Columns / Discourse / February 25, 2015

Reflections: Race and white activism

By now, more and more of us in the United States are realizing that our nation is not the “land of the free,” nor of opportunity, nor any of the other myths that we’ve wrapped around our flag and sung in our anthem. As we realize the profound crises of environment, of economy, of politics and of society that are creating huge suffering for people across the world, we’re turning to activism to build the power for a better world, governed by the people in love and dignity.

In particular some of us – white people, to be specific – are realizing this later in the game than others. This is because white supremacy – a system of advantaged power for white people that has permeated this country throughout all of its history – has given us just enough of “the pie” to be content with the massively unequal distribution of the rest of it. The rest of “the pie” is being exploited and hoarded by the 1% in all of their many schemes – the extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth, the use of cheap U.S. prison labor, the use of cheap labor from all across the Global South and war and dominance abroad.

As a student activist in the climate justice movement and at Knox College, I’ve made it my goal to shift our economy from being based on profit to being organized by the people and interconnected with the life of the Earth. And I’ve realized the profound importance of anti-racism for this work. If our movement is not multi-racial, multi-class, and broad-based, we simply won’t have enough power to make change happen. We white activists have to return to our humanity to overcome the racism within ourselves, tear down the racism around us and organize with joy and purpose alongside people of color. If we demand justice only for ourselves, we’ll fall short. We must demand it for all.

To this end, I’ve been thinking about how to develop ourselves as strong organizers. One of my current thoughts is that there are a number of stages we pass through while doing so: denial, ambivalence, preoccupation, capitalization, interest and engagement. We must move through these stages and understand them to reach our full potential as organizers.

In denial, we are unable to even acknowledge white supremacy, let alone fight it. The ways that denial shows up can be surprising. I once saw a Facebook comment from a man who believed that the BlackLivesMatter movement is a “distraction from the larger issue of corporate greed.” At this level we don’t even understand what white supremacy is, or how it is really central to the issue of corporate greed. We may get defensive and angry at being confronted over it.

In ambivalence, the toxicity level is considerably lower; we simply don’t think much about race, don’t know much about it and don’t connect it to our politics. We might not really know how we feel, but the topic is a little uncomfortable. We understand that racism is bad but don’t have much of a fire under our bottom, or much of an understanding of how it impacts the things we care about. That is understandable. We’ve been shielded from having to think about race for most of our lives.

In preoccupation, we are more educated and we now thinking about race. We understand on a deeper level what white supremacy is and strongly want it to end. But the peeling away of the layers of denial and ambivalence has revealed our own vulnerability, born out of a system that oppresses and exploits us whilst also privileging us.

Those insecurities hide underneath our commitment to anti-racism and foil it. Tending to seek approval, we exhaust the goodwill of our allies; afraid of making mistakes and worried about our own racism, we’re disconnected from our humanity and purpose, not yet able to organize powerfully.

In capitalization, we are educated and strong in our identity, but we capitalize on that education and confidence by criticizing and differentiating ourselves from other white people/organizations without that experience. There is vulnerability here, too. After all, the reality of what we’re up against is huge and we haven’t got clear answers on how to deal with it.

In interest, there is low emotional baggage and we have gained more clarity on our identity, our self-interest in undoing injustice, and we’re ready to take on that work. But we may not have yet found a clear vision for what that looks like. We haven’t yet laid our hands to this work, but we are ready for it!

The next step we take is engagement, where we begin to turn with the other gears of the movement for collective liberation. We’re realizing that interpersonal work is not enough, but that we must organize and build political power; we’re organizing other white people, supporting their emotional growth through strong relationships, and doing political education. We are in strong relationships with organizers of color who can hold us accountable in our work.

We’re clear about our stake in the struggle and have come to see the fight for liberation in personal terms that are rooted in our humanity and love.

This is simply from my observation; I may be missing things, and I’m eager to hear other’s thoughts. I also don’t imagine that we progress linearly from one of these stages to the other, or that we necessarily start at any particular one; rather I think that we may be at different levels of several from moment to moment, always shifting between them but steadily moving further along toward engagement. With the exception of denial, I’ve gone through all of these stages, and still am doing so.

In short, the road is rocky but there is a vision to engage with: that of liberatory work that is rooted in strong analysis, deep hearted work and the collective action that it takes to build a freer world. I believe that we can do it.


Leland Wright

Tags:  activism environmentalism movement organization race United States

Bookmark and Share

Previous Post
Religion and the search for hope
Next Post
Developing conservatism

You might also like


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.