For white people to take part in anti-oppression work in a way that’s useful rather than destructive or distracting, we have homework to do.
One of the formats that many activists have found useful are white caucus groups. The goal of these groups is to make focused time for “white work,” work that it’s important for white people to do separately from people of color (POC).
There’s not consensus in the broader racial justice movement about what white work is. If you ask lots of different people about what white work should be, the answers fall in a few rough categories, something that includes at a minimum:
- Processing white feelings: working through emotions that often come up for white people like sadness, shame, paralysis, confusion, denial, etc.
- Retraining: learning new behaviors, concepts, missing histories, and ways of seeing that are hidden from us in white supremacy.
- Action to shift power: taking action to redistribute resources, change who’s in power, alter institutions, etc, etc.
If any of those tasks get dropped, there are associated consequences in multiracial groups:
- If the plan skips processing feelings, white feelings dominate the group.
- If the plan skips retraining, white group members consistently act on internalized superiority and missing information, harming POC in the group and acting weirdly competitive towards one another about who is the best white person.
- If the plan skips action, there’s a lot of talk but no rock.
When facilitators are planning a white caucus agenda, we often feel the stress of these three imperatives. This is not an agenda-planning problem, this is a white supremacy problem. As white people, we are behind on all our homework. Information about oppression is systematically concealed from white people, a coordinated curriculum of schoolbooks, parenting, media, and everyday interactions. We are bubble-wrapped from having to incrementally grow, change, and catch up as we go along, because we are being artificially buoyed and appeased in the system, like a rock band surrounding ourselves only with loyal paid assistants, growing more and more out of touch with real feedback.
When facilitators are planning a white work agenda for a meeting, we find ourselves staring at a to-do list that we must complete as a culture, but can’t complete in the allotted time. We are years behind. We are countering a systemic disaster with a 40-minute bulleted workshop Google Doc. Ending oppression is intergenerational work that must be done in broad coalitions, and through time and space. And yet now these participants are arriving late, cutting the caucus time down to 30 minutes. For any facilitator who believes that white work begins and ends in that one particular meeting, this is not going to go well (emotionally).
As a white Jewish person, my approach to white work comes from the Jewish ethical text, the Pirke Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” How I understand that in my own work as a facilitator is that doing white work is an anti-perfectionist task. Ending oppression takes a long time. There are a lot of parts and a lot of people involved. Most of activism is mundane, and requires a lifetime of repetition without the assurance that the reps are even in the right direction.
Planning an agenda for a white caucus group is about doing the work anyway, incrementally, for the purpose of continuing to try to change, while letting go of completing the task.
Below are a number of encouragements to me and my fellow facilitators for when we are planning an agenda for a white caucus group:
- Time is real. Things take exactly as long as they actually take. We have to face reality about how much can be accomplished within any given time frame.
- Ending white supremacy is ACTUALLY, not just spiritually, an intergenerational project that must be done through the collaboration of millions of people, through time and space. We are not the hinge of the movement, we are just people in the movement. We are exactly what we are in the big picture. White supremacy encourages white people to obsess about individual contribution, and to frame time within our own lifetimes. As much as possible, our job is to remember that even in a mundane task like planning a caucus meeting agenda, we are doing a collaborative project with our ancestors, grandchildren, and all other activists on earth and through all time.
- Make decisions. Given how much time we actually have on a given day, we have to make decisions about which parts of white work to focus on, and why.
- Covering multiple tasks takes multiple hours. If we want to get to all three general categories of white work (processing feelings, retraining, and action to shift power) in a single event, we need to plan enough time to do that, and we need to be realistic about how much time each part will really need.
- Covering one task well takes multiple hours, if not years. I was leading a white caucus group at a multi-day event and wanted to do some retraining about using I statements (at the request of my beloved colleague Megan Madison). I made a brief announcement, which of course did not change the participants’ behavior at all. As we were doing our usual facilitator rehashing, Megan pointed out that to actually have followed the request, at a minimum, would have required running drills every day of the event, for all of the time we had. My announcement was a form of bargaining. We have to plan for the reality that true retraining takes a minimum of multiple hours, if not years. Part of why this is important, Megan noted, is that caucuses have a meta-purpose: to serve as an opportunity for white people to practice following the leadership of POC. To truly carry out another leader’s request, we have to engage in mundane things like time management and thinking through what it will realistically take to comply successfully. We need to practice responding to directives from leaders of color with the thought, “What would realistically need to happen for this to go well?” If we don’t do that, we are in effect wasting the time of leaders of color when we ask for their input.
