How to Counteract Extractive Behavior in Social Justice Movement Building to Sustain Momentum

“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”

-bell hooks

In 2018, at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit, I had the honor of speaking on a panel, “Small Towns, Big Future: An Equity Agenda for Rural America.” I attended several sessions over the three days where both local grassroots art groups and national founders spoke on the concept of “extractive behavior.” This is where new work disrupts and detracts from ongoing efforts that are often led by marginalized groups working towards equity, justice, and liberation. This was the first time I came across this concept by this name, although I know it well. Since then, I’ve reflected on the extractive behavior I experience in my work and activist circles as well as ways that all of us, especially my White colleagues, can counteract this behavior.

I am writing this piece as a Black woman leader who is immersed in work with White allies and colleagues and who has also built a community of people of color, including equity and inclusion change agents. I am intentionally sharing my thoughts on extractive behavior with this entire continuum of people. I am writing to privileged and historically oppressed that may have their own “internalized oppression” to contend with. (We’ll reframe this idea through the work of bell hooks later in this piece).

Below are three types of extractive behavior that I see happen all too often as well as suggestions for how to counteract these patterns.

1. Extracted purpose & meaning.

According to The Teacher’s Guide to Diversity: Building a Knowledge Base produced by The Education Alliance at Brown University: “People become empowered when they can use and adapt language for their own purposes, but too often the discourse of the dominant culture displaces the discourse from minority or non-dominant cultures.” (Gee, 1990; Gutiérrez, Stone, & Larson, in press).

For example, I see the real meaning behind the term social justice get extracted all of the time. Wikipedia will tell you that social justice is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” When I use it, I specifically mean “leveraging and reallocating resources to create a more equitable playing field.” What I do not mean is charity in its traditional sense or donor advised funding. The very meaning of social justice has been institutionalized by academia and other historically white systems including philanthropy. As activists, allies, and/or academics, we must be careful not to co-opt this term (or other terms like this) and related work into white superiority norms. Then we become the very thing we are battling against.

What to do instead:

For privileged colleagues who want to work on a particular issue or support a particular community, if you are truly committed to the concept of social justice, I recommend doing a careful self-assessment of your values, privileges, and resources. What can you offer this cause or community? Then, do an environmental scan of what work is already being done in your chosen issue area. Develop new relationships to understand the work, needs, and historical barriers of those folks who are most impacted by the issue. Learn about the groups, organizations, and efforts that are already underway to see how you can best join, partner, or align with them; amplify their work; and/or resource their work. Think about how your participation might accelerate results, resolve conflicts, and/or disrupt institutionalized barriers. When you do these things, you broaden the existing network of people doing work in your chosen issue area.

2. Extracted time.

Some disruption is good, but extracted time is a form of negative disruption. I experience this most frequently in my own equity and inclusion nonprofit and consulting work when folks dont honor work that has been done before them or when their cognitive dissonance causes a reflexive response of negative behaviors. I will be leading a training or facilitating a dialogue and a colleague or participant of a historically dominant social identity will either a) insist on derailing the conversation that is happening to go in a different direction that they choose, or b) take up time to share their personal thoughts on the subject at hand. This person typically has little to no awareness of the time they are taking away from others or what they are detracting from in terms of a curated experience for themselves and others that I have intentionally set for participants).

I see people of historically dominant social identities feel a need to speak at length about their opinion or feelings or share their credentials when it comes to being “woke.” As a leader when this happens, the effect is that this person has detracted from the message, the education going on, and the relationship-building that could be taking place. Ultimately, this is a decentering of important work and leadership. For other people in the room, the effect is a calling back into cultural norms and distraction from a new learning opportunity. I find myself needing to make a decision: do I let the behavior fly or shift my approach and try to create a teaching moment? Either way, it’s an over-exertion of my energy, which detracts from my time and the time spent on the material. Sometimes this setback is just a matter of minutes; other times it amounts to what would otherwise be years of coalition or network building being disrupted.

What to do instead: Similarly, start with a self-assessment. Ask yourself why you are saying something. If you think you may be having a defensive or emotional reaction to something being shared, begin to discern those reactions from what authentic questions and learning opportunities. Wait for Q&A, scan the room, and/or write your own thoughts down for reflection later. If you still need to discuss something with a colleague, ask for time to do this later. Really begin to forecast collateral damage, harm, and impact versus intent. Learn to frame statements of intention before you speak or just ask more questions. At BRIDGE, we use as an instrument of intentional collaboration where we learn that even just making a point to pause in conversation are effective strategies, too.

