Laurie Toby Edison

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If Only It Was the Last One …

Laurie and Debbie say:

We see an interesting synergy between two posts from excellent blogs. First is this Alas, A Blog post by Ampersand:

I’m pretty sure I’ve never said that fat people are “the last safe target,” because I loathe that phrase.

Everyone thinks they’re the last safe target.

Second is Melissa McEwen at Shakesville, “A Perfect Example, Unfortunately”

the cover of a prominent national gay magazine reading “Gay is the New Black: The last great civil rights struggle” exceedingly, uh, unproductive. Suffice it to say, if The Advocate’s idea of outreach to people of color, whether queer or not, is to declare racism done and dusted, they needn’t be surprised when POC give them the finger.

Calling the gay rights movement “the last great civil rights struggle” is exactly what I was talking about in comments yesterday: When you relegate any rights movement to the dustbin of history, as if everything has been tied into a neat little bow of perfect equality, instead of regarding the movement as the ongoing, living, breathing, still-significant, still-necessary struggle that it is, it’s effectively a declaration of not being your ally, because if there’s “nothing left to accomplish,” if there’s no struggle, there’s no need for allies.

Ampersand and Melissa are making two different points, which are nonetheless closely related.

If you read Ampersand’s piece, he goes on to list a wide variety of both oppressed groups and whiny majority subcultures who claim to be “the last safe target,” as well as a longer list of groups who claim “the last acceptable prejudice.”

Nothing is to be gained by placing oppressions in competition. There’s a reasonably clear line between groups which have lost (or perceive that they may be losing) some degree of entitlement or privileged treatment, and groups which face social oppression and unfair treatment based on who they are. We’ll leave you to draw that line wherever you think it belongs.

Lots of groups face unfair barriers and social limitations, often similar and sometimes very different from each other. The crucially important choice in fighting for social justice is the choice to recognize all of these oppressions. Sometimes they can be fought jointly; sometimes they need to be fought individually. But fighting oppression demands the honesty to acknowledge that the oppressions you are not fighting are still there. Disability access issues don’t magically disappear while you’re fighting for the rights of welfare mothers; gay marriage doesn’t get handed down from the sky on a platter while you’re organizing for national health care. We can’t do everything, but we can acknowledge everything. We can remember other injustices while fighting a particular one.

That’s why the guest blog post by Shaker rrp that Melissa McEwen points to is so important.

I’ve been really mulling over the story of civil rights for African Americans, because there’s been a struggle about this on the blogosphere and even out away from computers. There’s a triumphant narrative to this piece of American history. Africans brought here in chains, the horrors of the slave trade and slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the backlash of Jim Crow, lynching and the anti-lynching work, then come the 50s and 60s and there seems to be a happy ending. Discrimination is illegal (though far from gone) in the USA.

… the narrative says that ancient wrongs were righted, that justice did triumph and that right was done. The narrative suggests that since it happened once it can happen again. That things that are wrong now can be fixed, that rights that are denied now can be had sometime, some time soon.

And so it makes perfect sense to me that when some LGBT people talk about our rights, they invoke the African American civil rights movement as a model. It’s a perfect shorthand and it gives hope.

But when this happens something in me tightens up. As an African American who was a kid in the 50s, who knew that the story that was happening on tv was about me and about people like me, who was the same age as the four girls who died in that blown-up church, I feel like that story is mine.

But it can’t belong to me, because once it’s become narrative, it’s off to do whatever work people can make it do. It’s not a story any more and it really can’t be mine. But doesn’t stop me from feeling that I belong to it, that it owns me in a way that other people can never understand and it’s that knowledge which gives me an unease about its casual and careless use that I just can’t get myself over.

Shaker rrp is so right about the power of narrative, and the justice narratives have to be true. We can’t ever take up a standard claiming that we’re taking it up because other battles are won; we can’t base our social justice struggles on lies.

One Response to “If Only It Was the Last One …”

  1. Cereus_Sphinx Says:

    It’s stuff like this that makes me think that until we begin to appreciate difference there will always be a new “last one”. It’s like we have to prove to ourselves on a case-by-case basis “OK this person is the same as me”.

    And the groups like blacks who have been “fighting” (I wish I knew another word) are also not taken perfectly seriously yet.

    We’ve made HUGE strides, this isn’t to say we haven’t. Human beings in general seem to have a limited tolerance for outright intolerance…. Even if they’re not always nice.

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