I was a white ally

Not that I’m not one today, I suppose. But last Tuesday I had the experience of standing up in a group of about a dozen people and so identifying myself at Occupy Boston’s General Assembly. We were responding to racial tensions which had culminated that morning, for better or for worse, in a Boston Metro headline: “Racial Rift at Occupy?” You can read the story here, though, like all front-page articles in the Metro, it is a mere vestigial limb of the headline. It also misspells the name of Blackstonian publisher Jamarhl Crawford—a name which various people on Occupy Boston e-mail lists (myself included) had proven themselves incapable of spelling during the firestorm that led to the article in the first place.

The allies were introduced by members of the People of Color working group, who then stood back and let us speak, the idea being that people of color should not have to take responsibility for explaining white privilege to a bunch of white people. Several allies spoke eloquently about the need to address racism and other issues of oppression within the movement, and challenged the idea that “talking about racism divides us” (see the minutes for an impressionistic sketch). Among their points:

  • The 99% is not homogenous, and pretending that it is will silence voices that need to be heard.
  • Patterns of privilege replicate themselves in a vacuum. That is, if we don’t actively think and educate ourselves about oppression, it will occur again and again in the structures we are setting up for ourselves.
  • We are a microcosm of the larger society, and we have the larger society’s problems.

A young woman named N. strode forward and took the people’s mic. She began by telling the GA what she had heard around camp that day. Because the call-and-response pattern of the people’s mic often sounds like poetry, I’ll reproduce what I remember here as free verse:

This is what I heard from my friends
from people I trust
I heard
“I’m not racist—BUT”
                “I’m not racist—BUT”
If you’re not racist
there is no but
I heard
“Occupy is not racist”
I heard
“Talking about racism is racist”
I’m not too proud
to admit I’m not perfect
It’s high time Occupy did the same.