Sunday, May 16, 2010

Claiming Napantla: Bridge-Building & The Need for Unsafe Space

We often talk about Safe Space in our activism: a space that is defined, at least implicitly, by the expected suspension of the dynamics of oppression and privilege in our relationships. it sounds nice, for sure--the world's unsafe, so shouldn't we attempt to create safe spaces in personalized places? Perhaps. But what're it's implications, meanings, and actual consequences? Who's responsible for safety, and who, in the end, actually benefits from it?

Gloria Anzaldua, one of the most meaningful and transformative writers in my life, talks a lot about the affect of displacement, border-crossing (both geographic borders and ones of identity), and a radical conciousness that can come from these. She writes of the mestiza consciousness:

By creating a new mythos - that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave - la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject/object duality that keeps her prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.
But what work does the creation of this "third space" require, and of whom? She offers a suggestion in her introduction to This Bridge We Call Home--Napantla and bridge-building:

Bridges are thresholds to other realities, archetypal, primal symbols of shifting consciousness. They are passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, border crossing, and changing perceptions. Bridges span threshold (liminal) spaces between worlds, spaces I call Napantla, a Nuahatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition lacking clear boundaries. Napantla es tierra desonocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement--an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in Napantla so much of the time that it becomes a sort of "home" (pg, 1, emphasis added).

For those of us who live at the intersection of identity--of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, dis/ability[...]--Napantla is a space of familiarity, as de-centering as it can be. I'm a queer, disabled, poor, chronically ill Jew, who, although I am learning to queer the way people read my gender, doesn't experience gender oppression/violence with the same immediacy as ciswomen and trans men and women (at least not yet). I'm also white, neurotypical, thin, an Amerikan citizen who is often complicit in economic and and political imperialism, who speaks English as my first language, and a child to non-migrant parents. I'm also not read as Jewish until people learn of my very Hebrew-sounding name and/or I'm wearing a yarmulke, so I don't experience anti-Jewish hatred in ways that Jews who don't "pass" do*. I'm also sheltered, have access to food (most of the time), and have shoes and clothes, so that I don't experience classist violence with the same immediacy as people who're houseless. I live in the interstices of privilege and oppression (as a lot of us do). If we do the work to recognize that oppression and privilege are systemic, conditioned, and often unmarked, how do we create a notion of safe space?

Again, Gloria clarifies:

[There] are no safe spaces. Home can be unsafe because it bears the likelihood of intimacy and thus thinner boundaries. Staying "home" and not venturing out from our own group comes from woundedness and stagnates our growth. To bridge means loosening our borders, not closing them off to others. Bridging is the work of opening the gates t the stranger, within and without. To [move] across the threshold is to be stripped of the illusion of safety because it moves us into unfamilar territory that does not grant safe passage. To bridge is to attempt community, and for that we must risk being open to personal, political, and spiritual intimacy, to risk being wounded. Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home**...and when to keep the gates open (p. 3).

But this still begs the question: who's responsible for the work of bridging and leaving "home?" All too often, I think, the responsibilities to do so fall back on the people/aspects of our complicated identities who have no choice but to live in Napantla as a means of physical, psychic, and spiritual survival. To elucidate: Part of recognizing that there are no safe spaces is to accept the reality that dynamics of privilege and oppression are not only systemic in, but constitutive of our society, languages, his/her/zestories, literatures, bodies, and intimate emotional and sexual spaces. As my very dear friend, Mia Mingus writes about racism and white supremacy:

Racism and white supremacy are so pervasive, that we don’t even have to be consciously or intentionally doing anything to participate in them. It’s in the air we breathe; it’s how the machine rolls; it’s the default. It’s backed by everything in our society. That’s the thing about oppression, power and privilege: unless you are actively challenging it, you are colluding with it.

This means that the "suspension" of privileged/marginalized positionalities in safe space is not only disingenuous, but detrimental to our work and relationships because fails to challenge unmarked privileged and invisible oppression. Those of us in marginalized positionalities and who argue for safe space, I think, have internalized the notion that feelings of alienation and displacement are only ours to feel and experience. It is, in many ways, using the the master's tools to dismantle the master's house.***

Those of us in privileged/centralized positionalities are afforded the illusions of safety precisely because of our privilege/centralization. We must be willing to be betrayers of our privileged race, gender, sex, class, non-disabled, neurotypical, non-ill positionalities precisely because we understand that if we don't risk our own safety, we are complicit in maintaining complicated networks of violence and domination. We must act on the understanding that it is our responsibility to do the majority of bridge-building and not expect marginalized people to our work for us, and not be the only ones who feel the displacement, alienation, and woundness that comes with it. The act of decentering ourselves is our alone, and we must perform it as a duty of love and solidarity for those who we explicitly and implicitly oppress.

At the same time, we in marginalized positions must ensure this happens as an act of love for ourselves. The work for justice cannot be romanticized in such a way as to abstract it from the hurt of holding each other and ourselves accountable. It's a painful and "violent" process that notions of safe space both miss and prevent from happening.

All of us must learn to claim and live in Napantla together. It's the only way that we continue our fight.

* This becomes even more complicated within the context as my (marked) status as a Jewish convert. I often have non-convert Jews tell me that I'll never really be Jewish because I don't have Jewish family, I didn't lose family in pogroms and the Shoah, and that I'm able to escape systems of anti-Jewish hatred because I pass. This fails to acknowledge, however, that family isn't necessarily biological, that I did lose my queer and crip family members and lovers through because of Nazi/American eugenic sciences, and that Nobody Passes.

** Closing off ranks to those outside my home, like I'm doing now, is just as important and necessary to my growth/well-being as keeping the gates open.

*** I recognize the possible issues of me using Audre Lorde's idea of the Master's House/Master's Tools as a white person and to describe oppressions other than those grounded in the historical and present forms of slavery. Please feel free to let me know what you think.


Isaac Belrut said...

Love it! Testify, Tali.

I also think that it is important to recognize the inherent privelage that we cannot disassemble. We can confront the superficial in attempting to create safe space, but there is some privelage that we can only acknowledge for it is so integrated. No space is so truly 'space' as all that.

I thought the quote was apt. But then, I'm also a white Northerner.

PS: Nobody Passes looks great! I wanna read it...

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