Being Here for Each Other

a square shape colored solid, bright red, the symbol of the WOinActie protests


Being Here for Each Other: Accountability, Willem Schinkel, and the #WOinactie Protests

So I haven’t been involved in the Dutch university protests #WOinactie, partly because, living in Rotterdam, I’m a bit outside the loop and simply don’t know many people in Amsterdam and Utrecht.

But I want to talk about one of the most radical practices I know, and which I’m still admittedly pretty bad at, and that is: being here for each other.

Earlier this week my friend and colleague Willem Schinkel wrote a critical article about the protests in De Groene Amsterdammer.

There’s a lot to say about this piece, and a lot that’s already been said, and there will be further discussion in De Groene, so it’s an ongoing conversation.

I think a lot of the points he made are very valid in terms of how to gear protest towards reshaping the university into what it never was: a public good and chosen community based on solidarity and thinking together, rather than elitism and exclusion.

Because it’s clear that the university has never been what it promises to be, either for the majority of the people included in it, and certainly not for the vast majority, who have been excluded.

BUT I am also in favor of protests against the ongoing efforts to gut the best aspects of the university, which, if I understand correctly, is what Woinactie is trying to do.

Also, any action is going to be imperfect, so I’d approach any discussion from a position that the goal is to strengthen, open, and improve the alignment of a movement whenever the inevitable mistakes arise, as they always do.

So ideally I would have addressed any concerns in a different way, and FWIW he has told me that if he had to do it again, he would go about it differently.

But to be fair, he’s been involved in this and similar efforts for decades, as have so many in academia, so the piece also didn’t come from a single moment, but rather a history of ongoing engagement.

In any case, the situation raises the issue of accountability: How do the members of an organization show up for each other, learn to be here for each other, and hold each other accountable when we mess up? You could read this, intentionally, as applying in different measures to Willem and the movement.

Power is incredibly important when it comes to accountability. It’s been pointed out time and again: people of color (POC), Women, queer people, and poor people are constantly judged for tone: being too bitchy, too abrasive, too meek, too everything.

Comments that people should be “kind” or “nice” are damaging and they should be called out as implying one should just shut up and take it, whatever ‘it’ is that day.

So if you are a POC, for example, on twitter right now and you’re pissed, then more power to you. I will like and retweet the hell out of that if you want me to, and if you don’t then I’ll stop.

Also if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to include me in your “we”, the group of people you want to be accountable to, then that’s your right and I respect that, no questions asked.

But most of us have been raised in cultures of toxic masculinity, neoliberal capitalism, and frankly, violence. In these contexts, the norm is often to tear each other down.

In this context, and particularly for POC and women but also for everyone who isn’t part of the tiny oligarchy of straight wealthy white males who can get away with anything, there is little precedent in terms of how to mess up, how to fail.

Everyone fails. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has a bad day sometimes. And if you work in social justice movements, or in a public capacity, failure matters.

I face microagressions related to other aspects of my identity, or how the world identifies me, on an ongoing basis, like pretty much everyone I know. Despite that, when I as a white professor, make ignorant comments, even unintentionally, I am doing violence to people, full stop.

If I, as a white professor, perpetuate a university that is staffed almost entirely by white professors, I am doing violence.

But in trying to NOT do that, in trying to simultaneously shift the norms of the system and tear it down and build it back up, I will inevitably screw up, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

Even so, mistakes are also part of showing up, of being here for each other, who are continually learning how to listen, work on one’s own stuff, mentor people, and support them intellectually and, as appropriate, socially, going to meetings, and just generally being there.

If someone is showing up, and doing their best to show me respect, and if I’m feeling up to it (a big IF), and they do something that feels wrong, hurtful or violent to me, then I try to hold them accountable.

That can involve being kind, but it doesn’t necessarily involve being nice. I try to be nice when I can, but also admit that niceness can be a way of disengaging, of distancing, of writing people off.

Accountability is a way of not writing someone off, of taking seriously that they have the ability to be other than they are in this moment. It means mean going: Hey, that sucked. What’s up?

