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How To Give A Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

This write-up is in two parts:

How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

Please read Part 1 before you proceed.

 

This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019. 

 

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

 

APOLOGY: THE WHAT

In my time doing transformative justice work, I have found that these are the components of a good apology. Depending on the relationship and your track record of accountability with the person or people you are apologizing to, you may not need to do all of these steps every single time. However, I would encourage you not to skimp, especially if you haven’t done the work to build up a strong track record or culture of accountability, reliability or trust in your relationships.

The goal of these steps is not to be over-accountable, but to be thorough and to tend to those who were harmed, hurt or impacted by your actions. Again, here we are focusing on people you love or care about and with whom you want to be in relationship. We are focusing on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm.

 

1. “I’M SORRY.” It may seem silly to begin with this, but I cannot tell you how many apologies I have heard that do not include “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” It is important to apologize in your apology.

 

2. NAME THE HURT/HARM. This is an opportunity to name what you did and demonstrate that you understand what happened. If your behavior was racist, say it was racist instead of “confused” or “hurtful.” If you made an assumption, own that you made an assumption. If you bullied or gossiped about someone, name it. Every single one of us knows what it is like to have someone skip this part of their apology or skirt around actually naming their behavior. This step in particular can go a long way to help build back trust and is a moment to practice humility and clarity.

 

3. NAME THE IMPACT. A quality apology acknowledges the impact, no matter your intention. It is not to say that intentions don’t matter at all—the difference between someone purposefully setting out to harm you vs. someone who harmed you unintentionally is important. However, this is not the place to explain or wallow in your intent. This is a time to tend to the impact your actions (or inactions) had on someone else. This is a chance to practice care, empathy, and compassion. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you.” “I would be very hurt and angry too.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me again.”

 

4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY BY NAMING YOUR ACTIONS. This step is probably the most important part of an apology. You need to name your actions and what you did. This is a chance to put yourself in the apology and the hurt/harm. This is a chance to truly take responsibility. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you because you told me that you don’t like to be teased about that and I teased you about it anyway.” “I would be very hurt and angry too. I promised you I would be there and then I didn’t show up and I didn’t call.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me with something confidential again because I shared something that you had confided in me and I explicitly swore to not tell anyone.” “I made a mistake.” “It was my fault.” “I did/I do ______.” “I didn’t/I don’t _____.”

This is a place to practice true remorse, show vulnerability and to again, focus on the impact, instead of the intent. This is a great opportunity to practice integrity.

 

5. COMMIT TO NOT DOING THE HURT/HARM AGAIN. The final step of an apology is to commit to not doing the hurt/harm again. This step is key because it doesn’t matter how great your apology was if you continue the hurt or harm. “I promise not to tease you about that ever again.” “I don’t want to be the kind of person you can’t trust because I care about you and I will work to earn back your trust, knowing that will take time.” “I will do my chores from now on.” “I will ask you what you need next time instead of making assumptions.”

The hardest part of this step is that you actually have to do the thing you say you will. This is where our own daily work to be accountable to ourselves and others plays a key role. Hopefully you are building the skills to change your behaviors already, so that you can make good on your commitment.

 

 

APOLOGIZING: THE HOW

Here are some things that I have found extremely helpful when it comes to apologizing. All of them require different skill sets within themselves that we can practice in our day-to-day lives.

 

– Address it as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things I have learned, especially for low-level harm and/or hurt. The sooner you can address it, the better. This is also why we practice, so that we can shorten our response time. Like firefighters who practice being able to get to a fire as quickly as possible, knowing that a quick response will lessen the damage, we can practice getting better and more comfortable with apologizing and taking accountability, so that we don’t run, freeze or hide from it.

When we put off apologizing, we run the risk of several things happening:

  • The hurt/harm and impact worsens and thus will be harder to repair (e.g. hurt grows into resentment, resentment into bitterness, bitterness into contempt);
  • The person begins to create their own story (e.g. “they don’t care about me because if they did, they would apologize” or worse, “maybe it was my fault”);
  • We begin to create our own convenient story (e.g. “well, it’s been so long now, I can’t apologize,” “it will just make things awkward, “it wasn’t really that bad”);
  • They move on and your window to apologize or stay in relationship closes.

There have been times when I have pulled over to the side of the road to apologize. I want people to know that they are a priority in my life. I have found that addressing things as soon as possible can also work to deescalate a situation, especially because we expect people to hide and avoid taking responsibility when they know they have done something wrong. Addressing it right away, openly and earnestly can go a long way because the longer you wait, the bigger and more overwhelming it will seem. We want to practice enough so that we can face what we’ve done head-on immediately and with intention, instead of running away and hoping it will blow over.

This is not to say that there aren’t times when you may need to take some time to respond. Preparation is important, but all too often people use preparation as an excuse and a shield. Like a fire drill, practice your preparation now. Practice with small apologies and practice the many mini skill sets needed: desiring the discomfort of growth, accountable sharing and active listening, humility, building relationships in your everyday life where you can have nuanced conversations about accountability and that can support you in your accountability.

There is a window of apology. It is the amount of time that the person who was hurt or harmed is open to receiving an apology and/or staying in real relationship. There is no set amount of time for this window and it varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. It is also impacted by factors such as timing, healing or life circumstances. However, the more that window closes, the harder it is to apologize and stay in any kind of meaningful relationship. Once the window completely closes, it can often mean that though they may be open to receiving your apology, they have no desire to have you in their life. There are, of course, apologies that come many years or decades later, but the cost is the relationship and not having that person in your life.

 

– Be genuine. Philly Stands Up talks about the concept of “the spirit of accountability.” They say that someone can write a letter of accountability and say all the right things, but if it doesn’t have the spirit of accountability, it will fall flat. The same is true for apologizing. Your apology should have the spirit of accountability in it. Most of us can sniff out a disingenuous apology and it feels terrible to receive. If you are not genuine in your apology, you can cause more hurt/harm. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you don’t want to apologize, don’t apologize. This is a great chance to practice self-assessment. Apologizing is something that many of us feel forced to do and therefore, we often receive apologies that consist of someone carelessly going through the motions. Again, if your apology is not genuine, it can cause more hurt/harm. Your apology and accountability should come from you, no one else. You must take responsibility for your apology.

 

– Give your full attention. When you are apologizing to someone you care about, give them your full attention. This is not a time to rush, this is a time to go slow. This is a time to be thorough, not distracted. This is a moment to figure out what you and the other person need in order to be present. Put away your phone and agree to meet at a place and time where you can communicate well.

 

– Treat it as sacred. Apologizing is part of accountability and accountability is a sacred practice of love. If you’ve hurt someone you care about, it is sacred work to tend to that hurt. You are caring for this person, the relationship you share, as well as your self. You are engaging in the sacred work of accountability, healing, and being in right relationship. This work is part of the broader legacy of transformative justice, love, and interdependence. Do not take it lightly and give it the respect it deserves.

Give yourself the time to get into the right head, heart, spirit, and soul space. Get clear on why you want to apologize and what values you want to ground in. Bring a meaningful object to hold or wear, if you need. Honor the process.

 

– Be proactive. Whenever possible, work to be proactive in your apology. You do not have to wait for someone to tell you to apologize. You can apologize on your own. You can build a strong moral compass and solid values so that you know when you’ve done something that you regret or that is not in alignment with how you want to treat people. These can be powerful moments for others to witness, as they help to shift the punitive mentality by literally demonstrating the opposite. These can also be some of the most tender moments. For example, apologizing to someone who is used to being treated poorly in a relationship and who would never have told you to apologize.

 

– Build a culture of accountability. Every time you are apologizing, use it as an opportunity to build a culture of accountability in your relationship whether with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, dates or partners. Use it as an opportunity to build accountability as the norm in your relationships. Start small and build from there. Do not start with the hardest apology you need to give. Start small.

Even if your apology is about something small, understand that it is connected to a broader collective cultural shift we are trying to create, one where we all proactively apologize and take accountability for our behavior, big or small.

 

– Let go of outcome and control. This is one of the hardest things to do. Apologizing is a chance to practice risk, embracing the unknown, and faith. Apologizing to someone so that they will apologize to you is not apologizing—it is manipulation. Do what you need to do to get to the place where you can apologize without expecting anything in return. You cannot control anyone else, only yourself. Your apology may not be received well or the person may not want to be in relationship with you anymore. Choose growth and being uncomfortable over your fear. This is an opportunity to practice when the stakes are low (e.g. apologizing for hurt, misunderstanding, conflict), so that we can build our skills to be able to do it when the stakes are much higher (e.g. apologizing for harm, violence, abuse). This is an excellent place to practice courage because we can only truly practice courage when we are afraid.

