“Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day”

May 18, 2009

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

When I sit in this place, here, and create words that you can read, there, without me, we are separated not just by physical distance but by the silencing of our bodies. You cannot read my clothing or my skin, my sweat or my hands, my hair or my posture. I cannot infuse my words with voice-tells. You must read it all just through these written words, and the places where I put them.

I cannot escape responsibility for knowing this, even as my own mistakes condition me to forgive others easily for not thinking before they write, even as I want to claim authority over how others interpret my words. This level of scrutiny on one’s words is uncomfortable, because it is revealing; powerful, because it is rare; draining, because it demands reciprocal attention to the crafting of one’s words.

None of us can be careful with our spoken or written words all the time, unless we silence ourselves most of the time. Yet we remember most vividly what we craft ourselves, or what we actively digest with others; it is natural, then, to seek out spaces where we can speak most easily without fear of harm to others or to ourselves. The more privileges one has to protect oneself from the consequences of speaking, the more likely one is not to be sensitive of where one speaks, and how context may infuse one’s literal words with other layers of meaning. The more privileges one has, the less one has to care about how others without one or more of those privileges would understand one’s words.

It is a very sad fact that nine times out of ten, people with privilege, who are exercising that privilege in a way that makes other people feel uncomfortable, will not hear the fact that they are making other people uncomfortable until it’s pointed out to them by someone with the same privilege.

I speak as someone with the privilege (as it is in most contexts) of being white. I speak with the shield of being American, and affluent enough to buy my own laptop; I speak with the amplification of a strong public education, and the clarity given by the privilege of ‘formal’ training. And because these privileges give me the further privilege of being able to afford to care about how my actions affect the world; because my experiences tell me that care for others is an investment in care for myself; because I am just wise enough to listen to those who foresee a minority-majority America where whiteness will not be so strong a privilege, and white people will be forced to care about how colorful people understand their words; because I am a human being, damnnit, and I want to be a decent one; because of all these reasons and more, I’ve gone venturing into contexts where whiteness is not a default asset, and where if I abuse that or any privilege I have, I can and likely will be called out. And I’ve learned again and again that I have so much more to learn, and to be wary about the cost of my learning on those from whom I learn, and to be careful of the costs to myself and others of attempting to teach.

To go where one or more of my privileges is not a privilege makes speaking harder. Negative feedback often hurts more, because it often reveals uncomfortable truths about my words, even though I might have put more than my usual effort into crafting them. Yet spending time in those spaces sensitizes me to context, trains me to be more articulate, teaches me to question the grooves that words make in my mind.

What really frustrates me about this dismissal of our words, spoken online, is this assumption that change is something that only physical labour and pots of money can bring about, because the real problems are only written on bodies—starving, malnourished, criminal, diseased, unclothed. As though racism has nothing to do with the mind.

Words are the shackles that bind our minds to the slavery, imperialism, colonialism, inferiority and self-hatred propagated by a White oppressive dominant discourse.

But words are also the knives we use to cut ourselves free.

Today is a day for praise song for my teachers and my peers, for those who are willing to pick apart fail and to fail better. Praise song for fans of color, praise song for colorful worlds. Praise song for learning oneself through being different and embracing difference, praise song for identities strong enough to change and grow through questioning. Praise song for the difficult conversations, and the poetry of being human.

Praise song for being uncomfortable because of truth, and listening to it anyway.

x-posted

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