Tonight Carp and I attended the monthly SURJ (Standing Up For Racial Justice) meeting, the topic of tonight’s meeting was exploring one’s own self interest in being involved with anti-racist work. SURJ is like a support group for people confronting their own whiteness, and how to move forward as anti-racist activists in our society that is created to privilege white people. White people are the ones benefiting from a racist, so it also makes sense that they should play a part in dismantling it. SURJ’s philosophy is that anti-racist work is not to be done by people of color only. However, SURJ is held accountable and works closely with communities of color, and takes guidance and leadership from People of Color led movements in organizing.
Walking into the church where the meeting is held, we were asked to fill out name tags with our preferred pronouns (i.e. she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs) written underneath our names. As we settle into our seats in the church pews, the speaker standing at the front of the room begins by reminding us that the group is trying to move away from a “language of assumptions”. We are reminded to ask, and to listen.
Carp and I snuck two thermoses of hazelnut coffee into the church by hiding them in my purse, and began to sip on our hot beverages once we made it to the safety of our pew. We began by getting to know a couple people around us, and I ran into a few people I had previously met through the refugee resettlement agency. Carp and I formed a group with Gus, a bearded Christian biker sitting next to us.
Led by the prompts on the screen and the speakers’ encouragement, we began by talking about when we first noticed “whiteness.” The prompts were intentionally vague. The speaker begins the discussion by telling her own personal story of realizing that she lived in a white world, which she realized through small things such as being assured that when she bought band aids at the store, she could be sure that they would match her skin tone. This world was built for people who looked like her to move in and out of it safely and she “didn’t have to see race because she could afford not to.”
The speakers also told about her first experience working in a predominantly black community. She was reading all kinds of books about the black experience in America, trying to figure out how to do her job and understand the people she was working with to the best of her ability. Her African American boss told her one day to put the books down and just be there with people. Don’t assume anything: continue to ask questions, but just be there and start doing. They would call her out when she was heading in the wrong direction.
In my small group I brought up the first time I could remember noticing my own whiteness. I grew up in a predominantly white community, and the first time I remember seeing a majority of people of color was when I went to the local college basketball game as a little kid. This was the first time I can remember of recognizing my own skin color, and deeply wondering what it would be like to be a different skin color.
The next speaker spoke about the concept of self interest. Was it a positive, or a negative thing? People in the audience were unsure, but a few more hands raised in favor of negative. The speaker then began to break down a few archetypes of people:
Selfish people are only in relationship with themselves. Because of this, they cannot be trusted by other people, because they sometimes seek to manipulate others for their own gain. Selfishness has been used by oppressive forces in the past.
Selfless people are not in a relationship with themselves. They are adrift, disconnected, can be manipulated easily and have a high risk of burn out. Selflessness has been used as an oppressive tool in the past, making people feel that they can put up with bad things because they don’t deserve anything more.
Self Interest is being yourself in relationship to other people in ways that don’t violate your own values. Self Interest is deeper than your own wants and needs, because it comes from core values and the manifestation of actively living out those values. Self interest is about knowing your own values, and seeking to be in relationship with others who share those values.
Pushing an activist agenda does not always come from a pure place of self interest, and coming from a selfish or selfless mindset it can hurt the activist movement. You want to be able to critically look at your own interests and go inward to find why you are getting involved in a certain type of activism, so that you can build it up instead of tear it down.
We were then asked to talk about our own self interest as a group, and reflect on what actually brought us here tonight using radical honesty.
“What drives you to do anti-racist work, and what was the tipping point for you from being a passive observer in the movement to a ‘participant?”
So many people in the audience said that Ferguson was the catalyst for them to take an active role in change. One person commented that he believed we live in a post scarcity world, but we have failed the moral test. We are holding the resources back with a brand of tribalism manifesting in racism. Being angry at the world was in his self interest, and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As Maya Angelou said: “You should always be angry, you should never be bitter.”
Knowing your needs so that you can’t be burnt out, but you also don’t need to be hoard surplus when you have enough: activist sustainability. Find your self interest.
Mutual Self Interest
Mutual interest is moving from the place of being a “helper” for others, and now realizing that there is a shared mutual interest for change because your own self interest is intimately tied to the self interest of communities of color being targeted by a white supremacy culture. Mutual interest is realizing that you’re not going to “save” anyone with your own ideas, but rather you should begin to listen to marginalized communities, and put into action changes in your own life by their leadership and listening to their experiences.
“What part of your own self interest is inextricably intertwined with self interests of people who are oppressed by our culture?”
In my small group with Gus and Carp I said I thought respect drove me. I want other people to respect me and treat me decently, and so it drives me crazy when society acts like certain people don’t deserve as much respect.
“It’s like whales saving seals from orcas. There are endorphins and feel good chemicals released when we do something outside of our own self interest, and for another because we believe they deserve the same chance as us,” Gus commented in a quotable metaphor.
We need to know our own interests, and realize it’s okay to have our own interests.
Where do we go from here?
I think authenticity is addicting. The more you go inward and question yourself in addition to questioning the world around you, the easier it becomes to communicate your thoughts, and it encourages others to do the same.
Gus shook our hands before we left,
“Will I see you back here?”
“We’ll be back,” we say as we scoot out of the pew and into the summer night air, finishing off the last of our hazelnut coffees. Monthly SURJ meetings are helping me become a better white person. The revolution starts internally.