I had been involved with organizing with a variety of different activist groups, both within the community and on campus. And most of these, too, had been overwhelmingly white. And I was tired of it. I was tired of feeling like the token person of colour, of feeling marginalized even within 'progressive' groups and movements, of feeling like certain issues were not being addressed, of feeling like I was by myself in all of this.

Discovering a Different Space of Resistance: Personal Reflections on Anti-Racist Organizing

by Helen Luu

In the summer of 2000, I was involved with a coalition that worked to mobilize andorganize a demonstration against the Organization of American States (OAS) when they held their meeting in Windsor, Canada. Included in the OAS’s portfolio is the detrimental implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). I was very enthusiastic about being involved with this protest because I was still riding the wave of excitement from the victory in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the mass convergences that followed in North America after that. I was perched rather precariously on this wave of excitement, however.

A few short months before, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez’s article Where was the Color in Seattle?: Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so white circulated around the internet after having made its first appearance in ColorLines magazine. I read this article with amazement and excitement because it was the first time that someone was publicly bringing up a criticism that many of us people of colour (and others) had noticed, and in print no less: the ‘Battle in Seattle’ had been overwhelmingly white, despite the fact that people of colour are often the ones hardest hit by global capitalism. It felt like an affirmation.

In Windsor, I remember talking to (mostly white) activists about this criticism and finding that while people acknowledged that there was indeed a problem, barely anyone really did anything to actually address the problem. And so it went that Windsor, too, was overwhelmingly white.

This was the turning point for me. Up until then, I had been involved with organizing with a variety of different activist groups, both within the community and on campus. And most of these, too, had been overwhelmingly white. And I was tired of it. I was tired of feeling like the token person of colour, of feeling marginalized even within ‘progressive’ groups and movements, of feeling like certain issues were not being addressed, of feeling like I was by myself in all of this. In many ways, I increasingly felt like I was turning my back on my own identity as a person of colour, as a former refugee from the South, as someone whose experiences while growing up differed so much from most of the people in these groups.

After Windsor happened, I interned briefly with a union local where I tagged along with organizers who were helping to organize the newspaper carriers of one of Toronto’s most popular newspapers. The union organizers were both people of colour who had immigrated to Canada years ago – Sam is a black man from Nigeria, and Regi is a Sri Lankan woman. The newspaper carriers were mostly immigrants from various places around the globe, and some were refugees who were displaced because of the direct or indirect effects of global capitalism in their originating countries. Having arrived in Canada, they found themselves thrust into a job market and a society that does not favour people of colour – particularly not immigrants whose first language is not English – and found that the only kinds of jobs that welcomed them were low-paying and exploitative, such as newspaper delivery.

Because I can speak Vietnamese, my major task was to communicate with the many Vietnamese carriers, most of whom Sam and Regi had been unable to adequately communicate verbally with during the past 2 years of the organizing drive. I was very nervous because my Vietnamese is rather basic since I’ve lived in Canada most of my life and lost much of it through assimilation processes that I had to face as a young immigrant growing up here. I spoke with them in my broken Vietnamese about their hopes and fears, what they thought about their jobs, and what they wanted to see happen. And the entire time, I wished and wished that I had not lost so much of my language. I felt really hopeless and sad because here I stood, unable to communicate adequately with my own people! I watched Regi speaking to the Tamil-speaking carriers with ease and I saw the trust that they had in her because there was no communication barrier. And every month, Sam and Regi would mail out to every single worker a copy of the newsletter – translated into many of the languages they spoke – to let them know what was going on, and to allow the carriers to share stories, thoughts, ideas and strategies with each other.

I saw how important all of this was in building a solid resistance, and how important it was to ensure that the organizing being done was inclusive in every possible way. Sam and Regi constantly stressed that those who are facing the oppression (in this case, the workers) be at the forefront of the organizing. Since the Labour movement in Canada still has a ways to go in terms of anti-racism within their ranks and with their organizing, I recognize that my experience with Labour may be a rather unique one. Regardless, I learned some valuable lessons from working with Sam and Regi that I will never forget.

