"What do we really mean when we say ‘Black Lives Matter’?"

Interview with Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey of the International Women’s Network against Militarism and the 1970s Black feminist Combahee River Collective

Hey, everyone.

This is Tammy, bringing you a TTSG pod extra. 

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, an activist scholar of feminism and militarism and Professor Emerita at San Francisco State University. 

Margo was born in Japan, to a Japanese mother and a Black American father, and grew up in the United States. Her work, like her personal story, is deeply international and internationalist: she was a member of the 1970s Black feminist Combahee River Collective, in Boston (discussed in this piece, also published today, coincidentally, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor), and currently organizes with the International Women’s Network against Militarism, which connects local communities fighting the effects of the US empire. (Check out the Network’s recent teach-in, featuring voices from Cambodia to Puerto Rico.) 

When we spoke, I asked Margo about her view of multiracial organizing and evolving notions of history and identity in this time of Black Lives Matter. Below is an edited transcript of her part of the conversation. 

As always, thanks for subscribing to TTSG, and please be in touch with feedback via Twitter (@ttsgpod) or email (timetosaygoodbyepod@gmail.com).

Tax the rich,

Tammy

(Thanks to TTSG friend Don Mee Choi for introducing me to Margo last year.)

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Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, as told to Tammy –

“Black Lives Matter has played a super important part in inspiring people in this country and subsequently other countries really to see and understand the experiences of African American people. But more than that, it’s inspired us to think about other possibilities—that we don’t have to accept just what’s given to us as a reality. It’s also exciting that Black women and trans people and the people from groups who’ve been historically marginalized, even in progressive movements, are in leadership roles.

“Other countries have thought about the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter as a handle into something. We in the US have to be careful that we don’t think our analyses and our models are the ones that should be followed by every other place. That’s the kind of American exceptionalism and US dominance that gets manifested even by progressives. There’s a lot to learn from organizing in other parts of the world. It’s a moment of hope and inspiration but it’s also a moment of humility. 

“How do we connect the forces that are creating these manifestations in the US and elsewhere? First of all, people need to understand the history of this country from both sides of the continent, not just the East. The other thing is, we need to say, ‘We don’t know how to do this.’ We think we do, and we’ve tried some things, but we don’t know how to get out of the politics of scarcity.

“We need to get to another place where we say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and frame it as, ‘This is a moment where we can deal with the forces affecting all of us.’ ‘This is a both/and moment.’ That takes courage. That takes humility. 

“So many times, we frame things as zero-sum, even though we say, ‘We’re in solidarity with people of color.’ That’s the problem with politics based on identities and categories, because even within an identity, there are many people who don’t fit the essential categories. Blackness is conflated with people in the US of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved, and there is anti-Blackness in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t look like this. And to say, ‘This is the one,’ does a disservice, because if we’re really serious about creating change at the roots level, we have to look at the forces that produce Blackness as a bad thing in the first place, that colonized indigenous people, that created racial categories to suit people in power. 

“The solidarity work is a both-and proposition. At this moment, the police-abuse critique is very critical, but even if you use that frame, you see that Black women’s lives are worth less than Black men’s lives. There’s been many women who’ve been murdered by the police, but their names hardly show up. I think this moment is really a moment of questioning. What do we really mean when we say ‘Black Lives Matter’? This is an internal conversation among Black folks, and then other communities can think about that, too. For example, around the same time Mr. Floyd was murdered, there was the same sort of incident in Palestine, where an Israeli soldier had his leg on the neck of a Palestinian man, Eyad Hallaq. One gets rated as more important or gets a certain kind of visibility and the other doesn’t.

“We have this dominant African American-white European story as the race story. But if we roll it back and see the actual colonization of this continent, it started earlier—and, on this side [West Coast], with Spanish colonization and the enslavement of indigenous people too, although not to the scale of institutionalized slavery in the East.

“How can we get to a more complex and nuanced understanding of race and race politics in this moment that includes and honors the enslavement of African people, that takes very seriously the attempted genocide of indigenous people and the taking of the land, and includes the story of colonization of the West that then made people on this side, Mexicans, for example, and subsequently brought the Chinese workers?

“Then, how do we need to think about the role of the military? And I include here the police as well as the national military and militias, and the ways in which that institution has brought people in, to give them some illusion of honor. When I think of those police officers in Minneapolis standing by and not doing anything, I’m forced to think about what it means to be connected to the state, as its representative, but at the same time embodying this so-called racial category that’s despised and can be wiped out—the Asian and the African American.

“The ‘people of color’ category didn’t exist until a certain time we decided we needed solidarity. It was some time in the ’80s when we started using “women of color” to talk about all the racialized groups of women, and it was meant to be a political category, not just identity. That’s part of the problem: the political part, meaning the power part, has been discarded. ‘People of color’ used to be a very political category that said, ‘We’re united because we’ve all been racialized and minoritized.’ It was meant to be a term for empowerment. 

“Terms change, and what’s important to look at is how the terms changed over time. What happened, for example, from ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’? What were the politics involved in shaping that change? That’s what we need to look at.

“In Combahee, when we talked about ‘identity politics,’ what we were actually thinking about was that, once we come to grips with who we are, that’s a source of power. But we didn’t mean, then, that we think only about ourselves. There’s a line in the statement, ‘If Black women will be free, then all will be free.’ It’s not that we were the most oppressed, but that we needed to change the structures of power. If we change those, then there’s a chance that everyone would be free. The ‘oppression Olympics’ thing is really not helpful because it creates another kind of pyramid. Who’s oppressed is on the top, and everyone else is on the bottom.

“The younger generations, the college students now and a generation before, have benefited a lot from ethnic studies and gender studies because they now have the language to talk about a lot of their experiences that we didn’t have in my generation. So, on the one hand, they have the language; they have the analyses and all that, and they’re very enthusiastic. On the other hand, what I find frustrating is that our generation of academics has overtaught critique. You have an article or you watch a documentary, and the first thing students say is, ‘This is missing,  this is wrong with this organization, They didn’t deal with this.’ That’s a culture we were part of creating: you show you’re smart through criticizing only, not necessarily critiquing which also includes appreciating. 

“What’s really central in young people’s experience these days is, they face a huge material difference from when I was a university student. The economy looks really different. There was uncertainty back then, but not like there is now. The infrastructure in this country, the restructuring of work have a profound impact on this generation and generations going forward, unless we change it. 

“I’m very hopeful about this moment. It’s uncovered a lot of things and, as I understand it, the struggle isn’t ‘anti-Blackness,’ ‘pro-Trump’ / ‘anti-Trump.’ For me, when you peel back those levels, really, the global struggle is, ‘Are we going toward a life-affirming paradigm and worldview, or are we going to continue with the life-destroying one that’s continued for several hundred years taken us, steadily and surely, toward the destruction of the is planet and all that is good?”

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Further reading:

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