Positionings: radical reflections on race, sexuality, & privilege

Militant origins of queer struggle: Masha P. Johnson, co-founder of Street Action Transgender Revolutionary (STAR), fliers for their NYU sit-in to protest the campus banning queer dance parties

Recently i have been thinking a lot about identity: my own, others, and the ways the system conditions us in certain identity categories that relate to our overall material power within society. Some people have more freedom to be and act the way they want, because their privilege affords such movement. Specifically, I have been reflecting a lot about race and sexuality. What does it mean for a person to be white or primarily of European descent, but to identify as a person of color or a mixed person? What does it mean for a straight person to identify as queer? What I am really trying to understand is what does it mean to me as a queer/lesbian, mixed black womyn. Ultimately people’s business is none of mind, but people can be triggering and that isn’t always bad if you process those feelings in a productive and healthy manner. I try to check the judgement and ask myself what do these feelings say about my own character and life experience? How can I learn more about myself and my own triggers through paying attention to these complex feelings that rise towards others.

Sexuality and ‘race’ have colored my life deeply. Ever since i can remember having consciousness i have been conscious of skin and desire. This is unavoidable under capitalism, where ‘race’ ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ have become social categories regulated through the system. Under no other historical epoch has sexuality and gender been used to limit and enforce relationships and identity so severely. This is due to European colonization and the development of capitalism globally, and its structural and ideological relationship to patriarchal/western puritanical religious practices and beliefs. This has created a hierarchy of what is socially acceptable sex and love and what isn’t. My working-class background has always been expressed through my identity as a queer womyn of color. These are identities that I have been socialized in through the system and bourgeois society. But as long as I have lived in this physical body, I have carried these identities and contradictions, and nourished them with my own thoughts. As I have grown these thoughts have been imbued with revolutionary politics and values. A type of reclamation on this path for liberation. This has been no easy task, and it will be one that I am actively engaged in all my life, because i have no other choice. This is who I am.

I grew up in a diverse home of strong womyn, where gender, race and sexuality were fluid. The womyn were/are economically and spiritually independent of men. The ‘luxury’ of co-dependent heteronormative relationships were not the norm for me, nor are they even a possibility when you are working-class. My mother was always a fierce ally to queer community yet I still waited till I was 23 years old to come out to her despite the fact I knew I was queer from the age of 5. This speaks to the depth of oppression and patriarchy within society. As queers, especially working-class radical queers of color, our existence is too threatening to the workings of capital so we do not exist. And not only are we not represented in mainstream society, but the ruling class uses its material power over popular culture to speak on the ‘evils’ of homosexuality. When queerness is represented it almost always reflects some problematic aspect of bourgeois patriarchal society. For an example, The L Word is a transphobic, bourgeois, femme dominated, racially problematic representation of lesbians. But it is not The L Word that is the problem. It is the power structures of society that produce The L Word. The structures that have created a physically and spiritually violent process of regulation that keeps a lot of us in the closet for longer than we need to.

Rainbow warriors of the Stonewall rebellions..also working class and of color

Capitalism needs to control the populations of people within this world, because it needs people to exploit in order for it to exist. Not just to work, but also to notwork. The bosses use the unemployment rates as a mechanism to hyper exploit employed workers. You don’t like the low pay or conditions? Ok bye then, because there are plenty of other people who need a job. How do they control people? Through patriarchal conditioning and the regulation of people’s social relations and bodies. We learn from a young age that homosexuality is a deviation from what is socially acceptable, and abortion barely exists for the vast majority of womyn around the world. This is why the issue of homosexuality and abortion are still incredibly relevant to the survival of capitalism. Not because these things are seen as morally wrong to the system, although the government uses morality to brainwash people, but because they threaten the social order of the system. When people choose to engage in queer relationships they are deviating from the heteronormative relationship model, which socializes men and womyn into specific roles within the home and within society as workers reproducing the next population of [un]employed workers. When womyn decide to terminate their pregnancies they are also threatening this social order through reclaiming control over their bodies and reproductive functions. It is not about morals; it is about the money and the government, which facilitates the whole process.

