I sent a prayer to my ancestors. I asked for insights into my personal life and doors to walk through to begin my journey to another path. A path to be healthier and more secure in myself, and to be a better relation to the folks I am in relation with. I prayed to my grandmothers to help.

AND THEY DELIVERED GODDAMMIT!!! At the beginning of the year, I made a grave error, and it blew everything up. Cassandra as I knew her blew up…or did she/I? I literally do not know: I’m in the process of the process of trying to figure out what happened to me and what I did/did not do. Doors in the corners of my mind opened to more doors, until I came to the ocean floor. I’m not sure if I’m Asuka or Rei, or just a combination of them both. But I got there by going into the Pearl inside the Pearl inside the Pearl inside the Pearl inside the Pearl inside the Pearl of my body.

So now I sit with myself and my selves. Xangô is here, whereas Exú, ironically, has been here the entire time, in Cass₁. There is also a Cass₂. I don’t know which Cassie I am: it could be anywhere from Cass₃ to Cass₉. But they have all, excluding me, climbed out from my throat to force me to reckon with them: an intervention of sorts, but with cakes and notebooks and tea, on the surface floor.

One thing that has become clear in this intervention is that I have needs. I have ignored my needs for a long time, and right now I want care. I need care to be soft again.

Andi Schwartz, who I already profiled on this blog, published an essay on cultural politics of softness. It poses a number of points, especially that softness as a conceptual framework can be a real solution to addressing harm. Softness does not have to be a stand-in or short-hand for anything. It instead requires “vulnerability, emotionality, and earnestness” as a pathway to securing safety. Schwartz continues:

This stands in contrast to hardness, an approach that often relies on irony and sarcasm to shore up the image of infallible impenetrability. Hardness wants to appear unattached and unaffected. Hardness wants to believe it can pull itself up by the bootstraps. Hardness wants us to see this as strength.

Hardness, as an extension of neo-liberal and classic liberalism, encourages the breakdown of community ethos by tricking populations into believing they are individuals, and that individualism is the primary way to be. “Acknowledging our vulnerability,” Schwartz writes,  “foregrounds our actual interdependent human nature, rather than pretending we could live without each other.”

Communist organizer Ani McAllen has written a response to Schwartz, poking holes into the original argument. McAllen criticizes the turn to affect as mere fetish, but also as a capitalist scam to disempower the marginalized and oppressed. Isn’t it curious, as Schwartz admits, that from the workplace to Lush to Ariana Grande we have commercialized softness into another form of the self-care industrial complex? 

The proponents of radical softness would be horrified to hear that they are promoting such a dangerous culture. It is definitely not their intention. But that does not change the reality. By promoting cultural affectation and personal lifestyle choices (such as lifestyles of emotionality) as a mode of social transformation, the Radical Softness movement promotes an individualist view of social change, where individuals make choices about their own lifestyles, and interact with other atomised, individualised units.

I bring these two pieces together because they sit on a binary in which my own life meets in the middle. 

Softness is appealing and tempting, but it is hard trust it. In the initial conversation I had with my friend Xine about Schwartz’s piece, we asked ourselves: “But how does softness get weaponized and why might some of us develop hardness as a way to protect our own softness?” Like cuteness, all softness is not equal, and it is not rendered the same on everyone’s body, even in the steps taken to embody it for one’s own use. I found it curious that Schwartz, while showcasing BIPOC artist-critics Joshua Allen, Alok Vaid-Menon, Virgie Tovar, among others, the question of race is silent in the article. I am not sure if this was to convey that it is a given within the way Schwartz conceived the politics of softness, or simply an error or oversight as a white person (Schwartz’s other pieces have explicitly named race, so I am not sure why it is absent here).

But this oversight pivots well to the strengths of McAllen’s piece. Softness, as it is popularly conceived in our capitalist system, is too risky to trust. My interior life is murky, messy, and vulnerable, but it is not hard. I perform hardness, and hardness is imposed on me. American mass culture, which is white supremacist, denied softness to me as a child, through silencing my presence in cartoons, children’s books, popular culture, etc. I learned to cope with this by becoming withdrawn and distant in white-dominated spaces, from school and public arenas to my job. I cultivated an armor for myself, which served me well: by being mysterious, distant, intimidating, I had more control in preventing people from manipulating me. In some sense, I played the game of whiteness.

