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Experience at Decolonial Black Feminist School in Brazil Challenges Us to Step Up our Internationalist Game

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

Experience at Decolonial Black Feminist School in Brazil Challenges Us to Step Up our Internationalist Game

As we enter a new decade already fraught with violent U.S. intervention and anxieties of another global war, the question of internationalism and internationalist solidarity should be front and center among leftists. U.S. centrism and the limitations of the anti-war movement have left generations of progressives in the U.S. ill-equipped to challenge U.S. imperialism and support revolutionary struggles around the world. As LeftRoots cadres who understand that internationalism is vital to the liberatory potential of leftist social movements, we have prioritized international political travel as a way to develop and strengthen our internationalist and anti-imperialist understanding. In August of 2019, we, the authors attended the International School of Transnational Decolonial Black Feminism (DBF School) in Brazil. Our experiences at this gathering of feminists from over 15 countries and occupied territories inspired us to share lessons learned and make a call to action.

U.S. hegemony has shaped us in ways that create significant barriers to our ability to form authentic ties of political solidarity with international leftist social movements. This is true even for U.S. leftists who are from oppressed communities. But if we are going to rebuild an internationalist left in the U.S., connection with global south social movements needs to be an integral part of the political development of U.S. social movement leftists. We ask U.S. leftists to 1) prioritize internationalism for the sake of our collective development and our collective strategy to win and 2) utilize the lens of decolonial Black feminism to practice international solidarity. What we learned by participating in the DBF School has given us insights into how to develop the capacities of U.S. social movement leftists towards greater internationalism. 

Who Went & Why

The Transnational Decolonial Black Feminism School took place in July-August of 2019. Nine LeftRoots cadres, all of whom are Black women, attended the school in Cachoeira, a small town in the interior of the state of Bahia, Brazil in the Northeast region of the country. In 2019, the DBF School had the largest attendance to date with nearly 80 participants including academics, healers, organizers and activists; this compared to past years with only approximately 30 total attendees. The majority of 2019 attendees were U.S. passport holders. We, LeftRoots cadres writing this piece, came from different sectors and regions of the U.S.; as a result, we had different motivations for attending. However, we shared a common excitement for being part of a Black space that was expressly feminist and decolonial where we could meet and build relationships, and we hoped that deepening our learning about decolonial Black feminism could offer us theoretical and applied frameworks through which to do anti-imperialist work.

Because it is conceived in the desire to reclaim and center what was taken from oppressed peoples during the process of colonization, decolonial Black feminism invites us to remember and envision a world without colonized gender, beauty, cosmological, ideological and economic frameworks as the norm. This framework is also grounded in the realities of gender and ethnically oppressed peoples. And, as we experienced in Cachoeira, it is a framework that is important for social movement leftists in the U.S. to engage because it necessitates an anti-imperialist understanding.

The School & Decolonial Black Feminism

Decolonial Schools are an 11-year old project organized by the Center of Study and Investigation for Decolonial Dialogue1 whose staff is based in Spain and Mexico. The Decolonial Black Feminist School is a more recent iteration bringing together scholars and organizers to dialogue about Black feminisms, globalization, transnationalism, historic & contemporary theory as well as racial formations in different regions of the African Diaspora. When we attended in 2019, participants were from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Finland, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, occupied Puerto Rico, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Zimbabwe. The majority of school participants identified as Afro-descendants and gender-oppressed.

The school was primarily organized by the Angela Davis Collective, the largest Black feminist research collective in the country, founded in 2010. The group consists of Professor Angela Figueiredo and about 25 young radical Afro-Brazilian students and scholars, most of whom attend the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia. The Angela Davis Collective is an organized response to the absence of Black faculty teaching in universities and the lack of Afro-Brazilians in graduate programs due to systemic exclusion and racism. The Collective organizes programming throughout the year for Black students and the broader community.

For the Angela Davis Collective, organizing a space to analyze the Black experience inside and outside of academia is a way to make key interventions in the context of current-day Brazilian politics and culture. The Collective members explicitly build toward moving Black academics into teaching positions and making Black feminist interventions in classrooms, at academic conferences and in the larger community. Many members of the Collective are also engaged in social movements addressing issues such as economic justice, abolition, trans rights, housing rights and spiritual autonomy. This all occurs under the right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro, a white conservative who was a military officer during the Dictatorships of both João Goulart and José Sarney de Araújo Costa. Since coming to power in a rigged election after a coup d’etat, he has attacked the rights of women, gender-oppressed people, public education and the environmental stewardship of Black and Indigenous people in Brazil. During the Decolonial Black Feminist School it was announced, to much dismay, that the Black woman who was democratically elected as President of the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia had been illegally removed by President Bolsonaro and replaced by a white conservative party appointee.  

