Still Against Hand-holding and Gaslighting: Still Standing Up For Myself

Further thoughts on the SJSU Local Lit Author Fair

On early Monday morning, I wrote an article called “I would not have been treated this way if I were a white man, much less a white male author — on the 2016 SJSU King Library Local Lit Fair.”

I meant every word of that article. For me, it is all fact. Not opinion, not inference, not assumption, not only a personal experience. Since the publication of that article, it has been read over 2,500 times in two days, and many folks have shared it, reacted to it, or reached out to me with their stories of similar experiences, not necessarily with the same institution, but with institutions nonetheless.

I am a writer, and I have been for as long as I’ve been a reader. I am well read. Currently, I am reading Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. Next, I’ll read Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown. I write a lot. I have published one book and one chapbook. I have self-published three chapbooks of poetry. I was an Ethnic Studies major and an Urban Studies & Planning minor in college. People and place mean a lot to me. Who I am and where I am from are of significant import in my identity formation. I was a social justice / social change facilitator, and I am comfortable with silence, confrontation, and having difficult conversations about oppression and the ways in which oppression manifests. All of these things come together when I interact with people. I am kind, yet I am also not someone to fuck with.

I am thankful that Arlene Biala (Santa Clara County Poet Laureate) had my back the entire time and supported me in public and private correspondence.

Soon after and while I wrote the article, I got the stomach flu. All of Monday and Tuesday after I wrote the article, I was sick in bed, and I had to call for online classes or online work for the classes I teach. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I fell so ill after laboring my book into the world. My body tends to somaticize my feelings, and after traveling, teaching, and seeing my communities coming together and collapsing at my various book launches in San José, San Bruno, and Los Angeles, I knew that I was tired, but I became particularly exhausted after the SJSU Local Lit Fair. I couldn’t believe that after a beautiful reading in LA, that I had arrived back in my hometown only to fight the same fight in a space where I didn’t expect I’d need to. Throughout the lit fair, I felt like folks were gaslighting me — everyone except my brother William and his girlfriend/my sister Cynthia— who were there for me throughout the entire, traumatic event. I think of how racism kills us inside (á la Dave Chapelle) and Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

art by Jessica Sabogal

My friend Michelle re-posted my article on her Facebook page, tagging San Jose State University and the SJSU King Library explicitly. They responded via the latter account a few hours later:

I appreciated that Michelle received a response from SJSU, but I did not receive a response from them until much later — the next day.

Come Tuesday morning, I still hadn’t heard anything from SJSU, and I was already coming up with an escalation so that my experience could be known, but mostly so that no one would ever have to experience this again. I sent an e-mail again to Deborah, the librarian I’d addressed in my initial article, and to Tracy, the SJSU University Library Dean:

I contacted my friend Caz, who formerly worked for SJSU’s Mosaic Cross-Cultural Center, and whom I thought could point me in the right direction in terms of yielding some sort of response from someone, anyone. He gave me the contact information for their Chief Diversity Officer, and helped share my article with various SJSU circuits.

I also communicated with my friend Paola, a union organizer, who helped me come up with next steps, an escalation plan, and pointed me towards making a timeline, just in case.

My friends Michelle and Kazumi, also fellow poets who are intrepid and fierce against the faces, actions, and nuances of white supremacy, were instrumental to me throughout this entire catastrophe, and I shared with them my fears about receiving the “I’m sorry you felt that way” empty type of apology that I read most often from publicized moments where institutions don’t take ownership on behalf of their staff or representatives.

That e-mail came from an SJSU Library Manager named Michelle:

The “I would like to apologize that you had an unpleasant experience” part didn’t sit well with me. I could not accept that kind of apology.

Soon after that, I received an e-mail from the Library Dean:

This is the first communication I have received from you. I was only aware of the events of Sunday through a post on our Facebook page, which I was made aware of yesterday. I was very distressed by your description of your experience at Sunday’s event. It is our practice, and my experience, that the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library fosters inclusiveness.
I had asked for your contact information, which I also just received today. I believe several people, including the organizers, are planning to reach out to you . For instance, I believe Michelle has already contacted you.
If you would like a call, please provide your phone number, and I will schedule a time to talk with you.

I responded right away:

Hello Tracy,

Yes, I would like a phone call. You can call me anytime today.
I also received Michelle’s email, but as I expected, it apologizes for my experiences, rather than apologizing on behalf of your staff. I don’t accept that kind of apology.

Tracy and I talked on the phone, and she apologized, which I do appreciate. I asked her to write the apology to send to me, in a way that took ownership and accountability for the racist, sexist, and ableist acts I witnessed on behalf of the staff and not me, but there was some resistance, as I understood it. She eventually said that she would, but I also let her know that I will tell her if I find it sufficient or not.

She also let me know that my experience was distressing and affecting to some staff members, and that experiences like mine hadn’t happened at the library before. She mentioned how there was a Chicano librarian who co-sponsored the event and was also distressed, as a result. She mentioned that the female librarians didn’t mean to be sexist, and how could they be if they’re women, and I had to call her out on how one Chicano librarian spelled out for me a tokenizing rhetoric, and how the focus should be on the outcome, and not the intention. I believe that women can be sexist, and clearly, with what I experienced at the library that day, that was the case.

Before I could continue with how the library couldn’t be the anomalous place on campus where racism / sexism / ableism doesn’t happen, she interrupted me. I had to call her out on that, too. “I want to point out for you how quickly that happens,” I stated, “and how that’s also what happened to me on Sunday when I was cut off by one of your staff members.” She apologized, and I appreciated that.

I told her that the library is not different or removed from the rest of the campus, and that it’s not like racism doesn’t occur at all. (I immediately thought of how Swastikas and racist messages were found in SJSU Dorms earlier this school year, or how a black student was tortured by his own roommates. I am aware of and sensitive to these kinds of events because I care about what happens in my community, and because I come from a college campus where racist acts via racist party themes occurred not one year after I graduated, and did not happen in a vacuum, meaning: oppression is an amalgamation of oppressive events. I have also called out friends and folks who’ve participated in racist party themes, but I will not get into that, even though I also have the receipts for that).

I believe that single moment of letting Tracy know about how quickly cutting someone off happens is where our conversation turned towards progress. Tracy apologized, and said she would craft an e-mail with the Chief Diversity Officer’s help, and that I could expect the e-mail in the morning after I asked.

I told her that I would wait. And I am. And I hope it’s sufficient. If it’s not already apparent, I am trying to hold SJSU accountable.

I have graciously left out last names, even though it is public record, and I mostly focused on the problems, not the people. This article, and much of my writing, enlists the same values, lessons, and content that I teach in my classes, or rather, that my classes and students teach me.

I hope that all of this does create and foster the inclusive and supportive environment that SJSU aims to uphold.