Challenging White Supremacy

By Rahula Janowksi

For the past 10 years, the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop has provided the opportunity for activists in San Francisco to examine the history of white supremacy, its effects on communities of color and on white dominated movements for social change, and to explore ways of challenging and changing the racist history of white progressive movements in the U.S.

In 1992, Sharon Martinas and Mickey Ellinger attended a weekend workshop of the People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond, an African-American led, national anti-racist training organization based in New Orleans (www.peoplesinstitute.org). At the time, Ellinger was an organizer with Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, an anti-imperialist solidarity group, and with the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, an anti-racist organization. Martinas was a student in Black Studies at San Francisco State University and was just finishing eight years of work with Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.

The training had a profound effect on the nascent CWS workshop, which Ellinger and Martinas first presented in the spring of 1993. Many of the definitions, terms and principles CWS uses come from PISB, and through the years Martinas has looked to the institute for leadership and mentoring. After the first session, Ellinger left her co-coordinating role of CWS to focus on Prairie Fire, her primary political commitment at the time, but has remained an important consultant, advisor and friend to the workshop. Martinas continued as the coordinator of the CWS workshops.

Since its inception, over 700 people, mostly white, have gone through CWS 15-week workshops. For most participants, their experiences in CWS have had a profound impact on their life and work. There are CWS alumni teaching in public schools, working in non-profits, working to incorporate anti-racism into existing organizations and participating in social and racial justice work all over the Bay area and United States. Some, like Max Toth, have joined CWS.

Besides acting as a small group organizer and being on the coordinating body of the most recent Organizers’ workshop, Toth will be presenting a six-week anti-racist workshop this fall with Brooke Atherton, another CWS alumni, called From Palestine to Your Backyard: Resisting Racism at Home and Abroad.

Although the CWS workshop was initially designed for racial justice activists, it has been the entry to such work for many. To meet the diverse needs of participants, the workshop expanded to two 15-week series: A Workshop for Activists and A Workshop for Organizers. Until 1998, many workshop participants were involved in movements addressing violence against women and the queer community. In the fall of 1998, the demographic began to change when CWS recruited half of the workshop participants from the historic Critical Resistance – Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex conference. About a third of the participants were people of color. Many suggestions and criticism came from subsequent workshops, including requests for multi-racial leadership, a special curriculum for participants of color and an analysis based on intersections of systems of oppression.

To examine and respond to critiques of the workshops, Martinas put the workshops on hold in 1999. She sought advice from revolutionary anti-racist organizers and initiated a multiracial study group to examine the history of white anti-racist organizing.

Meanwhile, the resistance to the World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle in 1999 led many to re-evaluate the state of the left. Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez’ article, “Where Was the Color In Seattle,” identified the challenges involved in solidifying the gains made in Seattle while asking hard questions about race and anti-racism. Betita advised Martinas to develop a workshop for white people organizing against global capitalism. Sharon asked Chris Crass, an anarchist from the study group who had been working with Food Not Bombs for the past eight years, to join her. Together, they developed curriculum that reflected their belief that global justice activism was extremely positive, that Seattle was a victory and that white privilege is hurting movement building by making leadership from oppressed communities invisible.

Amie Fishman, a member of Jews For A Free Palestine and an organizer with ARGJ, says, “CWS has been a major catalyst for me in terms of organizing and even just in talking about anti-racism. I have learned that, as a white person fighting for social justice, I have the responsibility to challenge oppression in all its forms. This includes challenging many white people in the social justice movement who avoid examining their own actions, seeing how we often sabotage or work against real social justice, because it means questioning the preferential treatment that we often receive.”

Over the next two years, the Anti-Racism for Global Justice project of CWS put together four- and six-week workshop series, a year-long discussion group and a four-hour traveling workshop. As ARGJ, Crass, Fishman, Clare Bayard, Missy Longshore and Kerry Levenberg have done over 50 workshops for over 1,600 people around the country. They believe working with white people to challenge racism can be a catalyst for building multiracial movements for collective liberation. They work closely with the Ruckus Society, Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations, Colours of Resistance and JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice. Using the workshops as an organizing tool, ARGJ has been supporting leadership in the global justice movement that fights all forms of oppression.

The work of ARGJ has helped link CWS to anti-racist work around the country and strengthened relationships with activist groups in the Bay area. The leadership of ARGJ, coming mostly from an anarchist background, has brought a stronger analysis of patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism and the state to CWS.

“Working with ARGJ is an experience of constant learning and growth, coming from each workshop itself and the participants,” says Bayard. “We use these trainings as an organizing tool to support peoples’ work in their communities and to build networks. There’s so much hope and inspiration in being part of this web of passionate, committed anti-racist activists.”

