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Today I said it in class — I’m not an artist. I definitely don’t feel like I can call myself that. I don’t see myself that way at all. What I do might be considered “creative” or might even be termed “art” by some people, and you can call it what you want. What am I to me, though?

I’m certainly an activist. I believe in the power of people to affect social change. I think with the right measures of heart, wisdom, strategy, tactics, love, and fun, we can fix this stupid world and make it a more equitable, just one. I think a great barrier to change is lack of knowledge and feelings of alienation, and I want to come up with new strategies to fix that.

I do consider myself a scholar. I continue to value the theoretical underpinnings and history of thought that I consider with everything I do. I love learning, thinking, and arguing. I value intellectual rigor and academic practice. (It helps that the academy is where I get paid!)

I think that I am also a facilitator. I hesitate to use the word “teacher” because it implies an inequitable relationship between myself and my students. While I do have the power to assign them grades, I also think I have a great deal to learn from them, too. Nevertheless, I do have a strong background in certain topics, and I have skill and interest in the applications of radical pedagogy in higher education. I was complimented today on those skills, and it made me feel really good.

I am a radical. Anybody who thinks they have the ideas that will really shake the world can call themselves that name.

What I want to continue to make is activist work, it is scholarly, it is closely tied with education (whether formal or popular), and it certainly is radical. I am not warm to the idea of calling it art. I can’t yet articulate why, but maybe that’s something I’ll work on a little bit in the next few weeks.

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I’ve been a busy one lately, and I know it’s really not a very good excuse for not blogging, because if anything, I should be posting more because I’m always looking for something to do that isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing.  I haven’t been feeling ready to write anything lately, which is another kettle of fish entirely, but it is somewhat related to my preoccupation.

This past weekend was the University of Michigan Social Justice Conference.  I actually had a pretty good time, learned a great deal, and met some excellent humans.  It was a good space for me to meet some people I wouldn’t have met normally due to our different interests in different sectors of social justice, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything they had to say, I think it was a good experience for me to get outside my IGR-insulated comfort zone.  I had a hard time with a lot of things, though, including the issue of diversity of groups and individuals involved.  For a conference examining community growth and coalition-building as well as personal development as activists, I felt very out-of-place and disconnected from much of the conference.  Like I said, I found the conference largely beneficial.

Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of alienation.  I couldn’t help feeling isolated from time to time, like I was watching other people doing things.  It wasn’t until our breakout session when we brainstormed challenges for the future that I felt really connected to anybody else at the conference.  I think part of the root of this feeling was the acute knowledge of being regarded in a certain way because I was the only out transgender person at the conference.  The number of queer folk seemed pretty small in general, and the number of people of color was a bit disappointing to me, too.

Looking back I can kind of see why this was the case.  I don’t think that queer political movements were integrated into the conference the way others were, and perhaps that is merely emblematic of the personal interests and priorities of the group who were most influential in organizing the conference.  (An important observation at our large-group session toward the end: we might never come to a consensus about what to tackle and how!)  I just took a look at the poster again on the blog, and the only social identity groups whose fight for civil rights is not characterized as a rights struggle are queer folks and women.  I have other social justice priorities, interests and passions, too, but my struggle for equality is not about my gender “issues.”  It’s about my rights to be fully enfranchised as a human being.

The representation at the conference of LGBT-related organizations began and ended with LGBT Commission.  While I respect the work LGBT Commission does, it is, undeniably, dominated by white, upper-middle class, cisgender gays and lesbians.  I’ve never felt like LGBT Commission had my interests in mind.  I suppose I can’t make assumptions about whether or not other groups were reached out to or invited and, possibly, declined to offer a workshop or input because of time constraints, but it kind of left a feeling of uneasiness with me.

Let’s also consider the keynotes and panelists, with the exception of Shanta Driver and Hector Aristizabal, were white men.  And that the closing plenary, Derrick Jensen, while interesting and entertaining, is also a deeply divisive figure.

In order to build the broad-based coalitions we talked about at the conference, we must address these things.  It didn’t take me until now to really articulate some of these specific things that caused my feelings of alienation and unease.  That said, I do think that UMSJC 09 was a great step in the right direction.  I’d be really happy to see more events and activities like it to continue on this campus.  I can’t help but care deeply about U-M even though I’m leaving in four months.  (Still seems incredible.)  This is, in a big way, my home, and I love it.  I hope we can take these critiques to heart as serious ones, and continue to build greater solidarity.

Speech delivered March 11, 2009 for BAMN’s first public hearing on campus climate.