 

– Practice, practice, practice. There is no way to get better at apologizing if you don’t practice apologizing. You have to put in the work; you have to put in the hours. Each apology is different and will give you the chance to practice different things. You will learn how to navigate apologizing well in one relationship in your life, which may be completely different than another relationship. Start with low-level things and build your skills up to high level things. Identify all the many qualities and skills sets you need to develop in your self: active listening; accountable sharing; self awareness and self reflection; asking for help, especially with more challenging apologies; rebuilding trust; making amends; healing your own trauma; learning how to not spiral into a puddle of shame when you make even the smallest of mistakes; knowing what your values are and how you practice them every day, week, and month.

 

[How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability]

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How To Give A Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

This write-up is in two parts:

How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

 

This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019. 

 

[Image designed by Danbee Kim that reads, “Four Parts to Accountability: self reflection, apology, repair, changed behavior.” Each part is in a separate red box, with a drawing of three small potted plants underneath. A quote by Mia Mingus at the bottom reads, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impacts your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties; but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” There is a small box at the bottom that reads, “For more, visit http://bit.ly/BAC2020”]

[Image designed by Danbee Kim that reads, “Four Parts to Accountability: self reflection, apology, repair, changed behavior.” Each part is in a separate red box, with a drawing of three small potted plants underneath. A quote by Mia Mingus at the bottom reads, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impacts your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties; but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” There is a small box at the bottom that reads, “For more, visit http ://bit.ly/BAC2020”]

 

START HERE

Apologizing well is a fundamental part of accountability. It is a skill that we should all understand and practice consistently. You cannot take accountability if you do not know how to apologize well.

 

This write-up primarily focuses on apologizing to people that we care about; people with whom we want to continue to be in relationship; people who are already in our lives and with whom we have loving or caring relationships. There are many different factors in apologizing and everything cannot be covered here. This write-up does not cover how to apologize to people to whom you’ve done severe harm, violence or abuse. Nor does it cover how to apologize to people who have power over you or across significant power differences, for example. Though there are similar threads and principles that run throughout every quality apology, I strongly recommend that people ask for support from their pod people and/or work with an experienced transformative justice practitioner who can help you navigate the specific complexities of the situation, harm, violence, relationship, community, culture for other types of apologies.

 

Here, we will focus on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm. We begin with these because most of us do not know how to navigate these smaller experiences and our relationships suffer or even end because of it. We stress relationship building in transformative justice work because without strong relationships, we will not be able to respond effectively to harm, violence and abuse within our own communities. If we are not going to rely on police, prisons or the courts, then we are the ones who will have to address things such as domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, murder, stalking, child abuse and child sexual abuse.

 

If we cannot handle the small things between us, how will we be able to handle the big things? Learning how to address these smaller hurts or breaks in trust, can help us learn the basic skills we need to address larger harms. It can also help to reduce and prevent larger forms of harm and violence (e.g. hurt becoming conflict, conflict becoming harm, harm becoming violence). For example, if you cannot have a direct conversation with your friend about how they hurt your feelings or the toxic language your roommate used, then how will you be able to respond effectively to sexual violence or abuse in your community or family?

 

As I say in the Apology Lab, “this is a lab about how you can apologize better, not how someone else can apologize better to you.” While I know that we have all received terrible apologies and have people in our lives who need to learn how to  apologize better, this is a chance for you to reflect on your own accountability, not someone else’s. As you read this, I encourage you to think about who you need to apologize to, rather than who needs to apologize to you because we all have people we need to apologize and make amends to. We all have work to do and we can all be part of helping to build a culture of accountability in our relationships and communities.

 

This write-up came out of a four-hour lab that only began to scratch the surface of the world of apologizing and the landscape of accountability. There is much from the Lab that is not included here such as ‘what not to do,’ practices, ‘things to consider’ and going more in-depth information about all the information written in this write-up. In the Lab we also offer examples of apologies, with our main example being an apology that I made. I do this because we cannot ask others to do what we are unwilling to do and we must be willing to practice the things we believe in. These are the basics of integrity.

 

The Apology Lab is part of our on-going work to build the skills we need for transformative justice (TJ).

 

SETTING THE CONTEXT: ACCOUNTABILITY

Within the world of transformative justice, accountability is the ecosystem in which apologizing lives. Accountability is simultaneously complex and simple, concrete and ever changing.

 

Accountability is not merely confessing what you’ve done; it is a process that must be practiced. It operates within relationship and though there are key common threads, accountability will look different depending on many variables such as the kind, severity, and length of harm, violence and abuse; the nature of the relationship(s); the quality and consistency of prior accountability work done, if any.

 

For most of us, we have been taught to fear accountability and struggle to know how to conceive of it outside of punishment or revenge. Accountability does not have to be scary, though it will never be easy or comfortable. And it shouldn’t be comfortable. True accountability, by its very nature, should push us to grow and change, to transform. Transformation is not to be romanticized or taken lightly. Remember, true transformation requires a death and a birth, an ending and a beginning. True accountability requires vulnerability and courage, two qualities that we are not readily encouraged to practice in our society.

 

Accountability is generative, not punitive. If you want punishment, you should be upfront and transparent about that. Do not ask for accountability, when what you really want is punishment or revenge. Just as it takes work to be accountable, it also takes work to receive someone’s accountability. TJ is a specific kind of approach to harm and it may not be appropriate or possible for every situation, especially if little-to-no preparation work has been done (i.e. pod building, education and study of TJ, practice of TJ values).

 

We need to move away from “holding people accountable” and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. It is not another person’s job to hold you accountable—that is your job. People can support you to be accountable, but no one but you can do the hard work of taking accountability for yourself. Don’t wait until someone else has to bring up your behavior. Whenever possible, work to proactively take accountability for yourself. Say something the moment you know you’ve made a mistake, caused hurt or harm, or acted out of alignment with your values. Check in with someone about your behavior before they have to say something to you. Communicate well. Build a strong moral compass and get clear about your values.

 

Accountability should be proactive. We should be forthcoming about our mistakes, rather than hoping no one finds out about what we’ve done. Ideally, we would proactively communicate with others as soon as we know we’ve messed up or haven’t done what we said we would do. This is true whether someone has made us aware of what we’ve done (or not done) or whether we’ve come to the realization on our own. We would care more about doing the right thing, than “getting caught.” We would not put the labor of reaching out and checking in about our accountability on someone else, especially those we’ve harmed. We would proactively do the work to be accountable for ourselves including the work to not run away or hide.

 

For example, if you didn’t do the task you said you would do because you took on too much, you would communicate about it as soon as you realized you would not be able to get it done. You would apologize and proactively let people know when you would be able to get it done, or take the time to think of suggestions for other ways it could get done. You would acknowledge that you took on too much and promise to work on doing better next time, which may mean that you invest time to work on learning how to say “no,” or your time management, or your need to please others, or your habit of procrastination.

 

Proactively taking accountability for our actions is an important way we can build trust with the people in our lives. It is a practice that demonstrates our character, integrity, capacity for self-reflection, and the kinds of values that we are committed to. It is a practice of interdependence, a way to care for those we love and our selves, and shows that we have done our own internal work to take responsibility for our actions.

 

I divide accountability into four main parts:

  1. Self-Reflection
  2. Apologizing
  3. Repair
  4. Behavior Change

 

1. Self Reflection runs throughout all accountability work, but I place it at the beginning because you must have enough initial self-reflection to know that you have done something hurtful or harmful and, most importantly, want to make amends or address it genuinely. You will need to—and should—continue to self reflect throughout the different stages of your accountability, but you must begin in a place where you can understand your actions and the impact they had, so that you can get to a place where you are willing to make things right (or vice versa). True accountability must be consensual. Accountability requires change and you cannot change other people, only yourself. In short, you cannot force someone to be accountable.

 

2. Apologizing is a chance to acknowledge and take responsibility for the hurt or harm you caused or were complicit in. It is a moment to demonstrate to those you have harmed that you understand what you did and what the impact was. You may need to apologize more than once or many times, depending on the severity of the harm, how deep the hurt went, how badly trust was broken or if the hurt became a pattern.

Apologizing is a fundamental part of the rebuilding of trust and because of this, it is a key place for you to practice vulnerability. Remember, the only way to build trust is through vulnerability. Trust is key in our work to end cycles of violence because when violence or harm happens, trust is one of the first things that gets broken. Because of this, apologizing and repair are often interdependent on each other.

 

3. Repair is a uniquely challenging part of accountability because it must be done in relationship and cannot be done alone, unlike changing one’s behavior. Of course, you must do your own work on your own time in order to engage genuinely and effectively in the work of repair with those whom you have hurt or harmed (e.g. being willing to be uncomfortable and not confusing being uncomfortable with being unsafe).

