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An Open Letter to White "Anti-Racists"
And what we can do to resist racism
by Dana Williams

 

The purpose of this letter is to help those at UND who were in my very shoes about 6 years ago. I saw so many things wrong with the world, with my immediate surroundings and community, and even myself. I had no idea what to do about the things I saw, felt, and learned. I want to help those who see so many of the same things, but don't know how to "do something" about it. I want to help them find a way to resist injustice and fight for a better world.

Specifically this letter is about the nickname and logo situation at the University of North Dakota. It is directed at those who detest the existence of these anachronisms and the racism that support them.

Further, this letter is from someone who is now an outsider to Grand Forks and UND. Thus, I write this letter as someone who is passionately concerned about the racial condition of this community. Please accept my sincerest apologies if insult is felt for my thoughts and suggestions, or if I am perceived to be "out of order" for the following.

RACISM

It's extremely rare nowadays to discover someone who claims to be a racist. With the exception of Neo-Nazis and their ilk, most will never openly admit that they harbor racist thoughts, say racist things, or commit racist acts. But, does this mean that racism is not occurring? Of course not.

The nickname and logo at UND is often framed in terms of politeness, tradition, respect, and so forth. I think that this symptomatic approach ignores the true dynamic surrounding the issue: racism.

One can be polite while wearing the "Fighting Sioux" logo on a shirt, one can claim to be respecting Native traditions by saying "hey, I have a Native friend and he doesn't care", and one can debate in a respectful fashion why there's nothing wrong with the logo or nickname. This is all possible, but it is still racist behavior.

By ignoring the word "racism", we are sanitizing the issue. We are downplaying the seriousness of it. We are ignoring the horrible effects of it. We perpetuate misunderstanding about the issue and its seriousness. We obscure. We lie to ourselves when we think that the "Fighting Sioux" is not racist.

Racism is a serious charge and I don't think it should be wielded lightly. Yet, in this case, there are dozens of racist incidents, decades of humiliation, and centuries of genocide. Racism is a simple fact in this matter.

Labeling racism accomplishes the following:

Without seeing this, we risk more half-assed reforms and delay tactics (searching students for offensive shirts at games, promising "committees" and "commissions", etc.

ANTI-RACISM

Just as anyone can be a racist, anyone may also be an anti-racist. Yet, in order to be so, one must act. It is not merely enough to think something -- action must follow. If someone harbors racist thoughts, are they racist if they never act upon them? How is their racism to be judged? The same is true for an anti-racist... active resistance to racism is implied.

A person of color is essentially by default an anti-racist. Spending a lifetime being followed through stores by managers, pulled over by police, picked on by classmates, ostracized by neighbors, and mistrusted by nearly everyone sows the seeds of resistance. Whether a non-White person is a radical or one who shares such sentiments, most understand what is going on.

A White person, however, exists as an anti-racist in a different context. Since a White person benefits from racism in the same way that a man benefits from patriarchy and a straight person benefits from heterosexism, the culpability and responsibility is higher. It does not matter whether a White person actively engages in racism; what matters is that they work to prevent racism. By doing nothing, one is guilty by complacency, like an obedient German.

Further, a White anti-racist behaves differently. It is not prudent for Whites to tell non-Whites what is the "best way" to resist racism. That would be rude, inconsiderate, and, frankly, a perpetuation of White domination. Whites do not have the monopoly on resistance to oppression -- non-Whites all over the world have been doing it for much longer than Whites (through colonialization, Westward expansion, slavery, "Jim Crow", corporate globalization, etc.).

Thus, instead of assisting non-Whites directly, perhaps the best way anti-racist Whites can resist racism is by working to dismantle White Privilege. Therefore, a White anti-racist should attack the very institutions that give them (and their race) their supremacy.

Just as the radical feminist Emma Goldman said that men couldn't help women overcome their own internal repression, but they could help fight against external oppression -- i.e. fight patriarchy. A pro-feminist man can confront sexism in other men, challenge institutions that support patriarchy, and provide resources to women in their own struggle.

It is pretentious to assume that Whites can "save" people of color from racism. It is vital that the oppressed shrug off the chains of their own oppression -- self-determination requires this. In doing so, they gain the internal and collective power they need to gain equality and freedom within society. They do not need a gift from a benevolent force from above or from Whites.

The most important things a White anti-racist can do is listen to non-Whites, take their lead from the actions and words of those they fight for, and not hog the show. In truth, most actions by an anti-racist White will not be in a domain inhabited by people of color. Whites need to confront the members of their own ethnicity, encourage them to discard their White Privilege, and demand that they cease their oppressive behaviors.

