Farzana Khan makes the case for a new way of being open.

(web exclusive via New Internationalist magazine)

Image © Erin Konsmo www.erinmariek.com

Reflections: what does a commitment to no borders look like?

Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.
Gloria Anzaldua, La Frontera/Borderlands1

Most of us, in solidarity with refugees and migrants, are rightly calling for the removal of borders, arbitrary borders, largely inherited through colonialism. Yet as we call for ‘No Borders’, a part of me feels uneasy, a part that acknowledges the violent history, both in the UK and across the world, where refugees are often placed once again in destitute and vulnerable situations in these countries of ‘refuge’. Despite entry, many are still labelled ‘refugees’, ranked along a capricious spectrum of citizenship-between legal and illegal. Denied the opportunity to participate fully in society, their rights and liberties are curtailed, and in manifold ways their dignity and self-worth are further stripped away.

Exploitation on several levels, ranging from sexual to labour, can become a consistent feature of daily life for refugees, asylum-seekers and forced migrants. This is akin to opening our arms only to use our hands to hold people down. Without building adequate infrastructures of justice, community and accountability for and to each other, where lives can be led meaningfully, our call for ‘No Borders’ appears simply to be affording us a feel-good moment. Because in reality, the moment of ‘legal’ entry in to a country is not the point at which borders dissolve. There are other borders, borders that determine people’s lives, and, moreover, the quality of their lives. In the case of the UK, internal borders are designed to keep some people at the margins, down and forever ‘othered’. So what does it mean to be committed to solidarity with refugees as well as migrants?

Some obvious things:

It means a deeper commitment to dismantling the power structures that make people refugees in the first place. It means building in adequate provisions so that refugees, forced migrants and migrants are actually receiving refuge (and this does not arise out of self-inflated duties of assistance or charity but is actually a remedial one, towards reparations). It means rigorously challenging the subtle yet stifling borders of institutional and systemic oppression in our country. It means a deeper commitment to and centering of racial, gender and climate justice in our work. We know it is black brown and indigenous folk who are mostly made refugees and then experience further racial injustice through social and economic exclusion and violence in our countries. It is women’s bodies that carry babies in their bellies and so often on their backs. It is women who so often flee sexual and gender-based violence and whose bodies are then forced into sex work and subjected to similar forms of violence they left behind. It is environmental destruction created by Western corporations and governments that rupture people’s lands, communities and livelihoods while upholding dictatorships, all of which cause the routine internal and external displacements of people, to name few injustices.

Some less obvious things:

Power as border control

Of late, I find myself asking: ‘What are my borders?’ ‘Who do I/my community exile?’ ’How and where does my body act as a border?’ and ‘What kind of borders exist in my spaces?’

In the social-justice world, this can look like many things, from anti-blackness in Arab and Asian communities, or transmisogny and transphobia in feminist spaces, the marginalization and silencing of people of colour in the LGBTQI movement, or Islamophobia and the undermining and erasure of communities of faith in activist and campaigns spaces.

What’s the point of having decolonized, queer, de-capitalized, anti-oppression, intersectional institutions, if we are still exercising power and injustices on each other?

Moreover with the increasing NGO-ization of grassroots campaigns and struggles, we see the replication of certain power structures establish itself in our spaces. We see how we ourselves commit interpersonal and intimate harms on each other, despite being the ‘knowing-better-good-intentioned-do-gooders’.

It is clear these issues in our organizing spaces arise for many reasons, one of which is that ‘hurt people, hurt other people’. As people with vicarious-, generational- and oppression-based trauma, there is internal work needed: figuring out ‘how’ we do the work – the ‘why’, while building safety mechanisms to hold each other accountable in tender and kind ways. After all, what’s the point of having decolonized, queer, de-capitalized, anti-oppression, intersectional institutions (the list is not exhausted), if we are still exercising power and injustices on each other? And how do we do this without falling in the trap of a culture of calling out (instead of calling in) which feeds in to our/the culture of disposability with each other that capitalism has made so comfortable? The breadth of our task means we mess up and get it wrong. After all, ‘what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal’.2 In this, how do we ensure that the spaces we are building in our movements are resilient in our resistance? How do we make our organizing spaces into communities?