This was the third year the DBF school was held in Bahia. In many ways this location was an ideal backdrop through which to understand decolonial Black feminist theory and practice. Bahia is the 4th most populous state of Brazil and is home to the largest concentration of Afro-descendants in the country. It grounds many Brazilians’ Black spiritual and political identity and serves as a hub of Black Brazilian social movement. Bahia was the location of the largest uprising of enslaved Africans in the history of Brazil and continues to be home to Quilombos, historic maroon communities that were at the center of African religions and rebellions. There are around 3,000 Quilombos across Brazil today whose inhabitants continue to fight for their rights to land, sovereignty and autonomy. The Black Power Movement in Brazil is rooted in maroonage as a resistance method, and its organizers have described the Decolonial Black Feminist School as, itself, a “maroon space.” 

Decolonial Black Feminism2 draws on the radical tradition of Black feminist thought produced by Black scholars and activists in the Americas, on the African Continent and across the African Diaspora. It is an intervention in decolonial feminism3 which is, itself, an intervention in mainstream capitalist and Eurocentric feminism, which recognizes and seeks to undo the legacies of colonization that continue within contemporary power structures. Decolonial Black feminism seeks to use the positionality of Black gender-oppressed peoples across the world to both understand and liberate societies from interlocking oppressions. Decolonial Black feminism challenges the whitewashing of history, knowledge, power, and modernity in order to reframe our worldview. As with its founding theory, decolonial feminism, decolonial Black feminism emerges from a place of practice. A practice that has centered indigenous knowledge production, drawing on peoples’ pre-colonialization experiences of gender, sexuality, nature-society relationships and social arrangements in order to critique the current interlocking nature of oppression and it’s impacts not just on our thinking and doing, but also on our potential for overcoming. By exploring indigeneity, solidarity and Pan-Africanism through a feminist lens, decolonial Black feminism offers us a retrospective, visionary, and emancipatory orientation to thinking and doing that emphasizes intersectionality, solidarity, and transnationalism.

Decolonial Black Feminism draws on the radical tradition of Black feminist thought produced by Black scholars and activists in the Americas, on the African Continent and across the African Diaspora. It is an intervention in decolonial feminism which is, itself, an intervention in mainstream capitalist and Eurocentric feminism, which recognizes and seeks to undo the legacies of colonization that continue within contemporary power structures. Decolonial Black feminism seeks to use the positionality of Black gender-oppressed peoples across the world to both understand and liberate societies from interlocking oppressions. Decolonial Black feminism challenges the whitewashing of history, knowledge, power, and modernity in order to reframe our worldview. As with its founding theory, decolonial feminism, decolonial Black feminism emerges from a place of practice. A practice that has centered indigenous knowledge production, drawing on peoples’ pre-colonialization experiences of gender, sexuality, nature-society relationships and social arrangements in order to critique the current interlocking nature of oppression and it’s impacts not just on our thinking and doing, but also on our potential for overcoming. By exploring indigeneity, solidarity and Pan-Africanism through a feminist lens, decolonial Black feminism offers us a retrospective, visionary, and emancipatory orientation to thinking and doing that emphasizes intersectionality, solidarity, and transnationalism.

Experiences and Lessons

For participants of the DBF School, theoretical decolonization was welcome, however the praxis of Decolonial Black feminism was harder to implement and embody. On the fourth day, in response to unmet expectations and challenges — such as not receiving much information about the curriculum prior to the trip, lack of acknowledgment that not all participants were cis women, and logistical errors — a group of Western-based participants requested time during a break period to address grievances. This action involved a PowerPoint presentation of critiques of the Decolonial Black Feminist School, its structure and curriculum, as well as direct feedback ranging from questioning the cost of the program, to criticizing the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms and dormitory accommodations. An open forum ensued as other participants — from abroad and from Brazil — reacted to and debated the content of the presentation, the method of intervention, and the merit of the school itself. With emotions running high for many, the open forum stretched beyond the break period and ultimately led to a rescheduling of the next lecture by a Mexican decolonial feminist academic and activist. 

