'Witnessing Whiteness': How do we witness?

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Part 3 of Shelly Tochluk's book Witnessing Whiteness is "The Work of Witnessing Whiteness." In it, she asks, "How do we witness?" She offers an action plan to guide our development because she says "if we are going to take a stand, we need to feel prepared to deal with our own sense of discomfort and potential resistance or rejection from others" (page 199).

This penultimate chapter of the book begins with exercises to help us examine our own lives and resources to build our knowledge of our own roots and the roots of racism in our society.

Next, Tochluk offers some tools to build our skills. "There is just no way to get around the fact that witnessing requires us to use our voices. If we see racism, we have to name racism," she says on page 215. So Tochluk gives us some exercises to practice responding to racism when we see it. She wants us to do this work in groups, listening and reacting to one another, offering support and giving one another courage.

Interestingly, when I ordered the book from my local bookstore, the manager had a hard time getting it and was not able to order more than three books at the bookseller's 40 percent discount. The publisher is focusing instead on university sales exactly because the author's design is for the book to be read by a group together.

Beyond the first response to a racist comment, there's a choice to go deep in conversation and invite uncomfortable discussion. I feel like some of the comments in response to these blogs have taken me there. I haven't always been clear in telling my own story, probably because I'm not quite clear about what meaning to make from some of my own experiences. Tochluk says, and I take this to heart: "Were you able to stand in that moment and calmly hear what was being said? Did you have the capacity to listen attentively, offer some kind of apology as needed, and dialogue about how you both could resolve the situation?" (p. 225)

NPR reporter Michele Norris directs The Race Card Project, asking listeners to write about race in six words. I've never submitted my six words, but they've gone something like this: "Blacks suspect I'm not anti-racist." But reading Witnessing Whiteness, I can recognize that it's not about proving my purity of heart or seeking acceptance from black people. But it is about me. It's about accepting my own whiteness and taking action to change what I see is wrong.

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