Repair includes making amends and rebuilding trust, so that you can assure others that you will not commit the hurt or harm again. It is an opportunity to do the work to be in right relationship with those you have hurt or harmed, and just as important, to also be in right relationship with yourself. Repair can take a long time and usually demands consistency and a level of faith in the face of fear that we are often not taught. It takes a lot of work to rebuild trust and to mend a broken relationship, especially when compounded by past trauma (for everyone involved).

You will most likely have to apologize more than once while you are practicing repair and the process of repair can also help to reveal more harm that was caused or a clearer picture of the depth of the impact of your actions (or inaction). Repair is not linear and does not follow a set path. It depends greatly on many factors such as: the quality of the relationship with the person you harmed prior to and after the harm, your previous track record of apologizing and accountability with that person, your consistency and commitment to repair, and timing.

 

4. Behavior Change is one of the hardest parts of accountability. Changing your behavior is not easy. We have all tried and failed to change our behaviors at one point or another in our lives (e.g. self care, procrastination, new year’s resolutions). Often, even seemingly benign behaviors have deeper roots in trauma that will require some level of healing. For example, if you are struggling to practice self-care, you will inevitably have to confront why you consistently put yourself last. Our hurtful or harmful behaviors are also often part of patterns that we must break and require larger shifts in our lives than “just this one thing,” which is why they tend to be so hard to change. In the example of self-care, you may need to let go of some things or say “no” to something or someone; you may need to assess how you spend your time and why you make space for things that are not what you ultimately want to prioritize. Transforming your behavior is hard work and is easier done with support. Find people in your life with whom you can talk about your accountability, mistakes, things you’re ashamed of or feel guilty about, things you need to apologize for, or times when you weren’t your best self.

Everyone needs to build support for their accountability. Do not wait until you are being called to accountability to begin building your accountability support system, put the time in now so that you don’t have to scramble. If you are not actively building and maintaining accountable relationships, you are proactively building an unaccountable life.

 

It is important to note that there are times when some of these parts of accountability may not be possible. For example, sometimes repair is not possible. This may be because of various reasons such as the person harmed does not want to engage with the harmer, the person who harmed does not know how to take accountability or death.

 

Additionally, it is important to practice all four parts of accountability. For example, if you have apologized and repaired again and again, but continue to enact the harm, people will stop believing your apologies and repair. They may begin to distrust anything you say or the wear and tear of getting their hopes up only to have them dashed again and again could leave life-long scars. On the other hand, if you only change your behavior and do not apologize or make amends to those you have harmed, you miss an opportunity for your own growth, you dispose of relationships and people you care about, act out of alignment of your values, or squander the chance to take accountability and aid in someone’s healing. (Note: Though accountability can aid in healing, your healing should never be solely dependent on someone else’s accountability because they may never take accountability.)

 

We are aiming for practice, not perfection. We will hurt, misunderstand, and harm each other. We are human and we live in an incredibly violent and harmful world. The point is to learn how to be accountable when we inevitably mess up, so that we know what to do. This is not to let anyone off the hook or excuse or justify harm. Instead, this is a push for us to acknowledge the reality of harm, rather than continue to live in the fantasies we’ve created about harm. We will all mess up and make terrible mistakes. We will all hurt people we love and care about at some point. We will all have our time on the chopping block. We want to try and reduce harm whenever we can and that is different than trying to avoid conflict or pretend away hurt.

 

The only way to get skilled at accountability is to practice it and the only time we can truly practice accountability is when we have messed up or caused or been complicit in harm.

 

[How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How]

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Dreaming Accountability

 

photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.

[photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.]

What if accountability wasn’t scary? Take a breath and let that sink in for a second.

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis.

 

Accountability is not a destination, it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.

 

We can start with our self-accountability and the ways that we don’t show up for ourselves. We can acknowledge how most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves. We blow past our own boundaries, we punish and beat ourselves up in terrible ways. We can start with the ways we treat and talk to ourselves—ways that we would clearly recognize as abuse if it were being done to another person. After all, our abusive relationship with ourselves lays the groundwork for an abusive world.

 

What if we embraced accountability as a reflection of our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity? As a magnificent example of what it means to be human and flawed and in relationship with one another? What if we welcomed the quickening of our pulse and the beating of our heart as signals of being alive and caring and what is most important to us: our relationships with each other? What if we listened to that fear—the fear of losing someone important to us or of losing ourselves?

 

What if we rushed towards our own accountability and understood it as a gift we can give to ourselves and those hurting from our harm? What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?

 

What if we understood the harms we’ve caused and have been part of allowing, not as things that don’t need to be tended to or things that will blow over or be forgotten about in time? But instead as one small part of a collective gaping wound that we have been taught to pretend away that sits in the middle of our hearts, our relationships, our families, our movements, our country, our world? What if we all understood our parts—individually and collectively—in that collective gaping wound?

 

What if we could understand that in a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done?

 

What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation? What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power? What if we understand that no amount of “tough love” or punishment could ever hold a candle to the long and hard labor, fear, and pain of facing our demons and our traumas? What if we learned to desire the challenging and the transformative, instead of the easy and the comfortable? After all, comfort and transformation do not live on the same block.

 

What if we stopped romanticizing transformation and genuinely understood that true transformation requires a death and birth, a letting go and a starting anew?

 

What if we spent more time practicing accountability, not just talking about it? So often, we want other people to be accountable, but what if we practiced our own accountability more? What if we started with the small things and built up our skills for the big things? What if we remembered that addressing the small things between us helps to prevent the big things?

 

What if we talked with each other about the things we’re trying to be more accountable for? What if we built relationships where we could have nuanced conversations about accountability, shame, fear, guilt, embarrassment, insecurity, trauma, and healing?

 

What if we took more time to dream accountability? What it could be and the kind of magic it could grow? What we need in order to practice it more and better, both individually and collectively? What if accountability was so normalized, so everyday, so run-of-the-mill, that it was second nature? That it was our default? That it was something that everyone knew about and you could easily pass a group of children and youth of any age casually talking about it?

 

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?

 

What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love?

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Transformative Justice: A Brief Description

photo of the tops of redwood trees forming a circle overhead, taken from below., with sun peaking through the branches and trees.

[photo of redwood trees, taken from below, forming a circle overhead, with sun peaking through the branches and trees.]

This was written for a transformative justice (TJ) intervention I led and I’m sharing it here for others to use in their work. It was meant to be a brief description for those who are not as familiar with the framework and orientation of TJ and do not have the time or capacity to read a large, long document. It is not a history of TJ, nor a complete naming of every part of TJ, or even a thorough fleshing out of all that is named here. It is an introductory description of work that can be hard to describe. It is meant to be a starting point, not an end-point. I hope it may be useful for some of you.  

 

Many thanks to Ejeris Dixon, Mariame Kaba, Andi Gentile and Javiera Torres who helped edit this description so it could be shared publicly. Thank you to the many groups and countless individuals who have been part of creating, building and carrying forward what we now call “transformative justice” and “community accountability.” Special appreciation to the people and groups who have greatly influenced my understanding of TJ: Sara Kershner, Creative Interventions, Mimi Kim, The Atlanta Transformative Justice Collaborative, INCITE!, Communities Against Rape and Abuse, Philly Stands Up, Community Holistic Circle Healing, Just Practice, Shira Hassan, Mariame Kaba, Ejeris Dixon, and The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Thank you also to all of those whose names we do not know, who have been practicing this work in big and small ways, long before it was named and documented.

 

Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling);  2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.

 

State responses to violence reproduce violence and often traumatize those who are exposed to them, especially oppressed communities who are already targeted by the state. It is important to remember that while many people choose not to call the police, many communities can’t call the police because of reasons such as fear of deportation, harassment, state sanctioned violence, sexual violence, previous convictions or inaccessibility.

 

TJ was created by and for many of these communities (e.g. indigenous communities, black communities, immigrant communities of color, poor and low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, sex workers, queer and trans communities). It is important to remember that many of these people and communities have been practicing TJ in big and small ways for generations–trying to create safety and reduce harm within the dangerous conditions they were and are forced to live in. For example, undocumented immigrant women in domestic violence relationships, disabled people who are being abused by their caretakers and attendants, sex workers who experience sexual assault or abuse, or poor children and youth of color who are surviving child sexual abuse have long been devising ways to reduce harm, stay alive and create safety and healing outside of state systems, whether or not these practices have been explicitly named as “transformative justice.”

 

TJ is an abolitionist framework that understands systems such as prisons, police and I.C.E. as sites where enormous amounts of violence take place and as systems that were created to be inherently violent in order to maintain social control. TJ works to build alternatives to our current systems which often position themselves as protectors, while simultaneously enacting the very forms of violence they claim to condemn.