NONVIOLENT ACTION

How does one fight racism? We should recognize that "fighting" racism does not mean duking it out in the streets against the Klan. Instead, racism should be fought through the methods utilized in some of the most earth-shattering and important struggles of the modern era -- nonviolence and direct action.

The tools of Gandhi and King are often popularly reduced to the tamest and least revolutionary elements. It is somewhat misleading to say that Gandhi and King were pacifists -- there was nothing "passive" about them. They were militant in their challenge of authority and domination.

The goal of nonviolent action is to destroy (yes, DESTROY) the legitimacy and the power of an injustice. Action is taken to publicly unveil the violence, oppression, and injustice of the powerful. By shedding light on their practices -- and through education, strategy, and mobilization -- activists work to bring society to a critical mass where the powerful cannot remain in power without making concessions. With overwhelming support, activists can undermine and even overrun the power of those in charge.

Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp notes three approaches for accomplishing social change: protest/persuasion, non-cooperation, and intervention.

The goal of protest is to persuade others (and hopefully the powerful) to change their opinions, ideas, policies, or actions in favor of the protesters. This is the safest and "mildest" category of nonviolent action. Protest allows us to voice our dissatisfaction with the status quo and work to gather popular support for change.

The goal of non-cooperation is to intentionally not aiding those who are doing things that the activist does not agree with. Non-cooperation is a step beyond protest, with one ceasing to participate in disagreeable activities. This could include refusing to pay taxes during an immoral war; refusal to work in an unjust, abusive, or dangerous work environment; or to withhold tuition or donations from greedy and intolerant universities.

Finally, the goal of intervention is to directly impede and prevent the actions that activists want changed. This is the riskiest and strongest category of nonviolent action. Intervention goes the final step beyond non-cooperation where the activist removes her/his support for the status quo, to directly working to stop the status quo's own actions. This is the proverbial "throw your body on the gears" philosophy. This may include sit-ins, economic sabotage, physical blockading, hunger striking, and anything else that directly challenges the legitimacy of the powerful.

STRATEGIES TO RESIST RACISM

So, how does this pertain to UND's situation? How can these ideas be applied to helping to "save" (or salvage) the anti-nickname movement? How can activists both stem the tide of dying organizations and do movement building?

There's no formula, but here are three strategic things to consider (along with brief examples for how to accomplish them):

  1. Outreach: Lots of it. Go to the meetings of other groups. Speak in classes when profs invite you to speak. Make fliers, pass them out at anywhere moderately-friendly, hit-up new student orientation and freshman classes (who are most receptive before "school pride" sets-in). Go outside of UND to other schools, other cities, and other states. Rev-up support for pressuring UND from outside.
  2. Be visible: Be very public. Let everyone know that whenever the issue comes up, there will be embarrassing noise. Make public statements all the time. If Kupchella mumbles something, issue a press release about it. Create a newspaper, newsletter, or zine that tells YOUR version of the facts -- especially if the Dakota Student and the Grand Forks Herald can't seem to do it themselves. Have a visible presence everywhere on campus: fliers posted (and wheatpasted!), signs in windows, chalk on the ground, vigilers in front of the Strinden Building, etc. Make sure that at every press conference that UND holds, there is a countering question from someone asking about the racial climate on campus. Use humor. Lots of it.
  3. Take action!: A lot of organizations seem to go dead because the membership no longer sees the purpose of the group; it doesn't accomplish anything. The best way I know of to change this is to just do something... anything! A group needs action: something to mobilize for, something to be inspired by, something to have fun with and enjoy, something that challenges power and authority. This could be done by any kind of direct action: protest, ceremonial buryings, guerrilla theater, banner droppings (from buildings, bridges, etc.), sit-ins, strikes, occupations, fasts, mock trials... Action will often provoke reaction. Go on the offensive!

These three things blend together at various points. Organization building is tough, it requires discipline, and takes lots of time writing email and talking on the phone. It also relies on efficient, democratic (such as utilizing consensus-decision making), and productive meetings.

TACTICS TO RESIST RACISM

Here is a sampling of tactical ideas to resist racism and specifically the usage of Native logos/nicknames. They include all three levels of nonviolent action. I humbly make these suggestions with my own White Privilege in mind. This is brainstorm material only:

Yet, since racists and racist institutions rarely cede power on their own, it is necessary to make sure that external pressure is applied (in addition to internal pressure):

Finally, here are some suggestions specifically intended for White anti-racists. There are many ways that Whites can take action that directly affect racism, without risk to people of color:

It is possible that any number of these ideas may be undesirable for reasons of timing, taste, risk, or preference. Finally, since this is an "open letter", add your own thoughts and ideas to it. Don't just accept my interpretations -- make justice your own personal quest!

 

In solidarity,
Dana Williams
Class of 1999