Monday, July 20, 2015

Maybe Progressives Are Too Critical of Each Other, or Maybe You're Just Not Used to Being Criticized


"The Left is eating itself!"

"We need to focus on our real enemies instead of criticizing each other!"

"Ultra radical social justice warriors are a joke, and their PC-policing will be the end of the progressive movement!"

There was a time when I was a lot more sympathetic to attitudes like this (well, at least the first two). If you're around activists, online and offline, you do start to notice a particular breed of organizer who seems to care more about scoring more-radical-than-thou points than about actually building a movement. They might roll their eyes because you haven't read a particular book, or talk all in academic jargon and then be super condescending when you don't get what they're saying, or swoop in to point out what you did wrong while never actually pitching in.

And yeah, those people are annoying. But they're also relatively rare. The problem is, however, that there seems to be a growing number of progressives who take that basic jackass archetype and apply it to ANYONE who has a critique, or a call for greater inclusiveness, or a challenge to the progressive status quo. So even when people have super legitimate, necessary critiques, they get lumped in with the fringe, characterized as "just as bad" as their radical conservative counterparts.

The reason that I'm no longer sympathetic to those attitudes is that my real-life experience with movement-building has shown me that very rarely is the problem that progressives are too critical; much more often, we are not critical enough.

When Bernie Sanders flubs an opportunity to stand with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we can acknowledge that as a flub and push him (and his relentlessly white campaign) to do better, or we can shout down the critiques, on some "he's really great and the best chance we have for real change so everyone shut up!" (further conversation about this on my FB page).

When a panel discussion on a feminist issue features five white women, and then gets called out for being too white, that's not "nitpicking." That's acknowledging the long tradition of the erasure of indigenous women and women of color from mainstream feminist discourse, and pushing for something better. Maybe it's easier to see it as "not a big deal" when you happen to not be affected by it.

When "well-meaning" talk-show hosts and journalists continue to ask ridiculous, offensive, invasive questions to trans people, we shouldn't all just shut up because they're "trying to raise awareness." There are ways to raise awareness without throwing people's dignity under the bus. Again, they can do better.

The whole "we have to stop making good the enemy of perfect" attitude assumes that those adjectives are objective and universal, ignoring the fact that what so many of us see as "good" can actually be harmful and counterproductive to movement-building efforts. Historically, who has been able to frame this debate and decide what "good" is anyway? Even in progressive circles, it's been people who already have some access to power.

So now when the internet gives a platform to counter-narratives and other definitions of "good," old-school mainstream liberals find themselves being challenged. That's why so much of this discourse is couched in condescending, tech-oriented language ("hashtag activist," "tumblr feminist," etc.), and framed as personal attacks when they're actually critiques of power.

The idea that feminism, for example, has been "taken over" by the man-hating trigger warning reverse racist thought police is as ridiculous as it is weirdly common, and a lot of the people making that argument either benefit from the status quo, or have no dog in the fight anyway. My job lets me meet feminists/activists/leftists from all over, and I can tell you: the problem isn't that "we're too self-critical." A lot more damage is done by those with some access to power refusing to be challenged/critiqued than by the critics themselves. 

The thing that I just cannot wrap my head around is this bizarre belief that it's so HARD, that there's an expectation that everyone has to be PERFECT and we just can't-- as individuals or as a movement-- ever get there. Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. But there is an enormous difference between those of us who actively try to do better and those of us who whine and want the rest of the movement to accept us unconditionally. I'm certainly not perfect, but somehow, even as a very vocal, very privileged, public personality talking about a lot of serious issues, my life is not an endless series of call-outs.

If your life does seem like an endless series of call-outs, maybe that's on you. If you're a liberal professor and you're scared of your liberal students because they embody "call-out culture," maybe you deserve to get called out because you're saying or doing things that hurt people.

If you're a guy who doesn't feel welcome in feminist circles, maybe you should think about why you want to be in feminist circles as opposed to introducing feminist ideals into the circles you're already part of.

