Speaking Love and Anger: A Response to Ngọc Loan Trần’s “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable”
There are many things I like about Ngọc Loan Trần’s article Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable. I’m particularly struck by the author’s insistence that, within social justice spaces, we be kind to one another — that we acknowledge that each of us is ignorant, that we understand that we are all debriefing from the constructs in which we were raised, and that we support each other as human beings as we go forward to create justice:
We fuck up. All of us. …. But when we shut each other out we make clubs of people who are right and clubs of people who are wrong as if we are not more complex than that, as if we are all-knowing, as if we are perfect. But in reality, we are just really scared. Scared that we will be next to make a mistake. So we resort to pushing people out to distract ourselves from the inevitability that we will cause someone hurt.
And it is seriously draining. It is seriously heartbreaking. How we are treating each other is preventing us from actually creating what we need for ourselves. We are destroying each other. We need to do better for each other.
We have to let go of treating each other like not knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.
And we have to remind ourselves that we once didn’t know. There are infinitely many more things we have yet to know and may never know.
I want us to use love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation. I want us to use shared values and visions as proactive measures for securing our future freedom. I want us to be present and alive to see each other change in all of the intimate ways that we experience and enact violence.
This is all absolutely beautiful, and I am so happy to see someone talking about it. I am unbelievably tired of the verbal violence that passes for dialogue, particularly in social justice spaces, and anyone who pleads for coming from a place of love and empathy mixed with anger and pain is a person after my own heart.
But there are a couple of things about the article that call me up short. One of them is the way in which the author talks about people having “strayed.” There is something about that idea that feels both deeply foreign and painfully authoritarian to me. The concept appears in the following context:
I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
There is a Christian paradigm here of “straying from the fold” that I find very troubling. I don’t come from a Christian background of bringing people back into the fold; I come from a Jewish background in which we already belong and are free to disagree. So, in the context of the piece, what exactly is the ideology from which people “stray”? Who decides? Is it necessary to think about a central ideology around which we must all constellate, or should there be more room for critique, for disagreement, for generative argument? Straying assumes that we must come back to center. But whose center? Mine? Yours? Any group that treats me as though I’ve “strayed” is likely a group that I will “stray” right out of, never to return.
My other issue with the piece is that it is directed only to people inside social justice communities. There is not necessarily a problem with this approach, per se. After all, making sure our own communities are functional is a prerequisite for trying to create a more just and loving society. But I’m also aware of the necessity of applying “love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation” with people who are outside of social justice communities — with people who haven’t heard our critiques of the status quo, who haven’t examined their own complicity in oppressive systems, who haven’t done the reading or had the discussions or entered into the discourses that are so familiar to us. To me, this is the real challenge. How do we call people in who are way outside of our communities without exhausting ourselves, getting run over, or compromising what we believe in?
I believe it’s possible. I believe that we can combine love, compassion, patience, anger, outrage, pain, and despair as we talk with others who are outside of our circles. If we don’t combine all of these feelings — if we’re only in a place of anger and outrage, or we’re only in a place of love and compassion — we’re living at the polarized extremes that our society has taught us are normal, expected, and beyond critique. We’re creating either endless war or a false peace.
We can do better. We must do better.
Trần, Ngọc Loan. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” Black Girl Dangerous. December 18, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/.
© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
You can find a great deal of brilliant writing on the Internet about how to be — and how not to be — an ally. From Mia McKenzie’s 8 Ways Not To Be An “Ally”: A Non-Comprehensive List to Jessie-Lane Metz’s Ally-Phobia: The Worse of Best Intentions to Eli Clare’s Be an Ally to Disabled People to Frances E. Kendall’s How to Be an Ally if You Are a Person with Privilege, the writing on this topic is prolific, and anyone who wants to be an ally has likely stumbled upon it.
But what about all of the people who say, “I can’t think this hard. I’m tired. I just got home from my lousy job, my kid is screaming in my ear, and all I want from life is to fall asleep in front of the TV. And besides, I love everybody and I don’t harbor any bigotry. Good night.” These are the people I desperately want to reach. All the folks who have already made the commitment to be allies? I can refer them to people who have done the work of explaining the issue in painstaking and heartbreaking detail. But the people I want to reach need something a bit more concise to get them started.
So here it is:
How to Be an Ally In Two Easy Steps
1. Listen to and believe the experiences of other people. If someone tells you that they experience racism every day of their lives, believe them. If someone tells you that they are being victimized by disability hatred, believe them. If someone tells you that every bone in their body hurts because of the level of fear and anger they live with as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person, believe them. Take this principle and apply it across the board: anyone who tells you what happens to them because of the way their bodies look, work, and experience the world, believe them. Believe, believe, believe. Because people aren’t making it up. They’re not spending their time talking about trauma and injustice because they have some sort of deep need to be depressed and angry all the time. They’d like the respect due to them as human beings. Step up. Listen and believe.
2. Respect the emotions of other people. Emotions are fine. Emotions, in fact, are wonderful. Emotions give us information about how to proceed in life. Someone who is the target of daily racism, disability hatred, transantagonism, and any other form of violence is going to be angry, in pain, and experiencing fear and despair. Think about it this way: If the world is kicking you on a daily basis, you have a choice. You can self-abnegate or you can get pissed off. Being pissed off is much healthier. Not only does it protect the psyche, but it’s a signal that something is wrong that needs to be made right.
So remember: The anger of another person is not an attack on you personally. Yes, some people can be wounding, destructive, and cruel when they’re angry, but that’s different from the anger itself. There is a difference between a verbal attack and an expression of anger. Someone saying “You are a fucking waste of space and I wish you would die” is a form of verbal violence different from “Your beliefs are dangerous to me and mine, and I’m pissed, and if you don’t fucking step up, the suffering will just go on endlessly.”
Please hold this distinction close to your heart. It’s vital.
A point of clarification for the uninitiated: Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t put up with attack. I don’t accept verbal violence. Words have living, breathing power to me. They can create or destroy. If someone mocks, berates, or disrespects me, I will push back. I have only one non-negotiable in life, and it’s called respecting my dignity as a person. But it works both ways. If respect is my one non-negotiable for how people treat me, it also has to be my one non-negotiable for how I treat other people. I have to be willing to understand the distinction between an attack on my personhood and words that happen to engender fear and pain in me. If someone else’s anger creates fear and pain in me, that’s not an attack. That’s a challenge to step up and respect the dignity of the other person by acknowledging their feelings and their experiences. There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t need that kind of respect. It’s absolutely basic to any form of sustainable change.
In the zone between “Let’s just be nice and pretend that everything is fine” and “Let’s say the most vile things we can think of because the world has already gone to hell” there is a space where the work is happening. We can combine love and respect and anger and pain in this work. So let’s do it.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
I’m going through a sea-change in my thinking about the concept of “privilege.” I find the word so thoroughly problematic that I don’t think I can be effective in my work and continue to use it.
My friend Kiera Scriven has written that the word “privilege” is a misnomer. When we talk about “privilege,” we’re really talking about rights:
A “privilege” in this case is something unearned, correct? “Unearned privileges” is how we tend to conceptualise it. But let’s think about some of these “privileges”: 1) Not being automatically perceived as criminal 2) Being given the benefit of the doubt in these and all kinds of situations 3) Fairer housing practices (see: Wells Fargo settlement in Baltimore) 4) Seeing positive and powerful representations of yourself everywhere 5) Being deemed as “normal” 6) etc…
Are these things we want people to have to /earn/?…I think these are aspects of basic humanity that should be bestowed upon everyone simply for existing.
So feel free to call it whatever you want, but I caution you when your concern is the fact that majority groups have these things — these things they haven’t “earned” — as opposed to the fact that minority groups don’t have them.
Starting with Kiera’s formulation, let’s get clear about what people mean when they talk about “privilege.” To ground the conversation, I’ll get as specific as I can: What does it mean when people say that I have white and middle-class privilege?
It means that I live inside a political, economic, social, and cultural system that gives me power on the basis of my skin color and class — both accidents of birth. I get a whole lot out of that power: money, education, housing, food, clothing, medical care, medical insurance, and cultural authority. The police don’t look at me in the street as though I’m a criminal. I’m not stopped for driving while white. I don’t run much of a risk of being shot for knocking on someone’s door for help. I live in an apartment in a secure building and do not have to worry about a rental application being discarded on the basis of my skin color or income. I have clothing for all kinds of weather and medicine when I need it. When I economize at the grocery store, it’s by choosing between one thing I want to eat and another — not by going without nutritious food.
Are any of these things privileges? No. It’s not a privilege to have an apartment. It’s not a privilege to have clothes. It’s not a privilege to knock on a door and not get shot. It’s not a privilege to be treated with dignity. None of these are privileges. They are basic human rights to which every person on the planet is entitled, and they are basic human rights denied to vast numbers of people on the basis of not only race and class, but also disability, gender identity, sexuality, size, ethnicity, and religion.
