As I and my colleagues at Piedmont Peace Project began to do workshops on classism and racism, white middle- and upper-class folks were often upset. They felt they were being accused of being “bad or wrong” because they had power and privilege – something they didn’t see. They often left a workshop upset rather than empowered to work differently.
The traditional model of anti-racism training, which I had embraced and wrote about in my first book, Bridging the Class Divide, taught that to become anti-racist, first you had to acknowledge that you had power and privilege. It is a clear equation: white power plus privilege equals the “isms.” Some people thought that we should stay with this traditional model. But I began to think it wasn’t working. As a low-income white person, I, and others like me, didn’t feel like we had all that power.
We felt we needed to find a different way to talk about how to be in alliance with poor and working-class folks and people of color. Our explanation of “power and privilege,” while accurate, was not the way to approach them. Because many white people didn’t feel powerful, they didn’t see their privilege.
To better understand privilege, we prepared real life examples of difference to show them. If they went on vacations growing up, was it just to see family? Did they stay with them or not? Did their parents own their homes? Did they have a second house to go to? I began to explain privilege as an “invisible wall.” People with privilege were able to walk through it and not even see the wall. People without privilege constantly came smack up against the wall. We developed exercises that allowed people to place themselves according to those examples.
These stories and exercises served an invaluable purpose in showing privilege in a powerful but unthreatening way, in a way people understood and could accept. We were able to confront folks in loving ways. They could hear us without feeling attacked.
Overcoming Barriers and Reticence
I’m often surprised by how many groups of people I encounter who don’t know how to tell their stories. This is often because it is not part of their culture. We experienced this during Piedmont Peace Project’s spring tours. People of privilege – donors – came to spend the weekend with us in rural North Carolina. After three days of being together in celebration, we spent the last day telling our stories, with PPP folks speaking first.
Though storytelling is not part of everybody’s culture, as the donors slowly told their stories many had life-changing realizations. For the first time, many talked about taboo subjects in their families, about wealth, about coming from former slaveholders, about never spending principal. They were freed to talk about these and other matters in that safe space. There were many tears and insights, but it only built stronger community among us.
Again, building trust and being able to be vulnerable with each other was key. Together we were learning to work with people of privilege in a way that helped the organization win on important issues that affected us all.
The power of your story is so real, but also something that people seldom take the time to do. When people do make time for this, it can make everything else flow smoothly. It changes people’s lives and it changes organizations.