In the spring of 2001, CWS entered into a collaborative workshop with Elizabeth Martinez and the Institute for Multi-Racial Justice, a resource center for building alliances among people of color. CWS and IMRJ each had their own curriculum and training teams, and IMRJ’s workshop was designed by and for activists of color. The two workshops met together for speakers every other week and separately the rest of the time for group discussion and exercises. Because this was the first time many white activists in the workshop were addressing race, participant Laura McNeil says they made lots of mistakes.

“The participants of color called us out and held us accountable for our behavior,” McNeil says. “Being called out when I was struggling hard to understand how my white privilege supported racial oppression was difficult because all I wanted was support. At the same time it was critical for me to experience that and sit with my discomfort, discovering in the long run that it was support.”

The people of color generally liked the curriculum of the workshop but felt the time spent with the white participants was wasted, Martinas says. IMRJ continues workshops for activists of color independently.

Following the collaboration with the IMRJ, CWS presented the Activists’ workshop in the fall of 2001, and the Organizers’ workshop in the spring of 2002. I was a participant in the fall workshop and a small group organizer in the spring of 2002. Many of the participants were white global justice activists who had attended ARGJ workshops. The Activists’ workshop alternated between presentations highlighting legacies of resistance by communities of color and sessions of in-depth study of various aspects of the white supremacist history of the U.S. and its effects on social justice movements. The second half of each session was spent in small group discussion, facilitated by small group organizers. Speakers included ‘Betita’ Martinez, Native American activist Valerie Tulier, Asian American activist and author Miriam Ching Yoon Louie and Daniel Buford of the People’s Institute West. Participants were also encouraged to attend racial justice events sponsored by groups led by people of color.

Sessions of in-depth study included Shinin’ the Lite on White, which identifies ways in which white privilege impacts social justice organizing; Analyzing Patriarchy, Heterosexism and the Gender Binary System with an Anti-Racist Lens; Family Herstories; and Strategies of the Slaveowners.

The goal of the Family Herstories workshop was to strengthen participants’ capacity to analyze our histories with an anti-racist lens, and to use our family herstories as a basis for anti-racist work. As preparation, participants read essays by white anti racist activists exploring their ethnic roots and interviewed family members. The interview was the most powerful aspect of this session. Personally, I realized my mother’s family, tracing back to the Mayflower, has always been white and privileged, while my dad’s family still has an ‘ethnic’ identity and has always been working class. Some white participants were able to find examples of resistance to white supremacy in their family herstories, although this was rare.

The Organizers’ workshop utilized small groups in the same way as the Activists’ workshop. Organizers from a variety of political and experiential organizing backgrounds developed curriculum – sometimes only a week or two before being presented. Although the political background and ideology that the leadership of the 15-week workshops comes from is Marxist, there was a commitment to learn from a variety of organizing models and traditions. Participants not already working in racial justice organizations were asked to volunteer four hours a week for the duration of the workshop.

Emily Zimmerman, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, says, “As a result of CWS, I have given up on all political participation with white-led organizations that do not function with anti-racist consciousness or analysis, and certainly I have applied some of the knowledge I gained from CWS in my teaching.”

Sessions included discussions on organizing and strategic planning, and presentations by anti-imperialist former political prisoner Linda Evans and by Guiliana Milanese, an anti-racist organizer from a working class background. Several sessions focused on the worsening situation in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. In a series of three workshops, we learned a history of Israel, Palestine and Zionism; had a role play grappling with some of the challenges involved in Palestine solidarity work, such as accusations of anti-Semitism and the tendency of white activists to verbally support “self-determination” while simultaneously trying to determine the agendas, strategies and actions of the groups we wish to support; and a session in which participants discussed how to pitch Palestinian solidarity to organizations. The series increased the knowledge of many of us about the history and current situation of Israel/Palestine, created space to explore the issue from a Jewish perspective and empowered many people to act. At least two workshop participants have since traveled to Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement.

Up until the Organizers’ workshop of 2002, there have always been people of color in the CWS workshops. Usually there was not a specific curriculum for the people of color, although they did meet together in a small group.

“The lack of a program for people of color was partly a freedom and partly a frustration,” says Kim Randolph, who participated in the workshop in 1999. At one point in the workshop, Randolph asked the other participants of color when they first realized they were not white. Every person of color had a painful story about when they realized white people see them as the “other.” Randolph went on to initiate Group Dynamic Facilitation and Mediation, a project focusing on addressing internalized oppression, which she identifies as encompassing both internalized racism and white guilt.

