Category Archives: Racism

Discrimination against people of color

Stop ranking oppression

[Image: Section from a panel of a Robot Hugs comic. Words at the top read “No one benefits from being told that their pain is unimportant, or non existant!” Below the words is a scale with a lighter weight reading “Not Harm” and a heavier weight reading “Harm.”]

Today’s Robot Hugs comic in Everyday Feminism is one of the best I’ve seen all year. Please read it now before continuing.

Done? OK. This is what I’ve been dealing with in the year and a half or so that I’ve been involved in animal rights activism. I’ve written here numerous times about the racism, sexism, cissexism, and other human oppression that is either ignored or exacerbated by animal rights activists in the U.S. It’s driving people like me away from activism, and this is not OK.

Often the micro-aggressions faced by activists from oppressed groups (or by those speaking for other oppressed groups) are far more subtle than being told to “shut up.” It frequently takes the form of being told that non-human animals suffer far more than any human. Whether this is true or not, it is still a silencing tactic.

Silencing people who speak up for oppressed humans does not save more animals. It simply strengthens the perception that animal rights activists don’t care about humans. Some activists indeed proudly admit that they don’t care about humans, as they are misanthropists and hate everyone. Many of them deny their own privileges while saying this. Gary Yourofsky comes to mind.

Part of why I have not committed to taking on a more active or formal role with any animal rights group is that I’ve been continually disappointed by the ongoing oppressive language and tactics of other activists. (Coping with depression and fearing the police are my other reasons for being less active.) I do want to be a voice for the animals, and voices are stronger when raised together than alone. But I don’t like being associated with people whose views I find abhorrent, even if they don’t reflect the sentiments of others in the group.

So I will take this opportunity to remind people that while I occasionally participate in animal rights actions and share the writings of various activists, I am independent and speak only for myself. I do not support or condone any views or activities that are oppressive to other humans. I acknowledge my own privileges and mistakes, and ask to be called out if I make statements that are harmful to those in marginalized groups.

This does not mean that I pledge to never say anything that offends anyone. As a queer black trans person, my very existence is offensive to many. I make no apologies for moderating my own spaces as I see fit. Do not confuse calling out oppression with tone policing. I am a pacifist, but I am not passive.

As I’ve written before, a “vegan world” that continues to elevate the voices and needs of able-bodied cishet white men above all others is not a world I want to be a part of. While I will never go back to eating or otherwise exploiting animals – as to me they are people, not property – I will not continue with organized animal rights activism if that means setting aside the concerns of marginalized humans. I am not abandoning the animals, I am abandoning humans with toxic mindsets.

Black trans liberation

[Image: Banner reading #BlackTransLivesMatter Day of Action 8/25/15. Behind the words are black and white photos of trans women of color who have been murdered.]

Today is #BlackTransLiberationTuesday, a day of action to call for an end to the epidemic of violence facing black trans women. I’ve written previously about this state of emergency, and the importance of trans people telling our own stories to dispel the ignorance and myths that lead to anti-trans discrimination and aggression.

Black trans women are particularly vulnerable to violence as they face multiple axes of oppression. Even those who “pass” – i.e., meet society’s cisnormative assumptions of what a woman should look like – have to deal with everyday racism and sexism, which impacts their access to education, employment, health care, and housing. They are affected by the same media bias and police profiling as black cis women. Some turn to sex work to survive, with all the inherent risk and stigma that entails. Many end up as victims of the prison-industrial complex.

Repeating the names of our fallen sisters is one way to emphasize the urgency of the situation. But we must not merely pathologize black trans women. We need to celebrate them. We need to celebrate those who can transition, and those who cannot. Those who live as openly trans, and those who do not. Those who are disabled, and those who are not. Those who are straight, lesbian, bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, or any other orientation.

Here are the stories of two living black trans women who don’t have the celebrity profile of Laverne Cox:

Alena Bradford is a woman living in Georgia. Economic circumstances forced her to move back in with her mother and live as a man.

Kat Blaque is an animator and vlogger, who speaks frequently about racism and sexism. She illustrated the story of her life and gender transition.

Get to know black trans women. Don’t solely mourn their deaths. Celebrate their lives.

