When Two Pittsburghs Collide: Our Uncomfortable (Not) New Reality

This past month, discussion raged on social media about plans by a group of Pittsburgh Socialists to counterprotest a large anti-choice protest at Planned Parenthood. There was a somwhate general consensus that the idea was ill-thought out, but the conversation spun out from there in multiple directions. I wrote my own thoughts here. 

It was uncomfortable, frustrating and it was necessary. That is our reality right now. Perhaps we need to invest some time exploring said reality instead of trying to fix or solve it.

My sense is that we are too quick to demand or press for unity, for a shared vision of how to resist and what life on the other side of resistance will look like. What isn’t happening is a thoughtful examination of the ways things are right now and have been. Our frustration with the need to fix things collides with the frustration over the need to acknowledge that they didn’t just happen under Trump, that this is not a new space we occupy.

I’ve blogged before about the two Pittsburghs. In my mind, the wall between these two alternate realities has grown weak or translucent and we are all struggling to reconcile ourselves to a new reality as we glimpse truly different worlds.

If you think in terms of alternate realities like we see on tv or in comics, imagine Pittsburgh One which is what the world sees alongside Pittsburgh Two which is hidden from most people. It is sort of like the Harry Potter reality where the wizarding world knows about the muggles, but most muggles are oblivious to the impact of magic. The two realities impact one another and some people move between them, but most folks remain in their lane. And muggles treat those from the wizarding realm with disregard, contempt and erasure of their existence much less their magic. Regardless of your Hogwarts house preference,white Pittsburgh is where the muggles live.

Now the veil between two Pittsburghs is at least catching our attention if not lifting. And this more visible gray area between the two Pittsburgh is an uncomfortable new reality for many of us.

But it’s not really new, at least not to all of us. Living in a political state of fear, oppression and isolation is much newer for white middle class families like mine than for many of my friends. And while it is great that folks are waking up, it is not sufficient. It’s not enough. Their learning – our learning –  curve is long while their sense of urgency is somewhat fragile. And their awakened state is a commodity much desired by everyone.

Of course people who’ve endured a disproportionate degree of the struggle are irritated at having to constantly bring everyone up to speed as a community service. We still aren’t listening, much less validating that they have endured this struggle and founds ways to survive and thrive.

Over on the blog Radical Faggot, this essay caught my eye

Instead of demanding we perform the emotional labor of making the privileged comfortable, the privileged must learn to do the emotional labor of being uncomfortable, making room for the rage they’ve played a large part in creating. Instead of seeing our anger as an impediment to the work they need to do, the privileged should see holding it as an intrinsic part of that work–work that might teach them more nuanced perspectives and effective tactics for resistance if they allow it to.

Instead of calling for unity and getting along, stopping the infighting and all of the other coded ways to silence people, perhaps we’d be better off acknowledging that there are a lot of people in Pittsburgh who have cultivated these coping skills over the past decades – when we didn’t have to do so. Not just coping skills – resources, talents, experiences and wisdom. We are the ones standing in the way of unity because we can’t wrap our heads around our complicity in the state of things as they are, nor can we let go of what we’ve come to expect for ourselves.

I suspect we are frightened, not just of Trump but of the prospect of living in a state of heightened anxiety, fear and stress on a permanent basis. Like life in the second Pittsburgh has existed for a long time. And that’s the point – we have people who can help us survive.

Facebook is rife with uncomfortable spaces right now for activist women in particular. This historical rage is seeping into all of the spaces where newly engaged (and enraged) white women are struggling to find their footing. Rage is frightening because it threatens to overwhelm, to destroy and to undo all of us.

For some people, that’s the point. For others, perhaps not so much. But it is more authentic, more human to acknowledge rage and your own response to it rather than try to stifle or quell it. You can go back to White Pittsburgh, but you should keep in mind that denying the magical world does not invalidate it.

On one level, I get it. I’m an adult child from a family rife with all types of violence and seething resentment. I don’t like strife and conflict. I don’t feel good being around people who are hostile or angry; their actual feelings can be triggering to me. And sometimes that stuff – my stuff – filters out the reality, remembering of times when that rage was turned on me. I have to manage that. I can’t expect people to not be angry around me. In reality, running from the real problem was the actual problem in the lives of most of us, right?

