Reflecting on a Racial Justice Book Study with white Folx

White educators share learnings from critical study, dialogue, and action required to dismantle racism in themselves, education systems, and society.

Awareness, knowledge, and action around racial equity and justice are ever growing and we’re all at different places in our personal journeys. We invite our white peers who work in schools and education organizations to join us in the critical work of ongoing learning, reflection, dialogue, and action to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy in ourselves, our education system and our greater society.

Origins of Our Book Study and Learning Group

Our group formed organically at a Remake Learning Professional Learning Collaborative session in November 2019, during which mini-grants for collaborative projects were announced. We gathered around the broader topic of equity and quickly sharpened our focus to developing our practice of talking about race and racism. We had a collective desire to be more courageous, to gain understanding, to step into an array of uncomfortable spaces, and to be more actively engaged in doing anti-racist work. We wanted to make sure our efforts were meaningful and not harmful.

We discussed many ways to engage in anti-racist work, and decided to begin with a book study and learning group as a step in our journey. While we still have much to learn, we would like to share our motivations, experiences, and growth as a way to hopefully inspire others. A book study and learning group provides opportunities to deeply dive into the content through reading, reflecting, and intergroup dialogue. It also affords a structure of accountability toward action within ourselves and in community. For us, the goal was to grow our racial equity and justice practice both personally and professionally by grounding ourselves in the text and with the support of our peers.

Our Book Selection

There are numerous books that we could have read. We chose the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo as a place to start. We understand that our white fragility is one of the main things that prevents us, as white people, from taking responsibility for our actions/reactions and from engaging in critical learning and dialogue around race and racism. Better understanding, recognizing, and managing white fragility in ourselves and other white people is a critical step in our efforts toward being anti-racist. A foundational idea of the book is the importance of deep reflection and comprehension of whiteness as it helps us to better understand ourselves as racialized beings and our defensive reactions to dialogue around race. Additionally, it provides some key ways of responding to our own white fragility that provide us, as white people, with non-violent and healthy tools to proceed on our anti-racist journey.

Picture from the end of our last session.

We acknowledge there are several critiques of the book being a current bestseller about race written by a white author. We believe it is imperative to center Black voices and scholarship, and we also see a place for a book such as White Fragility—particularly for white people who are earlier in the journey of racial consciousness. If others choose this book, we recommend that you spend more time and money studying the work of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially Black scholars, as we are doing as well. Many Black writers are represented in this list of anti-racist books, compiled by Debralyn Woodberry-Shaw, CEO of ELIE Circle, LLC.

Regarding topics of race, racism, and white supremacy, there are benefits to having both mixed race and racial affinity group dialogues. To form our book study group, we reached out to the Remake Learning network. We did not intend to form a group of all white professional development providers, but were not entirely surprised that only white people responded when we communicated White Fragility as the book selection. We understand this concept in ourselves and acknowledge this is primarily our work to do.

Starting, then, with an all-white group of 12 participants including 4 facilitator-participants, we designed the learning experience with this group and demographic in mind. We took seriously the opportunity to do this critical work in community with other white people knowing we must support each other’s growth and action on our racial equity and justice journeys.

Purposeful and Responsive Design

There are a multitude of ways to approach the book and the design of the group. We consistently reflected, garnered participant feedback, and grew along the way. We worked together as a design team through a purposeful process guided by several core principals:

    • Center participant needs: We centered the interests and needs of participants by seeking feedback often. We were flexible and fluid to meet the group’s needs and used the book as a guide for discussion while allowing the conversation to be organic.
    • Meaningfully chunk content and set reasonable pacing: We divided the reading into meaningful and manageable units that were distributed across four 2-hour meetings spaced a month apart.
    • Designate a facilitator: We recognized the importance of having a designated facilitator when conducting intergroup dialogues. We chose four facilitators who rotated and often co-led sessions. Other options include engaging an outside trained facilitator, or identifying one or two people from within the group to maintain the facilitator role.
    • Establish living community agreements: We took time in the first session to establish community agreements and create a safe space for each of us to be brave and show-up fully. Our “norms” were a working document that could be modified at any time based on participant needs.
    • Create space for reflection and vulnerability: We found it essential to create intentional space for people to notice, grapple with, and share all of the ways that race, racism, and white supremacy manifest in each of us personally, interpersonally and systemically.
    • Proactively dismantle white supremacy culture: We practiced noticing and interrupting the ways that white supremacy culture showed up in ourselves and our group dynamic. Specifically, we strived to move from perfectionism to embrace our humanity, interrupt our defensiveness to listen and take responsibility, let go of the belief in one right way, and shift from either/or to both/and thinking.

A Unique Moment in History

Our group met during a unique moment in history, and this is a part of our story. In February, we held our first meeting in person. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we moved to Zoom. Initially, we were hesitant to move to a virtual space, but it proved to be effective for engaging in deep work and meaningful conversations in community with others. As a benefit of the intentional intergroup dialogue approach, relationships were formed that provided each other with much needed peer support.

“As everyone sheltered in place and moved to remote work, I began to experience isolation and frustration. The monthly meetings became a lifeline and something to look forward to.” -Participant

In the days before our last meeting, a woman in Central Park weaponized her whiteness and George Floyd was murdered leading to uprisings. Our work became more relevant than ever. We were grateful to have a deliberate place to process these events and unpack race, racism, and whiteness within this context.

“[I] wanted to reiterate how much I’ve leaned on our learnings and discussions in the last few weeks as we’ve been navigating everything, I’m so incredibly grateful to this group …”  -Participant

Impact and Next Steps in our Journey

During each session, we grappled with the fact that racism is a system and white supremacy is an ideology that we (knowingly and unknowingly) perpetuate in our culture, schools, media, and everyday conversations. With the understanding that being anti-racist requires personal action fueled by ongoing curiosity, listening, noticing, learning, and practice, we more deeply committed to doing the work.

When it came to our last session, we didn’t want to stop. We understood that these lessons were being learned too late – after centuries of oppression – and knew we had more work to do and more to learn. The perspectives and insights gained from our learning group empower and sustain our progress in our journey of anti-racist practice, and thus we have decided to continue meeting regularly to further our learning with support and accountability.

We are all working on growing and enacting anti-racist practices personally and professionally as a life-long effort. Some action steps we are taking include:

    • bringing the work and ideas in the book to our teams;
    • centering Black voices in our programming and organizational leadership;
    • reviewing policies and practices throughout our organizations;
    • having challenging conversations with our friends and family; and
    • being disruptors and co-conspirators on new levels.

We call others in … to take action too.

How do we, as educators and other professionals committed to serving and supporting those who work with youth in the region, continue to learn, grow, and act with each other around racial equity and justice?

Consider these three intentional pillars for growing understanding and manifesting learning into action:

    1. Internal work of regular self-reflection (including white fragility for white folx).
    2. Intergroup dialogue about race, racism and white supremacy.
    3. Intentional anti-racist action.

We encourage others, especially white people, in the Remake Learning network and beyond to critically assess your awareness and commitment to engage in the work of racial equity and justice and be anti-racist every day in all aspects of life. A book study is one possible step in this work. It isn’t about doing it perfectly. It’s about leaning into discomfort so that we can continue to learn, grow and be better co-conspirators with BIPOC. We are, and will always be, on this journey too and we are happy to support you however we can.

We would like to thank our fellow participants of the Racial Justice Book Study and Learning Group for all the ways they made this experience so meaningful. We would also like to extend our appreciation to Remake Learning for making this opportunity possible with a mini-grant provided to Collaboration Nation from the Professional Learning Collaborative.