This is a brief lesson plan for a workshop focusing on voguing, femme power and feminism through movement. In keeping with other vogue studies lesson plans that have appeared here, this lesson plan is geared towards the ballroom scene and larger queer communities of color, and comes at a later part of the curriculum, after other sessions or workshops have already taken place:
1. Think Out: At the start of the lesson, gather the group into a circle and ask that each member introduce themselves, and describe what the first thing is that comes to mind when they hear the word “feminine.” Give participants a moment to think, then go around and let everyone in the circle share a phrase, memory or idea they connect with the word feminine. (10 mins)
2. Intro and Gallery Walk: “The theme of the workshop today is femininity, femme power, and the way these concepts relate to the art form of vogue. To get us started, we will do an exercise called a gallery walk.” Place five to six posters on the floor in the center of the circle. Each poster will have written on it one key word relating to the theme of the workshop–Feminine, Feminism, Sexism, Transphobia, Strength, Weakness, etc.–each one placed within a box. Ask participants to take a moment and look at each of the words. If there are any questions about the words, try to encourage other participants to explain them, and to address those questions without interpreting their definitions through a personal lens. Pass out markers, and ask participants to write down what ever words, phrases or ideas they associate with each of these words with them on their posters. Ask them to put any ideas they believe go along with the word inside the box, and any ideas that contradict the word outside the box. How they determine these may be totally up to them. (5 mins)
3. Reflection: Once the gallery walk is complete and everyone has had a chance to add their own words, thoughts and ideas to each of the posters, ask everyone to step back and examine what has been written. “What do we notice? What stands out? Are there any trends we can find? Is there anything that surprises you?” Give participants a few minutes to discuss any thoughts or observations that viewing the posters brings up before transitioning into the next part of the lesson. (5 mins)
4. Quick Break: Break from the introductory exercise, and give participants a few minutes to stretch on their own and prepare for movement in any ways they need.
5. Movement: Quickly review as a collective some of the basic elements and steps taught in previous workshops (lines, poses, points, runway, etc.). Get participants to explain and demonstrate each of the perviously covered elements, and get all participants to review them briefly together in a large group. Return next to the original words on the posters from the gallery walk. Ask each participant to pick out three of the original words, then work on creating a pose, short phrase or movement to interpret each of their three words. After a few minutes of work, ask any willing participants to share out some of the movements or phrases they came up with, and the words they represent. Circulate around the room to answer questions and offer suggestions to anyone who may be feeling stuck or unsure. (10-15 mins)
6. In Partners: Ask participants to get in pairs and share with their partners the three movements they generated. Have the pairs work together and, with any of the movements they’ve brought to each other, create a short sequence using the other vogue elements–like lines and runway–to unite those movements together. Give partners ample time to talk, experiment with their phrases, and improvise off of their collected ideas. Continue circulating to make sure parters are working well together, and to continue offering suggestions and ideas. (15-20 mins)
7. Share Out: Regather participants into a circle, and with music, give each member an opportunity to share out what they worked on with their partner. Make the sharing informal, supportive and low pressure, and try to encourage every member to participate. It may help to have each participant who finishes their phrase “pass” the movement on to the next person in the circle they would like to dance after them, until each person has had a chance to share. (10 mins)
8. Closing: Return one final time to examine the original five or six posters from the gallery walk. Ask participants: “How do these words look different to us after spending some time trying them onto our bodies? How do we feel differently about any of them? How do these terms relate to vogue?” Take a few minutes after each question to discuss them thoroughly, encouraging each person in the collective to offer one closing thought. Wrap up the workshop, leaving space and time for participants to keep practicing in an open session once the formal workshop has finished. (10 mins)
A few years ago, a close friend of mine refused to offer me help when I asked them for it. I was experiencing one of the lowest periods of my life thus far. It was a time when it took all the will and nerve I had just to get out of bed in the morning. Facing the start of the day, I didn’t know how I was going to make it to the close. I was exhausted, I was scared and I was alone. When I asked this friend for help, feeling at the end of my rope, they said no. They were too busy, were struggling with stresses of their own, and did not have time to support me.
