I love murder tv. Law and Order (all of them). CSI. Body of Proof.
While there are thousands of binge-watching possibilities, most of them fall into the same tired, old formulas that reinforce white male supremacy culture.
How a Show Makes the List
So, to keep things interesting, I’ve developed three criteria for putting a show on my watch list:
1️⃣The main characters can’t be white men. It’s boring. Nearly every show that stars a white man has the same plot:
Eek! A young, thin, white woman is murdered, raped or attacked. Gasp! A big strong man rescues her and/or solves the crime. My hero! The pretty, thin, white woman or her family are eternally grateful to big strong man. 💤💤💤
2️⃣It can’t take place in LA or New York. News flash: Interesting things happen in places that aren’t New York or LA. Or any big city.
It’s no wonder conservatives think Hollywood is against them. Big-city characters are so predictable: they make fun of gun owners, mock anyone with a southern or mid-western accent and roll their eyes at religion.
Shows that take place in the middle have more possibilities for laugh lines, culture references and local color.
3️⃣No Damsels in Distress (DID). Women don’t need to be rescued every five minutes. If you’ve seen one rescue-the-screaming-woman-scene, you’ve seen them all.
More importantly, every time a woman stands around screaming while a man fights off attackers, it sends a message: women depend on men to save them.
As every single mom (and my married mom) will probably tell you: don’t depend on a man to save you.
So much of Hollywood perpetuates white male supremacy culture.
It’s so tired.
My Watch List?
What shows meet my criteria? It’s a short list, but here are a few.
🌟Somebody, Somewhere 1️⃣ a straight, overweight, white woman and a gay, white man, both almost 50. 2️⃣Manhattan, KS 3️⃣No DID. The two main characters rescue each other from loneliness, boredom and depression.
🌟Shots Fired 1️⃣A Black male assistant US attorney and a Black woman investigator 2️⃣a fictional town in North Carolina 3️⃣No DID (unless you count the two mothers who lost their sons to police corruption.)
🌟Claws 1️⃣a Black woman nail salon owner 2️⃣Miami, FL 3️⃣The nail salon owner is the main rescuer.
The white, male supremacy culture in our media limits creativity to a formula.
Disrupting white supremacy culture isn’t just about passing better laws & electing different people. It’s about changing our culture.
The new Oakland Unified School District Board got off to a rocky start this year. (Stick with me. This is complicated.)
In January, the city clerk declared the wrong person the winner of the District 4 election the previous November. (Yes, really.)
To complicate matters, the real winner was already serving on the board from District 5. Thanks to redistricting, his home is now in District 4, where he decided to run so he could stay on the board when his term in the old District 5 expires at the end of 2024. After discovering the mistake, the clerk declared him the real winner in the new District 4, leaving a vacancy in his old District 5 seat.
When the Dust Settled. . .
When the dust settled, a judge declared him the valid winner in the new District 4. So, he resigned his seat as the representative from the old District 5 and was sworn in as the representative from the new District 4.
If you got all that, you might be wondering who now represents voters in the old District 5. Since March, no one. And, there’s a frustrating 3-3 split on every consequential issue facing students, teachers and school personnel.
Enter Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez.
Sasha is running in the special election to fill the vacancy in the old District 5. It’s a very diverse district – which very closely matches her own identity. Sasha became a US citizen just after the November 2022 election, registered to vote right away and, in January, decided to run for school board.
Last year’s Oakland school closure crisis told Sasha everything she needed to know about the relationship between the district leadership and parents. Meaning, it needs work.
Her priorities include: 🏫 Safer, more supportive school environments for teachers, staff and students 👩🏻🏫Full, equitable staffing at every school site 💲Equitable budgets that reflect community priorities 🤝🏻Stronger partnerships between the board and community members
As we’re both organizers at heart, we’re taking an organizing approach to this campaign. Conversations at the doors might be a little longer. House parties might surface issues and new leaders no one knew before. Fundraising call time might look a little bit like one-on-one meetings.
Sasha is everything we need in politics right now. To learn more about her (and contribute to her campaign), check out Sasha for Oakland.
I don’t usually geek out about meeting people who are all over social media, but this was different.
