I was staying over this past week at my grandmother’s house in my father’s hometown. One morning I was helping make breakfast in the kitchen with my aunt, while some of my uncles and cousins were sitting around the kitchen table. The conversation they were having turned to the subject of race, and several members of my family started making extremely racist comments about various members of the local community. Though I was not surprised, I was taken aback, and wasn’t sure how to handle the moment. I thought about speaking up, but decided not to. I made this decision for a number of reasons: I felt uncomfortable butting into a discussion about people I did not know. Additionally, in my family it would be considered the height of rudeness to seemingly correct one of my elders, to chastise someone who had helped raise me. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, class and access to education have defined the fault lines and feuds between the various factions of my family for decades, and I did not want to come across as making a show of my own privilege. A fleeting awareness of all these things caused me to hold my tongue.
If a simple reading of this situation were to be done, I think one could easily argue that I dropped the ball. Comments were made in my presence which attacked other oppressed people, and I let them pass without saying anything. Yet the point I hope to make is that there was more than one system of inequity active in our kitchen, and to lash out only at one would be to fail to understand the complexities of my family, to disrespect the very people I hope to fight for, and to risk undermining the community which inspires me to struggle for justice. I think that oppressed people, like myself, who have had access to certain resources and discussions, often make the mistake of alienating other members of our communities, lecturing them on the issues of which we have decided they are ignorant, failing to see that it is the very structures we hope to overthrow which have unevenly distributed the opportunity to engage in those discussions, and that others my have insights onto those structures that we do not. I think it would be easy to see this exchange as one where I took the easy way out. But what the moment reminded me–as I am reminded often as a person from more than one oppressed community–is that sustaining ourselves as members of multiple and sometimes opposing struggles means choosing our battles, deciding strategically when, where, and how we are going to challenge the communities of which we are a part. It requires that we make a commitment to our people first and foremost, working to honor and respect them as we decide carefully how also to push them to be different.
A good friend of mine who is queer and South East Asian recently came to the realization that the gay male image he has spent most of his young life trying to force himself into does not actually represent him. Raised in a working class Cambodian community in Eastern Massachusetts, he was used to being the only queer person in many of his circles, used to threats of violence, and knew that coming out to certain members of his family was an impossibility. Being the first in his family to be accepted into college, he was excited to arrive in a place where he would finally be able to be queer. What he found instead was an environment in which certain ways of being queer were exonerated–certain body types, certain styles of dress, sexual practices, forms of music and dance, etc.–while others were made invisible, openly attacked and erased. Trying to carve out a space for himself in this environment meant distancing himself from his hometown more than just geographically, and he found himself stuck in between two worlds, neither of which knew how to fully support him. He learned what many of us are constantly learning and relearning–that the spaces and communities we claim as queer and immigrant and brown and poor and working people are often at odds, often fail to recognize that individuals who claim multiple oppressed experiences exist. While finding spaces and communities which can house our complete identities are rare, we cannot always afford the luxury of rejecting queer spaces which are classist, rejecting Brown spaces which are queerphobic, rejecting immigrant spaces which are racist, and so on. Loving and fighting for our communities means holding them in their complex entireties–in precisely the ways which they do not always know how to hold us. It means struggling with patience as well as passion, and making careful decisions about which battles we are ready and willing to engage, and when maintaining our needed place in a community is not worth the struggle.
As oppressed people in general, but particularly as people of multiple oppressions, we make constant decisions about which battles we are willing to fight, and what the potential outcomes might be: Do we call our friends out for using the misogynistic language that everyone in our hood uses? Do we come out to coworkers and risk losing a job? Do we send our kids to a better-resourced school if it means they will be the only Brown students in their class? Do we brave the violence of home if it means being around people who speak our languages, know how to dance our music, and understand our humor? Every day we find personal answers to these kinds of questions, and make choices about which struggles, big or small, we are prepared to take on within any given moment. To make these choices, sometimes deciding that we are not ready to fight a certain fight, is to take an active stance, not a passive one, as certain members of our communities who may not share all of our oppressions sometimes lead us to believe. Thinking actively about how we can participate in resistance in ways which protect and sustain us, is necessary for carrying on long term struggles for justice, and our duty to ourselves as members of those struggles. With that in mind, how do we make those choices actively? How do we choose our battles in ways which are healthy for ourselves, honoring of our communities, and still dangerous for the systems which do us harm?
