This post is written by Tom Mitchell, the Discipleship Ministry Team Leader.
Racism is a giant issue for the United States. I have known that for a very long time, with a heart yearning for movement forward, with volunteering in many capacities of assistance to its victims, and always with the comfort of being able to pull back into my nice, almost all white neighborhood and circles. And occasionally participating in well-intentioned inter-racial dialog that seemed to create more heat than light.
So, why plunge into Witnessing Whiteness, nine challenging sessions with a small, all-white group, facilitated by white leaders trained through the YWCA? I knew this would be a time of deep inward looking at our country, our community and myself. It would not be, and was not comfortable. But, it was a safe space in which to learn, share and support one another.
Why an all-white group? It seemed as if this was backwards. I see two very good reasons for doing it this way:
1. It is a simple justice matter that white people would do their own home work -- to dig into the dung heaps of racism and come to new insights, rather than the usual asking of those who are oppressed to do the work of educating us.
2. To penetrate deeply into the realities of our country, community and our own lives and inner feelings is difficult, and is best done in a safe, confidential environment in the beginning.
This initial process will be in vain unless there are further steps, which will demand interaction with people of color.
It was difficult to want to attend and do the reading, as most of us felt as if we were being beat up on, session after session. Not by the facilitators, who were skilled and delightful, but by the subject matter and getting rubbed in the face with the dreadful realities of racism in our country.
So, my issue is whether I came out of it not just wiser, but in a better position to be a positive force. Session 7 finally began to feel partially helpful in building up my strength and drive to move forward personally. Sessions 8 and 9 fortunately turned toward how to proceed further in this journey, with practical suggestions, and an orderly process for development of personal social justice ministry.
The title of the book implies a hope that we will become better witnesses of our white culture, our racism, and be ready to verbalize this actively in appropriate situations. I have felt some progress on this already. However, this class, by itself, did not get us to the point of being well prepared for activism, though it helped.
My first steps:
1. I was referred to A People's History of the United States, and Birth of a White Nation for further reading. Witnessing Whiteness training focused mostly at a psychological level, and is lighter on learning about our history than makes me comfortable in discussing the issues beyond our safe space.
Birth of a White Nation, a concise book, covers racial developments from early colonial times through the end of the 19th century, focusing on how and why oppressive systems were set up.
I highly reccommend Howard Zinn's Peoples History of the United States. It is long, but lively, presenting what has been left out of our history books. He covers from Columbus through the middle of the 20th century in detail. Not pretty, but very important to know.
2. Using Witnessing Whiteness as a jumping off point for more justice involvement. First, a new practice of responding firmly, calmly and knowledgable to racist remarks (be they explicit or implied). Not ducking it.
3. Next this needs to go beyond talk. I do not have discernment presently as to what that would be. Witnessing Whiteness does offer a structured suggested path for moving on.
Our interchange with Bais Abraham and All Saints people in our group was very positive. Bats Abraham has come alive for me as real people well engaged in faith and justice work.
YWCA is planning new rounds of Witnessing Whiteness groups. I encourage you to take the plunge!