In our previous piece we discussed how part of the goal of our solidarity trip to Palestine this summer was to interrupt the White queer domination of anti-pinkwashing work, and to dialog about the same. Here we want to turn some of that analysis inward, and bring out some of the self-critical lessons we learned—hopefully with the aim of also talking about how colonial genders and sexualities are carried out also by bodies of color like ourselves. What we hope this thought piece will do will allow us to expand our analysis of white supremacy beyond white bodies to discuss how certain bodies of color across time have been strategically utilized to do the actual labor of implementing white supremacy.
1. Not all people of color are uniformly disenfranchised. To maintain this is to perpetuate a white supremacist distinction of ‘white people’ and ‘everyone else.’ We have to be more explicit about when we use the term ‘people of color’ and why.
The multiplicity in our experiences often gets lost in political communities built around supposedly shared identities like ‘queer’ and ‘person of color.’ We want to articulate some of the specific privileges that enabled our travel to Palestine, and the work that we were able to do there. We acknowledge that these privileges do not exist in a political vacuum: we have these privileges because other brown and black people do not. Unless our work is about creating the material conditions to increase access there is absolutely nothing radical about our politics.
- Though, as South Asians, we are sometimes profiled as ‘terrorist’ bodies through an Islamaphobic lens, our Brahmanical Indian Hindu heritage in particular enabled easy passage through Israeli security. This is largely because of the extensive political/military relationship shared by India and Israel.
- Because we both can pass as male/masculine people, we experience significantly less sexual violence, harassment, and other patriarchal tactics of violence and erasure in any kind of travel.
- Due to our own class upbringing and its attendant access to elite educational institutions we had access to a significant network of middle and upper class people from whom we were able to crowdsource funds for our trip.
What becomes apparent is that we are some of the most, shall way say, ‘tepid’ people of color to be doing this solidarity work. Really transformative solidarity would involve brown bodies regarded as more ‘threatening’ than us: we’re talking about Muslim Americans who face surveillance and criminalization domestically and abroad, our comrades in the Middle East who are barred entry to ’48, and Black/Latino/Native queer activists who experience the brunt of systematic racism and settler colonialism in North America. What we want the solidarity movement to think more about is what kind of people of color are allowed and able to do solidarity work and why?
2. Not all white supremacies are the same. Though white supremacy is a global system of domination it operates in localized ways. The US and Zionist settler homonationalist projects are simultaneously mutually informing and distinct.
Similar to ’48, the United States also uses gay rights to make itself appear more progressive. An important moment happened this summer while we were in Palestine as the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act were repealed in one swoop. The Supreme Court made it extremely explicit: LGBT rights are en vogue but anti-black racism will always be upheld. What good is same sex marriage really when people of color are still losing the fundamental right to vote? While it initially felt appropriate to link these domestic phenomenon to Zionist pinkwashing we soon realized that these systems – while similar — are not actually the same. The US carries different legacies of racial slavery and migrant labor than Palestine.
US racism is not a copy-pastable system into the Palestinian context. There are racial politics at play in Palestine too, but Palestinians are not united by race or by the label ‘people of color’, and instead by their indigeneity and claim to right of return. This is where we continually tripped up, because so much of our creative work is related to our US understanding of whiteness. This US understanding of whiteness has been shaped by histories of anti-black racism which have linked whiteness to a property often associated with phenotype. In other words, white supremacy is for white people.
What we realized in our trip is that not all white supremacies are the same. Zionism is entangled with, but distinct from Euro-American white supremacy. Though Ashkenazi (white appearing) Jews economically and culturally dominate Zionism and the Israeli state project—and the Israeli underclass is largely non-Ashkenazi peoples—Zionism is still rooted in Israeli supremacy over Palestinian sovereignty. While some Palestinians might appear white-passing in a North American context, in Palestine having lighter skin, though it affords certain privileges, is not relevant to the settler/colonized dynamic. This revealed the limitations of the ways in which we had been theorizing and writing about white supremacy in the past – we need a way of articulating race that acknowledges the very real and material privileges possessing lighter skin has but one that also is culturally, spatially, and locally contingent – one that invites history and ancestry and manifests itself perhaps less visibly but just as violently.
