Intentionality is a Constant Struggle

I remember being young and hearing from other students, “I’ve read that book like five times.” And while I noticed quite a few of them could relate to that sentiment, I couldn’t. The only thing I could ever imagine was, “who in their right fucking mind would go back and read a book they have already read?” Well, I was young and did not know that these people were aware of how much you miss in your first and even second read of a book. Revisiting your favorite text, like any other media source (television, movies, radio, etc.), can teach you new lessons and further your dispositions.

This year, I said that this is something I would do. As a person whose interactions with the community have grown tremendously within the last year alone, so has the way I receive and analyze information. So, rightfully, I am revisiting a variety of texts. A few nights ago, I decided to revisit Angela Y. Davis’ “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle.” This book, where Frank Barot interviews Davis, contextualizes state violence, here in America, to the various global movements we have seen in historical and contemporary times. She identifies systems of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism as culprits of these. Though this book serves to observe these things, one excerpt, in particular, taught me about something I think a lot of people struggle with—intentionality. The excerpt reads:

“We internalize this notion of a place to put bad people. That’s precisely one of the reasons why we have to imagine the abolitionist movement as addressing those ideological and psychic issues. Not just the process of removing the material institutions or facilities. Why is the person bad? The prison forecloses discussion about that. What is the nature of that badness? What did the person do? Why did the person do that? If we’re thinking about someone who has committed acts of violence, why is that kind of violence possible?”

Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2016)

This quote nods at abolition and transformative justice. Two things a lot of us (yes, even myself) have struggled or currently struggle to make sense. Why? Because as Davis points out in the excerpt above, it is ingrained in our thought processes. It is how socialization affects us since birth. But as a person in movement work, you slowly (but surely) begin to see how these old forms of discipline and “justice” serve as menacing. It’s a cycle of violence and revictimization. So, what does this have to do with intentionality?

Carefully engaging with abolitionism and TJ methods has allowed me to examine how I have formerly shown up and how I choose to hold myself accountable to be sure to show up differently. I read this book not too long after its’ release in 2016. I was a sophomore in college who thought they had everything figured out. I proclaimed myself “pro-Black & pro-queer” and was screaming “fuck ICE,” but also made space for prisons in the world. And not because I wanted to see my people there, but because I didn’t challenge myself enough to see a world where folks who have caused me harm could deserve their form of healing, too. I wasn’t intentional about why I was reading the things I read and what I wanted to gain from them, other than knowing a former Black Panther wrote it. And even then, I never made that connection that a former political prisoner was writing these words concerning her own experiences. I never allowed myself to manifest those theories and concepts in my everyday practice because it’s easier to disregard people who have harmed you. It takes actual work to have empathy for those people and understand the motives and past harms of the perpetrator. It also takes work to realize that many of those people who sit beside them in those cages aren’t always “bad,” as Davis expresses. They deserve care, real rehabilitation, and support just like me, because who is to say I haven’t caused harm to someone else? I know I have, but that doesn’t make me less deserving. Does it?

I have even thought about how what we perceive as harmless can cause a lot of harm because being unintentional serves as a blindfold to us. It allows us to say and do things that reinforce harmful stigmas and stereotypes while refuting all accountability under the semblance of “I’m sorry if you thought” or “it’s just a joke.” And what does that do? It adds more fuel to the fire because we know those are some of the most gaslighting phrases we have are confronted within our own lives.

I had made jokes like “send that n*gga to jail” about both mild and severe situations without thinking about how those jokes fortify the carceral systems. I, lazily, had decided that when people do the smallest things, they aren’t deserving of compassion, understanding, or even rights—which get stripped away from them if taken to prison. This rationale is the same reasoning that we’ve used to try to hold comedians like Dave Chapelle accountable for, right? When he made jokes about trans people, we urged him to look at their experiences. He decided that his comedy was more valid than their lives and used his platform to remind us people are allowed to laugh at trans people—which they are not. We do not get to use being “unintentional” as an excuse to subsidize someone else’s pain.

Unintentionality has created a toxic culture within a lot of our communities. We need to be active in thinking about how we show up, in and out of work, and how that will impact our work. We can do such great things for each other, but once we stop thinking about what we do and how that affects others, it can invalidate many of the good we have produced. So how do we move forward more intentionally? That can look a lot of ways to a lot of people. But you could set goals. You can start asking more questions. You can start focusing on the expectations that cultural norms create for us. You can examine your relationship dynamics with other people and ask them how they feel you show up.

The journey to intentionality can start from many angles. But no one will get there through stagnation and comfortability. You have to be willing to engage in the self-work actively and understand that, like freedom, intentionality is a constant struggle.

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