Interview #4: Mickey Ellinger
Drawing inspiration: a series of interviews and prints made with movement mentors
Interview #4: Mickey Ellinger
Mickey Ellinger is a long-time anti-racist activist from Texas. She was a member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1980s and 1990s. She co-founded the Challenging White Supremacy workshop with Sharon Martinas in the 1990s. With photographer Scott Braley and Allensworth elder Mrs. Alice Royal she wrote a book on the utopian Black community of Allensworth in the California Central Valley. She works with Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival supporting workshops to revitalize California Native languages. She is currently working on a book about City College of San Francisco resisting corporate education “reform.”
Question 1: Can you tell me about a particularly inspiring experience in anti-racist activism for you?
Mickey Ellinger [ME]: I was raised by anti-racist parents, which is unusual for a white person. I was raised in the south, Texas, not the deep south, but it means that in some ways I had some short cuts. I was a moral anti-racist all my life, [in] family experiences, family training. I went to college right as the sit-ins began, so the direct inspiration were the sit-ins in the south and we did sit-ins in Austin, y'know, we saw ourselves as part of the Civil Rights Movement very, very early. It was a moral stand.
When talking about it last night, I realized that probably a more telling experience was a challenge I did not rise to which was Freedom Summer in 1964. I had no intention of going south, I was terrified of the whole idea, I thought those yankee white kids were nuts and I felt bad about it. And so in the fall of 1964 when Mario Savio and Jack Weinberg [Berkeley students arrested for tabling at U of Berkeley campus to educate other students about the Civil Rights Movement] and people who had been in the south were on the Berkeley campus and the so-called Free Speech Movement, which was all about defending the Civil Rights movement and defending the Civil Rights movement in the south, I felt compelled to show up and do something. And at that point it was guilt, I felt bad about being too chicken to have gone south. That would have been '64, with the war, the convergence of the Vietnam war and the Black struggle, then internationalism through the war, anti-imperialism, Black liberation, so then seeing opposing white supremacy as a political task was somewhere in that later 66-67 period and was very liberating because it wasn't about making amends or atoning for my weaknesses, it was a way forward.
We're talking overthrowing the system here so then you think, well how do we do that? And that's when the centrality of internal colonialism … [you ask] is that sort of the lynch pin of it? If you begin to think so then your opposition to white supremacy and your revolutionary determination all take you down the same path. More or less, mostly.
[Then there's t]he thing about collective study and organization and action that means that what you individually do well and badly gets evaluated collectively, well and badly, but the chances of seeing a way out of a predicament are improved profoundly because there's the qualitative difference between, “Am I a good person or a bad person?” and “Is what I'm doing helpful or not helpful?,” in a collective setting. The collective setting, done in a helpful way, sort of stipulates you're a good person, otherwise you wouldn't be looking to do this.
Question 2: What would you say to younger, anti-racist activists in this political time and place?
ME: Another world is possible. That slogan is about defeating ideological hegemony. It also is about sort of where we are. We have to have a vision of what's possible, we have to take some risks for it, we have to organize for it, we have to understand what white people can do, what they can't do. What following Black and Brown leadership looks like, which is not doing everything that some Black person tells us, not because they are the most oppressed but because of their location in the whole empire, and also because it's right, of course. The thing about ideological hegemony is this belief that it can't be otherwise. Then you either conform or you act out in desperation and neither of them is transformative. And part of what is so hard about now is it looks very dark out there.
We can't will a revolutionary situation into existence. We can see what's moving here and what's moving here and we can have ideas about what to support and what to take on and how to work with white people. We've only got 24 hours in a day, so what's the most useful thing to do now? And it's a very long road and we have to have a pace that means we can keep doing it and not look for shortcuts.
The other thing that I am very interested in right now – with this “Me Too” moment right now - well, patriarchy is very old and very deep [and I think] it's possible that some of this outrage could be part of a real struggle for liberation. If we quit hating other women, who aren't as bold as we are, if we quit being contemptuous of them as well in addition to being angry at male supremacy... I think it's just very very interesting and full of land mines, so that's my opening thought about now. Another world is possible, in spite of everything, that would be my mantra.
And organization, again, not because it's the path to certainty but because it gives you some place to try to work it out. I think, especially in terms of breaking with ideological hegemony, that's the job of a culture. I'm not talking about it's political line, exactly. I'm talking about the ability to be with other people trying to engage in that project and to help each other out because you know you can begin to get a little collective body of knowledge.
We were all raised patriots, whether it was salute the flag patriotism or we didn't pay any attention to it but the idea that the United States was engaged in a wrong war, that was overthrowing the dominant ideology, that was huge and it was earth-shaking individually so to have an anti-war movement was really essential because we all went home for Thanksgiving and had screaming fights with our families and walked out of the room over it. [Due to] the subtlety of the white supremacist hegemony, it's really important to have some collective approach to defeating it because you have to have some way to think about what's actually changing people's minds. We need a lot of help if that's our job, and we need each other's help. And we need a very complicated, principled set of relationships with organizations led by people of color. And while it's not their job to educate us, on the other hand, they're stuck with it. And we have to figure out how make it worth people's time.
[Also] people have to feel capable. Part of the thing about hegemony, it covers despair, it's both a cop out and a comfort, “there's nothing I can do, there's nothing I can do”. But if there is something you can do and you actually did something, well then, what else might you do? So, that's why we organize, that's why we do campaigns, that's why you say “let's defeat this terrible thing on the ballot, let's elect...”, etc., to give people a sense that we can make something happen. So, I think that's the question right now, what can we make happen?
And, we take care of things. We repair what we can, we take care of things. We are kind of in a lot of trouble as a planet, we're really running out of stuff, and we have to take care of what we've got and we have to fix some stuff. It's a darker time. When we were younger, we were very angry but I think the sense of what was possible was really different than what is possible today. The state of the planet is … I don't quite know how to finish that sentence, but... I don't like it.
Question 3: What is your greatest hope for the next generation of anti-racist activists?
ME: I think reconstructing community and the commons is really important. Neo-liberalism, both in practice and in ideology, is so individualized and atomized and that effects us all, including our movements.
I'm very hopeful about the unsettling effects of fighting patriarchy, actually. If attacking patriarchy and white supremacy could end up looking like an assault on all forms of domination, that would not be a bad thing. I think what's important, particularly in the United States, about white people being anti-racist activists is that that's the sort of lynch pin of the particular form that domination has taken in the United States. It's particularly powerful and it's the obstacle to unity. But it's the domination that's the problem, because peace and justice have to be served in a setting where everybody is equally valued, that kind of egalitarianism not that we're all the same but that people have equal value in the world.
I think there's a vision in [intersectionality] that is really valuable, that is really valuing every person's participation, decolonizing this way of thinking, changing this pattern of behavior in the service of seeing all forms of domination.
The one that I laugh at myself is, you know I spend a lot of time with kids and I think I'm good with kids and then I started listening to myself about how much I said to them was “No” and “Stop it” and tried to see what would happen if I consciously really tried to say, on the other hand, is there another way to do it that isn't “No” and “Stop that” because it's about power. And sometimes it's yes and sometimes it's no, but to just to really think about what the world would like look, a world where we'd overturned the forms of domination, where we did it differently.