“Nothing exists in a vacuum” is a trite old aphorism used to explain how all actions have consequences. It is founded on a basic principle in physics that states that space without matter, by definition, contains nothing. The saying highlights the reality that any actions occurring outside of vacuums create ripple effects because matter connects everything together.
This reality is sometimes used to explain the concept of collateral damage, and how the imprecise targeting of an individual is bound to impact more than just that one person.
“Nothing exists in a vacuum” is the reason why activists who actively center violence against trans and gender non-conforming people in their work (rightly) react to anti-trans rhetoric against folks like Caitlyn Jenner––whose anti-Black, capitalistic, Trump fandom is reprehensible enough on its own––by refusing to allow her to be misgendered or otherwise attacked for her gender identity.
The concept is simple enough: Caitlyn Jenner isn’t the only person affected by anti-trans violence, so lobbing that violence in her direction isn’t just hurting her, it harms all trans people.
There is nothing wrong with Jenner’s transness on its own, but weaponizing attacks against that aspect of her being reinforces the idea that there is––an idea that has killed so many trans women of color so far this year.
Even those who are not trans themselves are generally recognized to be well within their lane––and perhaps it might even be said that it is their duty––to point out this violence. This is the case even if the person weaponizing anti-trans beliefs (like a cisgender, heterosexual Black man, for instance) could be argued to be more immediately harmed by Caitlyn’s anti-Black actions (than a non-Black trans person).
Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Black people, however, do.
Black people aren’t allotted the recognition of belonging to the same space-time as other humans, especially white people. In this anti-Black world, the space where Black people exist is always a vacuum because the state holds that our lives do not (and are not) matter. Therefore anti-Black collateral damage, just like anti-Blackness period, is not recognized as a problem like other systematic violence is. Because anti-Blackness relies on punitive logic (hence prisons), this is especially the case when punishing Black people who have been deemed to have committed any sort of crime.
When the rapper Azealia Banks came under fire for the use of the word “faggot,” she immediately faced an internet storm of backlash from queer people and those who called themselves their defenders. Though I would suggest that her own queerness changes her relationship to this word, her presumed homophobia was used as the basis for all kinds of attacks launched her way. These attacks included anti-Black and misogynoiristic slurs that focused on her physical features and others used most often against Black women. Still, many self-described pro-Black-women individuals overlooked or even participated in these responses themselves.
When the artist later got into an Twitter feud with 14-year-old Disney star Skai Jackson, insinuating that the teenager would soon become an “Instagram THOT,” the backlash was even more unanimous. Though this kind of abuse directed toward a child is inexcusable, some seemed not to care that this child’s soon-to-be Black-womanness was the same thing that was being targeted in her abuser. In fact, many called this propensity to dispose of this Black queer woman on a Black girl’s or queer peoples’ behalf righteousness, with no sense of irony at all.
More recently, there is the case of 19-year-old rapper Kodak Black, an undeniable misogynoirist who has already served time for sexual battery. In an Instagram live video, Black explained his preference for light-skinned and non-Black women, stating “I don’t really like Black girls like that.” In a later interview, he followed up by saying, “I just don’t like my skin complexion,” pointing to deeply internalized self-hatred, and again displayed his own misogynistic tendencies in explaining his preference by saying that men “can break [light skinned women] down more easy.”
Kodak Black’s comments are wildly disgusting and obviously inexcusable, but saying that one shouldn’t respond to his vitriolic anti-Blackness with more of the same is not offering him an excuse. Yet, instead of focusing on the content of his sickening comments, many turned around and pointed to his own dark-skinned features, with some calling him a “roach,” a historically anti-Black term and claiming he is ugly for looking “African,” defending their actions by stating that their legitimate anger shouldn’t be “tone policed.”
When I pointed out that people were responding to Black’s statements with more violence, many commenters claimed to have seen no examples of anti-Blackness in the way Kodak’s looks became the weapon forged against him (and, admittedly, most examples of Black’s “ugliness” had no explicit mention of his African features, even though they pointed to those features). But, there is an incontestable history of the features of both dark-skinned men and women, being used to shame and abuse them. The features that make Kodak Black “ugly” in the eyes of many are common features in dark-skinned, West African-descended individuals in general. Even some of the comments deflecting to his grill and tattoos could be argued to be class-based anti-Blackness.
As Koko Femi notes, it is because of this history that the immediate rush to antagonize a dark-skinned person’s looks in response to a perceived offense in and of itself is evidence an underlying and pervasive disdain for those looks.
To be clear, there is a difference between noting someone is not attractive to you and wielding their features as a weapon against them based on an objective social standard of “ugliness.” That standard, when wielded against dark-skinned women, as Kodak wielded it, as well as when used against dark-skinned men and those who lie between and outside the gender binary, will always be a tool for anti-Blackness.
The response to Kodak Black and the inability to reckon with the collateral damage of anti-Blackness––even as one claims to be concerned with stopping anti-Blackness––reminds me of David Marriott’s theorization of Black peoples’ experiences of deathliness: “Black life is meaningless and so black death is meaningless, a death that cannot ever die because it depends on the total degradation and disavowal of black life,” he argues, “This is no longer death but a deathliness that cannot be . . . brought into meaning. This is death as nothing, less than nothing; as such, this death is never assumable as possibility.” (Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity, 230)
Black collateral, as seen in the harm caused to Black girls who see themselves in Azealia, or in the faces of Black children who see their features reflected in Kodak Black, is also made meaningless by this anti-Black experience of deathliness. This is always the ripple effect when the total degradation and disavowal of (any) Black life is the objective.
And in the punitive prison culture that we subscribe to, in the vacuum that is Black life in America, the total degradation and disposal of Black people in response to our crimes and inherent criminality (including the inherent criminality that is [presumed] cishet maleness) is always the objective.