Monday, February 17, 2014

Holding it together even when we are insulted

From time-to-time I recall being privileged to join Diane Nash and two others on a panel at the University of Minnesota-Duluth back in the day, the title of which was "Nonviolence and Public Policy." I was further fortunate in spending a few hours in the company of Nash as we enjoyed the campus in-between an earlier class and the evening panel discussion. Nash, to me, embodies many elements of what we consider in my field of Peace and Conflict Studies when we discuss identity conflict.
Diane Nash "following" from the leading edge, Nashville TN, April 1960

Whatever your identity groups are, there are three basic stances that can result from them.

One, you may be in the powerful majority, hegemonic, dominating others.

Two, you may be in the powerless minority, intimidated and often exploited.

Three, you may be in a society that dominates and exploits no identity group and thus just happy for your own identity and everyone else's. That is the utopian vision of the "Peaceable Kindom" that Liz McAlister and others have contemplated. She and others recommend living right now as though that utopia is the reality, even as we nonviolently resist any oppression suffered by anyone.

So, with regard to identity groups, these stances in ethical terms might be considered negative or positive depending on each person's attitude and practices within that society.

The negatives might include being complicit or actively participating in using one's identity group to suppress others, or in some internalized oppression if you are a member of an oppressed identity group. Internalized oppression can result in support for the oppressor--either in self-loathing acceptance of oppression or in collaboration with the oppressor in order to jointly oppress members of your oppressed identity group.

The positives might involve a member of an oppressed identity group rising up in nonviolent resistance and taking steps to formulate a win-win outcome, making society better for all and dampening potential future retribution by parties that lose in a struggle.

Everyone has multiple identities and in my time listening to Diane Nash it became apparent that the Civil Rights movement was anything but a simple black and white conflict. Still, the common complaint Nash mentions in speeches, in our conversation back in the 1990s, and in various interviews that are written about, is "humiliation" (Ackerman & DuVall, 2000; Ownes & Wilson, 2013). As a young black woman from Chicago, she was not raised in Jim Crow segregation where there were signs for restrooms by race, service to whites and not blacks in many restaurants, and many other clear and blatant expressions of identity repression. This united African Americans and in Nashville the movement was organizing toward the next big campaign. The first was school desegregation that resulted in Brown v Board of Education in 1954, legally ordering school desegregation, but that had the street phase in the late 1950s in places like Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, putting it into effect. The second campaign was the Montgomery bus boycott, with its 1956 victory.

Nash and her fellow activists won that campaign, the sit-in struggle. But she told me of other internal struggles in the movement and each one carried that identity-humiliation factor. Women were subordinate. Youth were overruled by the older ministers. Gender is certainly an identity issue (and many are now noting that gender is not a biaxial male-female divide, but rather a rich continuum with major clusters of identity groups at various points). Age is another identity group (as all new cohorts earn various names and descriptions).

Southern racists succeeded, generally, in vicious enough oppression to unite African Americans no matter how their identity group was further factioned, but the internal struggles within those circled wagons were fierce and sometimes lifelong. Nash really wanted me to understand this. "We sometimes grew very frustrated with the dictates of the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference--the ministerial association MLK led] in general and Martin King specifically," she said. "We would start rolling our eyes and referring to him as 'De Lawd.'" She had high praise for Ella Baker, who urged the youth to form their own group, which they did, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. And the struggles of women within the Civil Rights movement were legendary--the most infamous moment of all was when Stokley Carmichael said the proper position of women in the movement was on their backs. Was he being 'funny'? Many women didn't feel the humor and most of us, men and women, still don't. He was being as funny as a white Southern gentleman using the "n" word, and no matter how wide the smile, it feels like a smirk. Identity groups don't like being smirked at.

So we may find unity at one level in a movement and bifurcation at other levels. and the task is to prevent the latter from factioning the former, a monumental but crucial aspect. It is all work, and persistence, and more patience with each other than we think we can muster.

Ackerman, Peter, & DuVall, Jack (2000). A force more powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

OWENS, D., & WILSON, W. L. (2013). UNSUNG HEROINES of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Essence (Time Inc.),44(6), 126.

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