Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain

To be a person of color, to be black, to be queer, to be a woman: is to know what it means to not be defended.

We know what it means to not be defended, to have no other choice than to marshal our own defense in the midst of continual defenselessness.

I’m tired of people not defending us. I’m tired of looking to people for defense.

I’m tired of longing for defense that has not come, that is not coming, that, should it ever come, is already late.

I’m tired of being made to feel grateful to those who belatedly defend us, if and when they defend us at all.

And I’m tired of seeing people belatedly defend us, after the fact, after the bodies have been piled sky high — after they have already eaten my ancestors’ rotting corpses — and expect to be congratulated, thanked, made to feel good.

I’m tired of being disappointed.

* * *

The main thing I know about intersectionality is that I am tired of living at the intersections of so much bullshit.

Women, people of color, queers and blacks must continually launch our own defense and defend ourselves for defending ourselves. We must not only defend against offenses – we must also explain both the offense and the defense.

These are fundamentally indecent things to have to do.

Anti-oppression work is an enterprise that is, by definition, beneath us. For it requires the saying and doing of things that shouldn’t have to be said or done.

It is very upsetting to be asked to explain why the on-going, everyday, routine suffocation of black and brown and queer and female (and..) life makes me sad and angry. It is beneath me to do this explanatory work, but I do it anyway. In part, I do it because I have chosen this line of work — but all people who experience oppression are required, in some way, to perform the critical exegesis of our pain. The demeaning shuffle and jive of our suffering.

It is beneath us to have to say that black and brown people deserve the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the tongue and teeth in our mouths, the spaces we occupy. It is beneath us to say that our dead should be mourned. It is beneath us to say that colored knowledge is extraordinarily valuable and perpetually undervalued. It is beneath us to say that white supremacy exists, that the suffering it engenders is an immoral horror that should keep you up at night. It is beneath us to say that patriarchy and homophobia are moral wrongs. It is beneath us to assert the centrality of women’s work and women’s worth. It is beneath us to say that we are a wounded culture, a wounded society precisely because power renders the wounds of the less powerful invisible, unknowable and, then, when knowable, knowable only as the normal state of affairs, the way things should be, knowable not as a wrong, but rather as the evidence of the wounded’s unfortunate and indisputable inferiority.

It is beneath us to know that when people of color and blacks and women and queers do the work of defending ourselves, we will be appreciated less, embraced less, recognized less, paid less than whites and men who ‘enjoin’ the struggle. Even worse, we will undoubtedly be attacked, policed, shunned, shamed and punished.

All of this is beneath us.

All of this is beneath me.

But we are called to do work that is beneath us. To explain that we should not be genocided, colonized, enslaved, lynched, murdered, raped, abused, attacked, segregated, denigrated, insulted, misrepresented, ignored, violated, undermined, discriminated against.  To explain to people who think we are inferior that they are mistaken. To explain that our dead deserve to be mourned. To explain that their murderers deserve to be held accountable. To explain that their being held accountable does not constitute ‘justice’. To explain that any concept of humanity that is hierarchical is in fact a form of insanity. To explain that a few decades or centuries of feminist organizing have not erased thousands of years of socio-economic, religious, political and reproductive oppression of women. To explain that people who have never in their life studied the history of race are not qualified to opine about it. To explain that people who have never in their life studied the concept of gender are not qualified to opine about it. To explain that people who have not read about African history are not qualified to opine about it. To explain that people who have never been educated by a person of color are not qualified to say much at all about people of color. To explain that it is not possible to support ‘gender equality’ without first understanding and opposing patriarchy. To hold up signs saying “Black Life Matters”, knowing that the sign and the words speak to the abysmally broken morality of the societies that birthed us.

I am thinking, now, of Mariame Kamba’s brilliant project ‘No Selves to Defend’, which unites art and activism to address how women of color – like Marissa Alexander – have been criminalized and attacked for defending themselves. I am thinking, now, of Christina Sharpe’s meditations on what it means to embark upon Black Studies ‘in the wake’. I am thinking, now, of Keguro Macharia’s instruction on “queer disposability”. I am thinking, now, of Sylvia Wynter’s No Humans Involved.

I am thinking, now, of Sarah Ahmed’s painfully beautiful thoughts on ‘writing with a heavy heart‘. I swallow Ahmed’s words, like razors down my throat, killing me softly:

“I am writing whilst down; heavy in heart, slowed down; the weight of things.

You can probably tell.

I am writing because I am not willing to let things go.

In the past year words have been sent out like missiles, thrown at me; and I have not been able to get out of the way. I know what this does when it happens to me, someone well protected by position, by an institution (or maybe not, institutions will not protect you if they are protecting themselves) so I can understand what this happening would mean for others, those who are less protected. I stretch my hand out to you; I give you my arm.

