“White Polite” Against the Fight for What’s Right

by Amanda A Andrews

Imagine the moment where you felt the most vulnerable. Now, imagine sharing that feeling in a circle of 20 people you’ve known for one week.

A green bar over a photo of paper bags labeled “Black, White, Latinx” says, Phrases like we’re all one race the human race or why can’t we all just get along both sound great, but don’t address any of the history that created the problem or the social systems that maintain them.

For some people that can seem intimidating or even impossible, but for Building Bridges that kind of vulnerability is in the foundation of the organization.

Building Bridges was founded in 1994 to facilitate transformative dialogues between Israeli, Palestinian, and American young women. Each summer young women would join together for a two week intensive to where they could open up about their identities and the social systems that influence their lives.

Since then, the focus has shifted to address issues facing young women and gender expansive youth in Colorado in the Building Bridges: Transform program. But, the non-profit still strives to bring out the same vulnerability and authenticity in every new cohort. So each year the question is how do you move a group of young people past the boundaries they have established for themselves, and into a place where they feel comfortable being their most authentic selves?

Encouraging participants to move past their feelings of discomfort and hesitation early in camp is one of the most important stages of Building Bridges. Within the group process model, one of the early phases is called “storming”, and it’s best done as close to the beginning as possible.

Storming is where boundaries are tested, tensions rise, and participants can learn where they fit within the overall group dynamic. Establishing boundaries and learning how different people approach a situation can lead to arguments and discomfort to such an extent that some participants would rather avoid it all together. However, without this breakdown, the group cannot reach the level of vulnerability it takes to have deeper conversations.

Real storming means addressing a factor that has been a constant in derailing any conversation about social concerns in America: white politeness.

Now some of you may be wondering, what’s wrong with being polite, why bring race into it, or why is it specifically white politeness instead of another racial group? Well, keep reading.

White politeness is rooted in the concept of white people in the US having the most power and control within dominant culture. The dominant culture influences how we eat, how we work, how we live, and how we talk about all those things. White politeness is a part of American culture that originated in white communities; it values being nice and appearing peaceful over the disarray that can result from discussing and dismantling oppressive systems in order to improve society overall.

Often times white politeness seems benign. Phrases like “we’re all one race, the human race” or “why can’t we all just get along” both sound great, but don’t address any of the history that created the problem or the social systems that maintain them.

As an organization, Building Bridges is extremely familiar with white politeness, and what it takes to push participants past the barrier into something called “radical realness”. Executive

Director Megan Devenport says that the concept is about more than just having a conversation.

“Radical realness is a cultural shift that values authenticity and voicing lived experiences over maintaining calm and false peace,” Devenport said.

When they get off the bus and enter camp the first few day are filled with seeking similarities. They all look to see who goes to the same school, who lives in the same neighborhood, who has the same movie preferences and on and on.

Things begin to shift when we start to dive into the participants’ personal experiences within larger social justice frameworks. For example, each of the participants may have experienced sexism on some level, but it probably looked different for each of them and had a range of impacts on their lives.

Participants are led to confront what makes each of them unique and reconcile those differences in their minds during dialogues. Accepting multiple perspectives and encouraging participants to speak from their own experience is the foundation for radical realness.

Facilitators are an integral part of that process. They each note where participants are hesitating and support the group through the storming process into a space where vulnerability is common and change can happen.

From there, participants can learn from one another and use that knowledge to create lasting change to transform their own lives and communities.

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