[excerpt from a commonplace book I produced in 2004]
Many years ago I decided, in response to feminism, anti-racism and anti-colonialism, that it was my duty to live in the world as consciously as I could about the privileges I had lucked out on and which I learned were so unevenly distributed around the world. After a dozen years of non-stop activism (including anti-apartheid work, youth leadership training, popular education, international solidarity work with Nicaragua) I stepped back for a brief moment and, thanks to the support of dian marino, a wonderful friend, artist and trickster, I worked on a Master’s degree. This gave me a chance to examine what I had done, why some things worked and others didn’t. Mostly it was a chance to examine my own understandings of my self. In my major paper for that degree I wrote:
In a wonderfully eloquent article, Maria Lugones describes "playful, 'world'-travelling" as a means of working across differences. By 'world' she means "tiny portions of a particular society"; travelling is the act of "shift[ing] from being one person to being a different person"; and playfulness "involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction and reconstruction and to construction or reconstruction of the 'worlds' we inhabit playfully."
"Through travelling to other people's "worlds" we discover that there are "worlds" in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects, lively beings, resistors, constructors of visions even though in the mainstream construction they are animated only by the arrogant perceiver and are pliable, foldable, file-awayable, classifiable." (Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception, in Making Face, Making Soul = Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Colour. (Gloria Anzaldua, ed.). SF: Aunt Lute Books. 1990. p. 402)
Learning to listen to each others' stories without reducing them to "the moral is...", or "what you're really saying is..." is one way to travel in Lugones' sense. To listen with an open mind, an open heart, ready to be surprised, opens possibilities for new relationships that are not characterized by domination. Sharing our experience of the world through stories and the re-storying of our experience as we engage others is a means of negotiating a new sociality, one in which social power is treated with critical mindedness and solidarity, one which can lead to new constructions of power relations, and newly-negotiated meanings of power.
Re-reading my words of 10 years ago I am amazed to see how influential the writings of women of colour have been on the formation of my sense of self. I continue to reflect on the remarkable thinking of Maria Lugones. And just in case I risk becoming complacent I read the following in her introduction to her collected essays:
"There is also a sense of integrity, moral integrity included, that is lived as violated by the duplicitous interpretation, if one's understanding of the moral presupposes the unification of the self, as much of mainstream, institutionalized morality does. And there are other difficulties related to questions of character. It is difficult to look at one's oppressed behavior in the flesh and the face. Even if the oppressed readings confront one as constructing a reality that one struggles to undermine, or dismantle, the power of the reading in constructing us is often inescapable. It inhabits us from within, it is us, in a servile, subordinate, perverse, criminal, subhuman, or "lost" construction. We can inhabit that construction in enormous tension, but that we can do so is an apparent conundrum that I will return to often in this book. The reading of the act as incompetent has significant consequences since it conforms to the justification of subordination. So the oppressor has a lot to gain from not seeing sabotage and resistance. But then the oppressor cannot erase resistance, because to be erased, resistance needs to be seen.
"Perceiving oneself as an oppressor is harder to sustain morally than deception. There is often a lapse, a forgetting, a not recognizing oneself in a description, that reveals to those who perceive multiply that the oppressor is in self-deception, split, fragmented. Self-deception appears to require the unification of the self to be conceivable, that is, it is one self that deceives him- or herself. But one can understand self-deception without this presupposition. The oppressor can be seen to inhabit multiple realities all in the first person. As a self-deceiving multiple self, the oppressor does not remember across realities. Self-deception lies in this disconnection of memory. Thus, I understand that when someone is self-deceiving, there is one incarnate being who animates two co-temporaneous behaviors in the first person without any cross-referencing, without first person memories of him- or herself in more than one reality. It is of great interest for emancipatory work that we can cross-reference different realities. We may indeed have good reason to fear doing that because we may be revealed as vile or as servile. The one in self-deception could, but does not, cross-reference." (Maria Lugones – Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD. 2003. p.14-15.)
The hard roads that we walk are always a little less lonely (though no less difficult) when we are accompanied by friends and loved ones and also, occasionally, when we read of others’ journeys. Shari Stone-Mediatore writes of Gloria Anzaldua:
"Anzaldúa highlights both the empowering effects and the struggle of experience-driven writing. In so doing, she affirms an agency that is neither inborn nor mere rhetorical illusion. Instead, her agency is one that she struggles for and develops as she writes about her life. Through her writing, for instance, she resists succumbing to other people's representations of her as naturally passive and naturally ill-suited to intellectual work. As she puts it, "the writing saves me from this complacency I fear.... I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive.... I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.... To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy.... I write because I'm scared of writing but I'm more scared of not writing". Against an academic and a popular culture that construes her as ignorant and passive and whose constructs become true insofar as she believes them, Anzaldúa uses her writing to demonstrate, to both herself and her community, her epistemic agency.
"At the same time that Anzaldúa stresses the empowering effect of her writing, she does not gloss over the difficulties of grappling with painful experiences nor hide her fears about failing in a writing process that is bound up with her own ego. As a result, her work also highlights the emotional work that burdens experience-oriented writing. "To write," she admits, "is to confront one's demons, look them in the face and live to write about them". To write about her borderlands existence requires that she "stretch the psyche" in order to hold seemingly conflicting points of view and that she come to terms with a mestiza consciousness that is both a "source of intense pain" and creative energy. Such emotionally risky and taxing work demands a supportive community in whose company "the loneliness of writing and the sense of powerlessness can be dispelled". Agency is thus gained through her storytelling, but only with arduous and community-situated work." (Shari Stone-Mediatore—Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance. NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. pp. 150-151.)