What does healing look like?: To all the white people talking about unity in the Occupy movement

Sometimes we need to spend time apart in order to come together.  Sometimes we need to be angry in order to heal.

It’s like this: I’m facilitating a workshop at Occupy Phoenix about colorblindedness and privilege on the Left and a middle aged white man compares “healing” the divisions created by people of color trying to create caucus space to overcoming the systems that divide our communities, like policies that bar migrant kids (or kids with migrant parents) from attending public school in this state, like police violence that works against black-brown solidarity in our neighborhoods, like a corporate media that works to convince us that most of us don’t have health insurance because poor people are using emergency rooms too much when really we know its because of corporate healthcare that puts profit over people.

It’s like this: race was invented by the few in power (referred to in the language of Occupy Movements as “the 1%”) to keep poor and working-class white folks from allying with everyone else because that alliance had (and has) the power to topple global capitalism.  It’s only if we work together that we can transform the world into one that works for all of us.

But Occupy movements and rhetoric are missing something huge in order to get there.  A lot of really smart people have written deep analysis of the problems with unacknowledged privilege at specific Occupy sites and in the broader Occupy movement and about how people and communities are working to unpack and resist that.  I think a huge part of how we move forward is to reframe how we talk and think about unity.

I hear lots of talk of unity at Occupy Phoenix and from the wide internet world of access I have to other local Occupy movements.  When I hear the word unity, my brain immediately goes to the word healing, because I think they are intrinsically linked.  Like that we are working towards a world and a movement in which they mean the same thing.   But what’s different about the word healing and the word unity is that healing implies a process, it implies something that must righted, it implies we are not there yet but we are working on it, it implies a history and a present and a future and work that must be done to move between those three points in time.

The word healing is often really loaded coming from the mouths of white people, privileged people in political spaces.  It often is about reinforcing colorblindness, about erasing histories and current lived realities of oppression in an attempt to pretend we are all “equal” in the present moment.  It’s a word that has been co-opted by the individualistic, depoliticized self-help movement, a word that white culture often tells us means just taking care of one’s own.  The work of personal and collective healing within Occupy movements is justice work and is work that must happen for these movements to succeed.

When I say that we need healing in our movements, I don’t mean the same kind of healing that the Occupy Phoenix participant I mentioned earlier in this post meant.  I don’t think unity means pushing everyone together without paying attention to different levels of power and privilege, to different experiences we have every day because of systems that treat us so differently based on the color of our skin, the language we speak, the amount of money and resources we have access to (even within the 99%), the gender we are seen as, our histories and experiences and the options we have been presented with.   Capitalism hurts us all, but it hurts us all differently.

I think the Occupy movements have the potential to be a liberating space, a transformative space, a place where movements come together and form and swirl around, getting even just the littlest bit closer to the world we want to create.  The only way we can build this is if we only call healing what is actually healing: creating space to acknowledge our different experiences of global capitalism, of the economic crisis, of histories of economic crises that last for generations in communities of color.  Yes, healing comes from unity, but not unity that only comes from silencing.  It comes from unity that is built, that is carefully, slowly, and painfully constructed, by listening to each other and realizing we have a lot to learn.  Unity-as-a-healing-process is built on spaces that center those most impacted by the systems of oppression that harm all of us.  It doesn’t always feel good, it is not always easy and it is NOT constructed on anyone’s back or at anyone’s expense, or by leaving anyone behind and telling “them” “we” will “deal with their issues later, once we fix this more important thing.”

Unity as a healing process doesn’t necessarily start with all of us together.  We have to grow our capacity to really share space, to listen to each other, to create room for all of us together.   Vanissar Tarakali, a longtime white anti-racist organizer, talks about why she has seen it be so important for people of color and white people to meet in separate groups to when beginning to learn about and heal from racism: “The purpose of this is for white people to build community, and support each other to challenge racism and white privilege; and for people of color to build community, and support each other to heal from the daily trauma of racism and internalized racism.”  The process of healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of oppression and internalized oppression is different than healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of alienation, guilt, self hate, defensiveness, and sense of superiority associated with privilege.   Like both people who perpetuate violence and people who survive violence need to heal from that trauma, but they are really different (and initially incompatible) processes. The end goal can still be (and to me, still IS) building unified multiracial movements that reflect ALL of our experiences, including the most marginalized among us, as the end goal.

But we have some work to do to get there.

So if we start to see unity as a process instead of a forced assumption, if we start to understand the way that systems have been intentionally designed to divide us through the use of tools such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, how do we move forward?

The synonymous healing and unity I want to be part of creating has to center those most impacted by the problem at hand, has to lift up our differences and the ability to listen to and truly hear each other’s diverse experiences, has to acknowledge and learn from our histories of trauma and violence and oppression and resistance.

White privilege, the system of unearned benefits and advantages that is granted to white people by systems that deny these same things to people of color, teaches us white people that we know everything.  In order to heal from the harms global capitalism has inflicted on us all and to build real unity, we have to learn to challenge these basic assumptions that we have been taught.  We need to learn to breathe before reacting to something that challenges our worldview, our perhaps invisible assumptions of superiority and knowledge.  We need to learn how to take the time to thoughtfully respond, instead of reacting out of places of defensiveness and hostility to proposals and ideas that we might see as “divisive” or “diluting the message.”  This is not to say that anger does not have a legitimate space in the process of overcoming unchecked white privilege that is rampant in Occupy movements.  People of color are rightfully pissed off at being yet-again marginalized in a space that is supposedly by and for the entire 99%.    Actually hearing and taking into account this legitimate anger can help us as white people move forward in a way that is more accountable to the systems that grant us feelings of superiority and unearned benefits, often in ways we don’t even notice.

We white folks at Occupy need to engage in really listening: both to the lived experiences of folks who bear the brunt of global capitalism as individuals and communities, as well as to the histories of resistance, struggle, and movement building that have come before us.    We need to build our understanding of what’s really going on in this world, how they got there, and figure out how to lift up the voices and needs and skills of those most marginalized among us so that we are truly moving toward a  transformed world that works for ALL of us.  We need to challenge the assumption that white privilege teaches us that our experiences and ideas are the most valid and important.

Let’s take this as an opportunity to learn from other individuals and communities and organizations.  To realize that our personal experience is important and not the end of possible personal experiences in the world.  Let’s really listen and hear what people are telling us, especially those who capitalism has silenced for centuries.

One of the things about white privilege is we are taught to see our work and ideas as individual, as arising purely from ourselves and our own intellect/smarts/genius.  Really movements are informed, whether we acknowledge this or not, by all movements that came before, by all organizations that have been throwing down and building for years.  Let’s connect to our personal and collective histories.  Let’s realize that we have a lot to learn.  Self determination is a crucial value of Occupy movements and one that I share.  But the systems that hold white privilege in place tell us that self determination is an individual process, one in which we only think about ourselves and our own needs and wants and desires and expect everyone else to do the same, starting from the same options and power and feelings of entitlement to advocate for ourselves.  I see growing self-determination as lifting up the power inside all of us in a way that moves us closer to our selves and to collective liberation.  I see self-determination as something that fits perfectly inside the framework of centering the voices of those most marginalized by capitalism: migrant people, formerly and currently incarcerated people, people of color, queer and transgender people, women, disabled people, and especially folks who fall into more than one of those identity groups.    If we create a world in which those of us most marginalized by capitalism are free and have our needs met and our voices heard, then we have a created a world in which that is true for all of us.

One of the important lessons we can learn from movement history is that we’ve already seen what happens to movements that marginalize those already marginalized.  They fail.  Many of us who can sell out do, many of us who can compromise our ways into cushy non-profit jobs and pretend like we are helping “the less fortunate” do and we are someplace so similar to where we started.  There may be some change, but there is no healing.  There may be a false sense of unity, but there is just all this hidden (or not-so-hidden) division.

We can pretend to be doing this together, but until we do the work to make sure we are all at the table and that the table is even set in a way that anyone can come to, where anyone’s voice can be heard, we will just be doing this as alone and as divided as we are in the rest of the world.  Until we center those who of us who are currently and systemically pushed to the margins, we will not be able to create a resilient and lasting unity that is BUILT ON our differences, instead of in spite of them.

The divisions among us are created by systems.  Let’s learn to understand those systems by listening to each other and learning our collective history in order to build real unity and healing in the face of all that tries to keep us apart.  Building true unity and healing will be painful, but it will also be liberating.  Mad props to everyone who is already engaged in this work.  It’s hard as hell and it takes all of us, so let’s get moving.


Filed under #anti-racism, #occupyphoenix, #occupyracism, #whiteprivilege, accountability, healing justice, racial justice, resilience, story telling, unlearning privilege

20 responses to “What does healing look like?: To all the white people talking about unity in the Occupy movement

  1. Thanks so much for this! Re-posting in FB

  2. Mallory Knodel

    “One of the things about white privilege is we are taught to see our work and ideas as individual, as arising purely from ourselves and our own intellect/smarts/genius.” This statement and the paragraph that followed made a big connection for me between a dynamic that has plagued the left for so long and its impact on our ability to build together a multi-inclusive movement.
    Also, the larger message of how we can practically rise above this pit-fall through a different kind of healing for communities of color and white activists is a major lesson that we have to get used to re-learning over and over again.
    Thank you for this piece. It expresses a truly alternative vision for collectivism in the US, which has a particularly strong context of individualism and self-determination.

    • Thanks for your insight, your thoughtfulness, and the work that you do. It seems to me like that is a big piece of how the Occupy movement can and should move forward– to acknowledge and unpack the strong lessons we are given about individualism by white U.S. dominant culture in order to work towards solidarity for global movements for justice that are happening and have happened in other parts of the world. Did you see the amazing solidarity statement with OWS sent out by folks in Cairo? http://occupywallst.org/article/solidarity-statement-cairo/ I am reminded of how much we can learn from movements that value self-determination in a collective context: the recent revolutionary moments of Arab Spring, as well as other struggles for justice in the Global South and led by folks of color in the U.S. We have so many amazing role models and movements to learn from!

  3. Wow, this is the best and most insightful analysis of what is happening at the Occupy movements and I so thank you for writing this piece. Please keep it up!!! I’ve signed up to follow. This was brilliant and I am sharing it widely!

  4. Moon

    As a white male who once took advantage of the privilege mentioned here, I’d like to be completely honest and say that, while reading this I experienced a few knee-jerk reactions to some of the things you said. i recognized what are probably socially conditioned responses that automatically set my mind to rejecting or at least minimizing the value of your ideas. And even though you probably outlined the central issues clearly, I have failed to understand them completely. Which, if I’m honest with myself, just points out the need for the healing-before-unity that you suggest. I’d like to know if there’s a forum, or if one can be created, where people can talk through these things and get at the core of what divides white and black and brown and gay, etc. Because I really don’t understand it, and I’d like to.

    • there are such forums…where do you live? I can find out what is in your area…

    • Hey Moon– I second Vannissar– let us know where you live and I bet someone knows a local resource. I can also point you in the direction of some amazing online networks/resources that are worth checking out as part of the lifelong work of unlearning white privilege. Online: catalyst project, challenging white supremacy workshops, Showing Up For Racial Justice (usforallofus.org) are just a few of the useful online resources I know of. It’s so important that these conversations keep happening both online and in-person, because all of us white folks continue to take advantage of our privilege unknowingly all the time, EVEN as we are engaged in a process of unlearning it and challenging the systems that keep it in place.

  5. Excellent post. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  6. So needed as i bang into the same verbal walls continually while trying to address the blanket statement that ADDRESSING THE ISMS PREVENT EQUALITY (that coprs use to divide) is causing division. So tedious that white privilege is oblivious to how widespread the ignorance is. White male dominance and it’s offshoots must be halted by each of us ourselves so others silenced can finally be fully heard.

  7. Melanie

    I’ve facilitated a few workshops for (mostly) white folks to talk about anti-racism and white privilege at Occupy Philly. I’d be really interested in see your structure/plan/outline for the workshops you’ve led in Arizona. Does the name of your workshop include “colorblindness”? I think that might attract some different folks to our discussions. If you could please email me at reclaimyourlifeagain (at) gmail I would really appreciate it! Thank you for the great article. I am going to share it with other white anti-racists that I work with here in Philly!

    • Thanks Melanie, for your work. I’ll email you some more details and would love to hear about the workshops you’ve facilitated as well. It’s such an important time for us to share resources and build our collective ability to engage in such dialogues. I want to recommend that folks check out #OccupyRacism— a new national network of white racial justice organizers working in solidarity with POC organizers and Occupy movements that is becoming one hub of sharing resources around workshops, language/framing around white privilege and Occupy, etc. The best way to get in touch is our facebook page.

  8. Pingback: SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice

  9. Krystal

    I can’t even express how this article hits on so many points of what I see wrong with the Occupy Phoenix movement. Thank you for sharing! I am a common Occupier and would love to have a chance to chat with you in person if that is alright, because I want to help create the type of space you are referring to but I’m not sure how yet.

    • Krystal– Thanks for reading and responding and yes, I would love to get together and chat. I’ll send you a personal email. One quick resource, in case you don’t already know about it, is the Occupy Phoenix Council of Color that meets every Tuesday night at 8:30 pm at Cesar Chavez Plaza. Their meetings are open to everyone, focusing on issues relevant to communities of color in Phoenix and at Occupy. As far as I know, that is the main space at Occupy Phoenix where POC leaders are coming together to ensure that racial justice is a core part of the Occupy movement here and is a crucial place for us white anti-racist folks to take leadership from. Hope to see you there!

  10. alma norman

    Thank you for opening our minds to a wider and deeper issue. We do indeed have to learn to work together while accepting that our issues may be different., and respecting that difference.

    • Thanks for reading, Alma! I would add that our issues AREN’T really that different, once we get beyond the symptoms of all the problems that we experience and move deeper into the roots of what is wrong with the world. We are all affected in different ways by these huge systems that harm us all and that permeate every aspect of our lives and our world, like sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia. And cheers to respect of difference being a huge part of the solution!

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