by Sara, workshop participant
It’s hard to know what to do about racism. As a white person, the whole systemic institutionalization of racism and slavery in our prison industrial complex and in our police stations and courts (and media and neighborhoods and homes and brains) seems so enormous. What can one person do when so many people before me—smarter and more capable—haven’t seemed to make a dent?
This is the state of mind I was in, as a middle-aged burned out activist, when I sat down at the table for the PJALS Anti Racism Workshop on October 6th.
I was grateful there were so many other white people at the table with me, willing to try. Often I’ve attended such workshops where the white people were in the minority and I’d always think, things aren’t going to change until more white people start speaking up about racism, start realizing all the ways our own words and actions and assumptions are themselves sometimes racist, even without us intending them to be. That we outnumbered the people of color at the table this time gave me a sense of hope, like maybe things have gotten bad enough that now even white folk are starting to stand up in greater numbers. It shouldn’t all be on people of color to attend to it when it’s white people’s racism that started all this and when it’s white people who continue to benefit from racism’s legacy whether we intend to or not. We ought to be the ones who do something about the mess our ancestors created for entire races of nonwhite people. Much in the same way that sexism is really a male problem not a female problem, since men are the ones being sexist; so too is racism really a white person problem, given we’re the ones with the social power to be committing it.
I was also heartened by the generous tenor of the conversation at the table—that there were so many times during which everyone at the table was laughing together at someone’s comment or shared experience because we could all relate–like maybe we were all in it together, somehow. It felt cathartic just to be in a room with people of color, trying to talk about race, and having the shared moment of listening to someone’s experience, finding humor in it together all in the same instant. Like we’re all just people, in the end, who happen to have different color skin, but we’re all pulling in the same direction, hopefully helping each other get there. That alone felt important, just to have those fleeting moments of solidarity and shared humanity.
But the part that stood out most to me was when the facilitator asked the people of color the things about their racial identity that they feel proud about. The responses flowed abundantly about legacies and aspects of their cultures and their bodies that they find beautiful. I listened in agreement, having long admired those same things from their cultures. Meanwhile, all the white people at the table knew what was coming and when asked the same question, there was kind of an awkward silence among us. I was able for the first time in my life to say out loud to a room full of people that not only do I have no memory of ever being proud of my white race, but that for as long as I can remember, even as a kid, I’ve only ever felt shame in what white people, as a whole race of people, have done in this world.
This shame was all too present again when, the following day, I watched Ana DuVernay’s anticipated newly released Netflix documentary, 13th, about the 13th Amendment’s supposed abolition of slavery and the subsequent prison industrial complex that was systematically built in its place. I fought back tears at the end of the film as I have at so many such moments in my white-privileged life and wondered whether and how a room full of twenty-some earnest people in a place like Spokane could begin to make a dent.