By Hari Ziyad
I’m an artist first. But I decided long ago that my art would be in the service of fighting oppression.
Since then, I’ve waded more deeply into social justice spaces, and I find myself surrounded more and more by people professing these same aspirations.
Being in these spaces has been therapeutic in so many ways and has created some of the best support systems I could ask for.
It’s comforting not to have to constantly explain yourself and your work. It’s beautiful to learn from and be around folks who understand ideas like microaggressions, gaslighting, white fragility, and all the other odd terms that describe the myriad, important, and insidious ways oppression operates.
But some of those ways are too insidious to recognize even within these spaces. Some are, in fact, unique to these spaces. Some oppressions are fostered by the very things supposedly set up to help justice spaces thrive. Inadvertently, they create power structures mirroring those they’re working to address.
Being in these spaces for a while now, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly receiving feedback that my writing is inaccessible. I dismissed a lot of this critique on the basis that I am, at my core, a big idea and theory girl. My way of communicating isn’t supposed to be meant for everyone.
But that became a more difficult excuse to embrace once I noticed these concerns coming even from those who generally embrace theoreticals.
So when I read Kai Cheng Thom’s piece “9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible,” I understood how many of the things she listed were problems.
But it took me a while to piece together how so much of what I learned and embraced in these spaces would inevitably lead to those problems – like not being able to address certain mistakes or ignoring activist hierarchies.
It seemed clear that some of the items addressed in her piece are based on systems of power that only benefit a select few, just like those systems I have dedicated my life toward eradicating.
I wondered: What if my increasing inaccessibility was proof I was on the road to those same problems? What if it was less about whether or not my big ideas are a problem and more about whom those ideas seemed to be for and in service to? What did it mean that I hadn’t always found weird academic jargon comforting, even while theorizing, but I do now?
Being someone who often thinks and writes academically, I needed space to engage with the issues important to me in a way that made sense for me.
Activist spaces provided room to flesh out big theories and concepts, but many also implicitly prioritized those things. Often being set up for and by other people like me, these spaces sometimes benefitted us to the detriment of everyone else.
So I started vigilant observation for any problematic behavior I felt encouraged to take part in simply by being amongst people (like me) who would benefit from it.
And in doing so, I recognized ten patterns that demonstrate how activist spaces can inconspicuously feed ideas of elitism and inaccessibility.
1. ‘Punching Down’ More Than ‘Punching Up’
In social justice spaces, we’re rightly encouraged to address oppressive words and deeds when we can. A lot of folks criticize the veracity of what often translates into call-outs, and push for “calling in” instead, but I think a more telling problem of call-out culture is the predictability of who gets the worst of it.
Personally, I think there’s a time and place for calling out that’s ignored with a blanket call for more polite responses to violence.
But one of the first things I noticed was that it was far easier to call out folks with no standing and power in social justice communities for their oppressive words and deeds than it was to criticize those with it.
We’re supposed to hold people accountable, but holding accountable those with no standing is the least daunting and dangerous and therefore much more inviting.
Conversely, I’ve seen folks turn the other way when abusive behavior is committed by activists with standing. This especially happens when that standing directly influences the position of the person who has the opportunity to address the situation.
This reinforces a system of giving power to those who can shore up invincibility through their resume, which is necessarily those with access to build a resume in the first place.
The flipside of this is that people with standing are often targeted by those who may be jealous of them, and famous figures are many times not treated as real people with feelings.
This isn’t to say that calling out those with a following is always rooted in baseless negativity any more than calling out those without is rooted in upholding the power of fame. It’s just to say that both can influence us if we’re not careful.
If we’re serious about the fact that oppression has no place anywhere, we should be as eager to address it everywhere it occurs.
2. Only Acknowledging the Work of Those with Stature
When I wrote one of my first pieces on my gender journey, I naturally used a quote from Judith Butler about gender realities.
Regarded as one of the foremost queer theorists, it made sense to use her words to explore my queer complexities.
Or did it?
I’d had many conversations, particularly with gender non-conforming, non-binary, and trans folks, that pointed to the same truths Butler describes. I’d read many words, mostly from people of color, that explained the same things, often much more accurately to how my journey was racialized.
And, of course, Butler is nearly universally incomprehensible. Reading a quote of hers is like being smacked upside the brain with Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s an act of violence.
And yet, I quoted her because of her stature as one of the most famous and influential queer theorists.
Social justice spaces encourage you to give credit to those who paved the way, which is commendable. But those who paved the way are only those who had access and platform to do so.
