Santos F. Ramos, Michigan State University
(April 20, 2016)
I am lying in the street. I hear cars honking frantically as I stare into the sky. Angry drivers are yelling from inside their halted cars. "What the hell are you guys doing!? Let us through!" I link arms with the people on either side of me. We don't speak to each other, but periodically we squeeze our biceps together to offer silent signs of encouragement. A moment later a cop walks up. He looks down at us and tells us we will be arrested if we don't remove ourselves from the road. He walks away promptly, continuing further down the line of protestors to issue the same warning.
A group of us—mostly undergraduate students, but also dozens of graduate students, faculty, and local community members—have taken the busiest intersection on campus, spreading our bodies out into a giant circle on the ground to make sure no cars can get past. A few of us stand in the center of the circle, holding signs condemning racist police violence. We wait in silence: 4.5 minutes for Michael Brown, because they left his body in the street for 4.5 hours after they killed him. The silence is meditative. In addition to reflecting upon Michael Brown and the racism that his murder exemplifies, I also think about my role as a non-Black Xicano participating in this movement.
I am lying in the street because of a point Stokely Carmichael once made in a speech: that the destinies of Black and Latino peoples are intertwined. I am using my body to block the flow of traffic, the flow of a society that has disregarded humanistic thinking by normalizing violence against Black, Latino, and Native people. At the same time, I am dying-in specifically to show my solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
A Cultural Rhetorics Approach
As an academic whose work often focuses on social change, participating in an action like this could technically be considered part of my "research," though I still often cringe when using this word to describe what I do. It connotes for me the transformation of people into objects, centuries of colonial violence against Indigenous peoples, and the foundation of capitalist enterprise. "Research" suggests that I am not an activist, but an academic who enters activist spaces in order to collect data, to bolster my career, and to improve the reputation of my institution. I cannot erase these connotations, nor do I desire to, because confronting the colonial legacy of academic research is something researchers should be doing. Academics need uncomfortable thoughts like this in order to keep us cognizant of our relationships to power.
In order to integrate these kinds of measures into my research, I adopt a cultural rhetorics approach, and I draw specifically upon the following excerpt from the essay "Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics":
[i]n practice, cultural rhetorics scholars investigate and understand meaning-making as it is situated in specific cultural communities. And when we say "cultural communities," we mean any place/space where groups organize under a set of shared beliefs and practices—American Indian communities, workplace communities, digital communities, crafting communities, etc. (Powell et al.)
Situating beliefs and practices within the cultural contexts from which they derive, cultural rhetoricians prioritize accountability to the communities whose meaning-making we investigate. This is done, as Andrea Riley Mukavetz has written, "to value the efforts and practices used to make and sustain something and use that understanding to build a theoretical and methodological framework that reflects the cultural community a researcher works with" (110). Cultural rhetorics is an approach that emphasizes the importance of cultural context at all stages of the research process; it attempts to align the goals of research projects with those of the communities a researcher engages.1
The cultural communities most directly engaged in this essay are those with which I have worked while organizing for social justice, especially activists of color involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. The vast majority of these organizers and organizations have tended to privilege action-oriented approaches to social justice—that is, participation in protests and direct actions, as well as a reliance upon experience-based methods of learning—so my writing is informed as much by my participation in these practices as it is by reading about the subject areas I discuss. By analyzing parts of the racial discourse surrounding Black Lives Matter, I highlight points of tension that need to be addressed in order for cross-cultural solidarity to be fostered among communities of color amidst our struggle for both respective and collective liberation.
Solidarity and Its Discontents
To say that Black Lives Matter (BLM) has thus far been an important political and cultural movement would probably be an understatement. Large protests and targeted direct actions have been happening with greater longevity and intensity than we have seen in the U.S. for quite some time. Many new organizations, organizers, and coalitions have sprung up with rapidity to challenge systemic racism. Experienced organizations have taken leadership in cultivating the recent burst in political energy, as serious conversations about race, police violence, and institutionalized discrimination have moved into mainstream contexts. Yet the spread of BLM has also come with its tensions, as organizers and allies attempt to negotiate the broad scope of structural racism—which impacts all people of color—with the specific impact that structural racism has upon Black communities.
In "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement," Alicia Garza explains that she, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded Black Lives Matter as an "ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks' contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression." And as BLM has increasingly gained attention in the media, more and more organizations have started to borrow BLM phrasing in order generate attention for their own causes. In the following passage, Garza recalls one such instance in which a group changed the title of an event from "Black Lives Matter" to "Our Lives Matter":
When questioned about who was involved and why they felt the need to change the very specific call and demand around Black lives to "our lives," I was told the artists decided it needed to be more inclusive of all people of color. I was even more surprised when, in the promotion of their event, one of the artists conducted an interview that completely erased the origins of their work—rooted in the labor and love of queer Black women.
