First rule for reading this post: don't feel bad. This is not a post that requires, demands, or seeks for one to feel bad.
Second rule for reading this post: don't feel bad. Just don't.
Third rule for reading this post: let's be open to having some real critical conversation about the fact that, while I hold one of the most privileged positions in terms of my work (e.g., I am on my way to receiving tenure, which is a certain security that most people do not have, and I am also part of the 1% of people with terminal research degrees), I also am forced to spend lots of time, energy, and attention on wondering why I am here, what my being here means, and how my marginalized identities may continue to be a mediating factor in my "success" as a trans* academic. Put another way, whether I want to pay these thoughts any mind, I am continually confronted with situations, comments, and opportunities that remind me that, although I know I am bright/a good writer/a smart cookie, these opportunities may be extended to me to create what Paul Kivel discussed as a "buffer zone," or the creation of a supposed inclusion for the sake of overlooking the continuation of egregious marginalization and lack of focus on the very communities of which I am a part (i.e., trans* people).
But first, of course, in true autoethnographic fashion, I have a couple stories to ground this conversation. They will be brief; I promise.
I was in a meeting the other day where someone talked about certain people saying telling them they felt using trans* peoples' proper names and pronouns impinged upon their religious freedoms. I had no way of knowing who these people were, nor was I itching to know, but the thought that kept racing through my mind was, "Are there people who I work with who think this? Is this something that people in my small sphere of daily life think on the regular?" And honestly, y'all, this one is not about religion, faith, spirituality, or life purpose; it's about the fact that people are saying that to use proper names and pronouns is an undue burden with which they should not have to "deal."
I was texting with a couple friends recently (two different conversations), and one of them asked me what success meant for me. This made me pause, because in all respects, I seem to be normatively successful. I have a book contract, a tenure-track job, multiple pieces accepted into top-tier journals, good teaching evaluations, and people are reading the work I am producing. However, I paused with this question because I have never been comfortable with normative notions of success-as-production or success-as-external-validation-and-movement-toward-tenure.
The second texting conversation was with a colleague with whom I was talking about an invitation to facilitate a broader dialogue about trans* students in college. This colleague shared with me some worry that our being asked to do this was a form of trans* pinkwashing, or the use of our bodies and minds to cover the ongoing trans* oppression happening at an institutional level. I sighed (literally) and then texted back some real negative self-talk...which took me by surprise. I have been working real hard to work through that shit, but this stuff just oozed from my fingers.
And that is when I realized I needed to move away for a bit and write this post, because that negative self-talk was itself a signal of something deeper, something that I have been struggling with as of late and, I suspect, other marginalized people also are forced to cope with regularly. I knew I needed to process through my own experiences as a way to make sense of what was happening more broadly for scholars, practitioners, and people on the margins (hence the autoethnographic format of this post).
So let's think about these stories in reverse order. The second story remains potent for me, and has made my mind spin. Yes, there are both external and internal definitions of success; this is not new. Success is also, as I suggested to my friend, "a moving target" in the sense that my views on success shift and change with time. This, too, is nothing new. It all seems pretty innocuous. However, what seems more important to me is that external definitions of success are foisted on me, and people seem to make sense of me based on external definitions of success. Furthermore, other people think they know me based on these external features they see about me (e.g., published, book contract, tenure-track job, killing joy left, right, and center via critical trans* analyses). So the external views on success drive others' "knowing" me, which, in turn, creates an image of me that is wholly outside of my control. It also means that people reach out to me as "the expert," which is always a weird, tenuous, and yet valuable position to be in...which brings me to the second texting conversation.
When people reach out to me, I am always glad. Seriously, I wouldn't do the work and writing and thinking and teaching I do if I didn't want to enact change, and part of enacting change is entering into public dialogues with people about the work I do. I do not think I have yet attained this level, but I do very much value the idea that people invested in community organizing, activism, and scholarship have an opportunity to be public intellectuals. And if ever there was a time when public intellectuals were needed, and critical public intellectuals, now is that moment. I mean, shit--the moment was a few moments ago, but yeah, we need critical public intellectuals for sure now. There are several people I look to in this regard; people like Dr. Leigh Patel (y'all need to follow Dr. Patel's blog if you don't already), Reina and Che Gossett (follow them on Twitter right away if you don't already), and my dear friend T.J. Jourian, who doesn't know the bounds of his brilliance. These people continue to agitate for radical redefinitions of who we are, what we value, and how we move forward as a populous. So yeah, I am really tickled when people reach out to me thinking I have something of value to add to public conversations about thinking more intentionally and critically about issues related to race, gender, disability, trans* collegians, higher education, and all that good stuff.
