Danielle Bowler says that multiple identities have multiple, concomitant sites of oppression. Eyewitness News
There is a passage from Staceyann Chin’s essay Falling for Bob Marley that will always stay with me. It is indelibly marked on my consciousness, read at a time when I was a university student trying to understand the world and my place in it. That issue of place is fundamentally important, as contemplating your fit (or ill fit, more precisely) in a world designed for certain people will inevitably turn to questions of identity. This question is the through-line in Chin’s essay, as she contemplates the factors that led to her sitting a Brooklyn bar on a rainy, autumn day, instead of in the place of her birth. She writes:
“If I were heterosexual, I would still be in Kingston, eating jerk fish from Island Grill, and drinking a cold Red Stripe Light. But I am an out lesbian, so reality pounds icy on the windows of my New York City. Mixed green salad, chamomile tea, salmon and cream cheese on everything-bagel. I am in political exile. Self-imposed, necessary, difficult.”
Unravelling the way her new life in the United States has played out, Chin remarks upon the fact that it comes with its own exiles that are attached to being black, female, Asian, a writer, an immigrant and homosexual. She learns a painful lesson – as many of us have – that multiple identities have multiple, concomitant sites of oppression. That the repetition of “everywhere is war” in her beloved Bob Marley’s song, War, has resonance in the daily battles that we fight because of our inescapable multiplicity.
Last week, public intellectual Andile Mngxitama posted multiple tweets that raised questions about the sites of our identity and oppression. He argued that “black women are BLACK FIRST”, defending the idea that other sites of identity are secondary to blackness, which should be the primary site of identification. Mngxitama could not understand the anger and rage coming from those who disagreed with his view and counter-argued that black women’s experience of the world is fundamentally and inextricably linked to their gender, race and sexuality, which interact in complex ways.
For the dissenting voices, the violence experienced as a woman is just as important as the violence experienced as part of the black race. Responding to people who pointed out how a patriarchal blind spot permitted Mngxitama to ignore the way blackness and femaleness simultaneously structures the lives of black women, he simply argued that “the new strategy to silence blacks from speaking against white supremacy is to call them sexist and misogynists”. A ‘strawpersoning’ strategy.
Showing a complete disregard for male privilege, for Mngxitama, these arguments could be problematically reduced to “white strategies that seek to ‘defocus’ us from speaking about the BLACK CONDITION”.
The trouble with Mngxitama’s calibration of oppression is that it emanates from a skewed logic that allows black men to eschew responsibility for their actions. As writer TO Molefe pointed out on Twitter: “@Mngxitama to deny BM [black men] agency in interactions with BW [black women] because of white supremacist-capitalism is to give patriarchy a pass. unacceptable.” [sic].
To argue that black women are black first is to endorse a misguided hierarchy of oppression that is blind to the way patriarchy is an overarching narrative that structures women’s lives. Calling for all the complexities of our existence to be erased in the face of race, therefore, is a simplistic reduction of the complex lives we live. The multiple signifiers of our identity, be they race, gender, sexual orientation, class or any other, are not mutually exclusive categories that we can neatly organise. We do not inhabit selves that can be easily compartmentalised, neither can we carefully police our identities. We cannot step out of our bodies and inhabit a singular identity because identities do not afford such neatness. They are messy. They are complex. And they are unrelenting in their simultaneity.
To argue this is not to be caught up in the system, nor to attempt to take up “the master’s tools”, but to call for a recognition that we exist at multiple intersections that see different kinds of oppression connected. We are oppressed because we are black. Because we are female. Because we are homosexual. Because we are poor. Because we are disabled. Because we are everything, all at once, ceaselessly.
Mngxitama argues that “BlackConsciousness101 feminism 4 white women liberation, Marxism 4 white worker liberation, LGBTI 4 sexuality liberation. BC 4 BLACKS!”, but for many of us, all these struggles are connected as we live life at the intersections of all these identities. The kind of solidarity Mngxitama calls for requires us to disarm and suspend those identities that would challenge our involvement in the struggle for black liberation – even when we suffer and are oppressed within this, when we are raped, when we are beaten, when we find our womanhood as equally oppressive as our blackness. The frontiers are everywhere, and we fight on multiple battlegrounds every single day as we rage against the limits imposed on our bodies. We cannot escape our skin. We cannot inhabit separate bodies. Everywhere is war.
You cannot endorse patriarchy and be my brother. Solidarity cannot be one-sided and obstinately ignore the narratives of other bodies that do not experience oppression differently. The true ask of solidarity is for men like Mngxitama to recognise that he does violence when he asserts that the struggles of black women are less valid when they pertain to female identity, that when a black man violates a black woman it cannot be attributed to racism, but is an incidence of patriarchy.
Patriarchy and white supremacist-capitalism intersect, a fact that black feminists have pointed out multiple times, but oppression on the latter does not cancel out the former. Likewise, black feminists have raised their voices on the blind spots of mainstream feminism, pointing out how white privilege results in black women’s unique struggles being ignored. Additionally, black feminists have fought the unique place that black men occupy, showing solidarity in their struggles and recognising how they too are concurrently affected by patriarchy and racial oppression.