I deeply believe that white allies who are committed to challenging white supremacy are critical to our efforts to build multi-racial and cross-issue movements. At the same time, I also believe that white liberalism lies at the heart of why racial justice - as an ongoing practice principal - is not a central commitment of the LGBT movement.
There is a difference between white liberalism, which engages people of color as tokens, and a commitment to challenging white supremacy in a way that uproots the systems of power that maintain the status quo. White liberalism is what fuels the movements "add people of color and stir" approach to policy, political and organizing work. White liberalism uses black and brown bodies as window dressing in an attempt to appear inclusive without actually shifting power and making change. White liberalism strategically and intentionally prevents multi-racial alliances and the full inclusion of people whose bodies and cultures do not fit what is considered to be "the norm".
Simply put, white liberalism will be the death of our movements.
LGBT Power and Culture
Vibrant racial justice work that is rooted in an understanding of power and culture is happening in the LGBT movement. In fact, there are generations of organizations and individuals across our movement dedicated to advancing racial justice as a central tenant of their organizing. Yet, the practices, models and organizing strategies that many people of color and white allies have used to deepen racial justice work have been dismissed and devalued by the mainstream LGBT movement. In a recent speech about racial justice in the LGBT movement, Urvashi Vaid frames this intentional dismissal in the following way:
Not only am I tired of having to make this speech, what saddens me is that most of the audiences to whom I have made this presentation have no problem hearing the argument framed as "what can Brown do for LGBT people" but they always resist the reverse proposition that the LGBT movement needs to work on racial justice issues that affect Brown and Black people too. The existence of LGBT people of color is simply not really considered, nor deemed significant enough to justify engagement with racial justice - something that most white gay people see as a "diversion" of the LGBT agenda to address race. As a result, race in our movement is seen primarily as an issue of diversity or outreach, not as an issue of equity or fundamental justice that it is our business as a movement to achieve.
I could not agree more with you Urvashi.
In my opinion, there is a lot that the white liberal LGBT establishment doesn't understand about how we organize within communities of color. This not only leads to the marginalization of our communities and our vibrant organizing efforts, but it also is one of the major barriers to the LGBT movement making a deep commitment to racial justice.
How do we build a more just and racially diverse LGBT movement if the white liberal establishment doesn't understand our ways of organizing and refuses to make a commitment to racial justice practices and principles? Instead, the mainstream national movement is too busy telling communities of color how, when, where and why we should engage our communities in a narrowly defined LGBT political agenda that does not address the full breadth and depth of our communities needs.
In essence, we are expected to sit at the white liberal table and perform on their time and on their dime. Oh yes, something is definitely wrong with this picture.
The Intersection of Oppression and Privilege
I want to break this down further by sharing more about some of my experiences of organizing within communities of color and the ways in which white liberalism has been used to interrupt, disrupt and dismantle our organizing work.
Within and across our communities of color there is no such thing as a monolith. Language, skin color, regional differences, our personal and political values, class, gender, gender identity culture, immigration status, physical ability etc., often make it impossible for us to claim one identity. Our identities, and therefore our bodies, lie at the intersection of many forms of oppression and privilege.
As a result, organizing within and across our respective communities of color takes time. It takes trust building. It takes an ability to hold complexity and nuance. Simply put, our organizing can't be rushed and it can't be done using a cookie cutter approach.
Unfortunately, when white liberalism attempts to kick down the proverbial door in communities of color it assumes that we are all the same and that there is some sort of shortcut we can take to organize ourselves quickly in order to be ready for the white liberal dog and pony show. Remember, white liberalism just wants us to sit quiet and pretty at the table without any real institutional power.
If any of us dare to question the underlying culture, context or power structure of the work or the organization we've suddenly become too uppity for our own good. If any of us dare to organize, collectivize and build power with other people of color and white allies we are seen as troublemakers and agitators.
