Top 5 contributions Antiracism offers the Immigrant Rights and Immigrant Integration movements

For the last year, Crossroads colleagues at ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Kalamazoo, MI have been intentionally working with folks in the immigrants rights and immigrant integration movements. From this collaboration come these five insights regarding the contribution antiracism offers these movements.

1. The antiracism analysis goes beyond the Black/White binary and aims to build multi-racial coalitions.

Conversations about race and racism in the U.S. are often dichotomous, inclusive only of White dominant and African-American cultural values. An antiracism lens invites those of us who work to welcome immigrants to understand the ways in which all immigrants become racialized when they arrive here according to the U.S. race construct. There are typically six racial groups in the U.S. – Arab, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, African American, and White. Immigrants may or may not understand how they are viewed in the U.S. compared to in their home country, but there are very real ways in which their race affects how they are treated and how much access they get to institutions and the resources necessary for life. An antiracism analysis also reminds many of us that we are not all immigrants, which you often hear within the immigrant rights and integration movement. The founding of the U.S. began with the genocide of Native Indian peoples who originally lived on this land. What’s more, there have been economic and political strategies throughout history that have been designed to steal land and resources from and invisiblize Indian people and Indian country.

2Antiracism teaches White people, including White immigrant allies and advocates, that racism is not about blame.

None of us were around when racism was established in this country over 500 years ago. Many conversations about race and racism go badly because we aren’t taught how to have productive dialogue about these often-painful topics. We need a common language, more complete awareness of history, and an understanding that racism isn’t any one person’s fault (at least not anyone living today). And yet we are all responsible for the dismantling of it. Racism dehumanizes us all and antiracism helps White people as well as People of Color find their self-interest in the work. This analysis can help White U.S.-born immigrant advocates and allies approach their work from a place of solidarity with immigrants and other People of Color instead of paternalism (wanting to “help, fix, and save” immigrants). It also reminds us that racism is more than just individual race prejudice. We must also examine how U.S. systems and institutions were built for White people, by White people, and in large part continue to serve White society better. Instead of focusing narrowly on a particular person’s attitudes and actions about different racial groups, antiracism asks the question: how is a particular White dominant culture value, practice, policy, or law working to maintain the supremacy of Whiteness?

3. Antiracism work is collaborative and always informed by/centered around anti-oppressive values.

Antiracism move us from the White dominant culture values like scarcity, either/or thinking, individualism/competition, and secrecy toward the antiracist/anti-oppressive values like an abundant worldview, both/and thinking, collective action, and transparency. Further, antiracism seeks to dismantle the silo-ing of and competition among social justice movements (aka the “Oppression Olympics”), which has been established through the divide and conquer strategies of our colonial and neo-colonial history.  What if oppressed groups starting working together – sharing knowledge, wisdom, resources, and tools? What if we all knew there is enough to go around and that we truly are stronger together? What if as resisters of oppression we began working cooperatively to co-create a country that welcomes and celebrates all?

4. Antiracism builds upon intersectionality – the understanding that we all have multiple identities.

Antiracism understands that racism is a system of oppression linked to other systems of oppression that robs each of us of our full humanity and impairs our ability to create just and sustainable community with one another both locally and globally. Racism is not the only “ism” and antiracism doesn’t ask us to drop our other identities in order to talk about race and racism. We can use our other experience around privilege and/or oppression as a window, not a wall. While it isn’t helpful to talk exclusively about racism, it is important to talk explicitly about racism. We must ask: how is race compounding upon all other identities (such as national origin and immigration status)?

5. Antiracism sees immigrant rights and immigrant integration (or welcome work) as resistance to oppression and offers a way of changing systems that have historically kept immigrants from being able to successfully integrate into their adopted hometowns.

The focus on creating welcoming receiving communities is approachable by many and can lead into deeper conversations of what it truly means to be welcoming — both in terms of individual and collective attitudes and actions AND how institutions are or aren’t effectively serving immigrants and why. Addressing national origin, culture, language, race, and documentation status-based prejudice is important and antiracism invites us to go deeper and address how immigrants experience systems and institutions (i.e.: hospitals and schools).  Doing the work of building welcoming communities is in itself an act of resistance to the historic realities of racism’s systemic and structural oppression.

Attitude or bias changing work is important and can be life-altering for both immigrants and U.S-born residents. And yet antiracism would posit that prejudice-reducing work can sometimes be masked as immigrant integration work. A school or local municipality can pass a “welcoming resolution” or proclamation, claiming to be a welcoming place to immigrants, but not actually become accountable to what that means on real and tangible levels. For example, how does a documented or undocumented farmworker from Guatemala or a Sudanese refugee experience a hospital or school or city hall when they walk through the door? In addition to changing receiving community members’ hearts and minds about immigrants (i.e.: help people see immigrants as contributors rather than “drainers”), we need an antiracism analysis grounded in the historical context of race and racism in the U.S. These two forms of resistance together can create a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming country. 

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About the writers:

Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads, Lillie spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.

Jo Ann Mundy is one of two co- Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), and a Core Organizer-Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a national partner working collaboratively with ERAC/Ce toward the institutionalization of racial justice in public and private institutions throughout southwest Michigan. Currently Jo Ann serves on the boards of Crossroads and the People’s Food Coop. As a founder mentor of the NIA Project, Jo Ann encourages the celebration of identity, purpose and sisterhood in adolescent women of color. Additionally, Jo Ann is a founding member of the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC), an ecumenical faith-based social justice network of churches striving to build a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-generational anti-racist faith community in Three Rivers, MI where she completed her doctoral thesis Sacred Actions to Bring Racial Reconciliation. Enjoying over 25 years of pastoral ministry, Jo Ann currently serves as pastor of On Common Ground of Three Rivers Michigan. Jo Ann enjoys reading, music, her guitars and computers and, most of all, the young people in her life.

Four ways the Black/White Binary ought to concern White People

This spring in Applying the Analysis, many of our colleagues of color have written poignantly about the impact and implications of the Black/White Binary. They have clearly delineated how the Black/White Binary functions as a divide and conquer strategy among communities of color, how it keeps People of Color from fully understanding each other’s histories, and ultimately how it keeps People of Color from battling the true common enemy of White Supremacy. To continue the conversation, we want to examine the issue of the Black/White Binary from the perspective of those of us who identify as White, how we continue to reap the benefits of a society built on a foundation of White Supremacy, and what we might do to begin to disrupt the Black/White Binary in our own circles.

1. The Black/White Binary Maintains White Supremacy and Unearned Power and Privilege

The true power of the Black/White binary is that it functions to support White Supremacy in our society and institutions.  That is its function and aim, and it has a very successful track record. While White Supremacy remains unexamined, White people continue to reap economic, material, psychological and social benefits we have gleaned for centuries. The Black/White binary’s divide and conquer dynamic among People of Color allows White People to continue to retain and expand societal benefits while People of Color fight over the scraps that fall of the White Supremacy table.  Our goal then as White People is to constantly be aware of how White Supremacy is supported by the Black/White Binary.  If White People truly want to disrupt the historical patterns of White Supremacy, we have to diligently reject the false logic of the Black/White Binary.

Take for instance, Joy’s experience growing up White in North Dakota. The narrative around race in North Dakota at the time, and likely still today, was that “racism” occured when White People mistreat Black people. Because there were so few Black people in North Dakota (the reasons for which could constitute another blog post), North Dakota did not have a problem with racism. The fallacy of the Black/White binary allowed North Dakotans to believe that they had didn’t have to deal with racism because of the small Black population of the state. Consequently, Joy and other North Dakotans could virtually ignore over a hundred years of theft, genocide, and disposition of American Indians. That issue was not even on the radar, even though the predominantly White, Scandinavian and German descendants of the European colonizers, continue to reap the benefits of lands seized under policies like the Dawes and Homestead Acts. Joy and her family continue to financially benefit from the land her ancestors had access to through homesteading, which was only available to White people. This adherence to a a Black/White binary around what constitutes racism maintains unexamined White supremacy and the benefits that come with it.

2. The Black/White binary’s historical myth allows us to deny that our entire society is affected by racism.

As White people growing up in the United States, our framework for understanding what little we do about race is often framed only by Blackness. White people, culture and history are considered normal, whereas Black people, culture, and history are viewed as “racial” and at the other end of a spectrum. This narrative leaves us no room to understand the racial implication of the genocide of millions of Native Americans and the theft of their lands and resources, the exploitation of Asian American labor in agricultural and industrial projects (e.g. the building of the transcontinental railroad), the robbery of lands that once belonged to Mexico and the subsequent mistreatment of the inhabitants of those lands and their descendants, nor our colonial and neo-colonial exploits in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia, and other locations around the world. Even the history and experience of Black people is distorted by this simplistic rendering of history.

