“Silence is the voice of complicity” v “That’s not what we’re talking about right now”? Notes on intersectional quilting
By Imagining America | January 19, 2015
By Jennifer Shook, PAGE Co-director
I hesitated about writing this blog post. I continue because my hesitation itself marks greater discomforts.
I have, probably just like you, dear readers, had many conversations “about Ferguson” with many people in the past months. Particularly, here in Iowa City, many of those conversations came to hinge on a particular display left on U Iowa’s downtown campus in the spot that the night before had hosted a solidarity protest for Eric Garner and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old shot in her home by a Detroit police officer whose mistrial was declared in October. Despite below-zero temperatures, a large crowd had come together from several starting points for the protest. Despite shared hopes for solidarity, many left the protest in discomfort with one another, disagreeing about chants or silence, about what signs should say, about who should speak. The next day, a visiting international artist installed, in what he called another statement of solidarity, a sculpture of a KKK robe with newspaper images of racial violence printed on it in tar. While he had previously worn the robe or exhibited it in galleries with explanatory signage, without such context Black students read the robe as a threat or warning against their public protesting. Meanwhile the university responded as if to hate speech, leading many to push back to protect open public expression. Tempers flared quickly on social media.
At a public forum convened by the UI School of Art and Art History, some attendees expressed relief that a diverse crowd finally came together in one room to talk. #BlackLivesMatter student organizers countered that they had been discussing for months, where had everyone else been? Some grey-haired activists reminded them that months are nothing to those who remember decades. Or centuries. Someone asked that we not forget the struggles of immigration rights. A young Black man pointed to a paler section of the audience and said “we can’t do all the work, what do YOU have to say?” A protest attendee explained that she was trying to follow the instruction “White people, step back, don’t take the spotlight.” A Native American Heritage Month faculty advisor thanked Native students for attending after their many events. I don’t think anyone mentioned the ongoing epidemic of sexual assaults on campus. I left feeling impressed by the passion but frustrated that it fueled speaking more than listening in a competing struggle to be the loudest and last word.
Meanwhile, on Twitter and in university presidents’ emails, #AllLivesMatter has been criticized for drawing attention away from the structural analysis of systemic racism. Sometimes criticism hits any adaptation of hashtags for a new purpose—though, of course, that’s exactly how memes work. But, I kept wondering, what about those who want to say “All Lives Matter” to connect struggles, to look, say, at police violence against women or queer or trans people (often, of course, also Black, as in the case of 13 women in the sexual assault case against an Oklahoma City police officer). “All lives matter” creates more harm than good because it erases specificity of history and experience. As Judith Butler argues, “One reason the chant ‘Black Lives Matter’ is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized. …it… links the history of slavery, of debt peonage, segregation, and a prison system geared toward the containment, neutralization and degradation of black lives, but also a police system that more and more easily and often can take away a black life in a flash all because some officer perceives a threat.” So Black life can be simultaneously invisible and subject to hallucinatory pre-programmed images. That’s why Selma matters, regardless of its Oscar-worthiness. And regardless of the back-and-forth over Selma’s depictions of MLK and LBJ, systemic violence remains neither “colorblind” nor just a Black-and-White issue.
This paradox between invisible people and saturated stereotypes plagues other groups as well. On that night of the UI discussion, I admit I had divided attention. I tried to be present and listen openly, carefully, the kind of difficult listening that Paolo Freire counsels. But in my hometown the Oklahoma City Public School System was holding a public hearing on whether to change a high school mascot, the “Redskins.” Why do mascots matter? Because #NativeLivesMatter. Because Native people are the U.S. group statistically most likely to be killed by police. Because many have not heard of #MMIW, the movement to call attention to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, centered in Canada but relevant throughout the Americas. Cartoon images of drunken savages and sexualized “Indian princesses” contribute to this violence, and to the erasure of actual living Native peoples. Even movie star Misty Upham faded quickly from the news despite the recent coroner’s report making initial suicide rumors unlikely.
Yet as hashtags and signs proliferate, many wonder, how can we connect without hijacking? It’s about intersectionality, about listening instead of jumping to critique, about unghosting the work of earlier struggles. Which brings us back to Barbara Ransby’s words on Ella Baker, a civil rights leader unlikely to wind up at the Oscars, precisely because she embodied grassroots coalitions over charismatic leaders—what Ransby calls “political quilting.” A quilt celebrates rather than dissolves its varied pieces, finding instead ways they can connect.
Baker knew, too, that the work of quilting just and equal partnerships through active listening, the work of decolonizing, of making visible, structurally analyzing, and taking apart the systems of power that lead to police brutality and rampant sexual assault, this work will not happen in a place of comfort. And it won’t be over soon. But if we are really listening, we can continue to work in that discomfort together.