Transchat and People of Color – Part 1
Transchat is in a period of transition. What began as a few friends on Twitter looking for a convenient way to chat with each other about trans stuff has grown into a major gathering place and resource. With changes in scale come changes in expectations, and the very choices that only a few months ago were intended to maintain a casual environment became instead an abdication of responsibility.
However, I’m still carrying tension from the discussion on people of color and would like to address it before moving forward.
My thoughts on this are posted below. Before you read them, please first read these two posts by Biyuti. The first is her thoughts immediately following the discussion; the second is from several weeks after and includes some excellent advice on engaging PoC.
Several weeks ago Transchat was dedicated to exploring the experiences and priorities of people of color.
This topic was chosen because at the previous session a few PoC had noted that Transchat was predominantly white. Many of the problems & issues raised were either not relevant to the PoC participants, or at least seemed like superficial compared to the additional challenges they faced, of which the majority of the participants were ignorant.
At the end of the chat we decided to address these issues at the next session.
We didn’t do anything differently than any previous discussion. That is, all we did was announce the topic.
Come that Sunday, Transchat began . . . with a thundering silence.
I asked a few initial questions, but the non-PoC, such as myself, felt they should just shut up and listen.
It grew louder and louder.
Where were the PoC?
A few chimed in, mainly to critique the foolishness of white people organizing a discussion on race. One asked a pointed question: did you just expect POC just to show up and talk?
That was exactly what I had expected. And it was only with the asking of the question that my naiveté and clumsiness were suddenly and dramatically foregrounded. This was bad. This was an important and sensitive topic, and I had engaged it blithely and without preparation. And we had a few more hours to go.
Then it got worse.
Inasmuch as Twitter has a climate, the air was growing thick with tension. More people did start talking. A few PoC pointed out that they were, yet again, being asked to educate a group of people whose very privilege and ignorance were the problem. Why hadn’t we educated ourselves? Why after all these years were we still addressing basic issues? It struck me as particularly ironic given how many trans people have said the exact same thing about educating cis people. Anger and resentments looked for some place to land and people started attacking each other. I saw people I personally knew to be well-meaning jumped on for a poor or uninformed word choice, but I also saw how much legitimate hurt and harm there could be in what seemed to be an innocent statement or question. The best of intentions were flailing in the face of the realization that the luxury of being uninformed was directly contributing to the dire circumstances of others. As uncomfortable as it was though, we were talking, we were engaging each other, we were trying.
But then it got really bad.
A few participants either implied or flat out said that they didn’t think race was an issue.
Yes, that’s right. In a discussion about race, prompted by the concerns of PoC that their concerns and experiences weren’t being addressed, in a conversation where the very, very few PoC present were willing to speak out despite the utter failure of myself and others to ensure it was a safe space, in the midst of all of this, white people spoke up to say that race wasn’t an issue.
They were called out, and rightly so. In that moment, an emotionally loaded one on all sides, there were choices to be made. Those called out could fight back, leave, or admit they were wrong and learn. I saw a bit of all three.
As a white person, I understand the sentiment that race isn’t an issue. It’s not actually as assessment of reality, but a hope based on the liberal belief that all people are equal and so race shouldn’t matter, an ideal unfortunately only afforded those for whom it doesn’t have to matter. I might have said something similar when I was a teenager, before exposure to both serious racism and sustained interactions with PoC. For me, while not defensible, it is an understandable. It’s my hope that our conversation prompted sincere reflection and change. Because that’s how it has to happen. It’s the only way it happens.
However, some of the people participating didn’t have the excuse of a youthful ignorance. And as such, they committed the more egregious offense. As you all know, I like to focus on the positive. I generally avoid attacking anyone, always try to understand where someone is coming from, and assume the best of others. I may be a little cheerleader-ish, but I’ve passed through enough darkness to own my light. But now I was pissed too. The stakes were simply too high. My stomach had been in knots for two hours straight. I told the white people claiming that it was divisive to talk about race, or that it wasn’t an issue, to shut up, but the damage was done.
Avory and I had earnestly wanted to make Transchat more inclusive. But by failing to create a safe space, by not actively inviting PoC ahead of time to participate or even moderate, by neglecting to do the research and have resources ready, by any number of oversights, we created a situation that only further alienated the very voices we wanted included.
For that, I apologize.
p.s. Having had a lifetime of experience with it, I’ve become fairly intimate with failure. In the wake of particularly visible and consequential failure there are a few clearly obvious needs. The first is to recognize the problem; the second is to take responsibility. The above is my attempt at these first two. Next is to learn from your mistakes. Part II of this post addresses this.