the last time I sat down to write, I was trying to write about the police killing Black people, and about the widespread harm the police do in general. it was last Wednesday, and Daunte Wright was still alive.
Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline,” and of course, as in most things, she is completely right. What makes me so devastated is that right now I see so many people (ahem white liberals! but others too) digging for and grasping at false hope. Yes, we absolutely must have some hope for better times ahead in order to get through tough situations, like the coronavirus pandemic we’re living through right now. But to me it is critically important to distinguish “hope” in the generic sense from the kind of hope that Mariame Kaba is talking about, or the kind that I embrace as I face the world anew every day. Irrational hope that things will just get better on their own; the mistaken but common belief that massive, systemic problems will resolve themselves through the simple passage of time (“history moves forward”); and false hope in bad solutions or ones that simply sidestep issues and create new and different systems of inequality – I can only see this hope leading to more cynicism, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Hope in *anything* just for the sake of *having some hope* doesn’t really seem like hope to me at all.
I do not feel any hope in a vaccination roll out that continues right down the genocidal and imperialist path we are already walking down. Seeing and hearing people more focused on how quickly we can fulfill our own desires than on how they can work with others to leave fewer people behind fills me with despair, not hope.
Hope, for me, comes from the visionary organizing of disabled people who have fought for priority access to the vaccine. Hope, for me, comes from learning how to design solutions to this pandemic that would actually work for most or all of the population by working collectively in struggle with the groups that are most affected by it, not by listening to some blowhard politicians that actually do not give a shit if people die. Actually what I mean is some politicians that are interested in killing people so they can profit off of it or, best case scenario, would not bother to help us even if they had the chance to cast a winning vote.
Hope comes to me in letters from prison and in messages from Honduras and in emails from long-lost friends. It says “they tried to separate us but they could not.” It says “they tried to kill our visions but they could not.” It whispers “they tried to tell us the sun would not rise unless we gave up everything that meant anything to us but they were wrong.” It reassures me “They tried to make us afraid to live with dignity but I’m not afraid if we do it together.” Turning to the discipline of hope, I can tell myself that there are many things that I might want to make my life more comfortable/relaxing/fun right now, but I can sit down, take a deep breath, and reach within my network and my imagination to find how can I meet that need in another way without leaving someone else behind. I have hope that my sacrifices are actually saving and improving lives, and that my work matters to someone.
I am deeply, deeply angry – I am in a rage a lot of the time. But I have a lot of hope too. I am inspired by the brave and visionary people all around me, and I learn constantly how to do a better job working to create a different and better world together with those people. This hope is not always easy. It requires work. But it is built on my real experiences and relationships, not lies. It is hard to let go of the easy, shiny promises and false hopes being hawked but I know I am not alone and I know these hopes are solid. I know that the only way to a future I want a part of is one that I take an active part in creating and understanding and in that, there is also hope.
Every day I get up and I work on my long list of small tasks dedicated to moving us toward liberation, toward the revolution, toward supporting a comrade, toward righting an injustice. In times like these, every night I lie down to sleep and I wonder if I’ve done enough, if my small contribution can possibly be weighed against the thousands of lives lost that day to the combined weight of coronavirus, racism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. This is an ugly kind of math, and one that I can never win. How can the phone call I’ve made, the letter I’ve written, even the hours I may have spent or the miles I might have marched measure up to these lives? And yet, it seems to be the only kind of math I know how to do at the moment.
The more relevant kind of math, the one I know from decades of activism, is that change and movements are made for the most part by small, regular, granular level actions. While the scale of what we are organizing against is massive and horrific, what it takes to bring it down, I think, is steady work. Maybe it is wrong to use the term work here – maybe I mean effort. Or steady dedication. Chipping away at. After all, the systems of injustice and oppression are also made up of a series of smaller things: rules, people, policies, particular institutions, attitudes, habits, actions, and so on. They are not singular, enormous horrors but composites of smaller things too.
I know I am not the first to say this; I am not saying this because I think it is news. I am saying this to remind myself and recall myself to this truth. I am writing for myself because I am writing myself back to this truth.
Because in the mode of crisis, it is hard to remember. And these days I feel I live in a crisis. This is no accident but part of both Trumpism’s strategy as well as endemic to capitalism. This week alone there was the tense national election in the US; the hurricane that hit my comrades in a Honduras already devastated and made fragile by narco-dictatorship and neoliberal plundering; and the surge of coronavirus cases in the ongoing pandemic. People close to me need support for other private troubles; the source of these troubles are almost all located in larger systems of structural oppression intensified by certain news cycles. In the crisis mode, it is hard to remember that I’m working together with others for big, long-term changes, and also small gains. It’s hard to remember that I exist in larger communities of talented, visionary, resilient people, and that we want it all – small immediate changes now, and big stuff, and everything in between even as I recognize no change will last forever. I am lucky to exist in communities with these people, I am honored to learn constantly from them, and overjoyed to have the skills and resources to be able to find ways to support their work.
