letters
to an unknown audience
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~
Dept. of White Privilege/  /November 11, 2002

Friday through Sunday this weekend an amazingly attentive, compassionate man, Marc Weinblatt, proprietor (?) of the Olympic peninsula's Mandala Center for Change, met co-facilitator Tricia Wagner in the city to lead myself and twenty-one other amazingly distinct, powerful, clear people in a workshop called "Anti-Racism for White Folks," using techniques from the Theatre of the Oppressed.

Like some of the others, I was skeptical that a bunch of white folks in a room could come to any productive understanding about racism—and surely, a mixed workshop would be at least as valuable—but the experience had some moments of enlightenment. Because we were all white people, we had a certain license to fuck up, There was less pressure to be "politically" correct: it was OK to admit to, and discuss, our racism without, as Marc said, "re-wounding" anyone.

What I did not learn was anything new about black people's impressions of me as a white person, nor did I learn anything new about my own impressions (and biases) (and misapprehensions) about people of color. (I did come around to the need for the cumbersome phrase, "people of color," more on which in a future post.)

More to the point, I did learn something about my role as a white person in relation to race. Even as someone very aware of racism and very interested in ameliorating that injustice, I (no doubt like some of my readers) have long tried to simplify the issue by asserting that we can just open our eyes and see each other for who we are (or else we simply can't in which case it's fruitless and we're better spending time cooking and building houses).

Instead, racism is a system of perceptions that surrounds all of us. White people are not "perpetrators" of racism, but its "agents": we carry it out, like the slaves that built the pyramids, not out of our own desire, but because of an organization that surrounds us.

Even this will sound passe to a lot of white folks. A further realization, then: that we (as a whole society) cannot simply wait for oppressed groups to state an articulate complaint. I had thought that it was enough to try to adjust when a complaint was lodged. But internalized oppression keeps many of the "targets" of oppression from feeling the right to take up space (in conversation, e.g.). I connected with this fact via my own shyness, my own unwillingness (at one time) to take up space, to destroy the track of a conversation with my messy, inchoate thoughts. Then there is the issue of language, of ability to describe the misapprehensions we undergo. Targets of oppression can be blocked even from stating a complaint, even before a white man moves to repress it.

On the whole, I was transformed by the workshop (bloggers' chilled irony be damned): I was repeatedly surprised by the adroitly attuned sensitivities of the group, and the safety and power of the so-called "container" that our facilitators created. Take a workshop from Marc or Tricia if you have the chance, or find a way to do Theatre of the Oppressed wherever you are.

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