What, exactly, do you mean by we?

Identity politics at the end of this world

What, exactly, do you mean by we?

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedReconciliation with Canada won’t save us. Reconciliation with each other could topple Canada Introduction, The End of This World: Climate justice in so-called Canada.

Yesterday was May Day. And I joined my drum group and others along with workers in communities around the world, gathering to celebrate the organizing power of labour, the wins and losses and our capacity to wring change from the hands of those who, in various ways, own the means of production. The power of “we.” But who is we? The labour movement has a complicated history of both reifying the hierachies that divide us as well as pushing for broader rights and listening to those made marginal. What actions we take in pursuit of justice have a lot to do with how we think about ourselves and each other. Me and We.

The book, Fractured: Race, Class, Gender, and the Hatred of Identity Politics, looks at identity politics and how both left and right have mischaracterized it. They argue that when the Combahee River Collective named identity politics they did not create siloed identities, rather they recognized the existence of these different ways we are already constructed and then insisted that we use these identities to analyze how we are impacted differently by social and political decisions. Our identities become places to organize from rather than containers we are placed into. If Indigeneity is an analytic rather than an identity, then perhaps so many of these social groups that we think of as identities are more helpfully thought of as analytics: as a description of a relationship rather than a thing we are. Identity politics invites us to think of our identities as analytics, a way to understand why the same policy or practice impacts different groups of people in different ways. That kind of thinking helps us move towards a we that generates a complex and nuanced solidarity rather than a universalizing blandness that leaves people behind.

What exactly, do you mean by we?

This is a question cited by the authors of Fractured and posed by Hazel V. Carby at the end of an essay called White Women Listen! Black feminism and the boundaries of sisterhood In this essay Carby notes the inadequacies of white feminism to address the realities of Black women, and I would argue Indigenous women, something that Fractured does as well in it’s chapters on gender and race. It’s awfully rich for white women to see the family, for example, as a source of patriarchal oppression when for many decades it was white women who hired Black women to do the domestic labour white women wanted to be free from, Black women who were often heads of their own households. Carby notes that for Black women, and again I would argue for Indigenous women as well, the family is not a source of oppression but a site of resistance, which may be why child welfare works so hard at dismantling Black and Indigenous families and creating white families. Because although white children get removed from their parents as well, they are placed in white families and so while individual white families may be dismantled, the white family as an institution gets preserved while Black and Indigenous families are not re-created through the fostering and adoptive industrial complex. Our families are simply dismantled.

So what exactly, do you mean by we?

This is a good question for organizers to ask.

Black feminism theorized and acted on the intersections of race, gender, and class because for Black women the explanations and concerns of white feminists did not align with their own. We don’t have a single identity as women. Our identities are situated within history as well as place, Black and Indigenous womanhood developed differently over time because Black and Indigenous women do not share a history with white women. Or rather, we share a history but it isn’t one of universal sisterhood. And when we look at how The oppressions identified within white womanhood are tied to patriarchy, but the oppressions of Black and Indigenous womanhood are also embedded in racial disparities. Identity politics examines those linkages, how these various descriptors combine to create a particular place in society and then what we can build from there.

In The End of This World the authors write about the Nehiyaw concept of poverty as lacking relationship, not knowing where you belong. It means having something missing in your spirit, family, or wellbeing. A parallel concept in Anishninaabe that Maya Chacaby talks about regarding disability could be understood as not meeting your clan obligations from choice rather than inability, as the elders that she spoke with could not imagine an inability to meet your clan responsibilities that did not stem from willfulness. In both concepts the impoverishment or disability have to do with an understanding of “we” embedded in reciprocity.

Meeting my clan responsibilities has nothing to do with what a capitalist society would think of as productivity and everything to do with existing in relationship. Even the idea of responsibilities is a kind of misnomer that many land-based Indigenous people disagree with, perhaps because of the way that a capitalist society tends to construct and define these things. It’s more like your place in the web of relationships around you. Because if you refuse to take your place in that web, or if something is missing and you cannot take your place, then you are truly disabled, truly impoverished. For organizers, that means identifying and then working against those barriers that our society has created which disable and impoverish people.

Syed Hussan, a long time organizer with the migrant worker’s collective Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has said that individuals in organizations, affinity groups, and collectives remain politicized for longer than those who come to the desire to work against injustice by ourselves. We need real community to counter-balance the highly individualized world that colonialism has placed on us. (cited in The End of This World, p 162). That means we need our identities to be honored and not dismissed as wokeness or division. We need to be seen so that the barriers that disable and impoverish us can also be seen.

Our movements are unsustainable without that kind of we, so it is critical that we not allow that we, that identity, to become what we are rather than that analytic of relationality to which identity politics invites us. If we allow our identities to create in and out groups with fixed barriers then we are just impoverished and isolated together in our little silo without the capacity to make real change. We might raise our own standard of living, wrestle concessions from the powerful that ultimately sustain their power, but we’ll do it at the expense of others.

When I spoke at the May Day event yesterday I talked about the need for unions to look beyond their own locals and their own needs. We need solidarities that cross all kinds of borders and truly believe that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. A transit union was present and this particular unioni does show up for other social justice actions because they know that if people have stable housing and access to meaningful medical and mental health care their busses will be safer. Unions have a complicated history, but in 2018 the Teamsters mobilized to protect the rights of temporary workers. Labour has a lot of power and potential to truly make the world a better and more just place. But it begins with asking that question.

What, exactly, do you mean by we?