People are Problematic: The Truth about Resistance

The exaltation of resistance leaders, around the globe, upon glossy white pedestals has fed into three problems with far reaching consequences that are relevant to how we judge resistance now.

  • The first problem is that resistance must be nonviolent and acceptable to power structures to be heralded by society or even given the recognition it is due.
  • The second problem is that we worship rights activists to begin with, removing them from their humanity and setting an impossible standard. We do not note how much they struggle, the psychological vulnerability of activism, or their humanity. Thus, when they make mistakes somehow those leaders are now “problematic” and their work is not worth recognizing.
  • The third problem is a combination of the two: because leaders must be acceptable to the powers that be, because resistance is held to unrealistic standards, we are harsher in judging them. Most of all, because we prop them up to a “godly” level we cannot imagine we could be them.

Problem One

I use the metaphor of worshiping resistance leaders and placing them upon glossy white pedestals because often the leaders that are loudly exalted are more acceptable to the institutions that oppress. What on earth do I mean by that? I’ll unpack this a bit.

In America Then:

The Civil Rights workers that were lauded by a continuously discriminatory, racist, sexist American government to appease progressives were the nonviolent activists. People like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders. Activists who, even in the face of violence, encouraged no self-defense. Take it, take the oppression and violence they backhand at you so the world can see what they do to us. Sit there and show that no matter how little of a threat you pose they will always treat you as sub-human. This strategy did work to shock the American public but more than that it did not work alone. It was simply the more “acceptable” version of activism.

The other version of resistance worked in tandem with nonviolent protest and is represented by groups like the Black Panthers. I love the Black Panthers. An organization that sought to protect and defend its peoples from the ongoing violence they faced from the people they lived among and the government sworn to protect them. As someone who has been assaulted repeatedly and locked up, not helped, by the people sworn to protect me I deeply empathize with the Black Panther’s mission to defend their community. It was this willingness to meet violence with defense, with retaliatory violence, that made Americans and the American government feel they had to work with MLK.

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MLK had someone to threaten the American government with. “You think I am demanding? Wait till you have to work with the other guys.” MLK had an angle to leverage because the Black Panther’s protected the black community and scared the hell out of white people. However, Malcolm X and the Black Panther’s have largely been relegated to the “didn’t quite get it right” side of Civil Rights history. Their names are shrouded in a disquieting level of infamy in American history classes. The American government even labeled them terrorists and shut them down while allowing the KKK to exist. They are not heralded. Except of course in black communities. Even MLK’s more divisive, incisive, fierce rhetoric that mirrored the Black Panther’s has been largely censored and edited in history classes. His intense anti-imperialism barely mentioned. Except of course in black communities.

This is what I mean by hoisting resistance leaders up on shiny white national pedestals. The nation exalts what those in power praise. The rest, those who threaten the establishment louder, fists raised, ready to meet violence, are threatening. Those who endure in nonviolence are more acceptable to the whiteness that still is supreme in our society. The whiteness that is terrified by those proud raised black fists.

In America Now:

Now in the face of blatant white supremacists black Americans are outraged. Jewish Americans are outraged again at the proud, open Nazi’s that stride by their synagogues. They want to protect their communities. In the face of extreme aggressors that want to assert peoples inferiority and their own supremacy, minorities want to defend themselves. Some of them even want to punch Nazi’s and KKK in the face. “How dare they? They’re promoting violence!” white people gasp. “That is not conducive to anything” whiteness says. Nonviolence is quoted back to them and who do white people use? The acceptable activist who stands upon his shiny white pedestal: Martin Luther King Jr.

So white self-identified “allies” post tweets and memes of his striking figure saying, “hate can never wipe out hate.” They encourage peace and love in the face of violent attack. In the face of a violence they do not have to face. In a war in which they have no skin to lose.

Activism is only heralded by society at large when the people are martyrs who lay down their lives on the altar of nonviolence. There is nothing wrong with being nonviolent. There is nothing wrong with meeting violence with defense. Both are valid, both have served a purpose. However, only one has gained widespread recognition for its achievements. Only one has been praised, worshiped, nearly fetishized by media and society as “the right way.” Only one is acceptable to whiteness and patriarchy even though one could not exist without the other.

Those who hold power will not give up their power until their hand is forced. Once forced to consider cooperation, they need a hand to reach out to. 


Problem Two

The second problem is deification. We glorify in absolute terms the activists that are not only more acceptable to institutions, we also glorify those that seem to be flawless such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

“Flawless” Activism in America:

Malcolm X’s narrative in American history, not as well known as MLK’s, was complicated and “problematic.” Malcolm X struggled. He changed his views. He went through a period of radicalization. He converted to Islam. He returned from Mecca with new ideas about resistance, oppression, and the world. He did not have all the answers.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s narrative on the other hand, in general American perceptions and history classes, is clear cut and inspiring. He was a born activist, fueled by his faith, he struggled but he was a genius a part. He did not need to learn or grow. MLK apparently did not make mistakes. (Yet again, many of the supposed “mistakes” activists make is defying the type of resistance that is relatively acceptable to the institutions in power.)

However, MLK did make mistakes. He injured the civil rights of black women while fighting for civil rights in general. Numerous black women who worked with him found his views on black women to be regressive, problematic (Sisters in Struggle illustrates this well). This does not at all diminish the work MLK did. That is my point. MLK was still a hero, still a tremendous activist, you can be problematic and still an admirable person in the fight for justice. In his personal life as well MLK had failings, he habitually cheated on his wife Corretta Scott King (who by the way is an underappreciated activist who recognized women’s and LGBT rights). These failings were even exploited by the FBI as they attempted to shut down his movement and silence his voice. Thankfully it did not derail his movement tremendously. However, for others these personal attacks do succeed in dragging them down. They should not.

