White allies stand up to racism

Community members rallied at Christopher Columbus Park for the name to be changed. The park is on historically Native American land. Photograph by Tirion Morris/Arizona Sonora News

White allies are organizing to stand up for people of color. Since the recent election, racial tensions have been high and white people are keen to distinguish themselves from hate groups. White allies are coming together to use their inherent privilege to work towards racial equality. 

SURJ, or Standing Up for Racial Justice, is a national organization of white allies that come together to educate the community and lead movements to dismantle white supremacy and racism nationwide. Rob McLane is an active member of the local branch, SURJ Tucson

“Whiteness has been constructed over centuries as a way of preserving the wealth of the ruling groups,” McLane said. “We will all be better off when that structure is broken down.”

By being accountable to people of color, SURJ ties to make sure that they can be useful and sensitive to the issues that they involve themselves in. SURJ Tucson works with many other local groups including LUPE, Lucha Unida de Padres y Estudiantes (United Struggle of Parents and Students), an immigrant rights group and Black Lives Matter Tucson.

“White people have been coming up with answers for decades,” McLane said, “and the issue is that we need to follow the lead of organizations of people of color so that it’s not just white people coming up with more answers that don’t work.”

SURJ Tucson frequently checks in with LUPE and Black Lives Matter Tucson to make sure they are sticking to the goals of the national organization. Many people throughout the groups are friends, but recently the discussions have become formalized to make sure the wishes of everyone are being met. One of the main things to remember, according to McLane, is that while it is good to recognize success, being a white ally is not a one time-and-done process.

“Yes we are doing a good job, but there are obviously huge steps that everyone can take to do better, to do more, it’s never over,” he said. “It is never achieved until racism and white supremacy are dismantled.”

One way people across America are organizing to dismantle racism is by demanding that monuments to the confederacy or to confederate leaders be taken down. Here in Tucson, SURJ joined forces with LUPE, the Chukson Water Protectors and other local groups to protest the name of Christopher Columbus Park and to demand that it be changed.

David Archuleta, a member of LUPE, spoke at the event about the importance of fighting racism in a unified way.

David Archuleta spoke to the crowd at Christopher Columbus Park about unity and the need to work together for a common good. His speech induced cheers from the crowd. Photograph by Tirion Morris/Arizona Sonora News

“Unity through celebration and acceptance of differences can lead us to victory,” Archuleta told the crowd who cheered and chanted with signs and banners supporting each other and the removal of racist monuments.

“We need white allies,” Archuleta later commented. “We need to unify on whatever point of contact that we have.”

Demonstrations such as these work to spread the message of unity and stopping racism, but aren’t immediately successful. The process of changing the name of Christopher Columbus Park will take around two years, a city council member told SURJ, but getting the word out and educating the community is all part of the reasoning behind these events.

“I wouldn’t expect someone to see what we were doing the park and suddenly say, oh wow, they’re right; five minutes ago I didn’t agree but now I agree,” McLane said. “If enough things like that happen in the public spotlight, then hopefully that gets people thinking and re-evaluating.”

Education is one of the main goals of SURJ and LUPE regarding these issues. Studying history and providing context is the best way to understand why racist ideas exist and persist in the community, according to McLane.

“The more you understand about racism and white supremacy and the history of our country, you get a little closer to, on a daily basis, being an advocate for people that are targeted by it,” McLane said.

SURJ holds workshops that teach people what to do if they see someone being targeted on the street or by police, and how to effectively and safely intervene. Learning from past mistakes instead of feeling defensive is another way that people can improve their awareness, McLane said.

“It’s not only about knowing the right thing to say and do, it’s about being open to learning,” McLane said. “All white allies have things to learn. It’s not like SURJ has any magic knowledge, it’s just that we are people who have decided to take criticism and learn from it and do better.”

The terms “white privilege” and “white guilt” are often thrown around in conjunction with white allyship and with efforts to combat racism. White privilege, as long as it is acknowledged and directed in the correct ways, according to McLane, can be used as a positive tool to help people of color.

“We need people to understand their privilege,” said Summer Aguilera of the Chukson Water Protectors, who addressed the crowd at the park demonstration. “We need allies, people who come and sympathize.”

White guilt, on the other hand, is not a useful tool, McLane said.

“We have to move beyond the guilt,” he said. “Guilt is not going to help anyone. If you are working from a place of feeling guilty then you haven’t quite worked through your learning.”

Instead of perpetuating guilt, McLane said that the effort is better directed to feeling a sense of involvement and responsibility. SURJ is currently working with other groups of people who have felt a sense of urgency to act since the last election, but who maybe don’t know how to best direct their efforts.

“There’s always the challenge in larger groups of protests or rallies, of being effective at channeling other white people’s energy,” McLane said. “There have been cases where other groups of people are organizing but they are maybe not as sensitive to what is going on.”

David Archuleta addresses the crowd at the “This is Racist: Take It Down” event at Christopher Columbus Park. He is an active member of LUPE and worked with SURJ and the Chukson Water Protectors to organize the event.

Hundreds of groups have popped up nationally over the last year, groups who are motivated to challenge the government. Many people on both sides of the political divide are organizing to stand up for what they believe in. Having difficult conversations, no matter the topic, is important, McLane said.

“If you can do it in a way that you are not defensive with one another,” McLane said, “that’s really a way where you are going to see more bonds within our society between people who aren’t naturally in agreement.”

SURJ Tucson meets weekly at the Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market. The group’s next monument removal event will be at Picacho Peak in coming months.

Tirion Morris is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at tirionmorris@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for Word version of this story and high resolution photos. 


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