As the years passed and I became increasingly more engaged in politics, I started to trace things back even further and began to see how my politics are very much shaped by my history of growing up in a poor immigrant family after coming to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam...

Finding Colours of Resistance: An interview with Pauline Hwang and Helen Luu

by Chris Crass, courtesy of Nov/Dec 2003 Clamor

What lessons have we learned since the anti-WTO actions in Seattle? Can those lessons be applied to anti-war organizing? Can local struggles challenge global capitalism? How do we build movement for global justice that is anti-racist, multiracial and feminist? Pauline Hwang and Helen Luu have not only been asking these hard questions, they have worked to open up movement wide discussions about these issues in Canada and the United States. Pauline and Helen’s activist work, writing and ability to connect people through the Colours of Resistance network have all helped to keep the hard issues on the table. And, as they argue, these are issues we must face if we’re serious about collective liberation.

Chris: What is the history of your political development.

Pauline: From early on, I remember even small injustices making me very angry. I saw them in my home, school, church and jobs, but felt pretty powerless for a long time. ‘Political development’ to me means becoming conscious of unjust patterns, their roots, and what we can do about them. When I was 15 I was invited to join Youth Action Network (YAN) by Karen Dang, who was five years ahead of me at school.

YAN has changed a lot over the years, but at the time was a young group (at 23, my age today, I would have been among the oldest) dominated by urban middle-class queer Asian Canadians. I stayed with YAN for four years, and learned lots, mostly about how organizations grow, shrink, challenge and sustain us as members. While YAN was not ‘radical’ in many ways, I was working on YAN’s magazine, which exposed me to politics I’d never heard about before. Some meetings would turn into long discussions – older members would talk about workfare, socialism, East Timor, and the politics of being one of very few truly youth-run organizations in the country.

Then when I was 18 I heard Maude Barlow about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. I’d known something was wrong with The System, but understood a lot more of what was wrong when anti-corporate politics hit my life. I moved from Toronto to Montreal, joined Corpwatch, and helped organize a successful campaign to defeat a Coca-Cola monopoly agreement at our university. Around that time, I went to a conference that introduced me to an anti-capitalist critique, but only from an ecological perspective. Some other young folks there organized to go to Seattle for the anti-WTO protests, and I went along. Seattle was inspiring, launching me (totally prematurely) into the ‘anti-globalization movement.’

I became critical of this ‘movement’ after a few major turning points, including lots of mistakes in my own organizing (for example putting together a national environmental camp that didn’t take environmental racism, colonialism, oppression, and rural/urban issues into account). Farrah Byckalo-Khan, one of the other camp organizers, was a long-time feminist and environmentalist organizer. My talks with her were the first challenges and space I had to challenge my internalized racism and sexism, at times a painful, confusing, but amazing process. I also went to an amazing local event on ‘Women and Globalization,’ which was the first time I’d seen mostly women of colour as speakers at a progressive political event. I cried at some point, thinking about my mom and her relationship to ‘feminism’, and was subsequently attacked by a white woman who felt that ‘whiteness has been a bad word all day’; I bring this up to remind myself that many political passions can’t be separated from personal pains.

Darashani, another women of colour, brought up racism on our committee to plan a social justice retreat, and my involvement taught me more about oppression within political organizing than any workshop since. I talked with many others about these experiences and articles like Martinez’s “Where was the color in Seattle?” – for me, the Colours of Resistance network grew from these kinds of discussions. I’ve ‘developed’ a lot since then, especially focusing more on my own privileges recently.

Helen: I didn’t overtly or consciously think of myself as ‘political’ until I left high school. In high school, I started to call myself a feminist, even though I was really a feminist most of my life since as a kid, I never understood why girls ‘couldn’t’ do certain things that boys could do and I’d run around wanting to be as ‘boy-like’ as possible. I wanted scraped knees. I wanted to run and jump and climb trees. And so I did all of those things.

I always had a heart that felt deeply for other people since I was little, but until I became more conscious of politics, I thought that charity was the way to go.

In university, I started engaging in more ‘political’ work in groups such as Food Not Bombs and Students Against Sweatshops (even though I might not choose be involved in such groups today or I might have done things very, very differently). I think FNB may have been my first conscious exposure to politics. Reading the flyer in a punk/anarchist shop one day, I felt the words really click in my head.

