Not Oprah’s Book Club: Normal Life

Dean Spade’s incredible book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law, burns away every approximation of activism currently passing as transformative today with blindingly bright analysis. Spade is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the first openly trans tenure-track law professor in the U.S. (Seattle University). The book, drawing on these experiences, is about trans politics, but it’s also provides a much larger critique of the kinds of change tactics and impact measurements that we’ve come to accept as enough.

Like the huge dork I am, I read Spade’s analysis of power out loud to my partner in bed:

Power is not a matter of one dominant individual or institutions, but instead manifests in interconnected, contradictory sites where regimes ofknowledge and practice circulate and take hold. This way of understanding the dispersion of power helps us realize that power is not simply about certain individuals being targeted for death or exclusion by a ruler, but instead about the creation of norms that distribute vulnerability and security.

This brilliant foundation holds up the rest of Spade’s argument, which is that hate crimes, gay marriage campaigns, and the like are mostly serving to individualize our approach to social change, ignoring root causes and often, even if inadvertently, feeding systems that writ large are part of the problem–the criminal justice system, for one. He focuses on the idea that the distribute of “life chances,” not individual discrimination, are the most effective place to put down roots and start working to change things. Further, Spade argues, it is “population management”–programs like Social Security, Medicaid, public assistance, immigration policy, the Census, all identity documentation etc.–operating “through purportedly neutral criteria aimed at distributing health and security and ensuring order,” that are locations of the most potent invisible harm.

In other words, we talk so much about the Matthew Shepards of the world, but every single day people are being denied basic needs because they don’t fit our society’s constructed idea of what’s normal or appropriate. It’s hard to document those injustices, as they aren’t dramatic or overtly violent, and yet they are so widespread, so destructive, so wrong.

Spade’s language can be academic and repetitive at times, but this book still catalyzed one light bulb moment after another for me. I’m wrestling with some of his arguments, wondering how I can take steps in my own daily life and activist work to honor what I learned from him, but his words will stay with me for the struggle. This book is a feat of activism analysis, rooted in women of color feminist thought and taking beautiful, transformative bloom.

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