Love and Friendship: New Models for Social Change

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Today’s writing must begin with a caveat: I’m being unreasonable and I’m asking for too much.

Recently, I’ve been struggling to think about how much we draw upon feeling, upon emotions, in order to make sense of social and political reality. When confronted with experiences that are complex and layered, I often turn to those whose words and thoughts are more careful and nuanced than my own; this usually means turning to social thinkers, historians, philosophers, and cultural critics. While I will often insist that this blog live in the realm of the concrete, from time to time I will ask for the indulgence to run and skip and fall through the playground of ideas, and I must trust that my readership knows that I will continually grapple to actualize these ideas, and to find better words so that I may translate such thoughts for ever-widening audiences.

Cultures of Love

Why am I thinking about love and friendship? To begin, I realize that feelings are not usually thought of as a part of culture, as culturally specific. And yet, how we learn to feel and to relate to feeling is not universal, despite many claims within the field of mainstream cognitive psychology. Two examples: feelings of grief and feelings of affirmation. In my first example, I contrast expectations around grief and mourning within white, middle-class U.S. culture – which has, in fact, made it pathological to express grief for longer than an ‘appropriate’ amount of time – and within Armenian culture.

Having attended a number of Armenian funerals, expressions of grief and mourning are effusive and fill entire orthodox cathedrals, as mourners are culturally given space to wail, throw themselves into one another’s arms to evade collapse, and huddle together in clutched embrace. These funerals have contrasted so starkly with what I have witnessed in white, middle-class funerals, where a sense of controlled grief saturates the air.

In my second example, I look not even at cross-cultural differences, but generational differences within a culture seen as ostensibly the ‘same’: Baby Boomers and Millennials. Baby Boomers often lament what they describe as the lack of emotional resilience displayed by Millennials, citing a cultural ‘softening’ and heightened social responsiveness to feeling that contrasts with their own post-WWII upbringing. While I have many thoughts around this, in this particular moment, I only wish to cite this difference in order to demonstrate that cultural difference is not only ethnic, but generational as well.

Eva Illouz, a Moroccan social thinker, in her book Consuming the Romantic Utopia, tells us that:

Culture operates as a frame within which emotional experience is organized, labeled, classified and interpreted. Cultural frames name and define the emotion, set the limits of its intensity, specify the norms and values attached to it, and provide symbols and cultural scenarios that make it socially communicative.

From this, I gather that when we use terms like “love”, we might be using it in different ways: to refer to romantic attachment, family commitments, aesthetic pleasures, group (self-)identification, and more. Often, in social change work, people refer to love for community, or love for one’s own group or people. While many consider love to be an emotion often associated with positive qualities or outcomes, I’m left thinking about the ways that feelings have been so frequently co-opted for political ends.

Many of us remember the Terror Alerts set up by the George W. Bush administration as a way to activate public support for the increasingly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11. This literally capitalized on fearful emotions, and used this fear to render the American public complicit in atrocities abroad, as well as complicit in bloating an already large military budget. Looking to history, one can see the ways that “Christian love” has been animated in order to prioritize the “saving of souls” over the saving of lives (resulting in such violent campaigns as the Inquisition, the Crusades, the mission projects of California) –  we can see quite clearly that conceptions of feelings can never be divorced from historical or cultural contexts that put them to use for particular ends.

Love: Understanding Its Implications

Recently, I have written about the limits of empathy and compassion, and how resorting to appeals to individual’s emotions and attitudes is limited by the inherent disconnect between feeling, action, and appropriate action to change conditions of violence or harm. Given this, how can we make sense of contemporary uses of love and friendship in social change work, and what can we do to reconfigure our expectations of love through this?

Conceptions of love range from identification and affirmation, to commitment and responsibility, to negotiation and tension. While some of these frameworks of love feel immensely limiting, there are a few I would like to highlight in order to begin to reframe what political love and friendship can look like. Veering away from notions of love that rely on identification and affirmation feels important to me, not because there is anything inherently problematic about identifying-with and affirming the object of one’s love – in this sense, friends and communities – but I am doing so because of the effects I have witnessed.

Too often, relying on a sense of identification and affirmation when speaking about love of a group or community can produce a fixation on self-discovery or self-understanding. Though these can be important endeavors, when they become the crux of a social or political ethos, we are treading on dangerous ground, particularly when we take time to notice how unquestioned narcissism is, in part, a result of limited social and political cultures of resistance, which I have discussed before.

Trends of self-discovery and self-understanding are part of a larger cultural imperative to “know ourselves” as one of the highest personal achievements. Love, within this context, becomes part of a search for utopia and sacred ideals, which Illouz points out in her writing. Again, we turn inward and step away from an immersion in social realities, even as this turn inward often necessitates external affirmation that we can easily mistake for social engagement.

When we focus on love as identification, affirmation, discovery, and understanding, we often turn away from some of the more challenging conceptualizations of love and friendship: tension, debate, respectful disagreement, responsibility, unconditional commitment. When working for social change, these latter aspects are the notions of love that we must nurture so that we can expand our capacities to negotiate differences in opinion and experience.

Reframing Love

At this point, I am already beyond my own capacity to respond to a complex premise. Instead, I will rely on those who have thought about these issues and written about them with more conceptual and verbal deft. Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish Holocaust refugee and social thinker, and James Baldwin, a gay, Black American author, playwright, and social critic, both offer understandings of political love that surpass my own. They were in conversation with one another, both directly and within an intellectual milieu that was asking difficult questions of social change work of the 1950s and 60s in the United States and beyond. Responding to critiques that she did not love her own people because of her critiques of Zionism and the new nation-state of Israel, Arendt said:

…I am not moved by love of this sort, and for two reasons: I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective…I indeed love “only” my friends…Secondly, this “love of the Jews” would appear to me, since I am myself Jewish, as something rather suspect. I cannot love myself or anything which I know is part and parcel of my own person…What good could come out of [this people that believes only in itself]? – Well, in this sense I do not “love” the Jews, nor do I “believe” in them; I merely belong to them as a matter of course, beyond dispute or argument.

