Why organize white people?

*A note: none of what follows is original to me. It’s coming through me from a lot of people and books and ancestors and histories, some of which I can cite and some of which I can’t. If there are any pieces you want to know more about, let me know and I’ll try to hook you up. Also, I imagine that most posts on this blog will be a little more reflective of the details of what I’m thinking/feeling/doing. But this seemed like an important thing to talk about a little bit before I got too far ahead of myself.

In the few months before I left for Oakland/SF, I did a lot of one-line explanations about the Braden program. The elevator speech usually sounded something like: “It’s a 4-month training program for white people who are doing different kinds of social justice work, helping us get more effective at fighting racism in the work we do.”  I got quite an array of reactions to this; a pretty common one was raised eyebrows, a pause, and then: “White people?”

It’s a good question. The reality is that, for most of the history of what is now the United States, white people have been very well organized… on the side of white supremacy. White people have put a lot of labor into maintaining an arrangement of power where a few white people hold most of the power, and everyone else scrambles to get by, with non-elite white people being consistently given a leg-up over people of color every step of the way. That precarious power distribution has relied on white people in organizations that have ranged from the Klan to the slave-catchers, vigilantes to City Councils, school boards to the Tea Party. Whenever people have acted through these organizations to ensure that people of color cannot vote, cannot move freely in public without police harassment, or can’t meet their basic needs to survive, white supremacy is perpetuated. (And we live in times with complex racial politics: at this point, many institutions that uphold white supremacy have people of color within them, even in high positions. This means we can’t get simplistic about looking at individuals as responsible for racism. Instead we have to keep our attention on institutions and the ideologies that keep them afloat.)

To be clear, it’s been a very long time that people of color have called on white people to do specific kinds of work in the long-term struggle to end white supremacy. The best known example: after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee won major victories against Jim Crow racism across the South in the first few years of the 1960’s, Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture) called for SNCC—which had been a multiracial organization—to shift to a politics of Black Power, asking, “Can white people move inside their own community and start tearing down racism where in fact it exists?”

It makes sense that a lot of people get skittish when we think about white people getting together on purpose, as white people. The ideology of multiculturalism–and its endlessly frustrating flipside, “colorblindness”–has hammered home this belief that racism happens when you name race: so if white people don’t talk about race, racism can’t happen. And for a lot of folks there’s a separate, very real fear of white people behind closed doors, doing who-knows-what in the name of “anti-racism.” No arguments there: it has be done with a lot of care. And, I think, it does have to be done.
Those of us who are white inherit a history that is very, very violent. We’ve forgotten–over the course of our individual lifetimes, and also across generations–a lot about how to relate humanely and with dignity to other human beings. We have sold out to a set of interests that, most of the time, don’t actually benefit us. White people settled for becoming overseers, ensuring profits for slaveholders by perpetuating brutality on enslaved people. Instead of uniting with undocumented immigrants to raise wages for all workers, historically-white unions have supported anti-immigrant legislation. White people enthusiastically supported Ronald Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign because they believed his story that Black women were getting rich off of welfare, even though white people have always been the majority of people on public assistance.

This divide-and-conquer strategy has worked over, and over, and over. Those of us who are white have fallen for it again and again.

And: I believe that our humanity is intact. We have other choices. There have always been white people who have aligned themselves with their own humanity and with the vision of a world where no one is enslaved, colonized, dispossessed, caged, or poor. The greatest resistance to white supremacy has always come from communities of color: the role of white people is to understand that our own interests are much better served by these liberation movements than they are by perpetuation of the status quo, and then give our hands to struggle.

We have a lot of work to do. (Like, really a lot.) Interpersonal work to get over the entitlement, fear, lack-of-listening, and straight up bigotry that we bring to our relationships with people of color. Organizational work to realign our priorities so that we are actively taking on white supremacy. Ongoing work to understand how racism works best when it’s all tangled up with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and its best buddy, capitalism. Massive work to develop new institutions, and dismantle the ones that only cause harm, and transform ourselves in the process. Long haul stuff.

There isn’t a prescription, mostly. Sometimes white people need to do work in majority-white communities, sometimes in multiracial organizations. In some places we need to slow down, and in some places we need to pick up the pace. Most of the time we need to be more humble, more honest, study more, take more risks, ask more questions.

White people have to do this work because we understand that it is the only way our species is going to survive climate crisis and escalating violence in our homes and across the globe. Because we understand that we are jeopardizing our humanity every time we participate in (or ignore) police brutality, the desecration of sacred sites, mass incarceration, and drone strikes. And, mostly, because we can feel some deep longing for a world where we, and the people we love, and the people we’ve never met, can eat, raise children, resolve conflict, be safe, and make meaningful decisions about the things that impact their lives.

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3 thoughts on “Why organize white people?

  1. So much yes. As I think about relocating, one of my worries has to do with race. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always felt safest when I’m in spaces with people of color, and I struggle to feel comfortable in ultra-white environments. Yet, the city I’ve felt most drawn to spiritually is far whiter than what I’m used to. I’m realizing that moving into a predominantly white space will be risky…and that I need to take bigger risks if I want to accomplish what I’m feeling called to do in this life. Your wise words help tremendously.

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