Radical Language in the Mainstream, by Kelsey Cham C.
This essay appears in the current issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (N. 29), available here, from AK Press!
As a person who did not come to radical perspectives from academia, I’ve had quite the challenge trying to find community with people whose politics I respect.
I grew up in the suburb of Newton, Surrey, territory of the Katzie, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples. I was an athlete and last-minute procrastinator who never understood why school should be taken seriously. Though I read newspapers every day, I didn’t have the words to describe the injustices I could see and feel. My lack of trust in the school system, and my dwindling trust in the politics of high level sports led me to believe I didn’t need validation from institutions. In grade 8, I started skipping class to find freedom. A couple of years later I found myself getting into hard drugs and failing classes. Eventually, I failed out of high school completely and was pretty proud about it.
More than a missing diploma, more than my struggle with addiction, my biggest barrier to finding community in radical circles was a lack of exposure to their social expectations. I found very little compassion and support, and was often met with harsh judgment. Coming into these communities, I felt not smart enough and like an outcast. It took me years to understand the everyday language used in radical activist communities. Some words were long, some were short, but everyone said these words so casually I thought I would come across as stupid to ask what they meant. I’d go to talks and workshops, and some really smart dude would talk for an hour and then open up the space for questions. I remember feeling so lost by the jargon that by the end, I didn’t even know what the talk had been about. Clearly, I wasn’t going to ask the questions running around in my brain. “What do you mean by colonization?” “What is queer theory?” “Who is Marx!?” “Why are you speaking to us like my boring geography teacher?”
Although I experienced some pretty traumatizing and violent times in my high school years and early twenties, I also experienced a lot of care, openness, respect, and trust. I will never forget the time I was hanging out at this meth house in a room covered in paranoid sharpie scribble – thoughts about death, killing, being followed, and the devil. The woman whose room we were in was smoking gak from a glass pipe telling me about her brain tumors. Her teenage daughter came in to share a hit. After I left their house they called me to let me know I left my zip lock bag with a few hundred dollars of meth in their bathroom. They didn’t judge me for being senseless or even take advantage by keeping my stash. When I came back to retrieve it, they let me know how much they appreciated the energy I brought to their home and invited me to come over whenever I liked. They had generosity, openness, and care in their spirit.
My addicted self has gotten me into a lot of intense, violent, and traumatizing situations. However, during my addiction, I also experienced caring dynamics in relationships with other addicts. In contrast, those kinds of relationships have taken a really long time to find in self-identified radical communities. Respect for one another was of highest value, and we watched each other’s backs. As much as there was fighting, people also had a lot of capacity for forgiveness. People would cheat, fight, rip each other off and then in a few months they would be chilling and having a good time. We’d help each other out even with little things. If I took too long in the bathroom my friend would text me “there’s nothing in your eye!” and I’d remember I was hallucinating so I would stop picking it.
When I came out as queer in Montreal, and as I got more and more clean, I started to find accurate words to describe how I felt about the world. Even though this skill was my entry into more political communities, I still felt incredibly judged. It was like an ultra-heightened experience of not being allowed in the cool-kid club in high school — but with all new rules that I had not learned and that no one took the time to explain to me. The language I grew up with could no longer be applied and would sometimes get me kicked out of social settings. My entire experience of growing up was judged and I felt totally isolated in trying to figure out why.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve figured out the “right way” to navigate in these communities by learning language, protocol, and radical terminology while dropping the offensive and oppressive slang. I don’t disagree with changing language to support systems we care about. I do disagree with judging people for not knowing the rules –especially since radicals are often organizing in favor of marginalized communities who are generally not aware of these rules.
If I wanted to fill out a form to describe my identity, I could check a bunch of boxes that would make my experience worth standing up for: Queer. Trans. Person of Color. Former Sex Trade Worker. Ironically, the biggest advocates for people like me — the people ready to throw down stats about harm reduction and youth, gender queer folks, and the vulnerable people in society — many of them had no patience for me. I came into their communities looking for support, friends, and direction. I came having left abusive and sexually manipulative partners. I came in hella lost, unaware, and not very educated. But I came in agreement with their political perspectives; because I knew society was fucked from the time I was twelve — maybe even younger. In high school, while other kids wrote about teen heartbreak, I wrote about injustices I saw everywhere. I came into these radical communities wanting to make change, but all my habits and the language I had learned to protect myself with got me in shit. When I was nineteen, I heard someone tell my older sister that they thought I spoke like I was “uneducated” and I lost it. Yes, I was uneducated, and they didn’t recognize I had experienced things they would probably never understand.
