First rule for reading this post: don't feel bad. This is not a post that requires, demands, or seeks for one to feel bad.
Second rule for reading this post: don't feel bad. Just don't.
Third rule for reading this post: let's be open to having some real critical conversation about the fact that, while I hold one of the most privileged positions in terms of my work (e.g., I am on my way to receiving tenure, which is a certain security that most people do not have, and I am also part of the 1% of people with terminal research degrees), I also am forced to spend lots of time, energy, and attention on wondering why I am here, what my being here means, and how my marginalized identities may continue to be a mediating factor in my "success" as a trans* academic. Put another way, whether I want to pay these thoughts any mind, I am continually confronted with situations, comments, and opportunities that remind me that, although I know I am bright/a good writer/a smart cookie, these opportunities may be extended to me to create what Paul Kivel discussed as a "buffer zone," or the creation of a supposed inclusion for the sake of overlooking the continuation of egregious marginalization and lack of focus on the very communities of which I am a part (i.e., trans* people).
But first, of course, in true autoethnographic fashion, I have a couple stories to ground this conversation. They will be brief; I promise.
I was in a meeting the other day where someone talked about certain people saying telling them they felt using trans* peoples' proper names and pronouns impinged upon their religious freedoms. I had no way of knowing who these people were, nor was I itching to know, but the thought that kept racing through my mind was, "Are there people who I work with who think this? Is this something that people in my small sphere of daily life think on the regular?" And honestly, y'all, this one is not about religion, faith, spirituality, or life purpose; it's about the fact that people are saying that to use proper names and pronouns is an undue burden with which they should not have to "deal."
I was texting with a couple friends recently (two different conversations), and one of them asked me what success meant for me. This made me pause, because in all respects, I seem to be normatively successful. I have a book contract, a tenure-track job, multiple pieces accepted into top-tier journals, good teaching evaluations, and people are reading the work I am producing. However, I paused with this question because I have never been comfortable with normative notions of success-as-production or success-as-external-validation-and-movement-toward-tenure.
The second texting conversation was with a colleague with whom I was talking about an invitation to facilitate a broader dialogue about trans* students in college. This colleague shared with me some worry that our being asked to do this was a form of trans* pinkwashing, or the use of our bodies and minds to cover the ongoing trans* oppression happening at an institutional level. I sighed (literally) and then texted back some real negative self-talk...which took me by surprise. I have been working real hard to work through that shit, but this stuff just oozed from my fingers.
And that is when I realized I needed to move away for a bit and write this post, because that negative self-talk was itself a signal of something deeper, something that I have been struggling with as of late and, I suspect, other marginalized people also are forced to cope with regularly. I knew I needed to process through my own experiences as a way to make sense of what was happening more broadly for scholars, practitioners, and people on the margins (hence the autoethnographic format of this post).
So let's think about these stories in reverse order. The second story remains potent for me, and has made my mind spin. Yes, there are both external and internal definitions of success; this is not new. Success is also, as I suggested to my friend, "a moving target" in the sense that my views on success shift and change with time. This, too, is nothing new. It all seems pretty innocuous. However, what seems more important to me is that external definitions of success are foisted on me, and people seem to make sense of me based on external definitions of success. Furthermore, other people think they know me based on these external features they see about me (e.g., published, book contract, tenure-track job, killing joy left, right, and center via critical trans* analyses). So the external views on success drive others' "knowing" me, which, in turn, creates an image of me that is wholly outside of my control. It also means that people reach out to me as "the expert," which is always a weird, tenuous, and yet valuable position to be in...which brings me to the second texting conversation.
When people reach out to me, I am always glad. Seriously, I wouldn't do the work and writing and thinking and teaching I do if I didn't want to enact change, and part of enacting change is entering into public dialogues with people about the work I do. I do not think I have yet attained this level, but I do very much value the idea that people invested in community organizing, activism, and scholarship have an opportunity to be public intellectuals. And if ever there was a time when public intellectuals were needed, and critical public intellectuals, now is that moment. I mean, shit--the moment was a few moments ago, but yeah, we need critical public intellectuals for sure now. There are several people I look to in this regard; people like Dr. Leigh Patel (y'all need to follow Dr. Patel's blog if you don't already), Reina and Che Gossett (follow them on Twitter right away if you don't already), and my dear friend T.J. Jourian, who doesn't know the bounds of his brilliance. These people continue to agitate for radical redefinitions of who we are, what we value, and how we move forward as a populous. So yeah, I am really tickled when people reach out to me thinking I have something of value to add to public conversations about thinking more intentionally and critically about issues related to race, gender, disability, trans* collegians, higher education, and all that good stuff.
