Series Introduction: The Things We Do to Each Other/The Things We Do to Ourselves

by Latoya Peterson

When I initially thought about the Things We Do to Each Other series, I had one specific idea in mind: that someone needs to start discussing the problems that happen when trying to build a multiracial coalition toward ending racism.

As a contributor, now editor, and moderator of Racialicious, one of the hardest things for us to confront on this site is the biases we hold toward one another. Most of the time, our focus is on the functional form of racism in our society – white supremacy. Far from the archtype of cross burning and people in hoods, white supremacy permeates our society because whiteness is the benchmark that all minorities are held against. Be it beauty standards, racism in lending, gentrification, or anything else, our perceived differences – and the stereotypes that accompany them – are the main hindrance to advancement. As long as whiteness remains the default, the synonym for normalcy, the goal of assimilation, we will struggle.

And yet, it is all too easy for us to struggle separately.

We stay segregated in our own tight-knit communities, working on the racism that directly impacts us – but we do not often give a thought to the struggles of others. Moreover, some of us have internalized some of the same harmful stereotypes perpetuated against other groups – and we act upon them. While minorities in America do not collectively have the power required to oppress one another, we do actively and effectively waste time arguing over who has it worse, who has a claim to certain ideas, who should be the first in line to cast off the yoke of racism and enter into the untainted version of the American Dream.

We even have a phrase for this: Oppression Olympics. And let me tell you, in the last year and some that I’ve been writing here, I’ve seen the reason why we coined this term in the first place. Generally speaking, arguing about who has it worse or who “owes” who is a quick way to send a conversation into a tailspin.

However, the phrase “Oppression Olympics” is flawed as it leaves out one of the key struggles we have while building solidarity. Last May, I pointed to Andrea Smith’s essay “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.”

I summarized:

In her essay, Smith outlines three scenarios in which people of color are coming together to organize and meet with conflict. One scenario revolves around a group of women and whether or not Arab and Latina women should identify as women of color if they are classified as white in their countries or pass as white in the states. The next scenario describes some of the arguments put forth when discussing Native Americans (i.e., “since tribes now have gaming, Native peoples are not longer ‘oppressed.’”) The last scenario involves a multiracial coalition which wants to stop the “black/white binary” of racial discussion but “rel[ies] on strategies and cultural motifs developed by the Black Civil Rights struggle in the United States.”

Smith discusses why these scenarios cause friction, hitting the nail on the head with her words in the next section (bold emphasis mine):

These incidents, which happen quite frequently in “women of color” or “people of color” political organizing struggles, are often explained as a consequence of “oppression olympics.” That is to say, one problem we have is that we are too busy fighting over who is more oppressed. In this essay, I want to argue that these incidents are not so much the result of “oppression olympics” but are more about how we have inadequately framed “women of color” or “people of color” politics. That is, the premise behind much of “women of color” organizing is that women from communities vicitimized by white supremacy should unite together around their shared oppression. This framework might be represented by a diagram of five overlapping circles, each marked “Native women, Black women, Arab/Muslim women, Latinas, and Asian American women, overlapping like a Venn diagram.

This framework has proven to be limited for women of color and people of color organizing. First, it tends to presume that our communities have been impacted by white supremacy in the same way. Consequently, we often assume that all of our communities will share similar strategies for liberation. In fact, however, our strategies often run into conflict. For example, one strategy that many people in US-born communities of color adopt, in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities, is to join the military. We then become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries. Meanwhile, people from other countries often adopt the strategy of moving to the United States to advance economically, without considering their complicity in settling on the lands of indigenous peoples that are being colonized by the United States.

Consequently, it may be more helpful to adopt an alternative framework for women of color and people of color organizing. I call one such framework the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy.” This framework does not assume that racism and white supremacy is enacted in a singular fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. Envision three pillars, one labeled Slavery/Capitalism, another labeled Genocide/Capitalism, and the last one labeled Orientalism/War, as well as arrows connecting each of the pillars together.

“That is, the premise behind much of “women of color” organizing is that women from communities vicitimized by white supremacy should unite together around their shared oppression.”

We can apply this to all groups – the idea that we should all unite around our shared oppression is a flawed premise.

In addition, I’ll point out one other thing – that groups do not always stand in solidarity with each other. This leads to tension, as many different groups use the tactics and legacy of the Civil Rights movement to organize or explain their cause, without standing in solidarity with those who were on the front lines of the movement. And while many different groups of people – of all races, mind you – were involved within the Civil Rights movements, most of the references drawn today lead back to the black struggle for equality. And it is interesting to see groups of people liken their struggle to Civil Rights, while at the same time behaving in a way that is either racist toward blacks, or indifferent to the current issues and struggling that still continue to this day.

This was drawn into crystal clear focus with the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California. The aftermath of the proposition was an exercise in laying the blame, with blacks bearing the brunt of the fury. The idea in many sectors was that black homophobia was to blame for the passage of prop 8, and many comparisons were drawn to the Civil Rights Movement and how blacks “owed” gays their loyalty – after all, we did just elect Obama. As explored in editorial after editorial, the narrative eventually emerged that there were too many assumptions on all sides: that blacks would automatically recognize the movement for gay rights as kin to the struggle for civil rights; that an exit poll taken in California could explain the machinations of all of black America; that counter marketing to the Yes on 8 campaign was done on a limited scale, while the Yes on 8 campaign had been advertising in targeted media for over a year; that one group can owe another anything, politically – especially when this trade off was not discussed before hand by organizers of the respective communities, nor was there an alliance made where we would be expected to stand together. (And obviously, basic human decency doesn’t count here – if more people believed in basic human decency, there would be no need for this site.)

It is within digesting all the Prop 8 fallout, and watching so many prepared to believe in the worst stereotypes of African Americans, that it occurred to me some voices were missing.

Namely, the voices of those who are black and identify as GLBT. One Cannick editorial cannot encompass the whole, and for years and years, people like Monica Roberts have been advocating for increased outreach to communities of color. In a recent piece on Proposition 8, she explains why the blacks vs. gays meme is a foolhardy idea to keep pushing:

Yes, we African-American GLBT peeps and bloggers are painfully aware of the homohaters that share our ethnic heritage. We never denied that nor are we defending them as some of you have insultingly charged. We have pointed out ad nauseum for years the danger of letting the perception that ‘this is a white gay movement’ take root or the Black fundamentalist ‘they’re hijacking the 60′s Civil Rights Movement’ spin go unchallenged. The ‘whitewashing’ of gay history has denied us concrete examples of African-American gay peeps we can point to besides Bayard Rustin who have made major contributions to building not only the 60′s Civil Rights movement, but the GLBT movement as well.

The failure of some white gay peeps to engage in issues of importance to African-Americans combined with the failure to forcefully denounce racism within your own ranks, loudly call for ‘incremental progress’ on transgender people’s rights as you take a hypocritical ‘damn the torpedoes’ approach to marriage equality has led to a unflattering perception that the only peeps you care about are yourselves.

And yet, while Monica’s words were aimed toward the organizers of the mainstream LGBT movement, most of us also know that our own communities also do their own fair share of othering – we push away those of us who do not conform to whatever standards we have set as well, and generally require silence as the price to pay for full participation in the community.

Often times, the Things We Do to Each Other overlap with The Things We Do to Ourselves.

And with that, I announce the launch of both series.