… and the Horcrux Strategy for Collective Liberation”
Chris Crass at the Washington Ethical Society, Oct 14, 2015
Chris Crass holds a strong voice in activist community and inter-faith communities both here and in Canada. adrienne maree brown (Co-editor, Octavia’s Brood), gives a wonderful introduction to Chris’s work in her endorsement of his latest book:
“White supremacy is an overwhelming crisis for humanity, one that is making it impossible for any human to evolve in right relationship with the planet and the species. It has not, and will not, be resolved merely by Black and other non-white people fighting for a change – it must be unlearned, relinquished by those who walk with the privileges of whiteness. Chris Crass has been stepping up into leadership in this work in ways that reach beyond ally, all the way to comrade. I know he does the work not to be politically correct, or down with people of color, but because his soul demands it.”
This article is a lightly modified transcription of a talk Chris gave at the Washington Ethical Society last fall. The full audio is embedded below.
It’s beautiful to be here with the Ethical Society. It’s beautiful to be with a congregation on the move for justice. We live in Black Lives Matter times. We live in times where people are taking to the streets, people who’ve been told “your voice, your lives do not matter. Your voices, your leadership is insignificant.” Working class black communities in Ferguson, Baltimore, and all around the country are saying: “We will not bow to supremacy systems. We will not have our lives taken without resistance.” The racist violence we’re seeing in the news is not new. It’s the resistance and people taking the streets and people saying “No more!” that has caused the headlines all over the country to be filled with the news of the latest racist violence, or the news of right wing reaction to Black Lives Matter. You’re seeing this? You’re feeling it? I know you are because you’re a congregation that’s involved.
Black Lives Matter times means that structural inequality, things that have always been right there below the surface, are being brought to the fore for the whole country to have to engage with, to have to see. Choices have to be made about what side of history we stand on. Many of us look back at different points in history when movements have been on the move and say, “I would’ve been on the right side. I would’ve been an abolitionist. I would’ve been a sit in activist”, and many of you were involved in the 60’s and 70’s. But it’s often easier to look back and assume that we would’ve been on the right side of history than to be on the right side of history when it’s happening now and it’s complicated.
We live in times where being on the right side of history requires courage and communities of courage. That’s why it’s beautiful to be with a community engaged in creating action for Black Lives Matter. And it’s an ongoing commitment, an ongoing struggle, to stay involved. When I think about my own experience, as a white young person being raised in this society, when it came to race the most vocal white voices were the racists. The white people that could talk the most passionately, articulately, and consistently, with no fear, were the racists in my family and in my community. The white people who wanted to be on the right side of history were often terrified to talk about race, afraid to say the wrong thing, awkward and confused, but good-hearted white people. You with me?
It’s understandable, because white supremacy is an unconscious agenda moving forward. So if you’re a white person that says, “I’m just trying to do my thing, race isn’t my issue” you are on the conveyor belt, fully supporting the white supremacist agenda. You’re either actively saying “I choose to engage in anti-racist work in my society and my community”, or society will perfectly fit you into reproducing white supremacy every day. You with me?
How many of you woke up today and said, “You know what, I really want to reproduce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy today; I want to make sure those systems are fully functional.” How many of you woke saying, “It’s another day to further oppression!” – ? We don’t. We wake up and we want to be justice loving people. But it’s not just about good-hearted people; it’s about institutions and culture and policies and laws and the way the economy is built.
Anti-black racism is not an attitude. It is the foundation of the economy of this country. It’s the foundation of the political system of this country. Confronting anti-black racism is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, challenging it, calling out how deeply embedded it is in the foundation of the United States. You with me? Calling this out requires courage. Because white people and folks of color internalize racism, internalize the logic of the system, and to stay in this movement we have to fight against it; all of us have to fight against the logic of racism and white supremacy that impacts our lives and our communities.
When you step off that conveyor belt that’s moving you towards furthering white supremacy, it’s a little shaky – you’re legs are wobbly; you’re unsure of the ground you’re standing on. It can be awkward and confusing and the next thing you know everything you do seems to be a mistake. Am I right? It requires courage.