I concur with McAllen in this sense: interior/exterior hardness, as opposed to exterior softness, provided me a way to exist and protect my interior softness. I did not want my vulnerability to be exploited as weakness, because black people who are not hard are at risk of being harmed. Like Okonkwo, I needed to perform strength. Not only was it a performance, but a form of defiance and resistance against this world. To not move for anyone, and not be moved; to claim space. Recalling Xine’s questions, “who has to be soft for whom? If one is soft how is that exploited? If not, how is hardness used to shame?”

The reality is that performing weakness does not make us stronger. Does this mean that we need to deny our emotions, or simply ignore the fact that life is hard, and even harder if you are a victim of systematic oppression? No, of course not. But no one is arguing for such a program. By setting oneself up against the enemy of emotionlessness in the activist scene, one constructs a problem by proposing a solution.

It perhaps a stretch to argue that Schwartz was arguing that softness is a way to perform weakness, but it is important for me to note this because this was my own misconception in my interior life. Vulnerability meant performing weakness – to be at risk of harm. For me, making this own stretch ended up transforming a protective mechanism into a poison. The armor protected me, but slowly dug into my flesh. Superficial cuts became deep cuts. This exterior hardness bled into my interior.

The reality is that performing weakness does not make us stronger. Does this mean that we need to deny our emotions, or simply ignore the fact that life is hard, and even harder if you are a victim of systematic oppression? No, of course not. But no one is arguing for such a program. By setting oneself up against the enemy of emotionlessness in the activist scene, one constructs a problem by proposing a solution.

The problem for perpetual hardness, in my case, is that it has facilitated what McAllen says no one is arguing for. Self-denial, as a kind of internalized dehumanization, becomes a condition where we perpetually perform hardness on autopilot as a reactive response to harm. It obscures  to the practitioner the fact that community is critical to survival, vibrancy, and abundance. So I denied, denied, denied because the stakes were too high for me and everyone else who depended on me: the mentor, the daughter, the idol and rolemodel, and the fighter. I thought this was a way to live, in a world where there are few possibilities and I myself was a limited possibility. 

Masking pain as indifference has not prevented someone from hurting me. Telling someone they are trash because they have oppressive opinions has not changed their mind (even though sometimes it is not about getting an apology or changing someone’s mind. Sometimes this isn’t our responsibility). The temporary vindication I feel after cutting off a once-close connection or ripping into a once-dear friend grows cold, and eventually feels empty and lonely. This does not heal me. When I ask someone to try harder because they are hurting me, I feel more nourished — even if they won’t try. I feel like I am honouring my pain instead of masking it, and it is important that someone honours it, isn’t it?

What links Schwartz and McAllen together is the belief that community is central to becoming and existing in an oppressive world. The ability to be vulnerable, tender, and soft foments hope in a community, a force that allows people to work together to transform and eradicate oppression and despair. Or as the late black liberation theologian James H. Cone said on Bill Moyers Journal:

When you can express and articulate what’s happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech, it gives you self-definition…and when you have self-definition not defined by the world, then you transcend what is happening to you[…] Don’t lose hope. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.

It is of course important to acknowledge, study, and challenge the ways this effort becomes co-opted and commercialized, whether to disorganize people or trick them into complacency (consider, for example, the journey self-care took from Audre Lorde’s personal and systemic struggle against cancer to Goop). That propensity frightens me, and has encouraged me to distrust any invitation to become soft: in therapy, with my partner, with my advisor, with my friends, with everyone. I cannot live the full, vibrant, long and rich life I want to live if I decide everything is nothing can be given a chance. That I am not worth, and that my body is not worth, a chance.

I’m not interested in the aesthetics of softness, or their co-optation: these are smokescreens.¹ I am interested more in what is at the heart of both Schwartz and McAllen’s pieces. The core of both essays is the challenge to build that community infrastructure so that we can survive, and survive well. I am open to softness as a community practice because there is no other way for me. 

“I am not a hotel room. I am a home. I am not the whiskey you want. I’m the water you need.” Says Cass₁, Cass₂ and all of the Cassies, as per Rupi Kaur. Or, “show me some emotional respect,” as per Björk.

¹ I am preparing a forthcoming post linking the aesthetics of pastels with minimalist design movement. In this sense, McAllen’s essay and I will be more in alignment than in this reflection here.