He only pulled back when the strikers stood up for me and said they were having fun and full of energy, and hadn’t he asked me to? He withdrew, but the message was clear: my kind of involvement was not wanted, new paths were not welcome, and I was not trusted to do my job.
It was my first, but not last, experience of colliding with white-led forms of protest and narrow boundaries of “progressive” movements. Dominant cultures have a long history of calling subcultures less, which traditionally led BIPOC in America to obscure the language, practices, and mobilization tactics of their communities – resulting in some sort of code switch for social justice. As I have matured and grown in my career, so has my confidence to question traditional organizational norms that there is only one “right” way, that the struggle for justice equals drudgery. But as my confidence grew, so did my frustration over being paralyzed and suffocated and telling myself in more ways than one way that “my way” of organizing and protesting was “unprofessional” and “not appropriate”. My unsuccessful attempts to influence the white-dominated progressive culture led me to return to mine.
For me, taking part in Black Organizing was like returning home. The common similarity and history of race and racism in America with other blacks and non-whites is only part of the reason. There is a defiant joy that goes with black organizing and civil activism – you can see it when people line dance or sing in the middle of protest while waiting to vote. Above all, dance, laughter and music are sources of inspiration that collect calls for change and promote social movements. Black organizing does not treat these terms as frivolous; they do not mean that we take our concerns and the harm we are protesting no less seriously than protesters using other methods. Questioning authority and criticizing old methods is not automatically seen as arrogance or resistance, but as an opportunity for growth and integration of more voices. Black protest is rooted in anger, but also in joy, celebration, cooperation and community loyalty.
This joyful resilience plays an important role in black organization and activism, which strongly contradicts the common perception that black experiences are primarily rooted in pain and suffering. You’ve seen this on the news, TV shows, and other media – stories of black families destroyed by mass incarceration, communities impoverished from government neglect, persistently high unemployment rates, low wages, and so on. These things are true, but they are an incomplete picture of what shapes Black’s life by sustaining a narrative that is overly focused on suffering. The close focus on black pain at the expense of our complex and also solemn history and experiences reflects in part the untested acceptance of anti-black stereotypes by white-led activism. Furthermore, insisting on a strict “chain of command” to short-circuit debate and criticism of methods and ideas reinforces the norms of white supremacy in an organization, especially when there are no black voices in leadership positions. White activists too often refuse to examine how to look through a lens that fits their ideas of what “real protest” should look like, rather than seeing and understanding the complex whole of black activism.
In my many years as an activist, I have seen the same expectations and cultural constraints in white-run spaces and organizations create unwelcome and sometimes dangerous environments for BIPOC and other marginalized people. There is little room for error, although errors can provide important information. People are afraid to take risks because mistakes are seen as a reflection of the person who causes them, rather than what they are – mistakes and opportunities for growth. Leadership can never be challenged, and this often results in harsh professional and social punishments for those who do so, especially if they are not cis white men. Those in power do not see criticism as an opportunity to do better – they see it as inappropriate at best and threatening at worst. Soft skills, such as the ability to relate to others and build strong relationships, are less valued than strong documentation and writing skills, when in reality all of these skills are required in any organization. It is most frustrating when people react defensively to new or challenging ideas, which makes it very difficult to bring those ideas forward, resulting in them missing out on the growth that comes with the diversity of thoughts and the ability to deal with all sides of a situation or solution to see goes hand in hand.
The past year became the year of social justice. The pandemic made it harder for Americans to ignore the ongoing damage caused by racism and anti-blackness in particular. While some organizations have made “declarations of solidarity” with black communities, much more than just proclamations is required. Organizations must end practices that stifle black talent, stifle attempts to evolve methodologies and missions, and do not focus on racial justice. This year may be the year progressive movements take a closer look at how they benefit from black culture but reject black leadership.
Admitting how your progressive organizations still reflect white supremacy and racist practices does not mean they are bigoted or do a great job building power for black and brown communities. What I am questioning are the presumed reasons why so many of these social movements and their history are thought to be so damned white. It’s not because blacks, browns, and other marginalized activists don’t have the vision or ability to lead. The perceived whiteness of activism is the shared legacy of political, workers, environmental, anti-war, feminist, women’s and LGBTQ + rights movements and organizations that have historically and currently rejected the needs and talents of BIPOC.
When other activists in your organization say, “We didn’t have to declare race because the people who show up will be black and brown anyway,” ask them why they assume non-white people will show up. If leadership protests that a mission that includes a black focus will turn people away, invite them to explain why your movement should prioritize helping these people over blacks’ lives. Refuse to accept the claim that “black issues are too militant” or the false premise that wage theft is more important than wage equity.
If you want black people to join your ranks, we must be valued and respected beyond lip service. Create space for different cultures, trust us to do the job we were hired to do, and redefine what leadership is all about. There are many ways to protest and approach activism, but when white-led social justice organizations passively reflect the expectations of white supremacy about what “real protest” looks like, one that lacks joy and celebration, it amplifies the same repressive structures that these organizations are trying to fight, and further alienating black and other non-white activists from participation and collaboration. It weakens what strong coalitions should be by requiring all activists to put themselves into a single form rather than drawing strength by embracing multiple approaches to activism.
Tanya Wallace-Gobern is a Prism Senior Fellow with a focus on employee rights and brings over 20 years of experience in work and community organization. She began her career at the Organizing Institute to learn the mechanics of organizing. Soon after, Tanya’s desire to organize black workers led her to work for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU – a predecessor of Unite HERE) and move south to lead union campaigns in the area. She later created the AFL-CIO Historical Black College’s recruitment program to increase the number of blacks in union leadership and staff. She continued her career in social justice with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, where she served as their national field director. Tanya became General Manager of the National Black Worker Center in June 2016.
prism is a non-profit news agency run by BIPOC that puts the spotlight on the people, places and topics currently not covered by the national media. We strive to produce a journalism that treats blacks, indigenous and colored people, women, the LGBTQ + community and other invisible groups as experts on our own experiences, our resilience and our struggle for justice. Subscribe to our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and ffollow us further Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.