Personal Essay

When the political is too personal

"I've been thinking a lot about the dangers of oppression-first activism. And I've been witnessing the corrosive impact on us," writes Frances Lee.
"I've been thinking a lot about the dangers of oppression-first activism. And I've been witnessing the corrosive impact on us," writes Frances Lee. (Marcela Gara)
Listen6:40

One night, my partner and I were on the couch. We were looking at data about the overrepresentation of East Asian students at top universities. At my school earlier that day, I had been told that as a person of Chinese descent, I couldn't be part of my campus organization for underrepresented students of colour.

My partner, who is white, leaned over to me and joked: "I guess you're not oppressed anymore."

I panicked.

After years of being in social justice community, I had fully embraced my identity as a person of colour. I had grown attached to the special underdog comfort it provided me, especially when I found myself in a roomful of progressive white people.

And then it hit me — I don't know how to be anymore, without this identity.

As an activist, I've fought for justice and equality for myself and my communities.  And that has required me to constantly talk about being oppressed, even at times when I feel powerful.

I have to ask: As marginalized people, do we believe we are worthy of love and belonging even when we no longer suffer?- Frances Lee

This pattern has started to worry me. And it's not just me. I think many of us have internalized damage-centered narratives of ourselves. What do I mean by this?

There is a false belief in many social justice communities that our value is based upon how much oppression we have experienced. Only people with enough "oppression credentials" are allowed to lead or even participate. For example, when I enter activist spaces, I've learned to introduce myself with a list of my identities along with my privileges as a way to be seen and accepted. I tell people I'm queer, trans non-binary, able-bodied, middle class, and Chinese American. There is so much distrust of white, male, and straight people that identities often serve as a form of gate keeping. This is both understandable and a problem.

In her article "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities," Indigenous studies and education scholar Eve Tuck coined the term "damage-centered research." In it, she sounds a warning: Don't let yourself be confined, she says, to academic research that only presents you as damaged.

It offers some short-term political gains in the beginning. But it will never produce the transformational shift in power we need for a new society. Worst of all, it fixes us as people who are always broken.

I have to ask: As marginalized people, do we believe we are worthy of love and belonging even when we no longer suffer?

I've been thinking a lot about the dangers of oppression-first activism. And I've been witnessing the corrosive impact on us.

To paraphrase Black science fiction writer Octavia Butler from her book, Parable of the Sower: Every single thing we do when trying to change the world also changes us.

Every act of rage, rejection, flash judgment, and malice I unleash on another person in the name of social justice cements a thick wall around my heart. When a well-meaning person asks me "no, where are you really from?" or argues with my use of gender-neutral pronouns, I've gotten used to reacting with searing anger. I've felt justified in being mean, refusing connection, and judging people who haven't worked through their own racism or transphobia. I started to almost enjoy lashing out at people who mess up, and thinking that I'm better than them. But now, I cringe when I catch myself doing this. I cringe when I witness this happening in my community.

I have to believe that if I dare to reach across difference especially in this time of extreme polarization I can push through stuck conversations and dynamics into spaces of fresh possibility and growth.- Frances Lee

Of course, I want us all to be free to openly defend ourselves when people disrespect or attack us.  But so many of us have a platform to do that now. And that can't be our whole purpose. We are meant for much greater work.

I don't want to spend the majority of my waking life complaining about white feminists, mocking straight men, regulating cultural appropriation, or whatever is the next collective reflex to discipline.

In the end, brandishing the most flawless, blistering analysis won't save us from anything. Because language, wit and precise arguments are not the primary vehicle of change.

Instead of holding on to a damage-centered narrative where I am only and always oppressed, I'm trying to look for what I have in common with white people, men, and straight people who care about justice. And I want to be humble when someone confronts me about my own failings and mistakes, regardless of their identities.

I have to believe that if I dare to reach across difference especially in this time of extreme polarization I can push through stuck conversations and dynamics into spaces of fresh possibility and growth.

I want… No, I need an activism that speaks to this.

Click 'listen' above to hear Frances Lee's essay. 

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