Mirrors and a Baffling News Day

What is the news today??  The Supreme Court rules that apparently racism is a thing of the past, while completely mis-defining tribal identity and threatening native sovereignty.   And then Senator Wendy Davis is currently filibustering in Texas to keep draconian abortion laws off the book, too, so that’s cool.

Meanwhile, I am reflecting on a protest I attended yesterday at the Suffolk Detention Center in Boston, opposing the massive deportations that happen each week, invisible to the eyes of many Americans, but brutally real to many others.

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photo courtesy Massachusetts Jobs with Justice

We stood at the intersection of Mass Ave and I-93, 40 or 50 of us within sight of the Suffolk Detention Center, where detainees could see us through their barred windows. We waved and chanted, holding signs showing our solidarity and support; they waved back and banged on the windows, showing signs of their own: ICE 7 Years, and Thank You All.

As deportations continue by the thousands and the US sits on the brink of Immigration Reform, we need to be watching.  This country doesn’t make it easy for us to watch passively and see the full picture, so we have to look, and we have to listen. Carefully.

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photo courtesy Massachusetts Jobs with Justice

We could see into the part of the detention center nearest the highway, but walking there, we passed walls of windows, which were mirrored on the outside.  We could not see in, but the people inside could see out.  If we listened, we could hear them banging on the glass, hidden from us.

A two-way mirror is a simple tool to hide an atrocity.  What would it look like, to drive by on the highway and see hundreds of faces peering through the glass, hands pressed between bars, mouthing words?  Would we ask who those people are?  Would we ask if they really need to be there?  So long as deportation and incarceration stays hidden, it’s easy to dismiss deportation and incarceration as something that doesn’t apply, so long as you follow the law.  “I don’t know the people detained,” you might say, “Aren’t they there for doing something wrong?”

Well who says it’s wrong?  The same people hiding them behind mirrored glass.

The people in the wrong are not who’s behind the mirror, but those who put the mirror there in the first place.

Not one more deportation! ¡Ni una deportación más!

A First Experience with Occupy Sandy

Today, I went to try and act in solidarity with my fellow New Jerseyans by volunteering with an organization I found through Occupy Sandy.  I had felt bizarre being in Tucson, not a cloud in the sky, while Sandy was happening at home.  My work in Tucson made me feel very strongly that I want to be more connected to organizing in the place where all my loved ones are – the Northeast.  I wanted to be part of the community response to the Sandy: people coming together to fill in the gaps that FEMA and NJ/NY government disaster relief have left.

The organization I found was a church food pantry, not too far from my house, and I arrived asking what I could do to be helpful to them.  A very nice woman who shares my name directed me back into the bowels of their warehouse, piled high with donations, and instructed me to start going through a table covered with toiletries, and draw a line with permanent marker through the UPC code (the barcode) on each item, to prevent their resale-ability

“Isn’t that terrible, that someone would try and take something they got from us back to the store for money?  To sell it???” she asked indignantly.

Well, I thought to myself, No.  If someone decides they need $4 more than they need a Lady Speed Stick, then they should go for it.  Wouldn’t this time scribbling over a barcode be better spent finding out why people needed the $2 more than they needed a toothbrush?

I didn’t say anything.  I hadn’t been there more than five minutes, and I didn’t know who these people directing me were, or how long they had worked at the food pantry, or whom they had worked with, or why they were there.  I didn’t feel right then, like it was my place to call out or make judgments on their work.  I also don’t and can’t go there day after day, and I don’t know the immediate community – I can’t commit to understanding the nuances of people who sell the goods they get from the food pantry.  So I did the work they assigned me, figuring that if this is what it would take for the items to get into bags to go to people, I should just get it done.

But I feel like I should have said something, or at the very least asked a harder question and said it aloud, like, Do we really need to try to control what people do with the things we offer them?  Is it our place to decide how they will best serve their own needs?

What would I have lost by giving voice to my thoughts?  I didn’t want to make anyone feel angry.  I was nervous about getting into a more involved conversation about politics and religion with people I didn’t know. And at the same time, it was an opportunity for me to create a discussion, and I passed it up.

I am all about giving myself room to feel safe, but this was a time where I felt acutely aware of the privilege I can hide behind that lets me err on the side of inaction.

And so I continue… learning and growing.  Gotta act on love, act on collectivism, build solidarity networks, and hold myself accountable.  Hold each other accountable. This is not a passive process.

Tú eres mi otro yo.

In Lak’Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo.                       You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti,                        If I do harm to you,

me hago daño a mi mismo.       I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,                      If I love and respect you,

me amo y respeto yo.                  I love and respect myself.

-Mayan Traditional Greeting

In some classrooms in Tucson, each class begins with a recitation of In Lak’Ech, a reminder that we all are intertwined, and how we treat others affects how we experience the world.

As this semester of the Border Studies Program ends, I carry forward with me the words of In Lak’Ech,

Let’s build a world on bonds of solidarity and collective wellbeing.  Let’s listen to each other, let’s respect each other, let’s act on our love and make a world where we can all act on our love.

This is not an abstract discussion.

This was posted tonight on Facebook by my friend Faren Tang.

“The latest round of hate speech in Jewett– the words “cunt” and “whore splashed in paint on the 7th floor common room– has me convinced that someone is just trying to get a reaction out of those of us who care about the safety and humanity of all. And they will. Every time. Because I will say, every time: “Not on my campus. Not in my home. Not in my community.” I refuse to allow these things to be said and done without comment.

