02 11 / 2012
Dear white and other racially privileged friends who experience fits of indignation when I post anti-racist critiques on my facebook page:
You see I’m often conflicted on how to best respond to your feelings. I recognize that they are legitimate and come from a well-intentioned place, but I respectfully and vehemently disagree with you. I could send you articles, data, statistics, artists, and much more about these issues – but no matter what I often get the feeling that you won’t understand what I’m saying because we’re speaking different languages. What I mean to say is that the discussions we might have about power systems like white supremacy are structured by the very logics of those systems. How can we expect to challenge systems of oppression when the ideas and language we have access to originate in those systems? How do we understand the destructive realities of racism when our bodies are primed to deny its existence?
As the terms of debate are currently structured I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere. The only way we can progress forward is if we backtrack a bit: if we forget what we read about in that one article in the New York Times, if we forget what watched on CNN, forget what we learned in our International Relations class, forget all of it. What I have to say to you isn’t new information – it’s been around for a long time. We just weren’t provided with the framework, the history, the tenacity to understand it. In order to become better anti-racists we can’t just expect to learn more about racism and issues facing people of color across the world. Before we do this, we must unlearn. In entering these discussions the question should not be about proving how much we know, but rather how much we do not know. Our pursuit of knowledge should not be about learning, but rather unlearning. The project should not be about becoming anti-racists at first, but rather un-becoming racists. This is an arduous, emotional, and at times painful process and violates the ways we thought ‘learning’ worked. This is not the sort of sanitized education that we learn in our universities – those degrees that teach us about the world without truly implicating us in its violence, without making us uncomfortable. Learning to become an anti-racist means unlearning the idea that we exist outside of the things that we learn – means relearning that we not only inherit the legacy of violence, but enact it every day with our silence.
Unlearning what we have been told
What’s always struck me in conversations about identity politics (and racial justice in particular) is how people tend to cite common knowledge in order to justify their claims. Such data is easily dismissed in other political discourse by progressives (imagine someone saying they didn’t believe in global warming because they went outside today and it was cold), yet the domain of identity politics is generally seen as a topic that everyone can equally weigh in on. The common knowledge around these issues brought up in conversation is largely misleading or flat out incorrect. The common knowledge and/or logics that people rely on is the very same knowledge and/or logics that systems of power instill in us to maintain power. We should already be skeptical of the ‘commonality’ of this knowledge in a world where racial violence, colonialism, imperialism and racial genocide are also all too common.
In order to meaningfully engage in conversations about racial justice we must therefore (un)learn common knowledge/tropes like these:
1. The It Gets Better Trope:“While I’m sad to hear that queer people of color feel isolated from the contemporary gay (white) movement, eventually their issues will be addressed…that’s just how social movements work…it takes time.”
Not true. Did you know that there is more racial segregation in the American school system than there was in the late 1960s? Did you know that there is a significant body of Critical Race Studies that debunks the valorization of the Civil Rights Movement and reveals the ways in which the CRM failed to realize racial and economic justice for the majority of people of color in the United States?
This meta-narrative of ‘social movements’ actually function as a tactic of oppression. We are told that ‘social movements’ were realized in the 60s and 70s and now women, gay people, and racial minorities have ‘rights.’ What these narratives don’t express is often more telling than what they do. What these narratives don’t tell you is there is still significant discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, etc. (just take a look at the demographics of our elected representatives). What these narratives don’t tell you is that largely only people with class privilege have benefitted from these ‘movements.’ What these narratives also do is construct a ‘social movement’ as an event somehow always relegated to the past and as an event that somehow exists outside of bodies themselves. Such narratives excuse us from thinking about how we are contemporary vehicles for the prejudices we have inherited and since cultivated.
2. The Rights Based Discourse Trope: “People of color enjoy so many rights in the United States! We extended the right to vote to everyone and passed non-discrimination legislation to make sure that no one can legally discriminate!”
We have to unlearn the idea that state recognition/rights is an adequate marker of social progress. This relationship is actually more fraught and complicated than we’d like to think. Most of the time, especially when it comes to anti-discrimination legislation, only people with class privilege benefit from these laws and their implementation. Also, legal recognition or incorporation in the legal/state apparatus can actually cause a spike in violence/discrimination. Take for example the recent AP Poll that demonstrates how 51% of Americans express explicitly racist attitudes against blacks – anti-black attitudes have actually increased over the past four years even though we’ve had a black president. As activist scholars like Dean Spade have noted, the realization of legal equality matters much less than the actually campaigns and movements for those laws. Just because you change a law doesn’t mean that you’re going to change anyone’s mind. Conversations can be some of the most radical tactics of our activism. Racism isn’t magically –over—because the law says it is. Even though there are technically non-discrimination policies in place in 2011 685,724 people were stopped by the NYC police – 84% of them were Black even though black people only comprise about 23% of the NYC population.
Despite what you might think, activism is not only about the courts, about demonstrations, about the law. The political is not only about your voting for President Obama and feeling like a citizen (for a day). Activism is about you and me in this conversation. Activism is about how you think, when you are silent, what you read, what economies you support, where you choose to live, what you dress up as for Halloween. In framing the State as the only actor in our conception of ‘social change,’ we displace our own culpability, our own incrimination in systems of oppression.
3. The Government’s Responsibility Trope:“Justice for Trayvon Martin! Send Zimmerman to jail!”
When 17 year old African American Trayvon Martin was shot in February 2012 many people of color passionately argued that Zimmerman should be sent to jail immediately. Justice became conflated with ‘prison sentence.’ This is symptomatic of our citizenry’s unyielding belief on the benevolence of the State and the criminal justice system as a remedy for all our grievances. The irony of this situation is that, in their call for justice, people of color activists further entrenched a system (the increasingly privatized prison industrial complex) that disproportionately targets and oppress our communities.
