Some Thoughts About Why We Need White Groups in the Racial Justice Movement

By Kathy Castania
Member, SURJ ROC Steering and Education Committees

Note: Updated 4/19/2022 to reflect that DiDi Delgado uses they/them pronouns

DiDi Delgado in their article, Whites Only: SURJ and the Caucasian Invasion of Racial Justice Spaces has challenged the existence of SURJ chapters throughout the US. They are rightfully suspicious – and has turned up the heat to get white people to feel some of the criticism Black Lives Matter (BLM) groups have been getting from white people since their inception.

I don’t think any of us need to be critical of their analysis – instead we need to understand their suspicion and also their anger at our existence. They are in active resistance to racism and frankly most anything that white people do is suspect. At the same time, as I train myself to think outside of systems of dominance I realize that it is important for me to think in “ands” and not “either/or”. They are right when you think about an organization that is about building an anti-racist movement. White people need to step back and get out of the way. We need to check ourselves and realize our place in such a movement is for support only. I personally had to learn this the hard way – during the 80’s and 90’s working with a multiracial group to eliminate racism in the community where I was living. All too quickly the white people, including me, were making decisions and getting out front in our actions. Since authentic cross racial relationships had been built over a long period time – we whites were being called out on our dominant behaviors while ultimately staying in relationship with the People of Color who chose to reeducate us.

Additionally, I have come to realize something: how deep the work of unlearning racism is for white people and at times when in mixed groups I have witnessed how stunned people of color are when they hear of the depth of our white conditioning. How as white children some were beaten by parents for playing with Black friends, how we were asked repeatedly to narrow ourselves to distinguish us from the Black ‘other’ – hearing things like “that dress is too loud, you look like a ____.” How we were given justifications when we witnessed mistreatments and asked to curb our humanity that was calling us to intervene.

I would like to offer a way that helps me to inform myself about my oppressor role by flipping the script and looking at one of my excluded identities. For example, as a woman I have come to realize how unaware I have been about the socialization of men in our society to be oppressors. I have no idea what it is like to be raised male – being continuously taught to be suspicious of others in my gender group – to have to worry about having to potentially kill other members of my group as a result of growing up in a warrior-making society such as ours. This experience has been foreign to me. My mother, sisters, female cousins and childhood girlfriends were what made me resilient, where I went for comfort and support. Some years ago, I went through a visualization at a men’s healing retreat, where women were invited to attend at the end of the weekend to not only express our anger at the way men have treated us, but also to get a window into their lives being trained to be oppressors. By the end of the visualization where we were asked to imagine our life as a male child growing to an adult, I was weeping. It made me feel terrified to think about what it must be like to be reared a man. Of course, there are exceptions, but I see around me the ways that men are isolated and mistrusting and often filled with rage. Thus, as a feminist I would never trust a group of men, no matter how evolved they are, to lead an anti-sexist liberation movement. I would want them to be supporters of our movements in the ways that we as women define their role, which would not include speaking at a podium, where all too often they take up twice as much air time as women. However, in terms of doing their work with each other to tell their horror stories about their enforced role to be oppressors – no thank you, I will pass. I don’t want to hear how they were encouraged to beat each other up, were abused, mistreated women and supported patriarchy. That work is best done within their group with each other. My hope is that with enough work, some of them would emerge to continue to call other men in as allies.

On racism, James Baldwin in I Am Not your Negro speaks brilliantly to the result of an oppressor’s socialization when he talks about white people as “moral monsters.” Baldwin says, “I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”

For me as a white person on this journey of unlearning racism there was a point when I didn’t want anything to do with other white people. I didn’t want to be in white spaces. I wanted to be where I was most comfortable – in the company of my Black and Latina(o) friends – where I could rage with them about how racist white people were – where I didn’t have to hear the stupid things that white people would say and do, and thus feel bad if I slammed them or walked away – where I didn’t have to see the ways that racism was tearing up our communities and families. This distress I believe sits in the gut of each of us as white people. If unexamined and unchallenged it can lead to unproductive guilt, shame and the do-gooder kind of white behaviors that drive people of color crazy.

Various empowered friends of color and a white woman activist mentor, thankfully moved me out of this stuck place. My friends of color shared their frustrations with educating white people and wondered why I wasn’t doing it, and my white mentor challenged me to do the harder work with white people and not go back to my comfortable world with People of Color. Their challenges ultimately led me to work with white men in suits. It was some of the hardest work I have ever done. There was many a night when I went to bed trembling at the thought of what my co-facilitator of color and I would meet the next day in a room full of white male administrators.

Mx. Delgado says, “I do, however, insist that today’s white anti-racism initiatives stay in their lane, and do not co-opt People of Color movements or center themselves in any way.” That makes perfect sense to me. I am content to patiently and uncomfortably assist the movement of white people out of guilt and into anger – to provide a safe space for us to release that anger with each other so that we might call other white people in and not out in all those white spaces that Mx. Delgado says are designed exclusively for us. This is tedious and life-long work. It takes time and commitment to persistently reclaim an anti-racist future as well as our full humanity. It can only be driven by love, not white guilt; hope and not ego.

I am a part of a newly forming SURJ chapter that has been working on creating a relationship with accountability partners. We have had to be patient and respectful of their readiness to work together with us. This kind of relationship-making takes time. This period of trust building doesn’t say anything about us, or our willingness to be accountable. For our chapter at least, we are not looking for a place at the table of movement building. It is not our table.