Communication as axis for power contradictions
Musings on Juneteenth, Queer, Black, and Yellow subjectivities and more
Juneteenth 2022: Healing the Community Festival
Yesterday, I went to a Juneteenth celebration in Memorial Park, San Diego, CA near the Barrio Logan district. It was a large event of pop-up tents where Black small businesses and community service organizations gathered. The event also had a massive, professional stage where all sorts of musical groups and cultural performers played jazz, pop, rhythm & blues, Africana, Caribbean genres of music, and more.
But what stood out to me the most was a timeline wall that situated San Diego within the broader history of Black, African, and African American struggles from Africa to the Caribbean and the U.S. I learned that Juneteenth is not simply a celebration of that day in Galveston, Texas in the summer of 1865 when General Granger declared slavery would be abolished. Rather, there is a long history that sticks to the word “Juneteenth.”
From classes on race and ethnicity to listening to Black friends, I was admittedly proud of how much I knew in this representation of Black, African, and African American history. I suppose I was proud not in an egotistical way where I pompously am “culturally competent” because even now, I do not think I am “proficient” in rattling off dates and details of Black history. Instead, I was proud because this signaled to me that I am beginning to pay attention to the right things. I am beginning to grasp a better sense of the oppression and denial of humanity that Black, African, and African-American people have experienced and continue to experience. Still, I learned so much. For example, there was one event that really stuck out to me as one I had never heard of: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. In Tulsa, there was a Black neighborhood named Greenwood, which was also dubbed the “Black Wall Street,” a place where there was a thriving Black community where Black people were able to sustain and support themselves. But in 1921, white supremacists looted and destroyed Black homes and businesses, killing dozens and injuring hundreds of Black people. Resonating with W. E. B. Du Bois’ critiques of the Dunning School for neglecting Black agency in Black Reconstruction, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 however also speaks to the grave oppression of white supremacists despite the attempts to survive and make a life.
This history of racist oppression and denial of humanity and life motivates this essay on communication as an axis for contradictions in power.
Communication as Axis for Power Contradictions
“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” — James Baldwin
Contradictions, for me, are perhaps the most fascinating formation in communication because it points to the ways in which communication is ambivalent and filled with the sociality of power. By sociality, I mean that power is relational and distributed. Surely it is distributed in uneven asymmetrical ways, nevertheless, power is a media or sticky substance that dialectically binds us together in moments of communication, where communication might best be understood not as some technological carrier of messages, but as linked to the desire for connection. This broadens how one thinks of communication not as identical to language or technology, but as a broader social process of connecting with others. This view includes communication as language and technology, but also communication as emotions, rituals, and sensemaking beyond hearing and sight. To feel, touch, smell and taste are also forms of communication as a matter of acting on the desire for connection.
Here, I think of the ways in which queer, black, and yellow have been used as derogatory words used to communicate a particular dehumanizing relationship between “normal” bodies and “other” bodies. That is, these words—among many others—are a desire for a specific kind of connection, one that relates “other” bodies in reductive ways, in ways where bodies are rendered oblique, strange, out-of-place, an inanimate object, or abstract concept to explain our sensory capabilities of seeing the surfaces of bodies like color. It is a connective desire for subjugating bodies to particular subjectivities. It is a matter of producing hierarchy and domination.
But I think this holds contradiction.
The power of contradiction requires a reframing of how we come to understand communication. Let’s take up words, for example. Indeed, there is nothing inherent in words. Words are arbitrary, human-made symbols, exterior to the physiological components that are literally and materially inside our bodies. But why do certain words seem to “internally hold” so much political valence?
To explain this, words, for me, are historical, cultural, and social. That is, words are shared across histories and spaces. In terms of space, words are abstract denotations used to explain the spatial relationships—whether physically or conceptually—that form between us. In terms of history, words are connotative vehicles that carry the baggage of past events, stories, and situations. It is in this “middle of things” between time and space where words offer a glimpse into the contradictions of power. Depending on the context, words can slip, slide and stick to different bodies, objects, practices, spaces, or even other words.
Of course, words alone cannot solve everything. It is not the only source of power in the world. And yet, words provide the representative pathways we use to make sense of the world. They make up the mysterious, invisible filter of semiotics and semantics through which we are granted access to the material world that we socially engage in. If we must engage in communication to act in the world toward other bodies, objects, and spaces, then it follows that communication shapes the conditions that make certain ways of life “thinkable,” “imaginable” and thus possible.
Here this mediating filter is where the contradictions of power seem useful. First, if a word like queer is fixed with a universal derogatory definition, the power the word has over certain bodies is asymmetrical. That is, a universal derogatory definition shrinks and limits the possible ways of living as queer to “strange, abnormal, out-of-place.” But in viewing words (and communication more broadly) as something that is social, one could see the power in reclaiming such a word. I want to suggest here that redefining and reclaiming the word queer expands its meaning by redistributing power. Indeed, in reappropriating “queerness” not as wholly negative but as something connotating possibility, contingency, and hope for new directions, reclamation might be understood as the formation of new subjectivities. By subjectivities, I mean, different ways in which people who are rendered as objects can become subjects or how people who are objectified as inanimate, abstract, threatening stereotypes can be intelligibly brought back to life. In short, reclamation makes possible the capacity to imagine and make sense of bodies, objects, and practices as ways of living life. It is a humanizing process that makes room for social life not just for “humans” but for all forms of life, human and nonhuman.
This might resonate with Blackness and Yellowness too but in a different way. Black and Yellow are two words used to supposedly signify color. Yet, words signifying color are an exemplary epitome of the unusual variability in semantics. For example, the word black shares Old English origins with the word “white.” Or more accurately, what we understand today as “white” has etymological roots in the Old English blac meaning bright, shining, glittering, pale, and the absence of color. In a different example, have you ever looked at a Black sweater and asked people if it is black, blue, or brown? You likely will get different answers based on varying perceptions. This leads me to a quote I recently read:
“Blackness… had nothing to do with actual skin color. Blackness… was an external identity… Race was something other people identified, something they said but not necessarily saw. Blackness, she had intuited, was a social category; not a color but a condition… In my family, race was not a construction, or a theory, or an outdated consequence of history, but the active, living foundation of our reality. Race determined the contours of every choice we made” — Emily Bernard, Black is the Body
Drawing on Emily Bernard, an English professor at the University of Vermont, I see Queerness and Yellowness, similarly to how she sees Blackness, as identities that we become in the way its conceptual baggage sticks to our bodies. It is social, external, and said, but it also continues to have material and physical consequences on the way people live their lives. I’m suggesting then that no one can inherently be queer, black, or yellow. Indeed, most of our bodies more accurately fall into different shades of brown: tan, almond, tortilla, pecan, coffee, wood, mocha, beige, sepia, cedar, etc. Rather, we become queer, black, or yellow in relation to others who are not. Whiteness is thus not possible without a definition of what is not whiteness.
My claim also implies that we are not “born this way.” And I admit, there is some truth to this idea, but it can only be true when the same applies to the idea of “straightness” or “whiteness.” That is, while we are not born as perfect replicas of what it means to be queer, Black, or Yellow, we are also not born as perfect replicas of what it means to be straight or white. Instead, bodies, objects, and practices that become defined as straight, white, queer, Black, or Yellow are a matter of history and power. If anything, these conceptual categories are simplified stereotypes of situations and stories that have been a part of what we call the communication process: the following through on the desire for connection. What if then our desires are proximate to those around us? What if our desires are a matter of our social needs? What if our desires are less about “who we desire” or the direction we take and more about the relationship between bodies, objects, and spaces? To translate, this line of questioning allows me to see what we call queer, Black, or yellow not as abnormal, but as possibilities for living life. And it also allows me to see straightness and whiteness as disciplining devices that tell us which directions are “right.”
In this way, I argue then that the point is not whether a term accurately describes you or not. The point is that these terms expose the relations of power between different subjectivities, between different embodied ways of living life. It then becomes important to consider the weight words seem to have and how those weights can be shifted and reoriented toward making room for “darker” and “stranger” bodies.
By this, I am also drawing on Audre Lorde who once said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Here is the whole quote:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.” — Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (my emphasis)
In the context of communication, I interpret Audre Lorde’s ideas here as a matter of generating different ways of thinking about the identities that we take on and how that shapes our assumptions of what type of life we are supposed to lead. In the very crucibles of difference, bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors, whether queer, Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, or “other”, have been subjected to negative portrayals that reductively stereotype and flatten them as violent, stupid, model, exotic, strange, or alien. But this “naming” process of difference also connects us. As Audre Lorde says, survival “is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths” (my emphasis). Survival, I believe, is a labor of taking and making. Survival is about reappropriation, re-tailoring, and refusal of what has been given as simply given. But it is also about finding connections between our differences and transforming our differences into strengths.
In sum, viewing communication as relational reveals a way in which we can locate resistance to the oppression and denial of humanity. Viewing communication as relational shows how communication has a contradictory power that can be queered and turned on its head. And if it is true that communication is about relationships, then we ought to find those contradictions where asymmetrical powers subject, objectify or subjugate bodies to stereotypes and death, where people are oppressed and denied their humanity. Perhaps then we can learn to make room for the objectified and subjugated to become subjects in their own right who can flourish and grow.