I don’t have a solution for those of you who feel this uncomfortable other than to suggest that it is where we need to stand right now. I read through Facebook threads and honestly don’t know what to say as I watch this engagement unfold. Thread after thread return to the same tactics of resistance and denial by mostly white women – they slap their credentials on the table, they insist they know what’s best to engage our mostly white male electeds, they admonish and chastise and pooh pooh real feelings that emanate from the second Pittsburgh in a tide that simply cannot be turned at this point.

And they mean well.

One woman was shocked that people expected a group of well-intended white women starting a Facebook group to make sure it had intersectional leadership when it was started. That taps into the shocking expectation that white women surround themselves with interpersonal relationships that are intersectional. That if all your best girl friends are white and a lot like you, perhaps that’s the heart of the problem – not your Facebook group. This isn’t just about white women; white men and their Central Catholic/fraternal networks are responsible for far more damage than is ever let on.

Or perhaps the problem is white folks continuing to think we need to start something to save the world, be it a Facebook group or a non-profit or a crowdfund campaign. Or a women’s march. We must fix things and now. It is rare that people take the time to educate themselves on the matter at hand before jumping to problem solving steps.  It reminds me of people who call soup kitches around November 10 to ask about volunteering on Thanksgiving Day, then take offense that the schedule filled up months ahead of time.

Another telling moment has been the repeated fears of alienating newly engaged activists with all this anger and rage. Wouldn’t we be treating them with more respect and adult-ness if we challenged them to get up to speed and do their homework without cocooning them from the realities of both Pittsburghs? They can probably take it. They probably actually have some of their own rage.  We’d all be better off if we routinely posted some Intersectional Feminism 101 materials on our social media channels or sent the links to friends instead of endlessly trying to smooth the way for the new kids.  Or at least if we acknowledged that their lack of information and experience is the problem to be fixed, not the responses of women of color and black women.

I was going to expound on the repeated use of ableist, mental health slurs by white women and white feminists, but this is already too lengthy.  Another time.

I repeat —  I suspect we are frightened, not just of Trump but of the prospect of living in a state of heightened anxiety, fear and stress on a permanent basis. Like life in the second Pittsburgh has existed for a long time. And that’s the point – we have people who can help us survive and flourish. But even after white women elected Donald Trump, we still seem to think that ours is the path that offers the best chance to resist.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, I’m skeptical of the regional progressive community – the unwillingness to ensure women remain at the table of Pittsburgh City Council is a classic example of how good intentions don’t translate into good actions. Every progressive Democrat in the region should be fundraising for Ashleigh Deemer. It is beyond essential that she be elected. And that’s the tip of the iceberg – electing a white cis het woman to replace another white cis het woman is not actually progress. It is the status quo and that’s the goal in this race.

So, what to do now?

Get yourself up to speed. Read, listen and learn. Follow groups, read their newsletters, read the newspaper. Use the google. Explore intersectionality. Figure out who has been working on affordable housing, public education, anti-racism, motherhood and more. Don’t chase the shiny new thing.

Bring your friends up to speed. Share this information. Bring it up in conversation. Invite your friends to participate in the same forums. Ask questions. Talk about anger.

Pass the mike. White cis het men need to really step back, then step back again. Show your good intentions, don’t talk about them.

Make new friends and associates. Go to events, activities and gatherings that center black folks be that a church or a musical camp for your kids. Live your everyday life in both Pittsburghs with deliberate intention. Hold your meetings in black owned spaces. Go to other events in those same spaces.

These suggestions, purely my own, are about investing your time to better understand the reality of the Pittsburgh around you and that’s how I think you change the world – you learn about it first, learn about it outside your own experiences. Yes, you can write postcards and go to rallies, but put the same amount of time into actively engaging your whole community.

You must find a way to trust that there are neighbors who have flourished and thrived (and survived) that can show you the light you are seeking. And while I’m not sure it is actual magic, it is a power you simply won’t find in White Pittsburgh.



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