Several years ago when I began developing my antiracist organizing identity, I sometimes found it difficult to build relationships with other People of Color. I was always getting into my own way. One time I was tripping up attempting to build relationship with a Native American, another time I “stepped in a pile” with an Asian American, another time I was told by a Latina organizer, her community did not need my “help”. On another occasion, I was informed my willingness to speak-up for others felt abusive, and since I know myself to be particularly “helpful” this assessment caused me great pause.
As I began a season of self-reflection, I asked antiracism elders in our racial identity caucus why I seemed to be the recipient of disdain from other people of color groups. Here I was trying on my new antiracism identity, bringing my outsized, first-born, degreed self into the anti-oppression conversation and being met with cynicism and contempt. I began asking myself, “Why were so many not welcoming me with open arms?” “What could I do to be more effective?” my answer came swiftly: become a critical apologist. I recognize some may be unfamiliar with who are and what do apologists do so a bit of context is necessary before going any further. Literally, apologists were and are those people who take on the task of offering an argument in defense of something controversial or unpopular because they believe it to be true and misunderstood. In a myriad of ways, apologists give witness to their convictions by arguing, advocating, taking a stand, and sometimes embodying them. Critical apologists push their advocacy further by exposing the social conditions that make their bearing witness to an alternate narrative or to a counter cultural set of convictions necessary. This of course is my conception of what a critical apologist is and does but one that opened the way to stronger relationships with other people of color.
History is most often the best teacher. Many people of color groups – Asian American, Latinos/as, Native American, Arab and Middle Eastern – experience the dominant narrative of the US as existing in a Black/White racial paradigm. Our schools provide limited education with respect to the historic colonialization of the people of the Americas, South East Asia, and more recently the Middle East. Members of these communities know their own history and to be told their stories must be made to fit into the commonly understood Black/White racial paradigm of the United States is profoundly dehumanizing. Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latino/as are constantly experiencing their history, social and statistical reality as “insignificant” in the context of the United States in comparison to African-Americans. Even more recent African immigrants detest the ever-present assumption that they fit into the African-American narrative. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of this in her TED Talk – the Danger of a Single Story. The hidden implication is power continues to be held by those who create and maintain “the story”, who tells the story and where and when the story gets told.
So, heeding the wise counsel of an Asian American woman, I learned to be a critical apologist. In claiming this identity I learned my way into the task of building solidarity across the chasms built by racism and its binary. As a critical apologist I give witness with my lips and my life to the countercultural conviction that together we are stronger. This has been the most liberating, empowering, grace-filled, and humanizing experience of my life.
Demonstrating humility and respect matters. As a critical apologist I recognize that dehumanization all people of color experience as a result of racism and I acknowledge the power dynamics that minimize the stories of oppression of some while elevating the stories of others. I acknowledge this minimizing as morally wrong, and I commit to act in a way that demonstrates respect for the individual stories and histories of other people of color communities. And then, (if I’m on my game) I shut up and listen. I demonstrate respect by listening without interrupting, and certainly not arguing over details. I choose to show consideration for another point of view.
Learning to listen well is critical. We demonstrate “we are not know it all’s” and have something to learn. That our experience is not the only, chief, best, or fill in any other “comparative” analysis noun. When I am successful in this, I learn. I learn to appreciate the struggle of other communities. I learn we all have a story to tell. I learn we all have success and challenges. I learn even more effective ways and methods for disarming systemic and institutional racism, and dismantling structural oppression. And I learn to be a more effective critical apologist for the antiracism values around which we organize our work; cooperation & collaboration, in particular.
This way of demonstrating humility and respect through deep listening re-humanizes us and acknowledges the humanity of others. I find tender places in my heart, and the hearts of others. I allow myself to be touched by another and allow my soul to connect with the humanity of another. It builds deep empathy. This simple yet powerful act validates the other. Listening authenticates and affirms the humanity of the other, and in this way builds power.
Claiming our histories. In the telling and hearing of one another experiences and histories, we develop the potential to begin to see our collective interest and invite one another into our larger stories. In this way we can begin to gain a clearer and fuller perspective and focus our collective power. It is empowering to understand we are not alone in our struggle. Many, many others have experienced what we have experienced. Our particular stories are not the same, yet they are similar. As we understand we are not alone, we build power through aligning our efforts.
Building solidarity and inclusion is different from becoming an ally. Being an ally is based on what I can do for you, building solidarity is what we can do together creating ever widening circles of inclusion.
Acknowledges the complexity of structural oppression. The framework of the Black/White racial binary paradigm constricts us from understanding the fullness, dynamic and complexity of structural oppression. In order to be effective at dismantling racism, it is imperative that we understand the complexity of structural oppression. Minimizing and marginalizing the reality of the racist oppression experienced by those who are not African-American is like leaving out 3/5s of the construct and this will never lead us to effective solutions that challenge White supremacy!
SEEING THE CONNECTIONS
In my experience the social justice movement and individuals within it, have been harmed by the Black/White racial binary paradigm. So I will give witness to this countercultural conviction and I will offer a critical apologetic at every turn in order to make us all stronger together.
Unjust immigration polices are impacting more people than just Mexicans. Alarming deportation rates and the shattered families left in the wake of the popular immigration story is harming all of our communities. All of our communities are impacted by the notion that some people don’t belong here. We all have a stake in immigration reform.
“Stop and Frisk,” “Stand Your Ground,” and the Prison Industrial Complex are not just about Black bodies. All of us; Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and African-Americans experience the criminalization of our bodies. These laws and institutions are a threat to all of us.
The Black/White racial binary paradigm does not serve us individually, institutionally, or culturally. Rather it serves the dominant culture as one of the most efficient, disempowering and disorganizing processes. In my mind it is the most destructive of strategies. If we developed the capacity to hear the story of another, we will become more effective organizers.