by Frances Quaempts-Miller
Towards the end of British author Douglas Murray’s latest book The Madness of Crowds is a call to find significance beyond politics:
“One of the ways to distance ourselves from the madness of our times is to retain an interest in politics but not to rely on it as a source of meaning. The call should be for people to simplify their lives and not mislead themselves by devoting their lives to a theory that answers no questions, makes no predictions and is easily falsifiable. Meaning can be found in all sorts of places. For most individuals it is found in the love of the people and places around them: in friends, family and loved ones, in culture, place and wonder. A sense of purpose is found in working out what is meaningful in our lives and then orienting ourselves over time as closely as possible to those centres of meaning. Using ourselves up on identity politics, social justice and intersectionality is a waste of a life.”
Murray ends his book arguing, “To assume that sex, sexuality, and skin colour mean nothing would be ridiculous. But to assume that they mean everything will be fatal.”
In the last year and a half my wife and I have lost six loved ones, including two grandmothers last month, only three weeks apart. Between us we have lost three grandparents, a cousin, an aunt, and my father. Ours has been a house of grieving that has prompted both of us to re-examine what has brought us a sense of purpose and what we need to focus our energies on in the future. After spending not just years but decades fighting for equality, it has become clear, with so much death, that such supposed noble efforts have only rendered a more broken heart in a more broken world.
At the age of fourteen I went to my first protest to express concern for the United States involvement in El Salvador. At the time, I didn’t really know what our country was doing wrong but I did know that the exhilaration of marching in the middle of the street, after the police told us through their bullhorns not to, while yelling various slogans repeatedly, was intoxicating. All my frustration with whatever complications life had thrown my way dissolved instantly. Suddenly I was a part of something bigger than myself while believing my actions and those of the other protesters were on “the right side of history” (see 1B. The Psychic Historian on the list of Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions). For a somewhat shy teenager, I was instantly transformed by that march into a powerful person.
Before I could vote, my life of politics began with volunteering for Minnesota Democrat Senator Paul Wellstone’s election campaign. While stuffing envelopes and making promotional phone calls had some meaning, these efforts paled in comparison to using my own skin color, sex, and eventually sexuality to “make the world a better place.” My brown hands holding a protest sign saying, “Stop killing brown people,” increased visual dramatic impact while projecting a kind of tokenistic authority. Social justice and civil rights allowed me to make the political personal by leveraging my minority classifications to battle hate, or so I thought.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that I turned my flesh and lived experiences into fodder to be used as “a symbol of someone else’s virtue,” as mentioned in Thomas Sowell’s essay Mascot Politics. I performed brownness or liberated femaleness or queerness like a ritualized political dance for what I thought was freedom, but in reality was for trophy loving grievance hustlers. I became less of a human and more of a mascot, using myself as a cudgel to “balance the scales” while ignoring my own well-being and forgetting the soul nourishing importance of spending time with family.
It didn’t help that the public schools I went to in liberal Minneapolis reinforced the idea that “someone like me” should constantly work for justice. One smiley faced teacher in grade school explained the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in class, turning her gaze to all the black or part black kids saying something like, “Isn’t it great what he did for your people!” Memoirist Thomas Chatterton Williams in his new book Self-Portrait in Black and White discusses the realization that “our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite.”
When Oprah Winfrey said on her once popular daytime talk-show that she didn’t ever stop working because slaves didn’t, I took her words as truth, understanding that because some of my ancestors were slaves in America, I must also constantly work – to end racism. Only later did it occur to me that perhaps my ancestors would actually approve of occasional rest and relaxation, since they didn’t get to.
Eventually I would discover that my biological sex and romantic orientation were also to be used for political purposes to mitigate the harms of sexism and homophobia. I wasn’t just a girl who also liked girls or a person who also was female – I became a Queer Woman of Color – whose job was to constantly “educate” others on oppression because I was apparently oppressed. From writing for an LGBT focused newspaper, to creating and leading social justice workshops at colleges, to being an advocate at a domestic violence shelter for seven years, to a brief stint with The Lesbian Avengers, my life was entrenched in attempts to dismantle the entire “colonialist hetero-patriarchy.” For years I even had a website called Queer Woman of Color, where I would discuss everything wrong in the world from my perched place in the hierarchy of subjugation.
As a bona fide expert in being a triple minority, whose college major and minor ended with the word Studies, I “interrupted” racism, sexism, and homophobia the moment someone made a politically incorrect remark or said something the wrong way. When someone referred to an Asian as oriental or a black person as a Negro, I felt it was my duty to correct the person immediately based on my status as a POC (person of color). An off color gay joke was to be cut off and jokes about women received my pinched face disapproval. I didn’t just wield a sword to slay prejudice based on race or sex, I also had to stand up for immigrants, the disabled, or anyone who fit into a category of “marginalized.” This was before the term “intersectionality” was in common parlance.
My progressive friends called me “brave” when I “put on the whole armor” of fighting isms and phobias by asserting and leveraging my identities to essentially control others. Nothing shuts the mouth, especially someone of fair-skinned and comfortable means on the Left, like an accusation of xenophobia by a minority. Yet instead of being woke (before woke was a thing) I was increasingly physically tired while leaving those I loved behind for “speaking truth to power,” and spending an inordinate amount of time trying to “lift people out of” poverty, prejudice, and powerlessness.
I’m thankful to people like my grandmother (who lived to 102) who reminded me with every one of her hugs, stories, and fiercely played cribbage games, that life was more than being offended and fighting “the man.” My family, faith, and friends remained constant reminders that there was, in the words of Icelandic singer Björk, “more to life than this.” In their presence I wasn’t a mascot and didn’t have to represent “a brown voice” or a “queer voice” as Representative Ayanna Pressley conveyed to minorities in a speech earlier this year. To my loved ones I was, like all people, a kaleidoscope of overlapping moments and attributes, and that was enough.
Those years I spent campaigning, canvassing, organizing, protesting, letter and email writing, workshopping, and even performance art panhandling for reparations, took time and love away from those I hold dear most. All those accusations drained my energy. Although I’ll always be desirous of increased justice and freedom, especially for the vulnerable, I refuse to wear my life as a coat of grievance and victimization anymore. Today after all those efforts, even I am subject to accusations of white supremacy and every other social justice sin. No matter how much we try, another generation or person is always ready to say you didn’t do enough, getting their social media legions to believe that the next terrible bigot lurking around the corner is you.
The recent deaths of multiple loved ones have helped me once again to center what is truly important. Being a mascot for someone else’s idea of inclusion, diversity, or peace is no longer meaningful. This little life of mine isn’t wasted on the hustle of utopianism any longer. It is now measured by the remembrance of those who always saw through my costume of constant complaint. Perfection through politics is an illusion. Thank goodness those who truly love us can see that.