LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 27: A dancer wears a Black Lives Matter shirt at a 'Black Joy' rally in the North Hollywood neighborhood on June 27, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. Participants came to 'dance, heal, and celebrate Black life'. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In the early years of my career as a union organizer, I was tasked with staffing my first picket line and coming up with ways to keep strikers’ spirits high. I’d been told to lead the strikers in union chants, but wasn’t familiar with any. It was the ‘90s, I was in my early twenties, and while I had read plenty about strikes in history, I had never actually been to one. 

What I saw at that first picket line didn’t match any of  my experiences or expectations. My exposure to activism was growing up in a church that fought against the excessive advertising of alcohol and cigarettes in Black communities. Those David versus Goliath battles were both brutal and lively. We shouted and sang, made up dances and moved in synchronized rhythm, and the mothers of the church brought food for us to eat. It was fun and I looked forward to those Saturday afternoons.  

In comparison, the strike was somber and quiet. The workers spoke to each other in low hushed tones and there was no music. To my eyes, the strike was devoid of emotion, reserved and boring. However, as a former Black cheerleader from the South Side of Chicago, I knew how to inspire crowds. Armed with those traditions, I soon had the crowd of mostly middle-aged, white, working class strikers dancing energetically while singing a cheer from my high school football game days. We didn’t call people who thought about crossing the picket line “scabs.” We asked them to join us or learn the song and take it into the plant. Many parked their cars and joined in refusing to cross the picket line, and others came back with water and food for the strikers. We were having a blast—until my boss returned and yelled, “What the fuck are you doing?” I froze and felt shame as he berated me for my lack of professionalism in front of the workers.

He backed off only when the strikers stood up for me, arguing that they were having fun and feeling energized, and wasn’t that what he’d asked me to do? He backed off, but the message was clear: My style of engagement wasn’t wanted, new ways were not welcomed, and I wasn’t trusted to do my job.

It was my first but not last experience of clashing with white-led ways of protesting and narrow confines of “progressive” movements. Dominant cultures have a long history of labeling subcultures as less than, which traditionally led BIPOC in America to disguise the language, practices, and mobilizing tactics utilized in their communities—resulting in a type of social justice code switch. As I matured and grew in my career, so did my confidence to challenge traditional norms of organizing that state that there is only one “right” way, that fighting for justice is synonymous with drudgery. But as my confidence grew, so did my frustration at being hamstrung, stifled, and told in more ways than one that “my way” of organizing and protesting was “unprofessional” and “not a good fit.” My unsuccessful attempts to influence white-dominated progressive culture led me to return to mine.  

Taking part in Black organizing has been a sort of return to home for me. The shared commonality and history of race and racism in America with other Black and non-white folks is just a part of the reason. There is a defiant joyfulness that accompanies Black organizing and civil activism—you see it when people line dance in the middle of protests, or sing while waiting to vote. Dance, laughter, and music in particular are sources of inspiration, rallying calls for change, and means to advance social movements. Black organizing doesn’t treat these expressions as frivolous; they don’t mean we don’t take our causes and the harm we’re trying to protest any less seriously than protesters who use other methods. Questioning authority and critiquing old methods isn’t automatically seen as arrogance or resistance, but rather opportunities for growth and integration of more voices. Black protest is rooted in anger, but it’s also rooted in joy, celebration, collaboration, and community bonds.

That joyful resilience plays an important part in Black organizing and activism that sharply contradicts the common perceptions that Black experiences are primarily rooted in pain and suffering. You’ve seen this on the news, TV shows, and other media—stories of Black families destroyed by mass incarceration, communities impoverished by government neglect, persistent high unemployment rates, low wages, and so on. These things are true, but they’re an incomplete picture of what shapes Black lives by upholding a narrative that is overly focused on suffering. Narrowly focusing on Black pain at the expense of our complex and also celebratory history and experiences is in part a reflection of white-led activism’s unexamined acceptance of anti-Black stereotypes. Further, insisting on a strict “chain of command” to short circuit debate and critiques over methods and ideas reinforces white supremacist norms in an organization, especially when there are no Black voices in leadership roles. White activists all too often refuse to examine how they can look through a lens that conforms to their ideas about what “proper protest” should look like, rather than seeing and understanding the complex whole of Black activism.

In my many years as an activist, I’ve seen the same expectations and cultural defaults in white-led spaces and organizations create unwelcoming and sometimes dangerous environments for BIPOC and other marginalized people. There’s little space allowed for failure, even though failure can provide important information. People are afraid to take risks because mistakes are seen as a reflection of the person who makes them as opposed to being seen for what they are—mistakes, and possibilities for growth. Leadership can’t ever be questioned, and doing so often carries stiff professional and social penalties for those who do so, especially if they’re not white, cis men. Those in power don’t view criticism as an opportunity to do better—they view it as inappropriate at best and threatening at worst. “Soft skills” like the ability to relate to others and build strong relationships are less valued than strong documentation and writing skills, when in reality all of these skills are necessary in any organization. Most frustrating is when people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas, causing them to miss out on the growth that accompanies diversity of thought and the ability to see all sides of a situation or solution.

Last year became the year of social justice. The pandemic made it harder for Americans to ignore the ongoing harm of racism, and in particular anti-Blackness. While some organizations issued “statements of solidarity” with Black communities, much more than proclamations are required. Organizations must end practices that diminish Black talents, choke attempts to evolve methods and missions, and don’t center racial equity. This year can be the year that progressive movements take a closer look at the ways they benefit from Black culture but reject Black leadership. 

Admitting how your progressive organizations still reflect white supremacy and racist practices doesn’t mean they’re bigoted and aren’t doing great work building power for Black and brown communities.  What I am calling into question are the assumed reasons behind why so many of these social movements and their histories are thought of as so damn white. It’s not because Black, brown, and other marginalized activists don’t have the vision or capability to lead. The perceived whiteness of activism is the shared legacy of political, labor, environmental, anti-war, feminist, women’s, and LGBTQ+ rights movements and organizations that have historically and currently dismissed the needs and talents of BIPOC.

If other activists in your organization say “we didn’t need to specify race because the people who show up will be Black and brown anyway,” ask them why they assume non-white folks will show up. If leadership protests that having a mission that includes a Black focus will turn people away, demand they explain why your movement should prioritize the support of those people over Black lives. Refuse to accept any framing that “Black issues are too militant” or the false premise that wage theft is more important than wage equity.

If you want Black folks to join your ranks, we must be valued and respected beyond lip service. Make space for different cultures, trust us to do the job we were hired to do, and redefine what constitutes leadership. There are many ways to protest and approach activism, but when white-led social justice organizations passively reflect white supremacist expectations about what “proper protest” looks like, one where joy and celebration are absent, it reinforces the same oppressive structures those organizations are trying to fight, and further alienates Black and other non-white activists from participation and collaboration. It weakens what should be strong coalitions by demanding all activists fit themselves into a single shape, rather than drawing strength by embracing multiple approaches to activism. 

Tanya Wallace-Gobern is a Prism Senior Fellow focused on workers' rights, bringing over 20 years of experience in labor and community organizing. She began her career at the Organizing Institute to learn...