“When legislators and judges are in disagreement over whether the quasi-suspect category ‘sex’ includes ‘sexual orientation’ or even ‘gender identity,’ better understanding about how categories are named, regulated, and respected are necessary. These may seem like questions about equity, representation, and civics, but they are also central to educational research. If researchers are interested in engaging issues, they need to be cognizant of the varieties of ways in which people define themselves, how they are impacted by policies, and how their subjectivities, terminologies, and even communities will shift over time.” (Mayo, 2017, p. 536)
“Race is a figuration, a fake, made-up thing with material, crushingly real consequences. As Chinua Achebe taught, everything is a fiction. The question is if it is a beneficent or malignant fiction.” (Patel, 2015, para. 12)
“I find myself increasingly insisting on the importance of history, not because things were better (or worse) in an earlier time but because, as cocreators of collective memory, we’re all doing it one way and another, and it matters how we tell the story.” (Enke, 2018, p. 10)
There are moments when I read things expecting to be rocked a bit, and then there are times that, no matter how much I expect to be moved, the ground seems to open up beneath me and swallow me whole. There are some pieces that are just all consuming, and shake me to my very core, challenging me to rethink a lot of ideas and notions that had begun to solidify in my consciousness. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I find it necessary to pause, take stock, and do the rethinking the piece is calling on me (and, I may argue, us all) to do.
And when it happens that I (re)read three such pieces in the span of a week, well, that’s cause for a blogpost…
Recently, I read Cris Mayo’s Educational Researcher piece, Queer and Trans Youth, Relational Subjectivity, and Uncertain Possibilities: Challenging Research in Complicated Contexts. Mayo’s work has immediately become one of those monumental pieces, an anchor for my continued (re)thinking of my work. In fact, as I read Mayo’s work, I was reminded of a blogpost from Leigh Patel that I consistently return to, as well. Specifically, these pieces—and a recent piece in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly by Finn Enke that I will fold into the discussion later—have helped me think more carefully about citational practice, as well as why it matters for scholars and practitioners alike.
In setting the stage, it’s important to note just what I mean when I discuss citational practice. In her latest book, Ahmed (2017) discussed her policy against citing white men. She did this as a way to live her feminist ethic, and lift up the voices of womxn, especially womxn of color. Similarly, in my book, I revise earlier work of mine to center the conceptual work of trans people rather than on cisgender people. My point for doing this was about highlighting and circulating the work of those already on the margins rather than continuing to lift up those voices for people who are usually centered (at best) and/or are co-opting marginalized voices and concepts (at worst).
Flash forward to a couple months ago, I began working on an CFP submission for a special issue journal on resisting binary notions of gender. In my imagining of my manuscript, I immediately got the idea of writing a piece in which I only cited trans people. I have often dreamed out loud about being able to do this, and find it to be a provocative idea, as it would reinforce the ways in which we as trans people have generated our own knowledges. In a sense, doing so lines up in some ways with what I have written about a trans epistemology in that it would confront readers with our ongoing existence despite/in response to our ongoing erasure.
And then I read Mayo’s piece…and remembered Patel’s piece…and read Enke’s piece…and began to think differently.
In Mayo’s piece, readers are reminded of the ways in which categorical understandings of gender and sexuality continue to be rollicked by individuals as we come to (re)know ourselves. Mayo also does a masterful job tethering our various and ongoing constructions of self not just to an independent project of navel-gazing, but to exposing the hegemonic ways in which population management, surveillance, and the nation-state operate. Mayo also is careful to remind readers these long-reaching connections have consequences for how researchers and practitioners do our work. For if we do not know what it is we are talking about (e.g., sexuality, gender), then we are perhaps furthering dangerous policies, rhetorics, studies, and discourses.
In Patel’s piece, readers are reminded of how, despite its fictitious base, race continues to have material effects on one’s life chances. In this sense, then, one is racialized—thereby producing effects—rather than “having” a concretized race that is itself a “natural” fact. And while race and gender are not the same, the ways in which these subjectivities are both deeply held personal realities and relational processes underscore the ways that “pinning down” or proposing to “know” some sort of ontological reality about populations on the basis of such fictions is a shifty—and perhaps quite muddy—process, as it suggests we can affix a stable, monolithic set of realities to something that is anything but.
In Enke’s piece, readers are reminded that the history we thought we knew may in fact be “all mixed up.” Through a rereading of moments from 1970s feminist movements, Enke shows how transfeminism was always already present throughout, disavowing the easy slide toward this era equaling a time in which transphobia was an all-consuming discourse. Enke picks up on the work of Sandy Stone, who advocated for sticking with being “all mixed up” as a way of creating space for those of us who have always been positioned as “all mixed up.” And if transphobia both was and wasn’t present, then perhaps we can realize the ways in which norms have (not) constrained us and keep pulling on threads that tear at these mixed up seams.
So now back to this idea of an all trans cited/referenced piece. In short, I have decided not to do this. My reasons for doing this are multiple, and are in direct connection to these three pieces.
From Mayo’s piece, I wonder how my desire is rooted in the false belief that all trans people are invested in liberatory notions of gender. I also wonder how I would be investing in the same strategies of population management and surveillance to “make sure” all those cited/referenced were trans.
From Patel’s piece, I wonder what standards I would use regarding making determinations of who to cite. There are many people who both allude categorization, or their genders shift across time and place or for whom historical and geopolitical understandings of gender just cannot do justice. How could my concretizing something fictitious further the “crushingly real consequences” of that fiction, transforming it from beneficial to malignant?
From Enke’s piece, I wonder how my desire was for a non-“mixed up” past/present/future, and how that non-“mixed up” past/present/future could be erroneously used to suggest that we have “arrived” in problematic ways.
I have written about a number of these same ideas before, and yet…there was—and still is, if I am being honest—a desire to have an “exclusively trans” manuscript…whatever that even means/if that is truly even possible. As Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton point out, these desires can be trap doors in that they may lead to peril and/or possibility. So while I have been a bit shocked at my desire, and how it rubs against my deeply held episteme, I do want to follow it through this trap door to see what it could reveal.
As I move through the trap door of the elusive “exclusively trans” manuscript, I find a way to embrace a trickle up citational practice that is an act of epistemological solidarity. Mirroring Dean Spade’s notion of trickle up activism, this would be a citational practice focused on the knowledges constructed by those most on the margins, and would work across populations as a way to proliferate possibilities for what and who we come to know, as well as how we come to know. As we focus on epistemological solidarity, there are spillages into the way we come to know our research as scholars, as well as the way we come to do our work. We focus on various, previously-hidden-from-view ways of being in the world as researchers and practitioners, and frame our work beyond the normal, institutionalized code of standards. We begin to live, work, think, research, and act with and alongside those most on the margins, and in so doing, increase life chances through striving toward our shared liberation.
So this is where I am at right now. I may never write an “exclusively trans” manuscript, but to be honest, these three pieces have helped me understand why doing so may never have really been necessary in the first place, as well as how the desire for me to do so was about something I previously had not had the capacity to imagine. Moreover, I have been able to think, yet again, about how the process by which we come to know—and the trap doors that are exposed/that we head through—have deep implications for all of us invested in hooks’ (1994) notion of education as a practice of freedom.
Recently, my friend and colleague Ruth Pearce wrote a beautiful blogpost on her experiences with co-authorship. In her post, Pearce recounts how writing can be a radical site for coming together with each other, as well as how we can do the work of coming together across temporalities and methods. She writes about the process of co-authorship as full of feeling, and in doing so, invites her readers to feel alongside her. In some senses, then, she is inviting her readers into a co-authoring experience that perhaps even traverses what was done in the past (e.g., scholarly pieces were written), and to think about how we can touch one another to form new ideas, lines of inquiry, and critical reflections (e.g., that which has yet, but could one day, be written). And it is here where I want to begin this blogpost, taking as a starting point Pearce’s reflections on her writing process (could this then mean Pearce and I are co-authoring this post?).
Over the past several months, I have begun working on my materials for my 3rd year review portfolio. For folks unfamiliar with the tenure process in the United States, academics undergo a mid-point check-in of sorts, usually in the third year of their tenure-track appointments. This serves as a way to see if one is making the progress needed for a successful bid for tenure in three years time. The process is a bit harrowing for a variety of reasons, but that is not really the point of this post. Instead, I want to focus on one aspect of putting together these materials that has peaked my own curiosities: scholarly collaboration.
Two elements of my portfolio include consolidating all of my scholarly publications (including that which is out for review and in press) along with updating my CV. I have also been tasked with writing a statement about my scholarship, which should be a narrative that weaves a coherent tapestry regarding my research agenda. As I have been doing all of this, I have been struck by one thing, and that is the importance of writing with and alongside my people.
This became so present for me, in fact, that I even addressed it in my scholarly narrative. I wrote,
Finally, collaboration has been a particularly important value to me throughout the development of my research agenda. As a scholar, I have a commitment to working with and alongside transgender communities, and as such, it would be antithetical—and I may argue unethical—to only do this work in a vacuum. Not only is my collaborative approach to research and scholarship a reflection of my paradigmatic orientation, but it also recognizes that equity and justice-based work—which I consider my work to be—is best done in concert with others, both within and across identities and experiences, as well as at all educational levels. Maintaining my value of community as central to my research agenda, I have been intentional to research and publish alongside students at the undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels. I have also researched and published with a variety of early, mid-, and senior scholars, including several colleagues at Northern Illinois University. I have also been intentional to work alongside other queer and transgender students and scholars, as well as students and scholars of color, students and scholars with disabilities, and students and scholars with multiple marginalized identities. Far from being a form of “tick box diversity” (Ahmed, 2012), my choices reflect a desire to live what Spade (2015) called “trickle up activism,” or the belief that we must work alongside those who are the most vulnerable in order to realize transformative justice. In other words, I find it imperative, as a scholar with multiple marginalized identities, to research and write alongside fellow marginalized students and scholars as a way to build the types of connections that help us as people with marginalized identities thrive in postsecondary education.
