Warmish Take: What is a community?

Hello and welcome to my semi (very semi)-regular series of Warmish Takes: ruminations of impeccable (cough) wisdom on topics that are almost certainly past their sell-by date. Takes that are, let’s say, the quintessence of l’esprit de l’escalier.

Today’s take is about representation, particularly where it intersects with creative work and its audience. Now, I’m on record here as saying that recognizing and celebrating more authors from marginal groups is a good thing, not least because exposure to writers and artists who are outside the dominant norm expands our ability to recognize good work when we see it. Soliciting their insight and spotlighting their work is not only just, it’s enriching.

All the same, I am extremely chary of describing myself as an OwnVoices author or anything like it. For one thing, my use of a label like “aro-ace” is casual; it’s shorthand for an explanation that normally would have a lot more syllables. I described myself as “asexual” in a medical context recently and was startled to see the word appear in the clinical notes readout of the visit afterward. I thought, “Do I…want…to be known as Asexual in my medical chart? Isn’t that going to invite some assumptions?” I could already feel myself wanting to prepare some pre-explanations for future scenarios.

It’s the same with writing. If I say that I’m “representative” of the aro-ace marginal group, will people think that limits my insight into other people’s experiences? Will they assume I don’t know how to write sex, or can’t delineate the shape of a romance? Of course, in this case all I would have to do to avoid being pigeonholed is keep my mouth shut. Writers who are people of color, for example, don’t have such a luxury.

The thing about marginal groups…is that they’re marginal. Every human being is fully representative of humanity: there should be nothing prescriptive or limiting about the fact that they may also be an example of a non-dominant group. We ought to value the contributions of marginal writers, not because they are marginal, but because they exist. The margin only exists to be turned inside out.

In my view a lot of this is due to an irksome habit people have of throwing around the word “community” like it means the same thing as “demographic.” Like, “the gay community,” for example. Which one? Where do I show up for the meeting? Who takes the minutes? Who presents the treasurer’s report? What most people mean when they say something like “the gay community” is “various and sundry gay people you run into in online spaces,” and that’s not a community. A demographic is a counter that any person can have a spectrum of experience with; a community is always actual and specific people who interact with each other on purpose.

The compounding of technologies in the Internet Age has left our human brains struggling to catch up in a lot of ways. We used to have to go to some place to encounter a community, or to meet people outside it. Now, you don’t even have to join another social media platform to have someone screenshot a tweet into your Facebook feed. Little wonder that we would try to use the language of hospitality to make this limitless landscape of encounters make sense.

Community is human messiness and drama and blood and marrow and tears and helpless laughter, and you know with whom you are doing it. Representation as such is just public demographic presence; it’s not activism and it’s definitely not community engagement. But neither is it mere tokenism. Representation at its best disturbs ossified categories and clears space for real engagement. It is not the work; it is the ground-clearing for the work.

It’s important to make this distinction because communities have authority over their members and over their message, and we therefore expect whole demographics to police their members, issue coherent statements and intentions, and feel individual responsibility for how the whole demographic is seen. But those things aren’t possible because a demographic isn’t a fucking community.

So while this isn’t all there is to be said about the subject, I definitely want this statement to have a memorable impact, so I’ll stop here. By the way, the seed of this Warmish Take was germinated in one of my Morning Lights newsletters, so if you want your Warmish Takes a little warmer, by all means subscribe.

And now for a g-&-t.

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