What Gets Better, Exactly? And For Whom?

Many educators find that one good technique for promoting critical thought is to show students how to “ask the other question.”  Arising from an engagement with the politics of intersectionality—or, the recognition that identity, struggle, and oppression do not follow singular axes but rather emerge from multiple layers, dimensions, and vectors of power, experience, and location—“ask the other question” was first articulated as such in the early 1990s by critical race theorist and legal scholar Mari Matsuda.  Matsuda was addressing colleagues and comrades on the political Left, those who are “down for the cause,” but, in her estimation, too frequently reinscribe, if inadvertently, much of the hierarchical thinking that their movements ostensibly sought to dismantle.  I strive to animate my classroom teaching and scholarship with Matsuda’s drive to “make the connections.”  In this vein, I want to draw some critical connections between some prior posts on the Radical Teacher blog and other axes of power that become visible once we “ask the other question.”

But first, here is Matsuda:

“The way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method I call ‘ask the other question.’  When I see something that looks racist, I ask ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’  When I see something that looks sexist, I ask ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’”  (“Beside My Sister, Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory Out of Coalition,” 43 Stanford Law Review 1183, 1189 (1991))

Matsuda was writing from the midst of a social movement within education that many of us are familiar with, and even products of, to varying degrees.  The “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s, waged through discourses such as “multiculturalism,” “political correctness,” and “diversity,” saw a continuation of the struggles of the 1960s and 70s, albeit under different terms of engagement.  To put a much finer point on it:  “multiculturalism” and “PC” represented the severely constricted space for real dialogue about power and difference created by COINTELPRO (“counter-intelligence program”), the state’s terroristic counter-insurgency campaign against the social movements of the 60s and 70s, but especially against the black freedom struggle.  The murderous suppression of the black movement’s confrontation with antiblackness (including its pioneering coalition politics), was both the necessary “iron fist” to, and the scene of accumulation for, the “velvet glove” of “color-blindness” ideology in the 1980s.

Matsuda’s call to “ask the other question,” then, owes a debt to the black liberation movement specifically, as well as to the feminist, queer, labor/anti-capitalist/anarchist, anti-colonial, and other subaltern movements that pushed and strained, and waged tense campaigns of coalition, against the stultifying program of de-politicization and dominance that colorblindness and “diversity management” sought to normalize.  In the present period, marked by the discourse of “post-racialism” and “post-colonialism,” deindustrialization and state restructuring, and the “successful” inroads of a mainstream assimilationist LGBTQ movement, asking “the other question” remains an indispensable strategy, but is also no less treacherous than it was in the immediate afterlife of COINTELPRO.  (I would argue, and do so elsewhere, that COINTELPRO in fact continues unabated—but that story for another time.)

Two important themes entered on the RT blog in the past year grabbed my attention as key moments where Matsuda would exhort us to “ask the other question.”  The first was the post about the “it gets better” YouTube video campaign initiated by Dan Savage in response to an increase in reports about queer teenagers taking their own lives.  (https://radicalteacherblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/radically-teaching-that-it-gets-better/)  The other was the entries about the Wisconsin labor and public worker mobilization in response to that governor’s naked anti-labor and anti-democracy policy proposals.  (https://radicalteacherblog.wordpress.com/tag/wisconsin/)

The “it gets better” campaign, as many will recall, was a series of video messages from queer adults to queer youth, encouraging them to hang tough through all the difficult times, because life does “get better” as an adult.  Poignant, personal, and powerful in the campaign’s capacity to generate a community of caring through the internet and to spawn a multimedia intervention in homophobia.  The RT post on the subject drew our attention to the “often-silent links between GLBTQ teachers and their GLBTQ students,” suggesting that homophobia is institutionalized in our schools in multiple ways.

Much good can be said about this campaign, but my specific interest here is in what is elided in these messages, the shadow answer to the “other question” unasked.  Other critics have commented on the telos of progress connoted in this campaign.  (See Eric Stanley’s article “Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture,” Social Text 107, downloadable here: http://www.homotopiafilm.net/index.php/eric-stanley/)  In so doing, “it gets better” presents antiqueer violence as something atypical in the overall arc of one’s life.  Perhaps this is true for many of the individuals who joined the YouTube campaign, but if we ask what makes this so, then we quickly confront a series of questions beyond sexuality in isolation and into the realm where sexuality intersects with race, class, nation, and other forms of power.  For instance, black youth endure a constant climate of violence that does not dissipate as they age.  In fact, various studies document how antiblack violence is structurally calibrated to accumulate upon itself within a single lifetime, as well as across time and space.  (See the work of Asale Angel-Ajani, Melvin Oliver, Dorothy Roberts, Loic Wacquant, Harriet Washington, among numerous others.)

The Wisconsin posts were important notices to educators about how our solidarity actions could strengthen the protests against Governor Walker’s corporate politics through solidarity actions.  As the movement mobilized in Wisconsin to protect public sector employees, however, inmates in the Georgia state prison system were dealing with ongoing reprisals stemming from their historic state-wide strike in December 2010 against the very public system of control and employment that “Wisconsin” (the historical moment and set of issues, not the state) sought to preserve from being eviscerated by corporate interests.  The energy that “Wisconsin” galvanized on the Left was great to see, but when we connect it to the Georgia prisoner strike, damning contradictions emerge.  Our prison system represents surplus populations—people rendered surplus from the economy and from the racial belonging that undergirds the “nation.”  It would take a few more pages to adumbrate the connections, but I suggest that to “ask the other question” in this instance, to see the connections between “Georgia” and “Wisconsin,” is to understand that one stands as the prerequisite for the other:  that the historic structures of antiblackness intrinsic to the U.S., today manifest most starkly (but not singularly) in terms of the prison industrial complex, are the necessary conditions of possibility for the assault on labor, citizenship, and human rights (and, moreover, occur in terms of a raw sexual racism, no less).  Indeed, over a number of centuries, the former (“Georgia,” or antiblackness) has proceeded under the banner of nothing less than “democracy” itself, in clear contradistinction of a telos of progress.

Imagine if each of the many educators who had classroom discussions about “it gets better” or “Wisconsin” were to have also asked “the other question(s)” in each instance.  Our students are capable of such complexity and dogged critical thought—are we?

By Tryon Woods

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