Posted on December 31, 2018

‘Wow, I’m Racist’: In Time of Viral Encounters, ‘White Spaces’ Are Used to Confront Biases

Erik Ortiz, NBC, December 24, 2018

Nicole O’Connor, a nurse practitioner in St. Louis, was selling her dining room table on Facebook when a prospective buyer — a black man — reached out. She told her husband not to leave her alone if the man came to see the furniture, which she didn’t feel the need to say when a white woman like herself had shown interest.

That was her moment of clarity: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s racism,'” O’Connor, 32, said in a group of all white adults this month. “So I told my husband. I’m like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this, but this is how I’m feeling.'”

O’Connor felt vulnerable and embarrassed but also understood as she shared the story with seven others sitting in a circle at a school in suburban St. Louis. No one passed judgment. This was their “white space” — a concept that has been growing in communities like St. Louis where racial incidents have prompted anger and even unrest.


An NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll released in May found that 64 percent of respondents believe racism remains a “major problem” in America, and while 40 percent of blacks said they were treated unfairly in a store or restaurant, only 7 percent of whites said the same.

O’Connor’s group is one of several that began through the Metro St. Louis chapter of the YWCA, which has focused on racial justice in a region that has been historically segregated and where blacks have faced higher rates of poverty, infant mortality and unemployment than whites. {snip}

Now, as many as 16 groups meet in schools, churches and other community spaces, with up to 25 people in each, Ferguson said. More than a dozen more groups are set to begin meeting in January.

Enrollment is free and the groups are organized by volunteers, but there remains one catch: Participants must identify as white.


Ferguson said having a place for white people to meet also promotes a more candid conversation. The sessions focus on book chapters such as “Culture, Tradition, and Appropriation?” and “Positions of Privilege.”


Such “whiteness” programs have been scrutinized by whites and people of color who believe the courses are their own form of segregation.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs scrapped an “Unmasking Whiteness” class in May since it was not intended for all races, The Gazette, the local newspaper, reported.


O’Connor, the nurse practitioner, said she had never heard the term “white privilege” until this year, but through “Witnessing Whiteness” sessions has realized how racism can be subtle and unintentional, not as overt as waving a Confederate flag and shouting the N-word, but real nonetheless.

One chapter in the book, she told the group, made her think, “Wow, I’m racist,” and that she “used to think I was this perfect little white person in a bubble that didn’t do anything bad to black people, and so I was OK.”


Other people in the group were working out their own experiences: One man said the feeling of white guilt alone wasn’t going to stop the shootings of black men by police.

A woman wondered how she could be labeled as “privileged” if she was lower-middle class and worked hard just to get there.

Vincent C. Flewellen, who is African-American and the former associate director of diversity and inclusion at a St. Louis-area private school that offered a “Witnessing Whiteness” program, said {snip} “the outcome is that they find their voice and are able to speak to, call out and stand up against racism.”