When we talk about “privilege,” we talk about “giving up privilege,” and that’s when people with the “privilege” start getting defensive. When people go to that defensive place, I feel the exhaustion coming on, because if I have to keep beating against people’s defenses, I’m not going to be able to sustain the work. Beating against defenses doesn’t serve. The defenses just go up higher. Does it really help to keep using the same strategy?
If what we call “privilege” is really a set of basic human rights and the power to protect them, then no one with any sense or self-respect is going to give them up. And they shouldn’t. The point isn’t to give them up. The point is to make sure that other people get them. What if we started talking about the rank injustice of some people having more rights than others? What if I said that my race and my class enable me to fulfill the promise of my human rights, and that I have to use my resources, my time, my energy, and my life force to fight in solidarity with people whose rights are unprotected? At that point, the question of my losing anything goes right off the table, because the aim isn’t for me to lose my rights, but to use them to make sure that other people get what they deserve to have.
There is something deeply disturbing about a social justice framework that sees human rights as privileges and that sees the solution to inequity as one set of people giving up their human rights so that another set of people gets them. That’s basically the system we’re already in. It’s a system of a scarcity. It’s the same system of scarcity that makes people compete with each other at Wal-Mart for TV sets at Christmas. It’s the thinking perpetuated by our media- and commerce-soaked culture, in which there is never, ever enough for everyone.
That’s no way for human beings to think about human rights.
Much of the problem with a lot of privilege conversations is that they ultimately become shaming, because it is all about what we have and who we are by an accident of birth, and not about what we do. There are lots of dents that can be made in my social power– my disabilities make very big dents in it — but I still have power that I cannot lose. When people start talking about the “privilege” inhering in people by virtue of birth or social position — rather than talking about what people are doing with their birth and social position — shame enters the picture, and that shame is often immobilizing.
In social justice spaces, I have seen a kind of obsession with “privilege” among white and other social justice activists — a kind of distracting guilt about it that creates a lot of distortions. In fact, much of what I see in discussions about ”privilege” is deeply informed by a Christian paradigm in which proper belief is the most important thing, sin must be expiated, and we’re saved by virtue of the words coming out of our mouths, the thoughts happening in our brains, and the feelings going on in our hearts. As Andrea Smith notes in “The Problem with Privilege,” there is a confessional quality to many conversations about privilege, with the listener expected to grant some form of absolution. As a non-Christian, I watch that paradigm in play and simply can’t participate, because it is almost entirely foreign to me. My culture is all about praxis. Belief can inform praxis, but it means nothing without it. I don’t come from a culture that believes in sin, or that believes that we’re fallen, or that believes that we need to feel shame for the world we’re born into, or that believes that confession and proper belief will save us.
It’s immobilizing and useless to feel shame for the system we’re born into. There is no shame in being born into a human body and a world we did not create, and we should feel no shame for that. But we should feel shame for sitting on our hands in such a system and doing nothing. We need to be listening to people tell us what we can actively do and we need to join up with them to do it.
The point is not to grok “privilege.” The point is to not to wrest human rights from each other as though that will create justice. The point is to do justice. I’d like to hear a whole lot more talk about how to do justice in a system overwhelming in its violence, its distortions, its lies, and its cruelty than I want to hear about “privilege.”
I just can’t go there anymore.
Facebook. “On ‘Privilege.’” https://www.facebook.com/notes/kiera-scriven/on-privilege/448172575236421. January 7, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013.
Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with ‘Privilege.’” Andrea366. August 14, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2013. http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
For many years, I’ve labored under the illusion that oppressed people should be wiser, kinder, more just, and more empathetic than anyone else. As a Jew, I was taught early on that we have to fight for justice because we have known persecution. This teaching goes back thousands of years and finds its expression in the dictum in Torah that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). I try to live by this dictum. It drives my work in a multitude of ways.
So the belief that Jews should “know better” than to engage in bigotry and ignore systemic injustice has been axiomatic for much of my life. Out of this belief, I’ve extended this ethical demand to all other oppressed groups: people of color should “know better” than to be homophobic; queer people should “know better” than to be ableist; disabled people should “know better” than to be racist.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to shift my perspective. This shift began during a discussion about the persecution of Africans in Israel. As happens so often, a discussion of Israeli government violence turned into an indictment of all Jews, with all kinds of anti-Semitic canards getting thrown around: Jews own the media, Jews haven’t learned from history, Jews think they’re better than everyone else, there is good reason that people are anti-Semitic because Jews fit the stereotypes, and on and on. The anti-Semitism was like several punches in the gut and brought up tremendous wells of pain and fear, but it was the repeated demand that we Jews “should know better” that I found impossible to answer.
