I am. An even greater reason to be self-conscious!

On a more contextual note, I really have noticed how skewed and curated the advertised news is in my feed. I make a point of reading multiple independent news sites that focus on issues of gender and racial justice, in addition to the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and academic journals. Because I have developed this practice more deeply during my time away from Facebook, I noticed that the news stories my friends share impact the news stories that are promoted by the advertisers. I’m becoming increasingly concerned that if a person is relying on Facebook for their news frame, it might be startlingly limited, even if it is about issues faced by marginalized people.

Regarding SmartPhone use, I spent the past two and a half years watching people absorbed in their phones when commuting with the 9-to-5 crowd on BART. It is one of the most depressing parts of my day. I can also understand the desire to distract oneself, to feel (dis)connected, to become absorbed in online reading. There is also an increasing body of research that discusses the challenges to retention when reading online, in addition to research that shows that quiet self-reflection is essential for developing compassionate and patient social skills. People increasingly turn to their individual devices for answers to questions that used to be engaged collectively when in social spaces. Generations have repetitively bemoaned the atrophying of public interaction with strangers, opportunities that have granted me tiny glimpses into lives whose paths are so very different from my own. Often, older people start talking to me when on public transportation because I’m the only other person not completely absorbed in a device. We chat about feeling isolated when in public, about how brusquely people can brush off our questions regarding the time, getting simple directions, or other basic logistics that any fully ‘modern’ person should be able to ascertain through consulting their individual mobile device.

I’m not here to offer a condemnation of Facebook or SmartPhones, because they are proving to be useful tools for me. I now keep track of which days/times are best for posting new blog entries and I am able to send/receive emojis and group texts. I love the camera on my new iPhone 6 and have been sharing pictures with friends on Instagram. The introductory success of this blog is largely attributable to Facebook (and my writing labor, of course). I’m not a hypocrite, but I do have a complex relationship to mobile and social media connectivity.

What I do want to mention, in closing, is that my concerted time away from SmartPhones and Facebook has granted me a perspective that sees both the disconnect as well as the potential within these phones and social media platforms. I recommend that each of you create an opportunity to take a step away from both, and to reflect on that experience, if you are in fact able to perform that experiment on yourself. If you are unable to complete it, for reasons of work or addiction, that is definitely something to reflect upon, not as an issue of personal choice or asceticism, but as a reflection upon the constraints of our times. What forms of connection become more strained during this era of seemingly constant capacities to connect?

Thanks for reading! On Thursday, I will be posting my thoughts on Hilary Clinton’s response to Black Lives Matter activists and reflecting on Bayard Rustin’s essay, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Political Space, Processing Space: Managing Expectations in Solidarity Work

Solidarity Politics for Millennials

I had the good fortune of coming across Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, by Ange-Marie Hancock, a scholar and advocate for diverse coalition politics. Coalition politics describe political engagements that build relationships of solidarity within a majoritarian democracy – the form of democracy we have in the United States – which focus on legal and policy initiatives intended to impact diverse groups of people. Most lasting institutional change has happened in the U.S. through groups coming together across difference to find common ground, requiring that coalition groups negotiate the different concerns they have in ways that strengthen relationships.

While reading, I was forced to reflect upon some of the current barriers to building meaningful coalitions, barriers that, indeed, are not the sole responsibility of a single party or community to address, but instead are challenges that warrant deep and nuanced reflection by all who seek to live and work in solidarity with other groups of people. Having engaged in rigorous solidarity work for over a decade, I wanted to take this moment to highlight one area where we, as activists and community members, might invest more energy: managing expectations and being intentional about self-care when engaging in coalition politics.

What Is Solidarity Work?

Solidarity can be understood as a mutual commitment to collaborative engagement both across and within groups participating in social change work in pursuit of a common political, educational, policy, or social change objective in the short- or long-term. Groups often form with various objectives in mind, and through engagement, these objectives can shift; some groups may be identity-, issue-, location-, or policy-based.

Just this past week, Al-Jazeera America reported on Wisconsin dairy farmers who were speaking out against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s increasingly xenophobic stance on immigration reform, as Walker seeks to court conservative voters in his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination. Dairy farmers, mostly property-owning or -leasing white men in the Midwest region of the U.S., are dependent on their undocumented Latino workforce, and for reasons both selfish and altruistic, they want to support their workers and their own livelihood, in recognition of their interdependence.

Solidarity work generally involves an acknowledgement of the ways we are indelibly linked to others. While it would be ideal if people could care about social issues out of pure empathy, decades of psychological research shows that there is little connection between experiences of empathy, the impetus to work for change, and the identification of strategic ways to change present circumstances. Given this reality, we cannot rely on utopian ideals of pure altruism; instead, we have to work to build solidary relationships over time and through the charged environment of negotiating the needs of individuals and communities.

Crafting Intentional Solidary Space

Within this context of building alliances, I have been taught that it is important to set two commitments when working across difference: first, to not compare oppressions and to discuss experiences of harm in their particularity (which is not about making all forms of oppression equivalent), and second, to work together with the understanding of unconditional commitment to working together, regardless of disagreement, misunderstanding, micro-aggressive harm, or needing to take time away from the work for self-care purposes.

When writing about solidarity or interacting online, I have seen many writers and activists attacked for not addressing every facet of a given social issue in a single post or comment. Many on the Left expect perfection, a trend that increases the in-fighting that has become heightened on the Left post-9/11, as progressive communities – in defense of important issues – mirror the aggressive protectionism of U.S. military interventions: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” is transmuted into “You’re either perfectly radical or wholly oppressive,” a purist logic that also appeared during orthodox Marxist organizing in the 1960s and 70s. While the effects of these two strands of political thought are immensely different, the underlying logic comes from the shriveling space of respectful political and social engagement across diverse perspectives.