After I graduated from university in 2000, I temporarily moved to London England. I started getting involved with a group called the Movement for Justice that works around issues of racism such as police harassment and refugee rights, and whose long-term goal is to build a civil rights movement in the UK. Nearly all of my activist work in the past had been with predominantly white groups and this was my first time being directly involved with a group that is predominantly people of colour.

I remember sitting in a Movement for Justice meeting one day and being conscious of the fact that there were about 95% people of colour present, and 5% white. The meeting was held in a refugee centre in Brixton, an area in south London that is home to many of London’s black population. It is also an area that is beginning to suffer the fate that other areas (such as Notting Hill) had faced and is becoming gentrified, which means that black people and poor people are being pushed out to make way for rich white folks. Any day of the week, you will see cops walking around or standing prominently in high traffic areas – something you would never see in wealthy areas like Chelsea or Kensington or Notting Hill. The city was trying to implement a program that they called ‘Operation Tippett’ (legitimized under the propaganda of ‘fighting crime’) which, among other things, involves a procedure called Stop and Search. In fact, by the time I started to get involved with the Movement for Justice, Stop and Search had already been employed, which means that cops had the legal go-ahead to randomly stop anyone on the street and question or search them. Such a procedure in a racist society is never random because it will always mean that certain groups of people, particularly young black males, will be the ones to get stopped most of the time. And aside from that, such a procedure infringes on people’s basic human rights, period, whether the person being stopped is black or brown or blue or green or white.

At the Movement for Justice meeting, people were sharing stories of how they have witnessed their neighbours, friends, and family members being brutalized by the police in London just for ‘walking while black.’ Some shared stories of how getting stopped and searched by the cops is a regular part of their own lives, something they must face every time they step foot outside their door. Some shared stories of how the cops have brutalized them personally, and how other sectors of the (in)justice system did nothing to adequately address this since the (in)justice system is institutionally racist.

One thing is clear: these people who are involved with the Movement for Justice (and undoubtedly other people of colour all over the world as well) know just how unjust the System is. They know how it affects them every time they get booted from their neighbourhoods when the price of living there goes up as the rich white folks move in, every time they lose out on a higher job because of their skin colour, every time their friends and relatives from other countries are barred from migrating to the wealthy Western nations by these Western nations (in addition to why their friends and relatives must migrate in the first place – often a result of detrimental policies and practices that at the same time benefit the very same Western nations that close their doors to migrants), every hour that their mothers are working as underpaid and overworked nannies for middle-class white women. Clearly, it is not just a case of having to be ‘taught’ about the unjust System as so many predominantly white groups seem to believe. Not when you’re living it.

These people were there at the Movement for Justice meeting and taking part in the resistance that the Movement for Justice is working to build because the issues that the Movement for Justice deal with are inherently anti-racist. Not only that, but the organizing that the Movement for Justice engages in is also inherently anti-racist, such that not having ‘enough’ people of colour present is never even an issue.

But it goes far deeper than merely having people of colour present. As Chris Crass rightfully states in his essay Beyond the Whiteness – Global Capitalism and White Supremacy: thoughts on movement building and anti-racist organizing, “we need to be clear that multiracial doesn’t automatically mean anti-racist.” Being merely multiracial does not take apart or even challenge the status quo. Genuine anti-racist work involves building alliances and working in solidarity with people of colour; it means understanding the ways that unequal power relations manifest themselves in all settings (including ‘activist’ ones) and how they work to oppress some while privileging others; it means looking to people of colour as leaders, and not as mere tokens in order to prove how ‘anti-racist’ your group is (“We’re not racist! Look, we have two Asians in our group!”). It means a whole lot more too, but above all, it means being dedicated to proactively and consciously working to bring down the structure of white supremacy and privilege.

Towards the end of 2000, I began to dialogue with a few other people – a fellow woman of colour and a white male ally – and out of these discussions, Colours of Resistance (COR) was born. It is a grassroots network of people (mainly of colour) who actively work to develop multiracial, anti-racist politics in the movement against global capitalism. Today, there are COR chapters and COR-affiliated groups and individuals working in various cities across North America, from San Francisco to Gainesville to Toronto to Montreal, and our website has had over 26,000 hits. The COR-affiliated group that I now work with in Toronto came into being as a result of what happened in New York City on September 11th, 2001.

