White Privilege Weariness
I am standing in the infamous white privilege line. Our class has answered all the activity's questions one by one. As usual the White participants are grouped at one end of the room, the Black and Latino participants at the other end. In between stands a handful of Asian participants. The facilitator asks a series of questions, mostly directed at the group of White participants. Their conversation continues... and continues... and continues. After a few minutes, I notice all of our bodies have naturally turned to reinforce the focus of the conversation between the White participants. The people of color form a quiet outer circle, glancing at each other as the conversation continues largely without us. One of the young women next me raises her hand; she is too far away to be noticed. Remaining unseen, she gives up. As she lowers her hand, I suddenly become very weary.
Let me pause here to note that this is not a critique of the facilitator nor the activity. I myself have led the white privilege conversation more times than I can count. I've led it. I've chosen it. I've started and ended classes with it. I've done it with young people and elderly people. I've done it when the racial mix is huge and when I'm the only person of color in the room. I am quite sure I have facilitated the resulting conversation well some days but from a place of hurt and bitterness on others. My weariness is not from being tired at the activity itself.
My weariness is rooted in realizing how often starting the race conversation with white privilege automatically centers the experience of white folks. On the day mentioned above, I so clearly saw how focusing on white privilege filled the space. There was no room left for the stories, the experiences, the realities of people of color except in service to the education of white folks. We almost served as more of a comparative study than live humans standing on the opposite side of the room.
How often have you been a room where the feelings of white people take priority? Do they feel guilt or shame? Are we making them feel guilt or shame? How uncomfortable are they? Is the room safe for them? Do they get it? In the natural occurrence of asking these questions, people of color have a tendency to become background music to the story being created for white people. As a result people of color must manage their own expectations, emotions, language, questions, frustrations. I think the trauma of racism (and recalling it during these sessions) is severely underestimated. It is such work, such risk for people of color to enter spaces created with the purpose of serving white people.
So here's what I've been contemplating. Is it possible for us to talk about race, even white privilege, without making white people the center? I wonder if it's possible to bring the narratives of people of color to the center, to hold them for their own sake. I'm trying to recall if I have ever experienced a workshop/training that sought healing for people of color rather than education for white people. Isn't it weird that white people would experience such privilege even when trying to make them aware of that same privilege? One day I would like to try hosting a workshop where people of color tell their stories, and thats it. Period.
Where people of color talk, vent, laugh, cry and affirm one another's racial realities.
Where white people don't talk, don't justify, don't question.
Where white people are given different rules that require seeking permission to participate.
Where white people are expected to connect the dots themselves, to own their learning, to manage their emotions.
I wonder if white privilege could be taught by eliminating even the small privileges/rules that typically serve white folks well in a classroom setting.
This is not an exercise intended to be mean or to make white people feel awful. Nor is it an exercise to minimize the stories and experiences of white people. I just want to spend a little more time asking myself what it would be like for the priority to be reversed. Rather than judging the success of my training on whether or not white people walked away understanding privilege; could I define success based on the emotional energy of people of color after the training is done? Could I so center the experience of people of color that they walk away feeling some measure of healing, of energy, of understanding about themselves and each other? Could they leave more alive then when they came?
I often lead with conversations on white privilege because I work with predominately white institutions. It kinda feels obvious. However, I am beginning to believe that this reality makes it even more important that I not center whiteness. It's possible that my little training or class will be the only space when people of color are at the center simply because their stories are important- not so that white people can have an "aha" moment- but because people of color need to speak their truth. My weariness of white privilege is creating an energy source within for new ways of training, of leading, of being. I'm kinda excited about it.