The flaw of this kind of "solidarity" work is that it is more about claiming likeness to Black communities than it is about recognizing the unique struggles that Black communities face. The "Our Lives Matter" organizers elected to use a name that is recognizable because of the work of queer Black women without actually acknowledging any of those women in the process. Incidents like this one have sparked widespread discussions among activists of color about how our various communities can and should be in solidarity with one another, and specifically about the role of non-Black people of color in BLM.
On Twitter, similar hashtags such as #NativeLivesMatter, #LatinoLivesMatter, and #AsianLivesMatterhave been contentiously debated as potentially insensitive and harmful appropriations of media attention that had once been framed more specifically around Black experiences with institutionalized and cultural racism. While these alternative tags have sometimes been used with the intent of being in solidarity with Black communities, their impact has in part been to effectively ignore the need for non-Black people of color to consider the forms of anti-Blackness we find within our own communities. That the destinies of Black and Latino communities are intertwined does not simply mean that BLM is an opportunity for non-Black Latinos to empathize with Black folks because we share related experiences with regard to poverty, incarceration, and state violence. For us to be in solidarity with BLM means that we need to seriously and actively interrogate the anti-Blackness we find within our own Latino communities.
As an alternative approach, some allies have been using other tags, such as #APIs4BlackLives, which has focused more on bringing visibility to how Asians and Pacific Islanders have worked to support BLM. As one example, #APIs4BlackLives was recently used to help provoke and document an action in Oakland, California, where Asian and Pacific Islander allies used their bodies to block and shut down the Oakland Police department for 4.5 hours in conjunction with The Blackout Collective—a local Black direct action group. It is important to note that the messaging of this action was framed in a way that centralized support for Black communities. A key distinction between tags like #NativeLivesMatter, #LatinoLivesMatter, and #AsianLivesMatter on the one hand, and tags like #APIs4BlackLives on the other hand, is that the former tags appropriate #BlackLivesMatter for their own purposes while the latter acts in support of it.
The general justification for appropriating the tag has been that, in addition to killing Black people, White supremacy also continues to kill and harm a lot of non-Black people of color as well. There have been recent reports, for instance, showing that, relative to population size, Native Americans are actually being killed by cops at rates similar to and sometimes higher than those of Black people (Vicens; Cheney-Rice).2 Additionally, more Latino migrants—many of them Indigenous—have been violently detained and deported under the Obama administration than under any other administration in US history, and the living conditions in immigrant detention facilities are typically worse (and are far more unregulated) than those of prisons.3 With these things in mind, it is at least understandable why some groups have felt justified in appropriating BLM phrasing. This is to say that the appropriation is not necessarily derived from ignorance about the problem of anti-Blackness, but sometimes from the pure desperation that is the result of seeing one's own people repeatedly imprisoned, killed, and denied basic human dignity, as is often the case for many Latino/Indigenous communities.
Regardless of where these justifications come from, however, they still tend to focus on BLM as a legal intervention against state-sanctioned violence and ignore BLM as a cultural or social intervention into the epidemic of anti-Blackness. This could be seen as, and in fact often is, an attempt by non-Black people to absolve ourselves from the social responsibility we have to address our own issues with racism. In order to adopt a more nuanced approach to solidarity, we must be able to simultaneously acknowledge our similarities and our differences, our oppressions and our privileges. But this is an impossible task without understanding race itself as a cultural construction, because the categories typically used to discuss race come with constraints that often oversimplify and mislead.
There exists a tendency among social justice workers, even those involved specifically with racial justice, to universalize their conception of "race." From this perspective, race is not something that is culturally constructed, or that is understood differently within different cultural frameworks. It is a perspective that assumes race literally is culture. It is impossible, or at least painfully inconvenient, for this perspective to recognize anyone as being both Black and Latino, both Mexican and Indigenous, etc. As a result, Indigeneity is often stripped from Indigenous Blacks and Indigenous Latinos in the US because when any of these categories begin to overlap, the resulting formations are too complex to fit into the universalized Black-and-White racial dichotomy that is the standard framework used by far too many social justice workers.
This dichotomy becomes apparent when we are able to look beyond our stereotyped understandings of racial categories. When it is declared that "Black Native Lives Matter," for example, that carries a vastly different connotation from the previous examples I have provided about varying usages of BLM phrasing. That is, unlike other adaptations of BLM, "Black Native Lives Matter" calls attention to Indigeneity as a part of the lived experience of Black people; it does not treat "Black" and "Native" as mutually exclusive experiences. This example complicates my narrative in ways that are both difficult to navigate and absolutely necessary within in the context of solidarity. Thus, the example is important because it ruptures the dichotomous Black-and-White framework (both literal and figurative) typically used to discuss race relations in the U.S., which greatly hinders solidarity between ethnic groups. In creating this rupture, some of our weaknesses in discussing race are exposed, and new radical decolonial possibilities for cross-cultural solidarity are opened up.
