When I look around me, when I tally up my own experiences with what friends tell me about their lives and what books and films and articles tell me about the wider world, it leaves me with no doubt that there are complex but consistent patterns of how different people benefit and are harmed based on who they are. Trying to figure out how it's all put together and how to act to change things, though, is quite a bit trickier, especially in situations where there is no obvious culprit to name and challenge.
Sometimes, of course, you can identify a single institutional culprit for a particular pattern of harm or oppression, often the state. It may or may not be a root cause or the only cause, but in these cases it organizes enough of what's going on to make it a reasonable focal point for efforts to make change. You're a married woman in Ontario before 1872 and you have no legal right to your own employment earnings? You're an African American in the US South in the era of Jim Crow? You're a dude who likes getting it on with dudes in early 1960s Canada? In all of these historical examples, state practices organized through the law were, while not the only source of oppression, certainly a central and visible one. If you look around today you can see plenty of instances where it's clear that the state plays a central role as well -- from the ways in which policing targets Black and Indigenous people, to the national security state's treatment of Muslims, to the ways in which migrant workers in Canada are organized into what organizer Evelyn Encalada recently described to me as a "parallel universe with limited rights" that makes them "virtually stateless" while in this country.
The role of the state has changed in a whole lot of ways over the last few decades. Often this is part of what gets called "neoliberalism," though that word tends to get used most often to point towards the economic or class-focused ways that things have changed -- the gutting and privatization of public services, de-regulation, and so on. The social world isn't easily broken into bits, though, so there have been corresponding changes in how other aspects of our lives and communities are organized as well, in terms of things like racialization, gender, and sexuality. As well, neoliberalism is sometimes treated as being a withering of the state, but in fact it is more accurate to think of it as a shift in role and emphasis. So, for instance, the neoliberal state in the US may have dispensed with explicit Jim Crow laws, but the immense and vicious prison-industrial complex that targets communities of colour -- very obviously, to anyone paying attention, but now without naming it as such -- has grown up along side. Writers who talk about things like homonormativity and homonationalism show how queers that meet a certain profile have their lives hemmed in by state violence to a much smaller degree these days than they used to, while queers who do not meet that profile because of nation or racialization or class still often face intense state-organized harm in their lives. So the state remains a source of great violence for a great many people.
There have always been, however, instances of patterns of undeserved harm and unearned benefit that don't work like that. There's a pattern, so it's clear that some kind of socially organized something is at play, but it's a lot harder to see some obvious, unitary institution at the heart of it. You can even make a pretty convincing case that, as part of the neoliberal transformation, there are more instances like this today than there have been in the past. So, for instance, many of the struggles by feminist organizers within the dominant society, both in the late-19th/early-20th century phase and in the post-1960s phase, focused on making changes in the law. They certainly didn't win everything they set out to win, but much of the explicitly discriminatory law -- law that restricted the rights of women in a way that was openly named as such -- was changed. Yet, somehow, in all the ways that feminists today continue to identify, women continue to experience various forms of harm, constraint, and marginalization. Similarly with white supremacy, you see fewer laws in North America now that are explicitly about subordinating some racial group. The changes in the social organization of white supremacy in the neoliberal era have been written about by people like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who writes about "racism without racists") and David Theo Goldberg (who writes about the privatization of racism and even "racism without racism") and I'm sure many others. The trajectory of lesbian and gay experience in Canada over the last 50 years also illustrates this very starkly, from the deciminalization of sex between (two) men (in private) in the late '60s, to inclusion in human rights protection, to access to state regulated relationship privileges. Yet even beyond the ways in which some queers continue to be targeted for state-centric violence, dispersed manifestations of harm like bashings, suicides, firings, disproporotionate youth homlessness, and so on continue. (This is true despite a growing mainstream tendency among liberal straight folks to presume that queer, though not yet trans, experience is mostly fine now.)
Or to give three examples I'll address in more detail below: There is no law banning African Nova Scotians from particular stores, but consumer racial profiling pervades the experiences of Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and across the continent. No legislature in Canada has passed laws outlining the ways in which mothers (and other primary caregivers) are to be constrained in their living and their choices (and confined to significant social isolation), yet it happens. And sexual assault -- well, you can argue with this as with the rest of these examples that the state doesn't do enough to stop it from happening, and certainly some kinds of gendered violence (particularly against Black and Indigenous people) is deeply embedded in state practices, but there is also a significant element of sexual assault and the rape culture that supports it that is reproduced in a very distributed, de-centralized way that cannot easily be linked to any single institution.
Naming these differences in how different kinds of harm and oppression are organized is important, partly because I don't think you can change anything without understanding how it works. It's also important, however, because at least some of our movement spaces aren't always very good at thinking outside of the the situation where there's a clearly defined, singular institution that can be reformed, overthrown, or transformed. In some circles, any organizing that is not oriented in this way is seen as less important or even (to use that most dreadful of leftist insults) as liberal. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that we don't need to-the-root transformation of the core institutions of our society, because we do; rather, this is just another way of approaching the insight that many other people engaged in many different struggles -- particularly those experiencing and fighting against gender, sexual, and racial oppressions -- have had that we can't just wait until after some imagined future revolution to challenge the more dispersed ways that harm gets organized into people's lives, and we can't presume that some sort of institutionally-focused social transformation or revolution along one axis will then magically end all the bad stuff along other axes or things organized in more dispersed ways. We need to take seriously, right now, questions of challenging harms and oppressions organized in more dispersed ways.
