We live in an era where claims are commonly made, and largely accepted, that the U.S. has made such significant and irrefutable progress from its past of racial struggle that it has essentially overcome it. The presence of oppressed bodies in advertising, as TV show characters, in government and other highly visible venues is often used to support these claims. On the one hand, our identities as queer, Brown, disabled, and immigrant individuals are given hyper attention when they are needed to illustrate diversity or prove the progressiveness of traditionally conservative institutions. On the other, our needs are ignored and openly attacked by those same institutions as they appropriate our bodies to mask their indifference to the healthy and dignified survival of our people. Across the board, we are expected to believe that our oppression no longer exists, fed such myths by the exact sources who benefit most from our continued marginalization. In my experience, there is no place in which this reality is more apparent and less examined than the gentrification of oppressed neighborhoods, and the forcible removing of their populations.
There are many reasons I feel gentrification is a taboo subject. It is an act which people of every identity sometimes feel compelled to participate in out of economic necessity, even when it causes political and social discomfort. It is often understood to be inevitable, both on the part of communities who experience it and those who initiate it, and though it is a regular subject of ironic humor, it is less often treated as one for political engagement and resistance. It forces many of us to examine the ways in which our political rhetoric does not match up with our daily realities. Yet above all else, the reason I feel gentrification continues to be largely avoided as an topic is that it pulls the rug out from under every myth of post-racial progress, and forces us to examine how our world continues to depend not merely on racial segregation, but economic, geographic, linguistic, and so many more. Moreover, its examination shows how these factors work in unison to preserve dominating structures, and empower the privileged over the oppressed.
I recently read a report published by associate professor John Betancur from the University of Illinois titled Gentrification Before Gentrification? which documents the struggle of the Mexican/Xican@ community in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen in its resistance of economic abuse by outside interests. The report’s conclusion makes several significant claims that are rarely described in relation to changing neighborhoods: 1. That it was not small scale opportunism on the part of individuals seeking cheap rent prices, but the greed of powerful institutions—like those of the nearby business district and the University of Illinois itself—working systemically to secure their interests in the neighborhood which spurred its gentrification. 2. Community organizations and their leaders joined forces to actively resist gentrification, and learning from past struggles rallied local government, activists and youth programs to use art, protest and housing networks to stave off the appropriation of real estate by outside forces, and were largely successful. 3. Gentrification of the neighborhood began to take off not because outside forces broke through community efforts, but because middle class members of the community infiltrated local organizations and used a post-race ideology to undermine those efforts. Claiming that organizers who framed the struggle of the working class Mexican/Xican@ hood as one against wealthy white outsiders were imagining dynamics which no longer existed, middle class members of the community were able to slow the efforts of organizers, and pave the way for their own potential benefiting from Pilsen’s gentrification.
Another Chicago neighborhood which has been experiencing rapid demographic shifts in recent years is the historically Boricua hood of Humboldt Park, whose anti-gentrification struggles are also informed by those of Pilsen. The report on Pilsen notes that one of the key means of resistance used by local organizers was community-generated art. The 18th St. stop on the pink line, for example, has been covered by murals and graffiti, much of them featuring Indigenous-inspired symbols and images. What was intended to rally community and aggressively mark territory, however, was turned into a selling point by real estate agents and middle class community members. The symbols that were meant to galvanize pride in local heritage were appropriated as signals of authenticity and exoticness to outsiders. In a similar vein, Humboldt Park, whose main drag is bookended by two steel sculptures of the Puerto Rican flag, has already become a hotspot for young privileged Chicago residents, and is commonly marketed as a “real” and “authentic” neighborhood, prized more for great food than its radical social and political history.
All of these accounts point to gentrification as a key site in which the racial and economic access of certain groups are relied on to force resources away from others within the bounds of their own communities, often under the guise of diversity and racial harmony. I believe this understanding should teach us not merely that racism persists as an issue in our national culture—one that is inevitably tied to a host of other systems of oppression—but that it is the very ways in which we attempt to denounce or deny its gravity that allow it to gain deeper footholds. When we think of gentrification as the unavoidable demographic shifts that occur out of economic need, and not a tool for powerful interests to appropriate and control the resources of oppressed communities; When we imagine it as an option for making our neighborhoods safer, rather than a means of banishing the social issues that we have yet to address in just and self-determined ways; When we look at our own hoods in terms of location and economics, and forget that they are communities whose knowledge we need, and in which we can choose to involve ourselves, we undermine the wellbeing of our people, and support the disenfranchisement of untold others. How do we continue to resist gentrification, and unite across communities to defend all of our autonomy? How do we strengthen ourselves when power claims we no longer require strengthening? How can we demonstrate that our local struggles are not isolated conflicts amongst individuals, but rooted in larger systems of inequity?
