[Hpn] Learning To Undermine Racism

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Sat, 16 Dec 2000 13:15:06 -0700



May-August 2000 (#26)

White Supremacy On My Mind: Learning To Undermine Racism

By Chris Crass <chriscrass1886@hotmail.com>

Growing up in California and coming of political age in
the 90's, race has been a central factor in my develop as
a person and as a radical. California elections have been
the battle ground upon which fights over immigrant rights,
bilingual education, affirmative action, criminal justice,
labor rights and queer marriage have been fought. The
explosion of rage in Los Angeles after the Rodney King
verdict clearing four white cops of all charges in the
internationally witnessed beating of King was to have a
profound impact on my way of seeing the world. I rarely
ever thought about what it meant to be white, I was just
a person. The ability of whiteness to be so universalized,
to be the norm, to be the standard and all others and just
that, others. I grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, where
racism has operated in a way that rarely even speaks
directly about race.

I remember as a small child listening to other children
speak Spanish and I assumed that it was because they were
not smart enough to speak English or if they were bilingual,
then I assumed that Spanish was some sort of silly gibberish.
This would have been a childish mistake or misunderstanding
on my part, but as a white person, I assumed that my language
was THE language and that it was the true form of speech and
this thinking was not childish, it was the institutionalized
logic of white supremacy, which was reinforced all around me.

In 1986, California voters passed a proposition that declared
English as the official language of California. In 1998,
voters in California passed a proposition that ended bilingual
education in California. Prop 227 was known as the "English
Only" measure. California was once part of Mexico. As white
settlers moved westward, the idea of Manifest Destiny was
developed which simply stated that all of the land towards
the West were for citizens of the United States - white
people. The US war of aggression against Mexico resulted
in a huge land grab. However, in the Treaty of Guadeloupe
signed in 1848, the rights of Mexicans living inside the
newly created US border were to be respected and language
was one of them. The Treaty of 1848 stated that the United
States must respect the culture and language of the people
formerly of Mexico. The debate over language is truly about
control, not communication. In his amazing book, The Coming
White Minority: California, Multiculturalism and America's
Future, Dale Maharidge writes, "The truth ignored in the
debate [over bilingual education] was this: only three out
of ten of the 1.4 million California students with limited
English proficiency were enrolled in a bilingual education
class. Due to a shortfall of 20,000 qualified teachers, 70
percent of these students were already taking English only
classes. The failure of many of them had nothing to do with
bilingual education." Maharidge writes further that "Prop
227 [English Only] is just one more way that the third
world work force will be kept in place, providing a pool of
janitors and dishwashers..." The struggle to make English
the official language in California is about delegitimizing
another people's language and culture and reinforcing
inferiority. Simultaneously, English and 'white' culture is
reinscibed as superior. This is why many who opposed English
Only used the slogan, "English Only means White Only". My
thoughts as a small child that Spanish was a dirty language
where drawn from society and reinforced. I use this example,
because it demonstrates how white supremacy operates. As a
small child I learned that my 'language', my 'culture', my
'history' was all central, all important. I didn't need
someone to tell me that white people were better or
superior, it was indoctrinated in my surroundings
in a way that it need not be spoken.

It is important for white people to look at their experiences
and deconstruct them, look into events and find their meaning.
One of the crucial ways that people of color resist white
supremacy is by confronting internalized racism, by coming
to terms with a society that has systematic devalued their
humanity, covered up their history, brutalized their memory
of themselves as a people and then placed white standards
as the mark by which they are judged (in terms of beauty,
in terms of culture, in terms of language and in terms of
intelligence). Black feminist theorist, bell hooks, writes,
"oppressed people resist by identifying themselves as
subjects, by defining their reality, shaping their new
identity, naming their history, telling their story."
Shaping history and defining a new reality is a strategy
that must be embraced by white folx who desperately want
to see the end of racism. Racism will always exist so long
as whiteness exists, as white identity has been developed
through the process of slavery, genocide and cultural
annihilation. White identity was fused together as a way of
dealing with massive injustice - to be white is to be human
and all others are subhuman, savages, beasts of burden to be
worked, raped, beaten and robbed - they deserve what they
get and little else can be expected of them anyway. White
identity has mutated and evolved over the years, but its
core belief in being better, of being above others is deeply
intact. When white people complain that Mexicans are taking
their jobs; when white people complain that Asian Americans
are taking over their country; when white people complain
that Blacks are ruining their neighborhood - this concept
of ownership, of entitlement is all based on the notion
that this is a white society that is suppose to benefit
white people.

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great intellectuals of American
society, wrote that white people are rewarded for their
support of a system that largely does not benefit them - in
terms of how much power and wealth is concentrated into the
hands of the few. He called this reward, the "psychological
wages of whiteness". The ability of white people to think of
themselves as better than Black folx, regardless of how poor
they are, how many hours they have to work, how their labor
makes someone else rich. "I might be poor, but at least I'm
not a nigger" is how white identity helps shape a horribly
disfigured humanity of hierarchy and punishment in the
service of power and wealth. If white people are to work for
an end to racial injustice then we must come to understand
how the psychological wages of whiteness have (mis)shaped
our identity and (de)formed our consciousness. Until white
people confront their internalized superiority, the dynamics
of racism will be reproduced unconsciously. Becoming conscious
of how race operates, one will still make many mistakes and
reproduce racism, but at least we can work to undo this and
undermine this dynamic. Furthermore, when the internalized
impact of white supremacy - of (un)consciously believing
that white people are simple better - is confronted by white
people, then as bell hooks suggests, new identities can be
shaped and we can work to define our own reality.

