On a recent visit to Denver, I led a workshop on allyship in the context of racism and white privilege. In the past, I have been annoyed at the idea of racism and white privilege workshops that are attended/led by entirely or primarily white people (whites, in general, not having the best history of self-awareness when it comes to race issues), so for me to lead a workshop was…kind of crazy. Also not having a whole lot of experience or wisdom in the particular sphere of allyship? Kind of crazy. I think it went well, at least, I hope it did, though I don’t know if everyone who attended felt it was worthwhile or if they learned something they didn’t know before. I tried to make the discussion practical, and not theoretical (because one of the problems of having a discussion about institutional racism is that it pits individuals against a giant faceless system and leaves them feeling powerless. I’m tired of feeling powerless). I tried to make it seem like allyship was not something that is hard—it’s intricate, definitely; it requires constant self-checking, definitely; but hard it does not necessarily have to be.
The Quaker term for elders whose opinions or spiritual gifts are most highly valued is Weighty Friend. One of the best parts about planning this whole racism and white privilege series has been getting to hang out with M-, one of the Weightiest, and one of the only African-American folks in Meeting. Her patience and grace and intelligence and compassion have turned her into one of my favorite people. Our Meeting is so lucky to have her; I’m so lucky to have been able to make friends with her.
One of the things that M- talked about, to our small group, was how long it’s taken her—as a black woman who believes in the importance of interracial conversations about race; as a black woman who married a white man; as a black woman who worked in diversity training for much of her professional life—to be able to call out a white person for saying something racist or insensitive and then be able to walk away from that encounter and not let it bother her further. To not feel like she has to change the mind of every white person she meets. To not feel attached to the outcome of a discussion. It struck me that, if the challenge for folk of color is to lay race down and not let it take over their lives, then the challenge for white folk is to pick it up a little more often, and be more aware.
One Friend came up to me after the workshop and told me that I have a gift for facilitating groups (my father came up to me to give me tips on how I can improve my facilitation skills in the future. This is somehow indicative both of the Meeting as a whole and of my father in particular), and that he hopes that I will keep such things in mind for the future as I move through my career at Columbia and beyond. It’s weird that, though I am generally quiet and uncomfortable in loud, disorganized, chaotic settings (ie, a party), I don’t have a whole lot of fear when it comes to leading a group activity or facilitating a group discussion. Granted, most of the groups I’ve led have been Quaker ones where I’ve known everyone or most everyone. Maybe I would feel different in a group full of strangers. But I think I have a pretty good background in consensus process and listening to a group, which is an important part of leading a group. Something to keep in mind. Maybe I could be a teacher after all—always assuming that I get to teach things that I find interesting, which is, of course, a total fallacy. I don’t know what direction to go in when I have total faith in myself but absolutely none in the system I’m thinking about entering—usually it’s the other way around, and I do my best to try and make myself fit into the situation in question. But this is one of those instances where I have total confidence in my own integrity, and I’m not interested in compromising that to fit into a broken system.
One of the activities I led during the workshop was called “I could do that if…” I adapted it from a similar workshop I found at http://turning-the-tide.org/ The basic idea is that for each statement of action, you decide either “I could do that,” “I couldn’t do that,” or “I could do that if…” and then elaborate on the circumstances under which you could take a particular plan of action. Because my goals in this workshop was to make allyship seem accessible and do-able, I think, in retrospect, that must of the list I made was perhaps too easy. Working on your privilege is hard—really hard. Finding mentors is essential. But here is the list I came up with, if you’re curious.
I could confront a co-worker who makes a racist joke.
I could be comfortable being the only white person in a room full of people of color.
I could boycott a business if a person of color told me that they had been discriminated against by employees or owners of the business.
I could sit next to a person of color on the bus.
I could confront a family member who says something racist.
I could listen to a person of color tell a story about racism in their own lives with an open heart.
I could admit that I do not know everything in a discussion about racism, or that I do not know what racism feels like.
I could vote for a black political candidate.
I could take a day and make it a project to notice, throughout the day, moments when I am either benefitting from or denied privilege.
I could resolve to count to ten before opening my mouth when I am feeling defensive and angry because somebody has called me out for saying something racist or insensitive.
I could write a letter to a publication that generalizes or stereotypes race or ethnicity.
I can wait for people to self-identify their race or ethnicity and not label them myself.