Celebrating black vegans

Yesterday, Aph Ko of the black vegan feminist web site Aphro-ism shared a post about reactions to her list of 100 Black Vegans. In a typical display of white fragility, commenters on the Vegan Society Facebook page denounced a list that dared to celebrate blackness as “racist.” They really couldn’t see how a movement that has repeatedly ignored and excluded black people needed a list like this, that was, as Aph Ko put it, “highlighting black people who were doing amazing work.” (In that vein, I’ve added both Aphro-ism and Sistah Vegan Project to my new Links page.)

Veganism is not a “white thing.” Black folks care about animals, the environment, and human health just as much as whites do. The media’s portrayal of black people as violent thugs who live on junk food is racist and ignorant, and contributes to the idea many whites have that blacks just aren’t interested in veganism. This sentiment also ignores the intersections of race and poverty that can make it difficult for many black people to access healthy plant-based food.

Not all of the vegans on Aph Ko’s list are animal rights supporters or activists, and some activists say that going vegan for health reasons is selfish or invalid, as veganism encompasses much more than a plant-based diet. While I advocate for total animal liberation from the perspective that non-human animals are people, not property, I also recognize that many people who initially come to veganism for health reasons go on to recognize the inherent moral worth of animals. So while I don’t normally share stories about health benefits of veganism or news about the latest vegan celebrities – regardless of race – I do not actively oppose others doing so.

Veganism is not just a rejection of violence; it is a celebration of life. And as the Ko sisters posted in another blog entry, we need to celebrate black Life, not solely focus on black deaths. And one way to celebrate black life is to tuck into some delicious vegan soul food. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a vegan soul food restaurant in your city, check out Bryant Terry‘s cookbooks and whip up some of your own!

On echo chambers

[Image: Black and white vanishing perspective of a wooden pier.]

Some people wonder why folks like me are so intolerant of comments questioning the impact of racism, cissexism, and other oppression, and our tactics to fight it. Why do we want to be in an “echo chamber” of people who think just like we do? Why can’t we be open to a variety of opinions? What about free speech?

First of all, freedom of speech does not apply to my personal blog, Facebook page, or any other space I control. As atheist feminist blogger Greta Christina has written, “If you don’t respect my basic right to moderate my own online spaces — don’t bother to comment in any of them.”

But more importantly, these questions, however well-intentioned, overlook the fact that I already live inside an echo chamber 24/7. I am queer, black, agender, and transsexual, and am constantly bombarded with messages that people like me are thugs, freaks, perverts, special snowflakes, and dangerous. I don’t need people to come into my space to tell me what the mainstream already wants me to hear. Nor do I need to subject myself to this dialog in group discussions.

When I post about racism, heterosexism, or cissexism,  I want to hear a resounding echo of people shouting “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” I am not just venting, I am urging people to take action.

As someone who suffers from depression to the point that some days updating this blog is the only thing I manage to do, I do not have the energy to educate every person about these issues. Nor am I obligated to do so. That’s where true allies come in, who have the knowledge and patience to amplify the voices of the oppressed, and educate their peers from a place of privilege.

If you don’t like what I write, no one’s forcing you to read it. Post in your own space about “all lives matter” if you like. No one’s going to arrest you or beat you or murder you for doing so.

But I will not tolerate any more unsolicited opinions from my oppressors on how to be an effective activist or a “nice” person. Get out of my chamber.

Black Lives Matter is not about white people

[Image: The sun sets over the water in Seattle, with a lone sailboat visible.]

The latest thing white self-appointed allies are upset about is that some uppity black people dared to interrupt a rally for their pet presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, in Seattle. The group put out a press release on Facebook and on their blog. A video of the protest is below.

Horrified whites are now saying, amongst other less tactfully stated things,  that they are no longer going to support Black Lives Matter because of this “disrespectful behavior,” that they can’t believe black people would turn against our “natural ally,” and that we should interrupt the speeches of conservative candidates instead.

Here’s the thing. If you’re white, you have no business telling black people who or how to protest, which candidates to support, or who our allies are. This is not about whether these protesters were “right” or not, or whether or not it’s permissible to criticize black people in general. This is about white people asserting and imposing their unasked-for opinions about what’s best for us, again and again and again.

White people, Black Lives Matter is not about you. Black Lives Matter was created by queer black women to bring attention to systemic oppression and violence against black people in the USA. It is not for you to decide for us whether Bernie Sanders or any other political candidate is the best person to fix this oppression. We can and will decide that for ourselves.

