Exploring Racial Literacy Together
People connect to discuss seminal book
by Drew Dixon
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-18 edition of The Review newspaper.
Since January, more than a dozen “Breaking White Silence” groups have met in homes, churches, synagogues, and Greenwood community spaces. These groups have hosted transforming “consciousness raising” conversations through the discussion of the book What Does It Mean to be White? by Dr. Robin DiAngelo.
Robin is a lecturer at the University of Washington, but has received national attention for her work in multiculturalism, anti-racism, and particularly studies on white race.
She has won awards for her teaching and provided consulting for many different organizations.
What Does it Mean to be White? is Robin’s introduction to “White Racial Literacy” in which she builds upon her vast research to provide a common framework for white people to talk about race and diversity while reflecting on their own racial identity.
Many group participants highlighted the “good/bad binary” concept, which assumes that everyone with racism is bad and anyone good has no racism.
Robin debunks this binary by demonstrating that racism is not primarily an ideology to be judged, but rather a reality to be aware of.
One participant observed how the book gave him greater awareness, “White people think that race is not in the room until a person of color walks in. But we have race. Not being aware of it is part of white privilege.”
While the book is ultimately academic, providing concepts and information, it also calls for deep personal reflection which is supported by the groups that have formed.
The “Breaking White Silence” groups were started by Cecily Kaplan, a PNA staff member at Greenwood Senior Center, and Karen Schneider, a Greenwood resident and local activist.
For a decade, Karen had seen racial inequality while working with families in transitional housing. “I witnessed firsthand the barriers that people had around health care, education, and housing. That was so disturbing to me and I wondered, ‘What can I do?’”
After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Karen attended a Black Lives Matter rally where a black pastor told her that the best way to help black lives was talking with white people.
Less than a year later, after the Charleston shooting, PNA Staff organized a series of events called “Difficult Conversations,” one which featured Robin, which Karen also attended. Cecily and Karen left the event feeling energized, equipped, and inspired to establish these book groups.
Karen invited a friend, Mary Holscher, to join the planning committee. Mary, who has a biracial daughter, explained that, though she has thought much about the relationship between black people and white people in America, it was not until participating in these groups that she thought deeply about whiteness.
She described her worries about racial tensions in America and wonders what kind of country her grandkids will inherit. Though she usually prefers art to activism, she felt drawn to participate and learn. “I like to think of learning as a form of action,” she said.
Mary invited Walter McGerry, a psychotherapist, to participate as well.
Though he has taught about race and psychotherapy at Antioch University, Walter described how the book made him aware of whiteness and more attuned to people of color in his life. “I was the classic ‘colorblind’ person who was just not aware of their experience,” he shared. Walter established a group for fellow psychotherapists who continue to meet and consult together.
Many have expressed that becoming aware of their own bias has led to freedom. Karen explained, “It’s very liberating because now I have a level of humility and understanding that I didn’t have before. We’re all in this together.” Mary reflected on her experience, “I’m really aware of the power of invitation. Karen invited me. I invited Walter. It’s all about reaching out in a personal way and being willing to talk.”
As new groups begin soon, you too are invited to break white silence. After all, we’re in this together.
To learn about PNA’s organizational Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion work, go here.