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. 

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“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.

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. 

Welcome to Reality, Friends

In the U.S., we’re getting ready to elect a new president. Neither of the major party choices is great, but one is of particular heinousness this year. A lot of people have been talking about him and his heinousness, but honestly, his heinousness is not what I’m sick and tired of.

I’m sick and tired of all the well-meaning people of privilege who have all of a sudden woken up to find that oppression exists.

It feels like I’ve been surrounded by people—so-called “woke” people—who just can’t get over how appalling this candidate and his supporters are. They are traumatized and scandalized and flabbergasterized. And all I can think is

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Me, being so not impressed by your ignorant bliss

People who have lived with oppression are not surprised. We’re not flabbergasted or shocked or amazed. WE HAVE BEEN LIVING THIS AND TALKING ABOUT IT ALL ALONG. This candidate and his heinous views and words and actions are nothing new. His followers did not spring out of his head like the Gorgons’ snakes. They have always existed. They have always hated. We have always experienced—physically, mentally, emotionally—their hatred. It has hurt us. It has killed us. It still does.

If you are surprised by what’s going on in the U.S. right now, then you have been immensely privileged. You still are. You’ve been able to live in a bubble of blissful ignorance, even as many of you claim to be fully committed to the struggle as allies. You thought you were woke. You’ve been fast asleep.

This candidate’s rise to power and influence is not an anomaly. He is the natural product of the system of oppression under which those of us from marginalized identities have always lived. Welcome to reality, friends.

So now that you’re joining us in the land of the aware, what do you do? Wring your hands in despair? Cry about how awful the world “has become”? (Like it hasn’t always been this way for, like, ever.) Pester your friends from marginalized communities over and over about how they’re dealing with all this? (Same as we’ve been dealing with it for, like, ever.)

No.

Now, you fight. If you live in privilege, then this is your mess. You need to clean it up. You need to realize that it’s always been what it is, that you are, in fact, late to the game. You need to catch up and you need to get moving. Get over your shock and get to work.

I live in New York City, so bear with my little analogy here:

It’s like you wake up one evening and turn on the light to find a giant cockroach with bad hair and a fake tan in the middle of the floor. And you scream and holler and cry about how awful the giant cockroach is. And then you notice other cockroaches surrounding and supporting the giant cockroach and being just as awful. And you think, Oh noes! When did my apartment start being a place for horrible cockroaches full of hate?

Little do you realize that your apartment has always been full of cockroaches. In fact, your neighbor on the margins has known all about them. It’s dark on the margins and your neighbor has been covered in cockroaches the whole time. But you just didn’t see them. You had your lights out or you weren’t paying attention or whatever. All this time you thought you were committed to anti-cockroach praxis. But they’ve been there. They’ve always been there. They were there when you moved in and they’ll likely be there when you leave.

Unless you step up. But that means being proactive in combating the oppression of the horrible cockroaches all the time. Not just when your lights are on. Not just when you see the cockroach. All. The. Time. You gotta be putting out those traps and spraying that Raid. It’s a full-time job.

Let’s get over our privileged shock and despair and get to work, shall we? We’ve got some oppression we need to exterminate.

 

N.B. No cockroaches were harmed in the writing of this post. Also, I apologize to cockroaches everywhere for comparing them to a “basket of deplorables.”

 

Look It Up *Wavy Hand Emoji*

My mother is an educator by trade. And my father believes in doing your own hard work. Put the two together and often when we had questions about stuff growing up, our parents encouraged us to seek out the answers on our own. Not that they wouldn’t help us tackle difficult questions, but they also saw the importance in teaching us how to find the answers we sought. Teach a kid to fish and all that.

