Solidarity can’t work without understanding that Blackness has a role in every struggle
The first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency have been marked by continuous attacks on the most vulnerable communities, just as promised. Those who have been resisting this administration have rightly responded to these attacks by attempting to shed light on every step taken toward such harmful efforts—from the blatantly bigoted “Muslim ban” and its equally bigoted second iteration, to threats against “sanctuary cities” whose governments refuse to go out of their way to target the undocumented.
However, in shedding this necessary light, many people have also chosen to distinguish struggles such as those against Islamophobia and anti-immigrant violence from the plight of Black people. While some have argued that its apparently lessened visibility is only a necessary evolution of the Movement for Black Lives, others have questioned the movement’s continued relevance after Trump’s ascension highlighted so many struggles that are seemingly distinctive and equally important.
But there is a reason those involved in this movement have taken up so many causes not immediately recognized as Black—like the rights of Palestinians and Indigenous water protectors—and it is the same reason these same causes must ensure Blackness is always relevant if they are to truly be liberating.
On the surface, the distinction between Black issues and other causes makes sense. It is necessary to understand the unique ways different types of violence operate. The problems plaguing American policing that helped lead to the killing of Mike Brown, for instance, cannot be conflated with how Muslims are targeted under hyper-surveillance and anti-terror practices.
Blackness is not a stand in for everyone’s struggles, and positioning it as such generally has the effect of syphoning Black labor to further the causes of others with no reciprocity. Black people do not need to take on the mantle of everyone else’s mule.
But while we should be careful not to flatten messages at the expense of individualized experiences, it’s also crucial to understand that there are people at the intersections of communities who exemplify the greatest challenges to each of the causes we view as distinct. This is especially important when it comes to understanding the globalizing nature of anti-Blackness.
As Isra Ibrahim notes in “Why we must stop de-centering Black Muslims in the fight against Islamophobia”: “In returning to the mosques (after protesting the ‘Muslim ban’), Black Muslims will be abused and patronized (…) Muslim issues will be separated from Black issues and Black Muslims will be called upon for our undying solidarity and labor. Any attempt to combat Islamophobia without combating this separation not only means Black Muslims will still be in an abusive relationship with our white, Arab and Asian coreligionists, but also that Islamophobic violence will continue to build upon the separation between ‘Muslim’ and ‘Black.’”
The idea that Black people’s issues are distinct from other struggles against oppressive systems is exacerbated by the fact that the face of other causes is almost always presented as non-Black in popular media. For example, in the public imagination, Black Muslims and immigrants hardly even exist, even when 23% of Muslims in America identify as Black. This blatant erasure should be recognized as a purposeful effort to destabilize the only work that might upend deeply entrenched systems of violence. Without purposeful attention to Blackness, none of these efforts can truly be successful.
Struggles against Islamophobia without specific attention to Black Muslims not only allows anti-Blackness within Muslim communities to continue unabated, it encourages efforts by non-Black Muslims to distance themselves from their Black counterparts in hopes of being accepted into a society that is also anti-Black.
The fact is: Black Muslims exist. Afro-Latinx people exist. Black people of every stripe exist. And on top of the bigotry they face by virtue of their the marginalized communities they share with non-Black people, they are also subjected to anti-Blackness within those communities. For conversations to truly be fruitful, Black people must be accounted for in every discussion about marginalization, and Black people with multiple identities must be given more space to define the struggles related to those identities.
Because Black people globally are denied humanity and access to rights granted to people recognized as human, attaining recognition of humanity is often based on one’s distance from Black people. This is why non-Black people (and many Black people, too) perpetuate anti-Blackness in the form of respectability politics and other acts policing those things most associated with Blackness. People who share other marginalized identities with Black people are not immune from this behavior, and, in fact, often have more reason to wield anti-Blackness in an effort to mitigate their own abuse, leaving Black people vulnerable even in the spaces they call home.
Of course, these ideas extend far beyond Islamophobia. This expression of anti-Blackness can be observed in executive director of Honor the Earth Winona Laduke’s comments in response to the National Guard being sent to clear away water protectors at Standing Rock. In using a claim to “peacefulness” as one basis to be treated more humanely, Laduke told the governor in a statement, “You are not George Wallace, and this is not Alabama. You do not have the right to block roads, deny people water, attack people with dogs, or deploy military forces on a peaceful prayerful encampment.” In comparison to the violent clashes with Black people under segregation era Alabama, and more recently the contentious uprisings in response to police killings in Baltimore, Charlotte, and Ferguson, Laduke positions peaceful non-Black Indigenous people as more deserving of less abuse than Black protesters.
When we confront issues around disabilities, queer rights, trans rights, immigration, Islamophobia, and Indigenous rights, we should do so with the understanding that there are Black people with disabilities, Black queer people, Black trans people, Black immigrants, Black Muslims, and Black Indigenous peoples. We should address these causes knowing that Black people face violence as part of the marginalized communities they share with non-Black people on top of globalized anti-Blackness. Any solution that does not involve these intersections is not a solution at all.
Careful consideration of Black people in these conversations is not just a call for increased visibility and representation. Indeed, it can be argued that Black issues are already hyper-visible in the American consciousness in comparison to the issues of others, even as Black folks continue to bear the harshest response. Visibility alone is not the answer. Rather than simply be the screen viewed through a lens that never attempts to reconcile anti-Blackness, Blackness should be the lens through which we are able to perceive and understand the violence facing us.
A unified struggle against oppressive systems should not ask people who are always already left behind to accept being left behind once again. Ignoring the existence of people within the margins of intersecting communities ensures that those of us who require the most dire attention are never attended to, even as it might allow for limited progress on behalf of everyone else. Because anti-Blackness is so globalized, it always adds another wrinkle to conversations of marginalization.
If we are serious about committing to this unified struggle and about our calls for solidarity, this demands that we always think of the Black people affected by every cause we fight for. It means recognizing how we find in Blackness the most abused aspects of queerness, gender, class, and disability among other things, but we find them alongside the most freeing aspects as well.
When facing queerantagonism within Black communities, a common refrain from Black queer people is “you cannot be pro-Black if you are not pro-queer, because some Black people are queer.” This understanding that we cannot call ourselves in community and be free unless the most ignored of us are free is a universal truth that goes both ways. You cannot be pro-marginalized people if you are not pro-Black, because there are Black people in every marginalized community. Without committing to freeing Black people, we aren’t committing to freedom at all.