“I’m color blind. I don’t see race.”
“I have a lot of diverse friends.”
“I’m not being racist. I’m actually really liberal and committed to social justice.”
You may have heard similar comments from white friends. Now, a new Tuesday night workshop called “Deconstructing Whiteness” is working to break down and challenge these ideas. During the six week program, a group of students who self-identify as white discuss various topics such as white privilege, racism, implicit biases and how to actually be an ally.
Michele Enos, assistant director for Social Justice Education, started the concept of “Deconstructing Whiteness” at Northwestern after organizing similar workshops at the University of Vermont.
“Oftentimes, when social justice is a topic of discussion, it goes to groups who are marginalized, but not systems of power,” Enos, who also oversees Sustained Dialogue, a program that facilitates meaningful dialogue between students of different backgrounds, said. “It sets up the dynamic for people of color to be educators. White people should learn to talk about race with each other. This can truly be a space for learning, growth and vulnerability.”
There have been two workshop sessions so far, and Enos believes the feedback from the workshops has been positive. However, she hopes more people will sign up in the future. Up to 15 students can sign up for the workshop, but only 11 did.
Enos said advertising could have been better, but the low numbers may also be because of people’s personal discomfort.
“It’s scary to join a group like this and ask questions like 'what does it mean to be white? How do I contribute to racism?'” Enos said.
Students signed up for for a variety of reasons. Communication senior Kate Gladstone, a member of the Sustained Dialogue leadership team, heard about the workshop from Enos and said she hoped to gain skills in productively talking about racism and whiteness with other white people, especially family.
“I think it’s a vital space to have on campus because I think it’s important to be able to process whiteness,” Gladstone said. “It’s especially important to do that critically without placing the burden on people of color, which it often does.”
In this space, students can challenge each other and learn to talk constructively about race with family and friends.
Microaggressions are one example of how people may unintentionally contribute to racism. These brief, everyday exchanges, like “Where are you really from?” or "All [insert race] people look alike,” are often targeted at people of color because of their race.
While people who make these types of comments at people of color may not have racist intentions, their comments are still a form of racism. Microaggressions can lead to frustration, pressure to represent one’s group and even negative mental health impacts.
Students have been pushing for a Social Equalities and Diversity distribution requirement at Northwestern, and Enos has also run a similar workshop at the University of Vermont, where taking it was required of white Resident Assistants. She said mandatory programs reach more people, but students at Northwestern’s workshop are more willing to learn and have these conversations.
“The benefit is they’re ready to dive into these courses and ready to be challenged,” Enos said.
Enos hopes that eventually this workshop can be held quarterly. She also hopes that more white students who had never thought much about race and whiteness will sign up in the future.
“I think just continually being challenged to do the self work that is required to think critically about my identity makes me reconsider how I think about myself in this world,” Gladstone said.