when your skin color is divisive

solidarity as erasure in the sex work activist community

I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of any other part of my identity — Audre Lourde [1]
image by me

Most of us have heard the news already, but if you haven’t: all of the adult ad sections are being pulled from backpage. I received an email alert from SWOP-Chicago yesterday evening, and immediately thought: well what is gonna happen to all the workers who use that site? Backpage is the most ubiquitous name for escort ads. But I’m aware there are other sites, so I decided to see if I could get a list going on Twitter. Normally when I do anything sex worker related I specify that it’s for Black & brown sex workers. This time I did not, because I felt like the information needed to be everywhere. Also, I know that there are way more cis white women sex workers who have larger platforms and access to more information than I or other SWOC (sex workers of color). So I made it an everyone thing. For the most part it was great. Everyone was pitching in and adding to the thread. There were other threads around so I added those too. All of this information is gonna have to be condensed and listed. I may be posting a list (probably not comprehensive though), and Maggie McNeill says she will have a list ready by Friday.

I am always extremely apprehensive when interacting with white sex workers and feminists (and sometimes NB feminists of color), because inevitably someone says something racist or that excludes, erases or condescends to a marginalized community. It’s hard for me as a Black woman to push solidarity when I am aware of the history of such things. A lot of the time I feel like solidarity is a myth. Many white and NB sex worker activists still have trouble de-centering their own experiences and moving beyond what Patricia Hill Collins calls “dichotomous thinking.” Collins says:

“Additive analyses of oppression rest squarely on the twin pillars of either/or thinking and the necessity to quantify and rank all relationships in order to know where one stands.” [2]

When I first read this, it was a hard concept for me to comprehend. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. Why was I so resistant to these words?

It was because I had grown comfortable with my position as thee most marginalized. Black+Femme+Woman (gender) +Queer+Bi+Artist+Single Mother+abuse survivor+Poor/lower class+Sex Worker=Hello, I’m the obviously the most marginalized, clearly. Except it’s not always that simple. I was stuck because I was thinking of all of these things — these labels, these me-isms — as “plus,” or quantifiable, or additive. When in fact I should have been thinking of them as “and.” I was forgetting a LOT of things. I am cisgender. I am educated. I am fortunate enough to have family to live with right now. I do not work outside as a sex worker — I work from the comfort of my own home as a camgirl. Occasionally I may work other places, indoors. I have never worked outdoors. I have been homeless, but only briefly, and I have never lived on the street. This is when recognition began to hit: there isn’t necessarily a universal “most” marginalized in the way I was considering it. I was being defensive because it felt like if I acknowledged other types of marginalization or oppression, if I acknowledged that I too could be oppressive, it would take away from my struggle, from my experience.

This is when I began to move toward “both/and” thinking. I still struggle with certain questions. How do I center Black women, cis or trans, without obscuring the fact that, in various situations, we could be both oppressive and oppressed? For instance I am a cis Black woman who is a sex worker. I am marginalized in a lot of ways, but I recognize that my Black trans sistren are even more marginalized within the Black community, and face very high levels of violence. This does not take away from the fact that I am oppressed and am also at risk for violence, but recognizes that in certain contexts a Black trans woman is going to confront different dangers and will also have to fight against the question of authenticity and the attitude that she shouldn’t even exist.

We shouldn’t feel threatened by acknowledging difference, not should it be pushed aside as “divisive.” But often when I am dealing with white sex workers and/or feminists, that’s exactly what happens. (This personally hasn’t happened yet between me and a NB-WOC.) I have been called racist several times for bringing up the fact that I am Black and must consider different things when choosing to be “out” as a sex worker, or that I confront different obstacles just because of my race. I have also been called racist for mentioning white privilege is still relevant, even within the sex work community. Also: many white sex workers draw uncomfortable parallels with Black and queer struggle as if we aren’t still fighting that fight. Discussing misogynoir with white women feels frustratingly impossible at times, and it is a barrier to real coalitions, because denying differences silences marginalized peoples. I am not going to ignore parts of my identity in order to placate or coddle white women. I refuse.

We should not have to homogenize the community and silence women and femmes of color and/or transgender individuals in order to form coalitions. It shouldn’t take ignoring obvious differences in order for us to recognize each other’s humanity, and the varying struggles we all face. If we are going to create effective progressive, inclusive coalitions, without silencing or erasing marginalized workers, cis white women need to stop centering their experience and getting defensive every time the topic of race, class or [trans-]misogynoir comes up. We have to stop ranking oppression. Another Patricia Hill Collins quotable:

“This recognition that one category may have salience over another for a given time and place does not minimize the theoretical importance of assuming that race, class and gender as categories of analysis structure all relationships.”

If you are white, and consider yourself an ally, you need to check your privilege and recognize other people’s struggles. Even being a part of a marginalized community as a sex worker, whiteness (and cis and abled people) will still be privileged — even with regards to class. Doing this does not take away from the fact that we are all part of a marginalized, endangered profession, but places into perspective our relative struggles and helps us to be able to brainstorm things we can do to help each other compensate. You need to educate yourselves and amplify the voices of women/femmes of color and disabled and transgender workers, without patronizing us or assuming the role of savior. Otherwise this so-called “solidarity” simply becomes another method of erasure. Recognizing one another’s differences helps us create unique solutions and when you help those who are most marginalized, you help us all.

Notes:

  1. Audre Lourde: “There is No Hierarchy of Oppression.” (2009)
  2. All subsequent quotes are from Patricia Hill Collin’s essay, “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection” (1993)

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