Solidarity must be the guiding principle
, and take up some of the ideas put forward by the spoken word duo Darkmatter--and put forward an alternative vision.
IN RECENT years, the trans South Asian spoken word duo Darkmatter has burst onto the art and activist scene. Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian, the artists who make up Darkmatter, have performed at colleges and universities across the country, regularly drawing large numbers to their performances.
With nearly 25,000 followers on Facebook, you'd be hard-pressed to meet young queer and trans activists who aren't familiar with their work.
Darkmatter considers their work and activism a contribution to building a movement for sexual and gender liberation that also takes up issues of racial and economic justice. As members of the International Socialist Organization, the publisher of SocialistWorker.org, we share Darkmatter's liberatory aspirations and consider it a positive development that more activists want to fight for a revolutionary transformation of society.
However, we believe that many of the ideas about the struggle put forward by Darkmatter represent the rejection of a principle that has been foundational for social movements and for the revolutionary left: solidarity. Taken to their logical conclusion, Darkmatter's extreme brand of identity politics further fragments and holds back our struggles for liberation and can lead to a dismissiveness toward people who are not yet radical and are new to activist politics.
We have written this article because we believe it is important to engage with Darkmatter's arguments--they express a set of ideas common among a wider layer of activists that need to be discussed and debated if our side is to move forward.
DARKMATTER'S ARTISTIC and political work is wide-ranging, and there is much to engage with. For the purpose of this article, however, we've chosen to focus on a recent statement consisting of five bullet points posted on their Facebook wall entitled "5 reminders for white #progressives." The first three points read as follows:
1. calling an idea, a movement, a political analysis, and a person "white" is not a slur, it's a commentary on a structural position and impact. saying "white" instead of "mainstream" or "liberal" is necessary because it names a specific and foundational origin of violence.
2. "whiteness" is not something people of color made up. it is an intentional and specifically curated identity, culture, institution, and strategy of domination created by white people themselves to keep Black, indigenous, and other racialized people down.
3. naming whiteness is not "divisive" or "divide and conquer tactics," it is about expressing an oppressive power dynamic that often goes unmarked. as Black & brown activists have argued forever calls for "unity" without seriously engaging the reality of difference are really just a way of incorporating the people you actively oppress into frameworks that continue to oppress them. ending racism is about transformation, not inclusion.
An assumption running through Darkmatter's work is that white people are a homogeneous bloc--racist, privileged and part of the problem. Given the strong hold that ruling-class ideology has over people's ideas, it's not surprising that some activists come to this conclusion. However, there are major problems with this argument.
This caricature obscures and ignores the role of class. White people, like all other racial and ethnic groups, are divided by class. White workers are part of an oppressed class under capitalism, the working class. For Marxists, class oppression doesn't just refer to elitist attitudes held by the rich or internalized feelings of inferiority, often referred to as "classism," but a structural position in society that excludes workers from economic, political, and social power and the ability to shape our world and our lives.
This oppression has very real material consequences, even for white, straight cisgender workers, including economic uncertainty and poverty, unemployment, inadequate health care, homelessness, higher rates of stress, depression, and anxiety, and inferior access to education.
The idea that all white people are responsible for creating racism obscures who its real architects are--the ruling class that profits from racial oppression. It also fails to point to the social force that has the power to transform society: a multiracial struggle of the exploited and oppressed. For over a century, Black radicals from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King and Angela Davis have argued that the ruling class uses racism as a method of social control to defend their own class rule. As Douglass famously said, "They divided both to conquer each."
RACIST DISCRIMINATION and bigotry is directed, of course, at people of color, but the system of racism holds down the entire working class. Racism has been a lynchpin of the attempt to justify the neoliberal ruling-class offensive and the attacks on the gains of the 1960s and 1970s for the past 30 years. This has led to a dramatic downward spiral of working-class living standards across the board in the form of part-time and contingent employment, skyrocketing costs of health care and housing, an unprecedented increase of student debt, attacks against unions and the right to organize, and rise of wealth inequality on par with the Gilded Age.
Rather than having a stake in supporting racism or being irredeemably racist, the white working class has a world to win by joining in solidarity and fighting racial oppression. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains in a contribution in SocialistWorker.org titled "Making sense of society in order to change it":
[The] advantages afforded to white workers pale in comparison to the obscene profits derived from the labor of all workers and hoarded at the top by the ruling class. In other words, white workers have no interest in capitalism and have every interest in uniting with Black and Brown workers to fight for a new society. That fight has to be organized on the basis of shared interests, solidarity and an active fight against racism as the central ideological struggle of the American working class.
The kind of politics that Darkmatter puts forward are not only a barrier to solidarity within the U.S., but also undermine genuine solidarity around the world--and also fail to explain the world that capitalism has created. This framework binds the fate of the exploited and oppressed--Black, Brown and white--of the Global North and Global South to their respective ruling classes, instead of across borders with each other, in international solidarity and struggle against a race to the bottom.
These aren't abstract debates--they have concrete, practical implications in real-world struggles.
In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike against the privatization of public education and won. The CTU, which is predominately white, built solidarity with parents and students who are majority Black and Latino, and turned the strike into a broader social movement for racial and economic justice. The CTU highlighted the common interests of teachers, students and parents in its report "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve," and in doing so showed the necessity of solidarity to our side winning today.