For example, when Ryan reflects on what he learned about race and racism in his formal education, it went something like this: Once upon a time a group of Europeans fled oppression and moved to a vast, unoccupied continent to create a free society. Some of those Europeans were bad and enslaved Black people, but this was solved by Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Some of those same bad white people, however, continued to mistreat Black people by creating “Jim Crow” laws, but this was eventually stopped by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. Now we live in a post racial society where even a Black man can become president. This obviously simplistic and incomplete understanding of race seen through the Black/White binary allows White people to be oblivious to other People of Color’s histories, and to avoid owning our part in the damage that our actions have done both in the past and present. It absolves us of having to work to fix or repair the carnage our ancestors left in their wake because we are ignorant of its very existence. We can even use the myth of the Black/White binary to deny the actual experience of Black people by turning it into something much more simplistic and trite rather than the complex reality that it is.

3. The Black/White Binary keeps us from working against our own dehumanization.

White people are also dehumanized by racism, and the Black/White binary hides this reality. The binary is a simplistic paradigm based on either/ or; good/ bad; wrong/ right; winner/ loser. Instead of recognizing we all regain our humanity and community if White supremacy is dismantled, the Black/White Binary with its either/or logic has White people fearing that if racism is eliminated we lose. We fear that we will lose our privileges and that Black people will oppress us once they are on the top. Take, for example, the recent claims by many White people of “reverse racism.” In these complaints we hear a deep fear of being on the bottom, because, in our heart of hearts, we know that we have created an “either/or” world and that we do not want to lose our position. What a powerful disincentive to work for justice, and those of us working for a more racially equitable society need to combat this falsehood wherever possible.

Moreover, the Black/White binary doesn’t leave room for the full diversity of humankind and thus doesn’t allow for healthy, resilient community. In his blog post, James’ Addington discusses how living in a diverse, interconnected community actually provides strength and resilience for all participants, whether they be humans or micro-organisms. The Black/White binary, however, creates a system in which instead of living in meaningful community, the set-up places White people in the role of oppressors who exploit others for our own gain. This causes broken relationships and isolation which goes against our human need for belonging and connection. Instead of being part of a differentiated, rich community life, we participate in our own dehumanization by robbing from others and weakening the very fabric that should exist to support all people, including ourselves.

4. The Black/White Binary keeps us from standing in solidarity with all People of Color to end racism.

If we don’t understand how we are all harmed by racism, White people will not be able to stand in solidarity with all People of Color to eliminate racism. How many times have we as White people been ignorant of not only our own racialized experiences and histories but also those of the various People of Color groups we seek to partner with? Moreover, remaining stuck in the Black/White binary could tempt us to try and help, save and fix Black people who we perceive to be the sole objects of racial oppression. We can also be tempted to use other People of Color group stereotypes to set some sort of imaginary standard for Black people and how they should comport themselves (See Laura Mariko Cheifetz’s blog on the Black/White Binary and the Model Minority Myth).

Another way we fail to stand in solidarity occurs when we observe the Black/White binary causing a division between Communities of Color and we simply back away and distance ourselves. We throw our hands up and say, “this is a People of Color problem, let them fight amongst themselves.” For example, as Antiracist White people we sometimes have the problematic notion that in order to be accountable to POC we have to listen to, follow and do whatever People of Color say. If the binary has them fighting with one another, however, we may find ourselves in a situation where we do not know who to follow or agree with. In this situation we may be tempted to take sides and align ourselves with one People of Color group as truly being more oppressed (or more to our individual liking). We need to be accountable to an analysis of racism that challenges the Black/White binary and includes all our histories and perspectives. Then accountability and solidarity doesn’t become about aligning ourselves with individual People of Color who we personally like the best.

