Source - https://www.indymedia.nl/node/23743
Analysis on the abuse of the critical whiteness theory
I decided to take part in the March for Freedom 2014. Due to responsibilities at home, I knew I wasn’t able to participate during the whole March, from Strasbourg to Bruxelles. So I decided to join the March during the week that it would cross Luxembourg. On one hand, I would be able to join for two border crossings and several actions, on the other hand I would join for a period of time, perhaps less spectacular than the start or the end of the March, where there would possibly be more need for attention and support.
Together with several people from the Netherlands, both documented and undocumented, we joined the March in Perl (Germany), right before the first border crossing at Schengen (Luxembourg). I was happy to see strong actions at Schengen, the town from which so much of the migrants’ suffering migrants originates.
The Schengen Convention monument was decorated with barbed wire and fake blood, symbolizing the pain and death of all those who are excluded at the outer borders of the European Union and whose pain and death are ‘legitimized’ by this Schengen Convention. Fences were walked over, two huge banners with the text ‘Frontex kills’ were dropped from the roof of the Europe Museum at Schengen. The majority of the community of the March crossed the border by walking the bridge between Perl and Schengen, but a small courageous group of migrants crossed the Moselle in a rubber boat. Courageous, yes, not so much for the strong river currents, but because it takes a huge amount of courage to deliberately re-live a traumatizing situation that once endangered your life. It was a very, very, intense moment.
Good communities though, are not only bound in struggle and actions against this system; they also actively construct an alternative community where people live together according to the ideals and ideas we have on a better world. So, there was music, singing, dancing, hugging and comforting each other. In the evenings, we shared food and good conversations. As someone said: “We have all the resources we need to build, to eat, to drink and enjoy life together”.
This community building, to me, is an essential part of the struggle against capitalism, anti-migration policies and exclusion that we encounter in today’s system in all of its different appearances. We cannot live by fighting only; we need the community building in order to be healed, empowered and to experience life in the beauty it was meant to be lived.
But this is where it all went wrong – in my view. Because the community I found at the March turned out to be not only different but even the opposite of the community that I expected, based on the principles of equality, non-domination, non-exclusion and non-violence.
Instead of this, I found a community that installed a strong culture of power abuse, inequality, obstinate hierarchy, assumptions based on skin color and paper status, and that was willing to maintain this culture with substantial verbal and social violence.
This culture was absolutely not sustained by all the members of the temporary community of the March and most certainly not by the undocumented migrant participants of the March. But the dominance of a small group within that community was of so much influence, that it definitely ‘marked’ the community itself.
Before analyzing what the elements of this dominance are, let’s take a look at what I mean by this ‘small group’.
The people of this group were mainly white. But ‘mainly white’ doesn’t mean a lot. Not every white person was dominating and not every dominating person was white. ‘White’ is therefore an irrelevant description.
As far as I understood, all people of this group were documented supporters. But here also applies: not every documented participant of the March community was dominant and some of the dominating persons had a migrant background.
I’m not too familiar with the German activist scene, but as far as I understood, most people of this group come from Berlin. Once again, this is not an appropriate description of the group, as on one side, I don’t have the slightest idea where certain people come from as, on the other side, I have also spoken to people from Berlin who disagreed on the imposed dominance of this small group.
So, even if this group, at first sight, would look like ‘white documented activists from Berlin’, I refuse to step in the trap of describing it like this – as, by doing so, I would join the increasing group of world-wide morons that generalize, label and exclude without having a proper view on the origin of a problem.
The origin of the dominance doesn’t find itself in being white, being documented or coming from Berlin. It has a different root. Just as the problem of this dominance is not exclusively reserved to the temporary community of the March for Freedom, but part of a bigger problem, a devastating development within the activist scene. It is the development around the discourse of critical whiteness, white dominance and the power of definition.
