«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
These principles, concepts and practices are by no means new. Cheng, Dulani and Piepzna-Samarasinha concede, “What we call ‘community accountability’ (some call it transformative justice, others call it as many names as there are people) has existed for as long as we hold collective memory” (2011, p. xxiii). An example of a transformative justice alternative to “calling out” may be evinced in the open letter that Audre Lorde (1981) wrote to Mary Daly published in This bridge called my back: Writing by radical women of color. In this letter, Lorde takes Daly to task for her failure to account for the diversity of experiences among women in her text Gyn/ecology: The metaphysics of radical feminism. She states that the work, “feels like another instance of the knowledge, crone-logy and work of women of color being ghettoized by a white woman dealing only out of a patriarchal western-european framework of reference” (1981, p. 96). For Lorde this approach is problematic because, “to imply…that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women, is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other” (1981, p. 95).
I argue that the way in which QTPOC mobilize transformative justice to address the violence of calling out as a kind of anti-oppression practice operates as a means of humanization.
By making this claim, I align with the work of Alexander Weheliye (2014) who pays close attention to how humanity is made in the traditions of oppressed groups. In proposing the notion of habeas viscus, he advocates for an understanding of humanity constructed through the application of knowledge to the practical aims of human life. Within this framework it is important to understand the workings of these applications among subaltern groups because they constitute a distinct assemblage of what it means to be human in the modern world. I argue that, in the case of QTPOC, this meaning is manifest in the attempt to sidestep the enactment of violence that calling out often entails and to build alternate ways of relating to each other.
Transformative justice thus operates as a technological assemblage of humanity designed to work against the dehumanizing hierarchization produced by anti-oppression practice.
Yet while queer and trans of color community artists and organizers recognize the toxicity in how the valorization of radical politics comes to manifest in their social relations and identify transformative justice/community accountability as a way to address this issue, they nevertheless acknowledge the incredibly difficulty of actually changing the way that they interact with each other. Farrah, a Toronto-based queer of color community organizer shared the challenges that she experienced in trying to resolve a conflict along the lines suggested by Trần, "It’s heartbreaking because you're like, 'Can we sit down and talk about it?' But the scary thing is that people can't actually do that. They can vilify you online, write a blog post about you, they can talk about you at parties, but to actually have a conversation with you is a challenge". Farrah highlights a difficulty in practicing transformative justice that many queer and trans people of color have identified in their attempt to resolve conflicts based on political (and personal) differences. The painful nature of the circumstances that necessitates these kinds of conversations that Farrah refers to may serve to block these conversations from happening at all.
As Lorde notes in her letter to Daly, “As an african-american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much matches my own” (1981, p. 95). What is one to do when the other person does not want (or finds themselves unable) to engage in these kinds of difficult discussions?
This issue came up in my interview with Patrick who raised the point that securing consent can serve as a stumbling block to practicing transformative justice.
Patrick: Community accountability is the way to go Matthew: Do we practice that?
Patrick: No, no, no. When you do that stuff, you need people to consent to it. And the thing is that when it comes to certain things people are not going to be part of the process. In the regular [criminal legal system] you can force someone, but in this situation you can't have a mediation process and force someone. That's what makes it complicated…but you have to learn to live in community, we can't 'x' people out The issue of consent becomes particularly challenging in situations where conflict involves individuals who are positioned in different ways. I became acutely aware of this difficulty in speaking to a former employee of a QTPOC community arts program who described the grossly unjust treatment that she received in her position. For her, this was not an isolated incident but rather, “a pattern... this one thing keeps happening in arts organizations in my life and not just to me but different people… People’s work gets exploited and people get burned out and a lot of the time it’s the people who’re doing this work and being exploited… it’s gendered. It’s not a coincidence that I’m a queer femme of color that got fired from a job without any fair reason”.
She went on to explain that she felt as though she could not share her experience with others not only because of the celebrity status of the director who she identified as the source of her troubles, but also because she did not want to damage the reputation of a much needed community program. She pointed out the inherent asymmetry in the relationship between an employer and employee and questioned the extent to which someone in such an advantaged position would be motivated to change their behavior. This situation demonstrates that social relations among queer and trans people of color within community arts organizing circles are not automatically horizontal, which poses significant challenges in addressing the kinds of situations to which transformative justice is forwarded as the solution.
