This weekend at a conference, a black person said to me that their biggest take-away from the actions taking place in Ferguson, MO was that we need to stop wearing black. A cop had told a group of protesters that the reason they were arrested was because they wore black as a symbol of mourning, but that a group of protesters in black had also rioted in a local retail establishment, leading police to arrest them for suspected involvement.
This person suggested, that deciding on a color to distinguish our movement would prevent peaceful protesters from being confused with “criminals”.
They said we should wear neon green hoodies.
Aside from the obvious problems inherent in coming back from Ferguson with a report-back that has NOTHING to do with the state-sanctioned violence being used against black bodies there is one over-arching problem with this point of view and others like it:
OUR RESPECTABILITY WON’T SAVE US
It has never been a sufficient shield from the dangers of white supremacy and anti-black violence and its track record of failure has remained consistent to this day. Here’s why:
1. You’ve probably heard the oft quoted, “MLK was in a suit when he died.” That’s true, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated because of his ability to mobilize an amount of people for the cause of Black american rights so great that nearly every american movement that came afterwards would use the Black Civil Rights movement as a framework. He was not killed because of a black hoodie. But I don’t want you to get it twisted thinking that respectability ends with what you wear.
The same folks who claim that you can’t build allyships with them if you insist on yelling every time you’re mad [at the murder of people who look like you] are the ones who won’t comment on or pay attention to your story until no less than 50-thousand people are shouting in the streets blocking traffic. Their silence is due to lack of concern of black bodies, not because of your tone. If anything, they refuse to hear you until your tone becomes disruptive and then they only want to shame you into silence.
The same folks who criticize black rioters are the ones who are more concerned with the protection of inanimate business assets than they are of the living breathing black people being murdered by the police at a rate of one every two days.
And YOU endorse this politic when you spend more time trying to prove that Black protesters in Ferguson didn’t set fire to police cars, than trying to explain why violent protest shouldn’t be condemned. You endorse the politic of respectability when you attend and support rallies that don’t center the voices of the youth and non-academic masses that started this movement. You endorse the politic of respectability when you try to convince others not to riot because “we shouldn’t tear down our own neighborhoods” while not acknowledging that most of the businesses and property in these low-income black neighborhoods isn’t black-owned. You endorse the politics of respectability when you criticize actions boycotting black Friday and the Christmas shopping season as being harmful to working class retail workers when working class black people are the ones demanding boycotts and other actions.
2. Our criminalization is a lie and you support it when you try to distance yourself from so-called “criminal activity.”
Where is the proof that Mike Brown robbed a store or Eric Garner was selling loosies? The fact is, black folks are criminalized after their murders to justify their murders.
What danger did Trayvon Martin actually pose to his vigilante neighbor Zimmerman? The fact is, black folks are criminalized to justify white fear of black bodies.
What crime did Duanna Johnson commit for which the legal punishment is to be held down and violently assaulted by two heavily armed policemen? The fact is black women, especially black transwomen, are specifically criminalized for daring to claim sovereignty over their own bodies.
Why did Renisha McBride and Jonathan A. Ferrell’s attempts to get help after car accidents end in their deaths? The fact is, black folks are criminalized because there is no such thing as a black victim in a white supremacist society.
How did the help that Tanesha Anderson and Shereese Francis‘ families requested for their mentally ill family members end in their murders? The fact is, mentally ill and disabled black folks are criminalized for daring to need assistance in a society that has already deemed their lives as not worth that assistance.
How could 12-year old Tamir Rice be shot for playing in the same park he plays in daily? The fact is, black children are criminalized because black innocence cannot exist alongside black demonization, even when the victim is a child.
3. They will drag you no matter what you do. They will find a way to criminalize a 12-year old boy with a toy gun. They will criminalize a senior citizen whose Life Aid alert necklace was accidentally triggered. They will even criminalize a man who SAVED THE LIFE OF A TODDLER and then played the baby gospel music to soothe them while their parents were found.
So, your respectability doesn’t prove our humanity, but that’s not all. Your respectability likely won’t even prove there are exceptions to the dominant racist narrative of our inherent criminality. So what does it do?
Respectability politics act as a tool to keep oppressed black folks from creating real change. And as long as we are more concerned about what white people will think of us than about their oppression of black people, white supremacy as a justification for murder will go unchallenged.
You claim to be an ally of the trans* community or even a friend of an actual trans* person or two. Still, you have your concerns and, rather than use Google like the rest of us, you think to yourself, “why not use the wonderful and bottomless educational resource that is my very own trans* community?” Why not, indeed. Unfortunately, some of those so-called “concerns” are really your unwittingly transphobic beliefs couched in a seemingly innocent desire to learn from or worse help your trans* comrade. So, before you embarrass yourself and possibly lose a friend in the process, allow us to help you understand why some statements are better left unsaid. 1) “What’s your ‘real’ name?”
- “What’s the big deal?” you ask. You’re just curious after all. And yet, when you meet a woman introducing herself as Mrs. So-and-so you probably don’t ask her what her “real” name is. You don’t ask her this in spite of knowing that there is a high likelihood that So-and-so wasn’t the name she was born with. You say Mohammad Ali’s name in the face of readily available evidence that his mother wanted him to be called Cassius Clay. In fact, it is possible that you have no idea what your favorite rapper’s name is at all. This is because you not only have the capacity to respect adults’ decisions (and in the case of Soulja Boy Tell’em, teenagers’ decisions) to decide what they’d like other folks to call them but you’re also fully capable of calling them exactly what they tell you to call them without being side-tracked by your curiosity.
So then, the real issue is that you are having trouble accepting this trans individual as the person they say they are. When you view a person’s identity as a costume or charade, it is only natural to want to get to know the “real” them underneath the mask. The only problem with that is that in this case, unlike in the case of Soulja Boy, there is no mask. The person you were introduced to by whatever name they were introduced to you is who they are and you need to accept that and stop trying to uncover hidden mysteries that aren’t actually there. 2) “Gender is a social construct anyway, why can’t you just be a butch girl/femme boy?”
- I find it terribly interesting that the folks who mention that gender is a social construct never consider the possibility of operating outside of that construct themselves. For instance, why don’t you identify as the opposite gender or as no gender at all? It’s because “social construct” doesn’t mean that something is imaginary, it means that we’ve collectively agreed to call a certain set of behaviors/traits/phenomena by a name (in this case, gender) and to treat people with variations in those traits certain ways. Within this social construct, some of our actual genders do not match our birth-assigned gender. Outside of this social construct, trans*folks wouldn’t be different, what people called them would be different. 3) “Did you get ‘the surgery’?? / what do your genitals/boobs look like?”
- Remember that time when you initiated a conversation with a complete stranger by talking about how you were uncircumcised so your junk sort of looked like it was wearing a flesh-toned turtleneck sweater most of the time, but it was ok because the ladies didn’t seem to mind? You don’t? Why, would that be weird to have a in-depth conversation about how your sex organs look with a person you don’t know (or even with a person you do know relatively well if that’s not the type of relationship you have)? Oh, ok then. 4) What kind of sex do you have? / What do you do in bed?
- I see what you did there. You thought that by modifying the question we wouldn’t notice that you’re still just trying to figure out the answer to number 3 above. If this is the case, ask yourself why you’re so concerned with what’s happening inside the underwear of a person who probably doesn’t want to sleep with you at this point. 5) “Why would you be trans if you still like [insert whatever is the opposite of your birth-assigned gender here]? Can’t you just be straight?” – This question is sometimes accompanied by the similarly incorrect assumption that binary trans*folks are just super-gays, so gay that they have transcended traditional butchiness / femmedom into a whole other gender. While I won’t deny our unicorn-like amazingness, we trans*folks are hardly gay super heroes. In fact, being gay or straight has zero to do with gender. That can be hard to remember since the T is tacked onto the LGB as though they are all sexualities but you’ll have to do your best here. Just like knowing a person isn’t trans* doesn’t give you any clue about who they’ll be taking home tonight, being a trans-person doesn’t guarantee a hetero-normative coupling. 5) “I don’t get ‘they/them/their’ pronouns / they is plural and it’s grammatically incorrect to address a single person that way.”
