Getting Called Out: Get Used To It

Disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of emphasizing “call out culture,” because I think it can draw attention away from the systems of oppression by focusing on individual behaviors. It in itself sounds really, really neoliberal. The perversion of ‘the personal is political’ is by and far one of the more annoying things I encounter, and this piece will be my one intentional exception to that. I do believe that all of us have to learn to address our oppressive behaviors, because we need to foster solidarity in our communities.

Recently I’ve come into a number of situations where I’ve called people out for some bigoted, oppressive thing they’ve said, and the way these different folks responded varied greatly. Some acknowledged what they did and thanked me for calling them out, and the other extreme end that I’ve experienced is someone writing an essay in how wrong I am and how big of an asshole I am for calling them out. Yikes. The number of folks in the in-between area are much more common, and they range from mild defensiveness to stubborn denial. This piece is more geared towards people who feel personally victimized when they are called out, as if I am challenging every aspect of their being and coming down on them with a warhammer when I say something like “Hey, the word ‘crazy’ is ableist. Please don’t say it.” To them I say: Get used to it, and no, I’m not sorry.

Yes, I do understand that I can’t control where people are coming from and where they’re at in their social justice journey. Yes, I get that some folks come from very privileged backgrounds and have rarely, if ever, been exposed to any realities of oppression. Yes, I have heard so many times that people need to be met where they’re at, but too many times do I see people not getting pushed from where they’re at. A bird’s gotta learn to fly one of these days, and if they won’t, you might as well leave them where they’re at. Calling people out is essential.

Being better about getting called out requires three things: letting go of your pride. Let it go, let it go, get it gone, ba-bye, c’est la vie, throw it aside, hang up that phone, toodle-loo, discard, breathe it out, say goodbye, forget it, kick it out, let it go. I’m serious. Take your pride and chuck it, because what we all have to acknowledge, specifically when getting called out on our oppressive behaviors, is what our pride has stake in, what it’s rooted in. When it comes to the facets of our identity which have the capacity to leverage oppression, that means their stake is rooted in oppression. What is being challenged is where we have systemic power. Is it really so bad to have that shaken up? Nah.

Learning to be humble when called out on your oppressive behaviors necessitates an exploration of one’s pride and ego. If one’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets, then it is necessary to destabilize that connection. A quick way to identify if someone’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets is gauging their reaction to phrases like “Cis people are awful.” If their reaction is something along the lines of, “But not all cis people!” then you likely have someone whose pride and ego is rooted in their privileged facets. Another marker of this is when people project their shortcomings onto others, or externalize their failures. They won’t hold themselves responsible because it threatens their pride and what it’s rooted in.

The second required thing is ownership. You have to hold yourself accountable and know that you’re imperfect and are going to mess up. Every single one of us has said and done something violent, oppressive, and problematic. It’s because we live in a society that’s built upon white supremacy, ciscentrism, ableism, and more. All of us have been conditioned to participate in (passively and actively) the oppression of those unlike us as well as those within our own communities. We all have to own that, and when others tell us where and how we are being complicit in this, or simply say we’re being complicit/oppressive, we need to listen. It is never on the marginalized to educate their oppressors. They are never required to name what, how, why, in which part of the world, under what hypothetical circumstances, and the specific words/actions in context that make your behavior is oppressive. It is on all of us to unpack our behaviors once we are aware of them. If we’re not aware of them, then it’s up to us to begin that search.

The last part is learning to reflect on mistakes, not dwell on them. Of all the parts, I find this one to be the most difficult. Speaking as someone who is neurodivergent and someone who has gone through sexual violence, dwelling has been and still is a large chunk of my experience. Conceiving of myself as lesser, to amplify my mistakes, and how others are correct in their positioning me as unworthy and in need of correction, denying me my mental, emotional, and sexual agency. That’s what I was taught, and I was taught to focus on these things. I have made huge strides in getting away from this mode of thinking after a lot of therapy, but I still struggle. To describe briefly the difference between reflection and dwelling: Reflection is the honesty that accompanies looking back at shortcomings, asking oneself how they could have done better and considering other variables accompanying the situation. Dwelling is the amplification of failure (whether that failure is real or fabricated by others and imposed on you), and it is harmful to one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Marginalized people, in some way or another, are conditioned to accept that they are lesser and dwell on this as though it were fact. This last piece, to me, is one that I’m much more understanding of and willing to help the person process and unpack. It is also the part that, once I notice it’s a factor, I approach with an added amount of kindness and patience. This does not excuse someone’s unwillingness to unpack, but it explains their unwillingness.