Get in the Ring: Power Plays Itself Out

When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre – capitalist symbols of the economic and political power of the US – I felt a deep sense of confusion and despair. Suddenly, I felt like the world had changed. But as I say this, I also realize how privileged I am to be living in the North and to feel shaken by September 11th when such things happen in many parts of the world all the time. I remember my mom making a passing comment about how the World Trade Centre going up in flames reminded her of the bombs she saw fall on Vietnam. And so it happened that my life took a turn.

Like many others, I was thrust into front-line organizing against the onslaught of racist attacks, and against the impending war. The activist work that I presently engage in is largely a result of what transpired in New York City that fateful day in September.

Right after September 11th, there were emergency meetings that took place in different cities to deal with the impending war frenzy and racist backlash. As I learned of more and more violent acts being perpetrated against Arabs and Muslims – and those of other backgrounds and faiths perceived to be Arabs and Muslims by sadly ignorant people – I found myself getting in touch with two other women involved with COR to discuss a similar meeting in Toronto. We learned of three other women planning something similar and quickly joined forces with them. Because of the immediacy of the situation, we had very little time to organize and as such, did not come as properly prepared as we should have been.

At our first community meeting, which drew about 250 people, we tried to address the internal dynamics of oppression that exist even within progressive groups by implementing a speakers’ list that would allow people of colour (especially women) to speak before white people (especially men). Reflecting on this later, I know that the method we haphazardly chose was not the best way to tackle the issue, but the crowd that came to the meeting reacted in a way that made me again see how many supposedly progressive people refuse to critically look at themselves as possible agents of oppression, no matter how good their intentions may be.

Rather than engaging in a critical dialogue with everyone about their concerns, some chose instead to yell that we were “racists” and that “[we] just don’t get it.” During the meeting – and the subsequent disastrous one the following week – we could not help but wonder whether we would be treated with such disrespect and outright hostility had we – the facilitators – been men, and particularly older white men. We are six young women: two white, and four of colour.

The (Re)Construction of Identity

After the September 11th meetings fell apart, I continued to work with the people in my ‘outreach group’* who cared enough to stick around. People dropped in and out and the resulting group is one I still work with, now known as the heads up collective, and now affiliated with the Colours of Resistance network.

[footnote: At the first September 11th meeting, we broke up into smaller working groups to start planning for action: propaganda, outreach, direct support, education, media, and events/actions]

The heads up collective is a group consisting of five young women of colour of different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, one white Jewish woman, and two white men, with about half of the group identifying as queer. It is recognized and often discussed within the heads up collective that we are a group predominantly of women of colour, and those in the group who are otherwise see themselves – and are seen by the rest of us – as allies. With women of colour playing important leadership roles within the group, this is in a sense, a role reversal to that which we are taught in society of the mighty (usually white) men leading the way – something that, unfortunately, too many ‘activist’ groups reflect.

In talking about identity, it is important to recognize that identities are very complex, and that they are not fixed ‘essences’ but rather, are very fluid social, political and psychological constructions; they are processes. This more critical conceptualization of identity avoids the all-too-common trap of essentializing identity; that is, it recognizes that identity is not something inherent in us, but is created and recreated by history and political/social situation. As Stuart Hall argues in Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation*, identity is not just a matter of ‘being’ but also of ‘becoming’. Similarly, in Reflections on Race, Class, and Gender in the USA**, Angela Davis conceptualizes ‘women of colour’ as a fluid social and political project.

*Hall, Stuart. 2000. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation” in Film and Theory: An Anthology, ed. Robert Stam and Toby Miller. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
**Davis, Angela Y. 1998. “Reflections on Race, Class, and Gender in the USA” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.]

Closely linked with the essentializing pitfall, there is also the danger of homogenizing if the notion of identity is not thought through adequately. While defining ourselves as women of colour, we recognize and acknowledge the fact that this category is a heterogeneous one, that we are not all the same. Within the heads up collective, while the identity ‘women of colour’ is a prominent one, we also identify with a variety of different ethnicities, religions, genders, class backgrounds, and sexual orientations. While recognizing similarities, it is equally important to recognize difference.

