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On Trashing, Calling Out, and Accountability, with thanks to A Radical TransFeminist

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portrait of Alice Walker is from here

I recently submitted two comments to a white transgender feminist’s blog. She didn’t publish them but did explain to me that she wouldn’t be posting them, which I appreciate her doing. I welcome finding out what it is about the comments that led her to not post them, at a later date when she feels like communicating more with me.

I’d like for the topics to be addressed here to allow any of my readers to comment here on these issues. So I’ll post links to her blog’s two posts, with my comments in this and the next post to this blog. I’ll revise my comments for clarity and to correct some typos.

I’m putting the initials of people’s names in the comments below, as I don’t have their permission to use their names here. One exception is the name Joreen, which was a chosen name used in movement work by Jo Freeman, a long-time white feminist writer and attorney. Her work is referenced; she isn’t a participant in this discussion. See *this* for more, and see *this* for Jo/Joreen’s piece on Trashing which is the foundation for the discussion at the other blog.

On Trashing

Here is a revised version of the comment I submitted:

I’ve witnessed and experienced a lot of destructive dynamics, also some amazingly life-affirming and spiritually supportive dynamics, in feminist and profeminist spaces. I’ve seen far more positive than negative things happen. And I appreciate you creating this space to talk about this issue. While I’d like to be part of this discussion, I’m not sure I should be a contributor. If the issue is how people treat one another harmfully and abusively in the name of feminism and profeminism, I’d like to comment. If, on the other hand, that is the issue (with a focus on trashing), but only within women-only spaces, then that’s not something I’d feel would be appropriate for me, an intergender male, to be part of.

I nodded all the way through your remarks about Joreen’s piece. As a sexual assault survivor, I felt uneasy about the use of the term “psychological rape”. So thank you, L, and H, for sharing your response to that. I was deeply conflicted about whether to even mention it here, because, as H also stated, I don’t know her own story of physical abuse, and because, well, I’m male. The phrase that also felt deeply problematic to me was this one: “like a thousand cuts with a whip”. For me that phrase references an experience of physical-spiritual-political assault at the hands of white supremacists during U.S. slavery, Jim Crow, and since. I don’t think it is appropriate or respectful to survivors of slavery and those racially targeted for such abuse to appropriate the term even as simile.

That said, I respect Joreen’s bravery in tackling this issue and can hear how painful her experiences were. And I’ve seen how people in radical spaces sometimes want to demonstrate their/our/my sensitivity to issues by immediately and primarily pointing out what feels “off” about someone’s remarks, rather than by first highlighting what feels right on.* I feel for the ways she’s been hurt and rejected in spaces and by people she looked to for solidarity and community. I’ve known women hurt in so many ways, most callously, brutally, and lethally by men, but also hurt emotionally and psychologically by other women. And I’ve experienced, just within my own family of origin and friendship circles, how people closest to me in various ways, are capable, due to conditions of trust, shared history, and vulnerability, of hurting me deeply in ways some of my oppressors, now that I’m an adult, are not.

*I have been thinking about  this. I am aware that in online discourse far more than my offline discourse, criticism is, often, “what people do” without necessarily knowing the people we’re criticising. This is dramatically different in my offline life. I’ll far more typically withhold criticism if I think it might harm a relationship with someone I care about. The relationship’s well-being is preferenced over my critical voice; it’s not that I work to silence myself exactly; it’s that I don’t let criticism become the primary value. I suspect that because online forums make space for critique of writings and disagreement over discourse, that gets valued over the relationships that might otherwise form and flourish among the contributors. I’ve not found online sites to be a place of forming friendship. I’ve met people online that I’ve become friends with offline, or in email. But the nature of the online forums don’t, for many reasons, create safe-enough space for friendship to bloom, in my experience.

