intersectionality in the diaspora

A blurry photo of an elementary school building at night, in a small town in central Texas. The darkness is illuminated with several sodium lights that cast an eerie but comforting glow to the street in front of it. A person is just barely visible in silhouette in the corner of the frame. This photo is at least 15 years old. Texas as a place comes with some complicated memories, but it still feels like home.

I recently listened to a podcast called Intersectionality in the Diaspora. It’s co-hosted by my friend Clara. The podcast feels like listening in on a conversation between two friends. Clara and her co-host Melo have been friends for several years. They describe themselves as Centro Americanxs raised in Los Angeles. From their first episode, I felt deep connection with the stories from their cultures.

The first episode is a conversation on mental health in and among BIPOC communities. In my own home growing up, we didn’t talk about mental wellbeing. Therapy was not something that was available to us: it carried with it the stigma of the nineties. People who went to therapy were punchlines, or they were too wealthy for real problems. I thought about this while listening to this episode. I appreciated the reflection on mental health as it pertains to our culture.

Nowadays, I go to therapy on a regular basis. I find it raises my awareness of things I “know” to be true that are not actually universal truths. I don’t go as often as I used to, but the practice has helped me become a more thoughtful person. I recommend giving this podcast a listen.

equity in the time of coronavirus

A photo of a potato hauler that was once used by a Mexican laborer in Washington State. A large burlap sack at the bottom of the photo is decorated by a caricature of a Native American chief with the words “BIG CHIEF” above it. The sack is fastened to a block of wood with the name “Pepe” on it, which in turn is fastened to a canvas belt with leather straps. Farmworkers in normal times are often mistreated and undercompensated for their labor. Now that we are in a crisis, these essential workers are treated even more unfairly.

I took the last couple days off work, which has given me a little time to clear my head. It’s given me some time to reflect on how non-profit organizations navigate a crisis. Some organizations are now waking up to the racial inequities that impact their work. A world ruled by grants and philanthropy spends decades trying to “move the needle”. It’s easy to focus on changing a number on a dashboard to 70 from 68, even if that still ignores huge swaths of people.

And what happens during a pandemic? Exactly that, but faster. Emergency situations are the hardest times to try out new things, so we rely on old habits to see us through. Who do we forget when we move faster? People with special needs. People who are already disenfranchised. People we hadn’t meaningfully engaged before the crisis. People we don’t have time to engage now.

Tema Okun‘s paper on white supremacy culture is a resource I go back to over and over. There could be a different-but-almost-identical version of this paper for use during Coronavirus. Reading through it is so often like scratching an itch I can’t reach. She gives a name (and antidotes) to the vague sense of dread I sometimes have about a project or approach. I use these antidotes to try to craft a different course with my colleagues.

What can we do about it?
We can start by acknowledging that we don’t often work better by working faster. We make mistakes when we rush. We accept new opportunities without giving them a more thorough review. A group that we don’t have time to engage could cost us time and reputation when we have to fix what we did in a hurry.

I also have to remember that discomfort can lead to greater understanding and growth. No matter what decisions we make, I can still learn from our actions and consequences. I hope there won’t be another pandemic in my lifetime, but I will take lasting lessons from this crisis.

writing my name in lower case started with y’all

A picture of Big Tex at night. Big Tex, the giant statue of a white guy in hideous clothing, used to welcome visitors to the Texas State Fair. That night he watched me eat fried Coca-cola (we say Coke) and nearly die.

Whenever I can help it, I write my name using only lowercase letters. I’ve done this since college at least. I’ve always signed my emails that way. “Proper” nouns in general feel snooty. Sentence case is fine. I guess.

I remember starting to use y’all around the same time I dropped the capital letters in my name. When I started college, I worked at a fancy restaurant in a small town in Texas. I didn’t give y’all-the-word much thought back then. But working at this restaurant made the expression critical to my success as a server. “Y’all” was shorthand for who I was and how long I had lived in the state. It signified to my rich and white clientele that I was from around here. I could affect a Texas drawl though it didn’t often stick, but y’all came out easy and unforced.

People of color navigate and survive in society through many different means. My strategy in those days was to survive through assimilation. Many of those techniques have stayed with me, though I am more aware of them now. I reject assimilation the more I feel comfortable in my own skin. Using y’all in this context established rapport with my customers. It meant I got bigger tips and repeat customers. I used it so much back then that y’all soon became part of my regular vocabulary.

But after I moved from the hospitality industry to an office, y’all disappeared. I’ve spent most of my career feeling like I had a lot to prove. I worried that using unprofessional language would harm my career advancement. It became a part of myself that I felt like I had to hide if I wanted to get anywhere.

After a few career moves and increased responsibilities, I started to bring y’all with me. Y’all was finally a part of me that I felt comfortable revealing. It was a nonissue almost everywhere. If anything, it humanized me. At the start of my career I worried about appearing too perfect. I thought that people would interpret my ambition and competence as arrogance. Y’all became a personal touch. It was more than an informal plural, non-gendered way to address a group of folks. My career success helped bring “unprofessional” slang into my professional world.

The spelling of my name traveled a similar but longer path. Everyone in America learns that you must capitalize your name and others’. It doesn’t matter what you like, those are the rules. But I started writing my name in work emails the way I do in personal emails. I started to feel more comfortable writing it everywhere. To my surprise, with no reinforcing, people in my office took notice.

Nowadays the people in my life use them both interchangably. But the spelling of my name isn’t that serious. People who are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming should be able to affirm their identity without issue. But this is how I like my name to look. In a world of typed documents and email, it’s the name I prefer to use. Y’all was something I felt comfortable doing as a junior employee. josh is something I can call myself as a director.

In a very small way—in my own way—I am helping to disrupt the status quo of what people consider professional. I prove that you can do good work and still define yourself against type. I must also tell people that my identity is separate from the value that I bring to an organization. It’s part of who I am. And no matter who you are, it should be easy for (y’)all of us to respect.