I was in eighth grade the first time a close friend of mine got pregnant, and many more of my good friends would become parents before I graduated high school. Though the area of the country in which we grew up held a teen birthrate below that of the national average, in our racially and economically varied communities it was youth of color and from low income backgrounds who tended to have kids at a young age. As a result, I came up seeing all kinds of social stigmas acted out on young brown people–primarily women–by my school system, the state and the community at large, from flagrantly prejudiced language and behavior, to the labeling of the kids of teen parents as inherently backward and incapable. These often undeniably sexist, racist and classist sentiments were shrouded under the guise of concerned authority, and deemed reasonable responses to the “plight” of teen pregnancy.
This past week it was announced by the Centers for Disease Control that, once again, Mississippi is the state with the highest teen birthrate in the country. (That it is the Centers for Disease Control which report these statistics I think is noteworthy.) The Huffington Post article on the report links to a supplemental video which states that teen mothers “…cost taxpayers more than 9 billion dollars annually,” and which goes on to purport the links between teen pregnancy and poverty, single parenthood, health complications and behavioral problems in children. The outpouring of reactions to the report has been predictable, with many responses pointing to teen pregnancy as a root cause of unemployment, financial depression and lack of education, as if to say in chagrin, “Don’t teen parents know that they are dooming themselves and their children?” While these reactions jab at and condescend to the populations in question–sometimes poor people, sometimes southerners, sometimes people of color, sometimes religious conservatives, but almost always women–none of them imagine young pregnancy as a cultural difference existing in communities which are already stigmatized, devalued and ignored by a social order dependent on their subservience.
This type of sexist, classist and racist mother shaming doesn’t only come from national boards, mainstream media and communities of privilege. In the communities I belong to, and in many of the programs for oppressed youth I have been involved in and worked for, these attitudes are just as prevalent, and are sometimes expressed more vocally. I know of multiple youth empowerment projects in low income and brown communities which cite the parenting rates of their young members against those of the larger community, to prove the effectiveness of their programing. This happens even in programs run by oppressed people themselves. These kinds of practices generate the same dynamics which lauding oppressed youth for staying out of prison or going to college also create (statistics which I often see cited by these same programs). They denigrate and demonize teen parents–much like we do incarcerated people and those who are not formally educated–creating rifts and hierarchies within the very communities we claim to be fighting for. By doing this, we are imagining not only that there are certain kinds of acceptable community members, but equally that teen parents (and incarcerated and non-formally-educated people) are not a part of our communities, not still teaching and shaping our views of ourselves, not voices which we need to hear to in order to determine how to move forward collectively. Any movement which seeks to liberate women, to challenge the prison industrial complex, to advocate education, and which does not reach out for the wisdom and experience of these populations as a necessary tool, is making a grave mistake.
I do not mean to pretend that young pregnancy is not problematic, complex, and a real issue to be examined within our communities. Teen parents make up a large part of my family, my friends and the parents of some of the most important people in my life. I know that a chapter of one’s life closes when they become a parent, and that for young parents this can be difficult to come to terms with. I’ve been with friends when a parent didn’t show up to a performance or ceremony because they were going out to party. I’ve heard peers complain about not being able to get help on their homework because their guardian had never reached that level of math in school. Young pregnancy generates real complications for our communities. But we have got to find ways of addressing these which do not bash mothers, shame the children of teen parents, and measure ourselves and our communities by the standards of systems which require our denigration in order to function. For these are the exact tactics which turn us against each other, forcing us to expect individuals to pull themselves out of abjectness, failing to see clearly the systems which maintain us all as abject. They are the workings of power to silence the exact people whom we should be listening to if we are to learn how to challenge sexist, racist and classist orders of inequity.
A radical view of our justice system tells us that the prison industrial complex creates criminals by criminalizing the actions and practices of certain populations of people. A queered view of our education system reveals that school is a structure created to support an inherently inequitable economic order, and just like that order, within it there must inevitably be winners and losers. Young pregnancy seems to be an area in which we still attack and decry young, poor and brown people–especially women–for their ignorance, lack of discipline and self-awareness. Isn’t it time we take a more critical look at the “disease” of young pregnancy and its relationship to oppressed communities, too?