White Folks, Relationships are Key for Movement Building

Shenk 2
Demonstrators at a June 14 nonviolent assembly and vigil supporting the Movement for Black Lives and in honor of loved ones killed by police violence in Grays Harbor County, Washington. Photo credit: Chaplains on the Harbor, chaplainsontheharbor.org.

By Tim W. Shenk

Part 2 of “Don’t Delete Your White Friends.”

I wrote a short piece recently, encouraging my fellow white people not to delete our white friends who post hurtful or misinformed opinions, especially around race and racism.

Lots of people have read this piece. Many have gotten what I was trying to say, but I don’t think I was clear enough. It’s not about penance or doing hard things out of guilt about our whiteness, and it’s not about staying friends with white supremacists. Here’s a second attempt to say more about what I was driving at.

I want to be clear that the “don’t delete white friends” proposal applies to people we’re actually friends with — in real life! Not just on social media. “Don’t delete” is less about curating a Facebook profile and more about an orientation for our actual lives. The friends I’m talking about are people that at some point have shared something significant in common with us. People who have some reason to care about us and what we think, and vice versa.

I’m NOT talking about trolls, bots, zoom bombers, abusers or people consciously trying to pick fights and work against the cause of human liberation. Please don’t spend any more of your precious energy getting triggered or hurt by them. Block. Delete. Get a restraining order if you have to.
Rather, I’m talking about reaching for our actual white friends and neighbors. It’s worth it to be connected to these folks, even when they say something out of line.

Why is this important? First, it’s partly about us. If we’re trying to change this oppressive society, we are better off knowing the terrain of struggle, even if it’s painful to look at. It has become easier with social media to create echo chambers around ourselves and not really know what the rest of this country is saying and thinking about issues we care about. So let’s keep looking, even at the uncomfortable stuff. It will give us a better chance to be relevant instead of just smugly correct.

Second, white people make up a large proportion of those impoverished and dispossessed in this country, and a large proportion of the middle strata that is currently being decimated.

Throughout U.S. history, poor whites have always been the counter-revolutionary force that has been tricked and obligated into containing, managing and repressing the liberatory tendencies of the rest of the poor. Dr. King set out to change this pattern when he called for the first Poor People’s Campaign. He said that “the dispossessed of this nation, both white and Negro,” if they could be helped to take action together, could be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.

In the current crisis, the numbers of newly unemployed are staggering. While the pain will still be disproportionately on the backs of people of color, the raw numbers of white people thrown into the ranks of the poor in this recession will be higher.

This means that it’s likely that we and many of our white friends will notice, maybe for the first time, that this system based on the requirement of production for profit isn’t actually working for us either. Many people will become permanently unemployable, many will become homeless, many will end up in food pantry lines for the first time. If we’re in touch with more people who are hurting, we’ll have the chance to be in community with more folks about collective solutions that could alleviate that hurt. I wrote in my original piece that we should be ready to have some hard conversations. I stand by that, but I also *don’t* think the point of staying friends is to convince someone how wrong they are about anything.

Very few people get inspired to join a movement after being scolded on Facebook about their views. But they may join a mutual aid project or attend a rally to improve their material life. To say it another way, there are white folks who may not throw down for Black Lives Matter the hashtag, but might participate alongside Black and brown people in a project to get everyone what they need to survive.

Now that we (white people) are noticing how precarious even our lives are under capitalism, there is real potential for unity on a material basis. This could be the year when it gets bad enough that even the average white person could understand that we would be better off abolishing the capital-labor relation altogether, not just defunding the police. When we might dare to start coming together to demand a better way to distribute the vast wealth of society.

To sum up, keeping our white friends is not primarily about social media. It’s a political orientation, a fusion politics, a direction toward organizing the dispossessed in all its diversity for an end to all discrimination and exploitation. It’s about being relentless in defeating the age-old ruling class strategy of divide and conquer that’s sending our society to the brink.

Tim W. Shenk is coordinator of the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (cuslar.org) and serves on the coordinating committee of the NYS Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (nysppc.org). He lives with his spouse Alicia and their daughter Emma in Ithaca, NY.

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