White soul searching
The UNtraining workshop on white liberal racism
October 13, 2007 9:26 AM
It was 1993 at a Process-Oriented Psychology workshop when Robert Horton first saw Rita Shimmin. She stood up, pretending that she was holding a machine gun —shooting all the white people in the room.
Horton remembers thinking, “Whoa! This woman is intense!” At the time, he had no idea that their association was just beginning.
During another workshop that also discussed race, he repeatedly heard people of color say, “Why don’t white people work on racism together with themselves,” and Horton, who is white, thought aloud, “Why don’t they?” Without missing a beat, Shimmin said “Well, why don’t you?”
So Horton, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 30 years, decided to use the open mindedness that his spiritual practice had given him to engage in diversity work, which happened to be Shimmin’s forte.
It was the beginning of a friendship and a new kind of forum — a place where “white people could explore what it means to be white, how it affects them and people of color.”
In 1994 Horton created the UNtraining program based on the belief that “white people have the responsibility to educate themselves about racism, rather than expect people of color to be their teachers.”
“Horton took what he learned in a friendship [with Shimmin] and developed it with her support. The UNtraining grew out of a friendship between a white man and a woman of color,” says Janet Carter, Robert’s life partner and one of the UNtraining’s earliest members.
The UNtraining program states its mission is to give “resources and tools to white people who are motivated to investigate their white conditioning.”
“It is largely awareness work,” says Horton. “Bringing awareness to the ways in which we have been conditioned as white people … that each white person, as a child, did not choose to take on this conditioning. But now as an adult, every white person has a choice of whether to look at that conditioning or ignore it.”
And since 1994, close to 250 “white identified” individuals — people who consider themselves white and are perceived to be white — have attended the UNtraining workshops in the East Bay. Horton is aided by Carter, key advisor Bob McIntosh, UNtraining teachers Nancy Arvold, Swan Keyes, Rae Mary, and teachers-in-training Caren Ohlson, Deborah Marks and Michael Katz.
Shimmin, the inspiration for the program, is also a teacher and supervisor for the group. She is of African American and Filipino ancestry and works with a large faith-based social agency in San Francisco. Her guidance has given the UNtraining program one of its key concepts - multidimensionality.
Multidimensionality is the ability to hold more than one reality or truth at a time, according to Shimmin. It is about holding the reality that white people have privilege and conditioning that disadvantages people of color while also understanding that white people have basic goodness. This, they believe, helps people to be compassionate to themselves and to others.
“Learning to see myself multi-dimensionally allowed me to own the parts of myself that are dangerous to people of color and see them side-by-side with the parts of me that are worthy of trust and deeply committed to social change,” says 30-year-old Caren Ohlson, who is a SF State alumnus and counselor at Berkeley High School.
“My white training will never leave me,” she acknowledges while adding that the more aware she is of her duality, the better equipped she will be in choosing which part of her personality to show in her day-to-day work.
Shimmin and Horton explain white training and conditioning: “White people are culturally conditioned to be white by parents, teachers, peers, textbooks, media, and other institutions and by continual feedback from people around them. This conditioning is presented as normal. Because these values are the ‘norm’ they are often invisible to those who hold them and can cause unintended harm. They receive white privilege — the social, economic, political and other benefits that white people receive simply for being white.” Horton adds that this training is also internalized by people of color.
White training affects everyone. It causes not only white privilege but also guilt, shame and defensiveness around the subject of race in white people, according to the organization. This idea is the basis of UNtraining.
Ohlson remembers a session in the class titled “Race and Ethnic theory.” She couldn’t bring herself to speak. All she had to do was to give a simple summary of a reading in front of the class. But she couldn’t.
“I was so ashamed of being a white person and having unearned privilege,” she says. Finally the teacher did the presentation for her.
Swan Keyes, one of the UNtraining teachers, brings up a painful moment from her teenage years: “I met an elderly African American man coming out of a store in the rural town of Shelburne Falls, where I grew up. I saw that the man was upset and asked if he was okay. He told me he had just been informed by another customer that blacks weren't welcome there. I felt so bad; all I could do was to tell him how sorry I was. I had connected to this man in my grief and sense of injustice but the connection ended in my feeling stuck and ashamed,” she analyzes.
Years later, in a neighborhood in the Oakland foothills, Keyes had another unpleasant yet eye-opening brush with her own prejudices.
On her driveway she saw a young black man walking down the sidewalk towards her, holding a brown paper bag full of flowers. He looked like he wanted to talk to her. Smiling weakly, she asked, “Are you selling flowers?” He was surprised by her question and answered, “No.” He said that he was there to see Alicia, her neighbor. Then she noticed his fine suit. She thought to herself, “How is it that instead of seeing that this sharply-dressed young man is bringing flowers for his date, I am seeing some kind of salesman or beggar?”
Keyes admits with guilt that when she saw him she saw a stereotype and not a person.
“There is a lot of white guilt. That guilt may be justified in a certain wa,y but being stuck in that feeling is not really helpful,” says Carter, “Talking about race is very challenging. White people don’t talk about race unless it’s out there.”
Members of the organization believe that there aren’t many places where whites can get information about racial issues, express and explore feelings about race, or talk about it without fear of being judged or of saying the wrong thing.
This is where the workshops fill a niche.
“The atmosphere at the UNtraining sessions is very emotional,” says Carter. “It can be everything from tense, to very sad to very joyful. Joyful because you are with a group who is willing to go through the process with you.”
“Part of white culture is very isolating. It’s very hard to do anti-racist work on your own. To find people who you can share your experiences with – it is really very healing,” she says.
And the UNtraining emphasizes personal experiences, because the trainers believe that white training is encoded on a personal level. But not everyone comes to the UNtraining because of one racial incident. Often they come because of a role they play in society.
“They come because of their contexts, like homelessness, political activism, …” says Carter.
Many also join because they face racially diverse situations on a daily basis and need guidance. They are, for instance, teachers, counselors, therapists, students, social workers, people with “biracial” children and in “biracial” relationships.
“They feel there is racism going on and they are here to find a way to deal with it,” she says.
People as young as 14 years old and as old as 60 attend UNtraining’s three-phased workshops. Participants are mostly from the middle class, and there are more women than men. And according to Carter, there are surprisingly few drop-outs from the six-month long workshops.
“Surprising, because it is challenging. It pushes a lot of buttons,” Carter adds. “To speak about white supremacist conditioning goes against the part of our identity that says I am a good white person.”
Horton agrees that it’s much more difficult to do this work with people who think they are “good” people, because they have a harder time accepting their white training, hence the title “UNtraining white liberal racism.” And the program is not without its critics.
“We’ve been spammed and attacked by white supremacist groups who act like we’re totally crazy,” says Carter.
But those who have “UNtrained” have only praise for the program. When asked how the workshop changed his perceptions, 35-year-old Jim Ace, a SF State graduate student says: “I started with guilt and shame and anger…now I am more self-loving, more self accepting and more real and human and it extends outside of myself. I hope … not just to people of color, but white folks too. My process has become about my liberation and the liberation of us all.”
For more information go to www.untraining.org
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