In a small art-filled conference room at Oakstop, a coworking and event space in uptown Oakland, 14 strangers circled the room, bumping into each other and smiling nervously, unsure about what would happen next.
“Now stop and face someone,” said Gregory Mengel, a facilitator who was leading the exercise. “Express your gratitude for the person in front of you nonverbally. They have chosen to be here, with us, to confront this together.”
The participants paused for a moment, and then hugged each other, smiled, or steadily held the gaze of the person facing them.
This group of people was taking part in an eight-week training titled “Beyond the Culture of Separation: Whiteness & the Embodiment of a New Story,” organized by Beyond Separation. According to their website, the group’s mission is to bring together white-identified people to explore issues of race and white supremacy to “create equity, freedom, and justice.”
In the training, participants learn about personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels of racism; develop leadership skills to confront racial inequality; and cultivate a supportive community with whom they can share resources to further engage in anti-racist work. Over the next weeks, they will explore topics like colonialism, residential segregation, cognitive science and racism, and personal family histories.
Beyond Separation is one of many anti-racist trainings and workshops being offered in the Bay Area specifically geared towards white people. Other groups include White Awake, a five-month racial justice group for white women, and STAND: White Men for Racial, Gender, and Economic Justice. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a national network of groups that organize white people to oppose racism through education, protest and resource sharing. The Bay Area chapter meets once a month in Oakland.
Recent events like the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the ongoing debate over Confederate statues and memorials have brought issues of race and white supremacy into mainstream public discourse, according to organizers of these workshops.
“For 400 years, we’ve been functioning under this system of white supremacy, which has changed its form and become more subtle over time, so that it’s been possible for white people to remain in denial,” said Mengel in an interview. “Now, it’s becoming more obvious why it’s relevant—there’s white supremacy marching down the street and there’s a white supremacist in the White House.”
“There’s been a zeitgeist of consciousness happening in white people,” said Elana Isaacs, one of Beyond Separation’s founders and a training facilitator. “A lot of us—we are in various stages of waking up. Being on the side of oppression we were born with it and swimming in it, and unless we are actively working against it then we are working with it.”
Isaacs, Mengel and Angela Sevin formed Beyond Separation in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin’s death, and Zimmerman’s acquittal sparked a national debate about racial profiling. The Beyond Separation co-founders wanted to offer a space for white people to discuss race, and in 2014 started offering trainings in partnership with Impact Hub Oakland. They are now on their eighth round.
This year, “people have been showing up in droves,” said Isaacs. “A huge part of it is building community. Yes, the content is important, but a lot of people come looking for support, community, inspiration, understanding, and being able to grapple with this stuff not alone.”
The first session of the current workshop, which took place on September 27, opened with a short meditation. Other activities included a sensory visualization in which participants closed their eyes and imagined the sights, sounds, and smells of a place from their childhood, as well as the milling exercise in which participants walked around the room and expressed gratitude for each other nonverbally. According to Isaacs, these activities encourage participants to be conscious not only of their thoughts but also their bodies, so they can access buried feelings about race.
“As white people, we tend to intellectualize these issues because it’s hard,” said Isaacs. “We can’t heal this just from thinking about it. These other modalities allow us to access the implicit bias and our unconscious where most of this stuff lives.”
Throughout the eight weeks, participants also engage in role-playing exercises and Theater of the Oppressed activities, which are interactive theatre techniques used to promote social change. They also do check-ins with a partner in which they take a moment to examine how they are feeling physically, emotionally and mentally. These check-ins encourage people to slow down and reflect, especially after engaging in a lot of sharing and conversation throughout each session.
Beyond Separation’s training is specifically geared towards white-identified people, who, according to Isaacs, may do more harm than good in multi-racial activist spaces if they have not reckoned with their own privilege first. For example, they may prioritize talking about their own feelings of guilt, rather than listening to and supporting the needs of people of color.
Some white people may also experience an alienation from their own racial identity or the idea of white supremacy because they are actively engaging in social justice work, Isaacs said.
“Working with communities of color, I could almost separate myself from my racial identity — my whiteness — like it was out there, and I was this person doing ‘good’ work,” said Trevor Gardner, a participant in the training and a high school teacher in Oakland. Gardner said that he has a biracial son, which has pushed him to examine his whiteness more deeply. “Actually dismantling white supremacy requires me to be more courageous — it requires me to be uncomfortable, and to make other white folks uncomfortable.”
Anna Ghosh participated in a Beyond Separation training in 2015. Since then, she has founded a social justice committee at her daughter’s school, a private school with a primarily white student body. The committee is working to incorporate a racial justice lens into every aspect of the school—from its mission to its leadership, its recruitment, and its curriculum.
“I hope more white folks see that racial justice is white people’s work. This isn’t just work that people of color need to do,” said Ghosh. “White folks need to dismantle the oppressive structures that our ancestors created.”
According to Isaacs, enrollment in Beyond Separation classes has steadily increased over the years, and leaders of similar programs say that they’ve noticed an increase as well. Lois Hembold, co-founder of White Awake, said that for their most recent class they received 60 applications for approximately a dozen spots, more than ever before.
“Charlottesville really freaked people out,” said Hembold. “People are asking ‘What can I do?’”
“Community is what we so desperately need,” said Hembold, who added that in addition to participating in protests and marches, there is still a need for study. “At my age, I still go to marches—but I can’t get on the freeway and run from the cops. This is something I can do.”