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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Michigan in Color: I am still sister outsider

Photo by Mike Frieseman, courtesy of Ciarra Ross

By Ciarra Ross, Michigan in Color Writer
Published February 6, 2014

I am a Black woman who identifies as a woman of color, a solidarity term defined by a group of Black American women as a commitment to work in collaboration with other women who have been racially oppressed and minoritized. By definition, identifying as a woman of color is not a biological right but a political choice to build solidarity through a network of support, critical awareness, compassion, empathy, courage and above all, the highest frequency of love.

Women of color are women from various racial backgrounds who seek refuge, safety and empowering liberation from the social injustice of our white patriarchal world. We come from a broad range of racialized identities and the destructive insistence and pervasiveness of racism and sexism construct and inform our lives in various ways. Therefore, the term “women of color” is not so much about political camaraderie around our similarities but much more about seeing, hearing and challenging our varying positions in the current hierarchical racial order. The various -isms that we face are not what form us, it is our audacity and agency to create and facilitate an active dialogue and practice that subvert oppressive institutions, such as, but not limited to, racism and sexism.

In my experience, the conversation on racial injustice amongst women of color most often takes the shape of discussing our sociopolitical positions and experiences in terms of our proximity — or lack thereof — to whiteness. The dialogue often lends itself to the ways we all have been oppressed by an unrelenting racist patriarchal society that overwhelmingly places social, economic and overall institutional power in the hands of white men. The framing of this discussion is important but it often leads to what I call a false sense of sisterhood. It says, “I see you and I hear you,” but in reality this framing has repeatedly rendered me mute and invisible.

An integral function in the current white supremacist model of race and racism that often goes unchecked is the diabolical, global persistence of anti-Blackness. Discussing white dominance in terms of capitalism, normativity, privilege and other forms of institutionalized racial oppression is largely incomplete without including all the ways that these systems are inherently anti-Black. But anti-Blackness is not a social justice term used in our so-called safe spaces. Instead, it is the term that drops with a heavy thud that reverberates throughout a silent room.

We tend to be comfortable with placing whiteness at the center of our conversation on race because whiteness is structured as the norm — everything else is “other.” As non-white women, we can all identify with this otherization and marginalization but we have yet to gain the understanding that whiteness itself is predicated on anti-Blackness. The silent resistance to engage ourselves in reflection and dialogue around anti-Blackness the ways we are ready and willing to check white privilege is a fear. This fear functions as a block from a necessary critical awareness of the ways anti-Blackness is the soil that the white racial order sits on. The conversation on race is complex but it is a complete disservice to not unpack the ways that racial oppression is not only pro-white but also anti-Black. Recognizing anti-Blackness does not negate the ways that racism exists as a detriment to other communities of color. On the contrary, raising our consciousness to identify and check anti-Blackness has the potential to reveal the ways we are all connected without making our struggles fungible.

The late Black lesbian feminist scholar Audre Lorde famously stated that there is no hierarchy of oppressions. We must be careful in using this quote to justify an unwillingness to understand the hierarchy in which racism functions. Within the context of the essay, Audre Lorde was directly referring to there being no hierarchy in the oppressions she experiences. She could not — as none of us can — choose at different times which identity to be and which to defend. She was Black, woman, lesbian and socialist simultaneously and therefore experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism all at once.

Oppression is not dualistic.

To view it as such would be reductive, diminishing and dismissive to ourselves and others. Audre Lorde’s famous quote is often misused. To be clear, her quote does not negate the fact that Blackness is a premise that our white racial order positions itself against.

To consider Blackness as a potential center of the conversation on race and racism disrupts the ways we are conditioned to think about racism as “the white man’s” and “the white feminist’s” problem. Positioning anti-Blackness as an equally important gauge as pro-whiteness initiates a shift toward inner and outer transformation necessary for true solidarity to be manifested. Solidarity can not truly exist until non-white people see the ways they are complicit with and benefit from silencing Black voices, narrowing Black narratives and ultimately denying Black realities. As non-white people, we are used to gauging ourselves in terms of our proximity to whiteness but my proximity to whiteness is nonexistent.

My Blackness is diametrically opposed to it.

As a Black woman, I am the forbidden fruit in the garden. The rules of white patriarchal supremacy say do not consume or digest who I am to better understand who you are, only consume and digest who I am to gauge what and who you are not. You are not the simultaneous embodiment of the darkest, the ugliest, the dumbest, the laziest and the most inferior existence. Anti-Blackness functions divisively, instilling in all people that those who descend from the most melaninated people on Earth are to be feared, exploited, commodified, hyper-sexualized, abused, objectified and denied.

Anti-Blackness is multifaceted and pervasive. I do not intend to cover every base in this space. Therefore, this article is to be used and seen as a very basic start in gaining perspective and understanding. In many, if not all, of our communities, we have been inundated with the messages that white skin is ideal. It is associated with ideal beauty, social power, financial control and world dominance — largely gained through the evils of imperialism and colonialism. The closer you are to this white ideal, the better. I have sat in rooms where everyone can agree that this colorism says that white is right, pure and beautiful. This line of thinking, however, also says that black is wrong, dirty, ugly, that blackness should be denied, disallowed and bleached. Where there is crime, Black males are most likely to be convicted at the highest rates and for the longest amount of time. Where there is low socioeconomic status, Black people are disproportionately present under the poverty line. Where there is chronic disease, in most cases, Black people are four to ten times more likely to develop it and die from it. Where there are hate crimes and police brutality, Black bodies are most likely to bear the brunt of it. Where there is access to quality education, career opportunity, health care, proper nutrition and protection of the law, Black Americans on a whole are systematically, structurally and institutionally barred from it.

It is no secret that the United States’ current economic structure is built on anti-Blackness. From the slave trade onward, the United States government and corporations guarantee monetary gain for the exploitation of Black workers, Black culture and Black urban communities. To echo the Black Arrow Organization’s blog, “Generations of non-white immigrants (e.g. Jewish, Italian, Irish) have assimilated into whiteness by mobilizing anti-blackness.” There is a formidable fear that Latin@s and Middle Eastern immigrants will also choose to assimilate into whiteness, unless, as BAO states, “they make a radical commitment to a militant de-colonization struggle.” Assimilation toward whiteness is born out of the idea that power is only possible by adhering to white supremacist rules, ideologies and systems. Decolonization means a number of things that I am in no position to define for groups that I do not belong to but in terms of building solidarity with Black people, a large part of decolonization requires unlearning and deprogramming from the frequency of anti-Blackness.

Upon analyzing my relationship with non-Black women of color and the solidarity building I have recently committed myself to, I struggled to call it sisterhood because while I have grown to love the non-Black women of color, a very large part of me has felt uncomfortable. This discomfort stems from stories about my Black body, narrative and reality being feared, denied and disallowed by my Korean, Mexican, Arab, Vietnamese and passing Chaldean counterparts. I continue to struggle across all fronts for my humanity to be realized. Our relationship cannot thrive without deep introspection and analysis on how we participate in each other’s oppression.

Our solidarity cannot be built on the ground of anti-racism without using the waters of our internal truths to mold its foundation. If you are to call yourself my sister, look at me. This is not limited to non-white women. I am challenging anyone who claims to love a Black woman and hold justice near to them, to look at us.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.