Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Learnable Moment

In doing some thinking in preparation for writing another post, which I hope to get to soon, I got to thinking about an incident from my past activist involvement. I think it contains some stuff that is useful for thinking about power and privilege issues, and in partiuclar issues surrounding collective social/political spaces.

The group was a collective devoted to supporting people on social assistance by going with them to meetings with the welfare bureaucracy. This was something that provided an immediate benefit to the individuals involved, as advised in advance by activists we had worked with who were on social assistance themselves, and as reported once the group got up and functioning by individuals who were thus accompanied. But rather than a service that aimed at becoming professionalized, this was also an effort to create networks of people for both the purpose of mutual aid and which could be mobilized for more overtly political activity, though in my time of involvement with the group the latter part of this agenda never quite got off the ground in the ways that we wanted.

The founding group was mostly middle-class, entirely white, and mostly men who identified as activists, and whose ages varied but who had from a handful to dozens of years of experience in social change activity. To a certain extent the class privilege of the founding group was addressed directly in the purpose of the group -- the idea of using that privilege as something of a protection for people forced to beg inadequate incomes from an abusive system was explicitly part of the point, and it did actually work that way. As well, the group and individuals within the group had prior and ongoing relationships with another group that did more active advocacy with/for social assistance recipients, and that group was almost entirely comprised of people on assistance. This provided something of an accountability mechanism, and a grounding for the group in the experience and analysis of those suffering at the hands of the system being targeted. It was also decided early on to try and incorporate principles of anti-racism and anti-oppression into the work as best we could, including mandatory participation in an anti-racism training session for all active members (for whatever that stereotypically mainstream gesture in the general direction of anti-racism is actually worth).

If I am remembering correctly, the incident in question occurred before the group was actively accompanying social assistance recipients, but it may have been just after that had started. In any case, the founding group had evolved, with some folks dropping away and new people becoming involved, including a couple of people on assistance themselves, a few women, and (briefly) a couple of people of colour.

The meeting in question happened to be the first or second meeting being attended by two or three young activists of colour who were seeing if they wanted to become more actively involved in the group. At this meeting a white person who had been active in the group for some months said some things rooted in and replicating oppressive understandings of social assistance recipients themselves (though this person himself was on assistance) and of immigrants and refugees. The latter content was, by not-too-subtle extension, also oppressive to people of colour.

In the meeting, there were a couple of weak efforts to disagree with the expressed sentiments but no real direct challenges. This (relative) inaction included two or three of us who were founding members (middle-class, white, male activists) and therefore had no excuse for not speaking up based on discomfort with the space, and who in general tried to live a certain degree of consciousness around racism, and power and privilege issues more generally. It was because one of the activists of colour had a past history of political involvement and social connection with us (i.e. that sub-group of white guys) and felt able to bring it up with us soon after that it did end up getting processed and addressed after the fact, as well as such things can be.

There are a number of things that can be learned, here. Some are quite trite, if no less important for that: It was yet another instance of white folk who think we have at least a faint clue of what it means to be an ally to people of colour dropping the ball and making poor decisions in the moment -- of choosing uncomfortable silence and oblique half-measures instead of taking the risk of naming oppressive behaviour for what it was.

I was not conscious of this at the time but I think there was an additional factor at play, beyond generalized reluctance to speak up. I think the fact that the person from whom these comments came was on social assistance himself made a difference. That doesn't mean I think we would necessarily have addressed it any better in the moment if it had been someone else, but I think my general desire to avoid overt conflict was heightened by not wanting to alienate a person whose experience the group was, in some sense, about. Which, of course, is not only a poor job of being an ally to people of colour but is also disrespectful of the capacity for political agency of the person who made the comments.

However, I'm not bringing this up for the purposes of self-flagellation. What is more interesting is the more general implications about activist space.

For one thing, it taught me that after the fact isn't good enough. As I said, our after the fact dealing was, all things considered, not bad. I say that based on my own analysis of what happened and based on feedback from at least one of the activists of colour who was involved. But not a single one of the people of colour who were present came back to another meeting, though they were all directly involved in shaping the post hoc "dealing" that occurred. Of course I can't presume to know why they made those decisions, but it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with not seeing that space as the best use of their political and emotional energy. Which is fair enough, given what happened.

But the key thing to be learned, I think, is not what decisions were made but who had the capacity to make the decisions that mattered. It was the people with the most privilege in the group that had the power to determine who the space was safest for, regardless of how we actually used that power. The level of comfort of people of colour in that space was largely determined by white people, regardless of whether we (the white people) acted in ways that maximized or minimized their comfort. In fact, it was a space where middle-class white men with pretensions to being allies along axes of race, class, and gender ended up with the power to apportion comfort, as it were, for those with less of various sorts of privilege (whether we wanted it or were aware of it or not). Us "doing a better job of it" would not change the oppressive dynamics upon which us doing any kind of job of it is predicated.

Which isn't to imply that people of colour in general or these activists in particular needed protection by benevolent white folk -- of course they don't, and that's not the issue. The issue is where power lies to shape the nature of a given space.

And how did this partiuclar space come to be the way that it was? Well, as it was experienced by those of us who were with the group from the beginning, it "just sort of happened." The group came out of networks of social and politcal connection that were very white, in the context of a city where such networks as a whole tend to be quite divorced from the analagous networks that exist in the city's communities of colour. The fact that some of us had some vague awareness that this was the case and were struggling to figure out what it meant did not fundamentally shift the fact that this was the context in which negotiations (both explicit and implicit) occurred with respect to political intent, ways of work, and bounds of acceptable discourse in the creation of that activist space.

This incident also provides an in for a critical understanding of "diversity" -- that is the most common language for talking about difference amongst agency-based and community-based white activists in that city, and probably elsewhere, whose self-identified politics might range from liberal to social democratic to radical. It tends to focus on diversity in representation around whatever table is at issue as an end rather than as an indicator of political practice. It tends to avoid forethought about what might be required of the group's functioning or goals for that to happen. It leads to neglect of discussion about how discourses of difference other than uncritical liberalism, such as discourses that focus on power and privilege, might translate into political practice. It neglects the fact that sometimes making a space safe for one person or group means making it less welcoming or even unwelcoming for another person or group. Beyond even that, it ignores the fact that people who experience racism or some other oppression might not want that kind of space as a political home because of the likelihood of having to deal with that oppression in that space, even if the group deals with it "well" (whatever that means) in the moment. And it ignores that if they do choose to participate in such a space, they might well engage with it with expectations different from those of us with privilege about what that space will mean, what they hope to accomplish by being in that space, and how "at home" that space is going to feel.

Anyway. All of this is important but to me it's critical to try and bring it back to issues of political practice. What does this mean about actions we take?

I'm kind of conflicted about that. I still think that this group as a whole was a worthwhile endeavour, and still is -- as far as I know it is still functioning. Yet I have no clear picture of what we could have done differently starting from that point when there was a group of us who mostly knew each other, who saw a need and saw capacity to do something about it, who were sitting in a room for the first time saying, "What can we do?" Nor do I have a clear picture of this means for future decisions on my part about social movement participation. But when I get around to that post I was thinking about to begin with (hopefully this weekend) I'll talk about these issues some more.

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