GUEST FEEDBACK: Define Goals | News and Features | Weekly Style
Of all the questions facing American activists, the most critical – the one that has marked the success or failure of countless movements in the past – is the correct relationship between whites and people of color. And in Richmond, due to both history and demographics, the most pressing question is: what is the correct role of white activists when it comes to issues primarily affecting the black community?
Some local black activists have publicly criticized the film “How the Monuments Came Down”, a documentary which primarily features historians, activists and descendants of black historical figures, but was directed by two white filmmakers and produced with cash provided by white-dominated institutions. .
There are at least two important questions here and examining them could help shed light on how white activists can strive to be principled allies in the black liberation struggle.
First, is it wrong for whites to tell a story about a black struggle? I think there is an important distinction between looking at a problem and defining it. Whites can and should examine the past of this country, but they should not try to define the results of this examination because it affects the black community.
For example, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality is a multi-racial organization made up of volunteers. We are best known for our ongoing work to properly recover and commemorate the Shockoe Bottom of Richmond, once the epicenter of the National Slave Trade in the United States.
We designed and popularized this phrase “epicenter of the national slave trade in the United States”, which correctly describes the historical significance of the site. Personally, I believe it can be argued that Shockoe Bottom is also the birthplace of the black nation in North America. But we don’t say that. As a multiracial organization, it is not for us to promote this definition. It is something that only the black community as a whole has the right to do.
This touches on the fundamental principle that should guide whites in their dealings with people of color: respect for the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.
A people who have historically been oppressed by another race have the right to determine their own path to liberation. This includes the right to decide between assimilation, integration or separation; the collective right to define their own culture, the meaning of their own history and the name of their own race; the right to have racially exclusive organizations, a right that members of the dominant group do not have. Why? Because for blacks, exclusion is a reaction to racism. For whites, it is an extension of racism.
So, in any situation involving people of different races, the first thing to ask is: who is of the oppressed race and who is of the oppressed race? In the United States, whites are clearly the dominant race. This does not mean that every white person has power, but it does mean that they have privileges just because they are white, while not having the disadvantages of not being white.
So, is it wrong for white filmmakers to make a documentary about Confederate monuments in Richmond? I do not think so. It’s about researching history and exposing white supremacy.
But if the documentary was meant to be about how the monuments fell, there should have been more voices from the young people – blacks, whites and other races – who were on the streets, bringing the long struggle to bring them down. monuments to his final victory. (The filmmakers said some people declined to be interviewed for the film due to genuine concerns about the ongoing police and right-wing harassment.)
As it stands, the film was a lot more about why the monuments rose up than how they came down, so the actual title muddied the waters.
The other major issue concerns access to resources, which in cinema translates into the ability to tell stories. And if whites have access to resources because of their personal connections to people and institutions of power, then this is an example of white privilege – and class. The filmmakers may have been right to recruit black filmmakers as partners in the project, equal in terms of control and remuneration.
Of course, there is a problem with whites deciding which blacks to share resources with. Resources are shared, but it is always the whites who make this decision. Ideally, there would be some sort of collective effort among black activists to create a fund to which whites with or access to resources could contribute, with black organizations deciding how the money should be used. As it stands, whites should at the very least share information about available funding sources.
White activists should have two goals: to fight white supremacy with their whole being and to respect the right of the black community to decide – and define – its own path to liberation.
Phil Wilayto is the editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper and co-founder of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which participated in the 2020 Community Rebellion. He can be contacted at [email protected]