We have been hearing some people ask why SURJ is organizing white people, and have also heard concerns from you about Black Lives Matter asking for “black only” space at some of their events.
We’d like to try to answer and address these questions. As you reflect on this, we invite you to “stay with your growing edge” if you feel uncomfortable with any part of it.
White people have a role in racial justice organizing. We collectively hold the system of white supremacy in place – either passively or actively – and a big part of our work is with each other.
Our work in this movement for racial justice is different from that of People of Color because racism impacts people of color differently from how it impacts white people.
As whites, the work of dismantling systemic racism calls us to continually examine the nature of white privilege and engage other whites to do this with us – especially those whites who may not be as aware. As long as whites think “race isn’t an issue for me” we will not be able to change this system that benefits us at every turn.
In other words, we can’t just speak to the choir! Reaching out to whites who don’t necessarily see race as an issue is our work as whites. Doing that effectively requires that we have a shared understanding of racism. Developing that requires reflection and learning, which is most appropriately done with each other in an atmosphere of trust and shared goals.
Part of understanding whiteness is taking responsibility for our own education about racism and not expecting people of color to lead our educational process. We live in a time when we have easy access to hundreds of years of history, analysis, and experience and also to recent work on whiteness and white privilege. One of our key roles in working for racial justice is to know and understand this history as well to understand that we are part of a vibrant and continuous lineage of multiracial anti-racist action.
SURJ is organizing whites because quite simply, we have been asked to do so by People of Color leadership.
A tenet of community organizing is that the people most affected by injustice should be in the lead when developing solutions. Black led organizations are leading the way in this newly visible human rights movement today. For over 75 years, Black liberation movements in the US have asked whites to work with other whites. Part of being accountable in our work as whites is to learn to listen to Black leadership, and accept direction from them.
A huge hallmark of white culture is individualism, in which we instinctively believe that our individual ideas and needs are the most important factor in any situation. We may feel more meaningful, more productive, or feel that we learn more when we are organizing around people of color. Yet we have a lot to learn as whites – from each other, and from the excellent resources that are available. Part of dismantling racism is to build relationships among ourselves as anti-racist whites so that we can take ownership of white behavior and begin to change it collectively.
When Black leadership calls for “Black only” spaces, we need to support and respect that just as we would support the need for queer spaces and women’s spaces.
Racism is a killing force in this country, and Black people need safe spaces to heal and process trauma, and they need safe spaces in which to strategize and organize.
First and foremost, we need to appreciate that the Movement should not be about our comfort as whites. It is important to recognize that Black people frequently do not feel safe around us whites – no matter how well-meaning, anti-racist and progressive we may be. Our unexamined white privilege is damaging in and of itself, and being part of a racial justice movement doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, by taking up space with our own stuff, dominating, negating others’ experiences, etc.
Part of supporting Black leadership is to recognize the times and places in which it makes sense to work together and the times and places it makes sense to be separate. Our work as whites is in relationship to people/organizers of color, because we collaborate in the work of undoing racism through coalitions, collaborations, shared actions, meetings, and responding to their request of us to organize other white people. One of SURJ’s founding principles nationally – and this carries into local work– is to be accountable to People of Color movements for racial justice. Accountability means realizing that racial justice organizing has been going on for a long time and being willing to be accountable to that history, collective wisdom, and experience. SURJ has intentionally created a way for whites to organize and work on our “stuff.”
There are plenty of opportunities for us to work on racial justice with People of Color. The more we do our work as whites and “show up for racial justice,” then we have the potential for truly building a shared multiracial movement for racial justice.
Thank you for being part of this important work!