Dying Twice: A Womanist Rejoinder on the Weaponization of Martyrdom, on the Role of Memory in a context of Racism
“People who are transgender, particularly transgender women of color, experience appalling levels of violence, and this violence is exacerbated by poverty and racism. […] Marriage equality and celebrity culture will not solve it. Neither will political agendas focused on unquestioned assimilation. Gaining rights for some while ignoring the violation and suffering of others does not lead to justice. At best it results in privilege.” — Barbara Smith (NYT, 19 June 2019)
Preamble: A Rejoinder On Systemic Racism & Black Women
Racism is systemic; it is when prejudices are codified into the organizing and governing apparatuses of a polity; when the day-to-day processes of societal administration in tandem with sociocultural norms render racist violence as well as racial inequalities and inequities mundane and ordinary; and when, the formal ethical dispensation holds these arrangements as self-evident, and their outcomes as natural.
I make mention of the foregoing for the following reason: despite the bastardization of anti-racism struggles (that is, efforts targeting systems) by the current neoliberal climate into performances of outrage pushing against especially racial slurs (that is, offensive words), it is critical to keep at our foremost mind that it is the violent power backed by racist systems which make such racial slurs dangerous. Black People are not in the business of policing speech — our resistance is against the power arrangements of the systemic racism in wider society as well as the sociocultural norms and ethical environment against which racial slurs are materialized into various forms of violence and brutality: violence which is always endemic or intrinsic to racist systems, afforded by an enabling institutional environment.
When often White People speak of freedom of speech, they speak of an innocuous activity in which ideas are exchanged in forums whose participants are differentiated by class and gender; an activity in which every White person potentially has legitimate standing (class and gender mitigating); and, in which the distribution of harms as a consequence of decisions realized by said free speech is not rooted in distinctions about who is human as opposed to who is sub-human or not-human. Going further, the legal framework, de facto, excludes no White person from its stipulations and protections aside from class and gender considerations.
Thus the sometimes intended or unintended insinuations of the equivalency of race and gender are, for me, deeply misguided: While undoubtedly gender has critical life-course altering and social stratifying impacts on women in society, gender is a serious social injustice within a category of “the already peopled”. Race on the other hand is a designation of the unpeopled or the dehumanized (the sub-human or not-human), so that gender distinctions within the unpeopled along with other aspects of people or persons are flattened or invisiblized. Black women, for example, have been and remain excluded from prevalent White-centric ideas of femininity and feminine personhood. Temporarily setting aside the severe forms of physical and sexual violence which characterize America’s racial history (which is not just Black history), even the figure of the mammy advanced the idea of the unfemininity of Black women.
For example, the mammy has an inexhaustible stamina despite unending household chores; has indefatigable emotions from the never-ending giving of care to White children from sunrise to sunset; a lack of a social circle of friends or a wider social life; inexplicable cruelty towards, and impatience against, her own children; an eternal contentment with existing at a single, stagnant station of life even as those she works for grow and evolve; and she has no ambition and desire outside of a routine of work which is seen as her sole purpose. The mammy is clad in bland working clothes covering a stout or round physique; she is, aside from reproduction, both de-sexualized and over-sexualized (that is, her sexuality is either functional or problematic). These are not the qualities of most human beings in the White world and much less, none of them are among the characteristics of white femininity or womanhood which is gender-constructed out of accretive layers of various prescribed and performed fragilities.
(These performed fragilities vis-a-vis white male masculinity are a gender division of labor which reproduces and sustains a capitalist heteronormative order as well, by which the privileged genders within the Whiteness of maleness and femaleness also exclude and marginalize non-cis White gendered people albeit within the overarching ordering principle of racism. Thus, nevertheless, the gender regime within White America which differentiates White men, White women and non-cis White people is a differentiation and stratification of and among the peopled which does not extend outside racial boundaries to the unpeopled: Black people, Black women and Black non-cis gendered people.)
Here you find a compounding of oppressions: the Black woman is Black, and she is also a woman (which encompasses her gender and sexuality) — but here womanhood or womanity is flattened out or invisiblized by her race. Her gender has no formally legitimate expression in society even in terms of the gender inequalities against which non-cis White people and White women experience and resist. This is what is referred to as intersectionality: it speaks of the compounding or interlocking of oppressions and their experiences, but also it strongly suggests not just any agency but a kind of agency which is not bequeathed by or drawn from the system which unpeoples Black women. (I say this to make clear and to push back against a new woke euphemism of supposedly giving someone agency: no one, unless by colonial and racist paternalism, can give anyone else, especially Black women, agency!)
Agency is always present everywhere within the experience of intersectionality as an output of the experience itself — this is how the experience of oppression itself is known. Thus, the very state of her experience, is the very state of her agency — such that resources from without are supports, affordances, enhancers, and enablers of a struggle she is already aware of and is varyingly engaged in. These resources and their providers are never the authors of her agency, unless we want to claim that her quest to break free of intersectional oppression is not fundamentally her own. This would be paternalism; this it would be another form of racism; and it is would not be borne out by the complex history of Black women. If we accept therefore that the very state of her experience is also the very state of her agency, then we must conclude that identity is inextricably intertwined with anti-racism struggle, and not just in vague aspirational expressions, but in concrete, programmable efforts in actual confrontations against racist systems with clear objectives and underpinned by a manifest set of political and social ethics evidenced in practices of struggle and resistance.
Neoliberalism and liberalism (as it is understood within the left-right divide of western politics) have appropriated and eviscerated the programmatic dimension of identity politics, and deracinated their ethics, reducing them to — as I started with at the top — an empty politics of politeness devoid of any real engagement with the systemic character of racism, on par with the equally ahistorical counter-politics of freedom of speech crusaders who overlook the privileged status of its White participants within an exclusively White and gendered society.
Furthermore, the intersectional positions occupied by Black women are not an oppositional gender to other genders; it is not positioned as a derivative of some other gender (say Black masculinity, or heterosexuality generally). It is a position from which various interlocking forms of oppression can be mapped, without the binary distinctions by which new formulations for exclusion can be erected. The point is to locate the fundamental forms of oppression which make “things the way they are”, and not to “develop a hierarchy of oppressions”: it always privileges inherent agency and strays clear of essentialism.
The peopled versus unpeopled distinction therefore provides an analytical basis for understanding the complicated relationship between White feminism, and Black Feminism including Womanism (the camp in which I belong). White feminism fought for political and economic inclusion for White women via the demolition of gender hierarchies inside the gendered White society, as Black women fought to tear down the racial wall behind which Black women’s gender itself and sexuality bore no political legitimacy and substance in a racially organized heteronormative White society. For the former, the war was about political and economic equality and inclusion among gender and class differentiated people; for the latter, it was racial — a struggle of insisting on ones humanity beneath which all other expressions, complexities and differences — gender, sexual and others — which are characteristic of unoppressed human living were erased or blanketed.