Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change.
Last night at an event focused on building support for immigrant communities, every single participant was a white person.
At a meet-and-greet at a local bar for Virginia Democratic Lieutenant Governor candidates, almost every participant a white woman.
At all the discussions of racial and social justice in my Unitarian Universalist congregation, the attendees are predominantly white people.
At an interfaith vigil that took place after the local JCC and UCC were vandalized with Nazi symbols and hate speech, all but a few attendees were white people.
At the university where I work, a place nationally recognized for the diversity of its student body, the faculty and staff meetings in my department are comprised almost entirely of white people.
At the local Huddle, every attendee is a white woman.
At the “Love Lives Here” family parade in response to Richard Spencer setting up shop in Alexandria, almost all protestors were white people.
At a dialogue hosted by the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution to bridge the post-election divide, all but two of the student organizers and one student participant were white people.
At the Kitchen Conversations at my house, eight of ten participants were white women.
Anyone see a pattern here?
For folks who abhor white supremacy, that’s a whole lot of safe white space.
The 2016 election galvanized millions of up-until-November passive progressives around the country. What I hear happening in cities and some rural pockets of the US is unfolding here in Northern Virginia too. Civic engagement has moved in like a storm. Large organizations, taking notice, have acted to harness this energy. The ACLU’s new “People Power” initiative has strangers showing up at one another’s houses to plan activities. The Fairfax League of Women Voters has so many new members that every one of its great but formerly unsupported ideas now has its own committee of dedicated volunteers.
Small efforts have also grown up from the political and social urgency. Groups that began as a few friends and a vague idea — Indivisible, Sister District, Flip Virginia, Adopt-a-Candidate — have grown into tangible organizations with state-wide or national presence. Others, like Network NOVA and Together We Will, formed for the sole purpose of gathering all this momentum into a sort of central clearinghouse.
The activities of groups with a social media presence and local membership have taken over my personal calendar. After the election and the Women’s March, the sentiment I heard more than any other among friends and neighbors sounded something like this: “I feel so angry and helpless. I just don’t know what to do.” At first this baffled me. From local school boards to antifa actions, the methods of getting involved exceed our imaginations. Just start somewhere. Then I remembered that not everyone fumbled their way into activism at 14 or taught high school civics at 26. All skills need to be learned, and this is particularly true for skills that threaten the institutions that rely on our labor, consumerism, and submission.
For the past few months, my goal has been to plug in and map the terrain. Who’s doing what? How can I share resources with people who are eager to engage politically, socially, at the grassroots, or wherever called?
While a hundred different opportunities exist within a 5-mile radius of my zip code, what’s out there does not generate confidence in the future of radical social change. The people doing “the work”? Bunches of liberal white women. At each event, a handful of newly energized white women buzz around and busy themselves building loose structures of communication among people who look a lot like themselves.
A lot like me.
For the first time in ages, I’m sharing the sentiment of my friends and neighbors. I just don’t know what to do.
The now-constant chatter of racial and social justice contains very little that upends racism and disrupts structural violence. Our endeavors will fail in the absence of a laser-sharp focus on ideologies of oppression. Our commitments are fluff in the absence of leadership by people of color. And no amount of dialoguing, phonebanking, postcard writing, interfaith vigil-ing, and voter registering will undo the racism and white privilege that keeps marginalized people marginalized even from the well-meaning work intended to empower them.
It would be simple and, in some ways, comforting to stride into the post-election fray and pour talent into the political-change tank. But “simple” and “comforting” belong to privilege, not to transforming the world.
I am unwilling to join the buzz of white women taking on the mantle of Community Organizers. We haven’t learned it and we haven’t earned it. Instead, I now welcome — reluctantly and with trepidation, but I welcome it nonetheless — a radical re-adjustment of my efforts.
This begins with noticing the facts of where I stand. The places I engage in any significant way with people of color, poor people, people born outside the US, and others who do not share my class and race privilege include the following:
- advising my graduate students
- volunteering at the hypothermia prevention shelter
- interacting with a handful of families who live in my neighborhood or whose children attend my son’s school
- working with the half dozen or so fellow staff and faculty members who are not white
This list makes me itch. Aside from the third and fourth categories, my primary interactions are those of providing “service.” Whether I like it or not, service of this sort takes the form of gatekeeping:
Persons who work in institutions often function as gatekeepers to ensure that the institution perpetuates itself. [Only by] operating with anti-racist values and networking with those who share those values and maintaining accountability in the community, the gatekeeper becomes an agent of institutional transformation.
Serving my students or members of this community as a member of an institution means, ultimately, serving the institution. All my diversity-and-inclusion initiatives and careful considerations of the experiences of marginalized people mean very little if my university, neighborhood, and county are organized around protecting (my) privilege.
Now I begin again.
A little listening, a little reading, a little getting to know who is who, and a whole lot of showing up where I have not yet.
With a commitment to acting not as succor but as threat, I begin again.
Image: Mauro Malang Santos