3. Extracted (intellectual) labor.

“... not all black women have silently acquiesced in sexism and misogyny within the African-American community. Indeed, many writers, activists, and other women have voiced their opposition and paid the price: they have been ostracized and branded as either man- haters or pawns of white feminists, two of the more predictable modes of disciplining and discrediting black feminists.”

-Kimberlé Crenshaw

Extracted intellectual labor can happen many different ways, but in my work, one way I see it happen is with how White women extract intellectual labor from Black women thinkers. I believe this occurs because the White norms of the middle class (as well as the historical legacy of our country) encourages these extractive behaviors. These behaviors look like:

a) acting with violence (either through passive threats or direct harm)

b) stepping in and taking (in the form of stealing, cheating, and/or maneuvering, appropriating work— acting without consent or attribution), and/or

c) offering to “help and support” while taking this help away later at any whim, either through setting new terms or abandoning or being silent about work after individual needs are met

As Michael Harriot writes in the “5 Types of Beckydom” for The Root, “Part of the privilege of Beckydom rests in its members’ unflagging belief that everything belongs to them.” (For folks who are unaware, to use Harriott’s words, a Becky is “a white woman who uses her privilege as a weapon, a ladder or an excuse. Ex: ‘A random Becky hit me up on Twitter to explain why not all white women are racist.’) Another example is when a person’s tears or other manifestation of emotion is much less about holding genuine pain than it is about escaping accountability.

Mind you, these behaviors can be perpetuated by anyone who has absorbed the dominant norms despite their race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, or religion. And in my experience, when a person of color, woman, or other historically underrepresented group speaks up to say that their work has been stolen, appropriated, or diminished, the response of the person being confronted is typically some combination of gaslighting, sealioning, or charitable listening.

What do instead:

Talk about extracted intellectual labor and the labor of historically underrepresented groups! Avoiding this issue will not make it go away. The fear sometimes here is that talking about this is all we will do together--we’ll only do work around our identities because this work is such heavy lifting--but this is simply not so. After talking about these issues, you can and will get back to the work at hand and do it much more effectively with greater impact. In fact, taking a colorblind stance and/or staying quiet about this issue not only will exacerbate problems, this can actually deepen disparities you say are working against. On this point, I recommend leaning in to some of Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks’ critical race theory work. These are phenomenal thinkers and leaders in this space.

In any of these forms, extractive behavior takes a toll. In my experience, the closest ally or activist can point out harmful, appropriative behavior in the other and in the next moment, act as the agent of erasure and entitlement. It can feel like nothing is mine to have, no matter my blood, sweat, or tears (including my reality or emotional responses). The wells of shame, guilt, fear, and anger around these historic patterns are what perpetuate the system of white supremacy and male patriarchal culture for all of us. And for individuals of historically underrepresented groups, for example “POC” (people of the global majority) or women, the work is to not let extractive behavior disrupt our momentum or quest for collective liberation. Here is where bell hooks’ reframe of the phenomenon of internalized racism becomes critical. She writes:

“…‘white supremacy’ is a much more useful term for understanding the complicity of people of color in upholding and maintaining racial hierarchies that do not involve force (i.e slavery, apartheid) than the term “internalized racism”- a term most often used to suggest that black people have absorbed negative feelings and attitudes about blackness. The term ‘white supremacy’ enables us to recognize not only that black people are socialized to embody the values and attitudes of white supremacy, but we can exercise “white supremacist control” over other black people.”

Maya Angelou wrote about the insidious nature of racism (and I would argue any other -ism). This why I remind folks how anti-racism WORK really is like training for a marathon. It takes many years of work to undo our socialization to the dominant culture. We all swim in the water of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism and its multiple intersections. As the fish, we all have to reflect on our experience so we can clean up our ocean! And in order to transform the ocean, we must trust the ripples and tides of our individual and collective work for equity and justice. This is what creates the tidal waves of change that we so desperately need.


As a footnote, while I am writing to individuals in this piece, extractive behavior can take a toll on organizations and movements as well. Read “Accountability Within Equity Work: Measuring Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility Goals” for more on this topic. In an organizational context, equity work starts to become non-extractive when a leadership team can demonstrate commitment and process towards cultural and historical literacy of sexism, classism, and racism (and their overlapping impacts) within their own organization and in relationship to their clients/customers and community members.

© 2019 Gwendolyn VanSant

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