I just found this short post from Advance The Struggle. The opening lines say most of it: “Most people don’t openly say this, but it’s generally assumed that an activist should only organize their own racial community and not any others. It is commonly accepted that whites should not organize communities of color due to them reproducing white supremacy.”

This totally speaks to some frustrating experiences I’ve had before. I used to work as a union organizer and a community organizer. There’s a lot to be said about problems in those milieus, but one thing I took away from it is that anyone can organize with anyone, if it’s done right. I also remember a great many conversations with angst-ridden white trainee organizers who would insist that they couldn’t organize people of color, saying on the one hand things like ‘what right do we have’ and on the other hand things like ‘how could we possibly understand their experiences’? These arguments added up to a claim that white organizers should only organize white people. I tried to write something related to this a while ago, part of an unfinished series of short articles. I’m not totally happy with this but I’m excerpting a portion of the second of the articles below.

The Advance The Struggle piece gets a different piece of this. I just tried to argue that it was indeed possible for white people to organize with people of color, and that there’s no insuperable problem there. The ATS piece suggests though that the stuff I was trying to argue against is not just mistaken but is pernicious. To the degree that white people’s arguments and insecurities around multiracial organizing lead to skilled people not organizing, or organizing only white people, that’s a major problem. In the excerpt below I use the example of a doctor. Imagine a newly minted white doctor, fresh out of residency, who says “African Americans have different lifestyles, I wouldn’t even no where to begin practicing medicine in an African American community.” I would want to say to such a doctor, among other things, that s/he was obligated to practice medicine where people needed it, and that s/he was overly self-involved – and in a destructive way – by letting those doubts prevent him/her from doing so. The white radical who says “we can’t/shouldn’t organize in communities of color” does something similar (to the degree that that white radical has useful skills).

ATS do note that there are important concerns about *how* to organize, so as to not replicate patterns of hierarchy and so forth. Absolutely. But as they say, those issues need to be worked through, not made into an excuse for not even starting or trying.

Many times I’ve heard people say things like “white people can’t organize people of color” and “men can’t organize women.” This is false. White people can and do organize people of color, and men can and do organize women. Paid organizers for various unions and other organizations regularly demonstrate this. In a sense, the growth of churches demonstrates this. We could also look to the role of white organizers in the civil rights movement in the United States.

Someone might respond, “sure, but the point is not really that white people can’t organize people of color and men can’t organize women. The point is that they shouldn’t, at least not if the goal is to oppose racism and sexism.” That’s also false. Consider John Brown, the famous abolitionist. He organized a group of white people and people of color in a blow against white supremacy. John Brown being white does not mean that the actions of his group did not undermine racism.

I’ll use medicine as an example to put this another way. A white man who needs medical care would have an interest in seeing a female doctor of color. Similarly, a woman of color may well have a genuine interest in seeing a white male doctor. As a parallel, a woman could organize a group of male workers. A person of color could organize a group of white workers. In both cases, there may be difficulties that arise due to sexist and racist attitudes on the part of the workers. On the other hand, if the organizer is successful these workers would recognize why it was in their interests to listen to the organizer. Likewise, a group of women workers might recognize that they have an interest in listening to a male organizer. Workers of color might recognize that they have an interest in listening to a white organizer.

My point is that we should not assume that a male organizer interacting with women workers will always and only replicate male dominance, or that a white organizer interacting with workers of color will always and only replicate white supremacy. To say otherwise means that the women and people of color who interact with male and white organizers are dupes or fools who don’t know their own interests. As long as the white or male organizer is playing a useful role in women workers and workers of color coming together to have more control over their lives, the organizer is doing the right thing.

Just read this other ATS post. This too succinctly sums up some frustrations I’ve had: “While anti-racist groups organize meetings to purge the internal white guilt of white activists to become “real anti-racist,” a school serving 100% students of color might have been closed down. Were the anti-racists there organizing against the school closure as an act against of racial oppression? No.”