Nowadays, as “grown-@ss people” (Mama Hathcock, 2016), my parents don’t even try to be gentle about it anymore. In fact, a common meme in our family is an image of Mama waving her perfectly-manicured hand back and forth in a dismissive wave and saying, “Look it up. I’m done.”

waving-hand-emoji

Waving Hand Emoji from Mihika P. on Google+

Last week, I went to NDLC and spoke a couple times. It was a wonderful conference, and I had a great time; but there did seem to be a common theme that kept surfacing: The fatigue of those from marginalized identities as a result of constantly being expected to educate those with privilege. As a fellow black woman said during dinner one evening, “I’m just tired.”

The fact is there are simply too many situations that spring up in our institutions/organizations/conferences that look like this:

Nonindigenous person: Please, teach me about the effects of colonialism. Like, what’s the deal with that Dakota pipeline?

Indigenous person dragging self up through pain and degradation from modern effects of historical trauma and continuing settler violence: Uh, ok, sure. I mean, there’s all kinds of information on the internet about it. And I’m kinda busy fighting against the day-to-day marginalization of my people in a world that thinks we’re all just characters in some racist cartoon, but by all means, let me take some time and energy to educate you…

 

Cisgender person: Gee, why’s everyone talking about bathrooms all of a sudden? Can you fill me in on why this so important?

Genderqueer person tightly and painfully holding on to bladder muscles because they don’t feel safe enough to risk being gender policed in the binary restrooms, which are the only facilities available: Ummmmm, ok. I’m in physical pain and discomfort right now because there’s nowhere safe for me to go engage in basic human bodily functions, but sure, let me just take a moment and educate you on why my physical existence matters…

 

White person: People of color are are always talking about racism and how they’re offended by stuff. But isn’t there a limit to how racist something can be? Like, explain to me how and why exactly you get to decide? I’m really asking ‘cuz I wanna learn.

Black person closing up news app after reading about yet another unarmed black person shot by police for no other reason than they were black and thinking fearfully about their own lives and the lives of their friends and families: Uh, have you been watching the news? I’m really scared for my physical safety right now; it’s like people who look like me are being hunted down by the state on a daily basis. But, sure, let me put those things aside to teach you a few things…

 

Able-bodied person: Why are disability politics a thing? When you think about it, aren’t we all disabled in some way?

Person with a disability who has just spent virtually every waking minute of the day trying to navigate a world that has made pretty much zero attempt at accommodating their needs while privileged others whiz through without a second thought: Riiiiight, I’m really exhausted from just trying to live in this world, but uh, let me gather some of my remaining spoons to educate you on why my life matters…

There are so many other examples I could name, but I’m sure you get the point. These conversations are annoying and exhausting and we need to do something about them.

What can we do? Well, if you’re someone with privilege who is really looking to learn, follow my Mama’s advice and “Look it up.” It’s really not hard. The hard part is actually doing something about what you learn. Making real change in the way you relate to marginalized people in your world.

Which leads to the other thing people with privilege can do: Be a good ally and offer to take on these 101 lessons. Give marginalized folks a break and educate your fellow people of privilege. Pull them aside and offer to explain the basics so already exhausted marginalized folks don’t have to. That is a huge help.

Let’s make a point of remembering that people from marginalized identities aren’t here for our education or edification. They are not responsible for helping us to learn. Learning is our own responsibility as “grown-@ss people.” So, if we’ve got a question and want to fill in our gaps, let’s just take the time to “look it up.”

 

Growing Awareness as a Trans and Genderqueer Ally

This past weekend, I spent time with the lovely folks at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium. I had a great time sharing but more importantly learning, learning, learning. Being challenged. Doing some growing.

One of the themes that seemed to run throughout our time together was the importance of people of privilege taking up the gauntlet to do this work of awareness-raising and education. For me, particularly in the context of this specific gathering, it really resonated as a call to step up my game as an ally to trans and genderqueer people.

As a cisgender woman, there was a time when I was thoroughly confused by the distinction between sex and gender. I just couldn’t get with the idea of gender being a social construct and marked by fluidity. I’ve since come to a better understanding of what this means and figured I would share my thought journey as a way to help educate other cisgender folks who may be mired in lack of understanding. My hope is that my process can serve as a potential resource so that trans people aren’t forced to bear the emotional burden of fielding ignorant and insensitive questions from confused cis people.

