Written by Jae Bates
Content warning: mention of child sexual-abuse
Over the weekend, the Associated Students of the University of Puget Sound (ASUPS) Cultural Competency Programmer brought Alok Vaid-Menon to campus to perform Femme in Public. Alok is a “gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, educator, and entertainer” according to their site biography and a described as a “trans/gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and fashionist@” on their Instagram. They used to be part of the South-Asian poetry duo Darkmatter with Janani Balasubramanian which decided to split sometime in late 2016. There has been a small outcry over Alok coming to campus but it’s not for the reasons Queer/Trans People of Color might be angry, such as anti-blackness. Instead it is regarding an obscure post with a vague critique of The Exorcist. A few students resurfaced a Darkmatter post from 2016 in which their Facebook page made a messy post attempting to critique the construction of the white child & their relationship to sex which ultimately just read as a perpetuation of harmful ideas about child sexual abuse and rape. The post was undoubtedly harmful, wrong, and just simply a mess. I want to make it clear that this Wetlands post is NOT defending Darkmatter’s post. Rather, this Wetlands post seeks to look at the hierarchy of voices, the immediate vilification of trans people of color, and the disposability of trans people of color. I hope to seek transformative and compassionate ways of dealing with the harm done.
In Alok’s time as part of the duo, they had been called out for anti-blackness in their poetry and in their work. Alok and Janani often gave workshops on anti-blackness without the participation or guidance of Black folks. Some activists applaud their work for trying to dismantle South Asian anti-blackness while many have critiqued and entered into dialogue and conflict with the two. Furthermore, old poetry of theirs has often used language that pointed towards anti-blackness and internalized transmisogyny. It is not really contested that these are in fact things that Darkmatter was guilty of in their work. They have had sit-down conversations with organizers and activists who feel hurt by them and there has been a varying level of accountability and solution. Darkmatter’s occupation of space in the anti-black academic and artistic industry is absolutely something of which to be wary. Darkmatter’s oversteps towards Black POC has been numerous and well documented, however, no one at the University has become up in arms about anti-blackness. Rather, people are up in arms because they view Alok as a predator via a single post that was not even written by them.
Since the post has been made, the duo deleted the post and apologized. The deletion of the post is problematic because it erases a public record for accountability and the apology was insufficient and generally missed the point. However, Alok has indeed had to hold accountability since the post was made despite the fact that Alok actually did not author the post, nor did they partake in any part of composing it. Janani was responsible for the post and since then, Alok and Janani have both had disagreements regarding similar subject matter. However, Alok is consistently attacked by Trans Women Exclusionary Feminists for this post and the post is often used to attempt having Alok banned from speaking by using it to label them a predator or pedophile.
The Dangerous Brown/Black Savage
Brown and black people have historically been constructed as the predator, the savage, and a threat. However, brown and black people, INCLUDING OUR CHILDREN, are hypersexualized and blamed for any violence that might fall upon their bodies. Studies have shown that Black children are viewed as adults at much earlier ages by non-Black people and girls of color are assumed to be more promiscuous and be blamed for this image. Images of the supposedly “predatory Black man coming for your white women” or the forced castration of Filipino men for similar reasons in California come to mind when thinking about the white supremacist anxiety of the brown or black predator. The immediate framing of Alok as a villainous rape apologist and pedophile without any direct contact with or questioning of Alok shows how ready white people are to believe that people of color, particularly trans feminine people of color are dangerous predators. As far as I know (through research), Alok has not assaulted or preyed upon any individuals and was simply associated with a person who authored a post that perpetuated harmful language. Trauma is real and it is absolutely valid to feel harmed by that post. However, survivors of color and the Black trans women and folks who have issues with Darkmatter and therefore Alok, have not gone so far as to claim they are dangerous predators. This idea exists in the white imagination. People of color, in the white imagination, are always perps and our trauma and pain rarely allows us to be viewed as victims. In the mind of QTPOC, Darkmatter was a conundrum…sometimes a paradox. They were real, they were raw, they were liberating but to many they were also problematic, messy, and graceless. But never were they savagely predatory. QTPOC are absolutely hurt by and dealing with the pain from our once “faves” to our now problematic artists; but not by disposing of them and labeling them predators.
Where do they belong?
Ashleigh Shackelford, “a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer” discussed this very issue in “Call out Culture” and Effectiveness: On Accountability, Dragging your faves, and Transformative Growth. They wrote, “Community building requires us to acknowledge that we will all fuck up, and continue to fuck up because our political growth is based in the strategic and intentional unlearning of white supremacist violence.” It’s interesting to me that it is so easy for white queer/trans people to throw out QTPOC for their mistakes but QTPOC can recognize the violence in disposability. I believe it’s because white people will always view people of color as disposable, especially once we’ve made mistakes for which they punish us much more violently than their white peers. Shackelford also concluded “If we cannot be pushed to new bounds politically and personally when it comes to how we hold people accountable, share our feelings, break down our hurt, and create community – then we are only doing ourselves a disservice. It is up to us to keep trying, to keep building, and to keep questioning. Our labor can only help us move towards liberation.” Shackelford’s analysis is absolutely how I feel regarding Alok and the harm Darkmatter perpetuated while together.* I am not ready to tear down and throw out members of QTPOC communities. As a QTPOC I know what this type of culture would result in for my QTPOC peers. If we are thrown out and disposed of by our own communities, then we have absolutely no one. We will be incarcerated or killed. Transformative conversations about trauma and harm are absolutely paramount to end the cycle of violence that we find ourselves in. Most importantly, white queer/trans folks don’t get to decide when and where to cancel and dispose of QTPOC artists and leaders. QTPOC do. The violence that QTPOC perpetuate is violence learned through the age-long project of colonialism. It is harmful and it is traumatic but to hold each other truly accountable, we must move towards lived compassion through transformative justice and healing wounds of colonization. My issue with the students at this University who wish to simply dispose of this artist with no understanding of growth or change is that this is not their community to make decisions for. As much as white queer/trans folks might like to think that QTPOC are their community because of the “QT” part; we are not and you do not speak for us. Constantly, there are white leftists using the language of social justice to punish, control, and dispose of POC when we are no longer in line or when we make a mistake. This is not a defense of Alok. This is a claiming of Alok. This is the idea that QTPOC are simultaneously hurt by and yet part of the rebuilding and re-education of our community members who do harm. We can all individually choose who we fuck with and who we don’t. But do not banish QTPOC into exodus because they will not survive. This is me saying, yes, Alok has fucked up. I have fucked up. My friends have fucked up. My mentors have fucked up. My everyone has fucked up. If I can’t believe that my community can transform, then what do I have? Maybe white people’s humanity isn’t reliant upon community but mine is.
They are problematic. I am problematic. We are problematic. We are colonized.
We are in pain. We are learning. We are growing.
We are healing.
*Ashleigh Shackelford’s entire article is amazing and should be read in its entirety on wearyourvoicemag.com and can be found by Googling the title I cited. Please read the original source as I, a non-black POC, do not want to take credit for Ashleigh’s incredibly nuanced and spot on understanding of call-out/in culture and our “problematic faves”
QTPOC: queer, trans people of color
POC: people of color