I believe that transparency is fundamental to Democracy, and fundamental to healthy community building. I hope the organizations who’ve inspired this post will share this belief, as it forms the basis upon which I write the following in a spirit of goodwill and community healing:
Last night I attended my first-ever local Democrats meeting. I’d been asked by half a dozen people to show up and get involved.
“We need you,” they said. I’m allergic to being needed, after 5 years of living as a white man and developing a disastrous savior complex in my 20’s. Highly allergic. You don’t need me. You need to look within yourself and be honest about what you see.
“We lack organization since the old guard has phased out,” one told me. “That generation of Democrat didn’t listen, but they were organized. The newer folks care enough to listen, but we aren’t as organized.”
“Our Black caucus and Hispanic caucus have already peaced out,” a couple of them shared. “How can we be a Democratic group without a Black caucus and Hispanic caucus? They won’t even show up anymore! How can we live up to our values with just white people at the table?”
So I showed up. I listened. I learned. I ate lemon cake.
I noticed there was one visibly Native American person in the room, and everyone else was white. I was the only transgender person in the room; everyone else was cisgender. There was one Black woman on the zoom call, who also happens to be the only Black Justice of the Peace for the whole county; everyone else on zoom appeared to be white or had their cameras turned off.
I asked the leadership about this lack of diversity after the meeting concluded. The white woman in command began naming a list of BIPOC community organizers she knows, none of whom want to be involved with the county Democrats. I asked her why they don’t get involved (as if people she named hadn’t already told me themselves.)
“Well I’ve invited Irvin, but he doesn’t want to get involved until he sees us in Springdale doing the work in the community,” she answered. She looked resigned, like there was simply nothing more the Democrats could do to persuade the magical and illustrious Irvin Camacho to give a flying flip about the Democrats who want his communities’ votes so desperately for their many candidates.
“Great!” I said. I mean, really, this was wonderful news for the Democratic Party in Arkansas! Apparently Irvin’s still open to them earning his presence at their table. He hasn’t slammed the door in their face and told them to go masturbate with sandpaper. There is opportunity here! All the Democrats have to do is show up for grassroots community engagement and help out in the ways that are needed by the people they’re supposed to serve.
“So what are you doing to help get Alice Gachuzo elected to city council in Springdale right now?” I asked. I was on the edge of my seat, ready to hear about the door-knocking, the phone calling, the texting, the donation drives, the events these experienced, political-savvy people were helping Alice with for her campaign as a first-time candidate with a solid history of non-political leadership in the community.
“Oh, I know Alice!” the leader said excitedly.
“Yes, but what are you doing to help her get elected?” I asked again. “What are all the people who were in this room tonight doing to help her get elected?”
Another leader of the group spoke up. “City Council is a non-partisan race,” he said. “We don’t usually get involved in those.”
White Democrats, this is where the fork in the road requires us to choose between white colonization practices, or community, and walk the path we choose. What we “usually get involved in” and what we need to get involved in if we care to repair our communities are not the same path. Let me explain:
City Council may be a non-partisan race, but the impact of the first-ever Black woman being elected to office in Springdale, a predominantly non-white city run by wildly non-representative, white council members, is immeasurable. The impact of her representing the people of Springdale instead of the special interests of the political and financial elite, is immeasurable. Her potential impact on our communities as minoritized humans is immeasurable. I don’t even live in Springdale anymore, and I’m working to help Alice get elected because I know she will make the world a better place. That’s all the reason I need to show up and help.
The old ways of the Democratic Party were about playing by a two-party rule book of numbers and cunning out-maneuvering. The Democrats approached politics like a chess game with Republican opponents, instead of a life-or-death struggle that transcends party lines. That old style and approach gave rise to Hillary Clinton. The United States had already made very clear when we voted for Obama that we wanted Change. We wanted freedom and justice for all. We wanted hope. We wanted to stop playing old political games of oppression olympics, and start investing in our children, in our well-being, in our planet, and in our future. But then the Democratic Party in 2015, turning to its old, familiar, abusive patterns under the arrogant assumption that Donald Trump couldn’t possibly get elected, tried to force-feed us one of the most repugnant candidates it could: Hillary Clinton. The Democratic Party tried to make us accept as our leader a woman who talked about Black children as if “they must be brought to heel”, a woman who verbally eviscerated a 12 year old rape victim on the witness stand in Arkansas to advance her career as an attorney, a woman who deliberately aligned herself with the man responsible for “three strikes and you’re out” executive legislation — as well as the soaring stock prices of Corrections Corporations of America, a for-profit prison system continuing to this day to profit on the enslaved labor of primarily Black and brown bodied people. The national Democratic Party chose the white colonization practices path instead of the community path, and walked the path they chose, and got Donald Trump as a result.
When you tell God you want white colonization practices, God will give you what you ask for.
When you tell God you want anti-racism, God will give you what you ask for.
When you’re lukewarm, God will spit you out like Hillary Clinton’s hot sauce.
When Irvin tells the leader of the local Democrats he’ll show up for us when he sees us showing up for his communities, he’s offering us a way out of that predicament. The price his presence will cost us is a simple, sincere commitment to prioritizing the needs of the people, and doing what’s right, over the “usual” procedural vestiges of a crumbling Party.
That’s probably what the Black caucus’s presence will cost us. That’s probably what the Hispanic caucus’s presence will cost us. That’s what the privilege of enjoying Indigenous people at our decision-making tables will cost us. White Democrats like me must pay the price of humility and committed action to earn their presence at our table. Nothing is free.
This is like any other relationship, y’all. You can’t just offer a half-assed contribution to an unhealthy relationship and expect the best-ever partners to stick around for that relationship. You get what you give. People who know their worth will go where they are appreciated.
White Democrats have been showing up with pretty-worded apologies, and maybe occasionally a dozen roses, asking minoritized people for yet another chance to hold an abusive relationship together. Then when they get another chance, they crack open another cold one in front of the TV and sit down to relax like they’ve done a gazillion times before. Meanwhile, people of color have been asking Democrats to be full-fledged partners in their lives — doing our part for laundry day, doing the dishes, and treating the children like they’re our responsibility to show up for.
You don’t get people of color at a table built by white supremacy simply by asking them to show up. You get people of color at the table by scrapping the bullshit and building a new table they feel comfortable at. You get people of color at the table by acknowledging openly and honestly where the harms have been your own fault, and not repeating the mistakes again. They don’t want roses and chocolate. They want you to not sit back down in that old chair while asking them to bring you another beer — or get out and take your roses with you. I feel like they’ve been really clear about this.
By the end of the night, one of the leaders casually offered to me, “You can be in charge of our diversity!”
Oh, what I would have given last night to still feel even an ounce of the honor, the excitement, and the pleasure I used to feel when people invited me to be a First, Only, and Different participant in a game they had already fully constructed around and without me. But I see the F.O.D.s who’ve already told the Democratic Party what kind of community participation they need in order to feel invested in in this relationship, and I’ll be honest: I don’t want to be the next in line for the kind of relationship they got served.
In the interest of not picking on just one organization, it’s not like the Democrats are alone with the White Blinders problem. I saw a similar mess this week where a local, white-led LGB(T) organization responded to Black and Indigenous queer community organizers who’d identified a specific white supremacist threat against the Pride parade, by issuing a statement that they’d enlisted extra help from the police department, denied any known specific threats existed, and low-key urged queers of color not to arm themselves for self-defense and just trust the police to handle it — all while choosing not to engage any of the queers of color in meaningful conversation.
I didn’t have to know their organization is entirely white, to know their organization is entirely white. I didn’t have to know the only trans person on their board of directors left earlier this year, to conclude they are entirely cisgender-led. Their statements this week made the evidence abundantly clear. We can hear whose voices are missing from organizations’ decision-making tables as clearly as we can hear the voices missing from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir of 1992.
White supremacy is a retropsychopathology affecting us no less intensely than the unchecked retroviral epidemic of the 1980’s. What will it take for us to look within our hearts and choose the path of our loving, friendship-focused, generous, inner child rather than the policies and systems of white entitlement we’ve been trained into as adults?
Having diverse voices in your ranks is how you avoid these fiascos when unexpected or urgent situations arise. You build the relationships when times are good, so you have diverse people to collaborate with when times are hard. And you don’t get those relationships by setting the terms of the relationship and then inviting others in. You get those relationships by co-creating and sharing in the work as much as in the fruits of the labor.
White people, we can do this. Just take a deep breath, and choose what you’ll invest your energy in today.