It is also not your place to tell black people how to protest. A lot of us are tired of quietly asking for our rights to be respected whenever it’s convenient for you all to get around to it. As I’ve learned from my participation in animal rights activism, direct action is necessary for social change.  If you only support black people when we speak quietly and deferentially, you are no ally at all. You are merely a tool of white supremacy.

For the record, I support no political candidates, and am currently registered with no political party. I vote on local ballot measures and nonpartisan offices only. This post is not about whether or not you should support Bernie Sanders, it’s about my disgust with white supremacy and my own role in it during my years of performing whiteness. I am fed up with respectability politics and with white people imposing themselves on black people (and likewise with cis and trans people).

White people, not everything needs to be about you. Take a damn seat.

Sugarcoating supremacy

[Image: The face of Brahma, a steer with dark and reddish-brown hair.]

Sometimes I feel that my entire adult life has been a process of unlearning all the lies that I was taught as a child. As I wrote yesterday, I was ignorant of the pervasiveness of racism for a long time, despite being black myself. There are powerful systems in place in the USA to ensure continued white supremacy, and part of that is convincing everyone, including black folks like myself, that we live in a post-racial society, where everyone can be happy and equal regardless of skin color.

This is a lie. We do not live in a color-blind society. Never have, and never will. Having white skin is a privilege, independent of any other factors. Denying it by saying “Not all white people” is an attempt to bury the reality that yes, all white people benefit from white supremacy.

The defensive response of “not all white people” also gives the person responding an “out” to assure that the charge of racism isn’t being levied against them. Society’s protection of white fragility ensures that the supremacy continues.

In parallel, there are powerful systems in place to ensure people that we need to eat animal products for good health, and that farmed animals are happy, well-treated, and willing to give their eggs, milk, and their very bodies up for human consumption.

These are also lies. The American Dietetic Association stated over ten years ago that a vegan diet can provide appropriate nutrition for humans of all ages. But even though many now accept this nutritional wisdom, most continue to believe that eating meat, dairy, or eggs is simply a personal dietary choice. Even calling an animal’s flesh “meat” sugarcoats the reality that it is someone’s body that is being eaten.

For those who do claim to care about animal welfare, the defensive response of “not all farmed animals” when confronted with the horrors of animal agriculture buries the reality that yes, all farmed animals suffer, and no, none of them consent to having their milk, eggs, or bodies taken from them. This is true whether on a “factory”, “organic”, or “free-range” farm, or even in a backyard. The Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary exposes this humane myth.

A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project illustrated these parallels in her blog yesterday, also emphasizing that, as I’ve also written, white vegans need to pay attention to racism. Most black folks are insulted at being compared to animals, and this is totally understandable, as we have been treated as less than human by white people for centuries. As Christopher-Sebastian McJetters has written, we need to compare like systems of oppression without appropriating the struggles of oppressed humans. And always keep in mind who has the power. A black person describing animal agriculture as slavery has a very different impact from a white person doing so, especially when addressing a black audience.

Dismantling the lies we’ve been taught can be painful, but also empowering, because now we can do something about it and educate others. Just as you can fight racism without attending BlackLivesMatter rallies, by calling attention to racist language and oppression whenever you hear it, you can fight speciesism without participating in an organized disruption. You can start by speaking out – to your friends, to your family, in person, on social media – when you see animals being exploited for food, clothing, entertainment, or other purposes.

Going vegan is a powerful rejection of speciesism, but is not currently possible for everyone, and not the only way to help achieve animal liberation. Those who genuinely cannot commit to a plant-based diet due to homelessness, incarceration, or other circumstances can still speak out against the system of oppression, in situations where it is reasonably safe for them to do so. An article by DxE activist Zach Groff tells the story of a homeless man who spoke out at a disruption, despite the fact that he still ate animals.

Many will read this and similar essays, shrug, and continue on as before. This is exactly what the oppressors want. The status quo is rewarded. But the harm is real and will continue, with or without sugarcoating, until we stop believing the lies and take action.

Performing whiteness

[Image: Pax’s Northwestern University student ID,  circa 1990.]

There’s a meme going around on social media that’s pissing a lot of white people off. It reads:

Things white people consider to be racism

1. direct, open involvement with the KKK

2. poc saying something about white people

3. literally nothing else

The reactions are predictable.

