What Black Queer Feminism Has Taught Me: Intersectionality, Nurturance Culture and Transformative Relationships

Last week I had the honor of speaking on a panel at American University put on by a coalition of POC student groups. My fellow panelist Zoe Samudzi, a dope Black Queer Womanist based in San Francisco, gave one of the most useful definitions of intersectionality that I have ever heard. While I can’t give her articulation of it justice, the basic idea is that, contrary to mainstream white feminism’s use of the term, intersectionality isn’t just about multiple layers of oppression. It is not a simple listing of privileges and oppressions. Intersectionality means that Black women face a kind of oppression that is a result of capitalist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal re-imaginings of Black Womanhood. To put it another way, one cannot understand the mechanism of misogynoir [the oppression of Black women] by listing the oppression of Black people and the oppression of women and merging the list.

For instance, misogynoir often hyper-masculinizes Black women, robbing them of the protection afforded to the inherently domestic and nationally protected white womanhood but their femme identity robs them of the fear and mythologies of strength that offer Black men some measure of social protection. In essence, this means misogynoir has its own twisted logic that is more than just a mix of patriarchy and white supremacy.

Her brilliance has greatly informed my growing understanding of the term. The most profound moment on the panel for me however, was when Venus Selenite talked about how the idea of intersectionality is often misused to further tokenize multiply-marginalized people. Venus is Black Trans activist and public intellectual who spoke at an event on the murder of Black Trans Women that I helped organize. She stated that she regretted speaking at the rally because it was merely the performance of solidarity. She never even heard of the campaign again after that. All of the promises of follow through never really materialized.

As a main organizer of that event I would have to agree, at least for my involvement in it. It was the performance of solidarity with a lack of follow through that betrayed a lack of actual solidarity with Black Transwomen.

These two opening comments hit me very profoundly. Suddenly, something clicked intellectually that I had been working out in my mind for months. While Venus’ critique did make me uncomfortable, months of internal emotional work as allowed me to understand this discomfort for what it is: a gift. It was a reminder that not only must I do better but that I am capable of better, of more. Rather than “getting all up in my feelings” I took responsibility for my inaction not only publically but internally. I tried, as best as I could, to channel the wisdom of my friend and teacher Elle Hearns, in regards to teachable moments and collaborative solidarity. I explained the reason for my failure, not only to attempt to practice restorative justice and accountability but to illustrate a larger point: making mistakes does not make us mistakes and our failures can be powerful lessons when we hold each in love.

I explained to Venus and the audience how the event, while problematic, helped me recognize that I have a lot of issues with internalized transphobia, especially transmisogynoir [the hatred and oppression of Black Trans Women]. Like any leftist, I felt the political pressure of the moment to be intersectional in my organizing. Yet, because I rarely practice collaborative solidarity with my Black trans siblings, my organizing around trans issues tends to be transactional.

Often times we pretend that our relationships are not transactional when we don’t explicitly ask for anything in return. Under this logic, it is not transactional to provide a “safe space” for Venus to speak her truth. Let’s push aside the false notion that I, as an organizer, actually did the work to make sure the sure the space was safe for Venus. There are many ways in which I used Venus’ story to perform solidarity and prove that I am “down.”

This is not to say that I consciously used Venus to show how intersectional I was. Yet, as I often write about, intent matters much less than we usually say it does. When my friend Elle put out the call for cis Black men to organize an event I jumped at the chance. I wanted to “give back” to all the Black transwomen who had helped me [directly and indirectly] and address this nagging feeling that I had not done enough to help Black transwomen in my organizing. Aside from the paternalism inherent in how I conceived of “giving back,” I don’t think that my desire to answer this call was in itself problematic.

What was problematic was the fact that I conceived of my relationship with Elle and Black Trans people more broadly, in transactional terms i.e. you did something for me so I will do something for you. That is not solidarity. Equally problematic was the tokenism involved in using Elle as a stand in for the broader Trans community which I did not fully realize at the time.
We often think of transactional relationships as entering relationships with a sense of “what do I get out of this?” While this is true, I would argue that a relationship is no less transactional because your “price” is an unnamed favor in the future. I would argue in fact, that a transaction that assumes someone or a community will always fight for you and will continue fighting for you regardless of what happens, is not only transactional but abusive.

As a cis Black male, I can bank on Black Trans women fighting for me, regardless of whether I fight for them. It has never crossed my mind that Elle or Venus would not be on the streets fighting for me. For me to bank of this one sided solidarity and then use it to solidify how “down” and intersectional I am is not only abusive but oppressive in the specific patterns of oppressions that typify transmisogynoir.