Struggling to Build a Collective Vision
Building political power within and across our communities of color requires that we spend the time we need to develop a shared vision and values for our organizing. In the context of white liberalism it can be shocking to discover that not all people of color think the same way or share the same organizing principles.
It is my experience that it is critically important that we, as people of color, take the time we need to reach mutual understanding around the values and principles we share as it pertains to racial justice and the range of issues that impact our communities. When we don't take the time to engage in this difficult but necessary trust building, we struggle to come up with a collective vision that truly embodies the complexity of who we are and the strategies that are necessary to address the myriad of issues facing our communities.
When we don't engage in these discussions as part of our organizing, it eventually leads to the eroding of our solidarity and our collective ability to do the kinds of organizing that truly creates change in our communities.
White liberalism assumes that we can skip over this step. I've been in far too many organizing efforts where white liberals have either not understood that people of color need to take the time to engage in the vision and values conversation and/or they grow increasingly impatient with what they consider to be touchy-feely process work. We are often pressured to move through this step quickly or not at all. And if it comes to pass that we can't foster enough mutual understanding and solidarity to actually move concrete organizing, policy and political efforts forward we get blamed by white liberals for under performing, being unskilled and not having the capacity to pull off 'real' work.
Connecting Time and Culture
Now let's talk about the interconnectedness of time and culture. Given the complexity of our bodies, lives and our political, social and cultural conditions time is important. It is my experience that our communities do not relate well to expedient political agendas. Expediency, which often leads to throwing members of our communities under the bus in order to win some rights at the expense of others, isn't exactly a popular tactic in our communities.
How we organize, including the models we use and the organic approaches we develop to address issues our communities face at any given political and economic moment, is far from linear. Also, our organic approaches to organizing, along with how we pace those organizing efforts, have everything to do with our culture.
For example, how folks in one community of color plan, discuss, execute, vision and build power around a political campaign may be very different than in another community of color because the cultural norms in each community dictate how things get done. In some communities, elders must be consulted first before any decisions are made. Time and pace is everything and if we are organizing across communities of color negotiating time and culture becomes even more complex.
In the end, a great deal of attention must be paid to the pacing of the work as well as to the ability to hold the complexity of the cultural expectations and understandings at play. Every community of color engages in their organizing differently, but there are often overlaps and places of solidarity that can be forged if close attention is being paid to creating mutual understanding.
White liberalism overlooks the importance of culture and time because its goal is to install a leader (preferably a white, able bodied, middle class male) and move along a political agenda that aims to achieve a narrow set of rights for the fewest people. White liberalism does not aim to center the most complex black, brown, disabled, working class, female, trans, bi, gender queer, immigrant bodies among us in the work of the movement.
On the contrary! It aims to push the most complex bodies among us further to the margins by dismissing how we pace our organizing, how we define our political issues and how culture fundamentally shapes our engagement in those issues.
White Liberalism As an Insurance Policy
I think of white liberalism, steeped in power and a corporate mentality, sort of like an insurance policy strategically used by our national mainstream movements to keep us stuck in a single issue LGBT movement. This policy is insidiously used to make communities of color invisible and protect the collective asses of movement leaders who try to falsely create the narrative and picture of movement that has authentic relationships with communities of color. Racial justice, in practice and principle, is critical to ending this policy and creating movements that are not based on tokenization, competition and the all mighty dollar.
It's time for the mainstream LGBT movement to wake up! Smell the java! Get moving around racial justice work!
Why? Because our mutual survival depends upon it.
Does the mainstream LGBT movement really believe that they can build political power without communities of color? This is not politically viable or strategic given that this country is in the process of undergoing a demographic shift of epic proportions. The LGBT movement, along with all of the other movements for social justice, will become irrelevant if they do not embrace what communities of color know so well: an intersectional understanding of issues, identities and communities.
We know it so well because this is the narrative of our bodies, our lives and our relationship to land and community. Most importantly it is the narrative of our ancestors.
(Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales)