Writing at the End of Empire
Belonging & Bridging
My spring semester was quite busy with several classes and a book launch, podcast appearances, and keynote requests. With the emergence of summer, June has been no different: podcast appearances, book talks, and more keynote requests. On keynote request came from the YWCA and invited me to speak on belonging and bridging with radical difference, so since my next book project is on exactly those two themes, I decided to say ‘yes!’ I’m also sharing it with you here, so that perhaps we could have some conversation about it! Let me know what you think; what resonates with you; where you depart from these ideas, and where I should go from here!
Forging Pathways of Belonging by Bridging with Radical Difference
Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, PhD
Closing Keynote for the YWCA Leadership Capacity Building Initiative Chicago, IL 10 June 2022
If you use any of the portion of this talk, please give proper attribution.
These days, I’m more inclined to accept invitations that privilege conversation and collaboration. I turn down a lot of keynotes, because I don’t think my call and vocation is to be a talking head, but when Ms. Elisha Rhodes emailed me inviting me to give a keynote talk on belonging and bridging with radical difference, I knew Spirit was up to something. That still small voice of wisdom urged me to give a sacred ‘yes,’ because not only are we so deeply connection deprived, but we are deeply wounded because of inherited attachment wounds and the open wounds at the bleeding peripheries of society. We are each impacted by both, and I felt that this invitation was an invitation to tell the truth about myself, about our world, and about the urgency for an ethical future. I am trained as a theological and ethicist and I endeavor to make meaning in everything I do—from cooking meals to buying groceries to what coffee I drink and where I buy meat, if I am going to consume animal product. We are meaning making people, but because of accelerated forms of supremacy, we have lost the cultural practice of making meaning with ourselves and with one another. I am also deeply engaged with making meaning in relationship and investing in relationalities that create conditions for ethical futures. And so, I invite you into this time of reflective comments as we endeavor to make meaning one last time at the LCBI.
I want to begin by sharing a few quotes which have shaped me and then begin to weave our way into the content of my talk titled “Forging Pathways of Belonging by Bridging with Radical Difference.”
I became an academic because I believe ideas can change the world. I am an inter-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and anti-disciplinary scholar, and I understand that if ideas are going to enflesh capacity to change the world, they must be connected to praxis — our lived experience. If we expect ideas to do anything on their own, separate from material action, disconnected from relationship, we will learn that those ideas are just bound up in the self-perpetuating elitism of the academy.
When I was a student at Garrett Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University, I read women of color theorists and philosophers for the first time. Born to a Mexican woman and an Anglo man, I was told at an early age that education was my way out of poverty, dysfunction, and to ensure that I might have a chance at this life. I was told by my Mexican mother who has a 6th grade education that education was the great equalizer. Yet, no one told me my mind would be colonized by an education system that not only fortifies but accelerates the logic of whiteness and the logic of white supremacy.
Having moved from Northern Mexico, the Republic of Texas, I started first with Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana Feminist whose mestiza consciousness offered me a way to lean into the possibility of belonging, first to myself and then to the wider society.
Anzaldúa wrote this in Borderlands / La Frontera:
“Nobody’s going to save you. No one’s going to cut you down, cut the thorns thick around you. No one’s going to storm the castle walls nor kiss awake your birth, climb down your hair, nor mount you onto the white steed. There is no one who will feed the yearning. Face it. You will have to do, do it yourself.”
It is true that we do have to do some things ourselves. And, the number one thing we have to do for ourself is come to the sober awareness that the logic of whiteness and the logic of white supremacy, institutional supremacies, economic supremacy, Christian supremacy are all maladaptive coping mechanisms that are eroding every path of tangible belonging in the world.
So, I ask a few questions:
Are we able to create conditions for pathways of belonging in a world that has domesticated polarization?
Do we have an imagination to bridge with difference, so that we can embrace our power as a collective?
We must remember what Saidiya V. Hartman wrote: “So much of the work of oppression is about policing the imagination.”
Our current situation — our present reality has been a failure to imagine another possible world. We come together to have conferences and hear great talks and strategies, but we suffer because we are all dependent on the same funding sources and we become competitive with one another oftentimes losing important relationships, instead of creating conditions for generative coalitions that can imagine ethical futures. We effectively allow oppression to win, and we must remember that oppression is unprocessed trauma.
We are all complicit in the maladaptive coping systems of supremacy culture—either because of our family systems, our inherited religious traditions and practices, and because of this, we are individually disconnected from ourselves and each other and our cultural body is fragmented by an acceleration of dissociation. We don’t have belonging with ourselves, each other, or our organizations, because we don’t have a felt sense of our own bodies or the bodies in which we are in relationships. If you’ve not explored the brilliance of cultural somatics and you’re interested in how to compost the bullshit of the maladaptive coping mechanisms of these pernicioius logics, consider reading my new book, Body Becoming or the work of Resmaa Menekam.
Now, let me return to asking a few questions:
How do we create conditions to compost supremacy culture?
How do we untangle the domestication of polarization?
How do we find belonging at the end of empire?
My students are well aware that I lead with questions and often don’t offer any answers. I’m not going to answer these questions today, but I am wanting us to explore the possibilities for another possible world — explore opportunities for us to build ethical futures together that are grounded in the politics of radical difference. This work will inevitable require an ethics of togetherness, practices of belonging that must be rooted in a collectivist imagination. It is my belief that we are not yet at a place to build the kinds of communities that enflesh a collectivist imagination because we are largely entrapped in relationalities that fortify logics of competitiveness and demand homogeneity or sameness.
