I don’t think it will come as a surprise to you to hear that my family is very politically-minded. Our existence as a Black household is inherently political, and my partner and I have both made liberation and abolition a large part of our creative work. I am the type of parent who loves to find opportunities to lecture on racism, patriarchy, ableism. My kids know when it’s coming and can often predict pretty much word-for-word what I’m going to say. One of my main goals in raising my children is to raise children who are aware of their privilege in the world, aware of systems of oppression in the world, aware of the beauty of this world, and feel connected enough to others in the world to feel a responsibility to use that privilege to do radical good.
If you were to talk with my children, you would not find regurgitations of my own political beliefs. I do believe that I have had a hand in creating a political environment from which they have drawn heavily from, but my children have very strong senses of self and see the world through their own unique points of view. It’s very interesting to raise children and watch them try on different ideologies and viewpoints as they grow and learn. The teenage years can be quite the nail-biter for politically-concerned parents. I’ve had to trust that I’ve created the best space I can for my children to grow into kind, socially responsible adults. The rest is up to them.
My youngest child, now fifteen, has always been very interested in politics. He was asking me questions about why the world works they way that it does from a very early age - questions that I wish many adults asked more often. We should listen to the questions that young children ask more closely. Many of the most important ones have remained unanswered for multiple generations, and we just have been too busy pretending to have all the answers to notice.
As my child has gotten older, he has moved from the teenage phase that had absolutely no use for any of my political opinions because his were obviously better and more informed because they came from youtube instead of his incredibly uncool and impossibly old mom, to a phase where he’s now more willing to bounce an idea or two off of me to see what I think - and is willing to be surprised by the possibility that some of the things being introduced to him on the internet are actually detailed in the pages of my books that he refuses to read.
He is in an age of amazing growth, and I’m so impressed with his heart and his curiosity and the strength of his moral compass. But as he’s been growing and learning, he’s also been experiencing the heartbreak and dissolution that many of us who were once fired-up political youths have also experienced.
My son is, quite regularly these days, angry at “the left.” He will burst into my room in frustration. “Mom, can you believe this..” or “Mom, you know what I hate?” and he will rant about a certain politician or political pundit who claims to be “progressive” while fighting against those who are fighting for actual change. His confusion and outrage is met with my bone-tired weariness from a lifetime of similar disappointments that can no longer shock.
This work is exhausting, but I don’t want my son to be exhausted. This work can be disappointing, but I don’t want my son to become jaded. And so I try to give him advice that I wish had been given to me. I tell him: know the difference between harm reduction and liberation. Know the purposes for both, and know who is trying to sell you one, while giving you the other.
Harm reduction can be defined in a lot of different ways, but in this political context when we dealing with systemic oppression, I am talking about efforts to reduce the more immediate harms of oppressive systems while they remain standing.
Often, the change advocated for in “progressive” political circles and in more mainstream activist groups is harm reduction.
Harm reduction almost always falls far short of the change that we need to end oppression. Harm reduction doesn’t necessarily aim to remove or revolutionize the oppressive systems in place, but it aims to increase our chances of survival under these systems. Harm reduction usually works within systems, whereas abolitionist and more liberatory practices usually must work outside of systems.
Abolitionist and liberatory movements seek to demolish or greatly revolutionize existing systems. They recognize that the oppression and exploitation that built these systems makes them impossible to reform, and they recognize that true liberatory solutions will be fundamentally different than our existing systems in just about every way and will not be carceral or patriarchal in nature. They recognize that wherever these current oppressive systems are allowed to stand, they are a threat to the freedoms of all people.
As our current political system moves further and further towards fascism, the sense of urgency for those of us targeted by these systems has increased, and the battle for resources between those who advocate for harm reduction and those who advocate for abolition has become more brutal.
But harm reduction is not the enemy of abolition and liberation - at least not on its own. Harm reduction is vital to our survival. It is regularly practiced by abolitionists every day. Therapy is often harm reduction. Mutual aid is harm reduction. Self-care and community care is harm reduction. Harm reduction reminds us that we are not to be sacrificed to the battle against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, that we deserve to live now and not just in a revolutionary future. Harm reduction is also strategic. It creates the space and relative safety that we need to heal from wounds, to build and plan.
But harm reduction that isn’t self-aware can be very harmful itself. And harm reduction that pretends to be revolution can be our downfall.
Harm reduction is sold to us as revolution every day. And it is appealing. It seems easier, faster. It doesn’t’ ask too much of us when we are already so exhausted. It doesn’t require that we divest from systems of oppression. Harm reduction sold to us as revolution often appeals to individualist forms of comfort and security. And harm reduction sold to us as revolution will almost always seek to tie us to a static place and time, telling us that this bit of progress is one that we can’t risk moving past, lest we lose all that we’ve gained. Harm reduction sold to us as revolution will tie us to our oppression in ways that we don’t often see.
As those who seek to further our oppression move our political goal posts further and further right, harm reduction is painted more and more as the best we can hope for.
It is difficult to keep our true goals in sight when so many obstacles are being put in our way. It is difficult to tell if we are fighting a necessary threat to our lives, or being effectively distracted from our freedom - and sometimes both are happening at once.
But I try to remember, and to remind my son, that right now there are people who are trying to reduce harm, and there are people who are trying to get us free. And while sometimes that will be the same people, it will almost never be the same actions.
We all have to operate within oppressive systems, and as we age, our ties to these systems become stronger. I have to operate within many oppressive systems in order to survive and to care for my family. It is vital that I know when I’m working within oppressive systems, and vital that I not become too wed to my place within these systems. All of these complicated balancing acts that to an idealistic teen, can seem like a loss of dedication or even a betrayal.
I’m not perfect at this - far from it. I think that all of us who seek liberation are regularly confronted by the ways in which we have been coopted into our own oppression - and are kept up at night wondering at all of the ways that we haven’t been made aware of yet.
And while I seek to provide my son some of the perspective that may help prevent some of the heartbreak and dissolution of this work, his moral certainty and more unobstructed view of liberation are vital to my own humanity. My son regularly reminds me of what I’m fighting for, while I try to show him all of the ways that he is, indeed, already
being fought for.
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Thank you. I appreciate how you use words to untangle complicated, interconnected concepts and actions.
Wow. Thank you for this post; it is so good, Ijeoma. I could not agree more on all fronts. Thank you so much for this-- as an abolitionist now working outside of systems, as I left harm reduction in this context long ago, I often find myself reeling from the pain of this world. It is what I sincerely need to read right now—deep gratitude and appreciation to you and all you do for this world.