On February 19, 2014, the white caucus of Baltimore Racial Justice Action (BRJA) held a special event: “Trayvon Martin: The Criminalization of Black & Brown Youth and How White People Can Work for Racial Justice.” The event was geared toward white people, but open to all races. The goal was to get people talking about violence against black and brown youth, to share some tools for approaching racialized situations, and to have everyone commit to at least one action over the next month related to racial justice.
Although the event was geared toward a white audience, we expected that people of color would also attend. Several folks of color did attend, so we started the event by invoking the structure we use in BRJA – an invitation to caucus. When we broke into small groups, our speaker invited the people of color to talk among themselves and for white people to do the same.
A woman of color spoke up and expressed her confusion. “What’s the point of attending an event that gets me to talk with my people, and white people to talk with themselves?” she asked [paraphrased]. “I thought the point of an event like this was to get us to talk to each other across racial lines. People of color talk among ourselves all the time – we explore race from all the different angles. Are you saying white people don’t talk to each other unless they come to a special event?”
It’s a good question, and the answer is “yes.” White people don’t talk. Racism and white privilege/supremacy is the enormous elephant in every room and we’re afraid to talk to each other. There are so many feelings – confusion, guilt, shame, willful ignorance, defensiveness, curiosity, fear, etc. – that we don’t know how to deal. So we do what we’re told, and we’re told that race is taboo, that it’s not polite to bring it up, and that if we just don’t mention it, maybe it’ll go away.
Furthermore, white people are taught from day one that we don’t have a racial identity. Have you ever heard a white American say, “I don’t have a culture?” That’s part of it. Culture is thought of as something other races have. We’re taught that white is normal, white is neutral, white is what everything else is calibrated to. White is invisible. And so when we’re in a mixed-race room, we tend to look to the people of color as “experts” on race. We can tell they have a race, we think, so they must really know. They must really get it!
And that’s true, in the sense that a Black person is the expert on her/his experience as an Afrikan descendant, and we can’t know anything of that experience without her/him. But just as Dr. Muhammed said in the video, “there is never a situation in which race isn’t related to the treatment black people receive,” so is the same true for whites. [View video at http://billmoyers.com/segment/khalil-muhammad-on-facing-our-racial-past/ ] If we’re not pulled over for “suspicious” driving, it’s probably because we’re white. If we’re not stopped and frisked while wearing a backpack, it’s probably because we’re white. That’s a racial identity. That’s racial treatment. We have plenty of experience with our race, but we’re not taught to notice it.
Who are the experts on being white? White people. We can learn a lot from each other about race, just as we can learn a lot from different people of color. Yet white people have a legacy of ignorance, of laziness, of fear. So we don’t talk to each other about it.
When I first became involved with BRJA, I was taken aback by the practice of caucusing by race. I thought it defeated the purpose. Now I understand how valuable it is, for these reasons and more:
1) It’s not right to rely solely on people of color to teach us about race. That is too great a burden, and we must take responsibility for ourselves.
2) There is something unique about being given not just permission, but explicit instructions to discuss white privilege/supremacy and racism with other white people in a safe space. It’s a huge relief – we’re used to feeling paralyzed by the elephant in the room. So to be told, do it, is tremendous.
3) It’s important for white people to have a space to admit to, unpack, and heal from the zillions of racial stereotypes and beliefs we carry about ourselves and people of color. We’re fearful – most of us don’t want to intentionally hurt anyone – so we try to monitor ourselves fiercely when around folks of color, so that we don’t accidentally say something ignorant. Yet among other whites, we can talk about these conscious and subconscious beliefs with more honesty, because our experiences are more similar. (And I believe that any white person who insists that they don’t have these thoughts and feelings, that they don’t “see” race, is deeply in denial.)
4) As whites working together, we can begin to build a new culture of racial justice, and learn the skills needed to transform the larger white community.
5) Having a community of white anti-racist people gives us hope, helps us grow our practice, and gives us strength to stay in it for the long haul.
6) A strong, collective, white voice is needed to dismantle racism.
I learned a lot at this event, but what resonated with me most was the poignant reminder that we white people just don’t talk about race. We’re afraid of each other. But the white supremacy/privilege system perpetuates itself through silence, and we are complicit in our silence.
There are a huge range of white responses to the issue of white supremacy and white privilege – some embrace it, some ignore it, many fear it, many want to change it – and we’re never sure what we’re going to get with our cousins, neighbors, traveling companions, friends. So we don’t talk, and that’s why caucusing among white people is so powerful for me. It gives me a safe space to talk. It gives me practice and courage to talk in other spaces.
**This writing reminded me of two pieces I’ve read that made an impact: