Though the 2016 festival may be over, there are still those who have its works and impacts on their minds. Our Thinkers in Residence each went out during the festival days and engaged with the artists, the works, the public, and the street. They had their own reactions and interpretations of what they saw and experienced. As we look forward to this year’s festival, let us take the time to look back on what these Thinkers thought and read their perspectives on the past year.
Thinker in Residence: LaShaya Howie
LaShaya Howie is a native of Charlotte, NC and a former resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn. Currently, she’s a Ph.D. student in the Anthropology at the University of Chicago researching death, mourning, and memorialization amongst people of African descent in the U.S. For several years, LaShaya worked as a museum educator and arts administrator in cultural institutions in NYC and is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Zambia. She loves to travel and still watches 90s sitcoms with enthusiasm.
In the initial moments of raw anxiety following Trump’s election, faculty and students in the department in which I’m a graduate student gathered to discuss our feelings and thoughts. Some people in this very elite, overwhelming white Midwestern university responded to their newfound uncertainty by calling for our university and our department to be a “safe space”. By the third comment of this kind, I decided that I’d shifted in my seat, raised and retracted my hand, sighed and caught myself rolling my eyes enough. Finally I said, “But there ain’t no safe spaces!” Okay, truthfully, I only said it that way in my head. However, I did resist the often sterile spirit of academic performance in the midst of teeming emotions. I honestly expressed my incredulity to this promise of security within an institution (specific and general) that has never been fully a place of refuge for me as a black woman from a working class family, or for others depending on their subject positions.
When my vulnerability is embodied, no matter where I go security can’t be guaranteed and certainly not by other people who might find comfort in most places. If there were such a safe place, it certainly wouldn’t be found in academic traditions born out of colonial curiosity and institutions minted in exclusion. Nor would it be found in the seemingly generous extension of privilege of those who wish to share its cloak. In a play of politics and emotion, is power reasserted by a well-intentioned, misgiven pledge to create safety? Can the impulse to do something for someone serve to restabilize a comfortable faith in the same systems and institutions that have always been only partially beneficial for some or, worse, actively oppressive?
Instead of attempting to foster a safe space, I suggested that my colleagues who had, up until November 9, 2016, felt relatively “safe,” consider willfully absorbing risk. For many of us exposure isn’t a choice and we’re tired of standing on that shaky ground alone. Like Fannie Lou Hamer level tired, a classmate once told me that it would be irresponsible to ask someone white (or male, heterosexual, a U.S. citizen, cisgendered, or anyone who enjoys privilege relative to others) to put themselves at risk. This is precisely what I am suggesting. Instead of promising safety— that which seems unattainable— perhaps others can make themselves less safe to shoulder some of the burden, if we are to believe in justice. Here, I mean the relative unsafety of giving up one’s attachments to individual responsibility, welcoming the discomfort of difficult conversations with friends and family who are “good” people with bad politics, and even risking ostracism when refusing to condone racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and classism with silence.
I never expected safety, but I also acknowledge I have some securities other people don’t. We all have privileges that are mitigated by the ways in which we are marginalized, and the opposite is also true. Instead, I hope for joy and peace that is internally (and eternally) safe that also gives us the strength to work collectively toward a more just (external) world.