We believe that some of the patterns and tendencies we observed among ourselves and our fellow Global North-based, English-speaking peers demonstrated a collective lack of exposure or understanding of the U.S. as an empire and how that impacts power relations among hosts and participants. Many in the group did not have a grounded framework to understand modern imperialism, or practices for combatting imperialism in the ways we showed up during the school. In addition to unrecognized privileges of geography, class, and language access due to our proximity to centers of capitalist and imperialist hegemonic power, we also faced our collective underdevelopment in our capacities to practice solidarity and generative conflict. This undermined our capacity to build authentically with potential comrades, which could have transformed our experience and orientation towards the school itself.

Some examples of our collective tendencies and shortcomings included:

  • Limited protagonism with respect to learning things in preparation for international travel 
  • Underdeveloped understanding of privilege & power and an unwillingness, among some, to see our positionality in empire and ourselves as agents/beneficiaries of U.S. imperialism
  • Presuming Western constructions of gender and sexuality as universal – recognizing only Western-based signifiers of gender and sexuality, and reading a lack of gender-neutral accommodations as a lack of progressive/radical politics 
  • Deep isolation, unconscious alienation and disconnection that led to prioritizing time alone or with familiar people rather than building with our hosts and Brazilian comrades
  • Liberal individualism as a cultural norm that allows individual desires, comfort and/or attention to supersede collective needs or purpose
  • Being relationally extractive – as opposed to treating our hosts as fellow political actors with whom we could exchange, presuming that our hosts and attending Brazilian participants were responsible for meeting needs that were culturally normative to Western-based movements.
  • Egoism in not seeking deeper understanding during challenges and conflict, and assuming disagreement necessitates intervention

There was a range in the severity of these tendencies among our fellow participants and even among us LeftRoots cadres. Our group and the organizations we represented had varying relationships to one another, and varying levels of development in the theories being explored, in the political economy of Brazil, and in practicing a Decolonial orientation to solidarity in international settings. As all of this unfolded, our group of LeftRoots cadres struggled with our level of disunity with other participants’ interventions and with unity-building.

In light of these tendencies and dynamics — which we have seen show up in other international and US-based gatherings — we believe that there is hope through the actual practice of decolonial Black feminism. The concrete work for us to do as social movement leftists from “the belly of the beast” should be to not only confront and end the violence of class oppression, white supremacy and cis/hetero-patriarchy at home, but also to work to dismantle imperialism, with an understanding that these oppressions are integral to its existence.

Our experience at the DBF School made it clear that we, radical leftists and feminists, have a responsibility to shift towards a new orientation in U.S. social movements. Cultural worker and academician, Quetzala Carson shares, “…you must check your position; where are you oppressed? Where were you the oppressor?”4 We must recognize our material and social privileges while holding our lived experiences as colonized and subjugated peoples, as gender-oppressed, as people with differing levels of skin privilege, and as the culturally marginalized. As U.S.-based Black feminists who are clear that the U.S. is an empire, we must confront how we benefit from our proximity to empire regardless of our status within it or our commitment to end it.  

Developing our capacities

In order to build meaningful solidarity with social movements in the Global South, there are a set of capacities we need to strengthen inside U.S. social movements and the U.S. left, especially with folks primarily doing work domestically. Decolonial Black Feminism offers how we, as colonized people, are unclear that our lives are predicated on a European gaze and European notions of academic and intellectual “neutrality”, and it reminds us that colonial knowledge, now Western knowledge, is not neutral. And since our knowledge is not neutral, the conclusions we draw from it can be deeply flawed. For the vast majority of us, our capacities are underdeveloped by our place inside the empire.

In much the same way that Black leftist and feminist political actors have rightly critiqued Eurocentric Marxism for its inability to address race and gender-based oppressions, as U.S.-based leftists, we must use Decolonial Black feminism to disrupt Western hegemonic thinking. Our social positions–gender, race, ability & class—shape us to either dominate or submit, to compete with or care for, instead of developing relationships of mutual support and accountability. Decolonial thought supports us in seeing past these false dichotomies to a place that is truly free of capitalist and binary logic, so that human and cultural development can be prioritized.

