A lot of what we understand to be tenets of social justice lies in organisation. (Yes, I did spell that correctly for my brand of English, but that’s a whole other blog post in itself.) We organize to do things like create cultural spaces such as IYS, distribute resources to those who need it through mutual aid funds, and draw attention to important issues through walks, marches, and protests.
If organising is about finding ways to reframe our relationships with The Powers That Be, then this little blog post will be about finding ways to reframe our relationships with each other. This isn’t only about using our trans and non-binary friends’ preferred pronouns or doing the very easy job of just not using slurs. Figuring out these relationships means reflecting about how your perspective and their perspectives might intersect, where they might clash, and why this comes together.
So the way this blog post is going to go is I’m going to give a few stories and throw out a few concepts from my own friendship journeys, and hopefully things will all come together by the end where I’ll give you some questions to think about your own relationships with other people.
What do we mean by In-Group or Out-Group?
The first thing to say about in-groups and out-groups is that they are fluid. Like, if you’re sixteen, you’re not always going to identify with being sixteen, because eventually you’ll get older. It’s the same with any cultural context. Switching in-groups and out-groups happens constantly. You could be talking to the people you live with (your family, your flatmates) about chores around the house, and that’s all in-group communication. Then, the topic might switch to your school or your job, and they’re no longer experientially privy to this topic, and that means you’re speaking to an out-group.
Just for clarity, I’ll give my family as an example. My immediate family consists of my mom, my dad, my sister, and me. My mom and dad were both born and raised in the Philippines and migrated to America. My sister and I were both born and raised in America. We are all in one overarching in-group as the Deluna Family, but my sister and I both also form an in-group as “our parents’ children.” My parents and I also form an in-group without my sister as “migrants”—because where we consider “home” is much more complicated than my sister who has only lived in California. Even though my parents’ migration story differs from each other’s and from mine, we still share this experience. My sister, even though she is in the out-group and has not herself migrated outside of her own regional context, can display solidarity by supporting us. Of course, my sister’s position as out-group is subject to change if she leaves America in the future.
So the more experiences you have, the more in-groups you’ll find yourself in. But that sparks the question—what about things that you can’t experience?
Knowledge, Explanations, and Communicative Burden
There is something very special about the bond between people who have been minoritized in similar ways. One of my best friends on this planet, Alexandra, is also American like me. But there’s a few things different about us—we come from different minoritized ethnicities, different parts of America, different financial backgrounds. Still, there’s very little I have to explain to her when I complain about micro-aggressions or the frustrations of navigating majority-White spaces.
And this is a huge relief to me—knowing that there are people out there who I don’t need to explain myself to, who come from the same “place”. There are concerns that I’ve had about living in Japan, in California, here in Edinburgh that I’ve just mentioned to them in passing. And her response is “Yes, of course. That’s logical.”
Yet, I’ll mention those same concerns to my White British cis-het partner (who, I have to say, I love very much). But in order for him to understand, I need to explain. The responsibility of clarity for my words and actions—the communicative burden—is on me. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it’s very fair on me. Why can’t he try harder to listen?
(Well, 1. He does now. 2. Language racism brings imbalance to the communicative burden.)
I’ve known my partner for four years, I’ve known Alexandra for three. My partner has spent so much more time around me than Alexandra has, and yet I still have to spend the time explaining things to him. This isn’t because he doesn’t listen—because he does. He’s taken the time to think about the things that we discuss. But the logic of what it means to be a racialised queer person in any country does not come to him as easily as it does Alexandra. It doesn’t matter that he has queer friends of his own or that he has technically experienced being an ethnic minority while living with me in Japan. The fact is that Alexandra and I have dealt with it for eons longer and in a more permanent context. That’s our solidarity.
Part of the reason why Alexandra feels like such a reprieve is because we (as marginalised peoples) spend so much energy justifying our actions, needing to be validated, needing permission to act in a way that is unlike our peers who are not marginalised in the same way. Majority-demographic people who look at racism as part of a job can step back from their job and choose to take a moment to not think about it. But there is no aspect of my life in which socio-economic status, race, gender, nationality, and the intersection of these things that is divorced from the rest of my life (or from anyone else’s lives).
Emotion Validation, Emotion Work
So, Alexandra is an easy validation for me—no explanation required, just a “Yes, this makes sense.” But I don’t find that validation from everyone, even when our feelings are the same.
