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Deconstructing racism through discussion

Every Tuesday a group of Mills women meets to discuss and deconstruct their own white privilege and racism. Created in the fall of 2002, the club Unlearning White Supremacy is still in the process of creating a structure for its meetings that is mutually agreed upon by all of its members.

Although the club is approaching its four-year anniversary, the structure for its meetings is still in debate. "Last semester we came up with ideas on how we're going to run the meetings and structure them, but a safe space has to continually be established," said senior Bonniebrooke Bullock, a member of the club.

Bullock said that in her opinion the club's guidelines are not being followed as closely as they should be, and for her this results in "pulling away from the club."

"We got out of that habit of reading the meeting guidelines to remind people of how we come to each other," said senior Kathleen Stavis.

Because the issues that the club meets to converse are controversial and often difficult to openly discuss, the club's mission statement calls the club a "container designed for self-education." The creators of the club said that they chose the description "container" over "safe space" because the latter "is associated with people who are not usually heard… and for us white people the larger world is a safe space."

The current members of the club are revisiting the appropriateness of creating a safe space because they are facing obstacles in challenging themselves in a space that doesn't feel safe. "I'm not going to let anyone challenge me unless I feel I'm in a safe space," said Bullock, "I need a safe space to challenge my whiteness."

"We compassionately challenge each other sometimes but not enough," said senior club member Malka Goodman-Sills.

Not all members of the club believe the meetings should be structured with the type of environment afforded by a 'safe space' guideline. "In the places where I'm privileged I don't want a safe space, but I do want a safe space in the areas that I'm marginalized," said Goodman-Sills.

Some members believe that they need to be challenged outrightly. "One of the things I'm afraid of is people shutting up and accepting my dominance as being white. I need help with people not being sympathetic and saying, 'It's ok that you think that,' because it's not," said Stavis.

The club is discussing ways to create a meeting atmosphere that will afford all in attendance the support they need to speak their minds and grow from doing so. "We need to do things with each other that create some kind of bond so that we can… feel more comfortable with each other," said Bullock. "My emotions aren't just going to be here for an hour and a half to open up to all of you."

Originating from a multi-racial club, the creators of Unlearning White Supremacy felt the need to form their own club based on many premises, including the idea that white people inherently learn racism and that racism is institutional. Through the club, white people can acknowledge and attempt to eradicate their own racisms and people of color are not tokenized. According to reading material circulated by the group about its history, "Unlearning White Supremacy will/does try to mediate the line between being an exclusively white group and being a group of both white students and students of color where [the latter] is expected to teach white students about racism."

The reading material goes on to explain that while it is not the intent of the club members to be exclusionary, they do not "want to be misleading about who [they] are geared towards."

"If people of color come they might feel uncomfortable hearing us speak," said Goodman-Sills. "There is no policy that only white students can join; if a person of color would like to join, they're welcome."

The members of Unlearning White Supremacy acknowledge that discussing their white privilege and racism is not easy. "It's scary shit, I don't even like reading or talking about it," said sophomore Becky Nelson.

"In general racism is hard to talk about for a lot of people," said senior member Wendy Sosa. "It's really hard to admit to your own racism. It's taken me two strong years to do so."

Despite the difficulty of having racial discussions, club members believe having them is of utmost importance. "People have to recognize their own racisms," Stavis said, "and that's why attempts to [alleviate racism] don't go anywhere because people don't take that single step."