The Personal Is Political
Loretta Ross is a second wave feminist, a family and movement matriarch, and a human rights organizer whose decades of organizing have inspired more than one generation. She has birthed new ways of framing our issues in social justice organizing. She led the conversations where terms that are part of our organizing lexicon such as “women of color” and “reproductive justice” were born. She served as the National Co-Director of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, which was one of the biggest protests in U.S. history with 1.15 million participants. She founded organizations that continue to build the movement by focusing on human rights.
Her first political organizing happened in 1973 when she came home to her apartment to find an eviction notice. Her landlord was breaking all the leases to convert the building to condominiums. He gave them sixty days to vacate. As she describes it, “I met with a bunch of residents down in the laundry room to see what we could do. I volunteered to take notes. It seemed it must be illegal to break leases like that.” This led to her involvement in the struggle against gentrification and the formation of the City-Wide Housing Coalition. They worked for and won rent control in 1974. “That was my formal entrée into social justice organizing.” Ten years down the road, the tenants bought the building. Ross had moved by then, but she still finds joy in their victory.
She defines that as her consciousness-raising moment, when she went from trying to make a living to trying to make a living doing social justice. It was during this time that she met Nkenge Touré who persuaded Ross to volunteer at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. In 1979, Ross became its director.
Rape survivors are not all alike. Some close it off and never speak of it. Some get professional therapy and try to move on. Some, like Loretta Ross, turn pain into power. Personal tragedy shifted her priorities to feminism and reproductive justice–a term she helped define. As a child of just eleven, Ross was beaten and raped by a stranger. At fifteen, a cousin raped and impregnated her. This was in 1968 Texas, years before Roe, so her options were limited. Keeping her son cost her a scholarship to Radcliffe, but she did not let it cost her the future. She attended Howard University for a time and completed her degree at Agnes Scott College and is now pursuing a Ph. D. at Emory University.
While these were harrowing events, the real fault line came later. She was twenty-three and using contraception–the now infamous Dalkon Shield. She suffered frequent infections and requested its removal. Her OB-GYN made the assumption that her infections resulted from STDs rather than the already widely-reported propensity for infection from the multi-filament string used on her IUD, a defect that sterilized 700,000 women. He neglected to remove it. After a medical crisis brought on by sepsis, she fell into a coma and her life was saved by a hysterectomy that took away her chance to bear any more children. When Ross thought about her doctor’s malfeasance, his unexamined prejudices towards Ross as black, single mother, she connected it to the historical context of eugenics and forced sterilization of black and brown women. Ross saw that for women, feminism must not just be about the right to end pregnancy, but also the right to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, bear children, and raise them. She saw that for women of color, reproductive justice had a different lens. This was intersectionality, though no one named it such at the time.
She has turned her pain into protest and movement-building. She carved her unique path, becoming a leader in the progressive movement. Her emphasis on human rights as a unifying framework is critical to our future. Ross has even achieved that ultimate status signifier of contemporary America, her words and picture turned into an internet meme.
Loretta Ross is a thought leader and expert on women’s issues, human rights, and violence against women, hate groups, racism, and intolerance. She focuses on the intersectionality of social justice issues through a human rights framework. She is constantly teaching, speaking, writing, and pursuing her own education at the same time.
Ross is a busy woman. She has just published a new book this month, has been on a book tour, and is on the road, speaking and teaching. Her unique and unifying vision of human rights is in high demand during this crisis presidency. I am grateful she shared some of her valuable time for this profile. A much richer, more detailed history and her papers are available at the Women’s History Archives at Smith College.
Organizing Q & A
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you believe that?
I know that’s true. It feels dark now for us. It’s not nearly as bad as what our forefathers and foremothers had to deal with. Dr. Willie Parker has a quote from his grandmother, “At times like these? There’s always been times like these.” We need to get over ourselves at the resurgence of white supremacy. America is a country founded on white supremacy, so we should not be surprised by that. We need to be critical about how we made assumptions that turned out not to be true–that this was a country marching toward a more democratic future when the white supremacists had not retreated. They had just regrouped.
What gives you hope?
The resistance…and that so many people are, to use that internet term, “woke” now. At least since November 8th. The Women’s March to protest the Inauguration. The Dakota Pipeline protest. There’s just, everywhere I look on the internet, there’s actions and activities. I am overwhelmed with invitations and opportunities to work. My speaking schedule is off the chain, twenty gigs in two months, at a pace I have never experienced before. Those are the best material evidence that more and more people are offering strategies of resistance. We should be encouraged by that. It’s one thing if you organize a movement and five people show up and another if you organize it and five hundred show up.
Is there a difference between organizing and activism?
