It’s possible to argue that the slogan “the personal is political” comes from a particular bourgeois version of personhood. However, if one starts from the moment of enslavement, then there is no personal and, indeed, no person, for the thingification of slavery takes away “the personal.” Things are not persons. But it is through the histories of slavery that the personal becomes political, as the quest for personhood requires disclosure, nakedness, revelation, confession. Slave narratives tell one horror after another: a beating, a rape, a mutilation, a catalogue of family separations, of things being disaggregated, of units collapsing and being re-joined. Of black male slaves used as studs to impregnate black women slaves.
How can language not collapse when things are gendered and compelled to reproduce themselves? (Thinking on “things” in philosophy, aesthetics, and political science fails to reckon with fungibility; the “unimaginable” “thingness” of those once human.)
The archives I know best tell me that certain bodies are minoritized through being “disclosed,” through being forced to “disclose” themselves. Show me your suffering, the injunction goes. Mark it on your body. Show it in your life. Those who live in Kenyan slums are routinely scrutinized: their sex habits, excretory habits, sanitation habits routinely broadcast on local, national, and international news outlets. Their homes invaded, photographed, described. Their sex lives narrated and re-narrated in whispers and shouts, in official reports and scandalous news stories. Privacy has unequal meanings.
In our disclosing now, it seems difficult to distinguish between the intrusive gaze that minoritizes and the intrusive gaze that demands reciprocity (and promises intimacy: “let’s share secrets”). Practically, of course, it’s not that difficult: one gaze emanates from the state and its agents while the other might be state-related, but is framed as the normative structuring of sociality. At a moment when the normative structuring of sociality blends so readily with the state’s gaze—the Kenyan government can monitor private phone communications without a warrant, it seems, and the newly passed CISPA in the U.S. takes away many privacy protections—it’s difficult to know what privacy is, who has it, who can demand it, who can be protected by it, who can never access it.
To be minoritized is always to have less or no access to privacy. My resistance to disclosure, my stubborn refusal to answer the most banal of questions as a condition of sociality stems from how I know the histories of disclosure. I disclose as a matter of strategy.
A certain bad reading of Foucault coupled with anti-feminist sentiment has dismissed “the personal is political” as a bad bourgeois strategy. It has claimed that “confession” and “disclosure” cannot be strategic. Nor can disclosure be considered “good” art or poetry. Rather, it is “lazy.” Lazy, I think, because all is “already known.” And nothing “new” can be discovered through such disclosures.
How did we come to know “all” about the minoritized? And might it not be useful to distinguish among sources? Might it not be useful to hear what the minoritized say about themselves? Might it not be useful to think of disclosure as a strategy? And, more: as a strategic risk.
For to disclose is always a risk. Especially when those already assumed to be fully known—or fully knowable—risk disclosure. One risks being dismissed as repetitive, boring, derivative, pandering, lazy. As though one’s risk has no particularity.
What does it mean to risk disclosure? And who gets to risk disclosure? And how is such disclosure a risk?
I might be talking about “coming out.” About what it means to “be” out, and what it means to keep coming out. About the worlds created by such disclosures and the worlds made impossible. About coming out as a strategy and a choice. About the desire to have a private life. About the desire to manage scrutiny, and to enable other lives.
Histories of blackness (and anti-blackness) and feminism (and anti-feminism) teach me to be wary of disclosure. Yet I could not be were it not for those who have risked disclosure. Those who understood—and sometimes didn’t understand—the risks they were taking to enable futures distinct from the pasts they had endured. Futures for strangers.
Perhaps I want to offer a simple claim: privacy and disclosure are unequal playing fields. Some risk more than others when they choose disclosure.
Here’s a simpler, more cryptic claim: A friend was interviewed. The published interview is heartbreaking in what it does not say. It’s even more heartbreaking in what it says.