For a few months now, I have been thinking about a conversation with Nicole Hurt- a gifted artist, community organizer, and social justice trainer here in Colorado. In that conversation, Nicole described to me the consequences of dubbing another person as “monster.” She explained that the problem is that regarding someone as a monster puts them into an absolute, inflexible role. And, as a consequence, if the other person is fixed as a monster, then that leaves you in an equally fixed opposing role. Typically, as the victim. After all, if the other person has only one dimension, what choices does this leave? The victim of the monster? A monster countering another monster? The slayer of a monster? Whatever the choice, the monster is left in the psychological position of power because they are at the center of it all. Every action revolves around them, and the only thing left to do is respond to them- whether preemptively or after the fact. And that position of constant response, of reactivity even when one is on the offense, leaves you fixed, yourself. Always defending yourself, always attacking back, always doing something that is caught in an endless, predictable cycle.
The truth of Nicole’s words, the meaning of them, strike me, and I am exhausted. Exhausted by my grief over the experiences of other women, grief over my own experiences. I hear about what is happening all around the world, all around me. The mass mutilations. The extreme, intense violence. Everywhere. All the time. And it is so difficult to feel powerful. How does one feel powerful in the face of constant victimization? How does one feel powerful when hardly a single female identified and/or female bodied friend of mine has not experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of men? How is one to feel powerful when most people- social justice advocates most absolutely included- don’t have even a basic working framework of what sexism is, and have little investment in undoing it? How does one feel powerful under the constant, seizing pressure to conform to gendered standards, and excuse the mass brutality against women by folding it over into a disembodied blandness of distant, soundless occurrences? How is one to feel powerful when it feels like at the end of the day it is men who win most of the battles?
Not long ago I shared tea with a friend of mine who is deeply concerned about what he believes to be his beloved’s painful and overly contentious relationship to white people. My friend (who we will dub “Jay”) talked about how deeply his beloved (“Cam” for today’s purposes) carries the wounds of racism, and how these wounds wield a tidal force over Cam’s life. Cam, it seems, is unable to trust any white person, does not want to ask for or accept help from anyone white, wishes no personal or close relationships with white people, and has deep difficulties confronting whites about their racism. Jay detailed some of his own struggles with racism and white people, but also said that he had been able to come to some sense of peace, and has several close relationships with whites who he regards as strong allies. Ultimately Jay thinks that it is contrary to Cam’s own values to carry so much anger and resistance into all of his interactions with whites. After all, who can build the alliances and solidarity necessary to advance social justice work across that depth of woundedness, desired separation (for protection), and rage?
I could not fidget enough to relieve my discomfort during that conversation. So many things are true all at the same time. I understand Jay’s perspective well. Can agree with it.
And there are healing stages that most any oppressed person must pass through in order to synthesize the experiences of their oppression. To have relationships with people in the oppressor group in which they get to bring their whole selves.
There is some expectation that any targeted person will somehow be able to take in everything they experience, and miraculously be fine. That they should be able to endure any outrage, and still recognize the humanity of their oppressor. Achieving this, or the perception of it, theoretically elevates one to a saint-like status (some of the most amplified examples being mass perceptions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, or Gandhi). And, on the flip side, one is judged harshly for daring to be visibly upset (dare I say enraged?) about their mistreatment and the mistreatment of their communities.
And there is so much more. But, I had places to be, and left the discussion concentrated on my next steps. Little did I realize that directly from tea and conversation I was on a fast track collision course with my own brick wall. The same basic wall as Cam’s, just a different (though certainly related) system of oppression.
As Veronica and I left the conference room and made our way back down to the parking lot, my mind flitted over the gendered, raced, and classed nature of the interview in the same intangible way that I register “tree” when I see a Cottonwood in the park.
More vivid were my reflections on the two white men in the meeting and the significance behind one being chosen as the spokesperson, and both occupying considerably more energetic and verbal space than their colleagues. The nature of their privileges made this reality almost painfully by design- or, rather, by construction.
Veronica broke up my musings with thoughts of her own. She speculated about which people came from which class backgrounds, who she believed to be managers with a sense of agency vs. interviewers with little institutional authority, and noted that some interviewers seemed to be force fitting themselves into ill suited, pre-prescribed roles. Particularly into the role of “authority” or the “image of success.”
While there are many ways to be successful and occupy positions of authority, there are also very defined dominant cultural images of what it means to project these things. So often this means being “in control” of a situation at all times (including leading from behind), holding the position of removed (and often intimidating) observer, occupying a strict and limited emotional range, dressing “professionally” to demonstrate access to financial resources and convey orderliness, and so on. When occupying this space, what one conveys externally takes distinct priority over how one regards themselves internally or what one thinks of the role itself.
Veronica, her expression worried and unhappy, expressed that in the end, such roles do not serve anyone well. That they leave everyone overlooking their true potential. And, as we drove back to her home, she questioned the entirety of the process, and the deep irony of using “traditional” or “normal” practices to pursue inclusiveness work. Read More