Activism can take many medium and many forms. I mean, there are those who organize and express their social justice activism through social media, there are people who do actual door-knocking and community-based events. There’s academics who push ideas through the academy. All of them use some form of organizing strategies. It depends on the site and type that you would have to interrogate more closely. I am not quite sure if there is a real, necessary difference between activism and organizing. That’s why I use the more generic term, resistance.
People keep saying we need to show solidarity with people who will be targets of the new regime. How do you define solidarity? How do we show solidarity?
I am not sure how you define the targets, either. Everyone is on the chopping block, even the people who voted for the regime. At this time, I am not concerned, personally, with trying to organize the misguided. Even the people who are “woke” aren’t on the same page. People say “preaching to the choir” but the choir’s not all singing the same song. People who know we have a problem and are figuring out what to do; that’s the force we need to make our first priority. I’m not trying to reach into the opponent’s camp and persuade them yet. I’m not trying to reach into the apathetic camp and persuade them to wake up yet. Because we’ve got the “woke” people who aren’t yet organized. Who aren’t yet consolidated to exert and express power. There is no change without power. So I am more focused on consolidating our base than I am taking on the opponents, the apathetic, the bystanders. You do that after you get your power base consolidated.
Another word being used quite a bit is ally? What is an ally? Some anti-racist activists say they need fewer allies and more accomplices? What do you think they mean?
It’s a phrase I find myself using quite a bit. An ally has a temporal quality to it while accomplice acknowledges we’re in it for the long haul. Even if we fail, we have to stay together because we believe in the moral arc of history and justice. An ally may be with you while it looks safe, convenient, or successful to be with you. But as we hit roadblocks or setbacks, they may make a different choice. That does not mean they are not useful while they are there, but they’re not the people who will be there through thick and thin. It’s kind of like the difference between having a date and having a marriage.
When I had a job at NOW in the 1980s as Director of Women of Color Programs, I was in my early thirties. At first, I approached that WOC program thinking I have to get these white women to understand what it is to be a woman of color–that would be the pathway to getting them to be less racist, to support more WOC and our events–if I could just show them the evidence of our reality. About a year or two into the job, I realized they didn’t know the evidence of their own reality. They didn’t know how to be appropriately white.
If you don’t know how to be appropriately white, how are you going to understand someone else’s reality, if you don’t understand the skin you live in? So I began to work on helping white folks to understand whiteness before understanding people of color. I find the people who best understand whiteness are the real co-conspirators in deconstructing white supremacy.
Karl Popper has argued that tolerating the intolerant inevitably leads to an intolerant society. Where do you find yourself?
That is one of the failures of liberalism. Tolerance is not an ideology, it’s a practice. You don’t know what you stand for when you do not have a solid ideology, a body of ideas for which you fight. That means if you use tolerance as a practice, you will be fighting for the ideas you do not agree with because you feel you need to tolerate them. I have always problematized the concept of tolerance. Tolerance is what you do to a pair of shoes that hurt your feet until you get home and change them. It’s not the way you want your feet permanently to feel. You tolerate it because you can’t walk barefoot out in public. When you get home, you’re taking those shoes off because you’ve tolerated them long enough.
Human relationships should not be built on tolerance. They should be built on love and accountability. You have the right and, maybe, the obligation, to reject people who violate people’s human rights and undermine what you stand for and believe. That does not mean we don’t learn. I talk about the need, we need to learn the techniques of calling in our allies and co-conspirators because amongst the human rights movement there’s going to be many people with many different ideas about how to build a human rights movement. Those are the folks I want to call in. The people I want to call out are the people who are opposed to us building the movement in the first place.
So I am not only seeking to work only with people who agree with me. I want to work with people who agree with the overall goals even if there are differences in ideas and strategies and tactics…and even focuses. The women’s movement, the mainstream women’s movement is primarily focused on abortion. That may not be my number one issue. My number one issue may be domestic workers, but still, that does not mean they are not part of the human rights movement. I am the domestic workers part of the human rights movement. They are the abortion rights part of the human rights movement. There’s the anti-racist part of the human rights movement. We don’t all have to be working on the same thing in the same way to be part of the same movement.
What is your response to those who say we must reduce the emphasis on human rights organizing (identity politics) in electoral campaigns so we are more agreeable to working class voters?
I disagree with that. It was the identity politics of the white man’s political identity that just gave us this outcome. This election was nothing but an election of identity politics. To ignore identity politics and the power of white supremacy puts our whole strategy in peril. I’m not necessarily ready to listen to people who already didn’t like the fact that we are diversifying the leadership of the movement and now claim that diversification is the reason the white supremacists resurged. That’s a blame the victim analysis.
They’re looking at what works for the population they’re representing–white men–and thinking we need more strategies that work for white men in order to get them off our backs. I don’t think that’s true. They got the benefits of the New Deal and they still ended up being a white supremacist movement. Now they’re organizing around the false belief that the social contract should only give them benefits. That’s a Trump promise. How do you think that’s working out?