If you're working on a campaign and you know that your candidate's platform will have a positive effect on communities of color, but those communities aren't supporting you, maybe you need to do more to bridge that gap rather than huff and puff that "they" just don't get it.

Of course, passionate people go too far sometimes. But it's really important to think critically about who gets to define "too far." Because for every bogeyman story about someone caught up in a wave of critique for an honest mistake or misunderstanding, there are many, many more stories about erasure, invisibility, and liberal racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. that have been silenced for decades. Slowly, this is changing. This shift is happening right now, and as progressives, we should have the strategic and moral sense to embrace it.

To me, being a progressive/radical//leftist means challenging established systems of power. Doing that within our own movement doesn't make us weaker when it comes to doing that in our society; everything I've ever learned or experienced as an activist tells me that it makes us immeasurably stronger, and that it's the only way we can actually win.


Further Reading:

Joan Walsh at Salon: Bernie Sanders’ big test: Can he learn from his Netroots Nation conflict with Black Lives Matter activists?

Kat Stoeffel at the Cut: Why I Stopped Rolling My Eyes at Trigger Warnings

Amanda Taub at Vox: The truth about "political correctness" is that it doesn't actually exist

Me: "A Visit from the PC Police"

Friday, June 05, 2015

Sifu Hotman T-Shirts, Be Heard MN Team Send Off Show, Other Summertime Updates

A couple of updates:

I posted about this a little while ago, but Sifu Hotman (me, deM atlaS and Rube) was recently featured as "the weather" on the Night Vale Radio podcast, which is apparently one of the biggest podcasts in the world. The response has been bonkers, and it's been beautiful to see that project getting a big second push, because it deserves it.

With the renewed interest, Rube is printing up new t-shirts. He made our beats, and he prints the shirts too-- all in the same studio. Go get one!

In other news, here's a big event to look out for:

TruArtSpeaks has been doing good work all year; this show is a showcase and celebration of the 2015 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam team before they head off to represent MN at Brave New Voices. The Send Off will be on June 15 at Intermedia Arts. The last few shows we threw there were huge, and this should be the most exciting one yet. Hope to see you there. If you can't make it, support the organization's work here through our #7UpForSocialChange campaign!

Also, I should mention that I wasn't planning on releasing any new music anytime soon-- I'm neck-deep in a ton of different artistic and activist projects, and that just wasn't on the agenda. But as it always goes, a producer sends you a folder full of beats, you start writing, and suddenly you have a new album. More news on that soon.

Finally, I am currently booking for Fall and Spring. The calendar is going to fill up fast this year, but if you want to bring me to your school or wherever, check out my booking info page and get in touch!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spoken-Word Tips and Tactics Part 4: Diving In and Getting Involved with Spoken-Word as a Culture


As always, these videos are not meant to be "guides" or teach anyone anything. I'm just sharing tools that have benefited me and the stuff that I think about and try to be intentional about. I'm no expert, but hopefully something in here can be useful for you.

This installment focuses on a question that comes up all the time: how does someone get involved with spoken-word, not just as a form of writing and performance, but as a culture, a community, and potentially even a career? That's a big question, but I share a few thoughts here.

Also, a few links to things that I mention in the video:

TruArtSpeaks (Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series, ReVerb open mic, much more)

List of open mics and slams in the Twin Cities

Well-Placed Commas weekly poetry workshop

This is part four in an ongoing series. Catch the the first three installments here. More to come!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

#YesYesYes Consent-Themed Poetry Show, Sifu Hotman on Night Vale Radio, Other Updates

A few big updates:
On Wednesday, May 20, this consent-themed spoken-word show will be happening at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. Performers include Keno Evol, Thressa Isobel, Kevin Yang, Simone Williams, Kenny Ngo, Sophie & Ally, and See More Perspective, as well as Chava Gabrielle and me. Here's the FB event page.

Chava approached me about collaborating on this event a few months ago, and it's shaping up to be very cool. Sponsors include great organizations like TruArtSpeaks, The Aurora Center, The Sexual Violence Center, Line Break Media, and Intermedia Arts, and we'll be doing some audience-centered interactive stuff too. It's also good timing; if you missed my brand new poem, "Consent at 10,000 Feet," check it out here.


