White Awake: Women Take on Racism in Training

5 min
Rochelle Towers leads a White Awake class in Oakland on Oct. 22, 2017. She said President Trump's rhetoric on race and his immigration policies have fueled more interest in White Awake.  (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

In the summer of 2015, a young white supremacist walked into a historic black church in South Carolina and murdered nine African-Americans at a prayer meeting. The mass shooting sparked shock and outrage across the country.

"I mean this is just beyond belief. It was horrendous, just horrendous," said Lois Helmbold, a retired college professor in Oakland. Her reaction was to ask herself how to dismantle the belief that white people are inherently superior than others.

"We have got to get white people educated and moving forward because white people have to be responsible for making a lot of changes," said Helmbold, a 72-year-old historian. "It's not just people of color who have to do the work."

White Awake: Women Take on Racism in Training

White Awake: Women Take on Racism in Training


She posted a note on Facebook: Would anyone want to start an anti-racism study group for white people? Rochelle Towers, a social worker living in Oakland who has decades of activism experience, responded.


"So many people of color have said, 'White people educate yourselves. Don't make it on us to educate you, not only about history but also just about what is the experience that we have,' " said Towers, 69.

The two women created a training called White Awake. The months-long class takes a deep dive on the role of racism in the foundation and growth of the U.S., but also asks participants to use that historical knowledge to examine how they are implicated in racism today and what they can do about it.

"I feel like white supremacy is a disease that we have, but we make other people sick," said Shannon Riehle, a Berkeley teacher who is taking the class. "It just feels like a responsibility to be less of a participant in that."

At a recent session on a Sunday afternoon, Riehle and 19 other women sat on folding chairs in a circle at the First Congregational Church of Oakland. They talked about the use of terms such as "color blind."

"It reinforces the idea that white is the norm," offered Michaela Danek, a high school science teacher in the Peninsula. "So it's like, the privilege of being white that you can say, 'Oh, I'm color blind, I don't need to think about race.' "

The women who take the class commit to reading a long list of books, including Edward Baptist's "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," W.E.B. Du Bois' "Black Reconstruction in America" and Douglas A. Blackmon's "Slavery by Another Name: The Re‐Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II."

"I think it's a serious reading list, and certainly some of the books on that list are books that I've read or other experts in African-American studies read," said Nikki Jones, a professor at UC Berkeley, and expert on race relations.

"That kind of enlightenment changes people's understanding of what's happening today," Jones added. "And that's important to the extent that they are better able to identify sites of intervention."

Ashley Slaff (left), Pam Rich and Leslie Davidson listen to Lois Helmbold (in red) clarify a question about a U.S. history reading assignment during a White Awake class on Oct. 22, 2017. Dozens of women have graduated from the class, which Helmbold co-founded in 2015. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The class was initially open to white people in general, but evolved to include only women, which many participants said helps them feel more comfortable and able to speak up about difficult topics.

White Awake participants go through exercises such as writing a "race autobiography" to self-examine and help them figure out how they can become more effective fighters for racial justice. Towers shared with the class an excerpt from hers, about a time when she "overlooked" a young Latina intern she was supervising at work.

Towers said she inadvertently did not introduce the intern at an event. Later, when the young woman confronted Towers about it, Towers realized that she probably would have introduced a white intern.

"I didn't mean to inflict this on this young woman," said Towers, adding that the intern was offended by the incident and quit the position. "But I was a product of all the things I had learned. I hadn't examined myself. And I did what I did because I really didn't value her as a person of color."

Towers was ashamed of that story and didn't talk about it for decades, she said. But understanding her behavior gave her the chance to change it.

"Get out your big flashlights and take a look at all the dark places," Towers told the group. "Once they get lit up they're not nearly as scary."

James Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, credited White Awake for this kind of self-examination work. But he questioned how much of an impact white groups like this one can have in the larger context of systemic racism in America.

"I can show you 150 years of good white intention efforts, and we still have Donald Trump in the White House," Taylor said.

When unarmed black men are still being shot by police, he said, an all-white reading group can seem more like a "Band-Aid on a bullet wound."

"You would need radical, almost revolutionary, transformation to bring about the kind of change that they're talking about," Taylor said. "And you don't have the political will here. We don't agree around affirmative action. So, how are we going to get to reparations or other forms of big-idea reconciliations?"

White Awake participants said they are aware their efforts are modest, and often deeply personal. But they say they have a role to play in tackling the deep racial inequities they see through their jobs or the racist beliefs they encounter as they go about their lives.

Rochelle Towers (left) and Lois Helmbold meet in Oakland on Nov. 8, 2017. Both women were outraged over a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, and decided to start an anti-racism study group for white people. "I thought 'What can I contribute at this point in my life?' " said Helmbold, a 72-year-old historian. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Micaela Neus, 36, said White Awake has helped her talk with Trump supporters in her family about race.

She often carries a cheat sheet from the class in her backpack with strategies on how to hold conversations with people she does not agree with.

"They are good when you are frustrated to have something to look at," she said.

The list includes steps such as remembering to listen, asking questions and finding common ground to bridge uncomfortable, even painful, conversations.

"It's not that now all my family is convinced and we are not racist anymore," Neus said. "But it no longer feels as frustrating. I feel like I can have these conversations without them immediately going nuclear."

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