Skip Navigation

BPR Interviews: Margo Okazawa-Rey

Photo Credit: Margo Okazawa-Rey

A radical African-American and Japanese, transnational feminist, Margo Okazawa-Rey is currently the Barbara Lee Distinguished Professor of Women’s Leadership at Mills College. As a scholar, activist, and teacher, she studies issues of militarization, globalization, and transnational feminism. Okazawa-Rey was one of the original members of the Combahee River Collective, a “radical black feminist, socialist, anti-imperialist collective of women” that has been credited with coining the term “identity politics” and influencing the contemporary activism and theorizing of Black feminism. Okazawa-Rey hosted several lectures and conversations at Brown during the “Women’s History Series 2020, Radical Roots: Nourishing Feminist Work” hosted by the Sarah Doyle Center for Women and Gender this year.

Rose Houglet: There’s been a lot of discussion on the debate stage and in the media about what constitutes radical ideas or a radical campaign. Considering that one of your talks on campus is titled “What does it mean to be radical,” could you comment on what factors you think might be causing discrepancies in how people perceive radicalness and on your view of the radicalness of this primary season?

Margo Okazawa-Rey: One’s idea of radical depends on where you’re standing in relation to whatever the issues are — that’s kind of obvious in a sense. Having said that, though, I think the incidents of violence happening in the world, not just in the US, are not parallel but rather interrelated. Thus, I think we should come up with a more coherent understanding of what it means to be radical. Most simply, it could mean some 180-degree departure from what already is, but when I think about “radical,” there are three levels. One obviously is transforming the institutions and structures in the society and community, such that all people can thrive. To me, that’s a radical idea — that everybody should thrive and that we would have a shared purpose and a deep understanding that we share a common destiny. We would organize ourselves in such a way that would bring out the best in us, not the worst. So, radical in that sense is creating institutions, and transforming institutions and structures that already exist, in such a way that they can fulfill the purpose I just talked about. To me, that’s radical, and it also is transformative.

The other way that I think we desperately need to think about radicalism is a shift from an individualistic to a collective sense of who we are. If we take seriously my first idea that we share a common destiny, then it really makes sense that we think of ourselves collectively and not just individually. You know, “May the best man win,” or “It’s a dog eat dog world” — all these sayings that encourage us to be individualistic. It’s a mutually reinforcing process: For us to gain a sense of the collective, we have to deepen our relationships with one another. And for me, that means really taking the time, having the attention, practicing really wanting to see one another, and recognizing one another’s humanity. There’s all the usual stuff that we talk about, recognition around culture, all those things. But it’s deeper than that, isn’t it? It’s recognizing each other’s humanity, which is covered up by all those categories that we’ve been socialized to believe are true, even though intellectually we know they’re all socially constructed.

I think the third aspect of “radical” is that we recognize that our struggle really is global. Particularly for people in the US, I think one of the things radical means is that we recognize deeply what it means to be connected to this US state and US corporate policies. We can rail against them, and we can be anti-this and anti-US and all that; nonetheless, we are connected structurally to the state. We see that often when we’re traveling abroad or when we see how undocumented or immigrant people are treated. We talk pretty easily about race, class, and gender, but I think if we take into the analysis this deep understanding of nation and the analytic category of nation-state, then we would have to come up with radical positions that are transnational, international, and that take into account the relationship between the domestic and foreign. And one other thing I think is as activists, as activist-scholars — however we identify — we need to include centrally into our work love, in the big sense. By love, I mean the foundational love of life. We do this work of being an activist, because we love life, we believe in life, and the lures of all life forms, not just human.

RH: Campaign slogans often attempt to convey a sense of collectivism. Thinking about Bernie Sanders’ campaign slogan of “Not Me, Us,” do you feel that movements toward social democratization have been inclusive of ideas like love and transnationalism? Do you feel like there is room for improvement? And if so, where?