I didn’t know what to say. In fact, I felt as though I really weren’t permitted to say anything at all — as though I had just been placed outside the conversation altogether. And I felt shame — despite the fact that I don’t live in Israel, have never visited Israel, have nothing to do with Israeli policy, and feel appalled by much of what goes on there.
I realized, for the first time, that it is extremely shaming to say to persecuted people “you should know better” – as though people in an oppressed group aren’t capable of all the same ignorance and bigotry and violence as non-oppressed people, and as though they have to be held to a higher standard. I’m becoming less and less enamored of the idea that it takes oppression to create empathy and a passion for justice. Given that dehumanization is at the core of all oppression, it makes no sense to me that oppression would automatically create greater empathy or a greater commitment to justice in anyone. After 2000 years of dehumanization, persecution, and near-genocide, are we Jews really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else? After hundreds of years of systemic and violent racism, are people of color really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else? After centuries of violence, segregation, and humiliation, are disabled people really supposed to be kinder and gentler than anyone else?
That’s not how human beings operate and yes, oppressed people are mere mortals, like everyone else. Pain is not a gentle teacher and nobility does not automatically emerge from suffering.
There is something about the “you should know better” standard that feels curiously oppressive. It’s as though non-oppressed people get a pass, because they haven’t learned what suffering is, but oppressed people are supposed to be nobler and better, because they have. This perspective ignores two basic truths about human life: a) all people suffer and b) it doesn’t take suffering to know that you shouldn’t spill blood or treat another human being unjustly.
What does it to take to do love and justice? It takes being in touch with one’s humanity. It’s a choice to do love and justice. Yes, we should use our suffering and put it in the service of humanity, but that is a choice open to all people equally. It is not simply the province of people who have suffered more than others. Telling dehumanized people that they should be more human than other human beings is simply unjust. It’s creating a standard that other people apparently don’t have to meet. And it ignores all of the pain and terror and anger and despair that drive the injustices we perpetrate on one another.
So to anyone to whom I have said, “But you should know better!” I deeply apologize. It is shaming. It is othering. It is giving power to a double standard that creates division. I am dismantling that standard in my own life and I will speak to it when I see it. More division is not what we need. Healing these divisions cannot happen when we continue to reinforce them. I will strive to do better.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
[I originally posted this piece to my old Journeys with Autism blog in April of 2012. The subject of activism and disability came up in a conversation today with several other disabled people, so I'm reposting the piece here as a point of discussion.]
How do you define activism?
I’ve been chewing on this question for awhile. It’s come up for me lately in the context of my graduate course. We are being asked to talk about the social relevance of our work, with an eye to bringing together theory and practice.
I find myself balking at the dualism of theory and practice. Surely, at least in the case of disability rights, disability theory is essential to thinking about how to solve problems, change cultural assumptions that lead to discrimination, and enable people to heal internalized ableism. I’m not sure that, when it comes to oppression, there really is a useful distinction to be made between thought and practice; after all, analyzing and critiquing oppressive norms like racism and ableism is part and parcel of creating change. For myself, reading disability theory has enabled me to move through discriminatory situations with a great deal more consciousness about what is actually going on (i.e. that it isn’t about me and “my problem”), and to therefore advocate for myself more effectively. When I can do so, not only do I help myself, but I also serve notice to people that the next disabled person who comes in the door may very well be prepared to do the same.
Perhaps the real issue isn’t the difference between theory and practice, but audience. For example, if academics are writing theory and it never goes beyond other academics and the pages of academic journals, then it cannot have an impact on ordinary people who need new frameworks in which to operate. This is a significant problem in academia. Except for my current graduate program, which is interdisciplinary and therefore oriented toward problem-solving, my experience in the field of humanities has been to be fired up with passion and outrage about the injustices of the world, only to hit the hard brick wall of the institution, which provides few opportunities for any sort of real-world practice. In fact, it was the presence of that wall that drove me out of academia for 25 years.
But my question about what constitutes activism goes far beyond questions of theory and practice into the mode of activism itself. For me, writing is my primary mode of activism, because it’s the way in which I communicate most effectively. It’s not the activism of talking to my legislators or organizing protests. It’s a quieter activism.
