From the newsletter: Anti-War Organizing (July/August 2009)
When someone mentions the phrase “the peace movement in the United States,” I think of older white folk holding up anti-war signs, asking for troops to come home from Iraq or Afghanistan. I think of a movement that is more focused on what happens outside our borders than on what is happening right now inside our own communities.
The image I have is changing. For that, I and my colleagues at WESPAC, a peace and justice organization in Westchester County, New York must thank the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond for sharing their powerful analysis of racism with us and for helping us transform the way we approach our work and our mission. We started our two and a half day “Undoing Racism” training with a discussion of why people are poor, including an analysis of power in our society. The training offers a crucial historical context of how race has been constructed in America and of how it is used to maintain and perpetuate a system that benefits people of European descent at the expense of other communities.
Two terms that now make sense to me as a result of this training are “internalized racial superiority” and “internalized racial oppression.” Across generations, one group of people has been able to accumulate wealth and savings to pass on to their children, while other groups have had obstacles placed in their way to prevent and inhibit wealth and savings accumulation. The dominant group understands that society was meant to benefit them, receiving messages from birth that their group is entitled to the best that society has to offer, while other groups understand that they do not have the same access to power and resources necessary to meet their needs. In any social justice movement, it is crucial to understand the disorganizing impact that internalized racial oppression and superiority have on both our interpersonal relationships as well as on our institutional relationships in coalition-building.
Here, we are speaking about very well-intentioned white people who want the world to be a better, more peaceful place for everyone, but who have been socialized to accept that their community is “more efficient, more effective, better educated, more capable” of remaining in top leadership positions; often these same people include the top donors of the organization as well. As a result, this same group of people develops the agenda of an organization in a way that is safe for the white members of the group, but in a way that may not relate to the deepest aspirations of others.
The global is local
How does this play out in a peace group? Peace groups chant for troops to come home and an end to the war in Iraq, but their movements are largely white and speak to a white agenda. People of color – Indigenous, African, Latino, Arab, Asian – are looking for justice, right here at home in our local communities. When we offer anti-oppression trainings in our offices, the majority of people who show up are people of color and women. Who decides the agenda of an organization? Is it the white members serving on a board of directors? Or is it communities who have to deal with systemic oppression on a daily basis?
Who holds the real power of an institution or a non-profit? Is the board of directors accountable to the communities they serve or to their major donors? Do staff members figure out what solidarity looks like with oppressed communities by obtaining board permission or by checking in with those who deal with the brutality of our system on a daily basis? Is it easy for white folk to preach non-violence because their communities are not the ones being targeted by capitalism, militarism and war?
These are questions that we must grapple with if we decide that we would like to embark upon a truly multi-ethnic and anti-racist people’s movement that is accountable to the communities that receive the brunt of the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in the United States.
How does this transform a peace group? With a deeper analysis, we can now see poverty as a form of economic violence that has been disproportionately devastating to communities of color in a society that was created to benefit people of European descent. Fighting poverty through an anti-racist lens becomes part of the agenda of an anti-racist institution.
WESPAC has been struggling with issues of power, race, internalized oppression and identity politics for the past decade. Our agenda has shifted from a white liberal anti-war agenda to one that painfully explores the power dynamic involved with community organizing. We have not figured out how to keep everyone on board and happy while this process is occurring. Our institutional interest in racial disparities and profiling has attracted communities of color in a deeper and more meaningful way than our previous organizing. We continue to grapple with the ramifications of a shifting agenda and consciousness in our attempt to maintain our meeting space as a safe haven for all who wish to organize against injustice and oppression. In the end we feel it is the communities undergoing, experiencing and living the oppression who should guide the scope and content of our solidarity with them.
The challenge we have now is to develop a broad multi-ethnic, anti-racist people’s movement that is clear in opposing all forms of oppression and that creates an honest space for difficult conversations about power, both within our organizations and in our society, while keeping our eyes on the goal of creating an equitable society that works for all.
Nada Khader is the director of WESPAC Foundation, a peace and justice action network based in Westchester County, New York.