Grumpywarriorcool: what makes our movements white?

[reprinted with permission of the author.]

what makes our movements white?
amory starr
igniting a revolution: voices in defense of mother earth
ed. anthony j. nocella & steven best
ak press
december 2004

i worked a little less than a year on a project on gender, starting in april 2001. i just  kept  sputtering  clumps  of  words.  “courage,  humility, sacrifice”… “weakness,  fear,  triviality”.  That  project  never really went anywhere. i’m not sure if it was a waste of time or if i became a feminist in the process of writing this agonizing poem about the movement. we have come  to recognize ourselves by the glint of riot helmets.

Meanwhile i’d been working on a project on anti-racism in the movement since the dnc in 2000, which is about how the fuck can it be possible that an anti-imperialist project could fail to be  anti-racist?  It’s kind of embarrassing, but as an activist and a woman and a writer i’ve learned that the stuff that really needs to be shared is often the stuff that i must have been the last person to figure out.

It  took  me  4  years  to  actually  see  and  begin  to  articulate  that it’s affecting communities of color both at home and abroad, we confront racist imperialism, we make connections between distant global institutions and our neighborhoods, we build  community,  and  work to empower marginalized people. It’s how we do it that is often very white and doesn’t work for people of  color we’d like to work with and who would like to be working with us.

What this chapter does is explore the how of white organizing, in a way that  tries  to  hold  on  to  both  the  scholarship and  the  poetic  insight  that occasionally work in helping folks see what is invisible. White activists have better and worse moments in struggle with whiteness, so i’m not generalizing about white activists, but seeking to describe the problems with what i will call white organizing organizing which manifests problematic whiteness. (1)

so i was hanging out with my friend jane, who is a feminist scholar and active in multiracial queer communities and she’s white. She’s radical but not an activist. Anyway so she cleared her throat and said “you all spend so much time dealing with your fear of the cops and like jostling each other to be more brave. Why is pushing yourself around those issues really important but it’s not important to push yourself around dancing – i mean as long as you’re wearing a tutu and all?” And aimee was listening and said “oh! that’s  sexism.  Dancing  is  wimpy  and  girly.  cops  are  macho.”  we don’t recognize warriors as macho when they’re women What i was calling “courage humility sacrifice” is the internalized piece of masculinity, which is difficult to discuss because it’s just an issue of “difference”, diverse feminisms. What’s at stake in fearlessness? Artist Dan Cohen starts to get at it:

The culture of the barricade, of opposition, needs to celebrate its own lucid rage… but  what  about  that  internal  world  behind  the  barricades?  What happens  to  the  doubts,  fears,  questions  whispered  in  the  silences  between confrontations? Those voices of intimate reflection are an enormous archive of knowledge, but remain hidden behind profound doubt and fear.(3)

Audre Lorde pointed out that anger is loaded with information and energy. (4) Cohen is suggesting that fear may be similar. (5)

Recognizing internalized oppression as it affects women helped me start to see whatís up with whiteness… discourses of “cultural diversity” make it difficult to identify and address internalized oppression in white countercultures.
not so counter-cultural… White organizing often includes several “alternative”  subcultures  which  experience  themselves  as  countercultural. While these alternatives do, in many ways, explicitly counteract and displace oppressive hierarchies, including racism, they also often carry aspects of white culture as assumptions which are reproduced unquestioned and even invisible to  the  cultural  frontiersmen.  Insistent  blindness  to  the  whiteness  often undermines the subculture’s language of outreach, inclusion, and revolutionary change.

Activist countercultures often emphasize “prefigurative” practices which embody revolutionary vision as if it were already achieved, thereby calling it into  being.  One  manifestation  of  prefigurative  politics  is  responsible consumption. Many activists make an effort to be aware of how much they depend on third world resources and to reduce that dependency.

hence some spend their leisure time re-learning how to grow and preserve food and to make basic  items  like  soap,  candles,  and  clothes.  Some  people  have  worked  on creating alternative forms of identity and celebration (“look what I found in the
dumpster!”) to go along with their attempt to take responsibility for the racist effects of first world consumption. (6)  Even activists who feel that consumption politics are inadequate in themselves often practice responsible consumption as a “practice of commitment”(7) to global justice.