Ultimately, while queer and trans of colour community artists and organizers turn to transformative justice to address the harm that comes about as a consequence of how the regulatory ideal of anti-oppression is manifest in QTPOC social relations, they both recognize the challenges of implementing this practice as well as the importance of pushing against this harm to find different ways of interacting with each other. Unfortunately, I do not have much insight to share in terms of how to make these kinds of struggles any easier. While scholars such as Ahmed (2010) speak to the significance of not pushing for a happy ending, as a social worker, I nevertheless feel remiss at my inability to address the harmful dynamics that I have described.
As a consolation, I hope to have offered a clearer understanding of how we might begin to think about the problem. In this spirit, I conclude with the words of writer, community educator and organizer, Mia Mingus, who so eloquently captures the urgency and difficulty of working
through the kinds of challenges that QTPOC are currently grappling with:
We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in violence or accept violence as normal...We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it—because they do. We have to learn how to have hard conversations and get skilled at talking about and dealing with shame, guilt, trauma, hurt, and anger...We must work to transform our selves, each other and the systems we’re up against. The task in front of us is to learn how to value and practice individual, collective and systematic change together…because the truth is we need each other. (Mingus, 2012)
CHAPTER FIVE: MAKING QUEER AND TRANS OF COLOR COUNTER-POLITICS: DISABILITY,
This chapter focuses on the work that queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) community arts organizers undertake in order to make their initiatives more accessible for those who typically do not participate. Drawing from my experience as the accessibility coordinator for Unapologetic Burlesque, an anti-racist, queer, consensual burlesque performance series, I point out the tension between the production and reception of accessibility work among QTPOC as a way to think about the significance of accessibility in relation to the practice of community organizing in general. Drawing from the work of disability justice activists, queer and trans of color organizers have adopted a number of practices to ensure that people with disabilities can take part in their events. Given that disability has often been the foundation on which ethnoracial, gender and sexual minorities have been subject to disqualification from the category of human, disability justice organizing among QTPOC serve as a reminder of the interlocking nature of both the mechanisms of exclusions and the means through which these exclusions are refuted. Yet some queer and trans of color organizers have criticized the way in which disability justice organizing is implemented, arguing that these practice are opaque to those who are unfamiliar with Toronto’s QTPOC community arts scene. Echoing the works of community building/organizing scholars who speak to the importance of expanding social collectives that tend to adopt an inward orientation, QTPOC organizers also stress the importance of encouraging the participation of newcomers. In contrast to a negative analytic that focuses on questions of exclusion, this tension between disability justice organizing and efforts to ensure the participation newcomers allows for a more productive approach that asks how these organizing practices anticipatorily imagine the people they seek to include. Ultimately, I argue that in this process of anticipatory imagination, QTPOC accessibility efforts construct relationships among unknown others in the creation of subaltern counter public spheres.
Accessibility and disability justice organizing I first came to understand the significance of accessibility within (queer and trans of color) community organizing initiatives through my experience as the accessibility coordinator with Unapologetic Burlesque. In April 2013, I received an email from Shaunga, one of the cofounders of the initiative, asking if I would be interested in taking on this role. She wrote, kumari [the other co-founder of Unapolgetic Burlesque] and I are re-structuring the behind the scenes work that goes into this event a little bit in order to share tasks and keep the work load more manageable and sustainable for us. For that reason we've created two separate roles, a crew coordinator and an outreach/accessibility coordinator.
We thought of you as someone really awesome to work with and would love it if you were interested in taking on the outreach/accessibility coordinator position! Also thinking because you had asked us if the show could somehow be incorporated into your research so doing this work might be a way for you to understand through experience how the work comes together that would benefit your research.
The main part of this role would be around overseeing the process of getting ASL [American Sign Language] interpretation and active listeners23 at the show, and keeping track of performer and community accessibility needs. We'll definitely be around as backup for everything so you wouldn't be doing it without support.
Meeting up with both kumari and Shuanga the week afterward to talk about the position, I explained that I would be happy to help out but that I was hesitant because I had no prior As part of my role as accessibility coordinator, I organized a skills sharing workshop so that people could learn active listening skills from each other. The two people that I recruited to facilitate the workshop wrote a description of this event and identified active listeners as "community members who support those who are [emotionally] triggered, need help strategize around safety or need to talk to someone at community events" experience around accessibility work. In response, they suggested that I reach out to people who were already doing this kind of organizing to learn from them and provided me with a list of contacts. Over the course of preparing for the show, it became apparent that while they had initially envisioned my role as encompassing both outreach and accessibility activities, the sheer volume of accessibility work required meant that I focused my efforts solely in this arena.