It was many months before we spoke personally again, and when we did I was doing much better. Even though I had been alone in my struggle, I had gotten through it alone–a feat I hadn’t believed I was capable of in the midst of it–and on the other side I was stronger, more confident and much more self-reliant. My friend apologized sincerely for what had happened, wanted to make amends and heal our friendship, and asked my forgiveness. I had to think long and hard about how to respond to this request–in fact, it took me a whole month. During that month I thought about how hurt I had been, how angry I still was. I thought about how terrifying it had been to turn to the only person I thought I had, and be rejected. I went back and forth, wondering if my feelings were legitimate or not, what I owed my friend, what they owed me. Finally, I was ready to confront them. I said no. I forgave them for their moment of weakness, but told them I could not trust them again. I told them I needed people in my life, people close to me, who would respect me and protect me through any scenario, and that they were no longer one of the those people.
This was one of the hardest conversations I had ever had, not only because I had to return to a difficult period, but because I had to let go of someone I really loved. I was afraid I was wrong, that I wasn’t being fair, that I wasn’t being as forgiving as I should. Though I had rehearsed what I needed to say hundreds of times, I didn’t think I was strong enough to say it, to hold myself and my friend to it. Holding people accountable, standing up for myself and saying no are not things I have historically been good at. But when I did, I felt strong and accomplished in a way I never had before. I felt myself blooming, as though I was being fed, being cared for in a way I didn’t know I had needed. I felt more respected and protected than I had ever before in my life. And I felt so because of something I did, a decision I was making, not because of someone else.
This last year an intimate partner hit me for the first time. While the moment was one of a new kind of sadness and betrayal, it was also one where I realized how much I had grown. I recognized a situation in which I was not being treated well, and I ended it immediately. I did not accept alcohol as an excuse. I decided that a sincere apology did not warrant my reentering the relationship. I knew I deserved better, and I held on to that belief as a partner attempted to belittle me, to play off my insecurities, and to convince me this was the best I could do.
For some people these steps seem logical, and these abilities come easily. For me they do not. I can think of times in my very recent past when I was less convinced of my value and my power. I don’t think I would have been able to get out and stay out of that relationship in the way I was able to this time around. It has taken struggle, it has taken hard and lonely moments, and it has taken loads of active practicing. But I have gotten better at saying no. I have learned that it is my right to decide who gets to be a part of my life, and that I can choose who I am willing to fight for.
What had kept me from having these realizations earlier was my fear of being selfish. I had learned somewhere in my activism and community work that to say no was to take a negative stance, a contradictory approach. It seemed cold, closed off, a means of shutting down other members of my community instead of joining with them in collaboration. As I was forced to learn these lessons, however, placed in situations where I knew I could only respect myself by saying enough is enough, I found that no can come from a wholly different place than I had originally understood. In cases where one is faced with violence, with utter disregard, with a total lack of respect for one’s personhood, saying no is anything but selfish. On the contrary, not only is it necessary for self care and preservation, it is a form of accountability and responsibility to protect the value others may not recognize. And just as individual persons are faced with such treatment, so, too are the communities to which we belong. What I have really been learning lately is that not only is saying no not at all in contradiction with building community, it is exactly what our aligned collectives must learn to do if we are to be self-empowered as we confront the forces that devalue us.
The better I get at saying no, the more I see how it makes me a better partner, brother, and family member, and how deeply it informs and empowers the work I do as an activist, educator and agitator in larger collectives. I have found myself saying no to many more things lately, all things I once did not believe I had the right or the choice to. I have been saying no to public school classrooms as the only space in which I can be a teacher, no to a form of education that bans the conversations that are at the tips of my and my students tongues everyday–the things we most need for our survival. I have been saying no to the club scene, and alcohol as an inevitable component of social interaction. I am saying no to relationship models that force me to give up any piece of my mental, physical or emotional health I am unwilling to. I’ve been saying no lately to allyship–not because I don’t need allies, but because I am in a space where the healing of queer people of color, of poor and working queer people, of queers who have a queer relationship to more than just sex and love, is precisely what I require. And what I say no to today I may be ready to say yes to tomorrow. The decision to change is mine, also.
