This letter written in response to two friends, on the topic of two social-justice-themed workshops they teach.
I enjoyed reading your thoughtful, compassionate letter. It means a lot to me that you took the time to write it. I especially feel moved that you are grateful for my friendship. Likewise. It’s an honor to know you both, and witness your work in the world, and I really mean that.
I started to write yesterday, when I was happy to receive your response, but then, fear came to visit me. It feels really, really risky talking openly about some of these things with you. Know that I am pushing myself to be transparent and vulnerable in sharing this with you. I do so to be an honorable ancestor, and ultimately, to do the long work of peace and reconciliation.
Yes, I did sign up for the course [on Queer people in the natural world] to explore my own natural queerness in community, in nature on our familiar and beloved land. I appreciate our shared understanding that queerness is holistic and you honor people self-defining that. And I signed up to enthusiastically support the return of my friends to the land.
But, with tangled mixed feelings, I’ve withdrawn from the course.
This is hard. I really care about you both and I’m really afraid of hurting or offending you. I know that you walk a hard road sometimes and I don’t want to add to that.
Look. There’s a lot in the social justice movement that feels really, really seriously alarmingly hostile right now. Like, I’m really scared to be around some folks. I’m afraid to speak up and share my dissenting opinion if I don’t totally hate Trump enough or whatever. I’m wary of what honestly feels like a ton of animosity toward my being “white” (can we be done with racialism and insistence on categories, yet? I miss my humanity. Or am I irrevocably assigned “white” at birth? So it’s okay to assign race at birth, but not biological sex?), or attracted to men (I actually prefer “androphilic” over “straight” because I identify more with the joy of who I love, not how hetero-or-homosexual I am.) I’m not Queer enough, not brown enough, not whatever-enough to be oppressed enough to be worthy of inclusion in the club. And it’s really bad, friends: I’m actually proud –grateful– to be American, both in the sense of citizenship in this great nation, and also as an inhabitant of this continent, my first and only home.
You know, “cisgender” isn’t a label I ever chose for myself. Someone made that up to differentiate themselves from me, or how they perceive that I am. Then they went around sticking it on everyone who they thought wasn’t like them.
To me, I am normal. And everyone who is “Queer” is also normal. Maybe that’s my privilege of being raised in one of the most unprecedentedly tolerant and humane times and places humanity has ever known. Apparently, it’s your privilege, too. Granted, people who are Queer aren’t the numerical majority, and so there is something of a need to find one’s own in community, and there is some natural differentiating in there, and I actually respect that a lot. In fact, I not only respect it, but empathize with it. Might there be a part of myself that, the less it becomes the unquestioned blank slate of society, and subsumes not everyone into it (hint: my own ethnic identity, assigned at birth!) it may strangely, then, emerge to be just as instinctually human, just as in need of tribe and differentiated identity as any other? Might this be a problem?
I am not writing this to you as a “white” or a “cisgender” person. I am writing this to you as myself. With a bit of upstart humor, I tell you, sweet friends, don’t you go assigning your labels to me at the birth of this conversation! Nobody’s skin color has any damn politics, any inherent meaning. We humans put this on us, we put this burden on each other. But we are never made who we are by insisting upon what we are not. This only leads to more and more enmity, terrible enmity, more struggle and more war. But we all want to come home to the heart of the world. And our pain is the world’s pain, and we cannot seem to unbind ourselves from it.
I remember someone once said that words may further divide us. If I speak of a “wolf”, an image comes to mind. But if I speak of “an old grey wolf in the wintertime”, an even more specific image comes to mind, and the images that each of us hold will vary even more from the former, from union with the others. Naturally, this is an effect of our interior landscapes, our individual dreaming. But it is also the course of humanity to be too drawn into these diverging labels.
I also remember one our teachers once saying that when we feel anger, it is a response to a damaged relationship. This is one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. It has come to my mind constantly lately. Even strangers feel this: if somebody roughly bumps into us on the sidewalk and they run off swearing at us, it might make us angry because at the very least we expect the relationship to be one of common sidewalk decency. How much more does the reality apply when enmity grows among friends, among families, among entire nations? Oh, that we were the descendants of peaceful bonobos, and not hostile chimps.
