As a cisgender, queer, Black woman living in the United States, it is often hard enough to imagine liberation, let alone think about the ways I participate in oppressive structures.
The work of simply living is a daily struggle.
And because of those daily struggle(s), many of us Black Americans find ourselves feeling the need to ascribe to respectability politics — like calling someone a ho for twerking, saying that a woman is undeserving of love and respect because of what she chooses to do with her body sexually, looking down on other Black people for speaking slang, and other things that justify why someone should be treated with less respect.
Often we do this because we have bought into society’s jacked up messages about what Black people need to do in order to avoid unfair treatment. We are constantly told that if we pull our pants up, stop twerking, speak properly and “don’t look so threatening,” then maybe we won’t be targets of racism. And if we look like we don’t deserve racism, then maybe it won’t happen to us.
This sort of victim blaming causes many of us to adopt oppressive logic as a desperate attempt to save ourselves.
If we believe we are responsible for our own oppression, then maybe we have the power to change it.
And because freedom has historically been within the oppressor’s (i.e. cis-straight White men’s) power to “give” us, we often feel forced to adopt their definitions of worthiness for the sake of salvation. And this salvation usually comes at the expense of our actual liberation.
From slavery to just pass the civil right’s movements, our oppressor’s opinion(s) mattered if we wanted to survive. Their thoughts of our worthiness mattered because it impacted our chances of getting enough food, proper clothing, medical care, and so much more. It mattered if we wanted to make it from sun up to sun down without getting arrested for violating Black Laws.
These basic things did not free us, but they offered salvation because they saved our lives. Salvation allowed us to live another day, but it was only secured if we adopted oppressive ways of thinking. And even then, salvation wasn’t guaranteed.
Racism is set up so that many of us are not meant to be saved, let alone liberated.
Today, many of us still have to rely on White people to employ us, to give us medical benefits, and to approve loans for our houses and cars. So, we continue our ancestors’ survival tactics of making ourselves “worthy” so that we can get our needs met.
But keeping us caught up in the day-to-day task of surviving means that we focus on things like not wearing dreadlocks to a job interview, keeping our hands out of our pockets when walking through stores and other things that make us constantly worry about how we present our bodies in order to be safe in each moment.
Salvation is about making sure that we get what we need to make it to the next moment. Liberation allows us to exist safely in each moment, with all of our mental, emotional and psychological needs met.
Liberation is freedom from unjust harm, as opposed to figuring out ways to avoid it.
It’s hard to push for liberation when we can’t be comfortable in our own bodies. Because of this, survival and liberation become conflated because we are trapped between the task of meeting our immediate needs for survival and paving a path forward.
As we make small steps towards accessing our own self-determination, it is important to be intentional about how we craft new models of liberation. From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, we can observe shifts in our collective approaches towards gaining equity.
For those of us involved in the struggle for Black liberation, here are three considerations for developing an intentional practice:
1) Cis-gender, Straight, Able, White Men Do Not Have “Rights;” They Have Privileges
When those of us who are physically, mentally and emotionally able take to the streets in protest against the injustices committed against Black bodies, it is important for us to consider who we imagine ourselves protesting against.
Who is in conversation with us? What type of bodies do these people have? What’s their gender? Race?
In short, who models the power and the “rights” we want?
When we say we say we want freedom and access to our bodies, lives, self-determination, education etc., we aren’t fighting for the “rights” of White women. We aren’t fighting for the “rights” of poor White folks. We aren’t fighting for the “rights” of LGBTQ White folks or disabled White folks.
Whiteness, like any other social construct is complex and explicitly picking apart the identities within Whiteness that build its complexity can help us realize the layers of privilege within our own movements.
Developing an intersectional approach to understanding the complexity of oppressive systems, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transmisogyny and classism, can help us be more effective in dismantling them.
There are a lot of identities within Whiteness that have been oppressed by straight cis-abled bodied White men. White LGBTQ people fear for their safety in public spaces in ways that straight and cis White men don’t. Cis White women have been fighting against domestic violence, equal pay, rape and street harassment for decades.
We do not live in a box, and actions do not just happen in a void. Actions have consequences. They always impact others, even if it’s indirect.
If I decide to shame a cis-Black woman for what she does with her body sexually, then that means that I’m shaming anyone who acts like her. Shame has long lasting effects, and I’m spreading those negative effects throughout the community.
