By Victoria Law
My great-grandfather was the type of man who refused to get out of bed unless there was breakfast waiting for him. Since he wouldn’t get out of bed to go and work, there was never any breakfast waiting for him. It was a cycle that did nothing to alleviate the family’s poverty.
When he grew old enough, his son, my grandfather, left the small village to seek work in Shanghai. He found it and spent the next year shoveling manure for a living. He worked his way up to become a jeweler’s apprentice, eventually opening his own jewelry store. He returned home to build the village’s largest private house for his mother, who had long endured the ridicule of her neighbors and acquaintances. When the Communists won the Civil War, confiscating both the house and the jewelry store, he started again in Hong Kong, this time with a family of six and a wife who loved the latest fashion. One year, he held the traditional Chinese New Year’s party. It was packed with fellow entrepreneurs. The next year, his business crashed; their doorway remained empty. The visitors of yesteryear, who had eaten all his snacks and drank all his liquor, had found more lucrative families to call upon.
My other grandfather was the unsuccessful owner of a factory that made burlap bags. Rarely did these bags yield a profit and so my mother’s strongest childhood memories are of eating salted peanuts one at a time to make them last. Her younger sister died of hunger. One of her older sisters had to be given away.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, both of my parents had attained middle-class status by the time I was born. They had come to the States to go to college. Both were the first generation in their families to attend, let alone graduate, high school. They owned their own home in a predominantly white area in Queens. Both parents worked white-collar office jobs. I have no childhood memories of material want.
This last fact has been used against me when I bring up race and racism. There have been more than a few occasions when white anarchists quickly shift the conversation from my discomfort at being the only non-white face in the room to class issues. I had a middle-class childhood. How dare I complain about, or even question, the lack of racial diversity in any given anarchist project when I have never experienced material deprivation? It does not matter that I grew up to become a single mother making less than fifteen thousand a year. The fact that I grew up privileged invalidates anything I might have to say about discrimination—whether it be based on race, skin color, gender or even my status as a parent—both in and out of anarchist circles.
In their attacks on my well-to-do childhood, white anarchists overlook some deep-rooted cultural differences. For instance, I grew up with a series of amahs. In pre-1949 China (and in post-Revolution Hong Kong), Chinese parents rarely cared for their own young. Instead, they turned them over to amahs, who acted as wet nurses, babysitters and maids. Most amahs remained with the family until all the children were grown and continued to maintain close ties with their nurslings. For the poorer families, like that of my maternal grandfather who could not afford to hire a woman, the elder children took responsibility for the younger. In earlier times, the son was married off—at the age of two or three—to a preteenage girl whose role was more that of surrogate mother than wife.
American culture has nothing that resembles the amah. Wealthier families may have nannies, which is what I suppose the average American anarchist envisions when I talk about my childhood. Because many of them have grown up in places which encourage ethnic and cultural segregation and because Chinese culture discourages unnecessary interaction—particularly more intimate interaction—with other cultures, they have no frame of reference for my stories. I am seen as having grown up with the privilege of having had servants. There is little attempt to probe further into the culture and understand that amahs, while technically employees of the household, had more intimate relationships than an American family’s maid, cleaning lady or dog walker. Perhaps this refusal speaks to the internalized notion that only American heritage and tradition matter. If an experience comes from someplace else, it doesn’t count.
It is not just the differences in culture that cause misunderstanding. What many self-proclaimed working-class (white) anarchists fail to understand is that having money did not insulate me from the insults American society heaps upon its children of color and its girl children. The fact that my parents held white-collar jobs did not prevent me from encountering grown men who believed it was within their right to approach a
ten-year-old girl and quietly say, “Nice pussy.” My parents owning their own home did not protect me from other children pulling their eyes sideways and taunting me. Living in a well-to-do neighborhood did not shield me from the history teacher who looked at me and the Indian girl in his sixth-grade classroom and said, in all seriousness, “It’s too bad that you come from inferior cultures.”
Such closed-mindedness is not limited to anarchists focused on class struggle. Although all anarchist groups and projects proclaim, “We welcome all who agree with our mission statement, regardless of race, sexual orientation, etc,” what many of these groups fail to realize (or perhaps don’t care to realize) is that their mission statements and their ideal visions often fail to address, or even acknowledge, the very different realities we come from. Their mission statements may sound good on paper, but often fail to take into account that many people of color do not feel comfortable in almost all-white spaces. They refuse to acknowledge that we may have had bad experiences with predominantly white groups both in and out of the anarchist movement. They refuse to understand that we automatically notice when we are the only ones in the room. They refuse to comprehend that we are tired of being touted as the group’s (sole) member of color, of being accused of being overly-sensitive to skin color or of having our concerns ignored altogether. They refuse to see that overthrowing the capitalist system will not automatically address the institutional and internalized racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that we experience every day.
Last winter, I went to a meeting of anarcha-feminists. The flier offered childcare—a rarity in the anarchist scene. That alone made me hope that this would be different than other meetings and groups I’d attended in the past. After all, the organizers, neither of whom were parents, understood the need for childcare. They might be more open-minded about other issues as well.
After dropping my daughter off in the childcare space, I entered the meeting room. A circle of chairs had been set up. As the room filled, I noticed that every face except mine was white.
A few years ago, this would not have bothered me. I had entered the anarchist scene in high school and hadn’t cared much about racial diversity or differences. I was just glad that no one made fun of me because I looked different or acted different or actually cared about what went on in the world. As I grew older, I began to notice my difference more and more. I noticed that people sometimes treated me differently, as if they were going out of their way to welcome the one woman of color and prove that they were not racist. (In high school, I was invited to a Love and Rage meeting. Love and Rage was a closed collective; more than a few older white anarchists in the scene were surprised that I, a girl so new to politics, had been asked to participate while they had been ignored by the group for years. I arrived to the meeting late. The discussion was going full force. The topic? How to bring more people of color into the organization.)
That day, I was acutely aware that I was very unlike the others in the circle. My discomfort lessened only slightly when one other woman of color entered the room.
Throughout the meeting, I struggled with the prospect of bringing up the group’s lack of diversity. I wondered if my concerns would be dismissed or even ridiculed. I wondered if I would be accused of being divisive or of distracting from the “real” issue of women’s status in the anarchist movement.
At the end of the meeting, as a sign-up sheet was being passed around, another woman—one with blond hair and blue eyes—saved me the discomfort.
“Before I agree to be on any sort of listserv or be part of any kind of network, I want to ask about future outreach. I’m not interested in being part of a predominantly white group.”
All eyes divided between darting towards me and towards the other woman of color on the far end of the room. I was glad that a white woman had brought up the subject. However, since half the people in the room were looking at me and no one at all was speaking, I decided to add my thoughts. “I think the term anarcha-feminist might turn away some women of color who share the same politics but don’t explicitly identify as anarchist. Maybe the next flier can drop the term.”
As I spoke, I remembered past conversations with radical women of color—women who shared anti-authoritarian ideas and beliefs but who didn’t want to be identified with a movement that they saw as white brick throwers. I thought about the woman of color who had attended a few different anarchist meetings and been turned off by white male anarchists’ dismissal of race issues. I thought about the woman of color who had posted the article, “Where was the color in Seattle?” Her concerns had been dismissed as unimportant; what really mattered were class differences. I thought about the radical women of color who had the perception that anarchists were either unwashed, smelly white punk kids or white academics. Both had the option of renouncing radical politics and rejoining the mainstream world. This was what the word anarchist conjured up for them. Why would they want to get involved with any group that labeled itself that?
There was an uncomfortable pause. “Well…” one of the organizers began. After some hemming and hawing, she suggested that perhaps instead of directly trying to reach out to women of color, this group could do fundraisers and donate the proceeds to women of color organizations “that are doing good work.”
I felt as if I’d been smacked. I wondered if the woman realized how patronizing and racist her suggestion was. In my mind, I could see Charlotte Mason giving money to the black artists that she deemed “primitive” enough. Only, instead of the 1930s heiress who demanded that her artists sit at her feet and call her “Godmother,” these were
post-millenium anarchists deciding which women of color were anti-authoritarian enough to receive their money.
The other organizer had a different suggestion, one which also circumvented the possibility that they would have to reach out to women other than the same old (white) faces. She suggested that the group work around issues facing women of color, such as the prison-industrial complex. Although she didn’t outright say it, I felt that her suggestion was that this predominantly white group speak for and act on behalf of women of color rather than actively trying to get them involved or even find out what their main concerns were.
Later I learned that one or two of the attendees had felt offended on my behalf. How dare someone bring up race and the lack of non-white faces with Vikki sitting right there? Is she blind? Doesn’t she realize that Vikki is a person of color? Is she implying that Asians are not really people of color? They refused to see her question as anything other than an attack on me. I tried to explain that I was glad that a white person had broached the subject because, frankly, I was tired of being the one who always had to. Instead, I began to understand that many white anarchists are unwilling to talk about race. They would rather dismiss it as a social construct that does not apply to anarchists and, thus, ignore the issue altogether.
The next time I saw this woman, I thanked her for bringing up the subject. I wanted to let her know that I was not angry or offended by her observation.
“You shouldn’t have to always be the one to bring it up,” she stated.
Since then, I have not had a white ally in other projects to pipe up and point out the obvious. It has fallen to me—the woman of color, often the only woman of color in the room—to point this out. The responses have ranged from uncomfortable silences to lukewarm acknowledgments to outrage. Whatever the tone, the common defense is always, “We don’t discriminate against people of color.” What is left unsaid is, “See? We welcome you. That’s proof that we don’t discriminate.”
I now understand why so many people of color are wary of working with whites. When I first encountered the suspicions and wariness of people of color towards white anarchists, I dismissed their concerns. “Hey, they’re doing good work,” I defended. “Who cares what color they are?”
I now see that it is not that white anarchists are white. It is that many of them are unwilling to try to understand the needs, concerns and experiences of those with different skin colors.
As an anarchist of color, this disturbs me. I am tired of always being put in the position of explaining racism and race issues to white anarchists, sexism and gender issues to male (and sometimes female) anarchists, or some form of discrimination to virtually everyone I encounter. I am tired of the prophecy that in an anarchist society, racism, sexism and all other forms of discrimination will magically cease to exist. Such explanations no longer appease me. Instead, I see them as white anarchists’ way of not confronting the problems and issues within our own movement and within themselves.