Dear Parents of Black, Brown, Poor, Gay/Queer/Trans, or Otherwise Marginalized Children:
In these continued times of hate, discrimination, poverty and other forms of state-sanctioned violence, what your children need from you is unabashed, unrestrained, unconditional love. Pure L.O.V.E. I’ve heard the twisted rationale from some of us that we beat, whip or otherwise wreak violence on our children to keep them in line so the authorities (the police, court or prison system) won’t get them. But let’s be frank, that is flawed and oppressive logic. If the world out there is harsh, violent and unforgiving, racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, and generally oppressive, what anyone needs, most especially the ones who depend on us for care and sustenance, is love, empathy, comfort and understanding. For our children to experience violence at our hands, because we are afraid of what might happen to them out there if they don’t behave, is for the state/the authorities to continue to victimize us and our children by making us parents the agents of their violence and terrorism.
Instead, educate your child(ren) about what they might face in the world. Let them experience their home and their family as sources of shelter, care, comfort, and love. Don’t condition love on “good” behavior. What we teach them when we do that is that if they act respectable, that if they conform their behavior to some unattainable (and in most cases undesirable) standard that was never intended to include them and in fact functions to negate their humanity, then they can be shielded from violence. And that’s just a damn lie. It’s simply not true. Perhaps we tell ourselves this lie so we can rest at night. Or so we can continue to live in some form of “normalcy.” Or so we don’t have to take responsibility for our community and each other beyond our immediate family. But respectability politics, or our investment in trying to conform to mainstream values, have never saved any of us. It was never designed with us in mind. And, it works to steal our celebrations of pride, our joy, our right to an education, our right to food, and ultimately, our right to life.
In teaching our children that respectability will save them, we also teach them that if something happens to them, then it’s their fault. Women and girls know this lie all too well. The blame-the-victim lie. It happens to us all the time for wearing clothes that are perceived to be invitations to street harassment or rape. We hear it for going back to a date’s room or home after a “respectable” hour—whenever that is. Or for having any amount of alcohol that impairs our senses. As with all those scenarios, it’s not their fault, and changing their behavior does not change hetero-normative masculinity and the presumed entitlement to women’s bodies. Likewise, respectable Black behavior won’t stop a value system designed and maintained on negating our humanity and existence.
When we examine the violence of respectability and the internal and cross policing of marginalized bodies from a queer/trans perspective, we see how warped this logic is. It bears acknowledging that there is no acceptable way to be trans when the norm is to be cis-gender, or, to put another way, to stick with the social idea that people should conform to the gender roles and expectations assigned to them based on their genitalia. For example, if you were born with a penis and acceptable levels of testosterone, then you are expected to be strong, to be assertive, to not show emotions, and therefore to be manly. For a trans person to confine their identity and self-expression to that logic is for them not to be trans and therefore not to exist, in whole or in part. If being trans is about having your outward gender expression align with your inner self, and that outward expression of that inner reality is policed, criminalized, marginalized, otherized, and terrorized, choosing the respectable route, i.e., passing as cis-gender, constitutes a form of psychological violence or trauma and amounts to certain death. First the slow death you die when you live trapped within yourself. And then there’s the literal death trans folx face when they embrace their full selves. There’s a reason the suicide rate among queer and trans youth is so high. And there’s a reason transwomen of color are the most targeted—from street harassment to homicide.
We must acknowledge that the goal is the elimination of transpeople: from the work place; from public spaces (bathrooms, schools, parks, streets, etc); from this life (police violence, unresolved cases). What any oppressive system wants is total conformity, and when we do not fit those established standards, yet try to attain them, we have internalized these standards and messages and begin to work against ourselves and each other. If we require our trans kids to continue to mask their full self and pass as cis-gender to get our love, care, or shelter, then we further do violence to their psyche and their body. We contribute to pushing them further out into a world that would rather see them in the grave than loving themselves.
As is the case with trans lives, we must confront the reality that this system does not want our appropriate behavior, but rather our dehumanization and, if we resist, our non-existence. Respectability politics is about the erasure of our queerness and our blackness, whether that’s confinement to “appropriate” gender roles or the bodies into which we are born, the whitening of our skin, the straightening of our hair, the thinning of our facial features, the shrinking of our behinds, the suppression of our cultural, spiritual, communal practices, or the beating of our children. It demands that we not exist except for the use and pleasure of a system designed and maintained for the needs and interests of a few able-bodied white, elite, heterosexual cis-gender men. It’s a system that functions with or without their direct or intentional input. It demands that we keep ourselves and our children in line or it will do it for us. Now that legal chattel slavery does not exist in its recognizable forms, summary extrajudicial killings (cop/vigilante killings), mass incarceration, death penalty, the effects of poverty (poor healthcare, poor education, poor food, lack of water, and unemployment) are among the means of not just social control (keeping us in our places), but institutionalized genocide.
For Black people to be respectable is to become literally white. And no matter how much some of us try, it just ain’t possible. Respectability politics is about internalized hate thinly masquerading as an opportunity to belong. There is no safe space for us in a system and culture that was never designed by us or for us. In fact, these cultural notions of normalcy, respectability and safety were designed in opposition to our existence. Someone is white because they are not Black. Someone is straight because they are not gay or bisexual or trans. Someone is a man because he is not a woman (cis or transgender) or feminine. To be Black, poor, trans/queer, woman, or otherwise marginalized is to not belong and is in itself an invitation to violence.
So, in these continued times of violence, let them reveal another grotesque truth about the operation of oppression and violence: The more we internalize the logic of the oppressor, the more we damage ourselves and our children. Beating our children to keep them out of the hands of the law is state violence. Policing, harassing, or violating another person’s right to self-determine the body they wish to live in or to love in is doing the work of state oppression. The difference is that we parents willingly become the agents of that violence.
In these continued times of state violence and terror, love your children unconditionally as a radical act of resistance. Show them the value of Black, brown, queer/trans/gay, poor lives. Teach them that trans lives matter. Our lives matter. Black lives matter. Their lives matter. And it’s a life that deserves dignity, respect, and protection to flourish, free from violence.