This was Justin Jones, one of three Tennessee state representatives who offered more than thoughts and prayers in response to yet another mass shooting. And was expelled from the state house for his trouble.
So I had to get a photo.
The history-making moment?
When Rev. Jesse Jackson joined Jones and Alicia Garza on stage at Netroots.
The night before he announced his retirement from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson made a rare public appearance to tie together the threads of three generations of US justice leaders.
Parkinson’s is slowing him down, but his signature call and response generated a deafening chorus from the crowd. His speech re-awakened the faith of thousands of activists in the righteousness of the fight for justice.
Three generations of US leaders on one stage. Each of them seemed to recognize the meaning of the moment.
Other highlights of the week included the California Caucus meeting, a session on deep canvassing, a panel discussion on messaging about public safety and my own workshop, “Someone Always Calls the Cops: When Karen or Chad Dials 911 on Your Canvassers.”
Pile on meeting dozens of people I’d only known by video or chat, and the conference was an overwhelming success.
When you’re an organizing leader, these frustrations come up a lot:
“We can’t get people to come out to a meeting.”
“Why don’t members vote? It’s their own jobs at stake!”
“It’s always the same people who do everything.”
“Why are members so apathetic?”
“Do they just want someone else to do it all?”
And worst of all, “are the current leaders going to burn out?”
The reality is, they’re not apathetic and they don’t want someone else to do it all.
A lot of organizing directors tell me that members or workers are reluctant to engage. But maybe there’s a reason: they don’t see their self-interest represented in the campaigns. Self-interest is more than how much money they make, their position on an issue or who to vote for.
Self-interest is also about values, experiences and relationships.
Several years ago, I organized with teachers and former teachers who were trying to build momentum for education justice in their communities. They were having trouble engaging community members and parents in a campaign about the district’s school assignment system. (TL;DR – incredibly complicated, record segregation, inequitable distribution of resources.)
To better understand parents’ and students’ experiences, we began a series of canvas weekends. Leaders knocked on doors, prepared with a script that would launch conversations about what came to mind when residents thought about the education system in their city.
What did they learn?
Almost no one mentioned the school assignment system. Parents wanted high quality schools in their neighborhood. It didn’t matter if their kids got into the highest rated school in the city if it was all the way across town.
When leaders started to talk about how to fight for higher quality schools in their neighborhoods, more parents and other teachers engaged.
When leaders create opportunities for members, activists and volunteers to build relationships and take action based on their values and experiences, more leaders surface. More members join. More volunteers engage for longer.
Space to Build Relationships and Power
If we’re deliberate and intentional about creating space to build relationships, grow leadership and surface the issues that are most widely and deeply felt, then we can build power.
There was a moment last year when the impact of the unspoken white and male supremacy in our society was crystal clear.
I was having dinner with a friend/client who is a trans woman and was a candidate for public office at the time.
She was so self-assured. She didn’t wonder if she was qualified to do the job. She didn’t question whether her priorities were in the right place. She wasn’t worried about whether she could be a good parent and do the job at the same time.
She had no imposter syndrome.
I won’t lie. I was a little jealous.
Then the light bulb went on. She’d been socialized as a man for 50 years.
White men don’t question themselves the way we do. They were taught that they are enough. They learn that they are qualified. The default is yes.
My friend is gloriously free of the socially-constructed insecurity that we impose on girls from the very beginning.
No one ever says “Brian, you are right all the time! You can do no wrong.” Or “Brianna, you’re never right! You’re wrong.”
But they do say to Brianna “Be careful how much you talk about yourself. People will think you’re self-centered!”
Or “Someone will recognize your accomplishments and say it for you. Otherwise, it sounds like you’re bragging.”
Or “You talk too much! It’s not polite. Let others speak. “
My friend didn’t hear or absorb any of that nonsense. (To be clear, as a trans woman, she hears and rejects all kinds of other nonsense.)
She is who she’s meant to be.
How would things be different in the world if all girls grew up with my friend’s confidence?
Do you ever get this question? “What’s your favorite movie about [your work]?”
