the philosophactivist

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Belonging and Being

Recently I had the pleasure of not making it into a cohort for a retreat that I had a lot riding on (emotionally)...because they were folks like me. Brown, gender non-conforming, and leaders. My "dreams" of camraderie were dashed- so very dashed because I felt like out of all the places...out of all the people ...finally I'd belong here- and that they'd see that. Nope. Didn't happen. Sure there are other factors...but I'm talking about my personal experience and interpretation right now.

You see, all my life I have been on the outside looking in. I've had people tell me what I'm capable of...tell me I'm too much of a dreamer...too much of an optimist...that I don't fit in. That I need to do x,y.z to fit belong. For some reason I've never been able to be down with the status quo. Seriously. There is something physiological that keeps me from being able to even bullsh* that I'm conforming. And it's not even about "trying" to be radical. This is just me.

I've put myself through a lot of trials and tribulations. I've even made myself physically ill trying to conform. Trying to belong. Trying to fit into boxes and wear labels. Well I'm done with that.

Here's my New Life Resolution:

"I will stop trying to convince people that I fit in or am a good "cultural fit". (Because they're on to something. I really DON'T fit narrow labels or boxes.)

A stranger once told me that I'm a hundred years ahead of my time in my thinking. I'm thinking, I can either wait for groups and organizations to catch up with me...or not. Trying to fit in with organizations and prove myself based on their standards is now against my New Life Resolution. I'll still work with mostly anyone to create change, but I'm not going to try to compare myself to their standards and mold myself to look like someone they'd "want" on their team. 

Do you know what it's like to be outside of the Architect's equation and can't be balanced out? I can't do anything..but ME. In a world of assimilation and acculturation, and basically-white-washing...I am brown...and queer...and gender non-conforming. Everything "they" (the powers that be and people who buy into and perpetuate this system)wish doesn't exist. I inhabit a space that many other people at similar intersections create on their own, sometimes accidentally and sometimes purposefully.

What people? 

People like Gloria Anzaldua. People like Audre Lorde. Malcolm X. And don't get me on the plethora of artists living on the outside, driving themselves crazy because they feel so very alone in their forward thinking. So many folks on the margins- Basquiat. Baldwin. Hurston. Hooks.(I'm trying to name only people of color here...we know enough about Foucault and Van Gogh and blah blah blah). Sorry for not stating other brown artists. I'm still learning so much and can admit to my many blindspots and places for improvement.

The point is- the path is lonely.

I wonder- do you know that you're a great mind/exceptional artist/bad @ss organizer when you're the only one who understands you and you've left no box (or label) unturned, only to sit empty handed and outside looking in? 

No. you probably have no idea. You just feel weird, awkward, and sometimes even ugly inside. Not everyone. I'm convinced that you've got to grow the confidence that will turn into self-assurance and self-love. Some of us simply can't- there are mental, emotional and even physical, external blocks. 

Living in this world of conformists and assimilation can be too damn much. Being born brown...female-bodied...or queer and disabled...or any of these marginalized identities- stacking label on top of label...intersection after intersection can be too damn much. And for a person to invalidate us and tell us our experience is uniform or common- or worst, non-existent...and even worst than that, our problem or our fault - can push a person over the edge.

In my short(but not so short) amount of existence I have come to realize that it really isn't acceptance I'm seeking. I gave up on "acceptance" a long time ago. People always feign tolerance anyway...the "educated" ones...the "religious" ones. I know that "all I need to do is"... accept myself, be myself - but, it's not that simple. We live in a world where we are constantly interacting with other people. People always have their own perceptions and expectations. To tell a person that it is their own fault that they are having problems dealing with others putting them in boxes and perceiving them in a certain manner- that "all they need to do is" change their frankly, insulting. That's like telling a slave or a person from the hood to look on the bright side, that oppression is all in their head. I know that our own perceptions are important, but C'MON! That's one of the reasons we are in this mess (acculturation and assimilation in so many institutions and situations) in the first place- people invalidating our experiences and us letting people tell us what we are experiencing and telling us how to experience it.