What I feared for the longest was that to say no was to care solely for one’s self. Sometimes no seemed brash, other times it seemed like a retreat, but it was always something I felt guilty for saying. What I have learned is that saying no is about the profoundly radical power of being discontented, and the ability to listen to yourself when you are. It is about recognizing what you need, what you are deserving of, and when you’re not getting it. It is about the clear vision of what the relationships, the struggles, the world you want can look like, and being clear in demanding that vision be honored. It is about the plural as much as the personal. It is about a moratorium on blaming ourselves and each other for poverty, racism, assault, deportation, and the other institutions that tell us the problems we face are the result of our own personal shortcomings. It is about consent. It is about calls for justice and an end to violence that do not rely on further violence–the prison system, policing, militarism–to achieve their goals. It is about holding governments and movements accountable, as much as it is about our partners and friends. And perhaps most importantly, it is about hearing the no’s of others, of holding ourselves accountable when those we love and care for say no to us. All of these are values our communities need to incorporate into their movements just as we are learning to incorporate them into our daily lives.
No is not a wall, it is the fierce and compassionate force that breaks the wall down. And when we say it with fierce compassion, we love our whole communities as we love ourselves.
This lesson is part of a larger vogue studies curriculum, a unit aimed at teaching ballroom scene history to the ballroom scene, other queer people of color, and our allies. The unit works on both discussing history and teaching vogue dance, combining the two to show a comprehensive history of the scene, and promote voguing as a tool of political action and resistance. In the stage in which it currently exists, the curriculum begins with outlining a basic timeline of ballroom scene history, then breaking down each point on that timeline for deeper inquiry. This lesson comes at the earlier part of the unit, just after the basic outline has been presented, and uses vogue’s initial foundation in Riker’s Island Prison as a starting point to understand and challenge the prison industrial complex:
1. Think Back: At the start of the lesson once participants have gathered, remind the group to think back onto the origins of vogue that they have just begun to learn about: “Where did voguing start? With whom, and how?” Ask participants to write down or share out all the details they can remember from earlier lessons and discussions, and make sure the group is on the same page by listing the details they share in a column to the board.
2. Intro and Explanation: Ask participants if they have ever heard of the term ‘the prison industrial complex’ before, and if possible work together to provide a definition for the group: “The P.I.C. is a term for a group of systems that work together to create violence in our communities, and rely on incarceration as the only answer to that violence. Today we will be talking together about how to better understand the P.I.C., how it relates to our own communities, and how we can challenge it. Ballroom scene history is key in giving us some examples which can help us answer these questions, as we will see soon. Angela Davis, a Black feminist and member of the movement to abolish prisons, has said that examining the experiences of the most marginalized members of the prison system can shed the greatest amount of light on the larger structure. Today we will be using vogue to look at our own experiences as queer people of color to expose the P.I.C. and think about how the creativity of our communities can be used to resist it.”
3. Visual Organizer: Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Transgender Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex–shown in the image to the right of the first paragraph (provided by the Prison Moratorium Project and FIERCE NYC.) Ask participants to take a view minutes to read the organizer to themselves, taking note of what they see, observations they can make, and any questions they have. When folks have had sufficient time, ask them to share out their observations, comments and questions, and add these to a new column on the board.
4. Making Connections: Briefly go over the entire organizer piece by piece, incorporating new observations and attempting to answer questions as a group. (Keep in mind at this stage in particular that sex work, homelessness and other points that appear on the organizer may be sensitive or controversial subjects, and that some present members are likely to have been or be navigating many of them. Approach their discussion honestly, attempting to make them visible and empowering, but also without forcing participants to talk about uncomfortable subjects or share beyond what they are willing to.) Once solid sense of the organizer has been made, ask participants: “How do the points on this organizer relate to our own community? How do they relate to the ballroom scene as we know it?” Give ample discussion time to this as a group, and make as many connections as possible from the ballroom scene to the points on the graphic organizer. Add these to the board, and ask participants to add them to their own organizers.
5. Transition: ” Discussing these connections is important because it shows us that even if the term P.I.C. is a new one for us, it is something that we and our communities have been struggling with and fighting against for a long time. As we move to the dancing portion of our workshop, we will leave the notes from our discussion up on the board. Keep them in mind, and as we are moving, think about how some of these themes show up in vogue movement, where you notice them and can find them, and how vogue works to challenge some of the problems we talked about today.” From here, transition into the movement activities planned for the day. Participants in the workshop will be learning the basics of the vogue styles of new way and vogue femme, so will most likely be practicing specific moves or working on improvisation. As participants are working together or receiving individual attention, try to work in discussion of the day’s themes as they relate to specific moves, styles, and ways of dancing. Try and keep the connection from the earlier discussions in the back of folks’ minds as they are dancing.
6. Closing: “Did folks think of any connections between the movement we worked on today and the discussions we began the workshop with?” Let folks share out any reflections or ideas that are on their minds. “Let’s return to the graphic organizers we were working with at the beginning of the day. Take a look back at them. The subtitle says, ‘disrupt the flow.’ How does voguing and the ballroom scene as a whole break up the flow between the pieces of this complex? How can we as a community use voguing in the future to keep challenging and disrupting this system?” As participants make suggestions, add them to a final column of concrete strategies for challenging the P.I.C. These could include anything from ‘sharing our knowledge’ and ‘teaching this history to our friends,’ to ‘using dance at a demonstration or protest’ and ‘supporting sex workers’ rights.’ While this is a challenging closing activity, push participants to come up with as many concrete strategies for resisting the P.I.C. as possible, and have a few examples ready in case the group gets stuck. Wrap up the workshop from there, and if you can, allow folks extra time to talk and practice further in the space if they need to stay longer.
Generation L will be hosting the first in a series of Voguing Workshops this coming month on Friday, May 17th at Batey Urbano. This movement event will focus on not only the foundations of the dance style of new way vogue, but will also examine some key points in the history of the ballroom scene. We will be using vogue dance as a means of better understanding our own history as Black and Brown queer people, poor and working folks, homeless people, sex workers, and trans people. This dance/history series will continue every third Friday of the month for the summer. These workshops are free, so please mark this first one on your calendar, stop by, and keep an ear out for future events!
Vogue Workshop Series: Black and Brown Queer History
Friday, May 17th
6pm to 8pm
2620 W. Division
This Event is Free
Hip hop activist Rosa Clemente recently posted a video response to a Rick Ross lyric on emcee Rocko’s new mixtape The Gift of Gab 2. The line goes, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Clemente calls for more than petitioning, facebooking, or an attack on the finances of mainstream artists and their record labels, but for new action and a change in our relationships. She calls for women and men in the community to denounce rape culture, and for the leaders and elders of hip hop to speak out against its hold on lyricism. She asks that we actively teach young people to combat rape culture, and create a climate of respect for women and for consent that starts early.
I was moved by Clemente’s video, but also by her ability to react immediately to unacceptable forms of violence, and her push to address and hold responsible the perpetrators of rape in our communities while also understanding rape culture as larger than just male, just heterosexual, just hip hop, and just the hood. I wanted to share her video and share her tenacity. How can we learn to organize ourselves so that we are ready to respond to any threat to our communities, be it violent, economic, cultural or spiritual? Where do we find the strength to be alert to all forms of injustice as they are perpetrated against us? I believe if we could react this fiercely, cohesively and compassionately whenever we or our people are under attack, it would be much harder for the powers that be to mess with us.
This past weekend, b-girls from all over the country and street dancers from around the Chicago area converged for B-Divine: Celebrating the Feminine in Hip Hop Fesitval. The gathering featured workshops, artists showcases, graffiti, and an all-styles battles, and focused on being a welcoming, supportive, feminist space, empowering movers, emcees and artists in an exploration of what femininity means to street dance, and how it connects multiple styles and dancers. The legendary Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia was in attendance and speaking truth, as were Leida ‘Lady Sol’ Villegas, Auristela ‘Lady Champ’ Nuñez, Boogie McClarin and a host of other pioneers of hip hop, house and street dance. Big shout outs to the entire event, its phenomenal organizers, and the conversations about history, intergeneration solidarity, queer power, and feminism in street dance it sparked. Mad love, and more of these in the future!
