Freeing our organizations from the culture of oppression requires vigilance

BY:Sammie Lewis| August 22, 2023
Freeing our organizations from the culture of oppression requires vigilance


I was recently asked how I became a Marxist-Leninist and I feel like the simplest answer I can provide is my experience as a Black person, who is often perceived as a woman. Throughout my life, I have struggled tremendously with not feeling good enough, while simultaneously feeling like I’m too much. A lot of this comes down to the unfair expectations and standards people hold me to, as a Black femme, while also making me feel invisible for my achievements and accomplishments. I’ve noticed in school and work, I would always be doing more than my white peers, only to be less respected, acknowledged, and supported. These sort of experiences happen everywhere, including in organizing.

Before I joined the Communist Party USA, I was organizing elsewhere, taking on a leading role, while constantly feeling like I still had to prove myself. I was often undermined and criticized in a unproductive way. I was expected to carry everything on my shoulders, but somehow was never doing enough or doing it the right way. Nobody helped me carry the weight, besides other Black femmes and queer people. While this was a familiar experience, I began to feel disappointed, because I expected more from those I organized with, which is why I spoke up about how I was feeling. I mentioned feeling erased as a Black femme, just for a man to respond with, “Well, just by feeling that, you’re contributing to your own erasure.” That was enough for me to walk away from that particular group. I am learning that when I feel lesser than, it is not my sole responsibility to fix that; it is on those around me to challenge themselves to do better. I wanted to find people who would do just that.

After such negative experiences with my previous organizing home, I decided to attend events, actions, and discussions as an unaffiliated individual organizer. It was in one of these discussion spaces that I met members of the Communist Party USA. I felt my experience with these comrades was so thrilling, as I could tell we were politically aligned. They made efforts to recruit me, and I took the time to ask questions and develop a sense of trust before I decided to officially join. I made my final decision after feeling safe when male comrades appropriately responded to a situation regarding a local abuser within our organizing community. While there is no such thing as perfect, I still believe that I made the right choice in joining the CPUSA, not only because of the values we share, and the policies in place to protect people from racial and gendered oppression and violence, but because I finally found the group that will really try to do better.

When I first attended meetings, even prior to joining the party, I automatically felt like I could contribute and that there was space for me. This is something I deeply struggled with not only in past organizing environments, but throughout my entire life. I felt energized and able as an organizer within this space. But, as I’ve said, nothing is ever perfect; mistakes will be made, and there is still work to be done, even in this setting. As Communists, we understand that there is a need to build working-class consciousness among our communities. But as people, sometimes we forget that we still need to build consciousness among ourselves. We must actively push to decolonize ourselves and each other, while extending grace, as we are all just people affected by the system, so it makes sense for the system to be part of us, too. We must be aware and critical of any biases and prejudices that exist within us. We must strive to combat the ways we, too, can oppress others.

I find that most organizations in my community are always a majority of a particular race. I feel there is often a separation of Black and white. When I see a majority white group in a Black city, such as here in Detroit, I also see the obligation white people have to building trust among Black people, which needs to happen on a personal level, before it can happen on the political level. For Black people, the personal is political. It is up to white organizers to earn the trust of their Black and Brown communties, as these communties make up a large part of the working class.

Representation really does make a difference, and it isn’t a liberal take to want to see people that look like you, wherever you are. But there also needs to be awareness, so that when we organize Black and Brown people, we are not tokenizing them in the process. During our May Day event, a coalition member asked me to hold the banner, but I was at capacity for the day, and declined. I still think about this person’s response as he told me, “We really need a Black person, and we thought it could be you.” I felt like my boundaries weren’t respected, but overall, I felt tokenized. Representation matters, but we shouldn’t feel forced into doing things we don’t want to do. I was able to advocate for myself and say, “I actually don’t want to be tokenized, so no,” and that was a whole answer. While none of my comrades were around to hear this interaction, I will say that if they were, I would expect my white comrades to step in and teach this coalition member about why their behavior was inappropriate.

As a Black femme, I am exhausted. Sometimes I don’t want to have to teach people how to treat me, but unfortunately, that is something I will have to do for the rest of my life. It is helpful when my white comrades can help carry the work of teaching others. I also think in our organizing environments, we should have more space for Black and Brown people to share our experiences. Active listening is very important, because those speaking up should feel comfortable enough to do that by feeling heard and seen. It’s okay to not always know what to say, but sometimes I think we can even just say, “I recognize how hard this must have been to bring up. I’m not quite sure how to respond right now, but I’ll take the time to think about it. I hear you, though.”

When my comrades communicate like that, it is enough for me. I never expect perfection from anyone, but sometimes I feel pressure to be perfect myself. Sometimes, that’s just me putting pressure on myself, which I acknowledge is from the pressures placed on me by society, but as a Black femme, I ask that nobody idealizes me. I do not want to be seen as a “strong Black woman.” I don’t even identify as a woman. I am soft, and I am proud of that, because this system of capitalism and oppression tries to harden me. It is one of my biggest strengths to be soft, but sometimes, all I need is for people to be soft with me, too. I am not a superhuman, and I am only resilient because my options were either to survive or not. I do not expect perfection, but I also cannot be perfection. What I do expect is for my comrades to continue building working-class consciousness within themselves, in a way that addresses race and gender dynamics and biases. White supremacy and male chauvinism takes on many forms, and regardless how much shows up in our behaviors, we must constantly fight against it and work for change.

There is no such thing as perfect, but there is such a thing as better. I have nothing but faith in my comrades’ ability to learn, grow, and do better. I appreciate the ways this organizing home has helped me grow, too, and I will do my absolute best to continue on that path. I know that I’m in the right space, because I believe in my party, as we are doing all we can to put into practice what we wish to see from a new and better world.

Images: Black Lives Matter Minneapolis Protest by Andy Witchger (CC BY 2.0); CPUSA Brookly club at a rally to support a tenant in Flatbush in March, 2022 by Carol Widom / Brooklyn club CPUSA.


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