Social Movements and Citizenship: Queering the Canon

By Julie Moreau


Amy Brandzel’s book Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative is a thorough critique of the concept and practice of citizenship. Brandzel examines three recent political debates—hate crimes, same-sex marriage, and Native Hawaiian representation—looking closely at U.S. legislation and judicial decisions as her primary sources of data. Bringing together these three case studies, Brandzel argues against the violent normativities inherent in citizenship.

In the first chapter, Brandzel argues that hate crimes legislation, which ostensibly seeks to protect vulnerable groups, exceptionalizes violence against them and obscures state (especially police) violence against these same people. Further, hate crimes discourse operates through what the author calls “the logics of comparative anti-intersectionality,” meaning that race, gender, Indigeneity, and sexuality are understood as discrete categories, disallowing the possibility of multiple identities and experiences of discrimination shaped by them. Overall, hate crimes legislation, a sought after goal of many SMOs, is a “strategic pressure release valve” (p. 35) that sustains rather than subverts the violent operation of US citizenship.

The next chapter examines leftist debates around same-sex marriage. Moving beyond critiques of marriage as a fundamentally conservative demand, Brandzel contends that same-sex marriage “is a violent enforcement of colonialnormative and whitenormative citizenship” (p. 71). This “success” of the lesbian and gay movement has actually constricted the possibilities for collective action by marking the abandonment of radical queer strategies of “monstrous difference,” which seek to upset dominant values like marriage rather than claim them (p. 72).

The third chapter examines how the United States, as a settler state, colonizes and occupies Hawai’i through racializing Native Hawaiians, the Kanaka Maoli, in law and historical narrative. One example of this is the U.S. Supreme Court case Rice v. Cayetano (2000), which considers whether voting for representatives to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) can be “restricted only to those defined by the State as ‘Native Hawaiian’” (p. 103). The white male plaintiff, Harold Rice, argued that to prohibit non-Natives from voting for OHA representatives amounted to racial discrimination and was unconstitutional. On the other side of the case were the State of Hawai’i and the OHA, arguing that voter eligibility was a political and not racial determination (p. 104). Harold Rice won. By casting the Kanaka Maoli as a racial group, not a political group, the case set arguments for civil rights against arguments for indigenous self-determination.

Brandzel’s book urges those of us who research social movements and participate in activism to question our attachment to citizenship, and in this sense, makes several important contributions to thinking on social movements. First, the book usefully expands the conversation on citizenship movements. Brandzel’s major contention is that appeals to citizenship reify white supremacist and settler colonial violence. This runs counter to much of the literature on citizenship movements, which understand them to be counterhegemonic forces, often working against welfare state retrenchment in an increasingly globalized world (e.g. Mayo 2005). This view is what Brandzel calls “faith” in citizenship, enabled by an understanding of citizenship as the progressive (and inevitable) extension of rights to previously marginalized groups. For Brandzel, however, citizenship never realizes this promise of a better future. As such, social movements’ very mobilization for citizenship goods (protection by law enforcement, marriage, recognition) is worse than futile, but reifies rather than subverts institutional authority. This critique forces us to rethink social movements as definitionally challenges to authority (see Snow 2004).

Second, Brandzel asks the reader to consider that “civil rights rhetoric fails people of color and Indigenous peoples because U.S. citizenship is whitenormative and colonialist in nature” (emphasis in the original, p. 131). This contention raises questions about the centrality of the U.S. civil rights movement to social movement studies and its influence on theorizing. Texts such as Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 have been incredibly influential for the development of theory, specifically the Political Process Model (PPM). However, a framework generated from the civil rights movement ingrains assumptions about what we expect social movements to want, namely social and political inclusion into “whitenormative and colonialist” institutions. Indeed, the Indigenous activism that inspires much of Brandzel’s critique calls for a refusal of citizenship and other benefits accrued to members of settler states (Coulthard 2014; Simpson 2014; Morgensen 2011). I suggest reading Against Citizenship back onto the PPM to usefully problematize or “queer” this canonical framework. What do I mean? Brandzel understands the project of queer critique to mean rendering something “odd, off the mark, unnatural” (p. 147). While scholars have rightly demonstrated PPM’s state centric bias (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008), Brandzel’s work renders strange and unsettling any presumption that social movements will address the state seeking goods and recognition. The value of Brandzel’s queer critique, therefore, is not limited to understating the limitation of the PPM for certain kinds of movements or activities, but questioning the political orientation of the PPM itself.

Third, the book uses intersectionality as an analytical tool to understand coalition building. The formation, operation, and disintegration of coalitions are vital to social movement studies (Van Dyke and McCammon 2010). However, with notable exceptions (Roth 2004; Reger, Myers and Einwohner 2008; Rousseau 2009), relatively few scholars take up intersectionality as a tool for understanding how identity operates in social movements, or for understanding how multiple identities act as potential sites of both conflict and coalition building. Brandzel calls for “intersectional alliance against citizenship” (p. 99) as an alternative to single issue/single identity citizenship movements, and makes two interesting claims with respect to coalition building: “a politics of alliance requires activisms against U.S. citizenship…” (p. 101) and “Monstrosity is that performative ethic that can link the queerly racialized, gendered, sexualized, colonized Other” (p. 99). Are coalitions across identity politics most successful when allied against rights claims and inclusion? Can monstrosity as an ethical practice serve to hold coalitions together?

I benefited tremendously from reading Against Citizenship as a thinker, activist, and, well, a citizen. I encourage social movement scholars to engage with Brandzel’s ideas allow them to influence future directions in studies of collective action.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. and Mary Bernstein. 2008. “Culture, Power, and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements.” Sociological Theory 26(1): 74-99.

Brandzel, Amy. 2016. Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red skin, White masks. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Mayo, Marjorie. 2005. Global citizens: Social movements and the challenge of globalization. Zed Books.

Morgensen, Scott Lauria. 2011. Spaces between us: Queer settler colonialism and indigenous decolonization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Reger, Jo, Daniel J. Myers, and Rachel L. Einwohner. 2008. Identity Work in Social Movements. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Roth, Benita. 2004. Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Stéphanie. 2009. “Genre et ethnicité racialisée en Bolivie: pour une étude intersectionnelle des mouvements sociaux.” Sociologie et sociétés 41(2): 135-160.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Snow, David.A. 2004. “Social Movements as Challenges to Authority: Resistance to an Emerging Conceptual Hegemony.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 25: 3–25.

Van Dyke, Nella, and Holly J. McCammon. 2010. Strategic alliances: Coalition building and social movements. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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