Facing Ourselves: White People and Racial Justice (Pt. 2)

Part II: Guidelines for Cultivating Repurposed Space

Many white folks I know are truly heartbroken about the realties of racism. But many of us also feel stuck. We tell ourselves, “What could possibly be done to effect real change when the problem is so big? It’s way too much for me to tackle.” These feelings of hopelessness, while understandable given how vast and ingrained racism is, reflect a luxury afforded to white folks. We have the option to feel helpless and do nothing with little to no consequences for us. Communities of color do not have the same option.

 How do we push past these feelings of hopelessness when it comes to repurposed space for white people (see Part I of this series to learn more about repurposed space)? Should we pause and make sure we are fully prepared? Or is it more important to take action quickly? And how does one take into account that no matter which approach you take one’s privilege as a white person is always in the mix? 

Act first, think later?

 As a college professor, many of my white students were rightfully angry when they started to become more aware of racial injustice. I often heard, “How can these things be happening?! This is so wrong!” They were insistent on taking immediate action. They had little interest in sitting around and simply talking about it. They believed they had the power to fix things (or at least help) despite their lack of knowledge and experience in this area. To be honest I admired their passion. However, they didn’t realize that they had the luxury of taking action without having to worry about the consequences. If their ideas didn’t work, it was students of color who suffered much more so than the white students.

White folks who want to jump into this work, but are unprepared or unaware of obstacles they are likely to encounter, are at much greater risk of giving up. I have witnessed many white leaders, groups, and organizations start conversations about race. Yet, too often, when they encounter discomfort or resistance (sometimes quite hostile) they don’t know how to deal with it and they back off from the conversation and don’t return. Unfortunately, well-intended white folks who start this work but don’t see it through can do more harm then good when it comes to racial justice and reconciliation. 

Anger and passion are great motivators and help us get unstuck. But a deeper understanding of the issues, as well as taking the time to be prepared, are also needed.

 Better safe than sorry?

I am by nature a cautious person. I don’t like to take risks. I prefer to do my homework and know what I’m getting into. As a graduate student, and later as professor, when it came to combating racism I was careful to get my facts straight and thoroughly research the issues before I spoke up or did anything. I had the luxury of taking a more calculated and thoughtful approach. I had the option of “taking my time” because racism doesn’t negatively impact me as a white person. This is not the case for people of color in our society. 

There is much work to be done. Racism has very real and sometimes deadly consequences for people of color. If you don’t believe me just do a quick search on the Internet about racial disparities in health care, income/wealth, education, the criminal justice system, and infant mortality, just to name a few. As white people we need to be prepared before rushing in, but in the end, time is not on our side. Those of us who are more cautious are going to have to get used to taking risks. We will never be prepared enough for this journey. Our commitment to anti-racism is weakened if we focus on not “messing up” rather than being intentional and proactive about doing the work that needs to be done.

My intention here is not to outline a step-by-step guide or clear-cut formula for how to offer repurposed space. There are too many variables that can impact (positively and negatively) genuine transformation in the lives of white people. Rather, the following are some questions and guidelines to help you be more effective as you prepare to offer repurposed space and, most importantly, persevere when the going gets tough. Later in this series I will focus on resources and common pitfalls to be aware of while facilitating such space with white folks.

   1.   Understand Your Context

Begin by evaluating the context in which repurposed space will be provided—specifically, how does it fit with the vision, mission, and calling of your community. Inevitably there will be tension, pushback, and anxiety regarding this process. Having clarity about how repurposed space helps your community live more fully into its values and mission will go a long way. It can also help white folks gather the courage needed to engage in conversations that often seem risky and divisive to them.

It’s also important to take into consideration the racial and ethnic makeup of your community. Is your organization ethnically diverse? Are you a diverse community but leadership is predominantly white? Are you a predominantly white community with a few members of color? Or maybe you reside in a space that is exclusively made up of white people?

These are important questions to consider so that repurposed space is not offered in a way that further alienates people of color in your organization. It’s important to include leaders of color early in the planning process rather than after the fact. Along those lines, it’s important to spend adequate time framing this experience for your community regarding how it fits with other ways you are being intentional together about cross-cultural learning (see Part I of this series on the value of providing repurposed space in conjunction with leadership from, and relationships with, people of color).

   2.   Determine the Best Format

Next, carefully consider how much experience your organization has with race-related discussions, including how much experience and knowledge those in leadership have in this regard. This will enable you to offer repurposed space in a way that is organic and authentic while also taking into account where your organization is in this process.