However, recognizing the heterogeneous mixture of the group does not mean that we must forego seeking out similarities amongst us as well. Identity is a construction that is borne of oppression, and later (re)borne and reshaped through struggle. The category ‘women of colour’ was borne out of the marginalization and oppression we face in this society. I had never formally adopted this identity until I first entered university and started to learn more and more about the history and resistance coming out of the space of ‘women of colour’.

As such, even while ‘visible minorities’ or ‘non-white people’ are created against our will, women of colour have reclaimed the box we were dumped into as a politicized identity. This reclaimed identity is also a strategy in survival, empowerment and resistance, one that acknowledges all of our differences but also connects us in our common histories of oppression, and our struggles against it. As Arlene Stein states in Sisters and Queers: The Decentering of Lesbian Feminism*, “it is through the process of mobilization that this sense of ‘group-ness’ is constructed and individual identities are reshaped.” This does not imply that we need not think critically about how and where we place ourselves, however. As Angela Davis and Elizabeth Martinez argue in their discussion on coalition-building among people of colour**, “we need to be more reflective, more critical, and more explicit about our concepts of community. . . How can we construct political projects that rethink identities in dynamic ways and lead to transformative strategies and radical social change?”

*Stein, Arlene. 1995. “Sisters and Queers: The Decentering of Lesbian Feminism” in Cultural Politics and Social Movements, ed. Marcy Darnovsky, Barbara Epstein, and Richard Flacks. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
**Davis, Angela Y and Elizabeth Martinez. 1998. “Coalition Building Among People of Color: A Discussion with Angela Y. Davis and Elizabeth Martinez” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.]

Learning the Meaning of Solidarity

After a few weeks of contacting Arab and South Asian community groups, organizations and mosques to find out how we could assist them, the outreach group quickly learned that our approach was completely wrong. We learned that while our concern and offer of assistance was greatly appreciated, these community groups and organizations were well organized in terms of response and resistance to the racist backlash. They had their anti-racist hotlines already set up, support networks already in place, countless educational events lined up, and many more. All they wanted was simply to hear our words of support and for us to be publicly vocal against the racism and war.

Soon after, we decided that perhaps the best way we could support their struggles was to help publicize their events and services. Thus, a bi-weekly newsletter called Community Action Notes was born.* Of the newsletter, a heads up collective member explains:

“We put out a newsletter every few weeks as a way to link different community groups [of colour] that are working around anti-war, anti-racism work, but it’s also been a way of putting support listings for people of colour especially, and giving space for groups that are doing community work to be heard, to put their words on the page rather than us talking about what they’re doing. A lot of groups will speak for groups being targeted right now rather than letting that group speak for themselves, so it’s about giving them that space, building solidarity around that.

[footnote: *By the time we began publishing our first issue, the make-up of the outreach group had changed (going from a predominantly white group to predominantly women of colour), the number of members had decreased, and most of the original members had dropped out while a few new ones replaced them. This is when we officially became ‘the heads up collective’. Interestingly, the original outreach group was also mostly female. As a heads up collective member said to me as she looked around at the different working groups at the first city-wide meeting, “all the guys have joined the ‘sexy’ groups.” Sure enough, most of the males were in ‘direct support’ and ‘events/actions’.]

The notion of solidarity has been key with the heads up collective since the beginning. We see it as a crucial building block of working within an anti-oppression framework and see our newsletter as one way that we build and express solidarity with other groups. For us, solidarity involves supporting other people’s struggles, acknowledging people’s agency and their leadership rather than taking over (i.e. knowing when to step back), and above all, acknowledging power dynamics and power structures. We also recognize the interconnectedness of people, their issues, and their relationships as expressed here by two members of the group:

“If we’re gonna make a definition for solidarity, I would say it’s a feeling of compassion for other people’s struggles, and understanding your relationship to their struggles, and how your struggles fit into their struggles.”

“I think solidarity is about examining your relationship to power and what your privileges are. Even on a personal level, I think you’re sort of addressing that too, because if you want to be supporting somebody, you really have to recognize what your relationship is to their struggle all the time.”

