The Pain of Belonging — Frances Lee

By Frances Lee

Photo of abstract painting by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Notes: This is a written version of a spoken piece I performed for Performance & Belonging: Citizenship, Culture & Identity, a graduate class taught by Professor Jade Power-Sotomayor at the University of Washington Bothell.
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One night, my partner and I 
Were on the couch looking at data 
About the overrepresentation of East Asian students 
At top universities in the US.

I brought it up because 
I was just told that 
As a Person of Chinese descent, 
I couldn’t be part of my campus organization 
for Underrepresented students of color.

My partner, who is white, leaned over 
And joked, guess you’re not oppressed anymore.

She smirked
I panicked

Somewhere beneath the layers of analysis,
I knew I was more than my politicized, raced identity, 
But I had internalized the oppressed status
As a capital P Person of Color
And grew attached to the
Special underdog comfort
It provided me.

The crystallized realization:
I don’t know how to be a part of my communities anymore
If I’m not performing oppression
In some culturally recognizable form.

“How do subjects become invested in particular structures 
That their demise”
 — Or even alluding to their demise
 “Is felt as a kind of living death?”¹

In one breath I demand justice and equality 
For myself and my community members 
But in another, I put forth a 
Stereotyped, minoritized persona

“Fitting in is when you want
To be a part of something. 
But belonging 
Is when others want you”²

What are the things we do to be wanted?

I’m worried that we’ve internalized 
Damage-centered narratives of ourselves.³

Social justice cultural movements 
Have been overly dependent on 
Strategic essentialism
As a political tactic. And so,
Its false claims have bled into
The personal understandings of ourselves.

There is a false, mostly implicit belief
Among us that your value is based upon
How much structural oppression you experience or 
Have experienced, that only
People with enough credentials of
Being oppressed are allowed to speak,
Participate in, or contribute to
Cultural conversations and knowledge making.

Although this is a restorative model of
Social relations that provides some immediate 
Consolation, a long-term adoption
Merely reproduces the same logics of 
Supremacy and domination.

I wanna dig into that backwards shameful 
Feeling of not being oppressed enough 
That I encountered earlier
And consider other, deeper ways of being 
Together that don’t involve conflating 
Harm with value and belonging, and 
Power with un-value and un-belonging.

You see, I am uneasy about the spiritual effects 
Of always presenting as the Other,
The sufferer,
The wronged. We are more
Than a receptacle for injustices doled out by society.

We can now publicly name our painful, traumatic 
Common experiences as
“Oppression”
“Injustice” 
“Inequity”
And it feels rather normal and expected 
For us to do so.

It is not, however, a golden ticket 
To be complacent
To turn away from connection
To insult and hate.
For those of us who still hurt and have 
Moved beyond surviving,
We are responsible for much more.

We can consider our hurts and hollows for 
What they are, fully and truly
Nothing less, nothing more. Some of us 
Have always known this.
We must tell the other
true stories about ourselves.

Do we believe we are worthy
Of love and belonging
Even when we no longer suffer?

I am interested in who we are becoming as people 
As we continue to perform
Oppression-first activism that antagonizes.

Every single thing we do when 
Trying to change the world 
Also changes us.

Every act of anger, rejection,
Flash judgment, and malice I unleash 
On another person carries an echo that 
Reverberates inside of me. Over time, 
This accumulates in a barrier to fresh 
New shoots coming out
Of patched up wounds.

Every time I tell the same, one-sided 
Story about myself as an oppressed 
Person, I am shutting out other stories 
About my multitudes, including my 
Complicities, contradictions and 
Responsibilities.

We now live in a world where whiteness 
Is no longer essential
In the way that it used to be. 
The default Position is under intensified
Scrutiny and rightful condemnation. 
Relief!
(At dodging the scorching laser beam) 
And yet
Today it’s white people 
Tomorrow it’s gonna be me.

I think we’re all gonna find ourselves
At this existential crisis of meaning if we keep 
Holding on to the ruined,
Reversed hierarchy of
Belonging,
Identity Rightness
Granted through shared oppression.

Yes, speak openly about your harm
And seek redress, but do not let
That be your whole story. Otherwise there will 
Be nothing left to do, nobody left
 To be once society has been
 Transformed and justice and equality
 Has been restored.

I do not want to spend the majority 
Of my waking life complaining 
About white feminists,
Mocking straight men,
Silencing TERFs,
Regulating cultural appropriation,
Policing people on their pronoun usages, or 
Whatever is the next collective reflex
To discipline.

I want more for all of us.

We are meant for much greater work.

