Métis and Rhetorically Listening to #BlackLivesMatter
Author: Storm Christine Pilloff
Bio: Storm Christine Pilloff is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her research focuses on feminism and disability studies with a particular interest in embodied rhetorics. She has served as English 102 coordinator and mentor for the First Year Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Reflections.Tags: love, mētis, queer, racism, rhetorical listening
Six years ago, three queer Black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement in response to young Trayvon Martin’s murderer being acquitted. Co-Founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, narrates her outrage saying, “That’s why when I saw the phrase Black Lives Matter spelled out by Alicia Garza in a love letter towards Black people—I decided to put a hashtag on it” (Richardson and Ragland, 45). These two ingredients—love and a hashtag—are rhetorics of the body and, in this specific case, Black queer women’s bodies.
Rhetorical Listening has been and continues to be a necessary text in our field. Ratcliffe’s theories and arguments have facilitated important progress in the way we attend to normate structures of oppression as feminist scholars. But she says it herself, “Sometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). One area in which rhetorical listening can be more developed is in its attention to embodied knowledges and, specifically, the compounded intersections of multiply oppressed peoples’ embodiment (Carlson, 2019; LeMesurier, 2016). Ratcliffe’s work continues to lend itself to this development nicely because of her sustained attention to intersectionality. One way we can integrate more holistic attention to how embodiment informs rhetorical listening is to incorporate métis.
Recently there has been a “recovery” of métis, primarily in work done by disability scholars. Métis is cunning, embodied rhetorics developed from adaptive intelligences. It is a rhetorical tradition buried under “The body of history [that] has been shaped to look like an idealized human body: proportional, inviolable, autonomous, upright, forward facing (white, and masculine)” (Dolmage, 17, Disability Rhetoric). Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza—Black Lives Matters co-founders—do not embody that white masculinist rhetorical tradition. Their blackness, their femaleness, and their queerness are all embodied experiences that inform their rhetoric and movement. M. Remi Yergeau articulates “métis, then, holds multiple locational resonances, signifying the unruly unfixity of those who are racialized, disabled, and queered” showing how inseparable embodied identifications are and how they all contribute to a rhetor’s signification (41, Authoring).
As it currently is, Rhetorical Listening advocates for a separation of identifications, encouraging a version of objectification, whereas métis deliberately resists abstraction and helps us more fully attend to the embodied humanity of rhetors. Ratcliffe writes “that identifications with gender and whiteness are inextricably intertwined—not only with each other but with a host of other cultural categories, such as class, age, religion, ethnicity, nationality, beauty, and political affiliation” (8). Notably missing from that list is sexuality, gender identity, and dis/ability. Ratcliffe does say identifications are “inextricably intertwined” and I argue that they remain inextricable because they are embodied. Adding métis to rhetorical listening facilitates a more holistic, more humane, method of listening across cultures by bringing rhetors’ full humanity into the practice. I argue that “put[ting] a hashtag on” Black Lives Matter was a deliberately cunning rhetorical move designed by queer Black women to facilitate rhetorical listening.
Black lives and their rhetoric are not ours, as white academics, to intellectualize and profit off of. Instead, what I hope to make clear here is that the rhetorical choices the Black Lives Matter movement has made, using a hashtag to mobilize a global movement—and a particular phrase—further emphasize the need for higher education and rhetorical scholars to stop objectifying Black rhetoric and histories and, instead, fully humanize the embodied, lived experiences that led to such rhetorical skills. While “standing under discourses” has been a useful analogy to imagine inseparable (intersectional) identities, a more explicit attention to the body—the Black, queer, feminized body—adds a corporeal element that urges us to more fully humanize people. I am hoping that by adding métis to rhetorical listening we will be able to do more than “hear things we cannot see”—we will also be able to hear things, or rather, people we do see (Ratcliffe, 25).
