Monday, December 29, 2014

Cultural Labor + The Professorship of Oppression

Being unsafe has everything to do with the ways our various kinds of labor are valued and not valued. The familiar refrain often used to communicate this is “it's not my job to educate you about my oppression.” Expertise comes not just from experience, but labor. In attempting to meet the ambient, nagging expectation to justify and explain oneself, the marginal person is assumed to be doing the labor of self-understanding and self-discovery. What the privileged person rarely understands is that for them, self-discovery is not it's own kind of unique, separate labor. The cis straight able-bodied white man discovers himself in children's books, on television, at awards ceremonies, in laboratories, and at the doctor's office. The entire world is built around the process of his own introspection. Safe spaces have been built for him everywhere and always, usually on the basis of occupying, stealing, appropriating, or destroying others' spaces, resources, and bodies, and on wasting their time.

I can't discover myself on television or at my job, only through the creation of new structures. Safety is in the between spaces and times of my own creation and carving, using whatever stolen resources have been redirected to me, or that I have redirected or stolen myself. We must work overtime, for free, just to understand ourselves, just to read the world into enough sense so that we might function. We often fail at this, as anyone working free overtime might, and so we malfunction. Our histories, our values have been slowly and not-so-slowly erased, and it takes hours of labor to rediscover and recreate them. We read, research, sing, dance, craft, write, speak, grow, play, and paint in whatever space and time we can un-steal. Sometimes we also do this in space and time that we steal from people even more marginal than ourselves. This creative work is just that, work, and it has value. We build communities around it, and those communities are often the only thing keeping us alive. Despite this, Black Studies, for example, is drastically underfunded. My friend Gabrielle Smith, an Africana Studies major at Barnard, put it like this: “You’re not supposed to study yourself.”

Meanwhile, the white graduate student is often paid to do this cultural work, standing in for those that would probably prefer to do it on their own. For them it's usually not a matter of survival, safety, or soundness of mind. They are materially valorized for exploring and probing others, having already discovered themselves everywhere and always, in the abundance of space and time created for them by various acts of violence. This is whiteness. It's safe.

Marginality on the other hand, makes a professor of you the day you are born. You can only legitimately publish yourself into existence through hours of simultaneously researching yourself and teaching others. You don't get paid for any of this. It is extremely difficult.

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