People are always quick to tell you who you are and what you're capable of (especially if you have multiple marginalized identities). From a young age I figured this out. From not being allowed to skip grades because I was brown in a white prep school (I didn't last long there) not being able to have access to GT (gifted and talented) classes because I was brown in a public school in a white suburb... to not being heard or my experiences not being validated in a classroom of white peers in liberal arts could go on and on about the corporate world and the glass's an uphill battle. A struggle that I can't and refuse to smile through...let me frown for a second! Let me acknowledge exactly why this is happening to me...and then after processing and reflecting I will on my own terms choose to look on the brightside...or see the reality for what it is and choose to change it for myself. 

For myself.

So now you see why my world kind of went topsy turvy when the ONE place I thought I'd fit...told me I didn't. I know it happened for a reason. I'm pretty good at justifying and analyzing things so yeah, it really burns my biscuits when folks tell me to "be positive" or other renditions of this. I will. If you know know that I will. But just let me feel this for a minute. Don't invalidate me...let me grieve...let me process this fully before I jump to the glass being half full or that I need to go on to my own projects/path anyway. Sigh.

That said...I always appreciate my friend's feedback. It's just a very complicated situation to talk about- belonging...Being...identity. People trying to tell you that you don't know who you are when you've spent your 20s figuring that out. 

Here is a recent reply to a friend on acceptance:

"I don't want acceptance. Not anymore. All I have ever wanted was to BE and for people to stop trying to tell me who I am and what I am capable of. [And stop telling me that I need to be/feel accepted and that something's wrong with me when I don't.] As brown and female-bodied it gets so frustrating. I have always known who I am but didn't have the language or confidence to tell people that they are wrong in their assessments of me. I used to always take the path of least resistance. And those are the times when I would lose myself. Not being able to "assimilate" and "play the game" is both a gift and a curse to us all at the intersections."

I know that I'm not the only one feeling this way.

Here's a pertinent and very applicable quote from Audre Lorde:  

“As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman commited to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of mysef and present this as a meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living.”
— from her essay Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference 
**Thanks to B for posting this right when I needed it

I wish there was some kind of support group for forward thinkers...for people at the intersections...for mystics and spiritual seekers...for everyone outside of the box or who wants to be outside of the box and is kept from climbing out. I've given up on belonging to the status quo...the system...the game...I know that there is no real place for me there. Sure, I can visit the matrix in my snazzy black long coat and shades...but there are always little reminders that I don't belong there. Whether it's not being a good "cultural fit" at organizations, or being too brown in "radical" groups, or being the wrong acronym in LGBT...too masculine for butches/studs...too feminine for FTMs...

dagnabbit just let me BE.

Acccckkk...leave me alone with all this! I've shed enough tears. Stop the policing of if a person is x,y,z enough. Stop the gatekeeping of who does and does not belong. It is 2012!!! Stop policing the damn cafeteria table. We don't HAVE to be alike to get along. I know this for a fact. Yes, A FACT. It's the differences that enrich us. This is AMERICA...and there are still people who don't get it...sigh.

That's not all...but...I'm done reflecting for now.

For now.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On mentoring and passing the torch

I had a great conversation with a fellow organizer that I truly respect and this topic came up. I'd like it to be part of a continuing dialogue on activist burnout. But say. So many times, we spend so much time building the dream that we have envisioned that more often then not it takes folks wresting it from our clenched hands to get much more to happen outside of our own ideologies and methods.

This was and is one of the biggest problems with the Civil Rights Movement that sits stagnant or least has plateaued. There are so many elders who have burnt out, become frustrated, lost their lives, disappeared from organizing, or who are not invested in the youth or who think the dream has been deferred. I know that there are a myriad of reasons for this but there are no excuses whatsoever to give up on not one man's dream...but a whole world's right to equality- humanity.

Yea, we youth don't appreciate the path that was forged before us a lot of the times. However, it's not entirely our fault. We are handed limited information about our roots and forced to assimilate and acculturate as soon as we are walking and talking and not just by "the man"- by our own our own families, even.

It's hard to appreciate what you don't know happened...or a struggle that you can't identify with. It's hard to reject images that are thrown at you right and left and expectations that are placed on you from a young age by the "dominant" culture- and your own culture.  We are a generation that has reaped both the privilege and the disparities of the previous generation. We have an abundance and yet a dirth due to choices that were not ours- and seemingly were never meant to be ours.

Yea...everyone on this planet is dealing with something. I realize this. But we're talking about my particular generation right now.

So what do we do?

