About this time two years ago, I was walking around with a lot of questions: about race, about equity, about social justice and my responsibility as a member of a local and global community. While out in public places together, I observed how well I was treated compared to my friends with brown skin. I listened to students I tutored and mentored as they described experiencing racist remarks and acts at school. One day a friend came to me wondering if he was denied a promotion because of his brown skin or the fact that English is not his first language. Or maybe both.
How do I begin to understand these issues more deeply? What is my role, as a white American of European descent, in working to address the injustices embedded in my culture? Do I even have a role? And, how do I go about even discussing this? My daughter suggested I take the Peace & Justice Center’s Building Empathy: Addressing Racial Oppression workshop to begin to explore these questions. She had attended the workshop series a few months previously and thought the content, approach and space for conversation would be helpful.
The workshop provided multiple pathways to engage with my questions. Prior to each of the three sessions, the workshop leaders sent out “homework,” current and relevant articles, videos, and audio files for us to explore. During the session, we engaged with the material through paired, small group and whole group discussion, activities and role plays. The first session focused primarily on the self, including digging into why conversations about race are so difficult and strategies for engaging in these hard conversations without shame or guilt. I learned about the ways white people are socialized to think of racism as individual prejudice and acts performed by morally bad people. Talking about race assumes a moral judgment of being a bad person. Understanding this enabled me to be more open to feelings of discomfort, listening to others’ perspectives, and responding curiously, rather than out of guilt or shame.
So, if racism is not solely individual prejudice and actions, then what does it entail? In the second session we explored racism within community. This included discussion of the ways that white culture (behaviors, beliefs, values and norms) are considered the norm. We discussed how white culture became ingrained in the way government and social systems developed throughout history in ways that continue to affect how people of different races experience those systems. For homework, we wrote a racial identity journal: How did we learn about race? Was there a defining moment or memory that our current understanding could be traced back to? This enabled me to reflect on my experiences growing up in rural, white Vermont, to understand the ways I had and (mostly) had not been challenged to understand my privileges as a person of the dominant white culture.
The last session focused on ways to take action including, for me, powerful role play activities that invited me to build empathy skills. One scenario involved taking a car to a local auto mechanic, an integral member of the community, who complains about “immigrants coming in, living on welfare, while we work hard for our money.” I played the mechanic and channeled an older family member who’d been orphaned as a child, fostered out as farm labor, and worked long and hard to create better conditions for his own family. A certain humility runs through his thinking, along the lines of “I’m nothing special, yet worked hard and made it, why can’t everyone else?” In response to this, my partner seemed sympathetic, said something like “Yes, I see you did and do work hard, and that means a lot to you,” followed by asking more detailed questions. The power of her listening, of being heard, allowed the conversation to continue at length. My partner refrained from responding with a lecture or statistics about the value immigrants bring to a community in an effort to “teach” me the “right” way of thinking, leaving the door open for true dialogue. Perhaps the best outcome from the workshop came a few months afterwards, when I went to a family gathering where racial and social justice topics came up. I put into practice the techniques I’d role played, listening and engaging with other perspectives. At the close of the conversation, someone said, “Isn’t it good that we can talk about these things, despite our differences.” Yes.
I’m still walking around with a lot of questions. Yet, I feel more skillful and confident engaging in dialogue, stepping up to use my privilege to promote social justice, and productively learning from my mistakes, and for that, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Building Empathy workshop.
By Karin Ames