I recently attended the National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce Creating Change conference where I was asked to consider the question, “What would it be like if we fought our social justice battles from the location of our dominance instead of our oppression?” At first glance, this seemed like the ultimate solution to all the world’s injustice. If most white people fought for the end of racism, it would be much more difficult to be racist. If most people who identify as heterosexual fought for LGBTQ civil rights, positive change seems as though it would be almost inevitable. I believe that it is crucial for the oppressed and the privileged to work together in order to attain true social justice for the following reasons; the oppressed cannot achieve liberation on their own, the privileged cannot “give” liberation to the oppressed, and finally, the ability to develop an empathic perspective that extends beyond one’s own limited experience is essential to maintaining liberation.
To begin with, it is important to recognize that the oppressed cannot do social justice work on their own, nor can they cocoon themselves safely in a womb of their own oppression. It is easy to become mired down in identity politics and refuse to work in collaboration with anyone deemed “the enemy,” which in essence means anyone who has not had experience that directly reflects one’s own. Feminist Theorist Patricia Hill-Collins posits the belief that by liberating Black women, all will be liberated: “while Black Feminist thought supports women and people of color, the ultimate goal is justice for all and this is one way to achieve that goal” (Hill-Collins, 2000. p. 43) but she also states: “U.S. women as a group live in a different world from that of people who are not Black and female” (Hill-Collins, 2000. p. 24). While that may be true, it is also a true statement that U.S. women from all types of socio-cultural backgrounds live in worlds vastly different from one another. Hill-Collins has a college education, she is an able-bodied person, she was born in the United States, she has no learning or mental disabilities, she has immediate access to food, shelter, and clothing…this list can and does go on. It is obvious that we all have different realities, and while it is important to socially locate one’s self, identifying one’s own privilege is also mandatory.
Next, it is necessary to identify that those who have privilege and want to enact social justice should first become educated about the needs and desires of the oppressed. Often one can do more damage than good, even with the best of intentions. For example, a common ally building tactic frequently employed by White people is the idea that “we’re all the same underneath” and “we don’t see race.” Womanist poet and theorist Audre Lorde points out how problematic these ideas are: “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist” (Lorde, 1984. p. 111). Another problem can be those who are privileged within minority groups not acknowledging their own dominance. Lorde gives the example of Black male violence against Black women: “Exacerbated by racism and the pressures of powerlessness violence against Black women and children often becomes the standard within our communities, one by which manliness can be measured (Lorde, 1984. p. 120).
Finally, in order for liberation to be preserved, we must be able to see the intrinsic worth in all people. There is value in anger “anger is loaded in information and energy” (Lorde, 1984. p.127) and there is value in affirmation “black women are inherently valuable and that their liberation is a necessity and not as an adjunct to somebody else’s” (Combahee River Collective, 2007. p.325) but ultimately we must let go of our anger and affirm everyone, not just those with our own unique identities. Writer Gloria Anzuldua describes this concept beautifully: “We will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes…a massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness in the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war” (Anzuldua, 2007. p. 387). Authentic coalition building between the privileged and the oppressed must take place for a truly socially just world.
Anzaluda, G. (2007). La Conciencia de la Mestiza: Toward a New Consciousness. In E. Freedman (Eds.), The Essential Feminist Reader (p. 326). New York: Random House, Inc.
Combahee River Collective. (2007). A Black Feminist Statement. In E. Freedman (Eds.), The Essential Feminist Reader (p. 387). New York: Random House, Inc.
Hill-Collins, P. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde. California: The Cross Press.
— This blog post has been written by Virginia Martin, program coordinator of the Women’s Center & LGBT Center