Wednesday, June 12, 2013

WRFF 2012 POC Fish-Bowl Report-Back

Thoughts in Race, Identity & Solidarity

By Sabitaj Mahal, Earth First! Journal

Wild Roots Feral Futures (WRFF) is a re-wilding, skill-share, and eco-defense camp annually held in the woods of Colorado. WRFF calls for folks who can share basic skills to survive in the wild— fire making, shelter building, plant identification—but also people oriented to anarchist praxis, unpacking privilege, and decolonization. When I went to WRFF last summer, I found that the camp more focused in hands-on skills—exactly what I was looking for. As for anarchist theory and unpacking privilege, discussions were difficult, and as a woman of color, I found myself facilitating one of the most tense discussions of race with white people that I’ve ever experienced.

I was attracted to Wild Roots Feral Futures because I’ve realized developing an analysis of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital isn’t going to help me filter my own water. I have been a part of anarchist circles for a number of years; in my teens I was an avid Copwatcher and immigrant justice organizer in the North Bay, CA. My personal philosophy of desiring a world without domination or hierarchy informed my non-judgmental counseling style and abortion care at a feminist women’s health clinic that I worked in until last January, until I was laid-off my job.

Instead of getting another nine-to-five, I dropped everything and started hopping trains and hitchhiking across the country. The friend I was traveling with at the time had WRFF on their list of places to go. When I read the WRFF blog, I understood the camp was a part of building solidarity and networking within the ecological resistance movement, a movement I hadn’t been involved in.

When I told an APOC (anarchist person of color) friend of mine I was going to this re-wilding gathering, he responded with a dismissive, “Psh! Have fun hanging out with those primmies.” His implication was, “Psh! Good luck with those white dudes and their shitty politics in the woods.”

My friend was poking fun at green anarchists, many of them white, who fetishize so-called primitive societies that have been colonized and exploited by white people, while simultaneously neglecting to unpack their own relationships to institutions of oppression—ultimately emulating and enforcing the systems they say they’re against.

Assuming that some issues around privilege would come up at the camp, I told myself that I wouldn’t facilitate anything. Calling white people out on their bigotry at activist gatherings is not a role I necessarily want to play, neither is arguing about such things with people who have not experienced marginalization in the ways I have. I wanted to focus on learning what I could for myself, and besides, the WRFF anti-oppression statement appeared informed: someone else would regulate things if issues were to come up.

After a thirty-mile drive and a three-mile hike into the forest, I found the camp to be overwhelmingly white. The prejudices my friend mocked played out in a handful of encounters with ignorance—from an individual assuming that I was a native person, to cringing debates around cultural appropriation and white privilege.

Meanwhile, I befriended folks from various bioregions while I attended workshops on practical skills: harvesting plants to make cordage, the many uses of willow, becoming a habitual forager, participating in the slaughter and processing of an animal and tree climbing.

The camp was an interesting intersection of people who wanted to run around with war paint in the woods awaiting the actualization of industrial collapse, and folks involved in community organized eco-defense campaigns. Despite self-reflections and acknowledgements for how I would individually navigate feelings and instances of marginalization, I found myself initiating a discussion in response to the marginalization and insensitivity to native people who came to the camp.

Mid-week, the camp felt it necessary to organize a ritual on the Summer Solstice. Although it raised my eyebrows that a group of mostly white people, settlers on colonized land [in a National Forrest, which have historically been used in the US to take land away from native people] were formulating a ritual to honor the Earth. I wasn’t necessarily opposed. I thought, “Well, don’t people know what is best for their own liberation?”

The ritual proceeded as such: at dusk, there was a march of half naked people, body paint, masks, and torches. Folks gathered around a fire. The corners were called, so was the rain, mothers on mother’s day, and so on. “To the earth, to the sky, to the earth.” Someone asked if anyone had anything specific to close the circle. After some hoots and hollers, the circle broke and people drummed, sang, danced, got naked, drank whiskey, smoked and howled late into the night.

A Dinè (what we colonially know as Navajo) family involved in an eco-defense campaign to protect their sacred forest from being  clear-cut, had came to the camp to learn tree-climbing. They quietly left the night of the ritual, upset and offended. If it wasn’t for a chance encounter with someone who had come to the camp with them, I would have not known they left.

Learning of their departure was alarming. Native folks feeling exempt and marginalized from a camp meant to build community, autonomy, and mutual aid? It seemed to fall in alignment with a US historical trajectory of land grabbing and colonization.

The folks who hiked out returned to the camp in the morning, with plans on leaving immediately after a presentation on their campaign. I checked in with them to see what I could do to be in solidarity. A small group of us, both POC and non-POC who felt put off by the ritual, discussed what we thought was problematic with the camp. Someone said, “I don’t understand how all of these white people can run into the forest making up and practicing their rituals when we can’t even go into our sacred forest and practice our rituals!”

Thinking that we could collectively analyze and deconstruct what was problematic, share these thoughts with the rest of the camp, and build solidarity, I proposed we organize a fishbowl discussion of folks who didn’t agree with the ritual. Someone else suggested that we hold a people of color fishbowl instead, to highlight voices that had been silent. I checked in with all of the folks of color and explained how some of my closest POC comrades would refuse to participate in this sort of meeting due to feelings of being on display. Despite the disclaimer, there was an overwhelming sense of agreement amongst the people I talked to, I was surprised. Someone said, “Yes! This will flip a power dynamic.”

