Beyond Solidarity: A Woman of Color in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

September 29, 2015

Pakistan UN Rights protest, December 10, 2014. Image by Asif Hassan.

At my very first protest march, as we walked down Broadway from Union Square, tens of thousands of us in the streets demanding justice for Amadou Diallo, the day after the cops who shot him were acquitted, I suddenly found myself alone in the crowd. I had moved to the US only a few months before, and didn’t know many people, and in that moment, there was just the buzz of ten thousand chants, and the throng of bodies. Before panic set in, a woman behind me, part of a contingent of Latinas, looked in my face and smiled -- a big, genuine smile -- and patted my arm. Instantly, I was back in the march, the warm glow of belonging moving me to pump my fist in the air, to join my voice with the chorus. That glow of belonging, of feeling in solidarity, is powerful. But it’s not enough.

Fifteen years later, three eruptions in the last two weeks compel me to try and draw a thread from that protest through my years of living in the U.S. as a non-Black woman of color to now: The video of the McKinney pool party, a recent site of police brutality against Black teens; the exposure of Rachel Dolezal as a white woman masquerading as Black; and finally, most devastatingly, the murder of six Black women and three Black men at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. These are just three events in a long line of violence towards Black folk. I am an Indian woman, immigrated to the US, married to a white American man, middle-class, straight, physically and mentally normatively able. I have little reason to fear that I might experience what teenager Dajerria Becton, or eighty-seven year old Susie Jackson have, and that most if not all Black women in this country expect.

But when I watch the white cop shoving Dajerria Becton’s head down into the grass, the throb of anguish, rage, despair grows larger, more potent inside me. Because this video captures how much people in this country dehumanize Black people and I, with my solidarity, am complicit in this dehumanization.

Labels are reductive. Yet they live on. ‘Woman of color’ subsumes racial and ethnic stratifications, a useful umbrella. It’s also dangerous for precisely the same reasons -- it erases difference, particularly privileges among women of color. Living in New York City through the Diallo verdict aftermath, I’d come to a circle of five women. Save one, all of them women of color. Two of them, Black.

These women showed me ways to navigate New York City literally, politically, and intellectually. One Black woman took me to my first haircut in the US. Another woman, of Indian origin and an immigrant via Canada, gave me my first job. One helped me confront my own racism when I mistook her Black boyfriend for a stranger despite having met him before. Each of them individually and together gave me a framework to resist the forces of assimilation into mainstream, white America while also making my home here.

Looking back, these were my early lessons in solidarity, in matching up the analysis with the complexities of relationships with actual people.

But I never thought of it as solidarity. Then and now, this was friendship on steroids. It was familial, sibling love.

Though we were all women of color of similar class and sexual orientation, with shared assumptions and experiences, these commonalities weren’t what drew us together. We became friends because we were all feminists who interrogated masculinity. And we became family because we enjoyed each other as people. This is important: common experiences, cultural similarities, shared politics aren’t enough to make a family. Love does that.

Recently, I was co-teaching some fourth graders, when my colleague and friend, a bi-racial (Black and White) woman, pointed out that I was using the wrong name for one of the kids, mistaking her for another Black girl in the class. I was horrified by my mistake, re-living the same story of unconscious bias that I thought I had already learned. But, I had missed the lesson, which is this: we’re never done with our privileges; we can’t ever put them aside.

When you live in a multi-cultural, -racial, -ethnic world, one can operate in another reality. I had grown comfortable, lazy even, because I was in unquestioning ‘solidarity’. Living now, in Bloomington, IN, where I moved ten months ago, I find racial divisions and alliances are far more rooted in American identity. I am now more aware than ever of not being American. And I am no longer sure what it means to be a woman of color in solidarity: whose politics, which alliances, what types of power and privileges do I have and what oppressions do I replicate?

The only answer I have is that there are always questions.

When the Rachel Dolezal story broke I read the tweets, laughed at the memes, and ached at the pain behind the humor for a lot of Black folk. In all of the uproar and the analysis, one article gets to what I feel is my heart of the #RachelDolezal debacle: Adam Server writes about how Black Americans have been welcoming people of all shades into their communities, spaces, families for a long, long time. Certainly, Black communities have often embraced brown people. In Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, Vijay Prashad traces the routes of historical solidarity among Black and brown folks; similarly, Vivek Bald’s book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, identifies stories of Bengali men who “became” Black through marrying both African-American women; their children were bi-racial and identified as Black.

As for me, I sought myself among Black women and they offered me home, called me kin. I wish I could say the reverse is true: that South Asians, and Indians in particular, welcome Black people into our lives. But in fact, our racism, colorism, and deep-rooted, unexamined casteism, thrives long after we leave our home countries.

While things have shifted over the years and more brown-Black alliances operate from an intersectional analysis of multiple oppressions, it’s still worth asking: when brown people say #BlackLivesMatter, are we doing so from a sense of solidarity or from a place of love?

As I watched the news about the murders in Charleston, I couldn’t help but notice that of the nine people killed, six are women. This isn’t incidental as Rebecca Carroll points out. It’s why, after all these years I’m writing this. Black women gave me kinship. And so when I see the framed picture of Ethel Lance, its gold borders clasped in the hands of her granddaughter Najee Washington, or watch Dajerria Becton’s head shoved into the ground, or hear of the low turnout for the march for Rekia Boyd, I feel the gut wrenching, heart aching loss of family.

I don’t use the word family lightly. We live in a time when familial love is upheld as the highest ideal as long as it enshrined in a patriarchal pastiche of pink hearts and unquestioning devotion, heteronormativity, and consumerism. This is precisely why I believe that reclaiming, reimagining, and living a new version of familial love is the most radical act. It is what I believe that we, people of color interested in solidarity, must do.

Solidarity and love are not mutually exclusive. But solidarity does not require love; familial love begets solidarity. By familial, I mean families that we choose, that we create, in addition to ones we are born into. For me, familial love requires the ability to see beyond mutual interest; to be imperfect; to accept imperfections in others; to hold one another accountable; to forgive; to be loyal and critical; to disagree and still continue dialogue; and, always to question and negotiate the power and privileges that exist in every familial set-up.

Family love is to see each other and ourselves fully. To do so is not only a radical act, but also liberating.

Bix Gabriel is a fiction writer, who currently makes her home -- after 15 years in Brooklyn, NY, and many more in Hyderabad, India -- in Bloomington, IN, where she is enrolled in Indiana University’s MFA program. When not writing, she can be found revising her writing, reading reams, including for The Offing magazine, perusing recipes for dishes she has no plans of making, and drinking tea.