Disclaimer: Continuing this writer’s tradition of putting racial categories in quotation marks, in response to “the left’s identity politics,” the first time the “identity” of any group and “blanket statements” are used, they will be in quotes.
On January 21, 2017, a 24 year old “Christian white male” named Zach Schwartz took a selfie with me at the Anchorage demonstration in solidarity with the nationally organized “Women’s March on Washington.”
He was among approximately 4,000 citizens who braved inclement weather to show their support of a radically progressive agenda articulated by the organizers, an agenda which neither political party has adopted.
A discussion over “race” almost derailed the national march. Many across the country learned a new word: intersectionality, a noun that means: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
Organizers scrambled to repair rifts, as the big tent idea of “feminism” was challenged as a “white women’s” movement. Feminism isn’t perceived as a universal philosophy. Via social media sites, “Black women” objected to the original name of the march put forth, which was “The Million Woman March,” because the name was already used 20 years earlier in 1997, after the original Farrakhan-led “Million Man March.”
Add in the critique and perspective of “Native women,” fresh from the Standing Rock water crisis (and North Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL), and the layers of nuance become overwhelming.
“Repeat after me: feminism without intersectionality is white supremacy” is now a famous line, or so Minneapolis Somali-immigrant activist, Wintana Melekin, informed me when I asked if I could quote her. She is a community organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), which was instrumental in addressing police brutality in North Minneapolis following Jamar Clark’s death.
Interestingly, enough, race — and the Pandora’s box of social justice related issues connected to race — is the issue which brought two men, Schwartz and me, together.
I met Schwartz six months ago at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). We were put together in the same room by Andrew Freed II, a former president of the Black Student Union. Schwartz was unnerved by the reporting surrounding Terrence Crutcher, one of 258 persons of color killed by a police in 2016.
For days, the infamous and demonized mainstream media did their job, i.e., broadcasting facts about the incident and efforts to investigate the incident as those facts became available.
The aerial film footage of Crutcher’s body receiving bullets and the play-by-play commentary of law enforcement as the incident unfolded created a radicalizing moment for Schwartz.
The September 16, 2016, video shows Crutcher, who appears to be in compliance with authorities, with his hands up, walking across a road towards his vehicle. He is wearing a white t-shirt. As he interacts with the door of his vehicle, shots are fired. Crutcher’s body, with blood spreading across his white t-shirt, and his arms still in the “hands up” position, is seen as the helicopter circles the scene.
“I was angry at the amount of people I saw immediately defending the actions of the police officer without regard to the fact that someone had died. There was very little remorse, just defensiveness,” Schwartz said.
To use movement talk, Crutcher’s death is a proxy. It came near the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Brown’s death is largely recognized as the first death the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement made go viral.
Despite near constant attempts to both influence the media and change the frame it is reported through, Schwartz didn’t think about joining “Black Lives Matter.” It helps that Anchorage, Alaska doesn’t have a chapter, nor the statistics to justify a chapter. Still, BLM is often framed as a Black anti-police organization that doesn’t encourage the participation of “white allies.”
So, Schwartz brainstormed as best he could. “I felt the desire to fight back, but I knew deep down that I, as a cisgender, straight, white, Christian, male, that nothing would actually change for me,” he said.
“Immediately I wanted to respond by holding a vigil, a place where people could come to just be sad about what happened and not have to defend their beliefs about what happened,” Schwartz added. “After conversing with some folks, it lead me to believe that our biggest response would be to educate people.”
Towards that end, in his capacity as a staff member at InterVarsity Faith Christian Fellowship, he organized 50 UAA students to attend a screening of award-winning director Amy DuVernay’s documentary 13th, which details the application of the 13th Amendment to American society since its ratification in 1866. The documentary claims the framed criminal has systematically been projected by the media to paint Black people in a light the public can accept incarcerating.
In the current political climate, that’s a bold thesis. When asked why there is a resistance by white people to accept American history from a frame used by DuVernay, Schwartz could not give a simple, nicely packaged answer.
“White normativity is the belief that what white culture values is just normal,” he said. “The image I like to use is that of a fish in water [that] doesn’t know it’s in water.”
Anything outside of that frame gets challenged.
“White people not understanding or seeing white culture leads to ‘color-blindness’,” Schwartz continued. “Believing that everyone is the same, which just isn’t true. Ethnicity and culture are real. When White people don’t see their white culture and values we fall into white normativity.”
Confronting his own normativity is the internal challenge Schwartz has accepted.
I am still on a journey of understanding my own privilege. But what I know is that, like I explained before, there are those that have high levels of vulnerability and low levels of authority. The history of the United States has put people of color in that corner. The opposite corner — people with high authority and low vulnerability in the U.S. — [are] usually white people. That is just the way the U.S. system is set up and has been set up from the beginning of the country. Being born with high authority and low vulnerability is “privilege.”
Inside Williwaw, a downtown Anchorage restaurant and bar, we warmed up sipping hot soup. As the AFL-CIO Operations Director, Joelle Hall, and Sharon Gibbons (a former Anchorage Assembly candidate out of Eagle River) introduced speakers, Schwartz spoke from his self-identifying frame, using what is classified within Christian circles as liberation theology.
“All of this is contrary to how a lot of Christianity looks in the U.S.,” Schwartz said. “When we support the actions of our country over what Jesus calls us into, we become bystanders to injustice. We believe that the U.S. can do no wrong and we justify the actions of our country without context of Biblical passages.
“Jesus’s call to his followers is to be a priest and a prophet. A priest is someone who works with the highly vulnerable, caring for their needs and reestablishing the control that they have been stripped of,” he explained. “A prophet is someone who calls out brokenness in a system, and tells people that if they continue down that path it’s not going end well. A prophet is speaking into the lives of those with ‘control’ and is thus seen as a rebel.”
As I have grown in my faith as a follower of Jesus, I have seen the ways that Jesus works to dismantle the structures that keep people oppressed and works to raise up and speak life to those who have been oppressed by the social structures of his time. In any social structure, there is a balance of authority and vulnerability.
For those with all authority and limited vulnerability they find themselves in a place of “control.” Schwartz listed recent examples: DAPL, the Alt-Right, Big Banks, White Supremacy, etc. “The opposite is those with high vulnerability and low control; they find them in a place of poverty,” he continued. “In this structure, their authority and vulnerability can’t be created, so in order for one person to have more control they must take it away from someone else.”
“Thus we end up with the people who find themselves with more control have taken that control and left someone in a position of high vulnerability and low control, usually through violence.”
Schwartz feels no conflict within himself for exploring these ideas. “I think that the role of White people,” he said when asked what he intends to do in the immediate future under the Donald J. Trump Administration to foster greater racial dialogue, “is to empower and make heard the voice of people on the margins. As a white person, my views and opinions have usually already been voiced at large, but a person of color is less heard in mass media. If I can use my position to raise the voices of those who are on the outside and use it to inform those around me, then I think I’ve done what I might call ‘White People Work.’”
Because of how he chooses to interact with society, meeting up with Schwartz at the Women’s March didn’t feel out of place. It felt natural. Like he belonged.
Maybe, between the two of us, we can influence the national conversation to be a little more nuanced on the “identity” issue of race and racism. After all, Schwartz has the right voice, spiritual viewpoint, and look to carry the message far and wide.