Reading and Responding to the Margins 

I write a lot about race, racism, and whiteness. And without fail, I’ll hear from a white person responding to my work with:

I get what you’re saying, but [lengthy whitesplaining].

Or

Well, actually, [lengthy quibble about the accuracy or inaccuracy of one statement I made among many].

It’s funny because it’s like these folks are demonstrating my point for me. I write about the often subtle nature of white supremacy and then a bunch of white people fill my comments and Twitter notifications with real-life examples. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. And so the cycle continues. 

These responses, no matter how well-intentioned, are a form of defensiveness and derailing–a means of shying away from dealing with the true nature of what has been written. Rather than accept my experiences as a black woman for what they are and processing their feelings accordingly, these folks retreat to petty debates about word choice or experiential accuracy. (This last even more so in the age of “alternative facts.” This false dichotomy of facts versus non-facts represents a very colonized way of knowing. That’s not to advocate for “alternative facts” or lies at all, but to say that there are other traditional ways of knowing and embodied experience that go beyond what is and is not a fact. Alas, that’s a post for another day.) 

These comments get framed as friendly debate and discussion but are actually active examples of white supremacy refusing to be in any way affected by the racialized reality of one of the oppressed. 

It’s a natural reaction. And it goes beyond discussions of race. I myself have read things by queer folks, native folks, trans folks, disabled folks, working class folks, and reacted in this very same way. I have to fight the urge to reach out to them with my response because I realize it doesn’t matter. I, in my position of privilege, get to see and hear my perspectives and realities all the time, everywhere. They, in their marginalized identity, have to fight for the right to express their truth and speak their reality without reprisal. My defensive maneuvers are not necessary and are certainly not welcome. 

Despite my hurt privileged feelings, it is not silencing for them to tell me to shut up and go away. The fact that I feel the need to ‘splain my privilege all over them is the true silencing of oppression. 

Next time you read something by someone “at the margins” and feel the need to respond with a question, comment, or correction, ask yourself these three simple questions first:

  1. What is it I want to say about what I’ve read?
  2. Why do I feel this way about what I’ve read?
  3. Why is it important for this marginalized person to hear my reaction?

Be honest in your answers. And even then, sit with your reaction for a while. Give it space and time to breathe. Re-reflect and allow yourself to form a new response. You just may learn something. 

Everything But…Racism

I don’t use racial slurs or burn crosses on people’s lawns so I can’t be racist…I have black friends so I can’t be racist…I work with a lot of people of color and I respect them so I can’t be racist…I’m not a neo-Nazi so I can’t be racist…I have liberal politics so I can’t be racist.

For as long as there has been time, white people have been fighting the notion that they are racist. For them, it is like the N-word, the C-word, and the B-word all rolled into one. (If only those words didn’t exist and we didn’t know which slurs they referred to.) It is their kryptonite. It is the moment when all communication on issues of race break down. It is the sledgehammer that shreds their delicate #whitefragility to dust in a shower of #whitetears.

And all this is sheer and utter nonsense.

Racism is everywhere. It is the norm. It is the foundation upon which every white colonializing country was built. It doesn’t matter if you’re not American, not Southern, not mean, not old, not conservative. Racism is the fertile soil upon which white supremacy grows. And white supremacy is like ivy. It is everywhere, it is hard to uproot, and it grows fast.

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“Ivy” by Jordan on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

White people are so intent on treating racism like it’s an anomaly, a disease, rather than realizing that racism is the default. White people, by virtue of their race privilege, are racist. All of them. Everyone. It is how white privilege exists and continues to persist. It is a painful reality, I know, but a reality nonetheless.

It’s also important to note that this ubiquity and inevitability of racism exists on both the systemic and individual level. Yes, we live in a society beset by systemic racism. But that doesn’t absolve individuals of the role they play in and the benefits they enjoy from their own individual racism. Racism is both macro and micro; it’s all over the big picture and in every tiny detail, too.

The only way we will ever truly dismantle white supremacy and dig up the manure of racism in which it grows is if we all face this truth: Racism is the foundational default and all white people are guilty of it. There’s no getting around it.

Antiracist work has to begin with this acknowledgement. Antiracist work will inevitably fail without this realization. Anything else is just an adolescent “everything but…” approach to racism:

I’m not racist because I do everything but use racial slurs…I’m not racist because I do everything but become a card-carrying member of the KKK…I’m not racist because I do everything but actively hate all people of color.

