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GUEST COMMENTARY: Defining Goals 

Some thoughts and theory on race relations among activists.

click to enlarge A still of protesters at the Lee monument from the documentary, “How the Monuments Came Down.”

A still of protesters at the Lee monument from the documentary, “How the Monuments Came Down.”

Of all the questions facing U.S. activists, the most critical one – the one that has spelled success or failure for countless movements in the past – is the correct relationship between whites and people of color. And in Richmond, because of both history and demographics, the most pressing question is this: What is the correct role for white activists when it comes to issues primarily affecting the Black community?

Some local Black activists have publicly criticized the film “How the Monuments Came Down,” a documentary that features mostly Black historians, activists and descendants of Black historical figures, but was directed by two white filmmakers and produced with money provided by white-dominated institutions.

There are at least two important issues here and examining them might help shed some light on how white activists can strive to be principled allies to the Black Liberation struggle.

First, is it wrong for white people to tell a story about a Black struggle? I think there’s an important distinction between examining an issue and defining it. Whites can and should examine this country’s past, but they shouldn’t try to define the results of that examination as it affects the Black community.

For example, the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality is an all-volunteer, multiracial organization. We’re best known for our ongoing work to reclaim and properly memorialize Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade.

We crafted and popularized that phrase “epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade,” which correctly describes the historical significance of the site. Personally, I believe the argument can be made that Shockoe Bottom also is the birthplace of the Black nation in North America. But we don’t say that. As a multiracial organization, it’s not our place to promote that definition. That’s something only the Black community as a whole has the right to do.

This gets to the bedrock principle that should guide white people in their relations with people of color: respect for the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.

A people that historically has been oppressed by another race has the right to determine its own road to liberation. That includes the right to decide between assimilation, integration or separation; the collective right to define one’s own culture, the meaning of one’s own history and the name of one’s own race; the right to have racially exclusive organizations, a right that members of the dominant group do not have. Why? Because for Black people, exclusion is a reaction to racism. For white people, it’s an extension of racism.

So in any situation dealing with people of different races, the first thing to ask is: Who belongs to the oppressing race and who belongs to the oppressed race? In the United States, whites clearly make up the dominant race. This doesn’t mean that every white person has power, but it does mean they have privileges simply because they are white, while not having the disadvantages caused by not being whiite.

click to enlarge A film still from “How the Monuments Came Down,” of a vigil being held at the Jefferson Davis Monument.
  • A film still from “How the Monuments Came Down,” of a vigil being held at the Jefferson Davis Monument.

So is it wrong for white filmmakers to make a documentary about Richmond’s Confederate monuments? I don’t think so. This is researching history and exposing white supremacy.

But if the documentary was supposed to be about how the monuments came down, it should have had more voices from the young people – Black, white and other races – who were out in the streets, bringing the long struggle to take down the monuments to its final victory. (The filmmakers have said some people declined to be interviewed for the film due to real concerns about the ongoing police and right-wing harassment.)

As it was, the film was much more about why the monuments went up as opposed to how they came down, so the actual title muddied things.

The other major issue deals with access to resources, which, in filmmaking, translates into the ability to tell stories. And if whites have access to resources because of their personal ties to people and institutions of power, then that’s an example of white – and class - privilege. The filmmakers may have been wise to recruit Black filmmakers as partners in the project, equal in terms of both control and compensation.

Of course, there’s a problem with white people deciding which Black people to share resources with. The resources get shared, but it’s still white people making that decision. Ideally, there would be some kind of collective effort among Black activists to create a fund that whites with resources or access to resources could contribute to, with the Black organizations deciding how the money should be used. As it is, whites at the very least should share information about available funding sources.

White activists should have two goals: to fight white supremacy with every ounce of their being, and to respect the right of the Black community to decide – and define – its own road to liberation.

Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper and a co-founder of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which participated in the community rebellion of 2020. He can be reached at DefendersFJE@hotmail.com.

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