Last Night There Were […]Heads on My Lawn

When I think about the song below,

I always connect to a particular moment in the history of the Pacific Northwest in which the titular characters of the song declared the region a new homeland and worked relentlessly to shove people of color, Jewish people, and queer folks out of the area through violence in intimidation. Their project ultimately failed but not before they changed the demographic of many cities and the hidden politics of many states. More frightening to me is how their failures seemingly opened the door for the kinder-gentler version of hipster hate to move into the vacuum they left behind; where […]heads preached intentional extermination, hipsters offered a successful language of “inclusion” while building a physical reality of exclusion.

I started this post to discuss the connections between gentrification and exclusion and how these connections are playing out in the social “service” field, particularly in areas that have been hard hit by the economic crisis and whose funding dollars have gone toward creating middle class bounce back on the ruins of working class lives. I had meant to highlight a disturbing conversation I had at a talk I gave yesterday with a woman who single-handedly created, funded, and ran an organization for marginalized students all the while holding on to the belief that “this is a population who will be lucky if they take one class in community college in their lifetimes.” This conversation to me exemplified current disconnects in feminism, social change, and the social service industry; with regards to the latter, it acts as an example of how “doing good work” has replaced justice in many of  communities who need the most justice. And I wanted to draw a picture that ultimately connected how social “service” came into being through a charity model that embedded certain forms of eugenicist thinking about the poor, women, immigrants, and people of color and what it means that some of these core values have not yet been dismantled. And how ultimately these things connect back to gentrification that at its heart often starts from people committed, at least on a theoretical level, to the neighborhoods into which they move and their desire to be close to, and more in touch with, the people they serve but quickly snowballs into a flood of “refurbishing”, “re-building”, etc. neighborhoods in the name of “urban uplift.” So that these processes can be parallel phenomena that we should not be surprised ultimately coalesce in a process of otherizing and marginalizing wrapped up in a language of diversity and social change.

And I felt compelled to write this post because of that particular interaction I mention above, that left me waking up in the middle of the night from a dream heavily featuring laughing, well-meaning, white people calling me the N word while smiling in my face and eating ice cream. Not exactly the way I planned to start the New Year.

But the truth is, as I put fingers to keys (pen to paper), I realized that I could write this long and highly theoretical post with historical examples from the 1920s and 30s, the 80s in the NW, and the current period and purge the demons that came to dance on New Year’s Eve but what would it really change? How do my words, published on this blog, make any difference in a system that has been in place for so long? How can one social justice activist-academic make any dent in a  hegemonic process that is so invisible that it is taken up by the very “progressives” who spend their lives rallying against it and who would rather see me as “race obsessed” than themselves as “racially exclusive.”

I started yesterday with an immense amount of hope for the coming year and proud to be spending my last day of the decade speaking to and working with non-profit agencies and I ended it having a nightmare about being called an N. And it has made me rethink the work I do and with whom I want to do it in this next phase of our lives. Everything else is just an intellectual trapeze designed to put my addled mind at ease when I think perhaps it is best to be restless.

2 thoughts on “Last Night There Were […]Heads on My Lawn

  1. It seems to me that part of the difficulty is balancing the relative merits of inclusion and separatism. Cultural groups need spaces to be separate, protect and develop our traditions and affirm our realities, but those spaces can’t exist solely as a result of being ghettoized by majority culture. It’s a complex communication to establish those protected spaces without dividing ourselves into the ethnic homelands that used to characterize (at least Eastern) cities, who each had a Germantown, a Polish neighborhood, a Little Italy et seq. Merely adapting to the dominant paradigm causes us to lose the individual, from any background, but how can we develop valid alternatives?

    At least the community college social service students I know mostly come as products of social service intervention. Perhaps that bodes well for the future.

    • separatism and ghettoization are other really interesting sides of the story; how do cultures form? why are the formations of certain insular communities considered valuable while not others and when and where? All really intriguing questions that broaden the scope of where I was headed with this line of thinking. thanks.

      I do hope you are right about a shift in social service trends, but I wonder if it is like academe in that more women, poc, and out queer folk are entering/graduating from higher ed but the same hiring and tenuring practices keep their numbers in the professoriate to a contained minimum while the inequities remain largely (tho not totally) the same.

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