Coalition Building Among People of Color

How can different people of color come together to build a coalition when their communities have different needs?

MARTÍNEZ: First of all, we have to reject any hierarchy of needs of different communities. The whole idea of making a hierarchy of demands is sure death from the beginning. I don’t mean that some communities or some groups on a campus or in any other community will not want to emphasize certain needs. That’s inevitable and there’s nothing wrong with it. But we cannot be trapped in arguing about “My need is greater than yours,” or “A women’s center is more important than a Latino cultural center,” or whatever. We have to fight together because there is a common enemy. Especially if you are up against an administration being divisive, I think everybody has to come together and form an alliance or a set of goals together.

There are various forms of working together. A coalition is one, a network is another, an alliance is yet another. And they are not the same; some of them are short-term, and some are long-term. A network is not the same as a coalition. A network is a more permanent, ongoing thing. I think you have to look at what the demands are, and ask: What kind of coming together do we need to win these demands? And if you know the administration will pick your groups off one by one, then the largest umbrella you can possibly get is probably the best one. Some of the answers to your question are tactical and depend upon the circumstances. But the general idea is no competition of hierarchies should prevail. No “Oppression Olympics”!

DAVIS: As Betita has pointed out, we need to be more flexible in our thinking about various ways of working together across differences. Some formations may be more permanent and some may be short-term. However, we often assume that the disbanding of a coalition or alliance marks a moment of failure, which we would rather forget. As a consequence, we often fail to incorporate a sense of the accomplishments, as well as of the weaknesses, of that formation into our collective and organizational memories. Without this memory, we are often condemned to start from scratch each time we set out to build new coalitional forms.

This is not the first period during which we have confronted the difficult problem of using difference as a way of bringing people together, rather than as incontrovertible evidence of separation. There are more options than sameness, opposition, or hierarchical relations. One of the basic challenges confronting women of color today, as Audre Lorde has pointed out, is to think about and act upon notions of equality across difference. There are so many ways in which we can conceptualize coalitions, alliances, and networks that we would be doing ourselves a disservice to argue that there is only one way to construct relations across racial and ethnic boundaries. We cannot assume that if it does not unfold in one particular way, then it is not an authentic coalition.

There do seem to be a lot of problems with that idea of coming together across differences. For example, some people want to spend more time just on African American issues, which might not be the priority of a multicultural coalition.

DAVIS: Some people may want to do work specifically around African American issues. But this approach does not have to exclude working across and beyond racial boundaries as, for example, the National Black Women’s Health Project focuses on Black women’s health issues and, at the same time, is involved in the Women of Color Coalition for Reproductive Rights. At the same time, this idea of “spending more time with one’s own group” needs to be interrogated. How would you define “one’s own group”? For African Americans, would that include every person who meets the requirements of physical appearance or every person who identifies as African American, regardless of their phenotype? Would it include Republican African Americans who are opposed to affirmative action?

I think we need to be more reflective, more critical and more explicit about our concepts of community. There is often as much heterogeneity within a Black community, or more heterogeneity, than in cross-racial communities. An African American woman might find it much easier to work together with a Chicana than with another Black woman, whose politics of race, class, gender and sexuality would place her in an entirely different community. What is problematic is the degree to which nationalism has become a paradigm for our community-building processes. We need to move away from such arguments as “Well, she’s not really Black.” “She comes from such-and-such a place.” “Her hair is…” “She doesn’t listen to ‘our’ music,” and so forth. What counts as Black is not so important as our political coalition building commitment to engage in anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic work.

MARTÍNEZ: There is also a tendency to say “That’s a Latino issue,” or “That’s an African American issue,” or whatever, and to see those issues as separate. Or there are people concerned with gender issues, people concerned with gay and lesbian rights, X-Y-Z. As if those matters are all separate, as if there’s no connection. Cornel West, the African American philosopher and writer, spoke recently in San Francisco talking about the importance of linkages. For example, he said gay and lesbian rights are an issue in the African American community. They aren’t separate, outside of the community. Just because the issue is not welfare, or racism, or gangs, that doesn’t mean it’s not a Black community issue. I think that’s a very useful and important way to look at things. I know a lot of Latinos wouldn’t agree that gay and lesbian rights are a Latino issue. But we need to work for this understanding and make it clear that the issue is not a problem for a bunch of people outside the Latino community who happen to be gay or lesbian. It’s inside our community. Taking that kind of position is the only way that in fact makes sense.

