To the White people in the room I would ask, What do you mean by unity? It’s a word like others that gets tossed around in public relations statements and mission statements with the assumption that everyone knows what the word means—as if we have all agreed. Oneness of purpose. The inclusion of all. A community of equal footing for everyone in the community.
But in that word there lives a ghost of hypocrisy, a legacy of talking loud and saying nothing, a history in which equal footing is a lie, inclusion produces Black bystanders of their own fates, and the oneness of purpose ultimately meanders back to White aims.
I think back to the high school gymnasium and pep rallies, to the shorthand of a mascot, a symbol—at my high school, the tiger—to which we were all supposed to align ourselves. Three thoughts:
1. The symbol had no real connection to its real-world source; we were not interested in tigers or saving them from extinction.
2. The function of the symbol was to amplify emotion through limitation of thought, which is how icons work.
3. Our unity was aimed at our opponents who were presumably unified, as well. And that is the most dangerous aspect of unity: the opponents it frames.
Whenever Black lives, Asian-American lives, children’s lives are ended in a hail of bullets from lone shooters or cops, the right, instead of calling for gun control legislation, calls for “unity”—which really means silence on the matter at hand. After the insurrection attempt at the Capitol, the right’s call for unity served the same purpose. It’s a dodge, a way of sloughing off responsibility. But unity also carves a “we,” and if one dissents, the implication is that one becomes an opponent of the unified. An outsider.
For not just the right but many in the center and on the left, unity has no real-world source; it is its own symbol, amplifying an emotional reaction while deflecting actual change.
I would ask what threads, what boundaries, what commonalities connect unified people. What values? What goals? And who defined them?
I would ask how unity is possible in a capitalist system that is founded on—that requires—competition.
If unity does not deconstruct and dismantle the system of racial capitalism, then it is unifying us in that system.
The authoritarian, nationalist, fascist, White supremacist echoes in the word hardly need to be explained. The more subtle threat is when a well-meaning progressive call for unity across differences does not transfer power to the marginalized and oppressed.
Is this unity more than a symbol? Does it offer those without power access to power?
Can we accept that we might not understand what unity means, and by questioning it, arrive at a more equitable solidarity?