We must unlearn the benevolence of the State and imagine alternative modes of community-based justice. The majority of working class people of color live in constant fear of police brutality and state violence and surveillance. Every criminal law (criminalization of abortion, criminalization of drugs, etc.) has a disproportionate effect on people of color who are already seen as criminal by a logic of white supremacy. The State is one of the most pernicious sites of violence for women (police commit sexual assault against women who report rape), violence for people of color (racial profiling and the construction of the prison industrial complex which has put 1/15 adults in prison and this stripped a large percentage of people of color of their voting rights – a strategy that Angela Davis calls a new form of contemporary slavery), and violence for queer people (rape and ridicule of sex workers, trans people, and other gender offenders).
We have to unlearn our conception of the State as some monolithic entity: the ‘State’ is composed by thousands of different individuals like ourselves – individuals who share their own prejudices and yet are expected to implement policies and make moves that run contrary to their predispositions and beliefs (so many of them just don’t).
Unlearning what we see
Along with citing common knowledge rather than taking the time to research our positions on racial justice, we must unlearn our eagerness to cite what we see as legitimate evidence. We must avoid the: “It can’t be, because I haven’t seen this!” or “I saw this and therefore it is” move. A reliance on the register of visibility may be already antithetical to a project of racial justice.
The thing about poverty and inequality is that those in power always find a way to relegate it to the domain of the invisible. Did you know that in the US – apparently the most wealthy nation in the world – almost half of our population is living in poverty or near poverty? People around the world – including Americans themselves – don’t see this because the field of representation is always already political. The images that media, that popular culture, that our ‘diverse’ universities create are engineered in such a way that they often obfuscate the lived reality of inequality.
In (un)becoming racists we have to acknowledge the ways in which invisibility has always worked as a strategy of white supremacy and colonial domination. We can see this when we read the discourse generated by colonial empires as they talked about the savages in their colonies (the person of color is always hyper-visible, while whiteness is never marked), read the pseudoscience constructed to justify colonialism and genocide, read the way that ‘ethnicity’ was constructed as a category to incorporate Europeans into the ‘constructed’ racial category of whiteness and therefore continually exclude black/brown bodies. We become familiar with the ways that whiteness has always maintained its power through its invisibility. Even though whiteness created racial difference, it excused itself from ever being named as a race.
Another way that white supremacy maintains its invisibility and therefore power is with its reliance on results/static oriented thinking versus process/mobile orienting thinking. Racism is seen as something that inhabits particular bodies. We hear of ‘racists’ as a type of people that we can easily identify. This is not the case. Racism can be better be conceptualized as a series of actions – actions that we can discern from a cursory survey of the field of representation. Both white and people of color can do white supremacist things and participate in structures of white supremacy. In recognizing racism as an active process we can see how ‘seeing’ only captures a glimpse of it and is never able to obtain the full process.
(Un)becoming racists means that we have to learn to see what has been rendered invisible.
Here are some examples of how representation often arises in these conversations:
“I’m a White Person and I’m not Racist!”
This is a tactic used by white people who conceptualize racism as only an interpersonal or interactional phenomenon that involves the expression of explicit prejudice to a person of color. The argument goes that because a white person (thinks) they treat people of color with respect and don’t call them mean names, they are therefore not racist. Because a white person sees themselves as somehow ‘different’ than the category of a ‘racist,’ therefore they are not racist. People use this argument may cite ‘extreme’ examples of racism (like the KKK) to distance themselves from it.
However, this argument incorrectly perceives what racism is. Yes racism is interpersonal, but it is also structural. White supremacy is an institution, is a particular logic, an ideology. White supremacy is a particular logic of domination that has a long history that involved (and continues to justify and render invisible) the exploitation of labor of people of color around the world, the forced enslavement and trafficking of people of color, the genocide and forced displacement of people of color, the destruction of indigenous traditions of people of color, the extinction of native languages, the pollution and exploitation of the land owned by people of color, the rape and sexual conquest of people of color, the spread of infectious diseases of people of color, the torture and mutilation of people of color, among other heinous crimes. The very system of law, of governance, of propriety, of development, of modernity, of time, of reason, etc. is a result of these violent histories. Yet, because white supremacy maintains its power in its invisibility, we do not see these systems as racialized. Because we associate these atrocities with the past, with our ancestors, we do not feel implicated. Because we do not see ourselves participating in this corruption, we pretend that we are not.
White supremacy by its nature is invisible – it is something ALL OF US (including people of color) are socialized into. If you don’t believe me take an Implicit Association Test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ and confront your own internalized racism(s). What we have to unlearn is that our bodies are unproblematic sites of knowledge. The ‘enemy’ is not something outside of us, rather it is part of us – what Ashis Nady calls “the intimate enemy.” The lens with which we view the world is already textured by white supremacy.
All of us are complicit in white supremacy, but white people may be even more unaware of this because, unlike people of color, they do not have to develop a self-conception of being a racialized being until they are in situations where their whiteness becomes hyper-visible (visiting a country in the Global South, getting called out in a Facebook discussion). Thus, when you hear a critique directed to “white people” it is because white people are significantly less likely than people of color to take the time to understand themselves as having a race and participating in structures of white supremacy. It is because, therefore, white people are significantly less likely to interrogate their racial privilege and acknowledge the ways in which their ‘success’ does not arise solely because of their merit, but also because of their historical and contemporary racial privilege.
“But my person of color friend said…”
This occurs when well-intentioned white people may recognize that they have a different relationship to visibility because they have not been racialized. So, they cite the knowledge of their person of color friend to justify their ideas. This is symptomatic of a tactic called ‘tokenization’ – which was central to the project of colonization. Native informants were used to justify exploitation of the colonies. “Because this Indian thinks it’s okay – we’re going to go ahead and do it!” One person of color cannot represent all of the opinions/thoughts/perspectives of a diverse peoples.