Part Two: Los Angeles Burning
I remember for myself as a young person, I really came of consciousness in the early nineties with the Rodney King verdict. Those of you who were around then remember the Rodney King verdict. It was 1992; an African-American motorist who was speeding got pulled over, late at night, and was brutally beaten by four white police officers while a much larger ring of officers stood around keeping a perimeter. It was videotaped; the video went viral.
As a young person I thought, well of course, justice will be served. Even as an activist (I was politicized early) I thought, “The officers got caught on tape; they will be charged.” I was 18 years old. The trial was moved to a courthouse thirty minutes from where I lived, to the white middle class suburb of Simi Valley. The results: acquittal; no charges against the officers. You know what happened next – you can feel the echoes with each grand jury today. I could feel it all around me as Trayvon Martin got put on trial for his own murder, and George Zimmerman was acquitted. Over and over and over again. Thirty minutes in the other direction from my house, the multi-racial, working class city of Los Angeles erupted.
Before Rodney King, the narrative around race that I grew up in, as a member of a liberal white family, was, “Hey, the civil rights movement happened; Dr. King gave a speech; now we’re post racial. We’re colorblind.” You hear that all the time, right? “We’re colorblind.” Now Los Angeles is erupting, and the flames are burning down my whole worldview. I had no idea that I even had a worldview to begin with, but after this I knew. I could smell it burning.
I had no idea what to do next. About 15 of gathered together the night of verdict and we were angry. I mean we were united against racism, which is a good place to start. That’s some good unity to build with. But we also had the belief that racism came from individual extremists. There was one black person in our crew of mostly white social justice activists: Terrance. Terrance didn’t often talk about race, and I just assumed that was because we’re colorblind, we’re post racial. We talked about class, we talked about economic justice, but we didn’t talk about race. That evening, though, Terrance started talking about his experiences of racism. He said, “We’re friends, but in order for me to be here with you on this night – as Los Angeles is in flames, as people all over the country are rising up against this verdict – I need to talk with you about my experiences with racism.”
It was a powerful moment, because oftentimes—and many of you are painfully aware of this—when a black person starts talking to white people, rarely do white people let that black person finish a sentence, unless that black person is telling those white people how great they are. But if a black person starts talking about their experiences of racism, the but-but-but-but-but river of denial flows. You with me?
That night, however, something powerful happened because Los Angeles was in flames, and a whole group of white people just listened while Terrance started talking about his experiences. One story he shared was about being the class valedictorian on the way to his high school to give his speech. This school was mostly white, mostly middle class; he was one of the few black students there. He was in front of his high school, excited and going over his speech in his head when the police stop him. The white officers start searching him. He doesn’t have his student ID on him, and they don’t believe that he goes to the school there. They laugh at him when he says he’s the valedictorian. They say, “You’re here to break into the cars of the parents while they watch their kids graduate.”
The white students and their families are walking by, awkwardly; they see him but just keep going. Terrance says that even though none of white parents said it, he could feel this look on some of their faces. It was like, “Good job officers you got him. That kid’s probably trying to sell drugs to my child.”
Eventually someone finally stopped and said, “He goes to this school, he is the valedictorian.” Terrance gave his speech, but he was in a much different place than he had thought he would be while giving it. He said that that incident reminded him that, “Yes, you’re the valedictorian, but don’t forget your place. Don’t forget who you are. This is not your school. This is something that was given to you. It can be taken away at any moment.”
It was painful, and it was devastating. And for those of us who were raised white, hearing about race for the first time, if you let your heart listen to it, it can be devastating for us to. For those of you that are folks of color, to talk about race and to have a white person finally just listen, I think you have an idea of what that night in Los Angeles might have been like. These are moments where transformational consciousness can happen, where ethical values can be developed. But nonetheless, I felt horrible, I felt guilt, I felt shame. Anyone here ever felt that? Whether you’re a man and you find out you’re sexist and you’re like “oh my gosh!” Or you’re a white person and you realize you’ve got internalized racism. You feel terrible. The history is brutal.
