“I spent most of this weekend being frustrated. At both the first class meeting and Racism weekend, I never knew how to prepare myself. For racism weekend, I wasn’t sure what I was walking into, but I had the distinct feeling that some people knew more about what would happen than I did, and because I had no insight to this knowledge, I was blindsided by the experience.
“The point at which I realized my lack of awareness was in my affinity group. In my naiveté, I had actually thought the space would be used by people of color to air their grievances [about] person of color-hood. I thought we would talk about our various communities, what our real experiences are as people of that community, what microaggressions we encounter on a regular basis, and what opportunities we had to build bridges within communities of color. I was vastly disappointed to find that not only were those not the conversations I had at all, but I was experiencing microaggressions in the very circle where I was supposed to be with people with whom I relate. I noticed that nobody really wanted to engage with whatever information or experience I put out into that space. I attributed this to two main causes. First, two of the people in that circle passed for white and were too threatened by my raw emotions and obvious frustration to interact with my ideas. The other cause is that the others in that circle knew (better than I did) to not bring their authentic selves into that space in order to protect themselves.
“I knew I would not get what I wanted out of this conversation when one of the white-passing individuals asked the rest of the circle how we go about building white allyship. Personally, I do not build white allyship. I could not care less whether or not I have white allies. I have always centered my work around the community I work with: Asian Americans. My purpose is to empower my community and affirm their existence, and the community does not need white allies to help them do that. The individual who asked this question spoke about how she would ask her white colleagues for help when she noticed something problematic. She did not acknowledge that as a white-passing person, she has the privilege to ask for help with relatively few consequences. I generally don’t ask for help because people think I am complaining if I do. If people do react to my requests, it is usually at a pace that is more hindering than it is progressive.
“However, the rest of this 55-minute conversation was centered entirely around white allyship. When the white affinity group from the next room came back to our room, I learned that they had talked about white allyship as well. To my knowledge, then, all of the conversation that had occurred in that 55-minute period had been centered on whiteness. This room of people, which had supposedly come together for the purpose of unpacking their own privilege and affirming people of color, had apparently not spent any time talking about people of color and had instead centered the entirety of their conversation on whiteness.
“…The most frustrating part about this weekend was actually not what had happened in that circle, but the silencing advice someone had given me just moments before we entered our affinity circle. I had planned on telling the white-passing individuals that their presence in that circle was a threat to me and offended me. I shared this thought with another person of color right before the affinity circle, who told me I could not tell those people that they were not people of color. From that moment forward, I thought perhaps I was not the person from whom they had to hear these things. I thought that perhaps in the long run, my silence was better than showing my anger because at least these white-passing individuals would continue to join dialogues about racism in the future. Since this was the very first time either of them were participating in conversation solely with people of color, I figured I would not be the one to preclude them from participation in future conversation [because I would not show them] how much they offended me. At this point, though, I think I should have said something for my own sake. I feel as if I allowed two people to get away with an offense that they do not [know] they have committed. For the rest of that day, I had to listen to one of those individuals say (at least 3 or 4 times, to boot) that she felt so affirmed and so validated by the affinity circle, and she was so grateful to us for hearing her out. I did not feel validated or affirmed in that space. I felt that this person took something away from me for her own validation, and the opportunity we had to have a real conversation in that circle was dead before we even entered.
“From this experience, I would say I have learned that whatever fear I have that graduate school is going to change me is already coming true. I am already losing parts of myself. I have already allowed myself to be silenced. I am already becoming the person I feared I would become—someone who does not present their authentic self because to do so is to invite all kinds of exploitation into my life.
“I don’t blame my colleagues who are people of color for doing that. Honestly, while it is something I adopt reluctantly, I don’t think I will be bringing my authentic self to the remainder of these weekends, at least not if I’m the only one. It has cost me too much of my emotional well-being to be that vulnerable in front of people who are not even paying attention. I also expect a lot less of the people who could support me in these spaces now that I know they are not truly being themselves. I think this will be healthier for our relationships because it reduces dependence on one another.
“At the end of the day, the biggest lesson I take home is that when one is teaching about racism in institutionalized educational spaces, the point is actually to affirm whiteness. To allow white people to feel safe enough to discuss issues of race, I basically had to minimize myself and compromise my own safety. The other (four) non-white people were not even being authentic because to be authentic would be too radical for the white people in the room and to harmful for the people who are making themselves vulnerable. Basically, for me this means that people of color…are not safe in classrooms, and the only spaces of safety we have are the ones we build by ourselves for ourselves.”
Barkakati, L. (2014). Racism Weekend Reflections.