We should give credit where credit is due, but also recognize that there are many unnamed people whose lives and experiences are used in order for ways to get paved.
People were living Butler’s theories well before she put convoluted (if profound) words to their lives.
Give them credit, too. They deserve it just as much, if not more.
3. Using Academic Language When No One Understands It
When I discover new language or concepts that describe complex ideas, it excites me. This is because we learn in social justice spaces that part of the struggle in dealing with oppression is that we don’t always have the language to describe what we’re experiencing.
But what good is having this language if those who experience what’s being described the most can’t engage, too?
This isn’t to say that academic language can’t be grasped by folks who aren’t academics (I’m not an academic). But there are other ways of using language that is just as fluid, just as powerful and necessary to communities that never had access to the academy – language that can be used to cover new ideas just as importantly.
If you find academic language necessary or useful in your work, that’s okay, too. But not including explanations is a clear indicator of the audience you’re catering to.
And while sometimes it’s okay to speak specifically to those with access to the academy, if that’s all you do, your work might never reach anyone else.
To combat this, what I’ve found really helpful is thinking about how I have these conversations with family members who aren’t familiar with social justice lingo. They seem to understand what I’m talking about, sometimes better than the people who read my work, and that says something.
Ask yourself: How am I expressing myself differently to them than in my writing, and why?
4. Immediately Using Newly Learned Concepts to Criticize Others
As I mentioned, I love discovering new terms to describe concepts that I’ve experienced, but may not have known how to articulate. A lot of times it’s like finding a light switch after stumbling around in the dark.
These spaces offer a lot of lights, but sometimes don’t emphasize where you’re supposed to go once they’re turned on, leading to practices that can be very self-serving.
I’d been frustrated by the workings of neoliberalism for the longest, but until I had a word for it, most of the conversation was taken up just trying to describe what’s going on (it’s complicated).
Once I learned a word for the pattern, I started noting how everyone else’s work was feeding neoliberalism – performing radicalism for the purposes of gaining social or economic capital without real radical substance.
And maybe some of it was feeding this reality (okay, a lot of it was), but what should have been more important in discovering the term and what it meant was how it could be used to describe all the pressures I felt for my work to be capitalized – not only to use it to criticize those around me.
I could use it to explore the pressures to punch down more than up, to find only those who have standing worth citing, to forget about access in favor of money or other returns. Neoliberalism describes so much of the problems discussed in this piece, and here I am still struggle with them.
And maybe it’s always inescapable on some level, but the important part is to try. Using newly learned language immediately to demonize others may indicate a desire to use knowledge to prove superiority, rather than to grow in your work.
And if your work is to liberate folks, this should be the main goal.
5. Rarely Mentioning Class and Disability
Increased engagement with the politics of oppressed identities has complicated our ideas about oppression, helping to explain how it isn’t a linear process. At the same time, this type of engagement can very easily give discussions of certain systems of oppression credence and marketability over others.
For example, race and gender conversations dominate so many activist spaces. This would be more or less fine – if we emphasized those at these margins who would necessarily also have other identities as well (like gender non-conforming Indigenous people with disabilities, for example).
But even “inclusive” spaces that claim to be intersectional have a habit of just tacking on other identities that are rarely acknowledged, especially disability, to their mission statements without actively engaging with the issues specific to those communities.
This comes from the encouragement to deal with multiple issues at once, which is great. But the problem comes when we’re not actually being given the tools to tackle them.
I can’t write on physical disabilities from a first-person perspective because I have none, but I can go out and seek writers and artists who have that experience if I’m serious about including them in my work. At the very least, I can consider how disability affects the issues I’m engaging with at the time.
I point out economic conditions and disability specifically because they explicitly bar entire populations from physical spaces – and if we aren’t addressing those forms of oppression, they’re probably barring those populations from our work as well.
6. Spending Little Time Engaging with the Communities Your Work Is Intended to Serve
Recently, a good friend gave a talk on sexual violence that had no way to be viewed without going to the place where the talk was being held.
Important to the discussion of sexual violence, though, is that many folks who experience it don’t have the ability to “leave” a place, being that most violence is at the hand of someone close to them who may have control over their whereabouts.
My friend is more committed to work around sexual violence than anyone I know, but the pressures to forget to consider these factors are intense in these spaces where more presentations, more publications, and more panels give a person more platform.
And that platform, which provides more money, might actually be necessary to survive when you’re not making it anywhere else.
