As victims of – and hopefully rebels against – white supremacy, we should recognize by now that we also fight against patriarchy and class exploitation. We also recognize that other people suffer from oppression in ways different from and similar to us.
Therefore we often attempt to identify and build alliances with other traditionally oppressed people of color. In our empathetic minds, such people constitute our “natural” allies domestically and globally.
This sentiment needs clarification and complication. Throughout history, whites have collectively been our chief enemies. This includes the European” explorers who eventually carved Africa into their colonial possessions.
This also includes those who stole or defaced our magnificent works of art, architecture, and so on. We certainly cannot exclude those white slave cathers, traders, overseers and “owners” who treated us like objects, exploited our labor, raped women and separated our families.
After the formal period of enslavement, these whites continued to exploit our labor through sharecropping, imprisonment and convict labor. They created secretive and cowardly organizations that attacked our homes and places of worship, then maimed, killed, and intimidated us from voting and running for political office.
They created an ongoing campaign of propaganda to degrade and devalue us that exists to this day. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, they enforced a state-sanctioned program of racial segregation and discrimination that formally lasted for decades. It is no lie or exaggeration of truth to recall the wicked and unjust legacy of white folk in our history.
Yet we don’t know what the future holds, and we shouldn’t lock ourselves into the notion that only whites represent enemy forces to us.
As political, economic, and demographic trends shift, Blacks might find that other “people of color” will emerge as our new exploiters and oppressors. In other words, the concept of “enemy” (and “ally) is dynamic, not fixed. Certainly we’ve had the experience of betrayal at the hands of allies before.
Inter-group tension like this naturally occurs when people compete for what they believe to be limited resources, and when deep hostility exists toward the other group. This problem escalates when people are in denial about it.
“Natural” alliances might exist between wild animals in the animal kingdom, but we humans are another species altogether. Unlike wild animals, we are not imprisoned by instinct. We can strategize, be vindictive, jealous, and self-serving. We feel shame, guilt, and have the underestimated power of choice.
Given this, the subject of alliances is not that simple in the human jungle. Alliances are built on shared political interests, priorities, consciousness, and relationships of trust. Alliances in short, must be cultivated and strategically formed.
As you read this, a new generation of “enemies” are investing heavily in African infrastructure, technology, finance and medicine and purchasing huge portions of African land.
In Guyana, one group holds numerous timber contracts. In many cases, they hire their own folks to do the work and ignore Guyanese workers, about whom they hold contemptuous feelings. This group is neither white nor capitalist.
In our local neighborhoods, some fellow “people of color” look upon us as lepers, harbor deep hostility toward us, refuse to work in solidarity with us and neglect to share economic and political resources. They are not white but are heavily capitalist, culturally disconnected, and hateful or dismissive of their African origins.
Another group of color has amassed several stores in our neighborhoods and we patronize them; but some members of this group also sell drugs to us in their stores, regularly sexually harrass Black girls and women, and often sell us overpriced and outdated goods (some of which their religious doctrine prohibits them from consuming).
On a certain island, one group of color brutalizes, discriminates against, and has even killed their Black co-habitants.
Some “people of color” come to us talking “solidarity” but practicing clannish and divisive behavior. Some preach inter-group alliances with us but don’t even respect and support Black people and fellow activists on a personal level. Some claim friendship but hate the literal and cultural African blood flowing through their veins.
We are vulnerable to such treatment because we are sometimes too welcoming and trusting of others, we are divided, and we have not reached national consensus regarding a Black political agenda, strategy, nor the criteria groups must meet to be our potential allies (or maybe I’m just completely ignorant of these developments).
Vulnerable groups dependent on others for employment, and goods/services, have little political leverage with the groups upon whom we depend, and who resent and mistreat us in daily interactions. Beyond rhetoric and grandiose proclamations, how do we trust or engage with people who disrespect our heritage and treat/perceive us in demeaning ways (strikingly similar to our white oppressors)?
In this climate, I urge us to be shrewd and strategic. We must reframe our notion of allies, and move away from simplistic biological determinants to those based on shared priorities, interests and symbiotic needs. Study Marcus Garvey more closely, especially his ideas about group political and national interests.
Regardless of who our enemies or so-called allies are, we must develop power to sustain, advance and protect ourselves and our interests! We also must have the capacity to make people pay for betrayal and duplicity!
This doesn’t imply that we should not seek and develop allies. Nor does this insinuate that we physically attack those who betray us. It means that we can no longer think in terms of seeing this or that group as an organic or “natural ally” simply because we share similarities in our oppressed experiences or hue. Simply being “of color” means nothing to us politically, if that group sides with establishment thinking, anti-Black practices or fantasies of biological superiority.
Every racial or ethnic group contains people who absorb anti-progressive ideas. Likewise some members of every group are self-hating and deeply conflicted on matters of group solidarity and political empowerment or identity.
Don’t “get caught with your pants down.” Take ancestor John Henrik Clarke’s words seriously and follow local, national and global news/trends.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and protest. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.