I’m in Chicago O’Hare airport right now, I’ve been on a trip that included New York, Philly, and suburban Illinois. This is the last stop. I’m on my way home. I’m about to catch my flight. But before heading out this morning I paid a visit to an old family friend.
An auntie as we say. Of course it’s always an auntie or a cousin. People who have been in your life for years, but don’t have a biological link, have to fit in some category. So if they’re close to us in age, they’re a cousin. But if they’re significantly older, they need some designation that establishes a type of respect. Hence auntie.
My auntie is in her 70s. Like my grandmother, she smokes Pall Mall cigarettes (and she pronounced them Pell Mell). And when she doesn’t have a good enough reason to leave her home, she wears her dressing gown all day.
As far as I’m concerned, #GOALS.
She muted the tv as we sat down and asked how I was doing. (I’m fine.)
She asked if I’m seeing anyone. (I’m still not.)
She didn’t ask if I was seeing a girl. She knows I’m gay, but we don’t talk about it. She’s not exactly homophobic. But she doesn’t really know what to do with this information. So instead of asking about boys specifically, she just plays the pronoun game. Which is hilarious considering where we collectively are with pronouns for trans people. But I digress.
We spent about 15 minutes with her getting me caught up on Days of Our Lives. Personally I gave up on ‘the stories’ in the early 2000s. But she keeps me in the loop so I’m not lost in case I come back to the fold. I was devastated when Stefano DiMera died. The actor’s death in real life reminded me that all my faves that I grew up will age and pass away.
Eventually we were both on our phones because ~21st century. I’m mildly surprised she uses her smartphone as much as she does. But auntie ain’t no goddamn punk. She might not own a computer. But she uses her phone nonstop, and she knows how to DVR better than I can.
Somehow we got on the topic of social media. She follows me on Facebook. She doesn’t know wtf I’m talking about half the time. But she thinks I’m pretty popular.
We talked about the piece I put up on Thursday. I told her the Internet was hauling me up over it. A couple of folks were pressed about the main gist of the essay, but mainly people took issue with the trigger warnings part.
Now all this social justice talk is pretty boring to her. So I did my best to explain in brief what all the terms and catchphrases meant and why I said wtf I said.
Not a week passes by in which I don’t have at least two messages from people either telling me that something I said in conversation online should have had a trigger warning, and two more messages from people telling me words that I should not say at ALL when talking about other animals regardless of the circumstances (btw, the list includes, among other words: slavery, rape, kidnap, abuse, captive, refugee, and prisoner).
At one point, I found myself trying to hold space in my head to accommodate this rapidly accumulating list of words while speaking and trying to monitor for anything that might remotely damage someone else. In some ways, it’s like my Czech language classes…except there’s a penalty for getting it wrong. And in some cases, that penalty is severe. Every single day, I could feel my anxiety peak with the understanding that I would inevitably fail and end up in an even worse depression than I am already experiencing (and for longer and longer periods, these days).
She sat calmly reading her phone, not even looking up. To the average person, it probably appeared as though she wasn’t even listening to me. But to a veteran smartphone multi-tasker, I knew she heard every word. Patiently she asked, “Sebastian, who are the people that are worrying you?”
“Intersectional vegans,” I answered quickly.
“No, I mean are they white?”
And I thought about it. Yes. Yes, they are white. Every single person rolling up through my DMs—of whom there are dozens—rolling up through my DMs with new demands is white. One hundred percent. And I don’t mean some approximate percentage that is close to one hundred. I mean every last one of them. I told her this.
Seemingly unsurprised, she asked further, “No black people at all?”
“A couple of black voices, to varying degrees, responded to my post that they had a dissenting position. But none who were particularly pressed. Mostly questioning or adding to the conversation. But no, I never actually received a message from a black person requesting a trigger warning or telling me what words I should use or avoid.”
“Sounds to me like you don’t have a problem with trigger warnings. You have a white people problem.”
And right there was the crux of my situation in fourteen words.
She smiled that smile of people who BEEN knew shit that you just now finding out and said, “Sebastian, black people have been dealing with trauma in this country for hundreds of years. We know what it looks like. We’re used to managing it. Even if we didn’t have the language to articulate it. Unfortunately, we were never afforded the privilege of avoiding these ‘triggers’ that traumatize us.”
She said ‘triggers’ in that tone people use when they don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about and would just as soon use the word ‘who-zee-wutz-it.’
“What frustrates you,” she continued, “Is that white people are finding new ways to dominate the conversation by making demands upon blackness to make them comfortable while they are learning to deal with it.”
She sat there staring at me like you’d stare at a child who is figuring out that there ain’t no damn tooth fairy. Like, “Come on. Did you really think some white woman was coming in your house to pick up body parts that have fallen out of your face and pay you money for them?”
It seems so obvious now that I think about it. Of course nobody deserves to deal with trauma. And everyone should be afforded the space to manage it. But what I didn’t like was whiteness appropriating the intellectual property of black women, i.e., intersectionality, to prioritize their needs or otherwise avoid feeling offended.
Not prioritizing the needs of black women. Certainly not prioritizing the needs of other animals. Themselves.
That’s not the fault of trigger warnings. That’s an issue of white supremacy and white entitlement.
And here before me was a black woman without the trappings of a university education. Who didn’t define herself as a goddamn intersectional anything. And who wasn’t even vegan.
And then I felt ashamed and angry with myself for relying on her counsel. AGAIN. I’m yet another person using the emotional and intellectual resources of black women to unpack my own struggles.
So two things I learned from this experience. Number one, I need to more closely examine what I’m feeling and why in order to write with greater intention. Number two and more importantly, always check in with black women. Not for myself, but for them.
And as I left, the television still sat muted in the background. On the screen, the news was reporting the unfolding story of white supremacists waging war in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The trauma doesn’t end.
Author’s note: To everyone who participated in the conversation on Facebook from a place of loving engagement, thank you. I’m sorry. I appreciate having a community that wants to build instead of promote toxic behaviors and for understanding that ALL YOUR FAVES ARE PROBLEMATIC. Even and especially me. So we have to rely on each other to get through this. And as with all things, I’m leaving that previous post as is. Because if we don’t fucking allow people the space to evolve and change (spoiler alert: we don’t), then basically we’re saying that oppressive behavior is the default position forever, which is of course absurd. Otherwise nobody would ever be vegan…and I wouldn’t have written this post.