We can only truly transform ourselves through the process of transforming social relationships and social structures. We can only transform those social relationships and structures collectively – across race, across class, across gender and sexuality, across nation as well. Transforming those relationships collectively means evolving ourselves in struggle along with other people. For white people this means engaging in struggle with other people we don’t ordinarily work with, people we don’t necessarily live near, people we may not feel we understand, people subjected to forms of oppression the most experienced of us have only a very partial understanding of.
White people have power by default in this society (in ways they usually take for granted or do not recognize). This privilege is unavoidable in the present, an accumulation of past injustices that we are born into. It is a crown we never earned, but also a dead weight on our spirit that we all feel, whether we are successful at tracing its source or not. The potentially liberating part of this is the fact that that power gives you a choice – the choice to either muddle along cocooned in comfort and privilege or to cast off whiteness, embrace humanity and build a new day. This is only possible by making yourself vulnerable, by recognizing, actively engaging and overcoming your own limitations and discomforts, and shedding the accumulated muck of the present society that now hangs off of us – by pursuing common struggle with people of color. This process revolves around trust – trusting others as well as trusting ourselves. James Baldwin puts this as clearly as possible, in a way that helps white people see themselves historically and to understand race in a way that doesn’t revolve around guilt and shame – but in a plain understanding:
“The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality – for this touchstone can only be oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes (sic) reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
– James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1962)
Baldwin encapsulates the problem of whiteness and identifies distrust as a key – distrust of oneself and distrust of others. Recognizing white privilege is a first step to simply being aware of the world and this distrust. Using that privilege to undermine the social relations that create that inequality is a radical act we must take up as white people within this movement if we are to become a real threat to the established order.
Widespread anger at social conditions, periodic rebellions and protests around discrete injustices, isolated movements, various forms of counter-culture, small-scale utopian projects or lifestyle politics always exist, but rarely transform society by themselves. Moments that have transformative potential are products of intense crisis coupled with broad based movements that feed off of each other. We are living through one of these crises now, and the Occupy movement seems to be a first step down what will be a very long road that will hopefully lead to a different society. As the Zapatistas say, we learn that road by walking it together. This requires openness, humility, the desire to learn from the most oppressed, and a commitment to becoming something greater than you are now.
The process of making social change is always a learning process, in this country it is always white people that have the biggest learning curve. As a white man this is a curve I am familiar with, and one I am most definitely still on, one that is longer than I thought it would be when I started to climb it. By no means do I fancy myself some kind of Sherpa, I write this out of a simple frustration at the contradictions that I see, to a certain extent within myself as well. There is a need to address white privilege within the movement in a way that seeks the overall transformation of the movement by abolishing white privilege through struggle and the development of a praxis that builds a deeper humanity starting today.
The Occupy movement needs to make the demands of people of color the core demands of the movement. Police violence, profiling, over-policing in certain neighborhoods and the war on drugs, as well as economic, educational and health inequalities, and an overall lack of social power – all of these issues and more – need to be paramount in the Occupy movement. White people need to make these their issues, because they are their issues if we want to create a just society. These are the forms of oppression that are primary in maintaining the existing order, more than student loan debt, more than a lack of middle class jobs, more than alienation. This is not to say that the concerns of white people are not important because they are white – that is not the argument. We need to build bridges with communities of color by supporting their demands and putting in work to address white supremacy and racialized inequality. The call for Jubilee – or universal debt cancellation – that came out of Occupy Chicago, is an example of demands that affect people across class and race. We need to work together while remaining aware that this doesn’t mean we are all in the same position in society.
It is important to try and understand the experiences of others and the need to build active solidarity without trying to equate our struggles or ignore inequality or difference. So, say you are college educated and you are unemployed, I can empathize, I have been in that position. I can bear witness to the fact that that sucks. I now have an advanced degree and for the moment have pretty precarious employment opportunities. But because I have words like “precarious” in my fucking vocabulary, I have the ability to do things besides make minimum wage. I, like you, am pissed off about my current state of affairs nonetheless. I have caught enough whiffs of Suze Orman to know that putting groceries on unpaid credit card bills all the time and having unpaid monthly student loan interest that exceeds my monthly income is not a long-term strategy for “life success.” With all of that said, I know other people have it worse. It is not a matter of silencing yourself, it is a matter of not silencing others. It is a matter of becoming more than you are by not treating people like less than your equal.
The point is that we need to transform ourselves, and we can only transform ourselves through trusting others to lead with us and to put the demands of people of color, and the most oppressed generally, at the head of our agenda. A lot of us are anti-authoritarian or anarchists or people who believe in direct democracy. We are often suspicious of anything that alludes to leadership. We are often distrustful of demands for voice and power that come from people that may or may not share our political self-definitions, or organizing style or speaking style, or meeting and facilitation style, etc. I feel that way sometimes, sometimes there are reasons to be concerned. I don’t see anything that vaguely suggests such a concern here. I don’t see any people of color trying to take over Occupy spaces, or impose any form of authoritarianism, or liberalism. In fact I see very much the opposite.
Consensus as it exists in many Occupies that are mostly white spaces are a form of tyranny in that they silence minority voices and demands, in the same unspoken and normalized way that white privilege usually operates, to the extent that parliamentary procedures, ill-defined hand gestures, and unending meetings don’t push people of color away first. I think we need to be aware of the historical attitudes that Baldwin speaks of. These attitudes aren’t yours unless you make them yours. I think we also need to be aware of the fact that people of color are trusting us just by being here, they are showing a degree of faith in us and putting themselves out there just by showing up to these spaces and engaging. We need to be reciprocating that trust.
The history of the white Left’s relation to the struggles of people of color are complicated, in many cases undermining those struggles or failing to make common cause. The trade union movement was largely a white man’s movement for much of its history, getting themselves the American Dream at the same time that Chicano labor was brought here for exploitation without the possibility of citizenship in the Bracero Program and black people were fleeing 100 years of post-slavery sharecropping in the South. The women’s movement in the 70s was largely framed around the needs of middle class white women. When the FBI started assassinating and framing Black Panther leaders a far-too-large swath of the white Left failed to come to their side, making apologies for the State in their wanton destruction of the black struggle. Older people of color have taught me this history – that white people get pissed off about this or that, but when the draft board is no longer after them, or when they get bored, or when things get risky, or when the graduate, or when they get older, or when they have kids, get married, whatever – they fall out and they leave people hanging – oftentimes literally. We don’t need to replicate this or to nip a necessary de-colonial struggle in the bud with our privilege and blindness.
On the other end are white people who shed their self-ignorance in struggle. People like John Brown. People like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed by the KKK alongside James Chaney, simply trying to register black Mississippians to vote. David Gilbert is doing life in prison for his efforts in the Black Liberation struggle. No one is asking you to give your life or to go to prison. If we are trying to build a new society that eradicates inequality then we need to start by putting the demands of the most oppressed at the top of the list. Nobody is asking you to go on a John Brown suicide mission against white supremacy, but it is only by killing off your whiteness that you give yourself the ability to grow and we give ourselves the collective capacity to win. Again, I don’t write this from some exalted position. Several white radicals older than me, far better people than me, have told me repeatedly that this means constant work that does not end. Whiteness is not abolished in a workshop, it is abolished in struggle. Even if we eventually win, the struggle against the baggage of history will continue. All of this talk of struggle, transformation, new societies and winning is but a naïve fantasy if we don’t take up this struggle with all of our effort now. On the other hand, we have been handed the perfect circumstances for building a new society, so long as we draw from the best of our history, and push this struggle farther.
No one is asking you to blindly submit to other people’s wishes. But, so long as white people continue to wear the historical attitudes that Baldwin speaks of and so long as we continue to see and treat each other in terms of the existing social relations with their accompanying unaddressed privileges, so long as we have the worst expectations of people, then we will continue to mire in this mess of a society that we say we want to leave behind. We can only walk down this road to a better world if we trust each other, if we trust ourselves. Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.
Occupy Wall Street.
Occupy the Hood.
Decolonize the World.
Occupy a Full Humanity.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and East Bay activist. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu