Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Civil Rights, But Just for Me

A must-read for anyone who cares about social justice and human rights. I posted comments on her blog, which I would have pasted at the bottom, but they haven't shown up on her blog yet. But do read the other commenters too, since not all of them agree with Tami. I originally got the post from Racialicious.

Civil rights, But Just for Me

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

I was going to begin this post be talking about Mohandas Gandhi. I was going to chastise Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and new leader of the civil rights organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), for her hateful pronouncement, recounted in The Guardian: “I know down in my sanctified soul that [MLK] did not take a bullet for samesex unions.”

I was going to point out that Gandhi, who is said to have inspired MLK, did not take a bullet for black Americans. His cause was the oppressed people of India. But the universal truth of his message–resistance to tyranny, nonviolence and the fundamental equality of all people–was as applicable on the North American continent as the Asian one. Bernice King’s father realized that.

How small and hateful and contrary to the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi it would have been if, during the height of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, a surviving family member had proclaimed that “down in their souls” they were certain that Gandhi didn’t take a bullet for Negroes to ride on the front of the bus.

To my surprise, while doing a little research on the martyr known as “The Great One,” I discovered that, though time has cemented Gandhi in the public consciousness as a loving but determined champion for world equality. He may well not have supported civil rights for all marginalized people.

From Wikipedia:
Some of Gandhi’s early South African articles are controversial. On 7 March 1908, Gandhi wrote in the Indian Opinion of his time in a South African prison: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized – the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.”[14] Writing on the subject of immigration in 1903, Gandhi commented: “We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do… We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race.”[15] During his time in South Africa, Gandhi protested repeatedly about the social classification of blacks with Indians, who he described as “undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs”.[16] It is worth noting that during Gandhi’s time, the term Kaffir had a different connotation than its present-day usage. Remarks such as these have led some to accuse Gandhi of racism.[17]


In 1906, after the British introduced a new poll-tax, Zulus in South Africa killed two British officers. In response, the British declared a war against the Zulus. Gandhi actively encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts in order to legitimize their claims to full citizenship. The British, however, refused to commission Indians as army officers. Nonetheless, they accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of Indians volunteer as a stretcher bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi. On 21 July 1906, Gandhi wrote in Indian Opinion: “The corps had been formed at the instance of the Natal Government by way of experiment, in connection with the operations against the Natives consists of twenty three Indians”.[22] Gandhi urged the Indian population in South Africa to join the war through his columns in Indian Opinion: “If the Government only realized what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and give Indians the opportunity of a thorough training for actual warfare.”[23] In Gandhi’s opinion, the Draft Ordinance of 1906 brought the status of Indians below the level of Natives. He therefore urged Indians to resist the Ordinance along the lines of satyagraha by taking the example of “Kaffirs“. In his words, “Even the half-castes and kaffirs, who are less advanced than we, have resisted the government. The pass law applies to them as well, but they do not take out passes.”[24]

I was wrong about Gandhi having a message of world equality. At least early in his life he believed that some people are more equal than others.

What is it about us that makes us fight for our own freedom and equality, but sit comfortably with the bondage and oppression of others? Even the man heralded as one of the world’s greatest civil rights leaders believed “all men are created equal”…but for those over there.

My discovery convinced me of two things:

The greatest battle for marginalized peoples may not be the biases of the majority culture, but the way those biases are embraced by minority cultures. How much stronger would all of the equality movements be if we were working together to cement the idea that EVERYONE, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, ability, etc., deserved basic human rights and respect?

Instead, we learn to hate ourselves, while fighting to demonstrate our superiority over other marginalized people. We fight each other over scraps. We fail to leverage our own dehumanization as a tool to empathize with the dehumanization of others. Instead, we seek to demonstrate, as Gandhi once advocated in South Africa, “See, majority, we’re just like you. The pair of us are equally better than those people.” I deserve rights; they do not.
The fight for equality and human rights might well be over if marginalized people worked together. But we do not.

I think, this is also true: it does not matter what Gandhi thought of black people or what Martin Luther King thought of gay people. For all the deification, they are both just men, fallible men–men of a different time and place (Mohandas Gandhi was born in the 19th century, for goodness sake.), men who were just as influenced by the biases of their day as any of us are, men like those who wrote “all men are created equal” and yet owned men, women and children as property. Do we even know whether MLK would have approved of a woman (his daughter or no) as head of the SCLC? His views and treatment of women were not exactly enlightened. That Gandhi did not believe in the inherent equality of all brown people; that King may not have approved of gay marriage–I couldn’t care less.

TODAY matters. It matters that we come to understand that “divided we fall” in the battle for human rights. It matters that we learn that if you are not about justice for all, you are not about justice and that a civil rights organization that does not advocate for across the board human rights is not a civil rights organization. (This goes as much for homophobic black civil rights groups as it does for gay rights groups that marginalize people of color and transgender people.)

And that a civil rights leader who takes time out from advocating for equality to call out who, in fact, should not be equal, is not much of a leader at all–pedigree be damned.

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