Instead of being transactional within my own family, I should have had reciprocal relationships with them. Reciprocal relationships are the only way to have true solidarity. A reciprocal relationships is one based on honest interactions, equitable negations of terms and long term vision. If I had been reciprocal with my relationship with Elle I would have had honest conversations about my capacity and level of understanding and would have had mature, direct loving communications about how involved she wanted to be in the planning. I would have been honest about what I would have gotten out of this campaign and what Elle wanted from the organizers not only for the week but also in our ongoing, evolving relationship.

Instead, due to my insecurity with own organizing ability and trans familiarity and in a rush to perform solidarity instead of embodying it, I ended up stumbling along in the dark. It also meant that I had to rely heavily on the support of Black women like Erika Totten, defeating the intention of call for cis Black men leading the charge. If I had had a long term view of my relationship with my Black trans siblings, I would have thought about how to use the action to create multiple relations with other Black trans people. I would not have simply run into Venus by chance months later.

The Importance of Love in Organizing

This is not to say that my relationship with Elle or my other trans siblings is or was completely abusive and oppressive. However, it is an honest recognition of the fact that capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy has breed a culture of lovelessness into ALL of my relationships. It has limited my human ability to feel, practice and reciprocate love. This is a recognition that transactional relationships are not loving relationships.

As Darnell L. Moore’s essay beautiful illustrates: “When we know another loves us, right critique is not treated as wrong and uplift is understood as a collective and not individual endeavor. Love is not violence. And freedom is not lovelessness. And we don’t have the time to not love each other in our present. And if even if we did, time is too expensive to deny another black person the very force that might catalyze their survival.”

This brings me to heart of this essay: what Black Queer Feminism has given to me.

It has given me to the ability to truly love. To love my self. To love my blackness. To love my body. To love my people and show that love in healthy, sustainable ways. It has given me the intellectual tools to understand how I have internalized capitalist, white supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchal imaginings of my Black maleness.

As my sister Erika Totten would say, I have internalized the “fight or fuck response” of cis-hetero patriarchy. This fight or fuck response removes much of the nuisance and depth from my relationships. It means that my relationships with men are highly competitive and even joy is expressed through violence whether it is the violence of playing football, or brotherly punches in the arm or in the violence of my language when I am in all male spaces.

With women, the fight or fuck response becomes even more problematic. It has often led me to overly sexualize positive feelings of affinity with women. This has always been in conflict with my rather sex-negative but pro-gender equality upbringing. A conflict that often resulted in discomfort with non-sexual physical touch and sexual repression writ large. There is also something inherently effeminate and sexually suspicious in our society about a man who is constantly surrounded by women he has no intention of fucking. I have dealt with the pressure of this societal suspicion, and the internally questioning of my sexuality that it instilled in me, all my life.

It has only through a 10 year journey of my deepening engagement with sex positive, body positive feminism that I am able to untangle and start to grow past these conflicts. It is only through the intersectionality I was exposed to in the Black Queer Feminism in the Movement for Black Lives [M4BL] that I was able to actually begin to resolve these conflicts.

On Trans Brilliance and Transformative Relationships

This leads me to the second thing that clicked for me in what Venus said on the panel: what I have gained through my on-going journey of identifying, naming and processing my internalized transmisgoynoir.

I realized that the root of my transmigoynoir is my sexual attraction to Black transwomen. Our collective imagining of Black masculinity does not allow for one to be a “real man” while also being attracted to trans women. This is similar, but distinct, from Black male homophobia.

While it is equally true that our collective imagining have little room for Black men loving other Black men, Black transwomen present a unique challenge to narrowly drawn and fragile Black men. It is their inherent femininity that is attractive to me, to us. Yet, in a binary masculinity, attraction to Black trans women either makes a Black man gay or a man unfairly “tricked” by a Black man dressed as a woman. For binary men, this triggers our fight or fuck response which, in a society infected with pervasive rape culture, often leads to violence and murder. This is the reason that so many Black Transwomen died last year.

This attraction, and the cognitive dissonance it created, caused a prolonged sense of discomfort in me. It was only through Elle Hearns and other trans activists’ articulation of #transbrilliance that I was able to resolve it in a healthy, sex and body positive, trans-inclusive way. Again, trans brilliance is an idea that I am not able to give justice. Yet my understanding is that trans brilliance, like the term Black girl magic, refers to the lessons of resilience that communities learn in their resistance to their specific location on the matrix of oppression.

Trans brilliance is the kind of radical solidarity that Sylvia Rivera practiced with STAR [Street Transgender {originally Transvestite} Action Revolutionaries] where she provided housing and economic support to gender non-conforming and gay youth in 60’s San Francisco [among other amazing things]. Trans brilliance is the vibrancy of self-expression and radical, communally based, self confidence that many of our trans sibling exemplify. Trans brilliance is the direct, loving communication that our trans siblings displayed in their demands at the M4BL Convening where they neither demonized the Black community for its transphobia nor allowed oppression to be comfortable around them.

