Book: Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It by Shelly Tochluk
Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield
Publication date: 2010
Summary: Witnessing Whiteness blends memoir, scholarship, and depth psychology to help white people see and reflect on our whiteness.
White people in general are ill-at-ease over issues of race, and we are not very skilled at naming the true nature of the problem. We are confused by its complexity and our discomfort arises in our multiracial schools, organizations, companies, and collaborative relationships whenever race becomes the focus of a conversation. Unfortunately, many of us choose a colorblind, transcendence-seeking optimism that ends up stifling the honestly difficult dialogue we need to have in order to deal with the very real racial dyanmics that continue to play out in our interactions. The strategies we use to avoid dealing with race, sadly, then allow us to behave offensively without awareness. What we need are witnesses who can help sound the bells of alarm and raise a voice in the interest of improving our ability to create healthier, more successful, and more productive relationships and institutions. (p. 3)
Whiteness can be hard to see for white people, since it dominates our society. We’re like fish searching for water. Witnessing Whiteness guides us to opened vision by revealing history that we weren’t taught in school and illuminating how present-day experiences of people of color differ from our own. With that background, we can enter into conversations about race with a strong foundation of understanding.
Thoughts: This is the third time I’ve read Witnessing Whiteness and I’m about to start the fourth. This book is the focus of a program started by Amy Hunter (check out her amazing TEDx Talk) of the St. Louis YWCA several years ago. Groups of 20 or so people meet twice a month for ten sessions to engage in facilitated exercises based on the on-line curriculum that accompanies the book. I participated in the program beginning in the spring of 2015. Since then, I’ve co-facilitated for two groups of participants and I’m about to start with a third.
It’s helping. I’m better at talking about race and I run into people that I can converse with — either they’ve been through the YWCA Witnessing Whiteness program or they know people who have and some of it has rubbed off!
Just last week, though, I ran into a situation where it was abundantly clear that we need to reach a lot more people. This was in the context of the work that I’ve reported the last couple of weeks in posts that I labeled How to Change the World: the project and my background.
If you flinch or get defensive when someone implies that you or an institution you love might have work to do in the arena of racial justice, there is a beautiful future awaiting you on the other side of Witnessing Whiteness. Imagine being stronger, more resilient, and much more comfortable when the topic of race comes up. It’s like that.
If you live in the St. Louis area, let me know and I can connect you to the group I’ll be facilitating on the 2nd and 4th Mondays or to the volunteer with the YWCA who is forming several other groups in the next month or so.
Appeal: Invariably during a series of Witnessing Whiteness sessions, someone will complain about the book. It has some tricky bits, especially in the way that it moves from memoir to academic research with some depth psychology thrown in for good measure. I suspect that last bit plays better in California where the author lives than it does here in down-to-earth Missouri. I’m looking forward to Tochluk’s new book, Living in the Tension, that focuses more deeply on the spiritual aspect of anti-racism work. I hope that will give me a better understanding that aids in my work with others through Witnessing Whiteness.
In spite of some complaints about the book, no one seems to regret reading it. They’re just happy to have done it slowly and with a group. If you find yourself tackling this book on your own, I suggest using Waking Up White by Debby Irving as a primer. It’s straight-up memoir and so more accessible and a quick read. Then, to develop better skills for talking about race, work through Witnessing Whiteness slowly while trying some of the exercises from the curriculum page to practice what you’re learning.
Have you read this book? What did you think?