I have been called “braindead” and “incredibly stupid,” a “killjoy cheerleader who resorts to bullying as a strategy.” In fact, bullying as a term keeps coming up. When you talk about sexism and racism here (not over there but here) it will happen very quickly: you will be called a bully. When you point out power you are judged as exercising power. It could almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

There can be nothing more threatening than challenging how space is occupied. People occupy that space by hearing you as threat.

Maybe: we become what they hear. Maybe: we need to threaten the world that perceives us a threat. Maybe: that’s a threat.

We don’t get over it. It is not over. Getting over it does not make it over. It makes it not over, all over again.

Heavy histories: our bodies; willful reminders. We need to be more than reminders. We are more. We don’t need reminding.

We come up again. It will come up again.”

* * *

We not only have to defend ourselves, we have to know that most people do not even see the forces that wound us, much less care. They have been conditioned not to care, not to see. We have been subject to that same conditioning. Our wounds are not recognizable as wounds. We cannot be seen as wounded. We were never seen in the first place.

And so we must continually struggle to name and explain our wounds – to ‘our’ politicians, ‘our’ policemen, our doctors, our critics, our opposition, our oppressors, our  families, our friends, our students, our colleagues, our lovers, ourselves.

This is the perversity of having to perpetually identify and explain your pain. To assert and prove your wound-ability.

We must perpetually subject ourselves to the indecency of having to say, simultaneously, continually:

“I exist. I have been wounded. I deserve defense. I deserve to not be wounded.”

* * *

I know it sounds narcissistic (it is), but one thing that gives me hope is that I have (and continue to) observe(d) my own transformations. I have also observed transformation in the people around me. I have also seen that very often, people grow precisely because we tell them how disappointed we are with their behavior.  Or we grow because someone demonstrates just how much we’ve failed them.

If we’re receptive, in these moments, we realize that we are capable of something better. Even if we are not yet capable in that moment. Surprisingly, against all expectations, miraculously: some of us actually do grow. Sometimes. We change. We learn. We become less horrible humans.

Expressing our disappointment with each other – when we do it in a way that is not toxic or abusive – can be generative, hopeful and terribly beautiful. But it is a wounded and wounding beauty –  as it means feeling, seeing and explaining our own pain clearly. I think we all want people to already understand our pain but the reality is we have to explain it. And explaining our wounds always hurts.

People of color, blacks, women and queers have the added pain of having to continually explain both personal *and* collective wounds. It’s exhausting.

This exhaustion is why some people of color prefer intra-racial relationships, why some lesbians hope a woman’s love can protect them from misogyny. But hopes for intra-group understanding and fictive kinship are also new sources of pain, as we find that people who “should” understand, don’t. And truthfully, I’m not sure what’s worse: Having to explain intersectional wounds to a white person or having to explain them to a black person. Having to explain intersectional wounds to a man, or having to explain them to a woman. Having to explain intersectional wounds to a straight white man or having to explain them to a queer woman of color. Having to explain my worthiness to anyone else, or having to explain it to myself.

As a queer black woman of color, I have to explain my wounds to every damned body, because my body is seen as damned, my pain is not recognizable. Too often, it feels like I have no one to defend me except my own imperfect and wounded self.

And when I do defend myself or defend women or defend queers or defend bisexuals or defend people of color or defend blacks or defend poor and working class people or defend basic tenets of decency, I am told that my defense is too moralizing, too condescending, too aggressive, too personal, too political, too simplistic, too complex, too much, too soon, not enough, not right, not right now.

My wounds are continually un-thought, denied, excused, rationalized, not seen, then dismissed when seen. I can’t trust anyone to “get it”. I can barely trust myself. For me to even see, understand and defend my intersectional wounds requires transcending the conditioning that would have me deny them, too. For me to even defend my wounds, I have to transcend the conditioning that tells me that I am not worthy of defense, that I should be quiet and polite, that I am wrong for feeling wronged. That I am wrong, period.

* * *

I’m tired of people thinking we should call the space between chattel enslavement and “progress”.

I’m tired of people re-writing the continual, global oppression of women over the course of thousands of years as “things are getting better”.

I am tired of people not valuing their own lives and/or the lives of others, enough to know that their celebratory narratives are immoral.

People are so hungry to feel good – about themselves, their nations, their religions, their ethnoracial groups, their gender, their families, their relationships – that they will transform on-going oppression and pain into progress, contort immorality into feel-good stories, re-write immutable tragedies as silver linings.

Like all animals, people do not like pain. They very rarely know what to do with it, other than avoid, deny, suppress or rationalize.

