The White Conversation on Race

By Carla Murphy Dec 09, 2014

With the national uproar surrounding the unpunished police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, some white Americans say they are rethinking the lack of diversity in their lives–and the work they need to do to help create social change that lasts.

Take Philadelphia artist Katherine Fritz. In her attempt to understand events in Ferguson, she stumbled upon a 2013 national survey finding that white American social circles tend to be 91 percent white. Intrigued, she tested this finding in her own life. A self-described liberal who uses the term "micro-aggressions," she was surprised to find that her social circle is 91.5 percent white.

"Whites can live, love, study, work, play and die in segregation," says "Whiteness Studies" scholar Robin DiAngelo, "and still profess that race has no meaning in their lives."

But something appears to be shifting in that in the weeks since news broke that there’d be no indictment in Officer Darren Wilson’s case. Dara Silverman of Showing Up for Racial Justice {SURJ}, a six-year-old national network organizing whites for racial justice, is now managing conference calls with up to 500 new callers from around the country. In coming weeks, they’re planning more than 50 white-led demonstrations that’ll take place in largely white communities. "This is unprecedented," Silverman says of the upsurge of interest.

Intentional conversations about racism–by whites, for whites and not of the KKK variety–are happening across the country. I spoke with a few community leaders about why it’s important that whites talk race and racism with one another and how those intra-group conversations could be better. Everyone has a different approach; what follows isn’t exhaustive or one-size-fits-all. And, no, un-friending people on Facebook didn’t make the Do list. 

‘Deal With the Upset’

For white people who’re trying to understand why their reactions to race conversations are so fraught, DiAngelo’s concept of "white fragility," is one way to get there. Although coined in a 2011 journal article, the term came into popular use this July in Seattle to describe whites’ inability to bear even civil criticism of a production featuring Japanese characters played by an all-white cast.

DiAngelo says that’s because white Americans live in spaces that protect them from race-based stress, "so we just fall apart around [the slightest] challenge to our racial reality." She continues, "The average white person who notices some racism [from another white person] won’t say anything and that’s because we don’t want to deal with the upset."

Amy Hunter is an African-American woman who four years ago founded a whites-only "Witnessing Whiteness" discussion group at her St. Louis YWCA. She says she’s busier than ever now. But she operates from the premise that "white people have conversations all the time that are racist"–and her groups are grounded in the same idea. Led for nine weeks by white facilitators, the groups examine how racism works in each participant’s life and then they work on unlearning it with their families and in their churches, neighborhoods and workplaces.

"The real goal of the groups is that they go back out into the white community and work with people who look like them. That is the intent," Hunter says. "We have people who’re now holding race conversations in their churches. We’ve seen the impact be pretty positive."

It’s Your Problem, Not Theirs

SURJ members often engage in direct action around issues affecting communities of color in their home cities. "We’ve been hearing from people of color in Ferguson that it’s exhausting to constantly be educating white people," Silverman says. So with the recent surge in new members, Silverman says that it’s important to pair "white people who’ve been working on and thinking about race with those who haven’t been. They help prepare them."

Also, Silverman adds, "I have racism within me. I have thoughts that are racist. Forgive the metaphor but sometimes racism is like vomit. You can’t hold it back–and it’s so much better to do that with another white person than with a person of color and having them clean it up."

One of Katherine Fritz’s close friends is Mormon and she lives in a "small, very white" community in Illinois. "I think her definition of ‘racist’ was confined to the history books–like, ‘A racist is someone who wears a white hood and is overt in their hatred,’ " she says via e-mail. "I shared Kiese Laymon’s recent [Vassar College] piece with her and I think it was a really eye-opening experience. She posted it on her Facebook page and it made me feel like, ‘Wow, Okay. She heard [his] voice, she learned something.’ I think, this was partly a result of the discussion we’ve been having," says Fritz, who had been educating her friend about systemic racism.

"Bad" White People Won’t Just Disappear

For whites, DiAngelo says, "A racist is a bad person. Racism becomes about individual acts by individual people who’re bad." So "good" whites tend to self-segregate from "bad" whites.

But "dividing yourself between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ whites isn’t progress," says Hunter. Echoing a recent Huffington Post plea, she strongly discourages un-friending on Facebook because of the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson case. "I have no doubt Darren Wilson’s a good guy," Hunter says she recently told a group of high-school students. "What I’m trying to change is the system where he’s been trained to unload his clip. What I’m trying to change is a system that says big black people are scary and you need to handle them a certain way. Darren Wilson did exactly what he was trained to do." Hunter’s focus is on helping whites to change each other’s beliefs and patterns–not in perpetuating more separation in an already segregated country. 

Silverman says whites need to step it up: "We want to move towards white people who’re trying to figure things out–even if that means we get a bit of their vomit on us," Silverman says. "People of color get vomited on with this shit all the time. It’s our responsibility to step it up and show up even in those spaces where it’s hard and uncomfortable. That’s the work."