People have to change in a much deeper way -- change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that.

Whose ally? Thinking critically about anti-oppression ally organizing PART 2

by Michelle O’Brien, Winter 2002-2003


closing words in defense of workshops

So I’ve laid out here a critique of antiracist and antitransphobic ally organizing culture. You can take or leave it as you please. To try to diffuse some of the worst hostility I might face, I’ll spend a paragraph or two talking about the many obvious advantages of such workshops. The issues of racism and transphobia are clearly really, really important. The structures of domination and their colonization of our heads does tremendous damage to our day to day lives and to our movements. We clearly need to be doing something. And, equally clearly, such workshops can be a part of the solution. When white activists are seriously struggling, seriously transforming, antiracist white ally discussion groups can provide a supportive environment to process these difficult issues without inappropriately consuming the time and energy of people of color. In some institutions, such workshops can be a part of a multidimensional strategy of people of color and trans people to organize to actually change power dynamics and the organization of authority. These workshops can be one tactic in pressuring privileged groups in ceding their real authority.

I also strongly agree with the content of most antioppression workshops. I concur with the common analyses of white privilege and white supremacy I’ve encountered in these settings. Almost all the definitions, points, and concepts they present are ways of thinking I find helpful, accurate and radical. This point could easily be lost in my critique above. My objections to these workshops, at least those that include a decent power analysis, is not on the level of content. I’m glad I learned these conceptual tools, and encourage everyone else to do the same.

Anyone organizing such workshops is probably very aware of the their potential for good, for contributing to positive movement and transformation. I’m not intending to sweepingly invalidate or disrespect that. At times and places, such tactics work well for helping to make serious change happen. I’m not discouraging anyone from doing such work when the circumstances call for it.

But too many of us have gotten sucked in to mistaking hollow rhetoric for real change. Here I’m just laying out a critique of a particular way that too many people relate to antioppression organizing. Anyone is welcome to take or leave this critique as is useful in your work.

And, in closing, none of this means anything if someone isn’t already committed to a revolutionary antiracist and antitransphobic project. I can’t keep someone from going out and use this critique to enforce white supremacist or transphobic policies by preventing antioppression discussions from happening at all. That’s my whole point to begin with – no tactic, no conversation, no argument, can substitute for people being serious about being a part of making a different kind of world.

PART II: White Guilt

I don’t have any sort of analysis or awareness about non-trans people experiencing guilt. Sometimes people make an unusually big deal out of apologizing for messing up my pronouns. I always find such spectacle to be annoying, self-centered and kind of offensive. It’s obviously tied up with a totally unhelpful kind of bizarre guilt complex. But mostly I’ve just avoided noticing such things in people. I have better and more validating things to do with my time than speculate on the internal drama of transphobes. I don’t want to have any more impulses to hurt people than I already do. So in this section I’m going to dispense with the trans side of my argument.

Instead, I’m shifting back to race. In the last few months, I have been thinking a great deal about my own white guilt. These thoughts are fairly new. From my first antiracism workshops as a teenager, I’ve had it repeated asserted that white guilt was unhelpful and racist. An accurate fact I’ve been correctly parroting since. During that time, I haven’t thought about my own immersion in white guilt, nor have I really developed a decent analysis of how it functions in conversations I’m around. But lately it’s been coming up more for me.

Because this analysis is new and developing, it doesn’t have quite the same rigor and edge of Part I. But I think it’s related, and worth putting in.

Recently I was confronted with a difficult ethical dilemma at my job at an AIDS social service agency. I was pushing for changes in the program that I thought would benefit the communities of African-American trans women in Philadelphia. At some point, my bosses threatened to fire me for being critical of their decisions. I spent a lot of time struggling with a course of action. Back down on something that felt important and cover my ass, or push ahead and end up desperate and unemployed? Use my white privilege to help others, or be strategic and careful? Live with myself as someone who wasn’t willing to do what was right, or recognize the basic limitations imposed by power in my situation? It wasn’t an easy decision. One thing that I realized with time, though, is that a lot of my ideas about being committed to ethical action was not really about real compassion or awareness – it was about trying to reconcile my guilt around race, privilege and white supremacy. As I recognized this, it became more clear that pushing these points and getting fired wouldn’t really benefit anyone except making me more comfortable with myself. So I backed down, and I frequently feel guilty about it.

