«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Anne Cheng (2000) also explores the restrictive character of minority identity formation in the United States but her specific focus on race and her engagement with affective considerations are constructive in thinking through the limiting nature of QTPOC community arts programming. Drawing on Freud’s analysis of grief, Cheng forwards the conception of racial melancholy which functions as crucial framework for analyzing the constitutive role that grief plays in racial/ethnic subject formation. Cheng uses racial melancholy as a mode of analysis critically examine the traditional methods of restitution in the United States which has typically taken the form of converting the disenfranchised person from being subjected to grief to being a subject speaking grievance. She argues that this speaking about racial grief runs the risk of repeating a tool of containment traditionally exercised by authority. Racial melancholy is thus an analytic framework to examine this repetitive process among racialized others who engage in an ongoing psychical negotiation that has been instigated and institutionalized by racism. 9 While Brown and Cheng look at some of the restrictive aspects of identity politics, other scholars have examined how supposedly limiting forms of the affective aspects of identity also serve as sites of productive potential.
Cristina Hanhardt’s (2013) work on the history of “safe space” in gay and lesbian neighborhood organizing in the United States is helpful in understanding restrictive processes that the production of “safe spaces” enact. It is important to note however, that while I approach safe space in terms of affective considerations, Hanhardt is much more concerned with the connection between violence and geography. She argues that violence and safety have been the defining motors of mainstream LGBT politics since the 1970s but that these concerns have also been intimately connected to urban politics and the administration of cities. Though Hanhardt is concerned with how organizing practices around safe space rearrange existing power relations to the benefit of largely white, middle class gays and lesbians and this chapter is more concerned with alternative strategies of safe space that seek to provide support to those who can be seen as connected to the production of queer subjects, she disavows theoretical approaches that would repudiate this affect simply because it is created through homophobia. Instead, she points out that because the stigma of sexual and gender “deviance” is so profound, it is potentially an endless source of energy available for transformation. For queer subjects, this process occurs through the incorporation of shame into political movements and its transformation into pride as part of activist practices.
excluded by the work of Hanhardt’s organizers, her approach to safety is nonetheless useful in understanding the limiting nature of QTPOC community arts organizing. She states “I am not convinced that safety or safe space in their most popular usages can or even should exist. Safety is commonly imagined as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist (or, perhaps, isolationist). This is not to say that the ideal of finding or developing environments in which one might be free of violence should not be a goal….among the most transformative visions are those driven less by a fixed goal of safety than by the admittedly abstract concept of freedom” (2013, p. 30) Hanhardt’s work resonates with the critical writing on safe space that has emerged from the field of education that attempts to counter the emphasis on fostering “pedagogical conditions under which students can be free from self-doubt, hostility, fear or non-affirmation” (Stengel & Weems, 2010, p. 505). These scholars have tended to theorize safe space in terms of negotiating formal institutional settings where students (and their instructors) are differently positioned along various axes of alterity (Henry, 1994; Hooks, 2014; Ludlow, 2004). They have pointed out that pedagogical practices that support the creation of safe space may have the effect of inhibiting critical learning such that for instance students may choose not to ask questions around issues they deem to be controversial because they fear being chastised for lack of “political correctness” (Boost Rom, 1998; Holley & Steiner, 2005). What is instructive in these kinds of discussions is their attention to issues of affect and how the affective character of safe spaces are central to understanding their limiting nature. For instance, Stengel (2010) examines the practice of creating particular settings for marginalized group and argues, “it is the call for safe space itself that both instantiates and signals the emotion of fear in educational settings…The function of the emotion of fear is the control of embodied persons, enabling some free access and other constrained movement. Thus fear—as any emotion—is a relational phenomenon with a political purpose and impact.” (Stengel 2010, p. 538). For Stengel, fear is a critical component in understanding how the segregation of minority groups can have the effect of controlling bodies in social space such that a “home” is created for marginalized groups and harassers are thus allowed to circulate freely.
