As I sit down to write this, I’m listening to a new playlist… With music only by white artists…. Which I made while attending the NAIS People of Color Conference.
The title of the playlist should shed light on why exactly I would make such a playlist. Its title is WAG- short for White Affinity Group. Which I had the privilege of helping plan and facilitate. An affinity group is simply a space in which a group of people who share a certain affinity, or racial identity in this case, come together.
For white people, affinity groups provide us a space to explore our own shit and educate ourselves around what it means to be white in a racist society. Affinity spaces are necessary in order for us to do our own work, NOT at the expense (or as we said this weekend on the backs) of People of Color, as it so often has been done. (For more see this article by Ali Michael and Mary C. Conger.)
My experience with affinity groups has been one defined by awkwardness, discomfort, questions, and most importantly great personal growth and learning. My experience at POCC with WAG was no different. I learned some very hard lessons. Lessons I did not expect to learn. Mainly because I had done a great job of avoiding them up until this point.
The title of the blog is such because this question sparked a huge lesson for me at POCC. Despite having been in numerous affinity spaces before, something shifted this weekend. The shift started when I was told we could only play music by white artists. My discomfort, annoyance, and honestly, anger at this boundary signaled to me that something big was brewing in me. Why did I care so much that we could only play white music? Didn’t it make sense to celebrate the music of ‘my people’? Wasn’t it important that we did not appropriate music from another culture (although playing white musicians clearly does not eliminate this as possible)? My brain said yes, but my body and heart felt emotions that I couldn’t understand or justify. It didn’t hit me until about 2 days into the conference why this was. It was because I didn’t want to identify with only white people. My discomfort, shame, and fear of connecting with my white identity slapped me in the face. In the form of an aversion to white music.
It’s not as if I didn’t know I was white. It’s not as if I hadn’t explored Helm’s White Racial Identity Development Model. The problem is that I had explored all of this as little as necessary to allow me to know intellectually about my journey. I had not, on the other hand, allowed myself to feel my whiteness. I had not allowed myself to grieve the legacy of my people. I had spent my time surrounding myself with People of Color, saying intellectual things about white supremacy, joking about my people’s inability to dance (while pointing out the times POC have complemented my rhythm), priding myself on living in Atlanta, reading W.E.B. Dubois, and comforting myself with India Arie. I had striven so hard to distance myself from the reality of who I am.
I could not do this at POCC. My white brothers and sisters were urging me to process with other white folks. They were reminding me that it was not POC’s responsibility to listen to my struggles. As I sat there agreeing with these ideas, none of which were new to me, I was struck with the realization that I don’t have white folks to engage with in this way. Since I began my journey of racial identity, I have had many role models, guides, and mentors. Few of them have been white. Those that have been white needed white allies desperately, so I stepped into leadership roles alongside them almost immediately. I never gave myself time to develop trust and build relationships with white folks in order to process through my own identity. The urgency to start these conversations with white people (specifically white teachers) who were just beginning their journey trumped any need I had on my own journey. So I spent my professional time trying to convince white folks of the realities of racism and my social time developing relationships with mainly People of Color.
Today, I begin to shift my priorities. Now, don’t get me wrong. I will engage with white teachers intentionally around these issues. I will continue to cultivate relationships with People of Color. The shift will be in the way I do both these actions. I will engage with white folks who are both beginning their journey and those who are already well into it. I will engage with them, not because I’m trying to prove I’m one of the good ones but because it helps me on my journey. I will develop relationships with People of Color because I value them, their views, and our relationships. Once again, not because I’m trying to prove I’m one of the good ones.
My mother is often reminding me that you cannot pour from a glass that is empty. This was my experience in the White Affinity Group at POCC this year. My glass was and still is empty. I must stop and work on myself before I lead others. Wait, actually I believe that in stopping and working on myself, I will be leading others. I will be showing others what it means to truly “do the work” of being an “ally.”
So to wrap it up, I want to share the 1 goal that I set for myself after POCC. Yes, just 1. I made a commitment to take only one meaningful action, rather than throw myself half-heartedly into many endeavors. My 1 goal is to read 2 books about racial justice by White authors. My journey to self-acceptance begins by finding role models, by creating my own visual clues (thanks, Gyasi Ross) about what it means to be in this white skin.
I want to thank the People of Color who have supported me in this journey and allowed me to process with you what I should have talked about with other white folks. I want to ask forgiveness for the times I tried to take what was yours as mine, and for whatever actions I still don’t have the perspective to see as hurtful. I am forever grateful for you patience with me and your support.
To my white brothers and sisters, I hope you’ll join me on the difficult journey of self-exploration and self-acceptance. I hope you will join me in taking one step toward working on yourself in order to repair what we have broken (or benefitted from its brokenness).
Love and light, Lauren
PS, the books I’ve chosen are the following. Look for blog posts about what I learn AND/OR join me in reading!
- Everyday White People Confront Racial Injustice by Eddie Moore, Jr., Marguerite W. Penick-Parks, Ali Michael
- Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving