On Accountability

Originally posted on Facebook on September 13, 2020.

I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability lately; this essay was already half-written when Jessica Krug’s Dolezal’ing made headlines, and loathe as I might be to give any more space to that particular brand of nonsense, her story encapsulated so many of the ideas that I was wrestling with herein, namely: that accountability is really fucking hard, y’all.

It’s not surprising that this should be so — white supremacy has a four-centuries-long head start on any of our individual efforts to fight it, which is why it remains so omnipresent and insidious, and why the only way out is to participate in traditions of abolition and liberation that stretch back generations, to stitch ourselves back into the garment of mutual destiny following patterns crafted by those who have gone before. White people do not seem enthralled with ancestor work but if we cannot confront our personal inheritances than we can never undo what has been wrought, in either our private or our public lineage. Without this confrontation accountability is impossible and instead we will only continue in violence, whether overtly a la Trump or in the camouflage of Jessica Krug; and as so much of the current political conversation is an instruction to vote Biden/Harris (please do) and then hold them accountable in office we might ask what that *means,* practically, in a culture and world that resists accountability at every turn.

And that’s why I was already writing this essay, and not only as an interrogation but as an apology: because in my post last month about Kamala Harris I referred to her selection in a way that was minimizing and dismissive, both of her accomplishment and of the wide range of feelings that women of color, especially Black women, might have about it.

That’s a full stop. But I’m going to talk about why this happened, not for mitigation or absolution, but because the reason I fucked up is *so* very banal and predictable that unpacking it is not at all exculpatory but rather draws out why so many of us fuck up, and points to where the work of anti-oppression and accountability really lives.

*

The week I wrote that post was hard. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and nephew left to spend the fall school term in Cleveland, at my parents’ house, and despite understanding and even agreeing with all of their reasons it was still painful to see them go — because I love them, because they were my pandemic pod, because I am single and childless and turn thirty-seven in less than a week and I have lots of difficult feelings about that, feelings that I have not been able to articulate or share but that lessen when I can be present with my niece and nephew.

I wasn’t able to admit that last month (I don’t really like admitting it now). So instead of sitting with my uncomfortable feelings, during this very uncomfortable time, I found a quick way to feel better: a hot take.

I try not to write hot takes; there are so few people who can do them with any measure of honesty and I’m not one of those people. But Kamala Harris’s selection as VP had just been announced and all my socials were alight and I had some thoughts and so I figured, hey, I could put some words together and I told myself that maybe it would help folks to Sort Things Out but real talk: I was just looking for y’all to smash that like button.

There’s a Facebook page called Lace on Race, run by a woman named Lace Watkins, who does incredible work. One of the rules of her community is that she asks nobody to drop “reacts” — likes, hearts, etc — on any posts; comment, deep comment, is encouraged, or contemplative silence if you have nothing to add, but not the “scroll-and-roll” of our emoji-mediated digital landscape. Lace acknowledges that this is unique, but as she says: hers is a space to become new people, doing things in new ways.

Because looking for people to “like” a hot take post as a way to take my mind off my deep and private loneliness and shame is… fuck, that’s exactly the problem! Seeking quick validation instead of risking vulnerable connection is a consumerist and transactional approach to relationship, and it is that consumerist and transactional approach to relationship which is both cause and consequence of white supremacy, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, and all forms of oppression.

And maybe you can relate to the hardship of longing for partnership and family, at thirty-seven or at any age; or maybe you have partnership and family and yet still feel alienated and wonder what went wrong; or maybe it is professional status that keeps you awake at night, or maybe your relationship to your body — the point is that all of us carry secret shame, or at least we have at some point in our lives; all of us have known the feeling of our own insufficiency, because all of us were born into a world structured and governed by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, a world in which kinship has been narrowed and severed and worth, belonging, and relationship must be earned. Even when so many of us try to argue for belonging, we do it in economic terms — “Immigrants add so much value to our economy!” — so that ideas like unconditional love and acceptance can seem more like children’s stories than anything real.