“Flawless” Activism in South Africa:

The same can be seen with Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela is another heavily quoted black resistance leader. He and Desmond Tutu’s beautiful words about diversity being a rainbow, South Africa being a rainbow nation, and love before hate helped unite the country. His peace after decades of imprisonment calmed a state-wide rage and helped preserve lives and transition his people to freedom during a highly unstable period. He is called Madiba in reclamation of his African heritage and as a symbol of his fathering a new nation. Mandela practiced incredible restraint and nonviolence.

Winnie Mandela, on the other hand, is considered to have “lost it.” She is discredited, widely criticized, and even Africans who recognize her importance dismiss her right to recognition because she “messed up” as the years progressed.

I have a personal story to tell about this… the story of how I came to understand Winnie Mandela. I remember I was in my South African history class with my thesis adviser (and the only African historian at my large research University, University of Colorado at Boulder). He was discussing activists and activism then Winnie came up. He dismissed Winnie and made it clear she had engaged in violence against black and white Africans and thus was too problematic.

Initially, I agreed. I do not condone violence. I know a few of her victims were likely completely innocent. I know she contributed to instability in a time in which instability threatened not only the future of South African government but also South African lives. I know she indulged the violence in her heart.

Then I watched a film on Nelson Mandela that heavily featured Winnie’s story as well. I did not expect to learn much. I have studied this in depth and films rarely scratch below the surface. However, this one did scratch more than the surface. They scratched deep, dug straight into the emotional bone marrow and psychological well being of activists. They explored Mandela’s thought progression throughout his imprisonment.

He had been labeled and convicted as a terrorist, he had bombed buildings (the youth league did not kill people insisting buildings be cleared prior to bombing them). Now he was imprisoned, his resistance stayed strong but it changed form. He even upset many African National Congress members who believed he was indulging white African’s power and presenting himself as a leader rather than an equal member of the ANC. I enjoyed the film’s take on this; however, it was not groundbreaking. I knew all this from my studies.

What I saw Winnie experience, what I learned about Winnie’s harrowing life, and then confirmed with research, did shake me and made me burn with shame for dismissing her. Winnie was constantly harassed, her ability protect her children constrained, she was imprisoned routinely, apartheid officers assaulted her, and given her vulnerability as a woman may have sexually assaulted her. It is implied and likely considering white supremacy is often expressed through total domination. Winnie was put through a level of hell that Nelson was shielded from in some ways, having entered prison before apartheid ramped up violence, and she still had to be both the public’s liaison to her husband and an engaged anti-apartheid leader.

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One of the tactics Winnie utilized and was admonished for was putting a rubber tire around African’s necks and lighting it on fire, they called them “necklaces.” How could she do this? How could she promote this? How could she promote harming other Africans? Well the movie clearly illustrates that numerous Africans within their communities were allies of the apartheid government who frequently betrayed and spied on anti-apartheid activists. Now, in this position Winnie did not care about anything but protecting those who deserved it, those who were innocent and resisted. To do so she believed that killing and punishing traitors was necessary.

Was she morally innocent? No. But do I understand her actions? Yes. I do. Because after facing a decade of sexual assault and trauma I understand the urge to protect yourself and your family first. I understand the tensions that exist in a mind that is constantly assaulted. I understand why Mandela snapped. I see why she began new tactics. I feel a similar rage and I am not a black single mother and resistance leader living in South Africa under apartheid. The pressures, the trauma, the constant endurance required in resistance cannot be understated. The psychological reality of being an activist is harsh. It is not easy to be a rock for your community and your struggle.

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Now I no longer dismiss Winnie. Is she problematic? Yes. I do not shy away from her problems. Instead, I understand her as a person not just as an activist, a hero, or a mythological figure in the genesis of a nation. I do not believe we should sweep aside problematic men and women of revolutions. I believe we can learn fundamental lessons from them, not only about resistance but also how to care for activists and understand them as people.


The Problems in Combination

These issues work in tandem. They loop each other into a vicious cycle of judgement that all resistance fighters (nonviolent or otherwise) must face.

How is it that the judgement that falls on Black Lives Matter is harsher than what befalls white supremacists? What I mean by this is, how is it that black self-defense “lowers black resistance to the same level” as the hate filled, fully armed, bigots in militia gear? They come ready for violence but if black people accept this reality and protect themselves their resistance means nothing? How can our society allow fully armed white militias but ban open carry because of the Black Panthers? How do we fault those that fought back when their lives not only felt threatened, but were threatened?

We are not only harsh in judging resistance compared to other resistance movements. We are harsh, as a global society, in judging resistance compared to oppression. Resistance must be beyond reproach. Oppression is, in its very definition, never beyond reproach. Resistance and its activists must be seemingly flawless in the face of a monster with no qualms whose violence is largely expected and accepted.

How can people ever see themselves as leaders? How can people imagine that every black or brown girl and boy has that power inside of them? If leaders and resistance must be flawless and we all know we are not flawless how can we aspire to their greatness? Because they are deified rather than appreciated for the incredible, complex, and flawed human beings they were people often do not imagine they could lead.


These issues shut down opportunities by shutting out the realities, the truth about resistance. This is not only problematic for those involved, but also for our society. If people are shut down and unrecognized it only continues to silence marginalized groups. This must stop.

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