Over Nov 13–15, two of us, Yvonne and Fikri, attended Facing Race, the US’s largest racial justice conference. Yvonne told you about all the things she was excited to hear about while Fikri didn’t really know what to expect, and was mostly just hoping to be somewhere warmer than NYC. (It was not.) Either way, we crammed as much learning as we possibly could into those few days, met people from the internet (including each other) in real life, and paid too much money for pastries and parking. It was altogether intense, inspiring, challenging and comforting, and now we’re here to talk about it with you!
We’d like to first recognise Race Forward’s efforts in making the conference an LGBTQ-friendly space, including providing gender-neutral bathrooms, guidance on language and behaviour expectations, and most importantly, a significant amount of queer programming. Highlights included a night of emceeing by Monica Roberts of TransGriot, presentations by plenary speakers Key Jackson, Bishop Tonyia Rawls and FM Supreme, and great haircuts all around. Putting intersectional ideals into practice is something that feminist/women’s spaces in particular struggle with, and while we obviously can’t speak to the accessibility and inclusivity of the conference as a whole, we personally appreciated the opportunity to be in a space where we were validated and supported in our multiple and intersectional identities.
We also recognise the contradictions inherent in attending an event that was described as a “premiere multiracial, multigenerational gathering for racial justice advocates” — or as Hari Kondabolu put it, the POC Oscars. Spaces like these are important and energising for those who can make it there but can also reinforce class stratifications within and outside of them, which became most apparent during fundraising calls throughout the conference. (If you do have a couple of dollars to spare, definitely consider donating to Race Forward! If you don’t, no one should shame you for it.) To the organisers’ credit, the decision to host the conference in the South was an important one… though maybe someone should have checked out the tacky Orientalist art that the Hilton Anatole is decked out in first.
Keeping these things in mind, here’s what we learnt that weekend.
Fikri, Contributing Editor
As someone who’s not from the US and who won’t be here for very long, I focused on picking up skills and analytical frameworks that are generalisable across different contexts, movements and racisms. To that end, I attended Reclaiming Government: A Dialogue about the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity and the Public Sector’s Role in Advancing Equity, Using Systems Thinking to Address Structural Racism, Institutionalizing Racial Equity and Advancing Positive Racial Impacts, and a tiny bit of Queer and Trans People of Color Art Saves Lives: Testimonies on Pasts, Presents, and Future.
1. Don’t take up space.
In my experience self-critical whiteness, or self-critical masculinity, is no less occupying of space. The time taken up by self-critique is still time taken up.
— Sara Ahmed
I walked into the QTPOC event just as the discussion was opened up to the floor, and the first person to offer their opinion was a straight, white man who opined at length about collecting the artworks of black trans women. He didn’t answer any of the questions posed by the panelists nor was he sensitive to the discomfort of the people in the room whose lives he was commodifying and fetishising in a space that was meant to celebrate and affirm their existence. People got pissed, and rightly so.
You’d think this would be obvious for white people attending a conference on racial justice but g-d, no, it really wasn’t. I tried to be extra accommodating in 1. not assuming people were white based on their name/appearance and 2. assuming good faith, but there were still far too many statements that started with “as a white person…” and you guys, there is no good way that sentence can end because it shouldn’t have been started. I even heard someone unironically suggesting “leaning in” as a solution to racial bias.
There is perhaps a place for unlearning and unpacking individual privilege, but this was not it. Not only should this have been a space that centred POCs, it was also a rare opportunity for some to conceptualise and talk about racial inequities as complex, overarching structural phenomenon, which can be easily lost in the day-to-day work of community organising, media (mis)reporting and so on. Take your feelings elsewhere.
2. Tension is a productive force.
This was an offhand remark made by Rosana Cruz, Race Forward’s Leadership Action Network Director, at the start of the plenary session Roots and Wings: Southern Histories, Legacies and Innovations for the Future but it stuck with me. Tension holds up huge bridges! You don’t need to be coming from a place of common identities or beliefs to inspire solidarity and action, which Bishop Tonyia Rawls’ exemplified through an account of her work finding common ground with church leaders as a black lesbian pastor in the South.
