Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dealing with relationships is not a surface endeavor

Itoro Udofia is an artist and writer living in Amherst, MA. Currently, she is attending graduate school to study social justice and education. Her work focuses primarily on the African Diaspora, black womanhood, identity, solidarity, and love. She hopes to continue using art as a tool for social justice.

Traditionally, in american society, it is the members of oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor. For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection
                                                                                                                         Audre Lorde

This essay seeks to deal with human relationships in a complex manner. And please note, dealing with relationships is not a surface endeavor. Especially when we’re trying to look at the political, economic and social nature of the ways we react to one another. As poverty, homelessness, unemployment, hunger and crisis becomes a fact for most of us living in the world. The question of, “Who is actually eating?” will become of prime importance as we look closer into these power dynamics. Therefore, my goal is to talk frankly about this, as I want to see a world where we all have bread. More importantly I crave a world where the power relations present change, and to destroy the historic, unyielding consciousness buried deep in our exploiters psyche that believes one must plunder, abuse, control and manipulate human life to realize its own.

 As a result, this essay is a way to openly name the silences around these complex power relations, which many of us who stand on the margins have named in the comforts of others where “oppression is as American as apple pie.” In these private spaces, we have told these stories as a way to soothe the unbearable pain of helplessness and build new tactics to keep resisting. 

I think most about these relationships in the struggle of political organizing and working within the field for social justice. Many people, in particular, us women of color here, as well as us in the Third World, have recognized this relationship all too well. Where even within organizations that preach our liberation, we are constantly cast into subordinate roles, where Whiteness can thrive and generate their income from our suffering and degradation. When it comes to seeing us as true equals, people worthy enough of holding power, shaping policy, deciding what to be done with what most poor, dark, woman, child and Other produce for the world, anytime the question of true self-determination surfaces, there always seems to be a problem.

For example, in education we can always talk about the achievement gap and the need to “go and help” those poor, dark little, non-English speaking ones over there reach their potential. However, when it comes time to talking about the lovely, lily, cushioned children eating well on the other side, and the nature of their curriculum, or the fact that they may need social justice to also undo the lies we have all been taught, there is discomfort. Especially when our analysis begins to turn the mirror on our most inner parts and can't help but see that "those lovely people over there" will most likely hold positions of trust and power. Yes, they too also have the potential to continue this despicable system. And when this is mentioned, there is almost immediate shame, discomfort and contempt that arises. Thankfully, the discomfort lets me know that at least I am surrounded by people who have a bit of consciousness and can see the profound destruction in this relationship. However, the fact that we have yet to still move beyond the feelings of guilt and denial convince me that I am also surrounded by people with no principles.  

Currently, about 90 percent of the teaching force is white middle to upper class women. Our kids are still mis-educated--if not more so--and it’s a thin line between wage or prison labor for the majority of us colored folks struggling in the United States. What relationship do you think is present here? There is always a problem when it is time for us to walk the walk and face how our own economic and political activities effect those we are trying to help and uplift. No one, including myself, is exempt from the labor of this reflective work. And right now, those who rule with war, wealth and laws do not only work the increasing devastation many of us face. It’s also those of us who must fight our most internal complexes—our social justice industrial complex—to truly want to see liberation for ourselves and not only “those poor, dark little, non-English speaking ones” over there.

I mean really! Wanting to help, wanting to explore, wanting to act like many of our ancestors historically did got us into this mess in the first place. And frankly, our real enemies are artfully organized and because of our internal complex we do not astutely name them as well as we could. Nor are we willing to risk as much as we should. 

A couple days ago, I was speaking with a dear friend, a fierce Latina woman warrior, and someone whose words helped me when I thought I had no reserves left. In this way, I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have such love, commitment and support. Of course, we try to keep humor and joy between us, even when discussing things that are painful, as this has been a way to survive a hostile world. We were talking and in our conversation we said, “This ain’t sexy work.” Or a thing to simply make us feel better for the altruism of it all, so you better be perfectly clear about why you’re here, ‘cause if you’re not, then really, we don’t need you.

Now of course, the movement needs collectivities and all people from every background coming together. But this is food for thought because there are no escapes. Another woman of color, a Black woman warrior, taught me a lot this year. I often think about the way she carried herself and negotiated her path in a hostile White environment. I often think about my own decision to leave that environment and wage my struggle elsewhere. One day, she was talking about running to a green mountain. Where she could live alone. The funny part is that sometimes you wish you could really go and live. Alone. And it brings bittersweet humor for a moment, but then that feeling quickly passes (or at least it should). Because the serious part that this woman knew perfectly well is that there is no green mountain. There are no escapes. So we better figure this stuff out right quick because time is going.