It’s the activism of replying to emails from parents, who ask about sensory issues, or about how to interpret their kids’ behavior, or about why certain language hurts.
It’s the activism of running the Autism and Empathy site, smashing stereotypes, and giving a place to voices that are all-too-often silenced in the popular media, in autism organizations, and in the scientific community.
It’s the activism of reflecting on my life, on my reading, and on my experience in a way that speaks to people who are just finding out that others feel as they do.
It’s the activism of building bridges with parents by letting people know that just as I need respect for my feelings and my process, so I will give them respect for theirs.
It’s the activism of creating a safe space on my blog, in which people who have never known safe spaces can express themselves without fear of being attacked for their perspectives.
It’s the activism of lifting up my voice and speaking out against murder, and abuse, and cultural violence against disabled people.
There are so many of us who cannot talk with our legislators, or organize protests, or do so many of the things that we tend of think of as activism. I am beginning to realize that defining activism is those ways is much too narrow. Of course, all those things are important. But they are not the only way to make change, and defining activism in those ways is to give in to ableist notions of what sort of action is worthwhile and what sort is not.
The fact is that it’s all activism. Every single piece of it.
Every disabled person who has the courage to ask for the accommodations they need at school or in the workplace is an activist.
Every disabled person who comes out of the closet and says, “This is who I am,” is an activist.
Every disabled person who works to defends his or her psyche against a steady onslaught of devaluation and dehumanizing messages is an activist.
Every disabled person who shares the words of another disabled person, and thereby helps to create a network of mutual support and pride, is an activist.
How could it be otherwise, when simply being disabled and loving our lives is a radical act?
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
There are many good things to say about Andrea Smith’s piece The Problem with “Privilege.” She is absolutely right that to effect systemic change, we must get past the point of self-reflection on privilege, confessions of privilege, and ranking of privilege. She is right that we have to start working to dismantle privilege in all of the spaces we create and in all of the systems in which we are complicit.
But I have a serious problem with an otherwise excellent intersectional analysis: It mentions disability precisely once.
I begin articles like this one with great hope that disability will be integrated into the analysis — only to find, with great disappointment, that disability seems to merit a mere mention (if that). It’s a depressingly recurrent pattern. It often leaves me wondering whether to engage the author’s other arguments, or to simply leave the discussion, secure in the knowledge that, once again, I have not really been invited in.
One of the early warning signs of trouble ahead is Smith’s listing of oppressions under the “gender/race/sexuality/class/etc.” heading (Smith 2013). I cannot exaggerate how much I detest listing oppressions in this way. My friends and I are not an “etc.” My friends and I are disabled. When Smith does not explicitly incorporate this category into an analysis of the colonized subject, she has just done the very same thing that she is arguing against: constituting herself against an imagined Other.
The subject of which she speaks is not disabled. Like the White subject who has to be “educated” about race, the subjects of Smith’s piece have to “educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others” (Smith 2013). But to whom does the word “ourselves” refer? Who is inside that group? Who is outside? By implication, most of the people on the outside are the ones consigned to a handy category called “etc.” about whom we have to “educate ourselves.”
Despite the us/them division thus evoked, we folks in the “etc.” category are already here, hidden in plain sight.
Please start talking about us as though we are you. Because we are.
Please start talking about us as though we have struggled for generations inside of our own civil rights movements. Because we have.
Please start talking about us as though our oppression winds its way through every other oppression under which people labor. Because it does.
And please start talking about us as though we merit the same attention as any other group of dehumanized, Othered folk. Because we do.
Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with “Privilege.” Andrea 366. August 14, 2013. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.
Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism
Top row: You can never know what is really in another person's mind.
You're always playing the race card.
You're just prejudiced against white people.
The black community needs to address [fill in the blank].
I never have any racist thoughts.
Second row: You’re being so divisive.
We’re all equal in America.
Why don’t you get this upset at black-on-black crime?
I don’t see color.
Slavery is over. Stop living in the past.
Third row: The system works.
Free space: What was he doing there?
I think that black people should fix racism by [fill in the blank].
Black people can be racist too, you know.
Fourth row: Everything is about race to you people.
I hope they don’t riot.
Could people stop talking about this now?
I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or purple…
The jury has SPOKEN.
Last row: Are you calling me a racist just because I’m white?
The killer was just scared.
You’re always crying racism.
I can’t be racist. I’m a liberal.
How can I be an ally when you’re so angry all the time?
The text below the graphic reads www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation.]
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg