It took me a long time to understand myself as femme because I’m a man, and to understand myself as a man, because of my femininity. Misogyny, being the fear or hatred of women or femininity, can manifest in many different ways. I can perpetuate sexism myself, and also I am the recipient of misogyny because I’m effeminate. I’m so grateful for fabulous femmes and women and their powerful resistance to misogyny and sexism. I hope to keep learning how to unpack sexism in my own behaviour and learning how to be ally to women and other femme folks, as well as increasingly unleash my effeminate fabulousness. Here are some great reads as well as some useful ally stuff.
I’ll add new things as I come across them – my website (Sunny Drake www.sunnydrake.com ) will the most up-to-date place.
This is a conversation starter (continuer?) on how to be ally and challenge misogyny/ sexism, aimed primarily at trans-masculine, trans-male and masculine of centre peoples. It is equally application to other cis men unpacking misogyny/ sexism and working on ally skills.
Sexual assault is a very real issue in our communities. Dominant narratives are that strangers are mostly responsible, but many of us also experience sexual assault, violence and other abusive acts from lovers, partners and family. The times I’ve been sexually assaulted, I felt like I was responsible for what happened to me and felt so much shame that I found it difficult to talk with people. It’s had a huge effect on my health, sex and life. I wished I’d at least had some things to read. So, here are links to resources I’ve found useful particularly for femme, queer and trans survivors (and ally articles too). Please take care of yourself when reading.
I’ve also included some ally resources for working with those who have abused others. I believe our communities need to work together to deal with each other in responsible ways to unlearn abusive patterns, rather than isolating and shaming people, whilst centering both survivors and the overall well-being of our communities.
I’ll add new things as I come across them –my website (Sunny Drake www.sunnydrake.com ) will the most up-to-date place for resources, as well as other resources such as trans, femme, sexuality, queer stuff, anti-racism etc.
Yup this is real. Many of us know on an intellectual level that we are not responsible for the acts of violence we receive, but how do we actually get ourselves to really shift that toxic self-blame and insidious internal dialogue? Some useful suggestions in this article. Authored by Sian Ferguson.
This link covers a lot of myths about violence and acts of abuse and how equally valid different survivor responses can be. This is essential in learning how to be a responsible ally too. Authored by Kai Cheng Thom, who’s writing I love.
A useful resource on gaslighting –when someone acts to manipulate another into questioning their own sanity. It can be used to make people who are experiencing abuse doubt their own experiences and often end up feeling responsible and blaming themselves or even thinking they are the ones being abusive. Good ally article as well in terms of skilling up on gaslighting. Authored by Shea Emma Fett.
The article also acknowledges the different ways that we can reclaim our sexuality. Particularly helpful for was the section on how we might act when we are triggered during sex – it doesn’t always look like disassociation or curling up in a ball. Sometimes I’ve struggled to understand when I’m triggered during sex because a big part of my coping with sexual assault has been to minimise my own experiences and try to pretend to myself (and others) that nothing was wrong. Knowing when I am triggered can help me take power back to be able to be responsible for creating my own healthy sexuality. There are so many ways we can reclaim sexuality and have awesome sex lives.
Looks at teenage sex and sexuality and how we don’t prepare young people for either staying safe or actually having fun. Many educational programs have finally started acknowledging that teenagers have sex, but an exclusive focus on STIs and birth control doesn’t prepare young people to enjoy their sexy times, have consensual sex and prevent sexual assault.
If you have any other resource suggestions, particularly ones that are femme, queer, sexuality and trans positive, please email me (Sunny Drake) at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m about to turn 2 years sober – woohoo! Summer was a challenging time to get sober, particularly with so many queer events in Toronto that involve booze. The warm months are now a time when I fluctuate between deep gratitude that I’m not drinking, and wistful fantasies of swilling beer on patios and swigging bourbon in the park. A lot of sober queer folks struggle to stay sober during Pride month, so I’m reflecting on what our community could do to hold us, whilst also holding space for others to have fun or cope with alcohol and drugs. Both sobriety AND drinking/user rights are access issues in social spaces and within our political movements.
Whilst I love intentionally sober space (yay for Sober Pride!), I also want our communities to be able to hold space for those who use alcohol or drugs as medication or to cope with this shitty world. I’m horrified that visionaries such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson (both trans women of colour on the frontline of Stonewall) were banned from some LGBTQ spaces because of their drinking or using. The impacts of that likely involved further marginalisation for each of them, as well as a HUGE loss of wisdom and experience to the movements which they kick started.
Here’s the thing: there’s a very big difference between some people being intoxicated within a space versus a space that feels intoxicated. For me, when a critical mass of people at a party or event are drunk or high, it becomes an intoxicated space. If there are only a few drunk people around in an overall sober/ non-drunken space, it feels way more manageabe for me. So the more people who refrain from drinking and using, the more the space can hold both sober folks and some people who are drinking or using.
I get that drugs and alcohol can be about more than coping – they can be about many things including fun, which is super important too! I’m not suggesting that everyone stop using/drinking – just that those who don’t need it, be more intentional about how and when they drink or use. Let’s remember that doing stuff without drinking or drugs can be awesomely fun too! Enjoying music and company and dancing and art events and deep conversations and connections that you are more likely to remember. No checking your sent texts to see the embarrassing things you sent! No trying to remember if you did inappropriate things.
Given that many sexual assaults, violence and other non-consensual behavior have alcohol involved, drinking less can also mean there are more folks around to support a culture of consent and community safety.
Suggestions for organising Gatherings, Dinners & Events
Various friends including Clementine Morrigan, had some great suggestions:
If your event will include alcohol, post that on event promotions (social media, fliers etc) along with other access info.
Organise more drug and alcohol free events, but with no one turned away for showing up either high or drunk. Communication well with guests so that people don’t start policing or shaming the folks who may turn up high or drunk.
Serve tasty non-alcoholic drinks that are treats – not just water and soft drinks/pop. Check out Liz Shield’s tasty recipes here
Considering many people use alcohol as a “social lubricants” (to cope with nervousness, anxiety, boredom etc), have alternative social lubricants – like activities or games. E.g. interactive food bars (tacos, waffles, burger bars…), conversation prompt games, arts and crafts areas, books, tarot cards, nail painting supplies, or whatever! (thanks Hannah Pepper-Cunningham for this suggestion)
Ally Suggestions for Individuals
Whilst event organisers have particular responsibilities, each and every one of us has a powerful role to play. So here’s my request for the Pride month (and beyond). Unless you need to use alcohol or drugs as self-medication/coping:
Have some sober nights – like if you’re going to 4 events this month, how about choosing 2 at which you’ll be sober?
When you are drinking or using, consume less and be mindful of what spaces you consuming them in.
If you think it would be welcome, check-in with your sober buddies about whether they want a sober companion to go to an event with. Ask them if there’s any other support they might want or need.
The more people who refrain, the more we can hold community and space for both those who are sober AND those who use drugs and alcohol to cope.
I was at a gathering a few weeks ago talking with two friends, one of whom I’d just met that evening. One of them mentioned that she had a zit on her face and our new friend offered a great home remedy, “just dab brandy on it”. After a moment’s awkward silence, me and my friend burst into laughter and proceeded to egg each other on with new rationales for getting brandy all over us, “well I think I have a zit right in my mouth, under my tongue”. We are both in recovery from drinking problems/ alcoholism.
Last month I celebrated my one year of sobriety. I’m grateful to finally be at the point where I can joke about it and talk freely with friends and family, instead of the crushing shame I used to feel. In fact, a little over a year ago, I woke up, half drowned in a pool of my own shame. I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on my journey to sobriety, look at community roles in drinking, harm minimisation and sobriety including challenging the ways that we fail each other and also the ways we are amazing.
Harm minimisation works for many people and I wholeheartedly support it as a great option. For me, it wasn’t working anymore. I’d made (and broken) every cut-back-on-drinking type of rule imaginable. Rules like “no drinking before 5pm” became “do you think it’d be ok to make that 4pm”? Rules like “no sending texts, emails or posting on facebook when I’m drunk” became “except when I’ve read it several times and I think it’s really a good idea”. Mornings were punctuated by scouring the sent folders in my phone and email to see what mayhem I’d been up to. The rules became increasingly ridiculous. “I can break one rule if I’m having a really shitty week or someone de-friends me on facebook”. (Ok, so that wasn’t actually a rule, but you get the point!)
I’d made bold declarations. I’d made threats to myself. I’d punished myself. I’d done sober “drinking break” periods to prove that I could, always falling straight back in to the deep end, noticing each time that the bottom was deeper than the last time. I even made a theatre show about it! I hoped that creating a show would lessen my drinking, help me get through it. In reality, initially my drinking got worse. Making the show was such a stressful process that my drinking escalated. I couldn’t wait to go home after each rehearsal to my beloved bourbon.
Eventually, I came to the realisation that harm minimisation wasn’t working for me anymore and I wanted quit long term. In my first attempt, I remember thinking “what do you do when you break up with a person? Break-up sex!” Perfect! So, I attempted a last romantic evening with alcohol. I turned my phone off. Wrote a love poem to my darling bourbon. Carefully selected a music playlist. Then luxuriated with my “last bottle” of bourbon. A week later, I was drinking again.
To be clear, I absolutely and adamantly support people’s right to use whatever coping strategy feels best to them at any given time. I also support the safety and happiness of the friends and family of people with substance challenges. Sometimes these can coexist well and other times people’s substance use can have great impacts on their loved ones. Conversely, the patronising and judgemental attitudes of the loved ones can be just as harmful to people struggling with alcohol or substances. There is a big difference between asking somebody to be accountable for their behaviour when it is affecting others, versus judgementally demonising a person’s choice to use alcohol or drugs to cope with (or enjoy) their life.
The clearest example I can give of this difference was in a conversation I had with a friend who came and saw my theatre show about drinking (and addiction to sex and work and cell phones…), X.
After the show, she confided in me that her partner had a drinking problem, which had crept in over the years. When she tried to bring it up with her partner, he was very defensive and irritated. I asked how his drinking was affecting my friend. There were certainly some things that he was doing that were not ideal, like spending their shared money on alcohol, but when we discussed it further, the real heart of the problem was that she felt ashamed about having a partner with a drinking problem. She went on to acknowledge that her partner was actually a lot more chilled out when drinking, and that it was a bunch of her own stigma around the alcohol that was the challenge. I encouraged her to unpack this further and take on doing the work of de-stigmatising alcohol and addiction, find ways to express support and keep an open mind and heart with her partner. Simultaneously, I encouraged her to stand strong (with my support if she wanted it) on asking for him to be accountable for his behaviour and make sure that her needs, safety and financial security was addressed. It turns out these things were not in significant competition.
So how do we support each other when our drinking gets out of hand?
Here’s my simplest declaration if you are want to be an ally, based on my experience: if we trust you won’t judge us, we will be more likely confide in you about our drinking problems. Let us feel your support, your open mindedness, and let us know that you have our backs. Let us feel your love. Then, and only then, can we begin to have conversations about whether we want to continue the same way, cut back, minimise harm or quit altogether, and figure out the strategies to get there.
As to what these strategies and approaches are: we need a myriad of approaches and tools and strategies at our disposal, because let’s remember that addiction happens with in the context of the stuff going on in people’s lives (like experiencing homophobia, racism, colonialism, transphobia, poverty, recovering from trauma or self medicating for stress and anxiety), so our approaches will look different depending on who we are and what’s going on. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from my experience.
>> Don’t Judge Us
I think the single most important thing is being truly non-judgemental. I could sniff out disapproval and judgementalness from a mile away! Anyone who I perceived was likely to judge me, or who I heard belittling (even subtly) people with drinking or drug problems, instantly went on a mental list of people to hide my drinking problem from. Saying that you’re not judgemental is not enough. ALL of us have unpacking to do of our internal attitudes towards people with alcohol and substance problems, particularly towards drug users. It is not possible to grow up in the world that we do and be immune to the intense stigma of “junkies” being pretty close to the bottom of pile of society, with alcoholics somewhere down there as well. The single greatest barrier I had to getting sober was the intense shame I felt about my drinking. I literally started to drown in my shame. My shame meant that I denied my problem to myself for a long time, then hid it from all of you for even longer.
>> Unpack Classist, Racist Ideas about Alcohol and Drug Use
The times when I finally started to speak about it, I had challenges even convincing some of my friends that I really and truly had an increasingly dangerous drinking problem. I don’t fit people’s racist, classist and colonial ideas of what an alcoholic looks like. I’m a white dude who managed to get a lot of “productive” shit done whilst desperately struggling with my alcohol problem. The fact that my friends didn’t really believe me was a shallow comfort to me (because I could stay in denial) but ultimately, not helpful.
Also, check your assumptions before making assessments about whether or not others are struggling with their alcohol or drug use. Remember how ideas about race, class, gender, disability and other identities play into how we view people. Many Black and Indigenous people and People of Colour get stereotyped as drunks and junkies. Did you know, for example, that more Aboriginal people in Australia abstain from alcohol than non-Aboriginal people? Yet if you listened to the media or the government’s racist intervention in the Northern Territory, you’d get a very different picture. I heard of an Indigenous friend saying, “my people don’t have a problem with alcohol. We have a problem with colonisation”. So, as a white person, if I actually want to be an ally, I should be challenging colonisation and supporting the autonomy and leadership of Indigenous communities, not trying to be the white savour swooping in “helping” with drinking problems.
There are many underlying issues which could be going on for someone when they are drinking. For me, it was a combination of things including dealing with sexual assaults and violence and covering/ uncovering being trans, as well as needing a tool to cope with stress.
Once I truly believed that someone was not judging me, offers of direct support were very useful. Not a carbon copy “one size fits all approach”, but actually genuinely enquiring what sort of support would be helpful. One of my friends recently asked me what I would like her to do if I started drinking again. She prefaced it by saying that she has a tendency to respect other people’s autonomy and under intervene. My partner asked the same thing. Because I trusted them both, I’ve been able to make a request which, whilst it felt humiliating and scary, also feels empowering. They’ve both agreed if they see me about to drink or with some alcohol in my hand, to physically take it away from me and do whatever they need to stop me from having access to the alcohol in that moment. Now that I made the request, and it actually wasn’t that big a deal, I’m reflecting on that feel so humiliating? Hello, internalised able-ism! So what if I can’t do it on my own? The idea that we can be self-sufficient is bullshit anyway. Even now, I just deleted this entire paragraph, because I was embarrassed for you to know that I need help and support. I put the paragraph back in because I’m committed to transforming that internalised able-ism and those feelings of humiliation, and changing the way I see myself and others. It’s ok to need help!
>> People who get it
Even though making my theatre show, X, initially escalated my drinking, ultimately it may have saved my life. It was the show that connected me to other people who struggle with addiction. My passion for my work and my community made me rise above the choppy waves of shame which were threatening to dunk me under for good. Whilst I’m clear that the actual theatre piece itself is very different to my own therapy, the process of researching and making the show was completely essential in me getting sober. I interviewed over 40 queer and trans people about addiction. Through performing X, a wide array of people have written me letters and talked to me about their struggles. They tell about the importance of having stories on stage in helping them to feel less isolated and ashamed. Well, my friends, your stories are just as important to me.
I will also be forever grateful to the generosity of the people I met at AA where I participated for the first three months of my sobriety. Whilst I have ultimately decided (for a variety of reasons) that AA is not a structure that works for me ongoingly, I don’t know if I could have gotten sober without the love and support I encountered in those dusty church basements and town halls.
The tips and tools were super useful, but the heart of what I got from connecting with other alcoholics was non-judgemental space to talk freely. I literally began to swim to the edge to the deep pool of shame that I’d been treading water in. I was finally able to climb onto the shore, soaked and gasping for air. Without fellow alcoholics, I would never have found my way to dry ground again. I got to see that sobriety wasn’t the boring, stagnant lifestyle that I’d feared. I was deeply inspired by the humility of my fellow alcoholics. What an awesome bunch of people we are! Like seriously. So many moving and beautiful stories.
>> Balancing Sober Space with User/Drinker Rights
So how do we create inclusive spaces that feel safe and welcoming for a whole myriad of people, both those who are in recovery and sober as well as those who can’t or choose not to function without alcohol and substances? I asked this question of a friend, Geoff, who is part of a Toronto-based sobriety collective, and he suggested taking a similar approach to many AA meetings- have more events that are designated sober space, no alcohol served, but that if somebody turns up drunk, they are not kicked out of the space and are still welcome.
I am horrified that some of my trans* heroes – those who have paved the way for many of us to be out as trans* and queer, were in fact banned and pushed out of spaces and movements because of their drug and alcohol use. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, both trans women of colour on the frontline of the 1969 Stonewall riots, were banned from various LGBTQ spaces including for their drinking and/or drug use. And these are people who we owe our lives to! These are women who fought, tooth and nail, for our rights. I’m ashamed to think that we fail so spectacularly as to push further to the margins our siblings and Elders who should have the warmest place by the fire. Let’s change this!
Dear People struggling with alcohol or drugs (whether still drinking/using or not),
I want to personally apologise for the times when I have not challenged my own judgmental attitudes about myself and you, because in truth, WE ARE AWESOME! We are living in some really shitty times, and I believe what we need the most to transform our world is creativity, strength and resilience – which you are the very embodiment of. You are necessary. You are loved. You are important. You are my heroes. You are part of the revolution. The revolution will not happen without you, because it can not, because you smart, fierce, awesome, and you are everywhere. THANKYOU!
All my love,
I’ve written a follow-up article to this, Wet >< Dry
 Harm minimization or harm reduction refers to a range of strategies to reduce or minimize some of the harmful affects of drinking or drug use. Lots of government and conservative agencies/groups refuse to support harm minimization and are only in favour of abstinence (not using at all, or alcoholics not drinking at all), and not only stigmatise but criminalise harm minimsation – for example, many places won’t allow safe injection sites. This “abstinence is the only way” model can be used as a justification for the war on drug users which is in reality turned into a war on Indigenous and Black people (who actually use less drugs than white people, but get thrown in jail WAY more than white folks for using or dealing). Thanks to Chanelle for schooling me on these politics of criminalisation and harm minimisation.
