why some people be mad at me sometimes
by Lucille Clifton
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering mine
This testimonial is a celebration for all the ways we survive, often unnoticed and alone in our struggling to make a difference from the many places we inhabit. This testimonial does not belong to me, it could not be written without the wisdom and knowledge of many other peoples remaining vigilant in putting our dreams of a world free of exploitation into practice. Our collective memories of the ways in which unchecked supremacy can run rampant in our practice towards one another fuel our determination to realize this dream. We often find ourselves marginalized and alone, unwelcome in radical communities with curt responses or none at all, and usually no acknowledgement of the ways in which we have been torn in these movements. Radically telling this truth can be viewed as divisive to the movement and a “pathological” issue. This logic is an effective tool to manage dissenting voices, sanitize our lived realities and allow for treacherous interactions. Many of us have horror stories of the types of systemic disrespect and negation we have gone through. In fighting for a more expansive politics, to openly name the ways dominant behaviors surface across many institutions and people is met with hostility. To honor our rage and pain, to use our stories as a way to salve our wounds and name the abuse is a radical endeavor. It suggests the possibility of healing and allowing ourselves to find wellness. Acknowledging pain demands a critical reflection on all the interactions that happened to get us to the point of betrayal in the first place. It also demands us to interrogate our own habits and question the role we have played in the matter. Often, this type of radical truth-telling does not happen, we end up leaving or staying in these places looking in from the margins, completely discredited. So of course, the scars are here, still swollen and bruised. Wherever do we go from here?
Hey, big woman–
with scars on the head
and scars on the heart
that never seem to heal–
I saw your light
And it was shining.
As someone who identifies as Black, as woman, first-generation, African, working class and energetic, I have seen how my rage has been treated as counter-productive to the movement. I think of my own horror stories expressing the destructiveness that can come with doing this work. The most recent and painful memory. I am working as an educator within a radical teaching organization. We care about solidarity, critical thinking, understanding and liberation across difference for our common struggles, Yet, when I note the overwhelming whiteness and privilege often exercised within the organization I am either met with an eerie silence or hostility. More specifically, when I say that the movement to end class exploitation must also deal with white supremacy and assert that we (yes we, not just the ruling classes) must investigate our roles in reproducing this class system with our own internalized supremacy I suddenly become that sore on every one’s side.
“Am I crazy? No one has said anything so maybe it’s me…”
I soon start to believe that I am the problem. Besides, there are people of color here too, who care about solidarity, critical thinking and liberation across difference. We have to care about it and love each other fiercely…right? When trying to voice my concern to this woman of color she swiftly cuts me off and says, “It’s not about a black pedagogy or white pedagogy but a class pedagogy.” End of discussion, there is no longer a conversation to be had. She does not even look me in my face, just like the rest of them. Maybe I should have said something else, maybe I missed something… I am that sore on her side. This is a woman of color, she holds a lot of respect and authority within this organization. I respect her too…is this my fault?
The refusal to not scrutinize how we practice freedom in our daily lives often leads to this type of unspoken and unrecognized pain. When these contradictions remain unchallenged, usually the most vulnerable within the organization are the one’s who experience the worst of what the organization has to offer (or refuses to offer). In other words, we become easy targets for your unspoken rage and anger to be unleashed and accepted at any moment when our mere presence calls out your particular contradiction and shortcoming. My rage speaks to the pain of the explosive silence and broken relationships that has deterred all our efforts to see us finally liberated from a larger structure of outright violence, denial and repression. I think of my sources of anger. I have had to go back and scrutinize these memories to break my own fears and silence:
● A colleague of mine has told me that the all white teaching staff is wondering out loud if I am really serious about teaching. Constantly dealing with these students and administration is hurting my health. I have had racial slights hurled at me and most of the teachers act as if I am not there…living in this area has physically made me sick and yes I have been absent for a couple of days. I come back to hear that now the teachers are talking about whether or not I am serious about this work…never mind that my white colleague can go to a wedding for a week and not have these things wondered about him, or the quality of his work questioned…in fact, his teacher mentor wants to keep him for the next semester…
● I demand a meeting to talk about the institutional racism going on in the schools and teaching program. I go to the administration (comprised of two women of color and one white woman) they ask me questions about why I am so upset. One of the women (a woman of color) even says that when she saw me crying one day in front of my classmates she read my display of emotions as “impulsive.” She notes my silence as the primary reason the administration does not know what is going on (never mind that I told her about the “white teachers gossiping” incident a couple weeks ago) She questions why I want special treatment around race when other people in the program also have their issues. I am questioned so much that I begin to think what I am asking for is trivial. All the things I “demand” remain mostly unchanged.
