Whiteness in Seattle: Anti-Globalization Activists Examine Racism within the Movement

By Nagra, Narina | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Whiteness in Seattle: Anti-Globalization Activists Examine Racism within the Movement


Nagra, Narina, Alternatives Journal


THE ANTI-GLOBALIZATION movement has gained international recognition and momentum since November 1999 when over 50,000 demonstrators blocked delegates from attending World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. The Seattle talks collapsed, and the protestors won global attention for free trade and economic globalization issues. The "anti-globalization" movement spawned by this Seattle protest, however, has not been an unqualified success.

Much has been made of the diversity of the groups in Seattle, representing labour, the environment, human rights, women's rights, students against sweatshops, social justice and animal rights. But the majority of participants were white and middle class. People of colour and other marginalized and oppressed groups were not well represented at Seattle or in any of the big demonstrations that followed.

The irony is that communities of colour in Western countries and throughout the world bear the brunt of corporate-led globalization. The struggle against globalization is just an extension of the struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism that people of colour have been fighting for hundreds of years.

Through international policies governed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Third World countries are being exploited for their cheap labour. Sweatshops, exploitation of workers, and restrictive immigration policies are all linked with globalization and all disproportionately affect people of colour.

So why are people of colour not well represented within the anti-globalization movement? This question has been raised in various activist circles throughout North America. Helen Luu, a Toronto anti-capitalist activist, explains that the tactic of direct action at mass demonstrations can be deeply exclusionary: "The emphasis on this method alone often works to exclude people of colour because what is not being taken into account is the relationship between the racist justice system and people of colour."

In a groundbreaking and widely circulated article called "Where was the Color in Seattle?" Elizabeth Betita Martinez discusses how many activists of colour who did want to go to Seattle couldn't because of lack of money, community priorities at home and concern for being involved in all-white groups. There was concern that white activists' organizing wouldn't include an analysis of racism or understand the struggles that people of colour face day to day.

Alberta activist Yutaka Dirks similarly observes:

[T]he large protests against capitalist globalization in North "America" ha[ve] been overwhelmingly white and also overly male ... because of the privilege that summit hopping demands.... Women with children, people who do not have legal citizenship, refugees, poor people, etc., face barriers to involvement in large actions away from home that younger white males with middle class privilege do not.

Dirks argues that the movement needs to build resistance to corporate globalization from the experiences of margin-alized groups. In addition to organizing large-scale protests, activists should also organize locally and connect with struggles that communities of colour face at home.

Too often, anti-globalization activists focus on Third World exploitation instead of the realities of oppressed groups in our own communities. "We need to recognize that struggles against poverty in our cities, struggles for self-determination by First Nations peoples, struggles against privatization and cutbacks across our country, struggles by communities of colour, and other struggles are all in resistance to capitalist-led globalization," says Dirks. …

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