“No one is free until we are all free.”
Martin Luther King
It has been an unusually dark summer in many ways, particularly for our friends south of the border, with racial tensions and class issues casting a shadow over what might have been an otherwise brilliant season, and Donald Trump announcing his Machiavellian intention to run for President (insert shudder here). Already, Trump has offended countless individuals with his bigoted, borderline-sociopathic remarks, abusing every opportunity afforded him to spew poisonous venom at women, breastfeeding mothers, Latinos, and anyone else within his reach. I pray nobody is listening.
In June, a young, male, white supremacist brutally mass-murdered nine black men and women during a bible study meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. At least eight black churches have burned to the ground across the southern United States since. July turned our attention to the devastating case of Sandra Annette Bland, a young black woman who, upon being pulled over for a minor traffic violation, subsequently found herself arrested, and later died under suspicious conditions, alone in her jail cell, in Waller County, Dallas. On Monday, authorities declared a state of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri, due to ongoing civil unrest, one day after the first anniversary of the death of eighteen year old Michael Brown who, while unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer. On Thursday, Radazz Hearns, a fourteen year old, another unarmed and non-violent black male, was shot by another trigger happy policeman. Seven times. There have been many other cases of violence this past year, of course, far too many to name in one essay.
Here, in Canada, racism and classism permeate our culture, too, although the vast majority of us would like to pretend it is not so. First Nations women and girls, who struggle daily to survive and thrive amidst ever-increasing levels of violence, continue to be silenced. Sadly, the Highway of Tears has yet to run dry, and the voices of those who fight for justice in these matters remain unheard. Countless missing Aboriginal girls and women remain overlooked, often falsely and unjustly stigmatized as runaways, prostitutes, and/or addicts, by the Canadian authorities.
Across North America, many Muslim people continue to experience increased negative stereotyping and discrimination since 9/11, based on unfounded negative associations with violence and terrorism. To be clear, Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim sentiment, is “a term for prejudice against, hatred toward, or fear of the religion of Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force,” and is not only terribly offensive, but also incredibly destructive (Wikipedia). Bear in mind, phobias, defined as “an extreme or irrational fear or aversion to something,” are related to anxiety and mental health disorders. Note: use of the word “irrational.”
Child abuse, sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence permeate our everyday lives. From Baby Jane Doe to Emma Sulkowitz to Jian Ghomeshi to Bill Cosby’s multiple accusers to Janay Rice, we have heard about some truly horrendous crimes over the past year. And let us not forget how many of our children are anxious and depressed, self-harming or taking their own lives, because they look around and find no place—no language, even—for themselves. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and two-spirited teens, as well as those questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, experience increased rates of bullying and suicide compared to the already exorbitant rates among youths. Too many of our kids feel devastatingly unloved, rejected, and all alone in the world.
In every instance, several systems of oppression have intersected to create an explosion of violence and trauma. It’s hard to make sense of it all. Even harder to understand how we can allow ourselves to be so fucking complacent when people are being victimized, raped, beaten, bullied, sodomized, and even murdered, just for being who they are.
We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Not a simple task. But if we are to be awake and aware human beings in this world, we have little choice. Often, we find that we have been complicit in the oppression of others when it has served to fortify our own security. If we honestly want to tear these archaic structures down, we must be willing to start with those nearest and dearest to us. Once we understand how these systems organise, like parasites, to destroy us from the outside in, we will be able to create change.
We are not taught to think in multi-dimensional, intersectional terms, but instead, tend to lean toward a singular perspective. We like to separate things, keep them apart, boxed in, neat and tidy, tied up in a big red bow, and dichotomies, binaries, and hierarchies help us achieve this. One or the Other. Good vs. Bad. Us and Them.
Yes, sadly, Us needs Them to define Us.
Every system of oppression in existence today, based on socially constructed categories of difference, is held in place by every other system of oppression. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, is a concept used to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions, including racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, the intense fear or aversion to anyone or anything perceived as foreign, are interconnected, and cannot be examined separately from one another (wikia.com).
