In Defense of Black Lives Matter

LivesMichael Richter claims to be criticizing social justice activists for their inability to appreciate nuance or to allow for a spectrum of different experiences and opinions within larger umbrella movements, but the article comes across as rant which does the exact four things he is trying to call out:

1. Has a Holier than thou tone.
2. Focuses on differentiation by reducing the complicated concept of allyship to a distinction between critical thinkers and “useful idiots”.
3. Is a blatant expression of narcissism, by which the author passes judgment on a bunch of perspectives he is completely out of touch with.
4. Holds unrealistic expectations for how to be a well-behaved activist who doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.

The article oversimplifies complex social movements and political perspectives, and pits “good” activists against “pointless” and “petty” activists, solely based on the author’s personal feelings when confronted with their arguments. It seems to me to be an awfully transparent attempt to discredit anyone trying to expose hypocrisy, laziness or oppression within mainstream, whitewashed, NGO-led social justice activism, all the while claiming to be above inter-movement squabbling.

There is nothing new in this person’s observations (yes, activists are going to disagree with one another over theory and tactics, and sometimes these disagreements will lead to hurt feelings), and it might be excusable that he repeats a bunch of old, tired arguments if his attitude and ignorance towards the movements he’s insulting wasn’t actually a BIG part of the problem. He clearly doesn’t understand the action that took place at Toronto Pride, yet he feels entitled to reprimand people trying to hold their own community accountable, all in a way that is entirely in the tradition of Pride.

Black Lives Matter Toronto is a movement largely led by queer and trans Black people. Not only do those same individuals belong at Pride, they have always been a big part of the LGBTQ activist communities fighting for the social and political changes that make the lives of queer people better. Pride is supposed to celebrate their accomplishments and highlight injustices that still need to be addressed. That is what Pride is: it started as riots by trans and queer people of colour who were fed up with police violence against their communities, and those voices are STILL relevant. It is normal that there are people who are upset with the fact that the only voices acceptable at Pride today are either people who will celebrate the “victory” of equality for LGBTQ people, or unrestrained corporate sponsorship and co-option.

There are two really problematic things that Michael Richter says that really discredit his “critique” of BLM Toronto:

1. The BLM activists who led the sit-in at Pride are not outsiders seeking more attention. It is pretty gross to pit one marginalized group against another that way. These individuals are a part of the LGBTQ community that the Pride Toronto organization is supposed to represent. (And yes, Michael Richter, wrongly assuming that these activists were hostile, trouble-making outsiders who for some reason don’t belong there IS a tad racist). There are many queer and trans people of colour who are saying that when Pride increases its police presence and involvement, they end up getting harassed, stopped and arrested more – at events that are supposed to be FOR them. And when Pride allows the Toronto police department to have a float in the parade, it pushes a narrative that the police are saviours to the LGBTQ community, protecting them from gay-basher and homophobes, where the reality is that many factions of the LGBTQ community (people of colour, sex workers, drag queens and other performers, poor queer people) still suffer more violence at the hands of police than anyone else. That is an important perspective that deserves to be heard. And that is literally what Pride is supposed to be about: making systematic and state oppression against members of the queer community less invisible. Seriously though, how dare someone claim that these people and their message don’t belong there?

2. Another misguided and dismissive claim that the author makes is that people of colour and gay people “have a similar shared history of oppression and violence.” Not only is this statement false, it is made here simply for the purpose of silencing a group who is declaring loud and clear that in fact they do NOT experience oppression in the same way as rich, white gay people. Of course they don’t. A black trans woman growing up in a rough part of Toronto may have a very different relationship with the police than a gay white man living in a mansion in Markham. An queer immigrant without status can not access police services in an emergency and cannot go to Pride because if they get detained (which is more likely to happen to them than a white person at the same event), they may end up being deported. There are larger issues of gentrification within gay villages across Canada that have the effect of excluding poor queer people from spaces that were created as safe community hangouts for queer people. The value that these different perspectives bring to the table, even if they are sometimes expressed with anger and resentment, is completely lost on Michael Richter. That is his own weakness, not a failure on the part of the activists raising these concerns. What I see is a person who is afraid and unwilling to engage in these tough conversations, and so he is instead dismissing a broad and diverse group of people advancing legitimate and valuable critiques as a bunch of “smug assholes,” based solely on his own emotional reaction to their criticism.

I think that the same points can be made about his annoyance towards “fragmented” feminist groups. He is literally complaining that the dialogue about what meaningful feminism is has progressed beyond the simple statement that women and men should be socially equal. It was easy to believe in feminism when all it meant is that every aspect of our society should stay the same, except women should also be allowed access to the same opportunities as men. The conversations that are a lot harder to have are the ones about that point out invisible and systematic sexism within political and educational institutions, within our legal system, within socially acceptable hierarchies in the workplace or in other organizations, within pop culture, etc. It has always been hard to point out things that we have been socialized to accept as normal, and this kind of criticism has always been met with defensiveness or dismissed as overly sensitive or divisive. Discussions about rape culture and culturally enforced gender binaries are incredibly emotional. Discussions about the harms caused by carceral feminism or certain expressions of white feminism that validate state violence towards minorities or that render women of colour invisible are always going to be difficult to have. But they are not the enemy of social progress and to treat them as such is ridiculous.

The most harmful thing about this article is that it justifies its laziness and ignorance with regard to extremely important and complex political ideas by falsely claiming that there is some big scary powerful “THEY” out there saying that the only way to be an ally is to become an uncritical and arrogant puppet. The challenge of trying to be an ally is not dogmatic or one-dimensional. It simply means that you strive to responsibly engage with a struggle for social justice that doesn’t directly affect you. It means that you understand that your experience on a particular matter is inherently limited because you will never experience that particular kind of violence or oppression. It does not mean that you turn your brain off and follow orders. The fact that this author sees the concept of allyship this way shows me how out of touch he is.

What I see is a trend for every generation to feel entitled to unilaterally decide that the goals for social justice movements have been set high enough, and that anyone attempting to push them further along the progressive path is being unrealistic and divisive. Anyone attempting to promote an intersectional approach to social inequality is in fact hurting their own cause. This is not true. It is also a very self-serving point of view that pretends to be rational and objective, which in my view, is an extremely pervasive and dangerous form of moral cowardice.

—Ally Hobson

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