The discussion of critical whiteness and mechanisms of white dominance is, in itself, a very legitimate and necessary discussion. I would even say it is crucial to the success of the movement, let there be no doubt about that. The problem I encountered within the community of the March, was that this discourse was used by this small group as a tool to appropriate power for themselves over the whole community and to maintain this power by all means. Where the critical whiteness discussion should be an instrument to raise awareness about power abuse, it became the legitimizing excuse to silence critics and possible opponents to that power abuse. Brought as an political and social ideal, but serving other goals than those related to the benefit of the whole group or the building of a safe community.
Rather than describing this dominating group by generalizing untrue descriptions, I would prefer to describe it as the self-righteous critical whiteness group.
In this article, I would like to take a look at the very valuable and important issues within this discussion of critical whiteness – issues that we definitely need to be aware of and that need to be changed – but also at the point where the whole discussion gets corrupted and how the discussion is abused as a power tool, finally reproducing the same system we are fighting against.
Why do I want to do this? Not because I’m angry. I was angry for the first two hours when I left. The anger has gone now. Even the disappointment has gone. What is left is a genuine anxiety on the effects of this development on the (activist) community and our common struggle against capitalism, exclusion and alienation.
The foresight of this effect matters to me. A lot. As much as the struggle does, as much as the community does.
So, which elements of domination did I encounter at the community of the March of Freedom?
The dominance of those who speak during assemblies.
I suppose most of us have witnessed it at least once: in an assembly or action meeting of both undocumented and documented people, we speak together during the first hour, but then somehow, the documented people always take over the discussions during the assembly. Undocumented speakers tend to be ignored by the facilitators/moderators, are often interrupted, see the content of their message ‘received’ in an embarrassing attitude of ‘we can hear you but we do not listen’ and on top of this, the delay of translation is repeatedly not taken into account with the speed of the discussion.
This is a real problem. On both sides – the side of the eager-to-speak white activist and the side of the undocumented speaker forced into passivity– awareness needs to be raised. But awareness is not enough, as the same pattern shows up time and time again. Realizing after three hours of discussion that all migrants have left or became silent and then explicitly inviting them to speak is not enough; the damage has already been done, once again. Apparently, the pattern of white dominance is stronger than common sense and well-mannered communication.
I myself contribute to this problem as well. I can have a strong opinion, I can have a thousand ideas at the same time and I’m not too shy to speak in public. I often tend to take too much speaking time in assemblies (or any other type of discussion). So yes, I do define myself as a dominant speaker and I would do both myself as the rest of the world a great favour if I learn to step back just as easily as I speak up. I’m aware of the fact that part of my tendency to dominate during discussion is probably a result of decades of induced white privileges: I was taught to speak up, to be convinced of my independence and, after a whole bunch of struggles, was able to study and get a job in education, which certainly influenced the easiness I experience while speaking in public. But am I only the product of my privileges? No, I have my personality as well. Being eager to speak in a discussion if I think I have something valuable to contribute is most certainly also a part of my character. Just as being stubborn and questioning authority or statements taken for granted. Sometimes this is actually valuable, sometimes I should simply shut the fuck up.
Back to the problem of white dominance in discussions in general: during one of the assemblies at the March for Freedom a proposal for a solution came up: refugees speak first. If five people raise their hand because they want to speak about an item and three of them are refugees, then they speak first. It worked until some point. The good thing about it was that like this, a secured place in time was deliberately created for the migrants, enabling them to lead the discussion. The disadvantage was that it created sometimes a lot of confusion (for the participants as well as for the moderator). It rarely happens that five hands are raised at the same time in a discussion; most of the time the hands are raised one by one during the discussion and then it is very difficult to determine who is about to speak and who’s not.
But the biggest problem of this solution was that it was not applied properly. The moderator – someone of the self-righteous critical whiteness group – did not or hardly allow white activists who were not part of the dominant group to speak, while white activists that were part of this dominant group were allowed to speak freely, even if several migrants were waiting for their turn. Now, this is sheer dominance. It had nothing to do with the original problem or the proposed solution. In this case, it was not used to create a secured speaking time for the migrants, but as a technique to withhold the power about the speakers during an assembly and therefore about the content of the assembly as well.
