Racism in Progressive Movements
By Donna Lamb
A very important forum entitled Racism in Progressive Movements was held at a community center in Mid-Manhattan in New York City. It was sponsored by Third World Within, which is constituted of organizations run "by and for" communities of color.
The forum was attended predominantly by persons of Asian, Asian/Pacific Island, African, and Latino descent, and most were young, mainly of high school and college age. There were also older activists present, but this was the young blood that the progressive movement needs so much to have on board.
First of all, it was stated that white progressives (of which this reporter is one) should be looked on not as antagonists but as potential allies. That was the general spirit of the forum as people spoke thoughtfully and in a way that deserved respect. They also didn't pull their punches in the telling of hard truths about why they don't want to work with us whites. There was factuality and great seriousness as they voiced their objections.
It should also be clear that much time was given to looking at their own issues among themselves; the whole meeting was not concentrated on us, since, after all, we white people are not the center of the universe! People of color definitely see themselves as comprising an important, viable movement that is not at all dependent on whites. In fact, that was one of their major criticisms – we don't want to recognize the fact that they are fully capable and totally competent when it comes to organizing and carrying forward their own movements without us around to tell them what to do and how to do it.
The main thing it all boiled down to is that white progressive organizations are riddled with racism, but we don't want to see we have this problem. Following are some of the many forms our racism takes that persons of color at this forum believe we need to stop denying and look at straight:
We want to think there is something wrong with them (people of color) when they don't want to join our organizations – instead of seeing that something is wrong with us which makes them want to stay away.
We want to think they don't join our organizations because they're just too stupid to see how great and important our answers are about what needs to be done and how to do it.
The things they see as most important we don't believe are so important. We're so sure we're right we won't even consider their point of view.
We don't like to be in the background taking the lead from people of color. We have to be the ones who set the agenda and direct the action.
We don't want to look at our patriarchal attitude, our belief that they need us to lead them – where would they be without us? We want to feel that they're too weak to organize and advocate on their own behalf, and that they require us to do it for them.
People there said that just as they don't want to join our organizations, they don't want us to join theirs either. They think that if we really care about justice to people of color, we should work within our own white-majority organizations to change the entrenched racism, not run to join theirs.
They also said that as soon as too many of us white people join an organization comprised mainly of people of color, we start trying to change things into the way we think they should be, instead of trying to see how we can support what they're already doing.
We don't want to see them as having a right to their own identity-based organizations and actions separate from ours. We even believe we know better than they do about this – we don't think it's necessary for them to organize around their own unique cultures and identities; therefore, that must be the final word on the subject!
And we don't want to see how deeply people of color feel about their own cultural heritages. We don't want to recognize and honor their identities and feel they have a right to them just as much as we have a right to our own white identity. When they work with us, we want them to put aside their cultural identities and just blend in with us. In other words, we want them to become good Black white-people, good Asian white-people, good Latino white-people so their skin color or accent may be different, but they're just like us in every other way.
Persons also said that we act like everything European-based is important and valuable but nothing that comes from other cultures is very important.
We see people of color superficially, even in terms of believing, for instance, that Latinos are this one huge (and growing) united monolith. We don't see that they, too, have their difficulties, just as we do, about agreeing on things and working together.
Another way we see persons of color too superficially is that we want to think it's easier for them to motivate people and organize their communities than it is for us to confront other white people's racism. An African American woman spoke about the fact that when she tells white people they have to go back and organize their own communities, they say it's too hard, and they want to think it's all somehow less difficult for Black people.
White people tend to talk about race and racism as though it's about black and white only, which is denigrating to Latinos, Asians and all others.
A woman also said – and this was a criticism of everyone equally – that as we talk about these things, we should all remember whose land we're on to begin with. As we talk about the redistribution of land and power, we should always have an awareness of the Indigenous Peoples and what was done to them, whether they're in the room or not.
We're very interested in and know all the details of such things as what's going on in Chiapas, Mexico; yet, we don't have the slightest idea about what concerns a community of color two blocks from our home – and we don't want to. We see the first as important, but the second we feel is beneath us.
While many white people have shown a great deal of concern about Mumia Abu Jamal – and rightly so – we act like he's the only political prisoner in this country although, in actuality, there are numerous political prisoners of color locked up all over this nation who also deserve our attention and support. It became fashionable to care about Mumia's case in a way it hasn't with most others.
They also pointed to the fact that Mumia had to fire his white lawyers because one of them betrayed him by secretly publishing a book about the case, even though it is still in process, Mumia is facing his last appeal, and his life is literally on the line! This is indicative of the selfish motives which they can worry may be working beneath the surface even as a white person advocates forcefully for persons of color.
Finally, as one young man said, white people don't get it, we don't get that we don't get it, and, as far as he can see, we don't want to get that we don't get it! But we think it is they who don't get it about what is really important and that is why they aren't working with us. This has to really change if we want them to join our movements.
To sum up, it was an exciting forum because much clarity was brought to the very troubling problem of racism in progressive movements. And there is a feeling of relief when the truth about anything is told straight, as it certainly was that evening.