Decolonial Black feminism also challenges binaries that posit the political and ideological as separate and oppositional from the social and emotional. In contrast to Western thought, Decolonial Black feminism holds that the capacities to practice principled struggle, vulnerability, and intimacy are just as important as the capacities to provide ideological leadership or political clarity. This understanding invites us to develop across a spectrum of capacities that Western hegemony presumes to be the exclusive terrain of specific genders, races or classes of people. As developing cadres, this means we are responsible for individually and collectively developing ideological and political capacities as well as social, emotional, and organizational capacities. We must build on General Baker’s call for our movements to turn “thinkers into fighters and fighters into thinkers,”5 and crucially also turn thinkers into feelers and feelers into thinkers.

In Western social justice movements, there is often a dynamic of folks only being able to relate in political spaces based on their emotional experiences. Though political language is used, all interactions are interpreted through a personal, individual lens, with great sensitivity and without political clarity. Because of cis/hetero-patriarchy and white supremacy, we are often trained to be either stronger at developing political relationships or personal ones; to see these as a binary or an “either or.” Some build trust and connection through personal curiosity, vulnerability and intimacy. Others engage with political ideas and analysis. These tendencies reflect how we’ve been conditioned, and often those capacities that are not a part of our “tendency set” take much more deliberate attention and effort to employ. Though our default tendencies may often be effective, we must nurture complementary capacities and develop the ability to engage each of these capacities strategically in our political and relational lives.    

We see clearly that oppressed people in the U.S., especially political leftists, should be developing ourselves ideologically by studying 20th century and 21st century imperialism, global political economy, and structural contexts of race, class, and gender that differ from our own. We also need to challenge our tendencies to default to Western hegemonic norms and forms of knowledge production and understanding, and seek to learn from a place rooted in respectful curiosity and grace that never de-centers our biases as folks raised in the heart of empire. As we develop ourselves politically, the decolonial framework can provide clarity for how to engage in disagreement, debate and principled struggle across difference. We must develop our social and emotional capacities and use them when engaging with each other as a way to not operate from or impose US-centered norms and concepts on others. The way to combat liberalism internationally must include being open to learning and deepening our analysis of imperialism alongside those directly impacted by it. Lastly, we need to develop our level of knowledge about the international political and organizational movement ecosystem as well as our domestic one.

Closing: Decolonial Black Feminist Lessons for Cadrefication

Our experiences at the International School on Transnational Decolonial Black Feminism offered us decolonial Black feminism as a political framework for internationalist left movement solidarity. The power of Black feminism is its understanding of intersectionality: how systems of oppression and domination are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. As U.S.-based social movement leftists, we must not forget or minimize how U.S. imperialism is a major force for capitalist exploitation and oppression in the world, and for exporting and imposing U.S. brands of white supremacy and misogyny, as it kills. Our work must be anti-imperialist and decolonial to undo the oppressive power relationships established by historical colonization and present-day imperialism. We must continue to be clear about our shared fate with our kin in the Global South. We must learn from and align ourselves with social movements fighting U.S. imperialism and global capitalism from the Global South, especially as we develop strategy based in our own time, place, and conditions. 

Traveling to Brazil also gave us concrete lived experience together that solidified the need for us to develop cadres and to develop our internationalist politics, to make it more possible to build genuine solidarity and relationships with our comrades in the Global South. We take these lessons seriously as we consider our own collective and individual development. These lessons also reveal the ways U.S. social movement culture and our own political weakness and underdevelopment can reproduce U.S. imperialism when we travel internationally, even with the best intentions.

We offer these assessments, self-critiques and best practices to open up rigorous and grounded political discussion and debate on how we practice internationalism and decolonial Black feminism. Our intention is for this piece to express our commitment, as social movement leftists, as Black feminists, and as LeftRoots cadres, to deepening our practice of protagonism as we build solidarity and deep, reciprocal political relationships with social movement actors in the Global North and the Global South. We call on U.S. social movement leftists — especially at this critical historical moment — to prioritize internationalism, through a decolonial Black feminist lens, as we rebuild the U.S. left and fight for our peoples’ liberation.


