«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Among queer and trans of color organizers, humanness is indexed by one’s ability to be a properly political person, by one’s capacity to act in ways that align with anti-oppression principles that valorize political transgression and subversiveness. What is curious about this set of circumstances is that while the framework of anti-oppression is (theoretically) oriented toward the elimination of social inequality, its operationalization among subjugated populations works to further marginalize the groups it aims to support. The premise on which these mechanisms of dehumanization operate differ from the basis on which they unfold in Paolo Freire’s (1970) model of horizontal violence whereby subjugated populations lash out amongst each other in their bid for humanization because they have internalized the processes of oppression to which they have been subject. Among Toronto-based QTPOC, dehumanization occurs not through the internalization of damaging societal norms but through the enactment of moral positions that seek to oppose these norms. In the following section, I delineate more clearly what these processes entail.
On fear shame and lateral violence The dehumanization of those who (are perceived to) fall short of appropriate political practice as per the evaluative framework of anti-oppression has particular consequences among Toronto-based QTPOC. I argue that the anti-oppression fueled practice of “calling out” functions as a kind of lateral violence that produces affective environments of fear and shame. I provide an example from my own experience of calling someone out as a way to counterbalance the perspectives of other QTPOC who speak primarily from the perspective of being called out.
In 2008, I was hired to work as an outreach worker for a lesbian gay bisexual transgeder (LGBT) youth social service agency. However, I soon left the organization because I had a difficult time navigating what I understood to be racist dynamics. I was confused as to why my attempts to connect with minority organizations that were not necessarily LGBT focused were not seen as “proper” outreach. I operated from an approach that recognized the interconnectedness of all lived experiences and acknowledged that issues of, for instance, racism and disability justice were also issues that affected LGBT people. I decided to leave the agency as a result of encountering difficulty in trying to justify my work to an organization that understood LGBT issues within a narrow frame of reference. I was happy to learn that in my exit interview, I would be speaking with both Sarah, the chair of the board and Jaden, a board member who was selected to be on the board because of his status as a “community member”.
Though Jaden was only an acquaintance, I knew we had several friends in common and thought that he would be sympathetic to my concerns. During the interview however, I was disappointed that when Sarah dismissed my concerns and said that she was unable to understand how my experiences with the organization could be interpreted as racism, Jaden remained silent. I
followed up on this interaction with an email, an excerpt of which I include below:
The reason that I am writing to you is because I wanted to talk about your silence. Your silence when Sarah said these things. In remaining silent when Sarah said that she did not see how my experiences could be interpreted as racism, thereby taking away my power to name my experiences, you were essentially in agreement with her. I am writing to you because I thought that you would have said something to counter Sarah, to say that everyone has the right to name their own experiences.
I did not write to or contact Sarah because Sarah is not in my community. YOU are in my community. You are friends with the folks that I am friends with and we are often at the same social gatherings and events. As a person with significant power as a board member and as someone that I saw as an ally with a significant support network of anti-racist feminists, I specifically selected you to be in the exit interview. I was disappointed in your silence.
I now cringe when looking back on this email. I was so caught up in the pain and hurt that I experienced in being let down by an organization that I believed was advancing social justice that I was not able to consider Jaden’s position. I could not see that as a very young person (he was in his early twenties at the time) he might not have had the experience or skills to navigate this situation. I could not see that even if he had these skills, it would have been difficult for him to speak up to the chair of the board who not only occupied a more senior position in the organization but who was also significantly older than him. In writing this email, I also assumed (perhaps erroneously) that he did not do or say anything after the interview ended. I did not receive a response from Jaden. Once, when we ran into each other at a social event, he mentioned receiving my email and that he would get back to me, but that did not end up happening.
I include this anecdote to demonstrate the harshness of the calling out process. However, my email is not necessarily indicative of the extreme levels of scathing criticism that calling out can possibly entail. My interview with community artist Elisha Lim perhaps gives a more revealing sense of the intensity of “call out culture”. Lim’s artist bio identifies them as taking “great pleasure in creatively portraying the beauty, dignity and power of being neither straight nor white nor cis-genderd”. Toward the end of our conversation, they insisted on talking about how the expectation of an anti-oppressive political practice can result in a "toxic" social scene.
Elisha: One of the dangerous aspects in Toronto is what happens in safe spaces, the way that we just attack each other. It's like we're animals with each other. We tear each other down all the time…The threats that you're going to ostracized if you don't follow the rules.
You can so easily be, what's the word that parents do with their children? If you cut off your kid?
Elisha: Disowned! People are disowned, exiled, excommunicated from the community.
You can be people who are in the goods [and people who are] in the bads. I think it's [the community] getting bigger so it doesn't matter if you get kicked out of one [sub group] you can find another but…I think it’s a form of danger.