This way, from an instrument to create more balance, it was turned into a tool to shut up and silence people who were likely to disagree with the dominating group.
A much better solution to the original problem of imbalance was proposed by the subcommunity of the migrants within the March itself, as they as well were aware of the fact that white dominance was rising during the assemblies. It was more than a proposal; it was a decision taken. At the start of the assembly of Wednesday, when one of the supporters wanted to open the assembly, one of the migrants said: “We decided that from now on, the moderator of an assembly will be one of the migrants.”
I thought that was a very good idea. If the moderator is one of the migrants, the odds will be much bigger that the moderator will be aware of rising imbalance, delay problems because of the translation and that speaking time is secured for those amongst the migrants who want to speak, but tend to be reserved. All this without any imposed hierarchy or confusion about who’s to speak, who’s not and whose turn it is, but in a more fluid and natural way. It might not have solved the whole problem, but it would have been very much worth trying, as the assembly would flow according to the normal interaction between a moderator and the participants of an assembly.
I was shocked to see that the decision of the migrants was deliberately ignored. The person who, at that time, gave himself the role of moderator, was someone from the self-righteous critical whiteness group. Although the migrant immediately informed him about the decision of the migrants, this person just replied: “I have a migrant background. It is okay if I do it.” It wasn’t even a question, it was an imposed statement. Several people of the dominant group rushed to express their agreement and then the assembly was opened, while ignoring the decision of the migrants and not taking into account the delay of the translation, so that the migrants didn’t even have the time to respond.
People of this dominating group have been heavily insisting on the statement that decisions should be made by migrants only. So to me, it was very weird to see how a fundamental decision like this, coming from the migrants and offering a solution to a severe problem, was swept away. Do the migrants take the decisions or do they get to take the decisions when they are told to do so?
To me, it was one of the confirmations that here, the discourse of critical whiteness was not used to abolish white dominance, but to maintain the power of the dominant group.
An even more worrying attitude came from some people of the self-righteous critical whiteness group, stating that ‘supporters should not talk at all during assemblies’.
I strongly oppose to this idea. To me, it is essential that all participants of an assembly are free to speak. All of them, as we are all equal. Yes, there might be restrictions on what someone says according to the principles of common sense and respectful communication, for example if someone repeats what has already been said or if someone is personally offensive. But these restrictions apply to each participant. Within the frame of common sense and respectful communication, there should be no restrictions and most certainly no restrictions based on colour of skin, country of origin or paper status. This type of restrictions would only reproduce exactly the same type of exclusion we are fighting against!
Besides, this technique of ‘supporters should not speak at all during assemblies would probably, after a while, have a very nasty side-effect. As every human being has the need to communicate, express and organize, it is most likely that small groups of thus silenced people would start to have off-assembly meetings. Regardless of the fact of the content of these meetings would be productive or not, it would blur and therefore disturb the overall communication even more. It is one step away from separate meetings – as actually happened several times during the March – and that separation would be very similar to the exclusion imposed by nowadays system.
Within the assembly, different views originating from different perspectives are not only welcome, they are an essential element and necessary to enrich and elaborate the discussions and the process of inner development that should follow. There is a beautiful Dari expression saying that ‘the most beautiful gardens are the ones with many different flowers’. Diversity, in content, composition of the participants, languages, ways of speaking is essential to good community building. An assembly should be a reflection of the community: therefore, freedom for diversion in the assembly is essential.
Dominance in the process of taking action.
During the supporters-only assembly, the same assembly where the proposal of ‘refugees speak first’ was done, several people of the self-righteous critical whiteness group expressed that supporters should not bring in ideas for actions. The explanation of above statement was that, after all, it is the struggle of the migrants (and the migrants only) so they should be the ones initiating actions.
