by Chris Dixon
After many years as a white student radical (in high school and then
college), I'm reconsidering my experience. I made a lot of mistakes and
was blind in many ways, particularly as a white person. What follows are
some lessons that I am learning, some strategies for reflecting on,
interrogating, and disrupting racism in our lives.
Transforming the world means challenging and changing institutions and
ourselves. Systems of oppression are ingrained in both and, accordingly,
must be confronted in both. More than once an activist of color or an
actively anti-racist white person has confronted me: "Why are you always
rushing off to do solidarity actions with people in other parts of the
world when you don't even make time to deal with your own shit?" They're
right. As white student activists, we are in fact notorious for protesting
injustices across the globe, yet neglecting to confront systems of
oppression on our campuses, in our communities, and in ourselves. Being an
effective student activist means making priorities, and at times we must
prioritize slower-paced, not-so-flashy work over dramatic actions that
offer immediate gratification. Being an effective white student activist
means prioritizing daily dismantlement of white privilege--creating and
participating in forums for whites to grapple with racism, allying with
struggles that people of color are engaged in, constantly remaining open
to our own mistakes and feedback from others.
Predominantly white activist organizations are built within society as it
is and, as a result, are plagued by racism and other forms of oppression.
We can minimize or deny this reality ("we're all radicals here, not
racists") or we can work to confront it head-on. Confronting it requires
not only openly challenging the dynamics of privilege in our groups, but
also creating structures and forums for addressing oppression. For
instance, two experienced activists I know often point out that, sadly,
Kinko's has a better sexual harassment policy than most activist groups.
Workers are accountable for their actions and victims have some means of
redress. With all of our imaginative alternatives to capitalist and
hierarchical social arrangements, I have no doubt that we can construct
even more egalitarian and comprehensive ways of dealing with sexism,
racism, and other oppressive forces in our organizations. And we must
We absolutely should not be "getting" people of color to join "our"
organizations. This is not just superficial; it's tokenistic, insulting,
and counterproductive. Yet this is the band-aid that white activists are
often quick to apply when accused of racist organizing. Mobilizing for the
WTO protests, for example, I had one white organizer reassure me that we
didn't need to concern ourselves with racism, but with "better outreach."
In his view, the dynamics, priorities, leadership, and organizing style,
among other important features of our group, were obviously beyond
critical scrutiny. But they shouldn't be. We must always look at our
organizations and ourselves first. Whose voices are heard? Whose
priorities are adopted? Whose knowledge is valued? The answers to these
questions define a group more than how comprehensive its outreach is.
Consequently, instead of looking to "recruit" in order to simply increase
diversity, we, as white activists, need to turn inward, working to make
truly anti-racist, anti-oppressive organizations.
We have much to learn from the leadership of activists of color. As
student organizers Amanda Klonsky and Daraka Larimore-Hall write, "Only
through accepting the leadership of those who experience racism in their
daily lives, can white students identify their role in building an
anti-racist movement." Following the lead of people of color is also one
active step toward toppling conventional racial hierarchies; and it
challenges us, as white folks (particularly men), to step back from
aggressively directing everything with an overwhelming sense of
entitlement. Too often white students covet and grasp leadership positions
in large campus activist groups and coalitions. As in every other sector
of our society, myths of "merit" cloak these racial dynamics, but in
reality existing student leaders aren't necessarily the "best" leaders;
rather, they're frequently people who have enjoyed lifelong access to
leadership skills and positions--largely white, middle-class men. We need
to strengthen the practice of following the lead of activists of color.
We'll be rewarded with, among other things, good training working as
authentic allies rather than patronizing "friends"; for being an ally
means giving assistance when and as asked.
As white activists, we need to shut up and listen to people of color,
especially when they offer criticism. We have to override initial
defensive impulses and keep our mouths tightly shut, except perhaps to ask
clarifying questions. No matter how well-intentioned and conscientious we
are, notice how much space we (specifically white men) occupy with our
daily, self-important jabber. Notice how we assume that we're entitled to
it. When people of color intervene in that space to offer something,
particularly something about how we can be better activists and better
people, that is a very special gift. Indeed, we need to recognize such
moments for what they are: precious opportunities for us to become more
effective anti-racists. Remember to graciously listen and apply lessons
White guilt always gets in the way. Anarcha-feminist Carol Ehrlich
explains, "Guilt leads to inaction. Only action, to re-invent the everyday
and make it something else, will change social relations." In other words,
guilt doesn't help anyone, and it frequently just inspires navel-gazing.