● A white male student has been allowed to teach in Harlem New York. It was my understanding that no student could travel this far out for an internship. I think back to previous meetings I had when I said I wanted to work specifically with children of color. The administration told me that my wanting to teach students of color is a subjective issue. Most of my white peers talk about wanting to do prison work, feeling that people of color need the most help and wanting to work with “vulnerable” populations. But this colleague can go teach students of color and even travel away to do so. He comes back to class saying he is having a difficult time relating to the issues he is seeing with this population. I watch the same woman who used her questions to discipline me, use her questions to help this student with his specific situation.
● I have become completely silent in class no longer wanting to engage. I should do better and hate the fact that I feel so stuck. But still, I do have to note that two of my other colleagues are incredibly silent however no one seems to stare their way and demand and answer when the white people exclaim, “Not enough people speak up in class!…”
● I’m in a role play in a small group on intervening to stop racism. The scenario: One woman wants to cross the street because she spots an African American male walking on the sidewalk. The other friend is supposed to intervene. For the next ten minutes I watch these two white, well meaning women theorize around why they would not intervene in saying the woman wanting to cross the street is acting in a racist manner. I finally come out with my uneasiness and say this is dominant thinking. After I finally said those words I dealt with the brunt of these two “allies” insidious shame and guilt.
● A teacher is teaching us aspiring teachers about cultural sensitivity and bias in the classroom. She is White. (This should not matter because we are in a radical setting.) In order to teach us about cultural understanding, she makes an almost entirely white class take the Chitling test. These are the things I know about the Chitling test 1). It is extremely offensive 2). It pyschologizes the black experience and 3). It should not be taken (even with well meaning adults) if we do not talk about the legacy of white supremacy. None of this is talked about. In fact, the white teachers defend why this test makes sense. One of them notes that a black sociologist created the test. I don’t give a damn if a black sociologist created this test. We are not all on the same side. Some of the students look confused, most of us say nothing, most of us do not understand the history behind this test. This is confusing. One white woman across the table from me laughs and says, “Let’s take the test!”
● I’m working at a new teaching site. It’s a progressive school. If I want to be paid for substitute teaching I must go through a background check. I pass in the required documentation within the first two weeks of school…two months later I hear no word about my paperwork going through. I send emails to no avail. My other white male colleague who entered the site the same time I did has passed his background check. He has started subbing and is getting paid for his work. I take on the same teacher load but the situation is different. Not having my background check cleared requires a “real” substitute teacher to sit in and monitor what I am doing. By law I am not allowed to be alone with the kids. The kids wonder who is the authority figure…I teach any way. A week later I am sitting eating my lunch. The lady who is supposed to handle my paperwork comes in wanting to check in about the situation. She tells me that for some reason my documentation has not yet been passed in. She proceeds to ask me, “…so about your background check. Are you…legal?”
● The most devastating memory: A professor of color asks me in front of the all white class, “You’re black, why are you silent?” I express a tenth of the rage and anger at white supremacy and finally say I am tired. The teacher says “I knew you would say that,” and for a moment I think I have an ally. She goes on to swiftly tell me that John Brown understood what this struggle meant, and that I am doing this work for the people. It is this day when I really start to wonder if by the people she is referring to the predominantly white middle class students sitting in her classroom.