People, including myself, can write as many articles, blog posts, and books as we want about what it means to be an ally, organizer, activist, or whatever we want to call ourselves. At the end of the day, what we are is human. And at our best, we are humble. We are learning. We have jumped off the high horses that colonialism so badly wants us to ride, and we are supportive of each other. We are unlearning our horrible and self-destructive habits and we are doing our best not to take it personally when others are not there with us (yet). We are recognizing the destructiveness of the systems that cause these habits rather than pointing fingers and blaming each other for having them, because we all do. Whether or not we have learned to unlearn derogatory sayings like “crazy”, “gay” or “lame,” we are learning to recognize the internal work we each are doing and do our best to support it. I am lucky to have a sister who – despite my anger issues and aggressive attitude – recognized I was working on myself, and she went out of her way to support me.
I want to be thankful to the women and lesbians who came before me for their fight because straight up I’ll never know what it is to have so few rights, to not have a vote, or be in public with my partner. I want to let go of the resentment I feel towards people who don’t have the analysis, capacity, power, community, or education to unlearn specific internalized systems of oppression that I have learned to recognize in many privileges. I want to let go of the fact my first sponsor in AA disrupted my Step 5 to insert her political feminist perspectives, invalidating my experience as a queer trans person. I want to be aware that a lot of my survival has to do with the fact that I am able-bodied, thin, and hold conventionally attractive traits granting me cute privilege — which is very important in our society and is something a lot of people don’t spend enough time deconstructing: It means I can get decent jobs with fair bosses. I can meet people willing to hang out with me until five in the morning to tell me about the history of misogyny and women’s rights. My privilege allowed me to be a stranger in a bilingual city and still be offered a full-time job on the spot (minimum wage — but still, I could pay my rent).
One of the things I am saddest about is how I’ve changed the way I relate to cis-white-people, and cis-men in general. I used to mostly hang out with cis-guys, all my life, and now I hang out with very few. I notice when I meet new cis-dudes, my chest tenses up and I start to put together the different oppressive patterns I’ve learned to recognize many cis-men perpetuate, like for example how cis-white-dudes tend to take up space in conversations, meetings, at work, in art and music scenes, or how these men often refuse to acknowledge many difficult experiences they personally never have to feel as white men, but which are experienced daily by people living in the margins.
I know that we, humans of this colonial culture, are very susceptible to recognizing patterns and fitting things into boxes. I hope that these patterns and boxes start to change. Instead of primarily criticizing ways we are different, and not good enough — I hope we start changing our narratives to acknowledge and celebrate those differences, and to hear each other respectfully to be better in our differences. I see how deeply we criticize each other, and how that perpetuates segregation amongst our communities. The truth is we really need to come together and connect experiences. Changing things for the better will take everyone. Including everyone takes mindful openness and listening to hold and make space for people of diverse communities.
While writing this, my younger bro has voiced he finds my language exclusive and judgmental. I sometimes try to point out how certain terms he uses — the same terms I have learned to stop using — perpetuate oppressive stories about people of marginalized groups. I found his statement super interesting and timely, and told him about this paper — like “hey, I’m writing about this exact thing! I get it. I don’t want to act offended by your experience, or judge you, but also know I’m trying to get this message across to people in my community because I’ve felt their judgment too.” My brother, being the open-hearted person he is, heard my perspective and agreed that yes, it makes sense to change our language if we want to change the dominant narratives our language gives power to, but that people should also be sensitive to others’ experiences and be open to meet them where they’re at. To this, my older sister, being the great listener she is, summed it up and concluded that people who are using offensive language should also make an effort to unlearn terms that they can recognize are offensive — instead just avoiding saying “that’s gay!” around their queer siblings. To which my brother responded, “haha, word.”
Kelsey Cham C. is a community organizer and settler of Chinese and Irish descent. Being involved with projects like the Purple Thistle in Vancouver, Canada has brought depth and insight into trying to understand what the hell is going on in the world. Kelsey is focused on organizing experiential learning projects with youth and adults in gardening, mycology, fermentation, and “ki” (chi) based karate.
The views expressed herein solely belong to the author(s) and are not necessarily representative of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, the Institute for Anarchist Studies, or members of its Board of Directors.