Black Lives and Métis
I am currently sitting in my Milwaukee apartment hearing a military helicopter circle my neighborhood, sometimes coming so close that it rattles my body as I write this, because thousands of protesters have been advocating in our streets that Black lives, Black bodies, mean something, that they matter. All of the trauma, pain, history, femininity, and queerness our #BLM co-founders embody informed their decision to use a hashtag on a phrase that advocates for how much their lives mean, for how much their lives matter. As I work on this contribution in the midst of ongoing national protests in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders (among too many more) during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the Black population, it is clear that hashtag has undoubtedly, inarguably facilitated “interpretive invention” (Ratcliffe, 25). These protests themselves are a representation of a “pragmatic effect” as they “invent” new alliances, proliferate demands for abolition, amplify the voices of Black activists, and effectively crowdsource for bail funds and so much more (27, Ratcliffe). In Disability Studies Quarterly’s winter special issue Jay Dolmage so clearly states, “Wherever we find the body rhetorically contested, and wherever we find rhetorical contestation about the body’s role in meaning-making, we see intensely fraught negotiations” (“What is Metis?”). This so aptly represents the rhetorical moves of the Black Lives Matter movement from both its name to the facilitation of the hashtag. Centuries before its founding, the United States has rhetorically contested the Black body, the Black female body, the Black queer and gender non-conforming body, the Black disabled body. The simple phrase affirming that their lives matter has created enormously intense fraught negotiations.
I want to clearly distinguish how #BlackLivesMatter’s cunning ingenuity in using the hashtag is different than, say, a brand, influencer, or something of that ilk. In that same special issue, Dolmage reminds us, “Of course, métis has always been associated with trickery—those with métis can process and interpret the world slightly differently, can find opportunity to turn the tables on those with greater bie, or brute strength, than they have access to” (“What is Metis?”). In this case we can say that white supremacy, or the police state, have greater bie so in order to resist and progress, Black activists have had to be cunning, be tricky. We also know that even when Black people attempt to use bie in resistance they are even more susceptible to police violence and mortal consequences. The current protests, for example, are found and trackable by hashtags. And while that means they are trackable by the police, activists use the hashtag to amplify messages encouraging protestors to turn off their cellphone location data and to blur photos so allies and activists remain unidentifiable by the state. This facilitates a turning of the tables on those who have more access to bie. This manifests in a cunning ability to continue to make meaning—be rhetorical—in resistance to white masculinist supremacy, therefore, an ability to be rhetorically listened to in the midst of an oppressive system designed to silence Black people.
Elaine Richardson and Alice Ragland argue that the way #BlackLivesMatter uses the hashtag is a new literacy. By mobilizing multiple arguments with hashtags, BLM “illuminate[s] intersectionality within the Black Lives Matter movement” (46). Richardson and Ragland point out that “The hashtag #AllBlackLivesMatter has also been important in acknowledging intersectionality of the movement” arguing that “It behooves queered groups to work across diverse intersectional identities to build coalition for collective empowerment. This is the goal of Black Lives Matter activism” (49, 50). They also cite Sherri Williams saying, “Black feminists’ use of hashtag activism is a unique fusion of social justice, technology, and citizen journalism. It should serve as a fertile ground for emerging news for journalists, a point of connection for white feminists, and a ripe area of study for academics” (48). Intersectionality, specifically the co-founders’ attention to Black women and queerness, is inherent in the design and amplification of #BlackLivesMatter. This specific relationship to a hashtag is “unique” because it is informed by embodied experiences and identities. Using the internet to amplify and mobilize activists in resistance to a dominating brute force is a métis rhetoric.
More deeply considered, métis “unfold[s] constellated embodiments that traverse race, ethnicity, trauma, survivance, disability, and sexuality” (Yergeau, 41). Métis is not simply “embodied rhetoric” but, more specifically, embodied rhetorics informed by identities in Yergeau’s list here. It has originated in disability studies and rhetoric but remains woefully under-utilized for understanding Black rhetoric and supporting Black lives. Yergeau explains, “disability activism more broadly is not a new or emergent movement, but rather a long-standing civil rights movement whose tactics, strategies, and rhetorics are frequently modeled after black civil rights activism and social justice movements in the United States” (179). Métis rhetoric is shared among and with Black people and their continued resistance to white supremacy. However, it continues to be developed in disability rhetoric with a sustained focus on white disabled people. Engaging with rhetorical listening insists on “laying” métis next to whiteness and white supremacy (23, Ratcliffe). Karma Chávez points out, “It is only through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken, yet specified, white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual male standard that particular bodies come to matter” (242). These bodily differences “in contrast” to that “unspoken” hegemony are highlighted by developing métis more. Métis helps us notice and attend to the bodily differences that prevent cross-cultural communication. In other words, it is now (past) time to develop métis in support of Black lives, and listening to the Black queer women who built a global movement by putting a hashtag on a life-affirming phrase. Métis has always been available “through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken…standard,” and it is time to utilize it for anti-Black racism (Chávez, 242).