As the years passed and I became increasingly more engaged in politics, I started to trace things back even further and began to see how my politics are very much shaped by my history of growing up in a poor immigrant family after coming to Canada as a refugee from Vietnam, and my identity as a woman of colour living in a white supremacist and patriarchal society. Increasingly, I am learning what it means to be in a position of marginality in this society as well as in my various positions of privilege and what this means in terms of my activism.

It’s always been, and continues to be a learning process for me. These days, I’m interested in challenging what constitutes ‘activism’ since we don’t get anywhere with such narrow definitions that are often defined by straight, white, middle-class males. I now like to avoid white-dominated ‘activist scenes/bubbles’.

Chris: Can you say more about what understanding your position as both oppressed and privileged has concretely meant to your political work?

Helen: Well, I think it’s important to place yourself in everything you do. I think that identity is very tied to politics, and life itself. I think it’s important to constantly recognize your positions and constantly evaluate what that means in terms of the work that you are doing. I am a woman of colour who came to Canada from a ‘third world’ country as a refugee. I grew up poor and working class in a family that will always be seen in this country as ‘immigrant’. These days, I have very little money and am currently underemployed. From these positions, I have learned a helluva lot about what oppression means. However, I must also recognize where I have power and privilege, and how I act upon these privileged positions in my life and in my activism, resulting in the marginalization of others. I have a lot of formal education behind me. My family is no longer poor and my parents now run their own small business. I live in a ‘first world’ country. I have a roof over my head. I now have Canadian citizenship. I am living on First Nations land. I do not have a marginalized disability. I am not transgendered and so on.

I believe that recognizing your many positions of marginalization, privilege and power is one of the most important steps in engaging in activism that uses an anti-oppression framework at its core. However, it should not be a debilitating step. I believe that guilt is a useless emotion. To me, recognizing where you have power over others means that you recognize that you have a responsibility to work towards changing things and engaging in work to help tear down the structures that keep you in that position of power while keeping others down. It means acting as an ally and in solidarity with others. It means recognizing that no one is free until everyone is free.

Chris: You both played major roles in starting Colours of Resistance (COR). What is COR?

Helen: I’m going to steal the first 2 paragraphs of COR’s statement:

Colours of Resistance (COR) is a grassroots network of people who consciously work to develop anti-racist, multiracial politics in the movement against global capitalism. We are committed to helping build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, multiracial, feminist, queer and trans liberationist, anti-authoritarian movement against global capitalism. We are committed to integrating an anti-oppression framework and analysis into all of our work.Colours of Resistance is both a thinktank and an actiontank, linking the issues of global capitalism with their local impacts. For us, this means working locally on issues such as anti-war, police brutality, prison abolition, indigenous solidarity, affordable housing, healthcare and public transportation, environmental justice, racist immigration policies, and many more. Colours of Resistance acts as a network for us to share support, ideas, and strategies with one another across our diverse communities.

More info can be found on our website:

Chris: Can you talk about how and why COR formed?

Pauline: Well, it started by all three of us talking about it, right? I remember talking to a lot of activists of colour who’d had similar frustrations — with the summit-hopping, class and race privileged ‘movement’ that basically ignored the history of anti-imperialist struggle in communities of colour and indigenous communities, not only in the 2/3 world, but also right here. I remember dialoguing with people about drawing connections between ‘globalization’ and local problems — prisons and police brutality, immigration and refugee issues, migrant labour, environmental racism. As well as critiquing the racism of many white-dominated groups, who use(d) their power and resources to set the ‘public’ anti-globalization agenda.

Helen introduced me to you [Chris] over email, saying “don’t worry he’s a good ally” and off we went. At first, it wasn’t supposed to be mainly internet-based, so I remember a bunch of us in Montreal — Nadine, Jaggi, etc. signing people up for COR at local events and discussions we organized. Also I tried to start up the COR zine at some point, which we ended up sending all over the continent, but it hasn’t gotten past the first issue!

Chris: What role do you see COR playing?

Helen: I see it as a good way to network people interested in engaging in this work within an explicitly anti-oppression framework. So far, it has been excellent resource in terms of sharing information, articles, events, support, etc. as well as in connecting people together who might not otherwise have found each other. It was through COR that I met so many amazing people with whom I now do political work after September 11th happened, as well as amazing people in other cities/towns that we continue to network with. I have a deep respect for all of these people.

