One effective way to educate well-intentioned but misguided people on issues of oppression is to illustrate the often remarkable difference between the intention and impact of their actions. I’ll use a personal anecdote as a starting example. When I first began my teaching career, and was the lone Black teacher on a small staff in a rural Saskatchewan high school, the staff and students began planning a mock “slave auction” in order to raise money for charity; this was apparently tradition at the school. After some reflection, I decided to raise issue with the auction, addressing the school’s vice principal in private. The mortified response I received was that it was never anyone’s intention to offend, and that they hadn’t thought about it from my (Black) perspective before. People often take this position in situations like these, and it serves one main purpose: the maintenance of their own innocence. But the offending parties remain culpable of having had a negative impact on those with less power in the situation.
I’d sat through a mock slave auction as a student in elementary school already, that one having been aimed at somehow teaching about Black slavery itself. The jokey atmosphere and sexualizing elements (yes, even in elementary school) did not make me feel like the right type of learning had taken place, nor that the experience of my slave ancestors had been validated – quite the opposite. I felt as if it, and I, had been trivialized, forsaken, forgotten. As an eleven year-old boy, I didn’t quite have the full analysis at the time, though I certainly had the rotten feelings, and nor did I have the power to speak up, only the courage to endure. As an adult working professional, I was not about to let my peers put me through the same rottenness, though they almost did. In the end, the more recent event was re-branded as a “student auction”. Baby steps.
Open conversations like the one I had with my vice principal are important. In retrospect, I wish I might have had the chance to address the whole staff and student body about my reason for the complaint. Although, a conversation of that depth and magnitude may have been too progressive even for 2006. I should hope that such conversations might be acceptable, encouraged even, in the “safe spaces” of 2018, but I have my doubts. What is needed now is a large scale discussion of intention and impact within the broader so-called anti-oppressive community itself.
There are many factors that play into the currently cold climate within the multi-faceted progressive wing of this country and continent: liberal multiculturalism, the misuse of the safe spaces, the appropriation of political correctness, and the ongoing institutional silencing of the oppressed, among others. But what these inter-related factors have collectively amounted to is an unfortunately self-destructive, disorganized, and anti-intersectional left, which has, in light of all its infighting, become easy for those on the right to critique, or, worse, ignore.
Infighting within oppressed communities has always bolstered the position of the oppressor. One needn’t look farther than Tupac Shakur’s poignant analysis of state-assisted Black on Black crime in his song Changes for a striking example: “Give ’em guns, step back; watch ’em kill each other.”
Let us look to the microcosmic national slam poetry scene for insight. Formerly regarded as one of the most compelling, progressive, critical, and radical art scenes in Canada (see my thesis, coincidentally titled “the safest place”: Anti-oppression in Spoken Word Poetry), the once afri-centric genre’s popularity and anti-establishment reputation are currently waning. A well-intentioned, hardworking group of mostly white liberal organizers began making efforts to ensure the safety of slam poetry participants and spectators beginning shortly after the scene’s resurgence across Canada near the turn of the century. The advent of trigger warnings for potentially upsetting content began to gain popularity shortly thereafter, opening a floodgate of other presumably progressive community actions ranging from coordinated audience protests of stage content, to informal excommunication and public shaming of poets, whose social crimes ranged from the very serious (i.e. actual crimes) to the mildly questionable faux pas.
The overall impact: a gradual decline in participating poets and spectators of colour, in anti-racist stage content, in literary merit, and in national interest in the once powerfully anti-oppressive genre. Regarding trigger warnings, it would seem poets of colour generally didn’t like having to warn people that they were about to share their life experiences onstage (you know, in case anyone should like to leave and avoid hearing about them). And since people of colour are statistically more likely to experience trauma, they are disproportionately affected by trigger warnings and other censoring mechanisms. As Kendrick Lamar states on his track DNA, “Shit I’ve been through prolly offend you,” later clarifying for Rolling Stone that “I can’t tell you the shit that I’ve been through without telling you the shit that I’ve been through.” I would posit that more offensive than sharing, without warning, what one has been through, is deciding that one’s life story and experiences of oppression ought to come with such warning to begin with.
Perhaps this is part of why here in Saskatoon, a more recently formed Indigenous Poets’ Society, separate from the mainstream local scene, has arisen, creating a truly safer space for Indigenous experiences of life to be freely shared and affirmed. This freedom may have something to do with the tendency of dominant groups to informally (or, unintentionally, they may say) boycott minority events, sadly thereby avoiding potentially mind-changing and life-changing stories.
Of course, the intentionality behind trigger warnings is righteous. And certainly, they do serve effectively to avoid re-traumatizing people with certain mental health conditions and past trauma. Unfortunately, the bolder impact, or side effect, has been a continuation of the historical silencing of marginalized groups. Indeed, a number of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour (BIPOC) who are poets in Canada have been disenfranchised and have felt devalued by the spoken word community, many of them eventually disengaging with their local scenes and with the art form itself. The irony here ought not to be missed: spoken word is, after all, a modern extension of the oral traditions unique to the histories of Black and Indigenous peoples. Their recent disenfranchisement from their own art form is not the fault of organizing committees alone, but rather of inherently oppressive systemic changes to the organizational format of spoken word, and socio-cultural changes that have permeated the national culture, the slam scene, and the spoken word community.
What has been lost is not just the important onstage presence of several BIPOC performers, but the radical anti-racist and decolonizing themes that they brought to the fore of the public consciousness through their art. The ultimate result is their silence; once an outcome ensured by the oppressor, it’s now taken up via an inside job. It seems the colonial reach is deeper and farther now than it was just a decade ago, which would suggest that those among the resistance ought to quickly change course. Organizers everywhere must ask, safe space for whom and for how many? And this extends far beyond slam.