 

Violence does not happen in a vacuum and TJ works to connect incidences of violence to the conditions that create and perpetuate them. It acknowledges that we must work to end conditions such as capitalism, poverty, trauma, isolation, heterosexism, cis-sexism, white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, mass incarceration, displacement, war, gender oppression and xenophobia if we are truly going to end cycles of intimate and sexual violence. TJ recognizes that we must transform the conditions which help to create acts of violence or make them possible. Often this includes transforming harmful oppressive dynamics, our relationships to each other, and our communities at large.

 

TJ invites us to not only respond to current incidences of violence, but to also prevent future violence from happening, thereby breaking (generational) cycles of violence. TJ works to respond to immediate needs in a way that moves us closer to what we ultimately long for. In other words, how can we respond to violence in ways that not only address the current incident of violence, but also help to transform the conditions that allowed for it to happen? We must work to respond to current violence and its impacts in a way that does not undermine our long-term visions for preventing violence, responding to violence, and ultimately ending violence. What would it take to not only respond to rape, but to end rape? To not only respond to domestic violence, but to end domestic violence? To end child abuse? To end bullying? To end all forms of abuse?

 

TJ is community-based, but it is not enough to simply “not call the cops,” because many of our community responses to violence can be just as harmful as state responses, and can sometimes be more emotionally devastating due to the breaking and loss of relationship, family and community. Though state reform is important and useful to reduce harm, TJ focuses on community because we believe there is more possibility for transformation in our communities than the state.

 

Our communities are not perfect and have also internalized the state and its tactics (e.g. shame, blame, revenge, isolation). Many survivors have shared their traumatic stories of not only how the state responded to them when they reported, but also how their communities responded to them when they came forward as survivors. Often survivors are shamed, blamed, isolated, exiled, attacked or threatened with violence by their communities. We must push ourselves to move beyond just saying “no cops, no prisons” and move towards true transformation of violent behavior and conditions.

 

This is why it is critical that TJ is not simply the absence of the state and violence, but the presence of the values, practices, relationships and world that we want. It is not only identifying what we don’t want, but proactively practicing and putting in place things we want, such as healthy relationships, good communication skills, skills to de-escalate active or “live” harm and violence in the moment, learning how to express our anger in ways that are not destructive, incorporating healing into our everyday lives.

 

In TJ interventions we work to actively practice things such as healing and accountability for everyone involved, not only for the survivor and the person who committed the violence. TJ responses are an opportunity for us to not only address incidences of violence, harm and abuse, but to also take stock of and collectively build the kinds of relationships and communities that could intervene in instances of violence, as well as prevent violence. We can ask ourselves:  

 

  • What kinds of community infrastructure can we create to support more safety, transparency, sustainability, care and connection (e.g. a network of community safe houses that those in danger can use, an abundance of community members who are skilled at leading interventions to violence)?
  • What are the skills we need to be able to prevent, respond to, heal from, and take accountability for harmful, violent and abusive behaviors?
  • What do survivors and people who have caused harm need?
  • Why do survivors and people who have caused harm have so few options in our community?
  • What are some of the harmful ways that we treat each other that help set the stage for violence and abuse, and how can we change this?

 

Ultimately TJ understands that we have a collective responsibility when it comes to violence and that no one is born knowing how to rape or torture–these are learned behaviors. TJ is a collective response to violence within our communities and it requires that we understand that it is not about locking-up a few “bad apples,” but that violence is a necessary norm in our current society and actively encouraged. The current rates of domestic and sexual violence are at epidemic levels and violence against oppressed communities is extremely pervasive. Violence is collectively enabled, has a collective impact and requires a collective response. This does not excuse people’s harmful behavior or mean that a person who has caused harm or been violent doesn’t need to be accountable for their actions, but it does mean that we need to understand the context in which harm and violence happen.

 

TJ interventions can take different forms, but more often than not, they include (1) supporting survivors around their healing and/or safety and working with the person who has harmed to take accountability for the harm they’ve caused, (2) building community members’ capacities so that they can support the intervention, as well as heal and/or take accountability for any harm they were complicit in, and (3) building skills to prevent violence from occurring, and supporting community members’ skills to interrupt violence while it is happening.

 

Most TJ interventions involve a community accountability process, where a few members of the community work directly with the person who harmed to take accountability for the harm they’ve caused. This process, in the best-case scenario, works so that the person who caused harm understands their actions and the impact they had on the survivor(s) and others involved, apologizes, makes amends, repairs damage caused by their actions and–most importantly–works to change their behavior so that the harm doesn’t happen again. Changing your behavior is a fundamental part of taking accountability for harm you’ve done and it is often one of the main things survivors want: I just don’t want them to do this to anyone else. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I had to go through.

 

Most TJ work happening in the U.S. is addressing violence that has already occurred between people who know each other (e.g. intimate partner abuse or a sexual assault involving organizers working on a political campaign together). There is also a significant amount of TJ work that has dealt with live and active violence, as well as stranger-based violence (i.e. when violence happens between people who do not know each other such as hate violence, harassment, sexual assault by a stranger). Live violence and/or stranger violence TJ responses (which are not mutually exclusive) may not include an accountability process. This can also be true of any TJ intervention and response–sometimes just getting the violence to stop can be the main goal of a response. Sometimes the primary focus may be supporting the survivor and/or the community to heal or get immediate needs met such as medical treatment.

 

Transformative justice is a large framework, so this description cannot cover everything. We are trying to build alternatives to our current systems and break generational cycles of violence within our communities and families. We do not believe that prisons or cops make us safer. We believe that we can create the things we need. Transformative justice is one way that we are trying to address violence, harm and abuse in our communities in ways that are generative and do not create more destruction and trauma. Transformative justice processes are not perfect, and we are still learning a lot.

 

Some examples and case studies of community responses to violence:

 

 

For those who would like to read more about TJ, here are two helpful collections of readings and media as starting places:

Transform Harm

BATJC 2018 TJ Study readings and media

 

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“Disability Justice” is Simply Another Term for Love

 

This was the opening keynote speech at the 2018 Disability Intersectionality Summit, in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Oct 13, 2018. The official video recording of this keynote can be found here. 

 

[image of a pile of fall maple-like leaves in yellows and browns on the ground with a large green leaf on top.]

Good morning everyone. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you to the organizers of this—I know it takes an incredible amount of work to put something like this on. And it is often the kind of work that happens behind the scenes and goes unnoticed. Thank you so much for all you’ve done. And I want to extend special thanks to Sandy, who’s been in contact with me—thank you.

 

In addition to the beautiful acknowledgement of the land and indigenous people we had today, I also want to extend gratitude to the people who clean and care for this building. The people who mop and vacuum the floors, clean the toilets, take out the trash and maintain the grounds. The people who built this building and all those who have been displaced from where we are as well.

 

When I started out doing disability justice work, before it was even called “disability justice,” these spaces were so rare. I want people to not take this space for granted because so many disabled people would kill to be here and so many people don’t have access to this type of space. And I know that for a lot of us, this I our political work, this is our life and we seek out these spaces, we create them. I want us to keep remembering that so many folks will never have access to these spaces and how do we keep reminding our selves of who is not in the room? All the different people who are not here.

 

And I know there are brilliant workshops scheduled for today. Workshops that will break down the connections between disability and prisons and immigration and race and gender and sexuality and dance and activism and so much more. I know the analysis will be brilliant and much needed.

 

And I found as I was typing away at my computer, the things that were coming up were not only analysis, but also story and feeling; longing and love for all of you and how precious it is to be here together, even just for a day. To be in a space where we can center disabled people of color, disabled queer and trans folks. To be in a cross-disability space and how rare that is too. Analysis, of course, but heart and breathe and body, too.

 

Because I want to express gratitude for this space—a space to hold disability and intersectionality, a disability justice space—because for decades of my life I didn’t have any spaces like this. I didn’t even have conversations that could hold this. I didn’t have people in my life who I could talk to about these things. And it would have meant the world to me to have a space to talk about how disability, race, gender, adoption, survivorship, violence, cure, queerness and so much more connected and collided in my life, as a disabled child who had no one to talk to about my own lived experience. Who had no one who could support me as I navigated the medical industrial complex on my own as a disabled girl korean transracial and transnational adoptee, surrounded by white abled adults and doctors, nurses and practitioners who often didn’t talk to me about what was happening, except to tell me what a “good patient” I was.

 

As I was preparing my remarks for today, I realized that there was a deep sadness that kept bubbling up in me. A deep longing and aching for what I wish I had had and grief for all I never had. A grief for all the other disabled kids and youth out there who are also so very isolated and the disabled people who would give anything to be able to have this kind of space—many of whom don’t know that these kinds of spaces even exist. Who are surviving, isolated in their families or communities and don’t know that we are gathering here today—that people have been gathering like this.

 

Because that was definitely me. I didn’t know. I was so isolated. I was so alone. And I know that so many of us can relate to that.

 

Because that is often what happens: when we start to connect with our dreams and our visions and our longings, we often tap into our grief and our sadness; our heartbreak and sorrow for what we never had. For the ways we wished our lives could have been. For the spaces we wish existed. For all that still is not.