Activists might be surprised that these practices are not perceived as anti-racist. Even though these activities are intensely local (unlike mass actions and  international  campaigns),  often  involve  building  community,  and  are empowering for marginalized people, this doesn’t make them anti-racist.

Prefigurative politics don’t only make for bad anti-racist campaigns, they  have  another  set  of  effects.  White  radical  organizing  culture  is prefigurative participatory democracy in a space that functions much like a squat  (meaning  that  people  can  meet  their  daily  needs  there).  Anti-racist organizing, on the other hand, emphasizes that meetings need to be controlled by well-known, familiar, preferably local activists of color in a dignified, tidy space to which people can feel comfortable “bringing their parents”.

A common aspect of white countercultures is the sense of individualistic self-creation in which oppressive childhood values and institutions are cast off in favor of a personal embrace of political compassion for what might best be  theorized as “imagined community”(8).  Since white activists often face ridicule, threats, or abuse from parents for participating in activism, it’s hard to imagine parents participating in radical political action. People with parents who are supportive or might even participate in marches are considered “lucky” in white activist communities. It is partly because of the isolation that accompanies politicization that experiences of critical mass, such as large protests, are so crucial.

Meanwhile, activists of color envision resistance struggles in intimate terms; the struggle is for their families and is based on principles learned at home. Their developing political principles and work need to make sense in the context of their histories, their families, and the spiritual/religious traditions of their  communities.  While  this  pressure  also  exists  for  white activists, overcoming  it  is  made  possible  by  white  traditions  valorizing  defiant  and expressive individualism (9).

It is individualism in white culture that enables white radicals to reject  their birth families, their churches, their home towns, and the values they were raised with and to define themselves anew. Radicals of color cannot relate to this behavior, the lack of love it indicates for family, and its lack of respect for history and community. Whites who have apparently abandoned their families are unaccountable free agents who seem untrustworthy to radicals of color.

excessive individualism isnít cultural diversity, itís internalized white privilege.  Anti-globalization  activists  believe  that  diversity  of  tactics  can provide space for every possible radical ideology and tactic, including anti-racism. Within this framework people have the right to participate as they wish, and stylistic differences are subsumed under a framework of cultural diversity.
after Miami and Cancun, (10)  i wrote this: 

i’m going to stink, i’m going in there even though i’m contagious, i’m going to bring my barking dog, i have the right to do whatever the fuck i want and people just have to deal with it and i’m going to call this “cultural diversity” or “class issues” or “activist dogs”. meanwhile other folks around are feeling like another white guy is doing whatever the fuck he wants, which is [again] downright unpleasant for [us folks] who seem to be always subject to some white guy [cop, schoolteacher, boss, landlord…] doing whatever the fuck he wants at our expense even though it’s obviously no way to treat other human beings and we don’t know anyone in [our group] who would treat people that way nor would [people in our group] let people be treated that way if we had any influence over the situation, which must mean that all these other people in here think that what he’s doing is a perfectly fine way to mis/treat (inconvenience/offend) other people…

This disregard and contempt for other people is not a way of being in diversity. Instead it’s using the language of cultural diversity to say “i don’t want to change no matter what the implications are for the thing that i supposedly want more than anything else – the revolution.”

Assuming space and action is culturally neutral is an act of indifference. somebody schooled me on how totally offensive it is to Latino people to have a meeting without having food first, or to eat your own lunch that you brought without offering it to other people in the room.
so i’m sitting on the floor, i’m eating my food, i don’t even notice any more if there’s cops parked across the street, i’m tired, someone just came in the room i don’t know i’m not paying attention… all that to me feels like nothing is going on. to a person of color who walks into that space and to any person new to activism, they are experiencing a lot of things that are going on: there are no chairs and the floor looks too dirty to sit on, people
are rude, and there is a frightening army of police across the street.

And if you are irresponsible towards the ‘other’ in your community, then think twice, because the world we are fighting against is based precisely on this persistent indifference to the other…
Massimo de Angelis explains that the struggle against globalization

requires both local struggles, where “our desires and aspirations take shape” and the increasingly global context of struggle, which is fundamentally the “discovery of  the  other”.  As we become a  global  community of activists,  we develop solidarity through a “creative process of discovery, not a presumption.” (11)

This discovery means not only getting to know each other, but also interrogating the structural contents of political concepts and space we take for granted which have a huge impact on the shape of our political work. Take, for example, dignity. For privileged activists, dignity is about washing the blood off their hands by dis-identifying with professionalism, managerialism, and status symbols. For people who wear uniforms to work and don’t get to be clean there, dignity, particularly in political space, involves having the aspects of self that capitalism and racism withhold.

If i’m willing to be super uncomfortable and not shower for a week so that i can fight for change. Maybe i need to understand that spending our precious organizing money on some chairs will enable a whole bunch of really cool people to feel like our meeting is a place they can be comfortable at, who just can’t sit on the floor because their legs or back hurts, or have come straight from work, or can’t afford to get their clothes dirty, or just find that really fucking weird and there isn’t really a way to explain it to them before they are  going to feel like this space isn’t a space for them.

imagining empowerment White organizing has specific assessments of what is “empowering” for strangers. seeing new activists as isolated individuals, an  “empowering  space”  is  one  that  provides  “something  for  everyone” (individuals) through “diversity of tactics”. In contrast, anti-racist organizing sees  new  activists  as  people  embedded  in  oppressed  communities.  an “empowering  space”  is  dignified  and  welcoming  for  people  normally marginalized, and safe from daily experiences of racism and violence, a space  that acknowledges and is committed to transforming the experience of the group.   These  most  important  aspects  of  anti-racist  organizing  are  not guaranteed by a commitment to protect diversity of tactics.

i was standing in line at the taco stand near my house, at lunch time, and there were a lot of latino men there wearing various uniforms, so probably on their lunch break. there were a few moments of negotiating the order of the line. as usual, these men were very deferential and polite to me. and i was aware that my orientation to each little conversation of smiles and re-ordering the line was oriented to fairness. i wouldn’t accept going before someone who was there first. i affirmed that i was before people who thought i was before them. and then it hit me. for me it was about fairness. that was enough. but when life is abjectly, incessantly, unfair, fairness loses its meaning. instead, generosity, kindness, yielding, compassion, and joy are the only comfort, the balm, the sanctuary, and the alternative.

When  activists  focus  energy  on  clever  communications  and/or
disruptions which even the mainstream media will cover, they imagine that the cleverness  and  surprising  courage  of  these  actions  will  excite  people  to participate in various capacities or, if they missed out, hearing about these actions or seeing them on TV will inspire people to  participate in the next one.

White organizing sees a “good” (smart and visible) action as organizing because joining a movement is understood as  an intellectual, not a social, act.
Individualism pre-dates politics, community follows them.

in white organizing, smartness (not friendliness, comfort, or personal connection) is the political sina qua non. as such it is the internalization of class.

In white  organizing  radicalism is a fundamental axis around  which politics revolve.  Radicalism refers to ideology and  analysis. Invoking the term ‘radicalism’ almost always implies two things: First, a commitment to radical principles  and theories of social  relations and alternatives, such as anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, racial and gender liberation,  etc; and  second, correct  interpretation, reasoning,  and application of principles  in a given situation. Correct theory and application is that which is understood to be the most likely to be effective in eliminating oppression.  For a position or an action to be correctly radical (as opposed to fetished, compromised, or misapplied radicalism)  is  the  highest  value  accorded  within  radical  circles.  meanwhile antiracist organizing does not invoke the term “radical.” Quite simply, radical is not the standard or goal of political practice, antiracist is, with the goals and principles it holds.

Some antiracists, such as Bernice Johnson Reagon, seek to recenter debates about radicalism by reorienting the terms, showing that Black survival  and  anything  that  prioritizes  it,  is  in  and  of  itself  already radical.  The  sociology  of  race  reveals  that  the  radical/reformist distinction is too dualistic and does not take into account the wily ways of both racism and antiracist resistance which require, for example, both state intervention and autonomy from the state, militant action and slow, creeping transformation, etc.  Some antiracists have pointed out that the very word ìradicalî is symptomatic of what they call white culture, an abstract, exclusive, either/or standard that is more distracting or divisive than it is galvanizing, empowering, or productive. (13)

White  organizing  assumes  that  activists  arrive  at  meetings having decided already to be committed and to do inconvenient, uncomfortable things in service of their convictions. It’s not necessary to make meetings themselves comfortable or empowering.  Participants who are committed will not be daunted by discomfort. If people aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, they’re not ready for activism. In contrast, anti-racist organizing endeavors to establish legitimacy, comfort, and confidence by affirming values, traditions, culture, ideas, and leadership of people of color and ensuring that the space is non-dominated by white culture, procedures, and ideas (although white people and ideas may be present).