Crisis is the vision of the right wing that does not value Black life, Indigenous life, or life itself; it is their mode. I was reminded by Hoda Katebi that we already have our own, better plans; I was reminded that, as Mariame Kaba says, “hope is a discipline”; I was reminded to listen to all the wisdom right around me insisting that even cracks of light in a dark time are necessary and vital forces.
I will continue to wake up every day and commit to organizing in movement with other people or somehow acting in solidarity with others or supporting my folks. I will continue doing one thing every day to build a better world, and I will know that in doing so, I am building some version of that world. This struggle is long and it will never be done but struggling together is how we get free.
This week, I celebrated an important milestone: it has been one year since I launched my freelance public sociology business. It has been a strange year, to be sure, and an uncertain one in which to be working on a freelance basis without institutional support. But I am happy to say that this first year has been a huge success, and I want to take a moment to thank everyone, because I could not have done it without all of you, clients, readers, and friends!
I have been extremely lucky–a concept that always comes with a heaping side dish of privilege–in the ways I’ve been able to weather the pandemic economy so far despite the cancellation of several speaking events in the spring. I especially want to thank everyone who invited me to give talks (special shout out to the folks at Macalester for making the Minneapolis trip possible!), hired me to do editing or research work, shared my work with their friends, or helped me design this website. I have learned an incredible amount this past year, from self-employment tax deductions to writing white papers, but the most exciting is that I have been able to connect almost so much of my work to movements for social justice. Out here, I have created the academic home for myself that did not exist in the academy, doing work that I believe matters to the struggle for a better world.
In the coming year, I plan to focus on growing my diversity, equity, and inclusion work on improving workplaces for trans and gender nonconforming people–especially now that we have civil rights in all 50 states! And let me clarify: I believe my program is different, because I’m not just offering one-day trainings for employees. I’m offering a comprehensive consultation that uses research, evidence-based workplace change, and management-level trainings to create a gender-friendly workplace. As always, let me know if you want work together.
This is a critical time to do transformative work with the insights and skills of social science in the broader world. Last year I decided to take a leap of faith in order to pursue my belief in the importance of doing just that; I stopped looking for other jobs and decided to create my own. I was not certain whether I could turn that leap into something sustainable, but I was willing to try. This year, that work–the work of public sociology–is my everyday reality.
For the last several months I’ve been trying to put into words how I felt with the coming of the new year. It finally hit me that the problem I’m having is that I actually feel kind of optimistic at the start of this year. I feel pretty uncomfortable with this—so uncomfortable in fact that my discomfort with the optimism is causing me anxiety.
There are very few times in my life I can remember feeling this optimistic. The last time I could not see clouds on my personal horizon was about four years ago. I had just settled into my new job and had bought a house, something I had previously never imagined I would do. Almost immediately, my sense of optimism and stability was shaken to its core as a stalker showed up, followed by an austerity crisis the destroyed the university where I was working, and an environmental disaster in my town. This series of events shattered nearly every part of my life.
But obviously the fact those things happened once before when I was feeling happy and settled has nothing to do with whether something similar will happen again. However I suspect this is the problem with living through traumatic events. You drag it along with you and it has the potential to ruin even the good things that happen. Because the fact is things are pretty good right now, and if I’m just scared that it will all be snatched away again, waiting for the next bad thing to happen, then I’m ruining the good things that are happening.
In the foreword to her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit describes the the difference between hope and optimism this way
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of the both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting (2016, xiv).
Solnit’s descriptions of hope throughout the book resonate deeply with my politics and activist praxis. I have no problem embracing the contradictions required of staring reality in the face and still hoping that somehow I and others can act to change the outcome. So why the difficulty feeling hopeful about my personal life?
I think what has been happening this year is that I am struggling to gain a sense of trust and control over my personal life. The struggle to accept that trust is particularly acute at a moment when I actually do feel optimistic because things are going well, but perhaps the issue is that I am growing. I am growing into the trust that I am the one has the control to act in my life. As a capable adult, I am the one who can protect myself, even when bad things do happen, as at some point, they inevitably will. But I think I am starting to accept that it will even be okay during the bad times in some way, because I can take care of myself.
Like most feminists I know, I am deeply committed to the idea that the personal is political. I am not sure if my struggle to feel comfortable with optimism in my personal life in contrast to my utopian politics is meaningful or helpful to others. I wrote this post to figure out why happiness was making me feel anxious, and I offer this reflection in the tradition of feminist personal essays in the hopes that it resonates with someone else too.