Just like the problem of white dominance during assemblies, there is actually a real and undeniable problem of white dominance during the process of creating and organizing actions. Without generalizing, I often saw migrants speaking a lot about the necessity of actions but as soon as it comes up to concrete plans, mostly white documented activists take over. They bring in ideas, list needed materials, mobilize and organize. Even worse, sometimes the migrants are just given paint and brushes and are asked to make the needed banners.
This IS bad, definitely. It subconsciously reproduces an ‘organizing class’ and a ‘working class’
and it is NOT by coincidence that the border between these classes is ethnic as well.
It is exactly one of those mechanisms that shows that the white dominance discussion is legitimate and why active awareness raising is needed. Why change is needed and even a strong requirement for the movement.
This change however, can never take place if we only reverse these mechanisms. These mechanisms need to be abolished. The proposal of the self-righteous white dominance group as in ‘actions should be initiated by migrants only’ is nothing but a reversal of the mechanism. In the white dominance mechanism, the migrants are excluded from creating and conceptualizing actions. In the migrants only mechanism, non-migrants are excluded from bringing in ideas and organizing. Both mechanisms are based on (ethnic or status) exclusion, therefore reproducing precisely the exclusion that the movement claims to fight.
In theory the mechanism was reversed by the idea that proposals for actions should only be done by migrants. But in reality, it was not even the case. A number of actions done in Schengen, were not initiated by the migrants, but by people of the dominant group. The day before the actions in Luxembourg, I noticed that small groups of people of the dominant group were discussing action possibilities and that migrants were not part of these discussions. At the same time, concrete proposals for actions coming from people not being part of the dominant group, were ignored. In my case, I was told not to try to organize an action that I proposed the day before during the action meeting, even though a number of refugees responded positively to the idea and even though a small group of people was willing to organize the practical part of the action.
In the element of dominance during assemblies the political argument was used to secure the power of the self-righteous critical whiteness group. In the element of dominance in action taking, the same tactic is used: the dominance of the small group is ensured and diversity is minimized. What bothers me, is the hypocrisy of the tactic. Of course it is not stated explicitly that the dominant group wants to secure its power – this would raise too much opposition. In stead, it is carefully wrapped and hidden in a political and ideological statement. Like this, it’s almost impossible to criticize it, as ‘opponents’ are immediately blamed of undermining the political and ideological statement of critical whiteness.
To me, this tactic reminds me too much of those of established political parties – and all the crap that comes with them.
Apart from the hypocrisy of this tactic, the idea of ‘actions should be initiated by migrants only’ also has a nasty side effect. It weakens the protest and might at some moments even paralyze it. By excluding participants of the March in the process of initiating actions, a non-negligible amount of the potential of the March’s protest is left unused. The community of the March has, in all its diversity, a huge potential for different actions; from lobbying to direct action, from fun stuff to radical actions, from speeches and poetry to strongly visual and symbolic actions. Once again, diversity is the key, not only for a healthy community but also for a strong movement.
If we want our actions to be seen, heard, understood and supported, we need to be aware of the fact that people need to be able to identify themselves with actions. This goes for both sides: activists (migrant or non-migrant) need to be able to identify themselves with a type of action, but the people outside the March also need to be able to ‘connect’ themselves to what they experience in meeting the March. People who have no means to recognize a part of themselves in an action they do or experience, will not feel connected and will not support it nor talk about it. As every person is unique, every person will have her or his own specific need for connection: the ones who will turn away from radical actions might be convinced by poetry, the ones not interested in lobbying might be grasped by the emotion of a symbolic action.
Using the full, diverse potential of the movement of the March will therefore allow more people to feel connected to the cause of the March and will at the same time, enable the participants of the March to express themselves in a way that is close to their own personality, experience and character, thus empowering the whole movement. So, do not exclude diversity.
Dominance in ‘owning’ a protest
One of the arguments used by the self-righteous critical whiteness group to put other supporters that were not part of the dominant group aside was: ‘It is not our struggle. It is the migrants’ struggle and theirs only.’ There are three reasons why I think that this is an inappropriate argument.