White folks, racism is not like justifying your virginity after a steamy summer at Bible camp. You don’t get to do “everything but” and remain “intact.” Whatever line you think there is, you’ve already crossed it. I guarantee it.

So, now, let’s face facts and get to work. Granted, it may take you awhile. For many of you, this post feels harsh and divisive and mean and insulting and untrue. That’s okay. That’s just your #whitefragility acting up. Go ahead, take a moment to yourself or with some fellow white people, and cry those #whitetears. (Just don’t burden people of color with them; we’ve got better things to do.)

And when you’re really ready to be honest and do this work, come on back. It’d be great to have you as a true antiracist ally.

LIS Mental Health Week

This week is LIS Mental Week. Founded last year by two people I absolutely adore, Cecile Walker and Kelly McElroy, it’s a time for those of us in the library and information profession to learn, share, and support one another when it comes to mental health issues affecting us and our families. 

With what’s happening in our world and the immense weight of social justice work nowadays, it is absolutely vital that we be able to talk openly and unabashedly about our mental health. As a black woman and a practicing Christian who also suffers from anxiety, OCD, and panic disorders, I know all too well the silence and stigma that can surround mental illness. I’m also intimately acquainted with the danger of suffering mental illness in silence without treatment or support. And I, too, have felt the ill effects of recent events on my mental and physical health. 

Now more than ever, we have to find and cultivate those safe spaces where we can ask for much needed help and see to much needed self-care. It is part and parcel of the important activism and advocacy work that we do. In addition, those with privilege who serve as allies need to also recognize the physical, mental, and emotional strain that results from living a life beset by systemic oppression. 

I encourage all of you to take time this week to find trusted friends and allies with whom you can provide mutual support and care, to learn more about what mental illness can mean for those who have to deal with it, and to discover and practice effective strategies for managing your own self-care. This work we do is a marathon and not a sprint: if we’re going to make it all the way through, we’ve got to take care of ourselves. And each other. 

“There’s No # For That”

Yesterday I experienced an amazing moment of solidarity and activism with trusted, like-minded individuals who care deeply about fighting oppression in all its forms:

I shared a platter of barbecued meat with Chris Bourg, Eamon Tewell, Emily Drabinski, Zoe Fisher, Jessica Critten, and Angela Pashia. 

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about the #WomensMarch? We did that, too. We’re all in Atlanta for the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, so we joined the rally and march in Atlanta–in John Lewis’ district no less. We even got to hear him speak. 

But truthfully, as fun as it was to see millions of people come out across the world in support of social justice–and against the current US administrarion and its campaign of hate–the fact is these marches were really about little more than–to use a white guy buzzword–optics. It looks good that more people showed up in DC to protest the new administration than showed up for the actual inauguration. It looks good for people who’ve been sitting on their privilege to get up and put on genitalia hats and demand justice. It looks good when people peacefully and cheerily take to the streets to do activism for a day. It all looks good. 

But as my wise friend Emily Drabinski pointed out yesterday while we’re ankle-deep in Georgia mud: “Activism isn’t sexy. There’s no hashtag for that.”

No, there is not. 

We slogged through mud for a couple hours for activism yesterday, but what about those of us who have been slogging through mud for years doing this work? People like my lunch companions who are my trusted comrades and allies in the struggle? I’m glad so many feel they’ve “woken up” in the last few months, but what about all of us who have been awake and working so long we’re weary with sleep deprivation?

Slogging through the Georgia mud

The truth is we can wear pink hats and carry funny signs all day but that won’t do anything to combat systemic oppression. Not while white women are policing the words and actions of women of color, and black women in particular, telling us to “stay on message” when we point out the complicity of white women in getting us to where we are now. Not while one of the biggest “intersectional” marches for social justice is yet predicated on an erasure of disabled people. Not while this “intersectional” action has become almost entirely centered on the cis-glorification of womanhood based on the possession of certain sex organs. Not while marchers take the time to divert to the sidelines to take pictures with and hug the police presence, stepping past “Black Lives Matter” signs to do so.   

Not while, standing in the Georgia mud as John Lewis speaks, my comrades and I look over to see a white woman holding a sign that reads: “John Lewis is my spirit animal.” Yup. 

So I’m going to stick with my takeaway of the great activist experience I had yesterday. That meat was delicious. (If you’re ever in Atlanta, check it out.) Our conversation, as is always the case with these folks and many others like them, was enlightening and inspiring. It was a space of safety and honesty and care. And meat. Lots of meat. 

There’s just no hashtag for that. 

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Happy New Year, friends.