Also, because people of color have grown up in a white supremacist world that has told – and continues to tell them – that they are insignificant, are less than, are worthy of incarceration, death, genocide, cultural extinction. It makes sense that many of people color have internalized racism and aspire so deeply for validation from white bodies, whether they recognize it as such or not. In advancing this argument what you are, in fact, doing is appropriating a body of color for your white supremacist agenda.
“But I’m a person of color and I don’t think this is racist!”
People of color can also be complicit with white supremacy and prejudiced on the basis of race (let’s talk about Condoleeze Rice and her decisions which have resulted in the torture and execution of countless innocent brown bodies, let’s talk about people of color who roll their eyes when their community members talk about the racial oppression they have received from white people). As I’ve tried to explain, white supremacy is an institution that is perpetuated by all bodies, including bodies of color. Bodies of color can totally say things and make decisions that contribute to white supremacy. As a brown person I am totally complicit with white supremacy and say/do/think racist things far too much.
As people of color attempting to ‘make it’ in a world dominated by a logic of white supremacy we are often not provided with the language, spaces, or methods to identify and communicate our experiences with racism. Every part of the system encourages us to remain silent and go along with the agenda. In this system we are encouraged to call out people of color who are vocal about their oppression as ‘obnoxious’ or ‘extremists’ in the same way we are taught to view black bodies as ‘criminal’ and brown bodies as ‘terrorists.’ It’s the same tactic white people use to distance themselves from the KKK. In distancing ourselves from the ‘obnoxious’ we become more reasonable, moderate, rationale, and down with the (white supremacist) system. Thus it makes perfect sense that people of color – once they have access to privilege – want to hold onto it desperately and not revoke it.
However in order to be anti-racists (not just people of color, there is a difference) we must question the legitimacy of the standards of our success, we must question the parameters our tongues, our bodies, our politics, our thoughts have to assimilate into to become successful, we must question what types of people are unable to experience the privilege we have. We must draw attention to the ways in which has been and continues to be a site of extreme material and economic oppression of people of color across the world (look at the distribution of wealth across the globe thanks to centuries of (settler) colonialism, slavery, genocide, and empire).
Rather than blithely accepting the status quo, we must use our comparative privileges to create a space for justice for all people of color – including the poor, the immigrant, the incarcerated, the homeless, the colonized, the undocumented, the non-English speaking, the non-Christian, etc.
We must (un)learn validation from a white supremacist system. We must unlearn the drive to universalize our privileged experiences and unlearn the assumption that all people of color should be quiet. Instead of distancing ourselves from conversations of racism, we should use this thing, our ‘race’ to build solidarity with communities who do experience incredible disadvantages and violence on account of their race.
I began this letter establishing that the conversations we have around race are actually structured by the very logics of white supremacy itself. This is evident in the way that we are asked to speak about race in a ‘civil,’ ‘objective,’ ‘reasonable,’ and ‘appropriate’ manner that is ‘not offensive to white people.’ The conversations we have about race are seen to exist in a vacuum – divorced from any history. We continually re-invent the wheel when we asked to re-prove the importance of racial analysis. We must unlearn the ways we have been taught to speak about race because those ways are necessarily racist!
Every time I post anything challenging white-supremacy people get upset about the “anger” and the “radicalism” of the piece – “could you have picked something more reasonable, they ask?”
We have to (un)learn what we think of as radical. Radicalism a matter of perspective. The fact that 1% of Americans have devised tactics to control the majority of wealth in the world is pretty radical. The fact that people can still deny the importance of affirmative action or other programs to address centuries of institutionalized racism is pretty radical. The fact that students at universities across the world don’t learn about white supremacy, its history, and its current implications is pretty radical!
What we must recognize is that the very keys to liberation are constructed as ‘radical’ by the system to dismiss their legitimacy. How do you expect to end racism unless we think in ways that make you uncomfortable? Can you explain to me why there is still so much inequality in the world when people have been thinking reasonably for a long time? What we must recognize is no one has come up with the answers to solving social justice issues like white supremacy because of the mandate of this political pragmatism, the mandate of this reasonability, this demonization of imagining and thinking outside of the box.
We must unlearn our cursory dismissal of critiques and arguments that come across as too ‘radical,’ too ‘outlandish,’ too ‘unreasonable’ and recognize the ways in which white supremacy creates distinctions between what is ‘useful’ and what is ‘excessive’ as a tactic of its surveillance and control.
Affect and the Personal
Folks also may take offence to the “rage” of the anti-racist text. They may feel ‘isolated’ by this and ask for a less overwrought critique.
Such a response, once again, is a tactic of white supremacy. It’s the discourse around 9/11: “How could ‘they’ do this to us – how could they be so extreme?” (discourse which ignores histories of violent exploitation and imperialism directed at the Middle East by the US and called ‘foreign policy’) It’s a way in which affect/rage/un-rationality is always ascribed to the body of color without recognizing the real history behind this feeling.
Do you honestly think anti-racists go around just wanting so desperately to yell at everyone and get in fights? As someone who has been in my fair share of these I can tell you it’s pretty exhausting and isn’t that fun. We are turned to rage as a last effort. We have tried your methods of respectability; we have tried to express our concerns with racism and imperialism in your appropriate channels and forums. We have been ignored.
Our expressions of rage come from a frustration with a system of white supremacy that continually renders our voices and critiques invisible. Our expressions of rage come from a desire to penetrate through your noise-cancelling headphones (called privilege). Our rage has a history (and so does your disbelief).
Furthermore, what makes you think that feeling ‘isolated’ by this text is a ‘bad’ thing? In dialoguing about race we have to invite our full bodies – in all of their visceral honesty – into the conversation. We cannot endorse a paradigm of rational thought that sees our intellect as somehow ‘outside’ of us. What makes you think that challenging systems of oppression like white supremacy will be easy? What makes you think that coming to see yourself as a white person is going to be comfortable? If it was easy it would have happened a long-ass time ago. It should be an extremely isolating, difficult, and emotional journey to cultivate anti-racism.
