Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. ~Rainer Maria Rilke
Interchange is almost over. I was nervous going in to weekend 8, I was cautiously optimistic too. I wrote about my hopes and goals prior to the weekend here. I shared my thoughts and feelings going in, it feels right sharing them again after the weekend too.
On Saturday morning, when we were all first gathered together, Steve asked people to raise their hands to show what levels of work we’ve done on identities and oppression. He started with who was completely new to looking at oppression and privilege and then proceeded all the way up to who has done a lot of work, who might even be called an expert in this field. I raised my hand for that one. There were very few of us with our hands raised. Fighting oppression and remedying social stigma is what I do professionally. I’m an anti-racist researcher and intersectionally aware sexual health educator. From racial justice to media justice to reproductive justice, I’m all in, all the time. So if I’m a pro at this, why was I so anxious about a spending a weekend with a bunch of people I’ve grown to love and trust talking about stuff I’m really good at talking about?
Honestly, it’s the well-meaning white people thing. And then the well-meaning straight people thing, plus a dose of the well-meaning upper middle class thing. I’m a queer, mixed-race, woman who is a single parent and was raised in poverty. That’s a lot of marginalized identities wrapped into one package. I’m also privileged in that I can be perceived as both heterosexual and white, my children are white, I have a graduate degree, I’m a U.S. citizen and I’m able-bodied. So I’ve got a lot going for me. I experience interlocking oppressions while experiencing interlocking privileges.
I was really, really afraid that even in this loving, super supportive space, I wouldn’t be seen as the complex person I am. In my life, I have learned that in order to be seen as valuable I must only identify with my most privileged self. I’ve had to collapse into as close to a one-dimensional being as possible to be seen. That’s my fear in large groups. But as we went through the morning’s activities where each person practiced unapologetically claiming our multiple identities it hit me. I felt a shared fear ripple through, the fear of being undervalued once we’re identified as “different.” That’s what living in a hierarchical society has done to us. As I listened to each member of my home group describe both the visible and invisible labels our society slaps onto human beings, my fear of not being seen and supported for being the complex person I am transformed into a curiosity of “How can I make sure I’m seen and supported in my totality?” That may mean I have to specifically request to be seen in my whole human complexity. That may mean I walk away from an interaction if it isn’t serving me and that may mean seeking out an ally when I need to. Me having that transformational thought was a direct result of the prior 7 months of work I’ve been doing in Interchange.
I realized that showing up in this mixed space as my full self with all my interlocking identities claimed and trusting that care and support would actually be available to me was how I was going to overcome oppression. I carried that question with me for the rest of the weekend. Each new activity and each new exercise, I looked for evidence of how I was being seen and supported. I have 30 years of experience in not being fully supported, I know what that looks like and how to deal with it. I’ve accepted being heart broken about it. What I don’t have enough of? Examples of being seen and accepted. And I’m done being heart broken.
Sunday afternoon I had this deeply healing experience when we split up into specific support groups. I was able to get the support I’ve always wanted around being raised in a family with domestic violence. I could have been a group that was focused on any of the marginalized identities that I claim, but what I really wanted was to be seen and supported as someone who had violence in their childhood and has done the work to not have domestic violence in their adulthood. I wanted to be seen and supported as that person by people who experience being that person too. And I was. I learned that though each person in my group had a different version of domestic violence, we shared similar outcomes. Hyper-vigiliance. Fiercely independent. Fear of abusing our own children. Fear of intimate partners turning violent no matter how long we’ve been with them. I sat in the center of a small group and we saw ourselves in each other and we loved and loved and loved each other.
I connected deeply over the weekend with people who both share and do not share my specific stigmatized identities. I spoke truths I’ve never spoken before. I identified the blocks that keep me apart when what I so achingly want is to belong. In the weeks that have followed weekend 8, I’ve brought the question, “How am I being seen and supported in my totality?” into my counseling sessions. And then within those sessions, a new question came, “How do I make sure I am seeing others in their totality too?” This is a radically new approach to interacting for me.