Though I also want to note that our understanding as cis folks is really not the point in the grand scheme of things. The Struggle is real for trans and genderqueer people whether we understand or not.

So, think of sex as nothing more than a biological description. Sex organs are like kidneys or blood type. There’s no social meaning to kidneys or blood type. You can be A or B or AB or O, and it really doesn’t matter from a social standpoint. It only matters for medical type stuff.

Now imagine that a group of As and Bs, the dominant groups, randomly decide that A blood types would distinguish themselves by only wearing the color red and B blood types would only wear the color blue. Anyone who has an A blood type but really identifies more readily with the Bs or feels more comfortable wearing blue is ostracized and vice versa. The random clothing rules are strictly enforced.

And when the ABs ask, “What about us?” The answer is, “Just pick one. We don’t want to deal with your difference.” And when the Os ask, “Well, what about us?” The answer is, “You’re really different, and we hate that. Just pick A or B and dress accordingly. Now, go away.”

And for those who don’t identify with blue or red, regardless of their blood type, and simply want the freedom to wear purple or orange or chartreuse? Just forget about it.

That is gender. This random social construct created by folks in the dominant group. Now, there are complexities to this—for example, the As could be further dominant over the Bs, in an intersectional twist, devaluing their labor and only paying them 76 cents on the dollar among other things—but I’m going to keep it simplistic for now.

Let’s take it a step further. Imagine that in order to buy food, which is essential to everyone’s survival, people have to go to carefully marked shops according to their blood type. Red shops are only for people with A blood type wearing their requisite red. Blue shops for the B blood types in blue. No exceptions. If you aren’t following the color-coded, blood type rules, then you aren’t allowed to get food. There are no shops for A blood types identifying as Bs, Bs identifying as As, or anything for ABs or Os or anyone who does not identify with either blue or red. Those folks just have to starve or find food where they can.

This is the kind of situation trans and genderqueer folks face when restrooms are marked according to the male/female binary and strictly policed. Transphobic actions, attitudes, and laws–like HB 2 in North Carolina–are an affront to a person’s basic human and civil rights, much like denying food to people based solely on their blood type.

There is, of course, so much more to know and learn. Like I said, this analogy is simplistic. But hopefully, my thinking out loud can help other cis folks out there get started in doing this kind of background ally work. We really need to step up to help fight the injustices constantly committed against trans and genderqueer folks. Let’s do our part to be effective and informed advocates and allies.


A few recommended readings:

“My Gender is a Journey” by Eric Anthony Grollman

Anything by mx. b. binoahan

“Intersectionality and Bathroom Panic” by Chris Bourg

 

You’re Gonna Screw Up

Yesterday, I guest-hosted a session of #radlibchat on my article about whiteness in the library profession. It was a fabulous discussion.

One of the more common threads that came out of the chat were the fears many white people have about screwing up when getting involved in race work. Several people expressed apprehension about doing the work and making a mess of things. So, I thought I’d take a moment to address some of those fears.

Fair warning: I’m going to say some encouraging things here. But I’m also going to share some hard truths. And it is vitally important that you absorb both if you’re serious about doing this work.

Another note: I’m going to focus on race work and the ways white allies get involved. But the fact is that all of this applies intersectionally, as well. I—as an ally to LGBTQ folks, to poor folks, to disabled folks, etc.—am learning and practicing these lessons.

Truth #1: You are gonna screw up. I guarantee it. No matter who you are, no matter how good your intentions, no matter how careful you are, YOU WILL MAKE A MISTAKE. YOU WILL MAKE MANY MISTAKES. It’s simply a given. You’re going to say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and make some or many people of color very angry and disappointed and frustrated with you.

Truth #2: This is okay. Just breathe. It’s okay if you when you mess up. It’s okay if you when you anger the people to whom you are trying to be a good ally. This will happen and you will survive.