MOR: I’m not sure that socialism as we know it has included things like love and deepening relationships. Most of the socialism that we know has been structural and material. I am definitely a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I was one of the signers of a statement that just came out of 100 plus Black scholars, writers, and all supporting him. The socialism that I imagine is absolutely economic, right? And it is mainly thinking about socialism as a foundation for creating communities and societies where the “we” really is a cornerstone. It’s a “we” that is not trying to create a monolith. It’s not trying to make ourselves into a cement block or any kind of block, but rather a “we” that recognizes our physical, emotional, and spiritual interconnections. And that’s why we are a “we.” If we do it right, that means that we engage in deep discussions about what matters to us, and at times we’re going to disagree. But a socialism I imagine has also at its core and foundation a commitment to an ethical process, and one that has integrity. We’re not going to necessarily agree on all the outcomes, but that “we” — the collective — can be committed to certain kinds of processes that would help us as much as possible reach consensus and not block consensus. Sometimes we may need to block consensus, but then we have a process through which we can figure things out; it’s not just blocking consensus because that’s what we want to do or because we’re being individualistic. So that’s the kind of socialism I imagine: a deep commitment to processes that engage as many of us as want to be included in genuine ways. Not just come for a meeting and tell us what you think about what we have, but really, we collectively, as much as possible, come up with what we have in mind as a real “we.”

RH: Do you feel as though you’ve been seeing that reflected in the Sanders campaign? Was that part of why you chose to sign that letter?

MOR: I saw that in his campaign, and I haven’t seen it in others’ campaigns. Let’s just be clear, though, that no president can do everything we may want; it’s just not possible given what’s going on. But I think it does make a difference what the leadership is saying, as we’ve seen these past few years. It makes a huge difference. But as we also have seen that if the Republican Party had pushed up against Trump, he wouldn’t have been able to be as wild as he is. So, let’s say Sanders is elected, our job is just beginning then. Our job as a movement and our job as members of the Congress who are on the progressive side — our job is to hold any leader accountable for what they have promised us. And that is not just holding them accountable as individuals, but holding our institutions accountable, and not letting our representatives off the hook. I was just so amazed that Mitt Romney stood outside his party’s consensus. That kind of thing happens — it’s not easy. Everybody should be writing him a letter saying thank you. You know, for whatever reasons he did that, it matters that he did it.

RH: Building off of your points about leadership, people have expressed concern that it would be difficult for someone with Sanders’ identities to represent a multiracial, multigenerational movement. Others have argued that candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg hold identities that might impair them from being radical and still remain electable. Could you comment on those issues, especially considering that the Combahee River Collective has been credited with coining terms like “identity politics?”

MOR: I don’t think there’s any one body that can represent all bodies. When I talk about commitment to processes, one of the processes is creating formations where, if I were a leader, I can bring together various constituencies, various people, and then we can be together collectively. It’s not possible for one person to represent all the groups, especially given how complex identities are. Sure, Bernie’s not going to be able to represent everybody, right? It’s our job to make sure that all of our voices are heard, not just thinking about “my” people.

So, when the Combahee River Collective talked about identity politics, we weren’t talking about a politics of exclusion, such as “I’m only thinking about my identity group.” What we were talking about is that our identity can be a real source of power and inspiration, and that we can create a certain kind of force. We said that if Black women are free then all women will be free. We didn’t mean that because we were the most oppressed; what we said in that statement was that for Black women to be free, we would have to change all these institutions. And because we are all dominated by these institutions in which racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and so on are embedded and which form the systems of oppression, if we transform those, we can all get out from under them. That’s the sense of the importance of Black women’s oppression. It’s not that we’re the most oppressed. The identity politics was about galvanizing power, seeing our identities as an important source of power. Not just that we would look out for only our group, which is how it’s construed in some quarters these days.

RH: One of your talks on campus is titled “What is Feminist Security Studies.” Could you speak to a few examples of the interwovenness of international and interpersonal violence from a feminist lens?