Those of us of color who agreed to the fishbowl met and listed things that we wanted to talk about. We notified the camp that a discussion about race facilitated by POC was to take place the next day. To avoid assuming peoples identities based on phenotypical traits, we announced if anyone considered themselves POC, thought that it had a material impact in their life, and wanted to participate, to come talk to us individually.

The next morning, after the scheduled morning circle, I explained the fishbowl format. We invited anyone who considered themselves a person of color to sit in the middle of the circle. As those of us who identified with the fishbowl moved forward, there was an air of confusion amongst some who did not enter the inner circle.

After we were situated the first person to speak was a white-appearing man on the outer circle, who expressed a concern, “I’m sitting on the outside of the circle out of respect to the format, but I can’t help but think I should be sitting on the inside of the circle, because, what is a person of color? Are we not all of color?”

Another responded, “Although I have matrilineal heritage that is connected to Central America, I am sitting on the outside of the circle because I am white appearing, white passing, and socialized as white, giving me a set of privileges the people in the inner circle may not have...”

A few more comments were made on the outside of the circle until someone stated, “I think we should stop talking and give the voice to the inner circle.”

Although not everyone who considered themselves a person of color participated in the fishbowl, the format of the discussion acted as a spectrogram that highlighted the substantial lack of racial and ethnic diversity at the camp: the inner circle consisted of seven participants whereas the outer circle consisted of over forty.

The fishbowl began with an intimate check-in: people introduced themselves, their reasons and intentions in participating in the fishbowl, and if desired, a moment to share their racial or ethnic identity (as opposed to being racially categorized by others, something the State and bigots often do to POC). Many teared up during the check-in, something I believe to be a reflection of trauma.

We talked about cultural appropriation, our concepts of ritual related to our identities, and anarchist fetishizations of POC societies across the world. We discussed dogmas about capitalism’s collapse, how those egalitarian horizontal societies many white anarchists believe to have honed survival skills will not necessarily withstand climate catastrophe. How there are significant privilege gaps that are necessary to address for cross-movement building and eco-resistance.

Amongst inquiries about allyship, inclusion, safe-space, cultural insensitivity and cultural appropriation, some folks asked the fishbowl to describe what was precisely appropriative in the ritual, and what could be done differently. In response, one of the native folks reiterated that they thought white people on occupied land who wanted to formulate a ritual based upon no cultural history or, likely, stolen cultural history was disrespectful. Because everyone’s identities and experiences were so varied, the fishbowl did not have a unanimous critique, although the general opinion was that the ritual was whack and, more accurately, a party. Many non-POC seemed fixated on the ritual, being that the ritual was the most tangible trigger to the fishbowl discussion.

After an hour, the fishbowl was followed by a conversation open to everyone. The fishbowl participants intentionally arranged a white person to facilitate this part of the discussion, someone we believed to have a solid grasp of critical race theory. This was done under the assumption that this person’s whiteness would be more heard by white people who had difficulty processing the contents of the discussion; it was also assumed that this person would be a strong facilitator. We did not arrange an agenda or questions for the second half of the discussion, which spiraled into white people sharing stories of when they felt personally oppressed, instances unrelated to racial experience. A handful of people came out as survivors of sexual assault. A cis-male responding to a complaint by the native folks about nudity at the camp shared that a nude-friendly environment was essential to overcoming his struggle with feeling ashamed of his body and small penis; he broke down in tears.

It’s possible that many people thought the POC, namely the Dinè folks, were mad at them individually, and thought that describing experiences of when they felt powerless would negate their privilege. Reflecting on the integrated discussion, I had the false expectation that white friends who articulated refined analysis of race and class in private discussions would be more participatory in a group setting. Even though some people actively called-out tokenizing questions, I did not communicate this expectation, so the people I saw as allies ended up saying little to nothing during expressions of white guilt. Interestingly, there were a few folks who said that this was the first time they ever heard people of color talk about radical politics as people of color. Some fishbowl participants shared that this was the first time they participated in an intentionally exclusive POC dialogue. After some final thoughts on ritual, respect, and allyship from POC, the discussion ended with a Dinè handshaking ritual. Lastly, those of us in the fishbowl did a check-in to decompress amongst ourselves.

Skill-share camps like WRFF are necessary, not only for practicing self-sustaining skills, but also movement-building in this increasingly fragile environment. Since the camp, people have told me the fishbowl inspired them to be more critical of how their racial experience and identities relate to their politics. All politics are informed by our identities, because our experiences are significantly attached to these categories we are associated with.

As we continue surviving in a capitalist world that profits and sustains off of various types of exploitation, it is important to take responsibility to confront oppression, and self-reflect on how our privilege affects the safety of others and our ability to build movements of resistance. My experience at WRFF opened up a new view of ecology to me, and was a reminder that actively being a part of anti-oppression work is necessary to build strong communities in defense of the Earth. We cannot stop the damage being done without simultaneously building solidarity with people that are most affected.

This article was originally written for and printed in the most recent edition of the Earth First! Journal, Vol. 33 No. 1, Brigid 2013. Copies of Brigid 2013 are available for sale on the literature page of the EF!J merch store. Subscriptions available through both EF! Journal/websites: Earth First! Newswire & Earth First! Journal.

No comments:

Post a Comment