- If we can’t carve out time, we need to carve out priorities. If there just isn’t enough time, then we have to pick what we will and won’t focus on for that particular day.
- Accept that choosing priorities is choosing consequences. If our plan is to only do a go-around about processing white feelings, the missing work of retraining and action will haunt our group. Without retraining and new behavior practice time, white people consistently act out internalized superiority. Without agitation for action, white paralysis or acceptance of the status quo remains intact.
- Plan for the consequences. Without tipping over to perfectionism, we have to plan what we can to anticipate the consequences we choose. If we knowingly skip white feelings to focus on action, it can help to assign some participants as listeners to engage in emotional labor tasks, or to announce to the group, “Because we haven’t made time for processing white emotions at this event, white participants might feel a lot of strong, messy emotions about the work we’re doing on racism. If you are white and feel that way, here are the steps we want you to take to be conscientious about how you express your emotions in this multiracial group: go talk to one of these assigned listeners, take a break and write down how you’re feeling, choose a buddy to call after and process with, etc.”
- Prioritize in relation to a bigger strategic vision. One of the biggest-scale white caucus events I’ve ever seen takes place every year at the The White Privilege Conference (WPC), a huge (often 2000-person) conference on racism and white supremacy founded by incredible organizer and educator Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. Caucus time at WPC is when the attendees break into identity groups (a white group, a POC group, and a multiracial group) every afternoon. WPC runs programming from early in the morning until late at night, and attendees are stuffed with information from workshops, keynotes, hallway conversations, and films. I remember noticing at my first WPC caucus meeting that many of the participants in my group walked in looking like contortionists — their shoulders up, their faces tight with tears stuck in their sinuses, their feet tapping up and down in their chairs, their fingers pulling at invisible threads on their shirts. Because the conference is organized around reprogramming and action work, it is a natural fit for the white caucus groups to bridge that work with making space to process feelings. When I’ve attended or led those groups, I’ve seen the participants surf the entire spectrum of human emotion: grief, elation, shame, curiosity, love, closeness, destructiveness. The emotional focus makes sense because the structure of the conference, by design, is taking care of other elements. When we’re planning how to focus our caucus groups, our questions can be: How does this time relate to the bigger picture of what participants are working on? What are people getting somewhere else? How does this relate to the priorities dictated to my by my movement partners? For instance, if I am a white facilitator, how is my agenda shaped in relation to the requests and priorities of my colleagues of color and by broader movement strategy?
- Accountability should drive prioritization. The meta-goal of every white caucus needs to be what my colleague Jesse Villalobos calls “White Followership” — an exercise in the practice of working to enact a bigger vision that is driven by leaders of color. The bigger picture of how we prioritize should be based on trying to drive in the direction of the directives of people of color, similar to how carpenters use their skills to build based on an architect’s plan.
- Accountability takes time, planning, and repetition. The core of accountability is relationships, and relationships take time, commitment, nurturing, care, patience, learning, and trust, there’s no InstantPot for this (see bullet point #1).
- Be transparent. The more transparently prioritized the different elements of white work are, the more relaxed and oriented participants will be.
- Plan for predictable group dynamics. Many white people have been raised within white cultural norms, which include placing a value on individualism, competitiveness, perfectionism, and intellectualizing emotions. As much as possible, our agendas should be designed to include counternarrative themes, such as encouraging cooperation, non-comparison, and building skill around naming and expressing a range of emotions. For example, ask participants to share emotions in pairs with the instruction to listen empathetically, plan time to teach about the different types of emotion that white people often feel in multiracial groups, or make action plans about how to responsibly express those predictable feelings. To anticipate participants evading talking about race, build in group practices for returning to the task at hand (for example, a hand signal that helps the group to remember to return to the topic).
- It’s the system, Sandra. Working in multiracial groups is difficult not because the group is difficult but because white supremacy is a systemic sickness. There’s nothing wrong with you as a facilitator if the needs of the white people in your group extend past the time you have. The system is set up to delay what should have been the incremental reprogramming of whiteness. The system’s procrastination makes white needs at multiracial events overflow the space like Streganona’s pasta pot from that kids book — white needs can fill the whole room and pour out through the windows and through the doors.