Appendix

Internationalist Travel Practices

There is also so much to learn from others who have been practicing international solidarity for the last 120 years. Without the language of Decolonial Black feminism, Black radicals have been creating community and a modus operandi for traveling that is aligned with Decolonial Black feminist practice. Here are some of what we can learn from their experiences in anti-imperialist travel:

Decolonial travelers should attempt to learn the language of the place they are visiting. Fluency is not required; simply a few phases that extend beyond the extractive “how do I get to my hotel?” and “how much is this?” Get a phrasebook or app and use it. Learn how to practice language justice in the most commonly spoken language; from honorifics to pronouns.      

  • Learn the political context. Watch the country’s English language news and learn the political phrases that are important to your work and values. Know who the political players are and the role of U.S. corporations, government, and military.  
  • Learn the history. Just as in the U.S., you should know whose land you are standing and meeting upon. Learn the indigenous & ethnic groups, some history, and how they theorize and practice liberatory work.
  • Establish movement ties before traveling. These ties should be based on mutual aid and shared politics and should not be extractive in nature. Like any new relationship, it is important to show up in ways that demonstrate that you understand and recognize the labor of others. 
  • Learn the geography and topography; Use the internet to see as much as you can about how the country looks, even by looking at tourist sites.
  • Approach people with respect and solidarity. The same rules and principles for engaging workers in the U.S. should be in operation while traveling. 
  • Don’t take photos without permission. Be mindful of the nature of photography and its links to imperialism; “capturing” the image and “taking” photos employs imperialist language and there is grounding for that.6 Be mindful that people deserve to know what you will do with their photo. 
  • Do not be surprised when your accent or passport trumps your skin color, ethnic origin or class status in the U.S. You have a passport, a ticket home, a phone, and your status as a citizen of the Global North. 
  • In movement spaces, listen before speaking and wait to be asked before you offer your opinion on things outside your context. Consider and be ready to share your ideas on how to build consciousness about the ways in which oppressed peoples within the empire are forced beneficiaries of the spoils of incessant wars, sweatshops and destabilization. Think about how you will talk about our role and our successes and failures as U.S. movements in challenging U.S. imperialism.7
  • Think about and be ready to share what you and others are doing within your organizations to study imperialism. Bring examples that illustrate our interconnectedness and shared realities, from prisons to U.S. military bases, land theft to privatization. Understand these all as colonial practices in and outside the U.S.. 
  • Present yourself, be ready to acknowledge the wrongs committed by the governments we reject, be prepared to not be trusted, and learn about U.S. interventionism and infiltrations in other countries.8

Notes

  1. The Center of Study and Investigation for Decolonial Dialogues is a non-profit and non-governmental organization promoting research, knowledge-making, education (through seminars, workshops, exhibits, round-table discussions, publications and video-making) and public policy to invent and work towards non-competitive horizons of life, of socio-economic organization and of international relations. Non-profit and non-governmental organizations emerge from within civil and political society to address issues that are not supported or attended to by government and corporations. Their function is crucial in building futures that are beyond the regulations of States or the needs of corporations. In order for civil and political society to become relevant actors in social transformation pointing out the limits of corporate values and state regulation, it is necessary to create institutions of knowledge-making not at the service of the state or corporations, but for the benefit of the civil society.
  2. Decolonial feminism & Black Decolonial feminism are defined by their emphasis on multiple feminisms. We use “feminism” in the singular for grammatic ease and consistency.
  3. Decolonial feminism reclaims histories and worldviews of peoples who have undergone and have resisted colonization. It seeks to re-negotiate the imposition of gender and sexuality post-colonization, to challenge our understanding of modernity, and to problematize colonial logic and power relations. Decolonial Feminism stands critical of a universal feminism, largely exported from Western countries, in the same way that decoloniality is critical of the universalization of Western and European culture and thinking. It posits that the flattening and villainizing of difference is a function of colonial and capitalist logic. Decolonial Feminism disrupts Eurocentrism and Western hegemony by centering indigenous knowledge production and drawing on peoples’ pre-colonialization experiences of gender and sexuality.
  4. Pedagogy of the Decolonizing, TEDxUAlberta. 2017
  5. General Baker was a Black leftist and labor organizer based in Detroit who co-founded the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the 1960s.
  6. Personal conversation with Autumn Griffin, doctoral candidate in the department of Teaching, Learning, Policy, and Leadership at The University of Maryland – College Park
  7. Pambana Basset, Chiapas Support Committee. From personal conversations.
  8. Pambana Basset, Chiapas Support Committee. From personal conversations.

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