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A line of white people snaked around the entrance of Saint Agatha's Catholic Church in North Lawndale Wednesday. Inside the sanctuary the Chicago chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was convening the first in a series of workshops called "Ally Is a Verb: Finding Your Role in the Movement for Black Liberation."
There had been such immense interest in the event that SURJ had to cap attendance at 200 people and convene a second, simultaneous workshop for another 80 people in Wicker Park.
The Chicago chapter of SURJ is part of a national network that aims to educate and mobilize white people "to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability"—in other words, to bring white people into conversations about racism and their roles in perpetuating it, and mobilize them to collaborate with nonwhite people working to counteract racial injustice. Founded in response to racist backlash in the wake of Barack Obama's election, many SURJ chapters have transitioned from education- to action-oriented work since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson almost two years ago. This workshop was intended to prompt white people to grapple with their privilege and explore ways they could participate in the movement for racial justice.
The workshop began with SURJ members providing locational context for the crowd, which was seated in a semicircle of maroon chairs and church pews. "Most of us here are settler colonizers," said a SURJ member named Maisie. "The land we're on was stolen from the Anishinaabe people," the Native American tribes that lived in the Great Lakes region when French colonizers arrived in the 18th century.
Lydia, another SURJ member, talked about the history of predatory real estate practices targeting African-Americans in North Lawndale and organizing around racial justice and civil rights issues in the neighborhood by groups such as the Contract Buyers League.
With this historical context in place, the group was primed for discussion.
"How many of you guys have heard the concept of 'safe space'?" A SURJ member named Heidi asked the group, referring to the concept of social and physical places in which people can feel free of to be themselves without fear of mockery, intimidation, or exclusion. Most raised their hands. "We want to throw that out of the window and talk about 'brave space,'" she said.
"The idea of brave space is we want to be in a place that we challenge ourselves," Heidi continued. "In order for me to learn, I need to take risks—I need to be involved in difficult conversations and I need to sometimes say controversial things. We have to embrace the idea that this is challenging and difficult. Being uncomfortable is not the same thing as being unsafe."
The attendees were then split into small groups of four to five people, asked to introduce themselves with their names and preferred gender pronouns, and invited to discuss three questions. The first: What's an example of a time when you've struggled against harmful systems as an ally?
I found myself in a group with three white women from Ohio and Indiana and one white man from Miami, who spoke of his experience in the world as a "white Hispanic."
"I'm uncomfortable with my whiteness," said one white woman, who described growing up in a black neighborhood in Toledo. Everyone else echoed the feeling in their own introductions.
From there, the discussion unfolded in the spirit of a mini group-therapy session, with participants talked about the difficulties of confronting racism in relatives and other white people they know.
After a few minutes, SURJ moderators asked the entire gathering what it means to be an "ally." Voices from around the room volunteered opinions:
"Your fight is my fight."
"Being in a social location of privilege and siding with folks experiencing oppression,"
"Being chosen as an ally."
"Being accepted as an ally."
"You can try to be trustworthy, but you don't decide if you're trustworthy."
"Not waiting to be chosen but to be proactive."
"Seeing and enacting your world through a lens of privilege, seeing that as inextricable from who you are."
This last thought piqued Heidi's curiosity. She asked the woman who had offered it to elaborate. The woman responded by describing how easy it is for her to take the Red Line "as a white, able-bodied, cis-passing person," and that being an ally meant taking stock of all the privileges that afforded her: a clean train, ease of using the stairs, not being bothered by strangers.
The second assignment asked participants to discuss their relationships with the police throughout their lives. Carolyn from Indiana talked about being arrested when she threw a house party as a high school student, and avoiding interactions with cops ever since. Alex from Miami observed that calling the police when one, for example, has a problem with a noisy neighbor, needlessly brings the state into one's personal life.
The last discussion prompt created a palpable paralysis: What gifts do you bring to the movement for black liberation; what do you hope to receive or have already received? No one seemed to have a good answer.
As the workshop drew to a close another SURJ member, Rachel, invited participants to close their eyes and acknowledge the work they had done. "Let's do a collective breath so we can put it in our bodies and remember it," she said.
When they opened their eyes, a woman from the audience said, "In our group we were talking about a lot of action-oriented steps as allies, but some people are still in the thought space. . . I just want to thank you all for coming and being in that space." The sound of fingers snapping in appreciation filled the sanctuary. "I'm proud of you all at whatever space that you are," the woman concluded.
In a demonstration of allegiance in action, the organizers at Saint Agatha's redirected media Wednesday to a simultaneous event happening blocks away—the takeover of an empty lot in front of Chicago Police Department's Homan Square interrogation facility, led by Black Youth Project 100 and the #LetUsBreathe Collective. "We just want to make sure we're a sideshow and not the main event," explained SURJ member Michelle. "White people are too often the main event."
After the workshop SURJ member Ashley Ray reflected on the risk of the group's consciousness-building efforts turning into a tool for white people to simply build an self-affirming identity as "allies."
"I've seen people get caught up in that hype," she mused. "Our role here isn't to help people of color. We are, in different ways, hurt by racism and white supremacy as well . . . so it's not for us to go in and save anybody. We're actually trying to save ourselves as well."
Ray also grappled with SURJ's premise that there are certain types of outreach and activism that white people are capable of because they are white. Should white people be on the front lines of the movement because they have more power to convince other white people that racial oppression is real?
"But then the problem is that you're centering the white people and you're also teaching white people that 'You need to listen to me,'" she said.
Ultimately, Ray said, this work for her is about "being there for [people of color] in the way that they say they need us."
As the sanctuary cleared out, a handful of SURJ members stood outside discussing the results of the workshop. A tall black man with car keys in hand and a backwards Bulls cap approached.
"I want you all to know that all lives matter, though," he said. "That's what I believe." An awkward silence descended on the group. He continued: "I've never been a race type of person. What happened 400 years ago, that's what they deal with 400 years ago. Don't put it all on me."
"You think it affects you? Or your life today at all?" Ray ventured.
He pondered for a moment. "No. Because I do what I want to do." He continued, talking about the importance of love and living according to the gospel of Jesus. "I don't want this to scare you all or nothing, but I just got out of prison. I did 12 years for a crime I didn't commit. But the whole debacle in prison was, 'Oh man they killed Mike Brown, it's a racial thing!' I said, 'Do you all realize that this man just went into a store and strong-arm robbed somebody? It was on video!'"
He continued, saying that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson "had a right to do what he did" when he fatally shot Brown.
"He had a right to kill him?" Ray asked, dismayed.
"He wasn't trying to kill him," the man responded. "It was an accident."
The SURJ members were thrown off guard by this line of argument, typically heard among the white people whose minds they try to change. But the conversation continued for a while.
"As a white person I'm not gonna tell a black person you're wrong about your perception of race, especially about something that impacts them so much more than it impacts me," Ray reflected the next morning. "I don't feel it's my job to try to get this person to agree with me, but it is my responsibility in this interaction to show them the respect that I believe they deserve."