 

I wish someone had been there to talk about disability in a complex and nuanced way—to be able to hold (what we now call) disability justice. I wish I had known that there was so much more out there, especially during the hardest times; especially when I was inside the medical industrial complex experiencing so much violence. Especially on those mornings when my blisters were still raw from the days and weeks before, but I was forced to put on my painful brace. A brace that didn’t need to be whole, but others needed me to wear so that I could be “the right kind of disabled child.” One who they needed to be seen as trying to be as abled as possible, trying to fix myself and my walk and my body to be something other than I was. Something other than I am.

 

Someone who now stands here after all the surgeries and the braces and the physical therapy and the forced healing, just as disabled as I was then. Because the cure didn’t work—as I knew it wouldn’t. It didn’t take, even though they really tried.

 

I think our stories are powerful and magnificent; and I hope you all will be able to share some of your stories here with each other because our lives so clearly encapsulate why we so desperately need these kinds of spaces. Our lives are illustrations of disability and intersectionality and there is a wealth of knowledge there for us to learn from and use.

 

And for so many of us, if we don’t tell our stories, who will? If we can’t share our stories with each other, whom can we share them with?

 

I often think about all the things needed to hold my story, just to name a few: someone who understands disability, ableism, abled supremacy; the medical industrial complex, histories and notions of cure, ugliness and the myth of beauty; race, white supremacy, orientalism, adoption, transracial adoption, transnational adoption, the commodification and ownership of children, immigration, forced migration; korea, diaspora, US imperialism, war, borders; the Caribbean, colonization, the US South, anti-black racism, slavery and the US slave trade system; misogyny, patriarchy, sexism, gender, domestic and sexual violence, child sexual abuse; feminism, queerness, queer people of color; rural lands, islands, rural communities. And how all of these intersect with each other.

 

I wonder what the things needed to hold your stories are? I wonder how many pieces of your story weren’t told because there wasn’t anyone who could understand and hold them? I wonder how many parts of all of our stories that we still have never told anyone because of this?

 

My story is just as much a story about korean adoptees and korea, as it is a story about disability, as it is a story about feminism and queerness and growing up on a rural island outside of the U.S. mainland.

 

A part of this symposium is not only revealing the connections of different systems of oppression, trauma and violence with disability; but also the connection of all of these things within our selves and our lives and refusing to cut ourselves and our stories up. Refusing to tell partial stories for other people’s convenience. Refusing to separate our work for the comfort of others.

 

Because this space should not be rare—this should be the norm. It should not be that we have to leave mainstream disability spaces (or even alternative disability spaces) to be able to be our full selves and have whole conversations—about our own lives. It shouldn’t be that we have to leave racial justice and people of color spaces to be able to fully name and examine how abled supremacy and white supremacy work hand-in-hand to oppress and target disabled people of color and all people of color at large. It shouldn’t be that we have to leave queer and feminist spaces to be able to talk about how gender oppression and ableism have deeply intertwined roots. And why it is just as important to abolish the gender binary, as it is to abolish abled supremacy.

 

It shouldn’t be that we have to go to the margins of the margins of the margins of the margins. And don’t get me wrong; I love living out there. There are amazing things and people out there. And it shouldn’t be that that’s the only place where we can be whole.

 

It shouldn’t be that we have to hold our tongues or risk backlash or be met with empty silence just to be able to talk about our own realities and the realities of our communities. Just to be able to talk about our own lives.

 

This is also a part of the isolation we face everyday.

 

In all of our sharp intersectional analysis, we must locate ourselves, our stories and where our lives live in all of their complexities: privilege, oppression, how we have been harmed and how we have been complicit in harm. None of here are innocent.

 

I think of this as a kind of access—liberatory access, that is. Because it is not enough to just make sure that we can get into the room or that the conversation is translated or that we can access the materials. And it is not enough for us to simply get to share what’s important to us (though I know that many times we don’t even get to share that), if no one knows how to hold what we are sharing; if no one knows how to understand and fully engage with what we are sharing. How many times have we been in rooms and shared our truths, only to be met with backlash, avoidance or blank faces and awkward silence because people have not done their own work to educate themselves to be able to meet us? Whether it is in white spaces, abled spaces, hearing spaces, neurotypical spaces? How many times has the conversation continued on as if we never shared at all?

 

I don’t just want technical and logistical access. I don’t just want inclusion, I want liberatory access and access intimacy. I want us to not only be able to be part of spaces, but for us to be able to fully engage in spaces. I don’t just want us to get a seat at someone else’s table, I want us to be able to build something more magnificent than a table, togetherwith our accomplices. I want us to be able to be understood and to be able to take part in principled struggle together—to be able to be human together. Not just placated or politely listened to.

 

I want this for us and I also want this from us. Because the moment we acknowledge intersectionality, it also means we must acknowledge and face ourselves. Because even within this room and out there on the live stream, there are many, many differences between us and between those that aren’t able to join us here. Some of us are immigrants, some of us are not; some of us are survivors of sexual violence, some of us are not. Some of us benefit from light skinned privilege and/or white passing privilege, some of us do not. Some of us benefit from anti-black racism, or hearing supremacy or a world built for cis people. I want us to do our work so that when people whose oppression benefits us, share their truths or their questions, we can meet them in those conversations. We can join them in principled struggle in conversations about activism, strategy, action, accountability and justice.

 

These kind of spaces (like the one we’re in today) often feel like tiny oases  in the middle of a desert, and that is real. And I would also like to offer that they can also serve as a microcosm of the world in which we currently exist and to think of them as any “safer” than anywhere else is an illusion. I would like to offer that multiple truths can exist and that one does not negate the other. This space can be both a welcomed respite from the unrelenting storm we are usually in andboth/and—it can also be a storm as well.

 

When I say “liberatory access,” I mean access that is more than simply having a ramp or being scent free or providing captions. Access for the sake of access or inclusion is not necessarily liberatory, but access done in the service of love, justice, connection and community is liberatory and has the power to transform. I want us to think beyond just knowing the “right things to say” and be able to truly engage. I want us to not only make sure things are accessible, but also work to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. To not only meet the immediate needs of access—whether that is access to spaces, or access to education and resources, or access to dignity and agency—but also work to make sure that the inaccessibility doesn’t happen again.

 

(This is also at the crux of transformative justice work I’m a part of: you work to not only address the harm and the immediate needs the harm created, but you also make sure that the harm does not happen again and that you are working to transform the conditions that allowed the harm to happen in the first place.)

 

Because, as we integrate disability justice into our political work more and more—as we grow it and cultivate it—we must also be mindful that it is not an easy fix, and if anything, disability justice will require us to work harder and dig deeper. Disability justice should not only be about our analysis and political work, but it should also encompass how we do our work and how we treat each other, as fellow disabled people with multiple oppressed identities and experiences. Because I know I am not alone when I say that some of my deepest wounds have come from other disabled people. I know I am not alone when I say that sometimes we can treat each other in more painful ways than those outside of our community have treated us.

 

As we work to change the world, we must also work to change ourselves. And we must support each other in that change. Ableism and other systems of oppression and violence have left their mark on us. We can’t, on the one hand, understand how devastating capitalism, misogyny and criminalization are and then on the other hand, pretend as if they don’t affect how we treat each other and ourselves. Because most of us treat ourselves in ways that we would never treat anyone else. Most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves and that helps to lay the groundwork for abuse in the world.

 

Because no matter how on-point our analysis is, if we can’t treat each other well, our work will not get far. Because the systems we are up against will require collective work—if we could have changed them on our own, we would have already done it—and collective work requires that we are in relationship with each other in some way shape or form.

 

It is always so amazing to me that disabled people, who are so incredibly isolated and exiled, will also isolate and exile each other. And I know most of us have been on both sides of this.

 

Now, I am not saying that we all have to be besties with each other or that people don’t need to be accountable for their actions and/or harm they have done—they absolutely do. What I’m saying is that disability justice requires us to understand intersectionality, and intersectionality requires that we learn how to hold and value difference and contradictions. (e.g. you can be both oppressed and privileged by the same identity. You can have survived harm and do harm. These are contradictions that we all hold. I’m sure that all of us have been harmed in this room and all of us have either harmed or participated in harm or looked away from harm in some way shape or form. Whether it’s via our privilege or whatever else it may be.) What I’m saying is that it is not only “those people out there” who need to change, but it is “us in here” as well. What I am saying is that isolation, exclusion and erasure has been destructively wielded against us and our communities, so why would we want to wield them against each other?

 

Because I would argue that “disability justice” is simply another term for love. And so is “solidarity,” “access,” and “access intimacy.” I would argue that our work for liberation is simply a practice of love—one of the deepest and most profound there is. And the creation of this space is an act of love.

