Interviews with Artists and Activists on White Privilege: Chris Crass

I recently conducted a series of interviews with several people who are white/read as white about what white privilege means to them in their work to end racism and oppression. Following the killing of Mike Brown, I realized to my great disappointment that a number of white folks on social media became extremely agitated and angry at the very invocation of this phrase. Conceptually, though, I think it is critical to understand and engage if we are indeed to move towards a most just and fair world. I am humbled and grateful to the people who participated in this conversation for their honesty in talking about what white privilege means to them, and I hope this collection of voices serves to spark dialogue and ignite change.

It must and can never be only people of color who are charged with the work of dismantling white supremacy and racial injustice. I feel these conversations are critical for white people to have with each other if we are to move forward as a society. Thanks for taking time to read.

(This is the second interview in the series. Read the first one with Melissa A. Fabello here.)

Chris Crass

10660392_10152743002432941_1947160672_n (1)Chris Crass is a longtime social justice organizer who writes and speaks widely about anti-racist organizing, feminism for men, lessons and strategies to build visionary movements, and leadership for liberation.  He is the author of Towards Collective Liberation: anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis, and movement building strategy published by PM Press and you can learn more about his work at

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a dad, a partner, a son, an author, activist and social justice movement builder.  I’m racialized as white, gendered as male, and economically in the precarious middle class.  I’m an anti-authoritarian socialist committed to a vision and strategy of collective liberation, which I’ll say more about later.

I grew up the right-wing bastion of Orange County, Southern California during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the right-wing backlash to the gains of people’s movements in the U.S. for civil rights, feminism, economic justice, queer liberation, and racial justice and people’s anti-colonial movements for self-determination around the world.

I grew up with parents who raised me with feminist, social justice inclinations and values that flourished in high school when I became best friends with Mike Rejniak, a working class anarchist, and we recruited and joined with others to build up, in the suburbs we lived in, a vibrant counter-cultural youth movement rooted in anarchist/socialist/feminist values and commitments.

Those experiences helped shape the activism, writing, movement building, and more recently, parenting, I’ve engaged in over the past 25 years.  I have three primary focuses in my life.  First, to build powerful working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation.  Second to organize and write with a focus on moving large numbers of white people towards a multiracial democratic racial/economic justice agenda, large numbers of men towards a feminist/gender justice agenda, and people of various class backgrounds towards a socialist agenda rooted in working class organizing and movements.  Third to help build and nurture my family with liberation values/culture as part of larger beloved community that loves kids and honors the magic of childhood.

2. Where and when did you first hear the term white privilege? What were some of your initial thoughts about it?

I first read about it in the journal Race Traitor in the early 90s.  Race Traitor was an awesome journal about the historical and social construction of whiteness as a ruling class strategy to unite people racialized as white to unite across class behind a ruling class worldview and agenda of structural inequality and violence.  The term racialize or racialization highlights the fact that race isn’t biological, rather it is social.  Therefore, Race Traitor argued that if white supremacy and whiteness (which often people then used the term whiteness rather then white privilege, but’s all in the same constellation of concepts), that if they were created, they could also be destroyed.  What has been done, can be undone.  I was reading this journal because our high school activist group was part of the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation which was involved nationally  in anti-racist work and published a lot of great writing about white supremacy and racial justice struggles, including pieces by folks in Race Traitor, and this helped us locally, as a mostly white group of activists, to think about our work against police brutality and immigrant rights.

The real turning point that powerfully impacted my life, political work, and understanding of white privilege though was the Rodney King verdict in the spring of 1992 and the rebellion, civil unrest in Los Angeles that followed.  One the night of the verdict, with Los Angeles in flames and tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, my friend Terence Priester, the one Black person in our group, opened his heart and shared stories of racism he’d experienced, to a gathering of us at my parents house.  Hearing his stories of what we would now call racial profiling was devastating and eye opening.  The demolished the colorblind framework I had grown up with, and I knew that my life could never be the same.

It was out of these experiences that I started learning about white privilege and it made sense and began to see it all around me.  I started thinking about white privilege in my own life and years later, through continued activist experience and study, began to see how it was negatively impacting my social justice efforts. I began seeing how white privilege was keeping me away from multiracial racial justice efforts, primarily because a white privilege worldview prevented me from being able to see, experience, connect with, learn from, and build with leadership and organizing in communities of color, and white privilege reinforced a narrative of white people having all the right answers, ways of protesting, ways of being an activist, and so on.

3. How and when do you use the phrase in your own life and activism?

First I’ll say that I think the concept of white privilege as part of a larger understanding of historical and structural white supremacy, is crucial, but I think there are lots of ways to talk about it without using the phrase itself.  Here’s how I think about.