When I was in eighth grade I took a placement test and was switched into an advanced math class. The move meant that I changed out of the regular track, where the majority of other students of color were, and into the accelerated track, in which there were few students of color and almost no Black students. My friends, most of whom remained in the standard track, teased me for months about the switch, making all kinds of allusions to my being stuck up, sold out, and generally questioning my affinity to the community. When I spoke to adult figures about the issue, most of them ignored my friends’ comments, and advised me to stay focused on my studies. “Black is as Black does,” and “There is more than one way to be Black,” were common refrains, as was the accusation that my friends were holding themselves back by limiting their definition of Blackness to one of failure, instead of pushing themselves in the way I was.
This memory has reemerged recently as I have overheard many debates amongst scholars, talking heads and friends about the idea of “post-Blackness.” The foundation of the theory, as it has been put forward by academics like Skip Gates and Toure, matches almost exactly the things I was told as an eighth grader: There are as many ways to be Black as there are people who identify themselves as such, and we are now (suddenly) in an era in which we as Black people have the ability to liberate ourselves from a definition of Blackness which stifles, stultifies and limits our human potential. Like so much seductive rhetoric, this simple statement seems benign, and there are large parts of it that I think most of us would agree with. What interests and worries me, however, is who specifically is invested in this idea of post-Blackness, and why they propose it as such an important concept.
That it is primarily academics, celebrities and public intellectuals that seem most interested in the idea of post-Blackness is not, I think, coincidental. That they often describe the stifling definition of Blackness they feel confined by as being imposed on them most frequently by other Black people is also important to note. The claim that we should “liberate” ourselves from old requirements–which many of these scholars argue were forced on us originally by white society–when examined more thoroughly, seems to be another excuse to attack poor and working-class Black people for the dire straits that they have put themselves in. If only we would stop defining Blackness as a form of failure (an interesting premise in and of itself) and learn to expand our definition to include a wider range of perspectives and experiences, these figures say, we might be able to grow as individuals, and lift ourselves out of so many of the difficult spots we find ourselves in.
The same scholars that profit post-Blackness tend to scoff at the ludicrousness of the concept of a post-race society. Yet what I think these scholars fail to grasp are the ways in which the ideas of post-blackness and post-race are fundamentally tied: Both see race through the lens of the individual, linking its current role in our social orders to individual identities and isolated interactions between individual people. This approach, which might lead one to any number of misinformed conclusions, fails to comprehend racial categories as maintaining historical reasons for being constructed and continuing to exist, and to contemplate race as working amongst groups, communities, systems and institutions to shape our world and the disenfranchisement of so many people within it. These thinkers state that there are as many ways to be Black as there are Black people. Yet the underlying concern seems rarely to be that we should understand Blackness as something wide and complex, and far more often that we defend the right of individuals to participate in the institutions and systems they want to, even if those systems benefit their individual persons at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority of other Black folks. Ultimately, Blackness as an identity which unites communities in the face of these systems seems to be the true constraint against which proponents of post-Blackness are chafing.
I believe that as an eighth grader, I could have understood my friends’ taunts, while hurtful, as being my community’s way of checking my active participation in the hierarchical and inequitable structure of school, using it to garner privilege for myself, even as the same structure labeled and inhibited my friends from gaining the knowledge and opportunities they needed to grow. This understanding, though it many not change the harsh ways in which I was at times treated, does change what that treatment meant, the places it came from, and what I as a young Black educator might learn from it now. For so many of the ways in which we as oppressed people check and screen one another for authenticity, while damaging and ineffective, are born, I still believe, out of a concern for the survival of our communities, and a recognition of the values, powers and institutions which have historically threatened them. And while I agree with many of my people that we need to find better ways of forging and maintaining our communities than through cultural policing and intimidation, I also think using this fact as a guise to justify the participation of individuals in structures which disempower all people is not the direction in which to move.
I am not interested in rigid and externally imposed definitions of Blackness, queerness, or any of my other sacred identities. I am not invested in definitions of community which divide, deride and privilege certain sectors over others. But I am dedicated to solidarity and allyship. I am interested in structuring our communities in ways which unite them in resistance to unjust and oppressive orders, including capitalism, colonialism, the state and the academy. And while I believe we each have the right to define ourselves and our relationships to our people for ourselves, I also believe that what our commitment to those people consists of is a crucial and unavoidable question. And if certain members of our community would listen more carefully to the critiques they receive from others, they might find they are hearing the voices of struggle in ways they were unable to before.