Tracking the #FacingRace14 hashtag exposed me to critiques and perspectives that I often missed in the electrified atmosphere of the conference or a speaker’s particularly clever turn of phrase. I (re)learnt that ideas can be — or often are, rather — powerful and problematic, and that this tension is valuable even if it’s difficult or impossible to resolve. The interruption of the white male art collector caused palpable hostility but this was diffused by someone in the audience who called him out on it and Luna Merbruja on the panel who spoke directly to what he did wrong, and turned later into a positive discussion on economic support and the importance of archiving. I also spent a lot of time throughout the conference thinking about “calling in” and the politics (or humanity?) of politeness on social media — not really reaching any conclusions, just letting myself think through it all. Things are always gonna fuck up and people are always gonna disagree, and there’s value in conflict and tension that doesn’t always need to lead to resolution.
3. Things are not, in fact, bigger in Texas.
Perhaps Yvonne was bringing me to all the wrong places in the little downtime that we had (I’m talking a vegan grocery/diner and an Indian buffet restaurant) or I was deceived by the tiny, tiny little croissants the Hilton served in the morning for breakfast (which I ate copious amounts of despite being lactose intolerant), but I did not get actual evidence of supersized living in the South. I didn’t even notice as many gun-related signs/notices as I did in Chicago, though it’s possible that I’m just about adjusting to the US enough that these things are beginning to escape my attention.
This was an important thing this year’s Facing Race organisers did, though: having the conference in Dallas and making local-themed panels/plenaries a key part of the programme demystified the South for a lot of us, including (actually, especially) those from the US, and opened up so many new opportunities for learning and collaboration.
4. Intergenerational, intrafamilial work is important, necessary… and terrifying.
This was a hard thing for me to grapple with and will be for a long time, I think. Facing Race emphasised the importance of “multigenerational” work a lot, and that’s easy enough to think you get when you’re listening to the experiences of people who’ve been in the field 20 years longer than you have or the formidable combination of Bernice Johnson, Toshi and Tashawn Nicole Reagon. (Full disclosure that I wasn’t actually at their keynote address because I was ill, but I thought it was a powerful choice of speakers.)
But now all this discussion about community organising and solidarity and protest and building new futures? Take it home to your family. Sit down with your parents and ask them about their lives, ask them about what they hope for, ask them how you can stand in solidarity with them.
That’s scary, isn’t it?
I’m not on the best terms with my family because of my queerness and I know I’m far from alone in this. For many of us (with notable exceptions) our queer identities and lives, much more activism, are points of departure from the families we were born into, often involving imagining or working towards futures that consign them to the margin out of pain, trauma, isolation, plain old narcissism or any number of perfectly valid reasons. But confronting personal and political racial histories and consciousness requires us to go in the exact opposite direction: to find narratives that tie us to our families, not set us apart. How do we negotiate this? How do I negotiate this? I can’t even begin to imagine what this might look like in my own life, but I know that it’s something that I’m going to need to think much more deeply about.
5. Support others!
I met so many inspirational people that I’m reminded that I need to be doing way more work in supporting other people’s work, because this shit is hard and so often we’re alone when we don’t need to be. I’d like to start by bringing your attention to the work of the Better Together programme, a “multi-faceted initiative that combines research, media, and leadership development to advance racial justice and LGBT liberation,” and the three artists on the QTPOC panel: Cherry Galette, Nia King and Luna Merbruja. Last month Mey spotlighted King’s book, Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which I’m now happily an owner of. I want to be more conscious in building up communities that matter to me by directly engaging with and promoting other people’s work, because no one else is gonna do it for us.
Yvonne, Senior Editor
I haven’t gone to many conferences, but I would say Facing Race is one of the best ones I’ve attended. After it was all done, I felt energized and motivated to do more in my communities and at the same time I felt proud to be from the South. I met so many amazing people doing phenomenal work in their area. Oh and I met some badass Latina feminists I follow on the internet in real life so that was exciting!
In addition to the plenaries and keynote address, I attended these breakout sessions: “Those Kinds of Kids”: LGBTQ Youth of Color in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems, Queering Racial Justice Organizing in the South, Change Culture, Change the World: An Introduction to Pop Culture Strategy for Social Movement and Olivia Pope Notwithstanding: Strategies to Transform a TV Landscape Causing Everyday Harm to Black People. Overall, I learned so much, even things that pertain to my media-making work but here are a few things that really stuck out for me.
6. Small victories matter
My life revolves around the internet and because of it I’m use to instant gratification for the things I do. I write a Facebook status, people like it; I post a photo on Instagram, people heart it; I write a tweet, people retweet it. I publish something on Autostraddle, people comment on it. I’m used to rapid results and receiving an instant benefit from what I do.