I argue that lateral violence serves as a useful framework to understand the harsh dynamics of calling out among QTPOC. The concept of “lateral violence” was developed as a way to make sense of the kinds of abuse that indigenous community members inflict on each other as a consequence of the ongoing impact of residential schools. Within Canada, these institutions were funded by the government and run by church missionaries with the aim of assimilating indigenous populations (Milloy, 1999). Native children were removed from their families and communities and subject to religious conversion and processes of "civilization" in which Native languages and cultural practices were actively suppressed (Miller, 1996). While the last of these schools in Canada closed their doors in 1996, at the height of the residential school system in the 1930s, approximately 75% of First Nations children attended these institutions as well as a significant proportion of Metis and Inuit children (Fournier & Crey, 1997). Much has been made of the way in which Native children were subject to abuse and neglect by residential school staff including public beatings, humiliation, sexual abuse, food deprivation, emotional neglect and solitary confinement (Knockwood, 1992). Yet a smaller body of scholarship has also noted how the impact of residential schools can be evinced in the violence that Indigenous people enact amongst themselves (Haig-Brown, 1988). For instance, Bull (1991) argues that former students internalized the normalized violence that they experienced within residential schools and that this violence continues to characterize the social relations among Indigenous peoples as a consequence of collective trauma. Framing this situation in terms of “lateral violence”, the now defunct Aboriginal Healing Foundation states, “residential schools have been suggested as the primary cause of a cluster of behaviours known as lateral violence thought to be prevalent within Aboriginal communities. Lateral violence can occur within oppressed societies and include bullying, gossiping, feuding, shaming, and blaming other members of one’s own social group as well as having a lack of trust toward other group members” (Bombay, Matheson, & Anisman, 2014, p. 2). In their study of the student-to-student abuse that occurred within Canadian residential schools, the Foundation writes, "it's not uncommon for people to injure one another with acts of gossip, blame, shame, anger, jealousy. As oppressed people it is not surprising that we oppress our own people out of anger and frustration" (2014, p. xi).
While the concept of “lateral violence” can help to make sense of the ways in which groups who are constituted as outside of various dimensions of normativity direct negative behaviors toward each other, I do not make the claim that is possible to equate the historical and ongoing colonial violence experienced by Native populations to the kinds of exclusions and marginalizations to which queer and trans people of color are subject. The ethnographic descriptions I offer here are in no way comparable in either scale or severity to colonial violence enacted on Native bodies (neither is this comparison meant to discursively extinguish the existence of 2 spirit and/or indigenous queer and trans people). In talking about the making and unmaking of social relations wrought by the idealization of anti-oppression, it is important not to lose sight of the ways in which analyses of oppression can elide and even contribute of other kinds of violences. Wolfe (1999) describes settler colonialism as a structure (and not an event) premised on the extinction of Native people and Trask (2008) argues that mechanisms of settler colonialism can unfold by the foregrounding of settler group's relationship with each other (and/or settler states) and ignoring the relationship between native peoples and the ancestral lands on which settlers occupy. Thus, in using the concept of lateral violence to more clearly understand the negative consequences of how radical politics in the form of anti-oppression operate as a regulatory ideal within queer and trans of color community organizing circles, I seek to draw attention to the similarities between the kinds of dynamics produced by student-tostudent abuse within residential school and QTPOC “call out culture”. My analysis does not compare the violences and exclusions on which these dynamics are founded.
The workings of calling out as a form of lateral violence have particular affective consequences as QTPOC identify both shame and fear as salient to the experience of being called out. During our interview at the Gladstone branch of the Toronto Public Library, community artist Nadijah Robinson shared with me her thoughts on the relationship between fear, violence and calling out. In response to my question about the changes that she would like
to see in QTPOC community organizing circles, she stated:
Nadijah: I think that that's probably something that we could work on more. Becoming more of a community… I think there's a lot of fear of being called out in this community that makes us only able to connect on certain levels.
Matthew: What do you mean?
Nadijah: In order to create a safer space for everyone, there are a lot of things that we can't do, words that we can't say, things that support oppression basically. Which is fine and great but I think the danger is when someone slips up and does something like that, everyone jumps on them and it’s just like, 'Oh you did this bad thing! We have to call you out. We have to make you accountable for your crime of saying this word.' There's so much fear of that happening to you and you being known as the person who fucked up or the fucked up person that nobody can say anything… it feels very violent sometimes.
Nadijah's description of the (anticipatory) fear that "call out culture" produces among community artists stands in stark contrast to QTPOC organizers attempts to create "safe space" through their initiatives as described in chapter one. Whereas safe spaces are constructed to be settings of tenderness and allowing so that queer and trans people of color may create art derived from their own difficult lived experiences, harsh public practices of “calling out” in contrast are productive of fear and shame.