Once people have gathered to participate, a major activity of white organizing is securing the radicalism of the group, which consists of identifying and vilifying any “reformists” or reformist proposals. This activity often results in some people  feeling  they are not wanted in the group, or even being excluded, shrinking the group. The performative requirements of satisfying the radicals often becomes a preoccupation of remaining members.

In  Latin  America  the  word  ‘specifismo’  has  been  developed  by anarchists as a framework for interaction with other groups driven by the search for creative, exciting possibilities for joint struggle and building long-term relationships without surrendering or compromising political goals. As i understand it, specifismo sees political principles as expressions of the kind of community and society we seek, not as reified absolutes more important than the particulars of any real struggle. In lieu of ideological or tactical absolutism or purism, specifismo means thatwe express our analysis  and  ideals strategically in each context. Practicing specifismo might mean avoiding the fun of  contemptuous  dismissals  of  reformists,  communists,  etc.  in  favor  of  De Angelis’ “discovery of the other”. Specifismo recognizes that no one action or leaflet or campaign conveys the totality of a struggle. each action or piece of propaganda makes a strategic move or a pedagogical intervention. Specifismo means evaluating them and considering our participation according to their power  as  pedagogies,  performance  arts,  cultural  ruptures,  empowering disruptions, and political confrontations.

then jane says “And another thing…” Oh boy.”You know i’ve met about  ten  of  these  brave  new  warrior  activists  from  the  anti-globalization movement and there’s really a pattern of how they hold their faces.  They really have a mean, judgmental look on their faces. it’s expressionless, but smirky. And it surprises me, because I would think as activists they’d be wanting to be more friendly to people.” And i hit the roof. “iím having a hard enough time trying to convince people that there might be more to crusty punk culture than just cultural diversity. Now you want me to try to talk to them about the looks on their faces? i mean isn’t that the very sort of invasion of the person and oppressive, hegemonic pseudo-values that we’re fighting?”

And she says “but i thought you all were organizers!” She says “it’s one thing if snotty gay guys have judgmental face at the cafe because they donít think your shoes match your jacket but you all are activists and you act this way at meetings.

She said “I’ve been thinking about all of the radical people of color I know and they are so full of life. These folks seem like they’ve rejected love of life, rejected too much expression. But folks of color are like love this life, be grateful for what you have, get to work.”
And then i said “well i think part of what grumpy is about is like this democratic ethic of not wanting to take up very much space.” She said “get over it. You better figure out how to be democratic and still be full of life.”

i said “i think what you’re asking for is what my friends might call
“being fake”. i think they would reject that as not the world they want to live in.”

She said “well if it’s fake to be interested in new people then what are you all about?… If you are fundamentally disinterested in other people, then there are bigger issues at stake than a possible risk of fakeness.”

i  also feel that there’s something vulnerable about unilateral
friendliness.  Seems to me that insecurity is now, like eating disorders, (14)  a collective  phenomenon;  it’s  not  a  personal  pathology  or  a  disorder. Countercultures, alienated by perfect, conventional extrovert tv personalities promote some version of “cool”, which seems to be a problem for activists because it gets us into a place where we then feel undignified and vulnerable to smile, to approach someone, to talk to strangers, to be unilaterally friendly. All of that is very un-cool. Whether cool a habit or a fragile bulwark for someone who feels they can barely keep it together, the result is very little friendliness, and, ultimately not even what most people would call civility –  greeting people when they come into a common space.
many times over the years in my own home, people have come in the door and they don’t introduce themselves and i don’t introduce myself and my roommates who know this person don’t introduce them. it’s obviously the right thing to do in that situation and yet none of us do it. there’s something all gushy and vulnerable and uncool about it?