As part of my own effort to disengage from behavior that I now see as non-constructive and anti-revolutionary, I’ve decided not to engage in “snark”, let alone trashing, because I see it as part of the same cluster of cynical, self-protecting while hostile, anti-revolutionary practices that apparently passes for radical and profeminist behavior in lots of places (feminist and non-feminist). I used to direct snarky comments to white men on and off my blog, and I don’t any longer: a white man just submitted a comment to me, on an old post, about his view that misandry is a serious social problem, not as harmful as misogyny, but not non-existent either. I’ve heard similar things from so many white men that I’ve grown weary of responding. Often, in my weariness or my laziness, I might resort to snarky response. Because I’d be tempted to do so with this newest comment-submitter, I won’t publish his comment and won’t respond at all. His comment also violates some of my comment policy. (I don’t publish pro-MRA positions here.)

I value direct, emotionally honest communication. And I also have complex PTSD which means that my feelings and reactions sometimes exceed what’s happening in the present. I can suddenly feel tremendously vulnerable or in danger. How I respond in those instances is sometimes out of proportion to what is happening before me because my history is dredged up and projected into the moment. I’ve often described this as “my past bleeding into my present”. Due primarily to privilege, including access to mental health care workers who regard me as fully human because I’m male, white, and not poor, I have learned to identify when I’m triggered and have learned some methods for re-grounding myself in the present. But that’s not always easy or even possible to do. And I also see how, with my many privileges, I can too often get away with not taking full responsibility for my actions and pretend that other conditions are responsible for how I behave.

I have seen how white supremacy and male supremacy generate and exacerbate complex PTSD for white women, for women of color, and for men of color. I’ve seen how whites and men deny that our actions trigger distress and many other feelings and experiences in people we structurally, systemically, institutionally, and interpersonally oppress. And I’ve seen how, when whites and men are called out by women of color especially–almost always in ways that strike me as profoundly measured and respectful, that Calling Out is named many negative things by whites and men. Most of the things it is called effectively (and often enough willfully) work to further hurt, subordinate, and silence women of color. One of the things such Calling Out is called is “Trashing”.

For example, I’ve known whites who consider being named “racist” by a person of color to be a violent and inexcusable form of trashing. And the politics of what is considered violent is noted quite succinctly by the white male radical Derrick Jensen in his Premises of Endgame: “Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed [by oppressors]. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.” I thought about that as I was appreciating J.M.’s comment.

One of the requests I hear Joreen making is to not talk about someone’s ‘being’ and instead to critique the behavior or what someone is ‘doing’. This is consistent with my own values: challenge the behavior; don’t go after someone personally. And, when possible, try and hold the whole of someone’s humanity in mind and heart when offering critique. My values were learned mostly by studying and being around modes of critical engagement practiced by womanists and feminists. Alice Walker has been a significant role model in this regard. Her open letter to Tiger Woods is an excellent example. Also Flo Kennedy on horizontal hostility ["Women Against Women: Horizontal Hostility," domestic violence; "Sexuality '85" conference; Alabama NOW; Massachusetts; Ohio; Ontario; Wisconsin; Wyoming], Pearl Cleage on the necessity of oppressors listening to the oppressed-as-experts [see pages 32-33 in Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot], and Andrea Dworkin as evidenced in her address to allegedly anti-sexist men at a men’s conference.

With that in mind, I’ve also heard many times from women of color how whites and men try and control how women of color behave. They/we try and control how women of color speak, how they express their emotions, and, especially, how and to what degree they critique whites and men. Whites and men (and especially white men) also hold the unearned power to allegedly ‘accurately’ name what occurs, to construct and determine which stories comprise truthful history, and be the final arbiters of (white- and male-centric) justice on matters of social and interpersonal wrongs. As I see it, oppressive sexual and racial politics are at work when people with various forms of privilege agree to critique ‘trashing’ without also explicitly putting on the table the issue of how people with structural advantage and power get to name the behavior of those who are oppressed. In that context, Joreen’s or my own priority to be critiqued on our behavior not on our personhood, when the person calling us out is structurally oppressed by us, becomes a secondary matter to oppressed people naming what is harming them in ways meaningful and helpful to them. Simply put, Alice Walker’s level of grace and compassion in confronting Tiger Woods is hers to determine; it is not for him to require.

I just want to place that perspective front and center, with the intention of fully supporting your own concerns along those lines, L.

Finally, I’m wishing a belated Happy Birthday to Alice Walker! (Her birthday was February 9th.)


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