Getting called out doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. How you respond to being called out, however, might seriously suggest otherwise. If you’re serious about social justice, be ready to have your peers call you out. We call each other out because we want to do better, we want others to do better, and we want to improve our culture. That starts with holding ourselves and each other accountable for when we cause harm. It means predicating our actions on justice, not comfort.

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My Social Justice Praxis: Fuck Equality, I Want Justice

Disclaimer: I’ve been wanting to write this piece specifically for a little while for three reasons: 1) It will be a useful resource to redirect trolls with, 2) I’m honestly kind of tired of feeling compelled to explain my philosophy all the time, which sort of refers back to the previous point, 3) I need to organize my own thoughts for myself. Seriously, my brain can be and is in so many places all at once and I just need to breathe it out in my writing. This post will benefit my mental health, because I become very self-deprecating if I don’t feel I have a grasp on myself, and my emotional health, because writing helps me recenter myself. This is necessarily therapeutic for me, as things have felt especially difficult as of late.

Trigger warning: transmisogynistic slur is used when talking about RuPaul.

As I have said in my post about the differences between representation, visibility, and slandering, “I’m of the position that people are conditioned to perpetuate and defend (by denying the existence of, by rationalizing, by justifying, or by simply not noticing) oppressive systems and the micro-level behaviors (microagressions, etc.) which enable them. For a long while, I figured that if people knew better, then they would actively resist their conditioning because they’re moral, rational people. I’m still of the former, but I’m no longer of the latter. Yes, that means I do not necessarily believe that people are moral and rational.”

We are not moral people because our society does not benefit from our being moral. We are not rational because our society does not benefit from our being rational. Neoliberal economic policies (oversimplified: privatize and deregulate everything!) under capitalism encourage people to act in their own self-interest at all times, even if that means at the expense of others. Hell, especially if it’s at the expense of others. This is taught to us and trained into us by our parents, by the stories we read, by the movies we watch, by advertising, by our educational system, by our political system, and so, so much more.

That’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it? I appear to have a very bleak outlook, and my conception says some really pessimistic, cynical shit about other human beings. If you feel that way, I think you missed something. I present all people’s behaviors in relation to systems. For me, people are symptoms of much larger problems. This does not make oppressive behavior from individuals less harmful, but it is an attempt to refocus my attention to root causes. I can never expect to uproot a tree if I only trim the leaves.

On Equality, Peace, and Justice

In developing as an activist, I used to be all about the idea of equality. I was bombarded with it by all the history books, all the gay marriage stuff, and yadda-yadda. Equality meant that things were perfect for everyone! Equality meant that everyone got shoes, that everyone got to hold hands and sing “Kumbayah.” The whole world would be peaceful, because there would be no more violence! In fact, there would never be conflict either.

Jesus, I was so naive. Very optimistic and hopeful, but seriously misinformed and ignorant. Equality might mean that everyone gets shoes, but I wasn’t wondering whether or not those shoes would fit. You can’t put on shoes that are three sizes too small. Even if you can get your feet in bigger shoes, they might fly off your feet at very inopportune times. In other words, I was not asking the necessary question, “Equality on whose terms?”

In examining that question, I thought back to what my history textbooks emphasized. Most victories were about legal and political battles, not about whole system shifts. Victories were essentially more room within the same system, and these victories were always temporary because of the varied forms of repression unique to different struggles. This is because our oppressors do not benefit from system shifts, because system shifts do not leave adequate room for repression and re-seizing control. In fact, in the case of legal and political victories, oppressors likely lost no substantial control from those defeats. (This does not mean political and legal victories aren’t necessary–because they are very necessary–but that’s a piece for a different time.)

This comes back to the idea of “equality,” and whether or not it is a worthy pursuit in anti-oppression work. I believe that the pursuit of equality is very well-meaning, but ultimately futile and dangerous. Any movement smacking on the “equality” slogan is so easily co-opted and manipulated by oppressive forces. This slogan also seems to place an implied emphasis on allyship, and movements that become about building allies more than anything else do not challenge the status quo. These movements, as my friend Trung puts it, are asking for permission. What we see from these movements are easily digestible soundbytes, sexy campaigning, and a whole lot of bandwagoning. HRC anybody? The whole marriage equality movement?

To fight oppression, we all need to acknowledge that our oppressors are much smarter than we give them credit for. Not only this, but our oppressors will do anything to hold their claim to power and control, and I mean anything. It has been demonstrated time after time after time after time after time after time after time. Don’t think for a second that your oppressors won’t kill you if they feel they need to, by way of murder, disenfranchisement, gatekeeping, enacting laws that actively work against you, and more. All forms of oppression seek one thing: Your Annihilation. All forms of privilege on every axis of oppression require an exploited Other. Do you want to pursue “equality” in a system such as this?