This lesson of Trans brilliance, along with the emotional emancipation work of Erika Totten’s EEC’s, the lessons of Black Queer Feminist dreaming I learned from the work Alexis Pauline Gumbs and the example of my unapologetically Black Queer friends in BYP 100 DC and the Movement for Black Live at large has allowed me to re-envision a non-binary Black maleness for myself. I can dream and embody a Black maleness that is not based on an exclusionary and binary understanding of gender. I can dream and embody a nurturing masculinity that better reflects how I want to interact with the world and how I want to contribute to the movement for my own liberation.

This understanding of the intersectional power and value of trans brilliance and Black girl magic, along with a non-binary understanding of masculinity that grants me access to gender-fluid and masculine nurturing allows me to create and sustain transformative relationships.

The Power of Transformative Relationships in Decentralized Network Based Organizing

 

If transactional relationships are typified by a “what can I get out of this” mentality and reciprocal relationships are typified by a collaborative solidarity informed by honesty, equity and long term vision then transformative relationships are ones that leverage the power of reciprocal relationships to transform spaces and endeavors in ways that improve the freedom, joy, power and self-determination of all parties.

In many ways, the trauma and emergent strategies informed praxis that the M4BL uses is an attempt to operationalize the power of transformative relationships in decentralized networks for broad based social change. We recognize, intuitively, that transformative relationships are revolutionary. They are relationships that allow us to tap into a collective erotic power that allows us to begin to share our need for individual and communal excellence.

Transformative relationships in social movements allow for hundreds of new activist to learn a lifetime worth of political analysis in months by submerging them in constant political analysis and giving them ample opportunity to practice and embody new lessons. Transformative relationship operate from a paradigm of abundance, accountability and love; changing the way we view the world and each other. Transformative relationships allow us to access all of the knowledge we have gleaned from different but interlaced histories of resistance for collaborative power with [as opposed to dominating power over.]

Transformative relationships in organizing encourage us to be fractal or to embody our politics on personal, interpersonal and communal levels. Like all dynamic relationships, transformative relationships foster iterative processes that change as new data or history is added. Transformative relationships are rare and take a great deal of trust and internal work to create and sustain but are immeasurably powerful. This trust and accountability allows for increased flexibility and rapid adaptation around shared values.

As we think about using transformative relationships in the context of social change, it is also crucial to note that power is an inherent aspect of transformative relationships. Our trans siblings, in all their grace and love, did not ask politely for the broader Black community to accept them. Trans organizers and activist have been doing exactly what their titles imply [organizing and acting] to demand cultural change within our community. Elle Hearns and Venus Selenite’s ability to stand in their personal power [both political, intellectual, and spiritual] is a large part of how I learned from them. The narrative and cultural power of Black Queer Feminist like Audre Lorde also added to the power behind their lessons. As did a culture of centering the narratives of the most marginalized community members that infuses the M4BL network.

All of these types of power mixed with the love, support and compassion of how this power [trans brilliance and black girl magic] was used and embodied continuously by those around me to aid me in my personal transformation. As Silvia Federici articulated, power educates. To paraphrase a line from her amazing book “Revolution at Point Zero” first men will fear this power, then they learn from it once capitalism [or patriarchy or white supremacy] learns to fear this power.

As I stated before, it has taken a lot of internal work to see this power as a gift and not a threat. It has taken even more internal work and practice experimenting with and standing in my own power, to learn from this power and attempt to stand with my Trans siblings in it in transformative, accountable and collaborative solidarity. It has also taken a history of organizing through what Amiri Baraka might call “revolutionary theater” to create a counter or queer script for gender that empowers women and non-binary folks.

The intersectional power of transformative relationships are not limited to issues of gender, sex and sexual orientation. In many ways, unapologetic Blackness as a political theme and ratched politics in general are lessons learned by Black upwardly mobile millennials from our working class and poor siblings. I firmly believe that we should expand this thinking to include burgeoning coalitions between POC communities and in our collaborations with white allies.

Transformative Relationships Within the Anti-Racism Movement

Too often, the model of solidarity we use in anti-racism work is based on abusive transactional relationships. Anti-racist solidarity is distinct from other forms of transactional relationships between different communities like services presented as charity or tokenism rampant in the performance of white and POC ally ship. This is both a particularly dehumanizing and ineffective model of solidarity in which the transactional nature of the relationship is obfuscated as a repayment of a historic debt. While White people and other communities that benefit from anti-Black White Supremacy do have a debt that they must pay, that debt is fundamentally not payable by disempowering themselves through some guilt ridden attempt to shift their power over to Black people.

To get free we need more power, not less. We need more leaders not enfeebled followers.

