One evening last week I was sitting in an anti-war/anti-occupation organizing meeting. I realized close to the end of that meeting, much to my chagrin, that except for my reflexive stock-taking of who was and was not present at the beginning of the meeting, in the constant dance of consciousness among ideas, analyses, personalities, interpersonal dynamics, discourses, mostly hidden histories, identities, and trajectories of various sorts that is inherent to participation in any meeting that is not completely mind-numbing, I had not been touching at all in my head upon anti-racism.
This is, of course, completely uncool politically. No axis of oppression and anti-oppression should go untouched in such circumstances, whatever the meeting is about and whoever is present. Forgetting is an indulgence of privilege, i.e. can happen only if remembering is not mandated by the need to safely navigate the oppression in question. But, though they shouldn't, lapses happen, and self-flagellation is not the point of this post.
What is more interesting is the questions that this observation brought to mind once it was made.
First, some more context. Until about a month ago there had been no anti-war/anti-occupation activity in Sudbury since I moved here. Apparently there was some pretty vibrant stuff going on in 2003 and the last big event was in 2004 on the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but then there was an extended lull until a meeting was called shortly before the March 17 anniversary this year and then an event on the 17th itself. I attended neither, and in fact went to the event in Toronto that day, but I was pleased to hear that folks here in Sudbury had decided to see if it might be possible to get something regular going. The follow-up -- the meeting with which I began this post -- was attended by nine people, seven white men and two white women. There was one high school student, one other guy my age, and everyone else was a little bit older. Most seemed to be fairly experienced in terms of political involvement -- a few were involved in the anti-poverty group that I have been a part of in Sudbury -- and a couple seemed relatively new to social change.
Concerns relevant to anti-racism were not completely absent from the meeting, as there was sentiment voiced repeatedly that we keep some focus, as we go about our business, on the connections between Canadian militarism abroad and that targeted against indigenous peoples here in Canada. Nonetheless, there was not really any explicit effort to address the fact that we were all white, for example, or to talk about what connection we might see, if any, between our future activities and not only indigenous struggle but people of colour politics as well.
Now, I'm not necessarily very sure what all of that might mean. Perhaps not a lot, in terms of the paths we choose to take. All I know is that not thinking about it and not talking about it do not strike me as a good way to go, so at least on an individual level (for now) I want to start thinking about it.
One thing that I know it should not mean is the main thing it seems to have meant, when such issues have been considered at all, in the context of a lot of the anti-war organizing in U.S. cities -- that is, a focus on the question of why communities of colour don't seem as interested as the organizers would like them to be in coming to anti-war demos, particularly given that opposition to the war ranges from a bit higher to a lot higher in communities of colour compared to white communities in the U.S. This way of asking the question contains a big part of its own answer, of course: "Why don't they come to our events?" [emphasis added]. That should set off major warning bells and trigger not frustration at communities of which you are not a part but significant self-critique of where you are starting from in terms of assumptions and process. In addition, an article a friend forwarded me a few months back (and also either the same article or a similar one I had seen when we were in L.A.) made the point that in African American communities, even if people are not on the streets in the way and numbers that white-dominated anti-war organizations would like, there is very effective mobilization in a quiet, everyday kind of way by many community leaders to discourage youth from enlisting, which has probably had more effect on U.S. army recruitment than the showier stuff that ANSWER and UFPJ have been doing.
Beyond being a politically lousy question to begin with, the "Where are they?" approach has no chance of being relevant to Sudbury anyway, however, because non-indigenous racialized communities in the city are tiny. That doesn't excuse white-dominated social movement groups here in any way from the need to make ourselves as unhostile an environment as possible to individual people of colour who might wish to participate, but engagement with communities or organizations is just not possible in the way that it at least might be in Toronto or Los Angeles. Anti-war/anti-occupation organizing in Sudbury will inevitably be white-dominated because the population of Sudbury is so overwhelmingly white.
Another thing that raising this issue should not mean can perhaps be seen by looking back at another group I was involved with in another city. (And just in case people who were involved in that group happen to read this post, I am not meaning to dismiss the group as a whole or individuals within it, or to say that what we did was bad or useless. After all, I participated in it for a good while at its beginning, then after time spent doing other things for reasons not connected to any criticism I had of the group, I went back and participated for the final half year or so before it decided to go dormant. If we can't do some of this postmortem critique in public, I don't think we will learn much, collectively.)
Anyway, this group came together after 9/11 but before the bombs started falling on Afghanistan. The person who originally circulated the idea for a meeting had in mind something that would address both the pending war and the very acute realities of racism as a lived experience in the city both at that time and in general. There was intense unproductive conflict on this point at the initial meeting -- majority but not entirely white -- and the group stumbled into a much narrower understanding of the issue. Eventually the group adopted a name that included the word "racism" and the sentiment that it should be opposed, but I do not recall that during the two periods of time when I was involved with this group that it ever addressed the issue more directly than as demonstrated by the adjective "racist" modifying the noun "war." There was certainly success in making connections with West Asian and South Asian and Muslim groups in the city, and the majority of participants in some of the demonstrations that we held were from those communities, but I do not recall there being any effort to do things in a deliberate, collective way that might make white liberals/progressives/radicals/lefties at all uncomfortable. Which anti-racism work will almost by definition do, at least in flashes. (And I'm including myself in that.)
So. Yes. Dealing with racism in name only, or only as its exacerbation pertains to the war being opposed but not as a broader way in which experiences of privilege and oppression are organized every day, including complicity on the part of white people who organize against racist wars, is not a good option either, in my opinion.
So what does anti-racist and more broadly anti-oppressive organizing that is focused on Canada's participation in war, occupation, and recolonization look like, particularly in a mostly white city like Sudbury? Well, like I said, I don't really know at this point. The attention to solidarity with indigenous struggle is crucial, but not the complete answer. Right now, I'm working from the idea that whatever that answer might involve, the first step is to keep the issue visible -- in how I/we think, in how I/we talk at meetings, in literature we produce. There are connections, and we are starting from a place of copmlicity, so let's resist the temptation to allow those things to stay invisible. That's not a solution, but it's a place to start.