This past week, my family attended a food conference. Overall, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. The sponsoring organization is full of passionate, dedicated, intellectual and action-oriented people who believe in the power of collective activism. The retreat center at which it was held is nearby to mountains, has a farm and lake on-site, and has goats for the kids (of all ages) to have staring contests with. It’s the perfect space to be clear headed and relaxed, yet productive.
This conference’s discussions were centered on poultry, pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and food policy. Food policy is integrally wrapped up in various types of privilege, most directly, food security privilege, class privilege, and food access privilege. The discussion of race, and factual racial demographics, are attached to many of those three types of access, but they are not, in fact, a direct tie to food policy in America in 2014. Unpacking white privilege in a[n interracial] space full of activists is also a delicate process that requires certain carefulness with word choice. “We” and “us” must be defined accurately, “saviorism” in volunteerism has to be discussed with precision and care, and conflation of privileges is not only dangerous, but often offensive, in the conversation about the people a volunteer or activist is working to help. Categories and labels can be truly helpful in these conversations, but linguistic accuracy is of prime importance for so many reasons; the primary two that come to mind are 1) crystallizing a person or organization’s actual goals and 2) specifying the correct facet of a community or recipient’s lack that needs assistance in the first place.
At a panel on food activism and/or volunteerism in Detroit, race was obviously a central focus of the conversation. You can’t have a conversation about a city that is so racially divided, where White flight has left an indelible mark on the city and suburban demographics even today, and where poverty and race are so intertwined, without discussing race. All of the panelists were White people who had lived and/or spent a lot of time volunteering in Detroit. These were people who had probably been told to check their privilege a number of times, and had internalized the message. Some of them seemed to not realize the concept of intersectionality and that race and poverty being tightly intertwined and often overlapping does not mean that you can substitute one group for another and think that’s okay. Overlapping does not mean synonymous. I was in that session. I finally couldn’t take the various microaggressions of the week anymore, the unpacking happening that presumed certain unnecessary in-group features*. I raised my hand, and, with the support of those sitting immediately around me (some being among the few people of color at the conference, and most being white or passing), said that it should not be a White person’s goal to have their organization be comprised of only people of color aside from themselves when the issue they’re addressing is poverty and food security, and they’re stating that as a goal because they want it to be community led and comprised of people from the community. Specifically not when their followup statement about how now most of their organization was made up of African-Americans included the tidbit that these were African-Americans with relative class privilege who were not from Detroit.
I decided to address this particular microaggression as an individual person. Usually, when I feel hurt by something like this but the person is genuinely well-intentioned and doesn’t realize how big of a faux pas they’ve made, I do my best to be sensitive to the fact that they’re working on dismantling their relationship with how aspects of their identity are privileged, and doing their best to stop adversely affecting other people, both intentionally and not, by acting on such privilege. Therefore, I address their feelings before mine. Especially in running HypheNation, and doing workshops, and giving talks, I’ve found that that’s my best way to educate people; by not making them feel completely attacked. But here, I was mostly just a person. And I was hurt. And I couldn’t listen to anything that the rest of the presenters were saying, because his words were just stewing in my mind, and the taste made me want to vomit up my response. So I stood, after being called on by the moderator. And I said something to the effect of, “Normally, when I say something like this, I’m more tactful about it. But I’m hurt, and I’m here as an individual, and what you said made it difficult for me to listen to the rest of the presenters. So I’m just going to come out with it, and if you find it hurtful, I apologize.” And I told the presenter that saying that as a white person, it should be his goal to be the only white person in his organization (implied/followed up on was regardless of class), because his organization serves those who are impoverished from the inner city, and he wants his organization to be representative of the community he’s serving, is patronizing, hurtful, disrespectful, and makes us seem like we’re all one. Especially when he’s acknowledging that the African-Americans who are a part of his company are class privileged. I told him that conflating African-American with impoverished or in need of help is just wrong; that maybe they’re often linked, but addressing one is not the same as addressing the other. I told him that what he’s saying he needs to learn as a White person being in these spaces is really what he needs to address as a person with class privilege being in these spaces. I told him that as a biracial person who, if people aren’t going with biracial they’ll just say black, who grew up with class privilege, when I moved into non-brownstone Harlem, I didn’t “belong” any more than he would, and people knew, because I didn’t know how to navigate the space appropriately. I had to learn, as someone not from the neighborhood, how to interact from within the same way he did. We spoke after the panel about how intersectionality works, and how frustrating it is that there’s an assumption that fluency with the culture of poverty is an integral part of the Black identity, regardless of personal or familial experience, and not having it is perceived to be an indicator of a person’s lack of “authenticity” in Blackness—oftentimes by both Whites and Blacks.
