White Antiracists Have Ancestors:
How Their Stories Can Help Strengthen White Antiracist Organizing Today
“What is my role, in this moment?” That was what I was asking myself as protests swept the country in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Specifically, what was my role as a White man who was also a serious student of racial justice history, and had spent years writing about and teaching that history?
The uprisings of 2020 caused my mind to snap back to the days following the murder of Philando Castile in 2016. I was working with the Oakland SURJ chapter, and suddenly the orientation meeting that typically drew a few dozen White folks looking to show up for racial justice was drawing a crowd of hundreds, packed into the amphitheater in front of Oakland City Hall. Back then we had a huge question of how to fully leverage that moment, and bring so many new people on board. It wasn’t easy, and over the course of the next year many of the people who joined the chapter during that time trickled away (although many, it should be said, did so because they were plugging into other ways to show up for racial justice.) Now, four years later we were living through an even bigger moment… a truly historical moment when more White people than ever were wanting to take a stand. And again I was asking myself: How do we keep these folks around once the intensity of this moment has worn off? How do we help them deepen their White antiracist capacities? And what is my role in that?
During those heady days I attended a talk by Tawana Petty, a Black theorist of co-liberation whose book Towards Humanity: Shifting the Culture of Anti-Racism Organizing I had found helpful. The talk was attended by 1,000+ people, almost all of them White and asking themselves how they could contribute to this moment, just like I was. Understanding that this audience was already committed to studying Black and Brown movement thinkers and looking to Black and Brown leadership, Tawana Petty told the group that they also needed to “be able to look yourself in the mirror, be able to tap into a legacy and history . . . do your research beyond Black leaders, and find somebody that looks like you that is part of history… because they exist, and they don’t want us to know that they exist.” They don’t want us to know that they exist. Her words pointed towards the subversive nature of White antiracist history; the subversive nature of White people having models of how to show up in the world in ways that undermine systems of White supremacy.
Petty’s comment may have been counterintuitive in a moment when huge numbers of White people were buying Black literature from Black bookstores and when the national conversation was about decentering Whiteness and lifting up Black and Brown voices. But for me, her message that White folks needed to also learn from their White antiracist ancestors had a familiar ring. Nearly two decades ago, I had heard Angela Davis urge a primarily White audience to study the legacy of her good friend Anne Braden: it was thus through a radical Black thinker and vanguard prison abolitionist that I had my own introduction to White antiracist history. Likewise, I had learned about the White antiracist Myles Horton at the urging of Cornell West. And over the course of my activism, there had been numerous times when Black and Brown comrades of mine had commented that White folks really needed to learn how folks like them had done this work in the past… a comment often made as they watched White folks waste energy trying to reinvent the wheel, or making mistakes they could have avoided if they had paid attention to their White movement ancestors. Petty was confirming years of experience on my end of Black folks often recognizing the need for White folks to study their movement ancestors, in a way that White folks sometimes struggled to see for themselves.
When Tawana Petty made this comment, I thought to myself, “I could help with this.” I had written a chapter-length piece about Anne Braden in 2017, and had led a workshop on lessons to be learned from her life for a regional gathering of White antiracist grassroots leaders in Southern California. In my decade of studying Black movement history, I had encountered many compelling White antiracist figures who I wanted to learn more about myself. However, there was a lot happening at the time, and after Petty’s talk I didn’t think any further about it.
But then, two months later, I read Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands. I was moved by the book’s profound emphasis on racial justice work needing to take place at the somatic level. Menakem writes that White antiracists “focus relentlessly on strategy, but strategy means nothing to our bodies . . . When strategy competes with culture, culture wins,” because culture creates a sense of belonging. White antiracists need to build culture, Menakem emphasizes, and a huge part of what builds culture is the stories we share and the elders we learn from. Stories make us think, but we also learn from them at somatic and communal levels: we feel stories, we bond over stories, and we digest lessons more deeply when they arrive in the form of story. Black and Brown movement communities are full of stories of ancestors and elders who embody powerful lessons. White antiracists, Menakem emphasizes, would do well to build community around stories of movement ancestors and elders as well… ones who have a shared experience of Whiteness, and who embody the lessons of how to do excellent racial justice work as White people.