And it’s so easy to write this shit off as self-indulgent or frivolous or not active or visible enough to be “real” — and this is precisely how white supremacist patriarchy *does* write this shit off — but the need for this work is staring us all in the face, on Twitter and on TV, the Orange Boogeyman in the White House: did anybody need Trump’s niece to explain the family history to know that this is a man whose daddy never loved him? Every single facet of his life is such an absurdist overcompensation that he might as well have “I AM DEEPLY INSECURE” tattooed on his forehead. George W. Bush killed a million Iraqis to prove to his father that he was better than Jeb. (Jeb!) And while most of us will never wield enough power for our insecurities to cause such massive death and destruction — while most of us will never even wield the power of police officers, whose insecurities have been on such blatant and constant display these past couple months — we can still cause harm in our own small circles of influence, and so we still have the obligation to address it there. Because ultimately, all violence is relational. The violence of the state is an institutionalization and formalization of power relations that the powerful seek to normalize and maintain and that relationship may not be a personal one but Jeff Bezos is not interested in exploiting workers and being the world’s wealthiest billionaire because billionaires are common; he is interested in that because whatever part of his soul that sees people as more than commodities, that doesn’t need to be regarded by others as special in order to have value, has hidden and atrophied, and all he knows now is acquiring.

Nobody reading this is a billionaire. But we don’t need nine zeros to hide behind; there are so many places to hide, and so many ways to pretend to show up. Activism and protest are vital and necessary to any kind of political accountability but they can also be used to avoid personal accountability, constantly privileging the public sphere as if the binary division of our selves into “public” and “private” isn’t one of the most durable mechanisms of exploitation across history and the world — all violence is relational, and we do not build a better world by the performance of political action unless we also accompany it with accountable relationship; to do otherwise is to simply present the same oppressions but dressed in different theory, arranged differently on the stage.

The truth is that activism is structured by the relationships we build within it, and if those relationships are not accountable, then our politics cannot be accountable either. More often than not the structure of our activism simply reproduces the dynamics of the world it seeks to change, whether by elevating the cause over the needs of the people participating in cause-based work, or by insisting on a severity that minimizes joy, connection, and humanity, or by the continued valorization of violence — even if that valorization is of one’s capacity to *endure* violence, rather than to enact it, it nonetheless centers violence as a source of meaning, trapping us in the same oppressive logic.

Activism is hardly the only good-and-necessary-thing-that-we-twist-to-our-own-ends. Therapy is one of the most potent tools available for disrupting our own internalized oppression but it also individualizes that oppression and accommodates it at least as much as it challenges it, by reducing the likes of colonialism and white supremacy and patriarchy to individual or familial “dysfunction,” by suggesting that changing our individual responses to oppression is more relevant than dismantling the oppression itself, and of course by being a purely transactional relationship, as if space for our authentic wounded selves can only exist when we pay for it. The language of therapy and self-care is easy to wield as a means to avoid accountability for one’s participation in oppression; most POC have stories of such behavior (“White women weaponize boundaries,” as someone put it in a recent Instagram comment).

None of this is to say that activism or therapy are bad things. The truth is simply that they are tools and techniques, that our desire to make them into complete solutions is yet another manifestation of our technocratic solutionism, of our unwillingness to commit to the kind of vulnerable and liberatory community and relationship that is the only real source of accountability and justice. We fear kinship at least as much as we crave it, because we all — regardless of privilege — live inside a world of disposability, a feature of oppression and hierarchy that leaves us all insecure and twisting connection into self-protection as much as we are able. The sanctity of life is a beautiful and fundamental truth of this world and a necessary antidote to a culture of disposability but the Catholic Church uses it as a defense of its own patriarchal, white supremacist hierarchy — theory is an ingredient of freedom but in practice even the most loving theory can become just another agent for control.

We all live inside of this disposability and we all fear it, even if we cannot recognize or name it. At its most extreme and violent it presents itself as mass incarceration and murder by police; in more quotidian form it is the lack of accommodation for disabled people, the millions of uninsured Americans, the extreme commodification of our selves on dating apps, the very existence of the phrase “personal brand.” It is “reopening the economy” in the midst of a pandemic. It is the meritocracy.

Recently I joined a heated discussion with a white woman who does corporate DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) work, and who also leads workshops for white women to have “courageous conversations” (TM Brene Brown) about race. The discussion began with Black women telling her that she was causing harm in her position; she immediately became defensive — tone-policing, gaslighting, and dismissal of these Black women all followed, as this white woman attempted to defend her righteousness. Her whole identity, supported by a lifetime of paychecks from Dow Chemical, was so clearly constructed on the premise of being One Of The Good Ones that she was utterly incapable of seeing the harm not even in her work but in her immediate response. When I asked, she said that she was demonstrating a “courageous conversation.”

Such a reckoning is hard to have, because the extent of white harm is so extreme; this is why ancestor work is so difficult but so necessary, because if we cannot look at our actions and our inheritances for what they are, we will never be able to understand that disposability is a lie, that we do not need to elide our harms in order to maintain a pretense of worth but rather, that by accounting for those harms we affirm the worth of everyone.

