It was Pride again this weekend. I spent this one in Seattle, a new city for me. Naturally this meant I called up some queer friends and spent most of my days trying to find as many shenanigans as possible that didn’t involve dancing to Lady Gaga. I was happy to be in an unfamiliar place because it meant I spent more time listening to other people tell me about their home, to their stories about artmaking and organizing and queer politics in Seattle. It is rare that I get an excuse to be quiet for as long as I was and just take it all in. At Dyke March on Saturday afternoon, I had a moment where I realized how nice it was to be just dancing up the street, all queered up for the occasion, but without a megaphone and chants in hand. While Pride has its faults, which include its absurd degree of corporatization and white cis gay male dominance, I still appreciated it. See, I needed the reminder that celebration is an ok and necessary part of changemaking, that sometimes I can be in a huge crowd and allow myself to disappear right into it, that I can set my voice aside for a while.
I’m a poet, an activist, and a scholar. A lot of my life revolves around words. I regularly use “dialoging” as a verb. Activism tends to be a particularly loud and prolific thing for me, a space where I willingly allow ideas to be drained from me and sent into the world with the hopes that they will go on to settle in other bodies, and start making some change. I like writing about race, talking about race, thinking about race. It’s how I get by; it’s something to live for. I am lucky that in some ways building racial justice is my job. But here’s the kick. Race, unlike say, investment banking, is in the air we breathe and the communities we circulate in. It is not something I can set down after a day of “working on it”. I encounter race and racism by living.
I am frequently sought out at parties and in other social situations, including online, for my perspective as an anti-racist activist (or in the most tokenizing cases, as a POC). This is most likely to happen when I’m in majority white spaces. I then find myself explaining how the issue at hand—anything from organic food to capitalism to yoga—is racialized, and perhaps what other systems of oppression are at play. Sometimes these conversations are generative, and I learn a great deal from them. But usually, I just leave them feeling drained, having learned nothing myself and unsure of whether my words have sunk in or done any authentic educating. Mostly these conversations just make me tired.
I am not a loud person. This surprises many people who only know me through my work, and not personally. When those folks observe me not speaking in social spaces, they often ask if I’m all right. I want to tell them I am more than all right, that I am so grateful to be inward-facing for a while. Scholar-activist me has a strong voice and is highly politicized. In private I enjoy stillness and contemplation and listening much more. I am grateful, then, that art and activism have helped me hone and deploy my voice. But I am also wary of the days when it feels like words are being extracted from me without my consent.
It’s been a few months since Mia published her post on white silence, where she calls out white folks who tend to disengage from race on Facebook and through other channels. It is symptomatic of privilege to be able to avoid those conversations in this way; marginalized people do not have that option. But maybe we—marginalized people—do have the option to stay quiet sometimes, and maybe this silence is deeply necessary. It doesn’t have to be a silence that undergirds privilege; instead it can do the background work of healing us. Not everyone’s education needs to be our responsibility all the time. It is a magnificent and humble act to recognize when talking, or otherwise creating more words, will not do any good. Our words are powerful, especially because they come from the margins, but their power can fade when not used strategically. Our words and energy should also be conserved. Besides, it’s a capitalist logic that tells us to always orient ourselves towards output. Sometimes, there are no more words left in my body and I shouldn’t demand of myself to produce more. When this happens, the greatest kindness my friends can give me is to let me sit and be silent with them. Sometimes, those of us who have grown used to giving of ourselves and our ideas need time to soak in our own beings, and work on our own liberation. Sometimes silence is our only safe space, and we deserve more of it than we offer ourselves.
Janani is a queer South Asian poet-activist-scholar, and an
advocate for a peaceful food system. They study climate change, race,
and queer studies. Their poetry can be found at queerdarkenergy.sqsp.com.
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