I don’t. I have no interest in equality. My goals in activism are focused on justice. Justice, to me, means the same thing as love. Justice is the action which follows a sincere connection with others who are both like and unlike us. Justice is the acknowledgment of power differentials. Justice is holding others accountable for when they cause harm. Justice must always manifest as an action, or it cannot be justice. For different struggles to have solidarity between one another, they must act justly towards each other. Do you see how much rides on the practice of justice? I do not believe there will ever be a world free from violence. I do not believe there will ever be a world free from conflict. I do, however, believe in peace, because peace is not the absence of violence/conflict, it is the presence of just systems. Peace can only be attained through the pursuit of justice, and for justice to be pursued, we must be vigilant of all forms of injustice.

Why Forgive? and Alternatives

Forgiveness is not a necessary part of justice. You do not have to be nice or polite to anyone who has harmed you. You do not have to let anybody back into your life who has harmed you. You are never obligated to swallow the abuse and pain somebody has caused you. Never. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. They are abusers, and you would do better to avoid such people. Don’t trust people who ask you to forgive oppressors. Their stake is in being seen as respectable, being viewed as morally upright in the eyes of their oppressors. They have a distorted view of love, as their love is predicated on the idea of equality, not justice, and what oppressor would ever want to see you as an equal?

And so I wish to introduce the idea of reconciliation. I define reconciliation as the process of coming to a mutual understanding of an injustice, and then moving forward together, apart, or otherwise, but hopefully together at some point. Reconciliation can take many forms: mediation, restorative justice practices, and more. It emphasizes that pain must be felt fully before any kind of repair (or even forgiveness) can commence, and that pain is valid and demands to be heard. The priority must always be with the victim of an injustice, never the offender. The offender is the oppressor, and the oppressor cannot be given leeway.

I can hear some of you now, “Ashley, that’s just really cold-hearted. Don’t you practice mercy?” Nope, I don’t, not in cases that demand justice. The comfort of privileged people (aka oppressors) cannot be given precedence over the safety of marginalized people. I see zero reason to give up any room on that. Why would I compromise that position? That puts power back in the hands of people who benefit from my exploitation. I will not risk that.

Implications for Allyship, Emphasizing Accountability Over Study

People who wish to work in solidarity with folks unlike themselves must understand their position. You are not a part of the community you’re working with. Understand there is difference, acknowledge the power differential you have in regards to this axis of oppression.  For there to be justice, there must also be accountability.

Someone who is considered an ally can be super-knowledgeable when it comes to the history and current realities of another group, but that doesn’t mean they are unpacking their own oppressive behaviors. Awareness does not necessitate self-reflection. It is very easy to think “Trans women experience a high amount of violence” without questioning how you might be complicit in that violence, or how you are complicit in pushing trans women out of your queer/trans spaces, or how your actions contribute to systems built on transmisogyny. You’re not thinking about how you benefit from and practice oppression.

Doing social justice work is not about being a paragon of moral virtue, it’s about building better, and although building better is hard, it’s far easier than being perfect. I purposefully avoided writing “it’s about doing better,” because I feel that makes it more about the individual than the community. What is allyship without being accountable to the community you’re working with? An ally spreading misinformation about the group they’re trying to work in solidarity with is causing harm, and not holding them accountable hurts the marginalized group.

In other words, we all have to go into solidarity work with the knowledge that we’re going to fuck up. If we only study on our own time and never participate, then we can never seriously expect to contribute anything meaningful to solidarity work. It’s basically this mentality: “I’m aware, so I can’t be a part of the problem,” which is so far from the truth. By not participating, even in the smallest ways like challenging your friends’ racism, you’re essentially saying that you’re OK with the way things are. You might not believe that yourself, but your friends now think so, and so does the community you’re working with. Your inaction tells others that you’re fine with the status quo, regardless of your beliefs.

How I View Oppression in The United States

In all my analyses, whether they’re of intra-personal relationships or cultural/systemic things, I frame my lens with two questions: Where am I? and Where does power flow?

By asking “Where am I?” I am asking where the dominant forces are currently positioning me. By “Where does power flow?” I am essentially asking who benefits. Both of my questions are about helping me “follow the money,” so to speak. I believe these are two very pertinent questions to have in mind in any discourse or analysis of oppression and how it works. Too often do individuals in privileged groups argue things like “reverse racism/sexism” because their feelings got hurt this one time by someone who was probably fed up with their bigoted bullshit. But… at the same time, I do see a lot of people in marginalized groups equating oppression with their hurt feelings. This is a very troubling pattern that I believe stems from neoliberalism, and the fact that the United States’ culture focuses on the individual.

