Activist calls for united front in fighting bias
Sexism hurts everyone in society, says Chris Crass, an activist, writer, speaker, and stay-at-home dad. That’s why even white males like himself should take an interest in putting a stop to it, he says.
“Men and boys are generally told to act like a man, which means to suppress all emotions except for anger, rage, jealousy, [and] greed, to suppress our emotional intelligence, our empathy, our compassion,” says Crass, who was at UCSC this past week for a discussion. “The way we raise men is to be emotionally incompetent and socially unaware … There is a whole range of ways that men are hurt by patriarchy.”
Crass, who’s based in Knoxville, Tennessee, is well known for his work around the idea of “collective liberation.” Crass spoke to these issues on Monday night, Nov. 17, at UCSC’s Oakes Learning Center.
Often, various “isms”—racism, classism, sexism—are seen as separate issues, with separate causes and separate organizations working on behalf of them for justice. But collective liberation, a term Crass discusses in his recent book “Towards Collective Liberation,” holds that these issues—and their solutions—are all interwoven. Injustice hurts everyone, says Crass; no group of people is free when another group is oppressed, and in order to actually work for justice, social activists and community organizers have to work across the lines of their various collectives.
One basic idea behind collective liberation is that racism actually hurts white people, too, just as sexism hurts men. “Whites are given greater access to resources, but at the same time, white people internalize a false sense of superiority,” Crass says.
Crass says that an African-American friend once explained that Crass had been taught that history, legacy, poetry, and literature from other races and cultures were not important. Looking back, Crass agrees. “I had been raised to completely ignore the lives of people of color, or see myself as someone who was going to save those people,” Crass says. “It’s cutting me off from so much of the incredible culture, knowledge, and history of communities of color.”
In Santa Cruz, people involved in race issues are mostly receptive to these ideas.
Mireya Gomez-Contreras, program director at the Community Action Board, says there is definitely some truth in the ideas of collective liberation, including its impacts on people with power. It reminds her of what happens when two people get into an argument, and one person makes a racist comment—then things begin to escalate. Often, she says, both people leave such conversations with bad tastes in their mouth, reinforcing any ill thoughts either person had about other races. In that way, everyone loses.
“When there isn’t resolution it adds to your previous bad experiences with racism,” Gomez-Contreras says. “It just becomes less and less helpful.”
Others note collective liberation isn’t cut-and-dried. While injustice hurts both those with privilege and without, says Santa Cruz community organizer Sandino Gomez, the people with less power end up suffering much more.
“It’s a tricky concept, and it’s not always applicable,” Gomez says, of collective liberation. “Oppressive policies and institutions do hurt both parties, but hurt the oppressed more.”
Overall, community leaders say Santa Cruz County itself is no stranger to inequality. The city of Santa Cruz, whose population is 67 percent white, has a median per capita income of $30,755, according to census data. The city of Watsonville, on the other hand, is 80 percent Latino and has a per capita median income of $16,541. Similarly, the median income of men in the city of Santa Cruz is about $8,000 more than that of women.
There are organizations in the area working to make a difference on many of these issues. Tim McManus, a lead organizer for Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), says it takes collaboration from many different groups to create meaningful change.
“It doesn’t happen by accident, and it doesn’t happen because we hope it will happen. It takes real work,” McManus says. “We have to work together around real issues, not superficial things. And it also takes time. It takes slow, patient and respectful work.”
COPA works with community organizations such as churches, synagogues, nonprofits and schools to empower leaders to create change within economic, social, political and cultural life in the central coast.
One COPA initiative is at the Alianza Charter School, a bilingual elementary school in Watsonville. There, some parents get credentialed as COPA leaders, and work together to put students on tracks that will lead to college. The work involves engaging parents with a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
“Some parents teach at Cabrillo, while some parents haven’t gone to school themselves much at all,” says Randa Johnson, an Alianza parent and COPA organizer. “It gives us different perspectives on issues. We want parents to be able to connect. It’s about giving people the opportunity to speak with each other, but not just to the people they normally speak with … We know that we will get farther if we look at how it affects all of the different communities.”
Crass says one of his biggest goals is to get people to work across divisions to accomplish bigger goals.
“It’s all in service to how we can overcome these divisions between people, so we can create economic justice for everyone, health care for everyone, a living wage for everyone, and have a multiracial democracy that is about empowering people and being able to take on some of the fundamental issues we face around climate change, around wealth inequity,” Crass says.
Here in Santa Cruz, the Rev. Deborah Johnson of Inner Light Ministries says that although Santa Cruz is a progressive community, it still suffers from the problems that other places do.
“Everything is just as alive and well in Santa Cruz. The difference is when there’s denial. If you can’t see the problem, you can’t fix it,” Johnson says. “There’s a danger in thinking you’re exempt.”
Additional reporting contributed by Jacob Pierce. PHOTO: Chris Crass, who spoke at UCSC this past week, says racism hurts everyone—even racists. ANH DOA KOLBE