The emphasis on communities comes from the realization that we can’t continue letting our own spaces uphold power structures in the guise of solidarity, that we can’t shy away from hard dynamics, but instead be committed to each other. Real deep-rooted change requires ALL of us. So, in the absence of borders, if we are still committed to their removal, how do we hold ourselves together? Mia Mingus reminds us3:

Interdependency is both ‘you and I’ and ‘we’. It is solidarity, in the best sense of the word. It is inscribing community on our skin over and over and over again. It is truly moving together in an oppressive world towards liberation and refusing to let the personal be a scapegoat for the political. It is knowing that one organization, one student or community group is not a movement. It is working in coalition and collaboration. Because the truth is: we need each other. We need each other. And every time we turn away from each other, we turn away from ourselves. We know this. Let us not go around, but instead, courageously through.

As we organize in solidarity, our own borders need to be examined: how are they maintained, and do they work towards holding on to power and privilege?

In the making of movements, how we sustain our movements and ourselves is key. This means doing the internal work, the heart-work, the unearthing of our selves and our organizing spaces. I recognize that the space and capacity to reflect on praxis is tied to privilege, where often the most directly affected within structures of oppression are in the business of survival/resistance/responding without the luxury of thinking deeply about this very work. However, I maintain that this is worthwhile, because it calls us in on our selves. We have to do the work to be better humans for the better world we want to live in, and all the while continue to learn how to do this. Right now is exactly the time to do this, as we sit under the weight of failing state infrastructures, we also sit on the cusp of reimagining what is possible outside of the state. Now more than ever, is the time to be actualizing how we can be moving out of positions of relegated authority and power and transform our spaces into collectivized and democratized communities, building realities that are pluriversal and plentiful. Drawing on the wisdom of Mia Mingus again, we can learn to re-member our dismembered selves and our communities:

Commit to not letting go of each other, even when it’s hard – especially when it’s hard. Commit to finally learn that the ends do not justify the means. How many times do we have to learn that how we do the work is just as important as the work we do? Commit to thinking about after the meeting, after the protest, after the revolution. Commit to being a grounded force to end violence and oppression. Commit to being a grounded force for healing and community. Commit to learning about where each of you are different and how ‘our differences lie down inside of us’, as Audre Lorde talks about.

As we organize in solidarity, our own borders need to be examined: how are they maintained, and do they work towards holding on to power and privilege? This means re-establishing our values and then embodying our values in such a way that our own personal borders as human beings are softened, provoking us to cultivate our own humanity, instead of searching for it in our oppressors. In our efforts to bring down our oppressors, we can forget to raise ourselves up.

Self-care or self-privatization?

In social justice spaces there is an increasing call for self-care and recognition for the healing needed to recover from our routine oppressions. We are sometimes asked to establish boundaries, especially those of us engaged in community and care work. While this is legitimate and critical, we must be careful that we are not duped into establishing the boundaries of compartmentalization and individualization that neoliberalism and capitalism foster. Self-care rhetoric can become steeped in individualism and sometimes operate to absolve accountability to each other. The establishment of boundaries and borders in attempts to safeguard ourselves can actually pander to false notions of security.

A way in which this manifests is through bureaucracy – the love child of neoliberalism and capitalism! Bureaucracy tries to convince us that being effective and good at what you do must be tied to ideas of ‘professionalism’. As a result, we find ourselves knee deep in meetings, evaluations, data entry, more often than not adopting ideas of pseudo-professionalism. We don’t hug and hold young people as they expose deep vulnerability, we write up reports and data capture on survivors on sexual or gender-based violence. We forget that inputting data is not processing pain. We see the increasing corporatization of youth work, education and community work. Following suit, NGOs that develop youth or educational streams often imitate the same instrumentalization of youth and vulnerable communities without an actual investment in the young people themselves.

Alongside this, we should bear in mind that safety and security are two distinct things. These days, a greater emphasis on security, with the right to protect prioritized over the value of human lives, this is the same underlining logic that engineers gated communities which fragment society according to class and race or even legalizes the murdering of Trayvon Martin under the right to protect property.

