My congregation has been holding a group study of Waking Up White by Debby Irving. I led the final session, and had some requests to put the lesson plan online for those who missed the discussion or wanted to look back at some of the resources. This work is not to be used in part or in whole for anything other than individual study without my permission.
Waking Up White Lesson Plan – Session 4
Rapid-fire Question: “If we finish this session without discussing this, I will be disappointed.”
Goal: To intentionally grow in courage and comfort in discussing race and confronting racism.
Small group scenarios
As individuals, please reflect on and share your answers to the following questions:
- What are the key issues involved?
- How would I feel in this scenario?
- What might I normally do in this situation?
- How do I hope I would respond in this situation, given what I have learned?
As a small group, explain to the whole group your scenario and your best consensus about what you hope your response would be.
In conversation with a friend who is a black woman, you compliment her on how well-read and articulate she is. Instead of being flattered, she is insulted and claims that you are being racist.
It’s graduation day for the public high school, but the theater doesn’t have space for all the friends and family who have come to celebrate. Frustrations are running high, and suddenly there is an altercation between people trying to enter the theater and the police who are acting as security. You don’t see how it starts, but you do witness as one white police officer restrains a black man while another white officer punches him in the face multiple times before they handcuff him and take him away in a squad car.
You are at a family reunion and overhear your aunt complaining about her new neighbors. “They’re bringing down the property values for the whole neighborhood, and now I have to make sure to lock my doors at night. They have two teenage boys, and you never know what young black men will be up to.” she says. You notice that none of her criticisms relate to disruptive things they have done; the only thing wrong with their presence is who they are.
You are a member of the board for a local non-profit. As the board has become conscious that most of your clients are non-white, you have decided to commit to anti-racist practices. You hold a special meeting of the board and some of the staff to create policies, and you call in an expert to inform your decisions about how you can best advocate for the people of color you serve. You go home at the end of the night feeling productive about all the good work you have done in combatting racism, but as you go to sleep, it occurs to you that every member of the board, and the expert activist, are all white.
Sharing Our Responses
- What other responses might be helpful?
- On a scale of 1-5, how able do you feel to respond in the way you think is best?
- What would make you feel more able to respond in that way?
Next Steps – Internal and external work is involved in combatting racism
Check Yourself –
My experience is not the sole or defining experience of racism (or anything else). I perceive and speak from a position of privilege in ways that keep me from clearly seeing the perspective of those who are marginalized. So, when someone tells me I am wrong or acting in harmful ways, my first responsibility is to listen and validate the experiences of those who experience racism (or other marginalization). My responsibility is to notice when I am having racially motivated feelings, and to deal with them. My responsibility is to practice empathy, particularly around power and privilege.
Educate Yourself –
I will not enslave people of color for my education.
People of color have produced many wonderful resources to help white people like us understand their experiences and perspectives, and when you buy those resources or access them legally through their websites, people are compensated for their hard work. If I am committed to understanding and confronting racism in myself and others, I will commit to the work of educating myself by reading authors of color, watching films by and about people of color, listening to music composed and performed by people of color, exploring art created by people of color, etc. I will read Twitter, which is a free treasure trove of grassroots, up to the minute social activism. I will pay attention to Black Lives Matter and other local groups dealing with racism, so I can learn about the effects of racism where I live and participate in anti-racist events.
Most of our reactions are self-centered. I feel so bad. I should do something. I should solve this problem. Well-meaning white people like to show up and take charge. This can be disempowering to marginalized people, and besides, we don’t necessarily know what they actually want. Showing up to the Black Lives Matter march? Yes, definitely. Taking the megaphone and leading the chants? Probably not unless you are explicitly asked. Telling black protestors that they need to be calmer or stop blocking traffic because their methods are making you uncomfortable? Absolutely not. Often the best thing we can do with our privilege is shut up and stand there and be supportive while someone else speaks and leads.
A note about white tears:
Another thing well-meaning white people like to do is talk a lot about how bad we feel when it is pointed out to us that we are racist, do racist things, swim in the racist pond, and benefit from racism. This is about wanting to feel good about ourselves and make sure everyone knows we are still good people. However, it is not at all about how we have hurt people of color, and it does nothing to dismantle racism. We’re turning the responsibility of the conversation onto the person of color, who is now supposed to comfort us and tell us we are okay.
We also like to appeal to politeness whenever we’re uncomfortable. So whenever someone has inconvenienced us or brought up unpleasant thoughts about ourselves, we say things like, “If you want people to listen to you, you should speak to them in less inflammatory ways. Blocking their morning commute just makes people mad. People don’t like it when you’re so angry.” This is about you wanting to encounter racism in a way that is safe and non-threatening to you. It is not at all about the experience of people of color, and it ignores the hundreds of years of attempts to ask for liberation in more palatable ways. We’re putting the responsibility for both their liberation and our continued privilege on the shoulders of people of color. These things are not mutually possible.
Both of these reactions are sometimes described as “white tears.” They are the additional burden we place on people of color who we claim to be helping. Don’t do this. If you sense yourself having white tears, take them home and cry them to other white people who are similarly committed to confronting racism, and we can assure each other that we’re still good people who also still need to be challenged in our own racism.
Change your behavior to do intentionally anti-racist things.
- Cross the racial divide and greet people warmly.
- See something, say something.
- Participate in anti-racist programming.
- Contact your representatives about ending racist practices in law enforcement, the justice system, education, and the media.
- Advocate for legislation that criminalizes racist police practices, like the Michael Brown Law.
- Join movement for reparations (check out the Movement for Black Lives).
- Support Affirmative Action and diversity policies that go beyond tokenism in education and the workplace.
- Vote for candidates who support anti-racism measures and/or are people of color.
What next steps will you take individually?
What next steps will we take collectively?
How will we be accountable for doing so?
Is there anything we have not covered? How might we pursue it?
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- Dear White Christians – Jennifer Harvey
- God of the Oppressed; The Cross and the Lynching Tree – James Cone
- Sisters in the Wilderness – Delores Williams
- Our Lives Matter – Pamela Lightsey
- Mujerista Theology – Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz
- “White People” – Jose Antonio Vargas (video)