Five Reminders and Reflections from the White Privilege Conference

Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.
Abbi Heimach has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Religious Studies. After a year teaching elementary special education, she worked in young adult related ministry at the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Currently, Abbi is working on her Masters of Divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary. She is an intern for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, a member of the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and is pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In her free time, you can find her dancing and cooking vegan food.

At the end of March, I traveled to Madison, Wisconsin for the White Privilege Conference (WPC). If you’ve never been to WPC before or never heard of it, WPC is an annual conference that promotes racial equity and justice through educational plenaries and workshops, caucusing, and networking. As a first time attendee, it was refreshing to be surrounded by activists, scholars and students learning together for a common cause. I left the experience filled with hope and encouragement from the connections I made and tools I learned, but I also encountered frustrations and challenges. To continue on the journey for racial justice, here are some “reminders and reflections” that I learned from my experiences at WPC—all impacted by my own personal journey to better understand my white privilege and the ways white supremacy works to perpetuate our deeply racist world.

1) Despite our best intentions, white supremacy can still be present. My group arrived a little late, and as we settled in collecting our registration materials, we sat down to figure out which workshops we wanted to attend. There were so many interesting ones! By the time we decided where we wanted to go and walked to the assigned rooms, we discovered that most of the workshops were already filled. WPC had its most attendees yet, which is great, but what resulted was a competition to get to your top workshop choice. People were placing their belongings in rooms and leaving to save spots; people rushed from workshop to workshop with an unnecessary sense of urgency so they could win a limited seat. Even in a workshop, white participants continued to dominate the speaking space. Competition seemed to develop over who could be the most inclusive, or claim to know the most about how oppression works. I witnessed individuals responding harmfully to people who spoke up in the sessions. Although it is inevitable that each of us will make mistakes or find ourselves ignorant to someone’s experiences of oppression, responding with hate will not heal relationships and work for equity. Experiencing discomfort is an important way to learn, but humiliating someone can cause a scar that can prevent that person from learning and improving upon a mistake. Competition prevents us from collaborating. Rushing excessively inhibits our ability to notice who is excluded, and an unhealthy environment as such can contribute to perfectionism, which is unrealistic and over-burdening.

2) Equality is different from Equity. One of the workshops I attended had helpful teaching techniques for learning about individuals’ diverse contexts and identifying power roles. Throughout the 90-minute session, they had us frequently switching groups, sharing stories, finishing sentence prompts, and listening intentionally while not responding to our fellow group members (so as to allow a completely equal sharing atmosphere) all in a strictly calculated timeframe. In any group of people there are those who have a lot to say, and those who take their time to speak or aren’t as comfortable speaking. By setting a timer for an individual’s sharing time, each person can have an equal amount of time to share—stopping those who share too much and encouraging those who don’t speak much to share more. Although good in theory, there are a number of problematic consequences. This process failed to recognize how a community of people contribute to building an environment that helps people feel comfortable enough to share their stories. Also, people process information at different paces. Not everyone can quickly share a story or move on abruptly after someone exposed the depth of her soul. In fact, it can be harmful to force people to speak. What is equal is not always equitable. Because we all work differently and have a variety of experiences, we should prioritize fairness over equality in pursuing racial justice.

3). Brave space instead of safe space. I was in a workshop led by white antiracist activist Shelly Tochluk where a woman of color brought up that she cringes at the thought of creating “safe space”. This was eye-opening for me because I thought this is what we all should be striving for within group settings, educational environments, worship spaces, etc. She explained that “safe” means something different for everyone and often white people are the ones naming whether or not a space is safe. Shelly introduced that Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens write about working towards “brave space.” Whenever we are in environments that require us to build community, share stories, or become vulnerable, it requires courage and bravery. I find this to be an extremely helpful concept and reminder.

4). The importance of race-based caucusing. Since interning with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, I’ve learned about the importance of caucusing. To caucus is to spend regular time from organizing work to reflect upon internalized racial inferiority and internalized racial superiority in separate groups for people of color and white people. These groups are a way of checking ourselves, reflecting and improving, forgiving and inviting. Later, coming together whole group with people of color and white people and sharing that we did our work is a way of holding each other accountable and moving forward. WPC reminded me how vital caucusing is to the movement. My white caucus exhibited the beautiful and painful journey justice is, how racism scars everyone, and how as white people who benefit from oppression, we have a responsibility to turn the trajectory, to break the pattern, to step up and work towards overturning the white supremacist foundations of our society.

5). And lastly, WPC reminded me that it’s not about me, but us. Caucusing is not just about the internal work that we do, but especially for the group work we need. As a white person I have to remember that even though realizing the ways I contribute to oppression is painful as an individual, working towards racial equity and justice requires me to set aside my personal desire for comfort and perfectionism (manifestations of white supremacy) and join in the collective movement. We all will make mistakes and that is part of the journey—of discerning difficult solutions, of loving each other despite our brokenness, of knowing that the world must not stay the way it is.

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Incomplete Analysis: Why the Black White Binary Fails

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years.  He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Derrick Dawson is a member of the AntiRacism Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, and served as its Co-Chair for three years. He is a graduate student and teaching assistant in English Composition at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Derrick was also a broadcaster and journalist in the United States Navy, where he served for eight years on ships in Asia and the Pacific.

