Lately everything I write seems to have the same theme. It is all about activism and oppression, and it is all about empathy. What do you do with your struggle? What do you do when the powers that be oppress you and you have to fight for your rights, what do you take away from that at the end of the day? Do you feel that your position is so hard won that it needs protecting, even from other oppressed people who are fighting for their rights? Do you feel that your position, your tiny amount of power you’ve carved out for yourself, is precious and sacred? When you see other people struggling against the same forces that held you down do you say “well, it’s not my problem, I’ve my own battle to fight.”
What do you do with your struggle?
Or do you learn empathy from your struggle? Are you fighting for a world where you are less oppressed than you once were, or are you fighting for a world where oppression can’t take root? I want to be the second kind of person. I want to be as outraged about racism as I am about sexism, because it isn’t about what affects me directly, it’s about struggle. I don’t just want to live in a world where I’m not a second-class citizen, I want to live in a world where there aren’t second-class citizens at all, where we don’t have create all these false hierarchies of who is the MOST human. I want to take my struggle and learn from it, and grow, and challenge others to learn and grow as well.
There is a great David Rakoff story about the Log Cabin Republicans… (in the book Don’t Get Too Comfortable) and this isn’t a direct quote because I don’t have the book in front of me, but he basically comes to the conclusion that gay republicans make no sense to him because he cannot separate the idea that he should have the right to exist as a gay man from other ideas, such as that women should have the right to choose and children should have the right not to starve to death. (It occurs to me that I wrote that entire sentence in present tense, and David Rakoff passed away this past summer, but I can’t go back and change it now.)
I can remember reading it and audibly shouting “YES!” alone in my tiny studio apartment. I don’t come to all of the same conclusions, I don’t think voting democrat is the answer, but I do think that a lot of these ideas are, and should be, wrapped up in each other. And I’m surprised when they aren’t for other people. It makes me think about history class, and I remember what I learned about slavery and reconstruction and Jim Crow. Essentially, one of the biggest factors in keeping African Americans disenfranchised in the South was the anger and racism of poor white people. These were not the plantation owners, these were poor people who had to struggle to make a living, and were held down by the same unfair class system that was built upon the enslavement of brown skinned people. But when the slaves were freed, they were so engrossed in the hierarchy that was keeping them down that they couldn’t deal with the idea that there might not be anyone below them. So they colluded in the oppression of others, which of course preserved a system which was unfair for all people, including themselves.
That is what I think about when I hear people say that the struggle against racism isn’t theirs because they are white, the struggle against sexism isn’t theirs because they are male, the struggle against homophobia isn’t theirs because they are straight, the struggle against transphobia isn’t theirs because they are cisgendered. The idea that everyone deserves a few basic human rights may take on more personal urgency when it is my rights that are on the chopping block, but it should never be at the expense of the rights of others. Equality, if it truly is equality, isn’t a limited resource, and we need to stop acting like it is. We will not get to be somehow more equal by not allowing some people to take part in the equality. That’s not equality, that’s scarcity mentality and scarcity thinking, that’s capitalist logic applied to basic human rights, and it’s ugly and mean and we all know damn well it’s not right.
So what do you do with your struggle?
Today is MLK day, and quotes are being thrown around and they will continue to do so. There’s one quote that you will hear used to justify all sorts of things, but I want us all to take a minute and think about it.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
It will continue to be used to justify wars and global bullying, but I still think they are important words. Think about it. Think about how your struggle is the same as everyone else’s struggle, and think about how we don’t gain anything by stepping over them. Think about how much more powerful we would be if we all struggled together, for equal rights for all people, instead of separately, to carve out a more comfortable existence with a few more rights for ourselves.