The Whole Thing is Unsafe
Where to, America? Conference hosting/living in this fucking place
The United States is not a safe place. Everywhere in the US is unsafe for someone. Some (white) folks are new to the idea that there are jurisdictions that are unsafe for them because they are LGBTQIA+ or because they are pregnant or could become pregnant. But other people have had to live with that fact for centuries, from the beginning, from before national conception, as it were. Those folks, Indigenous and then Black people, have known the whole time that “safety” in America is at best a precarious concept. Our Asian- and Middle Eastern-descent fam have learned this too, in waves that follow distinct immigration patterns.
Some of us Black and Indigenous folk “forget” this reality in the sense that we are so used to it that it just exists in the background. We forget that the police are a fundamental risk to us — all the time. We think our birth place and bonafide land ties will shield us from ICE. Or at least we don’t think about it in the same terms that we think of threats to abortion and the right to exist as a queer person because those threats are bigger in the white imagination and the rhetoric about them is therefore turned up several notches higher.
Some of us forget because we’ve got money, and we think that will shield us. Some of us have green cards and think being “legal” is a synonym for being “safe” from state and vigilante violence. And some of us are lighter skinned and while that’s not a guarantee, it can feel and look to others like one.
But the whole thing is unsafe.
Academics, a group that is disproportionately comprised of people from groups granted privilege in exchange for maintaining the status quo, have been struggling to accept this simple fact, and what it implies:
There is nowhere you can host your conference that is safe for everyone. That means that proposed boycotts, unless they’re aligned with calls from organizers on the ground (the people most directly impacted by local legislation), aren’t going to do shit except indicate to folks whose safety you actively think about and whose lack of safety you accept as a norm, as a given.
So what should we do, those of us who are asking other people to travel places to exchange ideas and work with us? A proposal I generated while talking with other members of Particles for Justice in the aftermath of Dobbs:
When planning a conference, organizers should be attentive to the needs and demands of local community organizers with respect to supporting abortion rights in that area. Conference organizers should post information on the conference website about where to seek affirming reproductive care and the status of civil rights in that jurisdiction, including laws affecting the safety of pregnant and/or trans people and a contact person to turn to in the event of racist, xenophobic, transphobic, and/or homophobic harassment from state authorities and/or vigilantes. This will allow participants to anonymously access this information and make informed decisions about attendance. This same information should be made readily available to prospective graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty candidates.
Which is to say: Be honest, rather than performative. Unmask all injustice, rather than being selective about what you think matters. Support grassroots organizing, especially work that attends to distinct intersectional harms that too often are ignored by mainstream, moderate movements. I find Sister Song to be a powerful example.
Remember that queer Indigenous people have been here the whole time. That Blackqueer people have been here since our folk were forcibly brought here. That queer Chinese worked the railroads. And so on. The specific attention to LGBTQIA+ and reproductive rights have too often centered on white experiences and white responses: the shock and the newness of being targeted by a state that some felt was otherwise built for them.
In hindsight, the language of the proposal places emphasis on two phenomena that are two among many. Of course it is normal for people to put out timely statements in response to new events, like Dobbs. In crafting a response, we hoped to join the chorus and then eventually realized that we were too burned out to offer something distinct from what was already being said.
But two months on, my own words read a bit stale to me. I did not mention Islamophobia explicitly, and I should have. And at a time when some people are calling for Civil War in retaliation for teaching honest histories about the last one, we must pay attention to all of these challenges, not just the ones that garner the biggest emotional reactions from the mainstream. It does not grapple with the fact and cost of borders or the fact that America has not been safe for other places either.
My wording was imperfect, but I think the idea that underpins the proposal is a valuable one. So, I offer it here, in case others might find it useful. Please feel welcome adapt it. (And please also cite me, if you do. Citation is an important political project.)
In the end, we should all make a stand where we are and respect the folks who are doing the same where they are, whether it’s fighting our new abortion restrictions or the housing catastrophe here in New Hampshire or opposing the racist law enforcement that plague Los Angeles County and its cities. I know I have a lot to learn from communities that have faced what Kiese Laymon calls “the worst of white folks.” Shout out to grassroots organizers in Mississippi and Georgia, to folks in Ohio and West Virginia (which can’t wait), to water protectors everywhere, and everyone fighting for the end of violent borders.
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