I Watched a White Woman Rewrite Her Race Story

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I Watched a White Woman Rewrite Her Race Story

She became someone new before my eyes

It’s challenging to conduct a workshop on racial justice with an interracial group of people who work or socialize together but have never talked honestly about race. Usually the White people assume everything is fine. They say things like, “We’re all friends here, so we don’t have any problems with race.” They’re often taken aback when a Black friend or coworker speaks openly about their feelings and experiences with racism.

In this case, our participants were all members of the Baha’i Faith community who had known each other for a long time. About 20 people, including my mother, had come to the day-long workshop my husband Gene and I were facilitating. There were two Black women, three White men, and the rest were White women.

We were engaged in a discussion about neighborhood initiatives when Tasha, the younger Black woman, said, “I can’t bear to lose anyone else. My cousin and one of my closest friends are dead. Other friends are in prison. Every day more Black boys disappear. It has to stop. I can’t take any more loss.”

She was trying not to cry, wiping tears off her face with the back of her hand as they spilled from her eyes. As she talked, everyone got very still and quiet. Everyone, that is, except Francis, the older Black woman, who rose from her chair like an avenging angel.

Francis began speaking to all these White people she had known for years. She told them they had to stop feeling sad and sorry and surprised, and start feeling angry. She said their compassion wasn’t enough, that they had to DO something. Her voice got louder and her gestures more emphatic, and by the time she finished, several minutes later, she was shouting and shaking with emotion.

We called for a break so we could regroup. We needed to come up with a process where the White participants could respond in a way that was safe for these two women. While my husband and I were consulting, one of the White women came over and told me she was going to leave.

Cathy was visibly upset. I went out of the room with her and asked what was going on. Of course I can’t recall in detail everything she said, but it was something like this:

“It feels like she’s accusing me of being a racist, but I’m not. I came here to learn and be supportive, and now she’s judging me. And there’s no need to stand up and shout. I deserve to be treated with more respect and I don’t like that kind of confrontational language. I thought we were friends! She’s hurting my feelings and I’m just trying to be supportive. I can’t deal with this. I don’t do well with intense emotions. I’m not the kind of person who can stay in a situation like this and I didn’t come here to be attacked. I’m leaving.”

This is the story she was telling me and herself. It generated fear, resentment, defensiveness, anger, pain, and sadness, which are all understandable reactions to that story. So she felt threatened and decided she needed to protect herself by leaving the situation.

I told her, “Of course you can leave, if that’s what you need to do. I just want you to be aware of one thing. If you leave now, you’re basically telling your Black sisters that their anger is too much for you, that you’re not strong enough or willing to be there for them when they’re hurting. Is that what you want to tell them?”

Cathy opened her mouth but didn’t speak right away. She looked first surprised, then puzzled, and finally determined.

“No,” she said. “Not that.”

“What do you want them to know about you?” I asked.

“That I do care about them. I just was starting to feel scared. I’m not used to people showing such intense emotions. All those things Francis was saying were really hard to listen to, and it made me feel extremely uncomfortable.”

“What else?”

“Maybe that I’d like to try again and that I hope they’ll be patient with me.”

Then she seemed to remember something. “Actually,” she said, “someone was just telling me that I’ve changed, and I think she’s right. I’ve gotten a little tougher lately.”

As I stood there and listened, Cathy gradually talked herself into an entirely different identity. She went from “I’m not the kind of person who can stay in a situation like this” to telling me, “I’m someone who’s learning how to stay present with strong emotions.”

Same people, same situation, different story.

Now the story she was telling herself generated feelings of love, connection, courage, and self-empowerment. It’s not that the previous version of herself wasn’t true, but it was an old truth that didn’t take into account her recent growth.

Cathy returned to the workshop and participated fully in the afternoon’s activities and discussions. At the end of the day, Tasha and Francis said they felt heard and supported, and everyone was hopeful about their personal and community action plans. As people were leaving, I saw Cathy talking to Francis. I would have loved to hear what they were saying.

Gene and I had to be in another city the following day, so we had no opportunity to debrief with any of our workshop participants. But I was hoping to talk soon with my mom to get her feedback. She called me the next day, just as we were pulling up to our favorite Chinese restaurant to order dinner. Here’s what she told us.

That morning, members of their Baha’i community had gathered for an annual district convention. After prayers, Francis and Cathy stood together at the front of the room and took turns telling the entire gathering what had happened the previous day at the workshop. They shared all the details, all the feelings.

Mom said they created a healing energy that permeated the convention.

I’ve told this story hundreds of times, but I’ve never written it before today. I think it’s a powerful example of what can happen when someone transcends her conditioning and steps into an advanced version of herself. It’s heroic, in my humble opinion. I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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