From my white friends @ The Wayside Center for Popular Education here in Virginia.
By Virginia Leavell & Jeff Winder
“Black communities need spaces to organize with just other Black folks. Sometimes white people just aren’t invited to those spaces, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to organize together.” - Ana Edwards
of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality during a session on the rights of oppressed peoples to self-determination during the Virginia People’s Assembly.
Movement work has changed in the United States since Occupy started. Internationally, of course, much bigger changes have been underway for longer. And for us back here at home, the change means that we’re seeing a surge of new people, new allies, involved in struggles for justice. With these exciting numbers and new collaboration comes opportunity and challenges.
One great challenge to be met head-on is internalized racism. To put it bluntly, even when we mean well, white folks often tend to walk around oblivious to our unearned privilege and its effects. We stumble along, take up too much space, assume people agree with us, step on toes and sometimes more. White supremacy confuses our powers of perception even as we think we’re working towards justice. And now, with so many new people involved, so many new connections between existing groups happening, so many people just beginning the life-long journey of unlearning racism, the problem of internalized racism is even more visible in our activist circles.
This is to be expected. It doesn’t mean racism is a larger problem in movements for change than in society at large. In this country, we all grow up in a racist culture under racist institutions. We can’t escape it - it’s like the air we breathe. The fact that it is so visible in our movements shows that we’re making efforts to cross barriers and build diverse relationships; trying to do our part to build a broad-based multi-cultural, multi-racial movement capable of creating real change.
But a necessary part of that work is learning to constantly check our internalized racism. It’s not fun, but it is essential to effective work for social change and justice. In the past few weeks alone we’ve seen a lot of examples of white privilege unchecked in organizing work. Like the white people who felt it was OK for them to sit in on the Black Caucus at the Virginia People’s Assembly. Like the young white activist who, after a Black man posed a question to the organizers of a Black group on their facebook page, took it upon himself to answer and continued to argue his theories of social change even after being told it was inappropriate. Beyond being ineffective, actions like these actually hurt the movement.
As a start, we need community to help us when we get off track. If we never tripped and fell, we wouldn’t be human. But if we don’t learn from our mistakes, we will never be allies worth keeping around. There are plenty of people and groups out there with a lot more anti-racist organizing experience than we have. We encourage you to seek them out and go deep with this work. But for starters we wanted to offer our extended community some points that we have found to be helpful when organizing in multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural spaces.
If you want to engage or support work happening in communities of color, the first step is not to try and educate people about the connections between your issues and theirs, it’s not to try and get people to come to your event and it is most definitely not to preach to people about your theory of revolutionary social change. Instead: Get to know people. Listen. Find out what is important to them. Seek to understand what they are doing and why. Ask how you can help.
Smile when you walk into a room. Introduce yourself to people you haven’t met. Remember people’s names. Come early to meetings and hang out after. Share some of your personal life and ask after others’. Be a whole person, and engage with others as whole people.
Let’s be real - white supremacist culture has taught us that our thoughts, opinions and preferences are more important than others, even though we know this is untrue. It is important to be aware that this culture has conditioned us to act from that assumption and we must be militant about checking that deeply ingrained tendency.
Remember that you don’t have all the answers. Even if it seems like you have more organizing experience, even if you think your theory of social change is brilliant, don’t take up too much space with them. You are a crucial part of this movement, but it isn’t all about you.
Don’t expect praise or credit for being a “good” white person. Don’t be defensive when you hear feedback about destructive behaviors by white people. Even “race traitors” are still white and benefit from the color of their skin.
See the quote at the start of the article. Do not assume your involvement or help is wanted or needed. Don’t assume you know best what type of help is needed. Ask if you can help and how. Listen. Accept the answer gracefully. Don’t be easily offended.
Find mentors and build enduring relationships with them. Ask questions, work through problems. Accept feedback, criticism, and praise. On the flip side, seek out young folks and devote time and energy to their own journey. Approach young folks with humility, and avoid patronizing: you were once in their shoes.
If a person of color offers you feedback, accept it gratefully; but don’t expect it. As white people it is our own responsibility to check our racism. Read books by people of color. Listen to speeches and music. Watch films. Go to events. Form study groups. Ask Virginia Organizing to support your group with a Dismantling Racism workshop. Check out the resources at the Catalyst Project.
Mistakes are gifts that teach you how to be better. Learn to catch your own mistakes, and welcome feedback from others, especially if it is delivered in anger or frustration. Be forgiving of others’ missteps. Offer loving, constructive feedback. Fight against your inner defensiveness.
Being anti-racist means knowing when to step back, but also when to step up. Organize other white folks to support organizations led by people of color and folks directly affected by the issue at hand. Organize white folks to donate money and time. Write. Speak up. Find the love and anger inside that propels you and communicate both. Above all, do not let guilt paralyze you.
Find a rhythm where you are productive, but not burning out. You are not helpful as a stressed out, terse, and grumpy white person. Accomplish things. Celebrate victories. Try to sleep enough. Commit your life to social justice struggles and keep showing up.
Capitalism, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy were built over generations. It will take generations to undo them. While we have certainly come far, we will not solve the entire problem in one meeting or one campaign, or as one person. Together, we can build a movement that will win if we’re all in it for the long haul.