Over 35,000 people have read the article I posted about the need for myself and other white people to acknowledge and be responsible for our racism. Thank you to so many people for reading and sharing this. I asked my partner Chanelle to collaborate with me on responding to the most common responses.
From Chanelle & Sunny:
The responses have been very mixed. From Black people, people of colour and Indigenous folks, direct responses have been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Obviously some would not have felt comfortable or wanted to give critical feedback. It’s also racist to expect entire groups of people to agree with each other or share the same opinions. From white folks, the responses have been more mixed. Many white folks said “yes absolutely”, others that it was a challenging yet important thing for them to read and engaged in critical conversation from a genuine place of wanting to understand, discuss and learn. A smaller number of white people wrote Sunny abusive messages. This article is especially directed toward those white folks who felt challenged but also wished to understand and learn more. We want to talk to you because we care about supporting you to move you further toward liberation and because we need you in the movement to end racism. We want to be part of a movement of white folks taking responsibilty to educate each other and hold each other accountable, so that this labour doesn’t fall on the shoulders of BIPOC* (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities.
A few white people mentioned that they found the title of Sunny’s first piece depressing, because the suggestion that racism is inevitable in white people as long as we live in a white supremacy, makes it seem like we can’t do anything about it. Yes, it’s true that white people created racism and we enforce, defend and maintain it everyday- some of us intentionally and others of us through our denial or our inaction. However, the good news is the fact that we built it also means that we have the power to resist it everyday in hundreds of ways! We can learn to dismantle it and build mindblowingly beautiful things in its place, following the strong leadership of BIPOC communities and stepping up into leadership roles in transforming ourselves and other white people.
Firstly, we want to honor that what we have learned about racism, we have learned from Black people, Indigenous folks and people of color. These communities have explained and documented racism in every possible format and setting. Books, art, kitchen table storytelling, journalism, science, music, poetry, historical research, blogs, theatre, fashion. Entire libraries and schools–and critical viewing of the nightly news–exist for those wanting to understand racism. We have also learned a huge amount from other white anti-racist organisers and friends, like from workshops and training (e.g the Catalyst Project’s Ann Braden Program). We say this from a place of care: many of us white folks remain confused or willfully ignorant of some of the most basic structures of racism (and oppression more broadly). We are not trying to judge you. We make mistakes all the time–there will certainly be mistakes in this article too! We aim to be supportive and firm and this may mean we feel really uncomfortable sometimes.
“But people of colour are mean to me too – isn’t that reverse racism?”
Many of the comments regarding the original article fell into this category: “But people of color did this to me–so how come when I do it you call it racism and when they do it, it’s not?” The idea of “reverse racism” comes from a misunderstanding (intentional or not) of how racism and oppression work. White people created the idea that if us white folk experience discrimination, harassment or any kind of unpleasant thing by Black, Indigenous or people of color then we are experiencing “reverse racism”. This is a used by many white people as a justification for not having to be responsible for racism.
The concept stems from the misinformed idea that racism is just shitty behaviour from one individual to another, and that it’s about feelings and not power. Let’s talk about power and see how that informs our experiences of individuals.
Like all forms of oppression, racism has (at least) 3 layers:
Internalized. This is the ways that oppression lives inside of people’s hearts and minds, how people are being oppressed compare themselves negatively to those with power and hate themselves and their families and communities, sometimes being self-destructive or undermining or distancing ourselves from each other. Someone could be experiencing internalised racism, internalised homophobia, internalised sexism etc.
Inter-personal. This is what happens between individuals. So this would include a person with power (in this case white privilege) discriminating against someone, acting from prejudice based on stereotypes. This can be everything from micro-aggressions like avoiding eye contact all the way up to murder.
Institutional, Societal, Cultural. These are the larger structures that we usually didn’t create ourselves but that we inherit and that we either benefit from or are targeted and exploited by. Like schools, legal systems, workplaces, economic systems, religions, government etc. Almost all of these institutions are shaped and dominated by white people, specifically rich white men. This is the key to understanding why a power difference can’t just be “reversed”.
These institutions are a set up to punish some and benefit others and the impacts are so pervasive. Let’s look at how things are right now: a kid of color is born. Over her lifetime, she is more likely to die at childbirth, to not get the nutrition she needs, to go to poorer quality schools and drop out, to live in substandard housing or become homeless, to struggle with her self worth because she’s been told she’s not as valuable, to experience violence from state agents like the police and in her personal relationships, to be denied respectful and effective health-care, have her culture and spirituality disrespected, not be able to get a job and to earn less than white people in whatever work she does find. There is a lot of variation within this but each exception does not disprove the overwhelming evidence that there are structural forces creating these problems.
So if someone doesn’t give an individual white person a job because they are white, that may have an impact on that person. But it is likely an isolated incident and doesn’t have entire systems of power perpetuating it every single day. Discrimination against us white people might hurt our feelings or have some harmful impacts. That could be a real bummer. However, there are no institutions that harm white people because we are white (they may harm us because we are poor or trans etc, but that’s not based on our race).
Inter-personal racism–context is important
Another way to think about it, is that the context is important. It is the presence of not only shitty behaviour, but its combination with power that makes racism real. Let’s look at the example Sunny gave of how it’s racist for him to get the names confused of people of colour, even though he also frequently mixes up white people that he doesn’t know. A lot of white folks struggled to understand this. A friend, Tiara, responded very succinctly to this on their facebook page when questioned:
“there’s a lot more cultural history and baggage associated with POC (people of colour) being confused for each other – “oh all you Asians look the same” etc – sometimes to malicious means (WW2 propaganda about how to spot a “Jap” for example).”
