Without True Revolution, Oppression Just Changes Shape

We owe this struggle to our ancestors and future generations


Author Katherine MacHolmes is Program Partner for Community Outreach at Inclusive Communities and a member of New Leaders Council.

Twenty-twenty has been a hell of a year. Whew, child. Three months in, the upside down took over and we quarantined, murder hornets invaded and well…Trump. We finished Netflix queues, realized that time is a construct, lived on Zoom and got anxious to “return to normal.” And then George Floyd was murdered. Protests erupted across the United States, statues toppled, police brutalized protestors and buildings burned. James Scurlock was murdered by a known white supremacist and his killing was state-sanctioned.

As Black Lives Matter signs go up and Confederate flags come down with maddening ease, systemic change seems possible, but my hope is measured. Deep grief accompanies these changes because they are born of the deaths of countless Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and their incalculable loss remains heavy. We owe them, our ancestors, and future generations the struggle of liberation. To newly emboldened revolutionaries and familiar comrades, I offer these notes and collective imagining.

White people are waking to their part in dismantling systemic racism. Where privilege previously blocked whiteness from recognizing complicity in systems of oppression and defined the struggle as a BIPOC issue, we now see the assumption of responsibility emerging. Guilt is a byproduct of this new understanding of whiteness, but guilt can produce revolution. It can be leveraged for restoration and holds the power of change. It is energy to be harnessed for individual and interpersonal change. With enough people practicing in the micro, it becomes macro–the change scales up to reorder and reconstruct institutions, structures, systems and societies.

But shame can lead to fear and discomfort which paralyzes and triggers defensiveness. To be uncomfortable when others’ lives are threatened is to rest in privilege. When white people tell me that they are uncomfortable, I am tempted to ask what is discomfort in the face of existential fear that accompanies living while Black in a nation that hates? We must ask our white co-conspirators to divest themselves of leaning into comfort while dismantling internalized privilege granted by the white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy.

White folks must divest themselves of the power of privilege. Yet while it exists, it must be strategically leveraged to create opportunities, build spaces and speak truth to power.

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Coming to this work requires emotional intelligence. As the internal work happens, and emotions arise, I invite you to resist fear, to risk being wrong more than you will initially be right. To be fallible and vulnerable and to grow your capacity for accountability. This work takes high intentionality, and while it is difficult work, it makes better people of us all.

Intersectionality, another tool critical to this movement, is a concept posited in 1989 by the incredible Kimberle Crenshaw and coined to explain the unique marginalization of Black women in the white supremacist patriarchy. It is revolutionary. It changes how we must approach co-liberation. There is complexity in all people, we must hold space for all parts of ourselves and each other. Every person is a multi-identitied being with lived experiences that informs how we move through the world and how the world interacts with us.

Past Black liberation movements centered on cis-gender, heterosexual maleness. This does not serve us. The belief that I must surrender all identities except my race, all else being inconvenient to the work for Black liberation is antiquated and oppressive. No room I walk through allows me to shed queerness, neurodivergence, cis-ness, privilege, marginalization or lived experience. To be told to leave these identities at the door is damaging and dangerous. I cannot and I will not.

Holding multiple identities means that we can be at once marginalized and still hold privilege. To wrestle with that intricacy is to need liberation yet be accountable for breaking down the systems responsible for the oppression of others. To deny holding privilege and to focus only on our own oppression is to attempt to reorder systems of oppression to suit us at the expense of others.

In this new era of activism, leaders with platforms and megaphones can talk of racial justice and still nonetheless uphold other oppressive systems. As co-conspirators, we must cultivate knowledge and critical thinking, while analyzing and questioning motives, messages and action. We cannot abide leadership from those who refuse intersectional revolution. Leadership must work from anti-oppression.  It is not enough to be anti-racist; leaders must stand against all forms of oppression even while we focus our energy on dismantling racism. There is no liberation without intersectionality. As oppression centers the most privileged, liberation must center the most marginalized.

There is a world where Tamir Rice graduated high school this year.  Zachary Bear Heels was given the aid he needed and is thriving. Where Rayshard Brooks made it home to his daughter’s eighth birthday party and Breonna Taylor woke up this morning and went to work.  Where Dominique Fells, a young trans woman beloved for her smile, realized her full potential.  Where the police did not kill Tony McDade. Where Jewels Scurlock had a father on Father’s Day instead of a crowdfunded trust fund. A world where Oluwatoyin Salau is still marching, protesting and spreading her young, profound passion for a just world.  Where their names were never memorialized in chants because they are living.

We live in systems imagined by people who hated and subjugated Blackness. This hatred was baked into our institutions and without true revolution, oppression just changes shape. To understand the world through the lens of imagination is to return power to us. It emboldens us to radically reimagine the world anew. We can do the heavy work to consider every piece of this work, to choose what to take with us as we move into the future. To imagine innovatively, collectively and humanely. This time in our lives is profound, it is a thread connecting generations and overcoming geography. This work is laborious, yes, and intrinsically hopeful and beautiful, a collective thread of futurism for a world we know can exist with collective imagining and collective struggle.


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