Additionally, we see the newsletter in terms of recognizing the importance of simply making people’s struggles known. This is significant because of the all too frequent invisibility of resistance in recorded history, particularly the resistance of historically marginalized peoples of all stripes. This is an important basis from which the heads up collective works:

“So for me, solidarity is about my own education and it’s also recognizing that folks aren’t invisible and trying to learn myself what white supremacy does to cover up the realities of people everywhere, and people of colour everywhere, including our very neighbours.”

“In terms of what we’re doing, the kinds of groups that we’re trying to do ‘outreach’ to, and what kind of events that we put in the newsletter, I think too often – especially in white activist spaces – these groups are made invisible, as if they’re not doing social change kind of work.”

Solidarity is also about forging links and building genuine relationships with other people and groups. Community Action Notes is one tool that the heads up collective uses in building these relationships with other communities. By consistently supporting and helping to publicize other groups’ events, and supporting various communities’ struggles by publishing analyses and informational pieces about these struggles, we are beginning the process of forging real links with other communities. Not only do we hope to build links with other communities ourselves, but we hope that the newsletter plays a useful role in assisting other groups in different communities to network with each other, with the ultimate goal of a multiracial movement brewing in our not-too-distant future.

Today and Tomorrow, No One is Illegal

While continuing to regularly publish and distribute Community Action Notes, the heads up collective has also been working around issues of immigration and refugee rights. In December of 2001, many of us attended a demonstration organized by a local predominantly white anti-racist group outside of the Celebrity Budget Inn. It is a for-profit motel conveniently located across from the Toronto Pearson International Airport that the Canadian government uses to incarcerate asylum seekers in a dingy wing separated from the motel’s paying guests.

That day was a turning point for many of us, seeing this jail-like place where asylum seekers are forced to stay day-by-day, and for far too many people, month-by-month. Standing on the other side of the barbed wire and catching a glimpse of some people – Who are they? What are their names? What are they thinking? – waving and waving and waving at us from behind a window in the distance, I was deeply touched, especially since my family and I had spent a few months living in a refugee camp in Hong Kong after fleeing from Vietnam.

A few months later, we returned to that very same spot, this time having become involved with the organizing of the demonstration in coalition with two other local groups that are made up of predominantly white members. Unfortunately, this demonstration left a bad taste in our mouths because of marginalization during the organizing process and during the demonstration itself by some members of the other groups. It left us not wanting to continue working in coalitions. We turned away for many months, and started plotting our own plan of action.

Today, the process of visiting the Celebrity Budget Inn to actually go inside and communicate with the detainees has begun. It is a slow and painful process because we are just learning the ropes around the issues, but it is one we presently feel fairly confident about. We have begun the important – and sometimes painful – conversations with members of the two groups we initially organized the earlier demonstration with to try and resolve our differences. We do this because we realize that many minds and many hearts are always better than one, and how important it is to work with other groups around this issue if we ever hope to build a mass movement.

Tomorrow, we will be taking it further and further, always keeping in mind our criticism against charity without social change, our longer-term goal of movement-building, and our even longer-term goals of abolishing the inhumane practice of detaining asylum seekers, and opening the borders.

Furthering Our Movements: Rethinking Activism, Rethinking ‘Globalization’

While witnessing and taking part in the ‘anti-globalization’ movement has been exciting and inspiring to me, it has also been disempowering, and it will continue to feel that way until people are serious about challenging and dismantling the racial oppression that has been crippling this movement thus far. There are three important issues that I want to make mention of here.

The first is that the long history of struggle and resistance against capitalist globalization of peoples in the South, and of people of colour and indigenous peoples in the North continues to be ignored while Seattle is credited again and again not only by the media, but perhaps more detrimentally by activists themselves, as the official ‘beginning’ of the movement. The fight against global capitalism did not begin with Seattle, nor does it consist only of the mass convergences in the North that we associate with the ‘anti-globalization’ movement. It is important to recognize this, even though we don’t always hear about it. Remember that “the revolution will not be televised,”* and that means not necessarily always in alternative/independent media either!

[footnote: *From the 1970s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron.]