What is more important is less that you are feeling isolated, but rather, what you choose to do with that affect. You could follow the route of most privileged people and distance yourself from that emotion and rest-assured in your white bourgie sensibility and surround yourself with people who think and act like you do and validate your integrity. Or, you could use this as a radical opportunity to unlearn yourself and unlearn your privilege. You could use this as an opportunity to reflect on how the majority of people of color exist in a state where they feel perpetually isolated by you. You could use this as an opportunity to reflect on your racialization as a white or privileged race person.
This learning, this cultivation of your anti-racist racial privilege, is not something that you can just develop in reading the articles you read on Facebook. It is something that you have to (un)learn in all realms of your life: it is a way of living and thinking that has to become infectious: the way you refuse to go to certain parties and endorse racist and/or colonial stereotypes, the way that you refuse to keep silent about the jokes made about custodial/janitorial staff, the way you can’t feel comfortable in a club with all people who look like you, the way you must even invite this critique into the bedroom and question the racist construction of your deepest and most personal desires.
Unlearning Knowledge Itself
The way we are taught to think about ‘knowledge’ is that it is something that we own, something that we control, something that we cultivate (not the other way around). In our Western education systems the accumulation of knowledge is dictated by a logic of capitalism and therefore functions with models of competition and scarcity. Knowledge becomes something that we horde, we amass, something that we must continually prove and subsequently use to justify our social position and distinguish ourselves from other people if successfully proven. Knowledge stratifies us – it divides the ‘intelligent’ from the ‘unlearned, the ‘A’ from the ‘B+.’ And we buy into this understanding of knowledge so much to the point that we pay tens of thousands of dollars for it a year and accrue significant debt and sleepless nights.
What if the way we have been taught to learn and express our knowledge is antithetical to a project of social justice? What if we don’t know how to learn how to eliminate racism and other systems of oppression because we have been taught to create empires and not movements with our knowledge?
Could it be – perhaps – that the knowledge we are taught is an insecure knowledge, is a knowledge that relies on continual validation, continual dismissal of critique, continual putting down of others? That insecure knowledge, that college degree, makes us perpetually terrified of critique – we the college students who get pissed when we get B’s on our papers, we the learned class who so deeply believes that we’ve got things figured out.
Our relationship to knowledge makes racial justice impossible because as with any project of liberation, we must liberate ourselves from dominant ways of knowing that the system – the same system that has incarcerated more African-Americans in our prisons than were enslaved in 1850 – has taught us.
In order to dialogue meaningfully for justice we have to unlearn this knowledge. We have to unlearn the logic of ‘criminal’ ‘justice’ as a means to make our nation more ‘safe.’ We have to unlearn that tinge of fear when we see a black man walking on the street at night. We have to unlearn the overwhelming beauty of whiteness that we see marketed to us on television screens.
The way we have been taught to ‘know’ is in a way that requires us to continually prove to the world that we know exactly what we’re talking about – that we have well-reasoned arguments for every belief we might have. Within this system of knowledge we get punished for admitting our ignorance – we don’t get the degree, we don’t get the job, we don’t get the credibility. We get punished for not knowing the ‘answers’ for not having the ‘finished product.’
We have to develop a relationship with knowledge that makes us eager, and not intimidated or offended by critique. We have to approach knowledge with humility and not dominance. We have to stop viewing knowledge as something that we can access as individuals, and instead think of it as something that we can only discern as collectives.
Ultimately, we have to perceive knowledge as something that is beyond our control, something that is continually unknowable and inaccessible. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we didn’t know something, it should be an expectation, especially when it comes to issues of justice. We cannot make demands that these topics render themselves in intelligible forms that we can consume (when you ask me to prove that white supremacy exists). In making this demand we assume that the key to knowledge is about knowing facts, having results. What gets lost here is the process. We should think of anti-racism as a continual process of collective unlearning – a seemingly insurmountable project that requires us fundamentally to forget what we thought we knew, and commit ourselves to (un)learning anew.
14 9 / 2012
I’m a hot ass mess. I am sooo messy. I’m the gurl you gossip about with your friends because she don’t have her shit together. I’m the mess who’s crying at the club (you think she’s drunk out of her mind, but she’s pretending). I’m the guy who’s giving you mixed signals. I am all of these people, all of these feelings, and more. And, I don’t give a fuck.
Recently I had a pretty serious accident and sustained burns on my feet, thigh, and hands. I found it difficult to perform the most basic of tasks: typing on my laptop, cooking dinner, giving myself a bath, walking down the hill to the grocery store. At first I felt uncomfortable asking my flatmate for his support and would try to over-exert myself when he was out of the house (giving myself clandestine showers aka falling in the bathroom and exacerbating the problem). I was a mess. There were days I couldn’t do anything. I spent the majority of my time feeling things. Not all of these things were optimistic: sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I didn’t wake and my entire body caught on fire, sometimes I thought about the reactions of my family and friends and who seemed to care and who didn’t, sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I died.
We are told that these feelings are natural. We are told that this is part of the process of healing and recovery. Then we are told to get over it. We are told to move on, to be happy, to clean our shit up, to become another productive body contributing to society’s collective delusion of stability, able-bodiedness, and happiness. And that’s what people kept telling me: hang in there, it gets better, you’re looking much better. And so I lied to them.
I lied to them because the Olympics were going on and we all had constant reminders of how powerful, how able bodies are able to be. Not just in the Olympics: walking on the streets, in the news, everywhere we look we see bodies that have got their shit together, bodies that dress impeccably every fucking day, bodies that somehow find a way to eliminate the distance between ‘couch’ and ‘gym.’ Some nights I would be awake with my entire body throbbing. Sweating, I’d sit up on my bed wincing and tell myself not to cry, tell myself that even though I’m not an Olympic athlete, I am a human with a body capable of power, capable of growing, of healing, of forgetting. Some mornings I would wake up suddenly when the light hit my face because it reminded me of the fire. Some afternoons when I walk into my apartment I smell something burning and run upstairs to make sure that nothing is on fire.