Now, this isn’t a “how to” blogpost where I elucidate 5 Strategies to do Collaborative Scholarship Effectively. This sort of post has its value, but mine isn’t that sort of post. Instead, what I am keenly interested in, and what Pearce’s post reminded me of, is thinking about scholarly collaboration as an ethic. In other words, I have become increasingly preoccupied with what it means to engage in collaborative work, even if one is writing a “solo-authored publication.” Yeah, that’s right, I just wrote that – I want to think about collaboration, even in regards to solo-authored publications.
But what all does this mean? Let’s try an example or two, yeah?
Folks familiar with this blog are likely already familiar with the fact that a book with my name as the “solo author” was recently published. However, people who are familiar with my work, have seen me speak about this book, and/or follow me on Twitter also know I am reticent to call this “my book.” In fact, I often discuss this as a book that the participants and I wrote. This is far from a cute ploy or simple choice in wording. Instead, it is a recognition that I did not write this book on my own. Yes, I get that I was the only one who typed the words that were printed on the pages of the book. However, the content (e.g., the data, the analysis, the people and experiences and implications) was all done with the participants. Moreover, my noting of the book as collaborative is a reminder that we as scholars and academicians who do human subjects research can never do anything without the investment (even in minimal ways) of those alongside whom we research, analyze, and write. As I have said over and over again, the book would have never happened were it not for the participants, and to suggest this is “my book” would smack of hubris.
For another example, I want to think about this very blogpost. I am currently typing away at my dining room table. Later, I may move to my office at Northern Illinois University, where I may finish up the post. However, there is no one here typing with me, nor will there be. In this sense, I am not talking about the sort of collaboration Pearce wrote about in her blog, where multiple people write together, sometimes taking turns at a single document, or perhaps even writing together in a shared virtual platform. This is, indeed, important, is something I have done, and is something I will continue doing in my career. But it’s not really what I am talking about in this blogpost.
Instead, what I am writing about is that these words I am typing now are not purely “my own.” What I am writing about is how this post was influenced by years of working, thinking, and being with other people, work, and thinking. What I am writing about is how this post grew not just from Pearce’s post, but also from the years of thinking I have done with and alongside other scholars. Whether we met through books, in person, or both, we have been thinking together, and that thinking has always already influenced “my” writing of this post. In fact, I could even stretch this concept to think about how I have been collaborating with my former selves across times and spaces. So, in a sense, I am indebted not only to Julia Serano and Susan Stryker, who I remember reading while smoking cigarettes on my small patio in Tucson, Arizona as I came into my own trans becoming, but also to the me who picked up those texts, thought through those texts, and continues to engage in the process of my own trans becoming. In a sense, I am thinking about collaboration as an ongoing, genealogical practice. In a sense, I am queering notions of collaboration such that it may not always matter whose name is first…or even on the page.
Now, there are some caveats here that must be written. I completely understand the implications of our current neoliberal moment and its effects on knowledge production. I get that the commodification of what is “my” scholarship (or “yours,” for that matter) is used as a symbol of our “productivity,” which is used to determine our ability to remain in our posts. I also understand quite palpably the implications of plagiarism. As someone who has had to confront the taking of my ideas without proper citation, I understand this viscerally, and need to state quite clearly that I am not arguing for people taking work because, “Well, Z said this thinking is mine, too, so I don’t need to cite it.” Nope, this is most certainly not what I am saying, and if that is what you are coming away from this post thinking, I would encourage you to invest some time processing through how whiteness and coloniality permeates your misconceptions.
Instead, what I am suggesting is that to collaborate can be material and affective (as Pearce wrote about in her post), and it can also be an ethic, or an ongoing moral practice that one engenders (a pun for the crowd) in epistemological and genealogical ways. What I am suggesting is that recognizing collaboration as an ethic reminds us from whence we came, and to whom we have always already been with, should we decide to recognize such. What I am suggesting is that understanding collaboration as ethic makes visible all of the invisible lines of thought that get us where we are…and where we may go. It is not that one’s thinking is mine for the taking, but that what is “mine” has always already been influenced by others, and that to suggest otherwise is, for me, incongruent with who we have been as a community, and how we must continue to be if we truly believe in the liberatory potential of the work we do.
And while the names of the participants with whom I wrote don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I make them present through all of the public scholarship and talks I do.
And while the people who I have thought alongside and with don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I view literature reviews through a citational practice where I elucidate who my community has always been (a practice I have learned from Sara Ahmed, who wrote about not citing white men in her latest book, Living a Feminist Life).
And while the people who I continue to come into my trans existence with don’t show up on the front cover of “my” book, I use the acknowledgements and dedication spaces to bring to the fore those people—past, present, and future—for whom “my” work exists, and without whom “my” work would not be (again, this is very similar to the way Ahmed has dedicated Living a Feminist Life and On Being Included to the communities with whom she researches and lives).
And yes, as I have written about alongside others, the choices we make about epistemologies and methodologies, and the affective aspects of our work all have implications regarding how we (don’t) embody collaboration.
And still, I find the need to explore how collaboration as ethic is a both/and that both recognizes these important dimensions of collaboration, and also invites us to think in new, interconnected, and communal ways.
As I wrap up this post, I would like to take a moment to publicly thank Ruth Pearce for her blogpost. Ruth, I miss you, and think fondly of the time we spent together in our workshop at Warwick a few summers ago often. Please know that despite the distance, I continue to find a home in the your writing, tweeting, and in our ongoing connection. I can’t wait to read your forthcoming book, too, as I know it will spur further thinking we will all do together.
“Jamais deux sans trois.”
The above French idiom, which translates to “never twice without a third [time],” means that what happens twice will usually happen again. In other words, one may use the idiom to point toward the development of a pattern of events or behavior based on previous similar happenings.
It is here that I want to start this blogpost, because I am starting to notice a pattern of events that can be summed up thusly: You wouldn’t like me if you worked here.
Okay, so at this point, you may be wondering how I got from a French idiom to people not liking me, but bear with me…it will all make sense by the end of the post. Moreover, I hope I can help elucidate something worth the time and effort it will take you, Dear Reader, to get through the post.
The first step, it would seem, is to discuss the two events from which the “third” would come, à la the French idiom…
Event #1: A friend and I are texting, and he asks me if my Gender & Higher Education class has filled up yet. I say no, and that it likely will not fill. That it didn’t last summer, and I don’t expect it to fill this summer. He seems surprised and says, “If I was a student of someone who wrote the book you did, I would jump to take your class.” I thank him, and remind him of an old adage I was told when I was working as a student affairs educator: The nearest expert is always 10 miles away.
Event #2: I run for a leadership position in a presidential commission for gender and sexuality on campus. I am quite ambivalent about this position, mainly due to the trans* antagonism I have experienced by other members during the year, but decide to give it a go in the hopes of reclaiming the organization as a queer space. However, I know I will likely not get the position, largely because I have called out the violence I have experienced in the organization, and I know that cisgender and/or heterosexual people—who make up the majority of the membership of the organization—don’t like that. They don’t like being called out on their investments in transphobia…especially cishet folks who like to consider themselves “good liberals.” I lose the election, as does my other queer colleague who ran for a leadership position. Instead, two cisgender and heterosexual people are voted into the two positions for which my colleague and I ran.
Juxtaposed with these two events is the reality that I am being invited to speak at various different institutions and conferences this coming fall. While I am incredibly humbled by these invitations, especially given my relative youth in my profession, I have been a bit confused as to what seems to be contradictory experiences. In one sense, I am being welcomed to various other campuses and events to share my expertise, whilst in another sense, my expertise is being disregarded and/or actively dismissed.
And then, as usually happens for me, I come home to the writing of Sara Ahmed. Specifically, I am reminded of her blogpost where she wrote, “When you expose a problem you pose a problem” (para. 1).
I expose problems, and therefore, I pose problems.
“But I do this everywhere,” I think. “Why, then, would I be welcomed off-campus, and disavowed on-campus?”
And then it hits me: people off-campus don’t need to deal with me on a regular basis. They get to choose when, where, and how to engage with me. They set the terms by which I visit, and those who come hear me speak get to opt into listening, whereas the people at NIU do not have that same choice.
At NIU, my host institution, people have to deal with me. In fact, this past year, I have been putting myself in people’s ways more and more. I have embraced what it means to be a trans* killjoy even more than I had previously, and I have been calling out instances, ideologies, and enactments of trans* oppression with confident regularity.
Cisgender people don’t like this.
Heterosexual people don’t like this.
Cishet people don’t like this.
And when it comes to cishet folks at NIU, they cannot opt out of my killjoying (yeah, that’s right, I just wrote that. Let’s make it a thing, yeah?). For example, for the folks on the presidential commission I mentioned in my second story, I have a captive audience of perhaps unwilling participants. Sure, they could make choices on whether to open the email I wrote to the entire membership about the trans* antagonism I experienced, and my reticence to be involved in the organization until said antagonism was confronted, addressed, and corrected. However, they didn’t get a say in if I emailed them…and if they had, my guess is many would have asked me to not write and send it…
…because #CisHetFragility is so, so real.
