At a discussion on social justice last night, two individuals told me that they hoped that I "felt welcome" and "felt safe" in that space. As an autistic queer, with
a significant trauma history, I'm sad to report that their kind hearted wish ended up carrying the opposite message. Here, with the safety of time and distance, I'm going to break
down the impact of the statements they made in good faith. I'll explore the missing step to creating a welcoming community, and provide alternative ways that we can all try to
live into a healing space, where all are welcome.
To be clear, I truly believe that those individuals had the best of intentions. I know them as good people, who wish to raise up good things in our world. I also am
living the paradox that while I believe they have the best of intentions, their very statements made me feel less welcome, less visible, and less safe.
I experience the statement "I hope that you feel welcome" as being handed a boulder of responsibility. Either I shoulder it's weight so that those making the request feel as though they are welcoming. Ignoring the signals of my body as my aching muscles and tired soul protest. Or I drop it, and risk shattering their belief that they are good people who don't harm others. This danger arises from the failure of social justice spaces to teach the skills of how to fail, and how to stay present during mistakes. Over and over we chant the mantra that the "isms" (i.e. racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) are wrong, without leaving room to deal with the ways that we all have been raised in a world that teaches us how to be racist, sexist, ableist, and so on.
When we believe that doing something ableist (or racist, or sexist, or fill-in-the-blank) makes us a bad person, it becomes night impossible to hear how our actions are hurting others. Physiologically, our fight or flight responses will activate to defend our perceptions of ourselves as "good" with the same intensity that we would fight a wild animal that was trying to kill our bodies.
Because of this dynamic, the phrase "I hope you feel safe here" places me on high alert. I know from bitter experience that if I dare to shatter the veneer of inclusion it is very likely that I will be met with violence. Speaking out about the hurt that I've experienced in "welcoming" spaces has caused me to experience homelessness, employment discrimination, and impeded my access to health care. The consequences of making well-intentioned people uncomfortable, has often placed me in a terrifying dance with death.
A major failure of statements like "I hope you feel welcome" or "feel safe" is that they do not account for the trauma that is an undercurrent in my life. I've spent a lifetime struggling in an ocean of messages that told me that I "shouldn't be here". I've lost count of the number of people that have told me that "you're too hard to handle", and "why can't you just be quiet". I've been to events, led by well-intentioned people, that repeatedly told me that I shouldn't exist.
All of these experiences form an ocean of trauma, that I've been swimming in near constantly since I was a child. At times I could float, but then the next storm would plunge me under, with survival an apparent impossibility. Against the odds, I've survived. I've survived by taking the trama into myself. I've learned to survive on the bitter salt of tears, instead of the life's blood I was born with. With timely blessings I've found ways to thrive in experiences that are by their nature toxic to life.
A community where everyone feels welcome and safe is a noble goal. To get there we need to add in a missing step. By which I mean we need to set aside the rosy picture we long for in order to be present with each other. I didn't need them to tell me that "welcome" and "safety" are good. I needed them to see me. To see the pain that I carry. To see the loss that comes with the mutations I've taken on in order to endure. I cannot feel safe, let alone welcome, until the person I've become is held and loved. Anxiety and fear, trauma and loss, all must be invited into a space before I am welcome there.
A note for those who see themselves in this description. This need is not a personal failure. We are not "bad" people for being anxious and untrusting. We've learned to jump at shadows because we have encountered many shadows that bite.
Nor are those that offered those comments bad people for offering a wish that things are different without having the tools needed to bring that vision to life. Pain is scary, and trauma is hard. Many of us lack the tools we need to be present without trying to fix things. After all, where are we taught to listen to stories that are beyond our comprehension? With whom do we learn to believe another's truth even when what we are learning challenges our deepest assumptions about the world.
The vision that they long for, the vision that I can only grasp as the faintest dream of a dream, is only possible by daring to be messy. Growth comes when we dare to try new tools, and to touch old wounds. As a favorite childhood teacher, Miss Frizzle once wisely said, "It's time to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy".
So, what do I wish they had said to me instead? What tools would I add to our societal toolbox?
"I'm glad you're here"
"You are loved"
"What does a place of healing look like for you?"
May we all find our ways to places of healing, welcome, and safety.
Copyright © Ari Leigh 2019