Dear Betsy Phillips

Dear Betsy,

First off, we wanted to say that we are big fans of yours. We are so glad for your voice in local politics and we are quite honored that you are paying attention to what some members of the Nashville Feminist Collective think and say. We can’t speak for the entire collective, but a few of us wanted to offer some kind of engagement with your writing since you addressed our group specifically. We hope that this response will be taken in the spirit of “calling in” with compassion rather than calling out with judgment and self-righteousness. You are right that “Women don’t have to strike the right tone to deserve to have our concerns addressed.” But doing good, intersectional feminism means each of us relying on other feminists to hold us accountable when we get something wrong. We hope that you would do the same for us.

We would never want to discount or question a woman’s fears of personal safety due to the ever-present threat of gender-based harassment and intimidation in our world that is unfortunately dominated by patriarchal violence. We agree that, as you said in your follow up article, suffering does not make men virtuous. Your feelings of safety deserve to be addressed, and it is a larger discussion worth having about public spaces beyond just the library. Our critique was not, however, that you should feel less fear of men who are unhoused than of men who wear business suits; our critique was that your article, in describing these unhoused men, was classist and dehumanizing and that your intention to address the lack of safe space for women was lost amidst the classist and dehumanizing language. Your follow up article did not address that critique at all. 

In particular, your first article said: “…when you’re using the library as your locker room/laundromat/daytime hangout, it interferes with my ability to use the library as a place to find information. That sucks. I should be able to use the library my tax dollars support without being grossed out by the smell or the shape of the facilities and without being frightened by the people who seem to have staked out parts of the public building as theirs and are then guarding it.” How this reads, to us, is that other people’s poverty and experience of systemic injustice –– and their very bodies –– are “gross” and that you are frightened simply because they are using the space. Unhoused and poor folks are already under the presumption of guilt/vice, that is, they are assumed to be without virtue (poverty being seen as a moral failing in our culture), even criminal, and you play into it. Instead of naming the specific ways you felt unsafe you attribute a sense of danger and outrage over the conditions of the library to a whole class of people who are disenfranchised by systemic injustice.

If you were describing another setting as unsafe for women, where mostly black men congregate, and you used terms like “superpredator” or “brute” we would call that racist language. If you described a setting unsafe for women in an area where trans men and women congregate, and you used terms like “pervert” we would call that transphobic. So when you describe the library as unsafe because unhoused people make it feel “gross” and “smell” we call your piece classist.

You clearly have an excellent analysis of racism and white appropriation of black culture. You have written about it masterfully here, here, and here. When this happens, you call it “racism” not “being mean” to black people. Racism, like classism, is systemic, not only interpersonal.

Nashville is a class-divided city. The term “taxpayers” is divisive in that it designates two groups of people, those who pay taxes and those who are poor. It also designates an entitled citizen and those who are not entitled to public space, to public bathrooms, to spend time at the library. You seemed to be saying that the library exists for the common good and use of everyone. . . except people who smell bad.

It also seems important to note that Nashville has been built on the backs and by the labor of unhoused or precariously housed people. Many of the people we encounter on the third floor work construction, janitorial, and public works jobs through day labor agencies that send them out to do the hard work that keeps our city running and growing, but do not pay them a fair wage, charge high fees for their services, and offer no security for this disposable work force. What the poorest people may not pay in taxes, they often pay for with their labor –– their bodies and their health –– for other comforts we enjoy. Perhaps this is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about entitlement to public spaces.

Please also keep in mind all the unhoused people who frequent the library as one of the last remaining public spaces that should be an equalizer for people from all races, socio-economic statuses and walks of life. Practically everywhere else, in day shelters, at meal programs, and the like, these folks are labeled, grouped, and often criminalized by their poverty. Many people go to the library for respite from that system, for a few hours to feel normal or blend in like they could be anyone else just using the library. Not to mention that unhoused folks often are just using the library like anyone else – for reading books, relaxing, and utilizing the information services offered in these public spaces. These folks are already subject to disproportionate policing in the outside world and increasing security staff inside the library, especially the third floor which has given you pause. It’s one thing to notice feeling uncomfortable there and exploring that feeling. It’s another thing to publicly call out unhoused folks for making the library (one of the few safer spaces they may have) “gross,” as if they are at fault, and now they could be left to face the consequences of your words in security crackdowns, new usage rules, or even simply more people following your lead to notice them and feel offended by their presence rather than systemic injustice which leaves them with almost nowhere else to legally exist.

Even the most conscious social justice advocates among us can make mistakes, especially when we don’t address our own privilege. To assert that because we are taxpayers, we should not have to share our library experience with unhoused people is oppressive to those who are currently unhoused or have ever been unhoused living in Nashville. Just as racism oppresses a significant portion of this city, classism is equally dangerous in its own way. And just as it is important for us to remain open to criticism when being called racist, we must understand that being called “classist” is not an attack on one’s character, but a call to action. One of the greatest threats to real progress is our immediate instinct to defend ourselves when addressed with our own prejudices. We are often more afraid being called “racist” or “sexist” or “classist” than actually being any of these things.

You have a unique platform and a respected voice. We encourage you and your readers to learn more about the challenges facing unhoused people in Nashville, perhaps by volunteering with Open Table, Safe Haven, or Oasis. Next time you’re in the library, please talk with someone who depends on that space for public restrooms, computer access, and a quiet place to rest. Ask what the library means to them. It’s probably more about access and rest than a place to engage in “hinky” behavior. We appreciate and second your concern that there should be more places that offer shelter and housing for these folks –– please use your voice and resources to help make that a reality. We also hope you continue to report on the many social justice groups and activism happening in Nashville. Lastly, we invite you to join (rejoin?) the Nashville Feminist Collective so that we can work for justice that transforms not only the city, but all of us as well.

Signed,

Anna Carella
Whitney Washington
Lauren Plummer
Kelly Waller
Becca Dryden

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