Moving Forward

For those of us who identify as White and want to engage in the work of dismantling systemic racism we must heed the clarion call of our Colleagues of Color to continually push ourselves past the Black/White Binary. We must see the totality of racism and how we continue to benefit from it.  We need to hear the stolen stories, listen to People of Color from all racialized groups, be accountable to and stand in solidarity with a rich, complex analysis of racism that includes all People of Color (as well as ourselves!), and relentlessly work on our own internal transformation and that of our institutions. Antiracist White People need to be able to name the binary playing out when we see it and be proactive in disrupting it.

If this series of blogs has sparked your interest about understanding and interrupting the Black/White binary, we invite you to join us at Crossroads Leadership and Development Institute this summer in Chicago where we will continue to explore the construct of the Black/White binary and how we can continue to organize to transform our institutions into more racially just organizations.

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ABOUT THE WRITERS

Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy and Ryan Baiey

Joy Bailey has been the Director of Organizing and Training for Crossroads since 2011 and has been a Core/Organizer Trainer since 2008. She has her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education and her Master’s in Socio-cultural Studies in Education, both from Western Michigan University (WMU). Formerly, Joy taught high school Spanish for six years in Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) and also taught courses on race and racism in education at WMU. Joy has been doing local antiracism organizing in Kalamazoo Public Schools since 2001. Although originally from North Dakota, Joy currently lives with her spouse in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Bailey received his BA in English Education from Western Michigan University, his MA in Educational Leadership from Michigan State, and is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. He has participated in a variety of professional educational experiences including a Fulbright-Hayes exchange to Senegal and presentations to the National Council of Teacher’s of English. Ryan’s antiracism development began and continues within the context of the organizing work of Crossroads and ERAC/CE. An avid home-brewer, vintner, writer, reader, outdoors man, cook, traveler, and tennis player, Ryan makes his home in Chicago, IL with his partner Joy.

Which one will you pick? Calling out the fallacy of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, Part III.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and  Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

In this final post, I am reflecting on the two remaining dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation.

Dynamic 4: The Black/White racial binary paradigm allows white people to simply ignore their own investment in both racist constructs and their participation in them.

There is no example more powerful in recent day than the Donald Sterling debacle. The wealthy lawyer and purported slumlord who owns the L.A. Clippers, an NBA team, was caught on tape asking his biracial girlfriend to not bring African- Americans to his team’s games nor post photos of herself accompanied by them. Immediately, collective outrage took over this nation. White people were coming out of the woodwork to condemn his “racist behavior.”  When NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA for the rest of his life progressive white people everywhere breathed a collective sigh of self-satisfaction.  The good white people have won. But as Ta-Henisi Coates opines it is easy to condemn the oafish, classless, inelegant racism of the likes of Sterling and rancher Cliven Bundy. What is never easy, what is costly for White people is to address what Coates refers to as “elegant racism,” which he describes in this way: “Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter ID laws.” It is one thing for white people to express outrage at the overt unapologetic racism of Sterling and rise to the defense of African-Americans. It is another thing entirely for White people to own the ways in which they support, benefit, and leave unchallenged “elegant forms” of racism like stand your ground laws, mass incarceration policies, the privatization of prisons, the continued colonization of native lands, and anti-immigrant laws, just to name a few.

Dynamic 5: The Black/White racial binary paradigm stunts our creativity for visionary organizing and revolutionary collaborations.

I still remember the day one of my supervisors was fired. Over a decade has passed and I can still feel the weight of guilt for the ways in which my silence aided in the process of his dismissal. The situation was complex particularly because we felt no solidarity with each other. As an older African-American man in his sixties working in a profoundly racist liberal White institution he had learned to distrust anyone claimed by the White power structure. That included me. I was a 26-year old Latina claimed by the structure he distrusted as exceptional and set up as an example of what “good” people of color were supposed to be. His upbringing and the crazy-making construct of race had led him to believe that I was not a person of color but an honorary member of the White community. My upbringing in a colony of the United States and the crazy-making construct of race had led me to believe that I needed to stay away from him in order to succeed. I sometimes wonder how our work, our lives would have been different if we had seen each other as colleagues in the same struggle. I wonder how our organizing would have been more effective if we had been able to acknowledge that while the strategies were different, our dehumanization by racism was the same. I wonder how our communities would have been affected if we collaborated in ways that witnessed respect; maybe a revolution?