Audre Lorde, Black lesbian feminist superstar, said "it is
axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves,
we will be defined by others - for their use and to our
detriment." While whiteness does carry many privileges and
benefits in a white supremacist system, it also comes with
a heavy price. James Baldwin, another superstar of radical
thought, compared whiteness to a factory and he encouraged
white people to get out.

In his essay, "On Being White and Other Lies", James Baldwin
writes about the price of being white, "But this cowardice,
this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and
of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has
placed everyone now living into the hands of the most
ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen:
and how did they get that way? By deciding that they were
white. By opting for safety instead of life. By persuading
themselves that a Black child's life meant nothing compared
with a white child's life. By abandoning their children to
the things white men could buy. By informing their children
that Black women, Black men and Black children had no human
integrity that those who call themselves white were bound
to respect. And in this debasement and definition of Black
people, they debased and defamed themselves."

Booker T. Washington once said, 'When you hold me down in
this ditch, you too remain in the same ditch'. The ditch is
a society based on race, class and gender hierarchies. A
society that devours the planet and threatens ecological
disaster. A society so full of fear and hatred that queer
youth commit suicide. A society that demonizes and punishes
whole segments of the population because they are poor,
regardless of how the economy creates and needs poverty.
This is a society where rape and countless other forms of
more subtle sexualized violence are regular occurrences. The
list of damage is enormous, and so too is the daily impact
of our humanity cut off because of all of this damage - this
is how white people have debased and defamed themselves, as
Baldwin wrote.

Baldwin also wrote, "as long as you think you are white,
there is no hope for you". No hope for you? No hope for
what? I believe that Baldwin is saying, is that as long
as you identify with a system that is based on domination
- regardless of what privileges, concessions or wages of
whiteness you receive - then your humanity will be horribly
distorted and hope will be lost. I also believe that the
hope Baldwin speaks of, is a hope for a new humanity that
works for equality and liberation. So what does this mean
for us white folx - what do we do and how do we organize?

In her book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness
and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins writes,
"Suppressing the knowledge produced by any oppressed group
makes it easier for dominant groups to rule because the
seeming absence of an independent consciousness in the
oppressed can be taken to mean that subordinate groups
willingly collaborate in their own victimization." White
folx need to read and study the knowledge produced by
people of color. Furthermore, in fighting against a system
of domination - the works of queers, women, working class
whites, labor organizers and radicals of all colors must be
read and we must learn and develop an analysis that connects
all of this to an understanding of how power operates in
ways that both oppress and liberate. Collins quotes a
student of hers, Patricia L. Dickenson, who writes, "it is
a fundamental contention of mine that in a social context
which denies and deforms a persons capacity to realize
herself, the problem of self-consciousness is not simply a
problem of thought, but also a problem of practice... the
demand to end a deficient consciousness must be joined to a
demand to eliminate the conditions which caused it." While
we are developing an analysis of race, class, gender, age
and sexual identity - we must also work to end inequalities
based on race, class and gender in the structures of our
society. This means that we need to bring an understanding
of race, class and gender to the work that we do - around
environmentalism, sweat shop labor, affordable housing,
police brutality, child care, globalization, poverty
and militarism.

One way that we can do this is by shifting the center of
our analysis. How does environmentalism impact working class
Latino/as? The environmental justice movement that organizes
against toxic waste dumps in poor communities (among many,
many other things) offers answers to this question. How does
immigration impact Asian American women? The group Asian
Immigrant Women Advocates have been doing amazing work
around this and books like Dragon Ladies: Asian American
Feminist Breathe Fire and State of Asian America: activism
and resistance in the 1990's, edited by Karin Aguilar-San
Juan. How have Black women organized and developed forms
of resistance to race, class and gender oppression? Check
out books like Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: the
Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. Read Words
of Fire: an anthology of African American Feminist Thought
edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Check out the book, Women in
the Civil Rights Movement, that simply rocks as it contains
essays on activism, resistance and community building that
offer so many important insights and lessons for our work
today. We need to read books like, Reluctant Reformers
by Robert Allen on racism and social reform movements in
the US, to understand how white supremacy has lead white
activists to undermine the activism of people of color and
how those dynamics continue to get played out. Additionally
there are so many amazing activists and organizations out
there that we can learn from and work in solidarity with.

Chicana lesbian feminist writer and activist, Gloria Anzaldua,
wrote in her book, Borderlands: La Frontera, "Nothing happens
in the 'real' world unless it first happens in the images
in our heads." This is why it is crucial that white people
consciously, critically and consistently work to undermine
internalized white supremacy that prevents many of us from
seeing people of color as fully human. Additionally, white
activists need to know about the resistance and organizing
of people of color so that we can image new ways of resisting
and organizing in a way that works for collective liberation.

Here are some more books that can help us develop the
radical analysis that we need in order to survive. David R.
Roediger's Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to
Be White. Elizabeth 'Betita' Martinez's De Colores Means All
Of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century. Red Dirt:
Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Michael Omi and
Howard Winant's Racial Formation in the United States: from
the 1960s to the 1990s. Barbara Smith's The Truth That Never
Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender and Freedom. William Upski
Wimsatt's No More Prisons. State of Native America: Genocide,
Colonization and Resistance, edited by M. Annette Jaimes.
Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom: the Mississippi
Freedom Movement and the Organizing Tradition. There are many
more excellent books out there.

The analysis that we learn and the creative and thoughtful
ways that we apply this analysis to our work will lead to
important developments in the struggle against white supremacy
and the entire monster of domination, which white supremacy is
part of.


Chris Crass is an anarchist organizer and trainer with the
Challenging White Supremacy Workshop in San Francisco.

Copyright (c) 2000 Chris Crass. All Rights Reserved.

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