Faith Reidenbach is an activist with the Corvallis, Oregon chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a founder of the Corvallis chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice.
I’m part of a group that started a Corvallis, Oregon chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. That national network, dubbed SURJ, is organizing white people to work for racial justice, including establishing accountable relationships with organizations led by people of color. We launched our chapter in January 2015, and none of us is an experienced organizer, so we’re feeling our way.
We started by sponsoring monthly community dialogues where we encouraged participants to discuss what it means to be white. In response to the Charleston massacre we’ve invited our local faith communities to come together so we can model a respectful way to discuss white supremacy. We’re also planning 2 events for parents and schoolteachers. Horrors are happening so fast, and at this writing, we’re supporting a younger white woman who’s collaborating with two black women to organize a protest of Sandra Bland’s death.
What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?
In the late 1970s when I was in college, and again in the mid-1990s when I lived in Cleveland, I volunteered in 2 unusual groups. In each one, about half of the members were women of color, and the leaders were African-American women. In both instances, I was the secretary and took minutes, so I wasn’t supposed to say anything. Even for white people who grow up in integrated neighborhoods (which I didn’t), I doubt that it’s a common experience to listen for hours to people of color, and moreover to have people of color be the authority figures. Those were life-shaping experiences.
During my Cleveland volunteering, I got somewhat comfortable with one of the group leaders, a woman about my age named Mistinguette Smith. One day I told her, “I wish I was black! Black culture seems so much more fun!” Unfortunately, many people of color are used to hearing that sort of thing, and, being a “diversity trainer” at the time, Mistinguette was ready for me. She replied, not unkindly, “You need to study your whiteness.” My what?
I was predisposed to the suggestion about studying because I grew up in the sociology section of my public library. I came out to myself as a young teenager, and for a time my only contact with other lesbians was through books. Those shelves soon introduced me to books about radical feminist theory, racism, and classism, so from a tender age I intuited what’s now called intersectionality. Not as a leader, but as a good follower, I’ve worked for reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and disability rights, and against rape, domestic violence, apartheid, and nukes. Everything’s connected.
What do you hope that Corvallis SURJ can accomplish in Oregon?
Amplify the voices of people of color and end the silence of well-meaning white people.
Who would you consider your social justice heroes?
I’ll confine myself to racial justice and, deliberately, to white people. Anne Braden is the first I think of. Among her numerous achievements, she was one of the first white people to urge her peers to move past the idea of being white saviors to people of color. As SURJ puts it, “move from the idea of helping others…to understanding that our own liberation as white people, our own humanity, is inextricably linked to racial justice.” Braden also urged her fellow activists to confront the racism that’s endemic in other social movements.
Mab Segrest, a white lesbian feminist, inspired me with her brave anti-Klan work in the South. Her 1994 book Memoir of a Race Traitor includes a detailed history of the racist history of the United States—it’s where I learned that the economic elite invented the “white race” in the 1600s to keep everyone else divided and conquered.
Paul Kivel is a Jewish activist and educator whose books and curricula tie together racial and religious justice, gender justice, economic justice, and violence prevention. My head spins with possibilities whenever I look at his website.
Peggy McIntosh is deservedly famous for “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” But she’s my hero for this idea: “I suddenly realized that anyone could lead [professional development seminars] if they rigorously apportioned time, respected everyone in the group, and worked toward personal testimony rather than academic habits of abstraction and competition.” I have a special interest in leading community-based study groups on whiteness, and it’s Peggy who gave me courage to do that, despite my lack of teaching credentials.
What gives you hope for the future?
Lenin said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Many white people in this country finally want to “do something” about racism, and now there’s guidance for us. In the past year, thousands of people have either started SURJ chapters or have become affiliated with SURJ through an existing or predecessor group. In Kentucky alone, there’s a SURJ affiliate with 9000+ members. The Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (Los Angeles), the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (Seattle), and European Dissent (3 cities) each have about 15 years of organizing experience and are now SURJ affiliates. The Rural Organizing Project in Oregon, which facilitates racial justice work among more than 50 human dignity groups, is now a SURJ affiliate.
I don’t kid myself that SURJ will obliterate racism soon. But these numbers give me hope that successive generations of white people will become convinced that it’s in our interest to dismantle white supremacy. By “white supremacy” I refer not to skinheads and neo-Nazis but simply to the kind of racism we perpetrate in the United States. As Mistinguette said once in a speech, using the term “white supremacy” instead of “racism” keeps us from deceiving ourselves about what the problem is, and whether it is urgent, and whether it is white people’s job to do anything about it.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?
One is the temptation to treat a single social justice issue as preeminent. An environmentalist recently told me that racial justice is a lesser concern because “If the planet dies, it won’t matter if the races get along.” At a lecture the other day, others in my breakout group decided that getting big corporate money out of politics is the answer to a host of social ills, including mass incarceration. During the 2015 White Privilege Conference, a workshop leader called racism more damaging than sexism. All of that is senseless. There is no hierarchy of oppression. Individually, I choose one or two issues to advocate for. But collectively, we need to do much more to foster all the necessary work. I’m interested in learning “social permaculture,” such as how to foster connections between groups—horizontal organizing.
Another obstacle is the degree to which we accept isolation and depression as normal. Last month I heard a 20-something activist say, “We need to remember in our bones how things used to be.” That resonated with me. The Anarres Project encourages us to imagine a better future; maybe part of that is to imagine a better past. Perhaps the speaker meant remembering things like being assured of safety, food, and shelter; spending substantial amounts of time in conversation with others; having direction from elders; relaxing for more hours a week than you work; and making life’s major decisions with the support of with family and neighbors. Very little in the dominant white culture encourages any of that.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change?
For white people who are new to thinking about whiteness, as opposed to racism, I suggest Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. It’s a chatty memoir, and it has discussion questions that make it useful for book groups. Corvallis SURJ was born from a Waking Up White discussion group.
For white people who want better insight into how people of color experience white supremacy, I suggest joining Goodreads.com and following a group called Literary Fiction by People of Color. It’s open to all.
For white people who are organizing for racial justice, I recommend Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: Stories from Our Work, edited by Bonnie Berman Cushing and others; Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice: 15 Stories, edited by Eddie Moore, Jr. and others; Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation by Derald Wing Sue; Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (get the 3rd edition) by Paul Kivel; and Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It by Shelly Tochluk.
Of course, many wise people don’t have the leisure and resources to publish books. On Facebook and Twitter, follow Color of Change, Colorlines, The Crunk Feminist Collective, The Root, and SURJ—that’s a good start.
To everyone, I recommend Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant. In a highly engaging way, he explains why so many working-class people vote Republican, defer to authority but will never let loose of their guns, believe God wants us in the Middle East, and created a chain of colleges for their home-schooled children. “Sooner or later…the left must genuinely connect face-to-face with Americans who do not necessarily share all of their priorities,” Bageant writes. That’s especially important for white racial justice organizers. We reenact the birth of US white supremacy whenever those of us with a measure of economic privilege hold ourselves apart from poor and working-class white people.
Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?
White People, the new MTV documentary; Anne Braden: Southern Patriot; by Anne Lewis and Mimi Pickering; and Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible by Shakti Butler. I’m aware of a movie called Whitewashed: Unmasking the World of Whiteness, but I haven’t seen it.
Interview by Joseph Orosco, July 2015.