Setting Boundaries as a Person of Color in the United States, White Allies, and Leadership in Organizing

I’m learning about all of these things and who I am in the midst of them all just like you are.

This is nuanced and tender, and it’s all so real.

It’s from my perspective only – it is incomplete and in constant progress. POC experiences are not monolithic or anywhere near uniform.

There are a lot of social and historical things at work – you are invited to further research anything that is unfamiliar or unclear on the internet, your local library, or with a friend you trust.

My hope is to offer these reflections as a way to build each other up in organizing for liberation that is dearly envisioned for our communities and the generations that will come after us.

And one of the best things I think we can do in our organizing is to be deeply aware and compassionately honest about where we are in our identity formation. Because we organize and create based on who we are.

I am a third culture kid and immigrant who grew up very assimilated in North American culture. And the “norm” and presented standard in North America is white. As a brown kid, I was always aware of my differences, my capacity to code switch, and had regular occurring lunchbox moments:

As far as I can remember, especially when I came to the United States as a child, I have rarely been in settings where most people shared my experiences. So throughout my adolescence and young adulthood it felt exhausting to explain where I was “from.” To this day, every time I introduce myself to somebody, I have to make a quick decision about what I will share. It depends on who they are, the time we have to talk, and their level of interest and empathy – they may or may not hear my full story. And many white Americans don’t have this level of constant self examination if they’re used to being around people who resemble them.

I grew up with culture loss in need of ongoing replenishment. The healing, nourishment, and abundance I feel when I am with womxn of color, queer people of color, and Latinx community feels like being known and welcomed home in a comforting, familial sense that I haven’t always experienced. By intentionally cultivating Latinx friendships I know myself better in relationship to my wider cultural/ancestral community/diaspora. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum would describe where I am this way:

From her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race

My process of reconciling my cultural identities has not always been supported by the spaces I’ve been in. I learned the hard way last year that I have very real limits when it comes to a predominantly white collectives because of what I need in my cultural healing journey. In those spaces I am prone to experiencing a lot of erasure and can end up not feeling fully seen, understood, or related to for all of who I am.

Since I grew up in North American suburbia, I am very assimilated and I know how to swim in predominantly white waters. So I can “pass” and have my third culture kid self and Latinx self overlooked. Or, if I am one of few POC in a group setting, I end up doing emotional labor – which for me feels like exploiting my own marginalized identities to educate/inform people or groups with privileged identities. It’s exhausting, and it’s not for me.

Here’s an honest perspective on what I observe in organizing: Centering POC/black/indigenous voices for a predominantly white audience can, at times, be a soft form of tokenism. Yes, a marginalized voice is centered, but who is it for? If the audience is mostly white, it still centers a white community and their learning. If the audience is made up of black/brown/migrant/indigenous folx, the goals and intent of designing and holding the space will likely be very different.

POC audiences have needs that are different than predominantly white audiences.

For a POC audience, it can look like designing and holding space to affirm and celebrate communal expressions that are trivialized by dominant culture. As a POC, there are safety cues I’m looking for: a level of warmth and hospitality, freedom to be expressive and affectionate, people who have my complex experiences in common, knowing that I won’t face an onslaught of micro aggressions, and working towards my community’s wellbeing. For a white audience, it can look like education, awareness, and examination of self in relation to systems of power and oppression – experiencing discomfort for the first time, developing resilience, and healing from the fiction of whiteness and racialized oppression.

Some of the work I’m doing this year is being really clear about who my audience is and how the project I’m designing is effectively resonating with that audience. Since setting boundaries for myself over the past year, I’ve become a lot more sensitive to which spaces foster anxiety and exactness – things that come from white supremacy – and which spaces feel whole, abundant, familial, restorative.

Art by Ricardo Levins Morales

Part of the myth and fiction of the United States is that white is standard, normal, neutral. And in organizing there are ways that white/dominant norms and the historical power associated with those norms go unexamined – which ultimately impedes the deeper recovery and liberation that is possible.

So this is an invitation to be honest about where we are in our identity formation, who our audiences are, and respect each other’s limitations, boundaries, and healing processes with compassion and generosity. Awareness is an important first step in healing from the longstanding effects of colonization. Knowing self and knowing the audience, and honoring the needs of all involved, is a foundation for organizing that meets people where they are. And we need each other at our best and most liberated.

Below is a list of my takeaways on leadership from the past year. Like this whole piece, it is incomplete and in constant progress – shared with the intent for mutual learning and constructive dialogue.

Do’s and Don’ts of Organizing

(and ways to be an equitable ally)

Do…

  • prioritize relationships over results
  • co-create, collaborate, practice consent in each step of the project
  • be flexible and malleable in design
  • have clear asks that respects folx’s time
  • be thoroughly self-aware about who you are in the project
  • be honest about your audience
  • allow for porous involvement that allows your collaborators to be at their most whole and have their needs met

Don’t…

  • make big asks for short term/temporary projects w/o long term partnership
  • organize in a single leader/director model
  • tokenize POC leadership when your audience is mostly white
  • claim “undoing oppression” and lead from a place of anxiety/urgency/scarcity/coercion
  • impose personal ambition in a collaborative effort
  • let internalized white supremacy go unexamined

Leadership is…

  • connecting people
  • reciprocal learning through sharing life experiences
  • lifting people up
  • compassion/generosity
  • non-anxious presence/facilitation
  • supporting a person’s journey
  • nurturing people when they are with you and releasing them when they are ready to evolve
  • extending generous, empathetic permission for change

Organizing is all cultivating relationships – it should be as simple as making a phone call. Do your research – know the individual or collective’s history and capacity, and be ready to either spend time on their turf cultivating a relationship OR have a clear ask that matches their capacity.

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