We experience things based on how we’re treated in other spaces and at other times. It’s actually a very white thing to divorce ourselves from the context, to think that we can operate independently from our surroundings. So if a person of colour or another white person doesn’t remember who I am, it may just feel like a personal sting. Compared to, for a person of colour, it may jab into a painful spot that’s been jabbed over and over again. I hit you once, it hurts. I hit that spot 400 times, I’ve created a wound. And of course it’s more complicated than that – lots of white people feel dehumanised or have baggage around this for different reasons – like because they/we are trans or femme women etc. We’re not over-riding your experiences of being squashed for various parts of your identities – we’ve chosen to focus on unpacking white supremacy and racism in this article.
Respecting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour Only Space
Some white people took offense when they were asked to refrain from posting on some facebook walls and spaces in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. Sometimes we simply don’t recognize the impact that just our presence can have. We are whole human beings and have many different impacts on the world, both wonderful and crappy. And being white automatically impacts a space. We bring our whiteness everywhere and our (unintentional or not) racism. It makes total sense that sometimes (or often) BIPOC communities would want spaces for their own healing, discussion, fun or organising, where they don’t have to deal with our racism. It also makes sense when a person of colour doesn’t want to be our friend. If we were being treated awfully by a racist world, I imagine many days we’d hate white people too. In fact, expecting people of colour and Indigneous people to like us can actually be a sign of being privileged – why should we feel entitled to other people’s respect, without it being earned? Between the two of us, some of the most exciting, powerful and transformative experiences we’ve ever had have been in spaces that were centred around a particular group of people facing oppression (e.g. femme or trans only spaces) and so we absolutely want to celebrate and support BIPOC folks doing the same and encourage white folks to step back.
What makes us white people so confident that we really understand racism?
Some white people also commented that Sunny had chosen “ridiculous” examples that weren’t really racism. White people – how would we know what is and isn’t racist?! The only way we can understand that is to listen to Black pepole, Indigenous folks and people of color (BIPOC). And not just one or two people–be tuned in to movements. The fact that we might not understand how some BIPOC may experience our actions, speaks further our racism. Consider this — in what ways is it essential to your everyday life, your job or your survival, to know about racism, or anything at all about BIPOC communities?
In an in an anti-oppression workshop, artist, activist and educator Kim Katrin Crosby pointed out that she has to know everything about white people. As a woman of colour, her survival is dependent on knowing exactly how to navigate a white system that’s designed to squash her (she said it way more eloquently than this). As white folks though, we could learn about various BIPOC communities if we wanted to, but our survival is not dependent on it. We can get by just fine remaining ignorant. And in fact, it’s not just a passive ignorance – many of our ancestors and our current white culture works very hard to actively erase the voices, histories and ideas of people of colour and Black and Indigenous people. Who gets to write the history books? Who controls the vast majority of mainstream media outlets? Who has the resources to put their ideas into action? Who gets their television shows produced? Yes, mostly white people. For every Oprah, there are 100 David Lettermans. So, in a culture of white supremecy, while it’s not a personal failing for a white person to not know much about communities of colour, it is, nonetheless, our responsibility to find out. And not in the way where we just culturally appropriate and exoticise and devour everything about others. Rather consensually valuing, respecting and learning how to treat people with dignity and respect. Another teaching Kim offered in her workshop, was instead of the saying “treat people how you’d like to be treated” to rather treat people how they want to be treated. If communities of colour are saying something is racist, if we don’t understand why, it’s our job to find out.
“But people of colour are racist to each other too”
What is called “lateral-racism” is real–and it is is based on racist white systems offering folks of colour and Indigenous folks some privileges by competing with each other for points in a system designed ultimately for white people’s benefit. When white people point this out though, it’s not usually to take responsibility, it’s to divert any attempt to be responsible for our own racism. Of course, folks of colour and Indigenous people have a lot of healing to do around racism. And there are a lot of people of colour doing powerful organising around building alliances together to do this.
“But what about mixed race people?”
Some people have pointed out that Sunny’s original article doesn’t acknowledge mixed race people. You’re absolutely right. That was a shortcoming of the article. These conversations are so much more complex than “black or white”. We’ve heard some mixed race people talk about complex experiences of sometimes passing as white (being read as white) and other times being read as from a non-white cultural background. Let’s remember to keep complicating our analysis and understandings.
“But what about me?”
We all experience intersections of power and privilege. Some of us are white–and also poor, trans, disabled, fat, femme and experiencing a lot of oppression based on that. Yes, transphobia, poverty, fatphobia, ableism and misogyny suck. And if you compare your experience with someone with the *same* identities and experiences–except they are not white–you can see that there is a dramatic difference. Some of us white folks cannot stand a conversation about our racial privilege without turning it into a conversation about our other experiences of oppression. This is called derailing or detouring. But our needs do not need to be in competition with each other. What made you think that by focusing an article on racism, it was detracting from your liberation?
There is a powerful saying from a Murri community (an Aboriginal community in Queensland, Australia), “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Working on our racism will support our own and other’s liberation. In fact, it is NECESSARY for our liberation. Why? Because the people most impacted by our shitty systems often live at the intersections of multiple oppressions – like people who are dealing with poverty and racism and transphobia and sexism all at once, for example. And these people have seriously powerful stuff to offer social change movements. They don’t need to go to university to learn fancy words like “intersectional politics” – these concepts are obvious from their lived experience–and when the solutions that have been created by these communities have the power and resources to be implemented, they benefit us all.
Second, because it feels incredibly shitty to be a world where it is difficult to build genuine relationships with people because racism has divided you and to know that many of the good things in our life (our privileges) rely on other people being oppressed. If we want to see justice, peace and safety, and realise our true potential as communities and individuals, then we need to understand that we can’t achieve this while some people are dehumanized, robbed and victimized by systems of white supremacy. How are we going to have to transform to be a world where we all get a fair piece of the pie? That’s the amazing challenge ahead of us, that we have the power to embrace everyday in a million ways.
Working on our racism will unite us, not divide us
A few white people commented that they thought Sunny’s article would just divide white people from Black, Indigenous and communities of colour (BIPOC), by pointing out the awful things, rather than the things we have in common. Whether we talk about it explicitly or not, our racism gets in the way of our connections with BIPOC every day. We may not notice it because we’re not the ones who our racism most obviously hurts. But we are divided because we are NOT talking about racism and NOT actively transforming our racism. Denying the ways our racism keeps us separate from BIPOC is not going to bring us closer. Only actively working on our shit will.
