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Synthesis/Regeneration 49   (Spring 2009)

Thinking Politically

"Wait a Minute, I Think We Need to Talk About This."

by Janey Archey, Steve Hollis, Justin Stein, John Chasnoff and Marlene Schuman

We took the title of this piece from "Sledgehammer of a Word" published in Synthesis/Regeneration 48, pp. 14-15.

Though Ms. Reed's article was prompted by a recent incident that occurred at the Surviving Climate Change roundtable whose participants were from various progressive organizations, Ms. Reed used the incident to remind us that,

"if there were a piece of legislation or a policy that explicitly discriminated against African Americans, most progressive white people would take to the streets in a heartbeat, sincerely and stridently raising hell. But many of those same people do not recognize their subconscious attachment to a culture built around white supremacy. Manifestations of this attachment are often weird, verging on the surreal. How else could a perfectly intelligent person stand in front of a progressive gathering and say the word Negro to an African American woman in an arguably pointless bid to ban a pronoun."

Let's examine the incident directly. As Ms. Reed describes it, she had just "used the word `we' in describing the systems that perpetuate institutionalized poverty." A middle-aged white male stood up to comment. Ms. Reed paraphrases his comment: "We should become more sensitized to the word `we' just as we have become sensitized to the word `Negro.' We don't use the word Negro anymore. If I said Negro right now, people would probably get very upset."

Ms. Reed goes on to describe her internal reaction to the word "Negro": "If I hear it from a White person, I'm instantly immersed in the contempt and the pain. It feels particularly violent when I am in front of a majority white audience as I was that day. Nobody questioned or even seemed bothered by what occurred."

This incident is unfortunately representative of a dynamic that exists both locally and nationally that serves to undermine and often splinter progressive organizations and movements for social change. When we refuse to deal with this unpleasant reality within ourselves, our movements pay the price. This has happened in the lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) communities in the 1990s over the "Fight the Right" struggles and in the LGBT community now in California over Proposition 8. It has happened in the anti-war movement during the Viet Nam war and now with the war in Iraq. It is happening in various communities with the Green movement. It has also been a present dynamic within the movement for a just reconstruction of New Orleans.

There is a solution to this ongoing problem. As Susanne Pharr, long time lesbian, anti-racist activist and writer, repeatedly reminds us, we cannot form solidarity across lines of color and class in the midst of crises. Self-education and alliances must be intentionally accomplished beforehand so that strong coalitions are possible during times of struggle.

Ms. Reed points all of us, particularly white activists, in the right direction by offering us simple language to address incidents/issues that make us squirm in our seats. Squirming is good; it signals us that we are discomforted and that some sort of change is needed. The statement, "Wait a minute, I think we need to talk about this," can immediately begin to address the unconscious remark or divisive action rooted in white supremacy and privilege. And in-fact, after contacting Ms. Reed and apologizing, the older white male who made the comment at the gathering has since contacted some of the activists writing here and has started to re-educate himself with the intention of exploring the consequences of his actions.

However, we must go beyond the immediate interruption of racist language/actions. Our progressive organizations must intentionally choose an anti-racist agenda no matter what social change issue has been primary to our organization's focus. In other words, we must intend to form on-going alliances across lines of race, class, and issue. Presently, there are any number of fine books and articles by white anti-racist activists/writers (Chris Crass, Sharon Martinas, Susanne Pharr, Tim Wise, Chip Smith) as well as activists/writers of color (Bill Fletcher, Elizabeth Martinez, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Cornel West) who address both (a) the reasons why many progressive, social change organizations remain so white, and (b) how white activists can become good allies to activists of color. Sharon Martinas, creator of Challenging White Supremacy programs, has put together a list she calls "anti-racist toilet training" for whites. A few noteworthy points follow.

1. Attend an anti-racist training and encourage other white activists to do so.

2. Recognize how white privilege consistently socializes white activists to think of themselves as superior.

3. Instead of that eurocentric "come join us" approach, check in with organizations of color working (on your issues) at home and abroad.

4. Respect the leadership of people of color. Be accountable; do what you say you will do.

5. Prioritize reading books by radical people of color, especially feminists. Learn more about the struggles of communities of color.

6. Set concrete goals for yourself that can be measured, such as: in one month, will talk with two white anti-racist activists in my community and two of color.

7. Remember that it is not your intentions or motives that count but the impact of your actions as a white person in a white supremacist society.

Lori Reed suggests she left the roundtable after the incident occurred feeling "alienated and discouraged (because) whites were not giving each other the nudges they needed to grow." This is becoming an old story in the progressive social change community and will continue if we remain both ignorant of or conscious and indifferent to our ingrained (socialized) white supremacy. We must not only ask for input but accept leadership from people of color - not merely recruit into our organizations but build alliances with organizations of color, and - again - see leadership of color and substantial numbers of people of color among the "rank & file" of our formerly mostly white, social change organizations.

We must allow time for trust to build within our organizations and at our meetings - not typical of a white agenda/task focused leadership style. We must do this with intention and out of our own self-educating and self-observing, and with a commitment to hold ourselves accountable to each other as white allies and to the people and organizations of color with whom we form alliances. Again, quoting Sharon Martinas, "whites should not only say `no' to racism but also carry out energetic campaigns of `yes' to any action that advances genuine collaboration. This is no simple or easy task, but what could be more worthwhile?"

Here are some websites and resources we have found helpful:

This article was written by white activists committed to racial justice.

[26 sep 09]

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