What Arendt might be saying here is that for her, love is reserved for that which is outside of the self, a love for what is other to oneself – an important part of a Jewish ethic of hospitality toward a sacred Other, toward incommensurate difference, toward the unknowable and ambiguous. This does not mean that one is self-loathing – an accusation often leveraged against self-critical Jews – but simply that concepts of love are inextricably connected to concepts of difference and diversity. What might we learn from this concept of love, and how might it impact our political organizing work? What does it mean to have been a person exposed to imminent death in Nazi Germany and to still refuse to place herself and ‘her people’ at the center of her love?

This concept of love urges us to consider the benefits of tension, respectful disagreement, responsibility, and commitment. In response to this, I additionally offer James Baldwin’s comments on love in his “Autobiographical Notes” in the volume titled Collected Essays:

I do not like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Again, we see a social critic who decries a love focused on affirmation and homogenizing identification; Baldwin, as a gay, Black American writing, in part, against the racism of his time, does not want to be loved – by anyone – simply because he is Black. He wants to be held in high regard because of how he thinks, resists, and writes in contestation to the injustices of his time, which traversed lines of nation, class, race, gender, language and sexuality. Baldwin reserves the right to be critical of that which is closest to him, maintaining the freedom to have a selective relation to legacy in order to highlight liberatory potentials within America, rather than maintain a wholly affirmative, nationalistic stance.

Approaching love from this perspective, we can see how it opens space for diversity-within-diversity and refuses the homogeneity in representation that often overtakes marginalized groups. Complex relations to group identification are affirmed through these approaches to loving, and allow us to see how when love for oneself and one’s group borders on romanticizing, or sees group intentions and actions as only good, we develop a disingenuous relationship to the present and to history (and to our own complexity). I will not be forced into revising history, neither my individual legacies nor my cultural legacies. Loving America and loving our own micro-nations of community need not necessitate revisionist history to write in moral purity where it never existed.

Who do we want to be, and how do we want to love? Wendy Brown, a political scientist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview, “We have to learn to love again. We also have to recognize that the ‘we’, the ‘I’, who will be doing that loving…will be a different ‘we’ than the one we are.”

What will we be? A ‘we’ invested in collective governance, hospitality toward difference (within and without), or isolated groups filled with self-love that is individual and rooted in fictive ideas of sameness? A ‘we’ that loves contingently, or committedly, and responsibly? Reconceptualizing political love and friendship must be an item on our organizing agendas as we seek to explore new possibilities and approaches to the much needed work of social justice.

Black Lives Matter, Clinton’s “Yankee Stadium,” and Morality Politics


Last week, there was a highly publicized discussion between a small group of the de-centralized leadership of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton. While much debate and analysis has ensued over many parts of the discussion, there was a comment Clinton made that has been playing itself over in my mind: “You can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer.’ That’s not enough…”

Clinton went on to urge BLM activists to present workable policy and program recommendations, playing into already existing critiques of the movement as one too-focused on spectacular demonstrations rather than substantial social change through legal and policy initiatives. Others have offered a thorough critique of Clinton’s chiding on these points, so I will not spend time duplicating those insights. Additionally, throughout this debate, others have drawn upon the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to leverage arguments against the many women of color who have invested their time, energy, and intellect to increasing the visibility of the BLM movement work. In light of that, I would like to make use of Dr. King’s social and political insights to momentarily buttress the critiques of Clinton:

Underneath the invitation to prepare programs is the premise that the government is inherently benevolent – it only awaits presentation of imaginative ideas. When these issue from fertile minds, they will be accepted, enacted and implemented. This premise shifts the burden of responsibility from the white majority, by pretending it is withholding nothing, and places it on the oppressed minority, by pretending the latter is asking for nothing. This is a fable, not a fact. Neither our government nor any government that has sanctioned a century of denial can be depicted as ardent and impatient to bestow gifts of freedom.

– Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community

I will leave this particular point of strategy aside, one that pits direct-action against the drafting of law and policy, a divisive strategy that often ignores the importance of engaging multiple tactics of resistance and movement building. I would instead like to return to the “Yankee Stadium” comment in order to tease apart the issues underlying it that bring me to my first of two purposes today: questioning the efficacy and sustainability of a moral plea within the broader context of social change work.

Empathy and Morality: The Limits of Individualism and Psychological Empathy

Many of us raised in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were brought up with the idea that developing a sense of empathy is one of the most important tasks before us, as inheritors of multiculturalism. Learn to feel for others, and patterns of social behavior will change, so long as we listen and understand how different groups continue to struggle to achieve the American Dream. How many times did we hear this growing up? How many of us continue to hear this?

Where did this idea come from? “Empathy” is a term that has only existed in the English language for a little over a century, and was a concept in psychology that received little attention until after World War II, when an explosion of empirical research appeared in an attempt to understand the ways that German citizens failed to intervene on the quotidian forms of Holocaust violence against Jews. Decades of research from the 1950’s to present day have been unable to demonstrate any clear causal connections between an individual’s self-described experience of empathy, the willingness to intervene on violence, and possessing the capacity to carry out an intervention that is actually effective in preventing or intervening on violence.

I am sure that many did not previously know about this history of the social construction of ‘empathy.’ These ideas of the beneficence of empathy also came into increasing cultural popularity during an era where faith in collective social movements was on the decline, and an era of individual self-help and interpersonal empathy was on the rise. “Being a good person” took the place of efforts formerly occupied by involvement in community building and social change work.

The preeminence of the individual replaced a focus on collective governance – governing the individual self is a recurrent theme in modern and contemporary history, and finds its origins in ideas of individual salvation found in dominant Protestant Christianity (acknowledging the boldness of this claim, as well as the need to further develop it in later writing, I ask both secular and Christian readers to see that while I am not demonizing an entire spiritual legacy, I am hesitant to only see the hopeful aspects of hyper-individualism).

Many of us colloquially refer to ‘morality’ in the way I refer to ‘ethics’ – as a practice of navigating the multiple effects of our words and actions, and reflecting on our responsibility to act in social worlds. When I use ‘morality’, I am more specifically referring to a set of dogmatic truths that shape ideas of how we should think and behave, irrespective of the complexities of context, history, and dynamics of power. In this sense, I am anti-dogmatic as well as anti-moralist.

From this elaboration of morality, in combination with the ways moral claims often rely on a misguided conception of our empathic capacities, my hope is that it is increasingly clear why I am skeptical of approaching social change work primarily from a place of moral politics. I am also not alone in my skepticism. While many thinkers and social change agents from the Civil Rights era are quoted in order to silence critiques of dominance, I offer the words of Bayard Rustin, a behind-the-scenes organizer who – despite all attempts to sideline him – never faltered in his commitment to community-building, human rights, and a multi-front approach to social change:

Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency [to feel a sense of isolation] survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions [to the problems of racism]. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts – by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may gleefully applaud…Malcolm X because… they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even if unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes – a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions – social, political, and economic institutions – which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.

– Bayard Rustin, in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement”

And here we find the limits of empathy, of the psychology of individuals, and moral pleas. We currently live in a country full of the racist effects of policy, law, and institutional harm with few – especially in elite settings – who would admit to being “a racist.” Though those hearts have ostensibly been changed, we do not have institutions that reflect this alleged change. We have also placed ourselves in a position of moral righteousness, which often makes it difficult to reflect on our own complicity in systems of oppression. Rigorous discussions of economic and class disparity have not been actively engaged, bringing me to my second purpose in writing today: understanding the role of privileged people of color.

Yankee Stadium and Liberals of Color

Alongside an imaginary Yankee Stadium filled with white liberals who espouse an antiracist morality, one can find a Yankee Stadium filled with another group of people to which I, myself, might belong: middle class and college educated people of color.

For too long, I have stood by and watched this second Yankee Stadium refuse responsibility and acknowledgement of the politics of class at play in much of the BLM public movement work, though I do acknowledge that these discussions are taking place in more quiet corners of Black organizing. Many middle class and college educated people of color use comparative analyses of poor/working class people of color and poor/working class whites as a shield against critical self-reflection on how privilege is operating in movement agendas.

We hold up poor people of color and say: “Look! The white poor are doing better than the poor of color. Racism is still an important analysis. Do not talk about white poverty and re-center white people.” In that moment, when those making such claims come from class or education privilege, we are allowing for poor people to become objects of persuasion, a violent tactic of deflection.

I do not offer these reflections as a way to denigrate the efforts that are ongoing and ever-expanding. I offer them as a form of engagement and support, to encourage even more work to happen, work that I myself participate in, given my various commitments and capacities. I write to reflect on alliances that need to be built to support and further the work of BLM, which from its inception has refused the reduction of racial issues to the plight of the straight, able-bodied, gender-normative man of color, already a huge shift from much of the Civil Rights rhetoric of the 1950’s and 60’s.

“Where Do We Go From Here?”

We need to continue to expand our analyses to include open critiques of capitalism, militarism, and economic and cultural imperialism, connecting our issues to the global impacts of our often-invisiblized U.S. privilege. Focusing on the narrow – yet still important – goals of ending police brutality will make our movements all too easy to quell by jailing “killer cops” and increasing police spending for equipment, including body cameras, and training. Our calls to de-militarize the police need to publicly and continually ask fundamental questions about why the United States is in possession of excess military supplies and to interrogate the national budget expenditures on the military, while also holding leaders accountable for veteran care and protection of active-duty service members.

The Black and mixed students I am in community with have told me that they do not always want to feel like they are “at the bottom of the barrel,” through hierarchical identity analyses that posit Black people as the “most oppressed.” If we are to believe statistics, even they show that Native Americans and immigrant refugees experience conditions atrocious enough to warrant heightened public discourse. Our fears of attention- and resource-scarcity cannot shape the complexity of our racial justice agendas.

It is crucial that we do not disempower Black youth by socially and intellectually isolating them by disallowing their participation in building mutually beneficial alliances with other groups of people. Alliance is a two-way street and commitments to social change are unsustainable long-term without everyone staking a claim to the benefits of our collective labor. Black America has inherited more problems than they can undo in isolation, and we all must contribute to antiracist work on multiple fronts, taking time to learn about the particular ways racism impacts different peoples.

What does this work look like? Part of it involves intervening on our own impoverished education through building independent study groups to learn from social change movements both within and outside of the U.S. We have to value the development of our collective intellect as much as we value direct-action work. Learning and studying together is action, though the effects may not appear as direct. In time, they will.

We need to explode open the biological, anthropological, geographical, and religious studies of the past and present that have justified racism and formed rigid racial categories. We need to acknowledge the salve of materialist consumerism that unsuccessfully wards off the burn of labor and advertising exploitation of our hard-earned income.

We need to fight for a national budget that re-allocates funds to antipoverty and antiracist programs that also understand nuances of gendered oppression and violence, including that experienced by the (fictively united) LGBTQ communities, as well as the particularities of urban, rural, poor, and immigrant communities. Developing prisoner-release support networks for housing, employment, and mental health will have to be a part of our efforts. All our calls for racial justice ought to also be infused with the knowledge that survivors of racial and ethnic genocide live among us: indigenous peoples, Jews, Armenians, Hmong, and so many more, each having diverse cultural practices we need to support.

We also need artists, healers, and beauty-makers to feed our aesthetic and emotional needs to see our lives represented and cared for in all their diversity and struggle, hope and pain. We need community-led programs to feed hungry kids and elders. Social spaces need to multiply where we can practice bringing our ideals to life without shaming ourselves and one another when we don’t get it right immediately.

We need to commit unconditionally to showing up, even in some moments when we are asked not to. Too many are looking for excuses to give up reflecting on privilege, or for excuses to refuse legacies of isolation, and we have to continually remind ourselves that nothing will change unless we let go of our need to feel constantly affirmed and wholly ‘good’. As deserving as we are of immediate change, this cannot happen without reflecting on the privileges we carry, nor will it happen while ignoring the plight of others who may struggle so differently than we do.

Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Tuesday and Thursday.

Back on the Grid: Connecting via Smartphones and Facebook


In February of this year, I deleted my Facebook account after needing to take some time away. Two and a half years ago, after cracking the screen on my SmartPhone and fending off an anxiety attack, I exiled myself to the land of DumbPhones, relying only on calls and texts to stay in communication when mobile. I had been relishing what many might call my “disconnect,” when a series of decisions led me back to both Facebook and a SmartPhone.

When my SmartPhone broke, I was confronted with a number of challenges: how would I find directions when lost? How would I find out when the bus was coming? What would I do to pass the time when working mentally unstimulating service jobs? How would I share my most recent witty thought while on-the-go without having a phone with a Facebook application?

After taking a deep breath and noticing the sense of panic and overwhelm, I stopped myself. I told myself that I had lived twenty-four years of my life without a SmartPhone and that I was perfectly capable of doing so for another twenty-four years if necessary. Even though social and professional expectations have changed and many things – such as applying for jobs and schools, managing personal accounts, responding to email rapidly – require near-constant internet connectivity, my life at the time did not require mobile internet. I had a computer at home and decided that would suffice.

If I’m honest with myself – and, therefore, with you – I have to admit that I had developed a relationship to Facebook that concerned me. So much of my daily and weekly moods depended upon seeing posts from friends, on the kindness or hostility of comments I witnessed, and on the repetition of violent news stories that multiple friends were sharing about issues of great importance to me. My world felt like it had shrunk, as though the circles I ran in were closing in on me. This feeling is not the fault of any one group of people, but it still left me with the sense that I needed to take a conscious step away to recalibrate my expectations of how I wanted to relate to social media. So, I closed up shop and fully deleted my account, with no intention of coming back online any time soon.

Two weeks ago, I launched this blog by posting my first piece of public writing in over a year. On that same day, I opened a new Facebook account, ready to start fresh. The week before, my DumbPhone had given up on me after over two years of faithful service. After a series of seductive maneuvers, the Sprint customer service representative had managed to offer me a brand new iPhone 6, fully furnished with case and screen cover, for a pittance. I had walked into the store prepared to activate an old iPhone 5s I had been gifted, but lo-and-behold, through some intricate equation relating to supply and demand of various iPhone models, it was financially beneficial for them to buy the old iPhone from me and greatly discount a new iPhone on a no-contract lease plan.

The very kind service rep tried his best to help me set myself up in the nebulously-named “Cloud,” but I firmly declined the offer. I had preemptively set up specific boundaries for myself regarding how I wanted to maintain a certain degree of freedom from constant internet connectivity when out and about during my day. No email. No Facebook application. No using the phone while in transit, either for directions or for distraction. Some might derogatorily refer to me as reactive, as resistant to changes that I cannot stop, and some might even go so far as to insult me by labelling me a Luddite. While colloquially, “Luddite” is often used today to refer to someone who is technology-averse, historically, it refers to a movement of people who (sometimes violently) opposed not only the mechanization of labor that displaced and impoverished thousands of workers in 19th century England, but the forms of social alienation that were produced as a result of the displacement of labor and communities. Frankly, I don’t mind the insult, given its proper political associations.

My main purpose in writing today was to discuss the shifts in myself that I have noticed since coming back on the social media and SmartPhone grid. Because my first tenure on Facebook had extended back to the launch of Facebook to all university students in 2005, all the gradual changes made to include Likes, Shares, photos, and advertisements came in such staggered increments that I had stopped noticing them. Having taken the time to get some ginger for my social media palate, my perspective on it feels fresh and my critique feels less pained than before. But my hesitations remain, nonetheless.

I have felt more anxious and distracted these past two weeks. After posting a blog, I nervously and compulsively check Facebook to see if anyone has taken interest, launched a knee-jerk critique of my writing, or been interested and left a kind comment. There is much more of a focus in my mental life regarding how I’m perceived by others online. Am I posting often enough? Too much? Am I boring? Trying too hard to be interesting? What do my friends think? Did that person just add me because they read my writing? Or because we have twenty friends in common? The self-absorption is difficult to ward off, but I must also confront the fact that it is quite possible not everyone is as susceptible to it as I am. An even greater reason to be self-conscious!

On a more contextual note, I really have noticed how skewed and curated the advertised news is in my feed. I make a point of reading multiple independent news sites that focus on issues of gender and racial justice, in addition to the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and academic journals. Because I have developed this practice more deeply during my time away from Facebook, I noticed that the news stories my friends share impact the news stories that are promoted by the advertisers. I’m becoming increasingly concerned that if a person is relying on Facebook for their news frame, it might be startlingly limited, even if it is about issues faced by marginalized people.

Regarding SmartPhone use, I spent the past two and a half years watching people absorbed in their phones when commuting with the 9-to-5 crowd on BART. It is one of the most depressing parts of my day. I can also understand the desire to distract oneself, to feel (dis)connected, to become absorbed in online reading. There is also an increasing body of research that discusses the challenges to retention when reading online, in addition to research that shows that quiet self-reflection is essential for developing compassionate and patient social skills. People increasingly turn to their individual devices for answers to questions that used to be engaged collectively when in social spaces. Generations have repetitively bemoaned the atrophying of public interaction with strangers, opportunities that have granted me tiny glimpses into lives whose paths are so very different from my own. Often, older people start talking to me when on public transportation because I’m the only other person not completely absorbed in a device. We chat about feeling isolated when in public, about how brusquely people can brush off our questions regarding the time, getting simple directions, or other basic logistics that any fully ‘modern’ person should be able to ascertain through consulting their individual mobile device.

I’m not here to offer a condemnation of Facebook or SmartPhones, because they are proving to be useful tools for me. I now keep track of which days/times are best for posting new blog entries and I am able to send/receive emojis and group texts. I love the camera on my new iPhone 6 and have been sharing pictures with friends on Instagram. The introductory success of this blog is largely attributable to Facebook (and my writing labor, of course). I’m not a hypocrite, but I do have a complex relationship to mobile and social media connectivity.

