Activist spaces are relatively new to me. I was raised in a home where meritocracy, individualism, and competition were more doctrine than questioned discourses. As an adult, I have situated my immigrant homespace in both my heart and schooled-up sociology mind, and I have also found chosen home spaces amongst many activists, scholarly and community-based. So it follows that I experience these activist spaces with a newcomer’s set of eyes and ears. This has meant that I have, at times, needed time to understand the nuances of what is able to be short-handed by others because they might have a working fluency with the history of important terms, such as People of Color. There have also been moments when I’ve heard a phrase or seen a way of being that while seemingly de rigeur in activist cultural spaces strikes me as off, or flat out wrong.
This is one of the ways in which people who might self-identity as activists are likely to sign their emails and made me at first confused and then frustrated. Here’s why.
In keeping with Andrea Smith and Mia Mackenzie’s criticisms of the ways that being ‘an ally’ or acknowledging privilege is often used performatively to self-glorify rather than actually dismantle systems of oppression, ‘in solidarity’ should raise questions of its uses and functions. When reading the endnote of “in solidarity,” I think, “with what?” “how?” and “under what conditions?” By eliding these specifics, the term barters in nonspecificity in the interest of an identity kit. Now I ain’t mad at identity kits. We all navigate the world, in part and to differing portions of privilege-based abilities, by communicating our constantly shifting sense of self through our identity kits. From the clothes we wear, to the language we use, our days are populated by micro decisions, often contradictory, in our interests of communicating who we are to the world. And as Avery Gordon captured so beautifully, our complex personhoods are rife with contradiction and cross purposes, played out in fields and histories of oppression. In keeping with an appreciation for how complex, culturally specific, and dynamic identity is, to expect people to discard having identity kits is both unrealistic and not very much fun.
But the problem arises when the impact of terms used in the intention of projecting the identity of an activist undercuts the purported goal of cultural transformation. By bartering in nonspecificity, ‘in solidarity’ delivers several problematic impacts all at once. First, it communicates that there is a tacit understanding about the particulars of solidarity when this is far from the case. How does being in solidarity with anti-racism, for example, sync up with being in solidarity with Indigenous rights, which is defined more by relationship to the land than to the construct of race? If I am in solidarity with Black and brown folk (as silly sweeping as that even sounds), how does that alignment help me to understand POC-dominant yet ableist spaces? In fact, using a nonspecific identifier collapses the spaces for these questions when activist environs are exactly the ones that should be at the forefront of making these paths.
Second, bartering in nonspecificity double downs on these tacit agreements with an expectation of alignment, often to the loudest voice in the room. Activists cultures often enforce a silencing of abuse that is more insidious because it uses ‘downness’ with the cause, or solidarity, as the fulcrum for enforcement, a malignancy eloquently detailed in beautiful and necessarily raw accounts and analysis in The Revolution Starts at Home. As is becoming better understood but can only benefit from more widespread engagement, minority and activist cultural spaces are no more immune to the vicissitudes of violence that permeate a society predicated on territoriality and competition. In fact, because these spaces are often erroneously held up to be ‘safe,’ the potential of being blindsided by a microaggression is arguably amplified.
Finally, nonspecificity gets in the way of transformation. Transformation never occurs at abstract levels of monolithic terms; it is always specific to particular peoples living in specific times and places. Nonspecificity allows the speaker to leverage various political tropes without considering the particular affordances and limitations of each, let alone how they might be in conflict with each other. For example, when multiculturalism, anti-racism, and decolonization are lumped together or used interchangeably as ‘social justice,’ the net effect is the perpetuation of the prevailing order (Sexton, 2010) because, in part, we don’t get to the harder but necessary places of incommensurability (Tuck and Yang, 2010).
In short, being nonspecific allows us to get away with all manner of sloppy thinking and often, stop well short of doing anything transformative. As Nirmalla Erevelles reminds, being an ally is a verb, not an over-determined noun.
“But what if my intentions are good?”
Intent matters less than impact. So when I find out that my honorable intentions actually have ended up doing harm, I have to remember that there is no such thing as a clean teleology from intent to impact. Life is messier than that. I must stay in that space, that yucky place of being called out, shut up my cringe long enough to learn what I didn’t realize before, revise my actions, my intentions, and start anew. We all will be in that space, many many times. And I don’t want to be part of a revolution that doesn’t know how to call itself out because it is overly identified being “in solidarity.”