This racist system our ancestors built (and that we perpetuate) was very intentionally built to keep us separate. Let’s take a quick trip down history lane with an illuminating example from the tobacco fields of Virginia. In the late 17th century, black and white workers on the farms were starting to organise together to fight for better working conditions and possibly overthrow the white bosses. There were so few white bosses, vastly outnumbered by the thousands of black and white workers. So, to increase their stability, the bosses used “divide and conquer” strategies. To break up the workers, they created the the concept of “white” (before this there was English people and German and French people etc), lumped most of the pale skinned people together, and gave them privileges like extra food rations and shorter working hours. Now the “white” people had something to lose. If they continued organising with their black comrades, they’d have these privileges taken away. This still happens today. Even though ultimately only 1% of the population (mostly white people) get the most massive benefits from the work of the rest of the world, because other middle class and working class white people get some benefits, comparative in general to people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, we fear that if we rock the boat, we’ll have it taken away.
It is this racist system of handing out privileges to white people and punishing people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, that divides us. And we will stay divided unless we work on our racist shit.
We’re not saying you’re the Ku Klux Klan
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Martin Luther King Jr. from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
Sometimes those white people most opposed to racism are the most defensive (and therefore unaccountable) about our own racism. We can respond with rage, disbelief and denial because we believe that opposing racism means having erased it out of our hearts, lives and minds. For example, when Chanelle was about to undertake an anti-racist training program, a white person said to her “gee you must really have a big problem with racism”. It was unthinkable to him that continuing to do active work on racism was a part of being anti-racist. He saw himself as above that, as an anti-racist person who had it all worked out and was therefore just “not racist” anymore.
Aside from the pretty clear arrogance of believing that white people get to decide for ourselves when we’re “done” with our racism, we also see it differently because of our understanding of institutional racism. White folks are placed into racist institutions whether we want to be there or not. For example, for the most part, our schools reflect white realities, goals, histories and leadership. So no, you don’t need to be a part of the KKK to be a part of white supremacy. We’re all in it, it’s up to us how we respond. Some people feel so much shame about this that they give up (or use it as an excuse to give up). What if, just as an exercise, you removed any personal shame associated with the word racist? Would that change what you would consider racist? Just for this exercise, imagine you saw doing racist things with as little emotional weight or shame as say forgetting to take the garbage out on garbage day? This is not meant to trivialise racism, rather as a tool to assist white people to acknowledge our racism as the first step in being responsible for working on it.
Being in Love with Our Communities: why we take a stand against racism
A racist world tells us as white people that we will lose stuff if we challenge racism. That there’s not enough to go around. That it’s too much work. That we’re not responsible anyway. That racism is over. Or any number of other slippery ways to get out of being responsible. What we stand to lose by failing to address racism, is far greater than the comparatively small things we will have to give up like being right, being the centre of attention, being comfortable 100% of the time etc. Working on our racism, we risk looking silly or ignorant or being called out – for example, we will likely have made embarrasing mistakes in this article. Contrast this with what we risk by failing to work on our racism – friends, awesome communities, healing, justice, safety, peace, learning and living in a harmonious world. And we can do this work from a place of love for ourselves, our friends and our communities. It’s not about hating ourselves as white people, it’s about loving ourselves so much that we want to live in a awesome world and stand with our friends who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
It’s not enough to simply know that racism exists, that we live in a racist world. In the outpourings of grief and anger about the Zimmerman verdict, I’m asking myself and other white people: how are we reflecting on and actively transforming our own personal racism? And our collective racism? This is not about hating ourselves, it’s about loving ourselves so much that we commit to transforming ourselves and our communities. Because white people: we are ALL racist. It is impossible to have grown up in a white supremacy and not have taken on racist beliefs and actions. And before you defensively cite the number of friends of colour you have, please remember that sometimes these beliefs and actions are incredibly sneaky – they are designed by white supremacy to look normal and natural. As white people, sometimes we can find them difficult to spot – yet they are glaringly obvious to those who are hurt EVERY SINGLE DAY by our racism. Towards the end of this post I’ve included a list with some concrete examples of the racism of myself and other well intentioned white people, including anti-racist activists. The list has a warning at the top so that folks of colour and Indigenous people can choose whether/when to read this.
White people, the shame is not that these racist things come up in us – growing up in a white supremacy, it is impossible for them to not. The shame is when we deny it, refuse to do the work and therefore turn our backs on our sisters, brothers and genderqueer siblings of colour. The shame is when we are inactive through fear of doing the wrong thing. The shame is when we don’t own up to the damage we cause on a daily basis. The shame is in not putting the time and resources into figuring out how the fuck to transform ourselves – and it will take time and resources, because we’re battling a massive system of white supremacy that will seek to minimise, deny, divert and violently uphold itself. And remember, whilst I can take a break from doing the work of unpacking and challenging mine and others’ racism, our friends of colour can NEVER take a break from racism.
If you’re a white person having a hard time reading this, I’d ask you to examine why are you feeling defensive? In my experience, when I’m defensive it’s usually because I’m avoiding some element of truth. It’s actually only threatening to me to admit my racism if I intend on doing nothing about it. Obviously, there is a massive variation in how racism manifests. When we completely distance ourselves from those white people whose racism manifests in ways that are more “obvious” to us as white people (like murder, assault, belittling other cultures or employment discrimination) essentially, we are letting ourselves off the hook. Yes, my racism may manifest in less intense ways, but it is still from the same origins: growing up in a white supremacist society. It has the same stink – it is the same air in the sky which sometimes blows as a small breeze and other times whips up into a hurricane. Whether or not I like it, I have been shaped by this culture. I have breathed this toxic air into my lungs and it informs my immediate thoughts, reactions, actions – including what I’ve been trained to consider as “racism”. Add to this, the massive amount of privileges I inherit as a white person – and these are not privileges I can simply choose to not take, because privilege is something given to me, not taken. There’s an article by Peggy McIntosh called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” if you want to understand white privilege with more concrete examples. And for an awesome understanding of anti-oppression and inter-sectionality – check out’s Kim Crosby’s presentation.
