You v. Structural Racism: Rinku Sen’s Netroots Talk

Written by Julie Quiroz

August 26, 2014

This past July I went to Netroots where I was honored to attend powerful sessions like “The Resurgence of Black Feminism” and “Ain’t I an Organizer? How Women of Color are the Future of the Women’s Movement”, as well as the closing talk by Rinku Sen, publisher of Colorlines and director of Race Forward.

In the 5 minutes allotted for a Netroots “Ignite” presentation, Rinku challenged all of us to become more effective in our work for racial justice. Rinku listed three responsibilities everyone needs to consider:

  1. Accept yourself,
  2. Tell the truth, and
  3. Focus on structural inequity.

In this brief interview, I asked Rinku to share some highlights from her talk.

Julie Quiroz: What does “accept yourself” mean and why did you put it first?

Rinku Sen: In building cross-racial relationships, organizations and alliances, people can cause a lot of drama by not being clear about who they are and by not being okay with who they are. That kind of denial makes us defensive when we are challenged around those identities, like being an Asian person in the midst of a black or Latino community. Defensiveness closes doors rather than opening them. I think I’m much more effective cross racially now than I was in my youth because I don’t feel the need to deny or hide anything about who I really am.

At Race Forward we do a training called Identity Facets and Assets, which is geared toward imagining how every aspect of us — the oppressed and the privileged — gives us an asset in racial justice work. At Netroots I said that building bridges requires a strong foundation, and that foundation can’t come from anything outside of your self.

JQ: Telling the true story seems like what we’re all trying to do.  Where are we going wrong?

RS: My second principle for multiracial communities is to be explicit about our racial justice commitments so it’s clear that we have them, and to be explicit about who would be affected by them.

I especially note the need to name actual communities rather than using proxies like “inner city” or “disadvantaged.” There’s far too much fear of race talk that makes it easy for  the right wingers to control the conversation, partly by accusing those who favor racial justice of being the “real” racists.

If race conservatives are the only people willing to be frank, then the rest of us are talking around, across and over each other and the public. Also, we can’t use jargon that only makes sense to people who write grant proposals out of non-profits. If you want to reach everyone else, you have to talk in everyday language.

JQ: People often think that focusing on structural racism is really hard.  Is it?

RS: It’s really challenging talking about systems in our exceptionally individualistic society, so yes, it is difficult. But it is no more difficult than talking about systemic problems in unemployment, domestic violence or any other social issue.

One problem with a structural analysis is that it can really make people feel powerless to change anything. If things get decided thousands of miles away from me, or systems are churning along based on decisions made 100 years ago, then what is my role in making it different? Another problem is that it’s hard to hate a system the way you would hate an individual villain, or to love a system that’s working the way you’d love an individual protagonist.

JQ: How does Race Forward talk about structural racism?

RS: At Race Forward we work a lot to connect stories of individuals to systems, but we have to think about how to sustain an emotional resonance evoked by the individual through the systems portion of the story. Learning to talk about race is a creative, intellectual process. We need to learn what works by continuing to do it in as many different ways as we can and by taking time to reflect and pull out the lessons of each attempt.

Accept yourself. Tell the truth. Focus on structural inequity. Reflect. Repeat.

Feature photo: Steve Stearns

Julie Quiroz

Julie Quiroz lives in Michigan and leads New Moon Collaborations, a fiscally sponsored project of Movement Strategy Center.

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