The people who experience the brunt of white supremacy could care less
whether we, as white activists, feel guilty. Guilt doesn't change police
brutality and occupation, nor does it alter a history of colonialism,
genocide, and slavery. No, what we really have to offer is our daily
commitment and actions to resist racism. And action isn't just protesting.
It includes any number of ways that we challenge the world and ourselves.
Pushing each other to seriously consider racism is action, as are
grappling with privilege and acting as allies. Only through action, and
the mistakes we make and the lessons we learn, can we find ways to work in
"Radical" doesn't necessarily mean getting arrested, engaging in police
confrontations, or taking to the streets. These kinds of actions are
important, but they're not the be-all and end-all of effective activism.
Indeed, exclusively focusing on them ignores crucial questions of
privilege and overlooks the diverse, radical ways that people resist
oppression every day. In the wake of the WTO protests, for instance, many
white activists are heavily focused on direct action. Yet in the words of
anti-capitalist organizer Helen Luu, "the emphasis on this method alone
often works to exclude people of colour because what is not being taken
into account is the relationship between the racist (in)justice system and
people of colour." Moreover, this emphasis can exclude the very radical
demands, tactics, and kinds of organizing used by communities of
color--struggling for police accountability, occupying ancestral lands,
and challenging multinational polluters, among many others. All too
frequently "radicalism" is defined almost solely by white, middle-class
men. We can do better, though; and I mean we in the sense of all of us who
struggle in diverse ways to go to the root--to dismantle power and
privilege, and fundamentally transform our society.
Radical rhetoric, whether it's Marxist, anarchist, Situationist, or some
dialect of activistspeak, can be profoundly alienating and can uphold
white privilege. More than once, I've seen white radicals (myself
included) take refuge in our own ostensibly libratory rhetorical and
analytical tools: Marxists ignoring "divisive" issues of cultural identity
and autonomy; anarchists assuming that, since their groups have "no
hierarchy," they don't need to worry about insuring space for the voices
of folks who are traditionally marginalized; Situationist-inspired
militants collapsing diverse systems of privilege and oppression into
obscure generalizations; radical animal rights activists claiming that
they obviously know better than communities of color. And this is
unfortunately nothing new. While all of these analytical tools have value,
like most tools, they can be used to uphold oppression even as they
profess to resist it. Stay wary.
We simply cannot limit our anti-oppression work to the struggle against
white supremacy. Systems of oppression and privilege intertwine and
operate in extremely complex ways throughout our society. Racism,
patriarchy, classism, heterosexism, able-ism, ageism, and others compound
and extend into all spheres of our lives. Our activism often takes the
form of focusing on one outgrowth at a time--combating prison
construction, opposing corporate exploitation of low-wage workers,
challenging devastating US foreign policies. Yet we have to continually
integrate a holistic understanding of oppression and how it operates--in
these instances, how state repression, capitalism, and imperialism rest on
oppression and privilege. Otherwise, despite all of our so-called
radicalism, we risk becoming dangerously myopic single-issue activists.
"Watch these mono-issue people," warns veteran activist Bernice Johnson
Reagon. "They ain't gonna do you no good." Whatever our chosen focuses as
activists, we must work both to recognize diverse forms of oppression and
to challenge them--in our society, our organizations, and ourselves.
We need to do all of this anti-racist, anti-oppressive work out of respect
for ourselves as well as others. White supremacy is our problem as white
people. We benefit from it and are therefore obligated to challenge it.
This is no simplistic politics of guilt, though. People of color
undeniably suffer the most from racism, but we are desensitized and
scarred in the process. Struggling to become authentically anti-racist
radicals and to fundamentally change our racist society, then, means
reclaiming our essential humanity while forging transformative bonds of
solidarity. In the end, we'll be freer for it.