Chosen Family in Unsafe Spaces: How Loving One Another Is Resistance

by Hannah Giorgis

For many people of color, leaving a predominately white college or university comes with a mixed bag of emotions: will that ridiculously expensive degree actually help us find some semblance of financial security? If it does, how do we adjust to not having our humanity directly questioned every day – without using this newfound privilege to contribute to systems that dehumanize others? What does it mean to perhaps no longer function entirely in resistance mode once our bodies physically leave the dungeons of the ivory tower?

A newly-minted graduate of a very tiny, very white liberal arts college in New England, I’ve been wrestling with these questions since before I even crossed the graduation stage. What I didn’t anticipate then—and has become incredibly clear now—are the ways that my chosen family would help me beyond the confines of our campus. I was lucky enough to feel truly held by my communities, surrounded by a circle of warmth that even the coldest acts of discrimination and the iciest winters could not destroy.

Though my experiences stem largely from my college years, empathy and connection as forms of resistance within our communities can be found anywhere. In the context of any environment where white supremacist sentiment is both palpable and so normalized it’s invisible, chosen family can come in the form of tightly-knit communities of color who organize both inter- or intra-racially. Chosen family can be the folks who pulled you through the semester you thought you might fail, who remind you that your worth is not defined by academia’s rigid standards, who lift you up when the job(s) you’re working threaten to suck the very life-force out of you. Chosen family do not only exist among those of us in the trenches of college campuses; they are also found in the battlefields of low-wage work, domestic labor, citizenship classes, white-dominated activist spaces, and among those who do not have the option of attending universities that teach us words like “intersectionality.” Chosen family rally around one another, forge deep bonds while moving through difficult circumstances, and recognize that self-actualization isn’t actually just about one’s self.

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When I reflect on my experiences of organizing and (slow, messy, ever-continuing) consciousness-building, I constantly come back to the people who made that possible. We are more than friends, more than comrades, more than co-organizers and ideologically-aligned activists. We are family: we nurture, cradle, love, protect, challenge, cry, bleed, break, rebuild.

In these moments, we did more than create the friendships our brightly-colored brochures told us we would find. In embracing each other, we resisted every narrative that told us we were unworthy of occupying space, undeserving of love, un-human. In fervently loving our black, our brown, our poor, our woman, our immigrant, our queer—we chewed our way through the fallacies forced down our throats.

It is no accident that many of us come from homes that rupture “traditional” Western models of thinking. We are the children of parents who grew up with cousins sharing their bedrooms because there was no other space, with grandmothers cooking dinner, with grandfathers walking us home from school and teaching us to play checkers while our parents worked multiple jobs, with aunties who took us in when our parents couldn’t hold our vitality with their calloused hands. We are the inheritors of survival legacies that are intimately connected to weaving kinship from disparate parts. We are a generation of misfits in a country that wants us only for our production value, a group of mismatched weirdos who recognize that we have to love ourselves in order to fight for who and what we believe in.

Months after graduating, I am thousands of miles away from some of those who anchored me. I am floating in a new city, still buoyed by their light and support across time zones and spatial boundaries we never really believed in anyway. We still love fervently, still warm each other’s hearts, and still carry each other’s burdens.

We are still resisting flat images of ourselves by celebrating the depth of humanity within one another. We are still pushing back against normative white standards of acceptable human connections, of beauty, of respectability.

Though support through the trenches is what first pushed us together, we must all remember that family (chosen or otherwise) doesn’t simply exist as a powerful form of group counseling. We are so much more than each other’s unpaid therapists, and the ability of our relationships to continue evolving even beyond the pressure cooker environment in which they formed is a testament to that.
Students, workers, friends—the harsh conditions that propelled you toward your chosen family may fade one day, but their purpose in your life never will. Hold tightly to those who value reciprocity, who see the beauty in human imperfection, who held your hand as you crossed the finish line or sat with you when you took a break from the race. There is nothing fictive about your kinship.

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Hannah GiorgisHannah Giorgis is an Ethiopian-American writer, organizer, artist, and awkward black girl trying to make sense of diaspora. You can check out more of her musings here or on Twitter @habeshafemme.



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