And this is why you probably wouldn’t like me if you worked here. Because not only do I have no chill, but I think chill is entirely overrated. Because I will not slow down, but will only speed up, get louder, and call out more the trans* oppressive illogics that show up on my campus (and beyond). And for folks at my host institution, who don’t have a choice of if, when, where, or how to engage with me, this means that I pose a problem. It means that I am posed as a troublemaker, and am made into an unruly subject, one who is never satisfied, a complainer, a person with whom to be dealt, irrespective of my expertise.
I will likely continue to experience a cool (and sometimes hot) disregard for my work and expertise at my host institution. And this disregard will always be unsteadily situated alongside my being invited and welcomed to other campuses, conferences, and events to share my killjoying (again, I am trying to make this a thing).
But so what? Why does this matter? How does this apply to the work we do in higher education?
Whilst this all is a bit strange, and I don’t really like it much, I think there are some things we can all learn from these personal, individual happenings. The most important takeaway for me is that killjoys will always be a bit of a stranger at their own institutions…and this is okay. This doesn’t mean we as killjoys need to stop killjoying (third time’s the charm!). However, it does mean that we need to cultivate communities of support that extend beyond our host institutions. In my book, Trans* In College, participants and I discuss the importance of cultivating and maintaining virtual kinship networks as a strategy to navigate the often trans* oppressive illogics on campus. Similarly, I am finding that I need to create virtual kinship networks as a way to be resilient in the face of not being welcomed in some (but certainly not all) spaces at my own institution.
Moreover, I think it is important to remember that if we have too many friends, we may not be doing our jobs as killjoys as best we can. In other words, if everyone is cheering, clapping, and screaming “YASSSSS!!!,” maybe we need to take a note from This Is Spinal Tap! and turn the volume up to 11. Killjoying doesn’t always win people over…as Ahmed pointed out, those who call out problems are often posed as problems. I have learned this happens especially for those people at our own institutions who do not get a choice of when, if, how, or why they will experiencing our killjoying. So that being said, we can gauge our efforts partially on how we are being received.
Finally, I find it incredibly important to remind my fellow killjoys that we were never meant to be loved and embraced at our host institutions. Yes, there will be people who will love us – indeed, this is why we have our jobs. However, we will never experience the broad-based appeal, support, and welcoming that non-killjoys do…and this is literally by design. Rather than feel like crap, or internalize this reality, it is dreadfully important to remember that this is what privileged resistance looks, sounds, and feels like. In fact, I had to remind myself of much of this after my colleague and I were not elected into leadership positions to the presidential commission on gender and sexuality on campus. I have taken screenshots of some of these reminders and copied them below, so if you, my Fellow Killjoys, ever need a reminder of this important lesson, bookmark this page and return to it as frequently as you need.
The resistance we face is wholly predictable, a signal we are doing our jobs, and not worth capitulating to. Instead, let’s (re)unite virtually, big each other up, and remember that while others may not like us if they worked with us daily, the work we daily do is not for them, but in the service of justice, equity, and realizing education as a “practice of freedom” (hooks, 1994).
Keep on killjoying, friends…our worth need not be measured in likes, but in the trans*formation of our campuses, conferences, and worlds that we—and those alongside whom we work—desire and deserve.
I am somewhere between Long Beach and DeKalb, 30,000 or so feet above the ground. I have just spent a week with one of my very best friends and his husband. Not only is he one of my best friends, but as I reminded him this week, he has been my longest friend, with our friendship spanning almost half of my life. We laughed about this, recognizing that we are getting older. But we are getting older together, and that gave me a sense of calm as we reflected on our friendship and what it meant this past week.
Being with my friend and his husband felt…good. These are truly people I can just be with; not something that happens with everyone. We never feel the need to put on airs, and we allow each other grace in a way that feels rewarding, comforting, and a signal of what I want from all my relationships. I begin to realize I could very well end up in California; I daydream of what that would look like, actually. The weather, the people, and the lifestyle remind me of all I loved about my time in the Southwest, and I get nostalgic for the beauty of the desert, the smell after a monsoon rain, and finding again that place where the sky and ocean merge into one as the sun sets over the water.
And yet, as I am flying home, I am contending with some feelings of loneliness. These feel sharp and visceral. I am not meant to feel this way, especially after the week I just experienced. I am not meant to feel this way when I have some of the most beautiful, loving, compassionate, and dear family. It makes no sense as I head home to see my dog and another dear dear friend, both of whom are in DeKalb. In many ways, this feeling makes no sense.
But in many other ways, it makes perfect sense. And in many other ways, I can see how this feeling of loneliness is built, maintained, and impacts various people—especially those of us with marginalized identities—throughout higher education and student affairs (HESA). While I am sure the same happens in various other disciplines, I am mindful of my own positioning and conversations I have had with some close friends about our field, which is why I situate this commentary in HESA, recognizing there will likely be carry over.
This loneliness is not new, nor is it just personal. I felt it most acutely this past spring when I went to a higher education and student affairs conference. I felt oddly focused on, and heard multiple comments like, “Oh, I saw you in the hotel lobby earlier today,” or, “Oh yeah, your work is really great,” or, “I just wanted to come meet you.” These comments make me feel uncomfortable for multiple reasons. First, as a non-binary trans* femme, hearing I am being clocked and placed in certain locations at certain times is disconcerting. Why is this important for someone to point out? All this does is make me feel like more of an oddity, and remind me how I am non-compliant with the gender binary discourse (Nicolazzo, 2016) that marks me as impossible and unexpected in HESA (Jourian, Simmons, Devaney, 2015).
As an early-career scholar, I am mindful that much “my work” has yet to be published. Furthermore, I am under no false impressions about the readership of those pieces which have been published. So what is it people are saying they have “read”? Have they just read my name in the table of contents of a journal? Is this just something people are saying because they feel like it will make a good impression? Is this the manifestation of the culture of nice that pervades our field? And if so, how does the furthering of a culture of nice actually reify and further distance us from one another? How is my work, which people have apparently read, substituted for actual human connection and conversation? Even if people have read my work—which would be nice and the whole purpose behind my writing it—why do people feel the need to lead with telling me this?
As someone who is incredibly shy, and who is an extreme introvert—especially at conferences, which is also likely a practice of resilience for me as a trans* person in a world steeped in trans* oppression—I am wary of people who “just want to meet me.” Hearing this makes me feel like an oddity again. It makes me feel like people are checking my name off a Scholar-Practitioner Bingo sheet they made up for all the people they wanted “to meet” at conference, which seems code for saying hi and not making personal investments in each other. These remarks rarely seem to lead to substantive conversation, and I end them feeling a bit hollow, as if I have been met, but I have no idea by whom. They leave me feeling like only one person between the two of us got what they wanted, which was a bit of “me,” or the me they want to know about, anyway.
In thinking about my loneliness, and the perpetuation of loneliness through (not) seeing certain people as actual people throughout HESA, I am aware that I am guilty of doing this, too. I begin to feel like shit. But I also realize I have the ability to correct some of this as a faculty member. I begin to see connections between my own experience of loneliness in HESA and a broader culture where people and experiences and identities are commodified in our field, to the detriment of those of us with marginalized identities. I recognize how my loneliness is a signal for the broader cultural effects of how we are consumed as marginalized scholars, and I feel the need to write about it. Perhaps this is to assuage some of my guilt about my role in this whole cultural phenomenon. Perhaps I am seeking some sort of absolution. And perhaps I also think that by writing about it, I can connect my experiences with others, and with a cultural phenomenon that I see playing out in our field. Perhaps this will cut some of the loneliness. Perhaps, though, it will become yet another artifact that people can tell me they read so as to create the guise of a connection when they do not actually want to “see” me. This is a risk I am willing to take.
I have participated in not recognizing scholars’ lives. I have done this recently. I have positioned some scholars as “untouchable,” and have gushed about their scholarship. Yes, I have read their work, and I have engaged with their ideas; however, the way I have equated them with their scholarship, as if this is the totality of who they are, and all they want to talk about/embody, now makes me queasy.
I have also been in classrooms where students have talked about scholars—friends of mine, some of them—as if they are their writing. I want to talk with students about not confusing one’s scholarship with their life. I want to provide a more complex narrative of how writing works, and that while much of our experiences and identities may be implicated in our work, that we ourselves are not the pages we write. I want to say this, and to talk about what it means to consume one’s work, as if by doing so, we are the “good White people,” the Tiffanies (Thompson, 2003), and we are free from guilt, shame, or further perpetuating systemic oppression. But I never know how to start that conversation, or if it is “appropriate,” or what students will make of it, and so I collude by choking back the words. I know the acrid feeling of swallowing those words is also tinged by the budding realization that, although I am just doing what I love, I may well be positioned as one of “those scholars” who people want to “meet.”
My mind wanders back to all the cisgender people who have approached me at conferences to tell me I am “so brave.” I think about the person who asked to take a photo with me after multiple sessions last year, but who did not engage me in actual conversation about my work, my ideas, or how we can work together to transform higher education environments. I become confused again by what that picture symbolized, or how the posting of it on social media marks me and that person as “having a connection.” I wonder what that “connection” means, because it feels more like a disconnection to me. I sit back in my seat and am again glad I deleted my Facebook account.