After the accident I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my body.
I’m one of those people who reads a lot of postmodern theories about bodies and how they perform and eat and fuck, but I’ve never really felt my body, never really listened to what it was saying. As an able-bodied and middle-class person ascending in ‘higher’ education, the truth is I have never had to pay much attention to my body: I have never worked a direct service job, never seriously entertained the idea of being an athlete or serving in the army. I was taught to cultivate my mind: to read books, to make art, to grow intellectually. Processed through a Western education system I learned that my ‘mind’ was the repository of knowledge: that inventions like science were more legitimate than feelings like god. I only became reminded of my body in the extremes of discomfort or pleasure.
I think I really felt my body for the first time – in all of its radical and visceral honesty – lying in the emergency room wincing and feeling like I was on fire all over again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for me to recognize and acknowledge my body and all of its faults, inconsistencies, and demands. I have been thinking a lot about how my body is actually one of the most radical texts I have yet to read and discover.
During my accident and short period of different ability (acknowledging the privileges of the impermanence of this here) at first I found myself apologizing for everything. “I’m sorry for holding you back / I’m sorry that I can’t party with you tonight.” I found myself asking: why do I feel compelled to apologize? What is so wrong about my body that it could not be accommodated for? And I began to think – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we just lived our bodies in their full integrity in all of the visceral affect, without apologizing?
Think of the ways we find ourselves apologizing for our bodies. Excuse me, sorry, can I go use the bathroom? Sorry, I turned in the assignment late I had a tough night last night, Sorry I can’t keep up with you, I’m just not that fit… Apologies have become so normalized in our days that they seem routine. I started to count the number of times I apologized for body in a day: for it being in the way, for it not being able to keep up, for it not being productive enough, for it being messy. Let’s ask ourselves: are we actually sorry or have we been made to feel sorry?
Often many of the times we apologize it’s because our bodies are making a critique of the space and other people don’t like it: our bodies are telling our colleagues that this meeting is far too long, that there should have been food here, that this workout was too intense.
Throughout my life I have found myself apologizing not only for my bodily functions, but also for the symbolic meaning that has been forcibly placed on my body. I am sorry about 9/11 (but I am not Muslim). I am sorry for holding his hand and making you uncomfortable. I am sorry for wearing clothing that makes you angry (I mean question your gender and sexual preference). I am sorry for bringing up race when we’re hooking up. I’m sorry that I can’t stop thinking and writing about race. I am sorry that I don’t work out. I am sorry that I am so hairy.
And these are the types of apologies that are not verbalized; they are the apologies that we inscribe on our bodies. They are the times I would sneak in the bathroom when I was a kid and steal my sister’s razor to shave every hair on my body so I could fit in and look like my (white) classmates at school. They are the times I first moved out of the house to college and realized that I could now buy hair-removal cream without my mom knowing (I didn’t do it). They are the times I told my mom that I wanted to go to Church like the white kids, that I wanted to buy more expensive brand-label clothes. All of these acts of assimilation (erasure) are apologies – we refuse to allow our bodies to exist authentically and we silence its critique. As queer bodies, as bodies of color, or other abject bodies, our bodies tend to be inherently critical of the spaces we inhabit. Yet in our efforts to assimilate, to apologize, we deny the knowledge, the ways of knowing of our bodies.
I find myself apologizing the most to white men. I apologize when I change the names of my majors to seem more alternative and less radical. I apologize when I change the tone of my voice, speak deeper so I sound more straight-acting. I apologize for being too political, too brown, too effeminate, too extreme, too radical, too everything by conforming and modifying my appearance, my body, and my behavior to fit into a paradigm where I come across as normal, status quo, desireable (just with that provocative edge). Most of the time I apologize with my silence. I refuse to articulate my attraction to them because I fear their judgment, fear that they will tell me that they are not attracted to my body (and that I will agree because their eyes are the ones I have been taught to view my body through).
And I am tired of silent because I was tired about lying about the pain of embodiment, the migraines, the throbbing of the night. And I bet you’re tired of being silent to and I want to ask – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we asked ourselves every time we felt the urge – no, the compulsion, the imperative – to apologize, why we were doing it? What if we only apologized when we meant it, not because we had to?
I want to live as an unapologetic body. I want to be a body that is so brown it offends you. I want to be a body that is so queer it makes you uncomfortable. I want to be a body that is so consumed, so overfilled with emotion that it makes you cry. I want to be a body that doesn’t apologize for not turning in assignments because it was making art. I want to be a body that listens to you crying and doesn’t judge you. I want to be a body that is so messy, so all over the place, that it makes you feel positively put together.
I have seen the way that the burns on my fingers have healed and I have seen the way skin has peeled and re-grown and I have felt the lowest and most base things and I am recognizing that it is more about the feeling, more about the growing, more about the process, than the result. And when we apologize, we forego the process, we abandon the critique, we assimilate.
So I want to put forth a theory, a politics, an aesthetic, an affect of UNAPOLOGETIC BODIES: bodies that acknowledge that apologies function at the level of our silence and oppression. Here are some initial components – have any contributions?
1. RADICAL HONESTY: What if we didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to work if we didn’t want to? What if I could tell you that I didn’t actually like your outfit? What if I could tell you that I – that we – are not doing fine, that we are actually in terrible pain, that we are conflicted, that we are messy, and that we need you desperately. What if we could tell everyone we were attracted to that we fancied them? What if we didn’t have to closet our crushes? What if we could tell our (a)sexual and (a)romantic partners what exactly we wanted? What if we could break up with friends? What if we didn’t have to fake smiles at parties?