All systems of oppression are interconnected.
If I want to truly make a difference, I have to first be willing to acknowledge some difference, such as the privilege afforded to me in our society by my blonde hair, green eyes, and light skin. Representation counts for plenty, and anyone not represented in our culture, fairly, equally, and accurately, is Othered.
Friends, we need to remember that difference is okay, even vital.
We have to stop being afraid.
Our goal should not be to whitewash the world and achieve a sense of colour-blindness, but rather, to embrace the glorious rainbow that we are. We are different. Let’s celebrate that. If we are to be a true Sisterhood, we need to encourage all of our sisters to use their voices, then shout their stories from the top of our lungs until we all are heard. (Note: my Sisterhood includes all the boys and men who have also been, and continue to be, oppressed and silenced by a system designed to keep them in chains).
Ultimately, these are not black and white issues, or gay versus straight, and they do not centre on women or men, or who identifies as male or female, however you define those terms. It is not about rich or poor. Racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia hurt us all. They are interconnected building blocks in a system specifically designed to restrict, suppress, separate, dominate, and control the socially-constructed Other. Every one who does not fit a mould.
We need to stop pretending to have it all figured out. It is okay to say ‘I don’t know’ once in a while, to acknowledge that we still have plenty to learn. There is simply too much at stake for us to continue to act like sassy, petulant teenagers, rolling our eyes and insisting we know-it-all, while simultaneously waiting for somebody else to come in and take charge. We need to take charge, to accept responsibility for the current state of affairs, because every one of us has a vital role to play in creating the world of tomorrow.
Every choice we make, each action we take in our own lives, affects the entire course of humanity. Now more than ever. Although we have individual lives and experiences, we also share a collective, and the collective determines the fate of humanity.
Humanity, as far as I can tell, grows in ages and stages in much the same way as a single human life does, evolving from birth through maturity, to death. (Let’s say Humanity was a baby in the Stone Age, reached toddlerhood at some point in the Iron Age, and became a young child during the Middle Age. The Renaissance saw it through late-childhood into the pre-teen years in the Victorian Era. By the time Humanity had arrived at the Space Age, it was a full-bodied, hot-blooded youth, an egocentric, passionate teenager).
In the throes of the tumultuous Adolescence of Humanity, we are all more than a little jacked up these days, hormonal, raw, and edgy. But maybe we are also finally growing up. I have no doubt that, as we continue to evolve, Humanity will enter into its young adulthood a little more mature, responsible, and ready to begin the real work.
At this stage, I have far more questions than answers. But maybe that is okay for now. Perhaps one of the best things we can do at this time is to ask as many honest, thoughtful questions as possible, then just shut the hell up, be quiet, and listen. We ask, and knowledge we seek is drawn through the ether, inevitably toward us. Shame and fear will not help move us forward. Only love can do that. Love will allow us to safely confront our own complicity, and we must do so, because, truly, “no one is free until we are all free” (Martin Luther King).
*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*
Some great references:
Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1984.
Davis, Kathy. “Intersectionality As A Buzzword: A Sociology of Science Perspective on What Makes a Feminist Theory Successful.” Feminist Theory (2008): 67-85.
Fellows, Sherene Razack and Mary Louise. “The Race to Innocence: Confronting Hierarchical Relations Among Women.” Journal of Gender, Race & Justice (1998): 335-353.
Lorde, Audrey. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider (1984): 114-123.
Noble, Jean Bobby. “Our Bodies Are Not Ourselves: Tranny Guys and the Racialized Politics of Incoherence.” Sons of the Movement: FtMs Risking Incoherence on a Post-Queer Cultural Landscape (2006): 76-100.
Razack, Sherene. “The Gaze From the Other Side: Storytelling for Social Change.” Looking White People in the Eye (1998): 36-55.
Spelman, Elizabeth. “Gender & Race: The Ampersand Problem in Feminist Thought.” Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (1988).