- Popular education techniques don’t work as designed on privileged populations. Pop ed techniques often rely on the natural wisdom of groups about their own experiences. Privilege works by hiding reality from people with dominant identities. You can’t, for instance, use an open question storytelling approach to bring up whiteness, or masculinity, or class, with a group of white rich men — it won’t naturally “come up.” You have to use more directive facilitation around processing, retraining, and action in order for the work to “work.” A pop ed prompt is, “Share your story.” A prompt for a privileged group has to be preempted by information that offers context, persuasively reveals information that has been concealed, and then pushes the group to acknowledge emotions. For example, “Growing up, many white people are told that the police are friendly and helpful. However, there is very clear data that shows that people of color are disproportionately and unfairly targeted by police. Look at the handout provided detailing disparate police treatment. Discuss with a partner: what does the data show about how race impacts policing?” Then ask, “How do you feel about seeing such clear evidence of racism? What emotions are you noticing? Where do you feel it in your body?” We often need to be extremely direct to move participants through the steps of education and emotional processing.
- Caucus groups are not twins. As psychologist Dr. Ken Hardy has so beautifully described in his work, each of us has different work to do in oppression, based on our identities. Our goal is not to make mirror groups that follow the same tasks, but to shape our groups strategically to follow the needs created by the bigger patterns of injustice in our society.
- Explaining caucus groups is part of white work. One of the weirdest features of white supremacy is the norm that white identity is a blank or “normal” identity, or even a non-identity. This means that it’s possible that the beginning part of our meetings, or even at every meeting, we have to reexplain why the group is meeting as white people at all, or even to explain that whiteness is an identity. Missing information about racism is also why white people are often incredulous (or claim that it’s “reverse racism”) for people of color to meet without us. Part of white caucus work is about explaining the structure of identity-based work itself. We have to reassert, usually every time, that there is work that white people must do without asking POC to do it for us. We have to reassert, again and again, that being white is a racialized experience, that power dynamics are real, and that it’s good for white people to practice noticing that we are white and to take time catching up on the information we have missed.
When we don’t take these steps, the consequences are predictable:
- When we don’t prioritize, we run out of time.
- When we prioritize but aren’t transparent about what we chose, the group is mad about the unprioritized options.
- When our plans don’t connect to a bigger strategy, we tread water.
- When white facilitators don’t bend the directions of our groups towards the directives of leaders of color, our own whiteness clouds our judgement.
- When white people don’t understand the basic justifications for identity-based work, we are mad, confused, and destructive.
Want more resources about planning a white caucus group?
- For an extremely helpful summary of elements of white behavior that need reprogramming, I have been greatly helped by the work of legendary trainers Kathy Obear and Diane Goodman.
- For examples of concrete activities you can do that specifically work on the task of retraining white people around norms and behaviors, you can download Kathy’s book for free But I’m Not Racist! Tools for Well-Meaning Whites. You can also find examples of exercises in the book Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice or in the book Witnessing Whiteness, written by Shelly Tochluk, who also happens to be the person who coordinates the many thousands of people who attend the WPC caucuses each year.
- For a handout to give to a white person who is mad that they are not invited to a POC caucus, hand them Paul Kivel’s article, Separatism.
- If you need to hold a white caucus group without a trained facilitator, I wrote a free self-study curriculum that has a number of sessions on race that can be self-led by most groups.
- Hire Jesse Villalobos to come speak at your organization about White Followership.
- Racial Equity Tools has a collection of resources for white caucus groups.
- Teaching Tolerance has tips for starting an affinity group at a school.
- If you want to see an example of side-by-side activities for a white and POC group to see how to plan groups that pursue a coherent strategy without mirrored agenda items, take a look at this guide from the UUA (including an excerpt from someone who really knows how to apply eyeshadow, my friend Rev. Ashley Horan).
- To see in-person examples of how large-scale affinity spaces are organized for larger events, attend the White Privilege Conference, or for people who work in independent schools, the NAIS People of Color Conference.
Pippi Kessler has trained thousands of people across the country to use their power for good. As a nationally recognized facilitator, trainer, and coach, she creates innovative workshops for nonprofits, universities, schools, and activist groups. She is the cofounder of MovementMatch.org, a project that matches people with progressive activist organizations and received her M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. To book a workshop or coaching session with Pippi, visit pippikessler.org.