Learning, Unlearning, Ella Baker, Activism and (Ongoing) Stories of Self

“So, how’d you get here?”

The young organizer and I draped astride one another in the middle of a cavernous labor office in Northeast Minneapolis. It was the end of one of several hours-long trainings for a civil disobedience action planned for Superbowl Sunday—brilliantly organized by Black Visions Collective and BLM leaders from around the country.

With 36 hours remaining until the action, the space felt full with adrenaline and empty any sense of time.

On Sunday, seventeen of us (mostly white) activists would use our bodies and PVC pipes to block light rail tracks in below-zero temperatures while a crew of black activist leaders performed a powerful sketch listing demands that included defunding police and investing in schools.

During the action, I would engage in something of a tussle with an aggressive transit cop and get taunted by a snarky member of MPD; my feet would get so cold I’d have to have someone sit on them, and I’d spend a few hours handcuffed on a bus.

And yet: nothing in the course of the overall (transformative) experience prompted more visceral panic than his question.

In it, I heard not only an explanation for how I’d gotten there that night; I heard, also, a deeper inquiry: What the hell took you (class-privileged white girl) so long? Where the hell have you (class-privileged white girl) been? And, what the hell have you (you get the gist) been doing all this time that you weren’t on the front lines, fighting for justice?

In the moment, I mumbled about having a white body and not having to teach on Tuesday, about trainings and friends, an activist partner, Trump.

Six months later, I feel—as I did then—extremely clear about my commitment to racial justice work as a central, active priority of my life.

I am still unclear about why I didn’t before.


A few weeks after the action, that organizer and I met up for coffee. The question came up again.

This time I might have been slightly more coherent: I emphasized the significance of a pair of anti-racism trainings I’d had the privilege to do—one, for teachers, at a community college where I then taught, and another, for community members, with a group called ASDIC. (I’ve mentioned both here.)

I also stressed the value of relationships: how, before, I hadn’t known folks to invite me into the room, and now I did. I had only learned about the action, after all, due to showing up to an organizing meeting; I’d only shown up to that organizing meeting because I’d been invited via relationship. I think relationships are critical to movement work—often, what enables us to show up.

But relationships don’t create themselves. And the truth is that most of the relationships I’ve built with movement friends are the result of showing up for things, not only the cause.

Which just returns me to that question: what made me start to show up?

As is often the case: my search for understanding might reveal more about the search itself than any concrete answer.


“I mean,” I said over coffee. “It’s not like my politics have really changed.”

I had been telling him about the second anti-racism training, which I entered into without much humility: thinking I would use it as a pathway to becoming an anti-racism facilitator myself.

I didn’t, I told him, anticipate how much I would actually learn.

I didn’t anticipate that the circle would enable me to grasp, on a level I never had before, how—throughout American history—those in power have weaponized racism to keep power and maintain economic inequality. Or how much my own whiteness (and that of my European Jewish ancestors) has shaped my (and our) experience and opportunities. Certainly, I didn’t have the analysis I do now in regard to the urgency of dismantling capitalism, and the (constructed) notion of whiteness itself.

I didn’t anticipate the moment, during that circle, when I would recognize that—given what I now understand about our history and present, and the numerous privileges that enabled me to gain that knowledge—I could no longer spiritually exist in right relationship with myself if I didn’t commit to centering racial justice work.

I know, in other words, how transformative that circle was. I knew it then, too.

And, yet, even as I shared that story, I simultaneously held onto a narrative in which I hadn’t really changed.


 In her new book, White Fragility, the well-known, white-bodied racial justice trainer Robin DiAngelo enumerates obstacles for white folks to talking effectively about race. One of them is what she terms the “good/bad binary”: as in, the notion that you’re “good” if you’re not racist, and “bad” if you are.

This binary is made more problematic by the way we have adapted the term “racist” to mean someone who is overtly, violently prejudiced: who consciously believes that whites are inherently superior. (A belief, DiAngelo insists, that socialization within Western society instills, more or less consciously, in all of us.)

“If, as a white person,” DiAngelo writes, “I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the ‘not racist’ side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.”

