AN obvious but often overlooked fact about maps of the world is that they are not exact copies of reality but rather representations created with the purpose of helping us navigate. Nevertheless people often freak out the first time they see unconventional maps that more accurately redistribute the globe on a flat surface to decenter the tiny cluster of countries making up western Europe, or even inverted world maps that place the global south at the north and vice versa. Whether or not you believe that, for example, minimizing the whole of Africa and making the U.K. look ridiculously big was accident or ideology, you have to admit that all those landmasses, as familiar as well-known logos, suddenly look totally different upside down.
Our advice columnist Zahira Kelly’s work performs a similar move, rearranging or inverting mainstream hierarchies. Thus the radical academic who makes a career out of treating working class or racialized lives as raw material for theoretical texts suddenly looks less like a genius and more like a well-fed vampire. And a black woman despairing of the men she dates might reflect that from this new perspective they look less like unattainable Romeos and more like the threadbare best of a bunch of bad options. When the margins are flipped to the center, the center might finally understand that everything worth knowing comes from the margins. Kelly tirelessly reflects on how this world both abuses and relies on women of color’s powers of endurance.
This month is the Sick issue, so let’s not forget that everyday life can be pretty much as sickening as conditions recognized by medical science. In the third of her New Inquiry columns, here’s Zahira Kelly helping out on questions of dating and academic research.
I have been trying to date and find that pretty much all the men I meet have sexist and patriarchal and often racialized ideas too about who I am as a black woman. I’m talking about even the ones who seem okay at first. I try to overlook it for the sake of giving people a chance but sometimes it gets too much. I feel kind of ashamed that I give these men my time at all, but the fact is that I do want a male partner so I feel stuck with this. How do I reconcile being a feminist and wanting to date these people?
This is what happens when everybody’s colonial conception of the universe either outright excludes you from humanity or posits you as subhuman and at everyone else’s service. Society is structured so that we are seen to be not as valuable as other non-black and/or male people. These dudes’ mamas (not just their daddies) often taught them to feel superior to women. All of their surroundings join them in consensus.
Supposedly “progressive” patriarchal assholes are a dime a dozen too. Their fancy male-centered books, leaders and theories conveniently also tell them that the voices of women like us are irrelevant to liberation. The books and theories don’t always say that straight out, but they always imply it.
We outchea forced just to try to find the lesser evil because they all have yet to unlearn their views of us. I’ve had men who were raised by white feminists pull all kinds of possessive shit and cater to racist white damsels in distress even as they insist that I as a black woman do not feel pain.
The problem spans the “enlightened” crowd all the way to the “ignorant.” I used to tell myself maybe American men were better to date than Dominicans on the island. All I ended up learning is that Americanized men will play egalitarian but hit you with men’s rights activist logic that was created to counter equality of women and posit men as victims of women with no institutional power. Machistas back home won’t beat around the bush. They will just tell you they’re raised to feel superior to you – but at least they don’t have the fauxgressive bro arguments ready when you explain your situation as a woman. They are actually more likely to listen, ironically.
It’s not your fault if you can’t find some magical pool of men who missed the last 500-plus years of anti-black misogynist socialization. We didn’t create this mess. This is what they’ve left for us. All we can do is try our best to navigate these conditions and try to work out who might hurt us a little less. This is definitely a sad reality. It can be fucking depressing. But rest assured, it is not you. It’s them.
It doesn’t make you less of a feminist to have to navigate whatever it is you are dealt however you can. Feminists aren’t defined by how little oppression they have to endure (contrary to mainstream white feminism’s out-of-touch yammering). This is just another way to lay the planet’s burden on black women’s shoulders. If that was the case, only the very richest, whitest, most coddled women would be “real” feminists--in other words, only the women who need it least. And that ain’t feminism at all. It’s status quo and gatekeeping. The whole point of feminism is aiming for a world where we won’t be forced to choose between bad and worse anymore. So please don’t ever feel it’s you who has failed when inequality hinders you after hundreds of years of globalized dehumanization at everyone else’s hands. We can’t fix everyone or materialize mythical untouched partners for ourselves. If we had that power, we’d already have world peace.
I studied at postgraduate level but I also relate to a lot of what you say about academia’s elitism. I am trying to change and re-examine what I was taught in school, while keeping the insights I learned there. What role, if any, do you think academic thought could play in a fair system?
My experience with academia began in the Dominican Republic when an American academic approached me about doing some research, and I almost let her into my community. When she decided to start dictating our own life to us and drawing uninformed conclusions with no regard to our own views, I had to tell her to go home. Later I got on Tumblr, where academics seemed fascinated by me. But some also began sending me hate mail criticizing my grammar and demanding sources, so they could claim my ideas as their own. Eventually I had academics presenting my work in conferences, thanking me for helping them get chosen to speak, when I never consented to it. They published articles paraphrasing me for “cred” while I remain without any. They continue to plagiarize me like I am a free-for-all but keep their own work under lock and key, and cry into the night if anyone misuses or steals their work. Their words matter but other people’s are somehow trash unless they can be exploited.
Academics all work in opposition to fairness. Your educational institutions teach you it’s OK to speak over and for marginal communities and treat them like non-sentient pet projects, info mines, excuses for grants, and notches on your belt rather than human beings with their own voices and context. Academics come in and decide what we need without ever asking us and interpret us from an outsider’s viewpoint that you call objective but is actually woefully out of touch and often harmful to us. There’s an academic tourism circuit where people put in for grants to be able to travel and plop down in our communities uninvited, exploit us for their fuckshit papers and dissertations, and then leave us in the same state (or worse) like nothing happened.
In a functional version of academia, you would not go anywhere uninvited, you would not play savior, and you would be the footnote and tool for marginal people’s liberation rather than use marginal voices as footnotes to your bullshit decontextualized theory. Academia would be the community’s research team and the objects of research would no longer be objects but rather the ones leading, theorizing, and drawing conclusions with the data and labor academics provide. The community would decide what they lack and what would be beneficial for academia to do for them.
This flips the current elitist dynamics that hold academics as authorities over experiences they never lived, as the voices of people who do live those experiences are erased and devalued. It would let communities in need decide where the grants and funding should go instead of having outsiders dictate, pocket the money, and leave them high and dry after the fact. It would acknowledge that we are the only experts on ourselves and should be centered as such. This kind of research would add to a community’s survival tools and records, not just make your own shoddy offshoot that you’ll drop in a few months and leave for dead when you move on to the next novel group or issue.
Essentially, no one from outside marginal communities should be theorizing for them or deciding what they need. That is all for them to determine and guide you on. That is fair.