- Some people, who may have otherwise been composing treatises via hashtag and who speak in mostly in text shorthand, become surprisingly huge sticklers for grammatical correctness as soon as someone requests that they use the gender-neutral pronoun “they”. In spite of this, trans* folks wanting to be called by the less common ze/hir pronouns get even less compliance. It’s not that it’s hard to understand that some folks don’t consider themselves to be men or women (or consider themselves to be some combination of both). It also follows that these folks would prefer not to be called he or she if there was another viable option. So what’s really going on in this situation? As it turns out, acknowledging that someone doesn’t fit into the two gender categories you’ve been taught your whole life is pretty uncomfortable, especially when it forces you to change the way you use language in order to communicate with and about them. But you know what’s even more uncomfortable than that? Being of a non-normative gender in a society that not only doesn’t acknowledge you exist, but also doesn’t come with language to talk about your existence. So get over yourself and try harder. (also, if you want to learn more about gender neutral pronouns, go here: http://transcendingboundaries.org/blog/153-a-crash-course-in-gender-neutral-pronouns.html). 6) “I still see you as a girl/boy.”
- When you were little, you thought the tooth fairy actually flew into your bedroom at night and carried off your gummy bear coated choppers in exchange for their hard-earned money from the tooth fairy factory or wherever those little suckers work during the day. I can imagine your shock at discovering that this mythical creature was no more mystical than your own parent, which I suppose could be kind of a bummer if you’re 8 and a half. Similarly, your friend/family member/co-worker/neighbor was never the gender you thought they were. They have always been the person they are now expressing outwardly to you and the rest of the world, you just didn’t find out until recently. The fact of the matter is, you were wrong and just like the tooth fairy situation, sometimes we need to grow up and accept that things aren’t always what they initially seem to be.
Many things can be said about the fact that a white guy can request $10 to make a sub-par potato salad for the first time and end up with $43,000 in under 24 hours. Numerous speculations can be made as to why our society feels more comfortable giving to this young man than to numerous other diverse causes and individuals of value who are also in need.
However, in lieu of a rant on the matter, I believe this urgent plea best sums up my personal assessment of the situation.
An excerpt from the appeal:
I am writing you today to ask that you assist me in acquiring some white privilege. Although I have layered oppressions that have affected my ability to access my slice of the American Pie™, no issue has affected me more readily than my lack of white privilege…I am hoping that, through this campaign, I will begin to make some headway towards closing the gap that white privilege has created in my life.
See the rest here.
Once, when we were much younger, my dad threatened to hang me and my siblings out the window by our toes and, much to his chagrin, we laughed. We laughed and laughed. The reason we laughed is because my dad is the least violent, most cuddly teddy bear-esque (though possibly the most shit-talkinest) black man I’ve ever met. I say “black man” specifically because it is important to note that as a black female-bodied individual, I have been subject to a large amount of physical violence at the hands of men and those men have always been black.
I know that’s supposed to be a secret. I am not supposed to be allowed to say that most of the violence my body has known comes from black men and I know why. I know what people think about black men — white people, other brown people, even black folks — hell sometimes even black men themselves believe the shit we tell them about black manhood. I know that I am supposed to be on their side; I am supposed to protect black men from a world that is terrified of them and I am supposed to do so by keeping their secrets. I am supposed to do so at the expense of my own body, my own life, and my own sister’s lives. It’s supposed to be a secret that people like me, like us, are often hurt the most by the people who have the greatest access to us, the folks we sometimes even rely on for safety. How could it be otherwise? In a world that seeks to destroy the black man at every turn, we are just about the only people who they have no cause to fear. Because of this, we sometimes have to live in fear of them, and that fear OF them often sits side-by-side with the fear of what may happen TO them.