If it were not for our relations to each other, power dynamics and inequality would not exist.
For example, in a classist system, wealth cannot exist without poverty. In a racist system, Whiteness cannot exist without non-White bodies. Racism, sexism, misogynoir, transmisogyny, and classism are all systems. Webster defines a system as “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.”
It is not possible to successfully dismantle systemic racism without deconstructing the other systems of inequality that inform it. By definition, systems are connected. The oppression we experience in our daily lives, whether within the body of a cis-Black male or a cis-White woman, are informed by the oppression others experience in different systems.
In the past, liberation movements have attempted to treat these systems separately. The Civil Rights movement focused on racial injustice and the “Women’s Suffrage” movement focused on cis-White women’s right to vote. But, these “rights” were still privileges because once White women could vote, Black women had to wait 40 years because of our womanness and our Blackness.
This is why intersectionality is important when crafting a liberation model — otherwise individuals with intersecting identities, like Black/woman, Black/LGBTQ, and Black/disabled fall through the cracks.
Often, the fight for racial justice becomes a battle between cis-heterosexual White and Black American manhood. When we talk about police violence, we mostly focus on cis-Black men. We believe that these Black men should be able to walk down the street safely.
But, White women can’t walk down the street safely. There are campaigns about women facing street harassment, and threats of death for ignoring a man’s sexual advances. And nor can Black women can’t move safely in our own neighborhood without harassment from men.
Public spaces have often been treated as space for men because patriarchy tell us that a woman’s place is at home. Specifically, public spaces are treated like White men’s spaces because White men own everything. So if anyone who isn’t a White male enters that space without permission, then they are a target.
Black men aren’t fighting to walk down the street with the safety of White women. Nor are Black women. They want to occupy space like a White man.
Sex and gender are often considered irrelevant when discussing race. But for centuries, the fear of Black men has been provoked by fear of their sex and gender. Their ability to potentially “violate” White women is what led to the rise of the KKK.
For decades, Black men were lynched out of fear that they would rape White women – while Black women were raped with impunity by White men.
And cis-Black women have experienced racism through the devaluation of our womanhood, through lack of “victim status” and through extremely high rates of sexual abuse because of both our race and gender.
Entirely too frequently within Black Liberation movements, we inadvertently fight for the “rights” of cis-straight, able-bodied White men without realizing that these men do not have “rights.”
They have privileges that they conflate with “rights” — privileges that come from maintaining multiple systems that limit the liberation of others.
White men would not be able to move through the world as they do if the rest of us weren’t kept in place to give them room. We can never be better than that which we imitate. Any model of liberation shaped by the privileges of an oppressor will continue our own oppression. And the oppression of others.
2) Liberation Doesn’t Require Subjugating Another Person In Order to Feel Free
Sometimes we mistakenly hold on to one (or more) systems of oppression because it works for us on an individual level while causing harm to others in the community.
It’s easy to focus on ourselves when moving forward because society doesn’t teach us to think collectively. For example, throughout the Civil Rights movement it was believed that one of the major tragedies of racism was that Black men didn’t have the privilege to be “head” of the Black family.
The disgrace of Black men was that White men controlled Black women’s bodies and reproductive lives. So, it was thought that part of the destruction of racism would require more privilege for Black men through the control of Black women’s bodies.
In other words, Black men could only be “free” if they were able to hold full privilege over another human being.
Often, when discussing “family values” and “upholding the Black family” we rely on a patriarchal model, which encourages the subjugation of women.
Patriarchy is built into respectability politics, and since we historically have had to adopt oppressive logic in order to survive, it makes sense that we would mimic this logic. However, cis- Black men do not need to subjugate Black women in order to be fully human.
Access to one’s humanity should never require restriction of another individual’s freedom. Freedom isn’t a limited product. If we think collectively, there will be plenty of freedom to go around.
Our fight for freedom has often been plagued with homophobia, ableism and respectability politics, perhaps because we still feel that our right to liberation must be “earned” from those in power.
In order to break the cycle of our own dehumanization, we have to let go of some of the lies we’ve been told about deserving our own freedom.
White cis- heteronormative supremacy has given us a laundry list of reasons why we don’t deserve to be liberated. We are uneducated. So, we fought for access to their institutions.
We have children out of wedlock. So, we work hard to build a nuclear family, despite the fact that for centuries we were denied access to marriage institutions.
Black women are too domineering. So we suffer patriarchal abuse in silence.
Black men are weak. So they perform hypermasculinity in music videos and films, which leads to the abuse of women.
We are morally corrupt. So, we cling to our religion, which often means shaming same-sex love and other sexual behavior. Black women are hypersexual….and so on.
It is also important to be intentional about the language we use within our movements since language has the power to shape thoughts, which inform actions.
Often, we use language like “Kings” and “Queens” when referring to our legacy and inheritance as Black Americans. We adopt this language to assert our worthiness in the face of oppression.
It makes perfect sense to adopt language to uplift ourselves when we are constantly deemed unworthy. But, we must be careful of using language that perpetuates inequality. A “King” and/or “Queen” cannot exist without subjects, or inferiors. In many contexts, even within the King/Queen dynamic, it is assumed that the King holds authority and power over “his” Queen.
Holding on to language that allows us to shape our identity around another person’s inferiority is dangerous. We run the risk of perpetuating oppression.
3) If A “Right” Is Inaccessible to Another Group of People, It Is Still a Privilege and We Must Work to Change It
Intersectionality tells us that a person can hold multiple identities in one body. Someone can be privileged in one area and oppressed in another.
For example, cis-, heterosexual, able Black men are oppressed because of their Blackness when they’re in White spaces, but within Black communities, their masculine identity and maleness gives them privilege over women, disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, children etc.
Privilege in one area does not cancel out one’s own oppression and vice versa. In our fight for liberation it is important for us to be conscious of others within the diaspora as we attempt to move forward.
Intersectionality means that we cannot discuss Trayvon’s right to walk home in a hoodie in a White neighborhood without considering that many Black women cannot walk to the corner store in a skirt in their own community.
It means that we cannot discuss the racial motivations behind incarceration without realizing that Black women are the fastest growing prison population, and queer and transgender Black youth are incarcerated at exceedingly high rates.
Liberation is not just an American concept. Our relationship to the world beyond American soil is important to consider when crafting a liberation model.
For many Black Americans, it is difficult for us to imagine having relative privilege to other Black bodies impacted by American imperialism, largely because we can’t realize our privilege until we leave the U.S. But many of us don’t have the money to do that.
Systemic oppression within the U.S. is maintained by America’s ability to conquer other Black nations, and vice versa. Also, many countries listed as great places for Black people to live are inhospitable to non-American Black people.
There’s diversity in experiences of privilege and racism within the diaspora. The fact that we can leave our country and have welcomed access to another nation’s resources because of our nationality is a privilege.
Many non-American Black people are not able to access resources outside, and within, of their homeland because of imperialism.
Even though we did not create these systems that negatively impact the Black diaspora, we still have relative benefits. It is important to keep the conversation open so that when we say “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s hard to remember that Black Americans are not the only Black “people” when our American identity allows us to just focus on ourselves.
When I was in undergrad, one of my Black Jamaican roommates would check me on my American privilege. She cared very much about what was going on in the U.S., despite feeling guilt about not putting forth as much effort back home.
When I asked her why Jamaicans didn’t just protest, she told me that there wasn’t enough hope. She felt that her people often feel so oppressed and powerless in the face of American imperialism that the idea of protesting to change something seems unfeasible.
This means that even our “right” to hope, our “right” to fight for freedom is a privilege since there are Black nations that do not feel they have the power to challenge American imperialism.
Being American does not cancel out the oppression of being Black with intersecting identities in the U.S. And having privilege does not make us bad people. Although we are not directly responsible for the ways that we benefit from systems set up before us, that does not absolve us of our responsibility to change them.
Liberation is not a goal, it is an intentional practice. We become liberated by practicing liberation every day, within our own communities. Sometimes we mess up, sometimes we hurt each other. But we keep going.
By granting each other self-determination by seeing each person as they need to be seen opposed to how society says they should be seen, by listening when someone says we’ve hurt them, and by using our privilege to to dismantle systems of oppression, we can work towards dismantling the systems that oppress us. We can work towards holistic healing.
Breeshia Turner identifies as a queer, sex positive, Southern Baptist who loves all things sacred and profane. She received her BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, focus in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s in Divinity and Social Work at the University of Chicago. She is actively cultivating her practice as an intersectional feminist philosopher and theologian, exploring the intersections of art, BDSM and spirituality.