Zimmerman says, “It is always uncomfortable to be in largely ‘white’ group simply because the collective patterns of ‘whiteness’ are still there even in an anti-racist crowd.” She adds, “It does my heart good to see so many white people committed sincerely to dismantling white supremacy because their own self-interest and most cherished dreams depend on it.”

Because the CWS workshop recognizes the tendency of people to focus on the ways in which they are oppressed rather than the ways they are privileged it is easy to get the impression that it is not OK to address other types of oppression in the workshops. Economic justice activist Catherine Jones, a participant in the ‘01 Activists’ workshop and a small group organizer in the Organizers’ workshop, said this attitude makes it difficult to honestly engage in the workshop.

“Like the People’s Institute from which it takes much guidance, the CWS workshop seems to set up a dynamic which says, ‘if you’re thinking about “X” (i.e. class, gender, etc.), then you’re not thinking enough about racism,’” Jones says.

The Strategies of the Slaveowners session hit on some of the challenges CWS faces regarding class. The goal of this workshop is to illustrate how the creation of white privilege for European indentured servants was a deliberate, and successful, ruling class strategy to divide indentured European servants from African slaves and prevent them from uniting for liberation. The role play demonstrates how the strategy of the slaveowners was (is) successful, in that self interest often trumps basic human decency. But it is problematic for poor white people to be acted out by economically privileged white people. Few of the participants draw on personal experience of poverty, which allows them to tell themselves “I’m not racist like these people.” This points to a larger problem, the assumption that poor whites are the real racists while the middle and upper classes, who in many ways owe their position in society to white privilege, can assure themselves by virtue of their education that they aren’t racist.

Jeff Giaquinto, an economic justice activist and ‘01 participant, says, “The workshop gets people to think hard about how big the gulf of race is, and what that means, but it’s a mistake to assume that all white people are in the same spot when there are huge gulfs (class, gender) between white people too.”

In CWS, steps have been made toward discussing and analyzing forms of oppression through an anti-racist lens to examine intersections and acknowledge and understand one’s privilege. The 2001 Activists’ workshop included a special section on patriarchy and the binary gender system, and at the end of the workshop, we broke into class-based small groups to examine how our class background impacts our experience of white supremacy.

Another major challenge to the CWS workshop became clear to me when I joined the organizing crew for the Organizers’ workshop. The CWS 15-week workshops are organized in a hierarchical model, with Martinas having the ultimate responsibility and decision-making power over the content and presentation of the content. This structure ensures the prevalence of one person’s perspective and places the entire weight of the workshop that person’s shoulders. There is a certain amount of logic to this, as Martinas has been the driving force and political anchor of the workshop for ten years, and has an unwavering anti-racist analysis and commitment. But strictly hierarchical models of organizing are increasingly being challenged as feminist process and directly democratic process become more prevalent in social justice movement. Many younger white activists and organizers entering the CWS workshops have been politicized in organizations and movements that emphasize practicing collective, non-hierarchical process. There is a danger of the hierarchy alienating people to the point that the important history and politics of CWS are not accessible to them.

Despite these problems, CWS remains a powerful anti-racist institution. Laura McNeill was coordinating Bike-Aid, a program for socially conscious youth at JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice, when she first participated in a CWS workshop. At the time JustAct was transitioning from working primarily with white middle class students to building a network that focused on the leadership of youth of color and youth from working class backgrounds.

“Taking the CWS workshop while working at JustAct was transformative in itself,” McNeill says. “JustAct’s transition made the learning very personal and real to me. CWS provided a history of white supremacy and language that allowed me to understand why this was so important. I was able to articulate my confusion, questions and fears throughout the process, as well as learn to move respectfully alongside the people I worked with everyday.”

Despite the many ways I was challenged and frustrated by CWS, my participation has given me a greatly expanded understanding of white supremacy and, along with it, a renewed and strengthened determination to incorporate the fight against racism in all the work I do. To understand how imperialism operates within the U.S. as well as internationally requires an understanding and analysis of the history and current reality of white supremacy in the United States. CWS is one of the few places white social justice activists can find this.

Contact CWS at 2440 16th St., PMB #275, San Francisco CA94103, cws@igc.org, http://www.prisonactivist.org/cws. For the ARGJ, contact chriscrass1886@hotmail.com.

I would like to thank those I interviewed, those who gave extensive feedback, and everyone who has put time, energy and heart into the CWS workshops, thus giving me something to write about and a place to learn.

Rahula Janowski is a white anarchist from a working class background who’s trying to figure it all out before her baby is born this fall.


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