There are several different types of formats you can utilize. Here are a few to consider:

Group trainings and workshops are a good way to introduce topics and information that can build a foundation for more personal and reflective work later on. Taking a more educational approach is a good way to address the lack of information or misinformation many white people have regarding race and racism.

Coaching and mentoring leaders on an individual basis can give white people in positions of leadership and influence the opportunity to delve more deeply into their own process regarding these issues. It’s much easier to promote healthy and enduring change within a community if leaders have been through their own learning and transformation process. This type of format can provide a safe place for leaders to receive support while also being held accountable for how they are going help lead and create communities committed to racial justice and reconciliation.

Small groups can allow for an integrative process of cognitive and experiential learning regarding race and racism. This format tends to be more effective with participants who already have a foundational understanding of the issues at hand. These spaces enable people to spend more time reflecting on the ways they have been impacted by racism, even if unknowingly, and how to unlearn the racism in and around us. A small group setting allows for deeper and more personal self-reflection—an important part of moving from intellectual understanding to more holistic transformation in one’s life.

   3.   Who Should Facilitate the Process?

You will also need to decide who should lead or facilitate this experience—should it be led by an outside expert, leaders from within the organization, or a combination of both?

An outside expert is likely to have more extensive knowledge and experience regarding these issues. This can be very helpful given how vast and complex race and racism are in the United States. They are also less likely to be distracted by the internal politics of the community. They will have more experience navigating the challenges involved in helping white folks tackle issues they often try to resist or avoid. Being able to rely on their expertise can help lessen anxiety or uncertainty that can hinder moving forward with this work.

 On the other hand, leaders from within the organization have the benefit of more personal knowledge regarding the history of the organization and its members. Such leaders can help anticipate more precisely where discomfort is likely to arise. Having this insider-knowledge can help leaders be prepared to deal with such tensions in a way that promotes transformation rather than becoming obstacles to growth.

I’ve also found its extremely helpful when respected leaders from within the community speak to the value and importance of doing this work. These same leaders are often the ones who walk closely with white folks when they are feeling defensive and overwhelmed and can point the way forward to greater hope, liberation, and deeper community.

With that said, I would not recommend using a leader from within your community who has little to no knowledge of or experience with topics of race and ethnicity, systemic racism, and white privilege. Otherwise, the process could end up reinforcing systemic and individual racism, even if that wasn’t the intent. 

   4.   Be Upfront about Expectations

Regardless of what format you chose, typically its helpful if the facilitator/leader(s) speak to their experience and commitment to this work and what can be expected from their leadership. I also recommend letting participants share what expectations they have. It helps to know what is important to each individual and be mindful of this as you commit to this process together. Additionally, you can provide clarification about what they can reasonably expect (or not). This promotes a sense of safety and trust with those who are in attendance, especially if they are still uncertain about what they’ve gotten themselves into! You don’t want participants to feel like they have been tricked or misled or become frustrated when their expectations are not met.

I would also recommend differentiating between safety and comfort with participants. Many white folks confuse discomfort with feeling unsafe. This type of work requires white folks to examine the ways race and racism have impacted their own identity, beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors, often in ways that are at odds with how we see ourselves (good people who aren’t racist). This is rarely an easy or comfortable experience and often feels very unsafe to white people. Leaders need to encourage participants that this journey requires authenticity, humility, courage, honesty, and perseverance even when they feel anxious, confused, defensive, and sometimes unsafe.

Leaders and facilitators of repurposed space must be committed to creating a safe environment for white folks to do uncomfortable work. In turn, white folks must be willing to struggle with the ways they focus on the need to feel safe in order to avoid being destabilized and uncomfortable, important aspects of learning and transformation.

If we’re going to talk about how HARD this work is, then by all means let’s also talk about the joy of this journey! There are many reasons we are committed to this journey so talk about these, too—a true sense of community, a more just and equitable society, human flourishing that doesn’t come at the expense of others, a deeper relationship with God, liberation and freedom, the ability to celebrate and enjoy each other even in the midst of suffering—these are just a few of the profound gifts that come to mind for me personally. Be sure to explore this with your community as you take the plunge and enter into repurposed space together.

I’d love to hear your own suggestions and advice for how best to facilitate repurposed space for white people committed to racial justice and reconciliation. And be sure to join me for later installments of this series. In Part III I will recommend topics and resources I have found helpful when it comes to facilitating repurposed space.

Brandy Liebscher