By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA
Editor’s Note: Since speaking at American University, the speaker changed their name to Ian Madrigal.
It seems like every day the news is covering the increasing marginalization of one group or another. One day they’re reporting on the mistreatment of migrants seeking asylum at the border, the next on the possibility of the repeal of protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, and the day after on the continued epidemic of police brutality towards black men. These are only a few examples of the many stories and groups that are being impacted by the particularly hateful climate currently shrouding American politics.
While it can often be hard to find the light in this situation, my discussion with Ian Madrigal, a creative advocate best known for their work as the Monopoly Man, reminded me that times like these can lead us to evolve as communities and individuals. In a follow-up interview after they spoke at American University, Madrigal discussed how different identities can play a role in how we interact with each other, both as activists and simply as human beings.
When I asked Madrigal about their experience with the ways that identity can interact with advocacy, they pointed out how being trans and queer has allowed them to live their life from a number of different perspectives. Because their identity and expression has developed over time – having a “stint on every letter of the LGBTQ” – they have seen things evolve through more fluid stages rather than the more common interpretation of reality set in distinct steps and categories. They went on to explain how as their transition has progressed, they have had to “straddle the dualities” of people’s perceptions. In certain spaces, they are now sometimes seen as a straight white man, which gives them a certain degree of privilege they had not had before. But other times, such as when their voice is read as being trans, that safety that comes from passability can quickly dissipate as feelings of unease set in.
As a transgender person myself, I have spent a lot of time navigating this phenomenon. For most people, privilege is generally immutable. Your race, your class, your gender, they stay relatively stable. But as trans folks, we often have the unique opportunity to experience a spectrum of gender-related privileges and discrimination alike. This resulting awareness is something pretty unique to the trans community and Madrigal is actively using this awareness to try and effect change.
Specifically, Madrigal talked about how showing up to a hearing dressed as the Monopoly Man gave them access to space in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise had. Madrigal explained that the Monopoly Man, as many of us know, is the “pinnacle of privilege.” He’s a straight white man drowning in money and real estate holdings. Because of this status, even though they were in costume, Madrigal was able to lean into these associations and the resulting confusion to participate in the conversation in a way that an uncostumed Ian would not have been able to.
I asked Madrigal about the role of race in the Kirstjen Nielsen protest they organized and how we can use our different privileges to advocate for groups while also respecting individual boundaries. Most of the protestors were white or white-passing and Madrigal discussed how they believe the event and their interaction with the Secret Service would have gone drastically differently if the group had not been majority white or white-passing. In fact, the Secret Service grabbed the one Latinx member of the group and proceeded to speak mockingly to him in Spanish.
In reflecting on an educational equity course they had taken in college, Madrigal encouraged using privilege rather than giving it up. “Good people should take and hoard privilege and distribute it,” they said. It’s not useful to “reject” privilege because you can’t really reject how another person is going to see and treat you; that just gives the privilege back to people who will use it solely for personal gain. Instead, Madrigal urges people to use their positions by staying aware and putting their necks on the line when others can’t afford to.
In the same vein, I asked Madrigal about allyship, the surrounding discourse, and how to improve each. And though the idea of their answer seems so simple, it really is the largest missing component of allyship practice today: listening and learning. In order to be effective allies, we need to “take our cues from the marginalized folks in the community. And if they’re not there, figure out why that is.” For example, Madrigal talked about the current wave of white supremacy in the United States, saying that many people are thinking “Oh wow, I didn’t know there were actually Nazis in the country. People of color did.” But it’s important to talk about white privilege with other white people too and not always rely on our marginalized friends to walk us through these discussions. On the other hand, Madrigal encourages us as consumers to be skeptical of what people in power say, not automatically believing or disbelieving anyone, but taking it back to a balance of healthy criticism.
Shifting the conversation, I asked Madrigal about the boundaries and definition of civility. Using the context of the Nielsen protest, Madrigal broke it down into two categories: moral and tactical. In terms of morality, they argued that we can go pretty far in situations like that. Because Nielsen was “putting literal babies in prison,” Madrigal said that morally, a lot could be justified. People bring up incivility when cultural norms and etiquette are broken, but these things should get thrown out the window when questions of human rights violations are involved.
Tactically, however, things become a bit more limiting. Though we may have a “radical view of what morals allow,” odds are that not everyone is on the same page as to what this means. It is important to be able to read the culture you are working within and approach the issue effectively, often aiming for harm reduction in cases of social justice and human rights. Because Nielsen and the imprisoned children were at the forefront of the news cycle, the cultural outrage matched the efforts and allowed Madrigal and their fellow protestors to convey the message appropriately. Being aware of these issues and implications allows us as advocates to navigate the complexities of activism and civility.
In speaking with Ian, what stood out to me was their call to harness our identities and privileges to be better advocates for ourselves and those who don’t have as much of a voice yet. And the only way that we can do this is by actively listening to each other using what we hear to effect change. Knowing that there are people like Madrigal who are creating change and empowering the rest of us to join in makes that constant daunting newsreel feel less like a ball and chain dragging us down and more like a match and gasoline igniting a movement.
Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.