Let me be loud and clear, oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. Our feelings might get hurt in oppressive processes or be manipulated, but our feelings being harmed are not required for oppression to be, well, oppression. Hurt feelings are a consequence of oppression, not the basis. This is not to devalue the trauma we experience as marginalized people, nor am I saying they shouldn’t be addressed. All I’m saying is that discourse on oppression should avoid ending at hurt feelings. For oppression to be oppression, it must exist on these three levels: 1) Personal 2) Cultural 3) Systemic. On all levels, the power must flow to the same group consistently at the expense of another group’s access to that same power. Allow me to give an example of each from my own experience.

Personal: A cis person takes up space in a conversation about transgender issues in a classroom setting… while I’m sitting there in the room. When I speak, the cis person talks over me and “corrects me” on my own experience. In this case, I am being positioned as lesser, and the flow of power goes toward the cis person(s) in the room. My agency over my own experience is questioned and seen as illegitimate, and so this opens up opportunities for cis people to continue speaking and hold their power dynamic. (Oppression on the personal level often manifests as microaggressions)

Cultural: The portrayals of trans women in media have gone from gruesome murderers to hopelessly tragic, drug addict sex workers (not that there’s anything wrong with sex work, but given how society positions sex workers, it is viewed as a negative and that is how I’m writing about it). Trans women are seen as deviant, as sexual objects, as kinks for gay/straight men, and as promiscuous. We are constantly sexualized while being seen as false, which is partly where the slur “shemale” comes from. Oh wait, RuPaul had a whole game on his show about that called “shemale or female.” Culturally, I, and all trans women, are positioned as lesser, and because we are culturally viewed and placed as lesser, then who deserves more access to resources? The flow of power, access to resources, and access to wealth then goes to the dominant group. At whose expense? Our expense.

Systemic: There are laws that allow trans people to be fired on the basis of their identity and expression in 32 states. There are laws restricting our access to healthcare, as a number of insurance providers do not cover transitioning processes for trans people who want/need them. Here are dozens of other examples of systemic/institutional oppression of trans people. Trans people broadly are seen as undeserving of these resources, and that reflects the idea that we are lesser. Who benefits from our lack of access to resources? Cis people, the dominant group, as there are now more opportunities, jobs, resources, healthcare services, and security available for cis people at the direct expense of trans people.

In all cases, the dominant group (cis people) benefits at the direct expense of the marginalized group, therefore transgender people are oppressed. In none of these cases did feelings ever come up, because oppression has nothing to do with our feelings. That doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t legitimate, it’s just that they’re never taken into consideration unless they can be manipulated by dominant forces.

Conclusion (aka tl;dr)

I do not promote equality, I promote justice. I do my best to act justly, and that means I have to be accountable to my own community and communities I work in solidarity with. I do not talk about oppression in terms of who got their feelings hurt. I focus on where people are positioned and where power flows. It is not about feelings, it is about exploitation, and given that the United States is a neoliberal, capitalist society, that exploitation manifests most often by economically disenfranchising marginalized groups. Capitalism is far more a tool of oppression than anything else in my mind.

In regards to oppression broadly, I believe that all forms of activism are important, so long as they’re challenging the status quo. Everything we do matters, and in one way or another, we’re all responsible. We can build things better by working together, by learning to work across differences, by learning to unpack the oppressive things we’ve internalized about ourselves and others. We can do so much, but we must be willing to wrestle with some of the hard truths about ourselves. And by doing these things, we inherently pursue justice, and by pursuing justice we are practicing love. Practice love every day.

How To Be in Solidarity with Trans Women

Content/Trigger Warnings: This piece employs transmisogynistic language said by others.

A large number of people just have no idea how to interact with trans women. A lot of you say degendering, belittling, dismissive things to us. And by a lot of you, I really mean everyone who isn’t a trans woman. Now, the reason I need to be so clear about that is because practically everyone benefits from transmisogyny. All of you cis folk already know you’re in that category, so this piece is still written with you in mind, but the focus will be on others.

For me personally, I do not feel all that safe in 99.99999999% of queer and trans spaces, because they are dominated by DFAB, non-binary, trans masculine queers who are far more often than not white. I’ve had trans men derail conversations about TERFs (more accurately, TWERFs — trans women exclusionary radical feminists) and made it about themselves, and how TERF is not necessarily an accessible term because they had to google it. I’ve been in spaces where trans masc people, and DFAB trans people in general but especially trans masc folks, will ignore and silence my voice in order to preserve their own echo chamber of affirmation. I’ve had people all over tell me that women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are somehow damaging to the trans community. It’s very easy to point at trans women, especially trans women of color, as the problem, isn’t it?

