Discover more from Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book
What Is Vital To Your Survival?
Beyond the Book: The Internet, Abortions, and our definitions of Freedom
Last week, when news broke that Elon Musk was buying Twitter, I swiftly disabled my Twitter account. Twitter has been instrumental to my career. It was one of the most important platforms for getting my work out to the masses when “traditional” publishers weren’t checking for me, and it was a really wonderful place to meet other Black people working for freedom and justice, as well as connecting with activists and thinkers in various queer, disabled, sex worker communities and other communities of color. For all that it has meant to me in the past, the decision to shut down my account was quick and easy. Twitter had become an increasingly unsafe space for me as a Black woman, and when it was announced that the platform was going to be bought by one of the biggest trolls out there - I left with a sigh of relief.
A few days ago I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Sonya Renee Taylor for an event with Seattle Arts and Lectures at LANGSTON. It was wonderful to see Sonya again and our conversation was deep, challenging, and enriching in so many ways. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
As we were getting ready to go onstage, my partner informed us of the breaking news that the supreme court decision on abortion rights had been leaked. We took that heaviness with us into the event, part of a speaking series I had very optimistically titled “Our Existence Beyond Trauma.”
Even with such heavy news, our discussion that night was beautiful. Yes, we talked about abortion rights and reproductive justice. We also talked about community, joy, spirituality and so much more. Time and time again we found that we were talking about liberation.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two seemingly unrelated recent events - the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk and the destruction of reproductive rights - and how they both, at their core, are issues of power and liberation.
Both the sale of Twitter and the destruction of abortion rights have been hailed as victories for freedom and justice by many on the right. Twitter will now be a place where abled, cis white men can say and do whatever they want, whenever they want in that space, without any accountability to the women, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and people of color that they harm. Now, people who cannot stand the idea of people with uteruses making their own medical decisions will be able to stop people from doing so. At its core, these warped and very flimsy definitions of freedom are based in white supremacy and the sexism, ableism, queerphobia, transmisogyny and classism also integral to white supremacy. The freedom of white men to harass and threaten women and people of color on the internet is only freedom when you do not value the freedom of women and people of color to exist online without being harmed. The freedom of conservatives to not have to stomach the idea of people with uteruses deciding to make the healthcare choice to terminate a pregnancy is only freedom when you value it so much more than the freedom of people who aren’t cis dudes to avoid the mental, emotional, physical, and economic devastation of forced birth.
I would love to be able to imagine that we live in a different world than this. And on the surface it looks like it should be different, right? If you were to ask the average person, “should Black women be threatened and called racist slurs online?” The answer of most people would be a quick and resounding, “No.” National studies have for generations shown that the majority of Americans support abortion rights and are against the removal of said rights.
And yet here we are, Twitter still standing strong after being bought by someone who has made his intentions clear to create an online environment more hospitable to the harassment of people from marginalized populations. Here we are, with a conservative supreme court, Roe v. Wade about to be struck down, and multiple states passing horrific anti-choice laws.
There are many reasons why we are here. Foundationally there is the fact that institutions built to support and protect white supremacist capitalist patriarchy will never, ever - ever ever ever - serve us. They cannot be convinced to, they cannot be bullied into, they cannot be reformed to. As I’ve said before: you can change the color of the icing on a poisoned cake all you want - that shit is still going to kill you. It’s literally baked in.
But why didn’t we fight harder? Why is it always so easy? Why is it so easy to remove our rights? Why is it so easy to make us less safe? Why is it so easy for cops to kill us? Why is it so easy for oppression to snatch any freedom we gain right out of our hands? Where is this majority that knows it’s wrong, and why aren’t these white dudes scared of it?
Because that majority doesn’t really exist. It’s quite easy to say that you believe in reproductive justice. It’s easy to say that you think racism is wrong. It’s easy for you to say that you believe in freedom and equality. But what we say and what we do are two very different things.
If it still seems like a stretch or at the very least self-indulgent to still be grouping in twitter and abortion rights, just stay with me here. This does come together and it does matter.
What is vital to your survival?
That’s not a question to blurt out an answer to. I want you to think for a moment. We respond to threat above all else. We are animals geared, like most others, to fight for survival and to be alert for threats to our survival. So when I ask you what is vital to your survival, I am not asking you to give me what your intellect knows - yes we know that we need food, shelter, etc... I’m asking you to give me what your body knows, what the deepest parts of your brain knows.
If you want to know what is vital to your survival, look at what you respond to as a threat, and what you do not.
What has you ready to fight? What has you arming yourself spiritually, intellectually, even physically? What would make you scream? What would you claw and tear for? What would you battle others for?
When I was speaking with Sonya she said that Black women are oriented towards freedom. If I was to put my own spin on that here, I would say that we are people who intrinsically know that liberation is vital to our survival.
