Editors note: This piece was submitted by our dear friend Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana who we met through transnational queer feminist activism. She is currently based on Turtle Island on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples.
By Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana
The demise of SCOTUS justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has resulted in a string of mourning in the territories of Turtle Island known as the US of A. Many feminist activists, LGBTQI+ people and people from other minorities in other parts of the world also join this collective eulogy of the deceased judge.
Bader Ginsburg, a high-profile Supreme Court justice, is being canonised as an absolute icon of gender justice, equality and progressive social transformation. The white liberal lobbies, especially associated with the US Democrats, adore this discourse.
In reality, this adulation of Bader Ginsburg is a hollow, apolitical and deeply problematic gesture. It is also extremely disrespectful towards black people in the USA and many other parts of the world who have suffered and continue to suffer tremendous levels of racially motivated violence, indigenous peoples in the USA and elsewhere whose daily lives are a struggle between life and death, and to people trying to desperately flee atrocious circumstances across tall border walls of wealthier nations – to name but a few.
Writing in August 2020, Amanda Hess notes that [Bader Ginsburg] ‘was fashioned into the star of a mythical vision of the Obama era that never really existed — the dawn of a “postracial” society in which liberals were so comfortable in their dominance that they could consume their own politics as if they were kitschy pop-culture artifacts’. This undeserved stardom and its adulation in neoliberal political circles are revealing examples of the bankruptcy of present-day neoliberal politics.
The liberal lobby’s love for Ginsburg, and resolve to apotheosize a legal representative of the liberal wing of settler-capitalism, is deeply disconcerting, from a perspective of intersectional feminist advocacy that involves strong components of justice to indigenous peoples, racial justice and social justice.
Ginsburg was the quintessential white feminist.
She could not stand a black cis-male professional athlete protesting against the white supremacist American establishment by kneeling down while the national anthem played. Her subsequent apology added insult to injury, when she quipped “I should have declined to respond”. She has a track record of not deploying her high office to facilitate representation. 14th Amendment-related judgements [Lawrence vs. Texas, Romer vs. Evans, Obergefell vs. Hodges] and 5th Amendment-related judgements [Windsor vs. United States] did put her on the side of LGB rights. However, she was not alone. Her colleagues such as Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan also have consistent pro-LGB track records on the bench. These judgements pertain to marriage and state laws. Their passage may guarantee the rights of people who are privileged enough to enter unions of marriage. However, these are not decisions that have served to advance the objectives of queer liberation. Perceiving Bader Ginsburg as an icon of LGBTQI+ rights is therefore inaccurate.
The fundamental feature of Bader Ginsburg’s jurisprudence – taking an ‘incremental’ approach and work cautiously with the patriarchal, white supremacist, misogynist establishment – is very much the archetypal white feminist template for [in]action.
White feminist attitudes of this nature are pervasive and highly toxic.
In the academy and in politics, fingers on both hands are far from enough to count the number of times liberal white women have sought to ‘tone’ me down and shut me down, simply for taking a strong intersectional feminist stand, unapologetically standing for racial justice, bodily autonomy, gender self-determination, justice to indigenous women, and many other pressing issues. A political party in which I held an elected responsibility in the north of Ireland once suspended me, after an investigation which found that my advocacy work as an Executive Committee member and the party’s LGBTQI+ Officer had been offensive to [cis] white men. Next to none of the white-liberal cis women who pretended to be supportive would raise a finger in protest.
This, I call, the ‘Bader Ginsburg complex’ of feminist, centre-left, and all hues of supposedly progressive but in reality, desperately hypocritical spaces. Many such circles deem Bader Ginsburg-type wishy washy liberalism as more acceptable than determined and defiant campaigning for equality and justice.
Bader Ginsburg has a record of supporting gas pipelines that run across indigenous territories. Apart from their devastating environmental impact, projects of this nature unleash violence on indigenous people, especially indigenous womxn and non-cisnormative people. In her 8-1 judgement in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation , she completely sabotaged the sovereignty and inalienable right of indigenous people to their own land. One does not get to hold any feminist credentials whatsoever without standing unequivocally for indigenous justice. This imperatively involves supporting indigenous sovereignty, and fighting against violence that disproportionately targets indigenous women.
Bader Ginsburg also has a record of courting eugenics, and of being sceptical of bodily autonomy-centric abortion rights. From her opposition to Roe vs. Wade as “too much, too fast”, she has been an adept of slow, step-by-step, incremental efforts to the consolidation of fundamental rights. Her role in Struck vs. Secretary of Defence was client-focused, and involved a set of privileges that many indigenous womxn and womxn of colour may find difficult to access. If one observes her track record carefully, it is clear that Bader Ginsburg fell short of a clear grasp of and commitment to bodily autonomy, justice to black womxn and indigenous womxn who have herstorically suffered and continue to suffer extremely high levels of reproductive violence.
Overall, Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is one of standing for the white settler-colonial [and inherently oppressive] American establishment. Her constant emphasis on gradual and incremental change instead of protest and action to challenge the establishment, is in fact a strategic positioning extremely violent towards indigenous people, black people, and to all other marginalised peoples who simply do not have time or space to engage in such slow-paced pro-establishment inanities.
Today, we are finally living a moment of global awakening for racial justice, with a growing focus that centres black womxn, non-cis and no-het people, and indigenous womxn, and non-cis-heteronormative indigenous peoples worldwide. As Dr Angela Davis acknowledges, the current scenario represents a “long overdue” moment for racial justice, in the USA and elsewhere. In this “extraordinary moment” [to quote Dr Davis], the real icons are indeed Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garca and Opel Tomati, the black queer womxn who founded Black Lives Matter and endured tremendous violence over the last few years. Today’s icons are the black [cis and trans] men and womxn, non-binary folk, and the hundreds of thousands of indigenous womxn and non-cisnormative people who have been murdered, gone missing, who lives were tragically interrupted. Today’s icons are marginalised peoples who bravely stand for their rights.
In today’s context, Bader Ginsburg can only be reminiscent of one salient reality that Shanice Nicole, a Tiohtià:ke-based black cis womxn, organiser, poet, and intersectional justice advocate, puts most sharply: “there is no justice on stolen land”.
Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is an educator, author, political analyst, and intersectional feminist political advocate.