by Ian Kennedy
If if are white like me, you know that part of what elected 45 was racism and xenophobia. You like and follow all the right things on facebook, instagram, and twitter. You get the memes. You write and call your representatives. You’ve read The Autobiography of Malcom X, The New Jim Crow and Between the World and Me. You adore the Obamas and think Shonda Rhimes and Operah Winfrey are some of the most exciting women in contemporary culture.
Maybe you talk about race openly with other white people around you. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes poorly. Maybe you have friends of color who will have conversations like that with you. If you’re really lucky they feel comfortable challenging you and calling you out. Maybe you recognize your complicity in racist oppression. Maybe you call yourself out as racist. Maybe none of those things are the case (for much of my life, none of those things were true).
At the same time, if you’re like me, you’re also frustrated by the paths to action. My communities where I work, where I study, where I hang out have, thank goodness, an intentional dedication towards diversity. Some of them have strong POC spaces. Some of them have groups dedicated to investigating whiteness. Until this spring, though, I yearned for more. As I came closer to understanding how the things I did perpetuated and enacted white supremacy I noticed that, for instance, I treat students of color differently than white students. Years after noticing that discrepancy, I do it less, but I still do it. Despite their efforts, my communities are often still dominated by white organizational culture. These noticing sent me looking for groups that could help me fight white supremacy in my communities and in my own actions.
As a school teacher, I’ve been to diversity initiatives, multicultural curriculum development meetings, and inclusion professional development events. They’ve often been useful, but they’d never really been about targeting racism as both a system doing harm in the world and as a system made by my own action. In fact (as their titles suggest), they usually didn’t talk much about racism at all, much less suggesting that anyone was, themselves, a racist.
But there are groups that do. One of the first I visited was Undoing Whiteness and Oppression at the Brooklyn Zen Center, I heard a friend casually mention last fall. I was both surprised that such a group existed and also that I hadn’t known about it. While I was initially worried about paternalism and white-saviorism in such a meeting, my visit was different from those expectations. People did say things that made me cringe, for sure. I was uncomfortable, but that discomfort helped me see and helped me grow. When I cringed, my body tightened in recognition of having said or thought those kinds of things before. Exposing them has helped me work harder to face my own racism.
Through the mailing list at Undoing Whiteness, I learned about more anti-racist spaces around my home in New York, like Constructive White Conversations and the Anti-Racist Alliance. I was excited to be involved in those communities, and met amazing people that way. I also kept hearing about a specific workshop I should attend: Undoing Racism offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
When I eventually signed up, though, it wasn’t the number of recommendations or that people of color and white folks were equally laudatory that convinced me. Instead, it was the look in their eyes as they told me about it, a look that said, “this thing helped me, and I think it can help you.” That is, I wasn’t convinced by intellectual arguments, but because it seemed that people who had attended had gotten what I’d sought: a way to think and act against racism and white supremacy.
So I went. It did help me. Not only did they offer a succinct, accessible, and useful account of race, racism, and oppression in the United States, but they fostered an environment of critical thinking, sharing, and introspection that I’ve only rarely seen in racially diverse groups.