MOR: The conventional notion of security is a state-based notion focused on the relations between states, military might, all those things: “How do we keep those bad countries in check with our hard power, which is military power?” What Catherine Lutz, the other speaker, and I will be talking about is sort of how we as feminists are having to rethink and have been rethinking this idea of security. The conventional sense of security focuses on the state and its relationship to capital. If we interrogate this concept by asking questions like, what’s being secured for whom? Who’s doing it and how? For what purpose? These questions will help us see, definitely, conventional notions of security produces deep insecurity for most of the world’s peoples and the natural world.

The way that I think about security — as a feminist who’s been working on issues of militarism and so forth — is all of us securing livelihood, securing the dignity of people, securing protection of the environment. Building sturdy relationships among us. Preventing avoidable harm. For example, avoidable harm would be things like building a nuclear power plant on a fault line. Rebuilding a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, for example, when it’s caused all this devastation already. Building shoddy buildings, or letting housing deteriorate in poor neighborhoods, so when there’s a big natural disaster, the people in those neighborhoods get worse impacts like during hurricanes Katrina and Maria. All of these are examples of avoidable harm. This is really foundational  concept in my understanding of security.

We have genuine security when we have sturdy connections among each other and when we have social networks that work. When there was the big Hanshin earthquake in Kobe Japan 1995, the community that fared the best  through it was the Zainichi Korean community there. Because of their oppression, they had established networks and knew how to take care of each other, as compared to the Japanese people who were separated from each other because of the nature of their social relationships. I think about that as a good example in that, when stuff goes down, we know for sure that we have each other’s back—in many ways than one. That’s security to me. Because we can’t guarantee outcomes; we can’t guarantee too many things in life. But, guaranteeing our commitments to one another, I think, will take us a long way, for example, to preventing violence and to dealing with survivors when violence  is perpetrated. Going back to your original question, these days, radical is fundamentally about creating relationships among ourselves, and I’m not just talking about people who know each other or are already good friends. I’m talking about communities and organizations in which we can build these sturdy bridges between us and among us.

RH: Do you feel like those ideals manifest themselves in any specific foreign policy issues you’ve seen on the debate stage for the election this year?

MOR: No. The only thing I heard was Bernie Sanders, I think in the last debate before 2020, when he was the first person I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate say Palestinian people are people and that we need to think about their dignity and their protection. That was the first time I heard any candidate say something like that, or even mention the “P” word, unless they’re talking about Israel. To me, statement really turned the corner. I think more generally, these debates have been so uninspiring, except for a few moments. I think all of the candidates, in one way or another, are being very instrumental and transactional in the sense of getting votes, and of course that is what you do. But I often have been wondering what would happen if each of them actually really said what they believe in their heart-of-hearts. I know that’s really pie-in-the-sky.  We see in the cynicism and deep disappointment with our political leaders all across the political spectrum. And I think we’re asking ourselves — at least I am — who, ultimately, can we trust in government?

RH: Do you have any ideas of ways in which candidates could reinstate that trust in government?

MOR: Yeah, it’s the old Black Panther saying: “Mean what you say and say what you mean.” Don’t bullshit us, and also learn to say that you don’t know something, that an issue is complex, that you haven’t thought about it, or that you will try to talk to people who can teach you. Learn to admit that you really made a mistake and ask people for forgiveness because you are willing to change, learn, and become a better human being.  Know that if you become a better human being, you can become a better leader, one who is in power to serve the common good, to help us become the best human beings we possibly can. That level of vulnerability and honesty goes a long way in trusting somebody, especially the leaders. But also ourselves and each other.

RH: On the note of accountability, can you comment on how transformative or restorative justice — especially in cases of gender-based harm — informs your work and the ability to build community and hold each other accountable instead of relying on institutions?