And then there are those connections with scholars that feel real. Like when I shared jokes with a well-known scholar about how we each thought the other was cute. Or when a scholar and I shared pictures of our dogs over Twitter. Or when a scholar and I talk about her fear of flying, and our shared exhaustion at “being seen” at conferences. Or when I have coffee with one of my good friends early in the morning after she comes back from a morning run before a full conference day. Or when I go off-site for a queer and trans* dinner with my friends, where we can be far from the cis/het-normative conference life. Or the every-other-week Skype calls I have had for the past three years with one of my dear friends, where we talk about the mundane nature of our lives as well as what we are grappling with intellectually.
I remember that these human connections, and these moments of humanity, do in fact exist. I have witnessed and felt these.
It seems painfully clear to me that, as a field, we have some severe confusion about who each other is. We have some idea that one’s work and life are the exact same thing, that one’s work equates to one’s personhood. We have swallowed and are performing neoliberalism. We have cultivated a celebrity culture in HESA that encourages distance rather than closeness. This celebrity culture also oozes over those of us with marginalized identities, as people clamor to “connect” with us. Sometimes these connections are real; this blogpost is not about those few connections. However, a bulk of the time, those “connections” are predicated on one’s desire to absolve one’s majoritarian-based guilt, as if someone’s being “connected” to me means they no longer collude in trans* oppression. The reality, however, is that by making these false connections, one may actually be colluding in the very systemic oppression one is seeking to “get over” by “connecting” with me in the first place.
I chuckle as I think about the scene in Reality Bites where Winona Ryder’s character is asked what the definition of irony is as the elevator doors close on her before she can answer.
So I am still here, 30,000 feet above the ground, somewhere between Long Beach and DeKalb. And now I am thinking about how my loneliness may connect to so many other people in our field who I know are also lonely. I know our shared loneliness is about a lot of different things, but I also know that going to conferences exacerbates this loneliness for many, that when people consume our time, our identities, and our experiences through their seeking proximity to us, that we leave these spaces feeling drained. We leave them feeling unseen, and used. I, for one, leave them feeling deep confusion, because I don’t even know my own place in our field, so for someone to suggest that being “connected” to me is meaningful is discombobulating, indeed.
And then I feel vain. And I feel guilty. And I feel gross and weird even writing about this, because I know I am far more than any of my identities, and I am far more than my scholarship. And then I feel angry, because when people tell me I “publish so much,” they aren’t recognizing the way that trans* and femme and trans* femme-phobia manifest culturally, which means I literally have to publish more to even have a shot at being seen as legitimate, and that the very notion of “legitimacy” is completely cis-, hetero-, and masculine-normative, and that I will never be seen as legitimate because I will always be deemed as the “angry tranny.” And then I get mad, and then sad, as I remember a conversation via Twitter yesterday with two Black women where we talked about the shared experience of being positioned as “angry,” “feisty,” and “fierce,” which we know are all code words, and that these depictions of us are rooted in a sense of our not being human enough to just have opinions worthy of being recognized on their own.
I feel this post has gotten away from me. I can see all these disparate threads coming together, but they feel too weighty and too unwieldy to hold. I am not sure what this post will do, and worry that by posting it, I will get platitudes from people who don’t see me. I don’t want that.
Let me repeat: I don’t want that.
I want to call attention to the massive problem I see in our field where we say we value human connection, but we act in ways that promote disconnection. I want to draw connections between loneliness as a feeling and our (in)actions as people in a field devoted to human development. I want to discuss how my (our?) feelings of loneliness are endemic to our very work, and cannot be easily washed away by a week with our nearest and dearest. I want to talk about how these everyday utopias (Cooper, 2013) are, by their very definition, retreats rather than escapes. We always come back from those utopian spaces into worlds and cultures and broader communities that devour our very being, pick apart our identities, and feast on who they think we are so they can feel better about their own lives.
The fall term is coming up for us all in HESA. I wonder how we will orient ourselves to one another this year. I wonder if it will be different. I wonder if conference spaces—and by proxy, our field—will continue to feel isolating to me.
I hope not. I will do my best to surround myself with family while in these spaces, and I will remember to talk with all the students with whom I teach and learn about the fact that we as scholars are all people. I will Skype people into class, realizing that this practice is not only educationally useful, but can be humanizing as well. I smile thinking about the video conferencing I have done where I have gotten silly with classes, and although I felt weird about that at the moment, I feel good about it now. I think about picking up my dog during Google Hangout sessions, and while that was so she would stop hounding me to pay attention to her, I like the glimpse into my mundane life that it gave the students on the other end of the video call.
And then I realize I am heading home to my dog—my heart—and I feel just a bit less lonely for the moment.
I shared what I didn’t want from this post, but have not discussed what I do want. So let me be clear on that point:
I want for us all to really interrogate what it means to be “connected” to people in our field.
I want for people to truly connect with each other, rather than “connecting.” If the desire to connect is not there, then just let it be. Platitudes aren’t necessary or appreciated.
I want for people to stop clocking folks with marginalized identities; we already know we stick out, and your telling us doesn’t help.
I want for people to never call me brave again.
I want for people to resist and reframe celebrity culture in HESA, and actually spend time interrogating why it is some people are positioned as “celebrities” in the first place.
I want for people to think about how identity-based consumption is a manifestation of systemic oppression.
I want to continue to focus on the people and communities who see me, and don’t suggest I am someone to be seen (with).
I feel better. As Sara Ahmed (2012) noted, sometimes writing about the hurts we experience, about the brick walls we bump up against, is itself an act of healing. Perhaps writing autoethnographically can be a form of resistance to hegemonic ways of seeing, being, and doing in our field. Perhaps this can be one way of reorienting our field toward humanity and an epistemology of love (hooks, 2000; Nicolazzo, 2016, In press; Palmer & Zajonc, 2010).
Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Cooper, D. (2013). Everyday utopias: The conceptual life of promising spaces. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
hooks, b. (2000). All about love: New visions. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Jourian, T.J., Simmons, S. L., & Devaney, K. (2015). "We are not expected": Trans* educators (re)claiming space and voice in higher education and student affairs. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 431-446.
Palmer, P. J., & Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Nicolazzo, Z (In press). Trans* in college: Transgender students’ strategies for navigating campus life and the institutional politics of inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Nicolazzo, Z (2016). "Just go in looking good": The resilience, resistance, and kinship-building of trans* college students. Journal of College Student Development, 57(5), 538-556.
Thompson, A. (2003). Tiffany, friend of people of color: White investments in antiracism. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(1), 7-29.
Today was…well…not great.
After a very sleepless night, I woke up and headed into London. On the train ride in, I read The Guardian, which had four pages dedicated to the Orlando shooting. The paper, despite being left-leaning, still participated in the kind of homonationalism that we all knew would rear its ugly, jingoistic head, and although there were some good bits of the reporting—including some bits that pushed back against Islamophobia and xenophobic rhetoric—I still couldn’t quite shake the desire to just break down and cry.
When I got to London, my friend headed off to a work meeting—the reason we had traveled in—and I just walked. I went down to the River Thames and kept walking and walking. Along the way, all of the newspapers from around the world had the same story on the front page. Although I couldn’t read many of them, there was one word that stuck out to me: Orlando. It’s a good thing it was raining most of the day, because I couldn’t stop from crying.
I walked all along the South Embankment of the River Thames, and despite my trying to giggle about walking along The Queen’s Walk, I couldn’t shake the utter sorrow I felt. This atrocity is both mine and not mine. This happened to my communities, and I also recognize that, by virtue of my White, enabled, and middle-class privileges, this didn’t happen to my communities. I am half out and half in, and so while I am not attempting to take on all of this as my tragedy, it also is very much ours as a queer community.
I began thinking that I should be taking pictures to share with friends, but then realized I didn’t really feel like taking pictures. I just felt like walking. I wanted to put pain into my legs so that I could take the pain out of my heart. This is often a strategy I have used in the past by cycling, but without a bike, I was left with my legs, so I put them to use.
I also began thinking about what I wanted from my life. I don’t feel like making large-scale demands right now. I have tried that before, and I feel like it has led to little effect. First off, cis and/or heterosexual folks need to talk to each other to figure their shit out. I can’t with the feelings, the private apologies, and the suggestions that their silence is about “them hurting, too.” I know this is slightly problematic, and I know this may be (mis)read as separatist or whatever, but I just need to disconnect myself from cis and heterosexual folks who aren’t interested in me beyond my ability to be their token. I am not here for that.
And I don’t want to make demands of my QT* kin because quite frankly, we need to be and feel whatever we need to be and feel right now. This is fucked up. And it’s not fucked up because it’s the “biggest in modern history,” it’s just fucked up. Full stop. Period. End of story. And I just feel the need to feel.
And this got me thinking…what do I need more of in my life? What do I want and need and desire for my life? What would be helpful for me at this particular moment in time? Below is an impartial list, but perhaps it will resonate with you. I offer this to you in lieu of pictures from my walk along the River Thames in hopes that, perhaps, we can move along together in giving each other what we need, desire, and want to help make our lives full, vibrant, and full of queer love.
So these are some things I desire…an incomplete list, for sure, but a start. Because this is how I can wrench myself out of the complicity and complacency that often grabs hold of me/that I sink into over time. And through these desires, I can picture different, liberatory, and communal futures. So maybe that’s all the picture I needed from today.
Let’s desire together.
