I am a non-voter who has the audacity to still be upset that my people are dying. I have been told innumerable times that I am not supposed to be allowed this. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain” is perhaps the most common non-voter shaming refrain I’ve heard, right up there with “your ancestors died for the right to vote.”
But I am not generally one to accept what society allows me to do as gospel.
I learned this from those very same ancestors, who, as even non-voter shamers acknowledge, lost their lives so that I could do what they weren’t allowed. Some say their deaths were only for my right to vote, but I know they died to get closer to freedom. I know they died also to be able to refuse the vote if it does not work towards that freedom. I know that my people are still dying–still died even when I did vote–and, if anything, my ancestors lost their lives so that I would never let anything get in the way of raising hell about it.
Last week, during a Q-and-A session at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, former President Barack Obama said, “You get the politicians you deserve. And if you don’t vote and if you don’t participate and if you don’t pay attention, then you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interests.” What he didn’t say is how, if you do vote and do participate and do pay attention, you’ll still get policies that don’t reflect your interests. That is what happens in a two-party system where both sides rely on anti-Blackness for sustenance.
As I recall, I filled out a bubble for Obama twice, but the 384 to 807 dead civilians killed in drone strikes under his reign aren’t in my interests. Deporting 2.5 million undocumented persons during his first 6 years isn’t in my interests. A president who drastically accelerates police militarization even while (or, if you’re cynical, because) the Movement for Black Lives was birthed isn’t the president my Black ass deserves.
To be clear, there have certainly been worse presidents than Obama (we have one now), and you could argue that my not voting isn’t the most practical way forward.
However, I have grown to believe that anything that does not center those who are already most harmed isn’t work that I have energy to put too much effort into. For example, voting is not going to do more for the Black trans disabled woman in prison who is likely to continue existing in more or less the same conditions than it will for a middle class person like me who might now be more likely to lose health benefits. I cannot in good conscious continue allowing the concerns of people like me to drown out the concerns of those at the margins of the margins.
But this is not a debate over whether refusing to invest in anything that does not center the margins is ultimately helpful. This is about how having different opinions on what is ultimately helpful should never be used as a weapon to silence Black people who mourn their dead while dis-investing from an electoral system that doesn’t even care to remember their names.
You might believe that people deserve punishment for their ignorance, but what is not up for debate is the fact that no one deserves to be oppressed. No one should be forced to suck it up when their families are locked away and murdered for existing while Black. Nothing should be blamed for the violence of whiteness except whiteness. Black non-voters are not asking for the anti-Black abuses they receive. We are simply pointing out that voting is not the only or even best way to deliver on the promises of freedom we had the audacity to hope for, because that freedom is not yet here.
I believe that the main tool of oppressive systems is the impetus to blame the victim for their own predicament. If only that woman didn’t get drunk at that frat house. If only that Black boy didn’t wear a hoodie. If only Black people did better in school. If we only voted.
The alternative on the part of oppressed people is a sense of powerlessness. If there is nothing I can do to stop being Black, it is easy to find faith in the vote. Rather than have that faith shaken when we still get Trump despite now having the right to vote our ancestors “died for,” the problem becomes that we just aren’t voting right. Because what else can we do?
But Black people can and do resist whiteness in a number of ways, both big and small, that do not involve the vote. We are rising up, before neoliberal activists come in to syphon away that energy into the same political system we resisted against. We are thinking and living alternatives to policing. We are creating sustainable food models. We have the right to vote, but we are still dying for their right to be free. And everyone should know that, whether we voted or not, our fury that freedom is not here is always righteous.