This past Friday, the Sifu Hotman song "Matches" was featured on Welcome to Night Vale. If you don't know, Sifu Hotman is a collaborative hip hop project featuring me, producer Rube, and rising indie-rap star deM atlaS. And Welcome to Night Vale, apparently, is the most popular podcast in the world. A friend suggested we submit some music, and we did, not thinking much of it. But now that they've played it, the response has been overwhelming. It's so great to have this project in particular get a big second push, because I think it's one of the best things I've ever been involved with. If you missed it during the first run, you can get it here.

Update: as of right now, Sifu Hotman's "Embrace the Sun" is also the #1 best-selling hip hop album on Bandcamp. So that's cool.

Lots of other stuff happening, as always. First of all, thanks to Daniel Rangel for the new header photo; more media coming soon. Also, we're still pushing the big #7UpForSocialChange campaign over at TruArtSpeaks, and I'm so excited about that work. Lots of new projects in the works. Lots of shows coming up, especially once we get into autumn. In the meantime, I want to plug my Twitter feed, where I try to share not only updates on my own work, but link to as much cool stuff as I can. That's the best place to keep in touch. Please do.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Watch the Best Spoken-Word Show I've Ever Been Part Of (The Loft's EQ Supershow Full Video)



So this is something really special. In April, for AWP, I got invited by Bao Phi to perform alongside a bunch of my favorite poets at the Equilibrium supershow. Thanks to the Loft Literary Center, you can watch the full show online; the link above is a YouTube playlist of 34 videos.

When I say it's the best show I've ever been a part of, that's not an exaggeration. Watch the whole thing, and if you need some extra motivation, a few highlights:
  • Patricia Smith's headlining set. Again, I'm not trying to be hyperbolic, but Patricia Smith in on a whole other planet poetically. This is the most powerful poetry performance I've ever seen, and is a must-watch for #BlackLivesMatter organizers and advocates.
  • Marcie Rendon with a MN history lesson that got a well-deserved standing ovation.
  • Khary "6 is 9" Jackson with a rare performance of "Limbs," one of my favorite pieces of his.
  • Look at the rest of this lineup: Danez Smith, Ed Bok Lee, Tish Jones, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Marisa Carr, Emmanuel Ortiz, Lorena Duarte, Diego Vázquez Jr, Christy NaMee Eriksen, R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, Juliana Hu Pegues, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, David Mura, Electric Gemini Bailey, Shá Cage, Danny Solis, Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, Robert Karimi, Douglas Kearney, Ka Vang, Nimo H. Farah, Moheb Soliman, IBé, Andrea Jenkins, Tou SaiKo Lee, Frank Sentwali, and Louis “Babalu” Alemayehu.
  • A new recording of my poem "Quicksand" too.
I can't stress enough how valuable this playlist is. Channels like Button have done so much when it comes to capturing and documenting 21st century spoken-word, but they can't be everywhere, and a lot of the poets in this playlist don't perform at slams and/or aren't super active on social media. So if you have any interest in spoken-word at all, you owe it to yourself to watch this. Again, endless thanks to Bao and the Loft for making this happen, and to our whole community for being so brilliant and inspiring.
Photo by Anna Min; that's me between David Mura (!) and Patricia Smith (!)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Guante: "Consent at 10,000 Feet" (New Video, Plus Links)


Thanks again to Button Poetry for capturing this and broadcasting it out to so many people. As always, any additional shares/reposts are appreciated. Also, be sure to check out these other poets writing about consent: Britteney Conner, Anna Binkovitz, Imani CezanneCaroline Harvey... please add more if you know any.

For any Twin Cities-area people, Chava Gabrielle and I are throwing a show on Wednesday, May 20 at Intermedia Arts called #YesYesYes that will feature poets and other artists sharing work related to consent. It's being cosponsored by TruArtSpeaks, the Sexual Violence Center, the Aurora Center, Intermedia Arts and Line Break Media. 7pm. $5-$10 donation appreciated.