That said, COR as a network itself shaped up to be very internet-centric as Pauline was saying, which was something we were weary of from the beginning since the internet excludes many people from participating. It’s something that continues to be the case. However, people who are part of COR all engage in real life work in their own communities and just use COR as a way to network with others from different geographical places.

Pauline: I think COR has been useful for a bunch of reasons (though i can only really speak from what i’ve seen locally). First for radicals of colour and anti-racist allies to share our analyses and strategies to fight global capitalism. Second, as a place from which we can have a joint presence in ‘higher profile’ movements (e.g. anti-globalization, anti-war movements). Third (and these are all related) as a resource for each other on anti-oppression and anti-racist work within social movements. Fourth, from what I’ve seen COR has been an important resource for white anti-racist allies (sometimes it seems this is one of it’s biggest roles).

Chris: In the COR statement it says that you are committed to helping build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, multiracial, feminist, queer and trans-liberationist, anti-authoritarian movement against global capitalism. What has that looked like in your work?

Pauline: That’s a huge question! Well, in 2000, I joined a women of colour collective in Montreal, and spent the whole year trying to integrate anti-racism and anti-oppression into organizing against global capitalism, especially toward the anti-FTAA demonstrations in Quebec City. I finally started to understand imperialism through my work on the Melca Salvador campaign, solidarity work with the revolutionary movement in the Philippines, and by talking/organizing with more experienced activists of colour, especially anti-capitalist feminists. Some friends and I started Student-Worker Solidarity (affiliated to COR) to build students’ involvement with the Immigrant Workers Centre, bring out the local impacts of globalization on communities of colour, and try and have a group where anti-racism is as much about how you’re working as what you’re working on.

At first, I’d focused on anti-racist work within mostly-white anti-authoritarian or anti-capitalist circles. But lately, I’ve been working mostly on fighting internalized oppression that keeps communities of colour divided and weak. My major focus this year was creating an eight-week, paid summer Freedom School for 14 Native youth and youth of colour. Most participants are placed in a community organization, and every week we have workshops on imperialism, migration, body oppression (gender, sexuality, looksism etc.), environmental justice, labour, movement building, etc. There have also been special events, like a discussion with 8 youth from Palestine, and some participation in the anti-WTO protests here in July. I also worked at the Dragonroot Centre for Gender Advocacy, on an anti-racism event series including a youth pop ed discussion, anti-racism strategies for trans survival, and a Chinese-Mohawk exchange. To me, all this work is to build a common critique of illegitimate power structures, which (as the COR statement says) capitalism feeds and needs.

Chris: Pauline, I know you were involved with the Immigrant Workers Centre and it was a powerful experience. Can you talk about that?

Pauline: Working with people at the IWC has been the single biggest influence on my approach to political work. Though it’s far from perfect, I haven’t worked with any other community-based organization that tries to meet immediate needs (through case work, referrals), focus on politicizing through education and mobilization, and still be run more or less by revolutionaries. It was a big contrast to the anti-globalization scene to see how experienced activists, communities of colour, women of colour, people who have families, etc. organized. People who are in it for the long haul and want something sustainable and that builds toward a long-term vision. It really made me look at ‘organizing’ in a different way’ and made me critical of ‘radicaler than thou’ burnout politic activism, where activists assume to know the needs of the communities they are so-called representing and organizing. Although folks in and around IWC circles aren’t necessarily anti-authoritarian, they did introduce me to classic Marxist theory, and I saw how it shaped their analysis and day-to-day work. It really helped me stay grounded, while seeing myself within a history of radical organizing and international solidarity. Finally, organizing with them made me really conscious of my class privilege, and forced me to think hard about what roles student and middle class radicals can play.

How to be a useful, principled and non-annoying ally is something I’m still figuring out. I’ve noticed how easy it is for middle-class people to take over leadership roles, both ’cause of privilege like access to resources, information, etc. and ’cause of attitudes of self-importance. In SWS, I saw our role as supporting and following the lead of immigrant workers at the IWC, i.e. strategies and approaches, campaigns/activities, etc. It’s about those who are directly affected leading the struggle. We weren’t always the best at this, but solidarity work is always challenging and I’ve found it’s important to listen and ask questions.

