Navigating “not Black or White” and “Nonviolent but not non-violent” as an ally and activist
I suspect every woman of color in America has at multiple points felt that Donna Kate Rushin wrote the Bridge poem for her. As I wonder whether the bonds of friendship with my radical anarchist friends of color will hold and if the bonds of friendship with my White liberal friends will hold, I caution myself not to be so melodramatic as to think my experience is anywhere near as painful as hers, but I’m so grateful she wrote it:
In part, it reads,
I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…
I’ve got to explain myself
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.
I’m not Black. I make a lot of mistakes in the work of being an ally learning to acknowledge a culture of anti-Blackness that my family unconsciously stepped into when we landed at Cleveland-Hopkins airport in the summer of 1978, but something I’m working really hard to do right now is listen a lot more than I talk in relation to how to respond to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and John Crawford and the list goes back four centuries. And I’m aware enough to know there are strong Black movement leaders that it behooves me to listen to, even when I don’t understand or don’t agree. I’m trying to be a good ally.
I’m not White. People sometimes forget that because I can pass, or they don’t think of me as a person of color because the paradigm of race in America is Black and White. And so I get to hear some stuff that people wouldn’t say to Black people. And I always weigh how forceful I can afford to be and stay in relationship and whether it’s worth staying in relationship and whether it’s my responsibility to help this person recognize the unconscious privilege they bring into the conversation and whether they might actually really want to hear an anti-racist analysis of what they just said. It’s an honor to get to be a part of those conversations, but these days it leaves me a little frayed. It makes me wish everyone had read the article that goes along with this image (known as “the Ring Theory of Kvetching”):
I’m Asian. That means that the systems set up in this country were not set up to benefit me. Repeatedly throughout my community’s time in America, we’ve been given the option of not being completely terrorized so long as we don’t confront existing systems of oppression. Until that option is taken away from us (one group at a time, although with overlap: anti-Chinese laws that result in anti-Japanese culture, anti-Japanese laws that result in anti-Chinese culture, anti-Muslim laws that result in anti-Sikh and Hindu culture, all due to the way we have been racialized collectively).
Simultaneously, we have been shaped, often before we land on these shores, by anti-Black culture. We learn to disparage Black Americans and look down on them just like the dominant culture around us does, and we often work hard to dissociate ourselves from Black America.
So in this unique moment in movement history, I was really grateful to find myself in a group of Asian Americans who also recognized these two interwoven strands of solidarity with Black experiences of oppression and complicity with White supremacy in American culture. And I was grateful to be a part of this blog page and video project to lift up voices from within the Asian American community recognizing that we do not want to coopt a powerful Black led movement; we want to be in solidarity with it. And solidarity to us looked like cultivating conversation with other Asian Americans on why #BlackLivesMatter to the API community.
While I am still figuring out how to foster that conversation, Here is the blog page.
And here is my personal video contribution. (You can tell how hard it was to find the words: usually I talk a mile a minute!)
In addition to being not-black-not-white,
I’m nonviolent. To me, that means I am committed to a lifetime of discipline of not causing harm and working to undo harm systemically, including not doing harm in the midst of civil disobedience. I don’t mind disrupting things (in order to show the faith community’s solidarity with and commitment to striking fast food workers, I was arrested for blocking an intersection this fall, for example), but I seek not to do harm with physical, spiritual or verbal acts. And I include in this a commitment not to damage property or participate in actions that do so. I think it’s strategically the best way to go (thanks in part to reading Erica Chenoweth’s Why Civil Resistance Works–if you haven’t seen her Ted Talk, take the time to watch it). I also believe it is the moral path, the path that does the least damage to our souls, and the path least likely to result in the oppressed perpetuating the cycle of oppression if they do in fact gain power. Nonviolence is not the primary focus of my work at the Oakland Peace Center (creating access, opportunity and dignity as the means to peace is), but nonviolence is fairly essential to our partnership with any organization.
But I’m in no hurry to be associated with the people demanding less violence from protesters. Part of that connects to the fact that people are confusing disruption with property damage with violence. (I’m impressed by the civic disruption actions of Black activists in my community like the die-in at Saturday’s farmer’s market and #BlackBrunch where people read the names of Black victims of police brutality at popular brunch spots or the stopping of the BART train on Black Friday. I think property damage is unhelpful to the movement. I think neither of those things should be confused with violence.)
Part of it has to do with how the people not suffering in a direct and palpable way are really eager to rush grievers into the next phase of the healing process. I don’t need to write about that because Yolanda Pierce named it so much better than I.
The other part goes back to the Ring Theory of Kvetching. There are friends of mine actively involved in confronting the culture of anti-Blackness that creates a justice system that isn’t just. When they express frustration about property damage, I pay attention. When people who don’t live in the communities affected by property damage defend it, I don’t pay as much attention. When people of color who are daily impacted by the property damage express frustration, anger and even disenfranchisement from the movement speak up, I pay attention. But I have had some folks who don’t live here quoting Martin Luther King at me, telling me that the property damage happening during protests negates the value of the protests (and again, please note that I am not lumping property damage in with violence: we already have a legal system that values property above human life; I don’t need to contribute to it). Here’s what they want me to know Dr. King believed:
As if that isn’t what I’ve dedicated most of my life to. As if I don’t worship a savior who lived by that principle and died by it, literally. But unless they’re doing something else to address the grievous wrong that is eliciting the property damage, here’s the almost wornout quote I believe Dr. King would want to remind them of:
Those rings of care-in, dump-out. It’s worth paying attention to those rings. I think it sucks for local business owners to have to deal with the insurance process and to lose business. I am less sympathetic to Starbucks and Citibank but I’ve talked with some of the employees who felt pretty robbed of a holiday because of the unpaid days off. And at the same time, I am so beyond weary of the question saturated in superiority masked as confusion: Why do they wreck their own neighborhoods? The people doing the damage, the ones filled with rage that is an expression of grief too deep for words (not people doing it for free stuff or as anarchy tourism from the suburbs to which they will return) don’t see themselves as owners of anything in the neighborhood. Until the rest of us pay attention to that and start listening to why that is, we’re just going to remain angrily superior while participating in keeping the system exactly as it is. And the small business owners to whom our hearts go out will continue to sweep up broken glass and lose business.
The thing is, though, the only reason I have the vaguest inkling of that is because I am trying so hard to do more listening than talking. And I’m trying (although I have failed many times recently) to care in and dump out, like the Ring Theory instructs.I fear that instead of that, some people are using the word “nonviolence” as a way of protecting themselves from discomfort, imagining a peaceful civil rights movement that was in fact incredibly disruptive even in its most nonviolent moments. In fact, many friends I would have considered nonviolent practitioners will not use the term right now because it feels almost as if the term is being used as a cudgel against poor people of color.
My favorite part of the Bridge poem is this:
I’m sick of filling in your gaps
Sick of being your insurance against
the isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people
Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip
I will not be the bridge to your womanhood Your manhood
I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long
I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf of your better selves
I am sick
Of having to remind you
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self
I don’t know that I’m there. But I am grateful for radical friends who haven’t given up on me yet, and I’m grateful for White liberal friends who are also allies wrestling alongside and learning from me and teaching me at the same time.
And yet, right now, I am very conscious of a bridge called my back, and I am wondering how much longer it will hold.