This is not a repository for anecdotes. There is a hyperabundance of anecdotes already circulating about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other violence in our art spaces. This is about locations with which many of us are all-too familiar: the bathroom, the smoking bench, the removed cafeteria table; the places we go cry and support one another after a workshop has gone violent. The places we go to ask if we are crazy or if this really happened.
We should all by now be familiar with these places, with Junot Diaz’s article “MFA vs. POC,” and with all the work done by the people our art spaces have failed, including artists of color, undocumented/ immigrant artists, trans* artists, queer artists, disabled artists, fat artists, poor/ working class artists, neurodivergent artists, and anyone reminded that their body did not belong in these spaces, raising the question of whether maybe they shouldn’t exist in the first place.
This is not an artistic or literary venture. This is a document I am compiling instead of following that drive artists have, instead of pursuing the thing that wakes me up every morning counting the years I might have left and finding them insufficient to tell all the stories I want to tell.
I am not qualified to write this. This is not going to be complete, or even necessarily good. I am equally sorry it is me writing this, taking up more space, and sorry it took me so long to write this. I am not qualified to write this. I am a white cis-passing, straight-passing able-bodied person with privileges of education, jobs, and class/ money. I am a sex worker and queer non binary writer of mental divergence. I suffer from empathy gaps.
I am a writer who writes queer stories about singing sailors, but even so I am forced to consider these questions every time the failure of our art spaces makes writing about sailors impossible: how violence in art spaces interrupts and invalidates our loving expressions.
I am frustrated at the lack of effort to create safer spaces. I am tired of the failures at every level that make these spaces unsafe. I am tired of the impossibility of keeping the people I love safe from oppression related to white supremacy, anti-immigrant, cispatriarchal heteronormative, and other world-narrowing forces. I am frustrated at my own failures as an artist, teachers, friend/ colleague, participant, curator, and enjoyer of these spaces. And yet I love these spaces: the residency, the MFA, the workshop, the conference.
I am tired of learning in hallways, in bathrooms, and on benches through tears that I am having a different experience of these art spaces we have all worked so hard to get to, that I am allowed to make art while my friends and colleagues are having to do emotional labor, that lured by diversity scholarships, they come to these spaces forced to be quiet and simultaneously give their work. I am tired of doing my own emotional labor around womanhood, gender, and queerness, instead of making art. I am tired of being forced into situations where I have to choose between disrespecting the rules of a space and pointing out aggression, and knowing that in saying these things, I am necessarily going to fail and take up too much space from people who have more direct experiences than I do, and I am tired of them having to carry all the weight. I am tired of the times I or others have been subtly or not so subtly reminded that our bodies/ selves were aberrant in these spaces. I am tired of my friends being “checked in with” when a space has failed them, as if it were their fault, as if adding a layer of pathology to the oppression and emotional labor and frustration could possibly help.
I am tired of these spaces tolerating racism, sexism, and other oppression in the name of keeping a certain few comfortable or maintaining a “learning experience.”
I come here to compile the things I have learned from the emotional labor of my friends, teachers, and colleagues, and from my own experiences as a teacher and artist. I am prepared to fail. Please add to this, criticize it/ me, tell me where I am wrong, and help me either fix these spaces or burn them down completely so we can all of us get back to the artists' work of creating more room in the world and meeting up after to toast and hug and talk about how beautiful that sentence, that line, that image, that single word in a poem, instead of being made to feel frightened, othered, or like we don’t belong.
These are not original thoughts, only a compilation of ideas based on conversations I’ve had, the teachings and actions of people more intelligent than me, and letters I’ve written to art institutions. In my notes below, I thank a few of these people. Whatever credit is theirs, whatever error, mine.
A note on terms. I am using the catch-all term “fuckery” to describe micro aggressions, macro aggressions, silencing of voices, violence of words, and the violence of exclusion. I choose this term deliberately because abstract terms like "micro-aggression" tend to make us either compliant or complicit, as if knowing or not knowing the theory makes us non-aggressors. Please substitute your preferred term accordingly. I am using the term “artist” to cover writers, but also theater artists, visual artists, performance artists, and everyone engaged in creative acts that depend on the support of art institutions to thrive.
Here are a few things we can do as artists, curators, teachers; a sample statement on micro-aggressions I read at the beginning of my classes, and thanks to people who have informed these ideas, some of whom are mentioned in the acknowledgments.