Abuses of Power: How Christian Beckwith and I have Similar Work to Do

Erin Monahan
Apr 25 · 8 min read

In a recent conversation between Vasu Sojitra, disability and racial justice advocate and sponsored North Face athlete, and Bam Mendiola, equity and inclusion consultant, writer, and speaker, Mendiola spoke about the ongoing pain and trauma relating to the SHIFT conference and Christian Beckwith’s refusal of taking accountability. Mendiola describes how there is an “illusion of choice” when a marginalized person is confronted with oppressive violence. They explain that when you encounter some form of violence whether emotional, psychological, verbal, or physical, you go through the options in your head about how you are going to respond. Often, it feels like there are only two options: fight or flight. You can engage, or you can let it go. But Mendiola describes their realization that there is never a choice in this. When deciding what to do about the violence he experienced at SHIFT and in interactions with Christian Beckwith, Mendiola recalls thinking,

“Option A is say something, do something, start a campaign. Or, Option B is not do anything, stay silent, there’s less risk. What I want to hold space for is that we are constantly having to navigate these ‘choices’ as if we have the choice, and we beat ourselves up no matter what we do. And I beat myself up about what I did or didn’t do, and throughout this campaign I beat myself up all the time. ‘You didn’t do enough, you didn’t say enough, and that carries in my body and I can’t hold that weight any longer.’”

The reality that Mendiola is describing is that there are actually no choices. You are forced to choose one or the other, and either way it’s lose-lose for the person experiencing oppressive violence. If you speak out against it you risk losing your job, followers, friends, opportunities, etc.

“…But if we don’t do anything at all we take losses as well. We internalize that guilt, we internalize both of those outcomes, and those options were never really ours to begin with. I want to honor where people are at, and there are maybe people who feel guilty for not saying anything, and especially if they are WOC or Queer WOC. Racism is not our fault, The effects of racism are never our fault. The way we internalize misogyny and patriarchy are never our fault. The way we survive the effects are never our fault. I hope as a community we can have a conversation about healing with accountability, with the idea of co-liberation. What I mean by that is that my liberation is tied to Vasu’s. Vasu’s liberation is tied to your liberation, and I won’t be free until you’re free, and you won’t be free until I’m free. The goal of our campaign is informed by co-liberation.”

This “illusion of choice” makes me think about consent and how we sometimes impose and violate each other’s boundaries with no regard for one another’s safety, or care for another’s comfort. Christian Beckwith’s behavior towards Mendiola and the 17+ people who have come forward with their truth, have been victims of non-consensual behavior. Beckwith used his platform, position, and power as a cis white male to manipulate, silence, and gaslight these folx into some incredibly toxic situations that have caused serious harm. Some people call it having “blindspots,” and some call it “ignorance.” But I think these words are really benign and don’t give weight to how truly violent these seemingly innocuous actions are. These non-consensual and intrusive behaviors are so normalized in our society that we respond with “you’re being too sensitive,” or “it’s not that big of a deal.” Or, we call certain types of violence “microaggressions,” which tends to communicate something softer, subtler, less obtrusive, than the very serious, damaging injuries that occur on a daily, moment-to-moment basis. These experiences cause trauma, and they build on each other.

Growing up I was not taught boundaries or consent, or rather, that my boundaries and consent didn’t matter. And if anything, I was taught that to get what I needed I had to manipulate a situation to get my needs met. I think, of course, that my parents’ as well as my teachers’ had all the intentions in the world to teach me about boundaries, mine and others’, but ultimately, especially growing up in a society that tells womxn that our bodies are public property, I internalized a message of being possessed (not self-possession) and a lack of autonomy, instead. Instead of speaking out about my boundaries because I lacked the language and skills, I bottled it up, and it expressed itself in indirect ways, and it grew and festered inside me into a great, rageful fury.

However, as a white woman, I know I feel entitled to insert myself into all kinds of situations, conversations, and places just because I know I can. I know very well what my whiteness affords me, and what it does not afford others. I know deep down that I enjoy being the center of attention. I have a habit of asserting my dominance when I feel uncomfortable. (I interpret this discomfort as a real threat, but it’s not, and in short this is white fragility). I like to reinstate my power when I feel “threatened,” which is really just unease because when I have the ability to exert power it’s in a situation when I am afforded that ability, and if I am afforded that ability than I am not truly in a position of being threatened. Again, I am just uncomfortable. When I am uncomfortable, when my white fragility flares, this always comes at the expense of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, particularly Black, Indigenous, Womxn of Color.

Often we may think we do these things unconsciously. But it’s not unconscious. I know when I am making moves to assert myself. Whether or not I want to pay attention to that “off” and “icky” feeling that develops is my choice. I know it and feel it when it bubbles up.