It’s indicative of how incredibly low the bar is for white anti-racist allyship that I am so applauded for even the most basic anti-racist things that I do. All I need to do, is get “anti-racist” into a sentence, or remember to include an analysis of racism when I’m talking about transphobia or sexism, or volunteer in support of an event centering people of colour and I am wildly celebrated and applauded. Contrast this to how folks of colour and Indigenous people are often cast as angry and confrontational when they point out racism. The bar is so incredibly low for being a white anti-racist ally. This is no judgement on folks of colour who choose to offer kind words to me for the stance I take on racism- please know, your words of support are appreciated, but not expected. Rather, it is a call to action to white folks: there is something very wrong that I get so much praise for the simplest, most basic acknowledgement of racism.
Let’s raise the bar. Let’s listen deeply to people of colour and Indigenous people and respect their wisdom and stop appropriating it and re-packing it into $30,000 university degrees and pretending we came up with it (thanks Kim Crosby for pointing that out). Let’s learn to admit when we fuck up (because we do, everyday) and figure out how to transform ourselves and make amends to those who we hurt. Let’s lovingly yet firmly point out racism to each other and hold each other accountable for making amends to the people we hurt and changing our behaviour for future. Let’s remember that we are the ones responsible for holding each other through the process of changing, so that we’re not expecting the support of folks of colour – think about how painful that must be- first, being hurt by racism, then having to hold the hand of the person who hurt you. And for every bit of support we offer to white people to change racist behaviours, let’s offer double the support to folks of colour in dealing with living in a racist world. Whilst people of colour may not necessarily want to debrief racism with us (let’s respect their own safe spaces and not seek to insert ourselves in these spaces), there are plenty of other tangible ways we can support: photocopying zines, housework, emotional support, helping set up events, doing childcare, fundraising and being behind the scenes in support of the priorities, activities and movements led by people of colour and Indigenous people. Let’s start daily practices of BELIEVING people of colour and Indigenous people when they talk about racism, even when we don’t understand. Let’s do the work to understand. Let’s talk with other white folks and figure shit out so we don’t demand the labour of people of colour and Indigenous people in educating us, yet remember who we ultimately will be learning from and who we need to be following the leadership of – the people most affected by racism. So let’s find consensual ways to learn about racism from folks of colour, like through multi-racial organising, social media/books/films and doing support work like those things listed above. And let’s get ourselves set for the long haul – because this will be lifelong work filled with heartache, satisfaction, embarrassment, humility, joy, pain, sorrow and sweet, sweet victories.
WARNING: CONCRETE EXAMPLES OF RACISM IN WHITE ANTI-RACIST ALLIES BELOW.
A few examples of my racism and the racism that I see in white friends to whom anti-racism is very important:
– The times when I have tokenised people of colour by thinking “shit, my project is really white, I should ask some people of colour to be a part of it”, rather than building the vision and collaborating with people of colour from the beginning and/or building genuine mutually supportive relationships.
– When I have given more support, time and resources to white projects and individuals. It doesn’t matter if this was by default (like who happened to ask me) – it is my responsibility to seek out and support people of colour and Indigenous people (if and when my support is welcome). In a world where these communities are systemically barred from access to resources, it is racist to perpetuate this on a personal level in my own life.
– The times when I have assumed people of colour and Indigenous people have drinking or substance problems when I see them drinking or using in public. I am in fact an alcoholic, yet nobody thinks that of me if I’m seen drinking in public.
– When I have failed to understand the ways a police presence could impact on the participation of criminalised communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities. Any time I have invited police presence or failed to take steps to deter it, this is my ignorant racism showing up.
– When I have failed to take the time to consider how I could make sure people of colour and Indigenous people are central in the decision making of groups I’m a part of.
– When I have over-identified with the struggles of transwomen of colour as if they were my own experiences – see my article “Boy Tits in the Locker Room” for more on this
– When I have spent more time reading white people’s opinions on racism than people of colour’s and Indigenous people’s opinions and lived experiences. Yes, I believe there is a strong role for white people in challenging racism, but it shouldn’t over-ride the leadership and wisdom of those who are most impacted by racism. Note, we also need to make sure we’re not putting the burden on folks of colour to come up with all the solutions.
– When I have minimised the feedback of people of colour
– Those times when, before even consciously knowing what I was doing, I assumed that communities of colour would be more transphobic and homophobic towards me than white communities.
– When I have gotten acquaintances who are people of colour confused with each other. It doesn’t matter that I also frequently can’t recognise white people who I don’t know very well – this is where context matters. In the context of a racist world that makes invisible and dehumanises people of colour, my actions are racist.
I’m working on My Racism AND I love myself
As well as a bunch of emails from white people who expressed commitment to working on their racism, I’ve gotten some emails from white people “wow, you have so much self loathing”. I don’t loath and hate myself. I am appropriately critical of some of my thoughts and actions, yes, but that’s actually because I love myself and I love my friends and my communities. In fact, I love myself so much, that I want to be part of a community that is beautiful with space for everyone and I am committed to working to make sure that my own ingrained racist thoughts and behaviours don’t block that vision. I love myself so much that I want to get to have AWESOME people in my life, and that means working on my racism. I love myself so much that I want to overthrow messed up systems that hurt people I care about and an important part of doing that is owning up to my own shit, and through supporting Indigenous people and people of colour in strong leadership positions. I love myself so much that I’m not afraid to look at the parts of myself that do messed up things – this actually is a sign of my self respect and respect for others, not of self loathing. And I’m not afraid to make my process public. Well more accurately, I’m totally afraid (sometimes terrified!) but I love myself and my community so much that I still do it anyway.
And yes, there are a lot of things that you/we will have to give up. Like needing to be right. Needing to be perfect. Needing to always being seen as the “good anti-racist white person”. I get that part of why some of you feel so challenged is because anti-racism is important to you and so to be called racist challenges your idea of yourself. I’m asking you to rise to the challenge and find a way to see the racist parts of yourself as inevitable as long as we continue to live in a racist world. It’s not a personal failing. If you believe that we live within a racist world, then how could this not have shaped your thinking, even despite your best intentions? I’m challenging you to see working on your racism as an act of love. Love for your community. Love for yourself. Love for your friends.