I think we have forgotten how radically honest our bodies are: the way our bodies tell us that we have to use a toilet no matter how inconvenient the situation, the way our bodies tell us that we are sleepy no matter how much work we have, the way our bodies tell us that we are in pain no matter how much we are supposed to be happy, functional, competent. I understand that if you and I were radically honest we would get kicked out of schools, fired from our jobs, etc. – but let’s envision ways to be more (radically) honest with one another. Let’s allow our colleagues to go to the bathroom without asking, let’s stop thinking it’s weird or strange for someone to twitch, scream, yelp, dance during a meeting. Let’s create spaces where people can figure out what authenticity means to them, and where we can validate it, in all of its hot messery. Let’s stop telling people that we are fine, that we straight, that we are religious, that we are respectable if we’re not. Let’s embrace the most unruly parts of ourselves – because this is what our bodies do. Our bodies, they are often messy, uncomposed, bleeding, twitching, itching – this is part of what we are (don’t deny it).
2. INTERDEPENDENCE: At first I apologized for asking people to help me out performing basic tasks. It was only through being unable to do these tasks that I began to recognize how hard it is to actually be a functional body in our world. I don’t think we realize that enough (but our bodies do: remember the stress, the fatigue, the hunger). It actually takes a lot of attention, of focus, of coordination, of inspiration to perform our daily tasks. And being a body – especially an abject body in our world – is challenging.
I want to envision a world where helping one another isn’t seen as a positive gesture. I want to envision a world where giving gifts don’t require thank you notes because we live in a culture of giving, a culture of sharing, a culture of interdependence. We should not celebrate or glorify activists or volunteers for doing good work – we should all be doing good work, finding ways in our own careers, studies, and other pursuits to do public good. This is something we learned from our bodies but are increasingly forget. Remember how we required our guardian’s milk to survive? Remember how we required our caretaker’s words, touches, embrace to learn how to feel, think, speak? Remember how we required our siblings fights, arguments, tantrums to relate, empathize, anger, build coalitions? We grew up relating in such radical and interdependent ways and then we were confronted with the expectations of our bodies: confronted with the 4 year degree, the 9-5 job, the 8 digits that defined our identity and we were told that as bodies we must be individuals that function well alone.
3. RECLAIM HOT MESS AND DECOLONIZE YOUR MIND: I spent my summer in Cape Town, South Africa. Last week one of my closest friends and I met-up and had a thorough debrief and laid all of our hot mess out on the table (what a beautiful process). After our catharsis she called me a few hours later and told me that she hadn’t thought until now what it meant to be a Xhosa African woman. She realized how her mom told her to only talk to the white kids growing up, to go to the private school, to forget her native language and dance and ceremonies and go to school and now she (and I) are forgetting our bodies, are forgetting the radical potential of our bodies as texts, as sites of culture. Our conversation got me wondering – what it is about the imperative of Western modernity that denies our bodies (even though, ironically, it is predicated on the labor of bodies of color?) What I’ve begun to think about is that often to become appropriately modern, to become appropriately successful and useful in our world we are compelled to forget our bodies and their knowledge.
Ask yourself — what are we learning in school and how are we being taught to articulate and answer questions? And how have our schools discouraged our rage, quieted our anger, silenced our beating hearts? And what if we viewed emotional and artistic expression as legitimate as your capitalist economics books? In prioritizing bodily knowledge and listening to our bodies we can resist the imperative of the modern neocolonial subject – a subject that divides their time, space, emotions into pre-defined spaces, times, places, a subject that conforms, that apologizes, that weeps in silence.
Listening to our bodies isn’t enough, we must RESPOND to them – and the truth is – sometimes our bodies encourage us to be hot messes. What I notice about all of the expressions we label ‘hot mess’ is that they tend to defy logic, tend to be outside of the boundaries of rational respectability. We call others hot messes in order to establish our own put-togetherness. The ‘hot mess’ becomes our collective site of baggage, of trauma, of vulernability. In relegating hot messery to the Other, we hope to prove our own stability. What if we all recognized the ways in which we were hot messes? What if we (re)learned how to appreciate hot messery with empathy, vulernability, and solidarity? What becomes increasingly apparent is that we are learning to delegitimize emotion (unless it is positive) as an authentic and powerful mode of expression. We are learning to prioritize well-reasoned arguments over catharsis, over bodily release.
Sometimes our bodies encourage us to cry, to dance, to whine, to bitch, to moan, to orgasm – so let’s do it! Let’s not give a fuck what they think about it! Let us cultivate solidarity with Prince Harry, with all the people who fuck up, who make bad decisions, who aren’t private about their affairs, their messups, their inconsistencies, their heartbreak, their inconsistencies. So let’s be that hot mess at the club, at school, at work, at all the spaces where we are expected to be something we don’t want to be. Hot mess is an act of protest, an act of resistance, an embrace of your body integrity. So let’s be colored, let’s be queer, let’s be political, let’s be radical, let’s be messy and REFUSE to apologize.
One of my poems from my latest collection “UNAPOLOGETIC BODIES:”
we, welfare check
we, hate crime
we, police state
we, who have bodies that fuck,
bodies that mutilate,
bodies that twitch,
bodies that pack
refuse to apologize,
refuse to forget.
13 7 / 2012
As part of a day-long workshop called “Mapping Your Sexual Desire: Liberating Your Sexual Body” we were asked to write our name and what we were “interested in” on our nametags. I was the youngest – and perhaps most inexperienced (though not to conflate age and experience here) — of the bunch, simultaneously shocked and excited by the prospect of being so honest, so public of the nature of my desires. I soon realized that I didn’t really know what my body desired (I suppose that’s why I was at the workshop). I ended up writing something like: “Alok / conversation / cuddling.” The guy next to me was interested in waterworks, the one across liked being chained up and abandoned…I think there was a barebacker in the group, as well. I felt positively vanilla.
