Revolutionary Today, Pacifist Tomorrow? Variations of Activism in Communities of Color

-guest blog by Tulsi Achia, University of Queensland

It’s not every day that I get to hang out with woke, witty, politicized, and incredibly clever folks of color in my world. I am Indian, emigrated to Australia in my 30’s which made for restrictive social-circles – you take what you can get, I live in a very White state, and work in predominantly White spaces as a social researcher. So when the opportunity came at a recently concluded conference to hang out with like-minded researchers of color, discussing issues of race, gender, sexuality, intersectionality and activism, man I was there for it. You bet I was. So here I am, telling you now, that I came away from that conference a little bit disappointed, and a little bit disillusioned. You can tell because I am writing a goddamned blog about it. This is not my first experience of it, but these are early years of my own activism, and this has been a recurring experience. I can’t help but feel that when you finally make contact with something that has been elusive so far, the reality always falls short of the dream. The dream being, some kind of utopia where woke, smart, highly educated folks of color come together in perfect unison to take our people to the promised land? I think that was the image in my head. Having always connected to people from different cultures and their individual and collective stories of resistance and flourishing, every time I walk into a group of folks of color, I naively assume we’re all going to get along! In case you are rolling your eyes at this idea, you can roll your eyes back to the front now, thankyouverymuch.

What was common to all of us at the gathering was this; all of us were driven toward our research and activism by the same sense of outrage at structural inequality. All of us were expressing our scholarly and racial identities in predominantly White spaces, which meant navigating not just the complexities of the self-relevant topics we were studying (race, gender, prejudice, etc.), but also the identities we were living out in these spaces. The unsurprising point of difference amongst us, was that each of us was going about our identity expression (scholarly and personal), and our activism, in very different ways. The disappointing bit was that not only did we not agree with each other’s ways (boo hoo!), but we were for some reason also feeling compelled to judge one another for it in subtle and blatant ways. Are we pacifists, are we reformists, or are we revolutionaries? Are we radical, are we mediators and interlocutors, are we strategic, or are we just plain exhausted and choosing our battles carefully for now? And why are YOU being so strategic? Stop with the respectability politics; where did it ever take us?

So this brings me to the question. Are we, as politically active people of color (and our allies/accomplices), allowed to explore and use different strategies in how we conduct our activism or express our politicized identities? And how can we build more compassion and respect for those unique stances that we take? And I think about this not just as someone who studies allyship and activism in her research, but also as a politicized woman of color, and ally to brothers and sisters of color walking the tough line every day. I am addressing this publicly only now, because I have often felt like this was an untouchable topic of discussion amongst our circles.

Why do we adopt different strategies?

Racial minorities in predominantly White, Western countries are made up of different ethnicities, racial backgrounds, and are there because of varying histories of immigration or forced migration, and colonization. They also differ in structural power and privilege despite being minority groups and disadvantaged in different ways (again a product of unique migration histories or historical factors such as colonization). For example, economic, employment, and education outcomes for African-American communities differ vastly from Asian/South-Asians in the U.S., because of historical oppressions and enslavement faced by the former, and skilled immigration that was encouraged for the latter. Differences in privilege and power between Aboriginal people versus skilled migrants in Australia is dictated by a similar history – the latter being more educated and holding highly skilled middle-class professions. While all communities of color in these societies are grappling with the same issue – that of toxic expressions of Whiteness and systemic racism, each is dealing with a different stereotype thrown at them, a different frame from which they are perceived, and a different type of threat and disadvantage. As a muslim friend jokingly observed, “being black – you deal with police brutality, being brown or muslim – you deal with airport security and federal surveillance.” So I hypothesize that choice of strategy comes down to a matrix of situational factors times type of threat times privilege.

(a) Situational factors, history and norms governing that context – Your context could be a familiar department meeting versus a conference where there are unknown people versus a protest rally versus the context of close family members or small rural community you live in. Each would dictate very different strategies of identity expression and resistance. Also, has there been a history where other predecessors of color have laid some groundwork which allows for more direct strategies or has it failed miserably in the past which might then require more steady and strategic methods?

(b) Type of threat – Threats may include real or symbolic threat, threat to identity versus threat to life and bodily integrity, job prospects, livelihood. It could be an immediate, short-term threat versus potential for ongoing threat, etc., which would make us choose one strategy over another at that given time.

(c) Privilege – As mentioned before, racial minorities in the west come with their own unique baggage of disadvantage and privilege. We might possess high power or low power as individuals in general or it could be situation-specific. That relative privilege can determine how we enact our activism. This might even include the privilege of gains accrued in a context – do I already have a fairly woke set of peers or bosses as a result of work done by others? If yes, I can afford to be a bit more radical in my stance.

And while we’re at it, what about developmental phase and insight? A feminist friend of mine was once telling me that her 20’s and 30’s were spent being direct and confrontational in her activism, being unmindful of potential threats to herself or consideration for how she could be harming or furthering the cause. Her sense was that her activism was much more about identity expression – focusing on the self, rather than focusing on the other, the cause, and the long haul. She talked about her 40’s – where she is now – as a time where she finds herself being more compassionate, patient in her activism and confrontation. She tries to focus more on teachable moments. Surely such insight develops over time, and life experience brings with it learning, insight, and a shift in values, which perhaps shifts one’s activism and stance. This is not to say that one or the other strategy is better or inherently more mature or evolved. Also, there is a case to be made for people with certain privileges having the capacity for more patience, more conciliatory strategies or more compassion in their resistance, which someone who does not have the benefit of those privileges may find no use for.

On the need to approach our activism with compassion and respect

As I continue to process my experiences in the past year, I remind myself, that the radical might just be a perfect complement to the reformist, and the mediator of today, might just be the revolutionary of tomorrow.

The movement needs all kinds, and it takes all kinds to propel a movement forward. The movement does not exist in one place or within one person or one organized group. The movement unfolds in many, many, different pockets within a system and outside of it, at different points in time. What do we risk when we don’t recognize that our activism is nuanced or different, not less than or superior to someone else’s? We risk alienating our own. We risk adding to the trauma of our brothers and sisters, when we know so well what battles each of us are fighting. We risk derailing the movement, because so much of our activism can become about us – our identity expression in the here and now. We put our well-being at risk, because we judge ourselves as “weak” or “not woke enough” and perhaps put ourselves in risky situations where support may not be available. This contest between us (and within us) needs to gently give way to a more mindful and compassionate way of living our identities, and conducting our activism.

Tulsi Achia is a practice psychologist with a background in clinical and counseling psychology. She is currently doing her PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research focuses on allyship in the race, sexuality and gender contexts, with an emphasis on understanding pathways through which this advantaged group solidarity goes wrong despite good intentions, and how that impacts disadvantaged groups. Her research interests also focus on minority group members’ activism preferences, identity processes and factionalism within disadvantaged group-led movements.