i don’t care which house you buy

Thinking through this situation brought up my intensifying impatience with so-called antiracist white punks about, say, gentrification. White punks in West Philly (a category I am definitely included within) have actively contributed to the white supremacist, capitalist assault on our neighborhood. The presence of white faces has helped make an environment that wealthy white university students and faculty are more comfortable moving into. Rents have more than doubled in the last few years, as large numbers of working people of color have been displaced from their homes. Gentrification is destroying working class communities of color in many cities throughout the country. Displacing families, forcing people into cramped living conditions and tearing apart vibrant historic neighborhoods, gentrification is a major force in urban race and class politics. Gentrification is often accompanied by even clearer forms of racist and classist violence: at some point police roll in, targeting, arresting and imprisoning poor men of color demonized as vagrants, drug dealers or dangers to the community.

This is obviously something worth talking about as white punk kids. Unfortunately, I’ve long since started totally avoided talking about this issue at all. Very quickly it becomes clear that the antiracism of most white punks is rooted in white guilt, not in a serious understanding of structural, white supremacist capitalism or any real commitment to the well-being of low income people of color in our neighborhood. They debate at length how to deal with gentrification in terms of their individual consumer decisions: buy this house or that one? Rent at this price or that price? Hassle these white neighbors or those for the rent they paid? All the while framing the issue exclusively around the actions of individual white people.

Simply bring up the equally destructive event of white flight affecting many Philly neighborhoods and the shallowness of their analysis becomes clear. White punks rarely see anything wrong with white flight, a process that destroys a tax base, facilitates racist denial of loans to local businesses and can easily lead to the deterioration of schools and services in the neighborhood for poor black people. The most common argument white punks end up making – that yuppies shouldn’t move into the neighborhood – misses completely the horror of yuppies moving out of a neighborhood.

Meanwhile these same kids don’t bother to know or listen to any of our black neighbors. There is no grounding in actually knowing anything about the experiences of real, displaced people. Nor are these questions rooted in a serious structural analysis. It would clear quickly through such a lens that the idea that individual white people can act alone to halt or even slow white supremacist capitalism through consumer decisions is a utopian delusion that is avoidance at best. Very few of the white punks I talk to are interested in actually being a part of relationships or movements that could begin to really change things – movements of real self-determination by poor people of color. Both gentrification and white flight are deeply destructive processes. Both are fundamentally rooted in a system of property and wealth controlled by white, privileged people. The specific, individual decisions made by such white people are ultimately beside the point, either way we win and everyone else loses.

The purpose of endlessly discussing gentrification among white punks, then, has very little to do with challenging white supremacy. It is instead, I feel, an elaborate means of coping with white guilt. By obsessing over individual consumer decisions, white punks create the deceptive screen of addressing these issues. A substantive commitment to antiracism, I would argue, would necessitate instead building real personal relationships of respect with people of color, and being a part of challenging white supremacy on a structural level – neither is something white punks have shown any real interest in doing.

This example of gentrification, or my dilemma at my job, could as easily be extended to a huge range of conversations and topics that serve as a major part of the discourse that circulates between me and my fellow white anarchist friends. With minimal difficulty, I’m sure I could find many examples here at work at an AIDS social service agency.

The signs of white guilt are clear. Often white people are searching for some individual activity they can do that they rationalize will ameliorate the structural violence of the situation, without actually being willing to address the overall complexities or the real lived realities of all of us within that violence. Often this is linked to an overvaluation of the effect of the actions of individual white people, believing a great deal hinges on every action. Rather than basing antiracist action on the real needs or experiences of people of color or any understanding of white supremacy, it’s based on the internal barometer of guilt maintained by white people.

Equally common, unfortunately, are white people denying our complicity and participation in white supremacy. Rather than feel guilty, white people feel like we are doing great, that white supremacy isn’t a problem that we are a part of. This too is clearly a horrible place to start. After five hundred years of continuous genocide and colonization, in the midst of a massive white supremacist system that structures every aspect of our lives, there is no escape. Every white person, in every moment, benefits in one way or another with the ongoing terror and violence of white supremacy. White supremacy conditions every aspect of our lives. And white people are never free of this.

What’s not so obvious is an identical desire to deny complicity underscores white guilt as well. Action out of guilt is first and foremost about trying to feel good about ourselves, searching out some way of getting off the hook.

