Among the many things I’ve undertaken regarding racial justice over the past year (My Summer of 75 Things), becoming involved with SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) has been the most illuminating. SURJ is a national umbrella organization devoted to ending racism through the lens of white people: the idea being that the people we oppress don’t need to be laden with our baggage, even as it is essential for white people to own our role and participate in change.
Last summer, in the geographically compressed world of Zoom, I attended meetings of Aware-LA. Come winter, I was invited to base camp training with my local Boston affiliate. I switched my attention to SURJ-Boston because eventually, taking action will resume its fundamental meaning as local, physical action.
From November through February I participated in bi-weekly, two-and-a-half-hour training sessions with a dozen SURJ novitiates and two facilitators. Every expectation I brought to the process of being a white person learning about and advocating for racial justice was, frankly, wrong.
SURJ training is not about the facts and figures, or even so much the historical events that define racism in our society. It’s not about labelling any individual a racist. Or trying to scrub every vestige of racism from my pores. SURJ training is about understanding that racism is neither a personal belief nor an isolated action. Rather, racism is mortared into our political and economic systems. This is both enlightening (I am not a racist!) and disheartening (I am completely woven into a predatory and racist system).
SURJ is doubly premised on racial identity: an organization of white people; working to end racism. I am leery of identity politics/identity culture/identity identities. Yet, I have come to view them as necessary transitions that will ultimately fade as we strive toward an ideal world. When every human being has access to all they need and enjoy avenues for full expression, ‘identities’ will be as irrelevant as any other tribal mark. Until then, as a person whose identity labels fall square in the realm of privilege—white and male—I must respect and support anyone for whom identity is dear. Whether they seek equity or simply solidarity, if someone’s identity is important to them, then it is important to me. Still, I brought my identity-wariness to training.
Our first session manifested the usual awkwardness of Zoom, exacerbated by gingerly facilitators. A year of attending Zoom social justice meetings had habituated me to rename myself with preferred pronouns and meditate through the land acknowledgement. Then, we did a surprisingly cool activity: write a brief verse about my cultural heritage. Mine was banal. Which is pretty much the point. When you inhabit the default culture—middle class and white—it doesn’t feel like culture at all. Living the yardstick by which all others are measured is wicked vanilla. For the remainder of the session we engaged ingracious PC-speak, and a clear hesitancy to step on toes. I came away thinking, whoa, that was pretty poor. I could have definitely done a better job facilitating that.
If our training had been in person, perhaps I wouldn’t have returned. But nothing else was happening on alternate Tuesday evenings. So I logged on, and assumed a unique position in our group. The only grey-hair. The only man. By session three I realized an advantage unachievable at in-person meetings: I could be an almost invisible image in our Zoom gallery. As a passive actor, annoyance that I could better facilitate gave way to appreciation of how Jamie and Matoaka facilitated differently. Impatience at the amorphous agendas dissipated under the quiet wonder of observing ‘hers’ and ‘theys’ navigate issues in ways no group of men ever would.
Low-profile became my conscious choice. I became the least active participant. I did not speak in large group discussion, nor lead off in break-outs. Perhaps it was selfish of me to withhold contributions. But restraint made me check everything I ‘knew,’ and the opportunity to observe a group interact unfettered by men proved revealing. I don’t know whether the others actually forgot I was there, but I muzzled my male penchant to fill the slightest void. To clarify. To control. An urge I felt at least half dozen times each session. Yet by silencing my voice, I learned more from listening to others take the platform, without concern for how long it was held, how well they furthered the agenda, or how sustained our subsequent silence. We sat in a lot of silence. So much more than is comfortable for me.
My fellow base group members occupy a middle-ground in the hierarchy of privilege. They enjoy the benefit of being white, yet all experience the barriers, even harm, of presenting as women. Sometimes I found no accord with their experiences; other times they resonated. At some point in every session (often times more than once) their stories sparked inspiration and purpose. To struggle for justice is worthy as it is difficult. I would brim in emotion.
Which is how the I came to see the crux of SURJ training in a different light. The struggle to end racism is a path to reimagine our society. A society that transcends racism and eclipsis identity. SURJ base training is a toe-tip exploration into a completely different way to perceive, organize, and operate our world. A world motivated by the voices here and now rather than a given agenda. A world striving to create a culture in which people don’t need to be articulate, or clever, or efficient. A world that doesn’t grant bonuses for optimizing ‘air time.’ A world in which all voices, however soft, however foreign, are equally heard.