Last night, I had the privilege to be the keynote speaker for Central Michigan University's Pride Week. This was my first major (hour-long) keynote, and although I was a bit nervous, and have some critique on how I delivered the talk (I still have some learning to do about how to present keynote addresses), what I discussed was good to get out. I've been thinking about some of this stuff for months, and was so very fortunate to be given the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts. As the lights came back on after my talk, I also saw a couple people drying their eyes...it seems like many of us in the room last night needed to be reminded of these words.
Below, I have posted my slides as well as my talk in full text, with permission from my colleague at CMU who brought me to campus. I would love to hear people's thoughts and feedback, should you feel comfortable sharing.
Before I begin, I want to thank the generosity of those who worked hard to bring me to campus. First and foremost, I want to thank Shannon Jolliff-Dettore, whose loving kinship I have been blessed to bask in for the past year. I am so honored to be in community with you, Shannon, and I hope the entire CMU community knows what a gem they have in you. I also want to thank the Women and Gender Studies Department as well as the Office of LGBTQ Services for helping to bring me here, along with Dr. Matt Johnson and Erica Johnson for hosting me for a night, along with the Jolliff-Dettore family. Thanks also to the queer and trans* students with whom I have been in community with during my quick stay. It is for us that I continue to be motivated to do the work I do. We have always been on college campuses, and we have always been doing college our own way, but it has only been recently that our narratives have begun to surface in ways that go beyond pointing to our deficits. I want to dedicate this talk to all of the queer and trans* people in the crowd tonight. I hope this will honor our stories, which are a confusing and beautiful muddle of wonder, sadness, banality, and plain old fun.
Next, I know that sometimes listening to someone talk for 40-45 minutes can be tough. At least I know it is for me. Because of this, I want to invite you all to use your phones to tweet about my talk tonight. Feel free to share quotable moments, takeaways, and insights that resonate with you by using the hashtag #TransingCMU. Together, we can create a backchannel that can be shared with people who cannot be here tonight for one reason or another. We can also extend our conversation past the hour or so we are going to share together. Again, that hashtag is #TransingCMU. Feel free to use it early and often throughout our time together tonight.
I am going to break my talk up into three parts. In the first part, I will frame my talk by discussing the centrality of mirrors to my life. Next, I will share two stories that highlight how mirrors are trouble in relation to notions of trans* (in)visibility, as well as how mirrors can help us trouble those very same normative notions in potentially liberatory ways. Lastly, I want to do some imaging with all of you. I want to create a mirrored counter-story by peering through the looking glass and thinking about how we can work to reflect a more equitable and just campus community at CMU. Without further ado, let's get into Part I, which I am calling, "I'm Looking at the [Wo]man in the Mirror."
Part I: "I'm Looking at the [Wo]man in the Mirror"
Mirrors have held a prominent place in my life. I suspect the same may be the same for many of you in this room. Not only do mirrors act as a physical thing into which we gaze, but mirrors also act as a metaphor for introspection and self-awareness. Mirrors also act as a way in which we can act in accordance with and mimic other people (to mirror one's behavior). In this sense, then, mirrors can both reflect who we are as well as who we aren't. Mirrors can also project who we want to be; or at least who we think we want to be, or who we are told we should want to be. As a critical scholar, I cannot separate mirrors—as an object or a metaphor—from broader systems of privilege and power. For example, mirrors connect me to my ethnoreligious faith tradition as a Jew. When a family member dies, we are meant to cover all mirrors while we sit shiva. This practice is said to have multiple meanings, ranging from a disavowal of vanity in a time when we should focus on the life we have lost to not welcoming in the demons of regret, loss, or guilt into our homes. Additionally, mirrors seem to carry with them a sense of seeing and being seen, which privileges ableist visions of our selves, as if to not see or be seen renders ourselves devoid of meaning. As if not being able to "see" oneself means we are not "real."
As this may be the first time some of you have interacted with me, it's probably important that you know a bit about me beyond my fancypants bio. I am a trans*, non-binary, femme-of-center person. I use the pronouns ze and hir, and my racial identity as White, disability identity as able-bodied, and cultural identity as Jewish frame much of how I experience and navigate my world. I also have a critical paradigmatic orientation to the world, which means that I believe that how everyone is able to move through their world is mediated by systems of privilege, power, and oppression that affect us all differently, and often do so in asymmetrical ways that allow some of us to traverse our environments easier than others. While I have had experiences where I am consistently mis-seen, or mis-represented, as not trans* or not femme enough, I also have experienced moments, places, and everyday utopias in which I am just as trans*, femme, and trans* femme as I want to be. So in some senses, the mirror that reflects my not-trans*-enoughness is often broken, or at the very least, it is not a mirror worth looking in.
And although I know I am enough, it's the very act of the mirror people in society and the institutions of which I am a part hold up as not seeing me as enough that I want to tease apart tonight. In other words, what I want to talk about tonight is the connection between mirrors and (in)visibility. Or perhaps I am more interested in the disconnections between mirrors and (in)visibility. Or more likely, it is both, because for those of us on the margins, mirrors are not simple objects, nor is a mirror a simple metaphor. But before I get lost in the philosophical, let me share a couple stories that happened for me recently. Here is where I transition to Part II, or what I am calling, "A Tale of Two Tales"
Part II: A Tale of Two Tales
The first story is one I have blogged about before, and actually has to do with my visit here today. In anticipation of my visit, I wanted to get some nice clothes so I could show up looking my best for this keynote. I am rarely one to wear skirts, but I have recently come to the realization that my distancing myself from skirts is likely a reflection (notice the mirror metaphor?) of my own internalized shame, which is itself rooted in the transmisogyny I learned throughout my life, and am still trying to unlearn now as someone who identifies as a trans*femme. Contrary to what some may think, even those of us who research, study, and are ourselves trans* still have a lot to unlearn about ourselves, our bodies, and the reproduction of shame narratives that are mirrored throughout the social sphere.
When I opened the package with my new skirt, I was struck by both a wave of delight and intense shame. I stood there, looking in the mirror, both delighted and incredibly scared. And my fear made me feel even more shameful, especially when I realized that my being White and able-bodied meant that I would be able to navigate my time on this campus as a trans*femme person all the easier. Indeed, for those who may not know, it is the lives of trans* women of color, and of trans* people with disabilities (and trans* women of color with disabilities) who are most on the margins and most vulnerable. If our lives are intersectional, then it seems that so, too, is our shame.
I quickly moved to my computer and, through tears, opened up a conversation between Reina Gossett and Grace Dunham titled "Touch One Another." If you haven't read this piece, I strongly suggest you do. It is brilliant in its provocations, and haunting in how it continues to reflect to me the very depth of how being a trans* woman, trans*femme, or a #GirlLikeUs is so difficult. In the conversation, there is a segment—which I quote at length—where Reina, a Black trans* woman, shared:
Mirrors have held so much power for me, and not in ways that have always helped me feel good about myself. There was a time in Boston maybe 20 years ago when I looked in a mirror and I started crying. I was so consistently navigating a racist and transphobic gaze that I couldn’t help but reflect that back at myself. I was overwhelmed by the me that existed through that lens.
What I connected to at the club with the mirrors was a different gaze that reminded me of the powerful moments of becoming I’ve had in front of mirrors, seeing and imagining myself for who I want to be, or who I already might be. The becoming gaze happening that night helped me feel confident enough that I wanted to risk feeling humiliated, risk feeling beautiful and powerful. So often, it’s the same risk. Something I’ve learned is that it’s harder to accept that I might be beautiful, powerful, maybe even hot, than it is to organize against the institutions I hate.
So the next day, the Sunday we went to Jewel’s Catch One, I put on a dress. And I was hit with an incredible wave of embarrassment. I was overwhelmed by embarrassment. I wasn’t surprised—this feeling is why I hadn’t worn a dress in years. The history of laws and punishment and shame washed over me and through me. After so long, and so much work, it’s still so fucking hard to be a public woman.
Even in social movements, capitalism gets reproduced and tells me that I’m not supposed to be in a place of becoming, that I’m supposed to have arrived on the scene already with a sense of my own internal power and a brilliant political analysis to articulate it. We’re told that if we have emotions that say otherwise, they’re our own fault. I felt embarrassed of my embarrassment. I am deeply embarrassed by my own embarrassment.
What I needed in that moment was for my friend to tell me I looked okay, or even that I looked hot as hell. So many of us depend on other people to reflect back who we are, how we want to be seen. I’m trying to understand those moments not just through a framework of trans liberation, but also through dependency. I believe dependency is one of our greatest sources of power.
I sat, tears streaming down my face, repeating the same realization that Reina shared: After so long, and so much work, it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman. And it's not just hard for me, in my house. It's hard for us, as a trans* community, in public and in private spheres. Take this past year, 2015, which has been heralded as both the bloodiest recorded year for trans* people as well as the year when some of us took center stage (quite literally) in the social imaginary. It is not a surprise to me that the increase in visibility for some trans* people paralleled an increase in violent erasure (or violent invisibility, if you will allow me to extend the mirror metaphor).
And even when we are not the ones subject to violent invisibility, it is a part of our cultural and communal past/present/future. We trans* people share communal trauma. This was exemplified by one of my participants from my dissertation, Megan. Megan, a White trans* woman who was a gamer, talked often about her needing to "go outside," signaling that she knew she needed to get out of her room and make other trans* friends. She felt the need to be visibly trans*, and to find other visibly trans* people with whom to connect. In talking about the risks associated with this, Megan stated:
I always knew that I was gonna get outside of my room eventually, and so I guess this whole time I've sorta been preparing myself for some things I might encounter. And so I've always been reading articles, like, ah, the bad articles, I guess, you know? The sad articles about transgender stories. Transgender reviews…Yeah, like, um, I don’t know, I guess some of them are more funny stupidity articles, like, about Fox News not accepting trans* people. But then other stuff, like, ah, you know, stories about where trans* people are beaten, or raped, or stuff like that.
