Henia Belalia
Coming together: reclaiming memory and reconciling identity
Article published on 28 April 2014
dernière modification le 1 May 2014
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This week, thousands of youth boycotted the presidential elections in Algeria
in protest of the likely success of an ailing president who is now in office for his fourth term. But ultimately, the roots of the protests ran much deeper: state institutions that uphold the status quo, an economy too reliant on oil exports, and the lack of economic and employment opportunities for the younger generations. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s National Liberation Front, which won the election even amongst rumors of fraud and the president’s own poor health, was once a political party that claimed liberation. Now, it has adopted many of the ways of the colonialist empire.

For me, a woman of color whose family, native to Algeria, left for France and later for the United States, the political state of Algeria is a reality that is complicated to sit with — and one that reminds me of the nuances of building a truly liberatory multiracial movement.

Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that my people have survived long enough to birth me. For years, imperialism and capitalism have attempted to exterminate us through colonization, militarism and forced economic development. Even as Algeria forced out the European settlers, decolonized our lands, and gained independence in July 1962, the dominant culture attempted to do away with our traditional heritage. The media demonized our people, casting all Arabs as dirty and dangerous. Imperialist nations have benefited just as much from colonialism and the theft of our lands as they have from the indoctrination of our minds through the erasure of our ancient ways, memories, traditions and cultures.

What my own history has taught me, as a person born at the intersections of colonized and settler culture, is that in today’s world being a person of color is complex. Our identities go beyond skin color or ethnicity, because the systems within which we exist and the oppressions they perpetuate are complex.

The complexities that have been used for generations to divide communities of color now also shed light on the journey ahead and begin to answer the questions of how we liberate our minds and how we begin the process of coming together. The mainstream culture has pitted our people against one another and left us fighting for crumbs from the master’s table. As people of color, we need to unite to fight back, whatever our class, gender or ethnicity may be. From there, we can genuinely talk about building a multiracial movement that includes those who’ve been on the margins for generations.

Looking back

In itself, the term “people of color,” often called POC, is a product of a more comprehensive understanding of racialization through time. The expansion of its use in the 1960s and 70s within the United States coincided with the surge of national liberation movements that were dismantling colonialist empires abroad. While natives the world over were kicking settlers out of their territory, their brothers and sisters living in the Global North (as migrants, refugees, in the ghettos and on the margins) were fighting to dismantle the white supremacy ingrained in their laws, institutions and mainstream consciousness.

Historically, communities of color have been misplaced under the same umbrella of oppressions, which is problematic in that it erases our unique identities and lived experiences. What has emerged, instead, is the need for a framework that can transcend what scholar Salvador Vital-Ortiz calls the “disadvantages … based on different variables
(e.g., access to education, housing, employment, immigration status, English proficiency).” That said, a collective identity cannot come at the price of neglecting these complexities and differences.

Indigenous Cherokee activist and scholar Andrea Smith clearly exposes this phenomenon in her framework of the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” which are slavery/capitalism; genocide/colonialism; orientalism/war. She expands on the notion that white supremacy operates differently in how it has impacted our communities over time. This has often made us complicit in the oppression of others — even through our strategies of resistance.

“What keeps us trapped within our particular pillars of white supremacy is that we are seduced by the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars,” she writes.

“For example, all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands. All non-Black peoples are promised that if they comply, they will not be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. And Black, Native, Latino and Asian peoples are promised that they will economically and politically advance if they join U.S. wars to spread ‘democracy,’ which serves to cast Arabs and Latinos as ‘perpetual foreign threats to the U.S. world order.’”

Identifying as a person of color doesn’t mean we should adopt uniform politics and values. In order to take down systems of white supremacy, we don’t need to negate that our oppressions and realities look very different. Instead, there are some very real tensions for us to hold in the face of overlapping systems of oppression, and those realities carry profound implications within our organizing. The times are calling for us to be more interrelated in our analysis, more demanding in our definitions of success, and more aware of each other as we build collective power.

Having each other’s backs

For generations, we’ve been doing the system’s dirty work by fighting one another and throwing each other under the bus. As our own people have been systematically targeted, this defense mechanism has been one of our primary means of survival. As we were ripped from our roots, through forced migration, colonial borders and the industrialization of our labor and resources, we were also misled about our neighbors’ existence. As we were forced to assimilate within a system that has thrived at the cost of our forgotten memories, we were bred to distance ourselves from other communities of color. We were taught to neglect our own histories, and to forget whose lands we’re standing on and whose stolen labor built this country’s economy.

Our work today is one of unlearning. We must unlearn the stories we’ve been spoon-fed through the media about our place in the world and our self-worth; the history we were taught in school from the imperialist perspective; the values that were imposed upon us by a white-dominated system; and the presumptions we were made to believe about other marginalized groups. With every bit that we unlearn, we create spaces for rediscovering and reclaiming what has been stolen from us, including the sacred knowledge that our ancestors have passed on. With every piece of wisdom that we reclaim, we allow space for the reconciliation of historical feuds with communities carrying the burden of white supremacy. From that deep, slow work, we gain new understandings and ways of relating and honoring one another.

Recently, writer and creator of Black Girl Dangerous, Mia McKenzie raised a question within the context of a twitter dialogue (#CancelColbert) that ensued as a response to racially offensive jokes on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show. The opinions were divided, and many people of color defended white racial satire as a legitimate tool to “end racism.”

In response to that argument, McKenzie asked: “Why is their ‘education-in-the-form-of-racist-jokes-that-are-satirical-so-it’s-okay’ more important than the people we know for sure exist who are harmed by these jokes?”

What her question raises for me is how we challenge ourselves to find common ground. As we take the time to dismantle our own internalized oppressions and reeducate ourselves, we also must learn how to have each other’s backs.

Honoring the wisdom of our ancestors

The good news is that the current dominant sociopolitical system has failed in erasing us. Our cultures and memories have survived. We still carry that ancient knowledge deeply imprinted within our psyche and vividly alive within our traditions, even in those instances when it takes us considerable effort and time to retrieve this knowledge. We know it in our flesh, and can feel it reawakened through the drumming of our djembes or the smells coming from our kitchens.

Photo-documentarist La Loba Loca recently wrote a post about the ancestral wisdom we carry in our flesh,
as a process of “constantly (re)claiming, (re)creating, (re)membering, (re)imagining Abuelita (grandmother) Knowledge.”

This Abuelita Knowledge has shown up for me in many ways: in ritual and ceremony, music and dance, shared food, and the slowing down of time. Healing happens through shared tears over cups of tea, at poetry readings surrounded by dozens of other migrants and refugees, and during the time we take to bring our community together for cross-cultural dinners. Reclamation lies in our story-telling circles, in the rituals that call in our ancestors, in the anecdotes and recipes from our homelands. The reconciliation happens with the questions we raise as we connect the dots between our struggles and the care we take in not perpetuating subtle but toxic systemic oppressions.

Rather than coming together in ways that continue to compromise the healing of historical traumas, many of which are still playing out as violent realities for our communities, let’s be more demanding — more demanding in how we show up for each other, in how we sit through the inconvenient conversations, in how we honor the complexities of our identities. If our final destination is a multiracial liberatory movement, let’s honor the deep collective work it will take to get there.

P.S. :

Hénia Belalia, a French-Algerian native, is a climate justice and migrant rights defender, a facilitator, a theatre director and a day-dreamer of collective liberation. Her work is defined by a constantly evolving practice of decolonization, healing ancestral traumas, and solidarity to front lines of struggle, with a framework rooted in intersecting and overlapping systemic oppressions. She is currently on the National Coordinating Committee of Deep Roots United Front.



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