Furthermore, Yergeau “link[s] the conditions that attend sexuality and gender identity to the conditions that attend rhetoric, suggesting that when we speak of rhetors, we are often speaking of (normatively configured) rhetorsexuals” (178). This is an important distinction to make. The question of what has counted as rhetoric, or who has been counted as a rhetor, has been at the core of studies in rhetoric for its entirety. Heterosexual white men are these “normatively configured rhetorsexuals” which means anyone other than a heterosexual white male rhetor is a non-normative rhetorsexual. Queerness informs rhetorical practices not just because queer rhetorics are “discursive practices that emerge at different times for different groups in order to articulate resistance to regimes of sexualized normalization,” but importantly, are also embodied (Rhodes and Alexander, “Pleasures”). As Jean Bessette points out, feminist rhetoric’s “primary focus [has been] on heterosexual women… the universal category of ‘woman’ [is] almost always implicitly heterosexual” (18, Retroactivism). In Ratcliffe’s words, the field of rhetoric (Aristotelian in her example) “can be gender blind, that is, naively blind to concerns of gender. What I was realizing in my own life was that it can also be race blind” (5). And what Yergeau, Bessette, Rhodes and Alexander show here is that it can also be sexuality and ability blind, so much so that we use ableist “ocularcentric” metaphors to show what we historically overlook. To understand a rhetor as a rhetorsexual is to understand how inextricable one’s sexuality is from their rhetoric, especially when the rhetors are queer.
Engaging métis with rhetorical listening helps identify rhetors as rhetorsexuals; it makes explicit the implicit assumptions of heteronormativity. Drew Halladay explains, “While other ancient Greek terms prominent in the rhetorical tradition are often portrayed as immaterial qualities of discourse (e.g., logos as a synonym of ‘rationality’), métis resists abstraction from rhetoric’s material context by returning attention to the body and its role in the production of identity, knowledge, and power” (“Performing Métis Rhetorics”). These traditional practices conceive of rhetoric as disembodied. Deliberately attending to the body in #BLM’s rhetorical practices forces us to resist the objectifying abstraction our rhetorical traditions generally prioritize in “analyses,” like focusing on one aspect of a rhetor’s identity or argument. In short, the simple use of the hashtag by #BLM was and remains a rhetorical choice the co-founders’ Blackness, queerness, and femininity decided in order to proliferate and amplify their message in a predominantly white, heterosexual rhetorical space. It is not a coincidence or an accident that three queer Black women were able to mobilize a hashtag so globally. It was a decision their queerness, their femaleness, and their Blackness led them to. Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza deliberately “affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum” and set #BlackLivesMatter apart from other civil rights movements by “put[ting] those with the most marginalized identities in leadership positions” (BlackLivesMatter.com, m4bl.org).
Dolmage reminds us, “And métis, I have suggested, is an embodied knowledge: one that refuses the sexist, ableist body-image of canonical rhetoric, an image that we have chosen from our (Western, Greco-Roman) versions of history. We might have chosen and canonized a history with a disabled God at the center of it. We might still” (“What is Metis?”). Choosing a rhetorical history that centers a disabled God means we can rhetorically listen to #BLM’s choices as inherently informed by the Black, queer, female bodies who founded the movement. Rather than abstracting their rhetorical moves from their lived, embodied experiences, we can rhetorically listen to their queerness, their Blackness, their femaleness—all at once—fully humanizing these skilled rhetor(sexual)s.