Furthermore, self-care rhetoric can also become an exclusionary practice through breeding feelings of shame and guilt, fostering thoughts like, ‘I am responsible for my self-care and self-love; if I can’t get enough yoga in or eat well then I am at fault’, or ‘I’m not radical enough because I didn’t get my meditation in.’ It is important to remember that so many acts of self-care are tied to privilege, affordability, access and able-ism. Self-care rhetoric can also feed into capitalist ideas of productivity, the motivating factor being that to be the most productive and useful activist/social justice warrior, you must participate in all these acts of self-care in order to do more activism without ever burning out.

In Britain, a country both figuratively and physically cold, entangled in the idea of borders for protection and security, we must question whether our safety is really the issue at hand when establishing borders

Self-care and self-love are supposed to remind of us of our vulnerability, the vulnerability of our bodies, minds, spirits and movements. It reminds that we heal best with each other and that health and wellness is possible, that we can be full without being whole in ourselves. Recalling the statement of a sexual violence survivor: ‘Surviving is testimony to her strength. Healing is testimony to the community around her supporting her.’

I touch on vulnerability here as a necessary feature of resistance building, not only because it enforces the value of community and interdependence, but also because vulnerability can help show up power. It’s only when we interrogate how we are made vulnerable by our environments, we can then begin to trace how power operates in that space, the types of power that capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy tries to invisiblize are made visible. Judith Butler teaches us ‘that vulnerability, understood as a deliberate exposure to power, is part of the very meaning of political resistance as an embodied enactment’.4

In Britain, a country both figuratively and physically cold, entangled in the idea of borders for protection and security, we must question whether our safety is really the issue at hand when establishing borders. We must be intentional in our practice of building borders for wellbeing and question where they emerge from – living in society dominated by neoliberal logic, or a genuine need for safeguarding? – while taking note that often borders based on security keep us from each other, and further marginalize the most vulnerable in our societies.

Borderless to borderland

I work largely with young people of colour in London, and our conversations regularly turn to matters of home (or lack thereof), crossing borders, and rootlessness. They are exasperated by growing up in a time when the basics rootings of life are made ungraspable: unaffordable food, transport and housing. Resource insecurity as well as the ache of not belonging or being enough means many of us are situated as border-crossers. Without trivializing the weight of all this, we can be hopeful this state doesn’t have to be disheartening; it can in fact be powerful and transformative.

The ability to take root in our displacement and our borderland ways is something that can catalyse new ways of being and consciousness beyond the precarious infrastructures we are subject to right now, perhaps in some cases intergenerationally reviving old ones, too.

Gloria E Anzaldúa explores the transformative potential of embracing our borderland ways to overcome the oppressive structures that hold us prisoner. She states: ‘From this racial, ideological, cultural and biological cross-pollinization, an “alien” consciousness is presently in the making – a new mestiza consciousness, una conciencia demujer. It is a consciousness of the Borderlands.’

Utilizing our hybridity, we can start to re-imagine and reconfigure our world: create new ways of living; housing that are people- and earth-centered, economic systems that prioritize our values instead of profit, food systems that allow real distribution with real food and forms of community accountability outside of the state’s criminal justice system. Our hybridity offers us an opportunity to be the better people with the better infrastructures, working towards that better world instead of trying to fit within the existing oppressive structures. Also, a chance to shed the false categorizations of racialization and gendering that colonial process solidified us in to.

Idealistic as it sounds, these concepts of grounding ourselves radically in our own historical and present specificities, of being in some way or another, borderland, is not new. It’s a concept familiar and present across many non-Eurocentric cultures and spiritualties such as Islam, Toaism and indigenous communities and understood as a way of living. It is seen as process of earnestly looking back and reconciling with the traditions, ancestry and cultures we come from, while expansively looking forward with our current context and time.

