Monday, July 6, 2015

"And should one live in such a body?" - Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog for quite a while. To say that he has educated me would be an understatement. Today I'm going to reflect on this excerpt from his book Between the World and Me, bearing in mind that I come at this from the perspective of a white transgender person.

He starts off by invoking the American Dream:
I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket.
That dream never meant anything to me. My white privilege insulated me from many things, but poverty was not one of them. I grew up in the country, now I live in the city, but I still don't know what any of those things he mentions are.

Then he addresses his son:
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
When I read that, I remember that many transgender people, mostly women of color, have also been killed in this country and their killers have never been punished. In many cases their deaths are not even investigated. And the question of whether or not it's okay to kill trans people has not yet been debated on the news. Of course, when it is debated the conclusion is much the same, whether it's a dead trans person or a dead cis black person: they were doing something wrong and their killers were justified.

My parents never tried to comfort me as a trans child because they were not trans, they didn't know that I was trans, and I couldn't tell them. In fact, as a child I didn't know what transgender was. Technically I did not know that transgender people get murdered. But I certainly knew it was not a safe thing to be. No one could tell me to be proud.
. . . that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
It's interesting to see Coates talk about the body, a word he uses over and over in this piece. The body is of overwhelming importance to transgender people as well. Cisgender people are always talking about our bodies, using them as weapons against us, telling us what we're allowed to do with them. Should we live in such bodies? What does that mean? (Incidentally, he doesn't say much about what happens when people decide they can no longer live in such bodies.)

I could say a lot more about the body, but for now I'll stick to the subject at hand.

Coates details all the violence and fear deployed against black bodies. And I see echoes of that in the transgender experience too. We who were never meant to survive. (Audre Lorde says that.) Our bodies must be policed and if we try to assert ourselves we must be punished. Because order is order and law is law.

We know that there was a lot more profit in black bodies. The situations are not the same. The problem with gender-non-conforming bodies is that conformity doesn't work unless everyone conforms. Blackness is not a question of conformity.* It appears to be a question of exploitation. But in both cases, in order for some people to have privilege, to be "good" and "right," other people must be "bad" and "wrong."

Many people accuse Coates of despair. I actually find the closing section of this excerpt to be a little too uplifting.
I am sorry that I cannot save you—but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. . . . And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
He said something like that before: it's better to be black because you live with fewer illusions. I agree that white privilege is poison, male privilege is poison, cis privilege is poison. But I don't know if it's better to live without justice. I don't know if it's better to live in fear. I suppose one has to make the best of it.

(That's a nice pun on "race," by the way.)

*Here is an example of what I mean: gender-non-conforming children are frequently subjected to reparative therapy. There's a belief that gender non-conformity can (and should) be cured. Obviously blackness cannot be cured. And when I think about it, I'm not sure that we want to cure it.

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