“Is that what you think of me? I’m so hurt!”

“Not all white people are like that! Stop generalizing!”

“This is reverse racism! What if I posted something like that about black people?”

“How do you expect to get allies if you’re being so divisive? Why not speak with love and bring people together?”

I recognize these reactions because I used to say these things myself. As I posted yesterday, I come from a mixed race family (black mother, white father), and my formative years were spent surrounded by white people in a small town in West Virginia. When we moved back to the city of my birth, Pittsburgh, I was harassed by the black kids in middle school for “talking white” and not fitting in. I pushed back against that, and made mostly white friends in middle and high school.

I didn’t want to think about race. I said I was “color blind.”

When I was accepted to Northwestern University in 1988, I was excited and also hopeful that we would all be there to learn, and put race divisions behind us. I had also recently become a devotee of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, primarily because it resonated with me as a fellow atheist. As her followers hated the Democratic Party (which I had registered to vote with for the primaries as soon as I turned 18), but also hated the Libertarians, I felt I had no choice to re-register as Republican and vote for George H. W. Bush.

Yes, you read that correctly. I was a registered Republican and voted for George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election.

So it was with this mindset that I entered college, applauding capitalism and decrying affirmative action. (Nevermind that I was a beneficiary of the latter. I reasoned that I’d earned the scholarship money thanks to my good grades, not my skin color.)  Again, I made mostly white friends. I didn’t understand why black students all sat together at a table in the cafeteria, all hung out in what they informally dubbed the “black lounge,” or had a “black house” to gather in. Why all the division?

I got a position with the conservative alternate campus newspaper. I had been disturbed seeing black students with T-shirts with Malcolm X on them, holding a gun and reading “By Any Means Necessary,” and also seeing the slogan “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” I wrote an editorial entitled “I’m black, and I still don’t understand,” spewing my vision of color-blind race unity.

In response, I was sent anonymous threatening letters, including anti-Semitic statements about my father and then-boyfriend. One envelope included an honorary membership in the KKK. Copies of these letters were sent to my mother at our home address. She was livid, and called the university to complain.

I didn’t understand the source of this anger at the time. I was truly ignorant. I doubled down even further, ignoring attempts from other black students to explain to me why my writing was so hurtful. I retreated to my studies and my supportive white friends.

By graduation, I realized that objectivism did not accurately reflect the world we live in. I moved to California for grad school at UC Berkeley – again thanks to affirmative action, this time granting me a full fellowship – and returned to my previous liberal politics. But I still made mostly white friends, and married a white man, and then another (Ziggy, my current spouse) after our divorce.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand the pervasiveness of anti-black oppression and racism in this country, and the source of the anger and desire to be in spaces free from white people. Ironically, becoming an animal rights activist is what really opened my eyes to all of the oppression – against blacks and other people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, the disabled, and on and on. One book that helped me make these connections was The World Peace Diet  by Will Tuttle. Given my background, it’s not surprising, though still depressing, that it took a book by a white man to clue me into these intersections.

Another turning point was reading an essay by a Chinese friend, Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere. (Edit, Sep 2017: I left DxE in September 2015.)  His essay on Performing Whiteness helped me realize why I distanced myself from other black people. Raised in a white environment with respectability politics, I really thought that it was the content of my character, not the color of my skin, that would define me to the world.

Now thanks to social media – which was not available in my younger years – I saw one black person after another beaten and killed by the police who are supposedly sworn to protect us. I saw one black trans woman after another murdered, mocked, and misgendered. I saw how the mainstream media used different words and imagery when covering blacks versus whites. And I saw black folks who spoke out against the violence being shushed, being told they were always “playing the race card” (another odious phrase I used to use myself).

I saw every cry of frustration, born of centuries of oppression at the hands of white people, met with the response of “Not all white people.”

I no longer believe in the myth of a color-blind society. I no longer believe that your skin color doesn’t matter as long as you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I no longer believe all the lies and self-hatred I internalized about being black in the United States of America.

As I quoted previously from Mikael Owunna, I have gotten off the Kool-Aid of white supremacy.

So when I see a meme like the one at the top of this post, and the predictable responses, I don’t rush to reassure white people that no, of course we’re not talking about you, you’re one of the good ones. No, of course we don’t mean literally all white people. No, of course I don’t want to be divisive, we need all the allies we can get. I’ll just go back to the kitchen and be a good quiet house nigga, massa.

