'Witnessing Whiteness': Using our life experiences of race

by Mary Ann McGivern

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The subtitle to Shelly Tochluk's Witnessing Whiteness is "The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It." One of the choices Tochluk makes is to describe freely her own life experiences that have given her a sense of urgency about race. She also reports on several interviews she's conducted with others about how they learned about race and what changed their attitudes and understandings. One of the effects is to remind us white readers of our own life experiences with and learning about people of color.

For example, I was maybe a high school sophomore when I asked my father about hiring black people. He was a radio station manager in Minneapolis, and I would guess he didn't have many black job applicants, but he said to me the problem in his office wouldn't be having a black employee who was less skilled. He said that's what people expected. The difficulty would be a black advertising salesman whose advertising contracts came in on top week after week. He said the white salesmen would resent him and morale would collapse. This was almost 60 years ago and, though I've never heard anyone else speak of this, I'm sure it remains true today. The wrongness of it stunned me then, and it still stuns me today.

I'm not finished reading Witnessing Whiteness. I'm journaling as I read, and this is the third of five blogs I plan to publish. But I think part of the task the book gives us is to remember our experiences, remember what meaning we made of them then and try to understand how these experiences formed us. Tochluk calls it "working through whiteness", that is, exploring racism, unconsciousness, guilt, abolitionism, being a white ally, and being a witness. When she uses "witness," she means being an eyewitness and bearing witness. I'll explain more as I understand more.

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