I ended up leaving the workshop early. My discomfort didn’t stem from some sexual naïveté, prudishness, or internalized conservativism (at least I hope not). It arose more from the type of discourse, the logic of the event – the way that sex, intimacy, and desire was discussed.
In this piece I want to problematize dominant narratives of sex-positivity. I will demonstrate how sex-positive spaces have the tendency to rely on the heuristic of a normal body – a body that is often assumed to be sexual, white, Western, and well-to-do financially. In this piece I want to imagine a sex-positive feminism that thinks more radically about sex, bodies, relationships, intimacy, and liberation. I recognize that there is no ‘one’ type of sex-positive feminism and that I cannot judge the entire goals of a movement from the experiences I’ve had interacting with these spaces. I acknowledge, too, how indebted my own sexual ethics, politics, and values are to contributions from sex-positive feminists. (I am supportive of the majority of conclusions and aims of such activists for example the idea that sex/the erotic is often stigmatized, that states/patriarchy/hegemonic institutions police and restrict our desires, that one should never be judged for having ‘too much’ sex, the importance of frank dialogue and (enthusiastic) consent, the role that sex plays in overcoming trauma, etc.))
I hope that my critiques can help us, as activists committed to a sexual liberationist project, envision a more inclusive, complicated, and embracing movement for sexual autonomy and the realization of radical collective pleasures.
What is sex, anyways?: Radical Post-Colonial Asexualities
Last week a gay friend at a bar asked me what I was going to be doing over the weekend. I told him that I had tickets for a really great queer art performance scripted by a friend. He looked at me, a bit aghast, and said: “Why watch that when you can get the real thing – why don’t you go find some hot guy on the dance floor, bring him back to your room, and fuck him.” I insisted that I’d really rather watch this play, but he maintained “there’s nothing better in the world than orgasm.”
Really now? I want us to think more critically about the dominance of ‘orgasm’ in discourses of sex and pleasure. The assumption at my workshop was that everyone who participated was motivated by sexual desires and enjoyed having sex. ‘Liberated’ sex was presented as the panacea for our sexual repression – finding what really ‘got you off’ would help you ‘unlock’ your ‘deepest’ ‘sexual’ desires (orgasm). After we found this site of desire, we were encouraged to re-visit as frequently as possible.
As asexuality activism reminds us, the idea that all people are born sexual is one of the most misleading social assumptions that our dominant culture teaches us. It’s much more complicated and many individuals (not just self-identified members of the ace community) experience sexual desire so simply. From the vantage point of asexual subjectivity, sex-positive rhetoric is often exercised in an almost missionary fashion: bodies are educated about mystic forces that they are capable of, told that they must adopt a specific doctrine, and then, with enough practice and commitment, they will experience liberation (read: orgasm). While this narrative may apply to many sexually-able people, differently sexual people are immediately isolated from this conversation.
Many ace bodies are completely disinterested in sex. Does this mean that they cannot experience liberation of their desire? Many ace bodies can orgasm, but do not experience it as a driving or motivating force in life (I’ve heard – “it feels like blowing your nose” a few times). Does this mean that they just haven’t located their true desires yet? Do they just have to ‘get better’ at sex?
I’m troubled by this paradigm: that bodies that somehow are not being pleased (in a very narrow understanding of bodily pleasure) are constructed as un-enlightened, ignorant, repressed. Bodies that can orgasm at will and experience all the time are depicted as liberated bodies, bodies that have somehow been ‘saved’ from pathologizing discourses that delegitimize queer sexuality. I understand and empathize with where this paradigm comes from. As queers whose bodies, whose acts have been criminalized, shamed, etc. it makes sense that our movement has located a radical politics in not only accepting, but publically articulating and demonstrating our intimacy. However, we have to make sure that the liberated bodies we imagine do not rely on the same tactics of exclusion we have opposed in the past. In much of our current rhetoric: sex is presented and uphold as the dominant site of pleasure and intimacy. Other ways of relating, other ways of experiencing happiness are seen as inferior.
Instead of talking about ‘sex’ and ‘orgasm’ (terms that are often exercised in ways that root pleasure in ‘sex’ acts involving genitalia) we need to talk about pleasure more holistically. In psychoanalysis, cathexis is defined as the process of investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or desire. Sexual desire is one type of cathexis – but bodies can be oriented and strive for many other sites of desire in many different ways. Language that emphasizes the importance of not only having sex, but having sex all of the time isolates bodies that negotiate different relationships with pleasure. We must shift our rhetoric to a language centered on self-determination – one that argues that all people should be allowed to do with their bodies as they please to (even if that involves not having sex).
Ace-friendly frameworks also have a lot of parallels with post-colonial critiques of universalizing sexual discourse. The Western world loves to talk about how ‘backwards’ sexually the Global South is (read Massad’s Desiring Arabs and Stoler’s critiques of Foucault for more background on this), but as recent criticism by post-colonial queer scholars have shown – the West applies a very narrow understanding of sexual liberation, an understanding that privileges particularly notions and expressions of (public) visibility that does not graft well on many non-Western traditions. These traditions may have completely different relationships between public/private spheres and different connotations associated with bodies, intimacy, and sexuality. In the same way that ace bodies are constructed as perpetually in a state of un-enlightenment, subaltern bodies are also relegated to the domain of ‘repressed.’ We must move away from such binaristic trajectories that locate ‘repression’ and ‘liberation’ in particular ways of being. Instead, we must recognize liberation as a process, as an impossibility, that we all have our own respective ways of realizing.
Incorporating ace-critiques into our work expands the horizons of what is possible in a body liberation workshop. Sex – as its narrowly defined by heteronormative and acephobic interpretations of bodies and intimacy – is one path of many toward body liberation. For other bodies it may involve hugging, cuddling, good conversation, friendship, dancing, political organizing. These methods of obtaining pleasure are no less legitimate than the ‘holy’ power of orgasm. Incorporating ace-critiques force queers to be more creative and envision new sites of radical pleasure. What if we could speak with such passionate rhetoric about more things we do? What if we could re-frame watching a movie, catching up with a friend, creating art as sex? If a queer project is committed to expanding the terrain of pleasure, we must move beyond bodies interacting intimately in socially rehearsed scripts with other bodies.
