Mar 21 2008

Witnessing Whiteness

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Witnessing WhitenessGUEST: Shelly Tochluk, educator with background in psychology, assistant professor of education at Mount St. Mary’s College, author of “Witnessing Whiteness: First Steps toward an antiracist practice and culture”

Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s moving speech on race in America this Tuesday addressed a fundamental issue in US culture that is rarely addressed in a national forum. One newspaper claimed that the speech “has sparked a conversation about race relations, one of the frankest Americans have had since the civil rights era.” Race and racism in America is a topic that almost always generates anger and defensiveness. While a majority of people of color in the US see racist behavior in their day to day lives, most white Americans in the mainstream, would like to believe that we have moved past it and are now living in a so-called ‘color-blind’ society. Shelly Tochluk, an educator with a background in psychology, has written a book called “Witnessing Whiteness: First Steps toward an antiracist practice and culture.” The book is based on a series of interviews with pairs of people in cross-racial friendships and aims at educating white Americans, particularly those who are educators themselves, to be self-evaluating, and effectively antiracist.

Shelly Tochluk will be speaking on Saturday March 22nd, 3 pm at Imix Bookstore, 5052 Eagle Rock in Eagle Rock. More information about her book is at

AWARE-LA is the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere Los Angeles meet on the first Saturday of the month from 1pm – 4:15pm, at Shakespeare Festival, 1238 W. 1st Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026. More information is at

Rough Transcript

Sonali: Thanks so much for joining us. So, first let’s talk about the goal of this book itself. Is it a book that’s meant for mostly White Americans or also people of color?

Shelly: I have to be honest. When I sat down to write this book, I had been told – pick your target audience and write for them. And so the person in my head the entire time was my White community – my father, my friends, those that I love the most, that I’ve had conversations with the most and so I was hoping to invite them into this journey that I’ve been taking.

Sonali: And, who did you interview for this book? Why did you sort of pick this approach of interviewing cross-racial pairs of friends?

Shelly: Well, the interviews actually started out as part of a dissertation process. However, what led me to the particular people is that I needed help. I needed guidance. I needed people who were farther ahead on this journey than myself but not necessarily people who were perfect. Not perfect allies. I knew that had been talked about. So, I needed my next steps and I wanted to figure out where would I find these people? Where would I find White models for myself who have created an anti-racist practice? And, I wanted to also make sure I was including voices of people of color. So, what I went for were people of color who are actively working within their communities, people who see race who are actively engaged in educating people around it and wanted to find out – do they have White friends? Do they have people who have been in sustained relationships with them who might be more likely to have been encouraged to consider these topics themselves? And so, some of the people I ended up speaking with were Bruce Rodriguez and then he had a White friend, Michael Mead, who I also had known as well. Limon Wa, who is the producer of the Color of Fear and yes, he in fact had a White friend that we could talk about. And then a few other people as well.

Sonali: Now, in the earlier part of your answer you said it was because you felt you needed help. Why do you think you needed help?

Shelly: Because I had started to do some readings on whiteness. I had started to look into the subject area, but the people who were closest in my life who were helping me to see myself were all people of color. I was one of those clichéd people who was taught by people of color about myself. And it became really clear that that wasn’t the best model. I needed to have people who were also White, who understood what it felt like to go through the process, who knew what types of the trappings of our society needed to be dropped within their communities that could help guide and show me the way.

Sonali: Now, how do you respond to a person of color who might be listening to you right now and thinking – okay, you’re being far too easy, letting White people off the hook, you know, we’ve done this long enough; how much longer should we keep trying to relate to White people and their guilt? – how do you respond to that?

Shelly: There’s a couple of pieces. One is that, for me this is a different avenue. It’s an avenue I can take. It’s my best effort to hit a niche that I don’t think people of color should have to satisfy anymore. I think it is the responsibility for White people who have started to do this work to reach back into their home communities and bring people along with them…

Sonali: Meaning it’s not the responsibility of people of color to educate their White friends about racism any longer?

Shelly: I would hope that that would be decreased. Yes.

Sonali: The thing you mentioned in your book that interested me was you said it hasn’t worked to shame White people. You know, it hasn’t worked to accuse them and make them feel ashamed of themselves. Is this something that you have sort of been through personally yourself?