The first reason is quite simple: nobody owns a protest. Each – unique! – participant in the movement will protest according to her or his own reasons, history, emotions and vision. Even when you start a protest on your own and experience the joy of other people joining this protest, it does not make you ‘master’ or ‘owner’ of the protest. Why would you want to control other peoples voices within a protest, if it is not somehow just for your own dominance?
The second reason is that this argument once again reproduces an artificial separation between migrants and non-migrants, already expressed in the use of the words ‘our’ and ‘their’. It reduces the role of non-migrants to supporters, ignoring and devaluing the reasons non-migrants might have to protest firmly against nowadays migrant policies. I’m a non-migrant (at this moment in my life). Out of solidarity I joined the migrant struggle. But this is not the only reason: I also joined this struggle because I strongly oppose to the deterioration of this world through borders, exclusion, violence, racism, hatred, alienation, ignorance, repression and last but not least capitalism. I oppose to these mechanisms because they hurt and destroy this world, because they hurt and destroy the ones I love and cherish and by that because they hurt and destroy me as well.
My children and my grandson all have a European background and ID documents. Thus, they are privileged. Yet, do I want them grow up in a society that poisons them with the idea that this is normal and logic, just and right? No! No, no, no!
So whenever I participate in a demonstration, take action, lock and block, speech and write, it is never only ‘for the migrants’, but just as much for me, my children, their children. Our common world. From this perspective, I honestly don’t understand white and documented supporters that say that it is not their struggle, but the migrants’ struggle only. If you cannot see that there is something profoundly wrong with ‘your world’ as well and integrate that ‘something’ into your personal protest, then you still have a very limited view on the origins and consequences of the migrant struggle.
As I stated, each person might have different reasons to join the protest. Some, like me, might define themselves as fully part of the protest. Others might see this struggle as not their own and consider themselves as supporters only. In the respectful approach of different backgrounds and motivations, even if I don’t understand this point of view, it is certainly not up to me to value or devalue this personal view. This means that it is also not to someone else to minimize or devalue my motivation.
Now finally, back to the self-righteous critical whiteness group and their argument that this struggle is the migrants’ only. In the above I mentioned two points about the content of this argument. But the major reason why I think that this argument is inappropriate, is not in the content, but finds its origin in the way it is used by the dominant group.
In the almost two years that I’m involved in the migrant struggle – on daily bases – I’ve never met a migrant who told me that this was not my struggle and that I should function as a supporter and no more. I’ve spoken many times with migrants who emphasized the importance of full participation of the migrants in the movement and I can only agree on this. The discourse was always including, never excluding.
Within the community of the March for Freedom, it was not one of the migrants who stated that this was their struggle only. It was one of the people of the dominant group that made the statement.
This creates a weird situation. Let’s analyze. Person A (of the dominant group) tells person B (not of the dominant group) that person C (of the migrants) is ‘the authority’, even though person C doesn’t claim to be the authority. So apparently, person A not only overrules person B by imposing an authority, but also overrules person C, denying him/her the right to decide for him/herself on the matter of authority and disabling communication between person B and C about it.
Who does person A thinks he or she is?
The dominance of unshared knowledge
When the details of the possible blockade at Luxembourg were talked over, one of the migrants expressed his concern of the risks of arrest for undocumented people during this action. The balance between risks and radical were talked through and someone of the legal group (part of the dominant group as well) explained more about risks, rights and support.
I proposed to do a workshop on mutual protection and de-arrest, as I’ve done before in several migrant and activist communities and, according to the reactions, the proposal was positively welcomed during the assembly.
Then, during the assembly’s break, five people of the self-righteous critical whiteness group came to see me. Their message was clear: I was not supposed to do (or even propose) a workshop, as the hierarchy experienced between a ‘teacher’ and ‘pupils’ was yet another proof of my white dominance tendency. The whole idea of a workshop was pure white dominance. One could, eventually, get together to share knowledge, but this should definitely not be done in some workshop-like format. It didn’t matter anymore if I tried to explain that the workshop is always done in close interaction between all participants, sharing their experiences, knowledge and skills: it was wrong and I was not supposed to do it.