If you were near a TV on Thursday evening and watched the January 6 Hearing like I did, then you might have an idea the kind of community that I am referencing. The ways in which difference has been and continues to be excised out of our educational systems, our organizing efforts, our corporations, churches in favor of diversity. Diversity is just a code word for tolerance! Diversity won’t save us! Diversity fortifies neoliberalism and whiteness in ways that cripples the work of difference.
So, what is difference? What really am I suggesting?
Difference is that thing without a norm—it is not bound by identity or any material reality. Difference is a process. Difference is not a thing that is reducible to any other thing. Difference can help us imagine ethical futures and a kind of politics that can create conditions for belonging.
What do I mean by politics—a word that is thrown around as if it is understood by all?
Politics comes from the Greek word politika and is the set of activities which organize bodies and power relations. Politics is how we organize ourselves and our communities. How can difference invite us into new contours of organizing ourselves and our communities, so that we can create conditions for radical kinship at the end of empire?
Together, we are living in the fragile and precarious contours of a life at the end of empire and we must strategize together on how to harness our individual and collective power by and through bridging with radical difference.
Belonging is not something that is fostered at the end of empire nor is belonging privileged during this 4th world war of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Belonging, in the words of bell hooks is a culture of place. Belonging isn’t just a connection to a person or an organization. Belonging and practices of radical kinship is to steward a culture of place.
After the 2016 election, I left my faculty post in Berkeley, CA to move home to the American South. I moved in part because of the trauma of the 2016 election AND the fact that I couldn’t find my people in the Queer Utopia of the Bay Area. I didn’t have belonging. I couldn’t plant roots in a culture of place. So, I packed up my Prius with everything I owned, which fit in my car, and I headed East. After spending about six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, the land of my ancestors, I stopped in Nashville to see if I could find a culture of place. I chose the regressive politics of Tennessee over the regressive politics of Texas, which is where I was born and raised before moving to Chicago for grad school.
I resonate with what bell hooks writes in her book Belonging: “Living away from my native place I became more consciously Kentuckian than I was when I lived at home. This is what the experience of exile can do, change your mind, utterly transform one's perception of the world of home.”
While some of keep leaving, some of us keep returning. And, while some of are caught in the hyphens of life, we must find a way to steward connection to place and build cultures of place with one another. That is the work of belonging. That is the work of the now, so that we can build ethical futures.
Bridging with radical difference is the work of creating cultures of place — of nurturing belonging with ourselves and with one another.
Let me remind you what Gloria Anzaldúa said in This Bridge We Call Home: “But there are no safe spaces. 'Home' can be unsafe and dangerous because it bears the likelihood of intimacy and thus thinner boundaries. Staying 'home' and not venturing out from our group comes from woundedness, and stagnates our growth. To bridge means loosening our borders, not closing off to others. Bridging is the work of opening the gate to the stranger, within and without.”
Bridging is the ethical imperative in this moment, and difference must be at the center of this work.
You might be asking what is a bridge and how do we bridge. Anzaldúa writes that “Bridges are thresholds to other realities, archetypal, primal symbols of shifting consciousness. They are passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders, and changing perspectives. Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement—an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.”
While bridging can feel like liminal space, this liminality becomes a culture of place where belonging with radical difference emerges. If we don’t begin to steward a rich and robust cosmopolitan society, we will fall to fascism. If we don’t begin to bridge with radical difference and steward belonging with one another, we won’t have a culture of place; we will all be in exile at the end of empire.
I long for a culture of place where I won’t face hurt of harm; I long for belonging where I am respected as a nonbinary Trans Latinx. I long to be seen for who I am and the gifts I embody. I must embody an emotional sobriety within, so that I can connect with those beside me. I must compost the maladaptive coping mechanism of supremacy culture and the pernicious logics of whiteness that have their talons in me, so that I can faithfully and fully connect with my neighbor whoever they may be.
The time is now to begin to nurture ourselves and heal our attachment wounds from our family systems and from the pernicioius logics of supremacy culture. The time is now to bridge with radical difference, so that we can nurture belonging at the open wounds of empire.
These words are the last you will here at the LCBI event. We cannot be unified if we cannot bridge with difference. The power resides in the space between me and you — in the collectivist imagination of an ethical future. The power is rooted in bridging with radical difference. The story of now is the future of us rooted in a culture of place, belonging en conjunto as we steward another possible world, together.
“Do work that matters. Vale la pena” Anzaldúa
I am beginning to piece together some ideas for the next book and also wanting to work on something explicitly theological. I want to write about resurrection. I don’t know why this is interesting to me, but I want to spend some time rethinking the politics and theologies of resurrection. I’ll keep you posted on what bubbles up for me.
Derek Webb and I will be meeting, soon, to discuss a little Nashville get together! So, if you’re in or near Nashville, keep watch on both of our newsletters!
I’ll soon be in the San Francisco area for some book talks! If you’re in the area, you can catch me at Manny’s on Tuesday June 21, 2022 in the Mission; or, at St. Francis Lutheran in the Castro!
Thanks for being here and I look forward to being in conversation with you!
Onward, —Dr. Robyn.