This winter I participated in an anti-racism seminar for white people called Doing Our Own Work, because I won a scholarship through People’s Church and I was curious. But as the days drew closer, I began to panic. Why will I be putting myself through six days of guilt and shame? This sounds scary and uncomfortable. I’m not racist. I don’t need this! Or so I thought.
Doing Our Own Work is the 25-year project of Melanie Morrison, founder and executive director of the East Lansing-based Allies for Change, a national network of social justice educators. She also is author of the recently published Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham. Morrison co-facilitated the six day-training, spread out over three months, with Emily Joye McGaughy and Michele McGowen at People’s Church. Dionardo Pizaña was a guest facilitator.
One of our first tasks was to examine “The Ladder” of anti-racism awareness. On the lower rungs white people see ourselves as “normal” and “right.” Moving up from there, we recognize that we are not alone, but don’t understand why we can’t all just get along. Then comes denial/defensiveness and guilt/shame—knowing inequality exists and either believing it’s not our problem or feeling powerless to do anything about it. Finally comes collective action in a community of love and resistance.
I realized that I had been stuck somewhere in the middle of denial/defensiveness and guilt/shame for many, many years. This is where many white people get stuck.
With the gentle nudging of our co-facilitators, I got a glimpse of how oppressive systems hurt whites, not just people of color. I felt for the first time a profound loss of being taught a limited, disembodied, black-and-white world view. I grieved the loss of wisdom, authentic relationships and connection in a segregated society.
I came to understand that living in a racist culture is a lot like traveling on a moving walkway. Standing still doesn’t stop the momentum of a culture rooted in inequality. We continue to benefit from the advantages of being white, at the expense of people of color. Only by choosing to walk in the opposite direction can we hope to make a change.
Throughout our lives we slide up and down the ladder of anti-racism awareness, and can be on several rungs at once. My fledgling hope is that
I can continue to climb the ladder, take responsibility, and somehow work collectively toward building a community of love and resistance. I have no expectations other than continue to stumble, but hopefully in a direction that brings less harm and more equality. People of color have been doing this for generations. It is our turn to dismantle racism. I am still afraid,
but it is worth it.
Because I am a member of the Religious Education Committee at People’s Church, I hope to bring some of my new awareness to our children’s programs, perhaps by helping start an anti-racism discussion group for parents. We are open to ideas so please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to share in this experience.
—Elizabeth Huff Willis