Most of the “letter” portions of my newsletter are focused on creativity or what is going on in my life. This one was different, because the past week was different. If you’re interested in subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you can do that here.
At the beginning of a new year I would like to be focused on my excitement for the projects I have planned, the classes I get to teach, ways I plan to move forward. I do talk about those things down in the Projects in Process section of this newsletter, but here in the letter itself my focus must be different this month. The recent riot at the US capitol building has reminded me of my responsibilities as a citizen. I join those who are calling for accountability for all the people whose words helped spark the riot and the people who physically did the damage.
Note that I say accountability rather than justice or punishment. I am choosing my words carefully in this letter so that they can carry my meaning precisely. I have been doing a lot of listening to friends who are prison abolitionists. I’m not fully on board with having no prisons at all, but they make some powerful points about accountability and restorative justice compared to simple justice/punishment models. Simply locking up a perpetrator may prevent imagined further harm, but it does not take steps to heal the damage which has already been done. My country needs accountability, restoration, and healing right now. Achieving that is far more complicated than merely imprisoning some people, though it definitely begins with taking power away from people who used their power to induce others to cause harm, and to prevent those who physically caused harm from doing more.
Power. This is a word and concept I have been considering a lot, particularly in the months since George Floyd’s death and my conscious commitment to anti-racism. It is so easy to feel powerless against national-scale events: pandemics, insurrection. On some level that is true. I am such a small pebble in the flowing river of my country. There is no way for me to change the course of the whole river, however when I focus my attention on the entire river, I miss seeing how much power I actually have. My pebble is tiny, but my learning about privilege has shown me that I do have some power over every molecule of water that I touch as it flows past. I can position myself to shelter those who need space to grow safe from heavy current. I can boost people and shore them up. I have a lot of power to influence the world that directly surrounds me and the people to whom I’m connected by social networks both online and in real life.
Learning to recognize my power comes slowly and counter-intuitively for me. I’m mired in social norms that teach women to stay behind the scenes, keep everything running, but don’t seek attention. Yet behind-the-scenes people who keep things running have enormous power. They are the ones who maintain status quo, or choose to disrupt it. This is where accountability comes in. On a national scale we have to look at the people whose decisions supported and empowered people who then decided to breach the capitol building to try to change the outcome of an election. What decisions gave that movement space to grow? This question must be asked of elected officials, tech companies, judges, and private citizens. With a follow up question of: what are you going to do differently going forward to prevent this from happening again?
The thing about accountability is that it has to apply to all levels of power, even my tiny pebble level. We may all be pebbles, but we all participated in the sequence of events that let up to the deaths of five people and the riot at the capitol building. We are all accountable for the things we say, the memes we share, the “jokes” we let pass unchallenged, the times we didn’t speak up because we didn’t want to upset anyone. We must each examine how we move through the world and ask ourselves if our small daily choices are really consistent with who we want to be. If we want to be healers, we must put in the work to heal. If we want to be anti-racist we must make ourselves and others uncomfortable by pointing out systems that keep us all mired in racism. If we want to be inclusive, we must actively look to see who is missing from our spaces and do the work to invite them in and empower them. Accountability work is hard and it never ends. We will have periods in our lives where we need to rest from pushing ourselves to be better, but after we rest we must pick up and work at it again. Particularly those who inhabit positions of privilege, which is almost all of us in one way or another. (Most people also inhabit places of disadvantage simultaneously with their priviledge. The one doesn’t cancel out the other, nor does it negate our responsibility to be accountable for our power. But that is an additional essay.)
As I watch the aftermath of the riots unfold, I have to remind myself that no amount of doomscrolling will give me a control rod on national-level events. However holding myself accountable does give me power. I must seriously consider how I affect the things and people I can touch. In my case, I’m going to stay politically engaged and communicate with my elected officials about my opinions. I will continue my personal anti-racism education. I will be more willing to speak my thoughts about the world at large, even when (or perhaps especially when) I think those thoughts will bring criticism. I will work on speaking up against the small incidents because challenging bad behavior on a micro-level is actually a kindness to everyone. It allows people to correct their bad behavior without there needing to be An Incident. Incidents create hurt and defensiveness which leads people to entrench in bad behavior. I’m more likely to choose the “pull person aside and discuss behavior” route than the “public confrontation” route, but I also need to be willing to deploy public confrontation if it is called for. I’m sure as I go forward I will find additional ways I can be better as I move through the world. And on that thought I want to borrow the words of Maya Angelou:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I hope whether you’re a US resident contemplating the current mess, or a resident elsewhere seeing it from afar, you use this opportunity to recognize the power you do have to make the world a better place, and that you choose to use that power wisely.
All the best,