● Note to self: Document everything you can and don’t let them get you alone (unless you’re strong enough to take them on), that’s their way of coercing you into things you might not want to do. Try to have someone there as a witness to verify what they tell you in private from what they actually do when everyone is watching. My last day meeting with two of the administrative members at the end of program. I finally tell one of them that I felt chastised within the program and that there was absolutely no support offered. She asks me, “Did something deep in you change?” At this time, I do not realize how deeply patronizing and dismissive her question is. I reply yes. The respect for her authority is still there. I still try to hold my position that there should have been some support. She goes on to tell me: “The institution is not supposed to be supportive.” This feels like the twilight zone. It also feels deceptive. This is confusing. I was under the impression that we wanted to build community, namely with one another… I’ve seen her be supportive when she needs to be…why is she always so heavy handed with me? And what about me needs to change? And if something is wrong why can’t she at least be clear about it so I can fix it? Has she said this same statement to any other student? This is information you do not hide, if I had known she felt this way I would have known that for all this talk about principles, it was a “pick and choose what works for me” game at best.
● A little over a year and all’s been said and done. I must still ward off these anti-racist white women who have not shaken their case of Missy Anne syndrome. One of them wants to “touch base.” She cannot take no for an answer when I say no to meeting and hosting her. She uses her creativity to get my phone number, my partner’s phone number and persistently texts and calls. She’s found out where I work and I hear that she’s been to my workplace. With all this persistence there must be something she needs to say. When we finally meet she smiles without acknowledging anything. Not what happened back then and certainly not that her supremacy is showing now. She still feels insufficient in her work for social justice and something about maybe buying a house. This meeting is awkward at best. I will not use my energy to soothe her guilt. People reflect the organizations and ideologies they’re coming from. And inaction and denial is such a reactionary and tired tune. Haven’t heard from her since. You cannot force a relationship.
As I think of these memories, I wish I had been resolute in knowing that these people were very much tied to their positions of power and dominance. Under such an abusive gaze, where there was much more going on than this little story can touch, I celebrate that I did not give in to grief.
Finding the language to analyze these habits becomes a necessary task when the words of radical thought is so readily available, while in the same hand, we feel the constant jerking of an elbow hurting our sides. Like everything, there is no pure place to work from. Social justice work is also rife with historical contradiction and struggle. Within a capitalist structure, it has become professionalized. If you play your cards right, you can make your meal ticket off of “helping” people, and even your feelings of wanting to “do good” can be used to buttress your career. So please be sure, this is not a compartmentalized race story. The way things played out politically was steeped in the protection of white supremacy and tokenized positions of status for a few people of color. These terror stories should alert us to the types of spaces we inhabit within the overall class hierarchy when there are no built in structures for us to critically reflect and change these contradictions as a collective. When we look at how our right to lead our own movements, to teach in our communities, to have our ideas heard and published, and to safely work, is constantly thwarted by this type of hidden supremacy, we cannot be so naïve as to not connect these structural behaviors to our economic options. If we care about movement building we must challenge the institutional silence that erases and shames us while these injustices occur in the space and cracks of our liberation work.
Where does the pain go/when the pain goes away?
Women of color, in a quiet place, come together to talk about the ways in which we have been hurt. We name the things we have had to go without; from adequate health care to employment discrimination to worrying if we’ll be the one picked up on the street when walking home at night from the train station. We talk about our struggles and dreams. We choose to use rage as insight to continue. We are not fodder for the “cause.” We are here. There is much to fight for and no time to waste.
Without the love of my sister-friends I would not have made it. They built me up to be a warrior and tore down those sinking doubts and feelings I had. Their stories put steel in my spine and resolve in my throat. They massaged that crackle in my voice that had internalized blame and doubt. They were committed to practicing love as a principle. They were confident in knowing that we should not be the ones to always receive the brunt of contempt, to be the ones who must be taught harsh lessons so we can really internalize how dreadful this system is, for fear that we become too “coddled.” Mutual caretaking and intimacy is part and parcel of our survival. To toughen ourselves does not mean we must be cruel to one another. To survive does not have to mean that we allow ourselves to be tokenized to call rank on one another, that we give in to the values of this system and see each other as an opportunity for individual benefits. Through their words and commitment to heal what had been scarred I was made whole.