This idea that white people must give up their power is based on a white middle class and masculine limiting belief in scarcity. It presumes that either power is inherently bad [or at least bad in white people’s hands] or that it is a zero sum game. Intersectional transformative relationships teach us that power works in abundance. Just as standing in solidarity with my Black Trans siblings requires me to stand in my own transformative non-binary masculine power, not abdicate it, so too must non-Black people stand in their own transformative power. Yet in order for them to do it, they must first discover it and re-imagine their identities is a way that accepts my existence and my inherent humanity.

If you are afraid of your power or unable to separate your use of it and your identification with it from the dominance of my Black maleness, then you cannot stand in solidarity with me.

Re-framing the Ally Journey

I often talk about how my tendency to gravitate towards femme spaces and people [or perhaps more accurately my aversion to masculine spaces and traumatic history with other men] forced me to learn how to make women comfortable as way to ensure that I could stay in those spaces.

Yet, am I learning that a more accurate way to understand my relationships with women is to say that I have been transformed by my relationships with women. My progressive transformation has allowed me to unlearn the fight or fuck responses that grant me access to my nurturing skills which in turn allow me to build more authentic [and eventually transformative] learning relationships with more and more women.

As I began to learn from and depend on more and more women, I began to change the way I saw myself. This allowed me to respond to the feminine power that drives the M4BL and the history of Black femme resistance that guide it from a place of curiosity and gratitude. This disposition allowed me to learn from the power of women like Omolara Williams McCallister who once gave me one of my favorite compliments when she said “you are very teachable.”

I firmly believe that everyone must go through their own journey to this transformative power and re-imagining of their identities. I believe that Black Queer Feminism provides a poetic road map to complicate and guide this journey. My relationships with powerful women of color like Darakshan Raja, the indomitable co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Policy Forum, as also taught me that each of our identities and communities have powerful lessons to the teach the world that can be accessed through transformative relationships. Our relationship has also taught me that such cross-cultural/class/racial/gender transformative relationships take a great deal of evolving internal emotional work and on-going political analysis building in order to useful for movement building.

This is why I am going to redouble my efforts to explore and embrace my nurturing side; to invest in my personal transformative relationships and guide and nurture other people in doing the same. I what to identify what other self-limiting beliefs that capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy have instilled in me. I want to identify the systems and institutions that teach and re-enforce those lies. I want to stand with everyone willing in collective transformative power to dismantle these systems within ourselves, or communities and society as a whole.

I hope this articulation of my learning journey was as illuminating in your reading as it has been healing in my writing of it. I hope that my friends will continue to hold me in love as I stumble along this path of processing my internalized misogyny and transphobia. I hope that we will all make it to our beloved community, to that land filled with love and abundance before we are through. I hope all of you who know me will allow me to continue loving you and practice my nurturing by nurturing you. I hope you all continue to allow to thank you for all you have given me. I hope all of you in relationship with me continue to teach me how to better to stand in my transformative power. I hope to continue to hold you all accountable to your greatest, most gorgeous, most powerful selves.

 

If this essay sparked some interest in you, read pieces that inspired this essay below:

On the culture of Lovelessness:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/darnell-l-moore/you-arent-leader-if-you-dont-love_b_9229394.html

On nurturance culture and building relationships as a male feminist:

The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
http://www.mediacoop.ca/blog/norasamaran/19018

On the Erotic:
http://uk.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/11881_Chapter_5.pdf

Silvia Federici:

http://www.churchland.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Federici-Silvia-Revolution-Point-Zero-Housework-Reproduction-and-Feminist-Struggle.pdf

On dreams and re-imaginings:

http://alexispauline.com/

On ally performance:

How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’

On Misogynoir and Transmisogynoir:

On the different types of power:

http://leadershiplearning.org/system/files/Power%20Analysis%20Types%20and%20Sources%20of%20Power.pdf

On White Middle Class Dominant Culture:

http://www.stevebozzone.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Elements-of-White-Middle-Class-Dominant-Culture.pdf

On Emergent Strategies and Decentralized Movement Organizing:

https://www.alliedmedia.org/esii/resources
http://movementnetlab.org/

#BlackLivesMatter Podcast

 

Silence

There is a movement happening in America…

All across America young Black people are articulating the damage, the pain, the fear, the lynchings that come with being one of the backs upon which this white supremacist nation was built. It is important that we all bear witness to this pain. If you are Black, it is essential that you open yourself to the pain you push behind your mask so that you can function in this society. That pain needs to be released. It it needs to be spoken. You will find power in its utterance. In articulating your own humanity, in flaunting it in front of the very society that denies it, you will find a type of individual freedom from which is the raw material for our collective liberation.