Hope you all had a restful end of year and are ready to head back into it.

I spent the time off with family, as is key for my own self-care warfare. This time included spending a significant portion riding in the car with my parents and brother on the road between my home state of Florida and my sister’s home five states away. Which means I got to listen to a lot of my favorite music: holiday classics by the Temptations and Mahalia Jackson and funk and soul classics on the SoulTown station of XM radio. The Delfonics. Betty Wright. And this truth-telling spoken word funk piece by Gil Scott-Heron:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag

and Skip out for beer during commercials,

Because the revolution will not be televised.

Well. Yeah. Go ahead and listen to that one more ‘gain. I’ll wait.

The reveolution will not be right back

after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.

This is where we are, folks. We are in the midst of a revolution. For some of us, we’ve been here for a while. This is nothing new; just the standard way our lives are hard fought as victims of systemic oppression. For others, this feels like a new era. The weight of revolution is unfamiliar. It’s okay. We’ll show you the way.

We’ll show you what it means to live in a world where you cannot rely on the powers that be to protect or save you. Where the government “of the people” is clearly not the government for your people. Where “not my president” literally means “not my president” and has for a long, long time.

(There’ve been quite a few people–mainly white–pushing back against this slogan. “But he is our president! We can hold him accountable!” Tell that to the millions of us who have never had a president accountable to our communities in our lives. Hillary wouldn’t have been our president either. Let’s face it, Obama wasn’t even our president. Not really.)

This is the world of the margins. The world of the revolution. It is not safe. There are no performative pins worn here. It is not nice. There are few words of encouragement here. It is full of hard work and that work is very often not rewarded. There are no ally cookies here.

There is rage and pain. There is facing the frustration of historical trauma and modern-day oppression from those you seek to help. There is knowing that “not all _____” is a derailing lie meant to recast the focus on your own privilege. There is taking shots from “friendly fire”and yet getting back up to fight in the struggle because you are committed. Because you know your complicity as a direct result of your privilege. Because you feel your hurt feelings and cry your privileged tears on the sidelines so you can be better equipped to be a good strong ally who can handle the rage of your oppressed comrades.

There is all this.

And there is progress.

We have to be ready for this in the revolution. It’s hard, I know. But it’s a commitment worth making.

I’m not much for new year’s resolutions, but I’m committing to  being a better ally in the areas of my privilege–listening more, signal boosting more, learning more, taking the rage of my comrades and activating my privilege to broadcast their message. Putting myself aside and doing what they need me to do in the way they need me to do it. Without praise or reward or even my own comfort. Because–

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,

will not be televised, will not be televised.

The revolution will be no re-run brothers;

The revolution will be live.

Gearing Up for 2017

Season’s greetings, everyone. 

However you choose to celebrate this time of year, or not, I wish you a moment of renewal, reflection, and recentering. This year has certainly brought its challenges, and it looks like the next will bring many more. But I feel confident in our collective ability to fight, fight, fight injustice with everything we’ve got to the very end. 

In the meantime, may you continually remember your self-care and find moments of solace in  the midst of the struggle. 

For me during the next couple of weeks, I’ll be enjoying time with family, time of laughter and joy and peace, time of quiet reflection and meditation, time of marveling at the miracle of radical, justice-bringing, oppression-fighting love peeping out from a dirty stable. 

And I’ll be sending good thoughts with lots of love to all of you. 

See you in 2017. 

Me, lucking out with a beautiful hat that perfectly matches my sweater, at a white elephant gift exchange

F@ck you, ALA

After all we’ve heard and continue hearing about the current U.S. administration—the proof of known and encouraged Russian hacking of the election; the sexual assault admissions; the racism; the Islamophobia of planned Muslim registries and internment; the xenophobia of mass deportations; the racism; the sexism; the homophobia; the transphobia; the business conflicts; the nepotism; the proliferation of “fake news”; the parade of horribles filling the Senate, including union-busters, and known white supremacists, and whole-hearted misogynists—after all this, a representative from the American Libraries Association Washington Office sent this email to the ALA Council list:

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What. The. Actual. Literal. F@ck????

Here’s my response:

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You all may remember the bullsh!t collaborator statements that ALA administration released immediately after the election and the equally bullsh!t non-apology, non-response statement from ALA President Julie Todaro. Back when things were already horrible, but still more was to come. At the time, I didn’t say much because I was suffering post-election fatigue, but amazing people like my friend Emily Drabinski and the incredible Sarah Houghton made it very clear that this kind of fascist ass-kissing would not be tolerated.

