The protest at City Hall went well. Around 150 people showed up, several news crews covered the event, and Black Youth Project 100, the organization that brilliantly staged the teach-in, led us in workshops of political discussions and healing.
I almost didn’t go down to the protest, because I knew police would be there, and as a trans person, the thought of getting arrested is especially scary because I wouldn’t really want to go to either prison, but especially not the one they’d probably put me in.
However, I also knew that this was one of those historical moments, the kind of things you read about in social science class in sixth grade and wonder how people were brave enough to stand up to these huge institutions, even in the name of justice. I didn’t want to be a bystander. I wanted to be on the right side of history. Plus, it’s not like black folk get to choose when and when not they’re going to be unfairly attacked by the police, so who am I to choose when and when not to go to a protest?
But this post isn’t about what I, a white person, have done to fight the criminalization of blacks (answer: little). This post isn’t about a benevolent martyr stooping down from her privileged position to lend a gentle hand to the dying masses. BYP100 deserves the attention and credit in that respect.
In fact, despite having clear ideas about how to personally combat the pathologization of trans folk like myself—come out, educate, tell stories, keep a blog, “the personal is political”—as soon as we start talking about a different minority group, my mind goes blank. Outside of participating in others’ events, I’m often at a loss. After all, how do I genuinely help a cause like the decriminalization of black folk when others might perceive my helping it as privileged (which it is and always will be) and thus problematic (which I’d like to think it doesn’t have to be)? Because I can and should go to protests, right, my physical, white body a present and breathing ally to the cause, but when I raise my hands and shout “DON’T SHOOT!,” as I briefly and unthinkingly did at the protest, I presume an identity I do not share. So how do I stand in solidarity without overstepping my bounds?
And now I start to think: Hey, is this why stuff has been so slow going for the trans community? Do people not know how to stand with us? It is obvious that many do not want to, because doing so would serve as an admission that their antiquated gender schema is overdue for a makeover. So maybe that’s it, I think: that uncomfortable feeling of Wow, I have it so much better than all of you that really sucks to think about, because acknowledging that privilege means acknowledging all this time I’ve spent doing nothing about it, selfishly, and I don’t want to be selfish.
Which is why I’ve begun to realize that maybe we can use the same small, interpersonal ways that we slowly change a culture over time to recognize trans folk as viable and worthy of love to also change a culture with respect to people of color, particularly black folk. Maybe it’s a matter of listening first, of trusting black people to tell their own stories instead of speaking for them, because as we've seen time and again when cis people try to speak for trans people, most of the time we just end up moving backwards. Maybe it’s a matter of smiling more, of not crossing the street when a black person approaches, of creating a space in which so many black people did not have to turn to criminal activity as the unique livelihood by which they could live, in which the aspirations they have for themselves could be the same aspirations as those that white people have, in which fear and wrongdoing were not things that they learned from the looks that we gave them, but rather things they experienced with the same frequency as the rest of us; in which kindness; in which respect; in which love.
If that’s still too general for you, try here. Remember: inaction in the face of violence and oppression, regardless of its target, is consent to that same violence and that same oppression. I am not pleased with the job that I have done thus far, and I pledge to do better, and hope that all of you do too. The big-scale political stuff takes time to change, but we can change our attitudes and actions today.
So let’s begin.