Fuck respectability politics.

My black hairstory

[Image: Pax with natural, unstyled hair.]

As anyone reading this blog can probably see, I’m a big fan of Everyday Feminism. I read most of their articles and share many of them. But when I saw an article this week on white people with dreadlocks, I avoided reading it, until a fellow black animal liberationist asked what I thought of it. I read it and thought the author did an excellent job of explaining all of the problematic things about white people wearing this hairstyle, and addressing all of the common retorts that black folks have been putting up with for years. I have basically nothing add to her arguments.

But one of the reasons I avoided reading this article is that hair has been a sore topic – literally – for most of my life. White folks with straight or loose curly hair just can’t relate to what black folks, women in particular, go through to meet society’s standards (aka performing whiteness).  I’m mixed (black/white) and have what many consider to be “good hair,” a term which is all kinds of problematic itself. Yet I too suffered through the burning hot combs, the painful detangling, the damaging relaxers (“creamy crack”), tedious roller sets, and all kinds of stress related to the dead cells on top of my head, growing up as a black girl (pre-transition) in the USA.

Pax in Cape Cod with baby goats
[Image: Pax at age 10, in pigtails with baby goats in their lap.]

When I was a baby, it took awhile for my hair to appear; strangers often thought I was a boy. (Foreshadowing?) But when it finally came in, it grew with abundance. My mother usually styled it in braids. When she decided to style me with lots of little braids, they took hours to put in. My (white) father would joke and complain about my screaming and crying from the pain of having my hair done.

Pax sixth grade class picture
[Image: Pax posing for a class picture in a green jumpsuit, with lots of braids.]

Did I mention that I was the only black and only Jewish student in my elementary school in a WASP West Virginia town? I remember being sad that I couldn’t just take out a comb and run it through my hair like I saw the other girls doing. I insisted on going to school without braids one day, combing my hair throughout the day, and a frizzy nightmare ensued. When I got home, I headed directly to the closet and closed the door behind me, frustrated and humiliated.

At age 12 we moved from West Virginia back to Pittsburgh (where I was born), and I went from a majority-white school with 180 students to a majority-black school with over 1600. I was teased relentlessly by my fellow black students. I didn’t look right, didn’t talk right, didn’t listen to the right kind of music.

But I was told by these students that I had “good hair” and should take care of it better. I was also told this by an adult black man working the cash register at a record store where I went to buy an album as a teenager. I just stared at him in silence.

Pax tuning their bass
[Image: Pax tunes their electric bass. They have straight black shoulder-length hair.]

By high school my mother (still taking charge of my hair) started putting relaxers in my hair, and taught me to put it in foam rollers. This was a tedious process, but if I didn’t do it every night I felt my hair did not look presentable. I only washed my hair once a week because it looked better after not being washed for a couple of days. But this meant more dandruff and itchy scalp. My white friends didn’t understand how or why I could go a whole week without washing my hair.

I was not sexually active until midway through college, and then only sporadically, so I didn’t think about the implications of having someone sleep next to me while I had my hair up in rollers. Not until later in adulthood, when a (white) man asked me how I expected him to get hard when I had curlers in my hair.

By senior year of college, I’d had enough of the relaxers and rollers. I accidentally discovered that if I let my hair air-dry, it sprung into natural curls. But it was difficult for me to manage long curly hair. So I had it cut short, and kept it short and curly for about twelve years.

Honeymoon with Ziggy
[Image: Pax with their spouse Ziggy on their honeymoon. Pax has short curly black hair and is wearing a black bathing suit.]

During these years I gained a lot of weight, and felt bad about it. I was also starting to go gray, prematurely, or so I thought (not realizing how common it is for people in their 30s to get gray hair). I decided to grow my hair out again, and start going to a higher-end salon for color and highlights, as I had a decent income at that time. I read about the Curly Girl method, and finally learned how to care for my locks properly.

Pax with curly highlighted hair
[Image: Pax looks over their shoulder. Their hair is curly dark brown with light brown highlights. Photo by davidhanddotnet]

Pax with windswept hair[Image: Pax wearing a low-cut black tank top and curly highlighted hair. Photo by davidhanddotnet]

While I now got lots of compliments on my hair, it still took a lot of work. If I didn’t put any product in it, it looked like the photo at the top of this post. I had to use a lot of gel, and still never left the house without a scrunchy in my pocket. I considered myself lucky if I could get through an entire day without pulling my hair back into a ponytail.