ALA membership was livid about those statements, and we made our feelings very well known. We took to our listservs and social media and we made phone calls and sent direct emails to ALA board members and administrators. I thought we made clear how utterly unacceptable collaboration with this administration would be. That more was at stake then just the funding of libraries. That this administration was nothing like previous administrations.

I guess not.

The reality is, and has always been, that ALA does not care about its members or their communities. ALA does not care about our code of ethics or core professional values. ALA talks about it a lot, but ALA does not care about diversity and inclusion and justice. Not really. ALA cares only about its bottom line: funding libraries. 

Which is fine in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fund libraries. We all do. But nothing exists in a vacuum and context is everything. The truth is ALA will gladly sell out its members and their communities for this bottom line. It will collude with hate-filled fascists. It will trample all over its values. It will spit in the faces of the marginalized. All in a hot Washington Office minute. 

This email from ALA, and the attitude behind it, is a slap in the face to all its members, regardless of their political leanings. And to those members and communities already the targets of oppression, it is a punch in the face. With knuckledusters. 

My ALA does not collude with fascists. My ALA does not normalize hate. My ALA does not sell me and mine on the auction block to the highest bidder for a few bucks to fund a library. This is not my ALA. 

F@ck this ALA. 

Performing Whiteness with “Little Black Tombo”

This past summer I read Lois Benjamin’s book The Black Elite (check out my Recommended Reading list) and in it she quotes a story written by Arthur Hoppe, a white columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The story was published in 1968 in the midst of the black civil rights movement.

In the story of “Little Black Tombo,” the title character, an enslaved boy, wants “to be free, to be equal and to be a man.” So a group of characters known as “some Nice White People” set out to help Tombo achieve his goals. First, they change the laws and offer him freedom from slavery. But Tombo still doesn’t feel equal to them. Then, they help him secure an education. To no avail, though with education, Tombo decides to change his name to “Tom.” Then, they change the laws to allow Tom to purchase a home in their neighborhoods. That still doesn’t work. And so, they conclude,

“The problem,” said some Nice White People, “is sociological. You must dress like us, talk like us, and think like us. Then, obviously, you will be equal to us.”

Tom does all this, and while he is never accepted as an equal of the Nice White People, he does get invited to their cocktail parties and asked to share his opinion “but only about racial matters” as the story goes.

Reading through this story made me think about the work I’ve been doing in examining the ways in which people of color perform whiteness in order to gain and maintain privilege in our society. When I wrote my article on whiteness for ITLWTLP, I was saddened by the number of POC, most of whom enjoying some privilege or other, who responded so defensively to the idea that performing whiteness is a natural part of our defense in a racially-charged world. They wanted to believe that their ability to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and boot-strap-pulling was solely a matter of their own innate, racially neutral, color-blind efforts.

And I get that. I used to feel the same way. But the fact is that, like Little Black Tombo, we all reach the point in this white supremacist world when we realize we have to be a person of color-but-not-too-much-color in order to get ahead. We have our own well-intentioned, liberal-leaning, self-proclaimed allies of Nice White People subtly encouraging us to “dress like [them], talk like [them], and think like [them].” And when it’s necessary, we do just that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a POC performing whiteness for self-preservation. At least, there’s nothing wrong in the sense of self-blame or shame for POC. We live in the world of white supremacy, and we do what we must to survive. In the black community, we are often taught the importance of wearing “The Mask” to get in the door and up the ladder, so that once we’re there, we can change things up and make things better for everyone else.

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“Vergessen” by Rubina V. via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And that’s the key. We perform whiteness without shame because we’re answering to a higher calling, if you will; we’re doing so for reasons that reach beyond ourselves. It’s one of many strategies in our mission to force change in our white supremacist world. So, while I perform whiteness without shame to move up in the world, as I move to each new level, I also shout out against the white supremacy that requires my performance in the first place. It’s a multi-level approach in my radicalism. Each level I clear, I strive to make less racist for the next person coming through in the hope that the need for performing whiteness can be done away with altogether.

One last note: It’s important to realize that performing whiteness and having privilege are not the same. We, as POC, can have privilege on our own merit. We’re smart and charismatic and talented and brilliant people. We don’t have to be white for that. But in some cases, in far too many cases, we have to perform whiteness in order to have our smarts, charisma, talent, and brilliance fully recognized. We can work hard and gain privilege, be it financial or educational or something else. But more often than not, we have to perform whiteness successfully to be able to enjoy the fruits of that hard-won privilege.

