Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stories from their work

Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing

Anything I write about this new anthology requires a preface: two of the writers are long time friends on whom I've leaned in the course of the political work I've done over the last three decades. In this volume, Sharon Martinas, with Mickey Ellinger, recount the theory and evolution of the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. In the program's early years, I participated in a session of project; in subsequent years, I was boundlessly grateful that CWS was there as I worked on building political campaigns in communities of color. CWS provided a resource to which I could direct white volunteers who seemed not able to fit in to our work without getting in the way of leadership development in communities of color. "Go spend a session with Sharon," I'd say -- and I did not add, out loud, "come back when you know how to behave!" Perhaps most improbably of all, many of them did come back! The CWS Workshop deserves a lot of credit for the significant numbers of white, dedicated, quite sophisticated political activists who carry on multi-racial struggles of various sorts alongside people of color all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

In the book's preface, Ron Chisom of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond summarizes the problem this book addresses:

...if you give someone skills and tools and they have not dealt with their racism, they can become a skillful racist...

Lots of white people with good hearts and good skills have discovered this is true -- that technical sophistication in necessary work is no substitute for a political consciousness of how racism permeates our society. They discuss it here in chapters that cover a wide range of experiences including public schools, housing development, a rap group, social service bureaucracies and the Society of Friends. It's telling that the difficulties they encounter in such diverse environments seem so similar. The section heads in a chapter on "White Antiracist Organizing in a Social Service Agency" hit the highlights of what seem common experiences: "From Culturally Competent to Antiracist ... Beginnings of the White Antiracist Caucus ... We Benefited Disproportionately ..."

There are many lessons. This, from Jacquelyn "Adbi" Hermer who joined white volunteers trying to help rebuild in the New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, catches some themes:

Effective solidarity work can restructure resource distribution and power differentials. Participating in solidarity work implies that I am not from the community in which I am working, that I have skills or privilege to offer, and that I am constantly and consciously working towards developing others' leadership and access to resources.This process includes political advocacy, building valuable relationships, reallocating resources, being transparent in my actions, and being strategic and sustainable with my energy. The key word, accountability, means recognizing that this work is about supporting folks and their projects in a way that is not about me and my involvement, but is about the people directly affected and the way they wish to express their needs and greatest potential.

My emphasis. We can be of use in working toward a more just society when we can hang on to awareness that it is not just about us, yet somehow includes us. That goes for everyone, but invisible historic privilege means it is a lot harder for white people to find a good balance.

Happily, this anthology contains an essay from Shelly Tochluk and Cameron Levin of AWARE-LA/RJA that takes up some of the emotional and practical pitfalls that dog self-conscious attempts to build up white anti-racist activity and alliances. In this we encounter "Inauthentic Communication," "Unhealthy White Anti-racist People," and "Ineffective Collaborative Practices" on the way to describing what one political formation has done about them.

This is both a theoretical and practical book. Nobody is going to love all of it. But there is a lot here for any of us, especially white people, struggling to overcome our country's shared history of white supremacy.

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