*I originally published on October 19, 2006. It feels particularly relevant to re-post now because Eli Clare, who inspired this post, is coming to Toronto on March 11 to give the same talk I was fortunate enough to attend in 2006. I strongly encourage you to go if you’re in town – he’s an excellent speaker. I’ve included the details of his talk at the bottom of this post.
I went to a talk this evening given by Eli Clare at McGill, entitled “Gawking, Gaping and Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.” Luckily, this time the acoustics were good, so I actually got to hear what he had to say. He’s a most interesting speaker, and all the more so because of the simplicity of what he says. While he was up there talking I was listening and taking notes, as I always do when I go to lectures. But only rarely do I find the ideas still percolating inside me many hours later as I have tonight.
So, the basic idea is that Eli Clare is a disabled trans/genderqueer person who wrote the book Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (which I missed buying tonight because someone beat me to the last copy – darnit). Like Leslie Feinberg, he speaks about intersectionality; unlike Leslie Feinberg, he doesn’t soapbox about it, and he does acknowledge the complexities and difficulties inherent therein. I was thoroughly impressed. Most specifically, Eli speaks on issues of intersectionality between disabled people and people in other sorts of “marked bodies” – particularly trans people and people of colour, but not those two groups exclusively.
One of the things Eli said really struck home – that as a disabled person and a trans person he’s spent his life endlessly explaining his body – “what have you got, what’s wrong with you?” – much like, as he said, people of colour are endlessly asked “where are you from?”. He sees this “endless explaining” as the hallmark of people with bodily differences. I guess for me it was just a very real-life articulation of the whole Beauvoirian theoretical concept of being “the Other” – the exception to the rule that is “the norm,” and thus always needing to explain and justify one’s existence. He made a really important point in response to an audience member’s comment: “I don’t mean to imply that our experiences of difference are all the same. But these mechanisms cross identity lines.”
During the question period at the end, one of the last people in the audience to make a comment said something I found quite intriguing. Ze referred to a quote from Martin Buber – which I tried to find via Google, but no such luck (though the Wikipedia crash course in Buber’s I/Thou theory was really quite interesting!). The basic idea of the quote was that we (whoever “we” means) don’t actually need to understand people who are different from us in order to live alongside them. Ze put it out there as something ze’d been thinking about lately, not so much as a piece of advice per se. Eli kinda shot it down, which I found a bit surprising.
Eli made a good point – that if we can leave that space of not-understanding as an actual space, an emptiness, instead of filling it with preconceived ideas and assumptions, that might be nice, but that humankind’s track record in that department has been abysmal.
Fair enough. But I actually think the idea holds quite a bit of merit. I think it’s a question of which way you take it. Seems to me the concept is right in line with the idea of living in a marked body and needing to constantly explain it to the “normals.”
Okay, let me back up a sec and try to better articulate this. You could take the Buber concept in its negative form: “I’m normal, and I don’t need to try figuring out what anyone else’s reality might be, it’s quite enough for me to just be nice to them and remain ignorant.” Yah. Not so good. Perhaps better than “that person’s different so I’m going to abuse them” but not exactly what I’d call progressive. And incidentally, if you go by Wiki’s explanation of Buber’s I-Thou concept, the negative interpretation of the quote is probably off the mark – Buber seems to have been much more interested in dialogue, or true connection between people (Ich-Du, or I-Thou), than in monologue (Ich-Es, I-Ego or I-Me), the term he used to describe a process by which people objectify each other and see each other as means to their own ends.
On the other hand, you could take it in the positive: “I’m privileged in XYZ way, and (if applicable) marginalized in XYZ way; I have XYZ knowledge and I lack XYZ knowledge. It’s important to me to be sensitive to other people’s needs, particularly those from marginalized groups, but I don’t necessarily pretend to know everything about their realities and experiences. So while I will make every effort to educate myself about other groups’ concerns, I won’t wait to ‘know’ everything about them before also making efforts to be an ally. I will acknowledge what I know, and acknowledge what I don’t yet know, and remain open to and active in learning at all times, with a view to better understanding in the long run. But in the meantime I will not require every ‘different’ person to justify their existence to me or explain themselves before I deem them worthy of my consideration; I will simply try to be respectful, considerate and sensitive.”
This interpretation, rather than creating a space to fill with prejudice, in fact creates a preexisting condition of respect and openness, which one could argue leads to true connection, dialogue, Ich-Du (I-Thou), i.e. ally work. With this understanding, there is no requirement for knowledge, justification, explanation; there is simply openness. This doesn’t in the least preclude or discourage active efforts to learn, it just removes the idea that learning (understanding) is a necessary prerequisite to connection and consideration.
I think that leaving that space of non-knowledge is the very crux of intersectionality, and in many ways I completely disagree that humankind’s track record has been abysmal in that department. I think, on the contrary, that pretty much every successful example of intersectional work has come about thanks to people leaving that space open, and allowing it to be filled over time with accumulated knowledge, rather than filling it from the get-go with snap judgments or misappropriated or decontextualized information. And there are plenty of instances throughout human history where such ally-based work has taken place.
Of course there are tons of examples throughout human history of oppressed groups’ struggles being (mis)appropriated by the dominant culture, and of course plenty more of outright prejudice and hatred. But I don’t think a North American man in the late 1800s needed to “understand” women to support suffrage, any more than I need to be so presumptuous as to say I as a white person “understand” people of colour in 2006 in order to be an anti-racist ally.
I think it’s in fact pretty dangerous to ever assume we truly understand another human being’s experience, or the experience of a group we aren’t part of. The whole point of intersectionality is that it’s wise to try and bridge the chasms between various groups who are suffering under the same oppressive system of mythical normalcy and cultural hierarchy – not that we all need to be able to speak for one another with the same knowledge.
In other words, I want to continue to further my understanding of the many marginalized groups to which I do not belong (as well as the ones to which I do), but by no means do I ever presume to think I will reach a point where I can firmly say I “understand” them. I think that acknowledging my eternal lack of understanding is the only way I’ll be able to continue shrinking that lack, filling that space with understanding legitimately gained through self-education – rather than through requiring people who are different from me to explain themselves – with the express premise that, much like the mathematical concept of the asymptote, I’ll never get to 100%, and the job will never be finished.
Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, genderphobia… The day I think I know everything about all of it is the day I deserve a slap in the head, and I don’t want to wait until I get there before I start trying to be a good ally. The very idea is a paradox. And anyway, I’d rather be an eternally half-formed ally – the only kind I think one can legitimately be – than a wrongheaded know-it-all ally who in the end isn’t really one at all. No matter how oppressions intersect within and around each of us, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to be impossibly perfect before we begin to act.
Eli Clare is in Toronto March 9th to the 15th. For those who are not familiar with the intersectional work of Eli Clare you can visit his web site at www.eliclare.com. Eli’s ability to integrate theory, activism, and storytelling in his work about social justice, disability, queerness, and trans identity makes him a sought after educator, speaker and poet. If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to hear Eli speak or read his books I’m sure you are already picking out your outfit and telling all your friends. Eli Clare is a thoughtful, insightful, brilliant speaker who manages to address multi-layered and complex issues in an accessible, warm, thoughtful and poetic manner.
Wednesday, March 11th 7-9pm @ OISE 252 Bloor St. W (St. George & Bloor) Rm 5-280
“Gawking, Gaping, Staring: Living in Marked Bodies.”
Disabled people, trans people, fat people, and people of color all know what it’s like to be stared at. Through words and images, Eli explores the internal experiences of living in marked bodies and the external meanings of oppression and bodily difference.
Free, Wheelchair accessible, ASL interpreters
If you have other access needs please email email@example.com or call 416-889-3037
Organizations supporting this event:
Come as you are; Connaught University of T; Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; DAMN 2025; Supporting Our Youth; Sherbourne Health Center, LGBT program; Acsexxxable; Toronto Women’s Bookstore; CUPE 3903, TransFeminist Action Caucus; Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education; CUPE Ontario; York University Sexuality Studies program; MSW Program, Ryerson School of Social Work; Trans Bisexual Lesbian Gay Allies @ York & Students for Barrier free Access.