So, we do. For now. But the struggle continues and the struggle is real. And with the way things have been going lately, they’re probably only going to get worse before they get better.

By the way, in the end of the story, Tom changes his name to “Tombo X,” grows a beard, wears dark glasses, and shouts, “Black is beautiful” before hitting a couple of the Nice White People over the head. When they complain with “deeply hurt” white feelings, the response goes,

“It’s funny,” said Tombo X, smiling, “but at last I feel like a man.”

 

Self-Care Warfare

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

~Audre Lorde

Hi, friends. 

I’ve been a bit quiet on the social media front over the last few weeks. That’s because I’ve been reveling in self-care:

I roasted a turkey and baked my grandmother Muz’s famous mac ‘n cheese. 

I teased and giggled with my little sister and talked video games and grad school with my baby brother. 

I watched football with my dad. (Well, not really. He watched and I read a book and checked in the score every now and then.)

I went Christmas shopping with my mom. 

I gave treats and belly rubs to my furry nibling. 

And then I joined my favorite people in the world to celebrate the 60th birthday of the queen of our lives. (She looks fantastic. So glad those good genes gave birth to me.)

Long live the Queen!


Now I’m on my way back to mycity  and my work and my day-to-day life. 

About a month ago, I said I was going to grieve and then go back to the fight. Looking at my activities over the last few weeks, it might seem like I’ve been just chilling, taking a break. But don’t get it twisted. As librarian, poet, black queer and feminist activist Audre Lorde made clear, self-care is “an act of political warfare.”

This is wisdom that goes way back for my people and many other marginalized folks, I’m sure: the best way to defeat your enemy is to live and love your living, even as you fight. That’s why so many mistakenly embrace the image of the happy slave as full historical truth. They miss the acts of intense physical, spiritual, and emotional warfare that looms behind those smiles: My enslaved ancestors weren’t happy or even accepting of their lot. But a major part of their strength to fight back, a powerful weapon in their arsenal, was their ability to continue to live, love, and laugh with all the dignity the oppressor tried to withhold from them. 

And that is what I do today. With every kiss, hug, shout of laughter, giggle, and burble of joy, I shoot a flaming F— YOU! at those who would try to deny me my joy, peace, and justice. I fight and I smile as I fight, not because the fighting is enjoyable but because this is my life and it is worth living. It is mine. 

So, I revel in my self-care. And I encourage you all to do the same. Sharpen those weapons and fill your enemies hearts with fear. 

Love and peace to you all. 

My favorite people on the planet.

That’s What I Know

Whenever my sibs and I say something obvious that my parents have been telling us for ages, my dad always gives the same reply,

That’s what I know.

His people are Gullah and I’m sure this is an English translation of a phrase the old folks used to say. 

Me: “Daddy, I just realized you were right about [something he and my mom have always known and said]!”

Daddy: “Hmph. That’s what I know.”

Pretty much everything that’s been happening after the election–the open spewing of hate, the resulting shock of people of privilege who had no idea all this was happening all along, the pleas from misguided peace seekers that we “all set aside our differences” and “try to find common ground”–it all has me repeating my dad’s words: That’s what I know. 

Those of us from marginalized communities, particularly people of color, especially, particularly women of color, have known about all this all along. We’ve known about the hate. We’ve known that it doesn’t just or even mostly live with the poor or uneducated; but it lives just as comfortably among the well-to-do and multi-degreed. We’ve known that there are otherwise perfectly “nice, decent” people who are willing to scream racial slurs at us on the street. Or paint swastikas on doors. Or deface places of daily prayer. We’ve known that the hate of the new administration’s supporters didn’t begin and so will not end with the new administration. 

We’ve known this oppression all along. We’ve suffered under it. And we’ve been saying it. Our parents and ancestors were saying it for centuries before us. We said it before the election. We’re saying it now. We’ll keep saying it. 

I understand that for some of you, this is your first time hearing and realizing. And that’s fine. Privilege can make things a bit hazy. You don’t know what you don’t know until you do know. 

But as you realize, you need to also acknowledge that what’s new to you is not new to everyone. In fact, it’s not new at all. It’s been here. It’s been around. It existed before your awakening. And it will continue to exist even after many of you forget. Or grow bored. Or move on. Because some of you will. You’ll sink back into the haze of your privilege and leave the rest of us to continue fighting. It’s harsh to hear, I’m sure, but that makes it no less true. 

For the rest of you committed to joining the fight to the end, welcome. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But we need you. This struggle is ugly, believe us. 

That’s what we know.