Thoughts on an anti-racism course just for white people
By John Henderson, M.Div. ’16
As we celebrate Black History Month, I offer this reflection about my experience in a recent course offered to students on MTSO’s campus – Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Intensive for White People, taught by Dr. Melanie Morrison, founder and executive director of Allies for Change, a network of educators and activists who share a passion for social justice. I was fortunate to be one of 12 white students of a variety of ages and genders who took this course during the January Term.
For some, it might seem counterproductive to offer a course focused on recognizing white privilege and developing strategies to interrupt racism with no people of color to share in the dialogue. I had my own doubts, but I now believe the kinds of discussions modeled during the week-long intensive class – while certainly not the only conversations necessary – must take place in our churches, our communities, our schools and our families in order for us to move forward toward any significant progress and change.
I believe that we are at a moment in our nation’s history in which white people – a people with historic power over others – must understand their place within movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that seek to end the systemic problem of racism. We have a role to play in reshaping a country that continues to discard black and brown bodies through racial profiling, mass incarceration and police brutality.
Over the course of five full days, our class began the deep work of understanding our collective power and privilege, acknowledging systemic racism, claiming an anti-racist identity and developing strategies for dismantling racism in our daily lives.
What I quickly learned is that this is a collective problem that requires collective solutions within communities such as the one that we would form throughout the week. What I learned is that knowledge of our collective experiences is critical for the work of anti-racism – not just within multiracial communities, but also within all-white communities and institutions.
As white people, it is often easy for us to distance ourselves from the past: Since we didn’t do it, we don’t have to deal with it (that’s been my experience, at least). What I realize now is that “we” does not mean “me.” For me, “we” means “white.” And for many, “white” means “power.”
As a young white male, I entered the class with trepidation and reluctance, thinking that what I would learn in the coming days would be everything I had heard before. I prepared for the white guilt that I would likely feel as I was reminded of my own power and privilege and the hopelessness that I would likely feel under the weight of unattainable solutions.
One of the first exercises in which we engaged as a class was the creation of a “Wall of History.” On a large sheet of paper, we constructed a timeline of racial oppression in America. Opposite the examples of racial violence, we listed examples of resistance. The examples of resistance gave us hope, but they also reminded us of our collective silence and the work still left for us to do.
As a progressive Christian, I like to think that I stand on the side of the oppressed, as Jesus would have wanted. I claim that I’m not like “those” people – you know, the ones who call names and look down on others because of their race or cultural background. In fact, I often refer to myself as an “ally” and “activist.” But, as I was reminded, I have not yet put in the hard work required to deserve these self-identified titles.
Out of defense, along with a chorus of other white voices, my rally cry has become, “I am not racist!” while people of color cry out things like, “Black Lives Matter!” and, “I can’t breathe!” And still, I expect to be trusted. I expect to be trusted although I have done little to earn their trust. Dr. Morrison urged us to think of the term “ally” as a verb, not a noun. It’s a title earned in the doing, not the declaring.
So far, my seminary journey at MTSO has been one of self-discovery – what does it mean for me to be a white, educated, Christian male born and raised in the Midwestern United States? The outcome of my experience in this course was no different.
Over the course of five days, I came a few steps closer to more fully understanding my identity as a white male living in the context of contemporary American society. America’s history is my history. The actions of white men in power are a piece of my story, a piece that I cannot ignore. Unless I do my own work and quit hiding behind voices of color, I will only continue the perpetuation of this nation’s unjust history and the racial divide that continues to deepen today.
I’ve just begun my final semester as a Master of Divinity student at MTSO, knowing that as a young white male entering into ministry, it would be very easy for me to leave this work for someone else. I begin this semester knowing that for some, this work is not a choice, but life.
As I begin this semester, I carry with me Dr. Morrision’s reminder that we are here to do “soul work.” We are here to examine the wounds of racism, claim an anti-racist white identity and walk with each other so that we ultimately build anti-racist, multicultural communities in our churches, in our schools and in our homes.