What I do want to mention, in closing, is that my concerted time away from SmartPhones and Facebook has granted me a perspective that sees both the disconnect as well as the potential within these phones and social media platforms. I recommend that each of you create an opportunity to take a step away from both, and to reflect on that experience, if you are in fact able to perform that experiment on yourself. If you are unable to complete it, for reasons of work or addiction, that is definitely something to reflect upon, not as an issue of personal choice or asceticism, but as a reflection upon the constraints of our times. What forms of connection become more strained during this era of seemingly constant capacities to connect?

Thanks for reading! On Thursday, I will be posting my thoughts on Hilary Clinton’s response to Black Lives Matter activists and reflecting on Bayard Rustin’s essay, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Political Space, Processing Space: Managing Expectations in Solidarity Work

Solidarity Politics for Millennials

I had the good fortune of coming across Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, by Ange-Marie Hancock, a scholar and advocate for diverse coalition politics. Coalition politics describe political engagements that build relationships of solidarity within a majoritarian democracy – the form of democracy we have in the United States – which focus on legal and policy initiatives intended to impact diverse groups of people. Most lasting institutional change has happened in the U.S. through groups coming together across difference to find common ground, requiring that coalition groups negotiate the different concerns they have in ways that strengthen relationships.

While reading, I was forced to reflect upon some of the current barriers to building meaningful coalitions, barriers that, indeed, are not the sole responsibility of a single party or community to address, but instead are challenges that warrant deep and nuanced reflection by all who seek to live and work in solidarity with other groups of people. Having engaged in rigorous solidarity work for over a decade, I wanted to take this moment to highlight one area where we, as activists and community members, might invest more energy: managing expectations and being intentional about self-care when engaging in coalition politics.

What Is Solidarity Work?

Solidarity can be understood as a mutual commitment to collaborative engagement both across and within groups participating in social change work in pursuit of a common political, educational, policy, or social change objective in the short- or long-term. Groups often form with various objectives in mind, and through engagement, these objectives can shift; some groups may be identity-, issue-, location-, or policy-based.

Just this past week, Al-Jazeera America reported on Wisconsin dairy farmers who were speaking out against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s increasingly xenophobic stance on immigration reform, as Walker seeks to court conservative voters in his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination. Dairy farmers, mostly property-owning or -leasing white men in the Midwest region of the U.S., are dependent on their undocumented Latino workforce, and for reasons both selfish and altruistic, they want to support their workers and their own livelihood, in recognition of their interdependence.

Solidarity work generally involves an acknowledgement of the ways we are indelibly linked to others. While it would be ideal if people could care about social issues out of pure empathy, decades of psychological research shows that there is little connection between experiences of empathy, the impetus to work for change, and the identification of strategic ways to change present circumstances. Given this reality, we cannot rely on utopian ideals of pure altruism; instead, we have to work to build solidary relationships over time and through the charged environment of negotiating the needs of individuals and communities.

Crafting Intentional Solidary Space

Within this context of building alliances, I have been taught that it is important to set two commitments when working across difference: first, to not compare oppressions and to discuss experiences of harm in their particularity (which is not about making all forms of oppression equivalent), and second, to work together with the understanding of unconditional commitment to working together, regardless of disagreement, misunderstanding, micro-aggressive harm, or needing to take time away from the work for self-care purposes.

When writing about solidarity or interacting online, I have seen many writers and activists attacked for not addressing every facet of a given social issue in a single post or comment. Many on the Left expect perfection, a trend that increases the in-fighting that has become heightened on the Left post-9/11, as progressive communities – in defense of important issues – mirror the aggressive protectionism of U.S. military interventions: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” is transmuted into “You’re either perfectly radical or wholly oppressive,” a purist logic that also appeared during orthodox Marxist organizing in the 1960s and 70s. While the effects of these two strands of political thought are immensely different, the underlying logic comes from the shriveling space of respectful political and social engagement across diverse perspectives.

It is important to distinguish between our many needs and what we can strategically expect in spaces of political and solidary work, while always working to increase hospitality toward difference, expanding our imaginations of what is possible as we experiment with collective decision-making and group governance. I trust my readership to care for themselves, which includes the shared acknowledgement that we must differentiate between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic settings, in order to sustain working relationships. While engaging with social change work can have many therapeutic effects, it is worrisome to me when people engage in solidarity and activist work as therapy – we must disentangle acts of alliance from affirmative therapies because, sometimes, solidarity work involves asking difficult questions and pushing back against coping mechanisms that have outlived their usefulness. It is important to set up clear agreements and commitments, and discussion needs to happen primarily in person. We can rely on online organizing to share news stories, publicize events, and archive writing, photos, and videos.

The efforts described above can be particularly challenging in groups and communities where social isolation partly informs how and why marginalized people come together to engage in political and solidary work. There may be significant overlap between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic spaces. It is important to call our attention to cultural norms – which inevitably emerge in any community, insular or not – that we should challenge. We need to remain ever-attentive to dynamics that silence people or that preclude their participation altogether, including English language access, education privilege, and urban access to political community and transportation to and from events and meetings. Distinct settings need to be named, shaped, and upheld with incredible degrees of intentionality, remaining ever-attentive to how those born and those socialized female often take on emotional labor for others, to the detriment of their own political sustainability.

The proliferation of popular rhetoric regarding what is commonly referred to as ‘trauma’ can be an important intervention to visibilize experiences of harm that often remain ignored; however, people doing educational or political work, while understandably drawing upon feeling or experience, cannot foreground their personal needs for emotional care in contexts of solidarity work. This means we need to create multiple sites of support (political, intellectual, social, emotional) in order to make this work sustainable. Self-care is important so that political and educational settings are able to focus on urgent and long-term goals, instead of serving as emotional processing spaces, which are crucial to have access to, especially as we commit to ongoing critique of the dominant divisions between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ that have denigrated contributions of women, immigrant, LGBTQ, working class, and Jewish activists through history and into the present.