It means a lot to me that my dad was so gentle as to inspire unending bouts of giggles when he threatened a bunch of elementary school-aged children. It was important that my dad is a black man and that I was not and am not afraid of him. It is important that there are so many black men, young and old that I am not scared of, in spite of the abuses of other black men. It is important because there are a lot of people who have maybe never even been harmed by a black man who are terrified enough to kill one because in their minds, black men aren’t my father, aren’t my brothers, aren’t my best friends and allies, but are instead some monolithic and brutally dangerous animal.
So for this father’s day, I want two things. First, I want all the non-black (especially white) people who read this, who fear black men, in your large and small ways, in your trauma and in your socialization, in your privilege and in your oppression, to remember that my father is also black and so are many father’s like him. I want you to think about why you’re afraid and I want you to ask yourself if all the black men you are afraid of are putting you in danger. I want you to try not to be afraid so that our fathers can be safe.
Second, I want all the black men who read this to know that this is not a betrayal. I am not responsible for the ways you have been pathologized; WE are not responsible for that. But you ARE responsible for every time you hurt us and every time you don’t stand up for us when we have been hurt. Keeping your secrets won’t save you and certainly won’t save us. However, maybe having more black men around like my dad could.
Happy Father’s Day.
you said you’d be there for me next time
and next time is right now and you boarded that flight anyway
you said you would call me when you got off the plane
not like i was sitting by the phone or anything
and you said we’d talk about it before hand
but by the time you got back you’d already had sex with her twice
so don’t tell me that you’re going to clean the dishes after i cook if you don’t mean the pot that i scorched making the rice & peas
and then expect me to get up in the morning & make you grits with no clean pots
and don’t ask me what the fuck i’m yelling about like you don’t know
because every time i wear that slinky dress out, we’re not spending enough time together
and whenever that girl calls, you’re in the mood to cuddle
and i only feel distant on the days i’m not coming straight home after work
and when i cry alone in our bedroom nothing’s wrong
and when nothing’s wrong you sleep in your studio
and i haven’t touched you in weeks
since you weren’t in the mood anyway
and i want you out of my face
but you disappear for days
so let’s have a shouting match about who gets the last of the cereal
if you loved me i would run headfirst into a brick wall with you
because when we link arms i believe in us so much that i don’t believe in the real world
and that wall is a cartoon wall in a movie set that will just tip over
…from the force of our love
if you loved me i would dance in traffic with you
because when your hand encircles my waist everywhere is just a field of daisies
and those honking car horns are merely a symphony playing a song
..to honor our love
if you loved me i would dive off a cliff with you
because when you take my hand firmly into yours my spirit is so light that i could fly
and we are merely diving into clouds which will create a soft fluffy cushion to break our fall
if you loved me i would spin in circles until i threw up with you
because when you kiss me the room starts spinning and i become light-headed
and we are simply spinning in the opposite direction to create an equilibrium so the room will be still enough
..for us to make love
if you loved me i would swallow live snakes whole
because when you touch me the army of butterflies fluttering on my insides makes me levitate
and i need the snakes to eat them so they don’t carry me away from you
if you loved me i would sit through a hurricane with you
because when we do it the whole world tumbles around in the sheets with us
and “a hurricane” is just what people who don’t know what’s going on call us
but you don’t love me
so i guess i’m safe
take my hair
call it permed
call it textured
call it all natural fibers
make a perfect halo of loose curls on a high yellow model
take the kink out of every strand my gramma ever slid a hot comb over
make one product that will straighten it and another that will curl it back the right way
box it in cardboard and put it on the shelf
sell it back to me
take my mouth
call it pouty
call it collagen
call it exotic
make a humbly-sized lip coated in volumizing optical illusions
take out that evolutionary throwback quality that justified our subjugation
make an incision to bring them down to size and an injection to plump them back up
suck it into a tube and lay it under glass
sell it back to me
take my sound
call it a revival
call it rock
