ED GORDON, host:
Essayist S. Pearl Sharp recently observed members of an all white organization having a frank and honest discussion. Sharp got the rare opportunity to hear what whites really think about one of this country's greatest taboos: race.
Ms. S. PEARL SHARP (Writer; Filmmaker): AWARE is the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere. The group meets once a month for three hours. Their mission is, quote, "To create radical white communities which contribute to the larger movement for racial social and economic justice that works towards 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.
(Soundbite of crowd greeting one another)
They're gathering at a Latino Methodist church near downtown Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of crowd greeting one another)
The windows are open in a large community room, and the neighborhood spills in. I settle down on the far side of the room as a guest observer. 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, and 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 they begin to share.
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.
Shelly(ph), 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(ph) seems hesitant to speak. She is feeling alone about her whiteness with apparently no one to challenge her and 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.
Mr. CAMERON LEVIN (co-Founder of AWARE): Like, say, oh, I shouldn't be racist, and whatever, but not really deal with the fact that I'm still white. And so, for us, we've got to deal with that first, and then become...
Ms. SHARP: 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 levels.
Words bounce around the room: entitlement, white privilege, and supremacist. But I can't seem to wrap my brain around this radical white identity thing, coming as I do, from those generations of colored folks who submerged much of their identity because it proved to be both beneficial and safer to assimilate.
Unidentified Woman #1: Anti-racist white person; that's what part of my whiteness is now. And, therefore, what does this mean for me? I'm having to struggle against my own sense of self.
Ms. SHARP: The groups 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 into 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.
Unidentified Woman #2: People who immigrate to the U.S. (unintelligible) that other Americans won't get.
SHARP: 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.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
SHARP: When the circle reassembles, people share the concerns that have come up over the last two hours. Cameron points out that what might seem like uncertainty might actually be fear.
Mr. LEVIN: (Unintelligible) How do we begin to let go of that fear?.
SHARP: And that's the word 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. This is an I'm afraid of myself kind of fear.
Unidentified Woman #3: (Unintelligible).
SHARP: People recognizing and analyzing their own darkness, their 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 do we grow?
Mr. LEVIN: Tell me what role does that fear play for you?
SHARP: And one woman responds:
Unidentified Woman #4: It kind of enables me to challenge the gap between the heart and the head. It's like I'm afraid to say, but...
SHARP: They end the session 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 around the room three hours ago is gone. Some have been reenergized by the work this afternoon, but I'm surprised by words from others that fall quietly into the circle, like, unsettled, struggling, disconnected, drained, looking.
Perhaps that is the key to the Alliance of White Anti-Racist 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 to account for that gap between the head and the heart.
GORDON: S. Pearl Sharp is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles.
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