Love is Rhetorical
In closing, all of this has turned my attention to the rhetorical possibilities of love. Both the Black community and queer people have historically used love as both a rhetorical argument and a survival strategy. In his study focusing on the lives of Black LGBTQ people, Eric Darnell Pritchard defines love as “a radical praxis of freedom and self-care in the face of a social, political, and cultural circumstance in which you and your people are targeted for debasement, degradation, and in many cases, death” (38, Fashioning Lives). Some of the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement are to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting” (BlackLivesMatter.com, my emphasis). It is because of the way we love, as queers, that we have been discriminated against. Yet while white queer people continue to advance into the mainstream, Black transgender people and queers of color—especially Black transgender women—are targeted by state-sanctioned violence. Pritchard discovers in his research that “love, as a centerpiece of restorative literacies, is witnessed whenever research participants ‘break through’ negative effects of literacy normativity…and pronounce their humanity, their liberation, and their right to live a life on their own terms” (38). Social media sites, and the internet more generally, are mediated by what Safiya Noble calls algorithms of oppression. White supremacy, and all the ableist, heteronormative weight it carries, informs how information is distributed in digital spaces. Khan-Cullors putting a hashtag on a phrase Garza wrote in a “love letter towards Black people” absolutely facilitated a breakthrough—that hashtag snuck, and proliferated, Black love and liberation onto newsfeeds and walls originally designed to maintain white supremacy.
Rhetorically listening to these Black queer writers and activists, it is clear that love, itself, is rhetorical in part because it is necessary in order to listen rhetorically. Love is an area still currently overlooked in the scholarship on rhetorical listening (and rhetoric studies, more generally). We have only a few scholars over the course of 50 years who have written on it (Corder 1985; Gunn, 2008; Restaino, 2019). To deliberately queer rhetorical listening, love must also be accounted for. We are queer because of how we love and, what’s more, we are queer because of specific embodied experiences related to our genders and sexualities. And perhaps most important to my argument about love is that people do not have to be excellent or joyful to be worthy of love, therefore worthy of a movement to affirm their lives. Black Lives Matter is not only a movement named after a loving affirmation of Black life, the movement itself is guided by principles of love. So not only is the hashtag guided by rhetorsexuals, it continues to be mobilized by community and self-love. Pritchard so importantly argues that for Black LGBTQ people “…love [is] a radical praxis of freedom and care for self and community” (39). That praxis of freedom, the love Garza and Khan-Cullors were expressing in their private conversation, has turned into a phrase lining residents’ and businesses’ windows down the street, being painted in huge letters in major city intersections, and amplifying the young Black abolitionists who are in the slow—but now steady—process of defunding America’s carceral state.
Centering queer people of color—in this case, Black Lives Matter—develops Ratcliffe’s arguments in ways that promise new ideas about activism, political rhetoric, digital rhetoric (arguing that a hashtag is embodied), feminism, Black queer feminism and métis. The extant scholarship on métis woefully underserves Black women and especially Black queer women. The field of rhetoric has much to learn from queerly rhetorically listening to the embodied rhetorics of Black Lives Matter. I believe that integrating métis with rhetorical listening is one important way of queering rhetorical listening. The more we move away from embodied experiences, the more we’re able to abstract rhetorics from the people developing and engaging in rhetoric. Adding métis to rhetorical listening brings the body back to rhetoric in ways Dolmage argues: “[I]t is not enough to re-body theory and teaching—doing so simply incorporates untroubled bodily norms in an unchallenged realm of abstraction. Our embodiment is a feeling for difference, and always references norms of gender, race, sexuality, class, citizenship” (“What is Metis?”). Adding métis to rhetorical listening both queers it and more wholly attends to the full range of identities and personhood embodied in rhetors.
There are rhetorical moves, strategies that only people who have been forced to survive in hostile climates have moved into and embodied. We learn these moves because our bodies—therefore our rhetorics—are excluded in mainstream rhetorical conventions. And there’s also something about loving ourselves in a world that treats us as unlovable that facilitates métis—skilled, adaptable, cunning rhetorical moves in resistance to hatred and oppression. Black women are skilled métis rhetors. The cunning, adaptive, sneaky rhetorical strategies employed by #BLM take cunning and sneaky rhetorical listeners. As feminists, as queers, and as embodied rhetors, we have a responsibility to queer rhetorical listening toward the body. To métis it. We can, as white listeners, add métis to rhetorical listening strategies in order to do more justice to Black rhetor(sexual)s.
I’m finishing this draft as we’ve entered Pride month during a pandemic and increasingly widespread protests and riots fighting for Black Lives Matter. During a pandemic when most of our in-person pride parades have been cancelled we cannot forget, the first pride parade was a riot led by Black and brown trans women—queers using their bodies in resistance. And it worked. #BlackLivesMatter.
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