Writer and commentator S. Pearl Sharp recently attended a meeting of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE), an all-white organization dedicated to understanding feelings about race. She shares an essay on what she learned:
AWARE is the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere. The group meets once a month, for three hours. Their mission is "to create Radical White Communities which contribute to the larger movement for racial, social and economic justice that works toward the abolition of the White Supremacist System and all systems based on supremacy." Whew! That's a tall order. It was "anti-racist skill building" in their blurb that made me curious enough to spend a Saturday afternoon with them.
When I arrive, they are gathering at a Latino Methodist church near downtown Los Angeles. The windows are open in the large community room, and the neighborhood spills in: the high voices of grandmothers minding the children, the rev of motorcycles beneath tattooed, pierced young men, the warped ding-dangle of an ice cream truck.
There are 17 people in the circle. They range from crew-cut to spiked hair with neon pink tips. Some are new to the group, some have been coming for five or six months. A college student and her mom often come together.
First, everyone "checks in." The guideline for this is written on the blackboard. "In the past month I have felt (blank) about my whiteness."
And during that month, a young high school teacher recognized that he is resentful about fellowships and grants for his African-American colleagues that he can't apply for. He had challenged an African-American woman about needing more programs for white people. "She was clearly uncomfortable about it," he states. "I have to figure out how to be more... empathetic." Shelley, another teacher and one of the group's organizers, celebrates becoming very open about her whiteness. She quips, "It's my standard opening question on a first date: 'How do you feel about your whiteness?'" Everyone laughs. A few seats away, Lisa seems hesitant to speak. She is feeling alone about her whiteness with, apparently, no one to challenge her and to help her grow, until recently, when she met someone who feels the same way. Now they "feel the aloneness together."
Another woman admits that she was telling a friend about AWARE, but when she realized an African-American was within earshot, she became "careful." And here I am, trying to be inconspicuous — the only black person in the room, sitting against a bright pink wall, with a tape recorder.
Cameron Levin, one of two founders of AWARE, has worked extensively in similar organizations where, he felt, white people were taught to rely on blacks in order to do their work on racism. Cameron thinks whites need to do it for themselves. "One thing about socialization and race is we have a race. And so for us we've got to deal with that first, and then develop a better practice."
"Dealing with it" means, for Cameron and the group, focusing on their white identity. In an earlier phone conversation he explained "If you understand your identity, then the practice of not being racist is easier. Through AWARE, we're moving to establish a 'radical white identity' that is consistent with our racial values."
Words bounce around the room — "entitlement," "white privilege," "supremacist" — but I can't seem to wrap my brain around this "radical white identity" thing, since I come from those generations of colored folks who submerged much of their identity because it proved to be both beneficial and safer to assimilate.
The group's work around radical white identity is to recognize the "negative historical implications of whiteness," then create a sort of white sub-culture of folks who can be white without the bad press because they have eliminated their own supremacist behavior. I'm trying to tune in to the song here, but I'm not sure I can hear the melody. Scholars have thoroughly documented that there was no racial identity — only an ethnic one —- prior to the colonization of Africa. Racial identity was created to support white supremacy in the first place. I want to raise my hand and shout this out, but everyone is now standing in the middle of the room, ready for an exercise.
They are tackling the subject of the day, the volatile Immigration Reform Bill currently in Congress. A statement is posed, then each person moves to either the "agree" side of the room, or the "disagree" side.
Statement: "Most immigrants coming to this country have it better here than in the countries they came from." Some have to think about their move. Some change their minds and scoot across the room to the other side. No one can stay in the middle, which is as frustrating for those here as it must be for some members of Congress.
After dialog around a half-dozen statements, the circle re-assembles and members share the concerns that have come up over the last two hours. Cameron points out that what seems like uncertainty may be fear.
"When you have fear, how do you challenge your fear? asks Cameron.
"But there's this healthy aspect of fear." A slim blonde woman is speaking. "There's a reason why you're afraid, and fear motivates you."
That's the word that I've been hearing the most this afternoon, even when it was unspoken. Fear. Not the "all them colored boys want is a white woman" fear that resulted in whites lynching hundreds of blacks during the first half of the last century. Not the fear that was generated during the '60s when blacks began to discover their beauty and their heritage and hair, and we could intimidate whites with huge Afros and at-ti-tudes.
This is an "I'm afraid of myself" kind of fear. People recognizing and analyzing their own darkness, the recesses, the family histories, the look-in-the-mirror secrets, and making discoveries about themselves that they don't necessarily like. One of the members stated: "If we can't be honest and look at what is inside, how can we grow?"
"So what role does the fear play for you? Cameron asks. "How does it serve you?"
The woman responds "It kind of enables me to check, like, the gap between the heart and the head."
This session ends with each person stating one word that describes where they are now, in this room, in this moment. The mix of anticipation and uncertainty that hovered over the room three hours ago is gone. Some have been re-energized by the work this afternoon. But I am surprised by the words from others that fall quietly into the circle, like "unsettled," "struggling," "disconnected," "drained," "looking"...
And perhaps that is the key to the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere: whites who are not confident, superior, or moving through the world blind to their privilege. But rather, those who are willing to be struggling, drained and "looking" as they try to account for "that gap between the head and the heart."