To be clear, I’m not talking about trolls, Nazis, serial sexual harrassers or the like. Fuck them all. They are broken and are trying to break us, and I’ll be damned before I let that happen. It’d be better if they didn’t show up until they spent a minute learning how to behave.

That aside, I mess up all the time, and when that happens I sincerely appreciate it when people do me the kindness of approaching me and respectfully pointing it out.

I’m learning, however imperfectly, to listen and avoid reacting defensively. I also for years have tried to do whatever I can, the utmost within my power, to not mess up and to learn on an ongoing basis.

What stops people from holding each other accountable? What stops me from holding people accountable sometimes? One is the flood of incidents many people face. There is a torrent every day, and it’s simply too many to address all at once.

Coming from a subaltern position, you don’t owe anyone an education, particularly if they haven’t made even the least effort to avoid doing violence to you, or acknowledging your humanity.

Two is the fear of being seen as bitchy, impolite, mean, and this affects especially POC and women, see above. Of not knowing the right way to hold people accountable because for you, as a subaltern person, that way simply doesn’t exist and, as the saying goes, you have to make your way by moving.

But despite that, it’s necessary to hold each other accountable for those people who you see as showing up–albeit only for whom, when, and where you feel comfortable doing so.

All this is to say that you can read Willem’s piece as a takedown piece, and the text lends itself to that. But you can also read it as someone who is holding accountable the people he works with and engages with, people he has known for years.

And because there have been claims floating around twitter that he is not engaged in bettering the university, while of course also being complicit as we all are, I just wanted to be very explicit:

Willem shows up every day. Which is to say, he makes mistakes, because mistakes are part of showing up. I do my best to hold him accountable and, even when I can tell it’s difficult for him, he does his best to listen.

And he keeps showing up. And I’m not just talking about the things that are in his own self interest, or that get attention. I’m talking about the drudgery of mentorship: the million of tiny everyday situations where you can find ways to support someone and help them become something more than what they were at the start.

Without grandstanding or asking for kudos, he is continually doing the work of changing the university for the better, and continually supporting others who are trying to do the same.

Although I don’t know personally, I imagine, and certainly hope, that many of those involved in WOinactie have long been doing that too.

In fact, because he’s done the work to push the boundaries of who he was raised to be, and who society expects him to be, I imagine it’s a pain sometimes, being constantly held accountable by the smart and socially and politically engaged people around you, however well intentioned.

Even so, that discomfort is the necessary work of social justice: changing the very fabric of our beings. It also the work that’s long been foisted on subaltern peoples who are asked to alter ourselves to fit impossible categories.

In that context, there’s something to be said for respecting the process, the ongoing work, rather than the event: the single text, sentence, moment, or movement. Because no matter what you do, as a human being, some of those single instances are going to suck.

So all I’m saying is, let’s do our best to be here for each other. Because there is and will always be room for improvement, even if what that means is different for different people and groups.

If you want to vent on twitter, go for it. Need catharsis, validation, in the face of the powerful? Well that’s a radical act when you’ve been taught, like many women, queers, poc, and poor or working class people are, to ignore your subjectivity, desires, and perspectives.

But as we all know at this point, power matters. There’s nothing to be achieved by punching laterally or punching down. And there are so many cases where it’s hard to know how the power lies, since there are so many interlocking aspects of power, and you never know someone’s whole truth.

So it’s an important goal for any movement to learn how to be here for each other, how not to tear each other down, how to respectfully hold each other accountable for our mistakes when we are in fact showing up and doing the work.

Maybe I’m just some random schmo, but I like to think that it’s possible for all involved.


Postscript: The notion of “being here” and “showing up” were something we talked a lot about when I was volunteering as a community organizer in New York.

I’ve also always liked the idea of “making the road by walking”, which implies you find out what you’re doing as you’re doing it, and really by doing it. It sounds much bettter than “making it up as you go along”!

I hope to look into it further, I don’t know the histories of these concepts except to say that they’re continually being developed by members of community organizations.

They show up in the names of organizations (that I don’t know personally) like Make the Road, who appear to be doing incredible work, and Showing Up for Racial Justice, which has been the subject of important debates (for instance here and here) over the role of white people in racial justice.