Part Three: “Your Leaders, Too”
After this I started going over to my friend Terrance’s house and he had a poster up on his wall of all these black leaders. Looking at that poster, I realized I didn’t know who any of them were except Dr. King – and even Dr. King I’d essentially been taught about by the right wing, who just said, “Dr. King had a vision about no one seeing color and no one talking about race again”, which of course wasn’t Dr. King’s message at all.
So, I’m over at Terrance’s house and I look at all these black leaders and I asked him, “Who are these folks?” And Terrance started to explain:, “This Ida B. Wells, who spearheaded the anti-lynching campaign of the early 1900s. This is Septima Clark, and she was the architect of the citizenship schools in the sixties that taught tens of thousands of young, black folks throughout the south not only about citizenship rights like voting, but about how being active participants in a democratic society can transformation the relationship to power so we can all be free and equal.” He was breaking it down! And I realized, I was 18, with three years already as a social justice activist, and this was the first time in my life I was hearing a person of color explain history and politics.
I had no real way to make sense of what he was saying. It was almost as if someone was speaking another language. Week after week, I’d be like, “Terrance, who are these people again?” And finally he said, “Look, I’m not telling you about these people because you feel guilty about Rodney King, and you just want to know a few things about black people.” You know what I’m saying? This isn’t, “now you have a couple things to pull out of your pocket if a conversation about race comes up” – just so you can say, “Yea, Ida B. Wells, I know about her.” Or during black history month, so you won’t feel so bad. Terrance said, “I’m not telling you who these people are to make you feel better. And I’m also not telling you who these people are because they are my leaders. I’m telling you about WEB Du Bois and Ella Baker because they are your leaders too.”
Then Terrance said something that changed my life. He said, “One of the ways that white supremacy hurts white people is that it makes them functionally illiterate to understand the world around them and it teaches them that they have nothing to learn from the histories, legacies, culture, literature, poetry, lives, experiences of people of color historically and today. White supremacy is gutting the foundational democratic people’s movements of this country from your consciousness. White supremacy is turning you into a well-intentioned, good-hearted, wants-to-do-the-right-thing person, but is only showing you the steps to take to further oppression.” You with me? I said, “Oh my god.” It changed my life. And I feel the echoes of those moments, of those conversations, each time one of these grand jury announcements comes out, each time a new rising up for black lives matter happens today.
Part Four: “What Brings You Courage?”
As I started getting this new consciousness, I got involved a multi-racial coalition at my working class community college. At first we were working around fee hikes, working around economic justice, but not talking about race. We had people of color leadership, MEChA and the Black Student Union. And we were powerful. We were mobilizing hundreds of people at this commuter college in Orange County California, the hot bed of right wing politics, the Ronald Reagan coalition—the base of right wing politics.
We had a multi-racial student coalition working around fee hikes, and we had mass support, hundreds of people coming out to our rallies. But then one of my mentors, a leader of the coalition—David Rojas—said, “Next semester we’re going to fight not only for free education but for education that represents who we are as people. We want expanded ethnic studies, more black studies, more chicano and chicana studies, more women’s history. And we also want more faculty of color—women of color faculty in particular—hired.” I was like, “Let’s do it!” I had no idea what was about to happen.
Our mighty coalition studied Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States together to prepare. The next semester begins. We start having rallies, demonstrations, putting out leaflets about ethnic studies, women’s studies, hiring more faculty, a democratic education for all …
The white support almost completely vanished.
Me and a lot of my white friends were taking ethnic studies classes, and we were still involved. But almost all of the white support vanished. And even some of the progressive white professors who had been encouraging us were like, “Why are you taking on the race issue? That’s going to divide everybody.”
We had a rally for ethnic studies. Shortly after, the coalition that had been heralded in the local newspapers as a revival of civic engagement was now the coalition that divides the campus. MEChA – who had been a leader of this coalition, who had been referred to over and over and over again as the campus heroes for building up this coalition and re-engaging students – was now being called an anti-white hate group.
Apparently, if you talk about ethnic studies, if you talk about hiring faculty of color, if you start talking about racism, that means you’re anti-white. And the same thing’s happening now: Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization that hates white people. Right? Audience: “No!” See, that’s why I come to the Ethical Society.