And I am learning that people who cannot sit with or accept their own pain most certainly cannot sit with or accept yours.

* * *

I used to think my continual disappointment with humanity was a sign of pessimism. But perhaps it is in fact a sign of irrational optimism?

Being disappointed when people fail us – personally, inter-personally, collectively – has its merits. It allows for the possibility that they (we) are capable of better things.

I live inside the irrational optimism that humans are capable of more than this, that a less horrible world is possible, that we can love each other better, stronger, more expansively.

I think, generally, among people of color and others who experience marginalization, there is always the fundamental divide between the “glass half full” and the “glass half empty” contingents. Acknowledging this diversity of perspectives is important, as we all obviously do not view our difficulties or challenges in the same way, contrary to those who paint minorities’ views with a broad, homogenizing brush.

This rich diversity of perspectives doesn’t bother me (though, as a glass-half-empty person, I am biased in thinking that most progressive social change comes from people who are dissatisfied with current conditions — not those who are satisfied with “progress” made). What bothers me is that people who should know better dismiss the legitimate dissatisfaction that many of us feel.
We who experience maginalization differ in terms of how we appraise “progress”, too. Where some see progress, I see (and the empirical evidence bears out) mostly superficial change masking the reproduction of multiple and intertwined forms of inequality. Where some feel “grateful” for “opportunities”, I temper my gratitude with the sober acknowledgment that I should not have to be grateful for not being discriminated against. Where some feel that they are living the dream, I accept that what we often view as “dreams” are in fact built on other people’ nightmares.
Very often we differ on these questions — of progress, morality and tactics — with ourselves, arguing with our own conscience over the best way to name our wounds, the best way to treat them. But the reality is that we are choosing between less-horrible treatments, not “best” ones.
There are no “best” tactics or strategies for wounds that should not exist in the first place.
* * *
I believe that the hopes of black people and women are mainly hopeless hopes. It’s important to be honest about that. We hope for things that we do not actually expect to see happen, In fact, we hope for things that *no one* has ever seen happen. We hope for completely impossible things: “justice”, “equity”, “equality”, “fairness”. Things no human on earth has ever experienced. Sometimes I think a more honest and sober slogan would be “No justice . . . no justice”, rather than the “No justice . . . no peace” we’re more familiar with.
Sometimes I wonder if things weren’t better prior to the evolution of morality–when everyone was totes okay with knocking each other over the head with rocks. When we didn’t expect better of ourselves. When we didn’t aspire to anything other than survival. When we didn’t question the legitimacy of might-makes-right, because we didn’t bother with questions of rightness, or any questions at all.
I don’t know what’s worse: To live in a world where fairness is inconceivable, or to conceive of fairness in a world that has never seen it.
The problem with morality is that we very legitimately judge as immoral things that have been happening throughout human history. And, with the evolution of moral sensibility, we now aspire to things that humans have never, ever been able to do consistently. Things just seem so much simpler for animals that lack complex meaning systems. But what do I know? Maybe birds lose sleep over the moral failures of their flocks, too.
* * *
They say that we teach people how we want to be treated. But the pedagogy of people who experience oppression is exponentially more difficult and burdensome than this. Before we can teach anyone how we “want” to be treated, we must first teach them that we exist. We must teach them that we are are worthy of existing. Then we must teach them that we have been wounded, that we were born into wounds not of our making, that we continue to be wounded, that these wounds are both personal and collective, that these wounds are immoral, that they are unjustified, that they are routinely denied, dismissed and un-seen, that they should be seen, named, addressed, redressed. We must teach the people who wound us that they are wounded, too, that their wounds – of pathological ignorance, fear and lust for power – are infectious and contagious, that their wounds are the architects of violence within themselves, their relationships and communities, that their wounds inhibit their moral imaginations, that their wounds wound others and reproduce inter-generational, intersectional suffering.
And we must do this teaching because no one else will, because we are defenseless unless and until we defend ourselves. And we are very often still defenseless, especially and particularly defenseless, when we defend ourselves.
There is nothing fair about this unseemly and immoral burden, but then again, there is nothing particularly fair or moral about the universe, either. It simply is at it is, we are as we are, and we must do what must be done. Even and especially when it hurts.

1 thought on “Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain”

  1. “Before we can teach anyone how we “want” to be treated, we must first teach them that we exist. We must teach them that we are are worthy of existing. Then we must teach them that we have been wounded, that we were born into wounds not of our making, that we continue to be wounded, that these wounds are both personal and collective, that these wounds are immoral, that they are unjustified, that they are routinely denied, dismissed and un-seen, that they should be seen, named, addressed, redressed.” –> Thank you for this! Well put

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