Did you ever have any tensions with other people who ask, “Well, are you a person of color first and a woman next? Or are you with women’s issues first and people of color come second to that?” Did you have any trouble saying, “Well, I’m a person of color and a woman at the same time…”?

DAVIS: Last fall at UC Santa Cruz, we established a Women of Color Research Cluster within which faculty, graduate students and staff discuss their individual work, engage in collaborative projects, sponsor talks by women of color scholars and activists. We are presently working on a journal, edited by María Ochoa and Teresia Teaiwa. Another member of the cluster, Margaret Daniel, organizes an annual Women of Color Film and Video Festival on campus.

The term “women of color” is often used in a nominalistic way, without substantive meaning. However, within this research cluster women of color can really wrestle with the hard questions about working together, building collaborative forms, exploring cross-racial cultural/ethnic relations among women, whether they be conflictual and antagonistic or collaborative and coalitional. As Chela Sandoval has argued, this is an era during which “women of color” are being constructed as a new social/political subject.

In thinking about women of color as a political subject, it may be helpful for those of us who are African American to recall that the “Black” subject is a subject that was historically created. I grew up thinking of myself as a “Negro,” largely unable to articulate the extent to which social inferiority was constructed as an essential dimension of the “Negro.” It is important to recognize the various forms of agency with which identities can be and are constructed, in order not to get stuck in them, in order not to assume that racialized identifies have always been there. A “Black” subject was created. We can also create a “women of color” subject. That is what much of this forum is about: How can we construct political projects that rethink identities in dynamic ways and lead to transformative strategies and radical social change?

MARTÍNEZ: There is a tremendous tendency in this culture to establish rigid categories, and not to have any kind of a dialectical understanding of the society or its forces; this tendency makes us incapable of seeing that something both is and isn’t at the same time. There’s pressure to say you’re a woman or you’re a person of color. It’s dead- end discussion, and one to be resisted. There’s no way to separate what you experience as a person in the Raza community from being a woman. You might concentrate on certain issues and give them more attention than others at a given moment. But separation as self-definition? No. Don’t box me in.

Do you think it’s necessary to have ideological unity to build a coalition? And if we do not use ideology as a basis to build coalitions, what’s the basis that we use?

DAVIS: First of all, people who subscribe to similar ideologies can and do come together. Historically, the particular formations within which they work have been called political parties. Until a few years ago, I was a member of the Communist Party, for example. However, ideological affinity is not essential to coalition work, and that is what we presently are concerned with. For twenty years I was co-chairperson of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (I am presently chair emeritus). Our work initially was framed by a project to free political prisoners. This work raises questions. How do you develop campaigns to free political prisoners? Does one have to identify, for example, with the philosophical nationalism of a Black nationalist political prisoner in order to join the effort to free her? Or can one articulate a position of opposition to political repression, while disagreeing with the prisoner’s particular politics?

Take the movement that developed around my case. My communist politics did not deter the vast numbers of people, and the over 250 separate committees, in this country and abroad, many of whom may have absolutely disagreed with my politics, from becoming active in the “Free Angela Davis Campaign.” There are many ways of configuring networks, alliances and coalitions, departing from people’s commitment to social change. Again, I want to emphasize the importance of historical memory in our contemporary efforts to work together across differences. I raise the importance of historical memory not for the purpose of presenting immutable paradigms for coalition-building, but rather in order to understand historical trajectories and precisely to move beyond older conceptions of cross-racial organizing.

It would seem to me that once you establish the issue that a group or a coalition is going to work on that would be the ideology. Maybe I’m confusing “issue” and “ideology,” and if I am, what’s the distinction between the two?

MARTÍNEZ: One handy distinction is to think of coalitions being built around issues, and ideology being a worldview. An ideology is a set of ideas that explains what makes society tick and what its values are. You don’t have to agree on that with other people in order to fight for health care, housing, affirmative action, or whatever. You do have to agree with somebody’s ideology, I think, if you’re going to join certain kinds of organizations that demand ideological unity, from the Boy Scouts to the Communist Party. But coalitions, networks, and alliances should never make the mistake of demanding ideological unity. They can expect unity around an issue.

DAVIS: Let me offer a rather simple example. Suppose I am a revolutionary who announces the ultimate intention of overturning the system of capitalism. I am therefore interested in establishing a socialized health care system. It would be absurd to argue, although during the course of my career as an activist I have heard this many times, that first we have to overthrow the government, then we can consider reconfiguring the health care system. Consequently, I pursue a political relationship with women who are good church organizers, who might be utterly unwilling to talk about revolutionary change. We can decide to put forth ideas about health care that are much stronger than Clinton’s, and decide about principles around which we will organize a mass campaign. At the same time, we may be very different ideologically.

We often expect individuals to be theoretically informed activists from the outset, in possession of a full-blown political consciousness, as well as having the capacity to organize for social change. As a matter of fact, most people get involved as a result of being hailed by a visible political movement. Drawing from my own personal history, I felt summoned by the students’ entrance into the Civil Rights Movement. Although I felt that I was missing out on a powerful movement, because I had left the South and was in high school in New York at the time, I discovered a way to feel connected with Civil Rights activism.

At age fifteen, I participated in a youth project of picketing the Woolworth’s near the 42nd Street library every Saturday morning. I was therefore also summoned by those who organized this particular way of expressing solidarity with the Southern movement. If there had been no movements to hail me, I have no idea what I would have done or would be doing today. If you are one of those organizers capable of pioneering initiatives, and we need such organizers in women of color movements today, and you want to activate youth, make sure you combine the political content with forms and styles of presentation that can dramatically hail young women and men.

How can the successful coalition of gay and lesbian communities be extended to a broader coalition of the entire human race, where all of us can be included in one broad coalition, fighting for the day when none of us will be recognized as African American, or as an Anglo American, or as a Spanish American, but as a human being, and as one race, one person, one body?

DAVIS. Your moves are a little too fast for me. I am not sure that I would want to end up at a place where everybody is the same. I do not take a common future to mean a homogeneous future. While I absolutely agree with the importance you place on challenging compulsory heterosexuality, homophobia, hate crimes against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, I don’t know whether we can assume that multiracial coalitions have already been successfully constructed within gay communities. Racism is still a factor both within the gay movement and in the way the gay movement is publicly perceived. The ideological question of gay and white is still very much a problem. This is not, however, to underestimate the significant anti-racist work in predominantly white gay circles, nor is it to ignore the important work on multiple fronts by gay women and men of color.

In building alliances and coalitions, we have to consider carefully how to articulate issues so as to encourage racial boundary crossing. I personally am concerned about the way this question of lifting the ban on gays and lesbians in the military seemingly has moved to the top of the political agenda in a relatively uncomplicated articulation. Homophobia in the military should be opposed, unquestionably. The ban should be lifted. But to base this demand on formalistic arguments equating the soldierly abilities of gays and lesbians with those of straight people is extremely problematic.

In this context, the question would be: How is it possible to vigorously oppose the ban on gays and lesbians in the military and at the same time to principally oppose the military? This is especially important within the context of coalitions involving African Americans since for young Black men, the military, with its authoritarian structure and imperialistic projects, has become one of the only escape routes from joblessness, drugs, and prison. In the course of organizing against homophobia in the military, it should also be possible to raise demands for jobs, education, etc.

MARTÍNEZ: The question asked just now also concerns the idea of seeing all human beings in one broad coalition. People ask. “Why can’t we all see each other as human beings? Why do we have to emphasize these differences?” or “Why do we need feminism? Why can’t we just have humanism? Doesn’t talking about racism and the different races just perpetuate the problem?” This negates the structures of power that determine human relationships in this society in a way that is deadening for a great number of people, mostly, but by no means only people of color. You can’t just say “Let’s all get along” until we get rid of those structures.

(Please comment on the fact that UC Berkeley is planning to cut first year Spanish, and that move may have a domino effect (for Spanish programs on other UC campuses).

MARTÍNEZ: I think students should be mobilizing against this move; students who both speak Spanish and those who really should learn to speak Spanish.

DAVIS: Perhaps we might develop a campaign to expand the general education requirements so that some knowledge of Spanish would be required of every student attending any campus of the UC system. As we approach the millennium, we need to demystify the notion that this country is monolingual.

MARTÍNEZ: We’re also probably going to have to think in terms of languages other than Spanish as the second language in a number of communities, according to the population there. This is something we really need to be working on.

Angela Davis, I’d like to know your definition of a feminist.

DAVIS: I don’t think I would propose a single definition of the term “feminist.” It is one of those categories/commitments that can have a range of definitions and I don’t think that it is helpful to insist on prescriptions for feminism. But I do think we can agree that feminism in its many versions acknowledges the social impact of gender and involves opposition to misogyny. In my opinion, the most effective versions of feminism acknowledge the various ways gender, class, race and sexual orientation inform each other.

Some women, especially women of color, see feminism as anchored to a particular historical experience of white middle-class women and they consequently are reluctant to use “feminist” as a self-referential term. Among these women, some have opted, along with Alice Walker, to call themselves “womanists.” That’s fine. This does not mean they are unwilling to work with “feminists.” Coalitional efforts among women of color should not require the self-reference of womanism anymore than they should require the self-reference of feminism. And it should not be a question of who is “more feminist” because of sexual orientation, location in the academy or the factory, and so forth. We should seek a point of junction constructed by the political projects we choose to embrace. Even though feminism may mean different things for different women (and men), this should not prevent us from creating movements that will put us in motion together, across all our various differences.

Personally, it was only after many years of political involvement that I decided to embrace the term feminism. I now feel very comfortable calling myself a feminist. But the way I am a feminist tomorrow may be different from the way I am a feminist today. My own conception of myself as a feminist constantly evolves as I learn more about the issues that women’s movements need to address. It is more productive, I think, not to adhere to rigid categories, to the idea that there is something called “African American woman-ness,” some essence we can discover. A vast range of identities can be encompassed by “African American woman.” What is important, I think, is to fight on and not about political terms, such as: agendas for jobs, student funding, health care, child care, housing, reproductive rights, etc. Empowerment will remain powerless if we do not change power relations. Ways of feeling are very important, but we have to focus on substantive, radical institutional transformation as well. Empowerment will remain powerless if we do not change power . relations.

This is a question for both of you. As student leaders here on the campus, a lot of times it’s hard to motivate students, and as student leaders, of course, sooner or later we are going to graduate. Do you have any suggestions as to how to motivate students to become involved in our internal organization, so that we as students of color as well as student leaders can all unite and then maybe go off and form other coalitions? Because internally, if our business isn’t really taken care of, how can we be effective in moving on to deal with other issues of multiculturalism?

DAVIS: There is a way in which the movements of the sixties and early seventies are set up as models of activism for young people today. Incredibly dramatic movements from that era remain etched in our national memory, whether we experienced them or not, the student movement, the Black Power Movement, movements of Chicanos, Native Americans, Asian Americans. Many young people are led to romanticize the participants and the strategies and styles of those movements. You don’t necessarily consider how hard it was to organize. You don’t necessarily realize that we had to grapple with many of the same questions that confront you in far more complicated forms today.

We often leapt into action even when we had no idea whether our strategies would work. I think you need to give yourselves permission to think and act in different ways, to take risks as you try to encourage political action, even when you may not be sure of the outcome. I can tell you many success stories from the sixties and seventies, but I can also tell you as many stories that did not end so triumphantly.

When I first came to UC San Diego, I had been studying in Europe. I returned in order to continue my studies with Herbert Marcuse, but within a context that would also allow me to participate in the Black movement of that era. However, on this campus, it was weeks before I even saw another Black person. Finally, two African American undergraduates, a Caribbean professor and I made plans to comb the campus in order to identify the Black students who would be potential members of a Black Student Alliance. Since there were so few students, we reconceptualized the alliance to include staff and workers. It required a great deal of work to find the people, and then to convince them to participate in our joint effort. Soon it became clear that we could increase our chances of success if we entered into a coalition with the Chicanos on campus, who were simultaneously organizing a Mexican American Youth Association.

This was a period in which nationalist forms of organizing had become extremely popular, but we decided that as separate organizations, we would be relatively ineffective. But as a coalition, which eventually invited a white radical student group to join, we could effectively mount a campaign for control over the Third College, which we named Lumumba-Zapata College.

MARTÍNEZ: I want to emphasize the point about risk. There’s not a climate of taking risks today. There are reasons for that, such as the twelve years of Reagan-Bush, with all the “me first-ism” and cynicism they bred. That’s part of what you’re up against when you talk about how to motivate students today. The seven African American students who sat down at that Woolworth’s lunch counter at the first sit-in, April 1, 1960, had no idea they were going to start a huge movement, a nationwide movement. No idea. They just did it. They got ketchup thrown on them and were beaten, arrested. But they took a chance There has to be some of that spirit today. Let’s experiment, we don’t have to have all the answers; we certainly don’t have to have the ideology down, you know, the whole package. But let’s see some things that are wrong and try to change them, and take risks.

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