This is not merely an issue of identity politics. I also make this observation about racial discourse in order to point out how conversations can result in the erasure of actual Indigenous people, of concrete and contemporary Indigenous issues. For the racial framework I am describing not only produces a dichotomy of Black and White, but also a hierarchy of racialized oppression which coerces Indigenous people to assimilate with Western cultural norms.4 As scholar Qwo-Li Driskill observes, "Native people often have an uneasy relationship with other struggles for social justice because the specificity of our struggles—rooted in sovereignty and a claim to land—is too often ignored" (79-80). Indigenous social justice issues are often ignored because in many ways they exist outside of a hierarchy of oppression that attempts to assimilate Indigenous people into the dominant culture. The hierarchy allows Indigenous people to struggle for rights within the dominant structure of society, but it attempts to keep them/us from gaining actual autonomy or sovereignty; that is, it attempts to keep Indigenous people from being Indigenous.
To be sure, it is necessary to understand how people of color are oppressed in a hierarchical manner, with some groups being granted more rights and privileges than others. However, it is not necessarily always useful to respond to oppression using that same racial hierarchy. Because Indigenous social justice is not simply about striving for the right to assimilate into White hetero-capitalist patriarchy, Indigenous people are often not allowed to exist within the parameters of that which gets counted as "social justice." Scholars and activists should work to complicate this—the dominant narrative. Our active solidarity, as ethnically and culturally diverse people, requires ongoing consideration of how we exist in relation to one another and how our rhetoric impacts the comrades we have in adjacent communities.
In order to more fully contextualize my own activism and research, I have attempted to practice what some organizers refer to as "relational organizing" by building relationships both inside and outside of academia, both within and beyond Xicano communities.5 While my work most often focuses on the self-determination of Xicano people, relational organizing requires me to understand Xicano communities as being situated within larger, colonial societal structures, adjacent to and overlapping with the struggles of other colonized and oppressed communities. In coordination with my Xicana and Xicano compañeros, I act in solidarity with Black Lives Matter because it is my social responsibility to disrupt anti-Blackness and to advocate for Xicano self-determination with Black experiences in mind. In order to enact solidarity, I build relationships across the hierarchical and dichotomous racial divisions imposed by ongoing colonialism, and I try to maintain a willingness to be transformed by the knowledge that those relationships produce.
Finally, the strategic crux of relational organizing could be seen as relationality, a concept rooted in Indigenous worldviews and theories. "[T]o practice relationality," Riley-Mukavetz writes, "is to understand one's position in the world, one's relationship to land, space, ideas, people, and living beings" (112). In the same way that it drives relational organizing, relationality is also integral to enacting a cultural rhetorics approach to research. Within an academic context, this means understanding ourselves as being situated within institutions that have a history of exploiting marginalized communities and perpetuating destructive relationships with the environment. It means understanding solidarity not so much as a shift in the central focus of work we do within our own respective communities, but as a process of more fully putting the work of communities of color into relationship with one another. This leads us to avoid engaging in isolated acts of solidarity and instead helps to sustain a culture of solidarity, one which allows us to subvert the status quo while simultaneously building love and respect for one another across cultural difference.
- 1. The following two books have been integral in attempting to decolonize my research: Linda Tuhiwai Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples and Shawn Wilson's Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods.
- 2. The reports I've seen have all been based on the same statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- 3. For more information on this topic, see the American Civil Liberties Union's "Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison System."
- 4. Jack Forbes' Aztecas Del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlán and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization are two texts I draw from in forming an understanding of how "mestizaje" and "hybridity" have been concepts used by colonial forces to impose racial hierarchies throughout Turtle Island (the Americas).
- 5. My training in relational organizing has come primarily from Southerners On New Ground, a regionally specific Queer Liberation organization.
Batalla, Guillermo Bonfil. México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Print.
Carmichael, Stokely. "Black Power and the Third World." Third World Information Service, 1967: 1-9. Web.
Cheney-Rice, Zak. "The Police Are Killing One Group at a Staggering Rate, and Nobody is Talking About It." Mic. Mic Network Inc., 5 Feb 2015. Web. 7 March 2015.
Mukavetz, Andrea M. Riley. “Towards a cultural rhetorics methodology: Making research matter with multi-generational women from the Little Traverse Bay Band.” Rhetoric, Professional Communication and Globalization 5.1, 2014: 108-125. Web.
Powell, Malea, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, and Jenniger Fisch-Ferguson. "Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics." Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture 18. 25 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
Driskill, Qwo-Li. "Double-Weaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies: 16.1-2 (2012): 69-92. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Forbes, Jack. Aztecas Del Norte: the Chicanos of Aztlán. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1973. Print.
Garza, Alicia. "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by Alicia Garza." The Feminist Wire. The Feminist Wire, 7 Oct. 2014. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999. Print.
Vicens, AJ "Native Americans Get Shot By Cops at an Astonishing Rate." Mother Jones. Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress, 15 Jul. 2015. Web. 18 Jul. 2015.
Wilson, Shawn. Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2009. Print.