Tuesday of next week, the 19th of February, poet Yosimar Reyes and visual artist Julio Salgado will be hosting an artist showcase and workshop as part of their Jotas Sin Papeles Y Sin Permiso Tour. These two queer, undocumented artist/activists both work to empower and give voice to queer, Brown, immigrant and working communities. They will be presenting some of their amazing work, and leading a short workshop at Batey Urbano in Humboldt Park. Everyone is invited to this free gathering, which is made possible with organizing by Generation L. Come through if you’re around!
Artist Workshop with Yosimar Reyes and Julio Salgado
Tuesday, February 19th
4pm to 6pm
2620 W. Division
This Event is Free
A friend of mine recently shared with me that she is thinking about registering with an escort service to make some extra money. We had a long conversation about what resources were available to support her in her decision, what research she might do before pursuing a job, what steps she might take to be sure that she could stay as safe and healthy in the process as possible. We talked about how her decision might impact her relationship with her longterm partner. We talked about some of our other friends who have been involved in sex work of various kinds, of some of the risks she might be facing, and how to best prepare for them. She was already clear on the fact that she would not be telling anyone in her family about the decision, as she felt she already knew what their reactions would be. She thought it better to make the choice independently, and avoid the lectures about the dangers she would be subjecting herself to and the sad direction in which she was leading her life. Given her stance, I was glad that she felt comfortable talking with me, and I hoped I was providing her with some useful places to start.
After having this conversation, however, I started to worry. Was I being irresponsible by supporting my friend’s decision? Was I not thinking enough about her range of options and power to choose? Though I have never been a part of the sex industry, I have many friends who are strippers, part of escort services, and who regularly perform sexual acts to gain basic resources or make extra money. I know that not all of them feel sex work was something they had a choice in pursuing. I know not only the judgements they face, but the ingrained social disrespect, the threats of violence leveled at them by those who seek their services as often as from those who decry them. I know that even my friends who are perfectly comfortable with these realities still have a hard time acknowledging and openly discussing them with family and friends. This inability to speak is at the root of the stigmas which surround sex work, and is particularly oppressive for queer people. For as TLBG people, but especially as Brown, poor, trans, homeless, immigrant, incarcerated, undocumented, hood and working queer people, sex work is not only a piece of our realities, but a foundational component of our history. Understanding it is necessary for understanding where we come from, how we identify, the ways we organize, our strategies for survival, and how sex work’s ties to other oppressed communities and identities is part of what maintains its marginal status.
The struggles which my friend may face as she continues on her path have little to do with sex work, for sex work, I believe, is itself no more or less risky than being sexually active is. What makes sex work dangerous are the social stigmas with which it is imbued—the shame, self-hatred and desperation we project onto members of the sex industry. It is dangerous because of the precarious role women occupy in our society, the thin line they walk between reverence and worthlessness, the long list of simple ways they can slip up and lose all of their symbolic value. It is dangerous because once that value has been lost, assault, violation and murder are no longer seen as heinous crimes, are often not even deemed worth looking into. It is dangerous because we fear anyone who takes their gender, sexuality and relationship with their body into their own hands. It is dangerous because trans people are targets for violence at a higher rate than any other queer identity, and combining that reality with sex work can be lethal. It is dangerous because it challenges almost every state-sanctioned institution, from the cult of marriage to the regulation and taxation of (certain people’s) profit. It is dangerous because the legal system declares it to be, and targets it for extensive policing. It is dangerous because even as the most basic of workers’ rights and abilities to organize come under global attack, sex workers have long had to rely on one another for support in the face of corrupt law enforcement, greedy management and abusive patrons.
Given all this, is it wise for us to participate in sex work, or advise our friends to do so when they ask us for our advice? I don’t think this is the real question that conversations like the one between my friend and I raise. Sex work is dangerous because it continues to represent what many of our struggles have always represented—the dignity of oppressed people, and our ability to maintain ourselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable and purposefully-imposed barriers. Should we or shouldn’t we is not the point, for many members of the sex industry have rarely felt the need nor had the opportunity to ask such questions. What we should do is continue advocating for the rights of all working people, regardless of their legal status, criminal history, or the type of work they perform. We need to listen to the needs of women and trans people. We need to advocate justice for sexual violence which acknowledges the legal system as one of its major perpetrators. We need to talk about how to make our communities safer and more supportive places for all our members, carve out space for conversation, and collectively provide the resources that will help to get us there. We need to celebrate sex worker history as queer history, inexorably and unavoidably. Our inability to examine it openly not merely distorts an accurate view of our identities as they stand, but keeps us from grasping the true breadth and depth of the ways in which we and our ancestors have challenged power through the practice of sex.