At the same time that these rallies started happening for ethnic studies, ads started appearing in newspapers all over California saying that the reason student fees were going up is that illegal aliens were taking over the state. It was the beginning of a massive, anti-immigrant attack in California in the nineties. This was also being put forward at the same time that we were talking about ethnic studies – so we started talking about immigrant rights.
Right at that time, we hold a rally, and I’m walking towards it, and at first I was like, “Wow there’s a lot of white people here! Great!” But as I get closer, I realize what’s happening.
There are a couple hundred white people surrounding a much smaller demonstration of mostly Latino/Latina students with some of the Black Student Union members as well—all people of color, black and brown. And they’re surrounded by about 200 white students who are yelling, “Go home! Go Home! Go back to your country! Go back to your country!”
I would bet that every single one of those white students, if they were asked, would say that they weren’t racists. Because we live in a time of colorblind white supremacy, where there are no racists anymore. I mean the Klan will talk about how they’re trying to support white people’s continued existence, and then they’ll say, “yea, yea, we are racists, we’re the Klan.” But over and over and over again we hear, “No one’s a racist.” Even when they perpetuate racist things. They say, “It’s a misunderstanding, you don’t understand my joke, my humor.” You know what I mean?
So as I approach this rally, there’s this huge crowd of white folks yelling at my friends and the people who are part of the coalition—all people of color. And I’m standing on the outside and I can see them in there.
How many of you have been in many situations where you’re standing in a position where you know the right thing to do is over there, and something terrifying is in the way? Something terrifying is in between you and the right thing to do? You with me? The Black Lives Matter movement is over there, but a Fox News right-wing media machine has created a mob of folks yelling and screaming at the Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s the situation I was in. I needed to get there, but I needed to go through something terrifying to get there. The thing to do, in moments like these, is to think about what brings you courage. For me, as I start making my way through all these white folks, I start thinking about ancestors. I start thinking about the ancestors on Terrance’s poster. About social justice ancestors who I deeply respect, and I make it through the mob of white people, I join the protest, and I pick up a sign for ethnic studies. When I do this, the white students just kind of lose it. They start yelling, “Race traitor! Race traitor!”
This was particularly surreal, because at the time I was in fact reading a journal called Race Traitor. I had been reading in this journal about how white supremacy keeps people from coming together to create a humane society that benefits all people; about how the development of white people in the first place happened by convincing European working class and poor people they were “white people” who were best off aligned across class to a ruling class agenda which does benefit them but perpetuates this idea that it’s a white society. So even if you’re a working class white who doesn’t have good healthcare, who has a crappy house, whose kids are going to a school that’s falling apart, you can blame every person of color around you for those problems and simultaneously feel like, “At least I’m better than them. I’m white.” You with me?
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the people Terrance taught me about, he said that white people exchange economic justice, exchange an ethical society based on the values that are truly at the heart of who we are in this room, exchange those commitments for the psychological and public wages of whiteness. And it’s happened for generation after generation until white folks don’t know that this is what is happening, or that we have a choice. It’s just the way things are.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a time of exploding consciousness, realizing that there are choices that have to be made – and that’s the kind of experience I was having in the 90’s, participating in this multi-racial coalition, mobilizing for ethnic studies. And I’m there with my friends, the only white person who is part of the protest, and all the whites around me are yelling:. “Race traitor! Race Traitor!”
Then this one guy gets right in front of my face and asks, “What color is your skin?! What color is your skin?!?” And I realize – I’m being called back.
White folks are telling me, “You’ve stepped out of line, and I’m calling you back—you’re supposed to be on this side of the line.”
This is how it is now, right? We act like racism doesn’t exist anymore but then you start talking about racism and the vile, racist poison just comes shooting from all directions. Am I right? “Everything’s fine. Don’t talk about race. We don’t have a race problem here. Maybe somewhere else, but not here.” And then Black Lives Matter starts taking to the streets, and the poison and the evil starts coming out.
Part Five: “Expecto patronum!”
How many of you here have studied the great struggle of Harry Potter? If you have, then you’ll be familiar with the Voldemort principle of supremacy systems. Voldemort is a right-wing fascist leading an army to impose pure blood supremacy within the wizarding world. Biological differences that, in a diverse society, would only be seen as beautiful representations of our full humanity, in a supremacy system become ways of organizing people into hierchies. You with me?
