by BeeBee Buchanan
Although many would like to believe that recent debates over racism, sexism, and oppression on campus are new, for someone like me — a Black, queer, non-binary educator — these issues are deeply historical. The most recent struggle has revolved around Milo Yiannopoulos, a fascist, racist, misogynist troll, and his university tour. Those who would like to support Milo Yiannopoulos’ so-called “right to freedom of speech” automatically frame his positions ahistorically, without thinking through relationships of power, death, and vulnerability. I’m going to be talking about all three of these things — demonstrating that these debates are not about freedom of speech, but about communities, the continuation of Black queer death, and problems which precede this speaker and run far deeper than his individual impact.
Rooting these issues historically, we have to start with the power inequalities created by cissexism, anti-blackness, and nationalism. The Naturalization Act of 1790 extended citizenship to “free white men with property” — meaning that citizens were required to have these social positions in order to be incorporated under the Constitution of the United States. For those of us outside of that frame, neither our speech nor our bodies were free. Black bodies and communities were enslaved to support the speech and interests of white capitalists; preoccupation with the free speech of landed whites occurred simultaneously with, and relied on, the subjugation of Black bodies — because we were not considered people. Freedom of speech, then, is not a universal, constant idea which has existed throughout history; it is deployed differently depending on time frame, and bestowed unequally based on social position. Understanding these discrepancies, we cannot “defend free speech” without examining by whom and for whom speech is free. Instead, let us ask: how does this idea defend the interests of the powerful and silence the oppressed? To answer this, we have to ask hard questions about the nation-state and the framework of human rights as we know them today.
The nation-state, with its need to control and shape the bodies of its citizens, commits violence toward marginalized bodies every day in the name of “law and order.” Primarily composed of white cis men, this nation-state system produces social control for the benefit of the privileged. Human rights, the state response to the last major conflict with fascism, is flawed then because it is often framed as a set of protections given to us by the state; the logic of this framing is that the state decides whether or not we are human. Recent legislation limiting trans women’s access to bathrooms, legal cases exonerating the killers of Black folks, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policy recommendations, all demonstrate how the state shapes who is worthy of consideration, who is human. Black, queer, and trans bodies are seen as inhuman, and thus undeserving of rights, as disposable, wrong, or “bad.” We’ve seen Milo demonstrate this during his recent harassment of a trans woman at University of Wisconsin. He singled her out, criticizing her appearance saying “The way you know he’s failed is I can still bang him,” — reducing her gender to a “wrong body,” objectified, and necessarily sexually available to him. Milo disavowed her humanity in order to legitimize publicly shaming and bullying her.
It is within this frame that public discourse around freedom of speech is situated. This discourse normalizes white supremacy, anti-blackness, and transphobia by appealing to historical and contemporary ideologies around “good bodies”. By normalizing and publicizing hate speech as part of the “normal” frame, speakers like Yiannopoulos both provide space for and incite violence. Simultaneously, however, these speakers claim to be marginalized, denied their rights, when people push back against the violence they call for. This is the rhetorical play of the so-called “alt-right.”
The “alt-right” — a varied movement composed of white supremacists, white nationalists, men’s rights activists, and other folks dredged from the corners of the internet — is taking advantage of this recent shift in public discourse. Although all of these ideological groups existed prior to this past year, we’ve seen that the election has normalized and legitimized their positions, resulting in a rapid increase acts of violence. The recent uptick in racist, Islamophobic, and misogynist violence which has struck so many communities, including my own here in Davis, CA speaks to this normalization and mobilization. Xenophobic fear-mongering and instilling hatred and disgust toward “otherness” are time-worn tactics to spur violence, with deadly consequences for those targeted. Historically, the fostering of widespread hatred and fear toward those marked as social outsiders has led to a slippery slope of discrimination, violence, and genocide.To claim that these “alt-right” speakers are markedly different today because they leverage liberalism and academic parlance denies that they continue to serve the interests of white supremacy and xenophobia. Both their words, and the local white supremacists and fascists to whom they pander, produce violence and put folks like myself at risk of assault and death.
So what does it mean to let our killers speak? Those of us on the margins have fought, and continue to fight, to be heard. People like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and others claim that they’ve been silenced, even as they speak from institutional platforms funded by university-paid speakers’ fees. These folks aren’t unpaid for the positions they advocate — Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, just secured a $250,000 book deal which he will no doubt use to incite further hatred toward marginalized groups. Moreover, for those of us on the margins, their words are all too familiar — they aren’t speaking anything new, but are instead reproducing words hurled at us while we’ve been beaten, deported, assaulted, and denied livelihoods. They are quite literally profiting off of our bodies and our pain. When we say that these words, and these speakers, are dangerous, we don’t mean ideologically or in the abstract. We don’t mean in a battle or contest of ideas. We’re talking about our lives.
So we must fight to be free. We cannot sit by while people are killed every day — we cannot go quietly. We have to, we must, educate, agitate, and organize. Assata Shakur told us to love and support one another, Angela Davis told us to defend our people, and Marsha P. Johnson taught us to lift the brick and bash back; so know that when I speak, I’m speaking from a tradition, from a long line of revolutionaries looking to live. It’s not only the “alt-right” that has roots in history. By understanding the work of the revolutionary Black women who have come before, especially my trans sisters, we have an outline for the way forward. We have answers for what to do with fascists.
And so I urge you to join us as we take a stand against Milo Yiannopoulos, the so-called “alt-right,” and the histories of violence they carry on as their legacy. We are not the government, we are the people. Milo Yiannopoulos should be free from government repression, that’s why it’s up to people and communities across the U.S. to rise up and deny white supremacists and fascists access to public platforms through which they can promote violence. If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the rise of fascism, now is the time to act.