Much like the literature in the field of education describes, it is the affective nature of the settings that QTPOC community arts organizers create that account for the fact that some of their participants struggle to gain access to a more mainstream art world. Boost Rom states, “‘space’ is ‘safe’ when individuals and groups know that they will not face criticism that would challenge their expression of identity. In a ‘safe space’, people are encouraged to speak their minds freely and to share their experiences openly, and they are guaranteed that their expressions of self will be as well regarded as anyone else” (1998, p. 407). While Boost Rom is specifically referring to formal classroom settings, he may as well also be taking about a Toronto-based QTPOC community arts program such as ILL NANA’s intensive10. Unfortunately, this kind of affective setting is not conducive to entering more professional art domains. For instance, while the community arts program of the Toronto Arts Council emphasizes the ability of this kind of art to create “a powerful sense of inclusion understanding and the possibility of self expression” (Toronto Arts Council, n.d.-a), eligibility for funding from the dance program requires professional status, defined as “someone who has developed their skills through training and/or practice; is recognized as such by artists working in the same artistic tradition; actively practises his or her art, and has a history of public presentation” (Toronto Arts Council, n.d.). As noted This is certainly not to imply that queer and trans of color initiatives are settings in which “anything goes”. In one of ILL NANA’s drop in classes where kumari and Sze-Yang were facilitating, Sze-Yang intervened when one participant answered the question posed by another participant that was directed at the two facilitators. The first participant stated that the difficulty that the second participant was experiencing with the movement exercise was because of her large size. Sze-Yang interrupted this response to explain that this was not the case and asked the first participant to refrain from giving this advice.
earlier, while ILL NANA purposefully crafts safe spaces (or affective atmospheres) so that their participants can feel comfortable to engage in self expression through personal storytelling, this kind of affective environment does not contribute to the development of skills needed to be considered a professional.
By drawing attention to the limits of community arts in affective terms, I do not mean to take away from their importance nor to detract from the significance safe spaces in general. On the one hand, safe space can serve as a much needed refuge for marginalized peoples. In offering her definition of a womanist, which she describes as a Black feminist or feminist of color, Alice Walker writes that she is “committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist as in ‘Mama, why are we brown, pink and yellow and our cousins are white, beige and black?’ Ans: ‘Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented” (Walker, 2003. p.xi). Walker thus points out that while a womanist is dedicated to the wellbeing of all peoples, she may occasionally need to be only with other Black feminists or feminists of color as a temporary means of reprieve from processes of racism and sexism. On the other hand, while Elisha, Nadijah and Eshan may feel the need to move beyond the safe space mode of art production created by QTPOC organizers, there are others who do not necessarily see the need to make a similar move. Shahina Sayini, Executive Director of the arts funding initiative ArtReach that seeks to “engage youth who have experienced exclusion in under-served areas of Toronto” (ArtReach Toronto, n.d.) explains that while she recognizes the struggle that youth face in making the transition from working in community arts to a professional arts environment, not everyone necessarily wants to make this change. She notes that some community arts initiatives that receive funding from ArtReach simply do not continue once the project is complete because “it was a pilot project and it was great for the community at the time and the youth move on”.
Conclusion This chapter has been centrally concerned with the community organizing practices employed by queer and trans of color community art initiatives like ILL NANA DiverseCity Dance Company. These initiatives strive to create “safe spaces” or environments that support participants in the process of creating art. Drawing from feminist community organizing practices such as consciousness-raising, safe spaces are understood to be important because those who take part in these programs are mostly QTPOC with limited to no formal arts education and they are often expected to make art based on their personal experiences. Having been subject to mechanisms of racism, sexism and gender oppression with few other avenues for self-expression, community arts participants engage in feelings-based work in the process of making art about their often difficult lived realities. Unfortunately, while community arts programs offer unfailing support in its focus on the art making process, for those who want to succeed in more professionalized circles, which places greater emphasis on the quality of the art produced, this safe space mode of art production does not allow them to improve their artistic skills in ways that enable them to cross over into mainstream arts.
While existing scholarship on identity politics has sought to show how organizing social relations around politicized identities can reproduce the very processes of subjugation on which these identities are based, the challenges that QTPOC face in entering professional arts circles cannot be explained solely by turning to the limitations of identity politics. Instead, I argue that these challenges can best be understood by acknowledging the differences in affective orientation towards art production in community and professional arts settings. Understanding the safe spaces that QTPOC community arts organizers struggle to create in terms of affect, or the “atmospheres” in which particular feeling subjects are produced allows for an appreciation of how affective considerations demarcate differently valued modes of art production and draws attention to the political nature of affect in mediating different domains of social relations.
Unfortunately, in this discussion of how affective considerations are useful in understanding the ways in which the field of QTPOC community arts is differentiated from more mainstream/professional art circles, a nuanced understanding of the variations within this field has been lost. This emphasis on variation, hierarchical distinction and conflict will be the focus of chapter four.