Who Do You Love?
Rihanna, Railroad Workers, and Representation
In 2019, Rihanna confirmed reports that she declined a request to perform during the 2018 Super Bowl halftime in a show of support to Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who, in 2016, decided not to stand for the national anthem as a protest against police brutality in the U.S. Kaepernick, who hasn’t played in an NFL game since the 2016 season, has said that the NFL essentially blacklisted him over his protest.
“I couldn’t dare do that. For what?” Rihanna told Vogue of her decision to not perform during the halftime show at the 2019 Super Bowl. “Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Six short years later, Rihanna accepted the gig. With no mention of Kaepernick or the fact that the NFL has refused to change its position on its players protesting antiblackness, her rationale celebrated what her former self condemned - that the representation of an already highly visible black person is, itself, more of a victory for black people than a highly visible black person’s unwavering solidarity with the demand to stop killing black people.
"That's a big part of why I want to do this show, representing for my country, representing for immigrants, representing for black people. That's a big part of why I wanted to do it," she said during an interview at Apple Music's Super Bowl press conference.
By now, many of us are familiar with the emptiness of representation that is solely deployed as a symbolic gesture. How it co-opts and neutralizes radical demands. How it anesthetizes those making radical demands by adorning them with fancy titles and accolades accompanied by shiny objects. How it insists that the real achievements are located, not in eliminating terror against the people, but in visibility, status, and position that can be used to “motivate” the people. Here, the politics of representation was used to transform a Super Bowl halftime protestor into a Super Bowl halftime performer.
Another example of the failure and fecklessness of this kind of representation is its institutionalization in the Democratic Party as the party of workers’ rights and strong government regulation. In 2019, twelve labor unions representing about 115,000 railroad workers across the US began negotiating with railway carriers on a new union contract. Railroad workers were pushing for paid sick days to provide relief for grueling schedules caused by labor cuts in an industry where many workers were on call every day of the year, often having to work while sick or forgo doctor’s appointments because of their scheduling demands and strict disciplinary policies around attendance. Unable to reach an agreement, by September 2022, the prospect of a strike threatened to shut down down the US railroads and hit the US economy to an estimated $2 billion a day. So, in December 2022, President Biden signed legislation to block a national railroad strike by cutting off those workers’ right to legally withdraw their labor and forcing a tentative contract deal on workers that deliberately excluded paid sick days. Despite early opposition, the legislation was ultimately supported by popular figures of the progressive Democrats (and official members of the Democratic Socialists of America) - AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush - who campaigned on working class platforms that included Medicare for All, a federal $15 minimum wage, and vowing they would be accountable to working class and oppressed people.
Animating the rail workers’ demands was not simply the reality of their personal welfare, but the fact that railway conditions have worsened in general. As railway conditions have worsened, railroad carriers have made record profits and spent billions of dollars on stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders. The strike was an attempt to ring the alarm. Then, this month, trains operated by Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation and Union Pacific derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, Van Buren Township, Michigan, and Splendora, Texas, having effects ranging from hazardous chemical explosion to water and air contamination to death. At the end of the day, the anti-worker legislation touted as necessary to avert crisis, produced crisis. The people whose principles were supposed to be rock solid in support of workers are the very people whose principles crumbled when it came time to count the votes. To add insult to injury, the people living in the affected neighborhoods have been told to “trust the government” after the government initially denied their requests for disaster assistance and is currently siding with Norfolk Southern in federal court in its efforts to block lawsuits filed by its victims.
The thing that’s supposed to distinguish liberals from conservatives is their purported commitment to transforming this nation-state into a beloved community that sustains care and shares wealth. But there are reasons why people as well as institutions lie about who they really are and who they really love. The lying is rarely pointless. It’s functional. Lies can help construct an image. They can create stability. They are malleable. They can look like discretion, selective omissions, and revisionist history. They can look like self-styled radicals who, while claiming fidelity to the poor are, in the final analysis, unwilling to turn their gaze away from the elite, whose requited love has always been the true, unattainable desire of their hearts. Underlying such corrosive dishonesty is the deep knowing that honesty would not only demand a reckoning with the lies, but the end of the world that the lies made possible. Because freedom can never be found in the seduction of false harmony. It can only be found in laying bare the fundamental discord at the core of it all. And, then, throwing ourselves into the relative truth of the void so we can start over again.