In all seriousness, I get that a lot of “people of color” and Queer people have felt really oppressed. It’s not in me to argue with someone’s lived experience. But, by that same metric, I expect the same respect just because I’m human, and it feels like that whole mutual respect thing really isn’t happening from a lot of the social justice crowd. Not that the far right-wing is terribly better, either, to be sure. That crap is real, too. I’d probably be a lot more on edge about it right now if I lived in Ruralsville, DeepSouthia. But in these overwhelmingly leftist urban places, my partner and I are sometimes seriously afraid for our jobs, our reputation, even our safety if we question the claims of social justice or the political Left in the work place or among friends. Right now, I’m fucking scared I’m going to lose my whole beloved community, the dearest tribe I’ve ever known, if I dissent, if I say I don’t buy this power-and-privilege stuff. Did you know that?
Whether or not social justice is correct about all things, it’s the principle: a system of thought isn’t liberating people in good faith when people aren’t free to question and challenge it without the threat of social ostracization. It feels like there’s a ton of anger and blame and demonizing of our fellow countrypeople who don’t hold the same views as the political Left. It’s not OK when the right wing does it, and it’s not OK when the left wing does it. Like, now anyone barely to the Right of the far Left political spectrum is being called a Nazi or a white supremacist. And it’s ridiculous. In short, I don’t feel safe, and I feel the least trustful of my surroundings in a long time. What’s more, I know some women and people of color and Queer people are tired of being told that they are being oppressed when they keep telling us they don’t feel oppressed. Are their lived experiences not also to be trusted? What does social justice have to say to them?
And I don’t see how a few more groups of people feeling scared to speak up makes society any better off when more people feel anxious like historically marginalized people have felt. If one group has privileges, then it’s something we should all have –the privilege of being free. It’s the only privilege that really matters, and at root, all privileges are this. The privilege of being free and confident and loved in who we are should be celebrated and given to all. I am concerned that when people teach about “power and privilege”, they end up communicating a lot of guilt that ends up driving curious would-be allies further away.
In fact, this word, allies, feels like a real red flag of warning. Ally is explicitly a word of war. It suggests that there is our side, versus the other side. “Us” and “them”, the presence of an enemy. If the evidence of history shows us anything, if the warring instincts of our species have taught us anything, it should seriously raise an alarm. And now I hear they are speaking of accomplices, the next step in the big fight. Apparently, being an ally isn’t good enough, now. Did I mention the red flag?
This conversation comes at the right time, at least on my end. Today I decided to challenge my conservative friends. I told them that if they’re frustrated with some things in society, they first-of-all need to not think of their fellow Americans as the enemy. They need to get out there and challenge themselves to listen compassionately, but also to speak bravely with confidence about their own lived experiences. A lot of the resent they are feeling comes from their own sense of voicelessness. They started by complaining about what they didn’t like, but I kept at it; “No, don’t tell me what you hate. Tell me what you love. Tell me about how you do the brave work of peace,” –and they finally came around to sharing stories of what is already working to make peace with their perceived adversaries. Their mindset finally shifted, and they told me, I kid you not, the exact same kinds of human stories of relationship as I hear from my liberal friends. They were telling me about how mentoring youths is so powerful. They told me that if we just listen to the kids for once, they’ll know they’re heard, and we care about them, and they’re not alone, and what a difference this makes for the generations of the future –so that we may all be honorable ancestors.
Maybe you will think that my resolve to pick up the cross of the peacemaker is an extension of my white privilege, evidence of my relative ethnic comfort in this society. And maybe you’re right! But I’d rather use this privilege to make friends, not enemies. To live as a peacemaker, I am finding, is to solemnly resolve to have no enemies, even when there are those, from all sides, who would willingly make themselves my enemies. To be a peacemaker is to be, paradoxically, lonely. Critical thinking is a lonely place –I know you know what this is like, to stand in the fire. I must insist that any who would make themselves my enemy is but a lost friend, and I will not hate or abandon them. For any human creature, that’s struggle enough.
So, you say I should come to the Power & Privilege workshop. Maybe I should. But originally, I decided to put forth my own queerness and go try the Queer Nature weekend instead, because, truthfully, the intent as described felt a lot more constructive, more positive and generative of relationship. I am all down for Queer people coming home to nature. But I am wary of the divisiveness and blame and stacking of the oppression hierarchy that may be present in the Power & Privilege weekend. But if I would trust anyone to teach it, I would trust you. Maybe I’m exactly the student you need….