MOR: Well, it’s funny you’re mentioning this question, because I just gave a talk recently about this very topic, and I had the good fortune of meeting up with an old student of mine from almost 25 years ago, Anthony Ceja. He’s working in San Diego with folks who serve the city’s youth. He talked to me about teaching these folks to learn and use restorative justice as a central methodology in their work. He introduced me to this concept called “In Lak’ech,” which is a Mayan concept that says, “I am you and you are me.” What that means is that we’re not separable. When I do something to you, I’m affecting you, and it’s also affecting me. So, the restoration isn’t just material — however you think about the material — but also about restoring not just the other person’s dignity, but my dignity in the process. Not just forgiving the other person but asking for others for their forgiveness as well. And I took this concept to mean that when there’s a transgression, the dignity of both parties or of all the parties were really undermined in different ways. Coming back into right relations is the restoration of dignity, and to do that, you have really to be able to see the other person, see who they are, and see who they can become. It’s not easy. In the context of violence against women, sexual violence, clearly the question of power has to be addressed because violence is ultimately an expression of power to dominate and humiliate. Assuming that we’re human, if one human being can commit an atrocity — whether it is rape or mass murder or being a leader of some structural power decision that wipes out a group of people — we all have the potential to do that given the right set of circumstances. If we see that, then it seems to me that we would have to be much more compassionate. It doesn’t mean that we let people off the hook, that’s not what I’m saying. There are certain accountabilities for sure, there’s restitution, and all of that — in whatever ways necessary. But, there’s another kind of restitution that is about restoring the humanity and the dignity that was destroyed in that act of violence and that were destroyed living in an oppressive society and socialized to internalize beliefs that say relationships of domination and subordination are the standard.

RH: Do you have any advice for activists who want to promote these ideals of love and compassion with people who may not reciprocate?

MOR: I think one thing is trying to figure out the setting in which we would encounter people whose beliefs are so different from ours. One of those settings is in our family, which is a place we really don’t engage if we disagree. We think about the strangers we meet as the people to engage with. In some ways, they’re the easy ones because you only interact with them a few times. But what if we engaged with people who are within the inner rings of our concentric circle and started there? Talking to our parents, siblings, cousins or neighbors. I’ll give you an example. I have a house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a couple of my neighbors are Tea Party people. We often don’t necessarily talk about politics, right? But they’re fabulous neighbors, and they take very good care of me; when my friends are visiting, they take very good care of my friends, too. And I really love my neighbors. So, how do we not just talk in slogans like “Obamacare?” How do we ask questions around real life issues like: “Your parents are elderly and they’re going to need care. How are you thinking about that? How are you all coping with that?” And then move out to political issues, because if we start with the slogan, we’re just going to end up in the same place where we started. How do we start with the real stuff of life that matters? How do we get to our yearnings as family members, people living in the community? I know that that’s totally idealistic. I know that. But if we don’t talk with each other, to our neighbors, to our family — who can we talk with?

RH: Is the Combahee River Collective engaging in any such efforts nowadays?

MOR: Well, you know, the funny thing about the Combahee River Collective is that we were never an organization. Our work happened in retreats, and I think altogether there were about eight retreats. What I can say is that most of the people who were part of the original group are still very active politically if they are physically capable. So maybe the question is, and it would only have to be rhetorical: if the Combahee River Collective were still together, what would be describe as the main lessons we have learned during the past 40+ years and how would those lessons inform “A Black Feminist Statement 2020”?

RH: That is a great question.

MOR: That would be a question I can’t answer. But I think that’s an important one to think about, assuming that we’ve all grown politically over the last four decades.

RH: Do you feel as though you personally have grown politically?