A few months ago, a different friend of mine, Penny, sent me an excerpt from the Race Report that was published last March. The excerpt—which went viral on Twitter—excuses and exonerates the slave trade by pointing out its supposed benefits. She was (justifiably) angry about the except. I was angry about it too, but more than that, I found myself uncomfortable with her anger. It was a strange feeling, since I had often shared anger with Alexandra in this way. So, what was different about Penny?
First off, I’m not Black, but this report struck a nerve with me. The rhetoric used in this report to exonerate the slave trade is the same rhetoric used to talk about imperialism in the Philippines. You can read a couple fairly recent examples here in a 2020 article from Positively Filipino and here from a 2015 Manila Times article, both of which make me feel like I need a shower after reading them.
So that explains my anger, but it doesn’t explain my discomfort with Penny’s anger.
In comparing how I feel around Alexandra against how I felt around Penny, I realised that sharing my anger alongside Alexandra was communal but sharing my anger with Penny was not. This has to do with the nature of where our anger comes from. Penny is a White Western-European woman, and her anger may have come from witnessing this injustice, while mine comes from experiencing a similar injustice. This isn’t to say that White Western-Europeans cannot experience injustice at all nor is my family’s history with imperialism anywhere near comparable to the intergenerational trauma of the enslavement of Black peoples, but this specific manifestation of injustice hits closer to my home than to Penny’s.
It reminds me of something one of my friends told me at the height of the BLM protests last year. For her, there is a difference in allies who root their politics in “being angry at authority” and allies rooting their politics in “Black radical love”. Outrage and shock value are not necessarily transformative, and very often they lend themselves to trauma porn.
So, Penny may have found validation in sharing her anger with me, I did not find validation in sharing my anger with her.
I mentioned earlier that I spend a lot of time justifying myself. Was I also supposed to take the time to justify Penny’s feelings too? I don’t have the emotional capacity to do that. I don’t have the energy to tell her that she’s right or wrong to be angry, because I’m busy doing that for myself.
I don’t doubt that Penny’s feelings were real. I don’t want to stop her from being angry, because this level of dehumanisation deserves anger. But not with me. This is a boundary that I draw, because communal feelings are something that I reserve for my in-groups. The vulnerability and grief that I feel when I am angry is sacred to me.
So, every time I talk to someone in my out-group, I have to ask about whether or not either of us is putting in any undue emotion work. What I mean by emotion work is an adjustment of feelings that is socially expected of someone to do. (As an aside, there are academic criticisms of emotion work that I won’t get into here. Also, the difference between emotion work and emotional labor is that the latter is performed for a job or a task.)
Emotion work isn’t necessarily unfair, but it’s not something that I take on lightly, because it feels like racialised people are always called to make space for racialised people’s feelings. Sometimes, I do want to do it, but I also have to ask myself if it’s worth the effort—and that’s a choice that differs between time, place, and phase of the moon. I try to make space for emotion work, but sometimes I don’t have it, and that’s okay.
It is from all these things that I’ve witnessed, that I’ve experienced, that other people have experienced around me that I learned probably the most useful thing:
This is Not for You
I first came across “This is not for you” in the dedication page of cult-classic novel House of Leaves. You can dig through subreddits and academic articles over the meaning of this dedication in relation to the rest of the novel, but for me, it simply exists as a helpful boundary. There are some stories and some experiences I am not part of. It is my choice to engage with a story and to take something from it, but that doesn’t mean that my interpretation was intentionally put in by the author. For lives and situations that I cannot experience, I can listen and recognise that some things aren’t for me even when they speak to me or when I generally understand them.
One of my friends once told me one of her grandmother’s Cherokee stories. The content was not necessarily for me, because it’s not my culture and I had no background understanding of why that story worked how it did. Even so, my friend still told the story to me. So even if the content of story was not for me, the telling (the speech act, the moment of sharing) was for me, and that’s how I can safely engage with my friend giving me this deeply personal look into her family. Understanding and identifying these boundaries, even if I don’t necessarily say them out loud, has been infinitely helpful in navigating international and intercultural friendships.
This blog post is less about solving problems and more about concrete examples of how I look at my relationships to other people. If anything, I hope that this post has given you a chance to reflect on how you navigate your own relationships. So, instead of another story, I’d like to end this post just a few reflective questions:
- Is it easier or more difficult for you to identify an in-group or out-group that you have? Is it easier with some people and more difficult with other people?
- What are some of the challenges you face in finding solidarity with your in-group? Do you ever feel like an outsider among people who “should” be in your in-group? Why do you think that happens?
- What are some of the challenges you face in finding solidarity with your out-groups? What makes them your out-group? What parts of you are for them and what parts of you are not for them?