Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Strategies for the Revolution

Common Action’s Seattle branch just finished reading and discussing this interesting piece by Joel Olson, “Between Infoshops and Insurrection: U.S. Anarchism, Movement Building, and the Racial Order.” For such a short piece, it really gives a lot to talk about, and it was fun sharing perspectives with my comrades.

The main point of the article is that if U.S. anarchism is serious about being relevant and revolutionary, then it needs to do things: 1) take white supremacy seriously as a strategic bulwark of capitalism and oppression, and 2) go beyond the short-sighted tactics of either insurrectionary acts or small-scale subcultural infoshop politics, toward more long-range, strategic movement building. Of course, I highly recommend reading the article to get into the details and arguments behind those two points.

I don’t deeply disagree with the article, and I felt happily challenged by it (especially Olson’s contention about the long history of the US Black freedom struggle being more useful for US anarchists as a revolutionary tradition than the typical European anarchist histories of Spain, Bakunin, Goldman, etc.), and appreciative of its critique of anarchism’s weakness on racism. But at the same time, I’m not quite buying his point about the current racial order and anarchist strategy.

Sure, it’s true that modern anarchists need to both avoid reductionism and avoid this sort of vague, happy catch-all of “all oppressions are equal so we just fight them all at the same time.” We need strategies, and that means strategically chosen fights and political programs. It makes sense. And it also makes sense that struggling against white supremacy is strategically vital.

But that’s the thing, if we are going to really talk about strategy we’ve got to do better than this. While vague “hierarchy” or “anti-oppression” language can be strategically weak in the service of moral strength, the answer to its weaknesses is not a return back to “priority” oppressions. We are struggling against historically complex and highly dynamic social systems, that interact across all lines of collective and individual experience every day. To beat these systems, to transform them, we must understand how fast and hegemonic they are. They defend themselves on multiple fronts. Whiteness is just one of those fronts, even in the US context. Sure, the psychological wages of whiteness do create cross-class alliances that help support capitalism. Sure. But these systems also create hundreds of other strands of dependency, buy-in, and “common sense” across our culture…and if the wages of whiteness ever stopped paying off, you’d better believe that these systems will find other ways to stabilize themselves (and that has actually happened unevenly since at least the civil rights movement). Think about the Red Scare. Think about the patriarchal archetype of the breadwinner. And currently, think about the deep existential disconnect that imperialism creates between almost all folks in the US and those who extract and produce our lifestyle in other countries…the way that imperialism creates capitalist buy-in even among US people of color (even migrant folks in the US!). To be strategic, then, is to be flexible in the face of this dynamism, not to hunker down into any one structural focus that seems to be super clear, for the moment (it’s interesting because so many of the references that Olson makes date back at least 30 years or more, so it doesn’t even quite feel in the moment to me). Of course, it also doesn’t mean to do everything all at the same time with no attention to realities on the ground. Flexibility. Presence. Sharpness, sure, but sharpness that bends.

What I said tonight in the meeting is that I vastly prefer intersectionality, and particularly the contributions of woman of color feminism, as a way toward a strategic analysis. Intersectionality, when done right, doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of a tuned-in, robust understanding of race…but it also doesn’t allow us to be simplistic with that understanding. It trusts our intellects to hold the multiple structural realities that people live in their real lives…just like women of color must hold those realities every day! What keeps this from being strategically vague, then? Well, because it is based on looking at the actual experiences of those who are affected by these structures, rather than us fighting abstract categories of oppression and then trying to find structural symbols to manifest those fights (like fighting police or racist school testing to undo racism, for example). That is, we build the frame out of the intersections on the ground, rather than picking fights on the ground to fit the predetermined frame.

Still, even this doesn’t get us to the level of a winning strategy. Whether talking about anti-racism or intersectionality, there is still the same challenge of picking fights and building programs that have the greatest ability to overturn the system and build a new one…with the limited time, people, and resources that we have. This is where I agree with Olson that movement building is vital…and this is also where I think the strategic questions get really interesting and potentially innovative. If the system is as dynamic as I say, and as complex, what are the sites of struggle, the organizational forms, the demands and long-term methods of building people power that can break through that dynamism? Intersectionality (or anti-racism if one still insists) is just the analytical tool…it still isn’t the actual strategy…not even close. So what more do we need?

This is the number one political question that has been on my mind for years. And I’m glad that this and other articles are giving us room in Seattle to get to this. Maybe I’ll find an opportunity in all the difficulties of my life to share more of my theoretical ideas after all.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

7 comments

“If the system is as dynamic as I say, and as complex, what are the sites of struggle, the organizational forms, the demands and long-term methods of building people power that can break through that dynamism?”

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about too. But I think that people power / liberatory struggles are just as dynamic, just as complex. I believe in them.

The concept of breaking through the dynamism and ending oppression – that’s a utopic view. I’m not sure I share it. I don’t need it in order to have hope, because letting go of a utopic view also helps me let go of perfectionism. I don’t have to fix everything, just help make it better.

What if we don’t choose the struggles? What if the struggles choose us instead? What if there are right actions to take, and we don’t have to think of them, only to listen?

Only a few muddled beginnings of some thoughts I’ve been having . . .

Kristin, thanks for reading and commenting with these thoughts and questions!

I’m intrigued by what you’re asking here, because I think you’re right in saying that I’m presenting a utopic view. I also think idea of listening and letting the struggle choose us is also refreshing and interesting to consider.

But some questions back: what is the difference between a systemic, intersectional view and a utopic view? Does having a whole-system vision of change necessarily mean that one is utopian? Can’t you still have more pragmatic or small-scale action on the ground while holding the bigger view in your head?

