NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 168-171
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A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism by Becky Thompson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, 482 pp., $34.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement edited by Emmie S. Adams, et al. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, 400 pp., $29.95 hardcover.
Simmons College (Boston) sociologist, Becky Thompson, weaves inter-views with white antiracist activists and theoretical analyses of racial domination to create a social history of white, American antiracist activism from the 1950s to the present (xiv). Like Chela Sandoval, in The Methodology of the Oppressed (2000), Thompson credits people of color as the primary activists against racism. But it is essential, she argues, to also recover a history of white antiracist work to develop a white identity that is not based on subjugating others (xx).
Thompson, author of the autobiographical Mothering Without a Compass: White Mother's Love, Black Son's Courage (2000), crisscrossed the United States looking for white activists who had been involved in antiracism movements with the groups signified as United State's racial Others: African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian American--though the last group is barely visible. The book divides into civil rights work of the 1950s through mid-1970s, women's movement organizing of the late 1960s through early 1980s, sanctuary work aiding Central American refugees during the 1980s, prison organizing in the 1980s and 1990s, and power-sharing in multiracial nonprofit groups of the 1990s. These choices seemingly determined by the witnesses she located (whose biographical sketches helpfully fill the final pages of the book). First embracing an early civil rights movement to create an integrated country, by the late 1960s, white antiracists struggled against violence directed by the U.S. government and urban police forces against national movements like the Black Panthers, Chicano Brown Berets, and American Indian Movement (AIM). Choosing to stand in solidarity with the harassed instead of seeking to help, some white activists ended up entrapped in the FBI projects to destroy racial militancy. These political prisoners--like Marilyn Buck who is currently serving an eighty-year sentence for her work with the Black Panthers--continue to make alliances within a prison system where the majority of inmates are black, Latino, and American Indian. An inability to imagine racial justice without going underground and the use of violence leaves the basic civil rights question unanswered: what steps should white people take to use their white privilege to undermine the system that has created it? (111). [End Page 168]
In the second section, Thompson rewrites the standard history of the women's movement. Here she asks why historians assign the term radical only to the white, antipatriarchal feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s when one of the early classics by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back, is subtitled Writings by Radical Women of Color (133). By the early 1980s, women-of-color lesbians were forcing the sexual issue in nationalist communities as Jewish lesbians were articulating identities different from Christian-dominant feminist groups. What some Jewish feminists brought to the table in working with women of color was a sense of having come from a people who had fought to survive. Within a multicultural lesbian politics, Jewish, lesbian white women like Irena Klepfisz, Adrienne Rich, and Ruth Frankenberg--one of those interviewed--articulated a politics that accounted for white women's position as both oppressed and oppressors (117). "Nowadays . . . [Thompson teaches feminist theory] with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements [first, and then] the emergence of multiracial feminism, on the basis of which liberal, socialist, and radical feminism can then be evaluated" (366).
In the sections on 1980s sanctuary, prisons, and antiracist training, Thompson shows white activists constantly having to relearn the lesson that genuine antiracist work occurs only when people of color are represented at every level of authority (301). White people unlearn...