Showing Up For Black People Is a Duty, Not a Transaction

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and we stand in unequivocal support of the protests and uprisings that have swept the US since that day, and against the unconscionable violence of the police and US state. We can’t continue with business as usual. We will be celebrating Pride as an uprising. This month, Autostraddle is focusing on content related to this struggle, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for Black lives and Black futures. Instead, we’re publishing and re-highlighting work by and for Black queer and trans folks speaking to their experiences living under white supremacy and the carceral state, and work calling white people to material action.

no justice. no pride.


My life wouldn’t be what it is without Black people.

I am a Vietnamese trans woman. Without the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there wouldn’t be laws protecting my family from discrimination (though these laws are unequally enforced). Protesting the war in Southeast Asia, Black activists called out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government for claiming to free Vietnamese people while Black and Indigenous people were being murdered by both police and the public. My family wouldn’t even be in the United States without the advocacy of Black activists who fought for Southeast Asian refugees to be admitted into the country.

During the same period as the anti-war demonstrations, Black trans women were among those who famously rose up against police brutality after years of abuse, leading to the Compton Cafeteria riots in San Francisco and the Stonewall riots in New York City. Black and brown trans women subsequently launched the first Pride march, which sought justice for sex workers and incarcerated trans and queer people. Their actions laid the foundation for the LGBTQ movement. While the abuse of trans communities continues, their rebellion helped establish more resources for descendants of their legacy.

In more ways than one, my life as a trans child of refugees was made better because Black people chose to fight for freedom. But I don’t fight for Black lives simply because Black people have fought for me.

In more ways than one, my life as a trans child of refugees was made better because Black people chose to fight for freedom. But I don’t fight for Black lives simply because Black people have fought for me.

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I choose to defend Black life because Black life is under attack. I defend Black life because Black people deserve to be safe, at the very least. Because Philonise Floyd should not have to mourn his brother, George. Because Breonna Taylor should have been blowing out birthday candles last week with her mother, Tamika Palmer. Because Wanda McDade should not have to be raising money for her son, Tony’s, funeral.

We shouldn’t need a personal incentive to show up. We should be there for Black people simply because of their centuries-long mistreatment that continues unabated today.

For many non-Black people, knowledge of what Black people have done for the world is scarce. We were raised in a system that deliberately downplays or omits the contributions of Black people. Many children grow up listening to music that originated from Black communities — almost every genre of American music had foundations in Black artistry. I went to public schools that wouldn’t have been desegregated without the work of Black movements.

We must educate each other about the countless ways Black people have transformed the arts, science, culture, and the law, itself. But we can’t do that without grounding ourselves in the simple truth that our care for Black people must be unconditional.

Our solidarity should be unanimous and absolute, without an explanation about what Black people contributed to our communities. Solidarity is not a transaction. Compassion should not be given only when we receive something in return.

Our solidarity should be unanimous and absolute, without an explanation about what Black people contributed to our communities. Solidarity is not a transaction. Compassion should not be given only when we receive something in return.

Conservatives have discredited protesters as violent looters and criminals, even while there have been reports of white supremacists hijacking protests, destroying property to frame the protesters — and the police actions that preceded these protests are far more violent and criminal. There are people committed to suggesting Black people don’t deserve the international acknowledgment they’re receiving.

Among progressive circles, people have shed light on the relationship between Black people and other communities of color as a call for unity. It’s true, Black people have devoted themselves to the struggles of all kinds of people, from Central American farmworkers to the fishermen of New Orleans, from Palestinian refugees to Puerto Rican revolutionaries. But when we share messages of our connection to Black struggles without rooting ourselves in unequivocal support for Black people’s right to live, we unintentionally make our support transactional. We end up creating conditions for why Black communities are worthy of our support.

While different from the anti-looting messages, narratives of Black worthiness diminish the value of solidarity: they communicate the idea that Black people are only worthy of defense because they have given us something.

In a country hellbent on individualism, unconditional solidarity is something we’re trained not to believe in. During our ongoing pandemic, the government blames the U.S. death toll on individuals’ health, rather than the canyon-sized gaps in the healthcare system.

We must work against the grain and shift our approach to solidarity, so we can begin to shift our culture, too. We should be able to rely on one another to hold up our dignity for no reason at all, being able to trust the interdependence among us.

Solidarity easily becomes conditional when a transaction is at play. The movement for Black lives has shifted the status quo to the point where people saw how much they’d lose by staying silent — in their reputations and their businesses. Corporations examined the transaction in front of them and saw that there was more to gain in speaking up on issues they would have been uninterested in prior. They knew this was their chance to rack up their diversity points and clean up their track record. We can’t operate like businesses that only act in their own best interest rather than in the service of a better world.

People are beginning to see their connection to Black communities, but they have yet to understand their stake in Black trans lives.

One question Black trans activists have been asking is why there hasn’t been due solidarity to the police murder of Tony McDade, a Black trans man killed in Tallahassee, Florida the same week of George Floyd’s death. Much of the public doesn’t even know Tony McDade’s name. Black trans deaths remain forgotten except in the margins of society.

People are beginning to see their connection to Black communities, but they have yet to understand their stake in Black trans lives. They have yet to learn what Black trans people have done for their people. The result is selective empathy. Real commitment to Black lives requires us to consider why we’re fighting and for whom. When our commitment hinges upon our own perceptions of what Black people contributed to our community, it becomes about us. Our support centers around our feelings and our history.

When our solidarity is about us, we fall into the harmful cycle of momentary outrage, wherein people speak out to join the momentum of the masses. When our solidarity is about our compassion for others, there is no rhetoric required, no convincing words shared with those who are on the fence. Our solidarity becomes about the undeniable humanity of Black people — all Black people.

It’s true that our liberation is connected as human beings. As many have stated, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. But it’s time we ask ourselves: if our liberation weren’t intertwined, if your well-being weren’t tied to that of Black people, would you still defend Black life? The answer to that question should tell you where your work lies.

Xoài Phạm is a Vietnamese trans person who descends from a long legacy of warriors, healers, and shamans. Her life's work is in dreaming new futures where we are all limitless, and she makes those dreams a reality as a poet, essayist, editor, and collaborative educator. Learn more about her work here: xoai.co. Catch her on Instagram @xoai.jpg and on Twitter @internetxoai.

xoai has written 7 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. wow. Thank you for this. I recognize in myself the “move” of highlighting the incredible leadership of Black folks, especially women and femmes, as an implicit way to try to get people take the current (and longstanding) movements for Black lives seriously. I recognize that this is wrong and harmful. Black people deserve justice and flourishing, even if they never did anything to help anyone else ever again. Thank you for naming this, and I commit to do better in my rhetoric and action.

    • it’s not wrong to point Black brilliance or the history of Black contributions to other communities. but we have to ground our solidarity in unconditional compassion at the core; all other reasons for solidarity should revolve around that and supplement that.

  2. I already reached out to you on Instagram in regards to your contribution on that panel for The Grapevine. You said beautifully something I’ve felt for a long time. When I was in the Marines, two of my closest friends were both Vietnamese who lived in the Bay Area. Even THEY were shocked at the intersection of rights and freedoms black people had provided for East Asians in America. But they were moved to learn. One decided to teach in South Korea as a result. My point is, true allies are aware that it’s bigger than the depth of your own understanding. It’s more about being present, aware, open, and supportive. You do all of that in spades. Thank you.

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