I live in a town, Bloomfield, N.J., that is about 85% white, overwhelmingly working class, with very little tradition of progressive activism. For most of this year, up until the November 7 election, just about every time I left my office to go out on an errand or be outside for some reason, I wore my Nader/LaDuke button. Since the election, I’ve been wearing a button which reads, “Racism is a Crime.” I first began wearing it earlier this year after the outrageous verdict of “innocent” for the four cops who murdered Amadou Diallo. I thought then, and still do, that this is one way that I could help turn this terrible crime into a positive. But as that verdict receded from public consciousness and my memory, and as the Nader/LaDuke campaign heated up, I changed buttons, until the election was over.
Every time I head out the door I think about my button. I think about how people in this town who see it will react to it. I’ve noticed some white people who look at it and I can see them getting uptight. Others seem to act as if they haven’t seen it. So far, after almost a month, I’ve had no specific verbal reactions from anyone about it, with one exception.
Today, on my way back from the big Free Leonard Peltier demonstration in New York City, I thanked a black man working for the Transit Authority in the subway system who had helped me several hours earlier figure out a new (for me) metrocard system on my way to the gathering point for the rally. As I thanked him I asked if he remembered me from before and he said, “yes, I remember the button.”
That felt good. Usually, when I’m wearing my button and I’m around people of color, that’s how I feel. I feel very righteous, correct, outfront on a critical issue, true to my beliefs.
I don’t feel like this very often, since most of the people I have contact with in this town, this part of New Jersey, are white. How do I feel usually? A little nervous, self-conscious, a little on edge. I’m not afraid of verbal or physical harassment. What I’m afraid of, I think, are two things.
I’m afraid that when, finally, someone says something to me about this button and what it means and why I’m wearing it, I’m not going to do a very good job of explaining it. And I’m also afraid that, with some people who I know a little bit or am working with on some other “race-neutral” issues in town, the putting of my anti-racist politics almost literally “on my sleeve” is going to jeopardize those personal or political relationships.
I’m very serious about this. I’ll give an example: I’m involved locally with a neighborhood group that is fighting plans for development on a site that is on a flood plain and where there are toxic wastes buried in the ground. It’s a big issue for this town. At two recent meetings of the town council there was a major mobilization to turn out residents who live adjacent to this area, who are concerned both about worsened flooding of their homes and possible contamination from the toxic wastes. I went to and spoke publicly at both meetings. But I have a confession to make.
I wore my “Racism is a Crime” button on my coat as I walked into the Municipal Building, but as I approached the hearing room on the second floor where the meeting was being held, I found myself, both times, self-consciously taking off my coat before I went into the room. I took it off because I was concerned that for some of the people who didn’t know me, or didn’t know me well, the button could be a “turnoff” which might make my work of building a relationship with them over time more difficult. And without a decent relationship, how am I ever going to be able to talk to them about racism, or sexism, or any other issue I consider important?
What is the point of this story?
From my experiences as an activist, there are two general approaches to how to do work against racism among white people. One approach is to raise the issue every time you can, to pick specific single issues that put racism right up front, so that you can then directly confront and deal with racist attitudes, do some educational work. The other approach is less direct, more one of getting to know white people by working on issues of importance to them. Then, over time, as they get to know and trust you, or as race (or other “divisive” issues) emerge(s) in the course of the work, you engage in discussion on them.
I tend to believe the second way is more sound, but I also know from experience that this way can be very seductive, that the best of people can be drawn into this approach and soon find themselves having a hard time jeopardizing personal ties by seriously raising these uncomfortable and challenging deeper questions. None of us wants to make things harder for ourselves; we only do so because of deeply-felt beliefs or principles that we feel we must honor, and/or because we have come to internalize the strategic importance, if we are ever to change this country, of progressively downsizing and derailing racism and all the other negative “isms.
Which just brings us back around to the same dilemma. How do we make sure that racism really gets dealt with by a growing number of white people, and as soon as possible? It is an urgent issue!
White activists need to struggle with these questions. We need more and more white people who share a common commitment to anti-racist education and action who see their primary role as organizing among white working-class and other white people. Those of us who are doing this work don’t get much support or feedback. We need to be discussing and exchanging personal experiences around these questions. I know that there are certainly thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of us around the country; the time is long, long overdue for a significant effort to make our presence felt in a more organized way, in alliance with our sisters and brothers of color.
This work is too important for us to be scattered and out of touch. If you agree, I’d love to hear back.