How to Resist: A Spatial Theory

Last week’s US presidential election foregrounded an always-there undercurrent of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, queer- and transphobia, and ableism. With each new bit of news–troll-in-chief Breitbart new head Steve Bannon as chief advisor????–things seem to keep on getting more scary.

Like many people, I have been overwhelmed by my own feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and worry. I have felt selfish for being overwhelmed from my position of relative privilege, but I’m not able to reason or push these feelings away. I have been terribly worried for people I know and people I love who may suffer this régime much more directly than I can. I have felt guilty and culpable, particularly when I read that this travesty of an outcome is attributable not just to white people, but to white women, who voted in a majority for Donald Trump.

I have been paralysed. A deer in the headlights of history. I want to feel better so I can stop waking up with nightmares and insomnia. I want to act better so I can support others concretely. I want to act better so that I can push back this no-longer-sleeping giant of backlash against the gains of progressive politics over my lifetime.

Today I have an idea, a spatial theory of resistance. It starts to address all these questions for me, lifts my paralysis, assuages my feelings, connects me to others. Maybe it will help you too.

It’s a four point plan: give space, hold space, make space, and take space. I begin from the “ring theory” based on the premise of “comfort in, dump out” which describes a way of managing terrible events while recognizing that some people need more comfort and how it is appropriate to support everyone. Basically, you don’t make people worse off than you make you feel better about anything.

Got that? Okay. Let’s go.

Give Space

I was a wreck last Wednesday, crying and nauseated. My dear husband suggested I stay home and give myself space to grieve, turn myself over to it. That was a really weird day that saw me cleaning windows and then sobbing, baking cookies and then raging, raking leaves and then trying not to vomit. When I would start crying he would hold me, or he would let me talk, and he would just listen. Look, my husband doesn’t really follow American politics. He asked me about the Electoral College and what it was, he doesn’t really know much about Rudy Guiliani or Steve Bannon. But he held my hand and listened to me. He validated my feelings. He didn’t make jokes to make me feel better. He didn’t ask me to explain things to him. He didn’t want to ‘reason’ with me. He let me cry, and he offered me unconditional love.

Giving space to someone is an act of love and generosity that allows them to express big and scary and vulnerable and ugly feelings in a safe environment. It’s important.

Can someone do this for you? Can you do it for someone? Remember; comfort in, dump out. If someone is emotionally or practically or in any way suffering more directly from this, give them space. If someone is better off than you, maybe they can give you space.

Hold Space

Many Americans are worried about Thanksgiving, about what to do when that one relative, or all those relatives, starts talking about the glories of a Trump win. People don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do when the barista is like “Oh, the election? It’s not going to be that bad, it’s just talk.” They don’t know what to do when they overhear a person approve of Trump’s immigration plans.

This is very important: if you have any kind of identity privilege at all, if you’re white, if you’re male, if you are educated or have money, you need to hold this space open for resistance. Because if you stay quiet, you tacitly condone the racist and sexist and other hate speech. You normalise it. Holding space means making it awkward: you do not let this kind of statement go unremarked. You remark on it. You say, “I reject white supremacy,” or, “I am afraid women’s rights will move backwards,” or “My queer friends are scared for their families and their rights,” or “I support liberal immigration policies.”

You hold open a space for progressive politics and social justice. This is crucial if you are walking around with identity privilege. It will be way too easy to normalise the politics that created this mess, if we don’t just keep being that burr in the side of hate. Trump’s win made white supremacy leap out into the open. We need to keep saying that’s not okay. People with less identity privilege can’t do this work: they are tired and they are scared. The privileged in those demographics that went for Trump? It’s our responsibility to push back, to leave less space for white supremacy, to hold more space for progressive and loving agendas. Push back.

Make Space

All over the internet, my friends report the heaviness of teaching the morning after the election. Even here in Canada, students were shaken and scared or nervous. Nearly everyone I know ditched their lesson plan and held an impromptu support session or debrief. Many report hearing thanks from students afterwards for this act. These teachers made space for people to express their ideas and their feelings, and to discuss these with others, in a supportive and structured environment. They modeled respect and love.

In my own work on campus this week, I have been deliberate in answering the question “How are you?” I answer, seriously, “I’m not well. This election scares me, and enrages me, and I feel very sad. I don’t know what to do to make sure life stays livable for people who aren’t white men.” When I do this, I notice, people kind of release a big puff of air and drop their shoulders. It turns out in speaking my truth, I am making space for my colleagues and my students to express their fears too, and we brainstorm how to keep working for the world we want, how to keep our friends safe.

This has been emotionally grueling, but incredibly rewarding. I have had so many rewarding conversations, generated new ideas and strategies, and given and received more hugs than I thought were possible. I needed all of it, and so did my friends and students and colleagues.

Again, to make space we have to be careful about relative privilege: do not ask for emotional or practical support from someone who suffers this outrage more heavily than you. But make space to support them. Be very wary of not exploiting people inadvertently: some dude last week asked me about my feelings about the election, but out of the blue, and in such a way that it felt like he wanted to see how miserable I was and what it felt like to be a woman on the cusp of the repeal of Roe v. Wade. That felt gross. Don’t do that to people. Make space by expressing your truth, and let people respond or not.

Take Space

It’s not enough to just try to keep the walls from closing in further on an interpersonal level. Something structural is required. The social justice and rights agenda must be enlarged, and not just defended, if we are to have any hope in the future. How?

Here again, relative privilege and power is key. In those areas you can act in, act. Are you a swim coach? Is your club disproportionately white? Ask why, and start an outreach. Keep fighting the All Male Panel at conferences. Demand that Twitter do something about blocking hate speech instead of just beefing up the ways you can choose to just not look at it. On your curriculum committee, keep pushing for the inclusive syllabus. In your classroom, foster equitable spaces and call out mansplainers, shut down stereotyped characterizations of marginalized groups.

I just got an email from my university yesterday, reporting on its strategic plan of ‘disruptive innovation,’ which to me reads like so much tech-bro nonsense whereby all the profits are skimmed from existing industries and labour protections and regulatory frames disappear. Disruptive Innovation makes Facebook the largest media company in the world that has no journalists or editors or professional standards. My university also has equity goals. I think I’m going to start making even more noise about how maybe these two goals are in conflict. I’m going to take some space back from the “burn it down” camp that I see putting tech companies and angry white American voters in the same ideological position of calling everything broken and using anarchy as a tool to make things better. It won’t. I’m going to take some space to let people work on that.

I can do that because of my own relative power in these structures. You might take space differently.

I send you all my love, Hook and Eye readers. If you need a hug, I will give it to you. We can and we will make this world a better place.