When Only White People Are in the Room, Is What We Do Still Racist?

Hint: Yes, probably.

I recently completed a three-week session with a group of adolescents where we spent a lot of time talking about racism. In this group, three out of the eleven young adults were not white, and one of those three brought the racism they saw to the attention of the whole group multiple times. It was a gift to the group to have our (I include myself among the white people of the group) actions called out in such a way that we were able to learn about micro/macro-aggressions and code-switching and generally about the sometimes harmful impact of our words and actions.

As one of the adult guides to the group as a whole, I helped facilitate some of the discussions. These were difficult conversations, which focused on the harm done by sometimes clueless white people.

In one instance, the group chose a movie to watch for entertainment on a Friday night. Their choice of movie, The Hate You Give, was one that we as a staff had deliberately brought into our collection in order to not have our movie collection only center the stories of white people. The movie choices had all been preapproved by the parents too.

When we showed the movie, none of the regular staff were around. The portrayal of a young Black man being killed was overwhelming to one of our students, as was the side-talking and lack of respect by their white peers. It felt like racism to them and they had to leave the room.

I didn’t witness this, but I have seen adolescents watch movies before. They often talk over the movie, make obnoxious comments, and try to center themselves and their opinions. This happens during almost every movie, regardless of content, and it makes it hard for me to watch any movie with them. Usually, this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and then they settle into the movie.

By all accounts, what happened are behaviors by white teens that don’t seem that far outside the ordinary (to me), but in this case, were called out as racist. The impact was clearly felt as racist, even if the intent was not.

As a result, we spent time processing what happened with both the student who walked out and with the group who stayed. We all got a lesson in how white-dominated spaces can be uncomfortable or feel hostile for people who do not fit into the imaginary box of whiteness.

As a group, we learned about how certain behaviors and words can put a person who is not white on guard for the next thing that will prove that so-and-so can’t be trusted. Through our processing, we learned that it wasn’t just the movie. It was a day-in and day-out accumulation of actions and words. The various mundane slights that teens do to each other all the time seemed to be concentrated on this one person and they were left drawing the conclusion that almost everyone was/is racist.

I appreciate my co-workers because we took this seriously and we devoted hours of group time processing and promoting the leadership of this student. I appreciate the group of teenagers because every one of them showed up to the conversations ready to learn and listen. As a group, we came to some hard truths about the impacts of our words and actions.

I think the students may have learned various lessons that I can’t speak to, but one of the lessons that I learned was how harmful it can be to anyone who does not fit the dominant culture to be in a space dominated by that culture. I get the sense that many people do not speak up about the harm they feel, especially teens. This can apply to any of the dominance hierarchies — cis v trans, Black v white, neuro-typical v neuro-divergent, rich v everybody else, and so on.

We are a good school. We have amazing teachers who care (a lot), and the Montessori model is all about respect for young people and centering the agency of the young person. We are a progressive school with anti-racism as one of our stated goals. On the surface, any child should benefit from attending our school. And yet, we have a hard time retaining BIPOC staff and students. It may be that the student in our recent session is not an outlier, but rather just a person who finally expressed something that others have been feeling all along. Our school’s white-dominant culture might be driving staff and students away, and those who stay have a daily “tax” of simply existing in a white-dominated space.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it still harmful racism? Specifically, if the next group we have is an all-white group, do we still need to moderate the patterns of behavior we see?

Obviously, harm occurred during the recent session (notice the passive voice — “mistakes were made”). One lesson we might take away is that we need to watch more closely how the white people act around the people of the Global Majority. We might decide that we need to check in with our BIPOC kids more often and be ready to support them. Essentially, we might decide to try to protect those young people. That is all well and good, but the problem is not that they are being harmed. The problem is that we have an environment that is generally harmful.

It got me thinking. How can we use what we learned during this session to be better prepared to support Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in future sessions? How can we “tone down the whiteness” of the group? And what even is “whiteness?”

I think that “whiteness” in this case is a constellation of dominance actions that teens do with each other. It is interrupting, talking over, snarky comments, excluding, gossiping, changing the music, choosing where to sit, choosing partners, taking the best spots, turning backs to, picking someone last, talking about a birthday party some people were not invited to, criticizing one person for something that other people are also doing, and so many more daily dominance plays. It is like a blizzard of dominance that it is hard for anyone to navigate, let alone someone who is different.

That dominance blizzard affects everyone.

There is almost no one who fits perfectly into the imaginary box of the dominant culture. Even a young person who is white, wealthy, male, cis, able-bodied, straight, neurotypical, good at sports, and tall will find something about themself that feels different or divergent. This is the nature of adolescence. I know because I never felt at home in my teenage self, despite checking all the big boxes.

To make our school anti-racist might be to examine how “whiteness” affects everyone within the system and create systems to minimize the harm. This could have the effect of creating a more welcoming school for everybody.

But more than just minimizing harm, we need to look at how to build skills as a community for recognizing when harm has occurred and responding. We need to have dynamic systems that can help us build the mental muscles of seeing the impacts of our actions. We also need to normalize listening to people when they speak up — and we need to do this to such an extent that people do not feel any hesitation in alerting the community when they have been harmed.

I keep coming back to Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us, in which she talks about how racism hurts everyone, including and especially white people. And to Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, where he speaks about racism being the father of race and not the other way around. Part of his thesis is that if we can create anti-racist systems which provide equality of access and opportunity, then race will cease to be a factor. Those equitable systems will benefit everyone, regardless of race.

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Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.