The entire series is now available as a free downloadable PDF designed and formatted for small group discussion. Click here to download the free PDF version of the entire series.
The following is the final installment of an article written by Tom Cordaro, a member of the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. Reflection questions have been designed for small group discussion by the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team.
It is important that you read the earlier parts before reading this one:
- Part One can be found by clicking here.
- Part Two can be found by clicking here.
- Part Three can be found by clicking here.
- Part Four can be found by clicking here.
We’re interested in hearing your responses to Tom’s article. Please consider posting comments on the website in the comments area after each section of the article or joining in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, Tom welcomes direct feedback and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PART FIVE: Solidarity Without Giving Up Control, Conclusion
Sometimes white folks can give the appearance of following the lead of communities of color while still remaining in control. One way this can be done is by selectively working with communities that are not in a position to hold us accountable. One of the biggest ironies in the U.S. white peace movement over the past 30 years is that often more time and resources were spent building relationships of solidarity with communities of color in the Third World than were invested in fostering solidarity with communities of color in the cities where we live.
In some ways the distance provided by these Third World solidarity campaigns allowed white activists to stay in control of their level of accountability, commitment and most importantly to stay in control of the shaping of the agenda for the solidarity work once they returned home. Could it be that one reason why white peace activists preferred Third World communities of color is that many of these communities were so grateful for the attention and concern from white American activists, that they were careful not to challenge their white allies too much?
De La Torre also points out that there is a strong temptation, common among white peace activists, of confusing the Latin American social location with the U.S. Latino/a social location. This can lead some Latin American solidarity activists to conflate the experiences of Latin American communities with the experiences of the various Latina/o communities inside the United States. As De La Torre points out, “To look to Latin America to be the voice of U.S. Hispanics is to contribute to the continuing invisibility of the latter.”[i]
The safety of distance and the assumption of good intentions afforded to white activists who participate in solidarity campaigns with Third World communities of color may be difficult to duplicate when white activists move into accountable relationships with communities of color where they live. In many of these communities, there is a long history of well-intentioned white folks who say they will stay in the struggle but in fact were only passing through. Part of white privilege and entitlement is having the option of taking up the cause of oppressed communities when it is in our interest (or for as long as we are interested) and then move on to something else when it is not. People of color do not have this luxury. White folks can walk away from the struggle, people of color cannot. Because of this there is a lot of distrust to overcome and good intentions will not always be assumed. And for those oppressed and marginalized communities living on the wrong side of our hometowns, it is much easier to see how the institutions and systems that oppress them also afford privileges and entitlements to their white liberal peace movement neighbors. (For instance, can they travel to the neighborhoods where their white allies live without being stopped by the local police?)
Building accountable relationships with communities of color can deepen and challenge the way we think about nonviolence. But the fruitfulness of these relationships will, to a great extent, depend on whether they will be based on more than a common political agenda and whether they can move beyond a provider-client power dynamic. If our relationships with communities of color are driven solely by an agenda of issues or by a desire to serve “the less fortunate,” it will become easier to shield ourselves from any challenges to our abstract concepts and absolute moral principles regarding nonviolence.
Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lila Watson advises, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[ii] As an alternative to an issues-driven relationship with communities of color, De La Torre writes about an ethics of lo cotidiano, which can be understood as the everyday–the daily relationships that become the basis of social relationships. As he points out, “The trials and tribulations of Hispanics struggling for their humanity and dignity become the starting point for any type of indigenous Latino/a ethical framework. … Ethics for Hispanics can be done only with one’s feet firmly planted on the concrete sidewalks of the barrios.”[iii]
Genuine solidarity built on accountable relationships with communities of color is not only the morally right thing to do. It is also critical to the white peace movement’s ability to read the signs of the times–to understand our world and where God is at work within it. As Ched Myers reminds us in his book, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians[iv], if the Gospel teaches us anything, it teaches that the truth of things is better perceived from the margins of power, not at the center. For white middle class liberal peace activists who reside at the center of privilege and power in the American Empire, it is almost impossible to see the truth of things on our own. Not only is it difficult to see the truth of things, it is also difficult to shape a nonviolent revolutionary struggle to dismantle this system of power and privilege on our own. As De La Torre makes clear, “An ethics that upsets the prevailing social order designed to maintain empire is an ethics that can arise only from the margins of society, from those who are disillusioned and frustrated with normative Eurocentric values and virtues.”[v]
It is my hope that this reflection will serve as a useful contribution to the exploration of the ways white power and privilege influence the way the predominantly white faith-based peace movement prays, studies and acts on the call to nonviolence. Some may think my observations are over-stated or lack the proper nuance. Others might identify additional ways white power and privilege are exercised in the theology and practice of nonviolence. Still others might discount all or part of my analysis. All of these responses are welcomed and encouraged. Most importantly, the wisdom and experience of other people of color – particularly from the African-American, Asian-American, Native American and other communities of color, as well as from women of all races, are needed in order to produce a more complete and fruitful analysis of these issues.
To my white brothers and sisters:
For some of you, my words might seem harsh and judgmental. If so, please forgive me. It is not my intent to judge anyone; instead I am completely committed to do whatever I can to make the faith-based peace and justice movement more than any of us can imagine. In order to move from the center of power and privilege to the margins, I am convinced that there is much that will need to die in our theology and praxis of nonviolence in order to make room for what is waiting to be born. This will take a great deal of courage but I believe that most white peacemakers are ready to make the journey.
Some of you might find my use of the adjective “white” in describing the peace movement and the theology and praxis of nonviolence as grating on your sensibilities. For some this may be the first time you have ever encountered terms like “white peace movement,” “white activists,” or “white nonviolence.” Some of you may feel frustrated, “Can’t we get beyond race? After all, aren’t we all after the same thing?” It might be tempting to take a non-racial approach to nonviolence, but for white people who often are unaware of the way white power and privilege limits our ability to see the truth of things, it is urgent that we embrace new identities by becoming anti-racist nonviolent peacemakers. It is critical that we break free of the delusion that our way of thinking, praying and acting for nonviolent change is normative. Without this fundamental understanding, we may see little value in what people of color can teach us about peacemaking and we may be unable to fully benefit from their unique wisdom and experience about the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace.
A reflection of the type I have offered is, by necessity, based on generalizations. This means that the observations I make are not true for every white person. The important thing is to identify those things that elicit the strongest reactions in you; these are the areas that will be most fruitful for you to think and pray about individually and collectively. But if you find that none of these observations applies to you, please let the rest of us know how you have been able to overcome the obstacles of white power and privilege in your theology and practice of nonviolence. You may have much to teach us.
To my brothers and sisters of color:
In my ten years as a member of the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team[vi] and through the many relationships I have forged through my involvement with Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing & Training,[vii] I have benefited tremendously from the patient, confrontational, loving support of sisters and brothers of color who have opened my eyes, my heart and my mind to the ways that white power and privilege have hindered my work for peace with justice. I am eternally grateful for their willingness to work with me and teach me, even when, time after time, I continue to fall back into my old ways of thinking and doing peace work. I am often amazed they don’t just walk away and conclude that I am a hopeless cause.
There are a thousand legitimate reasons why people of color, who tirelessly struggle for justice and an end to violence, would have little interest in engaging in this effort to understand how white power and privilege in the faith-based peace movement gets expressed in the theology and practice of nonviolence. This is not a line of inquiry that will win you praise or support in much of the white peace movement. Why alienate potential allies by going to a place that is charged with so much emotion and that is so much a part of white peace movement identity? A cost-benefit analysis might lead you to believe that opening this Pandora’s Box is not worth the cost and, to be perfectly honest, you might be right.
But for those who are willing to take up this challenge, the potential pay-off could be enormous. If we could fulfill the vision of Dr. King to create a unified movement to end militarism, racism and poverty (and if King were alive today he might add environmental destruction), we could effectively challenge the power of the corporate elites and their handmaidens in government, the media and on Wall Street. It is clear that working separately in our own narrowly defined areas of concern will not get us to the Promised Land. Moving out of our designated political space comes with risks but it was a risk that Dr. King was willing to take when he opposed the war in Vietnam (some civil rights leaders felt that the anti-war and civil rights movements should be kept separate) and when he began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign before he was murdered (some civil rights supporters wanted to limit the struggle to political rights and not talk about the concept of economic rights).
And finally, to my Catholic sisters and brothers of color who have struggled for justice, dignity and an end to violence, I want to offer my sincere apologies for the many ways I discounted your work by declaring that your struggle for the sake of the gospel was really not a part of the Catholic peace movement; that because your focus and methods didn’t conform to my understanding of what it means to do peace work, you were not a part of the peace movement. Looking back now on what I used to say (“People of color are too busy with their own issues to work on peace”) and how I used to think (“Only people like us, who have the economic security to move beyond the daily struggle for survival, can do the work of international peacemaking and opposing U.S. military interventions”), I confess to an appalling sense of arrogance and presumption.
And it is in this spirit that I urge you to think of Pax Christi USA as an organization that belongs as much to you as it does to any white Catholic peace activist. Pax Christi USA claims a national Catholic identity and any Catholic who can embrace our statement of purpose is entitled to not only become a member but to form their own local groups and work on issues of justice and peace that are important to their local community. You don’t have to ask for permission to become a registered member; you don’t need to be approved or even welcomed. As you know from your own tireless efforts to make the Catholic Church in the United States more accountable to people of color, your involvement with Pax Christi will not be easy. But this Catholic movement for peace with justice is your birthright as a baptized Catholic; claim it as your own, make it your own and know that there are white allies in Pax Christi who stand ready to walk with you and to learn from you.
REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR PART FIVE
1. Do you agree that it is often easier to do solidarity work with poor communities of color in other countries than it is to do solidarity work with poor communities of color where we live? Why or why not? How much of your resources (time and money) is spent on advocacy and solidarity with communities of color in foreign countries versus your resource commitment to communities of color where you live? What does your resource commitment say about your understanding of solidarity and the option for the poor?
2. What do you think of the author’s assertion that “For white middle class liberal peace activists who reside at the center of privilege and power in the American Empire, it is almost impossible to see the truth of things on our own. Not only is it difficult to see the truth of things, it is also difficult to shape a nonviolent revolutionary struggle to dismantle this system of power and privilege on our own.”
3. In the author’s concluding words “To my white brothers and sisters,” and “To my brothers and sisters of color” what do you find most challenging?
[i] ibid, page 60
[ii] This quote has served as a motto for many activist groups in Australia and elsewhere, including United Students Against Sweatshops. A possible origin for the quote is a speech given by Watson at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi.Watson has said of this quote that she was “not comfortable being credited for something that had been born of a collective process” and prefers that it be credited to Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
[iii] Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, by Miguel A. De La Torre, Baylor University Press, WacoTexas, 2010, pages 70-71
[iv] Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians, by Ched Myers, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 1994
[v] Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, by Miguel A. De La Torre, Baylor University Press, WacoTexas, 2010, page 94
[vi] Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team is a racially diverse group of people committed to seeing the transformation of Pax Christi USA into an anti-racist, multicultural movement for peace and justice. It provides workshops for Pax Christi regions and groups throughout the nation, helping the movement to develop a common analysis of racism that will help Pax Christi USA to move forward in dismantling racism in our movement and in our world. www.paxchristiusa.org/about/pax-christi-anti-racism-team