Facing Ourselves: White People and Racial Justice (Pt. 1)

Part I: Repurposed Space for White People

Most of us would agree that conversations about race in the United States are full of tensions and complexities. This includes what the roles and responsibilities should be for white people when it comes to the work of racial justice and reconciliation. One important aspect of figuring this out is listening to leaders of color—many of whom have challenged white people to educate themselves about race and racism and hold each other accountable when it comes to combating racism in this country. Here are just a few recent examples (herehere, and here).

White people committed to being anti-racist need to be intentional about our own process of transformation in this regard. Yes, much of our journey needs to be in relationship with people of color. However if white people want to truly celebrate racial and ethnic diversity and contribute to a more just and equitable society, we must do some work within, and amongst, ourselves. I believe some of this work should take place among white folks in “repurposed” space.

What is “Repurposed” Space?

 For many white people, race is an uncomfortable and taboo topic to be avoided and ignored. And yet conversations about race happen among white people all the time. If we’re honest, many of these discussions are overtly racist even if behind closed doors or under the anonymity of an online username.

But what about those of us who honestly don’t want to be racist? Unfortunately, these conversations rarely lead to meaningful change or action either. Too often, without realizing it, we end up just reinforcing the status quo with which we are familiar, even though we say we value equality and diversity. And we may focus on the ways we care and are trying to help but are hesitant to confront each other about our own implicit (or explicit) racism.

It’s important to be aware that the cultural norms and comfort of white people are often taken for granted, even in spaces with more ethnic diversity. This means that the space already exists for white people to do this work amongst ourselves, even if it is not utilized effectively. What is needed is space that is repurposed in new ways to promote growth and healing for white people, in service of racial justice and reconciliation. That is what this series will focus on.

I want to be clear that when I speak of repurposed space for white people, I am not advocating that this be done in isolation from communities of color. Rather, it is one way white people can focus on how to heal from, and take responsibility for, the part we have played in systemic racism. This type of space does not replace the very real need white people have for the friendship and leadership of people of color willing to develop authentic community with us. Repurposed space should occur in conjunction with, not disconnected from, such relationships.

Why White People Need Repurposed Space

 There are many reasons white people need repurposed space to engage in their own transformative processes regarding race and racism. This list is far from comprehensive but hopefully provides a solid foundation for considering why this is an important aspect of anti-racist work.

   1.   We are rarely taught how to have meaningful conversations about race and racism.

White people often come to the “table” ill equipped for discussions about race. Worse yet, we may not realize this or are unwilling to acknowledge our lack of competence in this area. As such, despite our best intentions we can hinder or disrupt effective cross-cultural discussions and work regarding racial justice and reconciliation.

Becoming someone wholeheartedly committed to racial justice and reconciliation is a liberating and life-giving experience, but it can also be a rocky and uneven road. It means coming to terms with feeling confused, defensive, and overwhelmed A LOT and still figuring out how to stay engaged in the process, something many of us have very little practice doing. Repurposed space provides such an opportunity without people of color having to devote valuable time and energy to our development, especially early in the process.

   2.   We need to take responsibility for our own education.

This means educating ourselves without expecting people of color to teach us, while also acknowledging how valuable it can be when people of color educate and mentor white people. It’s important to learn from leaders of color, but we need to also be willing to do some of the work ourselves and recognize that we are not entitled to people of color being our teachers (even if some are willing).

When I first started out on this journey as a young adult, I asked my friends of color many pointed questions about their lived experiences, viewpoints on current events, and personal background. I was curious and wanted to learn more! Although this was not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, my pursuit of knowledge and understanding often came at their expense. Many of the questions I asked my friends were insensitive and biased.

Additionally, I was not mindful of the significant amount of effort it took to educate me and walk me through my own emotional reactions to what I was learning—not to mention having deal with my defensiveness and anger when given difficult feedback or told something that wasn’t easy for me to hear. 

   3.   We need to be honest with ourselves, and each other, about our complicity.

This includes understanding our own unconscious racial biases and the full scope of how racism has negatively impacted who we are. We need the space and courage to take an honest look at the ways in which we have been complicit with, perpetuated, and benefited from systemic racism. It is our responsibility to hold each other accountable in this regard and walk alongside each other as we examine our own unearned advantages.

This is a very personal and vulnerable journey. I didn’t ask for the racial biases I was exposed to and internalized as a child and into adulthood. And I will admit I carry a lot of guilt and shame regarding the biases I continually discover in myself (don’t tell Brené Brown!). But more importantly I am responsible to unlearn and reject racial biases in my life and manage my reactions of confusion, defensiveness, and self-doubt as I learn and grow.

I have a small group of white friends who are committed to doing this work with me. Over the years we have created space to acknowledge, but also be held accountable for, the ways racism has seeped into and shaped our lives. We struggle together with how to stop being complicit in a system that’s set up for our benefit but not that of others. The fact that I even have need of such space, and that I have absorbed the racism in the world around me, is not something I am overly excited to share with you. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. But honest self-reflection and awareness is needed to have the moral courage to help end systemic racism.

Many of my friends of color are sympathetic and supportive of me, but that doesn’t mean I need to unnecessarily burden them with this part of my journey. They didn’t create racism—and it’s not their responsibility to dismantle it in society-at-large, much less in my life—even as many of them extend grace and honesty to me along the way.

   4.   We need to explore the ways our own stories of trauma and pain can help, rather than hinder, our work for racial justice and reconciliation.

Too often in multicultural settings white people’s stories of pain and hardship are emphasized at the expense of people of color. Repurposed space for white folks can provide an opportunity to explore our own backgrounds in ways that strengthen our commitment to racial justice and reconciliation without privileging them over the stories and experiences of people of color. Inevitably, on this journey white people must come to terms with how our personal stressors, heartache, and trauma can interfere with our commitment to racial justice.

When a person of color shares stories of racism and racial injustice, in my experience, a white person in the group almost always responds by talking about their own hardships in life. Sometimes the story they share seem minor in comparison, other times they don’t. Or the focus shifts to how a white person is processing what they heard, rather than on the person of color’s lived experience.

Regardless, it can deflect from and minimize what a person of color has shared, even if it was an attempt on the part of a white individual to connect interpersonally. In the end, the white person’s feelings and experiences become the focus often without recognizing that the hardships white folks endure are not the result of, or exacerbated by, systemic racism.

Additionally, when there are opportunities to show up for racial justice and reconciliation, I’ve noticed white people often struggle with how to prioritize their commitment to justice amidst their personal struggles. Divorce, illness, abuse, death, economic hardship, etc. happen in all communities, regardless of race. As with anyone, white folks should be afforded compassion and kindness in the midst of their pain. But we also must be willing to reflect honestly on the ways our stress and trauma routinely trump our commitment to racial justice. 

Some Final Thoughts 

Some may read this list and think I’m being overly generous with white people. Others may have the opposite reaction and think, “Here we go again—white people being hammered just for being white.” In some respects, both are probably true. I am committed to extending grace and compassion to white people, as we learn and grow, but it can’t end there. We also have to challenge each other to dig deeper and hold ourselves accountable when it comes to the reality of racism in and around us.

We will never fully overcome the brutal legacy and ongoing reality of racism without white people entering into our own process of healing and transformation. Ultimately, the goal is for white people to participate in a process that promotes empathic understanding and develops a greater capacity to partner and support communities and leaders of color. It’s important that we avoid being a hindrance to the work of racial justice and reconciliation, despite our good intentions. We need to practice and tune our own instruments before we can join the rest of the band! This is essential in order to prevent good-hearted and well-intentioned white folks from jumping into action based on limited understanding, white guilt, pity, or a savior complex—or not doing anything at all.

I hope that you will join me for later installments of this series. Part II will include guidelines for how best to facilitate space that has been repurposed for the growth and development of white people. We’re on this journey of learning, growth, and transformation together. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, feedback, and lessons you have learned along the way as we collectively work for justice and peace.

Brandy Liebscher