Racially, my home was mixed, primarily black and portuguese. I understood the diversity of ‘race’ through the truths from my home in comparison to the contradictions and harm of the racist society we lived in. Being mixed politicized me, because the divisive nature of race placed me outside of racial categories, within the system and within my community, which can’t help but internalize the system. Yet, I was, and am, very much a product of society and colonization, which restructured the world and brought people from all over it closer together. However, I never saw myself as anything other than my people, yet I have been ‘othered’ by my people my entire life. This has been a challenging experience, but as I have become more spiritually and politically awaken, I am able to move through the feelings of alienation with more ease and grounding. Understanding the ways the system has othered me as a mixed womyn and lesbian, has allowed me to humanize myself, and my people. The system is structured in ways that pit us, as working people of all colors and sexualities, against each other in competition over limited resources for survival. The capitalist government does not need all of us to survive for their hustle to continue. With the economic crisis we have a surplus of workers and alarmingly high unemployment rates. What does Obama care if people are robbing, policing and killing each other? The founding oppressors of this system have created a world structured by power and domination that we reproduce within our communities. They colonize us; we colonize each other; and they get to reap all the material benefits of the violence.

Understanding the system and my own origins has been important to my emotional health. No longer do i blame myself, and my community for my alienation and feelings of otherness. This has been something enforced upon us and we all hurt and hurt each other. I am trying to develop compassion for myself so that I may have compassion for others. We all live in this system, and have our own truths that have shaped us and made us into who we are today. Recently these compassionate practices have been challenged as I struggle with the many layers of feelings that rise when I engage and work with people, who carry privilege, but identify with communities I am a part of that do not have the same privileges. There are choices that have been denied to me and loved ones, but given to others. For an example, I struggle A LOT, with people who solely engage in heterosexual intimate relations, whether they be partnerships or lovers, and still identify as queer or any other queer signifier (femme, stud, top, ect.,). In the bay area this is unavoidable when being queer is so in vogue. I have met a lot of straight people who identify as queer, because they are poly, and are therefore resisting bourgeois heteronormative enforced relationships. However, they still have the privilege to live in a heterosexual world, where these are the givens, where spaces are abundant, and where safety is more accessed. When straight people identify as queer I feel erased, again, from the category. I also can’t help but fear that as more ‘straight’ people get the freedom to identify as queer then we lose the militant origins of what queer and queer struggle means for queers; a people shut out of mainstream society, and, depending on where you live, violently punished for not passing. This is something that straight people will never understand, no matter how queer they are. Our open existence is resistance, when employed correctly. This speaks to the seriousness of the conditions and the militancy required of us, to not only survive, but to struggle for a quality of life denied to us, but with which straight people have access to. To be queer is to be against the system in it is totality; to understand the ways our sexuality relates back to capitalism. To be queer is to be revolutionary.

STAR taking it to the streets. Revolutionary struggle that centralizes gender and sexuality lead by queer/trans/drag queens of color!

I have similar feelings towards race. When ‘white’ people decide to identify as people of color without acknowledging the white privilege given to them, then the realities and struggles of people of color are erased. For an example, I met this person a few years ago in struggle, who had pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. They claimed indigenous ancestry and identity, while aggressively rejecting white people and European everything. They were able to speak very authoritatively about native people and native struggles. This was confusing and difficult for me, because I felt their experience as a native person from the city was much different then native folks, who look native and who are in native communities and struggle. I also thought of my great great grandmother Didi, who is half native. Most black people in the US have indigenous ancestry somewhere along the line. I am proud of this ancestry and the legacy of rebellion by black and indigenous people in the America’s. But, you won’t see me speaking on behalf of Native people, because I know I have a different experience than my indigenous comrades. It is one thing to grow up with your culture, and to become politicized through the system oppressing your people and culture. And it is another thing to grow up with primarily european lineage in a ‘white’ community, and then decide later that you are native, because you discovered you have some native blood in your family, and then proceed to present yourself in a way as if you have the same experience as the latter. Even as a mixed black womyn I will never understand what it is like to fit easily into the category ‘black’. My experiences with blackness are different than my friends, but we share a common colonial experience of being objectified in the system and denied privileges given to whites.

