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Towards Collective Liberation: A review in Peace News

by Milan Rai
Peace News
October-November 2014

When I’ve heard white people committed to social change start talking about racism and activism, the conversation has often veered rapidly to the question:

‘How can we get more of them to come to our meetings/activities?’

In Towards Collective Liberation, a powerful, humble and thought-provoking book that deserves the widest possible readership, white US activist Chris Crass poses very different questions: ‘How can white radicals work with other white people against racism?’ and ‘How can white radicals be trustworthy allies to people targeted by racism?’ He poses similar questions in relation to male supremacy and patriarchy.

Crass doesn’t give us abstract ideas about how to answer these questions; he gives us years of experience, including in trying to support the leadership of working-class communities of colour.

There is a telling contrast between two interventions by San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB), a mainly-white group to which Crass devoted most of the 1990s. In 1995, a group of FNBers approached AYUDA, a Latino/a immigrant group fighting for housing and civil rights, to offer support. They developed a plan whereby FNB would offer a weekly meal for day labourers on César Chávez Street while AYUDA did outreach, building its membership. Crass comments: ‘This was a radically different approach to solidarity. By building an ongoing program, FNB was able to support the development of a poor people’s economic justice organization, which could then provide leadership in the fight for housing, worker and immigrant rights.’

In 1998, after AYUDA took over the food element of that programme, some FNBers decided to show their solidarity with day labourers (who were being harassed by the police and immigration services) by serving food on the same street. This time, FNB did not team up with a community organisation, and had only a few beginner-level Spanish speakers serving meals. It turned out that the casual workers assumed the project was a church charity programme, and after a year FNB ended the meals. Crass comments: ‘As one of the main proponents of the serving, I didn’t understand the critical distinction between supporting an immigrant worker-led group like Housing Not Borders [formerly AYUDA] to build its membership and an FNB serving that was virtually indistinguishable from charity.’ It was to a large extent a question of power, of accepting leadership from a people-of-colour-led organisation.

“Doing anti-racist work as a white person doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather that we are committed to doing this work, even though we will make mistakes.”

Learning from this experience, a group of mainly white FNBers slowly built a relationship with the ‘Day Labor Program’ (DLP), founded by poor and working-class Latino/a immigrants. FNB eventually became trusted to cook for DLP meetings, actions and holiday meals – and also became involved in DLP campaigns against official harassment of day labourers.

Years later, another radical group Crass was involved in, Heads Up, responded to the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks by focusing on immigrant justice, and building bridges between the immigrant-rights movement and the majority-white anti-war/global justice movements in the US.

Fundamental to their work has been building long-term relationships with self-organised immigrant groups: ‘We have provided solidarity support in food support, collecting donations and resources, doing security on marches and actions, turning people out for actions, leading and supporting political education events, doing media work locally and nationally, door-knocking, driving, recruiting volunteers, picketing, helping with outreach for Know Your Rights trainings, and so on.’ Heads Up have also testified at commissions where they were the only white anti-racist people speaking about immigration; and worked on electoral campaigns to pass a living wage, defeat anti-poor people legislation, and elect pro-tenant, pro-worker, pro-immigrant candidates to local office.

They did this work with two key people-of-colour-led organisations in order to ‘build accountable, long-term relationships’ as the foundation for their anti-racist work.

Crass writes later in the book: ‘Doing anti-racist work as a white person doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather that we are committed to doing this work, even though we will make mistakes.’

Doubling our strength

 Towards Collective Liberation is full of humbling stories like these. The final section is composed of interviews (by Chris Crass) of inspiring groups around the US, including the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Kentucky, which is the city’s leading LGBT group, and which has also, from its founding, had anti-racism as a core principle. This anti-racist commitment has meant practical solidarity with Louisville’s Black community, which built the relationships which made it possible for Black elected officials to include sexual orientation in anti-hate crimes legislation in 1991.

“How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!”

In 1999, after lobbying, protests, door-to-door mobilisation and civil disobedience, the Fairness Campaign secured the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The campaign had become a powerful political force in the city by building a strong multiracial base that understood the importance of struggles for racial, economic and gender justice.

There is a growing awareness in activist circles of the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression, an awareness which is often called ‘intersectionality’. The title of Chris Crass’s book points not to the critical analysis of ‘intersectionality’, but to the kind of principled, strategic coming together that builds on an intersectional awareness, the kind of coming together that the Fairness Campaign has built over decades.

The phrase ‘collective liberation’ comes from an essay by bell hooks (Crass cites a large number of women of colour as thinkers and activists who have shaped his own thinking and practice): ‘Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.’

Where ‘anti-oppression work’ can concentrate on ‘what not to do’, Crass has slowly come to focus on ‘collective liberation’ which is about ‘what we should do’.

Scare me

 There is a lot more to this book than the theory and practice of contemporary US white anti-racism (though it would be valuable for that alone). There is a wealth of experience and careful thought, for example, on how to build successful and effective groups and movements – the sections on an anarchist approach to leadership development are worth the cover price by themselves.

The other core concern of the book, alongside race, is gender, how men can work against sexism in our organisations and in ourselves. Crass describes the struggles within San Francisco Food Not Bombs over male supremacy in a painfully-honest, painfully-familiar way.

Women in SF FNB, who made up half the membership, managed to lead the group to reasonably effective ways of dealing with sexual harassment, which led also to more women taking visible leadership in the group.

There is a very personal chapter called: ‘Going to places that scare me – personal reflections on challenging male supremacy’. Part I is called ‘How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!’ There is a wonderful account of the first time Crass was challenged on his sexism (at 19), and how he and other young men in the local anarchist group floundered at first in responding to women’s anger over their behaviour. There can be few non-trans male activists in the West who have not had similar experiences.

In this chapter, Crass acknowledges that it is tempting to distance himself from men who still make dismissive comments about the reality or impact of sexism within their activist groups: ‘it’s important that I remember the times when I’ve made those comments, too.... As a person with [male] privilege organizing others with [male] privilege, that means learning to love myself enough to be able to see myself in people who I would much rather denounce and distance myself from.’

This is part of ‘collective liberation’.

Crass gives a number of practical suggestions on action that non-transgender men can take against sexism. He also sets out some principles for anti-sexist men: ‘Each of must persistently ask ourselves how our work supports the leadership of women, how we are working to share power in our organizing, and how we are making ourselves open to hearing feedback from gender-oppressed people about our work.... We know that sexism will work to undermine movement building. The question is what work will we do to help build movement, and in the process expand our ability to love others and ourselves.’

Towards Collective Liberation is a wonderful, generous book, richly deserving of study and discussion and committed action. As a middle-class man, I am inspired by the challenging precedents that FNB, Heads Up, the Fairness Campaign, Catalyst and others in the book have forged for the rest of us to learn from. As a person of colour, I am full of respect for the principled anti-racist work, the stumbling and recovering, described here.

Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

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