The youth need guidance. Mentors. People who are not too jaded and burnt out to show us what works and doesn't. To be supportive. To tell us about what they've overcome and how they've been able to do it. To tell us we get on their nerves. To tell us we're disrespectful. To tell us we're privileged...disenfranchised..naive...brilliant...strong...weak...

To tell us SOMETHING.

Yea...some of us don't want to listen. But a lot of us aren't ready...and a lot of us are. Just like a lot of elders can't be mentors and some can. We've got to bridge this gap so we can advance. Who's we? We queers. We brown/black folks. We [name region here]. We Americans. We on this planet.

And elders have got to pass that torch. I know your cause is near and dear...but you've got to do it or else the movement will stagnate. People will go off and do their own thing and we will be divided. There will be a cause and no effect. Some of us are ready to hear your knowledge...please don't keep it to yourself. Please don't think we won't appreciate it. Please don't say we have to learn it the hard way...just like you did. This is about moving forward together.  This is about acknowledging our differences but respecting them all the same so we can get ourselves out of this mess. This milieu.

So pass that torch...but don't just throw it and hope we catch it. Teach us how to hold it and light the way for that we can continue doing the same for the next leaders. Share your wisdom. We might not have the same strategies but I'm sure we have a common vision.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Our POC Reclamation and Retrieval in the Arts (but don't call it a Renaissance)

Often, I go out of my way to support POC in any way possible. From music (especially "alternative", punk, rock, jazz, experimental, new wave, etc.), art, theater, magazines, media, online shows, films (especially independent ones and the ones that stay on the film festival circuit briefly)- to community organizations, groups- political and not-so-political, groups committed to indirect action and direct action, community gardens, mentor and leadership programs, youth-run groups, anti-racist organizing, civil rights organizing (including for LGBT, queer/genderqueer, disability, feminist or womyn's rights, etc. ). I didn't notice myself doing this at first. I think it started  with Austin. (*dream sequence harp music*)

I lived in San Antonio for 5 years- immersed in Latino/Brown culture and then, abruptly moved to Austin to begin organizing and working at a non-profit that supported Central Texas. I experienced culture shock, but I wasn't able to put my finger on it for some time. I'd moved from a town that was predominantly brown to one that was predominantly white. Most of the brown/black folks lived across the highway and were continuing to be pushed farther from the center of town. Something was up with this city that claimed to be so "liberal" and "progressive." Brown and black folks were struggling while gentrification was continuing to creep in. I rarely saw any black or brown folks in suits downtown. Most were working behind cash registers in the service industry and later I'd find out that there were a lot involved in non-profit organizations or as social workers,etc.  Very few Austinites, besides the heavily political college students or activists, seemed to have a clue about what was going on in the town along racial lines and socioeconomically. So, this environment created within me a yearning to understand what was going on racially and to find a space where I could converse with others who viewed what was happening and had a similar perspective to my own.

Years before, I had begun working with a gay and lesbian film festival in Austin and  noticed right away that there were very few people of color on staff or represented in the films that were chosen. Around that time when I was trying my hand at screenwriting, acting, cast assisting, and filmmaking, I took note of the same trend. Hmm...where are the people of color? When writing my screenplays I didn't know how to (or want to) create characters that weren't brown or queer and back then I'm not sure people reading them knew how to handle this or how to deal with it. (Which is not a valid excuse, but I've seen it used a lot for different  purposes- such as employing someone! Namely, a brown or queer person. erg)

Fast forward to now- there are web series, films like Pariah, emerging networks like, and we have a presence in the online media like never before. Excellent. It's ripe for all of us to really grow our creativity and continue to plant seeds. Brown folks are showing out and more importantly, showing up!

Another key to my awakening and reclamation was (and remains to be) music. Music is a really important part of my life. Growing up, I was that kid who listened to everything but didn't say anything so I wouldn't get criticized for it. Do you remember what happened to black kids who listened to rock, punk, etc. in junior high? Yea- you were ostracized.  I had to listen to Bjork, ska, and punk in the privacy of my own home. All but a few of my friends were listening to R&B and rap and that was it. Interestingly enough, in high school I stayed mainly to myself so I could preserve my style and taste in music without criticism and sought out a handful of friends who were also "outside the box." Nah, I wasn't completely a loner- I was a track star ;). And you know that people in "athletics" roll deep.

My mom listened to all kinds of music from the 50s-70s and my stepdad listened to all types of old and nu jazz. So, I guess from the beginning my musical tastes were pretty diversified. Weeeell- at some point I think I went off the deep end and most of the bands I was listening to were basically a bunch of white folks. This was before AND after my "conscious" phase where I listened to only neo-soul and downtempo music. (Smiles). Well, let's face it- most of the mainstream bands (especially rock and alternative bands) that we had access to were white! Record execs didn't give many black/brown folks the chance to branch out of hip hop and r&b.

So, at some point, I began noticing that white folks were all I was listening to and I began digging and digging for any bands that had a black/brown singer (besides Lenny Kravitz). Then I started looking for completely brown bands. I got deep into afro-punk music. I became fascinated by all these black, female lead singers who were creating a new type of music with the "soul" I had grown up with -Santogold, Janelle Monae, Skye Edwards from Morcheeba, the lead singer from Esthero...and of course...back in high school, Kelis. And now we also have Tamar-Kali, Arama Mara, Joya Bravo, Amanda Rey, Sarah White, and Esperanza Spalding- just to name a few. I can't express to you how excited I am every time I hear of a new singer or band that is majority POC and creating unique music.

I remember hearing Tamar-Kali for the first time. I walked into a dark room full of people swaying and headbanging and I heard this soulful and brooding voice over guitar riffs and outstanding drums...and I looked at the people who I came in with and one said "Yea, this is me. I can get into this." I made my way to the stage and stood in front, really feeling the energy. I realized that a soulful, brown voice was what I'd been missing in all my years of listening to rock, punk and alternative. I needed those two worlds to come together; the soulfulness of r&b and the angsty, rebelliousness of rock. Well, black/brown folks invented rock. Yes, we all know that. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, El Chicano and so many others...all those great singers from the 50s! But it was stolen from us. Appropriated and turned into something else. Something almost unrecognizable and some could argue- soulless.

At the same time that we are reclaiming our music in larger numbers, I'm experiencing a similar reclamation within myself.  A reconciliation of all these worlds that we've been socialized to believe that don't fit together. Much like the whole idea behind Awkward Black Girl, we don't all fit into boxes and do what we're "supposed to". I learned that early on. But truly respecting and honoring my differences came a little later, once the shame dissipated. I really appreciate the Afro-punk website and other people doing similar work. Those who are trying to keep us informed about black/brown folks who are creating awesome music...awesome art...awesome films...Those who are branching out and showing us all another image of who we are and can be, like Q-Roc.TV. I seriously can't wait til everything is in place. That network is going to be a's going to bring all us brown queers and allies together. It's something I wish I would have had when I was growing up. But, it's never too late! I'm sure I'll appreciate more, now that I know more about my artistic roots and heritage because networks like these can be hard to come by.

Our Predecessors and Where we came from
For years the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) and Allgo and many, many other POC LGBT/queer organizations have existed. I think that right now we're witnessing a breaking away from tradition but, at the same time, a keeping of the spirit of this tradition. We're no longer trying to form non-profits and seeking 501(c)3s. We're just doing kickstarter campaigns and going ahead with our projects, unfettered by government rules, regulations and funding. I see POC supporting each other a lot more in separate projects and coming together as collectives as well. This is the future, folks. It can't happen any other way. We have to support each other. Whether it's potlucks and community gardens, or coming together to form networks and organizations that support our communities, or starting new communities where we help build sustainable houses and live off the land. Or maybe some of us stay in urban centers but help with policy change and community support there.

Not a revival- a Retrieval
We as POC, are no longer being bamboozled and buying into the assimilationist "American Dream." This western culture that we've been forced to take on is not our culture. It is oppressive and has led to additional suffering. Our diets have deteriorated, our way of life has deteriorated, the way we interact with one another has deteriorated. The colonists tried to dig up our roots and tried to destroy us, but our roots run deep and are very strong. What we are seeing is the spirit and guidance of our ancestors calling us back to our roots and reminding us to dig deep into that reservoir to discover our strength. As we continue with our self-discovery and to work on who we are individually, we also discover how to improve our relationships and how to act/respond/build collectively. As we support each other, we become less and less dependent on the dominant (read:white) culture and begin reflecting on where we came from and how we can continue advancing together. We are reclaiming those parts of  the core of our collective community that have been trampled on and lost due to acculturation. You can call this movement not a renaissance,or rebirth/revival, but more of a (Soul)Retrieval.