When I’ve heard white people committed to social change start talking about racism and activism, the conversation has often veered rapidly to the question: ‘How can we get more of them to come to our meetings/activities?’ In Towards Collective Liberation, a powerful, humble and thought-provoking book that deserves the widest possible readership, white US activist Chris Crass poses very different questions: ‘How can white radicals work with other white people against racism?’ and ‘How can white radicals be trustworthy allies to people targeted by racism?’ He poses similar questions in relation to male supremacy and patriarchy.
Crass doesn’t give us abstract ideas about how to answer these questions; he gives us years of experience, including in trying to support the leadership of working-class communities of colour.
There is a telling contrast between two interventions by San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB), a mainly-white group to which Crass devoted most of the 1990s. In 1995, a group of FNBers approached AYUDA, a Latino/a immigrant group fighting for housing and civil rights, to offer support. They developed a plan whereby FNB would offer a weekly meal for day labourers on César Chávez Street while AYUDA did outreach, building its membership. Crass comments: ‘This was a radically different approach to solidarity. By building an ongoing program, FNB was able to support the development of a poor people’s economic justice organization, which could then provide leadership in the fight for housing, worker and immigrant rights.’
In 1998, after AYUDA took over the food element of that programme, some FNBers decided to show their solidarity with day labourers (who were being harassed by the police and immigration services) by serving food on the same street. This time, FNB did not team up with a community organisation, and had only a few beginner-level Spanish speakers serving meals. It turned out that the casual workers assumed the project was a church charity programme, and after a year FNB ended the meals. Crass comments: ‘As one of the main proponents of the serving, I didn’t understand the critical distinction between supporting an immigrant worker-led group like Housing Not Borders [formerly AYUDA] to build its membership and an FNB serving that was virtually indistinguishable from charity.’ It was to a large extent a question of power, of accepting leadership from a people-of-colour-led organisation.
“Doing anti-racist work as a white person doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather that we are committed to doing this work, even though we will make mistakes.”
Learning from this experience, a group of mainly white FNBers slowly built a relationship with the ‘Day Labor Program’ (DLP), founded by poor and working-class Latino/a immigrants. FNB eventually became trusted to cook for DLP meetings, actions and holiday meals – and also became involved in DLP campaigns against official harassment of day labourers.
Years later, another radical group Crass was involved in, Heads Up, responded to the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks by focusing on immigrant justice, and building bridges between the immigrant-rights movement and the majority-white anti-war/global justice movements in the US.
Fundamental to their work has been building long-term relationships with self-organised immigrant groups: ‘We have provided solidarity support in food support, collecting donations and resources, doing security on marches and actions, turning people out for actions, leading and supporting political education events, doing media work locally and nationally, door-knocking, driving, recruiting volunteers, picketing, helping with outreach for Know Your Rights trainings, and so on.’ Heads Up have also testified at commissions where they were the only white anti-racist people speaking about immigration; and worked on electoral campaigns to pass a living wage, defeat anti-poor people legislation, and elect pro-tenant, pro-worker, pro-immigrant candidates to local office.
They did this work with two key people-of-colour-led organisations in order to ‘build accountable, long-term relationships’ as the foundation for their anti-racist work.
Crass writes later in the book: ‘Doing anti-racist work as a white person doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather that we are committed to doing this work, even though we will make mistakes.’
Doubling our strength
Towards Collective Liberation is full of humbling stories like these. The final section is composed of interviews (by Chris Crass) of inspiring groups around the US, including the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Kentucky, which is the city’s leading LGBT group, and which has also, from its founding, had anti-racism as a core principle. This anti-racist commitment has meant practical solidarity with Louisville’s Black community, which built the relationships which made it possible for Black elected officials to include sexual orientation in anti-hate crimes legislation in 1991.
“How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!”
In 1999, after lobbying, protests, door-to-door mobilisation and civil disobedience, the Fairness Campaign secured the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The campaign had become a powerful political force in the city by building a strong multiracial base that understood the importance of struggles for racial, economic and gender justice.
There is a growing awareness in activist circles of the interconnectedness of different forms of oppression, an awareness which is often called ‘intersectionality’. The title of Chris Crass’s book points not to the critical analysis of ‘intersectionality’, but to the kind of principled, strategic coming together that builds on an intersectional awareness, the kind of coming together that the Fairness Campaign has built over decades.
The phrase ‘collective liberation’ comes from an essay by bell hooks (Crass cites a large number of women of colour as thinkers and activists who have shaped his own thinking and practice): ‘Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.’
Where ‘anti-oppression work’ can concentrate on ‘what not to do’, Crass has slowly come to focus on ‘collective liberation’ which is about ‘what we should do’.
There is a lot more to this book than the theory and practice of contemporary US white anti-racism (though it would be valuable for that alone). There is a wealth of experience and careful thought, for example, on how to build successful and effective groups and movements – the sections on an anarchist approach to leadership development are worth the cover price by themselves.
The other core concern of the book, alongside race, is gender, how men can work against sexism in our organisations and in ourselves. Crass describes the struggles within San Francisco Food Not Bombs over male supremacy in a painfully-honest, painfully-familiar way. Women in SF FNB, who made up half the membership, managed to lead the group to reasonably effective ways of dealing with sexual harassment, which led also to more women taking visible leadership in the group.
There is a very personal chapter called: ‘Going to places that scare me – personal reflections on challenging male supremacy’. Part I is called ‘How can I be sexist? I’m an anarchist!’ There is a wonderful account of the first time Crass was challenged on his sexism (at 19), and how he and other young men in the local anarchist group floundered at first in responding to women’s anger over their behaviour. There can be few non-trans male activists in the West who have not had similar experiences.
In this chapter, Crass acknowledges that it is tempting to distance himself from men who still make dismissive comments about the reality or impact of sexism within their activist groups: ‘it’s important that I remember the times when I’ve made those comments, too.... As a person with [male] privilege organizing others with [male] privilege, that means learning to love myself enough to be able to see myself in people who I would much rather denounce and distance myself from.’ This is part of ‘collective liberation’.
Crass gives a number of practical suggestions on action that non-transgender men can take against sexism. He also sets out some principles for anti-sexist men: ‘Each of must persistently ask ourselves how our work supports the leadership of women, how we are working to share power in our organizing, and how we are making ourselves open to hearing feedback from gender-oppressed people about our work.... We know that sexism will work to undermine movement building. The question is what work will we do to help build movement, and in the process expand our ability to love others and ourselves.’
Towards Collective Liberation is a wonderful, generous book, richly deserving of study and discussion and committed action. As a middle-class man, I am inspired by the challenging precedents that FNB, Heads Up, the Fairness Campaign, Catalyst and others in the book have forged for the rest of us to learn from. As a person of colour, I am full of respect for the principled anti-racist work, the stumbling and recovering, described here.