 

And if we can’t love each other and ourselves, then what good is any of our work to get free? If we can’t reach out to break isolation and the walls we’ve put up between each other, as disabled people, then we will have already lost before we’ve won any political battle. What good is it if we can wage amazing campaigns, if we all end up hating each other in the end? If we can’t practice addressing the hard things between each other, then how will we ever have a fighting chance to address the hard things in this world that keep our peoples locked up and locked out?

 

We have to work to transform the world, but we can only do that effectively if we can work to transform ourselves and our relationships with each other at the same time. Because our work depends on us and our relationships with each other. And if anyone is worth it, it is us and the generations of disabled children and people coming after us. We have a responsibility to leave them a legacy worth fighting for. To leave them powerful stories of not only how we were able to shut down prisons and I.C.E., but also how we were able to come through harm together, for the better. How we were able to make amends with our disabled kin and heal together. One of the greatest ways to resist abled supremacy is by loving each other. How we were able to practice transformative love together in the face of fear, isolation and heartbreak. And I know that there’s a lot of heartbreak.

 

This is how we practice interdependence. This is how we practice trust and belonging and hope. This is how we practice disability justice in its most powerful and magnificent potential.

 

So, I hope you all have a wonderful symposium and thank you so much for having me.

 

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Finding Each Other: Building Legacies of Belonging

*Opening keynote speech at KQTcon 2018, the first national LGBTQ Korean conference in the United States, in New York City on 4/7/18.

 

To listen to the live recording from the conference, click here: KQTcon 2018 Keynote. (Thank you to Asia Pacific Forum for the recording!)

 

[photo of the words “queer korean” and a heart below them written in light in the air at night next to a fire.]

Thank you so much for having me here today.

 

I want to extend gratitude to the folks on the planning team who put this conference together. Anyone here who has ever put on a big event knows that it takes a lot of work. And specifically, I want to acknowledge, not only the logistical and grunt work put into this conference, but the work it takes to go from having an idea to actually deciding to make it a reality. It takes a lot of initiative and courage to put yourself out there like that and step into leadership. So, I want to appreciate all of the different types of labor that you all have put into this.

 

Thank you, because I grew up in and spent most of my life in places where I never had access to any kind of spaces like this. So, I don’t take it for granted and I know how much this kind of gathering would have meant to me when I was younger. I hope none of us take this space for granted because there are so many queer and trans Koreans who would give anything to have and be in this type of space; would give anything to be here.

 

I want to send gratitude to the people who built and care for this building every day and all the unseen and forgotten labor that goes into that. The people who clean the toilets, dispose of the trash, mop and vacuum the floors, care for the grounds. The people whose land this originally was as well as all of those who have been displaced since then.

 

 

I’m honored to be speaking at the first national gathering of queer and trans Koreans in the US. Thank you for inviting me to be here. Thank you all for being here and for being part of this space.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have someone like me speak at this conference. What it means to have a queer physically disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor raised in the Caribbean speak in this space. I never thought that anything like that would happen. I am queer Korean and yet, often times I’ve learned that “queer Korean” or “Korean” doesn’t always mean or include me. And I am sure that many of you have also felt this.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have a visibly, physically disabled Korean speak, when most queer and korean specific events or events put on by queer Koreans rarely, if ever, mention accessibility on their event information. Queer and trans Koreans who rarely, if ever can even engage in a conversation with me about what it means to be queer and trans, korean and disabled. How can we talk about gender without talking about bodies and disability? How can we talk about what it means to be Korean without talking about the impact of violence, imperialism, colonization, war, militarization and legacies of abuse and separation on our bodyminds, psyches, hearts and relationships? And that is completey connected to ableism.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have an adoptee speak when so many queer Korean spaces haven’t done the best job at making space for us. When so many of us are queer and share the experience of finding “queer and trans family” and searching for our people, our history, our place within the korean diaspora. When we represent the pain of separation, unthinkable survival and resilience in the face of life-altering violence, returning, reunification and the unbreakable longing of Korea and the Korean diaspora.

 

I say all of these things because it is not lost on me that many of the reasons I was invited to speak, are the very things that have made it so hard for me to be part of queer and trans Korean, and Korean american community. I say this because whenever we come together it is our differences that get emphasized and the contradictions they represent become more acute. And we have a lot of differences. We may all be queer Koreans, but we are also many more things. When I think about what it means to be queer and Korean, I cannot separate it from all of who I am.

 

I can’t separate it from being an adoptee or being disabled or growing up in the Caribbean or being a survivor. I can’t separate it from growing up in a small, rural feminist community, surrounded by lesbian and straight women who worked side-by-side to respond to violence against women and children. I can’t separate it from the reason I was even on that island in the first place. Can’t separate it from the surgeries I had once I got to the US that I can’t even remember because I was so young. Can’t separate it from growing up as a visibly, physically disabled child. Can’t separate it from coming into my queerness in the South, in a vibrant and loving queer community that was predominantly Black. Can’t separate it from navigating QTPOC spaces with a visible, physical disability. Can’t separate it from my Korean mother asking if the reason I don’t have a husband is because of my disability.

 

How do you divide-up and measure longing? My longing for queer people and queer love. My longing for Korea and a family to which I will both always belong and never belong. The longing to be able to have at least one conversation with my Korean mother without a translator before she dies. The longing for queer Koreans who want to hold all of who I am, not only when it’s convenient or for political gain. The longing for both queerness and Koreaness, which led me to the most magnificent love I have ever known (or known of) with a queer Korean from the South.

 

I say all of this to say, what is Koreaness? What does it mean if it means something so very different to all of us? What does it mean to be Korean specifically in the US, in this historical moment as the fears of nuclear war rumble through the country? What does it mean to be part of the Korean diaspora in the US, given the role of US imperialism, war and occupation in Korea? In this historical moment of US racial and immigrant justice movements as the legacy of state sanctioned violence against Black people continues to roar forward, against a backdrop of ICE raids, deportations and seething anti-immigrant contempt.

 

I say this to ask, where does my story fit into the legacy of queer and trans Korean people and community? Where does your story fit? And how can we commit to sharing our stories with each other—our whole stories—without fear of losing each other? Because the one thing I know about queers and Koreans is that we know how to find and hold on to each other—sometimes to a fault. We know how to take care of our own, even if we are strangers to each other, because we know we are never truly strangers to each other. And we know we are all we have.

 

For example, I think about the ways that queer APIs in the South would stretch for each other and take care of each other. I think about the times when I opened my home to strangers, without hesitation, who needed a place to stay or a meal to eat or a safe person to be with. I think about the times when that same loving care was extended to me and how these were the ways we learned how to survive. These were the ways we knew we would survive because we did not have the luxury that queer APIs did and do in other parts of the country. This was one of the ways we built small islands of belonging in the middle of a raging river.

 

 

In preparing to write this keynote, there was a part of me that thought, What do I have to say that’s even worth anything? A lifetime of isolation and not belonging anywhere doesn’t go away easily. But then I thought, if I don’t belong here, where else would I belong? How can I not belong here, when I am queer Korean? How can my story not belong here, when my story is queer Korean? As queer and trans Korean people, if we don’t belong to each other, then to whom else do we belong? If we don’t love and accept each other, then who else will?

 

Because on the one hand, it’s true, I don’t belong anywhere, like many of you also probably feel. And on good days, it can feel like a slow, dull, throbbing ache, while other days, it can feel acutely, excruciatingly unbearable. Belonging can be a hard thing to believe in. It can be a hard thing to believe you deserve. It can be a hard thing to be able to even feel.

 

Most days the canyons that loneliness and isolation have carved out inside of me feel impossible to cross. They feel insurmountable and I know most of you in this room have those moments too. But then I think about the powerful legacies I am a part of and the people who have risked their lives for me to have a shot at something more than hopelessness. I remember all the people we’ve lost to loneliness and despair and isolation and longing and pain, whether their own or someone else’s. And I muster myself up and I choose to try; I choose to leap; I choose to love and reach out—to you and to myself. I choose to share; I choose to trust.

 

In that spirit, I want to share a little bit of my story with you; my queer Korean story. It is not the full story by any means, but it is a practice of hope; a practice of trust; a practice of love for you, my kin; and a practice of risk—because hope, trust and love are always risks we take with each other and ourselves.

 

 

I am a queer disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee. I was adopted from Korea at 6 months old, by white parents on to the small island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. I was adopted a hair before the peak of Korean transnational adoption and I am one of the few Korean adoptees that I know of who were sent to the USVI.

 

I contracted polio before I was shipped to the US and I arrived in the US needing immediate medical attention and spent most of my childhood in and out of doctors and practitioners’ offices. Most summers I had a surgery on either my ear or my leg—or sometimes both.

