Choosing Our Battles: Standing By the Communities We Seek to Challenge

Loving our communities means holding them in all of their complexities–even when they are not always able to do the same for us.

I was staying over this past week at my grandmother’s house in my father’s hometown. One morning I was helping make breakfast in the kitchen with my aunt, while some of my uncles and cousins were sitting around the kitchen table. The conversation they were having turned to the subject of race, and several members of my family started making extremely racist comments about various members of the local community. Though I was not surprised, I was taken aback, and wasn’t sure how to handle the moment. I thought about speaking up, but decided not to. I made this decision for a number of reasons: I felt uncomfortable butting into a discussion about people I did not know. Additionally, in my family it would be considered the height of rudeness to seemingly correct one of my elders, to chastise someone who had helped raise me. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, class and access to education have defined the fault lines and feuds between the various factions of my family for decades, and I did not want to come across as making a show of my own privilege. A fleeting awareness of all these things caused me to hold my tongue.

If a simple reading of this situation were to be done, I think one could easily argue that I dropped the ball. Comments were made in my presence which attacked other oppressed people, and I let them pass without saying anything. Yet the point I hope to make is that there was more than one system of inequity active in our kitchen, and to lash out only at one would be to fail to understand the complexities of my family, to disrespect the very people I hope to fight for, and to risk undermining the community which inspires me to struggle for justice. I think that oppressed people, like myself, who have had access to certain resources and discussions, often make the mistake of alienating other members of our communities, lecturing them on the issues of which we have decided they are ignorant, failing to see that it is the very structures we hope to overthrow which have unevenly distributed the opportunity to engage in those discussions, and that others my have insights onto those structures that we do not. I think it would be easy to see this exchange as one where I took the easy way out. But what the moment reminded me–as I am reminded often as a person from more than one oppressed community–is that sustaining ourselves as members of multiple and sometimes opposing struggles means choosing our battles, deciding strategically when, where, and how we are going to challenge the communities of which we are a part. It requires that we make a commitment to our people first and foremost, working to honor and respect them as we decide carefully how also to push them to be different.

A good friend of mine who is queer and South East Asian recently came to the realization that the gay male image he has spent most of his young life trying to force himself into does not actually represent him. Raised in a working class Cambodian community in Eastern Massachusetts, he was used to being the only queer person in many of his circles, used to threats of violence, and knew that coming out to certain members of his family was an impossibility. Being the first in his family to be accepted into college, he was excited to arrive in a place where he would finally be able to be queer. What he found instead was an environment in which certain ways of being queer were exonerated–certain body types, certain styles of dress, sexual practices, forms of music and dance, etc.–while others were made invisible, openly attacked and erased. Trying to carve out a space for himself in this environment meant distancing himself from his hometown more than just geographically, and he found himself stuck in between two worlds, neither of which knew how to fully support him. He learned what many of us are constantly learning and relearning–that the spaces and communities we claim as queer and immigrant and brown and poor and working people are often at odds, often fail to recognize that individuals who claim multiple oppressed experiences exist. While finding spaces and communities which can house our complete identities are rare, we cannot always afford the luxury of rejecting queer spaces which are classist, rejecting Brown spaces which are queerphobic, rejecting immigrant spaces which are racist, and so on. Loving and fighting for our communities means holding them in their complex entireties–in precisely the ways which they do not always know how to hold us. It means struggling with patience as well as passion, and making careful decisions about which battles we are ready and willing to engage, and when maintaining our needed place in a community is not worth the struggle.

As oppressed people in general, but particularly as people of multiple oppressions, we make constant decisions about which battles we are willing to fight, and what the potential outcomes might be: Do we call our friends out for using the misogynistic language that everyone in our hood uses? Do we come out to coworkers and risk losing a job? Do we send our kids to a better-resourced school if it means they will be the only Brown students in their class? Do we brave the violence of home if it means being around people who speak our languages, know how to dance our music, and understand our humor? Every day we find personal answers to these kinds of questions, and make choices about which struggles, big or small, we are prepared to take on within any given moment. To make these choices, sometimes deciding that we are not ready to fight a certain fight, is to take an active stance, not a passive one, as certain members of our communities who may not share all of our oppressions sometimes lead us to believe. Thinking actively about how we can participate in resistance in ways which protect and sustain us, is necessary for carrying on long term struggles for justice, and our duty to ourselves as members of those struggles. With that in mind, how do we make those choices actively? How do we choose our battles in ways which are healthy for ourselves, honoring of our communities, and still dangerous for the systems which do us harm?

8 responses to “Choosing Our Battles: Standing By the Communities We Seek to Challenge

  1. I really love this piece. Really struck a cord with me on a number of levels. I wonder if you think it might have a place on the Cooperative Catalyst. I find many parallels to education change.

    I am interest to see what kind of conversation it would bring up.

    Thank you!

    David Loitz

  2. I think you should always challenge if you are physically safe and able to do so. There are many ways to do this. If you are in a family or friends or community that you love, you do this – challenging – in a loving way. Have a conversation. Every intervention does not have to come off hostile. Actually, I have intervened all my life and people around me have actually thanked me later for challenging them and helping them be better people by pointing out issues that they had not thought about. So I say always challenge and intervene if you can. You never know what may be the result. And in fact, the racist relatives are ignorant if they are racist and one should not be intimidated by the “too much education” attack from them. That is a red herring and it too should be challenged as well. I think this person missed a great opportunity.

    • I think you make a fair point, and challenging with love instead of hostility is something we should all be learning how to do. I also don’t know that I’ve ever thought of “too much education” as a red herring because access to education has been such real source of contention and inequity in my family and personal life, so I will have to think more about that. I do still believe, however, that taking care of yourself is necessary for sustaining the struggles you are a part of, and that deciding when and how to engage certain conversations–including loving ones–is a part of that. It is also about recognizing when more systems and issues are at play than simply the ignorance or shortsightedness of one individual, and being strategic, too, about how to acknowledge that reality while still fighting injustices as they come up. Keeping all this in your head and heart can be a lot, and choosing when and how to have certain discussions does not necessarily mean you are missing opportunities. It may just mean you are gauging which opportunities can result in loving exchanges, instead of destructive ones.

      • This was such an articulate and wonderful response. I felt like your entire essay resonated very deeply with me, as an educator and a human being. But I especially appreciate your response to this question, as I think many people see choosing your battles as abandoning your beliefs or denying yourself. I will definitely be a regular reader from now on.

  3. Hi. I am saying wow with each paragraph. You put some of what I think often, very succinctly and I thank you for that. Where is the “share” button?!

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