We are oriented toward freedom because we are literally dying from lack of it. In a world that has constantly, generation after generation, worked to deny our liberty, we understand deeply - on a level that many with more privilege do not - that the lack of liberty will kill us. Our definition of liberty is more true because of how truly and openly we’ve been denied it and how clearly we’ve been able to see what it costs us. Our belief in liberation as vital to our survival is proved true in our actions. This is why we have led struggles for freedom for generation after generation. We who have been so exploited, abused, and disenfranchised. We who have so little institutional power to uphold or cling to. We who are more likely to see liberation as the boot being lifted off our necks, and recognize that wherever those boots exist they are a threat to us all - because so many of them, worn by so many different groups of people, find their way to our necks and they have never been distracted with other oppressions long enough for us to get a chance to breathe easy.
White supremacy convinces people that power is vital to survival. It will convince you that power is liberation. Sonya Renee Taylor aptly calls this “white supremacist delusion.” White supremacy will convince you that that which threatens the liberation of others does not threaten you. White supremacy will convince you that that which threatens your power is a threat to your survival. White supremacy will tell you that liberation is the freedom to defend your idea of power in whatever way you see fit. And because white supremacy requires that power be relational - how much power you have over and verses others - it will convince you that freedom requires that you maintain hierarchies of power.
So if you aren’t concerned about the ability of … say … Black women to be able to exist online (a space not only used for social connection, but to find employment, understand the world, manage health information, access education, organize and maintain protest and resistance to oppression and so much more) it is because either you don’t see that freedom for Black women as vital for your survival or because you view the restriction of the ability of people to harass and threaten Black women whenever they challenge white patriarchy as a threat to your survival.
If you are distraught and outraged by the destruction of abortion rights by the supreme court - if you are out in the streets protesting or calling your senators or throwing money at Planned Parenthood right now - chances are you view your access or the access of your loved ones to a safe and legal abortion as vital to your survival. But if you haven’t been outraged about how few birth control options are fully accessible to Black women then you don’t view true reproductive freedom or the liberation of Black women as vital to your survival. If you haven’t been fighting for Native parents to be able to keep their children as they are disproportionally targeted by government child protection agencies then you don’t view reproductive freedom or the liberation of Native people as vital to your survival. If you haven’t been fighting for equal pay and worker protections for Black, Native and Hispanic women that would allow them to be able to make reproductive choices not dictated by economic necessity, then you don’t view reproductive freedom or the liberation of Black, Native and Hispanic women as vital to your survival. If you haven’t been fighting for trans and non-binary and gender-nonconforming people to access reproductive care that actually meets their needs and does not abuse, degrade, or disempower them, then you do not view reproductive freedom or the liberation of trans, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming people as vital to your survival. If you haven’t been fighting for the ability of disabled people to access reproductive care and make their own reproductive decisions then you do not view reproductive freedom or the liberation of disabled people as vital to your survival.
As more and more people are forced out of online spaces for threatening white supremacist patriarchy people will turn to Black women, who have been fighting for their freedom in these spaces alone for so long and who are still disproportionally targeted by the same forces that others are just beginning to come up against. As abortion rights are restricted in ways that now impact middle class, cis, abled, white women many will turn to the struggle that those of us who have long fought for reproductive freedom have built and led. They will turn to the networks that we have built when they have neglected to build resources outside of white supremacist institutions. But will they then look at our whole struggle as vital to their survival? If they had, if they had fought all of the ways in which white supremacist patriarchy has maintained a firm grip on the majority of our reproductive rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
People love to say, “listen to Black women” as if we are oracles they can turn to in times of trouble. People only look to us when there is reasonable fear that they may be treated the same as us. But if we are canaries in the coal mine, you cannot blame the mine for killing us alone when you are the ones staring at the cage trying to see what our death means for your prospects further down the shaft. But no canary would willingly fly down into the noxious fumes to their death. If we are canaries in the coal mine, then you will only learn what kills us, and not where we would fly if free. Even if the canary doesn’t die, it - and you - will still be trapped. It will be only a matter of time until the collapse or the wear and tear of the exploitative work pulls you apart. As long as you view your freedom as the ability to hold the cage, your survival will always take you down a path to disaster.
What if we recognized that freedom defined by power is a cage that keeps us walking toward our own harm, satisfied all the way to our demise that at least others are going down before us?
What would it look like if those most harmed by our oppressive systems were not dragged to doom but instead followed and nurtured toward freedom? What would it look like if we recognized that systems that center and serve the most marginalized of us will serve us all better than those that prioritize privilege ever could?
So what is vital to your survival? Am I vital to your survival? Is the healing, care, and autonomy of an imprisoned woman of color vital to your survival? Is the safety and joy of a homeless queer kid vital to your survival? If we are, what would it look like to act like it?
Thank you for reading. If you liked this newsletter and want to support my work, please consider subscribing here:
Ijeoma Oluo: Behind the Book is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.