Barely a week into Black History Month and I am exhausted. The DVR is already full of black programming, there’s a play, concert or other event every night and two on Saturdays. Someone joked that a cable channel is showing a minstrel marathon in celebration, and a Catholic high school for girls in California has apologized for a Black History Month lunch of fried chicken and watermelon.

The annual debates around the relevancy of Black History Month are emblematic of common discourse around race in the United States; a discourse which is almost exclusively characterized by a black-white binary paradigm. This paradigm is problematic because it masks the connections people of color have to one another and does not address the complexity of American History which has seen the genocide of Native Americans, the genocide and enslavement of African Americans, the systematic deportation of Latinos and the exploitation of Asian Americans and the rounding up of People of Color who threaten the United States.

I confess that I have struggled with the fact that the black-white binary paradigm is problematic in the work antiracism organizing and the work of social justice. This is not an easy admission for me. As an organizer-trainer for Crossroads, as well as its co-chair of the board of directors, I would like to believe that I’d mastered everything there is to know about institutional and systemic racism. I was raised on the far South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s and 1970’s when Martin Luther King moved the civil rights movement to the city to fight segregation. He later referred to this effort, stating ” I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today,” he said.” As a kid in the South Side’s Burnham neighborhood, I unknowingly played on the steps of the Area 2 police station while John Burge and his corrupt policemen beat confession out of dozens of innocent men in one of the nation’s worst examples of abject institutional racism.

My work as an antiracism organizer trainer has shown me that there is a persistent struggle against this binary as those who are neither black nor white often struggle to have their voices heard in the fight against white supremacy. “The reality is that the exclusion of others is a result of a particular black-white normative vision of the American nation as being properly and primarily black and white. The . . . black-white binary is a nativist idea that aids the continued exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans, and other nonwhite immigrant groups . . . from full citizenship and equal protection.”[1]

Unknown-6I became aware of my own participation in this nativist phenomenon about 3 years ago when Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. Her book about mass incarceration was better received than even the author anticipated. After reading the book and seeing Ms. Alexander speak at a few readings around Chicago, I began to hear criticisms that she addressed neither the growing presence of women nor Latinos in the conversation of mass incarceration in the United States.  I was surprised when Michelle Alexander acknowledged her own adherence to the black-white binary paradigm on Bill Moyer’s & Company last December, declaring that she had came to realize the need to “change lanes” and see the issue more broadly. It had finally occurred to her that

If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime. If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.”[2]

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And of course she’s right. An illustration is buried in the issue of Mass Incarceration that is the subject of her book even though it has gone largely unnoticed. In 2013, Wall Street Journal journalist Patrick O Connor reported that the harsh immigration laws passed in Arizona last year were written by lobbyists for the Private prison industry, specifically Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group.

Here in Chicago, I have attended any number of rallies and meetings about immigration. It is clear at these events that immigration issues are seen as an issue only important to Latinos just as mass incarceration is seen as an issue concerning only African Americans. Ronald R. Sundstrom illustrates this further with an example from Hurricane Katrina.While Arizona citizens believed they were taking a firm stand in favor of “border control,”they were being duped by CCA and GEO who were selling bodies for the profit and the career advancement of local politicians. Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.

As the aftermath of the hurricane developed, the image of African-American urban poverty dominated the news and discourse. The discussions of the hurricane and race did not stray from stories about poor African Americans and worked to exclude the news that the Bush administration had used the disaster as an opportunity to apprehend and deport undocumented Latin American immigrants who ended up in Shelters. This move was, of course, paired with widespread exploitation of Latino labor by contractors who sought to take advantage of federal and state monies for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. Additionally, the binary blocked from public attention the news of the losses of Honduran Americans in New Orleans and Vietnamese American communities of the Gulf Coast. The race story was simply the black story, and the result was that the nation thought of race in its old black-white terms.[3]

I look at my bookmarks and realize that I turn to some of my favorite sites, like Angry Asian Man, Son of Baldwin and Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources in an attempt to keep up with what’s going on in various communities’ social justice work. While I’m grateful for those resources, I also recognize that those resources exist because of the marginalization of non-Black people of color in the black-white binary paradigm.

The black-white binary paradigm is dangerous because it serves white supremacy by marginalizing, isolating and dividing people of color. Moving beyond the binary might allow us to see more black social justice groups showing up at Reforma Migratoria PRO America rallies and supporting the National Congress of American Indians.

African American demands for justice deserve satisfaction, and those claims do not need the black-white binary for justification.[4] The black-white binary renders invisible the experience of groups that stand outside the binary, makes hyper-visible the experience of African Americans, and diverts attention away from white supremacy. The black-white binary is a fictional representation of race in America and has to be set aside if racial justice work is to be located in a broader human rights context.