But then...is my accepting certain invitations just a form of collusion in creating buffer zones? Am I participating in people and organizations holding me up as The Trans* Scholar who has The Trans* Knowledge so they can continue to hide The Trans* Oppression that operates at institutional levels? Thinking back to the first story I shared, am I That Trans* Scholar who has been hired to create a view of diversity that people cannot stand, stomach, understand, and as a result, they resist with all their might to see me as anything but not-quite-human (Weheliye, 2014)? And if this is the case (and let's be real here--this is certainly part of the case part of the time), then am I comfortable with that collusion? Am I comfortable knowing that, no matter how much I resist, and no matter how much killjoying (is that even a word?!) I do, I have already been used as a tool for the continuation of institutional oppression? That my desire to subvert the institutional logics of oppression may have already been counteracted by the propping up of me as a willing trans* participant in the covering of the myriad ways in which my communities are overlooked, erased, denied, and seen as not-quite-human?
And then there is the energy and attention given to the wonderings of intent. Please believe, I don't enjoy or seek opportunities to do this sort of thinking. However, when moments like those in the aforementioned two stories pop up, it is damn hard--nope, impossible...or at the very least, highly improbable--for me to not wonder, "Hmm, I wonder what this means about me and my people? I wonder what the intent of my being asked to work here/do this talk/share my knowledge/moderate or otherwise be attentive to my identity as a trans* person means, and why this opportunity was extended to me?"
And to be intensely clear, these opportunities, no matter how much I am forced to wonder about them, go into furthering external notions of my success...which then make people contact me, which then make me wonder...so it's cyclical, y'all.
Truth be told, I do not need people to tell me this stuff. I didn't need my friend to bring up the trans* pinkwashing comment for me to wonder this. I got that. It's our lived reality as people who are marginalized, minoritized, and/or othered on the regular. But the energy and attention that is taken when it is brought up, the energy and attention that is taken when I wonder, and the coping strategies I have built in to try to trust groups and people who I know have (and continue) to harm me and my people...that is some ish right there. That is energy that is best used for other things and on other people.
So the question then becomes, if this is an everyday reality, what the heck should I and others do about it? How should we deal with the problem of success, being held up as buffer zones, and the consistent wonderings around intent?
I have no idea. If I did, I would be sharing that stuff all over the place, because I feel and see the exhaustion written all over our faces, y'all. All over our faces as marginalized peoples. I hear the stories, and I sense the crappiness. I don't know the answers, but here are some things I am trying to do:
(1) Turn off my phone. Yup, that's the truth, Ruth. Turning that thing off, leaving it at home or in my purse, because I need to not be around it and its reminders/notifications sometimes...and turning it off is how I can make sure I can do this effectively.
(2) Say, out loud, "Micro- and macroaggressions/aggressors, move along." I literally ain't got time for that, so as best I can, I need to just tell myself to push through. Because, as a friend told me a few weeks back, thriving and striving is the biggest "fuck you" to these people and moments. It's what they don't want us to do, either consciously or unconsciously.
(3) Take the moments and spaces I have be given to call out the potential buffering happening. This one is taking practice, but I am working hard to hold the tension of being in spaces while at the same time calling those spaces out. I am trying really hard to negotiate between honoring the work and knowledge and critical praxis I have been asked to share with highlighting how this may (not) be showing up at the very moment I was/am asked to speak and engage. In this regard, I am learning a ton from many people who have come before me, especially Black women, women of color, and trans* women of color. Y'all, these folks continue to call shit out as it happens, and it is beautiful to bear witness to. Like, absolutely beautiful. So I am working hard to follow the lead and do this in ways that both engage and remain critical.
(4) Owning what is "my shit" versus what is not. Girl down, this one is hard for me. I continue to process this one, and have a good friend who I have been talking with about this lots lately. We text back and forth throughout the weeks and remind each other, "Whatever is going on right now is not your shit!" This keeps my focus trained on the institutionalization of oppression, and the systemic nature of the mess occurring. It also reminds me that people enact these institutional and systemic (il)logics, and I need to remain attentive to this because, honestly, it's not my shit. Furthermore, owning this allows me to do what I talked about in #2 all the better/easier/quicker. Move along, because it's not my shit.