It may not always be possible to provide access to everyone. But at the very least, we should consider these things and push for more access whenever we can.
Without regularly engaging with all of those affected by our work, it’s easy to patronize and miss when the needs of communities evolve (and they constantly do).
If they aren’t there, (or, importantly, you aren’t in their communities), you’re not receiving the feedback necessary to inform your work.
7. Using Your Resume Instead of Addressing Criticisms
When you’ve worked in an area for a while, like many of us in these spaces, it’s easy to believe you know all there is to know about the topic.
In truth, I probably do know more than the average person about race, gender, and sexuality – but I can never know everything (or I wouldn’t still be reading, studying, and going to talks).
But the understanding that we know more can give folks who have had the access and opportunity to build a resume the feeling of invulnerability if we are not careful.
I remember once, in response to someone’s critiques on a post of mine, posting more links to my work. I told myself that I did this because I didn’t feel like re-explaining, but what if it was more (or at least also) because I felt like I didn’t have to explain? That I was above it?
It turns out the other person was digging much deeper than what I’d covered before, and thankfully, they were graceful enough not to be put off by my display of arrogant untouchability – and I ended up learning something new.
But feelings and assertions of invulnerability against critique is usually a telltale sign of oppressive spaces.
8. Monetizing Everything You Do
This is tricky. Obviously, I want to get paid for my work – and I believe that others should, too.
Being in these spaces with others who recognize the value of this work encourages us to demand others recognize it, too. Writing and other activist pursuits takes time, skill, and is emotionally expensive.
But when monetary payment is the primary concern in every situation, those who can’t economically compensate don’t get access.
We should all be compensated for labor, but if we’re serious about addressing the ills of capitalism, we need to also look at less capitalistic forms of assessing compensation.
It might be worth it to parse out those who deserve to give us financial compensation (capitalist institutions) from those who may not (everyday economically disenfranchised people), and see what else, if anything, might be more appropriate payment.
Can people reciprocate with time? a trade of skills? some form of advertisement?
9. But Not Compensating Others for the Work They Contribute to Your Projects
I wouldn’t have the connections and opportunities to make money writing, speaking, and teaching were it not for all of the amazing writers who have helped me build a platform in RaceBaitR.
For the longest time, I wasn’t paying for contributions. I make no money from the site itself, after all, and it has a relatively tiny audience. For many of us doing this work, it can be fruitless, and if we do make anything, it’s barely enough to get by.
But that site was listed on resumes and bios that got me paying gigs – and so it made no sense to continue asking folks to write for free.
This isn’t a call for everyone with a blog to pay people when your site only nets a couple thousand views a month.
But compensation doesn’t have to look like money. Many people who published me and couldn’t offer monetary compensation, for example, worked hard to get my name and work out there in ways that paid back tenfold.
But if you’re profiting off of the labor of others and not sharing those profits in any way (or only in a very limited way), you’re participating in an oppressive labor system.
When people with platforms take without giving back, they’re setting up a power structure that’s for the benefit of those with platform and no one else.
It’s easy to forget this when we’re still struggling to get by, which so many of us are forced to do once we commit to this work.
10. Doing Work with Institutions That Have Explicitly Worked Against Your Causes
Many institutions that have no real interest in social justice will offer enticing opportunities to those considered activists for their own malicious purposes (to satisfy diversity concerns, for the appearance of philanthropy, or because they truly are interested in justice for some, but not all).
These are often institutions with money that we might need, being as it’s hard to make money in these fields, and they may pad that resume which benefits us so much. But sometimes it’s not worth the cost.
Transgender activist and writer Janet Mock recently experienced this when she pulled out of a talk on LGBTQIA+ issues at Brown University Hillel after protestors pointed out what they felt was participation in pinkwashing, the strategy of using a progressive image around LGBTQIA+ issues to mask Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians.
Spending a lot of time in these spaces and racking up talks and speaking engagements sometimes obscures what that cost really is. When it becomes routine and its benefits are always salient, the detriments are hard to keep in mind.
I have done all of these things, sometimes often, many even recently, and will likely fall into the trap of doing them again in the future.
But this is part of the reason why my work was sometimes becoming inaccessible. And if these ten experiences apply to you, they may be hindering your work as well.
They truly are traps – designed to be as unavoidable as possible. But my hope is that awareness helps us keep ourselves and each other accountable so that we can continue doing what we’ve dedicated our work to do.
This post was previously published on Everydayfeminism.com.
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