Among the most damaging effects of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is the way in which it eliminates the possibility of transformative collaboration among people of color groups and between White and people of color communities. When creativity is compromised the ability to formulate strategies to debunk the binary and the White supremacist worldview that produces it is inhibited.

The five dynamics I have reflected upon in this blog series threaten our struggle for human dignity. While alone I cannot stop these, I can join others in the struggle for human liberation. For the last 15-years I have given my time, energy, and creativity to Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training because it gifts me with a community of people working out of a shared analysis to strategize and organize cultural and institutional interventions that disrupt the divide-and-conquer strategies which threaten to seduce me away from my liberation and from the struggle for transformed community.

Which one will you pick? Calling out the fallacy of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, Part II.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and  Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Master degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

Today, I am reflecting of the first three dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation.

Dynamic 1: The Black/White racial binary paradigm leads to the assumption that the solution to racism and the key to liberation is to invert dynamics of power.

When I started my antiracism journey, I walked around with the belief that racial justice work needed to be focused on ending the oppression of African-Americans by over-turning the power structure which oppressed them and transitioning all social and cultural power to them. There were many factors informing this conviction. Among them was the belief that racism in the United States was exclusively a Black and White issue, and as a documented immigrant with the privilege of citizenship, my job was to help invert power dynamics. With time I came to understand the web of oppression created by systemic racism actively destroys all people including White people and me. I realized that simply being a person of color did not ensure that people would resist the dominant narratives of this nation which normalized and centered Whiteness. In fact if people of color are not actively working to address the ways in which we have internalized racist oppression we can become inadvertent supporters of White supremacy. Thus shifting power from White people to African-Americans specifically or people of color more broadly does not in fact guarantee an end to racial oppression.

Dynamic 2: The Black/White racial binary paradigm seduces people of color who fall outside of the binary into the service of white supremacy.

One of the real dangers of the Black/White racial binary paradigm is that it can trick those of us who fall outside of the binary into believing that racism is not and ought not be our concern. This belief is often accompanied by the illusory conviction that if we work hard enough, if we assimilate quickly and effectively enough, we will achieve the American dream and melt into a pot of Americanness not intended for us. I make this claim because I used to believe this so profoundly that when I turned 18, I voted Republican. I wanted to be American and the GOP represented for me traditional American values I desperately wanted to prove I could embody: hard work, individualism, patriotism, and white picket fences. This is not to say that the Democratic party is not supporting distorting patriotic narratives, but simply to say that as an 18-year old immigrant voting for the first time, the narrative woven by the Republican party came across as truly American in a way the Democrat narrative did not.  It would be years before I would come to fully understand that those values and narrative required I actively participate in the maintenance of a status quo that demanded I nurture self-loathing and contribute to the demonization of people of color communities.

Dynamic 3: The Black/White racial binary paradigm results in dehumanizing Oppression Olympics that obfuscate white supremacy while jeopardizing the possibility of revolutionary collaboration among communities of color.

The most effective way in which the Black/White racial binary paradigm maintains white supremacy is the Oppression Olympics. By this I mean the dehumanizing competition that emerges among people of color communities to prove who is the most oppressed. The competition unfurls often in this way: African-Americans understandably seek to define the conversation of race around the brutal history of chattel slavery while Native-Americans are pushing for an analysis of the problem that departs from colonialism and genocide while Asian-American Pacific Islanders are fighting against a myth that purports they experience no racial discrimination. Into this conversation enter Latin@s, all too often declaring the whole problem of race does not concern us because our countries do not do race and have no racism. This of course is not true. The nations we come from were shaped by European colonialism and infused with racial consciousness, racial ideas, and racial narratives that centered the European experience as normal and best. All one has to do is watch a telenovela to see how racial dynamics are present in Latin America. Moreover, the maintenance of the idea that racism is not our concern falls flat on the face of the active and often violent discrimination our people experience. Finally, at the edges are multi-racial people trying to find a voice. While this is in fact a simplistic articulation of a very complex problem, the result of these dynamics is competition. Instead of building coalitions as people of color, we routinely scapegoat each other and too willingly invisibilize our unique experiences of dehumanization while failing to name white supremacy as our common threat.

