On the Trail Together: Confessing Resonances in Anti-Oppression Work

cara curtisBy Cara Curtis. Cara Curtis took part in Word & World’s 2011-2012 mentoring program. A former resident of Philadelphia, she now studies and centers her activism at Harvard Divinity School.

During my years at an elite, majority-white, social justice-oriented liberal arts college, I joined many of my fellow students in a process of awakening that many call “unpacking the invisible knapsack.” Coined in a landmark 1988 article of the same name by Peggy McIntosh, this phrase refers to a process of learning and re-evaluation in which people of privilege—economic, sexual, gender expressive, or in McIntosh’s case racial—begin to realize the ways that their lives are made easier solely by virtue of belonging to a dominant group. With practice, people also become vocal about calling out this privilege when they see it. They actively try to minimize their dominance in order to create greater opportunity and space for folks with non-dominant identities to thrive.

Those years of growth and un-masking were crucially important in forming my adult understanding of the world’s powers, the charge of faith, and what the path to justice might look like. And also, frankly, to my having any shot at living as an ethical and clear-sighted person in our world as it is. My peers and I groaned in agony and recognition as we read James Baldwin, spluttered and then softened at the words of Audre Lorde, saw the administration and history of our academic institution (not to mention our country) in a new light. It was a time of scales falling from eyes (Acts 9:18).

It was also a time that forged certain speech and behavior habits in me. Social positioning became ingrained in my vocabulary, to the point where it has at times been the sole lens I use to see people and events and institutions. Recently a mentor challenged me: “why are you so quick to identify yourself as a white girl? What’s so important about that?” Um hello, everything! It’s my social position, my privilege! People need to know that I know, so that I can step back and let them lead. My knapsack is unpacked (or being perpetually unpacked, I think we would say), and I’m just trying to minimize its mess, ok? I don’t have anything to contribute, leave me alone!

Don’t have anything to contribute to building the Beloved Community? Leave me alone?

As a former camp counselor, I can tell you with certainty that a bunch of people with strewn-about backpacks and looks of anxiety on their faces are going nowhere fast. And the only reasonable response to this is: roll up your sleeping bag, Timmy; we need to get on the trail to reach our next campground before nightfall. It’s not safe not to move.

As folks with many layers of dominant identity that can feel like landmines, it’s tempting to let calls to make space for non-dominant voices serve as an excuse for not bringing our full selves to anti-oppression work. To post plenty of pieces written by less-privileged authors on social media, to attend rallies and even play supporting roles in organizing, but never to examine or articulate how we, too, are hurt by empire. But you know what? When I read Black Girl Dangerous founder Mia McKenzie’s brilliant indictment of men who try and shut her down with “universalist” Martin Luther King quotes, I felt that ish on a gut level. Not the parts about being a person of color, though I appreciated those too, just in a little bit more of an abstracted way. Instead, I trembled when I read McKenzie’s drumbeat-like list of heroes that culminates with “Black women who brave the page, who refuse to be made silent. My heroes are Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis and Assata Shakur and myself.” Behind those words I saw my own mother, who suffered years of physical and mental anguish largely silently before dying far too young. I saw every “smart” (and very vocal) guy in my freshman year economics class. My whole body shouted, “YES!” to this woman who seemed to say to every lawmaker and internet troll who would also try and control my body and brain, I dare you, world: my hero is myself.

I have the growing sense that it is important to confess these resonances when we feel them, to bring our knapsacks and acknowledge them and also acknowledge the other parts of us that build a web apart from empire. There is something that connects Mia McKenzie and me. And it is something that is a threat to Wall Street, to endless war, and to the state-sanctioned killing of black women and men. We need to name that something when we feel it.

Here are some things this does NOT mean: it does not mean failing to call out racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, or any other injustice when you see it. It does not mean denying or ignoring difference, or attempting to derail necessary conversations about oppression experienced by particular groups of people. (Emphatically, it does not mean chanting “All Lives Matter.”) It does not mean appealing to some vague belief in “our shared humanity.” It does not mean giving up the fight. It does not. It does not. It does NOT!

What it does mean is realizing the reverberations between the varied ways that empire has marked and often burned us. It means (with thanks to the South Asian subcontinent) the concept of Namaste: the light in me recognizes the light in you. It means being vulnerable and maybe not 100% right all the time. It means saying why this really, really matters to us.

If you are a white, able-bodied, straight, cis, middle-class man: yes, I am often going to need you to be quiet and give space to voices that are systematically ignored and discounted. But also, when the time is right, when all is quiet and there isn’t some grand stage to be parading around on, I want to know how empire has hurt you, too. Because here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure it has. Was your sister belittled while hospitalized for mental illness? Did you never see your dad because he was working all the time to “get ahead”? Do you feel restricted by the ways that men are expected to behave emotionally and provide economically for their families? These stories should never, ever be used to minimize the experiences of others, or to compete for “who has it worse” in the world. (Hint: it is not you, or me.) And yet if we never hear them, if we never tell them to ourselves and others, we lose sight of the stake that we, too, have in this work. More importantly, we reinforce the idea that the current state of affairs is actually working for some people, even if they feel bad about it. When we do this, empire wins.

So. I’ve told you a little of my story. What’s yours?

One thought on “On the Trail Together: Confessing Resonances in Anti-Oppression Work

  1. One of empire’s favorite tools is the highlighting of our disparities in suffering; it inevitably leads to a fragmented and divided opposition. So I hope we can be mindful of this strategy, one that is being employed here in the USA by the elite political class. I sense you, Cara, perceive this reality as you turn the discussion toward our various capacities to contribute to something new.

    The essay intersected with a couple of other things I’m reading. One, a discussion by Chris K. Huebner in “a precarious peace” notes how “the logic of victimhood” has become culturally important in the West as another path to a very familiar and conventional kind of power. The second, an essay by Dmitri Orlov entitled “communities that abide,” explores a very different way in which to understand the basis of our solidarity with one another.

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