When people ask me about my favorite movie about organizing, they’ll often also say “I bet you love that movie Norma Rae!” (Depending on the questioner’s age. Norma Rae came out in 1979.)
In case you haven’t seen it, the movie “Norma Rae” is about textile organizing in the south in the 1970s. It’s a true story, if a bit Hollywood-ized. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Norma, played by Sally Field, climbs onto a table in the factory and holds up a big sign reading “UNION!” All by herself.
She’s subsequently fired, walked out of the building and shunned by much of the community. That’s not organizing.
Organizing campaigns are more like “Erin Brockovich,” also a true story and also glamorized for the big screen. In the movie and in real life, the residents of Hinkley, CA are poisoned by a toxic substance called chromium 6, which leaks into the water supply from a nearby PG&E installation. (Californians’ motto for PG&E: the utility we love to hate.) Erin, played by Julia Roberts, goes door-to-door to build relationships with people affected by PG&E’s carelessness. She brings them together to share their stories and create trust among themselves.
Only then do they take action. Together. They file a class action lawsuit, but the real movement comes from pressure they put on the company to force a settlement.
Organizing is Bringing People Together to Build Power
No one person could exert enough pressure on PG&E all by themself. It took the collective power of the residents of Hinkley to bring the company to the settlement table.
Just imagine what would be different if everyone at the plant stood on those tables with Norma.
The most effective organizing campaigns are about building relationships and taking action together. We build power by building relationships.
What could your community do with more relational power?
Last weekend, I met the present and future of education justice in Utah.
Parents, students, organizers and activists came together to find consensus on the most important issues in their communities and build their organizing muscle to win.
My privilege was to facilitate sessions about understanding power and building an organizing framework. The curriculum was a mix of organizing theory and practical applications. Woven throughout the workshops were discussions of how white supremacy culture shows up, dealing with out-of-touch (but powerful) community leaders, and the difference between organizing and mobilizing. While I have led sessions on all the topics we covered, this weekend became more about mentoring junior facilitators than teaching. It was 🔥🔥!
In Spanish and English, these emerging and established leaders role-played, asked questions (and then answered them), connected dots and laid a foundation for progressive power in Utah.
After a bootcamp day and a half of workshops and a mega house meeting, they came to consensus on the first issues to take on:
A new high school in the historically excluded neighborhood of Glendale (Salt Lake City)
Belonging and Representation in Schools
School-based Safety, including trauma and mental health care
Over the next few months, they will continue to fine-tune their organizing skills, reach out to neighbors, conduct research meetings and identify specific levers they can pull to make a difference for students and families.
“Yes, it’s good, but sometimes politicians will do that and think they’ve solved racism.” – My mom, circa 1979
Once, when I was about 9, my family was driving through a city that renamed one of its major thoroughfares after Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently chosen by my fifth-grade teacher to write a special report on King, I was pretty excited to see the street sign.
“Oh, that’s good. They named a street for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was very important,” I said as we passed.
My parents gave each other a look. Then my mom dropped that knowledge about performative justice.
Whenever I hear of surface-level anti-racism measures, I think of that conversation. Symbols are important, but not as important as action.
Is it justice if a city renames a street, but doesn’t invest in the communities that street runs through?
If a city paints Black Lives Matter across an intersection but doesn’t curb police power, do Black lives really matter?
Is it justice if a district names schools after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but systematically underserves the Latinae students at those schools?
The legacy of white supremacy has such a strong hold on our culture that it’s sometimes hard to see past the performance.
Even though most of us in the dominant culture (white, middle class, etc.) didn’t establish it, we benefit from it and therefore are responsible for dismantling it.
If we want to establish true justice in our communities, we must address the white supremacy culture below the surface, even in our own organizations.
Have you ever wondered if a gesture toward justice is enough?
For a deeper dive into these issues, check out my upcoming workshop, “Intro to Disrupting White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofits” this spring. See all the dates and RSVP here.
Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.
The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)
Why? Because. . . slavery.
Not Just the South
As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit.
How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience?
That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.
Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?
This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.
To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.
Capitalism with Guardrails
Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity.
(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.)
I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity.
But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.
If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.
I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better.
So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.