I’ve recently started taking my shirt and binder/sports bra off in the men’s locker room. It didn’t begin from a desire to flash my boy tits around, rather that I was fed up with the incredibly awkward configurations I used to twist my clothes in to hide these bouncy little babies. Moreover, I was incredibly bored by transphobia and cis-sexism*.
I’ve also been thinking about appropriation of struggles – the ways that I have over-identified with and co-opted the struggles of trans people who are more marginalised than myself. There’s been lots of trans women who have written and spoken about the appropriation of the struggles of trans women of colour. They remind us that the vast bulk of violence faced by trans people is in fact faced by trans women, particularly those who are racialised, sex workers, poor and/or Indigenous. When I listen to my trans Elders, the people whom I owe my life to (literally – I couldn’t exist as trans without their AMAZING work in carving out space for us to be trans), it’s easy to assume that my experience with be the same as theirs. The reality is, it’s not. Firstly, things are already different. Their hard work has already transformed some things about the communities I live in (THANKYOU! I LOVE YOU! YOU’RE THE BEST!). Secondly, the very people who have been at the centre of the movements which I benefit from, also face trans-misogyny (the many ways transphobia and sexism are directed specifically toward trans women), racism, poverty, disable-ism etc. As a white, mostly-able-bodied, trans man who passes** as cisgendered, I don’t face these things.
So I’ve started unpacking the difference between when I’m actually unsafe verses when I’m really just uncomfortable. The locker room I’ve been flashing my boy tits around has a trans inclusion policy. It says right there on the wall that the space welcomes trans people in either of the locker rooms. Not that policies always translate into action, but the fact that someone has put it there, makes me feel like there’s some warning that my trans body might be in there and also that someone onsite might have my back (or my tits, as the case may be).
This will be an ongoing juggle to differentiate actually unsafe situations from uncomfortable ones. Locker room late at night at a mainstream non-trans-policy gym where there’s only one other dude or a football team? Probably not going to risk it. I’ve already got a bunch of practice of the safety versus self expression dance – as an effeminate trans man, I’m used to the “speed up my walk” moment or put my sort-of-butch-jacket on over my frilly pink shirt with matching frilly pocket square or turn my sparkly earring and rhinestone studded handbag away when passing men on the street late at night.
The more I watch and test the waters, the more I realise that for a relatively privileged trans person such as myself, probably the worst thing that’s going to happen in response to my boy tits wobbling around the men’s locker room, at a place that’s intentionally developed a trans inclusion policy, is some shocked stares and dropped jaws. A few years ago (actually even a few months ago), this would have devastated me. I would have spiraled into internalised transphobia, that nauseous feeling that there’s something wrong with me. That I’m weird. Broken. Yucky. Unloveable. Sick. I would have felt emotionally AND physically unsafe as well as uncomfortable. Like I was about to attacked. Like I had in fact, been attacked. It’s not that I’m suddenly immune to these bouts of fear and self loathing, particularly given that I am a survivor of sexual assault, but the more I practice, whilst finding it a little tedious, boring & uncomfortable, the more I see it as an opportunity to cultivate self love AND slowly transform the world, one boy tit at a time. So I want to see more space for a whole range of bodies? Well, sometimes my political essays and rants can be written in my body. All I need to do, is be there, boy tits and all, and I’m already changing shit.
I recognise that it is through my privileges that I can do this, and also that I’m creating space for a particular type of trans experience. I’m not saying that exposure to my white boy tits will necessarily carve out space for trans women’s bodies, or racilialised trans men’s bodies or genderqueer bodies. Nope, I’m not at the centre of transforming our world and neither should I be. I’m two buoyant tits, floating in an ocean of change. And for what it’s worth, these tits are gonna sail proudly above the waves whenever they can.
Cisgendered people (ie, people who are not trans) – please be mindful of your cis privilege before telling your trans friends “well my trans friend Sunny said you’re not actually unsafe, just uncomfortable” or “you should love your body” or any other well intentioned declarations about how trans people should or shouldn’t feel about our bodies or what steps we should and shouldn’t take to be safe. Let’s remember that the same situation can be experienced very differently by two different people, not to mention that two different people will be treated differently. Although I also get that it’s complex when we’re talking about intersecting struggles – like I think there’s a place for cisgendered women having their trans sisters’ backs by calling trans guys on appropriating the struggles of trans women.
I’d also ask cisgendered people to remember that it takes a lot of work to deal with transphobia and cis-sexism when they arise and battle through internalised transphobia. I have the capacity for that work right now. And I choose to take on that education work. I choose for my boy tits to be my curriculum, my wordless political essay in the locker room. Other trans people may be focused on other things, like battling the health care system, finding a roof under which to sleep or food to eat, dealing with their families, growing food, making art, surviving, throwing parties…
I’m not going to hide my beautiful trans body anymore, except when really and truly it would be physically unsafe. If it’s just uncomfortable, hell, so is trying to get changed balancing my bags off the floor in toilet stalls. So is the complex ballet of getting my clothes on and off without revealing my tits. So is living in a world that thinks my body is weird (or fetishizes it in unconsensual ways). So, frankly, I’d rather be uncomfortable WHILE creating more space for beautiful trans bodies through exposing more people to a myriad of ways men’s chests look. Besides, my boy tits deserve all the fresh air they can get, because as soon as I have surgery, I’m gonna start wearing a myriad of hot men’s bikini tops, because well, in addition to being tremendously transsexual, I’m also a fabulous flamer.
Until then, you have been warned: these boy tits will not be contained.
*Cis-sexism is the assumption that all people are or ought to be cisgendered (not trans) or that trans people’s identified genders are inferior to, less authentic than, or less natural than those of cisgendered people.
**Passing as cisgendered: unless my clothes are off, people don’t know I’m trans
Huge thanks to the love of my life, Chanelle, for editing and taking the photo!