Meeting with these ideas, is the concept of Raicism5, which flips the script on racism. ‘Raicism – or roots’ explored by Aurora Levins Morales put forward the idea that we can and should interrogate both our historical lineage and our present-day identity to reflect the complexity of who we really are, to politicize how this influences and impacts us and the choices we can/are allowed to make. Levins explained this radical approach to genealogy:

Raícism – from raíces or roots – is the practice of rooting ourselves in the real, concrete histories of our people: our families, our local communities, our ethnic communities. It is radical genealogy; history made personal. It is a keeping of accounts. Its intent is to pierce the immense, mind-deadening denial that permeates daily life, that drowns our deepest grief and horror about the founding and ongoing atrocities of racism, class, and patriarchy in endless chatter about trivialities. Oppression buries the actual lives of real and contradictory people in the crude generalizations of bigotry and punishes us for not matching the caricature, refusing all evidence of who we actually are in defiance of its tidy categories. It is a blunt instrument, used for bashing not only our dangerous complexities, but also the ancient and permanent fact of our involvement with each other.

Raícism, or rootedness, is the choice to bear witness to our specific, contradictory historical identities in relationship to one another. It is an accounting of the debts and assets we have inherited, and acknowledging the precise nature of that inheritance is an act of spiritual and political integrity.

What this opens up as we come together is a chance to better equip ourselves, with our privileges and marginalities. We see ourselves better for who we are in our positionalities. It allows us to own all the complex parts of ourselves. Furthermore, in remembering that our organizing spaces don’t need to get trapped in cycles of identity politics or ‘oppression Olympics’ – we are able to navigate when and in which spaces our identity (politics) is necessary.

Perhaps in our spaces where the systems of oppression are already collectively identified, we will look to unify through meaningful difference and cultivate this, raising the most impacted/affected in our spaces. The value of this is echoed in what Audre Lorde teaches us:

When there is no connection at all between people, then anger is a way of bringing them closer together, of making contact. But when there is a great deal of connectedness that is problematic or threatening or unacknowledged, then anger is a way of keeping people separate, of putting distance between us. That because we sometimes rise to each other’s defence against outsiders, we do not need to look at our devaluation and dismissal amongst ourselves. Support against outsiders is very different from cherishing each other. 6

In these violent times, calling for the absence of borders means we hold ourselves together by building community, cultivating care and love as resistance and for resilience

This is ever more important not only in terms of a response to the long-term effects of internalizing self-hatred that colonialism achieved or the way that capitalism has fragmented us in our bodies and communities. Now, with insidious state interventions like PREVENT that work from the age-old strategy of ‘divide and rule’, our organizing is subject to further fragility. Fostering trust or relationship is undermined through creating levels of anxiety and suspicion amongst each other, alongside the use of informants. Therefore it must be part of our counterstrategy to remain resilient and furthermore know how to support, show up and uplift each other.

As we move forward in to new territories and landscapes both physically and conceptually, our borderlessness is a sense of new perspective on ourselves and therein our capacity and vision to shift power from oppressors. It means we can step out of positions of not being enough or having enough, and into positions to getting comfortable with who we are and have been. Settling in, in our rejection of social constructs that don’t serve us, deepen roots in communities instead of nations. Allowing ourselves to encompass the vulnerability and humility that we are all learning how to do this. Of course, this is just the beginning…

I started writing these thoughts in London and finished them in South Africa. Here, the rampant borders of apartheid are gone, yet the inequality is enveloping. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, where economic violence on black and (to a lesser degree) brown South Africans is as real as ever, maintaining a form of apartheid. It is a stark reminder that the real removal of borders is a broader task. It encompasses redistribution of land, resources, wealth, and reshaping access routes to these. It means reparations beyond compensation, it means giving up power, and it means reconfiguring ideas of ownership and property. In these violent times, calling for the absence of borders means we hold ourselves together by building community, cultivating care and love as resistance and for resilience. If we are really are serious, when we say ‘No Borders’, what we could be doing is inviting ourselves to rise to broader borderlands.

I would like to thank and give gratitude to all the folks at Shake! (@voicesthatshake) & Platform London (@platformlondon) for continuously shaping, inspiring & informing my thoughts and this piece.

  1. Gloria Anzaldua, La Frontera/Borderlands.

  2. Ngọc Loan Trần, Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable, “Black Girl Dangerous.

  3. Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence.

  4. Judith Butler, Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance.

  5. Aurora Levin Morales, Medicine Stories.

  6. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider.

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