on restorative justice and dana schutz’s painting of emmett till

dana schutz’s painting of emmett till at the 2017 whitney biennial is the 2017 version of kelley walker’s paintings at the contemporary art museum of st louis is the 2016 version of kenneth goldsmith reading mike brown’s autopsy report is the 2015 version of joe scanlan’s performance as a fictional black woman donelle woolford in the 2014 whitney biennial. in other words, it is yet another white artist’s appropriation of a black body and black death, under the justification of white free speech.

the conversations around schutz’s painting are disappointingly familiar. in some regards, i truly feel i can add no more to the conversation about white free speech versus black death. (hint: white free speech is never the answer. here are some reads.) and then art historian melinda guillen posted this curious question: would intersectional woman of color feminism call for the destruction of the artwork? or, rephrased, how do we approach this offense by considering restorative, instead of punitive, justice? if that proposition makes people on both sides of the debate want to throw up, please bear with me as i navigate through the nausea.

as someone who has experienced sexual assault, who has both experienced and perpetrated domestic violence, and who believes deeply in a non-carceral future, i have spent a few years sitting with the question of restorative justice. i often still find myself at the uneasy crossroad between anger, accountability, and forgiveness. when stanford rapist brock turner was sentenced to a mere 6 months in prison and his supporters were calling the reduced sentence restorative justice, i wanted to throw up without knowing if i had the right to throw up. it was in that moment that this piece of writing clarified my understanding of restorative justice.

in sum, restorative justice is about the centering of the victim(s)’ suffering, creating shifts in elements of the victim(s)’ community that enabled the offense, and determining restitution for the perpetrator based on centering the victim(s). none of that happened when brock turner was sentenced to a trivial 6 months. indeed, the centering of turner and his feelings of hurt, shame, and remorse, is frightening similar to the centering of schutz’s good intentions and right to free speech.

when whiteness transgresses us, which is apparently still every single day, the path to resolution cannot center whiteness, the great transgressor. but it is also not enough to identify the guilty party and rest. non-carceral does not mean non-accountable; rather, it means looking for accountability on a systemic level. we must acknowledge our various roles in the system and use this moment to shift the bigger issues in our community that have led up to this point.

for example:

  • how could two asian-american curators make this anti-black oversight, which debuted the same month that a korean storeowner assaulted a black woman? (by the way, my offer to come collect asian nonsense still stands, as long as i am provided with a direct connection to the source of the nonsense)
  • how are we still defending white free speech in 2017, after the election of a billionaire who used his “free speech” to encourage white supremacist violence against women, immigrants, and people of color?
  • why are art schools, art classes, art books, art galleries, art shows, art funding, art markets, art fairs, art museums, art nonprofits, art spaces, everything related to art pretty much, still disproportionately white?

schutz’s painting is representation of violence—just not the violence she intends to portray. it is a representation of the violence that black and people of color encounter daily as cultural workers. undoing that violence may include destroying the painting, but the call for transformative change also goes much, much deeper.

photo credit: Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, SCOTT W. H. YOUNG (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

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your defense of immigrants is fucking colonialist

This past week, Donald Trump showed his ass. So did white liberals. You know, the ones swathing themselves in American flags and holding pictures of dead Syrian children. For a moment I thought the alt-right had gone so far right it was left again, because some of the white liberalism I witnessed at #NoWallNoBan actions this weekend was downright imperialist in the name of immigration. 

“Yo!” you protest, “Stop criticizing the people that are joining the movement! They should be rewarded with freshly baked cookies and golden safety pins for their allyship!”. To which I reply, without criticism, the only movement that these white liberals are joining is the United States’ movement to colonize the globe. People need to understand what they’re fighting, and it is unfortunately abundantly clear they will never reach this understanding without my salty first generation immigrant opinions ruining their day, nor the voice of other sisters who’ve been fighting their entire lives. 

In no particular order, here are some things I want to express to well meaning white liberals. And trust me, I’m a model minority, so this is the nicest and gentlest way anyone is ever going to explain this to you. 

