The revolutionary gift of seeing and naming

Dear President Biden,

I told you the other week about my now favorite podcast Hear to Slay by Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Well, this past week R&T talked with a young Black activist named Amber J. Phillips and at the end of the conversation when they asked her how they and their listeners could help Amber do Amber, part of her response focused on what an honor it was to her that they have seen her and that they have named her. She went on to talk about how critical it is that we see and name one another as we are and resist the conditioning that tells us we aren’t enough, that we need force ourselves into proscribed lanes to deserve being seen and named. She also urged R&T to keep doing what they’re doing, to not ever be shut down by the “no’s” because they inspire the rest of us to be our whole selves.

A tiny taste of what this can look like came a few minutes earlier in the conversation when the three of them were talking about how if Blackness is them, then their lives need to represent them and their Blackness. They riffed on how they get to do their lives the ways they want, whether it’s serving ham and dancing at their book parties (Tressie) or posting cooking adventures on their Instagram feeds (Roxane). It should be so basic, this idea that who and how we are is just fine and enough and valid, but it’s clearly radical when certain among us insist on living our lives the way we want to live them rather than pretending we like tiny canapés and white wine at staid book signings.

Another angle they unpacked is how all-pervasive the White, cis-gender, patriarchal, heteronormative conditioning is and how this leaves many of us believing that we don’t fit that schema because of our own failings, our own wrongness, while the schema itself is never questioned. They talked about how revelatory it can be to see other people living their lives authentically since it can shake us out of our assumptions about our own selves and who we can (and don’t have to) be.

The episode is called Taking Up Space and I highly recommend it.

All of this is reminding me of a conversation I had with my brother a couple of weeks ago. He called because he’d been listening to a Bill Maher interview with Megyn Kelly about how Kelly pulled her kids out of their school because they were being “indoctrinated” by teachers talking about non-binary and gay people. My brother had a sense that something was off, which is why he called me, but he was upset about the idea that “9-year-olds are being brainwashed and indoctrinated!”, getting swept up by the notion that these issues shouldn’t be discussed in schools and that parents are the only ones who should have these conversations with their children.

I tried to be nice, but I let him have it. I explained that what Kelly is calling “indoctrination” is actually information and that it’s information that can and will save lives. I didn’t have the framing I got from Hear to Slay down yet, but I managed to get across the gist of how crucial it is that kids learn about the variety of people in the world in ways that normalize and affirm the variety. Sometimes this can happen with parents, but pretty damn often it doesn’t and when it doesn’t, it’s those kids who need their teachers to step up and into the breach for them. I see the fallout of people not having had access to such information all the time in my work and among my friends and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy – it’s awful to have learned that who you are and how you are is somehow fundamentally not ok. No one should be saddled with that burden.

May we all be safe.
May we be willing to question and dismantle dogmas that confine and homogenize us.
May we have the strength to trust our full selves.
May we accept ourselves and let go of judging each other.

Tracy Simpson

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