Men are particularly reaaaally good at repressing this icky feeling, their intuition and ability to connect with others and their own selves, and that’s why they are so good at violating people and doing things without consent. Cis white males are granted the power in our society to violate others without consequence, so they have been conditioned to repress that inner voice or feeling that signals to them that they are causing distress to someone. They are conditioned to turn off their ability to empathize, and therefore, don’t care when they are causing harm in the moment. White supremacy conditions this empathy/intuition shut-down in all white people, white women too.

This is totally unhealthy for us, but we cannot prioritize our well being over the harm and violence we are causing. “Hurt people hurt people” — that saying is so real. It’s going to require multiple lifetimes of constant work for me to heal from internalized white supremacy. It won’t happen in this lifetime. I carry the potential to violate and cause harm because of what my identities afford me and because I have been conditioned to internalized power and prejudice, which is the equation of racism. If I truly don’t want to cause harm, though inevitably I will, I have to constantly work against my conditioning that makes it second nature for me to abuse my power.

If Christian Beckwith and the SHIFT board want to make amends they need to dissolve SHIFT. They need to step down completely and acknowledge that anything created from hierarchy and abuse of power will only oil the machine of white supremacy. Beckwith is not going to solve his healing by attending some DEI trainings, or by hiring more Black, Indigenous, People of Color to his board. SHIFT cannot be saved by inserting someone who is not a cis white male. Despite it’s “non-profit” status, the entire organization of SHIFT has been built to profit the town of Jackson, Wyoming. SHIFT is the perfect smoke and mirrors set-up for the “good old boys” of Jackson to keep asserting their power. If they can just make it look like they care, and choreograph a performance of inclusion and equity, then they can remain in positions where they benefit at the expense of everyone else, particularly at the expense of the indigenous communities who experience ongoing colonization and genocide.

For time immemorial, many different indigenous groups established themselves throughout the valley now known as Jackson long before colonizers swept through and forced these indigenous communities onto reservations. These groups include, but were not limited to: The Mountain Shoshone (also called Sheep-Eaters), Eastern or Plains Shoshone, Crow, Bannock, Blackfoot, Northern Arapaho, Gros Ventre and Nez Perce. Traces of their camps and transportation routes are still visible in the numerous archaeological sites on both the valley floor and in the high Tetons. Beckwith and SHIFT have claimed to be leading the way in conservation efforts, but as Mendiola has stressed in conversation with Sojitra, nothing that is being done today is for the first time.

Mendiola recalled when they found out that SHIFT gives out awards for the industry’s “pioneers.” Mendiola had to explain to Beckwith that, “the things we are doing have been done by indigenous people. The original stewards have been taking care of the land since time immemorial, since before it was colonized.”

On the Instagram live, Mendiola continues, “When you google ‘pioneer,’ the connotation of a pioneer is a colonizer who steals indigenous land, indigenous joy, their lives, so don’t center white colonialism. Center the folx who this conference is alleging to center, the marginalized communities and indigenous folx.” The outdoor industry loves using the word “pioneer.” The word is put to use for all kinds of outdoor events and organizations often for promotional material. Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike has put in massive amounts of work to eradicate this word from ever being used as a synonym for leadership again.

Jackson is a town that profits from white-centered tourism, based in extraction, manipulation, and heedless profit. If a large group of cis white males approve of something, be weary, be very weary. It should be cause for concern. When have cis white males done anything to submit their power and truly work to dismantle the status quo? They are the status quo. They don’t want to change that. If they did, we wouldn’t have Christian Beckwith and we wouldn’t have SHIFT.

Christian Beckwith and I confront similar internal issues, aside from his position of power as a cis male. As a white woman I am constantly questioning why I enter into the work, spaces, conversations, that I engage in. Where do I need to check myself? How can I check myself in order to prevent harm? I ask myself questions that I wish Christian Beckwith would ask himself: How can I stop myself from acting on my superiority complex? How can I stop myself from needing to be included in everything, or how can I heal my need to share my opinion on everything? Is this my whiteness taking over, or do I genuinely have something to contribute of actual value? Will this add to what is happening, or am I doing this/saying this for myself just to center myself?”

I wish men would do this more, preventatively, before they think another “helpless” womxn, Black, Indigneous, Person of Color, needs their help. If someone needs help, they will ask. No one asked you to lead, Christian Beckwith. So, it’s time to be accountable, show some humility, admit you were wrong, and forfeit your position, and really, forfeit the entire organization you built off the tokenization, extraction, manipulatation, and silencing of Black, Indigenous, Womxn of Color, and Queer, non-binary folx of color.

I am in solidarity with my siblings of #WontTakeShiftAnymore.

Venmo these folx who have been spearheading the work:

@BlaakRoots @SarahEmilia @Nadia-Mercado-1 @AnahiNaranjo @OliviaVandamme @Pinar-Yaku @mynameisBam

Erin Monahan

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Writer/Facilitator Focused on Dismantling White Supremacy/Founder of Terra Incognita Media