The other day I was reading an article by Merle Woo, which laid out the following proposition, “…the most oppressed shall lead in the movements for radical social change because being at the bottom, their perspective is the most clear, and, out of necessity, their conscious vision is a militant and collective one.” (Merle Woo in Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray)
Running across this bold statement made me reflect on the paradigm embraced, or at least espoused, by most of the groups I have worked with over the last 20 years or so. I myself have taken the position articulated by Woo as pretty much unquestionable. But recently, I’ve started to think about whether one, this really IS our working paradigm, and two, whether in fact it should be. I want to stress that I’m not trying to attack anyone or misrepresent what is said or what’s meant by it, and I am not saying that this is necessarily not what we should strive for. What I am doing is looking back on some of the work I’ve been involved in, and asking myself what I’ve learned. I’m not at all interested in turning my back on the analysis of power and privilege within our movements, as well as in the larger world. I am interested in refining how we use that analysis to create movements that are powerful and sustainable.
One of the first objections that someone not well versed in the “unlearning racism” world view might make is that a model that says middle-class white people can’t be in leadership isn’t fair to them. I would try to explain to them that fairness doesn’t really exist in the society we inhabit, and that we who are white, middle or upper class and able bodied have been reaping the benefits of unfairness for so long, we need to put our personal feelings aside for the greater good. I would still say that, but I would also mention that most of the people I’ve explained that to over the years are not still hanging around social change movements. Well, you may say, that’s fine, if they aren’t willing to step back, they’re not really interested in change. That’s the part I’m not so sure about.
It’s not about fairness, it’s about efficacy. In my experience, people who are not the most oppressed but believe themselves to be capable of leadership will not stay in movements where they don’t feel their skills and energy are welcome. To be sure, some of them are people we wouldn’t want anyway, people who don’t have nearly as much knowledge as they think they have, people who if they did get to lead, would tell us why we have to use a marketing approach, or work within the Democratic Party, or whatever. But some of them are people who have a lot to bring to a social change movement, who do understand and recognize that it’s not always appropriate for them to be the spokespeople, who are happy to stuff envelopes and do the heavy lifting, but who also have strong opinions about what should happen, based on years of experience in social movements. They are not going to find it satisfying to be a cheering section for people who do know more about being oppressed, but may know less about building effective and sustainable movements. Since nothing requires them to stay, they are going to leave.
Just to keep this from sounding like a straw man argument, I want to give a concrete example. Since I’m not talking about my own experience, I have changed some of the details, but the basic facts are true. A friend of mine in New York joined a collective that was working to improve conditions for women in prison. My friend is a middle-aged white lesbian, from a middle-class background, who has worked as a teacher for a long time and been active in her union, as well as a lot of other political work. The organization she joined was initiated by a combination of young queer people of color and older white women, and nearly everyone except my friend worked for some kind of nonprofit. The group wanted its leadership should reflect the people most affected by the prison industrial complex: people of color, trans people, and former prisoners. My friend agreed with this. The group also decided that white women in the group needed to participate in an antiracist caucus meeting once a month. My friend went to it a few times and found the level of discussion not that interesting to her, as someone who has done a lot of reading and participated in a lot of study groups about racism. She’s very busy, works a full-time job and has meetings nearly every night. She ended up deciding that there wasn’t enough for her to do to in the group to make it worth going to three meetings a month – two regular meetings and the antiracist caucus meeting, especially since once the group got some funding, most of the work was being done from the office, which was only open during the hours when she was working. Last I heard, everyone but the three paid staff people had also left that particular group.
Now I am a fan of antiracism discussion groups; this example is not a way of dissing them. But they have to serve a clear goal of the organization where they are happening, and they should not be anyone’s primary work in the organization. In my friend’s case, what drew her to the group was a desire to work in a multicultural women’s organization and to oppose the incarceration state. She ended up feeling that she wasn’t doing either; she was mostly getting to know the other white women, and talking to each other about racism wasn’t actually making any difference for women in prison.
The flip side is that often – not always – the people who do stay will not be the people you want. They will be people who are glad for others to take all the responsibility and do the hard work while they reap the cache of being the cool white (straight, male) person. Stuffing envelopes is a lot easier than making phone calls to create networks, going to speak to other organizations, or creating action plans. If I can go stuff envelopes and make coffee a few hours a month and then tell my friends about what a good anti-racist I am, why wouldn’t I do it? The young women of color can work 80 hours a week trying to build the organization and move it toward its goals. And if they don’t succeed, no one can blame me because I was just respecting their leadership.
The next problem with defining our groups as led by the most oppressed is that it encourages lying. First there’s the petty form of lying – lying about our own oppression. People misrepresenting their class backgrounds is probably the most common, but we’ve all met white people who claimed to be people of color, straight people who “identified as” queer, “young” people who were pushing 40. But none of these is as big a problem as the much more common form of lying – lying about who is really the leadership of our movements. I’ve been to lots of meetings that were very careful to have young people of color running the meetings, with middle-aged white people calling the shots behind the scenes, planning the agendas, bringing the materials, getting the funding, ultimately even hiring the staff.
But of course, that’s okay, because they’re the “good” white (old, middle-class) people.
The problem with the “good privileged people” category is that it’s quite finite. I have nothing but respect for Tim Wise; he’s smart, funny, honest, a great speaker, an interesting writer. He is also making his living by being the best straight white guy in the country. You might be as brilliant and sincere and clear as Tim Wise, but you can’t be the good straight white guy, because he’s pretty much got the market cornered. White men who go to listen to Tim Wise and get inspired can’t sign up to become just like him, because face it, none of us want to be spending that much of our time listening to straight white guys talk about their privilege. So what do people who get inspired do?
A parable (please note that this parable is hypothetical/composite and NOT meant to be read as criticism of any actual people or organizations): Once upon a time there were some very good white people. They were passionate about ending racism, so they joined a group of mostly people of color. Then some of their white friends saw what they were doing and saw that it was good. So they wanted to join too. But then the people of color said, “Well, now there are so many white people, this does not feel like our group any more.” So the good white people said, “What shall we do?” and someone said, “White people are the problem. You must work with them, to spread the news about racism.” And the good white people created a workshop, and they saw that it was good. So they made an organization to do more workshops, and the people who did well in those workshops were encouraged to go out and make their own workshops and before long there was a whole workshop industry. And these workshops were turning out people who had learned a lot of theory and a lot of skills to deconstruct racist dynamics in organizations, but the problem was, there were not enough multicultural organizations for them to use those skills in. Because if everyone joined the same groups, then those groups would become white-dominated. So they formed their own organization, the Good White People’s Organization to End Racism. And suddenly it started not to seem so good. In fact, it started to feel almost white supremacist. Which of course was not their goal, so they dissolved it. And most of the Good White People went home and wondered what they could do about racism. And there they remain.
This is an oversimplification, but I think some of you will recognize the paradox. There’s a fine line between working on your own shit, and segregation.
The third problem with “leadership of the most oppressed” is that it leads to the oppression sweepstakes. This is what we’ve seen with a vengeance in the aftermath of the November elections: Obama’s victory combined with the passage of Proposition 8 and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives has given some white gay people (especially men, in my observation) the notion that gay oppression has suddenly replaced African American oppression on the oppression ladder. False, but worse than false, wrong-headed. And that leads some straight people to argue that gay people are not oppressed at all, or that oppression based on sexual orientation is not as bad as racism, which is also false and wrong-headed. And EVERYONE LOSES. (Deeg wrote an excellent statement on this for the latest UltraViolet (coming soon to a website near you). Read it here.)
Of course Woo’s statement doesn’t presume a strict hierarchy. She’s not suggesting that we rank the working-class white transwoman versus the college educated heterosexual African American woman. But the idea of a “last shall be first” approach can lead us in that direction. And that can also give oppressed people a stake in hanging onto their own oppression. I mean, face it, if my place in a social change movement is based on my status as most oppressed, and my place in that movement is a strong part of my identity, I’m going to have pretty mixed feelings if the movement becomes so successful that I’m less oppressed. Maybe that’s not a big fear in terms of racism and class oppression in this country, but I think it was a factor in drawing some white gay men with AIDS to become AIDS deniers in the nineties, rather than taking retrovirals and getting better. It is certainly a reason mainstream Jewish organizations are constantly on the prowl for “the new anti-Semitism.” (Once again, I do not mean to imply that gay men with AIDS are no longer oppressed or that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in our society.)
Finally, and probably most importantly, this leadership model can put an unfair burden on the most oppressed. If there is commitment to leadership by people of color, and a group doesn’t have many, then those who come in have to assume leadership whether they’re ready or not. If I come into a new group, I can sit at the back and check it out for a while, and no one is very likely to even ask my name, let alone urge me into leadership. Friends who are people of color have gone to check out groups and found that people are all over them. One friend reported that at her first meeting of a certain group, she was offered the chance to represent the group at a conference in Europe. While the attention might be flattering at first, most activists of color quickly realize that they’re being tokenized. They know people can’t be overwhelmed by their talent if no one even knows them, and no one wants to be chosen for the color of their skin (except maybe Clarence Thomas). On the other hand, sometimes people who are not that experienced find themselves very quickly pushed into leadership without the kind of mentorship that would help them use it successfully.
None of this means that we should forget about racism and other forms of oppression in our movements. It’s not meant to suggest that people of color, working class people, trans people, disabled people should not be the leadership of our social change movements. White people, class-privileged people, and men need to be very conscious of how much space we take up in mixed groups. When we think we’re sharing power, usually we’re dominating. Some years ago, there was a study which showed that when girls participate equally with boys in classes, everyone – male and female, students and teachers – believes the girls are talking much more than the boys. I don’t know of a study like that about racism, but I’m quite sure it would come out the same. I’m also willing to bet that in just about any racially mixed group, if you counted the minutes everyone talks, you would find white people talk at least three-fourths of the time.
We do need to step back, but we also need to be sure we’re giving all we can to the movements we are in, and think about how we can support many different types of leaders. I think we all need to consider whether rather than operating by an inverse hierarchy, it’s possible to build movements which model true democracy and equality.