The African American Studies program in which I majored at my university was founded–like countless other Black, Brown and Ethnic Studies Departments–as the result of student, staff and faculty organizing. In 1969, after four years of alienation, tokenizing, failed communication and outright racism, the first admitted class of Black students lead a serious campaign for the prioritizing and enfranchising of Black bodies and histories on the all-white campus. Aided by the guidance and direct support of specific staff and faculty, a core of Black students took over a main hall on the center of the campus, and refused to leave until a set of their agreed upon demands had been met by the university, including the founding of a Black Studies department. Though, naturally, there were a myriad of factors and forces which ultimately led to the program’s establishment, it would never have been possible without the militant efforts of alined bodies of oppressed students and faculty.
Last year, after a conservative student group on my college’s campus staged a racist and misinformed “anti-affirmative action bake sale” in the student center, multiple oppressed student groups organized a demonstration in response to the event. Hundreds of students gathered midday in the same space where the bake sale had taken place to pass out pamphlets correcting the false information given during the sale, to galvanize support for the student populations who had been attacked by the event, and to vocalize their reactions. Students took turns standing on tables to speak, making countless eloquent and empowering statements. In the midst of these speeches, a professor of American Studies and Native Sovereignty Politics joined in the fray, shouting to the crowd, “Queers bash back! Students of color bash back!” until the entire student center was chanting with her. She next stated that in citing the motto of the radical queer group Bash Back, in no way was she advocating physical or emotional violence against any individuals or organizations, but that she was advocating violence. She was, she explained, advocating retaliation against the systems which establish oppressed people as abject, which denounce our histories, silence our voices, and expect us to make peace with disenfranchisement. Violence, she stated, creatively and productively administered, is an appropriate response to the systems and bodies which do violence to us on a daily basis. As students and as oppressed people, she informed us, bashing back was a duty which we owed to the safe survival of our communities, one which we should direct on the university frequently, not just in particular moments of crisis. Her words remained with me long after the rally was over.
In our modern educational discourse of acceptance and diversity, oppressed populations often seek institutionalized and diplomatic means of addressing their grievances. I have on many occasions heard oppressed groups of multiple backgrounds express the fear that, given their community’s history of activism, any other type of retaliation might be read as militant. My sincere response to this worry is: What’s wrong with being militant? Where did we learn this fear of militant organizing, and a shame in the radical histories of our communities and the incredible victories won through their militant efforts? Militancy is not an archaic feature of past activism, relevant only to a time when “real political issues” existed. The myth that militancy is a thing of the past is part of what continues the silencing of our voices and the devaluing of our communities, and halts our potential to advocate for ourselves and each other in radically new and effective ways. We need to take pride in our militant legacies (for queer, brown, working, immigrant, women, poor, and disabled communities all have militancy in our recent and immediate histories) and see those legacies not as distant histories which inevitably opened the door for our current moment, but as the efforts of our ancestors which we must actively keep alive and pass on if we want to arrive in a truly just world.
Militancy does not signify hatred or malice. It does not mean modeling our movements with uniformity or standardization, nor should it be associated with totalitarian or undemocratic military regimes. Being militant means actively opposing systems of normativity and oppression where they exist, and working to hold them accountable at every turn. It is a willingness to threaten the status quo, to be confrontational, to undermine business-as-usual through organizing and action. It is a commitment to radical politics which extends beyond talking and writing about them to initiating them in the real world, before real opposition. It exists in a bond with respect and compassion, and finds enemies only in the institutions which dismantle the health and well-being of our communities. But it is necessary for radical change, it is a part of our history, and we as oppressed people should work to invest ourselves in it as a political tactic instead of distancing ourselves from it.
The remarkable film Precious Knowledge recounts the stories of the students and teachers who comprise the Raza Studies Program, a series of courses which focus on Mexican and Chicano history, and which serves the largely Chicano student body of the Tucson, AZ public school district. The film, which was originally intended to be an exposition of the program and its classes, became a platform for protest when, in 2010, Ethnic Studies were officially banned in the state of Arizona, and the Raza Studies Program in particular came under attack from the state’s superintendent and countless other government officials. Precious Knowledge, which is still in production at Dos Vatos, shrewdly unveils the state’s serious discomfort with providing spaces for learning which empower brown, native, immigrant, poor and working communities, and disarms the charges of sedition and treason which are usually leveled at radical politics and education. More importantly, it documents the lives of an incredibly fierce collective of students and their families as they struggle, with the guidance of their wise and devoted teachers, for the right to their own radical heritage, and their ability to share and pass it on. While the film has not yet been released, it is touring in small screenings, and will hopefully be available for public viewing in the next year. This film is an incredible inspiration, not only in the ongoing battle for Ethnic Studies, but as a reminder that the sometimes tricky field of public education can serve radical purposes–ones which pose a genuine threat to the state which funds it–when is directed by the right hands, and when students are given the voice and power to shape it. Keep your eyes out for any screenings near you, and support Dos Vatos and their other amazing productions.
