By Kayla Koenigshof
It started with a vigil for Trayvon Martin. At some point the evening shifted into a discussion of the value of the lives of young men in America with black and brown skin. We listened as mothers told story after story of their sons’ encounters with the police, with school authorities, and with their white peers. Stories that reflected a painful truth concerning these young men: their realities are not shaped by their choices and character alone, but also by the weight of the stigmas attached to their ethnicity. It was heavy. It was uncomfortable. It was necessary. Eventually a white hand was raised and someone asked “What can we do?”
The “we” here is implicit. WE referred to the group of people who could not identify with the one that was being humiliated and harassed by local authorities. We were white people.
In the conversation that followed it was agreed that white people who wanted to eliminate racism should meet separately to strategize for their own, separate work in pursuing racial equality. A signup sheet was passed around for white people who wanted to be “allies.”
Several of the people on that list met every month for about a year before naming themselves Whites Uniting for Racial Justice (WURJ). The beginning of our mission statement reads, “We are a group of white people in the Davis community who joined together because of our shared interest in opposing racism in ourselves and in our community. We recognize that white people play a key role in the perpetuation of racism and are also capable of becoming a more consistent and powerful force in ending racism in all of its manifestations. We want all white people to take responsibility for facing racism and to act more decisively to oppose it. We gladly take up the challenge to welcome, educate and move more white people toward the goal of ending racism.”
We have found that our name draws a wide spectrum of reactions, ranging from agreement and excitement to alarm and confusion. Regardless of these mixed responses, it is the one that we feel is the most appropriate. As WURJ member Joe explains, racism is a system including laws, history, beliefs, attitudes and customs, that support one group exploiting another group such that the dominant group maintains more power and a greater share of resources. Racism includes all the rationales, attitudes, behaviors, etc. that perpetuate itself. It is one-way, from the dominant group to the target group.
We in WURJ see ourselves as members of this dominant group who are aware of this seemingly-invisible system and its devastating effects on those in the target group. Therefore, we agree with the people of color at the vigil who first encouraged us to meet; our work is separate, because our reality is on the opposite end of the system. We still see ourselves as working for racial justice alongside other groups, whether they are ethnically specific or diverse, because we share the same goal.
Towards that end, we would like to invite you to an upcoming event: Shoulder to Shoulder: Connecting for Racial Justice is an open house for racial justice resources from 2:00-4:00 at the Veterans Memorial Center on November 22nd. Our co-hosts include the Davis Human Relations Commission, the Phoenix Coalition, the Culture CO-OP, the Mexican-American Concilio of Yolo County, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis. There will be information tables for each group, as well as dance and educational performances throughout the event, which will foster a fun, celebratory atmosphere. We hope that anyone who attends will find it to be an engaging, safe space where community members can access resources and celebrate diversity.