Chris: Helen, in your essay “Discovering a Different Space of Resistance: Personal Reflections on Anti-Racist Organizing” you talk about being part of Heads Up, a majority women of color anti-war group. You write about challenges and struggles you faced when trying to do solidarity work with Muslim immigrant communities. Can you talk about that organizing work and lessons from it?

The heads up collective is a group that formed after September 11th and is the collective through which I do most of my political work at the moment. We began by doing ‘outreach’ to communities that were most directly affected by the overt racism that surfaced following September 11th. We wanted to ‘help’ them but learned very quickly that what they wanted was our help in ways that we had not considered. They didn’t need help in organizing – they were already doing that just fine – but what they wanted was support in other ways such as just being publicly vocal about our opposition to war and racism. From that experience, we learned a lot and were challenged about what solidarity work and being an ally means. Even the word ‘outreach’ weirds me out now.

These days, we mainly do work around refugee rights, including support for women who are held in detention centres. We work under the core principle of those who are affected taking the lead in decision-making and involving these people as leaders in any campaign. This is something I don’t see happening with a lot of the mostly white-dominated groups in this city who have been doing work around refugee rights.

Chris: What openings and possibilities do you see for building multiracial, anti-oppression grounded movement for global justice?

Pauline: This is a question for visionaries, and I can’t claim to be one of them. I think the organizing I’ve been doing shows where I think the openings are – at least for my own work – better than my words could. I just want to tell two short stories.

The first happened this past International Women’s Day. For months the IWC women’s committee and other women of colour groups had been organizing a joint event and march. Despite being told by more powerful/mainstream women’s groups that “war is not a women’s issue; we need to talk about women’s rights being human rights,” they stood their ground and planned a whole day around the themes of fighting war at home and abroad. In the end, the big women’s groups decided if you can’t beat ’em join ’em and they came too. My favorite moment of the day was when a Filipina activist ended her impassioned speech, fist in the air, shouting “we need an anti-imperialist women’s movement!” and – to my shock – the room packed of hundreds of people cheered loud and long. Maybe the war made talking about imperialism ok and maybe the big women’s groups finally noticed the extent of anti-imperialist sentiment among feminists of colour. So that was exciting.

The second story is from a couple months back. I’d been at a major low point because of an emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship with a comrade and long-time friend. The months of unweeding my mind from the internalized shit this experience brought up, talking to many who have gone through similar shit, and finally getting together to confront him, made me realize more the intimate connections between global systems of injustice and personal histories of abuse or violence, that mostly get swept under the rug – whether of families, activists, or other communities. I really believe the internal repression and silence around these “personal” experiences is a major boost to capitalist and oppressive systems. So possibilities for the movement? To take “the personal is political” more seriously (not that ‘serious’ means not writing, singing, dancing, shouting, painting about it of course).

Chris: If you could go back in time to when you first started doing activism, what advice would you give yourself?

Helen: Oh, I would give myself so much advice! I look back and would completely disagree with many of the ways that I went about my activism back in the day. But I guess we all start somewhere on our paths of political consciousness. And this journey never ends. Just when I think I have something figured out, I learn more and have my beliefs challenged in major ways!

That said, I guess the main piece of advice I would give myself is the importance of self-determination in any struggle. People who are directly affected by the issues you are working around must be the ones who lead the struggle. I would advise myself to think long and hard about what being an ally means and what solidarity work means, and how important it is to build real relationships with other people/communities/groups.

Chris: What does being an ally and doing solidarity work mean to you?

Helen: To me, these two mean a lot of things but some key related issues include: always thinking about what being an ally and solidarity actually mean, respect, knowing when to step up and when to step back, opening up spaces for people in positions of marginality to organize and take leadership, following the leadership of those people we purport to be allies to, recognizing and respecting people’s agency rather than always seeing them as ‘helpless victims’, recognizing that people engage in resistance in different ways, etc…

Doing this kind of work means learning how to have a lot of humility, something a lot of privileged activists don’t seem to get! Acting as if you are an activist superhero who knows everything will get us nowhere so take off that cape! We are always learning and we can always learn from others.

Chris: Thank you both, so much.

Essays by Helen and Pauline are on the Colours of Resistance website

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