An illustration seems fitting. I still remember my first week in Atlanta, GA. I was watching the morning news when they introduced two guests invited to discuss the anti-immigrant legislation the state legislature was considering. The camera panned over to reveal two women of color experts, both lawyers. The lawyer speaking against the racist and xenophobic legislation was South East Asian while the one speaking in support was African-American. As I heard the conversation a knot formed in my stomach. The African-American lawyer convincingly argued that Latin@s represented an economic and cultural threat to African-Americans and society as a whole. I wanted to shake the African-American woman and tell her to stop. I wanted her to see me not as a threat but as someone whose destiny is tied to hers; as someone oppressed by the same system against which she is struggling. After four years in the deep south I am filled with examples of the way both African-Americans and Latin@s participate in the Oppression Olympics.  Consequently, both communities lose the ability to see and name the true culprit dehumanizing us: white supremacy.

Tomorrow, I will reflect on the two remaining dynamics.

Which one will you pick? Calling out the fallacy of the Black/White Racial Binary Paradigm, Part I.

A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.”  She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads.  Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Currently, Jessica holds  Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.
A native of Puerto Rico, Jessica identifies as a “1.5 generation Queer ESL Latina of Puerto Rican descent.” She works as a consultant and core/organizer trainer for Crossroads. Jessica holds a BA in Criminal Justice and Masters degrees in Theological Studies and Divinity.

I still remember the question: Which one will you pick? It came in the middle of a discussion about history and racism. I had just shared the latest evolution of the race classifications boxes announced by the United States Census Bureau, which eliminated “Latin@s/Hispanic” as a category. I posited to the group the shift was about power consolidation and politics of divide and conquer. Then came the question, which box will you pick? Before I could answer one of the white women said, “The White box.” Immediately an African-American woman said, “Nope, she will pick the Black box.”

I still remember laughing and making a comment about being wanted. And after we all had a laugh, I said I would pick neither. The group stared at me. You could tell they were asking, what does she mean? Were we not just discussing how race is not voluntary? How it is imposed? How can she pick neither? I allowed us to sit in ambiguous silence in part because I needed to find my words; in part because the power of the Black/White racial binary requires I claim allegiance to one side or another in ways that invisibilize me.

This was not the first time I was faced with the black/white binary question. The first time I was 21 and the only Latin@ residential female student at Christian Theological Seminary. I was desperate for friends and filled with socialized messages about who were the “good ones” to know and who were the “people to avoid.” I will give you a hint: the binary maps perfectly on these ideas. I of course lacked the analysis of systemic racism to understand neither the historical context of the question nor the impact of choosing. I failed to see the choice as a participation in the maintenance of White supremacy, to see myself a pawn in a much bigger game of power, and to recognize the binary as a destructive divide-and-conquer strategy. The reality is there is no Black/White binary. There is instead a White/non-White binary, which seeks to turn all people into collaborators of White supremacy.

I hate the idea of being complicit and yet I know how complex racial dynamics and racial politics become when a narrative is woven that obfuscates and confuses the true purpose of race, and which preys upon the vulnerability of people who then crave comfort, material wealth, and access to resources. And yet I know that as a 1.5 generation ESL Queer Latina woman of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States life would be easier, more comfortable if I simply give into the trap the binary sets. How can that be easier? I can join the race toward Whiteness or the American Dream and buy into the lie that says it is the marker of immigrant success. I can convince myself that as a non-Black person of color I have a leg up and as such I have the choice to call out our patterns or racial discrimination as long as the calling out does not compromise my “access.” Life would be more comfortable but it would also mean enslavement to a set of lies that dehumanize me and others. Moreover, this would require ignoring five dynamics the Black/White racial binary paradigm creates for people of color which ensure the continuous re-centering of Whiteness as the dominant and only valid experience of this nation. Tomorrow, I will name and reflect on the first three dynamics.

Five Reminders and Reflections from the White Privilege Conference

Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.
Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.

At the end of March, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the White Privilege Conference (WPC). If you’ve never been to WPC before or never heard of it, WPC is an annual conference that promotes racial equity and justice through educational plenaries and workshops, caucusing, and networking. As a first time attendee, it was refreshing to be surrounded by activists, scholars and students learning together for a common cause. I left the experience filled with hope and encouragement from the connections I made and tools I learned, but I also encountered frustrations and challenges. To continue on the journey for racial justice, here are some “reminders and reflections” that I learned from my experiences at WPC—all impacted by my own personal journey to better understand my white privilege and the ways white supremacy works to perpetuate our deeply racist world.

1) Despite our best intentions, white supremacy can still be present. My group arrived a little late, and as we settled in collecting our registration materials, we sat down to figure out which workshops we wanted to attend. There were so many interesting ones! By the time we decided where we wanted to go and walked to the assigned rooms, we discovered that most of the workshops were already filled. WPC had its most attendees yet, which is great, but what resulted was a competition to get to your top workshop choice. People were placing their belongings in rooms and leaving to save spots; people rushed from workshop to workshop with an unnecessary sense of urgency so they could win a limited seat. Even in a workshop, white participants continued to dominate the speaking space. Competition seemed to develop over who could be the most inclusive, or claim to know the most about how oppression works. I witnessed individuals responding harmfully to people who spoke up in the sessions. Although it is inevitable that each of us will make mistakes or find ourselves ignorant to someone’s experiences of oppression, responding with hate will not heal relationships and work for equity. Experiencing discomfort is an important way to learn, but humiliating someone can cause a scar that can prevent that person from learning and improving upon a mistake. Competition prevents us from collaborating. Rushing excessively inhibits our ability to notice who is excluded, and an unhealthy environment as such can contribute to perfectionism, which is unrealistic and over-burdening.

2) Equality is different from Equity. One of the workshops I attended had helpful teaching techniques for learning about individuals’ diverse contexts and identifying power roles. Throughout the 90-minute session, they had us frequently switching groups, sharing stories, finishing sentence prompts, and listening intentionally while not responding to our fellow group members (so as to allow a completely equal sharing atmosphere) all in a strictly calculated timeframe. In any group of people there are those who have a lot to say, and those who take their time to speak or aren’t as comfortable speaking. By setting a timer for an individual’s sharing time, each person can have an equal amount of time to share—stopping those who share too much and encouraging those who don’t speak much to share more. Although good in theory, there are a number of problematic consequences. This process failed to recognize how a community of people contribute to building an environment that helps people feel comfortable enough to share their stories. Also, people process information at different paces. Not everyone can quickly share a story or move on abruptly after someone exposed the depth of her soul. In fact, it can be harmful to force people to speak. What is equal is not always equitable. Because we all work differently and have a variety of experiences, we should prioritize fairness over equality in pursuing racial justice.

3). Brave space instead of safe space. I was in a workshop led by white antiracist activist Shelly Tochluk where a woman of color brought up that she cringes at the thought of creating “safe space”. This was eye-opening for me because I thought this is what we all should be striving for within group settings, educational environments, worship spaces, etc. She explained that “safe” means something different for everyone and often white people are the ones naming whether or not a space is safe. Shelly introduced that Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write about working towards “brave space.” Whenever we are in environments that require us to build community, share stories, or become vulnerable, it requires courage and bravery. I find this to be an extremely helpful concept and reminder.

4). The importance of race-based caucusing. Since interning with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I’ve learned about the importance of caucusing. To caucus is to spend regular time from organizing work to reflect upon internalized racial inferiority and internalized racial superiority in separate groups for people of color and white people. These groups are a way of checking ourselves, reflecting and improving, forgiving and inviting. Later, coming together whole group with people of color and white people and sharing that we did our work is a way of holding each other accountable and moving forward. WPC reminded me how vital caucusing is to the movement. My white caucus exhibited the beautiful and painful journey justice is, how racism scars everyone, and how as white people who benefit from oppression, we have a responsibility to turn the trajectory, to break the pattern, to step up and work towards overturning the white supremacist foundations of our society.

5). And lastly, WPC reminded me that it’s not about me, but us. Caucusing is not just about the internal work that we do, but especially for the group work we need. As a white person I have to remember that even though realizing the ways I contribute to oppression is painful as an individual, working towards racial equity and justice requires me to set aside my personal desire for comfort and perfectionism (manifestations of white supremacy) and join in the collective movement. We all will make mistakes and that is part of the journey—of discerning difficult solutions, of loving each other despite our brokenness, of knowing that the world must not stay the way it is.

