Victor Lewis is an African American activist, educator and writer. He has extensive experience in leading a variety of training courses in the United States dealing with racism, ethnicity and identity, multicultural violence prevention, social activism and alliance building. Victor describes his heritage as West African, Cherokee of the South-East of the U.S., and white racist/rapist forefathers.
Victor Lewis has a distinctive commitment to both anti-racist and anti-sexist men's politics. His approach is summed up in Martin Luther King's words: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destinyä What affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Victor provides an accessible and intelligent analysis of racism, a vision that can be applied also to other systems of social power such as sexism, classism and heterosexism.
Victor was in Australia in July 1995, touring the country with Sharon Gollan, a Ngarrindjeri woman of South Australia. They hosted screenings of The colour of fear, a film about breaking down racism by Lee Mun Wah (and in which Victor appears), and facilitated workshops.
Racism for beginners
"Racism is primarily a system of social power. It represents the systematic, routinised and normalised marginalisation of a group on the basis of their ethnicity. And in terms of the current world system racism is essentially and primarily synonymous with white supremacy. "Primarily, racism is something we are inside rather than something inside us. It is as if we are fish in water: yes, there's water in the fish, but it's there because the fish is in water. Racism is a system of oppression, where ";oppression' means ";prejudice plus power'.
"Not only does racism as an oppression have the element of prejudice but it also has social power. And social power means that there are racist behaviours that are either condoned, encouraged or required by the culture. There's no such thing as reverse racism because there's no such thing as a simple reversal of the power relationships between whites and blacks."
Victor distinguishes between racism and xenophobia. "Xenophobia is an irrational fear or hatred of one defined as the other or as a stranger. Any group of people in any location in society can be xenophobic. But in the current context only white people can be racist because the racial prejudice of xenophobia of white people will reinforce white dominance and the racial prejudice of xenophobia of people of colour will reinforce white dominance and that's because racism is a system of institutions and material institutions, social power, economic and political power, and the capacity to inflict violence."
For white people
Victor addressed himself to white people in the workshop I attended. "If you fear you are racist, fear not. You are. White people's interest in becoming "non-racist" is a kindly thing, a decent thing, but it is still misdirected. It is not a good idea ultimately to have non-racism as a goal, as anti-racist is less about how you talk to yourself and more about what you do. I'm not sure that not being part of the problem is an option for white people at all. And it may not be for indigenous people either.
"It is in the interests of white people, in terms of the maintenance of their relative privilege, to view racism as a system of individual attitudes or prejudices rather than a system of power because if it's viewed as a system of individual attitudes then we can conceive of it as something that a person either has or doesn't have.
"And if we look at racism as a system of power instead, then not being part of the problem is not an option because racism is woven into the very fabric of our social order and the well being of the white depends upon an ongoing ceremony of sacrifice of the black. There will always be black deaths in custody with the social order, there will always be black homelessness, black alcoholism, black health care crises because those phenomena, which I believe are socially produced, are a requirement of white Australians understanding themselves as being good, intelligent, innocent, moral and all the various ideals that are associated with being a good citizen, a good human being or a good white person.
"I believe that we're all seduced or coerced in one form or another into complicity in the system of racism and I mean white/black and intermediate groups as well, but black and intermediate groups will typically be coerced or seduced into complicity in their own oppression or in misdiagnosing the source of their pain."
I asked Victor, what should white people be doing then? "I think that whites should accept the inevitability that they are part of the problem, that the problem itself constitutes them as white people. That their identities as white people are formed inside of the problem and that their resistance, their developing of cultures of resistance to white supremacy, will have to happen in the belly of the beast. It shouldn't happen individually. It should happen in the company of other whites who also share a commitment to eliminating racism from their world, and also with a consultation with, guidance from and accountability to indigenous people and other people of colour. And that is what I would call an anti-racist stance. Anti-racism, I think, can be and should be very local: individual relationships, small-scale institutions, such as where we work, our family, the places where we do business, buy our groceries, local media outlets, etc.
"Basically the task is to interfere with, to disrupt and afflict those institutions which persist in squashing the life possibilities of people of colour, and countering the social discourses or media representations in our information environment which justify or make excuses for those types of arrangements. The justification for those arrangements is something that white people have to unmask within their own psyches and within their own relationships but they also need to devote time and energy to unmasking it in the public realm and people who are white can do that type of work and exercise that type of commitment while at the same time retaining much of their racist conditioning. You don't have to be free of racism in order to take anti-racist action."
Also, "we have to be prepared to feel uncomfortable. The ground underneath our selves shifts, because our identities have been founded partly on being on top. Fairness can feel like hell." "White people, all people, are born good. Acting in anti-racist ways won't always feel good. But don't make this the problem of people of colour. We've got much more serious things to do, and so do you." Victor urges that white people act in solidarity, have the courage to grieve the current genocide and the loss of culture, form white anti-racist organisations, and more.
Men's movement issues
Victor has been involved in the Oakland Men's Project, and is one of the 17 members of the leadership council of the National Organisation of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). I asked what Australian men can learn from or watch out for in terms of the US experience. "Well, my guess is that you probably encounter some of the same struggles. One of the things that I think we're struggling to learn is that we can't address the complexity of social reality while seeing through essentialised notions of gender or race or other types of social identity, because our lives are much more complex than that. When a predominantly white movement talks about manhood as such it will typically be speaking of white constructions of manhood. Just as when the feminist movement talked about womanhood as such, they were tending to exclude lesbian or bisexual women, women of colour and working-class women, so too will pro-feminist and other types of men's movements risk the same pitfalls.
"I feel critical of a lot of the men's rights organisations and the so-called politically neutral men's groups. There's no such thing as politically neutral within a political system. You are either pushing status-quo politics by complicity or pushing against status-quo politics through resistance, and typically for an activist, individual or community, it's some of both. I think, I lay responsibility for the success of status-quo men's movements or pro-sexist men's movements at the doorstep of pro-feminist men to a great extent and the reason I do that is because our politics haven't incorporated an analysis of men's experience that matches its critique of men's behaviour and the whole notion of men's needs and men's feelings is dismissed as self-indulgent. Because there are rewards for men in complying with a male supremacist ideology, the costs of that are poorly understood and it has never been women's job to understand men's experience. Women have done a great job of analysing men's behaviour and men's institutions and some of the feeling/thinking strategies that men go through to maintain that status, but I think a subtler or more nuanced description of men's inner lives and its relationship to male supremacy has not yet happened. Pro-feminist men have typically borrowed our analysis of men from women and I think there's an important place for that but there are dimensions of men's experience that have never been the top priority of women but are nevertheless, I think, important to our capacity to organise men, to support men and to challenge men.
"Robert Bly, the mythopoets and the men's rights organisations have said yes to the realities of men's pain and they are quite correct to do so. What they've done however is mis-diagnosed the source of that pain as being women or the loss of masculine ideals or rights of passage or the success of the feminist movement. In mis-diagnosing the sources of men's pain, again they mis-prescribe the cure. The refurbishing of masculinities, learning how to be assertive and getting in touch with your wild man and all of this type of thing which has no fundamental critique of society and those institutions which constitute men's lives and men's pain. I think that it's going to be the task of pro-feminist men to provide that analysis and to provide entry points for men at every stage of their political awakening. There may be places where we need to not just rub warm lotion on the bums of men in pain but to address and authenticate that pain in some way and then help men to make sense of it in a way that inspires their commitment to confront patriarchy."
Hearing Victor say this, I was struck by the fact that pro-feminist men in Australia are coming to precisely the same realisation.
Pain and cure
I asked, what would speaking to men's pain and doing something about it in a way that didn't give in to the status-quo look like? "There's something very deeply embedded in the order of knowledge in western society which is at the root of this and it involves this notion of human beings as a biological creature, this notion of survival of the fittest and competition and individualism, the notion that self-interest and the individual pursuit of happiness are virtues. These are very problematic notions. Meaning is negotiated collectively, not individually. So our pursuit of individual satisfactions, the "me first" paradigm, devil take the hindmost, it's a dog eat dog world, these are, I think, pretty much at the heart of the problem. These are forms of ethical commitment which breed suspicion and disloyalty. Not only in business and politics but in friendship and family and in our relationships with ourselves. Among the people that can be most helpful to those of westernised society in breaking out of that paradigm of individualism are indigenous peoples, the people of colour, women, and working-class people, the very people who have been considered the least important and the least valued in terms of their essential characteristics or their knowledges, the very people who actually know the most about creating networks of care and nurturing in which a person can develop a sense of meaning, hope and identity and create a social context which doesn't have hostility at its core.
"I think it is very important that men who have more liberal or progressive politics don't practice scorn for less enlightened men because that scorn will be understood and those men will simply turn their back on those progressive politics and move towards institutions or other men who embrace them."
"I think men become committed to mythopoetic work primarily because their lives are empty and they're in pain. And that movement acknowledges the pain and offers a diagnosis and a prescription for it. I think we [anti-sexist men and groups] also need to authenticate that pain and offer counter-diagnoses and counter-prescriptions. The thing I find distressing about the mythopoetic work is that it ameliorates some of the costs of patriarchy without actually dismantling the system of privilege, or even criticising it."
A different ethics
Victor finished with broader comments on the paradigms which underlie political action, arguing that the dominant one is framed in terms of self-interest. "The kinds of solidarity that are required throughout the human species are anathema to the masculinists' paradigm which is separatist and proprietary and turf-conscious. It's like having turf squabbles on the decks of the Titanic. It's really silly when the biggest problem facing every sub-group within the system has to be confronted collectively and in co-operation and the masculinists' skills typically don't promote co-operation except against an other, be that another country, another gender, another team, etc.
"But I think we also can consider alternative paradigms of activism that are not based on self-interest. Myself, I realise, am involved in social activism not primarily because I'm fighting for my rights and I want this and I want that, but because I feel an obligation to my ancestors and my descendants. And that's, I think, a profoundly non-Western approach. It's not because I want something for me or I think that everybody should have this or that but because I feel that I owe it to my great grandchildren and I owe it to my great grandparents that I fight for social justice, that I fight for gender justice and I fight against heterosexism and the destruction of the environment. And I don't know if that's a common sort of motivation for white people. I get the impression from my context that it isn't. That it's motivated more by self-interests and I think that was a problem in the white feminist movement, you know, white middle-class women wanting better pay, better working conditions, better health care access etc, rather than seeing their fate in common with working-class women, women of colour and non-heterosexual women."
I thought Victor was dead right - strategically or pragmatically, we have to ";market' anti-sexism as in some ways involving personal benefits (relationships, a better emotional life, physical health). But ultimately, we won't undermine male supremacy without substituting a different ethics, an ethics of compassion. I find the ancestors/descendants paradigm fascinating, although at this point I don't really relate to it.
Victor continued. "Yes, for me it's a question of knowing that there are many people who struggled and a substantial number who died on my behalf, not knowing what my name would be, whether I would be male or female, or not even knowing for certain that I would have the life chances that I do, but they acted on the faith that I would have life chances that they were denied and I felt it would be dishonourable to their faith for me to abandon the struggle that they enjoined on the basis of their own courage and commitment. I couldn't do less."
Also see XY's special issue on "Cultural diversity", Summer 1994-95, including articles on anti-racist strategies and the question of men and cultural diversity.
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(1), Autumn 1996. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995