Sunday, November 20, 2016

Talking To White People About Racism

Today a leading member of Salem's Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC) and I went to a local church to do a one-hour meeting on our anti-racist, pro-racial justice organizing. I volunteered for this without fully thinking through what I had to offer, and when I got to the church I remembered that I was once more talking to people who identify as middle-class and who are mostly a bit older than I am.

Uh-oh, I thought, feeling intimidated by the surroundings and the class differences. I suddenly felt very unprepared. Fortunately, my co-presenter is an articulate and inspiring woman who knew how to talk to the folks gathered to hear us. She did great while I stumbled through.

My co-presenter had a good agenda: talk about ourselves, open the meeting up for a bit of discussion, focus on RJOC, ask for commitments. This is the real content of organizing. Tell a story, engage and listen and then close with a commitment. But when it came my turn to speak I said that I had never had an "ah-ha! moment" with anti-racist work. It's true because I have them daily, or almost daily, but I made the mistake of focusing instead on my family and them stumbled when I decided to not let this be about me.

The people picked up on what we were saying and some of them carried the ball. One guy talked about how the factories in Detroit had brought Black labor up from the south and exploited Black workers. People focused right away on the farmworker struggles. Some of them knew Oregon's racist history quite well. Some of them were very attuned to the needs of refugees and immigrants settling here.

Then one white guy said that he had no prejudice and had not encountered Black people until his senior year of high school.

Uh-oh. My instinct is to cut those conversations short, criticize or shame the person and appeal to others for support. But that isn't organizing. Instead, my co-presenter and I talked more about how RJOC studies the dynamics of white privilege, how subtle and destructive white privilege can be and how we try to take action against institutional racism and about our advisory committee structure which gives local people-of-color organizations leadership in RJOC. A couple of the people were ahead of us and talked about racism is used to divide and conquer us and how the current crisis has deep roots in the past.

Another white guy said that he knew what it was like being discriminated against because he once tried to buy ice in a Vietnamese store in California but couldn't get help from the Vietnamese workers but did get help from a Latino worker. Another "uh-oh" because my instinct is to jump on those remarks and talk about power dynamics and privilege, but my co-presenter jumped in and transformed talking about that experience to talking about what immigrants go through every day. Given my own background, I should have picked up on this, but I didn't.

We closed with asking for commitments and a few people joined RJOC. Every member counts, so this is a real victory for us. I handed out an article from the new issue of Sojourners about anti-racist kids books and talked about getting these books for kids (and for ourselves) and reading to children and discussing anti-racism with them. People seemed to like this idea. At least I met people where they were at and helped them move up a step. That's a good organizing principle.

Beyond being a mostly white crowd, these weren't "my people" and I didn't connect as well as I should have. As I say, my co-presenter was on the money and she got us through by establishing credibility and making our case.

This opportunity came as I was still flying high from last night's LUS Family Heritage Dinner---see the post below this one---and as I was thinking about some of the dynamics of the anti-racist movement. There is a move to disband the Showing Up for Racial Justice organization, white working class people like me are getting blamed for Trump's win by many people on the left and by some leading Black activists, there is an argument being made that "allies" are no longer needed but that "co-conspirators/accomplices" are needed instead, Sanders and Warren aren't quite where we need them to be when we need them to be there and they're the best national politicians who we have, our protests over the pipelines connect us to a struggle over environmental racism and have repercussions in our labor movement, some of our union leaders are willing to give Trump a chance because of his promises on infrastructure projects, there is an absence of analysis but much blame going around, I hear some radicals saying that the working class isn't needed to make change or revolution and the Democratic leadership seems to (predictably) be letting an opportunity slip through their hands and the ultraleft gains from that. I hear lots of speeches, most of them from essentially moralistic positions, but I don't hear much analysis or accountability.

I think a great about why anti-racism matters. Some people come to this from the point of view that it makes them better people. Perhaps many of the people we talked to today are there. I don't agree with this, but I can work with it. If you want to be a better person, you can join a faith community or Transactional Analysis and do better there than in the anti-racist movement. But, still, anti-racism can help you struggle and transform. Some people are motivated by guilt. This is harder for me to work with because it paralyzes most people. Some people attach anti-racism to a political agenda. That's a good starting point, but I bet that the other items on the agenda don't get resolved without putting racism away. The only good reason that I can think of to do this work is because anti-racism helps build the conditions for self-determination for people of color and that that is a necessary condition for working-class power and, ultimately, socialism.

We're often caught between smart people who say that Trump and racism are nothing new and that nothing has changed and that there has been no progress, folks who say that we have to fight to keep what we've won and some leftists who want people to go zero-to-sixty and seem prepared to walk away when they won't or can't. Many of the smart people are telling us that the hard conversations have to be put away and that decisive commitments to people of color organizations need to be made now. I get the urgency but I keep coming back to the point that there is no shortcut which replaces patient organizing and action as my co-presenter modelled today.

Under these conditions all that I know how to do is try to gather people in, meet them where they are and try to push back. My faith is in the idea that if we just dare to struggle then we will win at least some victories, and that victories create victories. The woman I did the presentation with today gets that better than I do. We all have much to learn from strong activist women.            

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