Justice for All or None: A Note on This New Era and Possible Coalition

:– I was at The Women’s March on Washington. I did not wear a #pussyhat. I have since purchased a pussyhat, in pink, from a woman who’s donating proceeds from the hats to PBS and NPR. I will wear it with my #BlackLivesMatter and #LGBTQIA and #EqualRightsAmendment pins. –:

I want all these newly energized liberal-or-progressive-mostly-white women to hear the skepticism we are getting from women of color and lgbtqia folk, especially trans women:

  1. They want us to show up FOR them.
  2. The do not want us to save them, or fix their movements.
  3. They want us to help in the background.
  4. They want us to come to their marches and demonstrations* and risk for them, too.

I have been a feminist scholar all my life, and have been knocking around social justice movements primarily for the last five years or so. I have interviewed many women in the Second Wave and recorded those interviews for posterity (visit Va NOW’s YouTube to watch, they’re rough edits).

What is missing, still, from “white feminism” is deep engagement with the particular issues and experiences of other kinds of women.

We have a huge historical opportunity right now to build coalitions like never before, simply because so many more people are energized and realizing they have skin in the game.

“Intersectionality” is a word requesting this support, this space-making, this basic sharing. “Coalition” is about the strategy for doing that, finding our areas of common concern and really being concerned in common.

I am asking us to do a little learning. To deepen not only your action as a citizen, but to deepen your commitment to Justice for All. This country did not begin oppressing people last year. It started from the beginning. There are good historical reasons for many kinds of people not to trust us white women. Historically, we have ditched on them — every time.

Reading. Do some. There’s more here than a person can do, I know. But, do some. Show up with some education. Don’t ask people in these movements to get you hip, get hip, be cool.

Remember, make space: You get to center your issue and your symbol at your march, at your action. When you show up for others, and when you work intersectionally, the focus can’t stay on you all the time.

* There are huge practical and legal differences between planned and permitted marches compared to direct actions and spontaneous demonstrations. The latter two often involve some kind of not-very-serious law breaking — like blocking a street or highway or entrance to a building, etc. Those actions can result in arrest. Not all activists can be available for that, but we can all be available in support roles that do not risk arrest.

+ Full Disclosure: I’m the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow at Split This Rock and the managing editor of The Quarry.



Allies, SURJ-Va Offers Action Advice

As you can imagine, there is a flurry of activity happening right now in response to the white supremacist shooting of 5 Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis last night. SURJ has been called in to mobilize white people in this moment. In the last two weeks, we have seen an uptick in white supremacist organizing against Muslims and the movement for black lives. It is crucial that white folks step up and take visible action.

Since Thanksgiving is this week, I know many of you are traveling. If you are staying nearby, and you’re available Friday, please let me know ASAP. We are hoping to form a couple of small groups that can be visible in our community that day.

National SURJ has put together a list of things you can do, wherever you are, in response to the shootings. Please take visible action this week! It’s time to show up!

SURJ Actions in response to MN shootings

This list is evolving…more resources may be coming.

  1. Sign and widely share the SURJ petition

  2. Donate and share the link to the MN bail fund to support the on-the-ground organizing. MN Bail Fund.

    1. Ask your family members to donate to the bail fund at Thanksgiving!

  3. Change your Facebook profile picture to break white silence. You can find your new profile image here.

  4. Go out and recruit new white folks. Many of white folks who have never been engaged in racial justice work have been woken up this week. We want to go find them and invite them into our work!

    1. Identify a public location in your community (coffee shops, libraries). Pick a time and location  

    2. Review the scripts provided below

    3. Gather clip-boards and pens.

    4. Pick a time and go have conversations and sign folks up  

  5. Use the SURJ Placemat to prompt discussion at the Thanksgiving table, and/or ask family members to contribute to the bail fund.

Sample script for canvassing/ talking to folks in public

  • Hi I’m __________ from Showing Up for Racial Justice and wanted to talk to you today about what’s happening with racial justice in our country and just how heartbreaking it is.

    • What do you think about what’s happening?

    • Did you hear about the shootings in MN?

    • What do you think we could do about it?

  • I’m part of SURJ, a local group that’s working to bring more white people into racial justice work and break white silence. Can I take your contact information to keep you in the loop on our work?

To Fix Whiteness: Forget It


What.     Is.     Whiteness? What is White Culture? Is that a thing?

When our history books told us about the Melting Pot theory of American society, it was a melting pot of white people, and it’s pretty well mixed now — into a nice paste of corporate indenturship (thanks to student loans, etc), hipsterism, and tween culture. WOOt. The pride. It dribbles, like cooling fondue.

Performing WhitenessEven our census demographic is just a color none of us actually are and a difference from another kind of American: White/Non-Hispanic.

White people have no culture. This refrain makes its way around (what passes for) critical thinking on Tumblr and Facebook. It’s inflamatory, exculpatory. It’s smack talking, but it’s not bullshit.

From what’s observable in popular culture and our national politics, this is what I see makes up Whiteness. When people of color look at the culture made by/for us and say we have no culture, this is what they’re seeing. We identify by our church, our school and then professional sports teams, our political party and wing of it, and by our stuff. What’s on your iPod? You drink Coors, oh. I drive a Mini. Team Edward or Team Jacob? You’re a jock or a nerd, you’re a prep or a punk. You have access to spaces and to consideration and professional networks and to modes of public behavior not allowed to other colors of people.

Now, while we take these elements of our identity very, very seriously (we shut down our government, murder doctors over these things), they are not particularly deep or elemental things. They’re all packaged for us, and most of them for profit.

We bicker and brawl and murder over them all the time because they not very thick foundations.

* (*) *

Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name

Something essential about American culture is coming clear in this time of increased exposure and awareness of the regular terror imposed on communities of color and on the poor/working-class. What we see in the state violence/neglect unleashed on black and brown bodies, even of children, is the logical terminus of Euro-American culture. Our whole history leads to this floating and unpredictable damage.

To children who want to protect their mothers from the police.

To parents schooling their children on how to stay alive through encounters with the police.

To the realization that there is no sure-fire way to live through these encounters.

Now, ya, that’s harsh. But, I’m not the first person to tell us this. Nietzsche’s critique of the bogus Christianity of his German contemporaries warned of this (The Gay Science). The Frankfurt School‘s critique of corporate/media/mass culture and its stultifying conformism (the stuff the Beat poets rejected) warned of this. Foucault’s genealogies in Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization warned of this. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and just about every kind of feminist analysis warns of this.

We know what Jim Crow was. We know what lynching was. It was this. And so is the permission we (yes, we) have given for states and municipalities to dispose with bodies of color as they see fit. We have, yes, institutionalized our racism. We have not recovered from the brutality of our history, we have not progressed all that much. Chris Rock nailed it in this interivew with Frank Rich in New York Magazine in 2014.

What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?

I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.

Well, that would be much more revealing.

Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

Right. It’s ridiculous.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?

Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.

No matter what we say or what else we did, European culture — from the Romans to the Vikings to Expansionism to Manifest Destiny — has been about one thing: domination. From domination, the theory has long been, flow security, wealth, ease. Dominion.

We are not alone in this. This is the logic of every patriarchal empire (all of them, ever). In the late 900s, the Saracens (Muslims) made a regular practice of enslaving Italians and other Africans. India built a caste system that ensured/ensures a permanent and unpaid underclass of dalits. Etc. Slavery has made the world go around the world over.

In The Forge of Christendom, Holland even writes of an emir among the Saracens descended from a long powerful family. He had to dye his hair black and darken his skin in order to appear at all African. His family had “interbred” with so many Italian slaves that his hair was blond and his eyes blue. — There’s a switch for ya.

In Europe, the systems of serfdom and indenture were forms of Forge Coverslavery minus the title of ownership. It wasn’t needed. The fact of a peasant living on an aristocrat’s land implied their status as property. Crimes could not, until relatively recently, be committed against peasants by gentry. This is the meaning of the word “dominion.” All versions of it derive from the Latin dominus, which was the official title of the Roman Emperor from 248-476 AD.

This theory of dominion has never quite held in practice. The dominated have never quite knuckled under. Take The German Peasants War of the mid-1500s, for example. (Yeah, I didn’t know either! 300,000 dead in the revolt. Seriously.) We made a lot of art, wrote a whole tradition of literature, composed lots of religious and martial music all on this general theme: Obey your Master/s (God, Church, King, Husband, Older Brother). We spent a millennium, the Middle Ages, conquering each other in the name of God, and then plain old power, and when we ran out of people to bring into the fold, we looked outward to other empires for new sources of security, wealth, and ease that would come from dominating them (making them our dominion) in what we now call colonialism.

From Anti-Black Media

Maintenance of this system of power expresses itself in sexism, racism, homophobia, genocide, environmental desecration, and vast economic exploitation — a system that we are currently calling White Supremacy (which is also patriarchal and heterosexual and cis-gendered and richer than thou).


The Movement for Black Lives and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName are a renewed refusal of Americans to accept death at state hands  as the wage of their citizenship, to no longer accept crappy and underfunded schools, daily subtle form of belittlement and place-putting, and to demand their full measure of dignity.

No demand, in the current socio-economic arrangement, could be more logical or real. Some its finest expressions are to be found at Black Poets Speak Out.

* (*) *

Fixing Whiteness

This is the fix white people can do themselves. It requires two simultaneous moves.

One goes inward.

White people need to re-ethnicize ourselves.

We don’t need less difference, we need orders of magnitude more of it.

Back when we needed that melting pot idea Protestant Americans (WASPs) oppressed Irish immigrants, and later were not super welcoming to Poles or Italians. Russian Jews? Nope. Hell, people were still teaching young me “Pollock” jokes in the 1970s. Lots of local ordinances marginalized these people (Irish Need Not Apply)  and there was a fair amount of random “street violence” against them.

The current critique of whiteness is that there’s no there there. Whiteness is a big blob of mass consumerism spiced up with dashes of cultural appropriation. iPhones, Katy Perry, working in little gray cubes, droning commutes and servicing debt. Even the history books that are supposedly all about us white folks don’t tell us much about ourselves. Did you know that electric lights, the telephone, aspirin and the cure for polio were all brought to you by Scots or Scottish descendants in the US? No? Well.

Pasteurization, which keeps milk for more than two days in the fridge, that’s French. Pizza is Italian, but the tomato sauce on it is Italian American. The wheat that made the Midwest what it is now comes from Germany, along with Germans. Pierogi sound Italian when American mispronounce it, but they’re Czech/Polish. The union movement to protect workers and end child labor, Irish. John James Audubon, American Naturalist who taught us to adore the wild variety of birds — Breton. John Muir, Scottish. We spoke different languages and dialects, worshipped differently, ate differently, had contentiously different ideas about what our democracy should look like — pretty much all we agreed on (and we didn’t agree universally) was that the “savages” were in the way of our Manifest Destiny, and the blacks weren’t people in the South and weren’t quite people in the North.

Look, the fact is we all need to learn Spanish. Central and South America are our trade partners, 1/3 of the US territory used to BE MEXICO, so it would only be polite. But, we could stand to learn our ancestral languages, and use them. Use them in our poetry, our comedy, our music. Not as some Humanities requirement we’re fulfilling on the way to B-school, but as parts of ourselves — OUR HERITAGE — the sharing of which lead once and would lead again to tremendous creativity.

Most of us barely know where in Europe our families come from, what language they spoke, what poems they memorized and folk tales they told, how they celebrated the summer solstice (which is still celebrated in many ways all over Europe with picnics and music festivals.) Whether your people were seafarers or forest people. What kind of music did your people make, and could you learn it?

You’d have something to stand in that goes deeper than Chiefs or Redskins.The French call it “terroir” — the earthiness of a place, it’s culture. It applies to wine, but also people.

We could be reading the contemporary literature, listening to the contemporary music from these countries, watching their movies. It’s not all a history lesson. They are still creating new stuff in these places. French Hip-Hop is fascinating lyrically, musically, and politically.

The other goes outward.

Learn about the history of Americas many ethnicities you don’t know.

Or, hell, just learn the present. Dig deeper into Hip Hop than what the music industry puts on pop music stations. Learn about Jazz and Ragtime and Blues — there is no rock-n-roll without them. If you’re reading this, you have the whole Internet right there in a new tab. Read novels and poetry by people of color and indigenous people in the US — many of them are incredibly powerful work. Take a year, or two, and just read them. It will be a more pleasurable education than you think. Hate reading? Ok, watch movies on Black Netflix. Comedies are fine, but dramas and documentaries by and about people who don’t look like you are amazing sources of understanding.

Even if you narrow your learning to just Black and Latino culture/literature in the US, you are in for a wonderful and surprising treat.

Split This Rock’s Recommended Poetry Books 2013

Cave Canem Prize Winning Books

Latin Times 20 Latin American Books to Read Before You Die

11 Asian-Pacific American Authors You Should Read — Zola Books Blog, Huff Post

Just search for “best books” or “best fiction” or “best poetry” or “best essays” by __(insert demographic)__ and hit Enter. You will never be bored again.

Figure out how to be a good ally to people of color. You don’t have to be perfect at it, and you can enegage a little at a time, learn as you go, and you will have to learn to live with being out of your depth and off of center stage. But, you will also become a much wiser and stronger person, someone who really knows their own limits and capacities, someone who genuinely cares for their fellows. Someone robust.

So You Call Yourself an Ally — Everyday Feminism

11 Things White People Can Do to be Anti-Racist Allies — AlterNet

How to Be an Interruptor — San Diego City Beat

… and the Politics of Discomfort — The Body Is Not An Apology

Srsly. There are a bajillion good articles on dismantling your privilege, and being generally not-an-asshole to people who are not like you in ways that make them very, very vulnerable to attack, job and housing discrimination, and murder.


There’s a reason we use the words “vanilla” and “white bread” or “milk toast” to mean boring or insufficiently complex. There is no there there.

The interesting thing about white light, the kind we use to see during the day, is that it’s made up of the whole rainbow of colors of light in the spectrum. Without all of them, it does not exist.

Split This Rock’s Poem of the Week: Ross Gay

A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
Used with permission.
Ross Gay is a gardener and teacher living in Bloomington, Indiana. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
Please feel free to share the Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

No Flesh Wants You

— Walter L. Scott is dead. He was a black man. His
tail light was out. He ran
A police officer, white, murdered him. This must stop.

No flesh wants you.
No wind hopes to carry you, lithe whistle.
No mother wants to see your work.
No child dreams to play with you.

Sing copper! Sing tungsten!
Stay in your chamber,
Stay in your chamber and sing of stillness,
Sing of the stillness you want to keep, not give,
Sing to the angry white man,
Sing copper, sing tungsten,
Stay his hand.

No child dreams to play with you.
No mother wants to see your work.
No wind hopes to carry you, lithe whistle.
No flesh wants you.

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