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Monday, September 27, 2010

Hearts Spark Arson (2004)

Written by Heather Ajani   
Sunday, 19 September 2004

Over the past few years, my involvement in movements against police brutality, globalization and other political movements led me on a path to understanding how race works and how it affects me as a woman of color. Over the years, I have studied race theory, women's liberation movements, the criminal justice system, classical and contemporary political theory, as well as drawing from my own experiences. It is because of these academic exercises and personal growth processes that I write this article. I learned a lot about myself over the past three decades, figuring out why I am angry, why the way I feel has a bigger context than just my being and that as a brown woman in America I am forced to feel a duality wherever I turn.

There is a lot of debate about the political versus the personal. The debate started hitting mainstream activism during the second wave women's movement. The argument boiled down to whether the personal experiences we had belonged in political debate, more easily analogized as taking a more professional approach in our activism, checking personal problems at the door. To me this argument plays into the colonization of thought we struggle against each and every day. We use it and other terms to stifle each other and ourselves, including when we need to be accountable for our actions.

There have been times in history when the most beautiful revolutions, revolts and uprisings have been sparked because of the personal. Such examples include the abolitionist movement, civil rights movement and even mother's movements such as the Argentinean group, "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo." Some of the most successful movements are borne of passion in one respect or another and that personal drive, commitment, self-discipline and self-determination, or whatever is at the base of a revolutionary's heart is balanced with the political context of their environs. These movements are sparked by fires that burn the very foundations of the people involved, threatening their identities, who they are, leaving them with their backs against the wall.

As a person of color, activist, organizer, agitator, anti-authoritarian with strong anarchist leanings, I have often been accused of being too emotional, too critical, or too truthful. I can't say that I've always displayed the best behavior when confronted with these paternalistic statements often bestowed on women in radical circles, but I have tried to hone those accusations into something I can reclaim in a more principled way. The pain I feel when I hear these accusations and when I think of the way that these statements become internally oppressive it makes me wonder if what we give each other leaves us empty handed.

In my journey to developing a political and personal praxis, I have come to an understanding that my oppression comes from a system that depends on the privileges of a few and the oppression of those who are denied those privileges. This oppression eats people of color alive, depends on false dichotomies, hierarchies, systematic genocide through the continual colonization of non-whites, the perpetuation of capitalism and unholy alliances between workers and bosses. I have also wondered if it is possible to have the passion necessary to combat these social and political ills without emotion, self-criticism and truth.

In All About Love, bell hooks stresses the need for openness (i.e. honesty,) nurturing, self-discipline, justice and love as a means for social and political change. In a recent project, I had the opportunity to speak with several elders who had taken part in movements such as the Black Panther Party, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and others. Most stressed the need for spiritual and political balance, stating that often times the connections between mind, body and spirit are ignored in lieu of personal gain. In another, more locally based project in Houston, this reality took another turn as I asked people why commitment to political organizations/movements waned. Often times the answer was simply that there is a lack of passion for what we do. The balance between the personal and political is necessary to successfully create revolutionary potential. How do we seek to build a better world when we can't deal with ourselves or each other? How do we set examples for our dreams, our goals, or our visions without the internal healing that needs to take place?

We need passion to make change. We also need political direction and unity. In order to do this we must find the balance between the personal and the political worlds we live in. Sometimes we need to take our personal experiences to build a political analysis while understanding that political change can't successfully occur until we are left without those personal choices. I often quote one of my favorite people in the anarchist people of color movement, Ashanti Alston in saying, "change doesn't come until you are made to feel uncomfortable."

Building the Political and its Relation to the Personal

Drawing upon what I know, I will use the struggle of women as an example. Due to racial oppression, struggles of women of color have not focused on women as women, but against various oppressive systems. Often in our struggle, women of color experience issues of tokenism, stereotypical oppression, as well as blatant exposure to sexist behavior. We are not only subject to our identities as women, but also as women of color. Theorists often refer to this identity as "the other." Another term I prefer is the "third world women" (Anzaldúa, 64). This term encompasses the need for decolonization of the oppressed in our communities, the need for self-empowerment and -determination and knowledge of the history of people of color in this country. We are part of a system that seeks to destroy us, we are the "developing" and "war torn" peoples within Amerika, we continue to be colonized through lack of education, healthcare, employment, decent housing, child care and decent food. We have been taken from our lands and our lands have been taken from us and we continue to experience this displacement through modern day Jim Crow systems such as the police and prisons. No matter what, the culprit is the same. It is our common enemy and the only way that we can fight it is by addressing our issues, finding solutions and developing political unity in order to build and strengthen social movements.

Before we can go on to developing a theory for freedom, we need to recognize and understand power. Power is often defined as the capacity to exercise control over another. Power is also the ability to perform or act effectively. At a women's studies conference in 1981, a group of women who were part of a consciousness-raising group for women of color concluded that they needed to define a common ground for how power worked within the United States. This model has four categories and signifies a hierarchy from which power flows. It begins with the idea that freedom in the U.S. is most easily achieved by the reality of the white, capitalist male. Next in line is the white woman, who achieves her will to power through her whiteness and though she is objectified by white men, she still bears the privilege of whiteness and draws on that privilege objectifying people of color in order to gain a solid sense of self. Men of color or "third world" men do not benefit from racial hierarchy, but do utilize their identities as males to confront their oppressions, which leaves women of color in a place where they are neither white, nor male (Anzaldúa, 64).

