Opinion editor’s note: This article was submitted by multiple contributors from EAR: Equity, Accountability, Reparations (White-Bodied Writers for Racial Justice). They are listed below.
Last week, the city of Minneapolis took an unfortunate and harmful misstep by canceling a series of “Sacred Conversations” that would have given an opportunity for city staff to learn and reflect about the United States’ 400-year history of white-body supremacy.
According to the city, they were canceled because of white pushback to the Division of Race Equity’s decision to offer separate workshops for white-bodied and black-bodied staff.
Jeff Kolb, a former Crystal City Council Member, was among those who expressed outrage on social media, tweeting that Minneapolis is “segregating employees by the colors of their bodies.”
Local media followed suit, with both the Star Tribune and City Pages harmfully and erroneously using the concept of segregation to describe the programming (“Mpls. set meetings separated by race,” June 5).
This inappropriate and ignorant language reinforces a dangerous falsehood: that efforts to confront white supremacy and systemic racism are divisive, not racism itself.
Segregation, along with assimilation, has been a key feature of the structural racism that defines our American story: from the legal construction of “separate but equal” to the schools, neighborhoods and services more covertly racist policies have kept segregated — and unequal — today. The Sacred Conversations the city has put off were meant to confront the violence and trauma of that history, using separate spaces for white-bodied and black-bodied people as a vital tool in that process.
In other words, calling for separate spaces is not the same as segregation has been — and is being — used in the U.S.; it is respecting the wishes of black-bodied people in constructing how the sacred spaces will work for them.
Writer and embodiment facilitator Kelsey Blackwell, a biracial woman, makes the issue plain: “These spaces aren’t acts of oppression, but rather responses to it. They are our opportunity to be with each other away from the abuses of racism and patterns of white dominance.”
European colonizers built the U.S. on an economy of slavery and a fabricated racial hierarchy, and white-bodied people’s investment in maintaining the illusion of our whiteness (read: superiority and entitlement to wealth, access and space) is what powers it forward.
In this moment, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, white people are spending that power to obstruct opportunities for folks of color to come together and heal without us.
It’s understandable for white-bodied folks to feel uncomfortable being asked to convene with one another to address racism. We might feel like engaging in anti-racism entitles us to build relationships across race — relationships many white-bodied people lack. The idea could trigger our discomfort with whiteness itself — a category created as a tool of oppression. Too, we are often led to believe that the solution to racism lies in diversity and inclusion — and therefore find it incongruous to create racially separate spaces.
None of us who have been conditioned into what sociologist Joe Feagin calls “the white racial frame,” and certainly none of us raised in white bodies, can know the formula for dismantling white supremacy.
But we can know that the work must involve two things: being uncomfortable and listening to folks of color.
The call from folks of color for BIPOC-only and black-only processing spaces is clear. (BIPOC is an acronym for “Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color.”)
White-bodied people should consider that caucus spaces for us, too, can be a helpful tool to unlearn our racist conditioning: It’s important for white-bodied people to come together to reflect on our role in white supremacy as one step (not the only step) in healing our society.
If that idea creates discomfort, then we should practice stepping into it. Doing so is an essential part of our work.
This article was signed by Mike Alberti, Zoe Bird, Heather Bouwman, Patricia Cumbie, Clair Dunlap, Amy Fladeboe, Geoff Herbach, Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Deborah Keenan, Julie Landsman, Liz Loeb, Kate Lucas, Chris Martin, Jen Manthey, Rachel Moritz, Nora Murphy, Timothy Otte, Carrie Pomeroy, Leykn Schmatz, Elizabeth Tannen, Mary Austin Speaker, Emma Törzs, Benjamin Voigt, Claire Wahmanholm and Carolyn Williams-Noren. More information is at www.earmnwriters.com.