If you are not-Black then you need to bear witness to this pain. You need to force yourself to see the humanity of the Black myn and womyn who are mourning their own deaths. You need to force yourself to understand that this pain is not new just because you haven’t heard it before. It will not go away until we as a nation can come to terms with the Blackness of 36 million Americans. It will not go away until the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers no longer have to wonder what their role is in their own nation. It will not go away until we recognize the humanity of all Black people despite class, nation of origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability or criminal records. It will not and cannot go away until you understand that #blacklivesmatter.

If we as a nation cannot all agree on that simple fact we can never be whole; we can never heal this gaping wound across our nation. This festering sore that is one of America’s foundational sins will continue to grow, to ooze and to infect every institution of our nation. Yet no longer will this infection be contained to Black bodies. No longer will Black people be the ones who bear the weight of their oppression by shucking and jiving on the razor thin edge of white racial sensibilities.  No longer will we let the tonnage of white racism sit on our chests, crushing us slowly while we pretend it isn’t there. If this movement is anything it is a promise that if we can’t breathe, you can’t breathe.

 

Get off the fence. Join the struggle.

I Die a Little Bit Each Day

 

I can barely express the depth of the pain and the anger I feel right now. I feel so helpless and powerless and hated. I feel so constantly plagued by doubt. I am constantly being messaged that I am a problem that society has yet to find a solution for. This world seems so afraid of me and what I will do next…so why am I the one paralyzed by fear? Why I am I the one afraid to walk down the street at night? Why am I the one that nearly has a panic attack every time I see the police? How it is it possible that I am this powerful, haunting menace that America fears so deeply yet am so…powerless.


They tell me that I’m different. That my family made it. That my parents got out of the hood and moved to a white town and sent me to a good school. They are constantly messaging to me that I’m the epitome of the Black middle class success story. Young, no kids, no record, employed with benefits and a future. The cops have never thrown me up against the wall. I’ve never been stopped or frisked. I’ve never been shot at. I’ve never been seriously questioned by the police. It is supposed to make me feel safe. I’m supposed to understand the plight of the ghetto is not my plight. I’m supposed to feel pride that I’m not one of them. Yet I feel that all this messaging of success is a lie.

I remember the cops following me through campus at the University of Chicago. I remember them eying me as a group of white students walked towards me. They drove off when it was clear that I was not going to rob anybody. I get the sense, its imaginary I know, but I get this sense that the Black cop in the police car were surprised or disappointed or even anxious that I didn’t hurt anyone. As they drove off, I wondered if that cop wanted to prove he wasn’t one of them too?

Its moments like that one that won’t let this feeling dissipate. I always have this feeling hanging over me; this sense that the bubble could burst any moment. This eery, pregnant pause, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When I would walk through Back of the Yards on the South Side of Chicago I would get this sense, as I heard guns shots and sirens, that one stray bullet and I’d be another statistic. Another dead nigger outlined on the side walk. Another memorial with candles and pictures and tears. Another prophesy fulfilled.

When I tell my story in social justice job interviews or organizing spaces, I always make sure to leave that part out. I make sure to talk about my class privilege. Talk about my parents making good money. Talk about my college degree.

As I regurgitate these half-truths I forget about my students loans, I forget about the overdraft fees, I forget about the times I’ve wondered if I can pay the rent. I wonder, after I tell my story, if I leave out the economic insecurity to fit in and get ahead: to say “hey I’m just like you.” I know that white people get angry if you fit in too well. You have to walk a balance between what they expect of you and what they would expect of you if you were white. You can’t be either one. You can’t be one of them, neither their equal nor the nigger they expect. You have to surprise them.

Honestly though, I fear I leave it all out because I want to believe it. I want to believe that my Khaki pants and dress shoes will protect me. I want to believe that my family could take me in if I lost my job. I want to believe my articulation of my innocence, in my practiced “professional” voice, would keep me out of hand cuffs.

I want to believe that there is more than just random chance standing between me and pine box…

A maldistribution of life chances. Oppression. Marginalization. Subjected vs Subject. There are a lot of words to describe it but, at the end of the day, it’s a roll of the dice to see which one of us dies today. Dying in an instant with a gun shot. Die in 4 minutes with a rope around your neck. Die after months battling diabetes. Die slowly doing 20 to life. Die a little bit every time your daughter draws herself with blonde hair and blue eyes. Die a little bit every time you get an award for showing up. Die a little bit each day. What kills you is just a roll of the dice.


I wrote that in a hour. I’ll feel better sharing it. I’ll process my emotion by rewriting and editing this. By the time I post it I’ll be okay. I’ll go back to work tomorrow like everything is okay. I’ll forget that my city’s police department is preparing for violence instead proactively suing for peace. I will work with White co-workers and forgive them for not being paralyzed by my fear. I’ll remember how privilege works and be thankful that I’m not living in fear of being deported. I’ll be grateful that I’m not afraid of being raped when I walk home at night. I’ll be grateful that I won’t be punched in the face for loving who I love. I’ll be grateful that I have a job in the first place. I’ll forget that the world is so afraid of me. I’ll pretend, for a time, that I’m not so afraid of it.

