On the fractures of ‘community’

by Carolin Huang

Consider when mainstream media, and much alternative media uses the word ‘community,’ particularly in the framing of what the (insert ethnic/cultural/racial) community thinks/does. ‘The __ community’ agrees with this. ‘The ___ community’ disagrees with that. ‘The ___community’ is in conflict with ‘the ___ community.’  While it may seem obvious what problems might arise, I want to emphasize some of these problems to underline the persistence of faulty (and often violent!) journalistic practices, even in ‘giving voice to the voiceless’.

When we are attempting to shed light on a particular social issue (such as homelessness, police brutality, environmental degradation), it is frequent that we want to centre those directly affected by the issue. But herein lies the possible danger of simplistic framing – offering a perspective as expressed by ‘THE ___ community’.  This not only frames the so called ‘___ community’ as a unified, homogenous group, but also as always the victim (as opposed to fighter) of oppression. Voices lose their nuances in the framing of community, especially when these voices are of those with less institutional power – those often being spoken about. It would look very different if we decided to shift the focus from harm to resistance when we talk about violence. But that might actually challenge our beloved politics of representation, if we want something more than having our voices, or more accurately, the voice of ‘our community’, included.

During the recent Canadian elections, in which Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde urged Indigenous people to vote, media debates were obsessed with the question of ‘the Indigenous vote’. It was assumed that all Indigenous peoples were politically aligned and supposed to want the same political future. But there were different parties that Indigenous peoples would vote for. Indigenous peoples in Canada were only legally allowed to vote in 1960, and did not have to renounce their treaty rights and status, as determined by the Indian Act, to vote. The electoral system is thus one of the very tools used by the state to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples. Because of this, there were still Indigenous folks who still did not want to vote and participate in a settler colonial state system.

The fracture in ‘community’ is especially evident in the media coverage of Akai Gurley’s murder. The ‘Asian-American community’ was divided between supporting or opposing the indictment of Peter Liang, the Chinese-American officer who shot and killed Gurley, an African-American man. There was no one single community when some opposed his indictment because they believed he was charged based on his race, whereas others supported his indictment because they believed that he should be held accountable for his systemically anti-black actions. What radical critiques get lost when we try to fit people with SOME similar experiences but MANY different beliefs into ‘community’?

Perhaps we hold on to the idea of community because we are attached to the possibility of political unity. However, assuming that ‘the oppressed’ are ideologically unified through the framing of ‘the __ community’ erases the multitude of dissenting, contesting, and consenting voices that resist, conform, and shift. Linda Alcoff (1991), in “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, reminds us what it means to ‘speak for’ and ‘speak to’. As she says in the paper, a more radical act of speaking would abandon the presumption of an “authenticity of the oppressed” (23), a presumption so adamantly rooted in the use of ‘community’. The act of ‘speaking to’, though still thick with uneven power relations, cannot be reduced to established speaking roles and can open up to new (counter-)narratives. To reorient ourselves in our alternative/activist/independent media would mean to understand how we locate ourselves in relation to each other, but never to fix ourselves to these locations.