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On Inequality: Angela Davis and Judith Butler in Conversation

“A little disobedience, a critical thought and build community to think something new together”, Judith Butler.

On Inequality: Angela Davis and Judith Butler in Conversation

McMurtrie, John. 2017.

Have you ever thought in the notion of “equality”? Angela Davis and Judith Butler, two feminist activists, and contemporary thinkers, were invited to discuss this concept in the Oakland Book Festival (2017). The word “equality”, and the equivalent opposite “inequality”, are overused to fight against what people believe is unfair. However, it seems to be an abstract concept. Nevertheless, who sets the standards for equality? The following article takes the panel, which is possible to find on YouTube, to reflect on these two notions and what is behind: equality and inequality.

Who are Angela Davis and Judith Butler

Paulo, 2017.

Judith Butler (Cleveland, 1956) is a distinguished feminist philosopher. She is the Maxine Elliot Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where teaches comparative literature and critical theory. Originally, she was specialized in gender studies. Moreover, her work also includes reflections about ethics, politics and human rights.

She is the author of several books, including Gender Trouble, Precarious Life, Frames of War, and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Nowadays, Judith Butler is considered one of the most influential scholars around the globe.

Choupas Cyrille, 2018

Angela Davis (Birmingham, Alabama, 1944) is a recognized activist, academic and author. Notorious as a professor emerita in the Departments of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She comes from the activist counterculture in the 1960s, working with the Communist Party of the USA.

She has written several articles and is the author of nine books: Angela Davis: An Autobiography; Women, Race, and Class; Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; The Angela Y. Davis Reader; Are Prisons Obsolete?; The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues; and a new edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

On Inequality panel (Oakland Book Festival, 2017)

Carla Alferez, 2017

The organizers of the Oakland Book Festival, developed in 2017, invite these two notable activists, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, for a conversation panel entitled “On inequality”. This was moderated by Ramona Naddaff, an Associate Professor of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley and a director and editor of Zone Books. The conversation started considering the fact that the event itself was taking place in a space where equality was not considered. In other words, people with functional diversity –such as who needs a wheelchair or deaf – were having some trouble accessing the event.

“Equality is not an abstract right”, said Judith Butler, “it is a question of treatment and opportunities”. The philosopher highlights that if we, as a society, want to talk about equality, use big words such as democracy, spaces have to be accessible; it is a right to have access –for instance, in public spaces like a Council hall. Angela adds, “We need to reflect on where we are, as a community, and see with whom we are sharing spaces and with whom we should”.

While talking about equality, Butler purposes that people need to ask who is using the concept, for what purpose and how does the use mobilizes history. Both activists agree that there is a need to change entirely the idea of “equality”; nowadays, it seems that it” goes on the direction of assimilation inside existing standards (what will never make society move on if we continue under the umbrella of capitalism). Mentioning Elisabeth Spelman (a philosopher from the United States, mainly focused on critical race feminism, among other different reflections such as humans as waste makers), Angela Davis suggests, “We can not assume that by adding the previously excluded into the existing set of arrangements there is going to be any significant change”. Working on that direction would mean continue in the way like always (with racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

Imagining equality

According to Judith Butler, we do not know yet what equality might mean. Equality has not yet been thought in the radical ways it needs to be thought, says Butler. Concerning that, Angela Davis says “I like the notion that diversity means difference that does not make the difference”. A reflection that could be a starting point for a holistic change while talking about the equality notion. Thinking about the future could be an interesting exercise to challenge and imagine the equality concept in a new way. Judith Butler considers that equality “has to take a new form that is not been historically available to us”. Angela Davis asks, in a way of response, “why do we continue to assume that the old structures of organizing are going to be the ones that lead us to a new world?”.

To continue, Judith Butler purposes to see some examples of new ways of organization, different manners to build communities. For instance, there is the movement in Barcelona against banks (seen in the picture down below, with the slogan “Rescatan Bancos, Desahucian Familias” – They save the Banks, They evict the Families). Solidarity is one of the main engines that move the Squats installed in Barcelona for people who have been evicted. There is hope; there are new system ways like building alliances from the basis.

Suitelife, 2018

Some words to conclude: encouraging different temporalities

How many times have you ever listen to someone saying, “World issues are too complicated”? Sometimes people become extremely frustrated by the bigness of the problems – for example, racism. Moreover, Angela Davis adds, “We assume that in order to have any legitimate approaches to these great issues people want to have solutions like right now”. This is, according to the activist, because of the temporalities that capitalism is requiring us. We want answers right now. However, what if we do not have an answer? Does it matter? –Is asking Angela Davis. Seems that own life is the measure of everything. But it is important to think in different temporalities, adds Angela Davis. This is because:

Ashley Fetters, 2018

“We are the manifestation of the imagination of those who came before us and who did not give up because it was not going to be possible to completely abolish colonization, to get rid of slavery. They still struggle and we are here as a testament to that persistence. We also have to imagine our responsibility to let that long sense of history. People 200 years from now thankful to us for the work we did for the short time we were together”. (Angela Davis and Judith Butler, 2017)

Angela Davis encourages to think in different temporalities –stop thinking in the way people have learned, like while asking for grants that measure plans only for the next 2 or 5 years. It is essential to work passionately, and urgently, in justice work. Indeed, Davis purposes to consider what will go on to the next generations and after. “We would not be gathered in this space today if it weren’t for the work that people did hundreds of years ago”, concludes Angela Davis. “A little disobedience, a critical thought and build community to think something new together”, adds Judith Butler.

Marianna Espinós


Angela Davis and Judith Butler. 2017. Conference of On Inequality Angela Davis and Judith Butler in Conversation.  Oakland City Hall’s Council Chambers, Oakland USA). May 22, 2017. Accessed April 15, 2019.

Alferez, Carla. 2017. “Join the 2017 Oakland book festival for free”. Liffed.com. Accessed April 21, 2019. 

Choupas Cyrille. 2018. “Angela Davis”. Accessed April 21, 2019.

Fetters, Ashley. 2018. “In Defense of Old-School Feminism.” The Atlantic. Accessed April 21, 2019.

McMurtrie, John. 2017. “Oakland Book Festival to Take up Equality and Inequality.” SFGate. Accessed April 21, 2019. 

Paulo. 2017. “Passagem Da Filósofa Judith Butler Por Congonhas Termina Na Delegacia.” Folha De S.Paulo. Accessed April 21, 2019. 

Suitelife. 2018. “The Okupa Movement: The Squattes of Barcelona”. Accessed April 17, 2019. 

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