 

First Interview : Stories We Tell Ourselves In Order To Live

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The time to release an interview has finally come! I’ve spent a lot of time working and reworking my interviews all the while trying to convince people to let me interview them without a sample to show them. So here it is, the inaugural interview in my Stories We Tell Ourselves In Order To Live a self interview with yours truly. Please comment and let me know what you think. Also, feel free to follow my podcasts here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheWellExaminedLifePodcasts

THIS is what I’m doing with my life.

Service Learning

Facts and figures fly over the iris’  of the eyes of  Jack as I serve him potatoes. He asks me if I’ve heard of the Jesuits. Though confused at his reasoning I want to answer honestly saying “I’ve heard of those proselytizing teachers, over payed priest turned popes who preach populism from the pulpit.” He smiles knowingly, like my alliteration was a code word of our conspiracy seeking society “the noble order of know nothing street poets.” I imagine in this reality my cool demeanor and nickle platted watch and rosary were all he needed to identify me. He would then ask the real question: “Do they come from Nigeria?” I think hard on their lineage and wonder if where they hail from is more definitive then how they saw hello. In all this jive talking and sly tongue walking I’ve forgotten my divine truths. I say to my brother, the honorable abbot, the divine preacher and thought tamer “Only the wise women know the origins of such fiends for only the mind of the three fold life givers can comprehend hailing and beginnings. I’d call the mother superior for consultation if only my mind’s eye could see her number written in Arabic on the Rolodex of God’s memories.”  Jack would look at me like I’m the crazy one.  Instead I smile and ask if he wants more potatoes.

Behind him Daze is laughing his raspy, sinister laugh. “Man, Chicago, you one crazy mother I tell you that.” I know it means that you doesn’t remember my name but I love when the guys at the soup kitchen call me Chicago. It has got to be my all time favorite nick names. The only other nickname that compares is when my uncle calls me “The Franchise.” Terrel comes next, muttering to herself incomprehensibly. I know not to engage her when she is talking to her ex-husband who may or not be a demon depending on if she took her medicine. I serve her and wish her a happy Tuesday though I know that, her at least, it will be anything but.

This is how I spend most mornings now. After I wake up at 6 a.m. read e-mails, check the news, meditate, try to say words of encouragement to my niece and then I walk two miles to Capital Hill United Methodist Church. The walk is generally cold and now that it is December, dark. Yet, for some reason the coldness but in my a contemplative mood that the setting moon only amplifies. Some mornings I listen to talk radio and learn about something new on the walk. Once I get to the Church I wait by the entrance with people facing homelessness as one of them pushing the door bell repeatedly. Eventually someone comes to the door and we all pile in.

I’ve learned to respect all the people who share this morning ritual. I realize we are all here to fill a need. Some of us come here to eat. Someone us are here for fellowship. Some of us are here to hear the word of God. Some are here because their lives would be lessened without service.  While I respect all you come as they are, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the organizers. They give up a lot of time, money and energy to make this Soup Kitchen run. They remind me what is really important in life.

Because the Soup Kitchen is important to me, I get there around 7:30 and leave around 10:30. I help cook, serve food and clean up afterwards. Its a meditative experience that keeps me calm and grounded. It soothes some of the unease I feel about state of the safety net in SE D.C. It is hard for me to sleep comfortably on my sister’s couch with a full stomach when I know their are people going without food and safe place to sleep. I have very little money to name at the moment and my net worth is completely in the red but I know how much economic privilege I have that the people I see almost every morning do not. Serving each morning reminds me of that privilege and reaffirms my commitment to removing myself from actively contributing to systems of oppression. It is a process, one that I struggle with every day but I believe that I am morally responsible for the outcomes of the systems I contribute to. When I buy my food from a company with terrible labor practices I am contributing to the oppression of those workers.

The problem with constantly worrying about how you contribute to these systems is that it is almost impossible to remove yourself from them completely. How do you get what you need without buying from a less than perfect corporation? How do you find a nice place to live without contributing to displacement? The answer would be go off the grid and only use what you make yourself. Of course, you are still responsible for the violence and oppression done on your behalf. If you are in America, you property rights are upheld by the same government that sends drones around the world. Not to mention that idea that all that needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is a compelling argument for actively ending oppression being morally superior to removing your self from those systems. Yet is there a way to do both? Can you work to end oppression completely from the outside? Could you be off the grid and walk into the city to engage in activism? At what point would you come up against the moral complication of being the perennial outsider telling other communities to how to live?