Shelly: I’ve been through it. I also think that it’s not that it can’t be effective in some ways. It has some negative and adverse effects that we can get beyond certainly. And I’m not saying that it has to completely go away but I looked sort at the anti-racism pool and there are some people who are just tossed in, tossed into the deep end, some people who are pushed in and some people who jumped.

Sonali: And what’s the psychological effect, say, on a White American who doesn’t or hasn’t dealt with the facts that they’re White and experience White privilege every day to be shamed and to be called racist simply for being White?

Shelly: Well, I think it just shuts people down. And that for me is the effort here is to say there’s a whole group of people that I really think are good-hearted, wonderful people who, to be brought in in a slower way, they are potential allies. So I don’t want to cut people out of their ability to become allies, perhaps more slowly over time, but that I consider my job to reach back and work with my community to help bring people forward, in perhaps, yes, in a softer way. But those are people who would definitely not be allies without it.

Sonali: So, how do, in your experience, not only writing this book, but in your life experience, how do most White Americans avoid seeing themselves from a racial point of view? Most White Americans don’t think of themselves necessarily as White but just, “normal” Americans?

Shelly: Well, we’re not taught to see ourselves as White. What I’ve been discovering is not only that, but we’ve sort of been taught to avoid seeing ourselves as White in some ways. By the way, I don’t necessarily think these are conscious strategies, these have been learned strategies over the course of our lives, is to be colorblind. We’ve been taught that this is the way to get past race issues in America is to be colorblind. So, that’s a primary one. We’ve also been taught to see ourselves as all of us, transcending race. We’re beyond race. Those, I think, are the two most popular and I feel them deeply. I understand that my human spirit does transcend race. That does not mean that the way I walk in the world does so. Additionally, we often decide, well, racism has been legislated against and therefore, this is not something that we need to be thinking about and talking about. Then also, the push towards paying attention to our ethnicity – if all of us are paying attention to our ethnic and cultural backgrounds then there’s no reason to connect to race anymore. Those are just a few.

Sonali: Now, given that race is a social construct, which of course very effectively you explain in the beginning of your book, it’s not a biological reality – how do you explain to White Americans how the White race even came to be a White race? What’s your in-a-nutshell description?

Shelly: The in-a-nutshell is hard because it’s volumes and volumes and volumes out there. And I have to say I am not an historian, I’m not claiming to be an historian, but I have read some really amazing works that I figured a lot of people weren’t going to go out and read all of the same things I read. So, I started pulling and culling together some things – things from our political history, our economic history, our different social and psychological history of assimilation. And, in a nutshell, I think it has to do with manipulation. I think there was a felt need to divide people at a certain period of our history such that defined White people would receive benefits over anybody else who was a person of color. And that got the process going. I strongly reject the idea that it came out of science – I call it pseudo-science. The science actually followed the legislation.

Sonali: Now, does being White in America automatically mean that you’re racist if you’re not actually actively being anti-racist?

Shelly: The “automatically” is the tough part. And so is the “a-racist”. It’s such a label that I think it ends up really putting people off from even having a conversation. Do I believe that just being in our society creates a situation where racism is infused within ourselves? Yeah, I do. I think it’s almost impossible to avoid racist messages and the idea that that’s not going to get into our unconscious is not accurate. I have yet to meet anybody who claims that they’re not still affected by racism. And, for White folks, what that means is the messages that are racist that just come out and come up. We might not be conscious of them on a regular basis and we might not act on them but the idea that they don’t emerge, I think most people that I’ve talked to recognize they still work around that.

Sonali: What are some of the ways in which White Americans avoid talking about race when it comes up and how can they then learn not to or how can they better deal with it?

Shelly: I think it does take a lot of self-inquiry. I think there’s a nut there which is that most White Americans that I know, those from my community have not been taught to talk about race so we are decades behind most people. So, when issues of race come up we’re really not sure how to navigate that terrain very carefully and very successfully in which case we make a lot of mistakes. And so our experience talking about race generally is of not doing a very good job. And so what we do is we try to shut it down. We try to, I think, avoid it by saying talking about it is creating more of a problem.

Sonali: It’s divisive.

