When the Black and Brown Workers Collective was founded in February 2016, creator Shani Akilah said, “This is a movement, not a moment,” and that is still true today. The collective issued its Call to Action and began directly engaging with institutions flagged for uplifting, protecting, and colluding in antiblack racist policies and practices. Philadelphia Fight, Mazzoni Center, and the Philadelphia bar ICandy were among our targets. We were committed to making spaces into sanctuaries for all LGBTQIA people, including black and brown ones. What we knew, given our experiences, was that despite the highly supported narrative that when you are marginal you can’t put anyone else on the margins wasn’t true. There has always been the perpetuation of racism, largely from cisgender white men, erasing the histories of queer and trans people of color. From Stonewall to the ballroom scene, we have known the violence of cultural appropriation and have felt the voices of Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major missing from the larger context of liberation movements.
When we declared our truth, white queers and others were immediately baffled, shocked, or just plain mad. They used words such as "divisive" and "angry" to describe our work. They sometimes would frame this newfound energy around the attention placed on structural oppression by claiming that the cadre of black and brown community members, including G Philly editor Ernest Owens, Gran Varones creator and cofounder Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, and Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs chair Sharron Cooks, were among the many amplifying this conversation surrounding inequity, transphobia, and imbalanced leadership that wasn’t reflective of the communities these institutions served, were in fact starting a "race war." Cooks is first trans person on a city commission in Philadelphia. The commission is led by Amber Hikes, the director of the Office of LGBT Affairs.
They were baffled because they're ignorant of their own "cherished" American history. May 1, May Day, is currently celebrated primarily in communist countries and has pejorative connataions for most Americans. But May Day is as American as apple pie. According to the Industrial Workers of the World, "At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886." The following year, the Federation of Organized Trades, backed by many Knights of Labor locals, reiterated its proclamation stating that it would be supported by strikes and demonstrations. At first, most radicals and anarchists regarded this demand as too reformist, failing to strike "at the root of the evil." A year before the Haymarket massacre, Samuel Fielden pointed out in the anarchist newspaper The Alarm that "whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave."
Cut to now. What was clear in this context was how committed white queers were to receiving unearned benefits and exclusivity because of their proximity to whiteness. They didn’t understand or want to understand that within the frameworks of white supremacist, colonialist structures, they were still privileged over black and brown people, regardless of sexual or gender identity. So much work has been done to show how identities, systems, and impacts could be mapped on a spectrum, antiblack racism, according to them, was still a binary. Using the logic that you could only be racist or not racist as a framework for the critique of our work, they’d go “Ham” on Facebook or other platforms by saying we were collectively inciting a “race war.” Sorry, my friends, but as brother Malcolm said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us!” I say, in that tradition, racism and its violence landed on us! Those with blind spots, colluders, or overt racists were able to agree that the only binary they wouldn’t disallow was that of racism.
Only when a racist bar owner uttered the n word repeatedly on video did some white queers stand in solidarity with the work because a “receipt” has proved what our demands, rage, and experiences have shown them already. People wanted boycotts, were disgusted by his apology, and placed their tears upon us like those tears would redress the violence. That video showed that intent was present to uphold racialized dress code policies that were alleged to have taken place at ICandy.
White queerdom, I challenge you to recognize your complicity within these systems and understand that you can still be marginalized and perpetuate, uphold, and create spaces that are antiblack. I challenge you to use your power, privilege, and positionality to be accomplice to the struggle for black liberation. I challenge you to understand, as Shani Akilah always says, that to be marginal means you’re still on the map — what about people not on that map at all?
ABDUL-ALIY A. MUHAMMAD is a Philadelphia-born born liberationist organizer with the Black and Brown Workers Collective. They contribute to TheBody.com and otherwise provide spaces with anti-oppression trainings with the BlaQollective. Recently they have launched a podcast, For Colored Boyz, which can be found on SoundCloud. Abdul-Aliy previously worked at Mazzoni Center as an HIV prevention counselor and as the coordinator of the Real Impact Project.