 

I experienced so much trauma and violence in the medical industrial complex (MIC) that even now, I still try and avoid it at any cost. On top of the regular onslaught of ableism that disabled children face, I was also sexually abused in the MIC. I know it had everything to do with being a disabled girl of color; being a tiny Korean girl whose body was handed over to a white male establishment by white parents who didn’t know how dangerous that was. I know that the violence of adoption helped to normalize the violence I experienced within the MIC, both the gross abuses of power, as well as things that are still considered standard practices. It was impossible to separate the violent erasing of my disabled self via ableism from the violent erasure of my Korean self via transracial and transnational adoption.

 

I wore a large fiberglass brace on my leg until midway through college and it was excruciatingly hot under the Caribbean sun. It would give me blisters and pain and I hated wearing it. It often made me stand out, along with my limp and being Asian, and to this day, I don’t know what it is like to not have people constantly stare at you; constantly watch you. I often think that disability and being a Korean adoptee contributed to my ability to be a public speaker: I am used to being a spectacle and having people stare at me. People ask adoptees of color just as intrusive and offensive questions as they do visibly physically disabled women of color. You are public property, a game show riddle to figure out, a problem to solve.

 

I never felt like my body was my own. It always felt like someone else’s. It was always a never-ending barrage of how it was wrong: too disabled, too ugly, too awkward, too un-feminine, too undesirable, too Asian, too Korean, too uncontrollable, too tragic. Something to be pitied; never desired, never loved.

 

I was raised in a very rural, tight-knit feminist community. The year I was adopted, my adoptive mother, along with 9 other women started the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, a direct service organization that helped victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. Before that, there were no services on the island for people to go to and because of this, they became a catch-all for families in crisis. I went to countless Take Back the Night marches and helped stuff envelopes and make purple ribbons. I learned early on that violence was everywhere. It was systemic and more than just a couple of “bad apples.” It was happening in every community.

 

In the early days of the Coalition, I would play in the hallway with kids while their mothers sought support. I remember being young and having our neighbor from up the street and her two children spend the night at our house, so they could catch a plane and escape off the island in the middle of the night to escape her abusive husband. I remember going to court cases about domestic violence with my adoptive mother and playing with the other kids while our mothers met for hours on end at meeting after meeting.

 

I am a child of the movement and I witnessed women organizing for themselves when no one else would.

 

I grew up around Audre Lorde and Gloria Joseph, meeting Angela Davis and getting to hear her speak, getting to watch Sweet Honey and the Rock perform and having conversations about oppression at the dinner table. I learned about oppression from an early age and tried to engage my classmates in conversations about their white or male privilege in grade school. But even through growing up in such a politicized community, no one ever taught me about ableism or what it meant to be Asian, East Asian or Korean. No one ever connected the violence they were fighting against with the violence I was experiencing within the MIC. We never talked about my parent’s roles as colonizers on the island or what it meant for a white straight couple to adopt Korean children and decide to raise them on an island with virtually no other Korean people.

 

I was lucky that I got to grow up around proud lesbians (women of color and white women) who had been with their partners for years, and who were as normal to me as the “you can’t beat a woman” T-shirts we wore for the annual Women’s Race fundraiser. I was lucky to be surrounded by lesbian and straight women who consistently got called “dykes who hated men” and “wanted to break up families” because of the anti-violence work they were doing. Lucky that all through my adolescence, my adoptive mother would tell me over and over, “You know, Mia, if you or any of your friends are gay, it’s O.K. You can always come and talk to me about it.” And though at the time, I thought I would die from sheer embarrassment, I look back now and know how lucky I was, as a queer youth to have that kind of support. I wouldn’t fully come into my queerness until the end of college, but I know that no matter who you are—that was rare for that time.

 

I didn’t grow up culturally Korean and had no support in figuring out how to move through the world as an East Asian woman (adoptee with a disability) in the Caribbean and later the South. I remember another queer Korean adoptee once describing it as being faced with a giant puzzle she was left to figure out on her own, with no picture to follow and no instructions to go on. I remember feeling her words in my heart when she spoke and the way her grief, frustration and resilience seemed indistinguishable from each other in that moment.

 

Even when I was asked to speak at this conference, I was surprised, because my story is not usually the queer Korean story told, but it is a queer Korean story. What do we mean when we say “queer Korean?”

 

My story is not the story most people want to hear or are used to hearing. It’s too disabled or not disabled enough; too adoptee or not adoptee enough; too survivor or not survivor enough. It’s not Korean enough, not Asian enough, not immigrant enough, not queer enough, not Caribbean enough, not American enough. It is, I’m sure, like a lot of your stories: complicated and full of contradictions; full of the hard and soft. It’s not easily categorized into neat boxes and requires people to hold multiple truths at the same time.

 

And yet, it is part of the queer and trans Korean diaspora. And so am I. As are you and your stories.

 

I belong everywhere and nowhere at once. We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

I know it can be hard just to show up. It can take a lot of courage just to be present. Belonging must be built and grown collectively. And that is part of what we’re doing here today: the work of building and creating belonging. It is a skill we can learn and teach others, a practice we can always be engaged in and a decision we can choose to make at any given moment.

 

I want to acknowledge all of you, for the labor of showing up and being present (especially those of you who were nervous about it), as well as all of those who aren’t able to be with us.

 

There are many who will never know queer Korean community or some who have been so burned by queer Koreans and queer Korean community that they have given up on it. Or those who are afraid to be part of queer and trans Korean community. Or those who long for it so badly, at the very same time that it terrifies them.

 

We often crave, the very things that scare us: love, community, belonging, vulnerability, trust, accountability, family. It reminds me of that James Baldwin quote: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

 

I witness this all the time in my transformative justice work. I witness people being terrified of that which they desire most. Whether it is healing, accountability, trust, transformation, vulnerability, truth, belonging or courage. So, they often find endless ways to push it away, distract themselves with something else or they continue to choose their masks again and again.

 

We will all be faced with moments when we have the opportunity to risk lowering our masks—to risk true vulnerability with each other. Those moments when we have a chance to soften and let someone else in and let ourselves out. Those moments when we risk being hurt or having our hearts broken or bruised. Those moments when we can feel just how ill-fitting our masks really are.

 

And we don’t always choose to lower our masks. Many times we choose to tighten our masks closer to us. None of us are perfect and we are all growing. As a queer Korean I talked to earlier this week said, “I’m flawed and we’re all flawed.”

 

But I think everyone who is here for this conference is, in some small way, loosening their mask, even as we cling to it. Even as we peek out a little from behind it. Everyone here, even if it’s small, is letting their desire for queer Koreans, and queer Korean desire, be seen and recognized. Even if many of us would also roll our eyes at the thought of “queer Korean community,” or at the thought of “community.” A lot of us have become jaded and rightfully so. It’s not enough to come together and talk about the good things, we also need to be in principled struggle with each other because that’s how we grow and deepen our connection with each other.

 

I told a queer Korean friend of mine about this conference and they said in a long sorrowful sigh, “I just don’t know what queer Korean community holds for me anymore.” I told another and they scoffed, as if to say, that’s a nice idea, but it’s not possible—or worse, it’s not worth it.

 

Because after all, what is “community?” What is this thing, “community,” that we talk about so much? This thing that we romanticize to no end and that has let so many of us down, even as we refuse to let it go completely? We talk about community all the time, but many of us struggle to know what that actually means and how to actually build it, especially when so many of us are so isolated.

 

I travel from coast to coast and most people I meet do not feel connected to a community. This is especially common for those of us living in the west or under capitalism. Many people don’t even know what community is or how to know if they have it. Folks want to be connected to community, but they don’t feel they are. Even those who are thought of as “in community” often feel lonely and isolated too. And across the board, most people don’t feel like they belong.

 

Maybe this is just a part of what it means to be part of a diaspora. Always feeling in-between; always feeling that familiar longing and grief for what was lost, what was taken, what never should have been. I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.

 

I am Korean, but I’m not Korean. They are my family, but they’re not my family. That is my home, but it’s not my home.

 

I was 25 when I returned to my Korean mother and family for the first time since being given up for adoption when I was a week old. I remember many days, especially in those first days as I struggled with jetlag, waking up on the floor in my parent’s room surprised to find my mother sleeping next to me with her hand in mine. This was a language for which we did not need a translator; a language that couldn’t be translated, even if we had spoken the same language. I remember silently watching her sleep, as she had probably watched me. I remember wishing that I knew her and that she knew me, and knowing that I am her daughter and yet I am not. Knowing that though we share blood, a laugh that fills a room, and an experience that fundamentally changed both of our lives forever, we were also strangers in many ways.

 

We are, but we’re not. We ‘re not, but we are.

We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

One of the things I always think of whenever I think about queer and trans Koreans is the way that so many people I know and love stay connected to their families. Though their families often do not understand or are hostile to their queer and trans identities, they refuse to let each other go. Though they might have to hide who they are, for decades, maybe even their entire life, they continue to return to each other. To me, there is something so powerful about that kind of love.

