A Seat at the Table

The multiplicity of representation, paid labour, and systems of oppression.


I’m sure you’ve heard about the protests and subsequent arrests of students at Columbia University. If you haven’t, more than 100 students were suspended and then arrested for peacefully protesting the school’s investments in companies that are profiting from the genocide in Gaza.

There are many reasons why this action is terrifying, including the limitation of the ability for people to protest and the clear violation of student rights (I’ve heard that they were actually protesting in an area designated for protest), but I think the most alarming thing that I’ve heard is that the president of the university is Nemat Shafik, a Muslim woman. Not only did she call the cops to break up the protest, but she had to suspend the students before they could be arrested because they could then be charged with trespassing.

This was all done, of course, in the name of safety for students. Safety, when the demands of the protestors were to stop funding an apartheid state. I’m sure that wouldn’t be an option because funding this state is too profitable.

After learning about all this, I saw a meme post from anarchospirituality, who has provided their own kind of coverage about these events and how they tie back to systemic issues. Quite a few of the slides really hit home. Go take a peek and come back because I want to dive into these issues a bit more.


A post shared by @anarchospirituality

Yesterday, I was browsing around social media and came across a picture of a local yoga studio that offers classes specifically targeted at women. I know some of the folks who attend and have even been invited to participate. I always express gratitude for being invited, but I explain that I have a hard time justifying the cost of exercise-related activities when I could really just be doing yoga in my basement.

The reason that people pay money for these classes is because they get to do it with other people (and accountability, dedicated me-time, self-care, etc etc etc.) They can justify the cost because it’s supporting a local business owner and because it brings people together. They make friends while they are there. (Maybe this is why I don’t have friends IRL 🤔…) Sometimes I think that I’m just a stick in the mud because I don’t want to pay for friends. But then I remember that community shouldn’t come with a paywall, and I genuinely can’t afford to give money to someone providing a service like this.

I threw up a story on Instagram touching on this and was rewarded with a gem of a quote from Magpie Ulysses (@magsdeelight):

“The ‘people have to get paid’ monetization of everyday action will destroy altruism.”

This conversation around unpaid labour is a complex one. Yes, people deserve to live comfortably when they offer their labour to provide a good or service, and the easiest way to allow people to live comfortably in our current system is to pay them. Paying something like a living wage or exploring options for basic income seems like a no-brainer when we talk about how to help people who are exploited by capitalism.

So yes, we need ways to exist inside of capitalism while it continues to hurt us, but I think the piece that is so often missing from the conversation around unpaid labour as well as racial representation is that these solutions still exist inside a system that will never ever ever EVER set us free.

Every time we elect a black politician to uphold systems of oppression, every time we promise to place a better monetary value on people’s labour, every time we make a classroom environment more inclusive, and every time we invite marginalized people to the table to make decisions about how to implement bureaucracy, we are making the systems of oppression palatable for those being oppressed. This is not dismantling work. This is not abolition. It is pulling the marginalized in with open arms and saying, “You too can participate in the oppression! We welcome you to the top!”

But you cannot become free by using the master’s tools. You cannot become liberated within the confines of institutions of exploitation.

I place NO BLAME. After living in poverty, after being told to stay in the kitchen, after being robbed of rights, after being denied access to healthcare, clean water, and good food, anyone is justified in accepting a lifeline. We all deserve to live with comfort and dignity. I think it’s hard to see the bigger picture when offered opportunities to elevate one’s self in systems that weren’t designed for you to succeed. We are all sold the same American Dream, after all.

But there are two truths at play here, and failing to acknowledge both truths is the reason why capitalism feels inescapable. It’s why we think decolonization is a metaphor rather than a real, tangible practice. So long as we continue to buy back into systems of domination, structures of control, and hierarchies of power, we turn our energy away from abolition. We sit down at the table rather than flipping it over and demanding something better.

The question from here becomes: How do we do both? How can we elevate those exploited by the systems of oppression while also doing the work to dismantle the systems completely? How do we exist in the midst of the pain while also doing the work to build something new?

Personally, I believe that it’s on those of us who live with reasonable comfort to do the dismantling work. We cannot rely on those who are struggling. We must listen, include, and ground our action in care for all—for collective liberation. But we cannot put the onus on others to do that work for us. I believe that it is our job to build new systems built on core tenants like equality, sovereignty, plurality, diversity, democracy, and liberation. We need to foster a sense of stewardship over ownership, doing so collectively without a profit motive. I look to tools like collaboration and voluntary work to help communities thrive and have their needs met. And I believe that if we spend our energy on building these new systems rather than trying to claw our way into the systems we know don’t work, we are more likely to see the steps towards collective liberation appear in our lifetime.


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