Truth #3: You will be hurt. No one likes having someone angry at them. Especially if they’re trying to do something good and right. When you screw up with the people of color around you, you will be very hurt when they get frustrated with you. You will feel defensive and sad and very, very hurt. This is also okay. Because you will be smart and go away to a safe place and share your #whitefeelings and shed your #whitetears with fellow white people who are also doing this work and who can mentor you in your process. You will not unburden your feelings on the people of color to whom you are allied. You will process your feelings in a separate space.

Truth #4: You will deserve this anger/hurt/frustration/wrath of the people of color you’ve offended. You messed up. You did something wrong. Even if you didn’t intend to. Even if you have no idea what you did. You did it, and they felt it. Just as your hurt feelings will be perfectly valid because they are yours and they are real, their frustration will be just as valid, just as much theirs, just as real. So even in the midst of your hurt and bewilderment, you will be careful not to dismiss the reality of the people you’ve offended. You will resist the urge to defend yourself, shut your mouth, and listen.

Truth #5: You will learn from your mistakes…if you are serious about this work. Many white people pretend to be serious about antiracism yet ghost the minute things get tough. (And they do get tough. See Truth #7.) But if you’re really serious about doing this work, you will take the initiative and learn from your mistakes. It is YOUR responsibility to learn what you did wrong and what you need to change. Maybe the people of color you offended will be willing to tell you. But don’t assume that is the case. This will be another great opportunity for you to connect with those fellow white folks who are mentoring you through your antiracist process. They can help guide you.

Truth #6: You will experience extraordinary joy and fulfillment. Race work is not easy. The history of racial oppression is ugly and the present is not much better. But the work we all do is vital to the future of our society, and despite whatever mistakes you may make, your contribution as an ally is absolutely crucial. Plus, you will learn and grow in ways you never dreamed possible. You will interact and bond with people whom you, in your lily white life to this point, never imagined. You will help to build a more just society, and you will never be the same because of it.

Truth #7: But as you can see, this work is not for the faint of heart. To borrow a scene from the Christian Bible: When Jesus gathered together the disciples, Jesus said (April paraphrase), “Hey, if you wanna be down, you have to take up your cross and follow me. This is NOT gonna be easy.” It’s the same for race work. In order to experience that growth and fulfillment, you’re going to have to get down and dirty. You are going to be challenged beyond what you think you can bear. You are going to have the comfy warmth of your white privilege and ignorance stripped away and laid bare in all its ugly truth. You’re going to be made really uncomfortable, and yes, you’re going to get your feelings hurt. (Remember Truth #3?)

So, knowing all this, are you still up for the challenge? I sincerely hope so. Because the Struggle is real out there and we need you.

 

Sometimes, Intersectionality Means You STFU

Intersectionality means that you can be a person with privilege and a person who is oppressed all at the same time. It means sometimes it’s your issue and sometimes it’s not. This can be difficult to grasp.

I see conversations like this all the time:

Person from Marginalized Group A: Thank you for joining this conversation about the struggle of Group A in society. It’s tough. I appreciate that we can talk in this space. Here are some things to know about Group A’s experiences . . . Here are some personal stories . . .Here is some more information about Group A . . . This is all vitally importan—

Person from Marginalized Group B: Yeah, but what about Group B? We’re oppressed, too.

A Person: Oh, yes, absolutely, it’s just that right now in this space—

B Person: Everything you said also applies to Group B. It’s so important for Group B. 

A Person: Yes, yes, I understand, but—

B Person: I mean, this is exactly the problem for Group B . . . Here are Group B’s issues . . . Here are some of my personal stories . . .

A Person: Yes, thank you for sharing, but really this conversation is about—

B Person: Are you saying you don’t care about Group B? This is the problem! Group B . . . Group B . . . More personal stories . . .

You get the point. This happens so much and it makes me want to scream. I get it, but it still makes me want to scream.

