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April 17, 2012 / JV

On Trayvon Martin and Building Transracial Solidarity

In the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, some people have been reminded that anti-black racist violence is, in fact, a regular problem in the United States. Of course, those of us who haven’t forgotten — either because we don’t have the privilege to or work to eschew it — find ourselves dealing with a range of responses, among them an insistent hope that we can participate in this moment and shape sustainable movements via community building, consciousness-raising, organizing, advocacy, or whatever our preferred mode of change-making. Civic activities have been on a relative upswing compared to times when similar violence doesn’t receive mass publicity, with protests and marches having occurred in more than fifteen U.S. cities. As with most happenings that spark public outrage, people with varying backgrounds and degrees of prior awareness are coming to the table with some form of interest, at least temporarily, in something akin to justice. Since those emerging from quietism and those long engaged in practicing anti-racism alike are in deed and discussion over this issue, it seems apt to have a conversation about what solidarity might mean and how it might look, especially in cases of racist violence such as this one.

There is a vague idea rolling around the internet ether, which posits that expressing objections to the ways people display empathy or protest in effect creates insurmountable or otherwise troublesome obstacles for solidarity. This kind of contestation functions as a form of “shut-up politics,” some say, and prevents people from coming together and taking action. This is one of the currents behind Sherry Wolf‘s “The Paralysis of White Privilege,” in which the author claims that a video that tells “middle-class, white, socially concerned” activists not to wear “I Am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts “disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle.” Aside from completely misrepresenting the points of the video as well as the concept of white privilege, Wolf’s article is suggestive of an underlying notion that is shared by many people. Put crudely, that notion, when uttered by white people, amounts to “don’t tell us what to do.” Put more diplomatically, it may look something like “your questioning my position vis-a-vis racism disarms any antiracist white person from joining the struggle.” Either way, the basic concern, which seems to be shared by people of all racial backgrounds, is that talking about the ways in which our experiences are different, and the ways that this might require us to participate differently in anti-racist struggles is somehow “divisive.” This is cock and bull.

Acknowledging our different experiences and examining how they might impact our roles in movements against oppression is actually an integral part of working towards becoming an ally. White Person A is not Trayvon Martin and does not share the experiences of being a black man in America. A white person, on any given day, in any given predominantly white or middle to upper class neighborhood, will not have to worry about being stopped and frisked, reported to the police, or killed on the basis of their skin color. This is white privilege, and it can apply to all white people regardless of class, gender presentation, hoodie status, and so on (though that is not to say that white privilege is the sole or most salient determinant of a person’s experience (read: intersectionality)). This is basic in understanding the Trayvon Martin case and a necessary recognition in our move towards solidarity. To claim that acknowledging the fact that white privilege makes white people incapable of sharing Trayvon Martin’s experience somehow blocks white people from participating in anti-racist work or clouds the “bigger issue” at hand is not only wrongheaded and curiously self-important, but it’s also damaging to the very idea of solidarity and our collective understanding of how race and racism operate. Trayvon Martin was murdered because he was racially profiled, and while this danger may be the reality for some of us, it is simply not for others of us. This in no way inhibits anyone’s capacity to get involved.

This is about more than a t-shirt. This is about how to participate mindfully and self-critically in struggles against domination. In the context of anti-racist struggles, this is about white people figuring out what they can do, from their relative positions as people who experience white privilege, to be active allies to people who are subject to the multiple effects of anti-black racism. This is about relinquishing the need to be front and center in everyone’s struggle and to alternatively practice listening, asking questions, stepping back, going away sometimes. The fact of the matter is solidarity is not about anti-racist white people “joining” the struggles of anti-racist black people. Though our goals may be similar, our struggles are not the same. Part of solidarity is accepting this. As a person who experiences ability privilege, I can act as an ally to people with disabilities without claiming to be them, or even to understand a fraction of their experience. Instead, perhaps I can work to be aware of the ways in which I might be complicit in discrimination against people with disabilities, and defer to them on how I can be supportive of progressive change. Rather than feeling “disarmed” by the reality that my ability privilege affects my role in struggles against ableism, I can accept it, and my place.