We desperately need some ways of thinking through complicity that are neither about guilt nor innocence; that recognize and meaningfully face complicity; strategies that offer real means of being open to recognizing the complexity of circumstances, as they are. I don’t know how to do this, but I touch on it briefly in Part III.

Let’s assume my complicity and participation in white supremacy is, to some extent for all white people, unavoidable. I don’t get off scot-free, I never get to feel just good about myself, and that’s not the fucking point. Being antiracist isn’t the same as carefully avoiding ever doing or saying the wrong thing; it’s about actually caring about real people and actually helping to make a different kind of world.

White people always think the point of antiracism is to feel good about ourselves, and that’s just totally bullshit. The point is to actually help make a situation where people of color and working class people can take real, direct control over their lives, where all of us can practice real self-determination. And that probably wouldn’t always be comfortable for the white person involved.

In rejecting white guilt, I certainly don’t want to fall into the hard white supremacist line of advocating for white pride. No, no, no. I’m trying to figure out what genuine antiracism means, what will actually build a world free of white supremacy — and I believe guilt is a trap of white people not really recognizing or caring about such a vision, and instead being consumed with our own internal drama.

confession as screen

Guilt is a backlash strategy, a particular way of recentralizing white identity and white experience, reentrenching dynamics in the needs and preoccupations of white people, of thoroughly evading and diffusing the potential threat of actual people of color and anti-white supremacist struggle.

Many antiracist workshops pivot around declarations of guilt. Such declarations are known of course, in the fields of law and catholic theology, as confessions. Explicitly stating oneself as guilty of racism can constitute its own form of evasion. I can readily assert that I am racist; with minimal prompting I can expound on lengthy, detailed, highly-nuanced analyses of the ins and outs of my own colonization.

This isn’t a new trick, I learned it some years back and have been working on it since. But a trick it is, a brilliant slight of hand, hiding oneself behind words. Jacques Lacan comments on the peculiarly human ability to deceive by telling the truth. The key part of the trick, like all tricks, is what is clearly visible but never quite seen, the screen is the form itself – in this case, the very issue of guilt. The many outpourings of guilt provide the illusion of addressing an issue, even an elaborate calculus of degrees of guilt and the convincing persuasion of the confession.

So long as guilt, and the confession, provide the frame of a self-critique, the crucial piece is never quite addressed. The slight of hand, the turn of light, and nothing changes. The confession masks not further guilt, but the very possibility of honesty, openness and transformation. It precludes the very chance of ever recognizing what is happening in a real, grounded, substantive way, shutting down whatever chance existed to really hear what people have to say, to really be open to change, to really take this shit seriously.


PART III: Anti-Racist Boddhisatvas

People have to change in a much deeper way — change in the soul, in the, unconscious, in the Real, there are many names for this piece, this piece that is just outside of whatever we say about it. We have to find ways of being genuinely respectful, open, and loving to people, to actually let go of the bullshit that keeps us from doing that.

struggling alongside the unconscious

Actually figuring out how people really change — not just model that change, not just talk about it or properly perform it — is really hard. In some ways, it calls on the simplest things in the world – just listening to people, being open to what people actually have to say, looking honestly at whatever is going on, acting from a space of compassion and respect. But how do you get there, if talking about it (or writing about it in an essay) isn’t enough?

I don’t know.

Of course, my whole point here is stating what a white ally should be is not antiracist. So I’m hesitant to say anything about how I’m thinking about what antiracism means to me these days. But a few basic things are clear in my own priorities. I want to be a part of political organizing where working-class people of color are in real leadership positions, defining the work that is happening. I try to be genuinely open and listen to whatever people around me are actually saying in ways that are not tokenizing. I try to see clearly and honestly how white supremacy and white arrogance operate in my life and around me. I try to dedicate myself to doing whatever I can to disrupt and resist that. I try, however I can, to stay true to commitment to a world where we actually end structural racism. And I try to be humble. That last one I think I seriously flunk out on.

There are a few things I’m particularly aware have had an impact on me that feels deeper than antiracism workshops. One, I think, was actually reading a lot of amazing writing by people of color. The books of bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Gloria Anzaldúa, Kobena Mercer, Chrystos and many others had a deep and lasting impact on how I understand myself and the world around me. The beauty, power, spirit and soul of their words has tremendous power to transform hearts and minds, to open new ways of being in the world that are full and real. I feel these authors lent me strength and clarity that was far too often lacking in the discussion I had about race in my organizing circles.