Part of what's tricky about this is that it's not always clear how best to do it. I certainly don't claim to have any final answer, either. But as I noted towards the end of a recent post about something else, I think the most important place to start with all kinds of questions related to social change is with what people are already doing.
With that goal in mind, here are three different ways in which three differently situated collective efforts are challenging harms that happen in de-centralized ways.
I'm getting the first example from my experience of talking with Ann Divine and Pastor Lennett Anderson about efforts to challenge racial profiling that happens in consumer contexts. Divine used to work for the Human Rights Commission in Nova Scotia, and she was one of the authors of a study a few years ago which demonstrated what Black people and other racialized people in Nova Scotia and around North America already knew: consumer racial profiling is common and painful. Anderson talked about the case of Andrella David, a woman in his congregation, who experienced a blatant instance of racial profiling at a grocery store in 2009. From their accounts, there have been two parts to the response to that incident. One was David's efforts to navigate the long and challenging process of taking a complaint to the Human Rights Commission. One way to think about the Human Rights Commission is as an artifact of earlier generations of social movement struggles against racism and other forms of oppression that can, albeit not always easily or quickly and within certain limits, be mobilized to respond to some kinds of individual experiences of dispersed oppression. David won her case, but the store is appealing, which will prolong the burden for her, and in response Anderson's congregation mobilized in the form of a demonstration at the store to ask that they drop David from the appeal and address the Human Rights Commission only. This mobilization, it seems to me, is an effort to apply public pressure to a private institution, and also is a sort of public educational intervention that, according to what was said in the interview, may be the beginnings of a larger effort along those lines to change public conscioussnes.
The second example comes from my interview with Candida Hadley, Susanne Marshall, and Andrea Smith about the work of the Halifax Motherhood Collective. They are a small collective of mothers who have been working to start from their own experiences to develop radical politics around mothering. As I write in the linked post, these experiences include "an incredible weight of social isolation, personal constraint and intensely regulatory expectation." This work -- which has drawn on feminist writers like Maria Mies and Sylvia Federici to connect everyday experiences of motherhood to interlinked histories of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism -- amounts in part to figuring out ways to name and talk about these experiences and to understand them politically. They have also organized public events which have brought mothers (and other caregivers) with different sorts of experiences together to talk and to learn from each other. They talk about wanting, in the future, to challenge some of the social isolation that comes along with particularly the earlier years of mothering by engaging in a sort of direct action and having mothers (and other caregivers) and young kids occupy public spaces that they are usually excluded from. So in this case, because it is an area where we don't already necessarily have well developed politics in our movements and communities, the response has involved collective consciousness raising, and in the future may involve direct action to take up and at least temporarily challenge restrictive expectations built into public spaces.
The third example I want to talk about is responding to sexual assault. I recently interviewed Erin Crickett, who works at a sexual assxault centre. That organization provides direct support to survivors of sexual violence (of any gender) and engages in both individual and collective advocacy work. We talked in detail about the campaign that Crickett and a number of allies at other sexual assault centres in other places developed for the day that the verdict of the Jian Ghomeshi trial was to be announced, which included vocal support at the courthouse itself that foregrounded pro-survivor messages; dispersed small self-care events allowing folks having a hard time to hang out and support each other on a difficult day; a hashtag campaign organized around #WeBelieveSurvivors and #IBelieveSurvivors; a rally later that day in Toronto; and encouragement (plus resources) for people to offer support to survivors in their own lives. In terms of a longer-term vision for change, Crickett talked about going beyond changes in the legal system, which are of course necessary, to include fostering broader understandings of what healing and justice can mean; pushing for a transformation from a rape culture to a consent culture, through popular education and other approaches; and challenging organizations and institutions of all kinds to deal with sexual violence in ways that are more supportive of survivors. So in this case it was a combination of directly supporting people who have been harmed, publically visible interventions supporting survivors and calling for others to do likewise, a broad range of kinds of challenges to state and non-state institutions to change their practices, and an overall goal of changing the culture through educational means.
In these three cases, then, the collective responses to harm and oppression that is organized in dispersed ways include:
- mobilizing state resources against the harm in question, perhaps through channels shaped by earlier struggles;
- consciousness raising among affected people;
- demonstration or direct action in public space to both challenge particular instances of harm and to educate;
- direct personal support of affected people;
- more conventional pedagogical work (e.g. workshops, trainings) to try to push cultural change;
- multi-pronged challenges to institutions to change their policies and practices.
What do you think about these approaches? What kinds of organizing along these lines have you been involved in?