In the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, some people have been reminded that anti-black racist violence is, in fact, a regular problem in the United States. Of course, those of us who haven't forgotten -- either because we don't have the privilege to or work to eschew it -- find ourselves dealing with a range of responses, among them an insistent hope that we can participate in this moment and shape sustainable movements via community building, consciousness-raising, organizing, advocacy, or whatever our preferred mode of change-making. Civic activities have been on a relative upswing compared to times when similar violence doesn't receive mass publicity, with protests and marches having occurred in more than fifteen U.S. cities. As with most happenings that spark public outrage, people with varying backgrounds and degrees of prior awareness are coming to the table with some form of interest, at least temporarily, in something akin to justice. Since those emerging from quietism and those long engaged in practicing anti-racism alike are in deed and discussion over this issue, it seems apt to have a conversation about what solidarity might mean and how it might look, especially in cases of racist violence such as this one.
There is a vague idea rolling around the internet ether, which posits that expressing objections to the ways people display empathy or protest in effect creates insurmountable or otherwise troublesome obstacles for solidarity. This kind of contestation functions as a form of "shut-up politics," some say, and prevents people from coming together and taking action. This is one of the currents behind Sherry Wolf's "The Paralysis of White Privilege," in which the author claims that a video that tells "middle-class, white, socially concerned" activists not to wear "I Am Trayvon Martin" t-shirts "disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle." Aside from completely misrepresenting the points of the video as well as the concept of white privilege, Wolf's article is suggestive of an underlying notion that is shared by many people. Put crudely, that notion, when uttered by white people, amounts to "don't tell us what to do." Put more diplomatically, it may look something like "your questioning my position vis-a-vis racism disarms any antiracist white person from joining the struggle." Either way, the basic concern, which seems to be shared by people of all racial backgrounds, is that talking about the ways in which our experiences are different, and the ways that this might require us to participate differently in anti-racist struggles is somehow "divisive." This is cock and bull.
Acknowledging our different experiences and examining how they might impact our roles in movements against oppression is actually an integral part of working towards becoming an ally. White Person A is not Trayvon Martin and does not share the experiences of being a black man in America. A white person, on any given day, in any given predominantly white or middle to upper class neighborhood, will not have to worry about being stopped and frisked, reported to the police, or killed on the basis of their skin color. This is white privilege, and it can apply to all white people regardless of class, gender presentation, hoodie status, and so on (though that is not to say that white privilege is the sole or most salient determinant of a person's experience (read: intersectionality)). This is basic in understanding the Trayvon Martin case and a necessary recognition in our move towards solidarity. To claim that acknowledging the fact that white privilege makes white people incapable of sharing Trayvon Martin's experience somehow blocks white people from participating in anti-racist work or clouds the "bigger issue" at hand is not only wrongheaded and curiously self-important, but it's also damaging to the very idea of solidarity and our collective understanding of how race and racism operate. Trayvon Martin was murdered because he was racially profiled, and while this danger may be the reality for some of us, it is simply not for others of us. This in no way inhibits anyone's capacity to get involved.
This is about more than a t-shirt. This is about how to participate mindfully and self-critically in struggles against domination. In the context of anti-racist struggles, this is about white people figuring out what they can do, from their relative positions as people who experience white privilege, to be active allies to people who are subject to the multiple effects of anti-black racism. This is about relinquishing the need to be front and center in everyone's struggle and to alternatively practice listening, asking questions, stepping back, going away sometimes. The fact of the matter is solidarity is not about anti-racist white people "joining" the struggles of anti-racist black people. Though our goals may be similar, our struggles are not the same. Part of solidarity is accepting this. As a person who experiences ability privilege, I can act as an ally to people with disabilities without claiming to be them, or even to understand a fraction of their experience. Instead, perhaps I can work to be aware of the ways in which I might be complicit in discrimination against people with disabilities, and defer to them on how I can be supportive of progressive change. Rather than feeling "disarmed" by the reality that my ability privilege affects my role in struggles against ableism, I can accept it, and my place.
We have to stop acting as though our varied experiences are inconsequential. That people racialized as white experience racism differently from people racialized as black is not a "distraction" from the violence and injustice of the case of Trayvon Martin; it is an explanatory part of the story and a constitutive element of any anti-racist organizing that might occur around it. To claim that a constructive analysis of white privilege is "paralyzing" is to basically issue a low-key threat to withdraw from any kind of critical activity, as well as a warning against alienating well-meaning white people. But if said well-meaning white people would rather engage in class reductionist evaluations of racist violence, or obscure the uses of privilege with the problematic of guilt, then perhaps they need to go back to the drawing board and revamp their understandings of race and racism entirely.
We need not homogenize. Solidarity does not mean sameness just as diversity doesn't mean a rainbow-complected room of people. We are not one undifferentiated mass waging a uniform war against The Ruling Class. We are communities of individuals engaged in separate but intersecting and overlapping antagonisms. Our struggles are not the same, and they don't have to be. I am not Trayvon Martin, and I don't have to be. None of us should have to be in order to wholly commit to ending racism and the violence it enables.
Follow Victoria Coats on Twitter: www.twitter.com/djjalen