Posts tagged centering
White Privilege Weariness (PartII)

So, I have to admit to you all, that "White Privilege Weariness" has already become one of my most read blogs… not this year but since I started blogging. I am amazed that it resonated with so many. As I have reflected on this a little more after receiving great feedback, here are a few more thoughts spinning in my head. I have a feeling this is going to make some people upset, but here we go! 

One of the responses I received came from a black woman who was brave enough to point out that conversations about white privilege were always difficult for her because she didn't share many of the "traumas" the other black people did. The conversation served to alienate her from other people of color because she did not share in their distress. 

I think this is a perfect example of why I am rethinking white privilege conversations that center on white folks. When people of color become the textbook for educating white people on their privilege, it's kind of a requirement for people of color to all share the same story in order to present a "united front" or at least a clear indication of the widespread nature of white privilege. But that assumes people of color all experience white privilege in the same ways, at the same points in time. It assumes that all people of color have the same narratives, the same experiences, the same instances of pain, shame and annoyance. And the way this conversation has been traditionally led requires that people of color find those commonalities and present them as neatly packaged as possible so that white folks can't deny our stories. Consequently, when one of those stories doesn't seem to fit, like my friend above, she becomes ostracized, tossed out of the group, a non-member. Since her story doesn't serve the common goal of teaching white folks about their privilege, her story has no place in the discussion. This is the danger of centering whiteness.

People of color are not monolithic. Our stories and experiences are not one note. But when we are required to be pawns in helping white folks get it, we must seek a monolithic narrative. Heaven forbid white privilege be complex, systemic, and impact people of color differently. 

By decentering the conversation we would give people of color the opportunity to tell our own stories. Finally our stories would not be seen through the lens of accomplishing some white ideal of success (namely, white people walking away feeling… something). We would be able to determine our own connections to one another. There would be no reason to toss out someone's story for not "matching" all others. We could seek diversity and talk about the number of various ways white privilege has effected us, or how we were teased by black people, or the wedge between asian americans and black folk, or the need for connection between blacks and latinos. If our stories become a song, let us each contribute our own verses and make up the chorus as we go.  We can make space for one another's differences because we are not required to sing the same tune. We can explore and laugh and learn. We can remind ourselves that we are not monolithic, that our varied stories are truth, that we need not conform our stories to one another. We can let them breathe. 

In the previous post I mentioned that I don't think people appreciate how traumatic race related stories can be for people of color. I have been unable to stop thinking about how much healing we need for ourselves, another reason why we must decenter whiteness. We cannot continue to teach from emotional and mental brokeness, unwinding our bandages, poking at the scars hoping they'll bleed and thereby have an emotional impact on someone else in the room. We must be given the space to seek our own healing, within our similar communities and across our colorful bodies. We have operated largely in isolation for so long. It is time to move out of our corners, and move to the center together- to validate, affirm and hold the stories of one another. To find solidarity. (I love the work Suey Park is doing in this regard.) We must be able to identify oppression no matter where it lies and work to identify and uproot it. If we spend all of our time focused on white folks, we lose the opportunity to deeply connect with one another.  

Now, I know someone is concerned that my decentering of whiteness means that white people no longer get to learn from people of color. Thats not what I'm saying. I am not suggesting that white folks get tossed out of the room while people of color commiserate together behind closed doors. What I am saying, is that I believe white people are intelligent enough to listen. I believe that white people can sit in a room and take ownership of their education. I trust that they have the ability to raise their hand and ask for a resource on a concept I just tossed into the conversation. I trust them to write down the name of the activist my friend just referred to in the discussion. I think white folks are capable of ordering a kindle book a peer says changed her life. I also trust the power of narrative. I trust the healing effect of people of color. I trust the power of our voices in unison seeking and offering healing. I trust that the healing can and will overflow. I think that white people don't need me to sit in a cage so they can poke at my wounds to see if they are real. To do this work, white people need to be able to reach into the depths of complexity no matter the cost, to realize how they have benefited from systems and structures no matter whose story is being told. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear will find the thread of the truth even in narratives that sound different. White people can try harder. I am tired of presenting an incomplete story.  

And if they don't, I trust them to walk away. And thats okay, because they aren't the end. 

I don't think I am helping white folks by centering them in the conversation. I think I might be doing more harm than good by presenting a false narrative of monolithic experiences. I believe I might be setting up white folks to think that other people of color will whip out their scars on demand and submit to being on trial. I don't think centering whiteness is doing white folks any favors. I rob them of the beauty that expands across the narratives of people of color. I make it too simple, too easy. I let them off the hook. I don't teach them to take the journey, because I'm teaching that they are the journey. That capturing their hearts and minds are the ends that I seek. It cannot be. Reconciliation with all humanity is the end. White people are only a small part of humanity. They are part of the story for sure, but they are an incomplete story alone. By centering whiteness I have eliminated the complexities of race, of varied stories, of the richness and wonder and goodness and humor and strength that is the experience of people of color. 

I want to seek healing. I am tried of mini-courtrooms where people of color have to prove the existence of racism and privilege and discrimination. I want to seek healing. 

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.