The emphasis on sex positive feminism has done much to challenge heteronormative scripts of intimacy – moving us far, far away from phallic/receptable models of sex and valorizing sadomasochism, bondage, and other performative sex acts. However, I still think we can push further. Our rhetoric should not only be about ‘realizing’ pleasures, but also developing the capacity to expand pleasures, learning how to experience the world and all the opportunities it offers with a new capacity for enjoyment, intimacy, and orgasm (in the most dephallicized way we can imagine it).
Inter(sex)ionality: Contextualizing Sex Within a World of Power
As progressive activists we are all too willing to talk about how “sex is political.” We throw around the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” but sometimes I wonder if we truly internalize what it means to think about fucking and desire in the context of extreme inequalities.
As I’ve argued, sex-positive rhetoric often includes an imperative for people to realize and act on their sexual desires. We are told: if a woman, of a gay man, of a body is attracted to another body it should overcome its internalized slut-shaming and go for it! We congratulate our friends for “getting some” last night. We create hierarchies in our communities – so and so is very experienced (read: liberated). The assumption is that the more we ‘realize’ our desires, the more liberated we become.
For many bodies this is not the case. For some bodies, ‘realizing our desire’ is actually detrimental to our other paths toward liberation and decolonization.
Sex positive rhetoric rarely interrogates the origin of desire – rarely encourages us to ask what kind of bodies get labeled as sexy and why this is the case. Sex positive rhetoric must incorporate an intersectional lens to its discourse. What is ‘desireable’ in our world is determined by global systems of capitalism, (neo-) colonialism, white supremacy, ableism, heterosexism, etc. We have to ask ourselves – in acting in our desires, in getting what we ‘want,’ are we reifying these systems of oppression? It is my contention that sex-positive rhetoric ignores the reality that for many of us, our attractions function as a mechanism of our oppression. Realizing our short-term sexual desires may not actually be positive for our larger project of self-love and emancipation.
I offer my own queer racialized body as an example. As a body socialized in the imperialist and white supremacist country in a region populated by predominantly white, upper-middle class, Christian, heteronormative, etc. peoples, my understanding of beauty was severely and violently delineated by power. I grew up continually being reinforced at every level that white, straight, masculine men – the bodies of power in our community – were the most beautiful and desireable bodies. My desire and the internalized-racism and feelings of self-inadequacy that spawned are a tactic of white supremacy. How are people of color, how is the Global South supposed to overthrow white supremacy when we have been internalized at some level to find white people the most beautiful? How are we supposed to find a radical power in browness and blackness when whiteness has colonized our very capacity to experience pleasure in our own race?
If I followed the mandate of sex-positive rhetoric to act on my desires I would not challenge my white and male fetishisms. I would congratulate myself for ‘liberating’ my desire and getting with white guys. But I ask – whose terms of liberation are these? ‘Realizing my desire’ is too simplistic of a narrative for this queer and racialized body. Acting on my desire can actually be detrimental to more important projects (to me) of decolonization. This is not to say that I am advocating that bodies of color should refuse intimacies with whiteness. Rather, we must think more critically about how we negotiate this desire and more cautiously about when we do and do not choose to act on it.
I want us to think of a sex-positive feminism that challenges the essentialized, static, and hegemonic notions of desire we are socialized into. I want a sex-positive feminism that makes us find beauty in the ugly (as Mia Mingus implores us to in her incredible work: http://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/moving-toward-the-ugly-a-politic-beyond-desirability/). I want a sex-positive feminism that acknowledges how we are implicated within corrupt regimes of power, but still encourages and capacitates us to expand the horizons of our desire and learn to find all (consensual) bodies beautiful and worthy of desire.
While I acknowledge that because we have been so violently socialized into these beauty norms without our consent it may be nearly impossible to overcome, that doesn’t mean we should not try. Liberation is a collective and gradual process. If we want to envision sex as political, we need to recognize that our own bodies work against us as hegemonic tools. Instead of only talking to the ‘hot’ people in the bar, of only looking for your particular fetish – let us try, actively, to expand our horizons; to talk to bodies and explore their politics, to join and relate to bodies that entertain a similar vision of a liberated world of desire.
What is wanting in the revolution?
Throughout this piece I have gestured to a critique, more broadly, of wanting: of how particular bodies become wanted, and other bodies undesireable, about how we are told to exercise and realize our wants, without contesting where they wants originate from, etc. I’d like to end with a call for us to re-imagine the character of ‘wanting’ in the way we articulate our desires and politics..
What I mean to say is: What does it mean to ‘want’ in a capitalist society that has made every transaction about obtaining profit? What does it mean to ‘want’ when the only way we have learned to want is for our own self-gain?
A couple of months ago I found myself at some underground queer party in San Francisco. There was a sex-room at the back, everyone around me was inebriated and doing hard drugs, and (white) boys were grinding together, unapologetically, in various shades of nudity. In this site of pleasure, in this sex-positive space, in this destination of (I) want, I found myself profoundly disheartened.
Not all pleasure is ‘good’ – in fact, pleasure and wanting can lead to the demise of the radical and utopian worlds we strive for. We need to unhinge the “I” from our desires and think about our individual desires, our individual libidos, within the context of our collective social movements.
How can we re-orient ourselves to think about collective based pleasures? How can we think about creating sites of pleasure that are not dominated by individual hedonism? Who has access to the types of pleasure we normalize as transcendent? How do we experience pleasure responsibly in a world of extreme poverty? How do we realize our wants without contributing to the despair of others?
A sex-positivity that seriously engages with these questions, among others, is one that I can confidently say that “I want.”