Editor’s Note: This open letter from Jason Biehl, founder of Change The Narrative, is in response to an earlier blog post, “‘Calling In’ Our White Male Colleagues,” by Elizabeth Denevi and Jenna Chandler-Ward. Biehl’s letter is part of a series of response from white men on their perspective on white male engagement in antiracist programs, as well as on their own experiences with antiracist work.
Thank you for this “calling in,” Elizabeth and Jenna. It is right on time and I’m sorry that this white male resistance continues to be part of your experience in 2022. I felt a lot of resonance and familiarity while reading your words.
I attended an all-boys prep school for nine years, so my healing journey from that experience, and white male patriarchy more generally, has been lifelong. When I reflect on my own journey, including becoming an African-American Studies major at UW-Madison at age 20 (in 1997), I see that continuing to seek out and learn from multiple nondominant perspectives — through readings, films, art exhibits, podcasts, as well as in-person relationships across race, gender, and class — has been key to my growth. In the process of learning that my experience was not THE American experience, I was able to engage and critique this country, and eventually myself, more honestly. I learned to embrace discomfort — to push myself out of my comfort zone, to be vulnerable, experiencing butterflies in my stomach and my voice shaking and cracking while asking a public question. This has happened often enough over the years that it’s no longer scary. Rather, it’s essential to who I am. So many Black people have been (and continue to be) patient, gracious, have invested in me, even when I’ve lacked perspective and humility, when my whiteness was weaponized and my masculinity was toxic.
I’ve done years of self-work in an effort to heal and to become resistant to white supremacy and patriarchy, to overcome defensiveness or the impulse to make deflections and stay emotionally disconnected in the ways you’ve mentioned. That said, there are still times when resistance crops up. Occasionally, my partner will suggest something, say a house project, and my first impulse can be to resist. Perhaps there’s some root in financial stress, or in laziness? Yet, with time, I often come around, and she’ll say, “Oh, you needed it to be your idea.” What causes me to not be on board with her idea from the start?
In my work with colleagues at Change The Narrative, we’ve named the need for white people to lean into honest conversation about race, racism, whiteness, and equity. But, yes, our experiences mirror yours. Cisgender white men are largely absent from this work (a Black woman friend and colleague recently called me “a unicorn,” which felt affirming and sad at the same time). When they do show up, they often show up in challenging ways, if not as an outright problem. In our antiracist workshops, some white men come around. But many don’t. They seem locked in deep-rooted entitlement. They remain stubbornly defensive, resisting reason, logic, and truth.
I’ve experienced more progress and possibility with young people, which makes sense. In a workshop at a Virginia school, a sophomore white boy completely pushed back on the existence of systemic racism. In response, I mentioned Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the racial profiling along I-95 that showed how Black drivers were pulled over in numbers that more than doubled their percentage of the population. Unwilling to lose the point he said, “Well, maybe Black drivers are speeding more?” to which I responded, “Well, I certainly don’t believe that.” I’d given him something to reflect on and it felt like an opening.
At a school in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to facilitate an “interrogating whiteness” unit for the entire 11th grade. There was a conservative, gun-loving student who was resistant, and disengaged, early on. “You just want me to feel bad about being white,” he said.
I responded, “Actually, it’s the opposite. I want to be honest about our collective history and the advantages that have come with being white, so that we can show up in more healthy ways, compassionate and connected to our common humanity.”
By the end of the trimester, he wrote an email to me expressing concern at the anti-Asian violence that was happening across the country, as a result of the coronavirus and our previous president’s racism and hatred. I’ll never forget his empathy in the moment, and I could feel how much he had grown in a few months.
You ask, “what keeps you engaged in the work?” For me, it is this: my own healing and growth leads me to believe that we can, and must, heal and grow as white men in this country. We need to love better. I see this as an embodied and revolutionary act. Back in 2016, volunteering with the Education team of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) DC, I felt quite alone as a cisgender white man in this work. Realizing that I lacked and longed for intimacy with other men, I organized a Masculinity and Whiteness reading group. I was not looking for going-to-the-bar camaraderie, but for men with whom I could question, soul-search and reckon, regarding our role in our communities. Thanks to some excellent facilitation from two men experienced in this work, we’ve been able to get vulnerable and dig into our real issues, ranging from personal matters to processing key public events such as Charlottesville, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and so much more. After Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, we wrote and read aloud a collaborative letter to the 12-year-old son (or grandson) of one of the killers. After the horrific murders of Asian and Asian-American women in Atlanta (and ongoing anti AAPI violence), we dug into the theme of fetishization, porn, and our own dating histories.
While it has evolved into a second group (with some overlap), more than five years later this group is going strong, dedicated to our own healing, education, and action. So, I share your goal of bringing more white men into practicing antiracism, and am open to ideas for doing this work professionally, with leaders in schools, nonprofits, and businesses. It feels needed and aligned.
We are in a moment, in fall 2022, where there is a lot of fear and reticence in doing this work while fascism and white supremacist terrorism have been on the rise in this country and within the Republican party. It is extremely painful that white men who look like me marched with tiki torches and racist slurs in Charlottesville, attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, and commit mass shootings in schools and public places.
There is a parallel between white men being in crisis and this country being in crisis.
If our men’s group has taught me nothing else, it’s that our masculinity is our primary obstacle to showing up as allies and in solidarity for racial justice. I believe that if we created more circles and communities for white men — encouraging each other to be vulnerable, to learn and to heal with regard to race, gender, and class — that interdependence, humility, generosity, and action rooted in solidarity and love, would come about more organically.
The work is personal, thus can be painful. It requires a strength far different from the messages of domination as virtue that most of us received growing up. But we have to persist. We have to find the courage to realize our own stakes in the work of dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy for the sake of our collective future.
Originally published on TeachingWhileWhite.org
Jason Biehl is an antiracist educator, born and raised in D.C., with over 20 years of experience working in education with youth from diverse backgrounds. In 2017, he founded Change The Narrative, and works collaboratively as an educational consultant to further racial equity within organizations and schools. As part of the Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ DC) Education team, he worked on curriculum development and organized a Masculinity and Whiteness Reading Group, which has become meaningful and transformative for white men in this work. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a major in African-American Studies and received his Social Studies teaching credential from San Francisco State University. He can be reached at [email protected].
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