Alongside this, wholesale therapeutic advice can be a momentary salve at best, violently shaming at worst, and even ethically negligent when proffered by licensed therapists and social workers who have professional obligations to uphold, including boundary-setting. Trauma and triggers are unique to each individual, and even when done with the best intentions, dispensing advice online regarding trauma and coping should be kept to a minimum and ought to be framed alongside follow-up resources for in-person care and support.

Meeting People Where They Are

Focusing on what is proximate to groups and communities is part of this work; for example, it is strategically impractical to insist that all people of color focus on following national agendas, which will inevitably foreground racial justice work that attends to urban anti-Latino and anti-Black racism perpetuated largely by whites. How do we support rural racial solidarity work without inflaming violence through oppositional rhetoric? How do we support communities of color all over as they interrogate homophobia, transphobia, and notions of purity that marginalize mixed-race youth and adults, and others who defy categorical ease of race and gender? This is not to place blame, but to encourage consideration of the unintended consequences our words and actions may have on those more vulnerable than ourselves. It also brings to light the importance of particularity, as each community exhibits and responds to discrimination in unique ways.

To not respond to what is immediate or proximate would be disingenuous, as we would be ignoring people’s experiences. Last year, I was teaching a class on “Healthy Relationships” with high-school aged women of color in a small, drop-out prevention high school in Oakland, California. Part of my curriculum involved linking cycles of relationship abuse to larger social dynamics and cycles of institutional violence against marginalized groups. I introduced a tool known as the Power Chart that shows how different groups are on the upside or downside of social power imbalances in an attempt to open up a discussion about white racism towards people of color.

As important as it was to me to try to convey that larger social forces shape conflict in interpersonal and social relationships, it was equally important to my students to tell me that because of the difficulty of their lives, they weren’t ready to hear all that. These youth – all who would be read as Black out on the streets – wanted to think about the conflicts in Black communities around being of mixed heritage, as the young women had immigrant API mothers, indigenous ancestry, Spanish-speaking parents, undocumented relatives, and a range of other complex social identifications regarding gender and sexuality. For me, as a social justice educator, to force these young women into my own frameworks of solidarity and to not respond to their immediate calls to address the policing of race, gender, and sexuality within their communities, would have been not only irresponsible, but reproductive of the violence that ignores particular experiences of harm that don’t conveniently fit into dominant political agendas, even when those agendas are focused on social justice. Shifting agendas is part of the work of solidarity.

In Closing

It is essential that we have both political spaces and processing spaces, and it is also important to feel freed of the pressure to not have to combine them, to not have one setting bear the burden of providing for all our diverse needs around political and solidary sustainability, especially during these immensely trying social and political times. Confronting disagreement from a place of strength and support – along with knowing our own limits and taking time for self-care when needed – is a practice we must engage from a space of critical self-reflection and unconditional alliance.

My hope is that from this approach, groups can spend less time describing a “good ally” or a “bad ally” and more time practicing solidarity through experimentation, responsibility, and sustainable commitment, knowing that it is both about us, and not about us. We must remain mindful of when and how we engage in a public performance of the right kind of progressive person and when we are engaging in order to create future possibilities for worlds of justice, equity, and shared governance.

Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Monday and Thursday. Monday’s post will address my reintegration back into the realm of Smartphones and Facebook after an extended hiatus, and reflections about this process.

Questioning Urban-Centrism in the Golden State

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Sitting down to write about the Central Valley of California often begins with the circuitous process of fighting off the desire to begin with a defense, a justification for why I might even be interested in writing about it in the first place. Even among most scholars and activists in the Bay Area who are keenly attuned to issues of marginality, there is a struggle to move past misguided preconceptions of backwards, conservative, staunchly Christian communities in order to illuminate pressing issues, including immigration, agricultural labor rights, education reform, and the precarious symbiosis between rural and urban centers in the Golden State.

For close to a decade, revelations about my place of origin generally included heavy doses of sarcastic self-deprecation for having overcome my provincial origins – despite the fact that Fresno is the largest city in between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What I never learned growing up is that I was raised in the forgotten California: not the California of movies, not the glamorous Hollywood, nor the progressive enclave of the Bay Area, not a region that has incubated countless well-known social movements and activists over the decades.

The California of my youth was a place of booming development, as vast stretches of former agricultural land became destined for housing developments, converting cheap orchard land into lucrative “agriburbs,” a term elaborated by Paul J.P. Sandul in California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State to describe suburbanized communities surrounded by rural ag land. Big business interests from wealthier parts of the state and even from outside the state had seen the possibilities for capitalizing on the mythical draw to California that came, in part, from the increased access to images of vastness and prosperity via television and movies.

During the 1950s and 60s, Central California had been a site of political experimentation, as the rising New Right from wealthy Southern California sought to link innovative forms of economic conservatism – now known as neoliberalism – with the evangelical Christianity of rural Central California, setting up an entire rural region to co-sign political maneuvers that would eventually harm their economic and cultural livelihood by using wedge social issue campaigns, such as the Red Scare and gay witch hunts. Today, we can see the impacts of misguided political alliances in the Central Valley, including high rates of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy in the eight counties that comprise it: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Tulare.

From the age of ten, I knew my primary goal was to flee, to find a place where critical questions of culture and place were welcomed and where I might have a little more room to breathe, both literally and figuratively. The pollution of the Central Valley is an apt metaphor for the cultural congestion of intellectual engagement; as industrial agricultural waste settles on the Valley floor, it coats the lungs of Valley residents, producing high rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, alongside the choking of political and social freedoms that has resulted from complex cultural histories of discrimination and willful ignorance.

As an adult, I have come to acknowledge my complex relationship to the place I call home. Working within education, my own professional trajectory led me to work within and in partnership with urban schools. Much of the education reform movements within California have focused on initiatives that primarily impact the quality of teaching and curriculum within schools found in urban settings; while these efforts are incredibly important, they have often happened without consideration of the impact on rural schools, teachers, and students.

