I have been involved in many of those events myself, as a facilitator or a participant, and I have learned from them (typically as much from my failures as successes). The most important lesson I take away is that race dialogues are not enough. As long as we stay confined in a safe world that doesn’t challenge power, we guarantee failure—if our goal really is to change the distribution of that power.
There’s no easy recipe for this kind of challenge, but we move in the right direction when we seek out places where we don’t feel comfortable, looking for relationships in which we can help change the dynamic. For me, that means putting myself in situations where I have to face my fear of being seen—or, more accurately, being seen-through—by non-White people. What if I step into those uncomfortable spaces and non-White people see the ways in which I hang onto some sense of my own supremacy/centrality? What if they see the ways in which I haven’t shaken off my racist cultural training?
A desire to confront that fear has led me, over the past year, to organizing efforts with the Workers Defense Project. It’s a local group that advocates for workplace justice for immigrant workers, addressing problems such as wage theft within a larger social justice framework.
This project has forced me to cross lines around race and ethnicity, class, language, and age. The members and staff are predominantly Latina/Latino and working class. They speak Spanish and/or English, while I’m monolingual in English, and the leaders of the group include a number of people who are at least two decades younger than me.
The collaboration between WDP and the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (a predominantly White group to which I belong) to buy and renovate a building for a progressive community center has gone forward with explicit conversations about all these differences and how they affect decision-making. The trust necessary to move forward has been built slowly over time, and I’m aware that the WDP staff and members are watching for signs that we are serious about establishing a truly egalitarian relationship.
As tricky as this Latina/Latino-White collaboration can be, we also recognize that a successful community center with progressive politics cannot leave out African Americans, the third largest racial group in Austin. That means not just casting around for some Black people to add to the mix, but engaging in serious discussions with people from that part of the community to find out what kinds of collaborations are needed and possible. Austin is a White-dominated city, but that’s no guarantee that Black and Latina/Latino groups will automatically come together; such alliances have to be built as carefully as any other. For us White folks in the mix, our contribution is to use the resources we have to aid in that process—not trying to control it, but also not pretending to be detached.
While there is a lot of dialogue necessary in this work, the dialogue is focused on a common goal: to provide office space for organizers, rehearsal space for artists, meeting space for the community, and a place for people to get to know each other. That common goal doesn’t mean we will naturally, or easily, put aside differences, but it means we all have a tangible stake in our collective success.
My interest in this project flows from moral and political principles—a belief in the dignity of all and the struggle to eliminate hierarchy in all forms. But I would be naïve or dishonest if I pretended that was my only, or even my most powerful, motive. In the end, I have committed to this project out of selfishness—I would like to claim my full humanity before I check out of this world. To do that, I have to move beyond the framework of conservative versus liberal and adopt a truly radical politics.
I have a choice: I can be White—that is, I can refuse to challenge the idea of White supremacy or centrality—or I can be a human being. I can rest comfortably in the privileges that come with being White, or I can struggle to be fully human. But I can’t do both. Though the work is difficult, the choice for those of us who are White should be easy.
By; Robert Jensen