The poem itself is maybe one of the more straightforward things that I've written; I wanted something that could work as a teaching tool, a resource, an additional frame for anyone doing work around this issue. In that spirit, I'd like to share a couple of links for further reading:

"Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games." --more on consent from Project Respect

"The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement." --more on enthusiastic consent from Persephone Magazine

Book: "Yes Means Yes" from Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti

The classic "Five Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape" by Zerlina Maxwell

Feel free to add more links or resources in the comments. Thanks!

Full text of the poem:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Framework For How I Think About Social Media Supporting Social Movements + Links to #BaltimoreUprising Info

I've written about this kind of thing before, and I'd like to be clear that this framework is what I try to remind MYSELF of, not how I think all people everywhere need to operate. If other people can relate to this or use it, great, but I'm not trying to dictate anything to anyone. Especially when I think about my own identities and positionality, these points only really make sense in that context. For example, telling a Black person "you should do more to educate people" would be a super messed-up thing to say. But telling myself that would not be. So please read this spectrum with that in mind.

Also, I'm not particularly interested in being "deep" here. This isn't some profound philosophical discussion about how human beings relate to change-making processes, or a poetic exploration of the roots of racial violence; it's a concrete look at how social media practice can relate to movement-building.

With regards to the #BaltimoreUprising and #FreddieGray protests, a few examples:

1. Silence: So some people are silent because they're ignorant, or because they don't care, but there's also a case to be made, especially for white people, that silence could mean listening, not trying to take up space: two good impulses. But as the rest of this list shows, there are ways to speak up without without speaking over others, especially when we're talking about social media practice. And there's just too much at stake to be completely silent.

2. Platitudes: "We all just need to LOVE each other!" Some platitudes are innocent, but a good amount of them implicitly amount to "why are you talking about this? I'd prefer to not think about it." And then, of course, there's the "All Lives Matter" crowd.

3. "Thoughts and prayers:" The last thing I want to do is disrespect people who are authentically trying to process tragedy and injustice. But I struggle with this one. If saying "my thoughts and prayers are with Baltimore" helps you survive, then I support that; this spectrum, after all, applies to me and yours might look different. But for me, I don't give my own thoughts or prayers much weight. Sometimes a phrase like this can be an excuse to disengage, to say something when you feel powerless to do anything. But I don't believe in powerlessness, as the following points illustrate.

4. Outrage: Sometimes, this is just raw emotion, and that's fine. "This country is messed up and we need to DO something" is a great sentiment, and one I agree with. But this point is in the middle of the spectrum for a reason.

5. Outrage + links to more information: Social media can be really powerful, but not just for the vague push-and-pull of culture battles. It can be used to legitimately transmit information that can be used for the building of movements. So saying "this country is messed up and we need to DO something" AND linking to something like one of the following is more valuable to me than the previous point. A few examples:

6. Outrage + links to concrete actions or organizations
: When the question "but what can I do?" is on so many people's minds, I return to the idea that systemic problems require solutions that are bigger than just "striving to be a better person." That means organizing: joining and/or supporting activist organizations that are doing the work. Of course, no organization is perfect, and no single event can magically "fix" things. But these are vital first steps. A few examples:

7. Signal-boosting the activists on the ground
: I don't always do this, since it can be tempting to center my social media practice on my own thoughts and opinions. But I think the "tweet less, retweet more" impulse is important. I have opinions, but I'm not in Baltimore, or Ferguson; beyond that, I'm also not Black, and this movement is very much about how #BlackLivesMatter. So shout out to people like @osope, @aliciagarza, @opalayo, @deray, @prisonculture, @karnythia, @blacklivesmpls, @nvlevy, @micamaryjane, @eveewing, @blklivesmatter, @dreamdefenders, @wintanamn, and the hundreds of other activists and organizers out there. Feel free to add others in the comments.

Also feel free to add other links or resources in the comments. Thanks.