Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Avery Martens, a leader with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) — a nationwide group that moves white people to confront and dismantle white supremacy and fight for racial justice.
I asked him to share some thoughts on the current movement, the theories we have on how to fix things, the ways white people can get involved. White people’s presence and work in the fight for Black lives is crucial, but can also be harmful in multiracial spaces. This article is by no means a one-stop shop for all your questions on how to show up during this time. In fact, if you stop digging after this one article, I have completely failed to make my point. To the white person reading this: you are not innocent. You are responsible.
COOL CLEVELAND: Can you give us some background on SURJ?
Avery Martens: SURJ National was started during Obama’s time as President, when white supremacist organizing began to grow rapidly in the United States. At the time, Highlander Center’s executive director, Pam McMichaels — a longtime white, working-class, lesbian movement leader in the South — started SURJ in response to her comrades of color asking: what are white people doing in this moment to respond to the increase in white supremacist organizing in the U.S.?
Here in Cleveland, our local chapter was started in 2015 at the Movement for Black Lives Convening — as SURJ held the white accomplice space across the street. A group of us here locally decided that we needed to commit to organizing white people for racial justice here — in partnership and with deep accountability to local leaders of color. We’ve worked most closely with Black Lives Matter Cleveland, HOLA, the Committee on 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance, the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, the local Jail Coalition, and many other frontline, grassroot groups led by people of color.
Through campaign work, community organizing, mobilization and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of multiracial coalitions for justice with passion and accountability. SURJ provides a space to build relationships, skills and political analysis to act for change. SURJ believes that in order to live in a just and equitable world, white people must ground all of our social justice activism in a framework of personal work + collective action. This means that white people must examine and unpack our relationship to whiteness and white supremacy and its impact on who and how we are in this world. This is quite simply our work to do as white people.
We believe that white people have a collective responsibility for addressing and undermining white supremacy in all of the ways that it shows up in our society. Structural and systemic racism won’t be dismantled by only changing how we show up as individuals — it also requires white folks to take collective action — with each other and with organizers and communities of color fighting for a better world.
Can you please share some appropriate and positive ways you’ve seen white people showing up during this time? What about some harmful and inappropriate ways you’ve seen white people show up (specifically those who have the intent to be an ally, but fail in doing so)?
I’ve seen local white social justice organizers look to local leaders of color to follow their direction. People who are closest to the pain of structural racism are those with the clearest visions for liberation — we must support them and uplift them, and I’ve seen people showing up in this way.
I’ve also seen white folks standing in solidarity on the frontlines of these uprisings — it is so important that we show up in these ways. As Ricardo Levin Morales says about the work, “It’s about putting your shoulder to the wheel of history.” White folks cannot be passive in the pursuit for justice — we must be active accomplices.
And I’ve seen white folks answering the 60+ year call that organizers from Malcolm X, to the Combahee River Collective, to Charlene Carruthers, have made: to organize our fellow white people. It is the responsibility of white folks to do the hard and necessary work of undermining white support for white supremacy without making people of color babysit or project manage us. And we have to do this while maintaining authentic relationships of accountability to leaders of color whose direction we follow and visions our work supports. This personal work of unpacking how our socializations as white people in a white supremacy culture impact who and how we are cannot be without collective action, as part of a multiracial coalition following the leadership of people of color. In fact, it’s what allows us to show up to the work more effectively and with less damage done to our comrades of color.
Getting it wrong:
I’ve seen more white people getting it right this time. I think this is a testament to the effective and brilliant organizing of Black Lives Matter, Mijente, and other organizations led by people of color that have been leading the way for years. I also think it may have something to do with SURJ being on a national scale as well. I think it’s important that white people don’t let the fear of getting it wrong stop us from trying. In truth, we’re going to get it wrong — that’s part of the process of unlearning 400 years of historical momentum — but we can’t stop being grateful for the opportunity to learn and do better. It can also be deadly when we get it wrong as accomplices, so it’s important to be mindful and diligent in your work, absolutely. I also think one of the most harmful things a white person can do is give up, to stop working for racial justice.
Personally, I’ve seen a lot of white folks say something to the effect of “Voting is the most important thing you can do to change things.” What do you think about this theory of change?
That’s incredibly dismissive of the diversity of tactics that are necessary for structural, systemic and interpersonal change. There is no way to outvote white supremacy: that’s a system deeplying embedded in every aspect of our society: its laws, culture, history, and in all our social systems — economic, educational, healthcare, housing and development, etc. And because we need a diversity of tactics, voting is also essential to shifting power in this country. The right has had a strategy for voter disenfranchisement during the entire history of our country — and they’re winning. The forces that be wouldn’t put so much effort into this form of oppression (voter disenfranchisement) if it wasn’t a successful strategy for building and maintaining power.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full force, how do you see the movement interacting with the pandemic? Are organizers still taking precautions? How do you think COVID-19 has hindered (or even helped) get this movement in motion?
I think COVID-19 created a space of deep reflection and pause in our lives which allowed for us to collectively recognize and address some deep flaws in our current society. I see folks still taking precautions for COVID-19, but I also see how the pandemic of structural racism has been a killing force for hundreds of years with an almost unimaginable death toll, and we’re not missing this moment to address it. More life will be lost if we don’t stand in solidarity and say, “This killing force of white supremacy ends now.”
Many are saying that white people need to be on the front end of this work, collecting our people and fixing the systems that white people have created. At the same time, there is an Ayanna Pressley quote that comes to mind which says, “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” How do you differentiate those two ideals? How do white people take up the space and actively do the work we need to do while also making sure Black communities are closest to the people power being built?
I think both of these ideals are compatible! White folks need to do the personal work of undermining how white supremacy is upheld and expressed within us — that’s where our leadership is crucial — this is our work to figure out. There is so much leadership needed here! We have to undermine white supremacy internally and we also have to organize our people to follow the leadership of organizers of color. And this leadership should be in support of and following leaders of color and their visions for change. Doing this personal work makes us more effective and less damaging when we’re in multi-racial spaces following the lead of organizers of color.
Can you plug in some opportunities for our white readers to show up and fight for racial justice?
Check out SURJ OHIO on Facebook: facebook.com/SURJOHIO
Check out our SURJ OH website: showingupforracialjustice.org/surj-oh.html
Check out our upcoming training: Whites Confronting Racism — you can find it on our FB page under events.