We have to stop acting as though our varied experiences are inconsequential. That people racialized as white experience racism differently from people racialized as black is not a “distraction” from the violence and injustice of the case of Trayvon Martin; it is an explanatory part of the story and a constitutive element of any anti-racist organizing that might occur around it. To claim that a constructive analysis of white privilege is “paralyzing” is to basically issue a low-key threat to withdraw from any kind of critical activity, as well as a warning against alienating well-meaning white people. But if said well-meaning white people would rather engage in class reductionist evaluations of racist violence, or obscure the uses of privilege with the problematic of guilt, then perhaps they need to go back to the drawing board and revamp their understandings of race and racism entirely.

We need not homogenize. Solidarity does not mean sameness just as diversity doesn’t mean a rainbow-complected room of people. We are not one undifferentiated mass waging a uniform war against The Ruling Class. We are communities of individuals engaged in separate but intersecting and overlapping antagonisms. Our struggles are not the same, and they don’t have to be. I am not Trayvon Martin, and I don’t have to be. None of us should have to be in order to wholly commit to ending racism and the violence it enables.

Posted at Huffington Post.

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8 Comments

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  1. Tausend Augen / Apr 19 2012 12:26 am

    I think you are completely correct to condemn the class reductionist position which you are arguing against, but I don’t think that is the position taken by Sherry Wolf or people who critique white privilege theory. This is rather ironic in a post in which Wolf is condemned for “misrepresenting” someone else. I notice you didn’t make any mention of the follow-up post here: http://sherrytalksback.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/race-class-and-marxism/. Although I think that most of your argument here is based upon a crass misrepresentation of your target (i.e. people who critique white privilege – not as incorrect, but as frequently misused), and thus not relevant because your target would probably agree with you, I would be interested in what you think about the actual white anti-racist position. As I understand it, this latter position does not deny that real differences in experience and real oppression exist for people of color, on the contrary it recognizes these facts, but it seeks to find ways to really end racism. The goal is to really, actually end the violent racism experienced by people of color every day, and that goal informs the analysis. That precisely does not mean it is ok to ignore the real oppression of women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, people with disabilities or anyone else – rather, it means we must work to abolish these oppressions based upon what we have in common. The best way I know of fighting oppressions of all forms is together, which is how victories have been won in the past. Fighting together doesn’t and shouldn’t ever imply dismissing differences of experience based upon race as a “distraction” or submerging ourselves into “one undifferentiated mass waging a uniform war.” Fighting together means critically assessing on a continuing basis what the source of oppression is and how best to combat it, not to accommodate to it, but to end it entirely.

    • VC / Apr 19 2012 3:39 am

      Thanks very much for your comment.

      I had no reason to link to the other article since my primary concern is not with Sherry Wolf or Marxism, but with the way solidarity has been construed by multiple people I’ve come across in discussions, blogs and comments. I don’t consider my post to be a “crass misrepresentation” of this perspective, though obviously I’m disagreeing with it and thus pointing out what I consider to be its bottom-line ideological and effective points. Anyway, one the main thrusts of the post is that “fighting oppressions in all forms together” does not cancel out the right and need for individuals and communities to also carry on autonomous struggles. That’s to say, “critically assessing on a continuing basis what the source of oppression is” sometimes means acknowledging that you (ubiquitous “you”) can be an oppressive force in other people’s space, and you need to not be there sometimes. Whether or not you personally agree, it is the case that the idea of “fighting together” does often result in certain voices being heard, stories being told, or battles being fought over others.

  2. BrittDuck / Apr 19 2012 11:03 pm

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. My response is not directly related to your primary analysis about transracial coalition building, so my apologies for being slightly off topic. Your closing paragraph really struck a nerve. In reading your assertion that “I am not Trayvon Martin, and I don’t have to be…,” I could not help but think “What if I am because historical memory won’t allow me not to be.” A brief anecdote might better illustrate my point. I do outreach with homeless teens, and we recently had a conversation about the Trayvon case. During the discussion, Emmett Till was mentioned, and what followed was a surreal game of historical telephone with the teens recounting the bits and pieces of the case they remembered. I would argue that the pieces that remained intact were informed by how the teens understood themselves i.e. “He was my age when he got killed” and “If that white lady was cute, I would have said something too.” In my own case, as time exacts its revenge, the specifics of the Trayvon case fade, and the real incident (d)evolves to “story,” what I will remember is that Trayvon had the same skin color as me, and it got him killed. Consequently, the recognition of myself in the case is not what prompts me to action, instead that recognition precludes my inaction.

