On May 4th through 6th, I and three other DJJ leaders attended a weekend "White People Confronting Racism" training with Training for Change in Philadelphia. I arrived home surprised at how heartwarming a weekend confronting racism could be. The training ended with full hearts, affirmation, and genuine love for one another. I left feeling the most hopeful I have in a while. I left inspired by the vulnerability of 18 former strangers. I felt inspired by the bravery of bringing our full selves to the table, fears, tears, insecurities and all. It ended it with deep gratitude for each other and for the space that offered safety to feel uncomfortable. I left feeling proud of the intense introspective work accomplished. I left with hope that we can bring openness and compassion while grappling with the difficult conversations necessary for confronting racism.
One of the most important parts of the weekend was that a group of white people practiced talking about race and whiteness. As we dug through archives of internalized messages about race from our upbringing, a common theme was how little we talked about being white growing up. As one of the facilitators noted, “silence is also a way we learn a lot about race”. So often what drives silence is fear. Fear of messing up and saying the wrong thing. Being rejected, criticized, judged. Doing harm. Fear of not being a “good” white person. Fear of the guilt and discomfort that arises when confronting racism and privilege. Fear of not being perfectly tolerant and aware. And the list goes on. We humans are very good at fear.
Although silence may at times be well-intentioned, the truth is that the impact can be harmful. It prevents constructive action. It normalizes the notion of whiteness as default, that white people move through the world without a racial identity. It can result in white children growing up without the awareness or skills needed to constructively talk about race. We talked about the importance of all kids needing to build a positive racial identity. And for white kids it needs to be with racial equity in mind.
“Hating the system that loved me so well”
White guilt and the self-loathing that flows from it, often motivates us to disassociate from our whiteness. Thinking that if we reject our whiteness, we won’t have to associate with all the “bad white people” and we won’t have to take responsibility for the damage of white supremacy. As temporarily comforting as denying our whiteness might feel, this in itself enables white supremacy, by failing to recognize how we benefit from and participate in a racist society.
Failing to identify ourselves with whiteness enables the co-opting of white identity by white supremacist narratives. It leaves us believing the only way to claim a white identity is to associate with the white pride paraded around by neo-nazis and hate groups. It’s sad to think that is the only option for feeling confident as a white person in the world.
When we hate our whiteness and what the system has represented for so many centuries, we stay stuck, frozen and unable to re-envision a white identity that could be positive and focused on anti-racist work. The trainers introduced to us the idea of building positive white identity. Expecting and accepting a lack of closure, we dove into the question of how we might achieve this. How do we acknowledge the toxic legacy of white supremacy, colonization, oppression, etc., while envisioning a future where whiteness no longer perpetuates this history?
To start, we needed to dive deep to uproot the fears, limitations, and judgements that fuel our search for validation as “good” white people. Through role play, group discussion, and exercises about our self-image, we examined three foundational questions:
1) What is the “perfect” image of how I want to be seen? (idealized self-image)
2) What is my idealized self-image covering up and protecting? What imperfections and “bad” qualities do I not want the world to see?
3) What is the best in me? What is my innate wisdom, my core strengths and capacities?
Through hours of introspective work and vulnerability in dialogue circles and small groups, we began moving beyond the all-good or all-bad images of ourselves and others. We began making the connections between our personal insecurities and how we move through the world as white people. These conversations were challenging. There was no way around the emotionality of these questions. The way the group held each other in these moments of vulnerability was deeply moving. So much love and compassion was shared while we named and confronted our fears together. As we transitioned into the final sections of the training, it was clear how necessary the interpersonal reflection and growth was for the problem-solving, intervention strategies, and action planning that followed.
“We live in the pain of our marginalized identities,
and we act from the arrogance of our mainstream ones.”
An unexpected part of the training was how much people brought Jewishness into discussions. A little less than half of the group identified as Jewish. For many, the intersectionality of Jewishness and whiteness came up. I gained a lot from the intergenerational perspectives in the group. Many offered insights about feeling marginalized as Jews, carrying historic trauma and fear, and how that has led to unconsciously and sometimes consciously disassociating from white identity. These reflections resonated with me. I thought about how I have found comfort in presenting myself as a Jewish person, the marginalized component unconsciously absolving me of some white guilt that so often leaves me feeling frozen. We discussed that when we hold on so tightly to the collective pain of our Jewish identities, we fail to fully acknowledge the impact of our white identities. Participants also acknowledged the importance of bringing our whole self, finding a balance between validating our experiences as Jews, and staying aware of how people perceive the other identities we carry.
