Blog Archives

Pacifism in the Context of White Privilege

three brown individuals approach a police officer in riot gear, one kicking the officer's shieldI’m a pretty extreme pacifist. Beyond not believing in violence as a general solution, I practice non-violence to the extent that I don’t plan to defend myself (beyond running away!) if I’m ever violently attacked. I’m on a slow but steady trajectory, as well, towards veganism for this reason.

But that said, I don’t advocate pacifism to others. Please, please punch Nazis. And if you are black or brown and your means of resistance is violent, then I fully support your right to use violence as a part of your resistance strategy. White people have systemically engaged in horrific and unconscionable violence against black and brown people for hundreds, and I assume thousands, of years. So any white person who suggests that black and brown folks must resist using non-violent means is frankly full of shit.

I think it’s important for white pacifists to acknowledge that we’re coming from a place of enormous privilege. Many of us have never actually been in a violent situation, or in a situation where our only means of resistance was violence. We don’t have any lived experience of structural oppression and violence of the kind that black, brown, and Native folks face on the regular. So while I still believe in pacifism as a philosophy, my belief has shifted from something universal to something situational and specific. I want to avoid, as an individual, perpetrating violence, while at the same time being aware that I will spend the rest of my life complicit in extreme structural violence and genocide. Pacifism doesn’t wipe my slate clean of that fact, and it’s a choice made in context.

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Fighting to Gain Equal Access to Problematic Institutions

I’ve been encouraged by the recent outpouring of feeling and response from politicians, community leaders, and “regular people” regarding queer teen suicide.  Of course, part of me thinks “wow, what a big fucking case of too little, too late” and another part can’t help but notice that none of the trans or intersex teen suicides seem to be making the headlines.   But I think it’s important that we recognize that every day, the basic rights of queer people are violated.  For years, the most important “gay issues” to me have been suicide, hate crimes, and discrimination.  But those haven’t been the “sexy issues,” and they don’t get talked about.

I seem to spend half my time in queer activist circles ranting about marriage and the military, but in reality, the problem I have with privileging those two issues goes beyond the issues themselves.  Whenever any group is working for equal rights, there comes the question of what people in that group want equal rights to. When the answer is access to an institution, the equality fight can be problematic if the institution itself is problematic.

I personally have big issues with both marriage and the military as a radical, a pacifist, a feminist, and someone who believes in community action and organizing but can be suspicious of state involvement in private lives.  The US military is an imperialist machine, while marriage is a patriarchal institution that grants the state control over interpersonal relationships and gender relations.  But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with an individual wanting to marry, or to join the military.  It falls along the same lines of being pro-sex workers, but anti-exploitation.  Of course, equal access means equal access to our society’s most problematic institutions, as well as those we most fervently believe in.

From an organizing perspective, this means that there are going to be some challenges.  My response is to privately support queer people who want to join the military or marry, while avoiding those issues professionally and choosing queer rights issues that I can wholeheartedly get behind.  At the same time, part of my response is to be an activist against patriarchy and imperialism, for feminism and racial equality and peace.  Part of that is creating options that accommodate people who do want to join the military or marry, for example by coming up with creative solutions for state recognition of a greater diversity of relationships or by creating opportunities for young people to make a living and attend college that don’t require unjustified violence against people of color.