The (appallingly) rare times I actually listened to people of color around me also had a pretty major impact. These times, I hope, are becoming more common recently in my life as I’ve developed more close, loving, cross racial friendships. I think I often boxed the words of non-white people in my life, shoving their thoughts into pre-formed molds I had about what they might say. I had already, before they open their mouths, laid all my own assumptions and arrogance over the conversation, ready to fit whatever I hear into it. And if I can’t, I would just write off their comments, ignoring them or dismissing them. But sometimes, and maybe now more often, I really just listen. Actually notice specifically and precisely what people are actually saying, noticing what I can about the emotional, psychic and experiential truth to people’s words. When I think I actually listen, that can be very powerful. Often, of course, what people of color might actually say doesn’t resemble my preformed idea of antiracism given to me by workshops. Real people are complicated. Respecting folks, in part, is about paying attention and having patience for this complexity.

In the last couple of years here in Philly, I’ve tried to put myself in circumstances where my racism doesn’t fly as easily. I’ve been spending time in many more multiracial political and social environments, some of them dominated by people of color. I think my own tendencies to feel good about this, to derive validation from being in these spaces, is racist bullshit, fucked up and totally not the point. But, if I’m paying attention, I have a lot to learn there. My racism becomes much, much more apparent to me — it leads to concrete break-downs of relationships and interactions in ways that are inescapable. in an all-white racist context, my racism is never called out. Today, more and more, my life is such that my racism seems more clear to me. Partially by just being with people for whom it’s blatant to them as well, and learning slowly from my mistakes.

All this helps out a lot, pushing me to recognize my own racism, and finding tremendous insight on antiracist ways of being in the world. Absolutely central to any serious antiracist politics is a serious understanding of power, domination and the nature of colonization and decolonizing struggle. I appreciate all my teachers who have helped me in trying to forge such an understanding.

But thinking more about guilt, I’ve been going in another direction.

staring at walls

Recently I’ve been trying to help out a friend whose deeply consumed with guilt. She sees herself as incapable of loving others. She is intensely self-critical and self-depreciating. Helping her out has helped me reflect on the extent to which fierce self-criticism can be rooted in a really unproductive self-hatred. As cheesy as it sounds, providing serious support to other people also depends on having a space of self love in ourselves. How can I find that self-love in a way that is rooted and fully aware of my complicity in white supremacist genocide?

Buddhists have a lot to say about this. In Buddhist philosophy, we are all perfect, wonderful, buddhas, simply in ourselves. We all are intricately bound up with tremendous suffering in the world, as those suffering and those causing suffering. These two, paradoxical, contradictory truths are completely inseparable from each other. Many of my friends acknowledge the latter; very few begin from a space of self-forgiveness the prior calls for.

I’m going to close this essay by taking it in a strange direction – into my Zen Buddhist practice.

Linking Zen practice to antiracism is strange, for several reasons. English speaking Soto Zen Buddhists in the united states are overwhelming middle to upper class and white. (Soto Zen is the particular form of Japanese Zen Buddhism I’ve been practicing.) I’ve been consistently appalled with the rare attempts at addressing white supremacy in Soto Zen circles, usually finding them vapid, unhelpful, shallow and offensive. Among other limitations, it is rare for Zen Buddhists to recognize power and domination as issues, or even existing in the first place. I would characterize my Zen groups as among the most racist spaces I spend much time. My drawing from Zen practice in my antiracism is also strange given the neocolonial dynamics of appropriation that surround white interest in Buddhism. The widespread popularity of Buddhism among white people is clearly a function of exoticizing, romanticized projection, a contemporary capitalist form of orientalism. I don’t particularly think I escape such racist determinations.

