Societies are based on self-perpetuating social systems. That’s why they’re stable. Personal, social, cultural, economic, and political elements are woven together, reinforce one another, and serve a common purpose.
America is fueled by the drive to climb social ladders, gain more wealth, status, or power, and look down on and dominate those below -- with little regard for others’ suffering. In doing so, we learn to submit to, envy, and resent those above us.
On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay Mckesson, a dramatic memoir about Mckesson’s activism interwoven with essays, clarifies these dynamics. He writes:
There was a time when I believed that racism was rooted in self-interest or economics — the notion that white supremacy emerged as a set of ideas to codify practices rooted in profit. I now believe that the foundation of white supremacy rests in a preoccupation with dominance at the expense of others, and that the self-interest and economic benefits are a result, not a reason or cause. I believe this because of the way that white supremacy still proliferates in contexts where there is no self-interest other than the maintenance of power. I have seen it hold sway even in contexts where it does not materially benefit the white people who hold the beliefs.
Mckesson argues that if we are to “change the system,” we must see how individual decisions “aggregate over time” to intentionally create “power over” rather than “power with.” He urges whites to not “forget that there is a larger system that led to their personal advantages,” and defines institutions as “the collective response of individuals, hardened over time.” This process produces “structural issues at play that promote oppression…., an intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions that allow the privilege to manifest.”
His image of the bully illustrates the point. As a child, a neighborhood bully routinely brutalized him on his way home. As an adult, he’s suffered systematic injustice at the hands of another bully, white supremacy, which is based on “the notion that the lives of white people are inherently worth more than those of anyone else.” The bully aims to “convince you that no damage was done or that you deserved it. He aims to strip you of your power.”
The bully is everywhere and white people are “collateral damage.” As time passes
the bully only becomes more vicious, more insidious, more institutionalized…. We are all of us at risk…. The bully is coming for [others] too…. White supremacy is about the fleecing of power to gain more power. So while the bully may not be after you today, he will surely target your car or hop over your fence in due time -- because the bully is aiming to amass power, regardless of its victims.
Bullies are enabled. “There were bystanders who lived on my grandmother’s block who chose to do nothing every single day.” Bullies are propped up by killing people, artificial divisions, false information, efforts to “pull us apart,” and a natural tendency to “believe the story that aligns with what we already feel to be true.” And most of all, they’re propped up by passivity.
The final chapter, “Letter to an Activist,” opens, “You have more power than you know, more power than they will ever want you to know, and they will spend their lives trying to hide you from yourself.” The system serves to “usher” people into “subjection” and teaches people, “you are the problem,” when in fact “the problem is rooted in the world.”
When faced with injustice, we learn to “accept the trauma and go about our daily lives [and] suffocate in surrender.” But we not only surrender “our imagination of what tomorrow could look like.” We also surrender “our agency in actively shaping what today feels like.” As Assata Shakur said, “The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows.”
Robert Jensen wrote, “The real White People’s Burden is to civilize ourselves.” To do so, we must overcome divisions aggravated by systematic socialization.
You have surely learned things by now that you did not choose to learn: misogyny, homophobia, sexism, and so on. You learned these things because they are often so deeply entrenched in the fabric of the culture.
our goal...is never to extend the idea of domination, but rather to change the conception of power itself. Indeed, we must end the idea of domination as an organizing principle in society. Audre Lorde said it best…. “The only way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence.”
Speaking to that need for personal transformation rooted in greater understanding of the dominant system, Mckesson argues that a persistent “chain of questions” can lead people “to reinvestigate basic truths, which then lead to larger acknowledgements.” Awakening smothered innate curiosity can enhance that learning process. Awareness then “can be applied to changing the systems and mind-sets that prop up the system.”
This systemic transformation requires activists to “never let [their] power drown out the power of [their] peers.” Mutual empowerment calls for the careful management of “shared imaginations” and a commitment to “envision an entire system and structure that has never existed here.”
To resolve internal tensions among activists, Mckesson urges activists to “name the constraints up front.” But he also challenges us to “then ignore...and work around” those constraints -- by adhering to “a strong moral compass that individuals use to hold themselves accountable to their own values, beliefs, and commitments.”
Describing an instance when a Ferguson demonstrator yelled “You fucking faggots” at the police and a fellow demonstrator told him, “Man, that offended me,” Mckesson wrote:
In the process of challenging a system that was killing us, we were learning to stand up to the silence that also tried to kill us, and that it was perhaps this that would be the lasting success of the protests at the personal level for each of us.
Fighting for a “larger freedom” requires “an ethic of freedom and liberation in our interpersonal relationships.” We must be “attentive to explicitly processing the future that we want to build and the barriers that have kept that world from existing; otherwise we can find ourselves re-creating or re-producing conflict.”
According to Mckesson, that liberation involves refusing to be confined to any one “primary identity.” He disagrees with those who argue that “the embrace of [multiple] identities somehow weakens us collectively…. We have to remember that we are all of our identities at once, every time.”
Be mindful not to internalize the ills of the world, but to be able to recognize them and then actively work to disrupt them and undo their damage…. The work of unlearning is almost harder, in some ways, than the work of learning. But you will need to identify those things and unlearn them and help those around you to do the same…. And be mindful not to reproduce the same elitism and gatekeeping in the work of social justice that we aim to remove in larger society.
Concerning strategies for moving forward, Mckesson insists “we have to name what we fight for” and offers some guidelines. First of all, “we must focus on the type of world we want to live in and devise a plan for getting there, as opposed to devising a strategy centered on opposition.” His vision for the future includes ending poverty and homelessness, developing “a robust program for addressing mental illness,” and assuring ”living wage and work opportunities for everyone.”
This approach differs from those who reject “reform” and “sacrifice people’s immediate well-being while holding out for an ‘ideal’ plan.” Rather, Mckesson supports working “to change the conditions of our lived reality today, while maintaining a commitment to changing the core power structures that led to the conditions that caused us to fight in the first place.”
These struggles can be based on
a set of core commitments: first, a seat at the table requires that you bring the truth with you while recognizing that, second, you are not the only person who can bring the truth, and, last, that you work to keep the door open for others.
Otherwise, “the work becomes less about liberation and more about self-service.” With the right attitude, however, we can awaken our “latent power that’s seldom used to its full extent…[and] help one another stand in our own power.”
Mckesson’s book inspires me. I know no book that touches on so many issues that are so important to me. It’s particularly encouraging to know that someone in his position appreciates the importance of how activists operate. I’d like to see his podcast, Pod Save the People, address that issue more than it has.
The tension between idealism and pragmatism is hard to balance. Mckesson’s defense of “reform” is compelling. I think he could have made it stronger by elaborating on what he means by “maintaining a commitment to changing the core power structures.” As I see it, that commitment can be maintained in large part by consistently clarifying that no one victory or defeat is final. Transformation is never-ending. Moreover, while supporting immediate relief of suffering, we can prioritize winnable reforms that involve restructuring.
Nevertheless, I consider On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope to be a brilliant book that includes powerful personal narratives and important insights concerning how we can move toward fundamental transformation rooted in partnership rather than domination.
By encouraging members to support one another in their self-development, activist organizations could strengthen our ability to achieve that systemic transformation. Unfortunately, few organizations do. Perhaps Mckesson’s book will prompt more to move in that direction.