If so, are all small-scale change actions equal, or can some have a better ability to link toward larger systemic change? How do we find those actions?

I’m not sure that they find us…all of us anyway. I know that if I did not have the big, broad revolutionary aspirations that I do, I never would have allowed myself to become either anti-racist or feminist…those personal struggles for me came out of the context of my revolutionary values. Yes, in pursuing revolutionary work those struggles came to me as I saw the contradictions of my defenisiveness when working with white women and people of color, but it was my utopic vision that brought me to those spaces. Does that make sense?

I really do think there is a huge value for listening to right actions as opposed to just analyzing an mechanically planning, but for me, listening hasn’t been enough.

We might be thinking different ways about utopia. I don’t believe there will ever be a perfect society – rather, I believe it will be always and forever about struggle. I believe that the search for a perfect society leads, instead, to fascism and dictatorships. A lot of this comes from reading late 19th and early 20th century utopic visions – like Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.”

I do think the broad revolutionary visions are essential, but not in the sense of finding the exact right one. I think of it as a seeking instead. A phrase that often comes into my head, after Idries Shah’s text on Sufism, is “seeker after truth.” I haven’t read the book since 1989, so as for the content, I couldn’t say. I just like the phrase. Also, from Ursula Le Guin’s novel _The Disposessed_ – I reread it recently and was struck by how the main character, Shevek, was perpetually seeking revolutionary strategies.

As for strategy, I totally have some thoughts on that. More later, I think. (I actually have a full-color very pretty poster in mind, to share, which I came up with at a gathering in February.) But I think this phrase is the key to a lot: “link toward larger systemic change.”

Yeah, I agree with you all on those points, Kristin. That’s how I think about revolutionary work as well. Seeking, seeking. But in praxis. That is, actually picking strategies and sticking with them long enough to evaluate them, and then refining and shifting where useful. But I imagine we agree on that!

Yeah, I do agree!

As for which struggles to join – individually, I think people should pick struggles they personally care deeply about, for whatever reason. On an organizational level, I think struggles should be chosen partly based on group interest. Also, I think struggles should be seen as a form of outreach – which struggles will the broader community find important? And which sorts of broader communities do we want to reach out to?

Jeremy, could you give some examples to illustrate this paragraph? I think I get what you’re trying to say (and I think I disagree), but examples would make this a lot easier for me to make sense of. And please make them real examples, not hypotheticals.

“What I said tonight in the meeting is that I vastly prefer intersectionality, and particularly the contributions of woman of color feminism, as a way toward a strategic analysis. Intersectionality, when done right, doesn’t let us off the hook in terms of a tuned-in, robust understanding of race…but it also doesn’t allow us to be simplistic with that understanding. It trusts our intellects to hold the multiple structural realities that people live in their real lives…just like women of color must hold those realities every day! What keeps this from being strategically vague, then? Well, because it is based on looking at the actual experiences of those who are affected by these structures, rather than us fighting abstract categories of oppression and then trying to find structural symbols to manifest those fights (like fighting police or racist school testing to undo racism, for example). That is, we build the frame out of the intersections on the ground, rather than picking fights on the ground to fit the predetermined frame.”

Okay, finally responding to this.

Trouble is, I don’t know if you want concrete examples of intersectional analysis of a real situation in the world, or examples of actual organizing fights that have approached things this way.

One personal example I can give is Tyee High School where I used to work. For a couple of years some staff and students had dialogues about what the problems were at that school, and what it would take to build a school where everyone could learn. That is, we started with a shared location/context, and a broadly shared vision. With that established, then we had to look at the many experiences and relationships with the school’s systems that students were having. What we found is that if we wanted all students to learn at the school, then racist discipline and tracking needed to go, but also gender discrimination in teacher attention, rampant sexual harassment, a homophobic climate, a lack of resources and students’ participation in the informal drug and sex economies of the area…all this also had to go. That is, because student’s lives were multifaceted, any systemic solution for the school had to be multifaceted. There’s no shortcut. We needed hours-long conversations about the potential need for gender segregated gym classes just as we needed hours long conversations about how to transform discipline and undo profiling. I see no way around this, this need for revolutionaries to go point by point across the intersections like this, and I think it’s a big mistake when revolutionaries talk about one issue or the other as sort of the singular way forward.

Yes, I believe that some issues, some oppressions–like white supremacy–can be singularly important in galvanizing rage and building militance that can lead to uprisings, to insurrections or periods of high movement activity. I can see this. This is really important. But really, this mostly just boils down to a recruiting strategy. When we reach those moments of high intensity, if we aren’t deeply grounded and practiced in our abilities to solve problems across all the intersections, then these moments of high intensity will once again either ebb, or turn into counter-revolutionary tendencies, like they have throughout history. So, sure, we should utilize issues that we know have a higher potential to galvanize people or to unearth hidden contradictions, but it must be towards the end of engaging these new folks in intersectional, practical revolutionary work…which is slow work.

Does this make things any clearer? I’m kind of making two points here and in the original paragraph: 1) that intersectional thinking is more useful for long-term revolutionary change than thinking that heavily prioritizes specific oppressions, and 2) that I tend to value location-based organizing (pick a place, like Tyee, commit to a vision for that place, and then fight a years long fight against the intersecting problems that are a barrier to the vision) over issue-based organizing (pick a more short-term issue, like racial profiling in school discipline, and then fight for your demands for that issue across multiple schools or districts), though I see the value of good issue-based organizing to galvanize people into location-based organizing.

I think these points are actually important enough to me–especially since Seattle Young People’s Project is actually launching a school discipline campaign–that I want to write a full post about this.