According to Darkmatter's logic, was linking arms with white teachers the right move? Or should Black parents and students have struggled on their own? Or united with Black administrators, even though they were on the side of a board that was closing and defunding schools?
Privilege theory at its best does no more than describe who has or doesn't have a benefit, based upon which oppressed group or groups one belongs to. Privilege theory has us measuring who is the most or least oppressed, which may be an interesting discussion, but brings no one closer to collective action. Marxism, after describing where these backward ideas come from, prescribes strategies and tactics to combat and ultimately end them at their source. (emphasis added)
The case for unity is not about minimizing differences or incorporating people into frameworks that oppress them. Rather, it is about recognizing the shared class interests that can unite us against a common enemy and combating the barriers that divide us by championing the struggles of the oppressed, so that our side can effectively mount a collective struggle against the system and win.
THE FOURTH point of Darkmatter's post states:
4. "Homophobia" and "transphobia" exist because of white supremacy, imperialism, and settler colonialism. The gender binary is a colonial imposition to uphold racism. White people may use "gay" and "trans" identities to position themselves as victims of the very systems they are responsible for creating. If you are interested in ending homophobia/transphobia, you must end racism.
Homophobia and transphobia exist because of capitalism, and LGBTQ people in every society are oppressed regardless of their race or class.
At its core, solidarity means "an injury to one is an injury to all" and a knee-jerk opposition to all forms of oppression. This means fighting for an end to marriage discrimination for same-sex couples, while also demanding an end to the deadly epidemic of violence against trans people, and trans women of color in particular.
This shouldn't mean creating a hierarchy of oppression that puts racism on the top and everything else behind it, or telling white LGBTQ people that their oppression is at best a distraction from the real issues of racism, and at worse just a ruse conjured up to perpetuate it. There is plenty of oppression to go around in this brutal system, and revolutionaries need to oppose all of it.
Radicals must oppose any effort to use LGBTQ rights to promote racism or empire--as, for example, we have in opposing the marketing of Israel as a pro-gay tourist destination, which masks the oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli state. But we shouldn't dismiss the fight for legal equality entirely, as Darkmatter has argued elsewhere. Radicals should unapologetically celebrate and defend the legalization of marriage equality as a basic civil rights issue that improves the lives of LGBTQ people, especially working-class and poor couples. Such victories tend to embolden people to demand more change, thus serving as a gateway. rather than a barrier to future struggles.
This is not a call for radicals to cede any ground to the mainstream LGBTQ organizations--often described as Gay Inc.--whose myopic vision and anti-activist strategies have served to limit our movement to issues and demands that sit comfortably with the Democratic Party politicians and the CEOs they idolize.
We should champion the fight for full legal equality while also pushing for an LGBTQ agenda that centers on racial and economic justice, argues for marriage to be one among many options for how people can live their lives, and makes the case that the access to health care, tax breaks and other benefits associated with marriage should be rights guaranteed to everyone.
DARKMATTER'S FINAL point in its Facebook post reads:
5. Expecting non-white people to always explain racism to you is a form of exploitative labor. Rather than trying to *save* non-white people, white progressives should really focus on saving your own. Educate and organize other white people to commit themselves to solidarity, redistribution, and substantive change.
Racism and segregation are central to the ruling class's ability to rule. They are how the 1 Percent keeps ordinary people fighting against one another and distracted from their common enemy. The goal of revolutionaries should be to break down and overcome the fragmentation and division imposed on the working class from above, not to replicate it in our own struggles.
When people choose to reject the ruling class ideas of society and join the ranks of movements against oppression, this should be celebrated, not treated with suspicion and hostility. New activists should be welcomed and embraced as comrades in struggle, regardless of their race; otherwise we lose the chance to grow our movements.
Someone new to organizing may not have all the right politics, but they are not the same as the racists who are attacking our movements. Even the most radical activist today once accepted, to a greater or lesser degree, the various ideological justifications that capitalism depends on to reproduce itself.
The job of radicals is to patiently explain our politics with the aim of winning newly radicalizing people over to our ideas, not to be dismissive of those who don't "get it." And history demonstrates again and again that the experience of participating in struggle--whether in social movements, at colleges and universities, or in workplace organizing--has the capacity to transform people's ideas on a massive scale.
As revolutionary socialists who look to the self-emancipation of the working class from below as the pathway to human liberation, we believe the struggle against oppression must be led by the oppressed themselves, and we always seek to develop the leadership capacities of oppressed people to fight for their own liberation.
However, this does not mean that holding a given identity automatically translates to a certain set of politics or to effective political leadership. Identity and political leadership can often overlap, but it isn't automatic. In order to win, we need a culture of comradely debate that is political and engages with people on the basis of the content of their ideas, not just their identity.
RADICAL POLITICS don't make a revolution on their own--actual people must be the bearers of those radical ideas and be effective at relating them to the other people they find themselves organizing with. We are up against a brutal, violent system with the most highly organized ruling class in the world. The task for revolutionaries is not to create "safe spaces" for people who already agree with one another to share ideas. That doesn't change society or pose an organized challenge to the system.
We have to engage with and patiently build struggles that, especially in our current historical moment, will be primarily made up of ordinary people who are not yet revolutionary and therefore hold a mixture of ideas--but who have decided to fight for a better world.
It's a much more challenging project, but it's the only way our side will ever win.