We’ve all come together in this place in good faith, as people with progressive ideas.  We want to see our campus reflect an ideal society where the individual has the right to be who we are without risk of harassment or violence.  We’ve got a long way to go, but I want to take a step back and examine some of our assumptions.  Before we begin to work out what we need from the people who aren’t in this room, I want to ask what we need from each other.

While I can’t and won’t assume what others need from me, I can take a stab at what we need as a group, considering some experiences I’ve had over the past four years in progressive action and education here at U-M and elsewhere.  I believe that our progressivism has fallen prey to collusion and internalized prejudice.  We have given into the dominant narratives that describe our identity groups as monolithic.  We have forgotten what it means to form real working alliances.  These are ideas that make me uncomfortable, but it’s high time we started being a little less comfortable with each other.

I hear a lot of prejudiced ideas get thrown around in our progressive communities.  Whether or not they’re glib doesn’t matter.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being taken aback by a gay rights activist who accuses another of “not being gay enough,” or a feminist who accuses transsexual women of “not being real women.”  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being hurt by white allies telling me I’m not a real person of color because I’m multiracial, or by trans rights activists who tell me my gender non-conforming friends who choose not to physically transition are “breaking up the movement.”  I find the idea of accusing someone of not fulfilling the stereotypes attached to their identities incredible, as if it were a bad thing that we’re all our own unique people.

This is ridiculous and it’s something that I’ve seen happen consistently here at U-M.  This is not something that has to do with the administration of this university.  It has nothing to do with liberals versus conservatives.  It has nothing to do with people who are content to ignore inequality in our society.  It has to do with me.  It has to do with everyone in this room.  What are we expecting from each other?  What assumptions do we approach each other with?

We need to change the way we think about identity communities if we are going to make a change on this campus and in the world.  By accusing of someone of not living up to the expectations of them due to their personal identity, we are colluding with the dominant narrative of a society that seeks to systematically marginalize us because we are people of color, gender minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities, or refuse categorization.  But this is a symptom of a deeper problem.  The dominant social narrative says that minority groups are monolithic – because I am transgender, I have the same interests and wishes as all other transpeople, even though there is vast diversity in experience and expression in the trans community.  By constructing minorities as faceless “others,” the dominant narrative is effective in denying us access to power, freedom, and equal opportunities.  And sometimes, we internalize this oppression by placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves.

So, the fruits of collusion are alienation.  I know plenty of other people on this campus who have been driven away from activism by the actions – not the beliefs – of the activists.  Though we’re supposedly a liberal campus, what does that liberalism represent if only certain identities and kinds of expressions are allowed by the campus liberal establishment?  I was a latecomer to trans activism, even though I’ve been out of the closet since my senior year of high school.  I rejected my role as a gay rights activist after coming to U-M, which is incredible considering that, under my tenure as president of my high school’s gay-straight alliance, we established an unprecedented inter-high school GSA council.

There is nothing wrong with our ideals.  There is nothing unjust about our struggle.  What is wrong, though, is our willingness to submit to dominant narratives.  I believe this is the case because submitting to the dominant narrative is the path of least resistance.  It is easier for me to blame others than myself.  I find it easier to accept that I may not receive tenure in the future as a professor due to my race and gender identity, and fault a biased institution, than it is for me to challenge my colleagues and myself: what would I do when faced with a similar decision about someone very different from myself?

Just because we are liberals, we are not absolved.  Just because we are progressives, we are not absolved.  Just because I am a socialist does not mean I am absolved.  Just because I am a member of one of the most marginalized groups in our society does not mean I am absolved.  I’m a transsexual postgender queer atheist person of color, and I still get it wrong.  I step on people’s toes.  I make assumptions about others based on their social identities.  Occasionally I say things that are racist, sexist, or ableist.  And I don’t always have the courage to say so.  Making the mistakes is alright.  We’re human.  But failing to examine them isn’t.

I realize I’m calling us out.  I’m calling myself out.  There’s something wrong with the way the progressive movement has handled the politics of personal identity in this country, and we need to re-evaluate.  Hybrid identities are the reality – in fact, I would argue the norm – in this modern world.  We are complicated creatures.  I am not defined by my transsexual identity.  I know that nobody is defined by any one identity.  We all know that.  It’s time to stop acting like we think otherwise.  We can’t forget that our own prejudices are part of the campus climate.  We must to start considering that, as people who stand for the equality of all people, those prejudices need to be examined and dismantled.

