In 2014, I was part of an activist organization that worked across various social issues—education equity, economic justice, labor rights, and environmental racism. We were hungry for a deeper structural understanding of relationships of power, and a strategy to transform those relationships. One afternoon, we met to discuss topics for future political education; we were holding webinars to, in part, encourage people to join the organization. Three African Americans, two Latinas, one white man, and one Asian man sat around the table. As we discussed political education, I suggested that we do a session on Black Lives Matter and Black resistance. By then, my Black Lives Matter co-founders and I had started the hashtag, built up social-media platforms to connect activists, and organized a freedom ride to Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests after Michael Brown was killed by the police.
One of the members of the group voiced concern that the drive for Black and brown unity would get lost if we did a session focused too much on Black people. I felt my face flush, and a wave of heat wash over my body, as I pushed back against the idea.
Black people across the country were protesting police violence, and she felt like we were talking about it too much? Black resistance did nothing to stand in the way of Black and brown unity. But the argument went nowhere; each side dug in. Eventually, the few Black members formed a caucus to discuss the activism erupting nationwide. To have to do that in a group formed for the purpose of building a freedom project felt devastating to me, yet I was grateful for the ingenuity of Black people to carve out space for ourselves in a sea of flaccid multiracialism.
Movements for justice can be guilty of the same dynamics they seek to challenge. I have been to thousands of meetings, conferences, convenings, gatherings, and campaigns that failed to practice the principles they claimed to uphold. I’ve lost count of how many times activists would state a value such as “Sisters at the center” and then pretend not to notice that women did the bulk of the emotional and administrative work while men did the intellectual work. I’ve also been involved with organizations that focus on Black and brown unity, but that fail to recognize the issues that drive the groups apart.
Movements that bring together people of all races are vital to building the world we deserve. However, sometimes we are so concerned with coming together that we don’t do the work to stay together. Like any good relationship, unity takes effort—together, and apart.
I was brought up in an organizing tradition that valued solidarity among oppressed people. Linda Burnham, a leader in the Third World Women’s Alliance, and a dear friend and mentor, used the term people of color as a way to get those who are not white to see common cause with one another. However, I’ve struggled with the nagging feeling that these alliances, as they are currently conceptualized and practiced, are in some cases exploitative. Unity, of course, is important—but real unity cannot happen if we avoid addressing difficult contradictions, such as anti-Black sentiment and action among minority communities. A unified coalition also has no hope if it does not understand, viscerally and intellectually, that Black communities, in particular, are not just cultural cachet. Our suppression is how white supremacy is able to rule.
Over the course of my work, I’ve encountered many people I call “Black and brown unity defenders,” who seem to feel that addressing specific instances of Black oppression somehow violates the alliance among people of color. In some ways, I get it. Communities of color lack power in so many aspects of our lives that when any one group’s singular dynamics of oppression or disenfranchisement break through the mainstream veil, others try to attach to the moment to create more space for an expansive and nuanced conversation.
However, true solidarity includes showing up to bear witness to another’s unique experiences with oppression and marginalization. If my best friend tells me that she and her partner are breaking up, solidarity is not interrupting her tearful testimony to say “I too have had breakups! Let me tell you about my breakup!” Solidarity is listening, asking questions, and being there for her—to let her vent, to help her figure out how to rebuild her life, to offer support, and to know when to give her space. And although being there for a friend is not the same as showing up for a protest, the lessons of how to be a good friend are instructive on the broader social scale.
Similarly, declaring that Black lives matter does not negate the significance of the lives of non-Black people of color. It’s also okay for Black people to seek one another out for healing, for strategy, for joy, without the watchful, and at times tokenizing, gaze of other communities. For some non-Black activists, that sort of congregating feels too exclusive, too divisive.
No multiracial movement can grow unless and until it does the work to make Black people a strong and vibrant component of that movement. Black people cannot be strong and vibrant unless we have the space we need to challenge and comfort one another about what it means to live as a Black person in America.
A multiracial movement must create a place for its members to examine their relationships to one another, with all of their contradictions. It can provide opportunities for healing old wounds, for affirming the connections among us, and for forging new ones. Doing this work ensures that we can all go out into the larger world, link arms with other communities that share a common cause, and advance our goals. Unity isn’t the blurring of our experiences and our conditions for the sake of peace. It’s standing together in the muck of our differences and declaring that we refuse to be divided by the people who are responsible for our collective misery.
Watch: Jemele Hill interviews Alicia Garza at the 2020 Atlantic Festival
This piece was adapted from Garza’s recent book, The Purpose of Power.