To be clear, this was not Megan's past or present. I hope desperately it is not her future, either. However, the collective communal trauma we have experienced as trans* people embedded itself in Megan's mind. In doing so, both Megan and me, and all other trans* women and trans*femme people know what Reina shared so poignantly in her talk with Grace Dunham: it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman.
So there is one story about mirrors, and what mirrors can do to, for, and against us. Mirrors can be objects or metaphors into which we "see" particular pasts/presents/and futures. And these pasts/presents/futures can both encourage and delimit us, sometimes doing both at the same time. For at the very moment that both Megan and I recognize the hurt, shame, embarrassment, and potential violent invisibility mirrored back at us when we look into societal notions of trans* femininity, we are also in community with other #GirlsLikeUs. At the very moment when we both utter, in different words, what Reina shared, that "it's still so fucking hard to be a public woman," we are together, holding each other, and alongside one another in a way that resists the violence, individualism, and capitalist reproduction of normative femininity as attached to certain bodies; bodies that don’t look like mine, or Megan's, or Reina's. And this can happen even at a time when more and more cisgender people are becoming aware of trans* lives…or perhaps it is happening as a result of the increased awareness.
And this is where I want to head for my next story. And this one strikes a bit closer to home. In fact, it may be one that takes place on this very campus. And if it doesn’t happen on this campus, then it certainly happens on many, many college campuses across the country each and every year. I am talking about the celebration and valorization of Coming Out Weeks.
Now don't get me wrong, I am way down for coming out. Y'all, I am here for that. Often, when I come to new spaces such as this, and I am feeling nervous, I remember the words of a mentor of mine. She worked with me in crafting my first syllabus I used when I taught at Miami University as a doctoral student. In our time working together, I remember asking her how she dealt with students' potentially limiting understanding of who she was as a person. See, she did not identify as trans*, but as a masculine woman, we shared some similarities in that students often would—and still do—read certain things onto our bodies, regardless of if we want them to or not. I suspect this is also a shared experience with many people in the room right now, queer or otherwise. I was nervous about this very thing happening, and its having a negative impact on the classroom dynamic and the students' overall learning. What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that these sorts of dynamics also have negative implications for how students evaluate instructors, as women and people of color (and, by extension, women of color) are marked lower on teacher evaluations, which are a main mode by which promotion and tenure—which is our livelihood, as faculty—is decided. While the literature on teaching evaluations is fairly binary in its conceptualization of gender, I have to imagine the same goes for trans*, gender non-conforming, and trans* femme people, both White and people of color. And so while I did not yet know the data, I knew there was something to be worried about. So I asked her how she navigated that, and she told me, "Z, there is always at least one person who needs you to be you."
Let me say that again, because I think it is really important and I want to make sure you got it: "There is always at least one person who needs you to be you."
So yeah, I get the importance of coming out. Indeed, I come out lots, and often, as I am sure many of you in this audience do, too. Coming out not only serves as important so that we can mirror our queer existence for other people, but so we can reflect the resilience, beauty, and importance of who we are back to ourselves, too. Sometimes, when things get bad, when the noise in this world clutters my head, it is helpful for me to proclaim, to someone or no one, "I am here! I am queer! And they betta recognize!"
But I never want to suggest that coming out is either necessary or a panacea. In fact, some of my queer and trans* kin have started talking about this dangerous illogic—the suggestion that one should always come out, and that by doing so we will be liberated by our outness—the hegemony of visibility. In other words, it's not coming out that is necessarily a problem, but the supposed necessity of coming out, or the idea that when we come out it will necessarily increase the livability of our lives as queer and trans* people. In fact, the very opposite may be true. As I suggested previously in this talk, the awakening of more cisgender people to the existence of trans* people in 2015 rests uneasily next to the realization that last year saw the most reported deaths of trans* people in the United States. In this sense, heightened visibility can be seen to reflect heightened threat and vulnerability while at the very same time, it also represents heightened liberation. Put another way, the connections between our liberation as trans* folks is often closely linked and intertwined with our peril. Furthermore, to suggest that coming out is good for all of us across the board is to deny the ways that racialization, compulsory able-bodiedness, and other vectors of systemic oppression create environments through which we cannot all navigate easily.
Moreover, coming out is not always a choice for all of us; some of us are always out just by entering a room. And even when coming out is something we can “choose” to do, not coming out may hold both possibility as well as peril. For while not disclosing our queerness or trans*ness may allow us to traverse spaces previously foreclosed to us, not coming out also surfaces deeply-held emotional trauma, especially around not being queer or trans* enough. For example, when I travel, be it by air or driving, like I did when I came here, I often attempt to "pass" as not-trans*. Now, I am trans* regardless of how I show up, because trans*ness is not always written on the body. We all know that in this room; however, the way other people come to know or read trans*ness is always through the body. This is due to the problematic assumption that to be trans* is to be deceptive, or to not be who we say we are, and that our being trans* is only surface or clothing deep. But regardless, when I travel, I know my ability to get where I need to be is policed, quite literally, by the state. Whether it is by the TSA or State Troopers, I know that any gender transgression I show may invariably put me at risk should I be pulled over or pulled out of line. However, my attempting to pass as cisgender also does damage, as it often does emotional or psychic damage in my denying who I am and not honoring how I feel best showing up. Also, when I attempt to pass as cisgender, I feel separated from my trans* community in ways that feel completely alienating to me. So even when I make choices about passing as cisgender, choices that are based on my own safety and vulnerability, I still feel negative effects associated with those choices. Passing is not always what it seems to be, and coming out or not coming out is never an easy choice to make.
So the idea behind Coming Out Weeks, that we as queer and trans* people can just come out, can do it once, and that coming out is always already the best and most desirable option, is overly simplistic. Whenever Coming Out Weeks roll around each year, I cringe, worrying who feels shamed because they cannot come out due to safety concerns. I think about Megan, the participant from my dissertation study who I introduced you to earlier, who had a history of bullying in her youth, and who didn’t come out specifically because of that bullying. I think of Silvia, a Black agender participant alongside whom I worked, who chose not to come out due to the overwhelming press of systemic trans* oppression she faced on her campus. Although she may have wanted to come out, she knew that to do so was to enter into a relationship where she would have to defend her trans*ness rather than be affirmed in her gender, and for her, that was not a comfortable or safe choice to make.
Coming out can be liberating, don’t get me wrong. It can be fabulous, especially when we look in the mirror, proclaim our queerness and trans*ness, and love is reflected back to us. Coming out can be empowering when we can do it with people on campus who we see ourselves in, and who see themselves in us, especially other queer and trans* people. Coming out can also feel liberating because we can finally name what we see when we gaze into the mirror: a beautiful queer or trans* person who is worthy of love and support. But there is a shadow side to the hegemony of visibility, and when we suggest that one must come out, or that coming out is the best or only way to be, then we are in trouble...and we are erasing differences regarding race and ability that deny some people’s humanity in the queer community—for example, queer people of color and queer people with disabilities—while valorizing others—for example, White queer people, trans* masculine people, and queer and trans* people who are temporarily able-bodied.
So what, then, are we to do on college campuses? If coming out isn’t always the answer, and if mirrors can deny as well as reflect our humanity, how are we to build better futures for and amongst ourselves as queer and trans* people? These questions move me into the last part of my talk, which I am calling, “Imagining Possible Futures: A Mirror Counter-Story.”
Imagining Possible Futures: A Mirror Counter-Story
A counter-story is one that, quite simply, runs counter to the dominant social narrative. For example, if we think about U.S. history, it is commonly taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. However, the counter-story to this narrative is that Christopher Columbus brutally and violently took and colonized the country we have come to know as the United States of American from the Native and Indigenous populations who were always already present. I share this with you because what I want to do is think about how we can create a counter-story about mirrors. Instead of mirrors reflecting who we are or are not on an individual level, I want to create a counter-story where we turn mirrors out toward the CMU campus. I want to think about how we can create a story about mirrors that reflect how our campuses need to improve and where other people—and here I am talking particularly about cisgender and/or heterosexual people—need to work hard to create the conditions into which we as queer and trans* people can feel comfortable and safe coming out. I want to create a story about how we as queer and trans* people can find the spaces in which we can be who we want, when we want, in spaces that are ours. To do this, I am going to speak first to the cisgender and/or heterosexual folks in the room, and then I will end by talking with my queer and trans* kin.
For the cisgender and/or heterosexual people in the room, I implore you to stop waiting for us as queer and trans* people to come out for you to take action. You know we are here, and you don’t need to gaze at our difference to know this. Doing so only objectifies our difference, and suggests that we are subject to scrutiny in determining if we are queer or trans* enough. Furthermore, you don’t need to do more climate studies to ascertain if there is a chilly climate for queer and trans* people, because we already know there is. During my dissertation study, I uncovered what I called a gender binary discourse whereby college campuses are steeped in rules, both written and unwritten, about gender and how gender is understood. It was no surprise that gender was only understood in binary terms, and that this understanding harmed the trans* participants alongside whom I worked. We know our campuses are unsafe and uncomfortable for trans* students, so instead of waiting or looking for more data, you all need to use your agency and act. As bell hooks stated years ago, systemic change will only take place when those with privilege leverage that privilege to create more equitable spaces. Only you can do this work, and I encourage you to do it.