Let me provide a list of things people say that immediately clue me into their transmisogyny. All of these have been said to me. (MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR TRANSMISOGYNY):

  • “I’m too queer for your binary!” (Classic queer elitism that is thinly-veiled transmisogyny and biphobia.)
  • “I’m a gender abolitionist.” (The last time someone wanted to abolish gender, it resulted in the genocide of Indigenous communities in what we now know as the United States. TERFs also claim they want to abolish gender. What does that say about you then?)
  • “Protect your Mother Earth!” (White people using this, this is transmisogynistic because when people think Mother Earth, they think about birthing, reproduction. This narrows womanhood to DFAB bodies only, which not only makes it transmisogynistic, but also cissexist because of what it suggests about DFAB bodies.)
  • “Anyone who reinforces the gender binary hurts my identity.” (Where does this position trans women? Think about it.)
  • “Trans women have male privilege.” (This will be a post for a later time, but know that I find it to be simultaneously false and transmisogynistic.)
  • “You’re reinforcing gender roles/stereotypes.” (Ah, right, I keep forgetting how being trans reinforces white patriarchal gender roles.)
  • “I love ecofeminism.” (Ecofeminism has a long history of transmisogyny.–ask yourself, did the article I linked to misname the problem? If so, who benefits and how?)
  • “Can we play dress up??” (Always, always, always teeters on the edge of fetishization, if not already stepping over and jumping rope on the other side. Trans women are treated as kinks and sexual objects.)
  • “You identify as a woman, but you’re biologically male.” (No, I’m a woman, so all my parts are female. To deny that is to deny that I am a woman. I gender my parts, not you. My designation at birth is not my destination.)
  • “Fake boobs look weird.” (Think about the implications this has for trans women and DMAB trans femme people who want top surgery. How does it other them? What does it say about trans women/femme people who have gone through/want surgery?)
  • “I just don’t think binary trans people are subversive.” (Sigh… Luckily, Julia Serano has already written extensively about this. This rhetoric is always employed against trans women, because femininity is marked as Other, but masculinity is marked as bold and radical.)
  • “I loved the Michigan Womyn’s Festival.” (Michigan Womyn’s Festival has a womyn-born-womyn policy that excludes trans women, but it does not exclude trans men and DFAB trans people broadly.)
  • “Why are you angry? You’re leveraging your male privilege!” (Ahh, because trans women can’t be strong and assertive women. This also reduces trans women to their genitals. It is far too easy to demonize and silence trans women for standing up for themselves, because it is very profitable to do so.)
  • “All-female open mic.” (There’s some womyn-born-womyn rhetoric there if I’ve ever seen it.)

To be completely honest, y’all are exhausting. Really, really exhausting for me emotionally, mentally, and physically. You drain me. And this is coming from a white trans woman, so imagine how trans women of color feel about what y’all do. These phrases, and actions related to them, come up so often in my own life. What do all of these phrases have in common? The implication that trans women are illegitimate, cheap knock-offs, “men in dresses.” That is incredibly damaging, and if it’s damaging for trans women/femme people, it’s damaging to the trans community broadly.

Being in solidarity with trans women and DMAB trans femme people is more than just not saying harmful things to us. It is not about posting articles on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, it’s about challenging your everyday interactions with trans women and DMAB trans femme people. It’s about questioning what dynamic your cis or DFAB trans identity plays when you talk to me about anything. How do you speak to me? When do you speak over me? Are you speaking for me, and is it appropriate for you to do so? Are you enabling transmisogyny by remaining silent around your friends? Is the transmisogyny in your queer/trans space being addressed and talked about? What goes through your head when I talk about my experiences and why? How have you been conditioned to hate trans femininity? How do you benefit if you dismiss and reduce my experiences as a trans woman?

I don’t care how many articles you post about transmisogyny (though that doesn’t mean you should stop posting them). I don’t care how often you read about its history and current implications. Studying does not mean you are unpacking your own biases, blindspots, and prejudices. It does not mean that you are actively adjusting your oppressive behaviors. That’s what I want to see. I want to see you critically analyzing not only your own behaviors, but your relationships with trans women/femme people as well as your relationships with others in general who are possibly enabling you to continue being a transmisogynist.

If you’re not, then kindly sit all the way down.