They would have us fight for scraps, divided, tormented, sniping at each other, tearing ourselves apart. They would have us think this is a zero sum game, one in which winning is accomplished by coming out on top, by obliterating the competition. They would have us sign loyalty oaths and cast daggers at each other, they would have us cut each other out with sly, slippery language that signals superiority. They would have us think that the options are ‘all one’ or ‘all apart,’ when in fact neither of these options are tenable or acceptable: We must instead stand in solidarity with each other, must fight for each other, not with each other.
Remember 2008, when Dan Savage and other white, middle class, comfortable gay men turned on the Black community and insisted that they were responsible for Proposition 8 because Obama? I drank that kool-aid, because I was young and unaware and not capable of critical thinking. I’m ashamed of it. It was my first lesson on a lot of things. And it primed me to see the pattern repeating again and again, with the Black community and larger communities of colour taken for granted (‘of course they’ll vote’ ‘Black counties always go Democratic’) except when they were to be blamed for something. No outreach would be required to earn their votes and demonstrate that they should have any degree of faith in a party, but if the election went south, it was their fault.
I thought of it as I spent the election watching a prominent disability rights group repeatedly hammer about the white disability vote, and how white disabled people were going to make this election, while only a handful of disability rights activists pushed back. Media gravitated toward this group to the exclusion of other disability rights activists, and it created a stark, artificial divide between disabled white people and disabled people of colour, discounting the work and experience of one group to advance the other. I watched it happen and was one of those who pushed back (and who made a point of seeking out other organisations when covering the election), and at the time, I thought about how it was a painful, powerful illustration of how things would go after the election.
As returns started coming in on election night, I knew what would come, and I saw it emerging already. Black people were to blame. They didn’t come out to vote in force. They didn’t vote for the right people. They should have organised more. Black leaders should have done more. The Latino community didn’t turn out as much as expected. Poor returns for Secretary Clinton were the responsibility of people of colour. Over and over, in state after state, often in defiance of actual turnout statistics and hard data. Trump won because people of colour didn’t do what they were supposed to. So of course white people had to lecture people of colour on social media, to shame them for failing to perform as required.
The election had been highly racialised, so of course the response would be too, with white people eager to scramble for an explanation that shifted the blame from them. It was repugnant and it was an illustration of everything people of color had been saying for months.
In political chaos, only one group stands to profit and advance in society. The rest of us are thrown in the trash. But people in positions of power create these artificial power struggles and plays for dominance, trying to convince people that, for example, disability is more important than race, that some people shouldn’t be heard in a discussion while others are, that trans rights matter less than LGBQ rights, that women, regardless of race, are all the same and should care about the same things. There’s a sense of us and them, with ‘us’ being a homogenous group of marginalised people fighting ‘them,’ the people in power, but no respect for the fact that ‘us’ is complicated.
The disability community is a great example, though not the only one, but let’s pause to look at it for a second, because it’s one I know well. White disabled people who clamber over the backs of disabled people of colour are part of the problem, advancing disablism and racism and harmful social structures for a few scraps from the master’s table. White disabled people who do this are oppressive, and are hurting people, and are refusing to acknowledge it. An intersectional disability rights movement explores the commonalities of experience while also making it clear that there are differences that need to be addressed as well — that a white wheelchair user and a Latinx wheelchair user both face disablism, but also racism is a profound differentiating factor in how they are treated. To fight oppression, white disabled people need to face racism. And sexism. And transphobia. And homophobia. And Islamophobia. All of the -isms are at work here, just as intersecting -isms are at work for all identity groups.
So we could fight each other, and play wait your turn, and push people out of our social movements, and insist that we could only do so much. That’s what they want us to do. They want us to be so bound up in attacking each other that we ignore the very clear and present danger all around us. Or we could not. We could not fight each other. We could say that everyone brings different life experiences to the table and that we need to fight as a coalition. Not ‘let’s all be friends’ and not ‘why can’t we all just get along’ and not ‘aren’t they all the same issues, really,’ but ‘we are an aggressively diverse group with differing backgrounds that can coordinate our efforts and resources to support each other.’
Sometimes that means focusing for a specific action on an issue that personally affects you, on a direct action effort that will change your life. But it also means showing up for actions that aren’t about you personally, but are about you collectively. Showing up for mental health is an obvious gimme for me. Showing up for mental health and discussing social elements, like race and gender, that interact with mental health, should also be an obvious gimme. Showing up for Latinx civil rights may not affect me personally, except for that it does: Because fighting for civil rights gains for Latinx people is an intrinsic good that makes the world a better place, and I live in the world. And taking time to fight for that doesn’t detract from ‘my’ issues, the things that directly affect my life. It strengthens them. It sends a signal: It doesn’t have to be about me for me to care about it, and I will fight for it every bit as hard as I fight for ‘my’ things, because I owe that to my fellow human beings, because it is the right thing to do, because, damnit, we are stronger together.
So when they tell you to pick a side, when they discount intersectionality, when they try to collapse issues into a big tent without acknowledging the diversity of experience, tell them you are better than this. Because you are. ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,’ wrote Flavia Dzodan in 2011. Don’t forget that it applies to all social justice movements, not just feminism, and that it is painfully true now just as it was then.
Image: Scrap, John Payne, Flickr