3. Queer people of color are not always innocent and can actually be complicit in the ongoing colonization of other queer people of color. White supremacy has historically relied on the binary between ‘good’ native informants and ‘bad’people of color.
Our (brown, queer) bodies were and continue to be also complicit in Western and white supremacist LGBT politics which emphasize hyper-visibility. We are not white, but we are US people with access to urban centers, and many spaces for a flamboyant, individualist type of queer visibility. Our clothing, manner, and approach to gender and sexuality reflects this. This is not to say those spaces and expressions don’t exist in Palestine, but only that, as foreigners, and as folks with US passports, we could ‘get away with’ much more.
The reason that gender-variance becomes a tricky point is that it brings up challenging questions around visibility, loudness, and outness. Whereas privileged framings of gender and sexual liberation often focus on the individual (me, and my gender expression), in imperialist and fascist contexts, and resistance thereof, the safety of the collective becomes increasingly and materially important. While it is by no means the onus of the trans or gender non-conforming (gnc) solidarity activist from the West to individually shoulder their own safety, it is important for them to have those discussions with their group (including Palestinians and foreigners alike as to how strategic presentation might better ensure safety and mobility for all, and how their individual safety as a trans/gnc person can be supported by the group. This is not the place for trans/gnc activists with significant citizenship privilege and access—such as a US, EU, or Israeli passport—to insist on the same treatment as they receive in their home contexts.
Partly, the reason for this negotiation is indeed material safety. The intention here is not to apply a new layer of trans-specific pinkwashing (eg ‘you can totally wear a dress in Tel Aviv, but not in the West Bank’) but to acknowledge to local contexts, and shift the focus away from individual, neoliberal forms of queerness and gender liberation, to ones that re-center Palestinian liberation and anti-imperialist strategy as central goals. These negotiations are also informed by respect for gender-variant bodies who by virtue of citizenship, imperialism, fascism, class, etc may have differential access to visibility and outness.
Coming to terms with not only the limitations but the violence of our queer visibility in Palestine has influenced the ways in which we conceive of our gender presentations as brown queers in the US settler colonial project. There is a reason the fascist police state in our gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn do not profile us. As appropriately classed brown queers we are allowed the privilege of our individual genders. Our genders are imagined as a sort of private property, much like our iPhones, that the police are there to protect ‘us.’ This means that we need to name the specificity of anti-black and anti-poor racisms. Who really gets criminalized for queer visibly and why? What is really radical about demonstrations of queer visibility in a political climate where visibility for many brown and black people includes increased state surveillance, criminalization, and exploitation?
4. While it is often convenient to blame white settlers, people of color can also participate in settler colonialism . We have to name our privileges as settlers and attempt to operate in solidarity with indigenous peoples in order to do transformative work.
Another fabricated parallel between our work and queer Palestine was the common enemy: white homonationalism. This is simply not the case. Queer Palestinians are fundamentally fighting a decolonization struggle where the political ask is for the actual unsettlement of foreign peoples and the right of return to land. It was easy for us to agree with this demand in Palestine, and yet harder and more necessary for us to approach North American queer politics with unsettlement as a mandate.
Our class- and caste- privileged Indian families came to this land for economic opportunity. In other words our families benefit from the spoils of centuries of genocide and anti-black racism. Rather than challenging the systematic racism that allowed our families to succeed and obtain economic progress in this country, our families remained silent and continued to succeed on the backs of other people of color. As Asian Americans we have previously narrated our diasporic stories only through the lens of loss, trauma, and a sense of displacement. What this does is distract away from our mutual complicity in violence against Native Americans and African Americans who were involuntary brought to this context. As privileged diasporic people of color we have to reframe and rearticulate the ways we narrate our immigration toward mutual accountability. We must not only see ourselves as ‘oppressed,’ but also perpetrators of settler colonial and anti black violence. This means that we must come at our queer of color domestic activism from a position of allyship in similar ways to the transnational work that we participate in.