What’s in a Name?

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.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will

    I am in agreement that members of all racial groups have both separate and mutual tasks in the gradual elimination of racism. I am also fully aware that the authors of articles posted on the Vanguard do not choose or necessarily approve of the pictures that are chosen to accompany their articles. However, I did note an irony in the juxtaposition of the entwined hands of two individuals of very different skin color with an article on the voluntary self segregation of individuals by skin color in order to address issues of race. While I deeply admire the dedication of the individuals who have met over such an extended period of time to promote ending racism, it is my personal experience, and my recollection of collective, integrated action ( I am old enough to remember the civil rights movement at the time of Martin Luther King) that informs my opinion that racism is decreased by an increased knowledge and understanding of the experiences of the other group. This I believe is best obtained by direct interaction rather than separation of the different groups. I am looking forward to the upcoming event as a celebration of diversity. I would also like to hear from the members of WURJ or from any of the individuals who encouraged formation of a separate racially defined group how they feel that working divided into different racial groups will foster a better understanding of the experiences of others with whom we are unable to relate.

    1. David Greenwald

      “with an article on the voluntary self segregation of individuals by skin color in order to address issues of race.”

      I don’t know that I would view this as a self-segregation of individuals to address the issue of race. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but having met with some of the individuals in the group, it seemed to be more along the lines that the dominant discourse on civil rights comes from community of color who ask the broader community to address their grievances. In this case, it is a group of individuals who are part of that broader community who are seeking to address their role in race relations from the perspective of the “dominant” culture, in sociological terms. As a non-sociologist, that’s my best explanation.

  2. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > We listened as mothers told story after story of their sons’

    > encounters with the police, with school authorities, and

    > with their white peers. 

    We all know that there is “some” racism out there but since 90% of the time white males tell their parents they were not doing “anything wrong” and the police or school authorities were just “hassling them” I’m sure the percentage of kids of other races that are not completely honest to their mothers of “why” they had “encounters” with authorities is about the same.

    Tia wrote:

    > This I believe is best obtained by direct interaction

    > rather than separation of the different groups.

    I have always thought it is interesting that a “white fraternity that only let in whites” would be “racist and kicked off campus” but the same people that would be marching to kick the racist white fraternity off campus are happy when the school has black fraternities and sororities that only let in black kids.  It seems ironic that people who separate in to black only groups are often the ones complaining about “racism”…



  3. Davis Progressive

    “We all know that there is “some” racism out there but since 90% of the time white males tell their parents they were not doing “anything wrong” and the police or school authorities were just “hassling them” I’m sure the percentage of kids of other races that are not completely honest to their mothers of “why” they had “encounters” with authorities is about the same.”

    not sure what your point is here.

    1. South of Davis

      DP wrote:

      > not sure what your point is here

      The point is that most kids of ALL races don’t want to get in trouble and will lie to blame other people (it might be a kid lying and telling his parents the teacher has it in for them or a kid blaming another sibling for something they did)…

        1. Barack Palin

          No, I think SOD is saying when kids of color, just like white kids, are acting bad they tend to look to blame it on someone else.  Difference is white kids can’t use the racism excuse where kids of color can.

  4. Davis Progressive

    “the school has black fraternities and sororities that only let in black kids.”

    don’t believe that’s permissible either.  but the situations are not parallel and the fact that whites always cite these things as though they are, belies the problem.

    1. Barack Palin

      How are those situations not parallel?  If any club tries to be “all white” only they’re immediately called racist but other clubs that are “all black” or “all Latino” are given a pass.

      1. Davis Progressive

        typically whites only clubs and associations were formed to exclude people of color.  black and women groups were created because those groups were excluded from other clubs, it became a form of solidarity and a defense mechanism.  very different origins.

  5. Anon

    The definition of “racism” can vary, depending on the person involved.  For instance:

    1.  When I first came to CA in the 198o’s, I walked into a McDonald’s behind a African-American family.  A white man sitting in a booth with his 5 year old daughter loudly told his child not to have anything to do with those $%($(&%(&% people, clearly referring to people of African-American descent, loudly enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear.  Clearly a racist incident, from an ignorant jerk.

    2.  When I was teaching at a community college, an African-American accused me of racism because he was failing my class.  He did not do his work, failed his tests, talked in class.  Clearly a non-racist incident, but that is not how this student saw it.

    Racism can be in the “eye of the beholder”.  The unfortunate result of crying “racism” over situations that are not truly about race, is that it desensitizes the public, much as in Aesop’s fable of the little boy crying wolf too often.  The general populace starts ignoring real incidents of racism because the race card is played even when race is not really involved.

    I grew up in the South – I do know what racism is.  I remember “whites only” water fountains, stores, restaurants.  I remember telling my dad as a 5 year old how unfair I thought that was, after he explained what the “whites only” signs meant.

    Just food for thought…

    1. Davis Progressive

      i like much of what you have to say here.  the one point i think you’re missing is on point number two.  trying to think about how best to put it this, but basically white people who live in white communities are rarely confronted with the issue of race.  on the other hand, black people and other people of color, are constantly surrounded with it and many have had to deal with racist issues all their lives.  at some point it becomes hard to differentiate between racism and people being a-holes as someone put it last week on this site, and so they just automatically assume that every situation where they feel they are mistreated is racism.  for white people it may be the “race card” but for black people, it’s life.  white people have mainly never experienced that kind of world.

