I’ve had countless conversations with young white activists who, struggling to reconcile their commitment to movement work with their newfound antiracist practice of embracing leadership from oppressed communities, ask me, quite plainly “What should I do with my life? I don’t understand what role can a white person like me can play in building a multi-racial movement.”
In his collection of essays Towards Collective Liberation, Chris Crass tackles these kinds of questions, head on. Offering a rare combination of emotional honesty and intellectual rigor, he shares stories filled with inspiration, conflict and, ultimately, insight. He tracks his own development from the Food Not Bombs collective kitchen to the college activist study group to the building of the white anti-racist capacity building hub, the Catalyst Project.
There are many paths into the social movement, and all of them have a deeply personal dimension. Some of us come to this work through the process of learning to embrace our power, to understand our oppression, to give direction to our righteous rage. Some of us come to this work through the process of learning to question our power, to understand our privilege, to challenge ourselves to open space for others.
At the bay area launch of the book, Chris confided about his early struggles dealing with privilege “As a white, middle-class, cis-gendered man, sometimes I felt like the best thing I could for the movement was just stay in bed.” The group roared with laughter. You didn’t have to be a white guy to relate to the sense of confusion, the lack of direction, the teen-like angst of burgeoning anti-racism.
Most of us, I think, get a taste of both privilege and oppression along our path. My own journey, as a light-skinned Latina from a privileged layer of the working class, as a gender conforming queer woman, as a trauma survivor living with a disability, has been as much about letting go of power as it has been about embracing it. Understanding my oppression was and is core to finding my way into the movement, but that was not the end of the road. Understanding my liberation turned out to be even harder, and, at this point in my life, even more important. My very own and very personal liberation, the liberation of my biological and chosen families, of my peoples, depends on collective liberation.
And, it turns out no one is going to chart that path for me, or for any of us. As the Latin American saying says, you make the road by walking. And, as the Zapatistas modeled, whole communities can “walk while questioning,” engaging in deep and critical inquiry, without ceasing to move forward in the collective work.
This is the process of inquiry and growth that Towards Collective Liberation documents, a process of personal inquiry and political growth that many new activists struggle with, and that seasoned organizers will recognize, too.
The book ends with a wonderful interview with Amy Dudely, of Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project. Like the book, she articulates a loving challenge to white anti-racists that holds true for any one of us struggling to know our path. She says, “It is better to mess up in the pursuit of justice than to be perfect at doing nothing! This is risky work.”
Whether you are starting your movement journey as a young white anti-racist, or needing a little company along a well-worn movement path, this book is a wonderful fellow traveler.