The other night my airways were semi-closed. I was having a mysterious respiratory reaction, the kind that is part of how Lyme sometimes manifests for me. I was lying down on the couch, trying to fill my lungs anyway, and trying not to panic from having reduced oxygen. As is often the case during these times, I distracted myself with social media. Unsurprisingly, my feed is filled with calls to action from my social justice focused FB friends. I love them and love the commitment to resist and turn the tides on the growing human and environmental abuses that we’re facing. So I was awash with memes that if “you” are not actively fighting these abuses, “you” are participating in them.
I’d love to say that I saw these and knew immediately that I was doing all that I could do by trying to keep oxygen in my body and understood that I was not to blame for the actions of a racist government because I was not doing more. But ableism is a cloying creature and I didn’t. Instead I feel disappointment with myself, as if I had failed to become who I had hoped to be in the world, as if I was failing to live my values. I am not unique in this. I have so many conversations with people with disabilities who grapple with feeling as if we don’t do “enough” with our limited capacities. But the problem isn’t just us failing to externalize ableism, it is also a problem of othering in our social justice movements.
Chronically ill, and so many other folks, are rarely centred in cultural dialogue, strategizing, organizing, and activism. We are seldom included in the assumed “you.” In a culture where centering dominant groups is a firmly ingrained habit, it can be hard for folks coming from a place of privilege to even realize when it’s happening. Memes calling the reader to “share” if they would “rather pee next to a trans woman than a bigot” assume that the reader cannot be a trans woman (and also equate trans women with something undesirable). There are calls to action that urge the reader to see that whatever they are doing in the face of mass incarceration of immigrants is what they would have done during US enslavement or the holocaust. I understand the call to action but these assume that the reader would not have been enslaved or in concentration camps and that the reader cannot be fearing for their own families or trying to survive in the current context.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t speak to and agitate the most most privileged, we should! But I believe there is tremendous power in doing this differently in two ways:
- The first is to name the populations we are speaking to rather than saying “you.” What if we address cis (non trans) women about concrete ways to act in solidarity with the rights of all people to safely use public washrooms? What if we addressed those who have not had to seek refuge as a specific group? Those in dominant positions of power are often used to being the default and simply by naming them as specific groups, it can interrupt the assumptions that they must be front and centre in every discussion.
- The second is to make sure that the “you” in our calls to action and education includes those who are not in the dominant group. It is powerful for me whenever I see people with chronic illness included in the “you” as it intentionally brings me out of the margins. It also can help to break up the kind of internalized ableism that I described at the onset of this piece. It centres our bodies, ways of being, and skills in the possibility of resistance.
In light of this call, I want to spend some time centring and witnessing the resistance of those who are not coming from positions of utmost social privilege.
I see you. Your grandmother was deported and you don’t know where she is. You are terrified about what she may be facing and you are working to find her. You are meeting with advocates. You are making phone calls. Your work for resistance is important.
I see you. You are an abuse survivour and there is a predator as president in the US. Maybe he was even the one who abused you personally. You have flashbacks whenever you see his face on the news. And it is always on the news. You are calling crisis lines. You are talking to friends. You are working to stay rooted in your body. Your work of resistance is important.
I see you. You are being targeted more and more as a black woman. As a trans woman. You can’t afford a car and people feel empowered to harass you on the bus. Folks are not standing up for you. You are carrying on. You are caring for your mother, your children, for yourself. Your work of resistance is important.
I see you. You have fatigue so profound that it burns. All the time. Your body is on fire with fatigue and in your heart you are the person who would organize rallies and who takes to the street, fists raised. You use all the energy you have to share the post about a rally on social media. You read the sentiments that showing up “in real life” is the only thing that counts and you wonder what, then, is your participation if not a real way to use your life? Your work of resistance is important.
I see you. Your Multiple Chemical Sensitivities are at an all time high this summer. You would have been willing to go to prison if it would help to abolish I.C.E. But you know that one night with the chemicals in any prison will fatally close your airways. You hear sentiments that the problems are only as bad as they are because people are not laying their lives on the line but you don’t face the immediate death sentence one action resulting in arrest would entail for you. Instead, you work to survive. Everyday. Every time you risk exposure just by leaving your house. Your work of resistance is important.
And I see you. You have stable housing. You have the energy to get through the day on any given day. You are not personally being targeted. Your family is safe. You are well fed. You cannot be complacent now. You cannot question how bad it is for those who are outside your circle of comfort. You need to advocate. You need to agitate. You need to be in solidarity. Now more than ever. Your work of resistance is important.