Facing Race Spotlight: Activist Dara Silverman

By Carla Murphy Oct 30, 2014

Dara Silverman spends a lot of her time talking to other white folks about race. After Obama’s 2008 election win brought with it an uptick in reported bias incidents, the upstate New Yorker says that Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) formed to encourage white people to both partner with communities of color on their racial justice issues and, crucially, to enlist whites in their own neighborhoods to join the struggle*. On November 15 at Facing Race, the biennial conference held by Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward, you can catch Silverman talking about how white people can convince more of their counterparts to show up for racial justice. Colorlines recently talked to Silverman about law enforcement, local organizing and the end of racism. 

If the goal is to end racism, why can’t non-whites just organize with each other? Why do we need white people to help end racism?

For SURJ, what we’re working towards is racial equity. We want institutional structures to change so that more people can benefit and [we want people] to recognize the historical bias that’s kept communities of color from being able to [equitably] access education, housing, healthcare and so on. [But] I think the system limits white people, too. We’re constricted in certain roles and expectations and into having power that sometimes isn’t even beneficial. I’m Jewish and I have a pretty strong connection to Judaism … but for many white people, they’ve lost their connection to where they’ve come from. I think that white people have, in the process of gaining privilege, lost what it means to be a part of a community. And for us to move to a society where more people have power and privilege, we need white people to see their stake in changing the system. A society where everyone has more access to housing, healthcare and education is actually going to be better for white people as well. We will have fuller richer lives when we get there. Not that I don’t think we’re going to get there in my lifetime! [Laughs.] But you know, that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle for it!

What’s one example of how white people’s involvement helped change the game on a racial justice issue?

One of the affiliates that we worked with, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (where I also used to work), had a long-term campaign with groups that are organizing domestic workers. One result of that was that New York passed the first bill of rights in the country for domestic workers. You’ll hear people from National Domestic Workers Alliance talk about how [organizing white] employers really shifted the way they do their work. They realized, "Oh, there isn’t just one group of people impacted by this"–meaning the employees. "It’s the employers as well." So [our partnership] expanded the lens to say we all have a stake in doing racial justice work, and we need to figure out the right way to engage people of privilege as well as the people who are targeted or oppressed.

How do you find people? Is SURJ a self-selected group? Are you walking into all white suburbs and recruiting anyone who’ll listen?

Good question. We’re an all-volunteer organization. A lot of it depends on people self-generating and taking action in places like Louisville, Tucson, Portland or Bellingham, Washington. In Louisville recently, the police were targeting a number of black youth in an area by the waterfront. Louisville SURJ partnered with other groups to meet with police and to try to create different standards around conduct and expectations. We also partner with faith-based groups like United Methodist Women, which has a racial justice commission. We’ve done trainings at their bigger conference and also worked to move from having educational seminars to members actually engaging in local immigrant rights campaigns, against police brutality or for fair funding of schools. It really depends on what’s going on where you live.

What are the top don’ts when you go out to recruit whites for a particular racial justice effort?

Don’t assume that you know everything about the issue. Ask questions–and really listen. Don’t compare the situation to other situations that you have more experience in. Be open to the local circumstances and to what people of color on the ground are saying. But at the same time, don’t downplay your experience or ability to work in white communities either.

One popular critique of recent work like "The Whiteness Project" and the new movie "Dear White People" is that they re-center whiteness. How do you get around that re-centering in your own work?

Well, I think the world we live in centers whiteness all the time; I don’t think it needs to be re-centered. In every magazine, every ad–it’s very rare that people of color will be at the center. For me it’s about acknowledging that whiteness is centered and then asking, "As white people, what do we have the power to do given that we have that [privileged] voice?" I’ve been in many situations, for example, where people will listen to me differently compared to an organizer of color who’s in the same group. That person could say something and everyone will ignore it. I’ll say the same thing and everyone will say, "Oh, that’s a great idea!" That [privileging] also happens institutionally in terms of the jobs that people get, the positions they hold and the policies that institutions set. So as a white woman, I can recognize that and say, "OK, where are the places that I can try to shift that power and partner with people of color to do that?"

How did you arrive at this work of recruiting whites to organize around racial justice and act as ambassadors in their own communities?

Years ago in Massachusetts I worked with a great organization, Neighbor to Neighbor MA, that had some mentorship from a white community college professor, Dan Gilbarg. He really taught me the crucial role that white people could play in racial and economic justice struggles using the privilege and access we have. I began to explore what my community as a white Jew was, and a few years later I became the director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice in New York.

Finish this sentence: If white Americans by and large accepted that white privilege exists then…

… white people would be able to acknowledge the losses that have happened through the process of assimilation, and the power that can be gained through working in partnership and collaboration with communities of color–and in self determination for communities of color. 

* Post has been updated since publication to reflect that Dara Silverman is on the leadership team of SURJ but is not a founder.