You could say, it’s an exciting time right now as 
Many our movements for justice are
Finally beginning to get the wider
Cultural recognition and traction they deserve

But
I mix celebration with skepticism
Refusing to settle into the fleeting 
Comfort of unprecedented representation 
In a society that is swiftly figuring out how 
To commodify our narratives of Oppression.

Our over-investment in damage-centered 
Narratives is a deeper reflection of
What we feel compelled to perform
To prove to others
To prove to ourselves
That we belong here,
That we belong to each other, 
That our suffering has earned us our demands.

Instead, let us perform vulnerability; 
Showing off our messy and ragged
Edges our “problematic” contradictions 
And desires our abiding need to be loved 
And accepted that drives our dysfunctional 
Bristling behaviors the old and new ways 
We’ve failed each other and continue to do so

Our commitment to do better and make 
Things closer to right because
A revolution starts in the heart,
And then, moves
In between hearts.

Instead, let us perform humility; firmly 
Knowing what we know while also knowing 
There is so much we don’t know. We have 
Much to learn from people not like
Us people who don’t fit our definition of 
“Woke” people carrying wisdom acquired 
From other journeys people who inflame us

To push through our frustration and urge to 
Turn away and instead ask, “what can I discover 
From this interaction?” Admitting that

Brandishing the most flawless, 
Blistering
Analysis
Will not save us from anything.
Because language, wit, and precise arguments 
Are not the primary vehicle of change.

Instead, let us perform openheartedness; 
Never stop trying to
Locate the goodness in others
I honor my own dignity when I choose to see
The inherent worth, the redeemable parts, 
Rather than what looks to be seared
Closed in someone else.
Leaving the entrance ajar
To not be surprised when they join me
To know that opponent has the
Inherent potential
To be transformed to friend, member, comrade 
Just as I once had.

I want to keep on acknowledging
That sacred space
Between the political and the personal, and 
The life-giving work that 
Can spring only from that opening.

The next time someone crosses my path 
I acknowledge that our well-beings
Are intimately tied.

I know that when I dare to 
Reach across difference without 
Ignoring its material realities,
I am building something
That could sustain me
And everything I touch.

To be whole activists- whole people,
We must allow the fullness of ourselves to 
Eclipse our political activism.

I want— no, I need
An ethics of activism
That speaks to the necessity of this.


Footnotes:

[1]: A quote from Sara Ahmed’s 2004 book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, about how our collectively held emotions and the way we repeatedly affirm them creates a specific social reality that guides our actions.

[2]: This is what a group of middle schoolers told research professor Brené Brown when she was interviewing them about the difference between fitting in and belonging.

[3]: In this piece, I am riffing off Indigenous studies and urban education scholar Eve Tuck’s term “damage-centered research” from her 2009 article “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities”. She deploys this term as a way to caution indigenous and other marginalized communities against internalizing damage as a strategy for political gain.

[4]: In Octavia Butler’s 1993 book Parable of the Sower, she introduces the Earthseed religion. Its first tenet: “All that you touch / You Change. All that you Change / Changes you. The only lasting truth / Is Change. God Is Change.”

[5]: Black elder activist and theologian Ruby Sales did an amazing interview with On Being and talked about the current spiritual crisis in white America and how it affects us all.

[6]: A reference to the frustratingly accurate statement, “The grids used to define the intersections for identity are already in ruins”. From the editors’ introduction of the Spring 2017 Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, co-edited by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang.

References:

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2014. pp. 8–12.

Brown, Brené, and Krista Tippett. “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart.” Podcast. On Being. On Being Studios, 8 Feb. 2018. Web access: https://onbeing.org/programs/ brene-brown-strong-back-soft-front-wild-heart-feb2018/

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 2000. Web access: https://godischange.org/god-is-change/

Sales, Ruby, and Krista Tippett. “Where Does It Hurt?” Podcast. On Being. On Being Studios, 15 Sept. 2016. Web access: https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where- does-it-hurt/

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Editors’ Introduction.” Critical Ethnic Studies Vol. 3, №1 (Spring 2017), pp. 1–19. Published by: University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved 1 April 2018. Web access: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/ 55807861e4b0847ced606181/t/594ad758b11be1154188e99a/1498077017383/CES +3–1+Late+Identity+Editorial.pdf

Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review Vol. 79, №3, 2009, pp. 409–428., doi:10.17763/haer.79.3.n0016675661t3n15. Retrieved 1 April 2018. Web access: http://pages.ucsd.edu/~rfrank/class_web/ES-114A/Week %204/TuckHEdR79–3.pdf