Thursday, April 26, 2012

Notes From The Green Festival

Cross posted from my Media Justice column

I was asked to be on a panel at the Green Festival held in NY last weekend. The panel was titled “The F-Word: Perspectives In Contemporary Feminism” and on the panel were: Misha Clive of Green America, Marianne Schnall of, Aiesha Turman of the Black Girl Project and myself. Our session was described in the festival program as: 
“At a time when feminism equates to political, social and economi rights for women, why is it considered the F-word? While women leaders like Michelle Obama and HIlary Clinton are prominent figures in forming public policy, widespread access to healthcare remains controversial and domestic violence a common occurrence. Join this panel of empowered women for a lively discussion on how feminism informs our politics and our lives.”
We had a conference call a week before to discuss the panel. Still, I had not really figured out what to expect as I’d never been to the Green Festival. I was invited on the panel by my friend Tanya Fields of The BLK ProjeK  who was helping to find folks interested in joining. I responded to the request indicating that I could participate on the panel, but that I had to be honest in that I don’t identify as a feminist but as a radical woman of Color and that often when I speak about this, and has been the case recently, women of a certain age and racial group (i.e. white women over 45) usually disagree with me, stand up and leave to show their disapproval. In response to this I was told that these are the types of conversations that were desired on the panel.

One of the main reasons I decided to join wasn’t to just discuss my identity as a radical woman of Color, something that is not new, or different as the people who worked to produce the book: This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, have led the way for me. I was also interested in seeing what the Green Festival had to offer and being able to offer free tickets to folks in my community.

I admit that when I think of the Green Festival I imagine a bunch of folks handing out granola bars and talking about riding bikes or living “green.” These often exclude me: someone who makes significantly less than 25k a year, because to me “living green” means having the status, money, and access to live in a way that one can eat organically, limit exposure to toxins, using “natural” cleansers, or other things along those lines. Yes, these are some stereotypes. Yet, some of these are true.

Arriving at the Jacob Javits Center North with Aiesha Turman and her daughter was probably the best thing I could have done. We arrived two hours before our panel so we could enjoy the festival. The first booth we encountered: granola bars. We tasted some and took full size samples with us. And that happened throughout the festival. We also saw organic clothing, cleansers, energy efficient light bulbs, “green” vehicles, and a children’s area where we rested for a bit.

When it was time for our panel we introduced one another. Our moderator Misha then asked folks present (about 40 people in total as all of the seats were filled) what were some of their motivations for attending the session. Two folks shared and one indicated they wanted to hear more about eco-feminism and the other shared they would like to hear about international connections and feminisms. Then Misha asked each of us to discuss what feminism means to us.

I shared how some may think I officially came to US feminism in college, but others may think I was raised in a feminist home, with a father who was present during the day and when we came home from school and a mother who worked longer hours. In college I shared how I rarely found a space that felt comfortable for me in US feminisms. It was from this discomfort and recognizing how many US feminists and feminisms all too often exclude folks from my background and experiences. It was then that I started to identify as the women of Color who came before me: Audre Lorde, Gloria AnzaldĂșa, and Nellie Wong.

Nobody really stood up to leave as I spoke. But folks did leave throughout, perhaps more so because we were not discussing the topics they wished to hear. However, we did discuss eco-feminisms. This was a topic I thought folks may have wanted to discuss and shared that on the conference call we had, but we didn’t spend too much time exploring that possibility. So when this person mentioned eco-feminism I was sort of ready. My participation to this topic was connected to environmental racism. Aiesha spoke about food deserts (i.e. not having quality or any foods available for consumption) in her Brooklyn neighborhood and how she has witnessed community members responding in specific ways to end food deserts.

When discussing environmental racism I made connections specifically to my upbringing by parents who were in support of our homeland of Puerto Rico being a sovereign nation, free of US intervention and presence. This is where my understanding of environmental racism emerges: who owns their land and who can work and claim and reap the benefits that it can offer. I connected this to the experiences of indigenous communities in the US. How they have been forcibly removed from their homelands, their sacred burial grounds uprooted and built upon. We see similar things occurring to farmers of Color in the US. Where is our self-determination as colonies of the US, spaces controlled by

I connected these ideas of environmental racism to reproductive justice as well. Since the crowd was over 35 years old I used the term “overpopulation” as that’s a term that was common a few years ago. This term I used to connect to our ideas of “choice” and what “choice” means to people who do not have a “choice” or who practice “agency within constraints” regarding our reproductive health and rights. It is rare when folks really care or listen to how poor communities, people with disabilities, and communities of Color are impacted by “birth control trials.”

This discussion lead me to share how our history haunts us. There is a haunting that I experience when folks discuss the oral birth control pill. A haunting that is connected to the cultural transmission I received from the women in my family. A haunting that is established each time a person questions my purpose in reminding folks that many people, especially poor Puerto Rican women on the island were used without their full consent in oral birth control pill trials. I shared how when discussing that haunting, many “feminists” have attacked me. Have questions about the usefulness of remembering such issues and if that’s reason enough to dismiss the positive outcomes of the oral birth control pill. These responses to my testimonio of this haunting have been very public.

It is these instances when I realize that “feminism” really isn’t about me, my community, my health, or my choices. It is about being “right” in these situations and that’s not what I’m interested in. I shared how these responses from “feminists” have essentially been them telling me to “shut up” about the historical legacy that I carry with me in this world. Now whose voice is being silenced? And speaking of that silence: these discussions on reproductive justice rarely include transgender people or their needs and care. So what bodies are really seen as justifiable, redeemable, and worth of protection? Misha talked more about the needs of trans* communities and reproductive justice.

Aiesha discussed how her experiences are ones that have come with the reminder that as Black women, our bodies have never been our own in the US. They were always used for profit of others versus for our own pleasure and satisfaction.

We ended the panel with Misha asking us what we have always wanted to share on a “feminist” panel but never got the chance to. I wasn’t expecting this question but what I did state was that it’s important to realize we do a lot of important and hard work quietly. Reading, thinking, assessing don’t all need to be done vocally and that is alright. To stand in solidarity with communities that are oppressed will take time, building trust, and sometimes just not even be physically present, because recognizing that maintaining a space that is sacred and healing for many may mean removing oneself from that space, especially if they are an ally or outsider. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Open Letter to White People in the Sexuality/Sexology Field

cross posted from my Media Justice column

I'm writing this letter regarding a particular interaction I recently had with a racially white person in the field. This person is planning a new program and project of which I was invited. I asked what the demographics were for this space, if there are any people of Color, with disabilities, youth, or trans* people. I was told, right now, there are no people of Color who are a part of the programming identified as "experts" and the demographics of participants is not available. The letter I wrote to this person is one that is filled with the same arguments I, and many other people of Color, have been making to racially white people in the field for years.

My decision to write and share with you this letter comes from my investment in the field (of which I've been a part for over a decade), but mostly because I care about the people of Color who wish to join this field, those people of Color who gave their lives to this field, and those of us who are still here doing work.

Have you noted the lack of people of Color in the field? When I've brought this to the attention of some of you, your responses have mostly fallen into the category of: "the field is what it is." This response is problematic on numerous levels. It ignores and erases the people of Color who were a part of the field, helped create it in the US, those of us here today, and those of us to come. This response does not question the colonial legacies and white supremacy of which the US field was created and remains.

The field "is what it is" because of the lives, bodies, and sacrifice of people of Color. From the life of Saartjie Baartman, to the enslaved African women experimented on by "doctors" such as James Marion Sims, Henrietta Lacks, Black families in the Tuskegee Experiment, the forcibly sterilized Puerto Rican, Native and people with disabilities in the US; Rosie Jimenez, and the nurses, healers, doulas, midwives, and educators of Color save the lives of people every day make the field.

I understand when I write about youth people assume it is always folks under the age of 18. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes the term "youth" is more inclusive. What does remain when people who identify as "professional" or "experts" in the field is the ageism and elitism that isolates and excludes youth of any age. Assuming that youth are not serious about this profession, or cannot understand or put the time in necessary to develop their skills and abilities ignores the amazing work youth have done in their communities, especially as peer educators. Many of the amazing people of Color I know moving the field forward are under 30, several under 25. I have met and mentored peer educators who at the age of 14 are working at a local clinic/health centers or are students in college (because not all of us can afford to go to college or have the ability to attend) and seeking careers in this field. It is them who are on the vanguard of the work and who will remain when we are no longer here. Why are they ignored?

If we truly believe the field in the US must grow, evolve, and change and that we welcome anyone who cares and wants to do the work, we cannot exclude youth. Ever. It seems only certain types of sexuality professionals are seen as being able to grow, evolve and move the field in the US forward. When you think of why people of Color are not attracted to your space, website, services, etc. think about the marketing you implement. Many of the "experts" and professionals that are highlighted or treasured as valuable are all racially white people. Not only are they all racially white, but often the well known, highlighted "experts" are all blonde/light-haired people. Some of the "experts" that are highlighted have made offensive and oppressive remarks that perpetuate anti-Black racism and xenophobia.

When you reach out to those of us who are people of Color in the field, requesting our assistance in reaching our community it is often from a selfish space that is about your profit and advantage, not ours. As a result, we make our own spaces. Many of us are a part of Sister Song and/or the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, a group that was established at the 41st Annual AASECT Conference by 18 women of Color who were present (including myself) and were shocked and saddened by the exclusion of our lives, perspectives, work, experiences, community.

Honestly, at this point, this is the most I wish to help you reach more people of Color, trans* people, and people with disabilities. A internet search will help you find the national and local organizations that are centering the sexual health, and reproductive justice of people of Color. If you do not receive a response from them, know it is not always because we are disinterested, but because the images, language, and message that is a part of the space you wish to build already excludes us.

I have done my share of "helping" racially white people move their ideas, work, projects forward and target people of Color without any reciprocity. How are racially white folks in this field mentored, supported, prepared to succeed in this field and how is it different from how people of Color are prepared, mentored, and expected to succeed? Have those racially white folks considered how they have benefited from the white supremacy in the field that allows them success? How do those of us who are not racially white but in the field find and become successful? What are the barriers that racially white people in the field hold up, ignore, and not question or see that limit those of us of Color in the field? Why do racially white people only hear, what people of Color have said about the field for generations, when a white person says and repeats it?

These are questions I and many of us in the US who are of Color and in the field ask often. We will continue to ask more questions. My time in the field has led me to realize that unless these questions have been examined and attempts are made to shift, unlearn, relearn, heal, and process, I cannot find a space to grow, mentor, and to evolve. As a result, we create and find our own spaces.

My hope is that you consider speaking with your "experts" and those that you actively work to highlight and ask them how they would answer these questions, consider including such a dialogue in your sessions, and actively work to change this so that the field doesn't remain as it is, but evolves in a way that recognizes the dignity people of Color embody and the safety and respect we too deserve.

Bianca I Laureano
Sexologist, Educator, Revolutionary
Amplify Media Justice Columnist