I haven’t yet found answers to these questions so I continue my commitment to “active confusion” or refusing to let my uncertainty breed inaction. I am constantly trying to improve the way in which I operate through the world, yet sometimes the constant effort to do the moral thing is hard to maintain. I compromise on my morals for the sake of ease and comfort far more often than I’d like. Yet, there are moments at the Soup Kitchen that make me feel better about my flawed commitment to justice.

The other day, a man who comes in for Breakfast asked me if I was a volunteer. I told him that I was and that I try to come four days a week. He was puzzled and said “oh, you must be a student then?” I informed him that I had graduated from college some time ago. He confusion deepened and he asked “then what are doing with your life.” I laughed, looked him in the eye and said “This, this is what I’m doing with my life.” He laughed, probably assuming that I was crazy or joking but I affirmed, if only by my own certainty in my answer for the first time in a long time. I am living my life, the best way I know how. I want my life to be defined by how I move through it, not what I do for money. I try to move through life intentionally. I try to move through life ethically. I try to move through life with a eye towards growth and increasing self awareness. I try to move through life knowing that everyone I meet has the tiniest yet most priceless narrow piece of the human experience. I am a interactive performance artist who works in several different mediums but whether I perform service, writing, organizing or labor each piece tries to understand and improve the world. That is what I’m doing with my life.

After the Soup Kitchen I walk back home. I usually make lunch and jump into writing. While I have been lax on updating this blog I have been writing for other venues a lot. I usually write until 6 and either head to an event, do some paid work around the neighborhood, edit my writing or [for a month a least] try to see the girl I was seeing. [Everything I say that I think of Forrest Gump “I see lots of girls, I sit next to them in my home economics class.] I’ve also been doing more commenting on other people’s blog’s which has been interesting and surprisingly has brought a lot of traffic to my site which I was not anticipating. So, to all you who were wondering. That is what I’m doing with my life.

As for specific developments:

I currently earn what little money I have through filling out surveys about safe and healthy housing.
I am currently working on improving my editing skills and finding my unique voice
I am recently began, enjoyed and ended a relationship with a woman. It was positive, if somewhat confusing, experience. It was the first romantic relationship I’ve pursued with my new outlook on life and after several months of thinking about my feminist allyship. It taught me, among other things, the vast difference between my intellectual understanding of how things should work and how things actually do in the real world.
I am more aggressively sending out pitches for articles and submitting articles for publication. This is the next serious step my writing saga and I am excited and cautiously optimistic.
I am continuing to apply for more conventional part-time work and am pretty pessimistic about it.
I am trying hard to make new friends here in D.C and have already met some wonderful people.
My best friends from High School are doing well. One came back from Afghanistan and the other just graduated from college. Both have been pretty exciting
I am working hard to maintain relationships with people from Chicago [even those who have now moved to SF] and am excited to from them.
I can now say that I no longer have anxiety about talking on the phone which is pretty big deal for me.
2013 will go done in my personal history as the most formative year to date!

Rich Is The New White: Reflections on Capitalist Class Culture and D.C Housing

Shareroppers

So, a lot of things have been going on in the past few weeks. I’ve sort of jumped straight into housing advocacy here in D.C.  It all started when my sister introduced me to the Housing For All Campaign here in D.C. I joined a Learning Circle on gentrification that they ran and meet some really amazing community organizers doing work in housing. Around the same time I started going with my sister to Ward 8 Affordable Housing meetings. At these meetings people from all around the DMV [mostly people who have business interests in ward 8 thought there were a few Ward 8 residents] came to discuss  the “housing crisis” in Ward 8. To be completely blunt, these meetings made me want to throw up. Most of the people talking were middle to upper income Black people who complained for over an hour about how lazy and ignorant low income renters in Southeast D.C were. It sounded like a Regan era rant on welfare queens except that it is 2013 and the conservatives were black.

The whole outlook of these bourghie [that’s right I said it] Black people was that “I made it, so why can’t they?” They were so unbelievable bigoted towards low income Black people that I was [almost] speechless. As I made the standard explanation of institutionalized economic oppression, a history of disinvestment in Black communities, failing schools, and the simple fact that displacing people may raise the income of the neighborhood but gentrification doesn’t create nice neighborhoods, it moves people from a “nice” area into a “run down” area. It is simply a matter of moving people around, not lifting them up. The Black people at my table were not having it.

Instinctively I gave every single person at my table me best seriously brah? look and they all gave me that sickeningly condescending look white people in Colorado Springs used to give me when I said I wanted to be a community organizer. The only person who gave me a sympathetic glance was a young white woman. She was much better at staying composed and professional than I was but she was clearly put off. I would later learn two things: 1.) this is pretty common in D.C. 2.) the young woman was an organizer for a low income community organizing non-profit. I’ve gone to four similar meetings in the last few weeks. In each one privileged Black people say some thoroughly bigoted things and the only people who say a word against it are community organizers. It is the most bizarre phenomenon.