    Thank you again, keep up the stellar work, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • VC / Apr 20 2012 8:50 pm

      So glad you’ve come to share your thoughts! (This venue is totally preferable to twitter as far as discussion goes :)

      You make a good point which is that we will sometimes identify with people, and remember their cases relative to our identification. Though I think this is real and valid, I would probably argue against it as a rhetorical foundation for consciousness, action, or solidarity. My point here is not that I can’t relate to Trayvon Martin, or that I won’t relate to historical cases that touch “close to home” but that, in my opinion, this identification is not an ideal basis for people to engage in ongoing critical activity. “I am not Trayvon Martin” on a matter of principle, and that’s to say, though “it could have been me” — for some people, and in some senses — it wasn’t. And that is significant. What’s more though, that very real acknowledgement, or threat even (that it “could have been me” or was me in a way), shouldn’t have to be there for any of us to think and feel the way we do about the issue. While it certainly carries a heavy personal weight, what is its political import? Also, I wonder about this distinction you make between recognition of self (not) prompting one to act vs. precluding inaction. What is the difference and why is it important? And please correct me if I’ve mischaracterized and misunderstood any of what you’re saying.

      • BrittDuck / Apr 22 2012 9:26 pm

        Thanks for the response. It really encouraged me to think deeper about these issues. I was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to touch on something more subtle, thinking beyond just identifying with or relating to. I suppose I would call it incorporative shading. My suggestion is that “I am Trayvon Martin” not because it could have been me, necessarily. Instead, the racially-motivated nature of the case shades, colors, informs how I understand myself and my society. I’ve often thought about it as a before and after effect—those books that can’t be unread, pictures that can’t be unseen, and stories that can’t be untold. And at that level, we are/become the stories we tell to and about ourselves.

        From this perspective, we might be able to reconsider some of the rhetorical possibilities. It might also help to explain the critical role that trauma narratives have played, historically, in forging Black consciousness, action, and solidarity. In fact, I am wont to view consciousness, along with identity, as an aggregate stacking, more vertical than horizontal. And especially within the Black American experience, incidents of trauma/violence (real and retold) are fundamental in this assemblage. I think the political import is vast and varied. How I engage with and view myself in light of these historical memories, will inform the types of political action I consider to be viable (i.e. do I work within the system through electoral politics or rage at it from the periphery).

        My final point regarding action vs. inaction had to do with heightened stakes. While I agree that all progressive and justice-minded people should be outraged and moved to action by Trayvon’s murder, the reality is that some people have the privilege of choosing whether or not to engage. In many ways, I feel implicated in the issues surrounding the case and don’t have the option of “sitting this one out.”

        • VC / Apr 22 2012 9:53 pm

          I think I understand better what you are saying. Do you think the trauma narrative shapes people’s understandings of themselves and society more so than, well, what I suppose I’ll call the Barack Obama narrative? Personally when I think about the stories that have shaped me it includes both (among others) but I’m aware that this is probably not everyone’s experience, and that certain narratives (namely, the traumatic or violent ones) tend to be a lot more common in popular discourse. To be frank for a minute and in the interest of clarity, are you specifically interested in/advocating for the rhetorical possibilities of “I Am Trayvon Martin” for black people?

          • BrittDuck / Apr 23 2012 12:17 am

            I think the answer to your first question harkens back to the “bits and pieces” issue. What remains for some people and not for others is a sticky, but fascinating, topic. Although, I do think there is something particular about trauma that enhances its reverberations. My thoughts about the Barack Obama narrative are in flux at the moment, so I’m not sure that I can offer a cohesive statement about it. I agree that personal identities are shaped by both positive and negative discourses, but at the level of political engagement, I think a lot of people are impacted more by perceived wrongs than by perceived successes.

            And yes, my argument is currently limited to black people. Though, I’m not advocating that all the black folks go out and get “I am Trayvon Martin” shirts. I’m just not ready to completely abandon it as a rallying cry.

            • VC / Apr 24 2012 8:05 pm

              I hear you. There is something there. I think I’m with you on not abandoning it completely… though something in me is still hesitant to embrace it. You’ve definitely given me some food for thought. Thank you.

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