Reading Resmaa Menakem led me to reflect back on Tawana Petty, who had led me to reflect back on Angela Davis and Cornell West and my own Black and Brown comrades urging White folks to study their movement ancestors. Answers to my questions about how to bring more White people into the movement and keep them around; about what my role was as a teacher and writer of racial justice history all clicked into place. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that stories of White antiracist ancestors could serve as entry points that could help more White people step into racial justice work, could inspire them and help them grow, and could contribute to building White antiracist community and culture. And so, in December of 2020, I launched the White Antiracist Ancestry Project, with the goal of telling the stories of White antiracist ancestors and getting those stories into White antiracist communities across the country. Since then, Resmaa Menakem has retweeted the project twice (here and here), and it has been shared by White antiracist groups like SURJ, White Noise Collective, and Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation. The workshops that have grown out of the project have supported numerous White antiracist organizations, from small rural groups just getting started to SURJ Atlanta and New York City.
If you would like to join the effort to make this project a reality, you can support it here. I map out what the project will look like below.
I conceptualize this project as helping to broaden and deepen White antiracist growth in America. In terms of broadening, I think of three things in particular. The first is that this resource can support the parents and teachers of White children in helping those children develop a positive racial identity. In nearly every workshop I give, parents of White children express their desire to use these stories for that purpose. The collection of one-page stories I’m developing, portraying a variety of White antiracist ancestors, are especially useful for this. For example, I recently worked with a group of middle-school students who had formed a White-antiracist affinity group at their school. Each student gravitated towards characters who had interests and skills that they shared: Bob Fitch showed them how a photographer could put their skills into the service of racial justice work; Quentin Young showed them how a doctor could. Myles Horton offered an example of a movement educator; Zilphia Horton of a movement musician. Lillian Smith and Mab Segrest offered examples of brilliant queer White southern women in the movement; Vernon Bown gave an example of a White working-class man putting his body on the line by protecting a Black home. Portraying a variety of White antiracist ancestors allows parents and teachers to identify figures that are compelling for specific kids. And of course, this resource would also help all of us contemplate how we could put our own skills into the service of racial justice, and help strengthen White antiracist culture along the lines of what Resmaa Menakem suggested.
In terms of broadening, this project also creates an entry point for White folks who have not already developed an antiracist identity. There are many White people who would never attend a workshop (or read an article) titled something like “Facing Our Internalized White Supremacy”, but who would be intrigued by the notion of White antiracist ancestors. It sounds safer, but it’s just as hard-hitting, with embodied, lived examples of what legit, non-performative, putting-their-bodies-on-the-line, strategically brilliant, and downright inspiring White antiracism looks like. And it goes directly against the right-wing narrative that inundates so many White communities, which portrays antiracism as an anti-White demonization of White people. To the contrary, these stories make it clear that White antiracism is all about White people bringing forth their very best selves. This resource thus serves as a tool that could help White folks take their first step into antiracist thinking, and from there hopefully their second and third steps as well.
The third way this project serves to broaden White antiracist efforts is more about sustaining — that big question I posed at the beginning of this article about “how do we keep people around” and grow our communities. When antiracist communities build cultures of self-care instead of burnout, put intentionality towards building community, and make sure that their members have sources of inspiration, those communities retain members, who then grow more over time and create stronger organizations. As a resource that offers inspiration and the opportunity to engage in culture and community building around shared stories, this project contributes to these goals.
The remainder of this article will look at deepening: the role this project can play in helping White people who are actively committed to racial justice in deepening their antiracist practice.