call it world music
make a commotion over the originality of blue-eyed soul idols redoing decades old black anthems
take the struggle out of all the melodies we ever moaned our passions over
make the lyrics about middle-class white today-isms that we can all relate to
record it on wax and slide it in a sleeve
sell it back to me
take my religion
call it spirituality
call it kwanzaa
call it paying homage
make a non-denominational altar in honor of all your favorite beliefs
take away my ancestors and erase the context of every deity we ever invoked and every shrine we ever knelt before
make the hallowed into fashion accessories and the rites into irrelevant pastimes
record it on parchment paper and bind it in leather
sell it back to me
take my skin
call it spray tanned
call it ethnic print
call it fake baked
make a complexion just dark enough that you don’t need no melanin to achieve it
take out that rough midnight that we lost our freedom over
make a cream that will bleach off that nasty history and a machine that will bake it back on clean
bottle it in a spray can and store it at room temperature
sell it back to me
sell the knock off
make it sparklier than me
have it be so good that the original just looks outdated
call me traditional
call me unprofessional
call me oppressed by my own culture
buy the rights to my existence
make it palatable for them
have the look so down that they think you invented it
you be creative
you be worldly
you be fashionable
in my brown skin
me.intriguing with rambling analogies to communicate the things that lie outside the boxes in which we often find ourselves confined while
you.using concise sureness so eloquently put, made the same thing sound like verse,
me.so we met and drank of each others concepts and philosophies and ate of salad because
you.where a vegetarian and, now inebriated off of those libations, with no particular intentions invited
me.better looking standing here than i ever did seem in those photos, to come see
you.better looking outside of that shirt than you ever did seem in it, laid down next to
me.skin soft like the parts of me tucked away under the bravado that you saw through else would i be here with
you.for whom comfortable was a word forgotten until you asked to drape your arm across my waist meaninglessly and yet so relevant to
me.melting into that gently heaving chest like the cocoa butter you smelled of, i belonged here and didn’t realize it until
you.impressed at how easy this piece fit into your puzzle, drew attention to how much i drew you to me and how much i drew you to attention and who would have guessed that
we.tumbled through the sheets like an mudslide and nobody can do anything but get out of the way watch their house fall down under the pressure of
us.equally as passionate about our people, our country and our be bop, and
we.don’t stop just like hip hop and neither do our arguments until things get dizzy, miles and brubeck who i also put you onto and you wrote love poems about
us.set to cool jazz for when we chilled and hid the ones from when it got heated from
me.falling uncontrollably like precipitation into love with
you.yet still clearly a storm but there were dry spells because you loved me and listened to
me.and i heard you too until the thunder came and then it seemed i was fighting for us alone because
you.stopped carrying an umbrella but somehow managed to stay dryer than
me.too tangled up in our kinks to pick up on that far away look recently acquired by
you.like you had something on your mind but just not
i’m not trans
i’m not trans because i don’t want to talk to you about it
because i’ll wear a dress to your wedding, i promise won’t embarrass you in front of your fiancée’s family
because i was so surprised to hear that you just want me to be happy loving whoever i want to love that i don’t want to fuck it up
because i’m not going to sit here and explain non-binary gender to a woman who has stared back blankly at every accomplishment and trauma i’ve had for the last 29 years
i’m not trans because my identity is intersectional
because i’m not white
because i don’t have access
because by the time i found out what ftm stood for, female-bodied was already outdated and i couldn’t figure out if i was supposed to be cafab or dfab
i’m not trans because i’m not a man
because i’m a fucking faggot
because a transman called me ma’am last night
because my preferred gender pronouns are plural and i don’t know how to make that make sense
i’m not trans because my body isn’t wrong in the right ways
because i don’t hate my breasts until i’m trying to put on a button down
because they don’t make the type of body i’d be comfortable in
because i have triple d’s and a full goatee without surgery or hormone injections and i hate them both equally
i’m not trans because i’m not here for your love conditional, post-racial, binary, one-size-fits all assessments of my gender
and i don’t need to explain myself to you