Engaging Our Humanity

Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.
Lillie Wolff is one of two Co-Executive Directors of ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) and a Core Organizer/Trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Lillie is bilingual in English and Spanish and prior to working with ERAC/Ce and Crossroads spent seven years organizing around farmworker and immigrant rights and inclusion. Lillie is passionate about the intersections of social justice, ecological justice, and art, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Sustainable Living, Art, and Natural Design (ISLAND) since 2009. She earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College in 2004. Lillie enjoys dancing, biking, gardening, spending time in nature, and preparing and eating communal meals with her wonderful anti-oppressive community.

As a white antiracist organizer and trainer, I am on a journey toward understanding my relationship with privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin. In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan Johnson explains that the “isms” – sexism, heterosexism, ableism, racism – affect more than women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, and people of color.  They affect everyone. It is impossible to live in a world that generates so much injustice and suffering without being inextricably linked to it. Everyone has a race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. We all figure in the differences that privilege and oppression are about.

Johnson suggests that the greatest barrier to change is that dominant groups don’t see the trouble of our society as their trouble, and as a result, don’t feel obligated to do something about it. This may be because we don’t even know the trouble exists, we don’t have to see it as our trouble, because we see it as a personal rather than systemic problem, because we’re reluctant to give up privilege, or afraid of what will happen if we acknowledge the reality of privilege and oppression.

Systems of privilege make privilege invisible and those who are part of the dominant white culture in the U.S. are taught to deny and minimize oppression. White people are taught to be “colorblind,” to believe that since Barak Obama is president we must be “post-racial.” Those of us who are white are socialized to blame the victim, call it something else, assume everyone prefers things the way they are. We mistake intentions with consequences, attribute oppression to others, and balance the oppression of others with our own (note: the goal is not to play the Oppression Olympics).  While it may feel good in an anesthetic kind of way to believe that we are “post-racial,” the truth is that we have all inherited a material reality based on 500 years of shared history.

What if we all started thinking about the trouble of systemic racism as everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s fault? What if we told each other and ourselves that it’s not about blame and that feeling guilty about racism is actually not helpful. It’s easy to fall into the trap of guilt, as many of us have been taught to see the world through an individualistic lens that reduces everything to individual good or bad intentions. We all want to be good people. A powerful and liberating alternative lies, however, in the fact that we’re all always participating in something larger than ourselves — social systems.

To understand our relationship to privilege and oppression, we have to look at what we’re participating in and how we participate in it. For example, if a white male professor takes the students in his class who look like him more seriously, he isn’t necessarily being intentionally sexist or racist, but may be participating in and perpetuating patterns of white and male privilege. He doesn’t have to be a bad person to participate in an education system that produces oppressive outcomes – it’s simply how the system is set up to function.

The only way to change oppressive outcomes is to change our systems and institutions. If we have a vision of what we want the world to be, we have to create paths that lead in that direction. We have to do more than just hope, dream and pray – certainly more than simply take the path of least resistance. We must become aware of our biases, which we all have, and we must understand that racism is about more than just prejudice. It’s about power and privilege – it’s about who gets access to and who has control of the systems and institutions that distribute the resources necessary for life.

If racism is not about individual actions or beliefs, and is about systems and structures, the solution must be systemic and structured. If privilege is rooted in systems like families, schools, places of worship and employment, change isn’t simply a matter of changing people. The solution also has to include entire systems whose paths of least resistance shape how we all feel, think, and behave as individuals, and how we see one another and ourselves.

Thankfully, there is a growing national movement in which people of color and white people are gaining an analysis, a language system, organizing tools, and a more complete understanding of history – the history of oppression and the corresponding acts of resistance.  Since racism isn’t just a trouble of the past, resistance, like that of the Underground Railroad, requires broad base participation here and now. We must resist the path of least resistance. We must find our way to the path of greatest resistance — the path of dismantling racism. It’s a big task, a generational one, which can feel overwhelming. But things can change, they have and will continue to change, and none of us are alone. There is room for everyone in this movement.

Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, along with its regional organizing partners like ERAC/Ce (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) in Southwest Michigan, are facilitating trainings and building transformation teams to help people of color, white people, and entire institutions claim an anti-racist identity.  A growing number of people around the country are learning how to honestly and accurately name our troubles. We are learning new ways of being in relationship with each other and ourselves, which are grounded in anti-oppressive, life-giving values. We are committing to a life-long journey of reclaiming and engaging our full humanity in ways we never dreamed.