    2. Tia Will


      I do know what racism is”

      I very much appreciate your sharing your stories of racism. I think that part of the problem that we are now facing is that the manifestations of “racism” have changed to much more subtle forms of behavior, not gone away. As I read your story of the father and daughter in the restaurant what occurred to me is that most white people would find it unacceptable to make that kind of comment out loud in a public venue. However, I cannot help but wonder if that little girl has not internalized the message her dad imparted. She might never make such a rude public statement, but will she be as open to hiring a black, to choosing to live next door to a black family?  She might confine her racist activities to not allowing her children to play with black children or passing a black acquaintance by on the street without stopping to chat as she would if the individual were white. These too are forms of racist behavior. My own mother exemplified this type of behavior. She was very kind to everyone when out in public and never made openly disparaging comments about any group. However, in our own home she made it clear that we were not to interact with people of other races because they were “different from us” although just how was never specified. Is this not also “racism” ?

      Do blacks and other minority groups also engage in this type of behavior ? Absolutely. But as DP pointed out, the origins of the behavior are very different. By the numbers, which are facts, not speculation, whites remain in the dominant position in our society. Therefore our racist behaviors have very different roots and very different consequences than do the seemingly same behaviors on the part of minority groups.


      1. tribeUSA

        Tia–pretty well spot-on again; a balanced perspective. The more subtle racism does, I would agree, exist to some extent and is tricky to address and deal with. Maybe the best we can hope for is that the worst elements of it fade away with time–seems to me integrating children at school is still the best long-term solution, as the non-politicized and non-indoctrinated child sees for themselves first-hand that children of other races aren’t really much different than themselves (I’m very glad I had this experience when I was younger). In the area of addressing current more subtle forms of racism, it just seems to me that the political/media mainstream response to racism is likely doing more harm than good–I think many of the local activists are genuinely well-meaning; however I think many of the big-time politicos and racial spokesman have seized the irresistible and guaranteed route to power of playing identity politics and wedge politics with race (it’s a kind of ecological niche in the political landscape that will inevitably be filled). It seems to me there is a real danger of lead-up to elements of balkanization of the population (its certainly not inevitable yet), particularly at the next significant economic downturn.

  6. Miwok

    Thank you, anon, for that perspective. We all read or heard about it, but some like you lived there, in those days. There are many people around us like that today.

    The SDS was an organization dedicated to among other things, getting “Justice” for the black race. Even the Black Panthers denied the SDS was working for their behalf.

    My opinion, which doesn’t matter, is that when some group is wanting “Justice” for their group, it often sounds like “Revenge”. I am one of those people who try to make friends with everyone, and want to be known for my honesty and integrity, not because I am a certain race.

    If I live or work with someone different than I, it goes to hell if the person is an activist for some cause who insists he has been wronged, generations ago, for something, and I am at fault. I cannot make it right, only learn from their experience. But they are not arguing their experience, they are arguing someone elses’, often generations later.

    If we can start at zero and work up to a friendship, great. But we all bring our life and sometimes history with us to that meeting.

  7. sisterhood

    I agree with Tia’s comments, yet not completely. I do find it ironic to display a photo of two different races shaking hands, then describing a meeting of all white people. And define “white”. I know several light skinned friends who are actually mixed, but they “look white”. If one is half white, half Asian, should they be in the exclusively white group? And why did the whites get banished to a separate group? Many folks, when we trace our ancestry, have a different race or two or three different races in our family trees. Who is really all “white”?

    This entire article was offensive to me. I don’t get it.

    1. Miwok

      It would be interesting to all to hear about what the Ferguson community is doing to effect change? I am only reading about white people being assaulted by blacks, before even finding out if they are on some “side”. Even reporters are assaulted.

      Is this the “Racial Justice” they are working for? The Japanese from WW II got reparations. Is that what they want? Native Americans got casinos, and are now players in many states and communities as they are caring for NA people and more. But even with reparations, it would not change them or the culture.

      You are right, sister, that a bunch of white people will never figure it out without help. But it starts with dialogue and communication. There will be lots to overcome, ignorance and other failings. Most of all the smug assurance that whites can know what blacks want will be their biggest. Humility would be the first step, I think.

  8. WesC

    Do you have a “separate but equal”  clause in your  your action plan?   We all know how well this concept worked out in the deep south.  Imagine the response if for example someone wanted to form a group of concerned citizens in South Dakota who wanted to foster an understanding of what it is truly like as a Sioux Indian living on a reservation with it’s 80% unemployment, rampant drug/alcohol abuse as well as pervasive racism, but felt they should exclude Native Americans from their group, and also exclude anyone outside their own racial group.  This is beyond absurd.

  9. Tia Will

    I know that I got this line of thinking going with my initial comment. I have had a chance to think more about this during the course of the day. Maybe there is something to be said here about ownership of our own behaviors. One step might be to take an honest look inside myself to see what attitudes I have that might be impediments to understanding someone else’s point of view. Another step might be to consider with those who have had similar experiences to mine what assumptions we hold as a similar group. A third step might be to join with varied groups to compare and contrast our experiences.

    I had one such experience fairly recently during an interview. The applicant related a story about a conversation amongst her colleagues disparaging a patient whose life experiences had obviously been much harder than their own. The patient they were disparaging was of a different racial group. I had a similar experience in which a personal friend of mine who had fallen upon hard times, and was showing the effects, turned up in the ER where I was an intern. Some very callous comments were made and then rapidly hushed by one doctor who knew the patient was my friend. While there was not a racial difference involved, there was certainly an inappropriate elitist attitude on display. Although one situation involved race while the other involved economic circumstances, it provided an opportunity for us to have the beginnings of an understanding of what each of us has experienced and how it has affected us.

    I am now thinking that none of these approaches are wrong. Some may be more appropriate in one setting, other approaches at a different time and there is nothing at all to stop all of these steps and probably many others from operating concurrently.

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