Organizing in the South is far from seeing an immediate result or change, which can be incredibly frustrating for someone like me, whose job isn’t in organizing but participates in social justice causes in my city. I’ve discussed this with my partner who is a union organizer and has experienced how incredibly hard it is to create change. In the “Roots and Wings: Southern Histories, Legacies and Innovations For the Future” plenary Cristina Tzintzún, Executive Director of Workers Defense Project, a Texas-based workers’ rights organization, reminded me that “little victories are tremendous gains,” especially in the South. She talked about how the members in Workers Defense Project, who are mostly undocumented construction workers, have gone up against billion-dollar corporations that support the Texas Republican party and have made changes not only in Austin but in the state. From demanding safer working conditions to getting mandatory rest breaks for construction workers, members have made strides when it seemed impossible.
“We’re building power for the long haul… I think doing work in the South is some of the most difficult and challenging work for progressives like we are, but I also think it’s incredibly fun. I think when you’re at rock bottom you can only go up and I think that’s what the communities here are doing,” Tzintzún said.
Granted, we shouldn’t just aim for small victories because they will never be enough and not a victory for all but we have to make small strides in order to pave the way for bigger victories. When you’re talking about dismantling the white patriarchy, it can seem impossible but when you give value to the small wins, say talking to your brother about sexism in gamer culture and getting through to him, we shouldn’t just shrug that off or dismiss it. It’s important work that needs to happen that ultimately contributes to the bigger picture.
7. Solidarity is the key to organizing in the South
One thing I took away from the Queering Racial Justice Organizing in the South session was how crucial it is to work across identities and communities if we want to build power in the South. In the session, we heard from the Better Together cohort which is made up of eight social change organizations and their #WeAreTheSouth Campaign. The cohort bridges the work of various organizations that is focused on immigrants, youth, reproductive justice, education and LGBTQ issues and brings them together. Nayely Perez-Huerta, Southeast Immigrant Rights Network organizer, said in order to transform the South, we must work with other organizations because the same forces trying to bring down immigrants are the same forces trying to bring down black communities, LGBTQ communities, etc. so we should stick together. Executive Director of The Freedom Center for Social Justice, Bishop Tonyia Rawls also spoke how crucial it is to work with faith communities in the South to get things done.
8. Social media is a tool, not the be-all and end-all of your activism
This should be an obvious one, but for me it was a great reminder especially since I work on the internet. It’s easy to call out people and share articles on racism on social media or be involved in a Twitter conversation but that shouldn’t be the end of our activism. FM Supreme and Ramiro Luna talked about this in “This is How We Do It: Youth Led Racial Justice” and specifically how young people are using social media to organize around racial justice. FM Supreme talked about how social media was a way for people to gather after everything that happened in Ferguson. It also provided a platform for the “people’s narrative” of what really was going on in Ferguson compared to the “mainstream narrative” portrayed in the news. Luna talked about how important it is to share your views and be vocal about movements on social media but how it’s even more pertinent for people to show up on the streets and build relationships with people to make real change. It’s great to talk the talk, but more important to walk the walk.
9. We all have to fight anti-blackness
In Race Foward’s President Rinku Sen’s last remarks in “The Next 50,” she said, “To date we have been seeing ourselves as separate constituencies that act occasionally in alliance with each other. In the next story of us, we have to see ourselves as one constituency. A constituency that wants racial justice.” She continued to talk about how in the US, we live in a black-white paradigm that shapes our reality and affects us all and how we all have to fit ourselves into this paradigm in order to survive. She said since this black-white paradigm is central to racial hierarchy, we all have to fight against anti-blackness.
“Anti-blackness sets the national discourse on race, so fighting it has to be on the agenda of every single person or group that claims to be about racial justice,” Sen said.
She also went on to say that fighting anti-blackness can’t be the only thing we rally behind. We should focus on fighting for indigenous communities and immigrants as well. She emphasized multi-racial unity, that we should be one movement and not a collection of movements.
With everything that’s happened in Ferguson to the countless black men targeted by police and incarcerated to the many black trans women that are murdered every year to the way black folks are portrayed in the media, I couldn’t agree more that we all need to fight against anti-blackness.
