Class begins Thursday
by Heather Goldman
Sometimes things are not exactly what they appear to be. Take the famous Rubin’s Vase, for instance. At first glance it seems to be a picture of a vase, but if you look a little closer another picture emerges.
Jennifer J. Yanco, founder of the course White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action said she sees the Rubin’s Vase as an apt metaphor for bringing another perspective on racism into focus.
Jennifer J. Yanco
Alewife Photo by Heather Goldman
The course, which runs at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, seeks to deconstruct racism through the lens of white privilege, said Yanco. “We start by introducing this notion of white privilege so that we flip things. Instead of seeing racism as the disadvantaging of People of Color, we look at the other, often hidden, side. This is the privileging of white people through a system that distributes benefits color-codedly.”
“It is like a shift in perception” she said “you could see it as a vase or two profiles. We’ve been looking at it as a vase and if we flip it we see that we’ve missed the mark.”
Racism is a part of our shared culture and must be dismantled collectively, said Yanco. “We grow up with all of these assumptions and unexamined ideas and perspectives that we may be ashamed to acknowledge, thinking that they reveal us as bad people. But together, we can explore these and see them for what they are, not personal defects but rather culturally conditioned attitudes and beliefs and together we can begin to take them apart.”
Prior to founding WPCR in 1999, Yanco taught courses related to racism at the CCAE. While there, she was approached with the idea of organizing a course specifically for white people. Her immediate response was self-doubt, which she attributes to the system of racism that discourages white people from taking action, she said. “I recognized it as another way that racism works by making us white people feel that we can’t possible know anything about it, much less act on it and that is not true we can know a lot about it if we open our eyes.”
The five-week course, which has seen approximately 400 participants since its inception, has several important functions, said Yanco. It gives people a community where they can come to reflect on the effects of racism in daily life while being supported by others with the same goals. “You may want to say something but the culture will tell you that is not your place or make you second guess yourself. Our aim is to create a community that will support you both in recognizing racism and in standing up against it.”
WPCR facilitator Lisa D. Graustien said that the course creates a tremendous atmosphere for people to talk about racism. “White people can effectively talk about race and racism.” For Graustein, the community has been incredibly healing in breaking down the isolation that sometimes accompanies issues of race while working through feelings of guilt and shame to become more effective in challenging racism, she said.
a “The class is predicated on the idea that we know there is a problem. We know racism exists and we need to take action,” said Barbara Beckwith, who also facilitates the course.
WPCR is structured around role-plays and action plans, said Yanco. The role-plays give participants the opportunity to work through scenarios and develop strategies to overcome barriers, like fear and inertia. “Many times, people don’t have any practice standing up to racism and so the class is geared towards practicing new habits and responsibilities”.
Once participants become more aware of issues involving racism and how to effectively handle them, the focus turns towards developing action plans, said Yanco. “Action plans are carefully thought-out plans aimed at interrupting racism in some specific area of a participant’s life. This could be a family, bank, school, library, religious community and so on.”
“We underestimate what power we do have. We may not have the power to change the world, but we have the power to change our worlds”, said the course’s founder.
“It is a necessary part of the class because it leads up to thinking about the spheres of life and where you can have an impact.” Beckwith said
Participant’s action plans have ranged from trying to change hiring policies to organizing workshops or film series’. Yanco’s own action plans have led to organizing panels to look at systemic racism in Metro Boston and civilian review boards for police departments, she said.
Yanco emphasizes the importance of taking mindful action. Without thoughtful consideration, there is the potential to do more harm than good, she said.
WPCR is currently comprised of approximately twenty facilitators all of whom have taken the course. The facilitators are all white and diverse in age, gender, religious affiliation and sexual orientation, said Yanco.
“We hope that it creates a space for learning new habits or unlearning old habits.” We can never be sure of the impact of our actions, she said. “If we all reach out and touch ten people, it can have a big effect.”
The next class begins on Thursday, January 17 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.