This is not to romanticize sex work, or the role it plays in our radical history. Part of the conversation is acknowledging how members of our communities may be forced into the sex industry against their will–either through channels of human trafficking and abduction, or because they feel forced into it for social or economic reasons. When the choice to pursue sex work is made for us, it is far more difficult to claim it as an empowering piece of our identities and legacies. Yet these voices and their perspectives remain as marginalized as any others in the sex industry, the questions and struggles they face just as unlikely to be raised as problems which all of our movements are responsible for addressing. Opening the conversation on a larger scale and connecting it to all our struggles is the beginning of a real reimagining of the role sex work plays in our daily lives and ongoing battles, and the rejection of shame is universally crucial for the empowering of all our stories.
Sex work is not simply about sex, nor is it an inevitable exchange of bodies for money. Its branding as “the oldest profession” is not about the desires of its patrons, but the obvious outlet for survival it presents to those who have few others. More than anything, sex work is about self-determination—of gender, of sexuality, of the navigating of class and legal status, of access to resources. And if we are serious about loving, protecting and standing up for our friends, our partners and ourselves, then we should be committed to being dangerous, and to critically honoring all of our methods for survival when so few systems prioritize it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in a rhetoric of equality, yet he fought not merely for social harmony, but racial and economic justice. He sympathized with the Socialist Party. He saw himself as much a part of the Poor People’s Movement as the mainstream Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. He was surveilled and threatened nearly constantly by the U.S. government. When he famously said, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he referred to ongoing labor struggles and U.S. military interventions in South East Asia as issues the Civil Rights Movement had to take on by definition. Spurred by the wisdom and dedication of other struggles–Black, Brown and Yellow Power, Anti-war, Radical Feminism, Gay Liberation–he advocated more and more for the interconnectedness of oppression, and the need for inclusive movements which challenged the state apparatus through direct action. He was a far more radical figure than he is ever allowed to be in U.S. memory, and was so because of the deep and changing impact that queers, women, poor and working people, student activists, and organizers in the street had on him.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a perfect person, though his appropriated image is often painted as such by U.S. historical mythology. Let’s remember him today not as a hero, but as human as we are now–one member of a wide-sweeping movement, making the same mistakes, faced with the same setbacks, difficult decisions and doubts which we face daily in our own battles. Let’s remember the women, queers and whole communities whose role in the larger movement continues to be erased. Let’s remember the voices from other movements who radicalized him in ways he may never have been on his own. Let’s remember that even our most admired leaders have as much to learn from us as we do from them.
And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
There are certain reactions to my personal and political beliefs which I am met with repeatedly, from many different people and sources. Though I often feel they are leveled at my identities as a Black and queer person, they are always a means of degrading the lessons my life as an oppressed person has taught me. What bothers me most about these attitudes is not only their ubiquity, but the ways they thwart any real conversation. While I welcome and rely on critiques of my perspectives, these reactions don’t respect my beliefs through engagement, but dismiss them. A careful look at them illuminates some fundamental cultural myths which are consistently used to combat real change, and justify the positions of oppressed people in our current order.
Anti-racist organizer Debra Leigh famously lists 28 Common Racist Attitudes and Behaviors and her responses to them, noting that the beliefs and assumptions she lists “indicate a detour or wrong turn into white guilt, denial or defensiveness.” (See also Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists by Jona Olsson, whom Leigh cites.) The attitudes and assumptions I list here are, I believe, retreats into resignation to the systems in place, and ways of delegitimizing the needs of oppressed communities. They demonstrate a comfort with the status quo, and a fear of change which fails to acknowledge the stark realities with which so many of us live. I wanted to treat these attitudes as spaces for inquiry–to get to the root of why they crop up so often, and why they fall short of a genuine engaging with radical politics. But I also wanted to codify my own responses to them, in hopes of gathering my thoughts, to prepare myself for when I am met with these reactions in the future, and to provide what I hope will be helpful reflections for others who regularly receive similar reactions:
1. If you want to be listened to, you can’t come across as angry.
Anger comes from repeatedly having one’s voice dismissed, ignored, and insulted. It is not born from bad judgment or immaturity, but as a reaction to disrespect and belittlement. I give myself permission to be angry, because of the deep injustices endured by my people over multiple generations, injustices which go consistently unacknowledged, unaddressed and uncorrected. I give myself permission to be angry, because that very anger is understood to be hostility, while the continued legacies of incarceration, impoverishment, and colonization of my people are not. Moreover, my concern is not how I come across, for anyone who is intimidated or turned off by my anger does not share it. Power believes I am illegitimate and less than a person, and to convince it otherwise requires taking on its values and methods, to which I am deeply opposed. I choose to speak, therefore, to other oppressed people, those who understand my anger, and hope to rely on it not to lash out but to galvanize our communities to create new movements for justice which threaten power rather than pandering to it.
2. You can’t be anti-everything.
I’m for a lot of things! I am for my community, sex, art, music, laughing, dancing, my family, my ancestors, the dignity of all people, the health of the planet, and unlimited access to basic resources. I am for every one of us feeling safe and respected, having the ability to question and to voice our own needs. I am pro-women, pro-queer, pro-trans people, pro-immigrant. I am pro-workers and pro-housing. I am pro-bodies, pro-youth and pro-elders. If you think I’m anti-everything, maybe you ought to question what that everything consists of.
3. This is too much to think about all the time.
To be preoccupied with how our world needs to change is a lot for anyone to think about, and having the ability to put it out of mind, even temporarily, is a kind of privilege. Many of us ask these questions not because we like to, but because we have to. Our grappling with the systems in place is not about rebellion, but survival. We are forced to think about it when we wonder where our childcare, healthcare, meals or dental care will come from. We are forced to think about it when we have to improvise a way to get home that will not result in harassment or violence. When the only education available to us is punitive and under resourced. When our legal status bars us from voting, earning a living wage, or providing support for one another in the ways we deserve. When the communities we rely on for our own sustainability reject us. When incarceration and violence from the state are more familiar than protection. These are all times when we are forced to advocate for ourselves, and in so doing invent new ways of living which challenge the world as it stands. You can struggle along with us, or not. We don’t have a choice.
4. You sound like you’re advocating violence.
I am, but not against individuals, communities or the environment. It is the systems in place–the nation-state, militarism, consumer capitalism–which advocate these things. In the current order, violence is an intrinsic part of our daily lives. When it is enacted in the name of security, patriotism, and the safety of the powerful, it goes largely unquestioned. When it is lucrative, or is exercised against poor and working people, women, young people, or is understood as being committed by one marginal person against another, it doesn’t seem to be frightening. Only when we talk of overturning the state, demanding access to elitist institutions, and resisting the systems which deny us human rights and basic resources, does violence become a fearful accusation oppressed people are made to bear. I do not advocate violence against people, but I do advocate it against the structures which do us violence.
5. You have to start somewhere (i.e. within the legislative system, corporate funding, privatization, academia, etc.).
I strongly agree that we have to start somewhere. However, too often we are encouraged to begin within the exact channels, systems and institutions that have created the conditions against which we are struggling. All change takes time to be realized, sometimes many years, sometimes many generations. Beginning that change, or continuing it, takes patience, small steps, and the enduring of as many moments of frustration as those of encouragement. We have to start somewhere. Let’s start in our communities. Let’s start in our homes and neighborhoods. Let’s start with ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our friends. Let’s begin with asking what movements precede us and how we can rely on their wisdom. Let’s start by building solidarity between oppressed people, not with the institutions that oppress. Let’s put our faith, time and trust in one another, and not the systems which generate the very inequities we hope to combat.
Identifying these attitudes and the assumptions behind them helps us to assert the legitimacy of our needs, and empower ourselves to keep discussions going when they are attempted to be shut down. Reflecting on them encourages us to continue challenging power in the ways we already do, and to look to one another, not the systems in place, to learn how to do it better.