For some in the group, it wasn’t Jewishness that resonated, but their own feelings of being an outsider, on the margins, whether because of sexual orientation, economic status, gendered experiences, or trauma they carry with them. A room full of people bonded through whiteness, each holding their own diverse perspectives and lived experiences.
We talked about moving beyond the binary construct of viewing a situation as all-bad or all-good. There is nothing innately bad about feeling the pain of marginalized experiences. The important part is understanding how starting from a place of marginalization can result in a bridge and/or a barrier to genuine connection. Working from a place of empathy without equating painful experiences that can help make the difference.
“Doing anti-racism work is like brushing your teeth.
You can’t just do it once, it has to be done every day.”
Upon returning home, I was eager to share the transformative experience I had. Chatting with my mom, she reflected that the training sounded like a microcosm of what we as a society need to do if we’re ever going to become a sustainable, equitable society. We need to reflect on internalized messages of racism. We need to create more safe spaces to have uncomfortable conversations. We need to bring more love and compassion to the table as we grapple with the root causes of our country’s divisiveness and the immense racial and economic disparities.
The weekend modeled how we as white people can live out our values more actively in our daily lives. One example happened unexpectedly during dinner one day. About half the group went out to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant, where meals are traditionally served on large platters to share as a group. When the bill arrived, I anticipated the typical process that occurs among friends dividing costs. This is not what happened. Instead, one person asked what would it look like if we paid this bill equitably? If we acknowledged the differing levels of wealth and economic experiences? What would it look like to pay for ourselves and take care of our community members who are not as privileged financially?
What followed was about 20 minutes of vulnerability as we discussed our present economic circumstances and decided how much we personally felt moved to contribute. Yes, there was some awkwardness, as none of us had ever attempted such a task, and sharing personal financial situations in a restaurant on a Saturday night is not yet a mainstream activity. When everyone had shared and written down their contribution, we found that we were almost $80 over the total bill. The exercise had moved people to be far more generous than anticipated. After making a final round of adjustments, we still ended up leaving our waitress a sizable tip.
I imagine the work we had done all day building community, sharing vulnerable personal truths, and immersing ourselves in anti-racist learning, allowed this experience to happen in a way that felt genuine. We acknowledged there are many complicated layers that would make this difficult to replicate in our lives back home. And I was left with the weight of the task at hand: if we can’t even face the discomfort of asking tough questions in small daily moments, how will we find the courage to grapple with this as a nation?
It will be difficult to recreate the kind of transformative space that Training For Change offered me and my fellow participants that weekend. I know this was a special, and too rare, opportunity. But I did walk away knowing there are things I can do. I can try to create moments of safety for white people in my life to grapple with our fears and confusion about being white people in our community and society. I can bring more compassion to interactions with the people I hold dearest to me, and with people who I might be quick to judge. I can meet people where they’re at. I can be brave enough to stand by my values while also engaging in authentic curiosity about how others’ experiences shape their current views. I can acknowledge my fellow white people’s humanity, as I challenge myself and others to work toward a world that respects and celebrates the dignity and lives of all people. Though my fears and perfectionism will slow me down for fear of making mistakes, I know I will make mistakes along the way. I hope that my white community will help me learn from my mistakes, sit with me in the pain of them, and encourage me to keep moving forward.
Raised in a humanistic-Jewish community in Ann Arbor, Emma moved to Detroit a couple years ago to work in youth-serving organizations including a Head Start pre-school in Southwest Detroit and most recently an Infant Mental Health program at The Children's Center. She is an active leader on the water justice team. Emma loves going to DJJ events and dance classes.
For information on "White People Confronting Racism" and other workshops from Training for Change, visit their website at www.trainingforchange.org.
They're currently fundraising for the 2018 Judith C. Jones Fellowship for Trainers of Color. Please consider donating at this link here or spreading the word!
For a blog from Barry about his experience at the workshop, click here.