Secondly, it is important to bring into question the meaning of ‘radical activism.’ Is it only ‘radical’ when we engage in blockading meetings and get dragged away by the police – which, of course, is something that many people of colour face on a regular basis and not just during protests, unlike the bulk of white activists – or are there other ways of resisting that can be effective and just as ‘radical,’ if not more so? Who has the power to decide what is ‘radical’ in the first place and who gets left out because of that definition? In his essay, Finding Hope After Seattle: Rethinking Radical Activism and Building a Movement, Chris Dixon challenges activists to rethink radical activism. He writes:

“Too often this concept is defined almost exclusively by white, middle-class men, self-appointed bearers of a radical standard. Rethinking radical activism is about understanding social struggles in broad terms and toppling conventional hierarchies of activist ‘worth.’ Equally crucial, it’s also about locating and sustaining hope. Overly fixated on mass mobilizations, we can easily lose sight of what’s happening around us in our workplaces, households, classrooms, religious communities, neighbourhoods, and local activist groups. Yet these commonplace venues can be just as subversive as street confrontations at major protests, if not more so.”

This does not mean that engaging in direct action is not beneficial or something that people of colour never engage in. Among many other examples, the Civil Rights movement in the US tells us otherwise. What it does mean, however, is that we must take people’s history and context and situations into account when organizing, and that we must constantly engage in a process of rethinking what we mean when we use words such as ‘radical’ or ‘activist’.

Since I first started becoming engaged in social change work, I came to a turning point only a few years ago during which I finally started to realize that my work for change circles around bringing down capitalism and fighting against the many ways that capitalism oppresses people. Previous to this realization, I had always thought of issues as separate but I have since come to recognize the ways that all of these issues of injustice – police brutality, the (in)justice system, sweatshops, imperialist and racist war at home and abroad, homelessness, immigration, housing, toxic dumping in poor neighbourhoods, gentrification, you-name-it – are interconnected and how capitalism plays a huge role. It does not make sense to fight against the WTO, the IMF, the FTAA – to fight against ‘globalization’ – and not also against what we consider to be ‘local’ issues, issues that people of colour have been building resistance against for decades. Too often, a false line is drawn between ‘globalization’ and ‘local issues’ as if these things could be separated, and as if these things are not integrally connected.

In fighting for a better world, it is important to recognize how our issues are all linked together, and how capitalism and ‘globalization’ leave their marks on ‘local’ communities in its myriad forms: gentrification and lack of affordable housing, classist and racist immigration policies, dumping of toxic materials by corporations in poor communities of colour and indigenous communities, targeted policing, sweatshop labour by immigrant homeworkers, the prison industrial complex, to name only a few.

The whole notion of ‘global’ versus ‘local’ also brings to my mind the question of privileged perspective. Oftentimes, issues that we perceive to take place in the South – IMF structural adjustment policies, agricultural cash crops, multinational sweatshops, etc. – are considered to be ‘global’ issues and effects of ‘globalization’ while issues we take notice of at home in the West – immigration, housing, welfare, etc. – are considered to be ‘local’ issues. From whose perspective are issues considered global and local? Does it help further our movements if we see the world through such a narrow lens? Is it easier on our conscience to fight about issues ‘over there’* than to engage in the struggles of people at home? In ignoring and dismissing these local struggles and issues around which people of colour and indigenous peoples have been building resistance for a long, long time, we are only working to further make invisible and marginalize these struggles and the communities who engage in them.

[footnote: *The whole notion of ‘over there’ also seems to falsely imply that we in the North are somehow not connected to the situations of people in the South.]

All of these issues have very important implications for the movement (or coalition of movements, as Chris Dixon notes in his article). Whether we move forward or not, and whether we can truly build and sustain a movement/coalition of movements that is dedicated to ending all forms of oppression, is dependent on how we deal with such challenges, along with many others. It is never easy to face these kinds of challenges, especially not when what is already going on seems so (superficially) positive to begin with. But a movement/coalition of movements that is dedicated to bringing down all forms of oppression simultaneously with challenging global capitalism is the kind of movement we must endeavour to work towards if we are truly serious about fighting for a world that is free and just for all. And this is the kind of movement I want to be a part of.
Many thanks to Chris Dixon for his invaluable critical feedback, and to Josh Lerner for his meticulous editing help.