The fact is that if we’re going to be good allies to each other, we have to be good allies to each other. We have to wear our many intersectional hats. While our identities can never be separated, the roles we play sometimes should be.

Sometimes, I’m in the space as a black woman and I’m talking about issues relating to people of color or women or specifically black women. And I don’t need to have vital discussion of those issues derailed by white people or men or other women of color. If that is my space for discussion, then I get to have that space.

Likewise, there are times when trans folks or queer folks or disabled folks, or any identity/identities that don’t include me, is conducting vital discussion in a space. And as an ally, it’s my job to put on my ally hat and shut my beautiful intersectional mouth. I listen, I learn, and I only speak up to signal boost. I don’t bring up my issues because that conversation isn’t about or for me. My intersectionality tells me to STFU.

Does that mean I never get to speak? No. I get my space. And if one of my identities gets mentioned in this other space in a way that seems less than aware, I can certainly offer correction. But I do that later. I do that in a separate conversation. Because I recognize the importance of respecting the focus of the discussion, the purpose of the space at that moment. I realize that space isn’t about or for me, and I respect the space by not seeking to derail the conversation with my own concerns.

This is difficult, I know. We all want to be front and center. We all want our issues to receive primary attention. But if we’re all scrambling for the spotlight, then no one will get seen or heard. We have to share the space. We have to enact our primary school lessons and take turns. I respect your space, secure in the knowledge that when it’s time, you will respect mine.

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“Silence” by Giulia van Pelt via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Why Your Space ≠ My Space

I’ve recently blogged about the emotional necessity of exclusive space for marginalized communities. Now, I want to take up that thread again and talk about why and how the need for exclusive space is not the same for people with power and privilege.

(For the tl;dr version, you can check out this Twitter thread.)

I recently came across this tweet from Trump and Majestic Marisol’s pithy response:

Blackish Trump

And I got to thinking about all the times that folks full of power and privilege have bemoaned the few safe spaces reserved for people lacking in that power and privilege. It’s almost a guarantee that the minute an LGBTQ person calls for safe space away from heteronormativity or a disabled person calls for safe space away from ableism, etc., someone from the privileged group is going to cry foul. You know, “reverse discrimination” and other mythical phenomena like that.

It always comes down to the same silly question: Why is it you can have this space without me and I can’t have space without you? Aren’t you just being racist, heterophobic, disable-ist, sexist, etc.?

The answer to this question is, of course, no.

As I mentioned in my last post on exclusive spaces, those spaces for marginalized communities is a matter of survival. It’s about physical, emotional, and mental safety. It’s about having a place to be, without fear of reprisal that could result in lasting harm. It’s about coping with a world that begrudges your right to be alive.

That is not the case for people with power and privilege when they set up their exclusive spaces.For those with power and privilege, these spaces are about far more than survival. They are about ruling.

When the Trumps of the world gather in exclusivity, when they pool all that power and privilege into one exclusive space, they end up with real, quantifiable and qualifiable advantage over everyone else in society.

EXCLUSIVE SPACE + POWER/PRIVILEGE = EXCLUSIVE ADVANTAGE

Exclusive space for whites, men, the cisgendered, the heterosexual, the able-bodied, etc. results in sites of power where decisions are made and business conducted that reach far beyond the location of that space. Stuff goes down in those exclusive spaces that affect all of us: business deals finalized, societies reformed, political alliances cemented. The problem with the KKK or all-white, all-male country clubs, or anything else like it, is not that those sites are exclusive. The problem isn’t even necessarily that those spaces are bigoted or rooted in hate. The problem is that those spaces are exclusive, bigoted, and exist as sites of power over the entirety of society. Long-lasting and far-reaching societal actions begin and end in those exclusive sites of power.

That kind of power and privilege simply does not exist in exclusive spaces for the marginalized. So to make the comparison between white-only spaces and POC-only spaces, between cis-only spaces and trans-only spaces, between middle- and upper-class-only spaces and poor-only spaces is to make a false comparison.

When it comes to exclusive spaces, context is everything.