Which brings us back to Jessica Krug: her effort at “accountability” became just another place to hide, to assert her self-protective violence, with a self-flagellation so extreme that it foreclosed any opportunities for the kind of meaningful listening that is required by genuine accountability. “Cancel me” and “I am the worst” may seem like a recognition of harm but they also place someone beyond repair, and without repair there is no accountability at all; what such admonitions seek is not consequence but redemption, the overwrought assurance of indisposability, the exercise of which becomes a substitute for real accounting, leaving the actual harm unaddressed and unrepaired while the harmer’s ego is centered and tended to.

It’s easier just to offer love and light, but — light can play just as many tricks as the dark. When the sun is bright we see nothing else in the sky and can imagine ourselves to be the center of the universe and we’ve built a whole artificial starscape to never escape this comfort but if we should venture out of it, if we seek the wilderness, if we get out of the car, if we open our eyes — we will discover the darkness to be a lush beauty, where we might encounter the texture of the galaxy; where the radiant heat of so many millions and billions of other objects illuminates our smallness, yes, but also our interdependence, the sublime and inherent connection of our existence.

When we dare to look beyond ourselves, we know: none of us are disposable.

But this seeing — of others, and especially of ourselves — can feel so risky and uncertain, and it is so much easier to live within circumscribed narratives. I have noticed a meme circulating recently, expressing the hope that white people begin to take risks sufficient enough to lose things of real value. And while I understand and agree with the point of the meme I think expressing it so briefly plays into our easy circumscribed narratives of what “risk” and “loss” look like, narratives that support the kind of heroic thinking and self-lionization which left the corporate DEI professional I mentioned above so unable to see the real impacts of her choices. Because in my (limited) experience, this need for clear-cut heroes and villains, to be One Of The Good Ones (because if not, are we worth anything at all in this culture of disposability?), is not only part of problem but is also, on a practical level, nothing at all like what actually happens — perhaps if one is challenging an overt white nationalist they will declare their racism clearly but otherwise the loss will probably be an ambiguous one, will probably leave you feeling insufficient and disposable, and more relevant than the loss itself is what any of us might do in the wake of it, whether we can bear to stand in the darkness and bring ourselves to look up; or whether we will flip the switch of privilege, too fearful of our disposability to remain without the ersatz comforts of false illumination.

Because falseness is all that hierarchy and privilege has ever really given us; we participate in and perpetuate the system because it seems to offer access and security and power but when that access and security and power is made contingent upon the arbitrary whims of oppression we do not trust it, because how can we? We live in a world that crafts fairytales of everlasting love, where marriage means “till death do us part,” yet people leave partners regularly for aging, or gaining weight, or any other myriad human inevitabilities. We live in a world that preaches “family values” yet separates families at every turn, through mass incarceration and the child welfare system and cages at the border. We live in a world that says friendship is for children and employment should be at-will, a world that confuses independence and atomization for freedom and fulfillment, and so when we have the opportunity to leverage our privilege — consciously or not — into some kind of safety, most of us do so.

And this is why discussions of privilege can be so tricky, and devolve so immediately into defensiveness, because if not by leveraging our privilege than how can we ever earn anything in this life? We may all know, on some level, that we are paying with counterfeit currency, but we’ve invested everything that we have, and if we admit that all of our dollars are false ones then what kind of power and access, what kind of security, can we ever hope to gain?

The answer offered by kinship and liberatory relationship is simple: none of us have ever had to pay. It seems almost too easy to be true but just as with the sanctity of life, or therapy, or activism, a simple theory makes for a challenging practice. Divestment is hard. We have spent into so many systems of hierarchal and contingent value, and we have inherited such a vast portfolio, that the sunk cost of our efforts can make divestment seem impossible. And in a certain sense, it is impossible, if we cannot see past our own selves — this work is just as intergenerational as the wealth of oppression we must dismantle, and this project can never be one that we own but must always live as a commons.

But it is necessary work, and a necessary premise, if we ever want to recognize that accountability is not a diminution of our power but the truest source of it.

The air is full of smoke here, now; the night sky is a blank slate, and the invisibility of so many stars feels like a mirror to the invisibility of so many of us in pandemic, in our separateness and isolation. We have overdrafted our accounts of privilege and oppression and the earth has come to collect our debt, to repossess these systems of control which have only ever been a con — but a con we have bought into for so long that to live outside of them seems scary and unreal, as we cling to our comfortable, transactional delusions.

This haze is not lifting yet, but it will clear someday, and as we grieve the burn scars we can look to them and celebrate, too, that new growth is possible.

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