Privilege blinds people from the realities of others. When white people or straight people identify with categories of difference (race and sexuality) without understanding or expressing their privilege then it is assumed that their experience is similar to other people in those categories. However, their privilege gives them a different experience. To not understand that is to erase the experiences and truths of people, who deal with real struggles because of their race and sexuality within bourgeois society. I brought up these complex feelings recently to my comrade and brother Crunch and he, as always, gave me some tips and insight. He also has had similar thoughts and conversations around the subject matter. He brought up the examples of white ethnic studies students and whether they should be in the department. He said we can’t police people and tell them what they can do and how they can identify, but what we can do is ask what their intentions are. I really liked this bit of wisdom, because it helps shift the direction of the conversation from a place of judgement or attacks to a place of learning. When we engage in political dialogue about our life experiences with each other we are able to better understand our commonalities, but also our differences, which helps us understand the system. i have no time for emotionally driven conversations that largely seek to just smash people with privilege, when the system is killing us directly and indirectly. Sure, white hipsters and straight people are annoying, and also filling up oakland, but hating on them isn’t giving the people any more clarity of the system and why it oppresses us. Vulgar identity politics offers no agency for the people to struggle, and therefore is liberal at the root, and we definitely have no time for liberalism. The frustrations, and, sometimes, anger that rise when we encounter privilege in society is righteous and should be dealt with, but from a emotionally productive place of seeking its roots. This is necessary work for revolution. We must always be striving to understand the total picture of the system we live under if we want to change it. And we can do this through understanding our different positionings within it. We have been colonized and exploited objects of this system, but we are also the subjects of our history. When we strive to understand ourselves, and each other, from a place of making history then we will finally begin to take hold of our own destinies and stop doing the work of the system on each other. And I have faith, because as my wise brother Crunch once told me, ‘the people got this’.


2 Comments on “Positionings: radical reflections on race, sexuality, & privilege”

  1. Crunch says:

    This is powerful for many reasons and I enjoyed reading it as always. “compassion” as you put it here is one of the most revolutionary principles that we can apply and hold. Cause true compassion, the source of it, comes from our revolutionary praxis. We are no longer holding a specific anger or ill will towards folk because of their development/ socialization. We are attempting to understand their makings, not because we have been taught to be submissive to their thoughts (privileged or otherwise) but instead we are understanding them through a more dialectical and holistic understanding of what made us the into the beings that we are.

    Alot of the time revolutionaries mock the politics of “self-help” or “self-work” because they are

    a) taught that they are “in-material” (and under patriarchy, revolutionaries are constantly seeking a more “material” of struggle- ie workplace organizing, or other things that have been made ‘real’ throughout the years of leftist struggle. The problem with this is that ‘feminism’ and ‘queer thought’ are often “in-material” because they strike against one of the most dangerous and closely guarded forms of socialization: patriarchy. Patriarchy teaches us morality and that ‘morality’ is something we all hold closely, even without consciously doing so. queers and womyn are deviant in this lens and our challenges to the power of the straight penis, the white one in particular, are difficult and fierce because the penis (men, and straights) have been given the privilege of controlling struggle . And that privilege, as you said “blinds”)

    and

    b) because alot of the people given the privilege of defining these politics (self-help, which is feminism in essence because we are challenging the patriarchy that creates us as half formed-emotionless humyns) have been liberal in application. And by liberal I mean that folks have given us solutions or healing and forward movement within the system- which we know as revolutionaries to be something impossible. Either that or that have used an identity politic which is singular and demonizing of all other lives.

    However, this blog- as always flies in the face of that fuckery.

    “They colonize us; we colonize each other; and they get to reap all the material benefits of the violence.”

    ” Understanding the ways the system has othered me as a mixed womyn and lesbian, has allowed me to humanize myself, and my people. ”

    EXACTLY! THANK YOU CHAKA! We will create struggle with the people we have. Through the difficult work of challenging their ideologies- the ways they have been shaped by the bourgeois culture and by challenging that in ourselves. Understanding- or trying to understand- our fathers may lead to a compassion and understanding that can challenge patriarchy. Understanding- or trying to understand- people’s antagonism towards us by means of looking at their creation in the society is a revolutionary compassion. And that is a kind to pressing truth to the earth. We plant the seeds of a new world through the ways in which we interact and tear down the alienation.

    But this also doesn’t mean that the fierceness of our critiques, the fire of our anger, is erased. It means that we are coming from a place of love when we “go in” or “interact” with harmful socialization in folk. . . as for the appropriators. . . you put it best. . .

    “To not understand that is to erase the experiences and truths of people, who deal with real struggles because of their race and sexuality within bourgeois society.”

    TRUTH. Their privilege is evident in their boastful spirits. Their chants of “im here. im queer” are shallow because they come from a place of wanting to access an oppression which they feel will validate their voices even more. Which they seek to do (consciously or not) at the expense others. We dont need to unrighteously boast about or appropriate “queerness” because it is not merely something we do with our fleshy relations. True queerness is a removal of societal drag- of the ways in which we were negatively created by the society. Once again, you said it best. . .

    “To be queer is to be against the system in it is totality; to understand the ways our sexuality relates back to capitalism. To be queer is to be revolutionary.”

    Thank you for this you brilliant creator.


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