But I have another admission. [Our mutual acquaintance] sent out an email a few weeks back saying there’s a class on becoming an “ally” going to happen at the public library. I admit I had just about had-it-up-to-here with the grief of these divided times when I got that invitation in our local mailing list. I frankly gave her a straight-up-what-for, albeit constructively enough and with the absence of swearing, and reminded her that we aren’t a political mono-crop here, and she might think again about assuming such when she sends it out to our entire local mailing list. How would the lot of us feel were a “God, Family and Country Prayer Rally” announced in our community? We’re American, right? Aren’t we proud of this land? Don’t we also pray? So we should be just totally fine with it, right?
Though I’m not sorry I told her how I felt about it, I’m sorry for my exhaustion and surrender to grief. I’m sorry that there is the felt need for such a class, why ever that is. I’m sorry for the sins of people hundreds of years ago who I am permitted little heartfelt relationship to without the accusation of racial supremacy on my part, though I am readily called one-of-them in my “structural” whiteness. That night, I gave up. I surrendered to the grief of a broken America.
But then it passed. And we know we have been here before. Greater people than us have put their lives on the line for the freedom we all enjoy now, in this America that is ours. And I love what you say about being honorable ancestors –yes, how it does resonate. The ancestors of this continent –all of them, their blood and sweat and semen and eggs mixing together– didn’t fight and die with each other and our relentless inner demons so that we could just sit around not getting along with each other from the comfort of our separate computers. The responsibility is mine, and it is yours, and all the ancestors yet to come are watching our choices. How shall we find each other again?
Here’s a quote from James Baldwin, an African American writer and social critic. It’s absolutely spot-on, and how I greatly love it. It is from a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1962.
“But these [white] men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word ‘integration’ means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.”
But I know you will say that it isn’t your responsibility to comfort my anxieties –and again, you are right. But I have to wonder. When one enemy is vanquished, who next will there be? What will we do when, finally, social justice figures it all out and there’s not a shred of bias left in our mortal hearts? Who then is the enemy? Will social justice then depart the now-perfect world? What then is the enemy? I will tell you what I think the only enemy is.
Our only enemy is the line between love and hate that cuts sharply through the heart of every human creature. The ancient human instinct for the making of enemies of one another, enemies made of those who would be our friends, this instinct for bloodshed, lies sleeping in us all. Neither skin color nor gender nor privilege has any persuasion over it. This is equality: to recognize that we are not so essentially different after all, despite wishing to be. The same instincts for great love and for terrible conflict are within every one of us.
I was talking with [our friend and teacher] about this today. I said to him that whatever engenders affections between groups of people, I am in support of. Whatever engenders enmity between groups of people, I stand in opposition to.
And thus, the Power & Privilege workshop. I greatly trust you as a friend. But in reflection, now, I ask myself –would I have you as my teacher? Shall I pay you to tell me …what will it be? I would rather you tell me your dreams. I would rather you tell me plainly of this pain you have known, and then I will tell you mine, and we will be people, just people, together.
I think of you as my friend. If you were leading a class, especially on such a sensitive topic, the heaviness of which I may not trust would (or could) be delivered in a spirit of affection, much less affirmation, how strange that would feel for me. I think of you as my equal, someone with which to loaf among the tangled grass alongside, talking of our converging lives in unhurried affinity. You speak of the bright eyes of the animal-people, I tell stories of the lord of the forest; we knit with wool. The names of plants, good medicine; mutual curiosity of the other, our strangeness. We size each other up a bit, laughing askance, you smile and take your leave of my weird enthusiasm. I smile and nod in satisfaction that so creaturely a friend I have known. We keep in touch over the years; a shared love of the Beautiful, a commitment to the Divine. This is how I remember you.
Much more could be unpacked, but it is late now. In trepidation I began my writing of this, but I am less afraid now. Bravery, transparency, living “soulcentrically” –I still love that one–: these things you have presented to me. And I don’t know how you will respond. You might really feel angry. If you do, I understand. And I am sorry in my heart for it. But I think it is better to choose this bravery and transparency. I have never been one to hide my heart for too long.
And so my heart gives you thanks, the same much love in return. And with hope, I will not lose you, my friends. Now, setting off: if you feel you are losing me, I implore you, come find me where, like a goat, I have gone wandering. Do not give up on me, tracking me, for something has called me out here to search beyond the boundaries of the village, into the darkness of the worthy opponent, a good way off where no more the light of the campfire reaches.
May we all be honorable ancestors,
Gentle J. Pine