Of course Voldemort wants to crush critical consciousness at Hogwart’s and get rid of the gay professor Dumbledore. But we also know—and I won’t give too much away for those of you who haven’t finished the series—that Voldemort is not only “out there”. Voldemort gets “in here”. White supremacy is “out there”, patriarchy is “out there”, and it’s also “in here” – it’s the same.
For those of us raised into white privilege, into a white ignorance of racism—white silence, the centuries-old code of white people. White silence in the face of racial injustice. Not only silence but the inability to see what’s right in front of you – this is the way white supremacy gets “in here”. You with me? So Voldemort’s “in here” too.
But thankfully, just like in Harry Potter, we have people like Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley—folks who fight back against Voldemort. Hermione Granger is like the Ella Baker of the wizarding world. She organizes. There’s important lessons about Hermione because she made some mistakes with the whole house elves situation, but she learns from it. And those of us who are white, and those of us who are male, we start coming into consciousness about feminism and about racism, and next thing you know we’re off the conveyor belt and we’re not sure what to do, and we start to get really awkward and really scared about where to step. Am I right?
For a lot of white folks the number one concern is not to say the wrong thing. Folks of color are like, “My number one concern is the annihilation of my community.” But I understand, as a white person you come into consciousness and you don’t want to say the wrong thing. But again, it’s not about individual behavior, it’s about institutions and structures. So Hermione learns from her mistakes and she helps form Dumbledore’s Army. We need a Dumbledore’s Army that brings all kinds of different people together to fight for collective liberation.
So, bear with me here. With Harry Potter, there’s the Horcrux strategy of collective liberation. Horcuxes are how supremacy systems live in the institutions—healthcare, education, housing. It’s in the policy, not the decisions of one particular racist neighbor. I’m talking about policy decisions to create all-white, low-interest loan suburbs and redlining communities of color. Policies that impact millions of people’s lives. So the Horcrux strategy of collective liberation is for all of us impacted by supremacy systems (which is all of us!). We have to simultaneously work against the structural inequality in society, while getting the death culture of supremacy systems out of our minds.
But I will also say that sometimes when you start to become conscious of supremacy systems, the impulse can be like mine when I found out about racism and sexism. When I realized how I’d internalized patriarchy and racism as a white male in our society, my initial feeling was, “Oh my god, I’m a sexist, too! I’m a racist, too! Maybe the best thing I can do is stay in bed. I won’t say something messed up to somebody, I’ll just stay in bed.”
But getting the poison of white supremacy and patriarchy out of our heads means engaging in struggles in our communities, through our Ethical Society, through our organizations, through our relationships with other organizations, forming alliances. Working to transform the racism in the criminal justice system and the education system. Working to build up working class organizations in our communities, and our unions. All while recognizing that we’re working to get Voldemort out of our heads. You with me?
We have to create a culture of courage because one of the key moments in trying to fight off the supremacy systems of Voldemort, in the world and in our heads, is to be able to name the reality of those supremacy systems. You have the Washington Ethical Society to help you do this. You all have created a culture of courage. You have a Black Lives Matter banner out there. You all are building the capacity to be courageous in the face of injustice. Am I right? So part of what we have to do is look for openings and opportunities to bring more and more people with us, to invite people in.
As a young white person, I was invited in to white supremacy over and over and over again. Invited to see undocumented people as enemies. Invited to see black women on welfare as the cause of every problem in this country. You with me? But I was rarely invited into a white anti-racist tradition of struggle for a multi-racial democracy. Because very few people in my life even knew that such a tradition existed.
So part of our work is to create freedom schools for all of our kids, for all of our people. To learn the history not only of the black liberation struggle, which is vital, but young white people need to know about people like Anne Braden—white anti-racists throughout history that said, “I’m choosing to be on the right side of history even if that means I’m alienated from my family and my community.” We need freedom schools for all of our kids, because so often white babies are abandoned to white supremacy. You get what I’m saying here?
I was giving a talk to a multiracial group of students about anti-racism, and a couple young kids of color came up and said, “Thank you so much for being a passionate white person speaking up about racism. Because I’ve never heard someone speak like that before.” Many of you can speak like that, too! We need lots of voices of white folks that are speaking passionately and courageously about racism for young kids of color to know that there are white folks like us out there.
After this, at that same talk, two 18-year-old white boys came up to me. And they said, “Before you talked about Anne Braden, before you talked about William Lloyd Garrison, before you talked about these white anti-racists, I knew who I didn’t want to be, but I had no idea who I wanted to be. Who I could be.”
The death culture of white supremacy is actively, daily working to raise white kids to fear and hate children of color. White supremacy is devouring children of color and also deforming the humanity of white kids. You with me? In the face of this we need a courageous culture for racial justice, a courageous culture for Black Lives Matter, that says, “White supremacy cannot have any of our babies. White supremacy can’t have any of our children. White supremacy cannot have any of our communities.”
For those of who have been raised white, you see more and more white folks protesting with Black Lives Matter holding up signs that say “White silence equals consent.” Have you seen those? And that is powerful, but my closing message here is to say that that the next step is to have white folks not only say that white silence equals consent. We need white folks begin to take space in white communities. To bring a white, anti-racist vision and possibility of hope to white communities in a way that takes space while also making space for the leadership for folks of color—and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular right now—to be amplified and heard within white society.
The vision is for all of us to come together as a multi-racial beloved community, while at the same time we all have different work to do within our networks, within our families, within our communities. Because anti-black racism has impacted all of us in the room in different ways. For white folks, it’s a time for courageous, white anti-racist leadership, particularly in white society. It is time to not only break the silence, but to create a beautiful symphony of liberation voices of white people who talk about multiracial democracy connected to ending anti-black racism. A beautiful chorus, a multi-racial chorus that includes white folks talking about anti-racism who understand that we need to free the minds of all white folks from the poison of Voldemort, the position of white supremacy. You with me?
So let us be courageous. I invite you now, to consider how we not only have to deal with Voldemort, we also have the dementors to contend with. The haters that come and say, “You can’t do anything! You can’t accomplish anything! You’re powerless!” You ever feel that? Like, “We’ve got like a ten person social justice committee that can hardly pull off a successful meeting right now, how are we going to change the world?” You with me?
Sometimes these dementors get in our business. So just like Harry Potter, we’re going to cast a spell to drive the dementors away. I invite you to bring out your magical wand of liberation. I invite you to think about ancestors, think about your children, think about whatever it is that brings you courage. Whatever brings you courage to fight for Black Lives Matter when Fox News is putting forth the message that even though the number of police officers killed is at a 20 year low and the number of civilians killed by police is at a 40 year high, if you support Black Lives Matter, then you support a war on cops. That kind of hate, that kind of dementor-twisting of reality. You with me?
Imagine those voices and connect to your courage; to our ancestors, to the people that inspire us, to our ethical values that ignite us. And bring forward your wand because we have a spell to cast, which is “Expecto patronum”. “Expecto patronum” is a spell that connects us to the power we have to work for collective liberation. It connects us to a place of power and joy in our lives, knowing that we can create beloved community; we can create multiracial alliances; we can cross the barriers that divide us to create loving, beautiful relationships. Do you know that? Do you feel that? Well it’s time to channel that energy.
On the count of three, we’re going to cast a spell – we’re going to say “Expecto patronum” together. Channel your happy place for liberation. Imagine those dementors that are telling us that we can’t do this, supremacy systems are too strong, and racism will divide us again, and inside of yourself say, “No! We can accomplish incredible things! We can work for collective liberation!” On the count of three let the liberation shine and blow away these dementors. You with me? 1…2…3…“Expecto patronum!” Thank you all.
Chris Crass is a longtime organizer, educator, and writer working to build powerful working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation. He was co-coordinator of the Catalyst Project for more than a decade, and has written widely about anti-racist and social justice organizing, lessons from women of color feminism, and strategies to build visionary movements. His newest book, Towards the Other America: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter, was just published this past fall. Chris gives talks and leads workshops on campuses and with communities and congregations around the U.S. and Canada, to help support grassroots activists efforts.
Listen to full audio of Chris’s talk here:
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