Most neoconservatives are recovering liberals, even recovering radicals. I know I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but it’s kind of like what Bernie Sanders believes that if we work on economic justice, everybody will benefit. Yes, except that that analysis ignores how race and gender are contoured by class.
I’m okay with them being confused, but I won’t let their confusion set the pace of my struggle.
What does justice mean to you?
I was training a student yesterday and was telling him the difference between equality and equity. Equality means you treat things the same. Equity means you treat things differently to achieve the same outcome. In an equality framework, you say all children have a right to an education. An equity framework says yes, but you need to provide books to a blind child in braille to achieve that outcome of an equally good education. Justice is an equity-based framework, not an equality-based framework.
Justice means an equity-based framework where you incorporate differences so you address those differences. That’s what intersectionality does. A lot of people get confused about intersectionality. We use intersectionality to determine what each individual needs to protect their human rights.
What does intersectionality mean? How is it abused and how should it be used?
You’ve got a lot of white people trying to separate themselves from their own toxic whiteness, which is not theirs exactly. There’s an ideology of toxic whiteness or white supremacy. So you have them saying “Well, I’m not privileged because I was poor. I’m not privileged because I’m a rape victim. I’m not privileged because I date, marry, or know a person of a different race.” So they’re making claims of intersectionality that are true, but they are arriving at the wrong conclusion because of their intersectional identity. Some intersectional identities matter more in a white supremacist construct than others.
The problem is everybody is a complicated web or matrix of different advantages and disadvantages. There’s nobody in the United States who is not advantaged, in my opinion, just by being in this geographical location on the Earth. That affords us the ability to shop at the local Wal-Mart taking advantage of labor exploited in the global south. That’s a privilege. Now someone might say it’s a disadvantage that I have to shop at Wal-Mart and I can’t go to Neiman Marcus. Yes, there is that, too. So you’re disadvantaged that you can’t go to Neiman Marcus. So, everybody is a web of advantages and disadvantages. It’s just some disadvantages matter more. We want people to use intersectionality to figure out what your web is and don’t assume your web is everybody else’s web.
To use a different metaphor. You go to the eye doctor and the eye doctor shifts all these different lenses in front of your eyes to find the lens that’s right for you. That does not mean the other lenses are wrong. They are just not yours. Never assume that your lens is the only lens the eye doctor should be prescribing.
It’s very good to see yourself clearly. Just understand your social location, as we say in the academy, is not the only social location that exists, and it may not be the one that most matters in a given situation. If you and I were both confronted by the police, their response might be a little different.
What kind of world do you want to leave for the next generation, or, to put it another way, imagine the world in 30 years, what do you hope it will be like?
I would rather jump forward to the 22nd century. Looking back at the 20th century, it was a century of contradictions. It gave us the capacity to destroy the world, the planet. It was the century of wars. At the same time, it was the century that gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and freedom movements exploding all over the world. I would like to see the 21st century in the rear view mirror with human rights being the dominant thing we remember about this century. Not how many wars we had, but how many people successfully fought for their human rights.
What can we do to achieve that vision?
Work on human rights now. Human rights are your deal with your own government, so we have to work on what type of country we want to be. How should the rewards and benefits of our society be distributed? How should the power of our society to destroy the earth and other people be put in check? Those are the things we work on now in order to make that outcome happen.
Self-care is part of resistance. How do you take care of yourself?
Badly. I actually think if there is a defining ideological difference between Second Wave and Third Wave feminism, except for self-care, I think third wavers get it wrong. They think they invented intersectionality and all that. It’s not true. We black women and other women of color of the Second Wave did all that. Otherwise you wouldn’t be quoting Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith at us.
I think the Third Wave needs to get over itself. It thinks it invented something, but it’s a practice and an analysis that predates them by at least a century. I think the first intersectional statement was when Sojourner Truth stood up and said “Ain’t I a woman?”
I am probably too harsh, I was mouthy and arrogant when I was young, too.
But back to your question of self-care, that’s the memo the Second Wavers didn’t get. That in order to have a sustainable struggle, you need to take care of yourself while you struggle. Survival is resistance. Self-care is resistance. Self-care, in and of itself, can easily slip into narcissism, but we don’t need to go there.
I remember I would go to meetings at my organization SisterSong. People would grumble that meetings went past 5:00, that it violated their principle of self-care and I would say “Listen, my momma cleaned white folk’s houses on her hands and knees while she raised eight kids. We have the luxury of not only getting paid to struggle, but sitting on our asses while we do it. So yes, we can work to six or seven o’clock. If you’ve got childcare issues, we’ll take care of those. But don’t talk about how tired of you are after seven hours of meetings talking ideas. You don’t get the luxury of saying poor me when people are dying.”