This is not a game. This is not an abstract discussion. Saying the kinds of hateful, violent, oppressive things that these menaces to our community have been saying creates a hateful, violent culture in which hateful, violent acts occurs. People die from sex-based violence all the time. Women right here in Dutchess County are murdered by their intimate partners on a regular basis. People are raped, and beaten, and abused, and killed because they are seen as objects. Every “Cunt” every “Whore,” every “She was asking for it,” every rape joke made, every slur slung contributes to the culture where people believe that these things are true, and in that culture people rape and beat and abuse and kill. People are assaulted on this campus all the time. One in four women and one in seven men who attend this college will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. As I’m writing this editorial, I am sitting in my bedroom in between phone calls with a woman who is in the hospital and trying to find a placement in a domestic violence shelter tonight. This is not a game.This is everyone’s problem. Every act of hate speech, every act of oppression against one group contributes to every other kind of oppression. Sexism, rape culture, racism, cissexism, heterosexsim, classism, ableism, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism are all systems of violent domination, and every act that contributes to one of these systems contributes to all of them. I refuse to stand for any of them. 

By now, I imagine many of you are tired of hearing my voice and reading my words. I am, too. This is not what I want to be doing with my time. This is not what I want any of us to have to do with our time. But I also believe it has to be done. By not reacting, by not taking a stand and insisting that this kind of oppressive, violent hate speech not be tolerated, we tacitly endorse it. And if you are tired of hearing what I have to say about this, then please, say something yourself.

I do not speak for all of feminism. I do not speak for all of feminists on this campus. I do not speak for all of feminists who consider themselves a part of Feminist Alliance. But I am speaking out because care about this. I care about all of us. And if we are going to be a community where we can feel safe, this must stop. We must not tolerate it. Not in our home. Not on our campus. Not anywhere. Not ever.”

-Faren Tang, VC ’13
I’m sad to be away from my VC community during this time on our campus.  It was only a year ago that I ran a teach-in to respond to hateful sexist and homophobic graffiti in my dorm.  I’m grateful for and proud of Faren’s and the feminist presence at Vassar right now.  Here in Tucson, I bear witness to the impact of all sorts of oppression, through bills SB 1070 and HB 2281, which are enforcing racial profiling and eliminating ethnic studies, and politicians standing at a podium, saying teachers who teach love are teaching hate, and Operation Streamline, and Tucson law enforcement questioning women who are reporting domestic violence about their own immigration status.  We have to take a stand against systemic oppression, whether it’s at Vassar or in Arizona or a federal bill or a global policy.  Faren is right – every act of oppression contributes to every other kind of oppression.

Taking Responsibility to Know My Neighbors

So I just got back from a two-week trip to Mexico.  We went to Oaxaca, which has the largest indigenous population of any Mexican state, and recognizes indigenous forms of self-governance.  Out-migration has a huge impact on Oaxaca, particularly as a result of US corn imports and industrial agriculture practices, which rendered subsistence farming obsolete.  Rural Oaxaqueños migrate to the cities of Oaxaca, Mexico City, and to cities all over the US, including Poughkeepsie.

Ten days of our trip was devoted to an academic seminar, in which we visited various projects around rural Oaxaca which are trying to develop alternatives to migration.  Seeing the different projects and talking with individuals who worked in the organizations was, in some ways, really special.  I met a woman who had lived in Poughkeepsie and came back to Oaxaca after spending seven years as a cleaner at IBM and other office buildings. She showed us the stream by their community, and we shared a joke about its being like the Hudson.  I think it was valuable to have the very real and emotional experience of meeting someone who I could’ve easily crossed paths with at some point in my life.  We were, in essence, neighbors.  If I meet Oaxacan immigrants in Poughkeepsie in the future, I’ll tell them I was there, and that will probably make our relationship stronger.

But it also felt kind of icky to be in Oaxaca.  I felt a disconnect between conversations we had in the States before we left on our trip about building solidarity, and the reality of what we could be as visitors in a place for a very short time.  In a few hours, all an organization can really do is give a brief outline of what they do.  I felt very aware of my ability to choose what I did and didn’t see.  Being in my position as a white woman in a group of Americans visiting these organizations which were compelled to answer to us felt complicit in the overarching mechanism of American colonialism.

And what this made me feel was a whole lot of guilt, and that’s a problem.  After some conversations in Oaxaca post-seminar, I feel like guilt is probably one of the most powerful weapons against solidarity and the kind of movement I think is necessary in order to break down systems of oppression.   As much as it is my responsibility to check my privilege and the ways in which I participate in the oppression of others, it is also not my fault that I have some privileged identities (my race, ethnicity, nationality, class background, ability status, cisgenderedness).  I have felt the way guilt affects how I participate in communities: when I’m thinking about privilege as a guilt thing, I start to judge myself and others, and both that entirely defeats the purpose of checking privilege and keeps me from forming meaningful relationships.  There is potential in this world to cultivate a really beautiful community of people who celebrate each other for the work that we do and stand in solidarity with each other.  I hope that when this semester ends, I leave Arizona with a broader network of people around the country that I will collaborate with throughout my life in different ways.  In order for that to happen, though, I need to do my best to shed this feeling of guilt, and instead celebrate myself and celebrate others, and do so out of love.

Check back later this week for my thoughts about being a feminist in Oaxaca and on this program.