Growing up in Evansville, Michele Stanley did not see a person of color for the first time until middle school, which she said contributed to unconscious biases.
Because of that, Stanley said she at one point thought of herself as someone who “didn’t see color,” but in retrospect, realized how harmful that might be. That type of realization is at the heart of the program ‘Witnessing Whiteness,’ an ongoing progam at the Oregon Public Library.
“It’s kind of hard to think of yourself as being racist,” Stanley said. “But with everything happening in the world, it has become pretty apparent there’s a lot of problems that come from assumptions and misinformation from people like me – people who are not intentionally racist – but also people who don’t understand.”
The 10-week online workshop is based on the book “Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It” by Shelly Tochluk. The program is being facilitated by Madison residents Gera Raymond and Ruth Meyer.
Stanley is one of three dozen people taking the workshop from August to October with a goal of gaining a shared understanding of privilege, whiteness, and racism while increasing support for racial justice, diversity and inclusion. The class takes place on Tuesday evenings, divided up into an afternoon and an evening session with 18 participants per group.
Weekly topics, based on the ten chapters of the book include “Why Pay Attention to Race?,” “Positions of Privilege,” “Culture, Tradition, and Appropriation” and “Self-Evaluation and Action Planning.” The topics are explored through self-surveys, large group discussions and exploring hypothetical scenarios.
One scenario posed to the group asked them to imagine coming into a social gathering and seeing a person of color sitting by themselves. The group was then asked to reflect on if they would remark on the racial makeup of the group to the person of color, or if they heard someone make a racist statement at the gathering, if they would speak up.
“It’s a really good starting point for people just beginning to think about racial problems and how to do white ally work and impact their community,” Meyer said. “I often hear people say ‘I want to help but I don’t know where to go or what to do.’ It’s helpful to go inside first.”
Librarian Kara Ripley said she was surprised by the number of people willing to commit to the 10-week, 20-hour course. She said the library did not promote it at all, the event was posted only to the website and quickly filled up.
“As someone who plans programs and wants to get people in, I haven’t seen this kind of interest before,” she said. “Had this been ten weeks on sewing, beer making, painting – any of the hobby programs that we do – I don’t think we’d get 18 people each week. Generally, for most things you cannot – but this is a very special topic, very important.”
Despite the interest, the facilitators chose to keep the two groups small. Eighteen participants were already more than they had originally intended to allow into each group. Ripley added that larger groups hinder discussion.
Ripley said that participants review a list of agreements prior to diving into the course, including “I agree to feel discomfort, sit with my discomfort, share my own experience and not speak for someone else.”
“We bring ourselves and all of our experiences, there are a lot of commonalities,” she said. “Everyone is still learning about a lot of things. It’s been really eye opening, and it’s a shame, because we should already have had our eyes open and been aware of what’s going on around us.”
Meyer said she hopes to encourage “authentic interaction” during the workshop. This is the first time she and Raymond have facilitated the course online; however, with the permission of the author of the book, they modified the workshop slightly to work better in a virtual setting – making sure to include certain elements from the book the author wanted them to highlight.
“The instructors are great, it’s a pretty unintimidating experience,” Stanley said. “It’s really just a lot of good people who want to be better people – who want to have more understanding and more capacity to be helpful and improve the world. There’s a fair amount of reading and a lot of introspection, but no wrong answers, so it’s not intimidating in that way.”
Meyer said she and Raymond are “still pretty much new” to anti-racism work. She became concerned and took an interest in 2015 when she learned about the graduation rates of people of color.
Meyer went on to attend a racial justice summit at the YWCA, and it was there she first learned about the Witnessing Whiteness workshop. She participated in the workshop in 2017, and when she learned her friend Raymond had also taken the workshop, they began to co-facilitate the workshop together at Madison area libraries.
Meyer said she’s still learning even while facilitating.
“The beauty is as a facilitator you’re not an expert, you learn so much from participants,” she said. “You learn by doing small group conversations. People open up and share themselves and that’s sort of the magic of it – it’s really rich that way.”
Ripley said the workshop was originally set to take place this fall and in-person, but the pandemic forced the program to move online, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country motivated her to hold the program sooner.
“When there’s a feeling in the community you want to jump on that and provide the services in a timely manner,” she said.
Ripley said she wants to hold more programming on the topic of racial equity. Stanley said she felt the ability to develop understanding and awareness of issues impacting people of color has been helpful.
“Because one way or another, we all play into it without obviously meaning to, so I really highly recommend the course to anyone,” Stanley said. “It’s a great service of the library to host it and make it available, it’s just a good, informative thing.”