That’s just different. Maybe it’s my Second Wave insensitivity. Self-care is a process. It’s not the work. It’s part of what you do so you can do the work. It’s not the reason for the work.
Our job is to serve the movement. It’s not the movement’s job to serve us. The reality is we need to do those things necessary to better equip ourselves to serve the movement. The movement’s not supposed to focus us in the main so thoroughly that it only becomes about serving us.
What question(s) do you wish I asked?
I am very much invested in creating a calling-in culture. You didn’t ask how we would do that.
How would we do that?
Part of it starts with interrogating why you are trying to call somebody in in the first place. Are you trying to call them in so you can demonstrate your superior knowledge? Are you calling people in because you need to publicly perform how “woke” you are? Are you calling them in because you remember when you didn’t know things?
So calling-in is a skill set that has to be done for the right reasons, from a platform of love, not a platform of competition or anger or oneupmanship. I think we know how to summon outrage, but have not learned how to organize it into building a movement. I think calling-in practices are what we need so we can be stronger together.
What do you want people to know about you, about movement, about organizing?
Well, I’ll go back to your self-care question. The reason I have been doing this work for almost fifty years is because I party as hard as I work. I am not physically in great shape at all. I’ve always had a circle of nonpolitical, apolitical friends who keep me centered and balanced. We don’t talk about politics, we talk about life, people’s children, going to events together. Sometimes they even drag me to church with them, though I am not at all religious. But it’s about the camaraderie, the fellowship of my fellow human beings who aren’t political, which, by the way, describes most of my family.
Balance, don’t just surround yourself with people who are political. Otherwise, you get a very skewed view of the world. I think it’s important. I express my self-care by having hobbies like pinochle.
I love pinochle. Every night before I go to sleep, I get online and play one game of pinochle. It shuts all the political chatter down in my brain and relaxes me so I can get some quality sleep. Including some recreational activity everyday, otherwise working eighteen hours a day and seeing only incremental change can be deadening to the soul.
Where do you go for news and information?
I am a Facebook junkie. I have to unfollow all the people who waste my time with pictures of cats and children. But once you get past that, there’s the people who post and share articles you would not have gotten to see otherwise. I have a tendency to read, save, and parse those.
That didn’t become apparent to me until there was a whole strand on the left who was into critiquing power without offering solutions. It became apparent during the Obama administration. I just wrote a rant about Cornel West who has gone so far to the left he’s ended up with the right. Cornel is trying to pin it on ideological differences, but Obama was a frank and honest neoliberal. I don’t know how Cornel West missed that. Everybody else saw that–except the right who thought he was a socialist, a communist, or whatever. We knew Obama was not a progressive, but America is not at the point it would elect a progressive. America will elect a neoconservative, a neo-fascist, or a neoliberal. Those are our choices right now.
We all come from different social locations. A smart activist analyses the conditions we are looking at and does not foist upon it their hopes that the conditions are different.
I was very proud of Obama and what he accomplished within the construct of what he had to deal with. He was, I believe, the best president I ever lived through. But many were critiquing Obama without understanding the white backlash that contaminated every part of his presidency. As a black man there were things about race he could not say that Hillary could say. He could be more out front on gender than she could.
People have a primitive analysis of white supremacy as an ideology. Because it is an ideology, not a race of people, anybody can internalize white supremacist beliefs without knowing it. You have to have criteria. Racism is not your social location. It is what body of ideas you have. You should never be challenged for who you are, but for what you do. I know many white folks who are not racist because they actively work to unearth those ideas. I know many black people who subscribe to racism such as Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas. So it’s not a social location. It’s not your identity. It’s what you do and what you believe.
Let’s be clear, I don’t think the goal is not thinking racist thoughts. I am a senior citizen now and am more laid back than 40 or 50 years ago. I don’t know. I think if we all come from our own standpoint and work in the arena where our own standpoint gives us access to we will progress. That doesn’t mean my work has to be the same as your work. I try to be logical and objective about people because I have to organize them. If you don’t be logical and objective, then it’s really hard to organize them. I’m not a saint.
Loretta J. Ross was a co-founder and the National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective from 2005-2012, a network founded in 1997 of women of color and allied organizations that organize women of color in the reproductive justice movement. She was the Founder and Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia. Before that, she was the Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network. She launched the Women of Color Program for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the 1980s, and led delegations of women of color to many international conferences on women’s issues and human rights. She is a co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, written with Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, and Elena Gutiérrez. She wrote the chapter “The Color of Choice” in Incite! Women of Color Against Violence published in 2006. She serves as a consultant for Smith College, collecting oral histories of feminists of color for the Sophia Smith Collection which also contains her personal archives. She is pursuing a PhD in Women’s Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
- Loretta Ross web site
- Reproductive Justice by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger
- The Power of Women’s Voices at Smith College
- Nkenge Touré Papers at Smith College