Shelly: It’s divisive. It’s more of a problem. And the reason I think we see it as part of the problem is because it gets conflictual and tension-filled. And for White folks – this is something that came through my interviews – there are a lot of White folks who will name, as what it means to be White, some feature and associated aspect of Whiteness – has to do with the sense of being polite and being calm and having things be easy with one another. And this is certainly true for myself and many of my friends – when conflict arises in a relationship -the immediate fear is this means of relationship is over. And so to talk about race and the fear that it’s going to get conflictual and tension-filled is actually saying I’m afraid that I’m going to lose you as a potential relationship partner here. And so better to just not talk about it and make it go away because I don’t really know how to navigate this.

Sonali: I think what you’re saying is probably touching off a lot of nerves right now. You know, when people listen to this, and I have to mention myself, it makes you think back on all your friendships, all your cross-racial friendships. And let me ask you, in your interviews with the people that you base this book on, what sort of things did you discover that maybe people weren’t talking to one another about?

Shelly: Yeah, it’s really interesting. These friendships, I have to say, and it’s not necessarily part of the book, one of the things I heard most is that these friendships are just really deep friendships. And they all mention that their friendships have moved beyond race in many, many ways. And I think that’s important because we aren’t going to stay deeply connected unless we truly see beyond just the race piece of it. A relationship that comes together only about race is probably going to end at some point. It has to go deeper than that. That said, all of them had to deal with race, too, or else they would dissolve. And so there’s one particular conflict story that I talk about where a couple of friends had gotten together and done really wonderful work together but when race issues arose in a way that the White friend could not hear it, could not see how his own Whiteness was playing a role within that relationship, it broke apart. It broke apart for a number of years and it wasn’t until some deep internal processing on both sides had come through that they were able to get back together and what it involved was, on the White person’s part, a recognition of White privilege, of how Whiteness is associated, how the history of Whiteness and its legacy is still playing out in day-to-day conversations and relationships and when they could get together and name that and talk about it, it gave them a completely different vehicle for starting to move forward in their own relationship.

Sonali: What does it mean to be anti-racist? Is it simply a recognition of White privilege?

Shelly: You know, that’s a really difficult question to answer because I think it changes for every person and every person’s context. So, I don’t think I have a perfect answer for what it means for everyone. I think it means different things given your different context and the relationships that you’re in. Because if you’re in a multi-racial space with a multi-racial set of people who are asking you certain things, then that definition shifts and changes. I can say for me, I do believe that it requires self-exploration, continuing work toward creating non-oppressive communication skills…

Sonali: What does that mean, “non-oppressive communication skills”?

Shelly: I think it’s really recognizing how being raised in our dominant society as a White person has created particular ways of being that can shut down other people around us, make assumptions that are not accurate, make generalizations that we don’t even necessarily know that we’re doing at that time. It’s exploring that and finding ways to disrupt our own processes.

Sonali: Shelly, finally, does it mean, becoming anti-racist, does it mean simply changing a world view or does it also mean taking specific actions. Does one have to have a specific plan of action for oneself and do it very deliberately or should one just read a bunch of books? Like yours?

Shelly: I think action is an essential piece. For me, the word, “witnessing”, that comes in the Whiteness in that book title, the witness in part is about becoming a witness, being able to take a stand for racial justice. And so I do look at it from, sort of, that court metaphor, to be able to stand up and say, you know, I see what’s going on here and I’m willing to name it and become able to do something about it. This book really is best suited for people who have not been doing a lot of this work before. This really is for people who are well-meaning and may even be part of social justice efforts but don’t necessarily know how their race is playing a role in that effort. And so, for me it does get to the point of saying, okay, how do you take action? What is required in order to have a good action plan? And, although one’s effort is maybe not 100% complete and I can’t imagine that it would be, I think there’s some essential steps. And one is knowledge. You do need to read some books. And, there’s a variety of types of knowledge that people need to have. So, just reading a random set of books also probably is not going to get us all the way there. But in addition to having knowledge, we also have to have some skills. And, thankfully, there’s a group that I work with where we can actually get together – Aware L.A., the Alliance of White Anti-Racists – everywhere in Los Angeles. We get together every first Saturday of the month in Los Angeles for our Saturday dialogues. And we practice our skills, we talk about these things, we gain a better insight into ourselves and how that fits so that we take our knowledge, we develop our skills and then we also have to look at the capacity, how do we actually make use of these and then, of course, building the community around us to keep us supported and motivated.

Special Thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview

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