All I’m trying to say here is that we have the chance to reject identity politics.  As a group, we can reject the expectations imposed on us by dominant narratives of race, gender, age, ability, sex, sexuality, and religious identity.  We can improve campus climate by improving the climate of our progressive communities.  In order to do that we must form a new progressive alliance.  What does that mean?

A new progressive alliance recognizes individuals as the most valuable components of building the future.  In an alliance, it’s assumed that there will be disagreement.  Allies must recognize that they’ll have to clearly communicate their needs and priorities, and negotiate with others in order to realize their goals.  They must be as willing to give as they are to take, and they must be willing to walk a mile in their allies’ shoes in order to get anything done.  They must cease making assumptions about the others at the table.  They need to be courageous in challenging others, but more importantly, themselves.  They need to know what is most important in their mutual struggle.

We owe it to each other to create a progressive alliance that has the interests of all in mind, without passing judgment on the individual.  We owe it to each other to be more progressive than simple identity politics.  As long as we accept our status of other-ness, we will fail to improve this campus’s climate for minority students.  In order to do that, we must examine our movement.  We owe it to ourselves to realize a future where we don’t just call into question the things we’re taught, but call into question the things we’ve learned.

I’m going to be speaking at BAMN‘s public hearing on campus climate on Wednesday, March 11.  The event will start at 6:00 pm and take place in Auditorium D in Angell Hall.

In general, I like to keep progressive political organizations at arm’s length because I think the change we need can be made through education and outreach, without having to ascribe a political message to our actions, but I’m starting to question that.  While focusing on education means focusing on broad-based systemic change, we need to alleviate conditions now, for our generation, as well as serve future generations.  I’m also experiencing a change of heart toward activism in general, especially activist outlets where I can actually present a thesis that’s more complex than “I want equality now.”

Moreover, I think this is going to be a great opportunity to sound a call to arms to end the limiting, alienating identity politics that plagues so many progressive movements.  In the final chapter of her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano calls for reform in the queer/trans rights movement.  Her vision of equality doesn’t rest on our specific identities — in other words, how “queer” we are — but rather on the idea that we need to form an alliance to work toward the common goal of eliminating second-class citizenship in this country.  This is an important idea, because, as she writes, alliances require the understanding that there will be disagreements within the movement and that those disagreements are simply to be worked with and dealt with as they arise.  There isn’t the assumption that any identity group is a monolith.

In fact, I think visioning movements as alliances are, in general, more beneficial, because it also prevents individuals from scapegoating their oppressed identities while ignoring their privileged identities.  One of my biggest pet peeves in the world of social justice activism are people who don’t check their privilege, and presenting a view of inequality and resistance that rests exclusively on our formulations of our identities allows people to ignore those parts of them that do give them privilege in society.  It’s people like this who are often the targets of conservative ridicule because they ignore the fact they’ve got privileges because they’re white or upper class or straight.  It’s important that we don’t forget that we’re complex individuals and those identities influence our interactions with others.

I’m actually pretty excited about an alliance with BAMN.  As part of my alliance with BAMN, I’ve been invited to run for Michigan Student Assembly on the Defend Affirmative Action Party ticket.  I’m still debating it, but the application for candidacy is due tomorrow, and it seems like a good move.  They need more LSA candidates and I have some star power.  Even though I doubt I’ll win and even though I’m leaving the U next year, I think it will send the right message.  And why not capitalize on the press I’ve gotten?

I also am ready to throw my previous caution to the wind regarding being a public figure on campus.  Maybe I waited too long, but also maybe I wasn’t ready yet.  I have long had an uncomfortable relationship with activism at U-M and in general.  Recently I’ve been coming to terms with the idea of activism, both in terms of practice and theory of the past, and developing practices and theory for the future.  I’ve been reading work by other gender, sexual and race radicals who are more complex than a slogan on a banner, and whose conceptions of activism resist the stereotypes and attitudes that dominate mainstream thinking about who activists are and what they stand for.  And this has all brought me to realizations about myself and my responsibilities to the causes I care about as someone who refuses to be put into a box as a true progressive, and someone who wants a sea change in identity politics in general.

This is important work and I’d like anybody who’s at U-M to join us on March 11 for the public hearing.  Anyone can walk in and testify, and we hope to be able to pass some resolutions and build some momentum that we will bring to MSA.  I’m kind of reluctant to run for MSA, but I do think that I can and should make a commitment to making a call for action.  I want to encourage you to make a similar commitment, even if you don’t want to speak at the hearing, your presence will be valuable.  See you on the 11th.

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