Constant conversations with sister-friends who knew what I was going through was my healing balm. Whenever we could get together, we would develop strategies to protect ourselves from the daily blows and assess how far we needed to go with our particular struggles. One sister-friend would write very detailed and thought out letters that helped develop my analysis when I needed words to name behaviors beyond feelings. In one tough situation she wrote:
In many ways being in this situation has helped me to polish my analysis, and understand more broadly what boundaries i must establish. i am able to also see more clearly my own internalized oppression and how this manifests in my comments/behaviors, etc. In addition, i can also see how my knowledge and analysis is quite powerful and if not used carefully can be destructive towards my allies as well as others who do not hold my same opinion. I am very glad to have gone through the process of conflict transformation. for though i am a big critic, i learned much about myself and my capacity to try to bring understanding and solidarity in situations like this, without negotiating my fundamental values. i really don’t think i will be able to work with this group of people, but i will continue to support their efforts for social justice, as i will others. the white privilege is present in every work, gesture, and suggestion. it is much to much and will take to much of my energy which is continuously being challenged by those who are really in power. but at least there i am visible…..very visible. i will be writing soon, with details, attaching emails, and recording the negligence of some of our colleagues, who just happen to be people in positions of power and decision making. i never thought these groups were perfect, for i am also not. but, i was not expecting to have to put up with so much rejection and dominance. this is absolute nonsense coming from such an organization. let’s stay positive, let’s not dismiss anyone regardless of their positions, left, right, moderate, even fundamentalist. let’s try not to do what they do.
And I must shift the eye towards myself. I fed into the supremacy and hatred for another woman of color who I consider a dear sister friend. I should have raised my voice when her anger was being laughed away in front of my peers. I did not intervene when another woman of color said that she would not respond to this woman’s anger. Never mind that she was a professor saying such a dangerous statement to two students of color.
The “angry” woman in question was just “easily pissoffable.” That day, I did nothing to earn my title as an educator truly wanting to see a just world. I was too afraid to claim a position that brought humanity to my friend; I chose to stay comfortable. I should have said it would be more productive to analyze the situation than to individualize her anger as an unwarranted abnormality. Or say that we have become all too accustomed at discrediting each other when the other is not there and this is something to be pissed off about. I did not use that moment as an opportunity to speak to the larger structure of the organization and our serious issues around not explaining our choices, ignoring one another, and justifying our positions as the only fact that can exist. I could have even gone on about how we explain away brutal ego-tripping gossip as “analysis.” My friend’s anger was justified and should have been taken seriously. I did not have to contribute to the cruelty of that situation. When I look back, there are many could-a, should-a, would-a’s I wish I had claimed as moments for clarity.
I am sure that there are stories about my shortcomings that has done an incredible amount of damage, and I have to hear them if I am committed to sharpening my analysis, healing and creating solutions that restore dignity.
Too many of our stories are fraught with betrayal, distortion and violence in struggling to reach a place of equality. What type of hard and difficult work are we doing to ensure that we are creating the conditions for the massive change we want to see? Are there structures where we can all be clear about the choices we make? Do we consent to the targeting of our peers? Is our work restoring our dignity? The struggle continues. In my new place of struggle I knew what mistakes I did not want to continue…this knowing is liberating and involves much risk.
It took me a while to own that burning part of myself, the part that could spit fire and the part that could honor my resistance. Being around such strong women made me want to own that power and continue to struggle. There are so many peoples we do this work for, who have given much more than I can imagine and suffered greater losses. I am still here. To give in to my fear is a slow death at best. There is much too live for. I remember a time when I wrote an email about the privilege and dominance within the program, how it hindered our goals. There was no response from my peers and I began to wonder if there would be a punishment for my thoughts. My sister-friend was able to salve my wound with her final words:
“And yes, I noticed no responses. As we know this is a strategic move of privilege and hegemony…to deny the existence of our thoughts, ideas, and creativity. Oh, but they heard loud and clear…do not doubt this my friend. Keep speaking, for if we don’t we will lose our humanity and dignity. i know what it feels like when we feel we have spoken to much. it’s really okay. Breathe and know it is okay. gather your thoughts, honor your life and your way, give people a chance to take it in….you will know when and how to continue. but never, never, be silent for too long…remember that what we say is deep, much to deep for others to sometimes handle. but remember we have handled even more and have survived and become better women because of it. don’t let guilt or shame stop you….those are the masters tools….do away with them.”