[1]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

[2]                 “Incarceration Nation” Bill Moyers & Company. PBS. 20 Dec. 2013. Televisio

[3]                 Sundstrom, p82

[4]                 Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, SUNY Press, 2008, 190pp., ISBN 9780791475867

Analyzing & Understanding Crossroads: An Introduction to Systemic Antiracism by Robette Dias

Robette has been Executive Co-Director and a Core Organizer/Trainer since 2002. Prior to that she was an antiracism program coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Faith In Action Department, providing training, technical support and advocacy for the Journey Toward Wholeness antiracism initiative. As a Karuk Indian, Robette brings a specifically indigenous perspective to antiracism organizing. She is a founding member and past president of Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), the continental support and advocacy organization for UUA People of Color. She is currently Board President of Oyate, a Native American resource and advocacy organization.

Readers who have recently attended a Crossroads “Analysis Workshop” may recognize the title of this post as a riff on the name of that workshop. If people know anything about Crossroads its usually that we do workshops that teach people about racism. And it’s true, we pride ourselves on our ability to break down racism with razor sharp, laser directed and sometimes mind-blowing presentations AND we do so much more than that! The challenge of living in a world that invites a power analysis of racism at every turn is that you can’t just switch it off! Because we encounter racial injustice and racial disparities around every corner, we are highly motivated to apply that analysis and work with “institutional perpetrators” to find solutions that will lead to social transformation. Well, that was a pretty heady mouthful! What does that mean?

Who IS the real Crossroads then?

The Crossroads of today has to be understood in the context of our origins.  We are still that Crossroads of 1986 AND we are also an evolving, complex, and transforming Crossroads. Launching the Crossroads blog on the week in which we remember the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is quite intentional. It is a nod of gratitude to the Crossroads founders who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and who wanted to make sure the Movement was kept alive in religious communities. We continue to be inspired by the life-long commitments to racial justice of our founders and the early builders of Crossroads Ministry: Joe Barndt, Susan Birkelo, Susan and Chuck Ruehle, Victor Rodriguez, and Melvin Hoover. They are the foundation of Crossroads and they opened the space from which the Crossroads of today emerges.

Sometimes that space has been contested space, make no mistake. It wasn’t easy transitioning from an organization with a strong Civil Rights identity and orientation to an organization focused on racial justice more broadly. We are clear that People of Color continue to struggle for civil rights and equal access and control of the public institutions in the United States, but we are also clear that racial justice includes the sovereignty movements of Indigenous Peoples, and the anti-colonial movements of People of Color under direct and neo-colonial domination by the US. We know that racial justice has to be tied to revolutionizing our economic system because the exploitation of People of Color and poor White People is what fuels U.S. capitalism.

It also wasn’t easy transitioning from our Protestant Christian origins. Christianity, the way our founders understand it, is the path to restoring a human family deeply divided by racism and other systems of oppression.  The diversity of spiritual and humanist traditions that exist in Crossroads today share a similar ethos, and may express it in radically different ways. It is not just a divide in the human family needing restoration, but the alienation from creation as the source of all life (which some may refer to as the Sacred or Spirit) that needs to be healed.

The guiding principle transforming Crossroads today is accountability to People of Color. It manifests in our current leadership: five Women of Color and one White Woman comprise the salaried and contract staff of Crossroads, our board is 75% People of Color, 40% of our 23 contract organizer/trainers are People of Color.  More than a numbers game (as some of our trainers remind us, the plantation was a diverse workplace too), accountability to People of Color has led us to articulate a radically inclusive power analysis of racism and to invest in what we call Regional Organizing. That is, institutional organizing grounded in geographically identified communities in order to be in direct relationship with the Communities of Color for whom racism is a life and death reality.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Creating this blog is a commitment to transparency and nurturing the Crossroads learning community. It’s an invitation to Analyzing & Understanding racism today and exploring Antiracist Interventions. Clear, deep analysis of the power dynamics of white supremacy has always been key to successful, effective resistance. Analyzing & Understanding racism today is as important as ever. There are more ways to criminalize and exploit People of Color now that at any other time in our country’s history.

  • More Men of Color are incarcerated now than were ever enslaved by the institution of Chattel Slavery and under Jim Crow. There are more Black and Brown men in prison than in college, and with the expansion of the criminal industrial complex and privatization of prisons, a large and profitable sector of the US economy thrives while Communities of Color are decimated.
  • The US economy is sustained by the labor of undocumented workers. The deportation of those workers, which is higher than ever, is tearing apart families and lives.
  • American Indian families opposing the adoption of their children by non-Indians have been arrested for obstruction of justice, contempt of court, even kidnapping. Indian families are expected to stand by and watch as state troopers remove their children from their homes. Meanwhile, non-Indian men who rape Indian women go unpunished and walk free to perpetrate their crimes with impunity due to issues of convoluted legal jurisdictions.
  • Past racial justice accomplishments are being gutted: everything from voting rights to affirmative action.
  • Even the growing wealth divide is highly racialized and highly gendered. At the prime age of income potential, Women of Color continue to have negative wealth while their White sisters median is $42,000.
  • Racialized health disparities continue to manifest while study after study confirm racism is bad for the health of People of Color.

Yes, the work of antiracism, the work of Crossroads is needed now more than ever! So…I invite you. Read the blog; get to know us more deeply, get to know about racism and antiracism in all its complexity. Apply the Analysis and let us hear from you!