10. I’m needed at home and you are too
After the closing remarks and riding high on the electricity of Facing Race, I went to an impromptu and informal Latino Caucasus that I only found out about on Twitter. Even though I was hungry and tired, I thought I’d go because I wanted to fellowship with Latinos. I sat down in the circle and immediately felt like I was at home. It’s hard to describe but even in the sea of POC (which I was very grateful for) I didn’t see many Latinos at Facing Race, so suddenly seeing about 20 shiny, beautiful various shades of brown faces sitting together, I felt a sense of relief. We introduced ourselves and what we do and then we talked about how there wasn’t a lot of Latinos involved with Facing Race and how we wanted to see more sessions that reflected the various struggles of Latinos.
I wasn’t there very long but just sitting there stirred something in me. I guess it was the culmination of everything I learned at Facing Race and listening to what these Latinos had to say that I realized I need to stop running away from my hometown in the Rio Grande Valley. I’ve said this before but I grew up in South Texas near the Texas-Mexico border, a place where the population is more than 90 percent Latinos. I left the Valley for college but mostly because I felt I couldn’t be my whole self at home because of my queerness. I’ve grown so much since I lived in the Valley and I keep saying I’ll never live there again because I don’t feel good about myself when I’m there. That it’s too hard to change people’s minds about queers. That it’s too hard to make people understand that sexism is real, that racism is real, even in places like the Valley. I was privileged enough to move away and go to college in Austin, learn about different oppressions in the US and be politicized. Now that I have all this knowledge, it’s people like me that need to go back to where I came from and share this knowledge with my family and with my community and in order to make it a better place for them. I’m the one that needs to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations with my family and communities in order to create change, not someone who has parachuted from somewhere random like Michigan or California.
I always thought I would move away to a big northeastern city like NYC or Boston to live and work there, but shit, they don’t need me. The South needs me, Texas needs me, the Rio Grande Valley needs me. I work for Autostraddle now and my whole career has been in journalism and media and I still want to do that but now I want to figure out what I can do to impact the Valley. I want to be part of the movements that are taking place there now: advancing immigration reform, demanding living wages, finding solutions for reproductive health in light of anti-choice laws, etc. I want to be there to advance queer liberation because it’s not talked about enough. I moved to Austin and Dallas, which have their own problems but are liberal oases compared to small towns in Texas, but it’s time for me to go home and do some work because the people there matter to me. Maybe you’re in the same position and maybe you told yourself that you’re never going back to your hometowns, which is valid, but at the same time, you’re the one that knows your hometown best, you know the people and their backgrounds and you can be the person to help move your community forward.
I’m so excited to read this in conjunction to my friends who were there! Really excited to see Rosanna Cruz get a shout-out (prior to working with Race Forward she did an amazing job organizing for VOTE here in New Orleans) and the Better Together cohort with Nate and other New Orleans organizers from BreakOUT!.
Hosting the conference in the South as well as centering the South in conversations about the impact geography has on organizing around race, class, and gender is something my friends who attended highlighted as significant as well. I’m a fifth-generation (white female queer) Southerner, and this is my home and my community, this is where my organizing work will be.
This was such a great piece — I loved hearing about what y’all witnessed and processed afterwards and Yvonne’s last bit about wanting to go home and work was super awesome.
Thank you so much for sharing! Great read. Tension is so scary, thanks for reminding us how important it can be.
all of this was very powerful and helpful to me in thinking about how to best make use of my role but yvonne especially i want you to know: your last segment made me cry and i am so proud of you and so grateful to work with you!
dear lord you are both so awesome, how do you manage it
I am so moved and challenged by this post. Yvonne and Fikri, thank you. This is a thing I needed to read and really, really hear, and I’m just going to sit with it for a while and cry now.
Thank you so much Yvonne and Fikri for your bare-bones honest testimony of your experiences, especially about needing to approach families and communities that your defensive reflex is to keep at a distance. It’s very powerful and moving.
This is so great, thank you for sharing this important knowledge with us!
Yvonne, number 10 is why I think my next stop after Nicaragua will be back in Texas. When I left I was sure I wouldn’t ever want to live there again, but I’m realizing that that’s where my heart is and where my hands should be too. Thanks for articulating that so beautifully xo
Thanks for this great recap and personal reflection. I am so glad you were there and able to connect with each other and with POC in solidarity. As an organizer who is always on the verge of burning out, reading this was really inspiring and reinvigorating. I felt like I was there with you and I appreciate that you shared out some of the things you learned so we can learn from them, too!