Rural communities in the Central Valley are demographically different from many other more well-studied rural parts of the United States. Central Valley residents are more likely to be racial/ethnic minorities – over 60% are non-white. We are home to many immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs) as well. The Rural School and Community Trust, a rural education advocacy organization, found that while just over 20% of students in the United States attend rural schools, 44% of ELLs attend rural schools; many of these rural school students learning English can be found in California, which has the second highest percentage of ELLs of any state. The illiteracy rate in all eight of the Central Valley counties for people over the age of sixteen is at least 20%.

Much of the publicity around (urban) public education reform has been connected to what is popularly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. While many in the Central Valley are similarly at risk for incarceration that begins through school-based criminalization, far more people suffer from what is becoming increasingly known as the school-to-nowhere pipeline. Graduation rates can be frighteningly low in much of the Central Valley, leading to unemployment, poverty, lack of access to adequate healthcare and social services, and staggering rates of drug and alcohol dependency.

Because some of these realities are often far removed from many of us who reside in urban centers, it can become incredibly difficult to recognize the intricate interconnections between rural and urban California, including the privileged access to resources like well-funded women’s centers, elite public universities, world-class art, science, and history museums, and free health clinics that many of us in the Bay Area enjoy. The physical and cultural separation also masks the ways that urban livelihood is intimately linked to rural happenings, like when the vast fires just outside Yosemite threatened San Francisco’s access to water and electricity as recently as 2013. The impacts travel in both directions, despite urban self-conceptions of environmental autonomy.

In the future, I hope to elaborate more on these urban-rural interconnections that I have just briefly begun to articulate for myself. For the time being, my hope is that readers of this blog who live in urban areas can begin to think about the urban/rural power imbalance as another social justice issue that warrants thoughtful reflection during a time in history when many of the pushes for reform that are publicized emanate from urban contexts, ignoring the incredible work in rural communities and states across the U.S. There is much more to investigate in the weeks and months to come and this initial foray is but an introduction to a rich and complex terrain of human geography in the Golden State.

The next post will be Thursday, August 20, 2015 and will discuss Managing Social and Emotional Expectations in Social Justice Work.

Antisocial Media: Online Writing for In-Person Dialogue


Many of us have become accustomed to encountering online personalities and writing that give rise to an intense response – whether it be one of connection, anger, curiosity, intellectual disagreement, etc. We have also become practiced at curating our own words and images for public presentation as a way to engage with others on social media, and part of that involves how we respond when we disagree with another person’s social or political views. Often, we make honest attempts to raise awareness and learn more about the perspectives of others; however, online interactions inevitably meet their limits because we struggle to manage our expectations of what is reasonable to expect from others with whom we may or may not interact with in “real” life.

Rather than write another diatribe – the Internet currently has plenty of those – against the ways people engage online, I’d like to pose a couple of questions for myself to think about: Where do our expectations for online engagement with friends, acquaintances, and strangers come from? What might be some helpful ways to relate to online writing we come across? How can we be responsible when interacting with writing and authors?

Social Expectations in a World of Disconnect

In 1979, Christopher Lasch published a prescient, bestseller-to-be, entitled The Culture of Narcissism. During a time when popularized ideas of narcissism were framed as vanity, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement, Lasch insisted on taking a non-judgmental approach and trying to understand why people might be seemingly turning inward. The book’s subtitle, “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations,” is the reader’s first clue as to his findings. While narcissism is usually leveled against individuals as an insult, in Lasch’s conception, it is a rational response to the diminishing expectations of social worlds that emerged during an era when public life – after the immense shifts of the 1960s and early 1970s – was closing in on itself for many Americans as a backlash to progressive social changes.

Lasch and I agree that it is important to remember that for Freud, narcissism was about turning inward in the face of rejection, and yet still required a turn outward in order to find others to affirm the inward turn – our impulses for social interaction are so strong. Today, one way we see this manifest is in “(radical) self-love,” as an act of resistance, serving as a version of self-empowerment for those who have been marginalized or mistreated. Unfortunately, we usually target individuals and accuse them of narcissism without taking a moment to understand what kind of social environment has propelled that need, and without reducing intelligent individuals to mere social puppets. Questioning our collective worlds can open up space to affirm respectful disagreement, ongoing learning about others, and critical self-reflection on social issues, including privilege and oppression.

When online, especially on social media, we have the seemingly omnipotent ability to craft a public persona. In past moments, I’ve posted pictures of myself and found myself compulsively checking the Likes and comments. I’ve posted witty status updates in order to feel affirmed for being funny and intelligent and I’ve noticed how my own emotional life can be impacted by the affirmation I do or don’t receive, even as I’m critical and reflective about it.

For me, the most concerning part about my Internet life occurred when I noticed myself seeking to create a political persona through status updates and blogging, even as those actions can have incredible value if done carefully. I’ve seen others who have created online personas as well that connect to their professional and political lives and they use social media as a platform, mixing the drive for affirmation, self-expression, and consciousness-raising. Additionally, many of these people also take it upon themselves to patrol the Internet, looking for opportunities to show themselves to be smarter, more progressive or radical, and fundamentally more valuable than those with whom they disagree.

Responsible Engagement with Online Writing

I acknowledge that the intensity of online comments and the combative tone many employ comes from a desire to engage with pressing social issues. Anonymity, writing from the safety of distance or within one’s own home can shape the comfort with which we cross social boundaries and eschew in-person rapport building before engaging strangers, acquaintances, and friends in discussions that would usually take at least a short while to build up to in “real” life.

We have also been taught to respond to printed words (on screen or on paper) as disembodied thought. It can become easy to forget that a person took the time to share those words because they thought those words might carry meaning for others, even though we might disagree with those thoughts or find their underlying logic to be misguided at best, and completely violating at worst. Strong feelings spill forth and many feel the strong need to respond.