What exactly is it that White antiracists from the past can teach those of us who are already active today? There are moments from White antiracist history that could come right out of a dramatic thriller — Bob Zellner throwing his body over his Black SNCC comrades as the Klan beats them to the ground; holding onto a railing with his powerful wrestler’s hands while Klansmen try to drag him into their car; shaking his head wildly to free himself from the fingers tugging at his eyeball. But although such moments can become the stuff of legend, it’s the less dramatic moments that carry lessons: Zellner realizing that after a semester of organizing with his White college friends that they were about to go home to the wrath of their families, whereas he was going home to a father who supported his son’s activism. (Zellner’s father was a reformed Klansman, itself a fascinating story that takes place in Russia). Bob Zellner reflecting on the conditions of his life that allowed him to move towards racial justice, and the conditions that made it harder for his friends despite their sympathy for the cause, is the type of moment that can help us reflect on the paths we’ve walked and the worlds we’ve come from. Every story of a White antiracist ancestor becomes a platform for us to ask ourselves what allowed us to arrive at the place we are today, what has made it harder for others, and what we can do to create the right conditions for further growth. It should be said that this requires a different type of resource than the short stories mentioned above: it is only longer-form stories, like my piece about Anne Braden, that can portray the growing process.
The simple moments from White antiracist history are often the most human, the most relatable, and perhaps in that sense often the most compelling. I think of Virginia Durr, a wealthy White Southerner with an aristocratic air about her, opening up her large home to civil rights workers as they crisscrossed the South. I love that Durr defies stereotypes of White southern aristocrats and shows us that White antiracists can appear in all kinds of different ways. I also love how simple and meaningful this specific gift is to the movement: a safe place to stay, and one that could be relied on consistently. (Virginia insisting that their home always be open drove her husband Clifford nuts, but as the man who helped bail Rosa Parks out of jail, offered behind-the-scenes support to her lawyers, and took on the spike in police brutality that occurred in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, Cliff was down with the cause). I love how Stanley Levison — Martin Luther King’s best White friend — played the role of being the guy that King called in the middle of the night when he woke up with big ideas… or with a cold fear in his heart. What a deeply human, important-but-invisible contribution to movement history! Levison also helped care for King’s family when he was assassinated. These examples feel compelling because we can open our homes, or be there for that phone call, or help care for someone’s family. Such details make my ancestors feel very real to me.
Of course, there are also moments of high strategy. When Anne Braden figured out that there were White antiracists all across the South who were isolated and whose work was invisible, her idea to network them through creating a pen-pal program and through hosting regional gatherings was brilliant. So was her idea to provide models of what White antiracism could look like by shining journalistic light on it… a lesson this project seeks to emulate, through the lens of history. Myles Horton’s prediction that the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling would lead to a massive racial justice movement, and turning the Highlander Folk School into a racial-justice training ground is a genius example of laying foundations to meet future needs. His vision to create a retreat center where oppressed communities could collectively brainstorm solutions to their problems was genius, and his wife Zilphia Horton’s use of music and theatre to break the ice and build stronger social justice community and energize movements was brilliant as well.
On the flip side is what we can learn from failure: I think, for example, of the demise of Anne Braden’s organization, the Southern Conference Educational Fund, partly due to White members being preoccupied with having all the right antiracist jargon and revolutionary swagger… even though this alienated the poor White southerners they were trying to organize. On the other hand, Bob and Dottie Zellner’s GROW organization, through taking the more humble and patient approach, literally got working-class Klan members to unionize with their fellow Black workers.
Seasoned activists today can learn much from the strategic successes and the failures of the past, but once again, it’s important to bring it back to the basic growing processes White antiracists go through… the fact that even someone like Braden only broke free from her segregationist upbringing through mentorship in college, followed by the moral shock of witnessing racial oppression as a journalist in Birmingham, followed by building authentic relationships with Black people through organizing. As Mark Warren shows in his book Fire In The Heart, that’s a classic example of how White people come to care more about racial justice as they witness oppression more directly, become closer to the people most impacted by racism, and especially when they begin to work directly with those people. Stories of White antiracists can help us reflect on that growing process, and that’s hugely important as we reflect on the next steps in our own antiracist growth and as we try to bring more White people into a stronger antiracist position.
The steps of our White antiracist ancestors can help us reflect on our own process… and our future path. Even after Braden became a dedicated antiracist, she received mentorship from more experienced White antiracists like James Dombrowski, whose name has fallen into obscurity and deserves to be lifted up… as do the names of so many other mentors. (I would love, for example, to write the story of the White antiracist A.J. Muste’s mentorship of Bayard Rustin, who of course went on to mentor Martin Luther King. I should also note that Resmaa Menakem mentions mentorship as an area of focus for White antiracist culture building). My point is that while the stories of White antiracist brilliance are obviously important, so are the stories of how people arrived at that brilliance in the first place. It’s the process that shows the rest of us how to get there.
The stories of our ancestors open up a gateway for our own stories to be reflected on, processed, and shared within community. That reflection produces growth. The sharing builds trust and connection. That in turn creates a foundation for longevity within communities organizing together, and longevity translates to effectiveness. The experience of personal growth and community connection helps White folks who are new to the game, and who might be approaching antiracism from an unsustainable, guilty sense of “should” move towards a more inspired, sustainable sense of “want.” Anne Braden wrote that she felt “like a bull in a china shop” when she first started working in Black spaces. When we see that even the greatest White antiracists had to wrestle with feeling embarrassed or ignorant, getting defensive, or wanting to run away from facing their own racism because it was hard, it helps us move through that. And, because their stories can help us reflect on our own, the stories of our ancestors also help us communicate with other White people: for, as difficult dialogues expert David Campt shows, one of the keys to inviting White people into uncomfortable conversations about race is the ability to connect with them by sharing our own story, our own process… and in that sharing and that storytelling, help them take a step forward on this journey as well. As Campt put it in a retweet supporting this project, “White folks need to see more white folks being courageous so they can become more courageous.”
I hope to create five types of resources for the White Antiracist Ancestry Project: a basic resource page; a collection of one-page stories introducing people to a wide variety of ancestors; a series of chapter-length pieces about especially brilliant White antiracist ancestors; journaling and discussion questions and workshop models to support deeper learning… and most compelling to my mind, articles based on extensive interviews with White antiracist elders whose stories have yet to be told. Right now, for example, I’m fifteen hours into interviewing George Hrbek, who organized in Selma and then moved to Chicago where he became one of Fred Hampton’s closest White comrades. Hrbek’s life embodies profound lessons about building White antiracist community, and as he enters his 90th year his story has still never been told. Preserving the untold stories of White antiracist history feels sacred to me, and as soon as I know I have the resources to follow through on other stories, I’ll commit to working with other elders I’m in touch with as well… including many SNCC workers, Freedom Riders, Young Patriots, and others. If you would like to help make this all happen, you can support the project here. Please spread the word, and I would love to hear from you if you feel moved by this work.
I’ll close with this bullet point summary about why this work is important. Telling the stories of White antiracist ancestors can be:
· A source of inspiration.
· A platform for self-reflection.
· An opportunity for strategic imagination.
· An entry point for White people who haven’t yet embraced an antiracist identity.
· An opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past, without having to make them ourselves.
· A way for parents, caregivers and teachers to introduce White children to positive role models.
· An opportunity to build antiracist community and culture, through collective reflection on lessons embedded in the form of stories about real people we can relate to.
· An opportunity to see that even the greatest White antiracists wrestled with emotions like shame and guilt, which makes it easier for many of us to examine and talk about those emotions ourselves.
· An opportunity to grow membership in White antiracist organizations, and to sustain members: people stick around when they’re inspired, and when they feel a sense of community and personal growth.
· All of this in turn facilitates broader, stronger, and more sustained support for Black and Brown led organizations, actions, and racial justice policies.