During this time (my mid-30s), I took a band workshop where we were doing an R&B set, and I was the only black student. We were working on Stevie Wonder’s classic song, I Wish. One of the lyrics refers to him being a “nappy-headed boy.” I joked to the other singer, a white woman, that we’d have to change the lyrics. She laughed and agreed, saying that while I was nappy-headed I was never a boy. I pointed out that my hair was curly, not nappy. I was hurt as I had worked really hard to make it presentable. (The bit about never being a boy is ironic in retrospect.)

Pax with camera
[Image: Pax poses holding a camera with “funcrunchphoto.com” on the strap. They are wearing curly black hair and glasses. Photo by Ziggy.]

By my early 40s, I’d lost weight and felt better about my body. I decided I didn’t want to spend any more time and money on coloring and styling my hair. At age 42, I went into the salon and got “The Big Chop.”

Pax self-portrait with short hair
[Image: Pax self-portrait with short graying hair.]

I soon realized that paying salon prices for this kind of haircut was ridiculous, so I found a barbershop. I showed the barber a photo of Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black and said “make me look like this.”

Pax with buzzcut
[Image: Pax with a buzzcut.]

A few months later, I bought a hair clipper set from a drugstore for the same price as I was paying for a single haircut at the barbershop. I now cut my own hair each month. I usually keep it slightly longer than the above (#2 blade guard). I’m growing out my sideburns, and impatiently waiting for my beard to fill in.

My hairline is also now receding, which is actually a welcome development. After decades of hair struggles, I’ll be happy to go bald and forget about my hair entirely. But shaving my head now would be more work than just cutting every few weeks.

The irony is that I love long hair on men.* It’s practically a fetish. But the amount of work it takes is just not worth it for my own head. I’ll just enjoy long hair on other people, vicariously.

This post was very emotional for me to write. Every photo above was taken before I began my gender transition (the last one, from August 2013, was just a week before I announced my new name). Many trans people do not like to look at their pre-transition photos, and for some such photos can threaten their safety or livelihood. I don’t think I can ever completely eliminate all traces of my past and go stealth, even if I wanted to, considering the volume of photos and writing I’ve posted online.

I hope this post will give white people some insight of why it’s a privilege to have hair that is considered socially acceptable without going to great lengths (pun intended) to keep it so. If you read all this, and the Everyday Feminism article on dreadlocks and links from that page, and still want to talk about Vikings or personal freedom or reverse racism, just do me a favor and keep your comments off of my space.

* To be precise, my primary attraction is to people with conventionally-male-appearing bodies and a slightly masculine or androgynous presentation. I myself am male, but not a man.

Depression, suicide, and white supremacy

[Image: Ground-level side view of a bus shelter casting a red reflection on the sidewalk.]

I’m having a lot of trouble coping this week, as the weight of oppression and violence in the world is really dragging me down. Living with the knowledge that having brown skin in the USA puts a target on your back, independent of any other factors, is a sobering reality for a biracial person who was raised with respectability politics.

The mainstream media upholds white supremacy to the extent that black folks are called “racist” and “pulling the race card” for even addressing these subjects. Black academics like A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project worry that they’ll get killed in a sundown town while traveling to promote their work.

Meanwhile ten trans women of color have been killed in 2015. I don’t want to say “so far in 2015,” but it seems inevitable that there will be more.  I shared the news of the latest, India Clarke, on my Facebook wall two days ago. Only person has “liked” or commented on that post thus far.

The black victim of white supremacy who is, understandably, getting the most attention from my Facebook friends right now is Sandra Bland. Found dead in her cell after being arrested at a routine traffic stop, her story raised all kinds of alarm bells when the police claimed she died by suicide.

I have no trouble believing that the suicide story is a cover-up, but I want to share another perspective that highlights some problematic aspects of the “she would never commit suicide” narrative. This short article by Danielle Stevens cautions that we should not assume we know someone’s mental health state, nor reinforce the “strong black woman” stereotype, nor stigmatize those who attempt or die by suicide. She also emphasizes that the state is responsible for Sandra Bland’s death, regardless of whether it was suicide or not.

