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The Origins of Beyond the Culture of Separation

Oakland, CA has seen more than its share of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people. The response to the killing of Oscar Grant by BART police was pivotal in galvanizing a national movement against what its organizers call, police terrorism. In 2013, the failure to convict George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin provided a cruel reminder of how difficult it can be to achieve justice for victims of racial terror. In response to Zimmerman’s acquittal, a few black women community leaders invited concerned folks together to process our collective heartbreak and anger over the seeming impossibility of justice. A number of white people were present at Impact Hub Oakland holding space for the anguish of those more directly impacted. Some were asking what we can do. One answer to this was painfully clear: black and brown people will never be safe until white people like ourselves do our work to expose and confront the roots of anti-black violence in our own culture.

For generations, black and brown activists have been calling on white-identified people to educate ourselves and each other. And, while a lot of good work has been done, there is a great deal more to do. In response to this latest call from our dear friends, three of us, Gregory Mengel, a white man, Elana Isaacs, a white women, and Angela Sevin, a white woman, came together to create a curriculum and a class to help nudge the work forward. In our class series, “Beyond the Culture of Separation: Whiteness and the Embodiment of a New Story,” we invite other white-identified people to get grounded in our history, and begin to explore our internalized white supremacist cultural conditioning. It is crucial, of course, that we understand that white people invented racism and benefit materially from the terror it sanctions and therefore must play a central role in transforming it. However, it is also crucial that we recognize the spiritual price we have paid in our disconnection from each other and from ourselves. We believe therefore that healing our society from white supremacy is not only our responsibility, but also our only hope for wholeness.

Our moment

By some accounts, a black person in the United States is killed by police, security guards or vigilantes every 28 hours. The U.S. also leads the world in producing a special breed of alienated, angry young white men who commit mass murder. Only a few weeks ago these two intersected in the horrific act of racial terror at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. It may seem to some people that the current epidemic of terror against black bodies is a recent phenomenon. History, however, reveals a disturbing continuity in the dominant white culture’s disregard for black life. The main thing that’s changed is that smart phones and social media are now making it more difficult for white people to ignore or deny the reality that black and brown folks know too well. And, as a result of this new level of awareness, there is evidence that the conversation is actually beginning to develop in a constructive direction. It is early yet, but there are inklings that we may be ready to move beyond simply identifying racist persons and organizations and to consider the culture of white supremacy, itself, which lives, in some form, in the consciousness of every white person in this society.

Beyond the Culture of Separation

Beyond the Culture of Separation (BCS) aims to take advantage of this moment of racial awakening to invite more white people to participate in this collective transformation. What the three of us are attempting entails substantial challenges, of course. For one, despite an increasingly widespread understanding of racism as systemic and institutional, white people are deeply conditioned to look for the causes of racialized violence in individuals. It is easy to express outrage at George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson because it allows us to maintain our identities as the “good white people.” Few of us are eager to examine our collective complicity in this violence. When we do, we are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame. This is actually part of the cost of whiteness. As theologian and philosopher Thandeka argues, part of “learning to be white” is learning the many ways in which we are “not enough” and “wrong.” Not even white-skinned people can live up to the ideals of whiteness.

The psychodynamics of shame have become integral to the way white people participate in conversations about racism. Many of us have experienced antiracist programs designed to get white people to confess their privilege and acknowledge their racism. Such programs often (and not without reason) assume participants’ unwillingness to confront white supremacy and tell them: “take your medicine. It may be nasty, but it’s better than being a target of racism.” When shame and guilt inevitably arise, they’re told that such feelings are self-indulgent and useless.

The BCS approach to feelings is different. While we recognize the critical importance of taking responsibility for our privilege and the history that produced it, responsibility is not the same thing as blame. Moreover, while we agree that indulging shame and guilt is unhelpful, we also believe that bypassing our feelings actually reinforces white supremacy. Rejected or unprocessed feelings can become triggers and psychological projections that end up creating more separation. Dealing with feelings must therefore be part of the healing. This work is complicated, however, by white cultural norms that tell us to keep our feelings private. While it’s OK to discuss them, it’s considered unseemly to be seen having them. One must “keep it together.” BCS, however, is convinced that we cannot connect with each other or ourselves without the space to be vulnerable and to tell the truth about ourselves. We, therefore, strive to create a space that’s safe enough for feelings to be felt and expressed.

Another key challenge of this work is that white people have been conditioned to valorize rational knowledge over the kind of knowledge that resides in the body and within the community. Many white folks become preoccupied trying to perfect their intellectual analysis, partly to maintain a sense of control and partly to avoid shame. Thus armed, these folks may then appoint themselves racial justice warriors and set out to prove their “good white person” status by calling out less “enlightened” white people.

BCS meets this challenge through our emphasis on embodied knowledge, including an analysis of its importance. The dominant cultural narrative sees the human as, in essence, a disembodied mind with perfect control of his thoughts and feelings and complete dominance over his body. Decades of research on implicit cognition, contradicts this story, revealing that people have all sorts of assumptions, preferences, and biases over which they have no awareness, much less direct control. The mind, it seems, resides in and arises from the body as a whole, and much of how we interact with the world is shaped outside of conscious awareness. For this reason, the class incorporates processes that invite participants’ whole selves into the learning process. We engage different parts of participants’ bodies and minds by including creative, movement-based activities such as body sculptures, skits, and role-plays.

In “Beyond the Culture of Separation” we are trying to meet the challenges of healing white supremacy by combining a rigorous curriculum with an invitation to white-identified people to ground themselves in their longing for personal and collective healing. We believe they already have the wisdom and strength they need. What we offer is a chance for our participants to develop an integrated awareness of how we have been shaped by our history and our cultural stories; to feel what we’ve been afraid to feel about racial injustice and white terrorism; and to develop a supportive community in which to practice radical self-love while standing in a new story of what it can mean to be white in the United States.