Our key objective is to bring people together across divisions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, citizenship, and so on to see and affirm one another’s humanity and then work for an agenda of collective liberation that seeks economic, racial, gender, disability, environmental, and social justice.  Basically human rights and dignity for all and an end to structural inequality and violence in our country and around the world.  A vision we won’t fully realize, but a vision to help us fight against the nightmare of current injustice and help bring these dream more and more info existence.

OK, so we want to bring people together to work for this and ruling class have long known that this could lead to their downfall and so have done all they can to undermine and destroy such unity.  One of the first people to start talking about what we know call white privilege, was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great American intellectuals of the 1900s, who wrote in his book Black Reconstruction, that white working class and poor people earn the “psychological wages of whiteness” in exchange for siding with the ruling class and actively suppressing the power, dignity and humanity of other working class and poor people, who are of color.

Essentially Du Bois argues that working class and poor white people exchange the possibility of a multiracial democratic society in which resources and power are shared in far more just and equitable way, for the “ white right” to feel superior, culturally and socially, to people of color and then overtime to have access to white privilege, which as we know, white privilege has far reaching implications economically, politically and socially.  A great synopsis of Du Bois’s thinking can be found in Joel Olson’s book Abolition Democracy.

So one of my focuses is political education, leadership development, and organizational support with white social justice/progressive people that incorporates this understanding of white supremacy, white privilege and racial oppression – not just so we can be less racist or more aware, but so we can be more effective building the kind of grassroots movements we need to bring down white supremacy and structural inequality.

Far too often conversations about white privilege just talk about racism that communities of color experience and then white privilege that white communities experience and then give white people the impression that what is needed is for more and more white people to be aware of privilege and act against racism.  These are good things, and they can be helpful places to start, but it leaves out power, and by that I mean ruling class power and structural power/injustice.

When you leave out power, racism and white privilege can then very quickly become about individual behavior, awareness and change absent the larger goal of needing to make structural change and build movements of millions of people to not only make it happen, but in the process of working against injustice begin to nurture and give rise to cultures of solidarity fused with liberation values that then begins to change our lives and communities in profound ways.

To put it another way, we can’t think our way out of the problem of white privilege by being really aware white people.  We need to be aware white people on our own personal growth journey, who want to bring large numbers of other white people into movements to bring down white supremacy and build up multiracial democracy and socialism.  So we need to talk about white privilege with that orientation – which means sometimes not using the term white privilege directly at all, but conveying the ideas behind it through language that will resonate with people.

4. Have you experienced pushback on the phrase from other white people? How do you respond? What are some common ways the phrase is called into question, and how do you address those?

How I respond really depends on who the person is and where there at politically.  For example as a young person I would go head to head with rightwing people in my family and it was exhausting. Then I realized that if my goal was to get my rightwing Grandpa to become an anti-racist, feminist, socialist, then I was setting myself up or failure and I wasn’t going to be spending my time and energy wisely.  So with my Grandpa, my goal became, how to make him a less effective racist, sexist, homophobe and so on.  Which meant rather then debate him at Thanksgiving and give him a platform that he commanded, I tried to use humor to disarm him and then put out ideas about white privilege and racism not to convince him, but to engage other people in my family who routinely remained silent in those conversations.  I asked people in my family who I knew had different, more progressive values, to share what they thought.  I tried to open space for other voices, and understood that debates with my Grandpa were for me to develop my own thinking rather then change his.

But often times people come to me and want to know how they can convince someone in their family who they love, but who they doggedly oppose politically.  My response is this, we need to spend less time trying to move people who aren’t moveable and focus our energies on people around us who in moments like the uprising in Ferguson are actually moveable.  People around us who are asking questions, who are open to learning more, who might want to do to a demonstration but have never done anything like that before.  Often we focus a lot of energy on jackasses and trolls and the people who are closer to us politically, but don’t know how to get involved, are ignored.  That said, in public debates or classroom conversations, it is important to challenge such voices, but again, from the perspective that the people you’re really trying to move are the folks listening, not the jackass who denies that race is a factor in Ferguson.

But we need to get really good at seeing opportunities for white people to get involved in and/or support racial justice efforts and then asking people to step into those opportunities.  When people are in motion working for social justice, they go to a meeting, a rally, a cultural event, or join an organization, they learn and grow at a much quicker pace then when they are just engaged in discussion or study.  So going back to the term white privilege, often times it’s going to be white people participating in multiracial social justice activities, hearing people of color talk about racism and their experiences, that significant shifts will take place.  It becomes less of an academic conversation and becomes rooted in people’s lives and experiences.

That said, we still need to have a lot of conversations with white people.  In my talks and writing about racism directed towards white people, I regularly speak from my own experience of coming to consciousness about racism, white privilege and how devastating and painful it was. I do this, because often white people feel really defensive in conversations about race, the focus because “proving I’m not a racist” rather then trying to understand what racism is and how we can end it.  And I know that, because I have so often felt that defensiveness, it’s not “those people”, it’s us.  But often when white people become conscious about racism and their own white privilege, they hate themselves and project that hate onto hating other white people.  I remember a mentor of mine, an organizer of color, he said, “I understand why you would have animosity towards other white people, but you need to learn how to organize them.”  Later I read a great quote from legendary white anti-racist organizer Anne Braden, who said “you can’t organize people you hate.”  So, you need to work though a lot of the emotions that come up as we become aware and get active.  This comes in time through experience.  But the main thing is that we need to have our eyes on the prize of why we’re having these conversations, what we’re trying to accomplish, and work to be able to speak to other people who have the same privileges as us, from a place of love and from a place of “we need movements of millions playing many different roles, to bring down these systems of oppression that pit us against each other and maintain unthinkable violence.”

5. Why do you feel it’s a vital phrase to use?

I think it communicates a lot about the way white people individually and collectively fit into the structures of white supremacy.  And at this point, conversations about white privilege are happening all over the place, in ways that it’s hard to believe looking back 25 years ago.  This is a good thing.  And again, we need to use the concept to help us all get free.  And this comes back to this concept of collective liberation and for me, one of my goals is to help white people find their self-interest in dismantling white supremacy, and for men to understand how their lives can be profoundly improved through challenging patriarchy – not to stop there, but to include this part about how systems of oppression also negatively impact the people who are privileged.  Going back to Du Bois, he was clear that white working class and poor people had far more to gain by joining with working class and poor people of color to fight for a better world.  My friend Terence explained it to me this way.  He said that one of the ways that racism hurt me, which was jarring for me to hear a Black person tell me that I was hurt by racism, but he continue, racism hurts you, by teaching you that you have nothing to learn from the histories, cultures, social justice movements, visions, and lives of communities of color, and that as a social justice activists, I was being denied the powerful insights and inspirations from people of color-led movements which have been at the heart of social justice efforts in the country.

So I bring that perspective with me.  I don’t have conversations with white people to make them feel guilty about having white privilege.  I talk about white privilege as one of the ways that institutional racism is maintained, and that all of our hopes for a better world rest squarely in building powerful multiracial movements to solve the most pressing problems of our times, and that white people have to make a choice between about what side of history they want to be on.  The history of slavery, genocide, and lynching or the history of people coming together to create what Anne Braden called, the “Other America”.  The America of multiracial democracy and equality for all people, the America of the Abolitionists, the Freedom Riders, and the Dream Defenders.  And then try to follow that up with how people can get involved.

I’ll share one other story about how we have to listen deeper then just using the right words.  Words are important and they matter, but we need to listen to people’s hearts and souls too.  A white working class friend of mine who was the first person to go to college in her family.  She learned about the history of white supremacy and white privilege in a class and was enraged.  She came home from school one time and started a conversation about immigration with her mom.  Her mom said, “It’s a shame about all those illegals being deported.”  My friend jumped all over her mom for using the word illegal and only later realized her mom was expressing sympathy that could have then be explored and potentially developed into solidarity.  Our goal is to move white people towards a collective liberation vision and strategy of solidarity and unity.  Maybe the person is ready to talk about white privilege, or maybe they first just need to understand that racism exists.  Start with where people are at and move them where you can.  Prioritize who you’re investing time and energy into.  Helping get 15 white people to take a stand in your small town, rural area, or suburb and demonstrating in solidarity with the kids from Central America crossing the border, or showing solidarity with Ferguson, can have a bigger impact then arguing on Facebook or in person with reactionary family members and friends for hours.  Get a demonstration like that together and invite folks in your life to attend who you’re not sure about where they stand on an issue.  One of our roles, as white anti-racists, is to give more and more white people opportunities to stand on the right side of history.

6. Are there any resources or links you would recommend to a white person newly acquainting themselves with the idea of white privilege? Any other links on the subject for the world at large?

I think taking a moment to think about the person you’re trying to reach and think about what they would be interested in, what would speak to them and appeal to them.  So maybe it’s a book focused on structural inequality or the history of racism in the U.S. Or maybe it’s a novel by Toni Morrison or poems by June Jordan or essays by bell hooks or Audre Lorde.  Or maybe it’s watching a movie like American History X or a documentary like Shakti Butler’s Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, and having a conversation afterwards.

But for two pretty accessible beginning to think about these issues books, I would recommend Paul Kivel’s Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice and Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Togther in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race.

The one thing I’d say to keep in mind, is to try as often as you can to let white people in your life know that there have been white anti-racists throughout history who have made important contributions and who they can learn about.  It’s important to give people hope and suggestions for next steps to keep moving.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.


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