Even when trying to understand power as something that is interconnected through race and gender, it is important to think in terms of political change, where the weak spots are. Though power has been displayed in terms of hierarchy above, there is a need for a common goal, not just against whiteness and patriarchy, but against the weak spot in the system that divides these struggles. For critics of capitalism, it is class, but beyond that, what has historically divided struggles against those in power in the United States? Power differentials in the U.S. have been dependent on a system of white privilege. This privilege has separated movements of women's liberation, labor movements and hinders self-determination of the poor and oppressed. Whiteness as a system determines who goes to the best schools, who lives where, employment, healthcare, and allows for an alliance between the bosses and the white working class. Whiteness keeps people of color from meeting basic needs and the power differentials that white privilege creates keeps the entire working class and sectors of the poor from resisting en masse because of the benefits it creates for those who identify as "white." This benefit for whites is sometimes referred to as the "wages of whiteness" (Roediger).

We need to recognize this system of domination that we live under if we are going to struggle against it. It is also important to understand what we go through on a personal level and how the wages of whiteness often times affect us. In a discussion session held amongst women of color at the 2003 Anarchist People of Color Conference in Detroit, a decision was made to discuss how we were made to feel as women of color and what we saw as solutions to those problems. We made this decision in order to start a dialogue amongst ourselves that started with a healing process, so we could gain strength in fighting our oppressions. When I look back upon the following list, I feel empowered because I no longer feel alone in system of oppression and domination that often sparks self-hatred and identity crisis among many women of color.

We came to many conclusions as to how we are oppressed, internally as well as externally. One was that women of color are often tokenized. Women of color (and our brothers) are often looked to by whites for answers and opinions about their [whites'] race politics, how they are working within a community, etc. When a cultural or racial question comes up, many times whites have a tendency to look towards the people of color in the room to view their reactions. This is not to say that whites should disregard the opinions of people of color, but that we shouldn't be asked for our opinions simply because we are non-white. A twist to this problem is when whites start to pontificate about our struggles as people of color. Sometimes whites will say, "if you all did this…" or "if you did that…" Why would a white person know my struggle better than me? Why would I listen to a white person when all the white people in my life have said something either intentionally or by slip of tongue denoting that I am less than deserving: things like I am not fit for school, I shouldn't have kids, that they wish that I could stay and take care of their kids and help around the house, reinforcing that I am subordinate in one way or another?

Often women of color experience tokenization by whites in various ways; one is that we are exoticized for our unique qualities and physical attributes. There is more than one tale of a black sister walking into a room where a white woman wants to feel her hair. Other forms of oppression include unconscious sexist behavior amongst women, competitiveness, communication problems (not getting heard, getting talked over), being put into caregiver roles (we are called upon to be the secretaries, the organizers, the errand runners, the nannies and the mammies) and there are times when we fear for our personal safety because women of color are often perpetuated as whores by the corporate media. After each of us at the discussion brought up an issue, we finished our sentence with what we wanted in order to address the issue, so we were problem solving as we went along. Some of the solutions we came up with were: healing ourselves, finding balance, defining our boundaries, taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions, developing respect for ourselves and for others, and building communication skills. These solutions clearly spelled out the need to deal with the personal as well as the political in building strength among the women in that room.

What We Need

We need to build solidarity amongst each other through sharing our experiences, recognizing our differences and building support for each other. True solidarity creates awareness amongst oppressed peoples, and helps them to recognize the need to forge political unity. Because our identities as third world peoples are multiple, this means defining who we are and at the same time, redefining what it means to struggle for liberation by building on our commonalities. The struggle for liberation should seek to end the subordination and domination of oppressed peoples and create a shift in power differentials that concentrate on a weak spot within our current power structure.

This means that we need to deal with who we are personally (both politically and spiritually) in order to be able look beyond ourselves and truly see how we as oppressed peoples are affected as a whole. This does not mean that we stop at struggling against our own angst, or for equality and individualism—this means that we use our consciousness of self to begin to collectively envision a society without domination by white, capitalist males; that we need to challenge what whiteness means in terms of actual privileges and to bankrupt that system so that it does not provide wages to those who draw on their identities to oppress others. We also need to create spaces that help to develop and empower ourselves and others. We need to understand that without our own fires we cannot spark the creativity, desire, and strength needed to struggle effectively against our oppressors.

Anarchist People of Color Conference. "Women of Color Discussion." Detroit, MI. October 3-5, 2003.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Making Face, Making Soul.
hooks, bell. All About Love.
Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.

NOTE: the title of this article is not of my imagination, it is taken from a friend's former band, Bully Rag, a.k.a Fucking Thunder's CD, which ironically they put out before he was unfairly replaced. Anyways, to make a long story short, they consequently suffered as a result of their bad decision. Solidarity with friends, oh yes…

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