I remember a young woman in undergrad once announcing to a large group of students,”We have to stand in solidarity with one another even when we don’t necessarily understand or agree totally with the method of engagement.” In that moment I asked myself, “Who does she mean by ‘we’?”
The young Latina was attempting to bring together students of different race and gender backgrounds to rally around a cause specific to Latinx students on campus. At the time, I took her claim wholesale. Taking the word “solidarity” to simply mean unity, I assumed her assertion of group action related to all issues affecting any students in the group, not just those affected by the issue for which she was advocating that day. However, I later found that there was a great deal of anti-Blackness in that group. And, while I can’t generalize that experience to broader communities, it was a harsh lesson in understanding what solidarity really means.
On its face, solidarity just means mutual agreement between socially interested groups to address a common problem. The term is often used to create coalitions between activist organizations seeking justice for some type of oppressive policy, harmful institutional action, or discrimination from a hateful civilian group.
The problem with the idea of solidarity, though, is that far too often, the individuals calling for group unity are only doing so because they want to uphold their own privilege.
For example, Black men often call for racial solidarity when young Black men are killed but rarely do so when trans and cis Black women are murdered. White women are notorious for peddling mainstream feminism which is often exclusionary toward trans and cis women of color. Even some other folks who identify as on the margins — White gay men, Latinas, and Asian American organizers — may slip into anti-Blackness when fighting for their own liberation. Essentially, when folks with privilege call for solidarity, they usually aren’t focusing on the most oppressed among them. So, what exactly is solidarity then?
Perhaps the best way to understand this issue is to look at the relationship between trans and cis Black women and femmes.
There is absolutely no question that Black trans women must be protected at all costs. The continued deployment of transmisogynoir in media and interpersonal altercations combined with systemic racism in institutions, public spaces, and society in general make being a Black woman of trans experience a treacherous reality. Black bodies are already criminalized. However, when those bodies are also of trans experience, the risks of abuse, physical harm, arrest, and murder are significantly higher.
There are many Black women and femmes of trans experience who face secondary marginalization from cis Black women. I have seen far too many cases where these women justify transmisogynoir, mirroring the oppressive structures they themselves seek to dismantle. Yet, they call for solidarity when Black women are hypersexualized in media, reduced to “welfare queens,” and harassed by Black men. How is it logical to call for solidarity against misogynoir yet commit the same violence against Black women of trans experience?
This is no different than Whites declaring “Je suis Charlie” yet never uttering the words “Je suis Islan” or “Je suis Rekia” or “Je suis LaQuan.” It’s no different from men who pit Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian against Ayesha Curry as if men are the arbiters of who is the right “kind of woman.” Meanwhile, these same men rebuke claims that they should be judged by their clothing, professions, or other material characteristics of their personhood.
Everyday, those with skin privilege or male privilege or cis privilege or size privilege or ability privilege throw around the term “solidarity” when what they really want is to compel less privileged folks to do work on their behalves, rarely checking themselves to see how solidaritous (or not) their own actions are.
To be clear: Any form of solidarity that is devoid of focus or even acknowledgement that the least privileged among us deserve and require our greatest effort toward liberation is not solidarity. It is a pretty lie. It is a cancerous poison that will kill any form of social movement no matter how powerful or necessary that cause might be. And, it only reproduces the violence and oppression we claim to be fighting.
But, there’s a simple solution to this issue, one that too often goes overlooked: Listen to the young people.
As a cis queer Black woman, I am heartened that modern social movements have embraced a queer feminist lens. They are led and seeded by unapologetically queer, Black femmes whose critical analyses of the intersections of race, trans experience, gender, orientation, size, ability and so forth center those who require our most targeted advocacy. This approach says clearly that the only way for any of us to get free is if all of us get free. In other words, solidarity means nothing if it isn’t intersectional in praxis.
I’m not the bright-eyed, naive college student I once was. I am aware that solidarity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. More importantly, I have become intimately reminded that “skin folk ain’t always your kinkfolk.” So, I work intentionally and daily to exhibit true solidairity in my actions. Sometimes that means shutting up and making space. At other moments, it means speaking up and pushing back. But, in every case, it means checking myself and others around me on our privilege. For me, that’s the only way we get free.