But then...is my accepting certain invitations just a form of collusion in creating buffer zones? Am I participating in people and organizations holding me up as The Trans* Scholar who has The Trans* Knowledge so they can continue to hide The Trans* Oppression that operates at institutional levels? Thinking back to the first story I shared, am I That Trans* Scholar who has been hired to create a view of diversity that people cannot stand, stomach, understand, and as a result, they resist with all their might to see me as anything but not-quite-human (Weheliye, 2014)? And if this is the case (and let's be real here--this is certainly part of the case part of the time), then am I comfortable with that collusion? Am I comfortable knowing that, no matter how much I resist, and no matter how much killjoying (is that even a word?!) I do, I have already been used as a tool for the continuation of institutional oppression? That my desire to subvert the institutional logics of oppression may have already been counteracted by the propping up of me as a willing trans* participant in the covering of the myriad ways in which my communities are overlooked, erased, denied, and seen as not-quite-human?
And then there is the energy and attention given to the wonderings of intent. Please believe, I don't enjoy or seek opportunities to do this sort of thinking. However, when moments like those in the aforementioned two stories pop up, it is damn hard--nope, impossible...or at the very least, highly improbable--for me to not wonder, "Hmm, I wonder what this means about me and my people? I wonder what the intent of my being asked to work here/do this talk/share my knowledge/moderate or otherwise be attentive to my identity as a trans* person means, and why this opportunity was extended to me?"
And to be intensely clear, these opportunities, no matter how much I am forced to wonder about them, go into furthering external notions of my success...which then make people contact me, which then make me wonder...so it's cyclical, y'all.
Truth be told, I do not need people to tell me this stuff. I didn't need my friend to bring up the trans* pinkwashing comment for me to wonder this. I got that. It's our lived reality as people who are marginalized, minoritized, and/or othered on the regular. But the energy and attention that is taken when it is brought up, the energy and attention that is taken when I wonder, and the coping strategies I have built in to try to trust groups and people who I know have (and continue) to harm me and my people...that is some ish right there. That is energy that is best used for other things and on other people.
So the question then becomes, if this is an everyday reality, what the heck should I and others do about it? How should we deal with the problem of success, being held up as buffer zones, and the consistent wonderings around intent?
I have no idea. If I did, I would be sharing that stuff all over the place, because I feel and see the exhaustion written all over our faces, y'all. All over our faces as marginalized peoples. I hear the stories, and I sense the crappiness. I don't know the answers, but here are some things I am trying to do:
(1) Turn off my phone. Yup, that's the truth, Ruth. Turning that thing off, leaving it at home or in my purse, because I need to not be around it and its reminders/notifications sometimes...and turning it off is how I can make sure I can do this effectively.
(2) Say, out loud, "Micro- and macroaggressions/aggressors, move along." I literally ain't got time for that, so as best I can, I need to just tell myself to push through. Because, as a friend told me a few weeks back, thriving and striving is the biggest "fuck you" to these people and moments. It's what they don't want us to do, either consciously or unconsciously.
(3) Take the moments and spaces I have be given to call out the potential buffering happening. This one is taking practice, but I am working hard to hold the tension of being in spaces while at the same time calling those spaces out. I am trying really hard to negotiate between honoring the work and knowledge and critical praxis I have been asked to share with highlighting how this may (not) be showing up at the very moment I was/am asked to speak and engage. In this regard, I am learning a ton from many people who have come before me, especially Black women, women of color, and trans* women of color. Y'all, these folks continue to call shit out as it happens, and it is beautiful to bear witness to. Like, absolutely beautiful. So I am working hard to follow the lead and do this in ways that both engage and remain critical.
(4) Owning what is "my shit" versus what is not. Girl down, this one is hard for me. I continue to process this one, and have a good friend who I have been talking with about this lots lately. We text back and forth throughout the weeks and remind each other, "Whatever is going on right now is not your shit!" This keeps my focus trained on the institutionalization of oppression, and the systemic nature of the mess occurring. It also reminds me that people enact these institutional and systemic (il)logics, and I need to remain attentive to this because, honestly, it's not my shit. Furthermore, owning this allows me to do what I talked about in #2 all the better/easier/quicker. Move along, because it's not my shit.
I will keep joining spaces to talk, and will keep calling those spaces, people, and (il)logics out. And I am sure that will become commodified, and I will be asked to join other spaces because of my killjoying (I am making this a thing, y'all). And yet...this is the very thing public intellectuals need to do, right? The very tension we need to hold. And so, at the end of the day, I am okay saddling up with some collusion if it allows me the chance to highlight the very (il)logic that forced me to choose collusion in the first place. And that seems important to me. As I have written about before, it seems risky, dangerous, and scary. But it seems important, too.
And trans* justice is far too important to be held back by shit that isn't mine, or by wasting energy on the types of thinking that reminds me of what I already know. Instead, I am going to make some choices to join some messed up spaces as a way to push, resist, and proclaim, at the top of my lungs: WE MATTER. WE ARE HERE. WE WILL BE IGNORED NO LONGER.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.