MOR: Oh my god, yes. I’m more radical now than I’ve ever felt or believed, and more compassionate. I think compassion and understanding are important qualities of being radical. I feel the urgency of the moment but also understand that these kinds of changes we need to make take a while. As young people say, “it takes a minute.” That’s the kind of emotional, spiritual, and psychological things I’ve learned. I’ve also learned that what we didn’t think enough about earlier on was thing like militarism and military expansion, not just wars. Thinking about the ways in which race, even in this country, isn’t just the racial paradigm of African-American people and white people. That racial paradigm is the dominant one, but it doesn’t really reflect the fullness of dynamics of race now. And it didn’t really reflect the dynamics of the race in the past. If you take into account genocide and colonization and take both of these forces seriously — because it wasn’t just the enslavement of people of African descent that created this country — then the racial paradigm would have to look different. I also understand now in a way that I couldn’t have before the importance and salience of thinking about the category of nation. That is, what it means to be connected to the US state. So yes, I’ve absolutely grown a lot.

RH: Do you feel like there were some key moments that led to those moments of growth, or was it a gradual process?

MOR: There were definitely really important turning points. If I had to define my life into segments, I would say the earliest change was moving from Japan to the US when I was 10 and then coming to understand what America is. Then, the Combahee River Collective. Then, getting a Fulbright to South Korea.

The reason I applied for the Fulbright was that there were a lot of tensions between the African-American communities and Korean immigrants and merchants. There was something called the Family Red Apple boycott in New York against the Korean shops. There was the killing of Latasha Harlan’s, a young Black girl, by a Korean woman owner of a store. There were incidents like that in major urban areas. So, I wanted to go to Korea to find out what Korean people learned about Black American people in Korea before they got to the US. What I ended up seeing was the presence of, at that time, over a hundred US bases and installations in a country about one fourth the size of California. Even if I couldn’t speak Korean, I could communicate with a certain generation of Korean people in Japanese, and those are the people who had been colonized by the Japanese. So, here I am in Seoul being connected to Japanese imperialism and U.S. imperialism and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, you know, my framework for understanding these things is really limited, and I need to learn.” That’s when I really began thinking about the category of nation.

Then, the last big moment was when I went to a feminist conference in Zurich, Feminist Debates on Peace and Security. There I met an incredible Palestinian feminist activist, the late Maha Abu-Dayyeh, one of the founders and the long-time general director of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling and a very well respected and loved leader of the Palestinian women’s movement. She’s the one who introduced me to and got me thinking about Palestinian women and their situations in Palestine. I hadn’t thought of all the complexities of Palestine, because it had been presented to me as a monolithic place with images like young boys throwing rocks at the Israeli military. Attending that conference in Zurich, meeting Maha who invited me a couple years later to go work in her organization, really reinforced the importance of thinking about the nation and the various ways that peoples are colonized and occupied. And thinking about the importance of feminist analyses and practices in nation-building in a land and with a people who are occupied and colonized.  I’ve been privileged to have wonderful opportunities to learn from people who believed in me that I could learn and guided me to different places in all the ways we are guided. There’s always been new areas of growth where I had to engage, otherwise I’d still be back thinking about race and gender in the same way, and I wouldn’t have even thought about the premise of the nation nearly as much, if at all.

RH: How do you think all these new experiences translate into the kind of work you’re doing today and hoping to do in the future? Could you speak to those endeavors and what you’ve been engaged in recently?

MOR: All the experiences I described, and learned from, inform many things I do now and, more important, shape my sensibilities and how I move through the world. Substantively, topics like militarism and militarization are my focus.  What’s different now is that I just turned 70 in November, so I have, let’s just say, ten to fifteen good years left if I am lucky. What I want to do during that time is to be guided to see how best I can be of service. I don’t think it’s my time to start new things. It’s my time to contribute to existing things, or if other folks are starting things, to be part of that — but not be central in any way. I want to be working intergenerationally with younger people. That’s what I love about teaching undergraduates. I’ve been joking with all my friends that I will work for food: All you have to do is invite me and feed me. I am eager to contribute in whatever ways I can, in whatever ways you want me to. That’s who I have become and how I want to live out the rest of my life.