Reflections and Thoughts on White Anti-Racist Organizing from radicals of color and white anti-racists

compiled by Catalyst Project

1. maria poblet, housing rights organizer in the immigrant latino community

white people need to organize white people. most white radicals choose to focus their work on organizing third world communities, educating white activists, or activism with middle class people. meanwhile, they ignore the millions of working class people in this country who are white. white working class people benefit from white supremacy. but they also have real grievances with capitalism. when white radicals ignore white working class people, they make it easy for the ultra right wing to swoop in and build grassroots support for the white-supremacist agenda. good reading on this is in Left Turn Magazine # 11 (2003) “Workers on the Fault Line: Engaging the Militia Movement.”

2. Alina Serrano, organizer with Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) Hunter College N.Y.

In organizing or doing work with diverse organizations and with people of different races, I think first white activist must allow themselves to recognize the reality people of color live with. We live with a trained and installed fear of being beaten by cops, made fun of because we are darker, talked down to because this white supremacist system will not allow people of color to excel or express our thoughts.

As a womyn of color, I identify myself as an angry Puerto Rican womyn. The reality of racism and sexism is a truth in my daily life. To organize around anti-racism issues is great. But I will say White people must acknowledge how they have been racist themselves at one point and be open to the fact that in this society, whether they want it or not, the system will use them as pawns in a game of racism among people of color and white people. You must dedicate yourself to destroying this system. As you begin to talk of the work you want to do, ask and think:

How have I been racist at some point?
How does white privilege affect how I view organizing and activism?
How may I try to check myself next time?
How may I help to destroy white supremacy not only in my overall organizing and activist goals but in my daily interactions and interpersonal relationships and work?
Do I really want to walk the same path as my fellow organizers who are not white, and am I willing to be open to constructive criticism when told for example, “you were racist in saying this, or instinctively do this”?

Realize that in events such as marches and rallies cops and other state agents will and do treat people of color different all the time. People of color run a higher risk in getting beaten, locked up for no reason, and even risk death when we challenge the system. White people can step away from the state repression felt at demonstrations while people of color can not step away from the daily state and cultural oppression of white supremacy.

And finally you have to be willing to ask yourself everyday – how will my efforts as a white person in this society help and support people of color get real liberation and access to power.

3. Laura McNeill, white anti-racist in Wisconsin and radical mama. Laura worked with JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice for many years on Bike-Aid, a cross-country experiential learning based bike trip focusing on social justice. She worked with the Challenging White Supremacy Workshops in the Bay Area and the anti-war collective Heads Up. Laura has several essays on Colours of Resistance.

Views on moving to a new place.

I recently moved to a new city, leaving strong organizing relationships that included a white anti-racist community behind. Over the past year and a half in this new place I’ve been outreaching to groups and individuals that are involved in racial justice organizing on a local level. I naturally gravitated to the predominantly white anti-war and anti-globalization groups. Out of participation in these groups I’ve developed a core group of white anti-racist allies wanting to work together for the long haul in dismantling privilege in its many forms. This is awesome!

What have been slower to develop–even though I’ve put in a similar amount of energy–are relationships with leaders of color in the community. The time it takes to build trust and honor the work that local communities of color are doing is always much more than I think it will be, and takes consistent effort. I initially made a lot more effort than I have continued to make. I’ve learned that I need to make building relationships with leaders of color a consistent top priority or it gets pushed down the ‘to do’ list. I have a pattern of gravitating towards spaces where I can be leading something or actively organizing in a democratic way, rather than listening and learning from the leadership of people of color and realizing that IS ‘actively organizing’ for a more just world.

4. Sasha Vodnic, white anti-racist and organizer with the Richmond Queer Space Project, Richmond, VA.

First, I challenge myself to take risks. Growing up I developed a habit of sitting back and listening to conversations, censoring out questions if I was unsure how they might be perceived, or if I didn’t feel like an expert on the topic of conversation. To counter that, I’ve been practicing sticking my neck out a little bit. Sometimes that simply means asking questions, even at the risk of appearing ignorant. Other times it’s about offering a thought or opinion even when I expect other people to disagree.

Taking on these challenges also presents a balancing act for me. Another way that I work with my white skin privilege and male privilege is to prioritize listening – which often means sitting back and helping to create space for other folks in a conversation or meeting. The balance between these two is definitely a challenge, but I think that comes with the territory in doing anti-racism work. Working with the tension between taking risks and stepping back helps keep me honest with myself, and helps me focus on my intentions when I’m listening, preparing to speak, and speak. I don’t think there’s a way to ever get it “right,” but I’m always learning.

Finally, I’m also trying to learn lessons when I’m exposed to anger. In the past I’ve shut down in the face of other people’s rage or frustration, preferring to learn what people offer in calmer emotions. But I’ve noticed that in angry words, sometimes we offer unguarded truth that ordinarily we might keep bottled up. If I can stop and listen, I can receive valuable gifts whenever someone takes the time and energy to try to communicate something to me.

5. Paul Kivel, activist, educator, writer (Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice), parent, friend, and lover.

Work from a vision of the world you want to live in and the love you want to share. Look to people of color and people from other marginalized groups who are doing the work for leadership. Listen, observe, talk, and read reflectively. Don’t be a blind follower–use your critical thinking, your feelings, your intuition, and your spiritual connection to life. Be accountable to those on the front lines of struggle without expecting them to divert resources to you. Step up and do something, get involved, but not as a lone knight. Join a group and work with others. You can’t do it all. Find your piece of the work and do it as well as you can. Everyone is learning, mistakes are inevitable, act thoughtfully, apologize when you mess up, and keep going. Keep the big picture and the long-term struggle in mind. It took over 250 years to abolish slavery and 150 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence until women won the right to vote. Prepare for a lifetime of struggle. Take care of yourself, get support from other people, and look to resistance struggles in other countries for hope and inspiration. Teach, mentor, and support people younger than yourself. Be passionate, caring, courageous, committed, and humble. In love and struggle, paul

6. Daisy is a Latina/o organizer at Cornell University who works on Day Labor and immigrant rights.

My suggestions:


G. Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Ideas on what not to do:

Don’t make assumptions with the obvious such as associations as to where they are from and what kind of person/activist they are and to the not so obvious such as what level of awareness/consciousness the person/activist is at. Example: I am from Westchester, New York which is synonymous with upper class and wealth. However, my family is working class. Sometimes people assume that I do not know the “struggle” or what it is, or there are assumptions that there are no issues (such as gentrification, day labor rights related, etc.)
Don’t expect that the activist of color is “there” to teach you. Learning should be going both ways.

Ideas on what to do:

Simple: Be yourself. If you don’t know something, ask for it to be explained. Example: Clarification if language barriers, or on certain terminologies, or an event.

7. Jason Fults is white, working class anti-racist activist who grew up/went to school in the south. He works with Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC)

When I was attending college a few years ago, I considered myself an anti-racist activist. I “had friends who were people of color,” and worked on all the “important” anti-racist issues like opposing war and corporate globalization, freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal and bringing down the prison-industrial complex, etc. All very important issues that certainly affect people of color, to be sure. It’s interesting in retrospect to consider the free license with which I worked on these issues, jumping between them whenever I felt it appropriate to do so, and how I would often approach predominantly people of color organizations on campus to solicit their involvement with this work–baffled that they didn’t respond the way I had hoped. “Can’t they see how important these issues are? Don’t they care?!?” I was exasperated. People in my activist group felt similarly (note: the core group at that time was comprised of 4 white men and 1 white womyn).

I was also involved in a community service program, which had a significantly higher degree of people of color participating than most of the activist circles I ran in. One day we were having a rather candid discussion w/in the office of the community service program, and a young African American man asked me why it was that I never came to the meetings of the Black Student Union, or the Gay-Straight Alliance, or the International Student Union, except when I was coming to ask them to help out on one of “my” issues? “How do you even know what we’re about or what’s important to us? You say you want to ‘work in solidarity,’ but you don’t even know us!” Hmmm…