And throughout the rest of the day, and even a bit the rest of the conference, people from the audience were coming up to me and saying Thank You. Thank You that I’d spoken out. Thank You that I’d been brave enough to share my feelings. That it’d taken courage to speak up, and they agreed. Or it made them think. Or that they’d felt uncomfortable sitting with the statement, but hadn’t had the language to say it, and just chose to get around it. That they had the privilege of remaining silent, and that I sort of did but it affected me directly, and that it must’ve taken a lot of strength to say what I did in a mostly White room. That they didn’t think I was harsh at all, but poignant and clear. A few even said something about it to my husband about how awesome his wife was for speaking up. And most of the people who made these comments were White. Most, if not all, were fairly liberal. And the ages ranged from late teens/early 20s to I’d guess upwards of 80.
I’m done experiencing microaggressions and keeping quiet. It’s exhausting to speak up, and maybe brave and courageous, yes, sometimes. But it’s just as exhausting to sit still and deal with it all the time. I’m privileged to be living in a time and place where our predecessors did a lot of this work for us; I now can speak up in almost every space I’m in, and while I may not be congratulated as I was at this conference, and I may not be emotionally safe while doing so, chances are good on the side of me being physically safe. (Disclaimer: this is why I’ll be speaking up with microaggressions, not necessarily with full-fledged aggressions, because usually physical safety could be a factor there, and physical safety is most important. I can’t do any of this work if I’m not alive, and am much less able to be there as a wife, mother, writer, activist, and self, if I’m doing it from a hospital room.) And people will be thankful. Even if they don’t come up to me and express it, they’ll be thankful in their hearts and souls. Thankful that they were given the language to address their feelings. Thankful that they weren’t the ones to have to say something and were able to sit in that privilege of silence, maybe. Thankful that it was addressed at all. Thankful to learn from another person’s experience, thankful that they were given a chance to empathize in truth. But most importantly, I’ll be thankful. Thankful that my rage doesn’t turn inward at having sat quietly and listened, and knowing that the person will go home thinking that what they did was okay, or not really that hurtful, or at the very least will now be made aware that they were not treating another person with the dignity that should be afforded to all people. Sometimes, it’s easy to see race everywhere. To see a microaggression in what is just someone’s bad day, and it’s not really directed at you at all, or at least not at the part of you that has skin that’s a different color than theirs, or differently shaped eyes than theirs, but instead, just the part of you that’s human and in physical form and taking up the space in front of them in line or walking into their staring into space area. It doesn’t always require a conversation. But when a statement is made, and a look has turned into a stare has turned into three too many furtive glances, gentle confrontation with language that goes from person to person, like “When you look at me like that, it makes me feel like you think I’m an other, but I’m just another person who belongs in this space, like you, who doesn’t have to defend belonging.” Or “if you’re being an ally*, you’re free to make suggestions, but you need to take a step back in the decision-making as far as what the whole group does, since it’s your time/money/resource but our whole lives/way of life on the line.” Check back for regular updates on how this experiment goes. Hopefully they’ll be infrequent updates, because hopefully I’ll experience progressively fewer microaggressions. There’s one happening with a neighbor this week, I’ll tell you that story soon! Don’t forget to check back. Tell me in the comments below how you’ve dealt with microaggressions in the past, and how you plan to in 2015.
*check back on Thursday for the blog post on the conference’s impact on my separation between ally and partner, and why that distinction is important, and how being an “ally” is often turning the people who have the problem into the “other” while you’re the “normal”.