There’s this book called Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude which is the history of cool, complete with a section  entitled “a whiter  shade  of  cool”.  There’s also a video called The Merchants of Cool.(15)  Cool is the internalized piece of commodity culture, consumerism. We don’t even realize cool isn’t ours! we think we made it up. They’ve sold it to us and we think it’s who we are! Cool is the reification of self-indulgent insecurity. Which is fine if you really are just an angry kid, but it’s not ok if you’re actually a revolutionary anarchist. cool is theinternalization of commodity culture

jane asks “What do you think the face of a powerful activist
looks like?…What is the face of a joyful warrior?” i think it would a be a useful practice for white activists to discuss together the kinds of power we believe in, how power manifests and then what is the face and the gesture and the greeting  that goes with that?
In order to get past our emphasis on smartness, we might want to
collectively remember, precisely, how people became involved in (and left) our groups and what role issues of friendliness and comfort played.

And in critically reflecting on our relations with people and groups
outside our own, we may want to analyze to what extent we are driven by “discovering the other” in a responsible way, and to what extent are we driven by indifference and contempt masked as politics.

1 Much of the analysis that follows was performed jointly by Amory Starr and Rachel Luft. The method of analysis used was an intense distillation of perspectives. The version of anti-racism which was used to perform this distillation was not the anti-racism articulated from within the anti-globalization movement, but  instead  one  from  outside  it,  best  represented  by  the  influential  People’s  Institute
[], whose analyses were often present in (but not at all completely encompassing of) the anti-racist-anti-globalization discourse. Readers should be aware that references to anti-racist  perspective  below  are  not  descriptive  of anti-racist-anti-globalization  practice.  For  a  comprehensive view of anti-racist pedagogy, see Rachel Luft, Race Training: Antiracist Workshops in a Post-Civil  Rights  Era  Dissertation,  Department  of  Sociology,  University  of  California,  Santa  Barbara, September 2004.  Also see my “how can anti-imperialism not be anti-racist?: a critical impasse in the anti-globalization movement” in Journal of World Systems Research 10.1. Winter 2004.

3  Dan  Baron  Cohen,  “Beyond  the  barricade”  New  Internationalist  338  (September  2001).

4 Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. 1984: Crossing Press.

5 also see Frances Moore Lappe & Jeffrey Perkins, You have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear. 2004: Penguin)

6 see  Jurgen  Habermas,  “New  Social  Movements”.  Telos  49  (1981):  33.,  George  Katsiaficas,  The Subversion of Politics:  European  Autonomous Social Movements and  the Decolonization of  Everyday  Life.. 1997: Humanities  Press,  New  Jersey:  265.  Veronika  Bennholdt-Thomsen  &  Maria  Mies,  The  Subsistence
Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy. 1999: Zed Books, London.

7 Robert Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. 1985: UC Press.

8 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1991: Verso, London.

9 Robert Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. 1985: UC Press.

10  WTO 5th  ministerial, Cancun Mexico, 10-14 September 2003. FTAA negotiations, Miami FL, 19-21 November 2003.

11 Massimo de Angelis, “from movement to society” 109-124 in On Fire: The  battle of Genoa and the anti-capitalist movement. 2001: One-off Press: 118-119,124.

12 This fundamental difference leads anti-racist organizers to say “If we’re going to keep escalating the tactics, we’re going to keep turning people off to them.” [Dominick, ibid.] But this interpretation of anti-racism  is  not  without  its  critics.  Ward  Churchill  argues  that  pacifism  sometimes  indicates  a pathological  commitment  to  pacifism  rather  than  justice  (similar  to  activists  more  committed  to radicalism than organizing). [Pacifism as Pathology 1986 (1998): Arbeiter Ring, Winnipeg.] As noted by a  recent  collective  commentary,  tactical  moderacy  may  actually  normalize  white  middle  class perspectives. “But to realize our potential for building a mass movement requires, first and foremost, clarity as to who actually constitutes the ‘mainstream’ and why. The right, the corporate media and elite policy makers persist in painting ‘mainstream America’ as white and middle class. Even many white liberals cling to the notion that building a mass movement against war necessitates the use of techniques and  rhetoric  that  “don’t  scare  away”  middle  class  whites.”  [Numerous  Authors,  “Open  Letter  On Movement Building” February 21, 2003]

13 Rachel Luft, unpublished. 2003. Bernice Johnson Reagon, “My Black Mothers and Sisters Or On Beginning a Cultural Autobiography” Feminist Studies 8.1 (Spring 1982): 81-96.

14 Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body 1995: University of California Press.

15 Dick Pountain & David Robins, Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. 2000: Reaktion Books. PBS Frontline,  “The  Merchants  of  Cool”  by  Rachel  Dretzin  at


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