To the queer and trans* people in this room, I want you to know I see, feel, and am with you. Regardless of how you show up, if you are out or not, if you feel not enough or not, I am with you. You are enough. You always have been, and you always will be. Paraphrasing the words of Reina, I want you to remember it’s still so fucking hard to be a public queer and trans* person. Despite the visibility we have achieved—or perhaps as a result of that visibility—it is still so fucking hard. And so I see you, regardless of—or perhaps in spite of—our environments that tell us we are not enough.
I also want you to know it is okay to take a break. We don’t need to be constant educators. We don’t need to hand over our bodies, and our stories, and our lives for the betterment of others. We don’t need to exhaust ourselves for the hope that maybe other people will recognize our humanity. Of course, if you get energy from doing this, please do. I certainly am doing that very thing right now. However, you don’t always need to do this work. You get to decide with whom, where, and when you share your queerness and trans*ness with others. Our queerness and trans*ness is a gift, and it is something we get to share—or not share—on our own terms.
Lastly, I want to remind all the queer and trans* people in the room that we come from a rich and beautiful legacy. We have been at the center of so many liberation movements. We have been central to the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960’s. We were central in the Compton Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco that so many people forget. We were at the very epicenter of the Stonewall rebellion in ways that the mainstream gay and lesbian movement want to deny. And we have been central in the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is so very present currently. Remember that it was three Black women, some of whom are queer, who are at the center of this leaderfull movement for Black justice. We are here, we are present, and we are a vibrant and beautiful community. You don’t need to show up a certain way, or be “out” if that isn’t safe or comfortable for you. We can create kinship regardless of other people’s assertions that our queerness or trans*ness isn’t enough…because really, what is not enough is the way environments have yet to be constructed for us. So instead of looking into the mirror and hearing the demons telling us we aren’t enough, I propose we turn the mirror around and reflect back to others how our campus cultures need to change, and who needs to lead that change. Meanwhile, we should invest in creating the type of kinship and localized networks of love and support that have always sustained us.
Regardless of how hard it is to be a public queer or trans* person, I want you to know:
I am here for you.
Visibility be damned.
I recently came home from attending the NASPA Annual Conference in Indianapolis, IN. During this conference, I was invited to be a part of a panel discussing the current state of and future directions for student development theory in graduate preparation programs. As a part of this panel, I was invited to share some introductory thoughts regarding the following four questions:
In coming to my opening remarks, I wanted to create a nuanced argument that implored educators (myself included) to pause from perpetuating the use of student development theories (largely developed as a result of our field's psychological roots) and, instead, focus on broader critical, queer, and poststructural analyses that detail how systems of (in)equity mediate the lives of students, faculty, and staff in asymmetrical ways.
My goal was not to say that student development theory was useless or we as educators should get rid of it. Instead, my argument was that we need to pause (or take a break from) the normative assumptions we have learned (and continue to teach) about student development theory. In essence, I was suggesting that theory itself is incredibly important to the work we do as student affairs educators...but perhaps student development theory as we have come to know it is not so important.
Below are my opening remarks. I am indebted to the work of Janet Halley, who I have engaged in a previous post. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. D-L Stewart, who checked my notes ahead of time and provided feedback, as well as Dr. Lori Patton Davis for extending the opportunity to be on the panel. I would be curious to hear others' thoughts on this idea, especially those of us who teach student development theory. Again, I am not saying theory should be pitched, or that all student development theory should be done away with; what I am suggesting instead is that we need to pause for a bit to think about how systems of (in)equity press on students, faculty, and staff, and how these systems trouble what we have come to know as normative developmental models, tasks, positions, and stages.
Without further ado, here are my notes...
First, thanks to Dr. Patton Davis for inviting me to take part on this panel.
In answering these questions, I think it is important to first think about what student development theory does for us as educators. From my vantage point, student development does three things for us, or at least we think it does, or talk about it as though it does. Those three things are:
Now we may not agree that these goals are desirable (I certainly don’t think they all are), but this is how most student affairs educators are “raised” in the field in relation to student development theory. Although many are quick to state that theory is not a panacea, many also suggest it is vital to doing our work as educators in a careful, thoughtful, and thorough way. We are encouraged to “meet students where they are at,” use “plus one staging” approaches to promote development, and I even remember talking with colleagues about framing entire curricula around development theories.
What I want to propose today is that we should take a break from student development theory. In doing so, I am picking up on the language of Janet Halley, a law professor who wrote the book Split Decisions, where she discussed her proposal to “take a break from feminism.” Although I don’t have as much time or space as Halley did to lay out my argument, let me say just a few reasons why I think we need to take a break from student development theory.
Now I say we need to take a break from student development theory as someone who has, and is currently, teaching student development theory courses. So the question then is, what should we do? I think theory has a place in graduate preparation programs; however, I think it needs to be couched in analyses of systemic oppression and privilege. For example, using Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, Queer Theory, and other critical and poststructural analytical frameworks as lenses through which to look at and critique normative student development theories is of critical importance for me. Additionally, we as educators need to encourage the students with whom we work to think about what dangerous assumptions we make when we assume that being “more developed” in the eyes of normative student development theories is always better.
I also think we need to be doing more work to think about broader systems and environments (both material and virtual), and how these shape and are shaped by students’ lives. For example, we all need to use Dr. Patton Davis’ most recent publication in Urban Education on using CRT to understand how postsecondary education was literally built as a result of slavery and anti-Black racism. We could also use Dr. Nolan Cabrera’s 2014 JCSD piece on White racial joking to understand how White supremacy is literally laughed off by White students, thereby creating a violent and hostile climate for racialized students, faculty, and staff. We also should be doing more Critical Discourse Analyses like the one Dr. Patton Davis did on the Morehouse Appropriate Attire Policy.
And finally, I truly believe we need to be doing much more work that is for, about, and focused on marginalized populations. Rather than writing theories for dominant audiences to “better understand” minoritized populations, I think it is important to write theories and promote research that is unabashed in its creating counterstories that are for and about those of us who occupy the margins, so that we, too, can see ourselves represented in the literature. Doing so embraces what Drs. Jones and Stewart write about as “third wave” perspectives on student development theory in Dr. Elisa Abes' forthcoming New Directions for Student Services monograph on the topic. A perfect example of such scholarship is a recent, award-winning 2015 publication by Dr. T.J. Jourian, S Simmons, and Kara Devaney in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly on trans* college educators.
So I think I have been able to touch on each of the four questions Dr. Patton Davis asked us to discuss, albeit in a bit of a circuitous route. All in all, I do strongly believe we need to take a break from student development theory (which may require us to, in the words of my dear friend Dr. D-L Stewart, simultaneously “break up with constructivism”) and, while we are on our break, we need to reconstruct courses that use critical, queer, and poststructural analyses to decolonize the way we have come to understand development, “where students are at,” and the false notion that being more developed is always already better.
Recently, I finished Dr. Sara Ahmed’s (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life for the third time.* This time was different, though. When I kept trying to sort through why exactly this read-through was different, I thought—as ethnographers are prone to do—about the sociocultural moments in which I have read this book. The more I thought about it, what struck me was that although I read the book at different times, the times also seemed relatively the same. We seem stuck in time. Ahmed talked about this sense of being stuck, of the stickiness of words, attitudes, and behaviors, and of how one can get stuck and how things can stick to someone. This, I thought, was it. This is what was different about this third reading. I felt stuck, and I felt stuck because things have stuck to me.
Let me share a couple stories.
Last week, I came to my Critical and Feminist Pedagogies class (in which we are reading On Being Included) ready to talk with students about the Introduction and first two chapters of Ahmed’s book. My class is fairly unique in that we are all queer. I know this may be the only time in my career this happens, and I know it creates an opportunity for us to convene and talk in ways that we may feel are otherwise foreclosed to us in non-queer spaces. Ahmed wrote in her book about affective weight of entering “seas of whiteness,” and I understand that our sea of queerness provides a haven from the constant cisgender/heterosexual labyrinth through which we as queer people must navigate daily.
We come together and as we talk about Ahmed’s book, we begin to tell stories. We share stories about times when we have run into brick walls. We talk about being perceived as brick walls, and how the perception that we have each been brick walls creates a brick wall toward progressive action on campus. We smile and we joke, not because we are glad that we have these shared experiences, but comforted by the solidarity that we have been stuck because things have stuck to our bodies. Words have stuck to our bodies (e.g., queer, trans*, person of color) and those words have carried with them affects (e.g., angry) and orientations (e.g., nothing is ever good enough). Those words, because they are sticky, get us stuck. They make for a difficult time getting unstuck and being seen as anything other than those words. We feel lifted through sharing. Usually exhausted after teaching an evening class, I go home smiling. At least we are stuck together.
Another story. This time I am in a virtual presentation discussing student protest on college campuses. There is a Twitter feed where presenters are engaging with listeners as they talk. Less than an hour before the presentation, it is released that Sam DuBose’s murderer will not be brought up on charges. I tweet that I hope the presenters will discuss this, that they must discuss this. That to talk about campus protest and unrest without discussing the latest murder of a Black man on a college campus is a gross oversight, in every sense of the word.