I know I said that I was going to write about Capitalism, and I will, but instead of talking about Capitalism as an economic system I think I’m going to talk about capitalism as a culture. It just keeps coming up. This idea that Capitalism and Whiteness has collided to create something new and very scary. It has created this culture of Bourghie Black people who want to gentrify Anacostia in D.C. Now, let me be clear. When I’m talking about Whiteness I do not mean being of European decent.  There was a time when being a member of a fair skinned, christian ethnic group hailing entirely from Europe did not make you white and I think we are going back to a similar situation. Here is a quick read for those of you unfamiliar with this idea,it is a short review of Noel Ignatiev’s “How the Irish Became White.” I should say that I have not read the book, and therefore cannot endorse it or the review but that the review introduces one theory on this idea for the uninitiated. I am talking about the type of Whiteness that gets you access to White Privilege. Simply put, circa 1880’s, a Irish immigrant in Chicago would not have access to all the benefits of a racist society that a native born man of Protestant English decent would have when competing against Blacks for employment. They were systemically discriminated against and it was often a toss up as to whether they were hated more than Blacks by any particular employer. Therefore that Irish immigrant’s ethnic whiteness is not the type of cultural whiteness I am talking about. I am talking about the cultural whiteness that I have access to when I call a bank and ask for loan because I sound like a well-to-do college educated White person but don’t have access to when I go in person because I look like a low to middle income young Black man.

This is a complicated idea that I haven’t really thought through yet. Basically what I want to write about is four parts. How the whiteness that used to basically be W[hite-skinned] A[nglo] S[axon] P[rotestant] culture that made the majority of wealthy Americans of European decents [who were wasps themselves] feel like they could relate to you has been transformed to a whiteness that is more aligned with a specific Capitalist Class Culture [CCC]. It is important to note that this culture is still tied to the old way of thinking about Whiteness because people who look white are often assumed to of the CCC. Yet an increasing minority of racially white people are not members of this new CCC. Poor white people in Appalachia are certainty not given all the economic privileges that uneducated white people from San Diego might take for granted.  I may fare better getting a loan from Citibank if I came in with a suit than Honey Boo Boo mother’s mother might in her finest clothing. I’m not saying that their is not a racial stigma against Black people when it comes to getting loans, merely that it is not the only stigma and prejudiced out there.

There is a way of talking in American that gives makes people take you seriously. Similarly there is a way of dressing, a way of moving, and even series of things you can reference. This way of being taken seriously is usually called being professional. Yet this is a biased cultural standard. Check out this problematic essay of how Black women can overcome being seen as less professional to illustrate this point. Most of the advice could be rewritten as “act more like your white co-workers and stop being so Black.” No were does it talk about why some behaviors are seen as more professional than others. [I found it especially funny that they encouraged Black women to joke about drinking with your co-workers because that is professional.] It is also a cultural standard that needs to be taught and is not intuitive to those who were not raised in CCC. Simple things like how to tie and tie, how to dress for an interview, whether or not to send a thank you note after an interview are all examples of cultural practices that can make huge economic differences in America. There are others, like how to use the internet to find jobs you are qualified for, how to find social services that will help get job training or how to open a bank account that members of the CCC [like myself] often forget we learned from parents or other members of the CCC that we interact with.

I am also not arguing that we are living in a completely post racial society by any means. I am merely arguing that our generation of Americans are seeing a dastardly change in how people get access to capital. It is not that this new cultural is worse than straight up, good old American racism. It is the fact that it operates within that same Racist system, working subtlety to decrease socioeconomic mobility in the Land of the Free. Just like rich white people playing poor white and black against each other for political power in early twentieth century south, Capitalist of all races are using culture to divide, conquer and segregate. I will now try to stop calling my Black neighbors who oppose new social serves in my neighborhood Bourghie Black people. I will call them what they are, Black people like myself who have been raised in or adopted the CCC. They as members of this new culture that stand to benefit from bringing somewhat and extremely exploitative capitalist institutions from West of the River East of the River. These are not deluded Black people arguing against their own self interest, they are merely stark examples of how varied the interests of the Black community have become. Some of them seem to even understand the complexity of the issue somewhat, though many are too blinded by their privilige to see how advanced their own self interest is oppression low income tenants who they sometimes dignify enough to call their neighbors.

So this is what I want to write about. But I need you help. I need your comments, your push backs and your challenges. I need to know if I’m off base or if someone has been writing about this already. Please sends comments, criticisms and links to help further the conversation.