But as strange as this link is, I think it’s crucial to include here. My entire critique here emerged out of my readings in Buddhist philosophy, especially Chögyam Trungpa’s remarkable book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Trungpa’s book is really amazing, and I honestly suggest it for all social justice activists. Drawing from an enormous body of sophisticated Buddhist psychology, Trungpa is talking about the many deeply fucked up ways people, especially white north americans, get into Buddhist practice. Without actually naming neocolonialism, Trungpa provides a brilliant critique of the ways spirituality is turned into an object of possession and arrogant, ego-based control. Rather than freeing people from our ego bullshit, as Buddhist practice is sort of about doing, people are using Buddhism to enforce their ego bullshit – I’m more enlightened, more special, cooler than you, because I have access to this spiritual path. Much like I lay out here around antiracism workshops, people can spend their whole lives lost in ego games of thinking they are being spiritual and all the while totally missing the point.

My Buddhist practice has transformed many aspects of my political practice. My developing aversion to antiracism workshops was the first and more dramatic result. So I’ll talk some about my practice, a little bit about the philosophy that is linked to it, and close with some words about a strange model of antiracism – boddhisatvas.

In Soto Zen the heart of the practice is called zazen. Zazen is the simplest form of meditation. We sit, we stare at a wall, and we just try to stay present in the moment. As I’m a beginning student, I count my breathes to ten to stay focused. If I find myself zoning out, or distracted by thoughts or emotions, I just return to my breath, to this moment as it is. We are practicing, in a very concrete way, simply being present.

With time, zazen can be a space of learning how to let go. This is a piece of Buddhist philosophy, but it is also very concrete in the practice itself. We let go of our need to control situations and dominate things. We let go of our rigid preconceptions about how things should be, about exactly what is right and wrong. We let go of our preoccupations with defining and defending ourselves, with constantly assuring our own comfort and security. Letting go of strong emotions that over determine our ability to appreciate life. Instead, we just practice being in the moment as it is. Practice responding to each situation not according to a predetermined script, but how the situation itself calls forth. Practice opening up a space within ourselves.

The first teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha centered on the suffering of life. For me, bearing witness to suffering is key to all Buddhist practice, key to liberation. The most important form of bearing witness I’ve struggled with is honestly seeing and recognizing the tremendous suffering, oppression, exploitation and genocide white supremacy and colonialism have torn across the globe, across our lives. Seeing white supremacy clearly and honestly, is a first step to being able to be there for people.

There is a great deal in Zen philosophy around the notion of ‘emptiness’ or ‘wisdom beyond wisdom’. The essence of Zen, the truth of Zen, can’t ever be fixed in words. Meditation is a way of being up against this unspeakable, and just being there with it. And it can’t be faked; it has to transform you in ways that are real. This is tied up with my comments above about the need to struggle alongside the unconscious. The key piece of revolutionary struggle isn’t ideology or any elaborate set of thoughts or words. It’s what just outside everything we have to say, a love that can never be fixed in words, that is different then all imitations.

All this is deeply rooted in extensive Buddhist psychology writings about the ways people form, structure and remain trapped in our egos. We get lost in our whole running drama of feelings and thoughts, our endless interpersonal games, living a life of distracted suffering without ever stopping and just noticing the world as it is. Zen meditation is a practice about beginning to unravel and let go of our overbearing ego, self-centered preoccupations.

In Zen Buddhist practice, when we open up that space in ourselves through sitting, when we get underneath all our bullshit, there all the time is unconditional love. Each one of us, in every moment through our lives, has in the immediate capacity to act out of boundless compassion and love. When we let go of our preconceptions, we can see all things clearly, and do what’s necessary in each and every situation. A being who acts from this space, who acts towards the liberation of all beings, is called a boddhisatva.

So for each of us, we can wake up. When we awake, when we are present in this moment as it is, we have the chance to see things clearly. By seeing them clearly, we can perceive what is needed, what each situation calls for. Unconcerned with how we perceive ourselves or how others perceive us, we simply help out however we can. There is no need for guilt or neurosis, strict rules or fear. The only need is for ourselves to be in world in a real and full way. We have a space of tremendous strength, courage, caring and understanding in ourselves, at all times in all places that we can always access, if we are paying attention.

Always, to be full and real, that practice of sitting must return me to the world. To this world of authoritarian capitalist institutions and white supremacist colonization of our hearts and minds, this world of murderous transphobia and deep-rooted self-hatred, this world where partners rape and abuse each other, and this world where neighbors torture and terrorize each other, this world of dangerous sex and tremendous suffering, this world of touching beauty and unimaginable possibility. This world, right here, right now, where we all feel pain. This world, right here, right now, where we can all find ways of genuinely love and caring for each other.

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