 

I know it is not perfect and there are many painful complexities about it. I know that the silence that is expected in return for connection is dangerous, harmful and neither just nor right nor fair. I know that it can be hard to tell guilt, shame, denial and abuse from love. And—both/and—there is something so deeply magnificent about the ways that we can still love and care and show-up for each other, even through our pain. In the ways that a heart can break and still keep loving at the same time. And how in so many ways, that has everything to do with who we are as a people, both as queer and trans people and as Korean people.

 

I think about the ways that we find each other as queer and trans people, the way that we find each other as queer and trans people of color—as queer and trans Koreans. The ways that we are often raised outside of our queer and trans communities and culture and language and history, but how we find our ways to each other and teach, create and grow our culture together. And I think about how this mirrors many Korean adoptee’s journeys.

 

I think about the many queer and trans Koreans that I’ve known who did not live on the coasts or in big cities and how we were able to find each other and stay connected, even in the face of incredible isolation—we still held on to each other.

 

“Family acceptance” is not just about our biological or immediate families, it is also about “family” in the ways that queer folks have reclaimed that term and made it our own—made it into a balm for our lives. I’m talking about the way queer and trans folks make up our own kind of family. We are kin.

 

It’s not enough to only talk about the homophobia and transphobia we face inside Korean community and family, because we also do damage to each other. We also reject each other, abuse each other, push each other away and fear one another. We also gloss over our differences in favor of convenience, denial or fear. And in many ways it can be even more painful because we are each others kin—we are each other’s queer and trans Korean kin. The stakes are so high and the fall is so great when things go awry—those canyons are so deep. And we often don’t have resources to turn to, as queer and trans people of color, and many of us suffer in silence for years, sometimes for entire lifetimes.

 

We have a lot of work to do within our community, our relationships and our selves.

 

We have to prioritize healing, both individually and collectively because they cannot be separated from each other. I would bet that most of us in this room have at one point or another struggled with our mental health. I would bet that most of us have experienced some type of abuse either from our families, within our relationships or even within our organizing. All of us have trauma and we all carry generational trauma in our bones, breath and cells.

 

How can we work towards any kind of liberation, if we can’t treat each other well? If we can’t build and rebuild trust when it is broken? If we can’t build healthy relationships? If we can’t let each other be human and make mistakes? If we can’t take accountability for harm we’ve caused? If we can’t support survivors in their healing and people who have harmed in their accountability? Most of us can’t even navigate conflict well, let alone violence, harm or abuse.

 

How can we ask other people to treat queer and trans Koreans well, if we can’t even treat ourselves and each other well?

 

What I want for us is healing and transformation. I want us to fight with everything we have to invest in building the skills and commitment we need to be able to face ourselves and each other—and to do it lovingly. To be able to speak our truths and tell our stories and our secrets without fear of losing each other. I want us to be able to risk being vulnerable again and again because you cannot build trust without vulnerability, and true love cannot exist without trust. I want us to call on our queer super powers of desire.

 

As queer people, we know the power of desire and we know how political desire is. And I’m not just talking about who you sleep with, I’m talking about desire in a much more expansive way. I’m talking about desire as that which pulls us towards liberation and that which pulls us towards aliveness. I am talking about that hunger that won’t let us sleep and makes us ache for something more, something true.

 

I want us to learn to desire the true, the messy, the complicated—the human. I want us to desire each other as queer and trans Koreans. I want us to desire queer Korean family and community. I want us to desire queer Korean love.

 

I think about what it means for those of us who continue to show up for this thing that we call “queer Korean community.” Even through our heartbreak and disappointments, even through our hesitations and fear. This is the kind of love and desire that I want us to continue to practice. This is the kind of hope that I want us to live into and pass on to the next generation of queer and trans Koreans who will struggle to find their place and wonder if they belong. Let us be able to meet their longing and fears with our longing and love, so that we may be able to embrace them and all of who they are with all of who we are, whispering, “Yes. Yes, you belong.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm

Photo of my wheelchair in a dark room, silhouetted against a doorway, with a large shirt outlined in lights hanging against a dark wall.

“Forced Intimacy” is a term I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experience of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world. This often takes the form of being expected to share (very) personal information with able bodied people to get basic access, but it also includes forced physical intimacy, especially for those of us who need physical help that often requires touching of our bodies. Forced intimacy can also include the ways that disabled people have to build and sustain emotional intimacy and relationships with someone in order to get access—to get safe, appropriate and good access.

 

I have experienced forced intimacy my entire life as a disabled child, youth and adult. I am always expected to do the work of opening myself up for others’ benefit, education, curiosity or benevolent oppression.

 

Forced intimacy is a cornerstone of how ableism functions in an able bodied supremacist world. Disabled people are expected to “strip down” and “show all our cards” metaphorically in order to get the basic access we need in order to survive. We are the ones who must be vulnerable—whether we want to or not—about ourselves, our bodyminds and our abilities. Forced intimacy was one of the many ways I learned that consent does not exist for my disabled asian girl bodymind. People are allowed to ask me intrusive questions about my body, make me “prove” my disability or expect me to share with them every aspect of my accessibility needs. I learned how to simultaneously shrink myself and nonconsensually open myself up as a disabled girl of color every damn day.

 

Forced intimacy is the opposite of access intimacy. It feels exploitative, exhausting and at times violating. Because I am physically disabled and use a manual wheelchair, I often experience forced intimacy when able bodied people push my wheelchair without my consent or when I am in situations where I have to be pushed by people I do not feel safe with, know or who are actively harassing me while pushing me. This often happens when I am traveling and have to rely on strangers for my access needs. I cannot count the number of times a strange man has pushed my wheelchair in the airport, while saying offensive and gross comments to me. These are the moments where disability, race, gender, immigration, class, age and sexuality collide together at once, indistinguishable from one another.

 

Another example of forced intimacy is when I am somewhere and need an arm to lean on while walking, as I often do, and I have to be physically close to and touch someone I do not want to. This happened much more when I was growing up as a disabled child and youth, before I had more say over my life and the people in it. Forced intimacy is also my entire experience in the medical industrial complex with doctors, nurses, brace makers, physical therapists and practitioners, none of which I ever consented to. It is also the many moments in my daily adult life when I have to share more information than needed to get access for events I would like to attend from folks, including “comrades,” who do not post any accessibility information on their event pages or flyers, but have an “accessibility needs” section on their Google forms. Tip: if you don’t provide any accessibility information about your event, then I cannot assess what my access needs will be. Am I supposed to list out every single access need I might ever possibly have, simply because of your ignorance?

 

Even in writing this essay, I am pushing back against the ableist notion that disabled people should just be grateful for whatever we get—whatever crumbs are thrown our way. Well, at least they even had an “accessibility needs” section on their form. And most importantly, I am pushing back against the forced intimacy and emotional labor I am supposed to constantly be engaged in so people won’t be “mad” at me, because as disabled people know all too well, able bodied people will not help you with your access unless they “like” you. This is a very real and dangerous caged reality that I and many other disabled people live in and it is one of the main reasons why forced intimacy exists.

 

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. People I don’t know or who have never even had a conversation with me about disability casually expect to be my “access person,” without realizing that there is significant trust and competency that must be built. People assume that I will accept any access—again, any crumbs—thrown my way and of course that I should be ever-grateful for it. They don’t realize that consent exists on both ends. Sure, I know how to survive and get by with ableist access, that is a skill I will never lose as long as I am living in an ableist world; but I am also working for a world where disabled people get to be human and have consent over our bodies, minds and intimacy.

 

The contradiction of having to survive in the oppressive world you are trying to change is always complicated and dehumanizing.

 

One of the reasons that forced intimacy has been so prominent in my life is because there is an inherent intimacy to access—or at least, in my experience, to my access. When someone is helping me with access, I am vulnerable; I am interdependent with them, even if they don’t realize it. There is a magnificent vulnerability to access and to disability that is powerful and potentially transformative, if we would only tap into it. Sadly, in an ableist world, access and disability get stripped of their transformative powers and instead get distorted into “dependent,” “burden” and “tragic.” Forced intimacy is a byproduct of this and functions as a constant oppressive reminder of domination and control.

 

Though I have written here about forced intimacy as it relates to disability and access, it is in no way relegated only to ableism. I have experienced forced intimacy as it relates to other forms of oppression as well, and it manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. It has been a constant part of my life and my experience as a queer disabled korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor. The forced intimacy of transracial and transnational adoption, for example, is a never-ending black hole for so many of us.

 

I cannot account here all of the many ways that forced intimacy has so fundamentally impacted and shaped me, that is for another piece of writing. I ache for the day when that will no longer be the case, especially for future generations of disabled children.

 

 

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