The presentation starts and I wait. I keep waiting, and I cry, silently, in my house. Nothing is said. Sam’s name isn’t mentioned. It took 43 minutes—out of an hour-long session—for his name to be brought up, and even then, it was by one of the panelists (not the convener), who is a Black man. I tweet that I am fed up, tired, and angry by the continued disavowal of Black lives, despite the claims made by many in my field that #BlackLivesMatter. I tweet these things publicly because I am not interested in hiding my distaste.
After the presentation, the main presenter, who is a White woman, messages me privately to apologize. She says she is sorry if what she did (by not talking about Sam) upset me, and that she doesn’t want to disappoint me. She says she is committed to “doing better,” and if I want, she would be open to talking with me. I don’t connect back with her.
So here it is…and here we are. Two stories, both about being stuck and things sticking to us. In the first story, we are stuck because things stick to us. In the second story, the main presenter demonstrates the stickiness of wanting to “do better.” That is to say, the desire to “do better” acts as an always already failed promise, or what Ahmed referred to as a “non-performative.” According to Ahmed (2012), a non-performative “is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but is actually what the speech act is doing” (p. 117, italics in original). By saying one wants to “do better,” one is protected from actually having to do better.
In fact, stating one wants to “do better” has become a bit of a best practice in the field of student affairs. However, as Ahmed (2012) stated, “Commitments to antiracism can be performances of racism: as if to say ‘you are wrong to describe us as uncaring and racist because we are caring and committed to being antiracist’” (p. 145). The White woman couldn’t possibly be racist because she was committed to “doing better.” It’s a cyclical argument, that one is not racist because one says they are not racist. And it becomes even more insidious when taken alongside the public nature of the offense and the private nature of the response. Why was she contacting me privately for something that occurred publically, I thought? Why was she so concerned that I would be upset with her, rather than worried about colluding in anti-Black racism and White supremacy? But I didn’t ask these questions. I was tired. I was hurt. I was sick of being the one to “bring up” these pains, which is also something that both Ahmed (2012) and Henderson (2014) discuss about race and gender respectively.
Over the three times I have read Ahmed’s book, time has marched forward, but I feel stuck in these situations. I am stuck in the repetition of hearing commitments to “doing better” and of being made to be sore because I bring up sore points regarding racism, trans* oppression, and compulsory able-bodiedness (using Ahmed’s language here). I am stuck by being made out to be The Angry One; the angry trans* person, the one who is never satisfied, the one who is always the killjoy. I encounter brick walls, but am encountered by others as a brick wall, probably because I describe the brick walls that I encounter. Ahmed (2012) referenced this when she wrote, “Social categories are sediments: they go all the way down, and they weigh some of us down. They might even appear lighter and more buoyant to those who can float, as if they are ‘above’ them. Perhaps the experience of aboveness creates the impression of overness. Perhaps lightness and buoyancy are affects of privilege—the affective worlds inhabited by those whose bodies don’t weigh them down or hold them up” (p. 181). The students in my class are similarly stuck, and although there is a sense of solidarity and camaraderie in being able to enter a sea of queerness in our classroom, each time we leave class, we walk into brick walls.
And then there is the stuckness of the field of student affairs; a stuckness that is rooted in the phrase I have increasingly grown to groan over: I want to do better.
Here’s the thing: the language of wanting to “do better” acts as a buffer from actually doing better. Saying you want to do better becomes a best practice, and as I have written about elsewhere, best practices may be necessary, but they are wholly insufficient in changing structural oppression. Best practices individualize situations, hiding how systems of oppression (racism, trans* oppression, classism) are embedded in institutional ways. And so people say they will “do better,” but nothing better is done.
And time marches on, without times changing. And so I will go into class today and likely we will share similar stories of being stuck because things stick to us and not others. We will talk about the brick walls we encounter, and how people encounter us as brick walls. We will join in solidarity and have a moment of release.
But what will happen when we leave class this time? What do we do when we keep encountering all these brick walls? What will we do when we are positioned as impatient, angry, and are told we need to appreciate that others are committed to “doing better”? Far from being a tragic tale of being content with malcontent, Ahmed (2012) gave us a clue of what we can do when she wrote what I find to be the most beautiful line of her book:
“Sometimes we have to take the risk of fulfilling the fantasies other people have of us” (p. 179)!
So here’s to fulfilling the fantasy of the angry trans* person, the impatient critical educator, the person for whom “quick fixes” may be quick, but never fix. In honoring Ahmed’s (2012) closing maxim of her book (“don’t look over it, if you can’t get over it” (p. 187, italics in original), I will close this blogpost with my own maxim: don’t talk about doing better, just do better.
*For folks who have not read this book, please do! It is truly one of the best higher education reads I have ever had the joy to complete. It would also make an amazing professional development/office shared read.
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.
What does it mean to build and maintain a collective movement of resistance in an era where individuality and hierarchical leadership models are heralded as the gold standard against which everything is measured? What happens when the very locations of healing, and the strategies we use to come together, are co-opted, making us question each other and feel alone among the very people we have come to rely on to see our full humanity and dignity? How do we regroup around particular salient identities while also holding open the reality that we all have various intersecting identities to which we all must attend and influence the many ways we approach ourselves, each other, and the way we make sense of the world?
These are just a few of the questions still swimming around in my head after what was a deeply emotional, tragic, and traumatic weekend for me and others. Many of us—myself included—had hoped to find solace and renewal at the 2015 ACPA Annual Convention this past week in Tampa, but instead were met with resistance, dismissal, and outright, overt micro- and macroaggressions from an Association that purports to stand for equity and justice. I am certainly not the first person to write about the hurt I and others experienced during this professional meeting, and I am sure I will not be the last. I am also not the only person to ever feel depleted from having continually run into institutional brick walls regarding diversity and equity. As Sara Ahmed wrote, "Those who do not quite inhabit the norms of the institution are often those given the task of transforming those norms.” But the costs for this positionality—emotional and otherwise—can be overwhelming, scary, risky, and utterly draining.
So then what are we to do when faced with these realities? What happens when we are so triggered, and are facing so many instances of violence and harm that we begin to break down as a people and as a collective? How do we come together (again) to build microclimates of support, love, respect, and joy?
The only thing I keep coming back to in searching for an answer to these questions is: we trust. We trust those we know, trust in those who the people we love know but we may not know, and we trust those we have known, but perhaps lost contact with to come back and be there for us when we need them most. This trust doesn’t always come easily for people, particularly those of us with marginalized identities who have learned that not trusting can often be an effective strategy to protecting our hearts, minds, and lives.
And I’ll own it—trusting people has been hard for me lately, too. There have been a number of moments in my life where I felt as though I have been left stranded, specifically by people I had placed a lot of trust and confidence in me to not do this. But I have also been surprised by some people who have met me halfway, reached back when I have reached out, or have shown themselves to be consistent lighthouses during periods of turbulence in my life. And it is these moments that continue to bring me back to trying, as hard as I can, to trust. And when I feel I cannot trust, or don’t know who or how to trust, I rely on those who my people trust. Similar to my recent post on collective love, I have begun to think about trust as a collective process, one where I can learn to rely on those who my people rely on. It’s scary, as it means I don’t really know who I am trusting at times, but then again, I sort of do…through my kin, whose trust I do not question.
In thinking about the importance of trust, and of trusting in those who you trust, I learned an important lesson from two people recently, one of whom is a dear friend, and the other who I hope will become a dear friend. My dear friend told me over breakfast recently that she was working on reaching out and trusting others; that even if she didn't feel confident trusting others, she was trying hard to do so, and was taking steps to trusting in who her close friends trusted as well. This resilience, this fortitude in the face of fear, and this beautiful vulnerability reminded me that, yes, we are all scared of trusting others…but we can still work hard to do it together. Indeed, we must work hard to trust together.
The second lesson I learned from someone who I hope will become a dear friend is the power of reaching across difference to see others as they wish to be seen. This friend reminded me that we all experience hurts, many times for various reasons. However, even when we may not be able to fully comprehend those hurts, our not comprehending should not stop us from trying to see and hear each other in all our humanity. Oftentimes, when I am hurt, I close in, I close ranks, and I insulate myself from the world. I need to work to not do this as much as I can. I need to remind myself to remain open…perhaps so open it hurts. There are people in my life I can trust, and people who I can lean on to help me figure out who to trust…but when I close in, I foreclose those possibilities. I hope to take my friend’s lead and open up, reach out, and try to see the same humanity in her that she is working to see in me.
I refuse to suggest this past week has a “silver lining,” or that there are “good lessons to be learned.” To suggest this is the case would mean that I was somehow glad for the “learning opportunity” that was the overwhelming and omnipresent experience of micro- and macroaggressions of the past week. Let me be clear: I was not, nor will I ever be, thankful for that. For me, or for others who were similarly affected. However, I do think these incidents, along with the heaviness I feel regarding Tony Robinson’s murder, the racism displayed by the SAE chapter at OU, and the problematic nature of the University’s response, provide moments where we need to take stock of how we reach out, open up, and make connections across difference to see each other in all our humanity and dignity. I am not happy these events continue to happen, nor am I happy with the backdrop of systemic oppression upon which these incidents are set. Not in the least. But I am reminded that I need to take the lead of my two friends and work hard to trust. I need to do this for me as well as for my people, as we work to continue growing a collective-based movement in which we move forward together, with open communication, and confidence that we have each other’s best intentions in mind.
I have a lot of work to do, but I know that I can do it as long as I have my people with me. I trust this. And I trust them. And I trust who they trust. Together, we can (and will) heal. Together.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.