It is important to distinguish between our many needs and what we can strategically expect in spaces of political and solidary work, while always working to increase hospitality toward difference, expanding our imaginations of what is possible as we experiment with collective decision-making and group governance. I trust my readership to care for themselves, which includes the shared acknowledgement that we must differentiate between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic settings, in order to sustain working relationships. While engaging with social change work can have many therapeutic effects, it is worrisome to me when people engage in solidarity and activist work as therapy – we must disentangle acts of alliance from affirmative therapies because, sometimes, solidarity work involves asking difficult questions and pushing back against coping mechanisms that have outlived their usefulness. It is important to set up clear agreements and commitments, and discussion needs to happen primarily in person. We can rely on online organizing to share news stories, publicize events, and archive writing, photos, and videos.

The efforts described above can be particularly challenging in groups and communities where social isolation partly informs how and why marginalized people come together to engage in political and solidary work. There may be significant overlap between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic spaces. It is important to call our attention to cultural norms – which inevitably emerge in any community, insular or not – that we should challenge. We need to remain ever-attentive to dynamics that silence people or that preclude their participation altogether, including English language access, education privilege, and urban access to political community and transportation to and from events and meetings. Distinct settings need to be named, shaped, and upheld with incredible degrees of intentionality, remaining ever-attentive to how those born and those socialized female often take on emotional labor for others, to the detriment of their own political sustainability.

The proliferation of popular rhetoric regarding what is commonly referred to as ‘trauma’ can be an important intervention to visibilize experiences of harm that often remain ignored; however, people doing educational or political work, while understandably drawing upon feeling or experience, cannot foreground their personal needs for emotional care in contexts of solidarity work. This means we need to create multiple sites of support (political, intellectual, social, emotional) in order to make this work sustainable. Self-care is important so that political and educational settings are able to focus on urgent and long-term goals, instead of serving as emotional processing spaces, which are crucial to have access to, especially as we commit to ongoing critique of the dominant divisions between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ that have denigrated contributions of women, immigrant, LGBTQ, working class, and Jewish activists through history and into the present.

Alongside this, wholesale therapeutic advice can be a momentary salve at best, violently shaming at worst, and even ethically negligent when proffered by licensed therapists and social workers who have professional obligations to uphold, including boundary-setting. Trauma and triggers are unique to each individual, and even when done with the best intentions, dispensing advice online regarding trauma and coping should be kept to a minimum and ought to be framed alongside follow-up resources for in-person care and support.

Meeting People Where They Are

Focusing on what is proximate to groups and communities is part of this work; for example, it is strategically impractical to insist that all people of color focus on following national agendas, which will inevitably foreground racial justice work that attends to urban anti-Latino and anti-Black racism perpetuated largely by whites. How do we support rural racial solidarity work without inflaming violence through oppositional rhetoric? How do we support communities of color all over as they interrogate homophobia, transphobia, and notions of purity that marginalize mixed-race youth and adults, and others who defy categorical ease of race and gender? This is not to place blame, but to encourage consideration of the unintended consequences our words and actions may have on those more vulnerable than ourselves. It also brings to light the importance of particularity, as each community exhibits and responds to discrimination in unique ways.

To not respond to what is immediate or proximate would be disingenuous, as we would be ignoring people’s experiences. Last year, I was teaching a class on “Healthy Relationships” with high-school aged women of color in a small, drop-out prevention high school in Oakland, California. Part of my curriculum involved linking cycles of relationship abuse to larger social dynamics and cycles of institutional violence against marginalized groups. I introduced a tool known as the Power Chart that shows how different groups are on the upside or downside of social power imbalances in an attempt to open up a discussion about white racism towards people of color.

As important as it was to me to try to convey that larger social forces shape conflict in interpersonal and social relationships, it was equally important to my students to tell me that because of the difficulty of their lives, they weren’t ready to hear all that. These youth – all who would be read as Black out on the streets – wanted to think about the conflicts in Black communities around being of mixed heritage, as the young women had immigrant API mothers, indigenous ancestry, Spanish-speaking parents, undocumented relatives, and a range of other complex social identifications regarding gender and sexuality. For me, as a social justice educator, to force these young women into my own frameworks of solidarity and to not respond to their immediate calls to address the policing of race, gender, and sexuality within their communities, would have been not only irresponsible, but reproductive of the violence that ignores particular experiences of harm that don’t conveniently fit into dominant political agendas, even when those agendas are focused on social justice. Shifting agendas is part of the work of solidarity.

In Closing

It is essential that we have both political spaces and processing spaces, and it is also important to feel freed of the pressure to not have to combine them, to not have one setting bear the burden of providing for all our diverse needs around political and solidary sustainability, especially during these immensely trying social and political times. Confronting disagreement from a place of strength and support – along with knowing our own limits and taking time for self-care when needed – is a practice we must engage from a space of critical self-reflection and unconditional alliance.

My hope is that from this approach, groups can spend less time describing a “good ally” or a “bad ally” and more time practicing solidarity through experimentation, responsibility, and sustainable commitment, knowing that it is both about us, and not about us. We must remain mindful of when and how we engage in a public performance of the right kind of progressive person and when we are engaging in order to create future possibilities for worlds of justice, equity, and shared governance.

Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Monday and Thursday. Monday’s post will address my reintegration back into the realm of Smartphones and Facebook after an extended hiatus, and reflections about this process.