I’ve been reflecting on this for awhile, and what I’ve come up with has pretty strongly affected how I do organizing these days. I’m coming to realize (finally!) what people mean when they say that organizing is about building relationships, especially when it comes to working with people who are oppressed in the name of my privilege. I’m still not where I’d like to be on all of this of course, but I’m in a significantly different place than I might have been had my co-worker not pointed this out to me. As for my “activist” group, we made it a point to start regularly attending the meetings of some of the other groups on campus that we wanted to build relationships with. We simply sat with them, listening and getting to know folks, with no preset agenda. We took part in their campaigns and activities, and helped out where we could. This really changed mine and others’ perspectives on the significance and efficacy of some of the work that we had been doing. We also made significant changes in terms of the internal organization of our group and our focus. There was a lot of resistance at first, but fortunately the people who were most resistant to the new ways of doing things were seniors, so they soon graduated. During the rest of my time with this group, I watched as the leadership slowly began to be taken over by womyn, and as our meetings and activities became much more of a space that was comfortable for and interesting to more of the people of color on campus. Again, there were certainly growing pains associated with these changes, and the group is definitely not where it would like to be, but things are slowly changing for the better.

So that’s one of my experiences as an organizer and an oppressor. I hope it’s useful for folks.

8. Dee Ouellette is a gender queer / queer tranny and a woman who has been active in training, activism and organizing in the East Bay and San Francisco. Her current political project is preparing for queer motherhood.

First, these thoughts are geared toward white-identified folx doing organizing. To be accountable to an individual or organization I believe you have to share values with that individual or organization. This means you have to take the time to get to know yourself and those you are working with, develop personal relationships, and act out of a basis of trust. I think if you’re working mainly with other white folx then a good idea is to expand the dialog around race (and other oppressions). Three key points I try to make in dialog are 1) The oppression of racism is institutional – it is propagated through the institutions of a racist society – e.g. government offices, hospitals, police, schools, etc … 2) Oppressions are inter-related. Racism, Sexism, Classism, Ableism, etc., exist and operate simultaneously. This insight can be used to expose divide and conquer strategies that pit groups off against one another. 3) The oppression of racism is historical and ongoing. Thus, in whatever context you are doing your work, whether it is anti-war, environmental justice, education, reproductive freedom, or anything else – you need to learn and be aware of the ways in which institutional and historical racism impacts these struggles to make effective change.

In addition, I’d say the best way for a white person to develop anti-racist organizing skills is to work in a multi-racial environment where oppressed groups are putting forward the analysis and strategies for a campaign that specifically addresses the impacts of racism. Put yourself in a learning role and develop accountable relationships from that location. Lastly, these are just thoughts and there is no real formula for doing this work so I’d advise folks to network with others who are doing the work and share stories and experiences because its challenging and long-term work. Much love.

9. Chris Dixon is an anarchist organizer and writer who was deeply involved in organizing the mass action against the WTO in Seattle, helped build the Colours of Resistance network, and co-led a campaign to have Mumia Abu-Jamal as the featured speaker at his graduation at the Evergreen State College (and won). He currently he is a graduate student studying radical social movements in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

When we, as white activists, talk about racial justice organizing, I think we should be engaging with it in terms of an anti-racist praxis. By this, I mean not simply a particular analysis or a specific kind of action, but, rather, a mode and quality of attention that infuses all of our work: a consciousness that highlights the ways in which power and privilege fundamentally shape, enable, and constrain who we are and what we do. And I don’t mean this in some kind of lofty, detached way. Praxis, in my experience, is about constant reflection and action, always mutually informing each other. It’s about attentive action and active attention.

One of the most helpful tools that I’ve been able to find in developing an anti-racist praxis is listening. In concrete terms, listening is about acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers and that, in fact, folks who experience the brunt of racialized forms of oppression frequently know best how to wage struggles for racial justice. To listen in this way involves checking the space that we (particularly men) often take up, watching for our own defensiveness, and actively engaging with what we hear. Importantly, this kind of listening means not expecting that it is the responsibility of people of color to “fill” us with knowledge. Instead, we have to learn to ask questions collaboratively, seek answers, and act reflectively. In other words, we have to put ourselves–and what we think we know–at risk. A key part of this is recognizing that the political priorities we take for granted aren’t everybody’s; that is, priorities are raced, classed, and gendered. Listening is thus about recognizing other people’s priorities–in both the sense of being able to notice them and in the sense of taking them seriously. In the end, building an anti-racist praxis–and for that matter, radical multiracial anti-racist movements–calls on us to foster these habits of being, among others.