I will keep joining spaces to talk, and will keep calling those spaces, people, and (il)logics out. And I am sure that will become commodified, and I will be asked to join other spaces because of my killjoying (I am making this a thing, y'all). And yet...this is the very thing public intellectuals need to do, right? The very tension we need to hold. And so, at the end of the day, I am okay saddling up with some collusion if it allows me the chance to highlight the very (il)logic that forced me to choose collusion in the first place. And that seems important to me. As I have written about before, it seems risky, dangerous, and scary. But it seems important, too.
And trans* justice is far too important to be held back by shit that isn't mine, or by wasting energy on the types of thinking that reminds me of what I already know. Instead, I am going to make some choices to join some messed up spaces as a way to push, resist, and proclaim, at the top of my lungs: WE MATTER. WE ARE HERE. WE WILL BE IGNORED NO LONGER.
It's been awhile since I have written a blogpost (enter Perfectly Logical Explanation here), but regardless, I have been thinking about two different concepts, one of which I want to discuss today. The idea is this: how some White people use the concept of "calling in" acts as an invisibility cloak for confronting one's complicity in enacting White supremacy, maintaining White dominance, and furthering racism and anti-Blackness.
Before I launch into it, I want to first explain for non-Harry Potter fans (are there people who don't like HP?!) what I mean by an invisibility cloak...although typing it out just now it seems pretty self-explanatory. Essentially, in the HP series, the invisibility cloak allowed Harry and his pals to move around Hogwarts (and various other places) without being detected (although somehow their footprints still showed up in the snow...but that's neither here nor there for the present discussion). In essence, the invisibility cloak allowed Harry & Co. to circumvent, escape, or move past particular barriers. Translating this to the current discussion, I am suggesting that some White people use calling in as a strategy/technique to circumvent, escape, or move past internalized White dominance and their enactment of that dominance. Thus, calling in becomes a way to stealthfully get out of addressing one's own privileged identities and the various ways in which our identities reify the racism and anti-Blackness.
Also, it would help to talk a bit about the very concept of "calling in," yeah? In this post from December 2013, Ngoc Loan Tran described calling in as follows:
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.
Tran discussed calling in as a process of remaining in dialogue within our communities, and recognized the concept as a way of promoting and displaying continued love for each other, even when we "fuck up" and/or "stray" from the very tenets we hold dear (e.g., equity, anti-oppression, social justice). Tran also stated, "I don’t propose practicing 'calling in' in opposition to calling out. I don’t think that our work has room for binary thinking and action." In this sense, calling in does not create a binary between calling in or calling out, but is another strategy through which we can confront the realities of oppression, both as it is internalized and externally expressed by various groups and communities.
So then how is it that calling in as a strategy is used by White people as a way to stealthfully move past, beyond, or around White dominance and White supremacy? Good question; here is what I am thinking...
Calling in, as originally conceived, was a radical form of accountability that encouraged people to forward compassion, love, and community in working alongside one another to dismantle systems of oppression. However, lately I have seen some White people deploying this strategy in an altered form. Specifically, I have seen White people who use the notion of calling in to express a watered down, privatized version of accountability, where public enactments of White dominance and supremacy are only dealt with in private, one-on-one spaces. Additionally, I have been in spaces where White people have used the notion of calling in as a way to get around the rawness of anger, an emotion that needs no permission to be expressed, but exposes real fears in White people, who worry about being seen as "bad people." This is especially true for those of us White people who consider ourselves to be committed to confronting racism and anti-Blackness. And so the response from some White people, the way they cope with the (presumed/anticipated) anger of others is to suggest that others "practice calling in," to which they mean, "Just be gentle and talk to me offline in a 'calm' and 'polite' manner, because my feelings are precious and I am a 'good person,' and I don't want others to see me as fallible."
As a White person myself, I have to just state for the record that I get this. I have lived this. I still muck up. Despite all my work, and my continued commitment to confronting and counteracting White dominance, White supremacy, racism, and anti-Blackness, I still make mistakes. And when I mess up, I feel like shit. I feel guilt, shame, and failure. So yeah, I get it: I am White and I, too, make all sorts of mistakes. However, I have grown increasingly wary of my White peers who are vocally committed to social justice, but use a twisted notion of "calling in" as a way to eschew public engagement in our public mess-ups. I have grown incredibly frustrated by White colleagues who muck up in public ways, only to reach out to me or other White people looking to be absolved for their enactments of White dominance and racism. I have even heard some of my White colleagues express that they "do not want to be called out" in public, which reeks of all sorts of White dominance and enactments of racism, as their own self-image as a "good White person" is more important than counteracting and calling in/out racism in powerful ways (not to mention ways that reflect the ways in which that racism has been enacted...specifically in these cases, publicly).
Thus, it seems like some White people have twisted the notion of calling in to mean that they would prefer, if at all possible, that their enactments of racism and anti-Blackness be dealt with on an individual basis, if at all, thank you very much. Oh, and if you could do that gently, that would be best...because White fragility...
And if the sarcasm in the previous statement wasn't overt enough, let me state it a bit more bluntly...
You can miss me with this sort of thinking. Calling in, as originally defined by Tran, was imagined as a radical form of love, compassion, and accountability. However, it seems like some White people have spoiled this concept, using it instead as an invisibility cloak to hide, circumvent, or get away from being held accountable...or being held accountable on their own terms (e.g., privately, and without feeling, or at least without feelings expressed from the person addressing them, because if there is one thing we White people have, it's a lot of feelings...and we love to share them, particularly around how guilty, shameful, worried, and/or anxious we feel around issues of race and racism).
Essentially, some White people have appropriated the concept of calling in, twisting its meaning to serve their/our purposes (because I, too, cannot distance myself from White dominance, I use the word "our" as a way of taking ownership of my complicity in this process as well). And this, my friends, is all sorts of messed up.
So what am I proposing then? How do I suggest shedding this particular invisibility cloak? Here are some (working) ideas, about which I would love to hear feedback and further suggestions...
(1) First off, it needs to be stated again that not all White people have twisted calling in. However, the fact that some/most have means that we as White people need to actively recommit to understanding the concept and deploying it correctly.
(2) I suggest that White people must practice calling each other out more. I agree with Tran that calling in/out is not an either/or, zero-sum game. However, I think it is incredibly important to be very clear about expressing our own/other White peoples' investment and enactments of White dominance, White supremacy, racism, and anti-Blackness. We need to recognize, as White people, when this is happening, and say it, call it out, without worrying about the guilt, shame, anxiety, or other feelings associated with how our White peers may take our calling it out. I am not saying we need to be violent toward each other, but I do think we need to not play the "what if" or "but their feelings may be hurt" games that lead to the twisting of calling in to benefit White people (i.e., using the concept as an invisibility cloak).
(3) As White people, we need to deal with our own shit. In talking about race and racism, and its attendant feelings, a dear friend of mine expressed to me there are things that are "our own shit" that we need to deal with accordingly. I have taken a shine to this expression, and have shared it with others as of late; there are just some things that are our own shit that we need to handle on our own. White guilt, White shame, and White anxiety are three of those things. And when we feel like we cannot do them on our own, we need to find other White people to do this work with us. We cannot continue to brush this off by saying we are "good White people," or that "we get it," because the reality is that we: (a) may not get it, and (b) even if we get it, it doesn't mean we don't need to continually work at recognizing and counteracting racism and anti-Blackness in our own lives.
(4) Related to the last point, we need to be in community with other White people around these topics. The time is long since passed (and really, there never should have been a time) when we as White people should spill all "our shit" out with people of color. This is our shit, and so we need to deal with it together. As another dear friend told me years ago, "find your people." In this case, find other White people and commit to understanding and enacting calling in/out as they were meant to be deployed: publicly, with love, compassion, and kindness, but also with a raw feeling and intensity that does not belie the fact that a mistake was made.
(5) Recognize White fallibility, while also recognizing the urgency to do better. I shudder to even use the phrase "do better," to be honest. This is another one I have heard White people use recently, particularly White, cisgender people who tell me they are "committed to doing better" around trans* oppression. This sentiment is often expressed as always future-oriented, as in, "I wanna do better; it's so on my To Do List, so I will get to it eventually...but first I need to take care of these other things. Oh, and can you send me resources and shit?" (Again, note the sarcasm). So what I mean is, yeah, we make mistakes. Messed up mistakes. We, too, are fallible people. However, we cannot retreat in our own fallibility; instead, we need to recognize the absolute and utter urgency with which we as White people need to do better. It's not about committing to doing it later, it's about doing it now. We may not feel ready, but that is not the point. If we waited until we were all ready, we would never start. So let's just buck up, get out there, and attend to our public mistakes in public ways, yeah?
I am not suggesting I have this all figured out, or that I am completely beyond the practice of twisting calling in that I articulated here. I am sure that part of my own frustration with how White people have appropriated this concept is indeed that I am complicit in having done this very thing. However, I am unwilling to be silent anymore about this particular issue. We as White people need to hold ourselves accountable, and if this blogpost can be another move in that direction, then I am glad for that.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.