In other words: a naïve understanding of racism lets whites absolve ourselves of responsibility, and prevents us from interrogating ways in which our behavior—conscious or not, intentional or not—is complicit.

As with most ideas into which we are conditioned, the recognition that something is bullshit does not fully remove it from one’s psyche—hence the emphasis in justice work on continuous “unlearning.”

That I know the “good/bad” binary is nonsense, then, does not mean I’ve fully let it go: and so, on some level, I still connect an admission of how much I’ve actually learned and changed with the simplistic notion that while I’m “good” now, I was “bad” before—a notion that is both unhelpful and untrue.

There is no question that my politics have evolved, drastically: three years ago, when I started the 555 reading series, the first lineup was five white writers; now, I dedicate significant time to organizing white writers to prevent all-white readings from ever taking place. Three years ago I felt fine about prioritizing my own writing, and limiting my subject matter to family and relationships; now, I am less focused on my own work, and committed to bringing a critical racial lens to what work I do attempt. Three years ago I got my news from The New York Times and NPR; now I listen religiously to Democracy Now!

To challenge that “good”/”bad” binary isn’t to absolve myself for having been inactive before: rather, I do hold myself accountable for failing, all those years, to develop what I now see as a crucial political and racial analysis, for giving myself a pass because I didn’t identify as an activist. But that failure doesn’t mean I was “bad”: it means I am an all-too-typical product of a white supremacist culture that emphasizes individuals over the collective and complacency over engagement—a culture I now feel committed to (work to) transform. Also true: that commitment doesn’t make me “good”: white supremacy is in my body, as it’s in all of ours, and as I undertake the endless work of dismantling it, in myself and elsewhere, I know there are ways in which I continue to perpetuate harm.


In addition to all the unlearning, of course, I also recognize my need for so much learning: it is one thing to recognize that what I learned about movement history, for example, was watered down, skeletal and sanitized; it’s another to fill in those gaps.

I am just beginning.

One name I hadn’t heard until entering movement spaces is that of Ella Baker: a radical black freedom fighter held up by contemporary activists for her before-her-time feminism, intersectional lens, commitment to relational organizing, and rejection of charismatic leadership over grassroots movement building. (Perhaps her lack of synergy with MLK Jr., her contemporary, is part of why she isn’t more widely known.)

Her biographer is Barbara Ransby: a remarkable black historian and activist in her own right. Ransby’s introductory comments on the struggle to craft an arc of Baker’s life and activism connected with the challenges I’ve found in charting my own.

“Memories fade,” Ransby writes, “ideas change, and thus what we thought we felt or did at the time is filtered through the lens of our ongoing sense of ourselves.”

At the risk of appearing to compare myself with an American icon, the comment resonates: I can attempt to tell a story now, but it is with a lens that I know will continue to shift over time. Put another way: whatever narrative of self I might construct in a given moment is likely to reveal more about that moment than the subject itself.

One thing that struck me in reading about Baker is how she privileged relationships over any organizational or party ties. I think that relates to how, too, her views unapologetically evolved over time: the broad cause of social change was her only fixed loyalty, and she never allowed allegiance to a particular philosophy or leader or even organization—most see her as the most influential adviser to SNCC—to eclipse those core values or overly determine her path.

I appreciate this as a strategic approach to movement work: by definition, most organizations and even ideologies have an inherent investment in their own sustainability.  But also as a way of being more broadly: as a recognition that perhaps (I write as a women once described as “tofu”) the most sacred value is in being open, open to those views and ideas and people we do have the luck to encounter, and that fixed loyalties, whether to ideas or individuals, can easily hinder that openness.

There is a way, then, in which my claim to that organizer (now a friend) wasn’t false: my core value of social justice and equality hasn’t changed, what has is my understanding of how much and what work is needed to get there, and my place within that work; before, that (limited) understanding allowed my passivity; now, I see my role as active and urgent.

Regardless of how that understanding changed, what matters to me now is to stay committed: to maintain and expand my relationships with fellow activists who can keep me accountable and engaged.

As I do, I am thankful to those who have schooled me on Baker’s wisdom—much of which I hope to hold close.

On of her better known quotes is from her eulogy of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner—the three SNCC activists abducted and killed during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

“Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons,” she said, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”