I use the phrase “die by suicide” rather than “commit suicide” on the advice of this resource guide, which is geared toward LGBT communities but generally applicable to discussion of this difficult topic. I’m no stranger to suicidal ideation, and I did make one near-attempt several years ago, so the dialogue regarding this topic is of concern to me personally. (Yes, I am in therapy, and no, I’m not seeking sympathy or advice.)

Regardless, I, for one, am not joining the “If I Die In Police Custody” hashtag, because I honestly cannot predict what I would do in that situation. As a black trans person, I’m scared to death, almost literally, to go to any prison. I do not belong in a women’s prison, and I can’t imagine I’d survive in a men’s prison. I’d likely be a prime target for rape in either case, if I weren’t put into solitary confinement “for my own protection.” As I’ve posted previously, this legitimate fear of arrest has limited my activism.

Waking up to the true reality of white supremacy, while simultaneously battling against cissexism and speciesism, has been nothing short of shattering. I could turn off the Internet to stop reading the stories of yet another black person being murdered by the police, but it won’t change the situation. And my skin color does not give me the luxury of ignoring racism. This post by Mikael on “Awakening and getting off the Kool-Aid” sums it up:

…And yet, through it all, I still believed. I believed that the color of my skin was just that—a color. I believed that my accomplishments would stand on their own…

And then there comes that moment, so important in the lives of all POC. That moment when the illusion you have built up your entire life shatters. That moment when you realize all of the lies you have been told… even by your own friends and family. That moment when you see the ugly of racism and oppression staring you in the face, and you realize how painfully real they are in your life, and how they stretch out far beyond your immediate surroundings and encircle the world, hurting so many other people both like and unlike you.

That moment when, for me, I finally realized that no matter how hard I worked, I’ll forever and always just be another nigger in the eyes of the world.

And that is the moment, so important in the lives of all POC, when we finally awaken. That moment when we finally “get” these issues and finally get off the kool-aid of white supremacy.

Privilege is not an on/off switch

[Image: A collage of people holding signs, with a question mark in the middle and the Direct Action Everywhere logo at the bottom.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), as have several others pictured in the above collage. My points about privilege and ranking oppression still stand.

A lot of people misunderstand the concept of privilege. White people and cis men in particular get very defensive when called out on speaking from a place of privilege. “I’m not privileged,” they cry, “I’m not [rich/straight/Christian/American/etc.]”

Here’s the thing. Privilege is not an on/off, yes/no switch. Nor is it something you can assess with an overall rank, despite what well-intentioned but misleading quiz memes might tell you. Privilege consists of many components, including but not limited to: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical and mental ability. Today’s article in Everyday Feminism addresses a lot of common misconceptions about this topic.

As a queer black trans atheist, I am a member of several oppressed groups. Despite this, I still enjoy many privileges. I am financially stable, college-educated, US-American, and English-speaking, for starters. I am also relatively able-bodied and slim.

But none of these privileges completely erase the disadvantages I have. My skin color makes me a greater target for police profiling and violence, independent of my class or education. Being a nonbinary trans person means that I experience social dysphoria on a daily basis, even though I have financial access to hormones that help with the physical dysphoria. Being queer means I face possible harassment and violence if I am affectionate with my male spouse in public, even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. And being an atheist means that I am in one of the most despised groups of all in this country, independent of anything else about me.

When it comes to privilege, I find it unhelpful to rank oppression. Many animal rights activists correctly point out that we all enjoy human privilege. But as I’ve argued in my post about veganism and white privilege, that in no way means that racism, sexism, or other human issues are trivial by comparison. Rather than telling women, people of color, and others in disadvantaged groups to stop “playing the victim” because they supposedly have it so much better than non-human animals, we should be recognizing and honoring their struggles alongside our fight to end speciesism.

We should all use what privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those who do not share our advantages. The montage at the top of this post shows some of my fellow animal liberationists from Direct Action Everywhere; I took these photos at our annual forum. As also seen in our most recent video (I can be seen briefly at approximately 3:13), we represent a wide variety of races, genders, and nationalities, in a movement that is dominated by cis white voices. We come together to speak for the non-human animals whose voices have been silenced. I will be joining my DxE friends in San Francisco this Saturday, as we light the path to liberation.