The first time I was called out for my whiteness was at the public library during a community dialogue about the film, Fruitvale Station. I wanted to crawl under my chair. I was quiet for the rest of the event and by the time it was over I promised myself I would stay awake and stay active from here on out. There was plenty of work to be done in the city where I went to kindergarten and returned to as a young adult. My community organizing style changed drastically like an amplified version of my quietness during the film discussion. Listening became primary, and I realized I could provide the resources I had access to like space, time, and permits when they were needed. I’m sure that I made mistakes along the way – some I was conscious of and others went under my radar.
During this formative time in my racial identity development a crucial tool for me was a white affinity group. I was concerned at first about the idea of getting together with a bunch of other white people. Isn’t that racist – to intentionally exclude people of color? Wouldn’t a homogenous group be counter productive?
Still, I trusted the person who told me about the group and I was curious to meet other white activist’s. So I went. The folks who welcomed me were more experienced with racial justice work and with leadership than I was. We took turns facilitating and the beginning of each session included a breathing exercise or mediation. It was a safe place to process- to not worry so much about making a mistake in that process. By observing and receiving feedback I learned how white people might hold one another accountable. I learned about the difference between an ally and a comrade. I learned about myself and began to develop consciousness about the way my whiteness manifests in my thoughts and behavior.
I also learned the purpose of white spaces in the movement for racial justice. There were four that became clear to me:
1. I found out that – as I had that night at the public library – white people tend to freely share stories that insensitively demonstrate unconscious privilege, unintentional or not.
2. When we rely on people of color, in our personal lives and at work, to educate us about racism and oppression we add weight to a burden society has already laid on their shoulders.
3. Whiteness is something that us white folks have a hard time seeing. There’s a saying in yoga that a fish doesn’t notice water until it’s gone – and I’ll add- or named. That’s how it was for me. Whiteness was the water that I took for granted – that I had relied on someone else to point out to me. On the other hand, people of color are involved in racial identity awareness and development from birth because our society unfairly demands it from them. I, like most white people, was starting from scratch in my racial identity awareness and development as a young adult. As Ali Michael pointed out in a recent training, we wouldn’t put a student who is learning arithmetic in the same learning group as student who is learning calculus and we should treat people who are in different stages of racial identity development similarly.
4. Our work is different. White people work is to educate ourselves and each other, learn how to truly listen to POC’s, develop consciousness about our own implicit biases, take action to change systems, and make amends. The work of the Black community and non-Black POC is self-determined, therefore I will not attempt to describe it.
5. A recent addition to the list also comes from an Ali Michael training, which is naming whiteness is a way of decentralizing it.
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