I do not know if I will be satisfied with this post at its end or if it will even provide any insights or answers at all, but it is something I must write to work through thoughts which have been scratching at me recently. Last week I got into a discussion about the question of “the future”, in fact, I feel that over the last few weeks I have been in many conversations about “the future(s)”. But this one stands out in my mind because of the way it was put to me: oppressed groups and people often spend a lot of time thinking about the past and battling the present, but we get little respite to consider the future. In a broad sense this feels true to me. Conversations that I have about the future are often very abstract, or very personal, there is little middle ground. I talk about broad, conceptual, and structural changes that I would like to see; and I think about my own, personal, ideas and goals. But it is overwhelmingly the present and often the past that I am made to preoccupy my time with.
I scroll Twitter or Facebook somewhat listlessly sometimes, barely moved by the majority of constant outrage – or more like, barely surprised. I read responses and rebuttals to dehumanising comments, campaigns, events and situations and I feel my own energy drain just thinking about the time and labour people put into having to state and make clear the violences that occur every. single. day… A woman rang me last week and asked “what is something that has annoyed you in the news recently?” – I had to pause for a while. I told her that simultaneously everything and nothing annoyed me anymore and I felt irked by the word “annoy”. I felt irked by the focus on news-stories and the emphasis on me reacting, responding and retorting. It is an endless cycle that I am increasingly losing the energy to participate in.
During moments like this I think of Toni Morrison’s ever-important warning:
“the very serious function of racism… is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is… There will always be one more thing.”
She summarises the issue better than I could. She summarises my mixed feelings and despair seeing actually thought-out responses to Trump’s “shit-hole countries” comments this week; my same feelings which emerge almost daily to the inundation of responses and rebuttals online.
When do we get to exist beyond the “re-” mode? When do we get to speak first rather than “speak back”? Perhaps in thinking more concretely about the future is where we can. I don’t mean to say critique and exposure of current or past oppressions has little value – my own work and engagement in the world attests to the fact I don’t think this. However, I also feel that constantly defending blows means you never get to turn your head the other way. And I am eager to look the other way. Eager, and yet, as it turns out, completely unprepared.
On being asked “what do you want Leeds to look like in 2038?” I felt overwhelmed by the scope of the question. It is not really so different from questions I often discuss with close friends, and yet the concrete aspect of it meant I had scrunch my eyes and really decide what “narrative changing”, or “structural change” might look like in tangible terms. It started out simply, but for every small part of the picture I painted I realised the scope of broader change required. I initially offered that “you’d go into a school and there’d be no correlation between skin colour and what class set a child was in”, but then I quickly added, “there would be no class sets”, and then I quickly added, “in fact, we’d need to change the way education work”… and within seconds I was overwhelmed again by the fact that even the tiniest changes in individuals lives rely on mass structural changes on a level of which I still do not know how to comprehend.
This thought is not novel. These are realisations and problems that have been historically recognised by many. But that sort of what scares me too. If so many people can recognise that the future won’t simply be changed by atomised and individualised understandings of the future which include “raising aspirations” and “attainment” and essentially telling children of oppressed backgrounds to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”… then how is it that we still don’t know how to articulate the alternative?
Or perhaps we do know how to articulate it – we use words like “revolution”, or “fundamental shift” – but we don’t know what that always means in practice. For me I see this when I, or anyone else, brings up the word “mass”. What really is “mass change” and where does it come from? I have friends who I discuss the need to change the media narrative with and yet, there is no tangible way or route we can contemplate for taking on transnational media corporations which dictate the news media… I have friends who I discuss racial, social, economic, political, gendered and other injustices and all their intersections with – we understand such injustices require change at a level we simply cannot fully voice and we are therefore often left as overwhelmed as we were to begin with. How do we capture power? How do we capture it on a vast scale? And how do we do so without simply reproducing the world as it is now?
I find myself back in the place I often find a medium – the place of disruption. The place wherein you try to complicate the future and lean it towards structural change, but where you still recognise that you can rarely act on a big enough scale. I don’t know how I feel about this place. It is important – it is a place from which you try to create new spaces, new institutions, sometimes change old ones, make alliances, try to expose injustices or implement new policies, but it is also a space that I feel we often have little choice but to come. That lack of choice is the issue.
Where do we look to find new frames for thinking about the future? Or new ways to understand change? How do we articulate the changes we want without replicating models that already stand? In part of my answer to what 2038 would look like I said simply that “I would feel safe”. And yet, I do not honestly know what that means or looks like. Do I mean safety in the sense that that it exists now? Where the safety of some relies on the Othering and coercion of others? No… so what do I mean? What does safety that isn’t synonymous with assimilation mean? In fact, what does my personal safety mean in a world where the majority of people are not safe? Is it possible for me to be safe when others are not safe? Is the goal really to be safe at all? What would a world in which everybody felt safe to exist look like? How do you reproduce those small ideas in a wider way? Is reproducing singular ideas not just a form of violence anyway?
I know these questions often beget more questions – or that none of them really have singular answers. I know that it doesn’t have to be “either/or”. I know that the paralysis we feel about the future is not just random and I know there is constant work to be done, presently, tangibly, reactionary, constantly – and I know people are doing it. Every day people are working away, disrupting, complicating, critiquing, even smashing, shouting, destroying… but the ones I am perhaps most excited about are those who are also creating. Maybe it is there that the chance to think more about the future lies: to create without reference and provide new paths. I see people doing this on small scales every day – creating without replicating. It is precarious but I do believe it may be our best hope because for me to answer properly what it would look like in 2038 I need a whole new vocabulary, and maybe a whole new tongue… and there I go, being abstract again…