  • It’s the United States, not America. There are many countries in North and South America, and they sure as fuck don’t want to be lumped in with a monstrous administration that is trying to legislate them out of existence. 
  • The United States’ “greatness” is a code word for expansionist imperialism. It is part of decades-old nationalist rhetoric that says because the U.S. is greater than other countries, they are justified in imposing their greatness on other countries through military violence. Seeing United States flags and hearing “USA! USA” chants is fucking violent to those of us who have seen nationalist jingoism be used to justify military intervention in our home countries. This is not at all a proud moment for the United States, so leave your patriotic pride at home. 
  • Immigrants don’t owe you any explanations for their existence. Please stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great, as if we ONLY grant citizenship to great individuals. If citizenship were based on greatness and contribution, we would be revoking the papers of white people who didn’t do anything with their lives. 
  • If it takes a picture of a dead Syrian child to get you to care about immigrants, you might need to have a talk with yourself. If you are NOT a member of a community of color who has PTSD from seeing dead bodies killed by the state, then you should thank the stars for your sheltered existence, and then have a talk with yourself. And then stop circulating those images forever. 
  • Yeah your great grandpa was 1/8 Hungarian or something, but unless Trump signed a ban on travelers from your country OR your family is here due to the U.S. bombing your country, please kindly stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering. “We are all immigrants” is cute in theory, but it completely erases the role white supremacy plays in specifically targeting Latinx, South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern* immigrants. 
  • Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. What’s the point of expressing your well intentioned allyship if the people you are supposedly supporting can’t understand you?***
  • Immigrants are among most impacted in the United States by lack of access to healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc. So if you’re pro-immigrant, consider fighting for those issues that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
  • Black people are Muslims/immigrants too. Sudan, one of the countries on Trump’s ban list, is a country of predominantly Black Muslims. The United States has been resettling refugees from Africa for decades. And slaves were brought to the United States against their will. And yet people will hold #RefugeesWelcome signs and in the same breath wonder why #BlackLivesMatter isn’t #AllLivesMatter. If your immigration stance is only based upon uplifting immigrants that are pale (i.e. light-skinned Muslims) or stereotypically docile (i.e. Southeast Asians), then you are not actually pro-immigrant; you’re pro-white. To oppose colonialism is to oppose the anti-blackness inherent in our global systems, and to say #BlackLivesMatter.

Now go drink some water to wash away that salt. Oh, and that poster by Shepard Fairey sucks. 

* 1/31/17 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated “Arabic” and omitted South Asians and Africans affected by the ban.

** 1/31/17 UPDATE: White people have complained that this post leaves them paralyzed and without action items, so I have culled only the directives from what I have written above  :

  • Leave your patriotic pride at home. 
  • Stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great.
  • Have a talk with yourself.
  • Stop circulating those images [of dead Syrian children] forever. 
  • Stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering [via] “We are all immigrants”.
  • Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. ***
  • Consider fighting for those issues [healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc.] that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
  • Say #BlackLivesMatter. 

***2/2/17 UPDATE: People are apparently tripping out over the fact that language justice is like, a thing, so here’s further explanation. https://www.waysidecenter.org/programs/language-justice/ 

i want to live in a world in which i don’t spend my time debating neo nazi imagery

long story short for non-denizens of dallas, texas: a biker showed up wearing an SS patch at double wide, a local bar known for its nouveau trailer trash aesthetic. two people called him out on the patch, and were thrown out of the bar for being belligerent. the dallas internet and media thus spent several weeks debating the right of bikers to wear neo-nazi patches and the sensitive nature of social justice warriors*.

*first, as someone who could be labeled a “social justice warrior”, i don’t give a fuck about your denigrating labels.  in my work for socioeconomic justice, i experience daily harassment and microaggressions, consistently work 50+ hr weeks, and hold space for/witness people who lose their homes, jobs, and lives due to systemic racism and disenfranchisement. so calling “social justice warriors” thin-skinned when y’all can’t even handle not being able to wear your favorite white supremacist patch is white fragility at its finest.

other than the fact that i was right about double wide all along ever since they allowed one of their patrons to bring in a chicken and use it to sexually harass me, i’ve been trying to expend zero fucks about this incident. because i need to reserve my energy for you know, the aforementioned people losing their homes and stuff. but it still doesn’t excuse the supreme idiocy of people thinking they need to debate whether or not neo-nazi imagery is white supremacist (i thought we reached that conclusion after, i don’t know, the holocaust? can’t you guys debate something more 2016, like klyde warren park’s relationship to the dakota access pipeline?).

many neo-nazi supporters in the comments of these articles are claiming their right to the first amendment, which to me illustrates a general troubling ethos in texas of advancing individuation without any acknowledgement of social context. not all identities in texas, or the united states, are allowed to individuate in the same way without repercussion. for example, are the same people who are supportive of a biker’s right to wear SS patches as a form of self expression also as passionately engaged about the recent federal court ruling that allows employers to ban black women from wearing locs as a form of a self expression? are these same defenders of the first amendment also passionately engaged in defending the eighth amendment regarding police brutality ? of course not.

now that we’ve established defenders of double wide are not actually that concerned about constitutional rights for all, what exactly are they defending? they are defending the social order that allows certain identities to exist in public without repercussion. they are defending their willful blindness to texas’ bloody history of violence against women, queers, and people of color. to my knowledge, a brigade of queer folx have never targeted white supremacists for physical violence, but the same cannot be said for white supremacists and their treatment of queers. so who gets to appear as their full selves in public? the white supremacist or the queer?

if you are truly concerned about rights of free speech, then please, defend colin kaepernick’s right to kneel during the national anthem. defend black women’s right to wear locs to work. defend trans women’s right to wear what they want without being murdered at a higher rate than cis women. and yes, defend my right to opine that neo-nazi apologists are total shitwads.

as long as white supremacist violence exists, neo-nazi imagery will continue to represent that violence. if defenders of double wide truly want to neutralize the symbols of white supremacy so that they can wear it without repercussion, they need focus their attention at neutralizing the violence of white supremacy itself. see you on the social justice warrior side.

on dissociation and trauma in texas social justice organizing

one of my greatest epiphanies during allied media conference 2016 were the words, “dissociation is a survival strategy”. that, coupled with sessions on queering martial arts and decolonizing christianity, made me realize that i had been repressing so many parts of myself, so much deep pain and trauma in my past and present, in order to be present enough to do my social justice work in texas.

texas is a hostile environment for anyone who is positioned outside of the white imperialist supremacist heteropatriarchy. it is a place where because there are few government structures in place to act as a buffer, the violence and hatred from people within the white imperialist supremacist heteropatriarchy can be felt immediately and distinctly.

ever since returning to texas, and witnessing the policing, poverty, and racism in my neighborhood on a daily basis, i’ve been engaging in measures of self numbing. first it was alcohol, then it was netflix, now it’s sleeping. until the mass shooting in orlando happened, forcing all my emotions to the forefront, i had repressed the fact that i literally feared for my life and well being as someone who does not subscribe to heteronormativity. and that, instead of naming this fear that seized my brain on a daily basis, it was easier to sleep. it was easier to come home from a meeting with an extremely racist person in power and watch netflix, than it was to cry out the weariness in my body. this was because if i cried at that, i would find reasons to cry every day, and my body and work would not be able to bear it.

as someone who has been managing intergenerational, familial, and societal trauma my entire life, i’m only starting to realize that trauma has always affected the ways in which i can be involved in social justice movements, and that i’ve always felt a pinge of resentment at those who work in this space untouched by the trauma of structural violence (white people, this is why you get the side eye). i am also highly aware in my current practice, how much more slowly my work progresses because i spend so much time managing trauma, and how much of a better and more capable person i am when i am in safe spaces that don’t require such degrees of repression.

related to this, i had an incredibly healing conversation with a friend from seattle on effective ways of practicing transformative justice. these words of hers really resonated with me, “transformative justice is a process that takes years, and the way it’s practiced means there’s not any huge success stories that you can refer to.”. can we relate this to the healing we need to see in our communities, and in ourselves? and can we relate this to a critique of the charity-nonprofit industrial complex?

working in collaboration with charities and nonprofits, it seems that those who can, do. but those who can’t, don’t because they are the most affected who are too busy engaging in survival practices of managing trauma. and yet it is imperative to center the experiences of those who are most affected and this is something that i struggle with practicing within a charity-nonprofit industrial complex context.

people managing trauma require different forms of care and consideration, but we are not powerless. it is a testament to our power that we’ve already survived this far. reflecting on the texas context has taught me that we need to build better spaces for holding the ways in which we cope – whether it be through numbing or through catharsis – because there is so much hostility coming from every direction. we also need to build understandings that we are capable of grieving and being, coping and doing within the same lifetime. it just might take a little longer or look a little different from how we traditionally construct narratives of social change. maybe there is no heroic turning point or outcome. our trauma should not be the reason that we are barred from working for social change. if anything, our trauma holds the wisdom to our liberation.