How might that need shift if blogs and news stories were used for dialogue and debate in-person, with friends, colleagues, or acquaintances? We cannot allow authors online to have the final say on any given issue, but that doesn’t mean we have to engage the author themselves, as we can all participate in shaping the social meaning of online writing by carrying it into our day-to-day lives. Sharing online writing in personal ways, by emailing links to friends and family and setting up opportunities to discuss, could potentially go a long way in giving online readers a way to engage the important issues in a setting that is much more conducive to thoughtfulness and – dare I say – shifts in deeply-held perspectives. Breaking a sense of isolation, which many of us experience as a disturbing contradiction when online, will help temper reactivity. Sometimes, the more alone we feel, the more likely we are to feel triggered by written words that misrepresent us, attack us, or make us feel invisible and devalued.

Because I work with youth, I have been made acutely aware of just how powerfully social norms are created through what young people see online. As adults, we have the incredible responsibility to practice careful interaction in public settings, including the Internet, because we are setting examples for current and future generations. When aggressive and dismissive interactions become the norm both online and in-person, social bonds continue to disintegrate during a time when we need people who will actively intervene to strengthen relationships and build new possibilities for our social worlds.

Thank you for reading. Next week will feature two blogs on Monday (8/17) and Thursday (8/20), focusing on Rural Education in California’s Central Valley and another piece on Managing Emotional Expectations in Social and Political Space.

Hi, Internet!

I’m frustrated and I’ve chosen to do something about it. And yes, I’m dragging you along. Allow me to explain:

Everywhere I look on the internet, there are five-point guidelines for how to do any number of things: seduce (and keep) a man, stop being racist, find the career of your dreams, fund your start-up, and so on. Because I have an intimate awareness of just how stretched thin I can feel sometimes, I appreciate the efforts to synthesize and summarize; unfortunately, much of the internet reading I do leaves me feeling confused, annoyed, and talked-down to. I know from experience that life is much more complicated than a five-point guide-blog can respond to in 1,000-1,500 words or less. And yet, I feel as though there must be some way to maintain a sense of nuance, humility, and patience even within our world of compressed time. This is the challenge I’m presenting to myself, and you all will be the evaluators of my success or failure.

I’m almost positive that most people who start off reading this blog will be friends and acquaintances of mine, but let me indulge by letting the strangers out there know a little bit about who I am and what’s important to me. If forced to pick my top three identifications, I’d choose the following: Californian, introvert, and intuitive. I’ve worked as a para-educational professional for twelve years in schools, non-profits, and community groups. My social, professional, and academic spheres have brought me into contact with many different kinds of people. Techies who don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them who are also critical of the groupthink in Silicon Valley. Community organizers who protest displacement of vulnerable families and communities. Non-profit attorneys. Homeless neighbors, many of them LGBTQ youth. Survival sex workers. Human rights scholars. Hungry public school students. Teenage leaders. People in rural, conservative parts of the country who are just trying to get by, and the people there who are working harder for change than I could ever imagine. I’ve taught immigrant, Spanish-speaking children how to read and I’ve facilitated anti-oppression workshops with graduate students and I count myself as lucky to be a ‘translator’ of sorts, moving in and out of worlds and learning from everyone all the time.

Perhaps you are wondering whether or not I’m writing for you, how my experiences and insights might be helpful, interesting, or whether or not my perspective will enrage you at some points. To be clear, I’m writing for my peers: millennials with college degrees who freely access the English-speaking Internet, and hopefully people who want to consider different approaches to age-old problems like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so much more. Most of us came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, and though there is nothing inherently special about us, we have inherited many special problems without having been given the tools to address them: failures of multicultural education, police violence, immigration reform, corporate and finance capitalism, the entrance of LGBTQ awareness into the mainstream, and more. We live in a world of hierarchies, trying desperately to assess where to best place resources, attention, etc. We ask ourselves: who is the most oppressed? This question is often too difficult to answer, even despite the onslaught of statistics and research. Maybe it is also not even the most useful question to ask, as it often requires pitting horror against horror.

I’m currently a doctoral student in a school of education in the Bay Area of California and spend most of my time reading, thinking, and writing (both independently and in community) about issues of educational equity for minority students of many kinds, urban/rural divides, U.S. privilege, history and philosophy, and modern secular culture. I’ve spent the past eight years focusing on building alliances across difference in the interest of fostering beneficial relationships of solidarity in these trying political times. I read a lot. Books, news, reports, blogs. I want to share my reflections from these readings and offer questions for people to think through, always remembering that the thoughts I offer here are not conclusive. They are openings for discussion and I invite feedback at my blog email: I’m in the thinking-business, not the truth-business. The truth is always perspectival, and I know that mine is specific and limited. It is also less interesting to me to put forward a hard vision and more interesting to learn how to proceed with care and humility.

While the subtitle of this blog reads “Culture, Politics, and Current Events,” I do have to provide a caveat: my version of what constitutes a “current event” may be different than yours. I like to take my time, chew things over, and attempt to avoid the seductive knee-jerk moralism that saturates Internet blogs. While I understand that reading and witnessing traumatic events mediated through the news can often make us feel that these urgent problems warrant an urgent response, I also know how dangerous it can be to put thoughts and words out in the public sphere without being cautious. I never know what young eyes will fall on those words and I feel a sense of responsibility to practice rigorous and creative reflection on current social events, moments in time that emerge out of the immensity of history and culture.

Hopefully, you will find my writing and thinking useful, both for day-to-day life, and also for those acute moments of social upheaval when all of our assumptions and habits are thrown back at us and we are forced to confront the ways we relate to those who are different than we are. I’ve chosen to name this blog “Outside In” for a few simple reasons. On a level of amusement, I enjoyed the subtle turn-of-phrase as a child because of how this simple re-wording made people stop and think about what I’d just said before realizing I was describing a similar concept in a different way (often when folding laundry). This phrase also makes me question ideas of what is inside/outside – how do we draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’? Finally, I appreciate bringing ideas, stories, and histories to people who don’t consider those narratives to be within their experience or interest, only to have them find out that many interconnections of legacy bind people and places together, often in ways that fall outside the realm of dominant (or even resistance) history. I want us to call into the center of our thought things we might not usually care about, in order to question ourselves, our communities, and our worlds.

Be on the lookout for my next post on Thursday, August 13, 2015, which I’m writing under the working title “Rules of Engagement: Online Writing for In-Person Dialogue”