“I don’t think what we’re noticing right now is a black issue,” says Lili Stiefel. “I think what we’re dealing with is a class issue – class and race. We’re seeing how that intersection works with each other, and with people who have a lack of education, lack of access, lack of funds, lack of support.”
An activist and CEO of The Mixed Space, Lili is biracial – her father African American from New Orleans; her mom German Irish. And she identifies as black more than anything. “I understand that people might not assume me black, or people think I’m my dad’s white girlfriend when we walk next to each other.” she says. And in the last few days she’s been trying to process having that white privilege, “trying to process responses from black folks saying, ‘You’re not part of the conversation because you don’t live it, so we don’t want your voice,’ or ‘You should be sitting down and listening.’
“I live this every day,” says Lili. “I’m just as angry as you.”
Her parents are divorced and she was raised at least half of the time by her black family. “The folks that I have felt the most love from and the most community from are my dad’s black brothers and sisters and my cousins and my grandmother’s family. These are the people that raised me. These are the people that are raising me now. And those are the people that were disproportionately affected by COVID and are disproportionately affected by police brutality.”
“He’s a black trans man who’s had interactions with police. The fact that he’s alive is a miracle.”
She’s witnessed the disparity at first hand: her cousins who are poor because they went to jail for minor drug-related issues and got sentenced to 21 years. They never worked again. Her 29-year-old cousin who came out as trans last year.
“He moved out and went to LA to try to start his new life, and he got caught up in the wrong crowd. He got a marijuana cigarette that was laced and it affected his mind. He was out on the street and he got hot so took his shirt off and the police saw, and they came over and beat him up and put him in jail. He could have died.”
But she also recognizes the privilege that having a white family brought her – access to education, money, mental health resources. “So now I’m the one in my family, especially on my black side, that everyone goes to for everything. I was the one that flew to LA and got my cousin out of jail.
“He lives in New Orleans now and has a girlfriend. He’s a black trans man who’s had interactions with police. The fact that he’s alive is a miracle. Black trans folks, disproportionately, are the ones who commit suicide and could be killed by police or by their own people. And so the fact that he’s alive and he’s able to express love and share partnership is an incredible achievement.”
She established The Mixed Space to explore and celebrate that intersectional identity. But, after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the widespread protests that followed, she debated whether the group should or could be part of the conversation.
“I was conflicted,” she says. “Should we be doing this? Should we be holding space right now while the Black Lives Matter movement is creating resources and putting out all this information? Are we taking away from that by collecting as half-white people, talking about being mixed? Does this even matter?”
“You can’t be an activist if you’re busy being ashamed.”
She came to the conclusion that it does matter. “Because we really do believe that every single voice makes a difference. Every human being makes a difference. And telling someone to sit down and be quiet, for me, is taking out the opportunity to engage that person and ignite that person and invite them to be active.
“I think the mind wants to oversimplify the situation and divide it into black and white issues. But what about black cops? What about the Asian diaspora which is represented on all sides? What about the Latinx diaspora, which has folks who are in power positions and folks who are oppressed? And how do we activate these communities and find space for them to enter into this larger conversation that affects all of us?”
She continues: “Black people are being killed on camera because police know that they’re not going to have consequences from it. It should make us all afraid, no matter what we look like, to understand that folks in power will sacrifice human life to keep up their agenda.
“And in that sense, it’s a personal issue, because I pay taxes in America. I have an American passport. And I have neighbors, and I have employees, and I’m participating in an economic system that doesn’t care about what happens to its citizens. And that makes me feel unsafe.”
The Mixed Space meets this afternoon, so anyone who wants to join can share emotions, ask uncomfortable questions, and start to heal.
“A lot of people don’t have the bravery to face themselves and to process feelings of shame and guilt,” says Lili. “I know I’ve gone through my life feeling shameful and feeling guilty, and it’s kept me out of my power. It took me two years to start The Mixed Space. ‘What if I get backlash? What if people criticize me?’ Eventually I had to be like, ‘OK, then I’ll have to have the conversation.’
“So we are holding space for folks to do that really hard part – to ask the thing. Like, ‘I don’t know if this is wrong or right. I don’t know if this is hurtful or not.’ You can’t be an activist if you’re busy being ashamed. So let’s just leave all of that outside and open our hearts, even when it feels like they’re going to bleed and be really vulnerable.
“There are folks who are protesting,” she says, “physically putting their body in the streets. There are the folks who are bringing those people water. There are other folks that are supporting the elderly who are unable to protest but still want to be active, helping them navigate the technology to donate. And then there are folks like The Mixed Space, who are emphasizing healing, emphasizing community, so folks can find the ground again, then go back out and use whatever resource they feel most connected to, to make a difference in their way.”
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