Practices for Seeing with New Eyes

While practices that honor grief and strong emotion contain the heat of transformation, practices that help us “see with new eyes” incorporate the cool of reason, curiosity, insight, and new ideas.

Story telling is an important part of any White Awake gathering, and practices that provide a structure for telling stories can be found here. The other type of practices in the “Seeing with New Eyes” section are ones that help participants interact in meaningful ways with intellectual material that provides new paradigms, and non-dominant points of view, for building race awareness and reflecting on our own cultural identity.

Index of Practices:

  1. “Group Reading and Incremental Discussion”
  2. “White is a Racial Identity”
  3. “What is White Supremacy?”
  4. “Levels of Racism”
  5. “What is it that we need to heal”
  6. “Honoring Origins”

Return to Practices or Manual for Group Work table of contents page

Group Reading and Incremental Discussion – 30 min – 1 hour (time contingent on length of the reading and size of the group)

Begin with a piece of material that outlines paradigms about race and white privilege that lays the groundwork for new responses. Two examples are the core assumptions of White Awake, found on the Waking up to Race page, and the Pax Christi online resource: Building Accountable Relationships with Communities of Color.

Break the reading up into small manageable sections (Waking up to Race is already organized according to short paragraphs with bold headings). Have participants begin to pass one copy of the reading around the circle, with the instruction that each participant read one section, then pause for group discussion. As the facilitator, keep the group discussion focused on the ideas presented in the section that was just shared. While keeping the pace upbeat, make time for short stories, and discussion about the insights, confusion, or doubt raised by the section that was just shared. Cross talk is allowed.

When the given time has passed for discussion about the first section of the reading, have that participant pass the selected material on to the next person beside them. If a participant does not want to read, they can pass their turn. Continue until all of the sections have been shared. The facilitator is encouraged to share their own insights, as a participant, as well as keep the discussion focused and moving. (back to Index of Practices)

“White is a Racial Identity” – 20-30 minutes for 15-20 participants (short lecture and “Open Sentences” with partners)

A good lead in to this exercise is the article “Who Invented White People” by Gregory Jay. The core concepts behind the article are that “race” is a social construction (not a biological one), and that recognizing “whiteness” as a racial category is a pivotal step to the end of racism. Some thoughts from the article that can be highlighted are:

When race is discussed in America, it is usually used to refer to people of color – as though people of color are the only ones with a race. Making “whiteness” invisible gives it special status. (“Who Invented White People”, pg 96)

Since the death of King, white people do not want to call themselves white or speak in racial terms. The basic social narrative is: “Race shouldn’t matter. We have a color blind society”. But this is not, in fact, the case. (“Who Invented White People”, pg 97-98)

The creation of “white” as a race is not something that happened over time. For example, Jewish people and the Irish were not always considered white, as they are now. (“Who Invented White People”, pg 100-101)

White people tend to cast question of race in terms of individual guilt (“I never” or “my ancestors didn’t” or “my ancestors did”). But fact is, this is a social phenomena. We cannot avoid participation. Focusing on individualized guilt is a distraction. We contribute to the of racism when we bring awareness to “whiteness” as a social construction. (“Who Invented White People”, pg 101-102)

Following this reading (or another that emphasizes the significance of “seeing” race, and identifying “whiteness” as a racial category), have the participants divide up into pairs. Ask each person to share with the one another the process by which they became aware that they were white, and that being white comes with privilege. Some leading questions can be: When first recognize yourself as white? By what process has this awareness has grown? What feelings surround the knowledge of unearned privilege and the cost of this privilege to others? Have you tried to do anything about these things?

Ask that when one person is speaking, the other person not speak or respond, but simply given their partner their complete, undivided attention. Allow about 2 minutes per person. When the first person stops speaking, and it is time for the second person to share, repeat the questions a second time. At the end of the time, you can ask that each pair of people share something with the group. One way to do this is for each person to share something simple that stood out to them from what their partner shared. Ask for short responses, not long stories, and emphasize a respectful, nonjudgmental attitude throughout. (back to Index of Practices)

“What is White Supremacy?” – 10-20 minutes or more

This exercise is simply a discussion based on the online article “What is White Supremacy” by School of the Americas Watch. Essentially, the material is first reviewed by participants (generally as homework, because of it’s length; however the article can be divided in sections a be used in the “Group Reading and Incremental Discussion” format listed above).

Once participants are familiar with the material, they are asked to make note of what aspects of the article stood out to them. The facilitator can keep in mind key aspects of the piece that they might want to highlight, if they are not raised spontaneously by one of the participants.

Key points you may want to highlight include:

Definition of “White Supremacy” and reason for use of term (“The term White Supremacy gives white people a clear choice of supporting or opposing a system, rather than getting bogged down in claims to be anti-racist (or not) in their personal behavior.”)

The creation myth of the United States, and the way that this is at odds with three key historical underpinnings of the creation of the nation:

1. military conquest, land theft, and genocide of First Nations peoples;

2. the essential role of enslaved African labor in the foundation of the US economy and development of wealth;

3, the initiation of US imperialism via the take-over of half of the territory of Mexico (in the 19th century) by military means.

A review of the article can be followed with more focused inquiries (using prompts for dyads, tryads, or small groups to explore). Prompts could include questions that open the way for participants to tell stories about their conception of the United States (drawing on the “creation myth” premise discussed in the article), and how this article (or some other experience in their life) might have caused conflict with this myth of origin.(back to Index of Practices)

“Levels of Racism” – 20-30 minutes

Creating a framework for different manifestations of racism can be very helpful for understanding and identifying its presence. Begin this activity with one of more large sheets of paper, upon which are written these four headings, with room for notes after each heading:

1. Personal
2. Interpersonal
3. Cultural
4. Institutional

Spend about 5 minutes explaining the intention behind these different categories:

Personal – our own thoughts and reactions, which may or may not be expressed outwardly

Interpersonal – interactions among individuals or within small groups

Cultural – broad, social beliefs and practices

Institutional – systematic racial discrimination within social institutions (such as schools and universities, private businesses, and/or the criminal justice system).

After defining these four categories, open up a group process in which participants brainstorm examples of each type of racism. Try to handle one category of racism at a time, and guide the group to give examples that match the definition at hand (do not be afraid to re-categorize, for example, an interaction with a friend if it is offered as a “personal” form of racism but would be more accurately placed in the “interpersonal” framework).

At the same time, emphasize that these are not hard and fast categories but systems of thought and practice that interact with one another. The entire exercise is designed as a framework for thinking about racism that helps white people grasp the depth and complexity of its contemporary expression. It is more important that the framework serves our awareness than that we agree on exact details of its content.

Once the brainstorm is complete, it can be helpful to take a pervasive form of contemporary racism and look at how it is manifested at each level on the spectrum. The criminalization of young black men is described as a case in point here. Other forms of racism can be treated in a similar manner.

At the personal level, many white people experience fear when they see a young black man on the street. This fear may surface as a general feeling, a set of thoughts, and/or the action of locking doors or crossing the street to avoid the black man or men.

At the interpersonal level, white people may act on these fears or assumptions of the criminality of black men. An extreme example of this would be the way in which George Zimmerman interacted with Trayvon Martin. While cultural racism informed Zimmerman’s response to Trayvon, and is demonstrated in some public conversation about Trayvon Martin’s case, and while both Stand Your Ground Laws as well as the Zimmerman verdict can be seen as reflecting institutional racism, the initial interaction between Zimmerman and Trayvon was interpersonal.

At the cultural level, young black men are frequently portrayed as criminals – on billboards, in the news, and in various forms of Hollywood media. This message is embedded within everyone’s mind, and influences both how white people perceive black youth as well as how young black men perceive themselves.

At the institutional level, the incarceration rate of black men is dramatically disproportionate to the rate of incarceration of men of other races, particularly white men. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow offers a clear and thorough explanation of this social phenomena, and many other supporting resources about this form of institutional racism can be found online. (back to Index of Practices)

“What is it that we need to heal?” – 20 minutes for 15-20 participants

It is recommended that the facilitator familiarize themselves with the work of Malidoma Patrice Some – through his website and, if possible, through his book Of Water and the Spirit. Some is a respected member of the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, in West Africa whose mission, as given by his elders and expressed in the tagline of his home page, is this:

“I offer the wisdom of the African ancestors so that Westerners might find the deep healing they seek.”

The facilitator begins this exercise by sharing this quote, and a little bit about Some’s story. An example of what can be shared follows:

Malidoma was kidnapped from home by a French Jesuit at four years of age. For 15 years Some was cut off from his tribal roots as he was trained to be a priest, abused, and almost completely stripped of his indigenous language. But he never stopped wanting to go home, and at age 19 he escaped and walked 125-miles through the jungle to return to his people.

Malidoma’s homecoming produced a crisis in the village. He was seen as having been “swallowed by a foreign way of life.” According to the Dagara experience, “the spirit that animates the whites is extremely restless—powerful when it comes to keeping that restlessness alive. Wherever he goes he brings a new order, the order of unrest. … Until he is at peace with himself, no one around him will ever be. The elders want to quiet the white man in your soul. They do not know how, but they would like to try something.”

The council of elders allowed Malidoma to undergo initiation at age 20. This was particularly risky to do so, given his age and experience in the boarding schools. But Malidoma survived, and then received his instruction – his mission – from the elders. Malidoma’s name means “friend of the enemy”.

Some describes the basic belief of the Dagara people that when a person does harm they are in great need of healing. He writes: “Western civilization is suffering from a great sickness of the soul.”

After sharing Malidoma’s story, and mission, have the participants break up in to small groups of 3-4 people each. As that each person share their thoughts on these two questions: What is it that white people need to heal ourselves? What is it within white culture, as a social phenomena, that needs to heal?

Allow approximately 2 minutes per person to share within the small group. Remind the participants that we are committed to a nonjudgmental attitude, and that the goal is to remain curious and open to what comes up, regardless of what that is.

Once the small groups have had their discussion, ask them to share something with the larger group about the conversation their small group had. While small group participants may decide together what to share, request that individual participants speak to their own experience, rather than assigning one group member the role of “reporter” for everyone else in the group.

Allow approximately 1-2 minutes for each group to share about their experience with the larger group. (back to Index of Practices)

“Honoring Origins” – 30-45 minutes with 15-20 people
This practice addresses cultural appropriation, and is best presented after a short lecture and/or discussion on the subject. Resources to help explain and investigate cultural appropriation can be found on the Themes and Resources page.

Begin by describing the practice, “Honoring Origins”, which can be used when sharing a cultural practice, object, or song from a cultural group that is not our own. Explain that it is important to honor the origins of what is shared in two primary ways: what culture the shared piece comes from, and what relationship the person sharing has to what they are sharing.

When naming the culture that the shared piece comes from, it is important to be as specific as possible. Share information about the geographical location, the name of the people from which this practice or item came, and any other detailed you can about the origins of the practice or item.

When describing one’s relationship to what one is sharing, there are two main questions to answer: how did the person sharing learn about or acquire this cultural practice or object (including who gave permission for the person to share this cultural piece, if this is relevant)?; why is this cultural practice or object important to the person who is sharing it? Essentially, the questions here have to do with the relationship between the person and the cultural piece that is being shared, and are best answered by telling a story.

A good example of this is the way in which Joanna Macy shares the Elm Dance. Before sharing the dance itself with participants in her workshop. Joanna tells the story of the Elm Dance and her relationship to it: where it comes from, who created the dance, why they created it, and how she, Joanna, came to learn and share the Elm Dance herself. Telling the story of the dance is as much a part of the practice as the doing the dance itself, and the story is never left out of the sharing.

After discussing the “Honoring Origins” practice (allowing time for a little discussion and clarifying questions, ) ask participants to break up into small groups of 3-4 people each. Have group members take turns describing cultural practices, objects, or songs (which do not inherently “belong” to that person or their culture) that individual participants value and could imagine sharing in a formal setting. Ask each person to speak to how they could honor the origins of this cultural piece. Allow enough time for some group discussion and feedback within small groups, about 3-4 minutes per person.

At the end of the small group discussion, have each group share one or two examples they came up with of how to honor origins. Ask that participants share from their own experience (rather than electing a spokesperson for the small group), and allow some time for question and answer with the larger group, about 3-4 minutes per small group share. (back to Index of Practices)