My parents met in their freshman year of college. My white mother had arrived from a wealthy Chicago suburb, was the daughter of a professor, and from a long line of academics. My black father had grown up on welfare in rural Massachusetts, was the son of a construction contractor, and of the first generation in his family to attend college. Their story is not unlike many others of their generation. Attending school in the late 70s and early 80s, they were arriving to the world of academia on the tail ends of countless movements for racial access and equality, both inside and outside of the academy. People from a range of racial and economic backgrounds were meeting and interacting with each other on college campuses, many of them for the first time. That some of them fell in love, and that many of those who did saw their relationships as continuations of the movements for justice which had preceded them, is not surprising.
My father went on to become a college professor himself, and ended up taking a position at a small college in Western Massachusetts. As a result, I grew up in a multi-racial, mixed-income, college town community only an hour away from the town where my father had been raised, and where most of his–and my family–still resided. I went to school in our well-funded public district, lived in a large house in a middle-class neighborhood, and received all the privileges and benefits of having college- and university-educated parents. At the same time, I lived with close and constant contact with my family in the next part of the state, spending holidays in the same house in which my father had been raised, and growing up side by side with my cousins as they battled with drug addiction, juvenile detention centers, young pregnancy, joining the military, and all the stigmas connected with each of these institutions. As a result, I experienced many important coming-of-age moments and lived large parts of my childhood in spheres outside those of my own immediate class.
Many multiethnic and multiracial people gravitate towards the identifier “mixed” because choosing one of their multiple identities over another is impossible, or gives an incomplete picture of who they are. While “mixed” is a category which sometimes bothers me, it is relevant to the discussion I would like to have here. For myself, identifying as white is illogical, as I navigate and am seen by the world as a brown man. Identifying as black, however, is still tricky, because it glosses over the multiple sources from which my ethnicity is derived, and denies the privileges and powers that come with being light-skinned and having a white parent. For these reasons, calling myself multiethnic is an important means for me to acknowledge the complex histories that I am always in the process embodying, and the multiple communities which those histories connect me to. By that same logic, mixed-class is an equally important identifier for me. It acknowledges the facts of my comfortable and opportunity-filled class position, while refusing to deny the economic history from which I come, the multiple lenses through which I grew up seeing, the varied child-rearing techniques that both of my parents used, the communities with which I was raised to see myself as aligned with, and so on. But there is another crucial reason why this identifier is fast becoming one of the most important ones for my person.
The primary reason why I choose to identify as mixed-class is because it brings economics back into the discussion of who I am and where I come from. The topic of diversity as it tends to be addressed in learning communities usually focuses on the most visible identities of those in the conversation, only occasionally unearthing the factors and forces in our lives which are not immediately tied to our names, our skin color, our clothes or our nation of origin. And even when these still highly significant characteristics are brought up, they are done so on an individual basis, imagining each one of our collectives as a series of colorful anecdotes and exciting attributes. It does little if nothing to get to the deeper questions of how so many different identities came to exist in one place, how they are each connected, how the prevalence of one identity may have to do with the lacking of another, and so on. The goal of these conversations to admire difference without asking critical questions about it is one of the reasons why I think class is perennially left out or glossed over. Identifying as mixed-class forces myself and others to use a discussion of economics, resources and power to examine who I am, how I got to be where I am, and how larger systems of disparity might have something to do with it. It rejects the idea that I am an exceptional individual, untethered to legacies of inequity and oppression, and links me back to collectives, to histories, sparking a more critical conversation about the factors which bring all of us to our current social positions.
I, as a multiethnic and mixed-class individual, do not represent the smoothing over of painful histories of violence and disparity, finally made right by my coming into existence. By identifying in complex ways, I refuse not only this simplification of my history, but also the hijacking of my identity to fulfill the myth of a post-racial society. We live in a world of competition, of gross inequity, of racist segregation and of class warfare. This remains the case no matter how much my father loves my mother, or how much my mother loves me. It is true no matter where my family lives, which school I attend, or how much money my father makes as a black man. My identifying as mixed-class in particular is not about expressing to the world how multifaceted and diverse my community is. Rather, it is to remind myself and others that despite the real love that exists in my family, we continue to live in a society which sets different expectations for us all, and where the boundless opportunities for some of us are dependent on the limiting of opportunities for others. It is not about pretending all members of my family are equal, when they are not. Instead, it is about acknowledging disparities, maintaining solidarity, and making a commitment to struggle for a world in which there is justice for all, not just for the few who make it out.