Whiteness, Organizing, and Allies
By Laura Close, with the STARC Alliance
Note: This piece was written in response to an email debate among student anti-war organizers focusing on how the movement after Sept.11 was perpetuating racism.
First of all, I'd like to thank Chantel and the other organizers of color who have taken the time to share their concerns and thoughts about how this anti-war movement is perpetuating racism. This is a response to Chantel's email about "white students/organizers ignoring racism in the movement".
I do believe that a multi-racial movement is necessary and possible. I do believe that everyone has a place in the movement. I do believe that currently the student anti-war movement is perpetuating racism unintentionally.
In the interest of moving this conversation in a direction where people with race privilege (white folks) can start organizing in a more responsible manner, I'm including here what I know about Whiteness, Organizing, and being a white Ally in typically racist movements.
Whiteness hurts everyone. Whiteness is used in the US as a model of humanity, this model sets white as best/right/normal and people of color as second best/wrong/other. Living in this false model of reality makes white people like me assumptive and oblivious.
That is, we tend to assume that the ways we organize events, organize opposition to the war are best/right/normal when in fact we are isolating and ignoring all sorts of people. When whiteness is held up as normal, it leads white people to think we know what it is like to be a person of color. Being a person of color is just like being white, being 'normal', right? We often organize events on our own without really believing that people of color would do anything differently. The results are white cultured events that are not welcoming or empowering events for people of color. We actually only know what its like to be white. White folks like me need to bring up our event/campaign ideas to our friends of color for real input (and be okay if they explain our events are assumptive/oblivious), and most importantly we need to support the events that organizers of color are hosting in order to break the cycle of assumptive organizing.
Oblivion in white organizing means oblivion to other ways of actually getting things done (organizing). We say things like "well, no one suggested any other way" rather than seeking out different/more inclusive models. So often we remain oblivious to the existence of Whiteness and to the way it effects white people. So the result is that we end up thinking that our movement isn't racist/white centered (this is just normal, right?), but it is, and that's how whiteness works, as a blinder.
Assumptiveness/Oblivion are always the trappings of privilege, for whites, for men, for straights, for the ruling class, and fully-abled people.
As young organizers we often don't know what organizing is. I always got projects done (like a conference or a rally) but not until recently could I define organizing. Can you define organizing? It's not really a theory, its a skill set that you can summarize: (and there are variations)
Organizing is about changing the relationships of power in our society. It's about building networks, institutions, organizations that established power (the government) has to reckon with when they want to do evil things (like cut welfare or wage war). We create these networks, organizations one person at a time. With each person we build Skills, Confidence, and Analysis.
As college students we are being trained as "creative problem solvers" and "analytical thinkers" we are often strong in Analysis and Confidence but weak on actual Skills. Its arrogant to think that organizing is easy, its a vocational skill set like anything else. For instance, I wouldn't tell a car mechanic that her job is easy.
Organizing is successful when each demonstration, lobbying delegation, phone bank, banner hang, teach-in, post card delivery builds off of the step that came before it and ends with you achieving your goal. Right now, we are not building off of each other, our rallies and conferences are scattered. We're trying damn hard, for sure, but we're not building because we don't have the skills! but that can be fixed.
What does this have to do with racism?
Okay so we want to stop the war, and we're trying to organize. Well if organizing is about building power, but the movement we are building power for is full of white people who don't understand how whiteness effects them and is excluding people of color, then we are building power for a racist movement. People of color start to give us warning signs, but by then (by now) we don't know what to do, and we wish they'd stop being so angry about our good intentions!
An ally is someone who recognizes that they are on the privilege side of the privilege/oppression divide that society creates. A white ally searches for and implements ways to ACTIVELY BUILD POWER for and with people of color in each issue they take on (because people of color are always most impacted/more excluded than whites).
If we are organizing one person at a time in order to build the networks that run the movement, white allies are then looking for ways they can help foster skills/confidence/analysis in communities of color (that chose to work with whites). In terms of institutional organizing, this means building power for networks and organizations of color so that established power (the gov't) has to reckon with THEM.
White ally work is done in an effort to support people of color as visionaries, leaders, organizers, or whatever term you like (if you don't like leaders)and to break the cycle of white people as leaders in the left.
Being an anti-racist white person is not easy (being a person of color activist is harder due to reasons already described), and its on-going. As white people we are constantly drawn to perpetuate whiteness, to ignore and forget that our normal behaviors usually result in exclusion of people of color. In creating conferences, protests, alliances, networks, and organizations we can combat whiteness and racism by always being careful to create communication, decision-making, financial, etc. structures that account for race, gender, and class inequities. If we don't do this right from the start, we end up with a movement that mirrors mainstream racism. oops.
So far the studentsnowar listserve has shown very little promise of becoming anything concrete enough to actually hold accountable. Until the white people in this movement/on this listserve create ways to be accountable to the people of color who are calling us out, there will be little progress towards a multi-racial movement.
Thanks again to Chantel for inadvertantly kicking me in the butt with her last email.