3 Precautions for Interracial Coalition Building

Since Donald Trump was elected, many Black Americans feel that for the first time their White allies are coming to offer them aid in some form. This is not a claim about whether or not their aid prior to this moment can be objectively tracked by, say, a record of charitable contributions to organizations that offer assistance to Black and Brown people. Rather, it is a claim about a part of the Black perspective, from a Black perspective. I’ve even noticed that many of my own colleagues have become a lot more politically active and engaged (or at least been more vocal and outreaching about their activity and engagement) since the 2016 Presidential campaigns and election. Many are coming to see what Black Americans have known for a long time—that many of Americans are racially biased and that the injustices of America’s institutions, in many cases, can be traced to skin color. Blacks still occupy a disproportionate percentage of America’s prison population and are disproportionately affected by American poverty, for example. To remedy these and other problems that the country is facing, the usefulness of interracial coalitions is becoming more apparent.

Still, we must focus on forging these connections in ways that do not themselves further alienate and exclude people from different racial backgrounds. For example, many Blacks and other people of color feel as if the injustices they experience in America can be traced to their skin color on both personal and systemic levels. When these perceptions are met with skepticism—by allies and non-allies alike—about the prevalence of racism in American society, it undoubtedly produces frustration. This skepticism generates frustration because of what it backhandedly implies—that the joblessness, homelessness, lack of education, and high incarceration rates experienced by Black Americans are failures of individual Black people themselves. Alienation occurs because meeting the perceptions of racial injustice that emerge from lived experience with skepticism or attitudes that flat out deny the legitimacy of these perceptions, strips Black people of a capability of shaping their own image in more self-affirming terms because of the social forces imposed upon them which include these negative conceptions of Blacks as lazy, hostile, dangerous, and criminals. As a result, Blacks and others making claims on the basis of these perceptions can become alienated or estranged not only from our larger society more generally, but also from themselves.

Helping people who are vulnerable because they have been afflicted by violence in America and American violence—violence that is perpetuated by the state, such as police brutality—is something that Americans from many different racial backgrounds are passionate about and these passions are often informed by our own experiences. Compassionate people often do not cause or support injustices they know about. This common allegiance to a shared cause can be helpful because it can provide a shared platform—a unified perspective—from which we can better adjudicate our differences, racial or otherwise. Yet, provided our varied experiences that emerge from differing racial identities, forging interracial coalitions can be difficult because the way forward will not always be clear or something that these same Americans will agree on. For example, many White Americans do not think that the police act in unjustified ways towards Blacks. They roll their eyes when they hear about trigger warnings and microaggressions. This civic indifference is why what constitutes “help”, “vulnerable”, and “violence” is incredibly fraught and will have to be combated and eliminated if we are to make more significant strides toward racial justice. Still, the most realistic proposals for ending the injustices caused by racism and other harms will rely on bonds of commitment across races—this is especially true in the case for reparations and prison abolition.

Here is a short practical guide for taking necessary precautions when trying to forge interracial coalitions:

  1. Do not make race invisible: Some think that when working across racial lines, the discussion is best served by making race invisible. They believe that by eliminating the idea of race and refusing to acknowledge racial differences, we weaken the effects that these socially constructed categories have on us. However, we should recognize our racial differences because failing to do so delegitimizes the personal experiences people take themselves to have. Doing so generates a risk that the ideas and the culture of the dominant group will be imposed on the less powerful, creating solutions of perpetual racial assimilation favoring the dominant group. Historically, the social and political power relations in America have be established on the racial inferiority of Blackness. On a social and economic level, America has a rich history of ‘pillage and plunder’ carried out by white Americans, including Native American genocide and the enslavement of Blacks which erected the American economy. As a result, because of the asymmetries in power that pillaging and plundering generate, whiteness in America has become the default or dominant culture and whites are less prone to have to account for their whiteness as do others—especially Blacks—to have to account for their racialized identities. Thus, ‘de-racing’, making race invisibile, simply defaults to whiteness as opposed to genuine neutrality.
  2. Realize that Good Will will not be enough: Listening in order to build trust across (potentially) already damaged racial lines will require work. It requires that we actively work against our racial biases both inside and outside of our coalition spaces—spaces where allies with different racial identities meet to craft or shape their social justice agendas. For some of us in interracial coalitions, contact with a diverse group of racial others is primarily had in our coalition spaces. Contemporary research in psychology on implicit bias uses implicit association tests (IAT) on people who self report as racially unbiased to show that they overwhelmingly demonstrate racial bias in their own thinking and behavior. As a result, we must ask ourselves what biases (racial ones in particular) we might be bringing to our coalition space and we must fight to eliminate these cognitive barriers. This is true in spite of our commitment to connectedness (physical, cyber or otherwise) to our coalitions—our good will. As Uma Narayan puts the point, “The possession of such resolute a good will on the part of members of more advantaged groups toward more disadvantaged groups may be an important foundation for the beginning of trust building experiences between them. But the advantaged would be wrong to suspect this to be sufficient to cause strong, historically constituted networks of distrust to simply evaporate into thin air.” A resolute attitude toward trying to understand and empathize with the experiences and interest will not be enough to solve the various problems that may come up over the course of dialogue in coalition spaces. We have our own work to do.

Here are some ways that we can fight our biases:

  • Consciously seek out counterexamples to known stereotypes: Our goal should be to individuate by seeking out information rather than attempting to be colorblind. In some cases this will not be very difficult because the counterexamples can be found in what we know about our friends or people who we care about. Familiarizing yourself with counterexamples to these stereotypes also fights implicit biases in that it  enables you to expose others to them. Some forms of entertainment such as 13th (a Netflix Original Documentary) can serve as useful tools for this kind of exposure.
  • Make efforts to encounter, engage and spend time with members of other racial groups: The more time we spend with members from other racial groups increases the possibilities for acquiring more positive experiences with them. These positive experiences contribute to assuaging racial anxieties.
  • Adopt the perspective of people who are in your racial outgroup: Perspective-taking is not a perfect mechanism but it can be extremely useful in generating pro-social emotions in us such as sympathy, empathy, and compassion. To to this, we might ask ourselves “What might things be like for me if I were in that person’s shoes?” On a broader level, our society may want to explore the usefulness of mixed reality and virtual reality technology in generating these emotions and imparting us with the perspectives of other in more immersive ways. In a first-year course at Stanford University, its use is already being explored in these ways.
  1. If you do not know what racial oppression is, ask (but do to not expect an answer): People who are racial minorities often have different experiences of racial injustices—some of these experiences are more subtle than we might realize, such as the microaggressions Black women experience about their naturally textured hairstyles in the workplace. In order to understand the nature of racial and other forms of injustice we must yield to the racially oppressed because of their epistemic privilege when it comes to articulating the evils of racial oppression—in other words, knowing the detailed and concrete ways in which the oppression affects the major and minor details of their lives. Admittedly, oppression is partly constituted by lacking access to the tools of knowledge production and so the oppressed will often lack the tools to analyze the causes of their oppression. However, when it comes to the immediate knowledge of everyday life endured under oppression, the oppressed know, first-hand, the details of this affliction. Simultaneously, members of racially oppressed groups are under no obligation to offer an explanation of their oppression. Understand that the expectation of an explanation is itself a subtle instantiation racial oppression if you belong to the racial majority. Atlanta Community Organizer Zack Linly passionately puts the point “When black people debate [racial oppression], we do so passionately—not always articulately, and often without a whole lot of depth to our arguments—but we always come from a place of genuine frustration, outrage, and fear. When most white people [and even some “well meaning” white people], debate these very same issues from an opposing stance, they do so from a place of perpetual obtuseness and indifference.” What Linly’s quote points to is the asymmetrical relations of power that supervene on conversations about race between Blacks and whites—all stakeholders to the conversation do not have the same stakes. For Blacks, an explanation inevitably proceeds from a disadvantaged position—one that often invokes emotionally volatile and traumatic experiences, requiring Blacks to relive these experiences before their white peers. For whites, the demand for an explanation proceeds from a position of advantage (for example, it’s not that Blacks are merely being asked to articulate their own situation of racial disadvantage—which includes lacking access to key resources for knowledge production, such as education and competency with Standard English Dialect—but rather we are often being asked to articulate the situation in a way that our white counterparts can understand and accept). Understandably, the refusal to offer an explanation, like the one just offered, might hinder progress toward solutions. So, while the racially oppressed are under no obligation to articulate their oppression, perhaps the likelihood of disclosure can be increased by approaching these exchanges tenderly, and earnestly.Blue
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