“The perpetuation of craziness is disguised in art, if I were to tell you I was CURED (gasp!) you wouldn’t read on . . . 🙂 fuck you 🙂 if i were to say i cut myself & my daddy hit me to smithereens you’d ask me when is the next issue coming out. You are reading and I am writing THE COMMODITY OF CRAZINESS in punk.’’
That was one of Whitney’s statements in the final issue of her zine, Alien, which I took from Mimi Thi Nguyen’s essay Riot Grrrl, Race, and Revival, a critique of the intersectional forces, or lack thereof, within the riot grrrl movement.
Whitney illustrates craziness with experiences of strife and torment (“i cut myself & my daddy hit me to smithereens”). She explains that to release the next issue, she must pay a deposit with experiences quantified by their trauma. It is truly a “perpetuation of craziness” that in order to continue existing in the world of zine production and distribution—in order to have a voice—her experiences must be economically valued at a reasonable price. She must buy into the craziness with her own share of it.
The commodification of craziness, in non-punk terms, is an economy of oppression wherein what you say, or are “allowed” to say, is directly proportional to what you have experienced. It sorts people who have paid a toll in experiencing some form of oppression in a grid—arbitrary organizations not unlike the hierarchy created by the belief in race itself. Conversations that are related to personal experiences are ofttimes diverted into rudimentary bartering that boils into the ultimate question: Can I say this?
The most obvious issue with this economy is it encourages a Freudian and dangerous process of rummaging through our file cabinet of the past to find some instance we can latch onto for the sake of “yes, I am allowed here” (This later develops into the belief of “yes, I am needed here.”). Honest dialogue is impossible so long as we are more concerned with justifying our self-assertions than we are with self honesty. Too often do we make other people’s experiences become about ourselves. This achieves the opposite of its intentions: buying the right to speak self-perpetuates any exclusion the conversation seeks to dismantle because those of the dominant voice are the ones whose experiences are heard the loudest. Nguyen writes on the lack of diversity within riot grrrl:
“women of color wondered out loud for whom writing ‘‘SLUT’’ across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity, where racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies, and poor or criminal-class women argued that feminists ‘‘slumming’’ in the sex industry (through stripping, for the most part) as a confrontational act implied that other women in this or other tiers of the industry were otherwise conceding to patriarchy […] how then could experience yield revolutionary knowledge about race, where the dominant experience was whiteness?”
What does it mean that in our search for identity our training ground is other people’s lives and experiences? At Duke, how can we expect to improve worker conditions and increase the standard wage on campus when we are so concerned with our identities as young activists and how our involvement (and, note, not our own personal experiences) with these issues reflects on ourselves?
In an attempt to answer those questions, society turns to those whose voices it otherwise ignores. It grants them a moment to speak to educate on social difference. The burden we place on experience to enlighten us weighs most heavily on the most marginalized, who we reduce to a single face and a single story. Experience is essential, but it is easily—and wrongfully—equated with expertise (using Nguyen’s language here). The value of hearing people’s experiences is the collective voice, which can only be achieved through listening and not tokenizing a single story before checking off the task of giving “them” a chance to speak as complete. Becca Blackwell, in their personal one-act story, They, Themself, and Schmerm, opens by saying something to the effect of, “Don’t go telling my story thinking that it’s the story of all trans people. It’s just my story.”
During my time in this program, I’ve become more aware of something I had previously suspected: people sometimes approach me to inform them about black experiences. I presume this is because as I am categorized as neither white nor black, the alternate space I occupy may seem like safer ground to discuss difficult issues. In the economy of oppression, I am assumed to be able to buy into more of a conversation about race than others, so I appear to be a safe bridge—I appear to be allowed to speak about race, but I pose a lesser threat than some: I might not take personal offense by misinformed comments or I might not call someone a racist. But this distorted picture is a complete farce. Just because I’m not considered white doesn’t mean I have the answers—I can’t speak about black experiences at all (plus there’s so much I don’t understand about race)—and just because I’m not black doesn’t mean that I’m your way in.
The conversations about social difference I’ve had at Duke and over the course of this program always culminate in asking “what can I do?” or “how can I be an ally?” which ultimately brings about the question of “how can I learn more if I can’t enter those conversations?”. I’m guilty of asking those questions, but after conversations I’ve had on this trip, I think a better question is to ask what role I play in a conversation. I think we can enter conversations that aren’t about our own experiences. And we should actively try to learn more without asking someone to “be the voice of their people” (Nguyen, again). You have a right to participate in conversations, but sometimes the role one must play is the part of the listener—that’s a form of participation, too. Don’t demand a prerequisite of oppression then strain to meet it and justify it. Just stay silent. That is why there must be exclusive spaces for certain groups of people who experience discrimination and violence as a norm. To name a few: spaces like Muslim Students Association and Blue Devils United, media like BET, networks like Black Lives Matter, programs like Women’s studies or Asian & Middle Eastern Studies. Many of these spaces encourage people who identify differently to participate and to learn, but how many non-black students do you know are in BSA? What makes these spaces scary? It’s terrifying to participate in discussions about issues like race, I know. It’s frustrating to constantly be on your toes. But if someone calls you out, that’s their prerogative, not a reason to feel forever banished from the space. When we can’t participate in conversations, we respond with feeling the situation is unjust. But upon the realization that the conversation is actually open to us, if it seems too “dangerous” that we’ll seem racist, sexist, homophobic, or just “wrong”, we shrink that space out of fear.
We can’t let fear get in the way. An honest conversation is a vulnerable one. In a time when it’s become so obvious that some lives don’t matter—from the aquittal of murderers by the American justice system, to the visible proof of changing neighborhood landscapes, to the transphobia and ignorance of the black experience in riot grrrl and feminism at large, to the ascendance of hyper-conservatism, to the very language we use on a day to day basis that makes us wholly complicit—the need for honest dialogue is dire.
And who can say when a conversation is honest? The point is that we must try. I’ve written on a topic that people can readily nod their heads and agree with (thoughts on allyship, how to listen, the value of experiences, etc.). But I’m writing about it because sometimes the lines are unclear. If I ever speak with you and overstep, please let me know.