This was the point when I decided that I didn’t want to be part of this community anymore. Autonomy and collectivity are fundamental in my vision of life and sharing knowledge is essential to both principles. If even sharing knowledge was wrong in their eyes, then… then this was definitely not something I wanted to be part of.
The thing that bothers me most in this was that it was turned down without the consent of the migrants. As I said, during the assembly, the migrants responded in a positive way to the idea of the workshop. As I have done this workshop several times before, I know that the knowledge and the practices are useful. But is was turned down in the name of the ideology of white dominance. Nobody asked the migrants if they considered it as white dominance. None of the migrants came to me (or as far as I know, anyone else) to say that it was white dominance. It was rejected in their name without them even knowing it and without their consent –as if they were not able to decide for themselves.
This attitude would be arrogant concerning any subject, but if the subject is explicitly about dominance, then it is not only arrogant, but it’s pure hypocrisy.
This is what I mean when I say that within this abuse of the critical whiteness’ discussion, the same mechanics we are fighting against are reproduced.
The problem of dominance of unshared knowledge also appeared within the field of organizing actions at locations during the March. Details of the route and possible action locations were not clear and if shared, they were shared at the last moment, which made it almost impossible to organize good actions in time. At Luxembourg this was painfully clear: there was an action at the detention center and (the next day) at the summit of the Ministers of Interior, but there was too little time to organize an action at the asylum seekers center there or at the office of Eurodac. Specially for the latter it was a pity, as Eurodac is the place where all the fingerprints are digitally stored.
In both examples (turning down the workshop and withholding information about action locations) crucial information was not shared with the migrants. If, according to the self-righteous critical whiteness group, decisions were to be made by migrants only, then the least of things to be taken care of is that the migrants have all the information that is needed to take decisions.
What went wrong?
So, I observed – and experienced! – dominance in speaking during assemblies, throughout the process of initiating and organizing actions, the ‘ownership’ of a protest and in information sharing. During the Rotterdam No Border Camp 2013, I more or less encountered the same dominance in the same elements.
In the past year, the discussion of critical whiteness entered activist scenes in the Netherlands too. And the division caused by the excesses of this discussion starts to get more and more visible.
On one hand, there is an increasing self-righteous critical whiteness discourse, on the other hand, some activists get kind of allergic to the whole topic and don’t even want to speak about critical whiteness anymore.
The theory of critical whiteness was not invented to cause division. It is a tool of self-reflection, necessary for change, and there are many subconscious patterns that show that the discussion in itself is a very legitimate one.
So what went wrong?
In my point of view, it’s the same mechanism that is able to corrupt any religion or political ideology. In stead of a tool of self-reflection, needed for a change on a personal level, it is abused and imposed on others.
There might be nothing wrong with someone believing in some kind of God. But it goes wrong from the moment that this person tells everybody that this God is the one and only and that everybody should believe in this God.
Someone might be socialist, communist, anarchist, liberal – that is a personal choice and it should never be more than that. The moment you start telling other people what to be, you are imposing a process, a vision.
A tool of self-reflection needs to be used for self-reflection. Observe yourself… can you find hidden patterns of colonialism in your own behaviour? Then change your own behaviour. Sharing your thoughts and experiences during this process of inner change with others is very worthwile – it helps others to start their own process.
But if we fall into the trap of using this discussion to endlessly criticize each other, obstructing each other and imposing this process to others, we recreate dominance. Not in an explicit way, but hidden into a political ideology, which makes it even harder to recognize, acknowledge and fight. We recreate exclusion, hierarchy, inequality. We recreate a response of defiance to that. And in the end, this will recreate war – with different opponents, but war anyway.
It is the opposite of what the theory of critical whiteness was supposed to attain.
So, let’s self-reflect.
As simple as that?
Yes, as simple as that.