Waking up to racism must be vocal

by Christine Wagner


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Once you wake up, can you wake up anymore?

- Anonymous

As a white person, what happens when you make the conscious decision to stare racism in the face, to wake up? What happens when you make a commitment to be vocal and call out racism when you see it? As a white woman, heading an agency that has made a commitment to rout out racism, I am learning the consequences, personally and institutionally, of these two actions.

Jumping off of two years of internal staff discussions on personal and institutional racism, our agency invited a few partner agencies to join us in a two-year drill-down to unearth and work to eliminate racism in our structures. Of particular importance was the discovery of how racist policies and culture could be affecting the clients we serve.

To our surprise, as it became known in the community that this opportunity existed, we were deluged with requests by agencies asking if they could be a part of the initiative. The numbers swelled to almost 200 individuals representing 29 agencies. Our approach needed to be re- thought — venue, budget, program elements; days were filled with building an organizational infrastructure to handle logistics and communications.

Two questions occupied the organizers. First, what generated this huge response? Why, for example, were a large group from a university and  a staff of two from a tiny agency committing themselves to two years of introspective, hard work? Why were an ad agency and a community foundation sending their entire staff to this potentially difficult and transformative experience?

Some groups had leaders known for their dedication to race work who grabbed the opportunity for a deep, agency-wide look. Others had gone the route of one-day workshops and were frustrated at remaining on a surface level. Others wanted the courage and skills to even begin difficult conversations about race in their workplaces. Many were paying attention to local data linking severe poverty, trauma and racism, knowing this was the time to act.

Our second question focused on how to construct the effort to rout out the dark heart of racism. There was no road map for what we had agreed to do together. No multi-race group this large had ever been assembled in our community to be purposefully transparent and honest about the reality of racism among us. Resources were put together to provide common context. Orientation sessions were held to share schedule and ground rules and basics like where to park.

I became aware that, necessary as it was, this organizational work could be a safe and comfortable disguise of competence. If I was not careful, I could immerse myself in the organizational work and be so busy I would never do the much harder race work. And even sadder, no one would challenge me.

As of August 2017, we are in the middle of the initiative, which consists of four all-day sessions for all participants, spaced at six month intervals. Dr. Kenneth Hardy from Drexel University was engaged to facilitate the three input sessions. Hardy is an internationally renowned clinician who specializes in addressing the intersecting areas of trauma, poverty and oppression. His clear challenge is to be honest, courageously introspective and fearlessly vocal in calling out racism — even when you don't think you have the right words.

Hardy introduced the acronym SHAME, particularly for white people who wait to speak until we have just the right words. He proposed that by operating on the "Should Have Already Mastered Everything" principle and not speaking, we do more harm by omission than if we had called out injustice clumsily.         

Between sessions, each agency is expected to take the inspiration, tools and experience they learned and do their "homework" with their colleagues. What racism-related goal can we set for our agency work? How will the difficult conversations around race be introduced and facilitated? How is a safe space created in which to have these conversations? Are we really listening deeply to each other from a non-defensive stance?

With great generosity, a group of 12 professional consultants and coaches, with training and experience in facilitating race work, offered their services free to all participating agencies. Individuals skilled in data collection and evaluation offered their services so that we might have valuable analysis at the end of the initiative. Others in the community are exploring ways to replicate this experience at the level of boards of directors, police and government departments and the city school district.          

All of this is good and is in process. But I "woke up" to the possibility that these expanding opportunities also present seductive temptations to fall back into the safe world of organization, conveniently leaving little time for the real work of introspection, evaluation and transformation.

So what about this waking up question? I am a white woman in my mid-60s. I come from an urban, working family background. I have a high level of education and am a member of a religious congregation. I spent 10 years doing community organizing and social justice work for the church on the diocesan level and for my congregation. I now realize I have been so soundly asleep on the real issues of race and my own privilege, it is a wonder I could be roused.

I woke up when one of my black colleagues described her decision not to take her children Easter shopping at a certain upscale mall. A racial incident had recently happened there, and she anticipated the derision, suspicion and discrimination that would be aimed at all people of color as a consequence. She was protecting her children from the "you don't belong here" message. I was profoundly disturbed by this story. It is the first time I truly saw that the evil of racism pounds at people of color every minute of every day and defenses can never be let down. I also realized that I could never, ever know the depths of this suffering because I am not black.

I woke up again when a Muslim colleague described the racist, hateful remarks addressed to her by one of our patients. I was sick to think that this had happened within our walls. I had to reassure her that she does not have to tolerate abuse, and has the right to dismiss her patient for such behavior.

I woke up again when I was privileged to attend the first meeting of a group of black mental health providers. I could feel the justified suspicion at my presence. All had assumed this would be a safe meeting free of white people — caution and filters were evident. The organizer declared me an ally who had done her work and that they were safe with me. By now I had learned that the caution was warranted as a way to stay alive and safe.

Yes, we can and must keep waking up to the realities of our world and of our brothers and sisters, and now mine must be a vocal waking. I have begun to wake up to the fact that I have no right to be silent in the face of discrimination, segregation, threats, exclusion, privilege, misused power and all the other ways that racism rears its head. Thank God the alarm went off.

[Christine Wagner, Ph. D., is a Sister of St. Joseph of Rochester, New York. She is the executive director of St. Joseph's Neighborhood Center in Rochester, which provides health care, counseling and other services for the uninsured.]