Caucusing is necessary, but it has been called White supremacist. For those of you who don’t know, “caucusing” is basically what happens when an organization divides people into groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. to discuss their identity/identities in “like-groups.” These can also be referred to as affinity groups. The theory is that it is better this way than everyone being in the same room talking about these triggering topics across one another – which can embarrass White people, whose subsequent actions and denial (or their simple disagreement), can embarrass or cause significant trauma to people of color – or at least their profound frustration, exasperation or alienation. Or so the story goes.
I’ve talked to White people as well as people of color, who disparage this like-group, i.e. caucusing, approach. I personally agree with caucusing because I have caused pain talking glibly about White supremacy in mixed company as a social ill, without embodying the realities that I was describing (i.e. I was talking about people of color’s pain with people of color and White people, while not being a person of color.)*
“Is caucusing necessary? Isn’t it White supremacist?”
This is a typical question I get from White people, though more people are catching on and accepting caucusing without arguing about it. The typical White objection I’ve heard to affinity groups or caucusing, is that people would never be able to have White affinity groups at work, while people of color can have their “gossip sessions” while on the clock. Such a perspective comes out of White people’s ignorance (or even our potential hostility) as to the toll that our gaze takes on some people of color when issues of race are addressed; our White dismissal of their need to be able to decompress in affinity groups and build up strength and resilience in the face of White-normed workplaces/schools; and the fact that White people can quite literally suck the air out of the room when people of color open up about their experience of racism. The latest trend, by the way, is to have these groups for White people, too.
Racism is not our fault as White people, but we have a responsibility to learn about it, reflect on it, talk about it and then take action. This is the crux of Robin DiAngelo’s work. If you hold caucus groups for White people, that learning, reflection-taking, discussion-holding and subsequent action, need to be the focus of the meeting. That is what makes caucusing not an outcropping of American White supremacy, but rather a “dismantle-r” of it. And while I have written about why it may not be the best time for Robin DiAngelo’s work, specifically her book White Fragility (2018), I want to qualify that now. I recently met with a group that uses DiAngelo’s more comprehensive textbook, What Does it Mean to Be White (2012), and teaches from it and not White Fragility, and does so with great success.**
Even though I acknowledge White supremacy culture as the default in the United States, I hesitate to call White people who are not in the KKK White supremacists. This is because, just as during Dr. King’s day people talked about “colorblindness” as a good thing only to have scholars later denounce it and declare it downright harmful, so it seems that we will come to regret being so glib about White supremacy. Both because it has lost its sting as a characterization, and also because it is a serious indictment and not to be taken lightly when used and we throw it around now as often as people say “bless you”. I think that grouping all White people with White supremacy, independent of whether or not they study or espouse the actual ideology – will have the unintended impact that true White supremacist groups will not receive the ire that holds them in check, nor the public shaming that keeps their numbers down.
Still worse, is the very real possibility that people who are well-meaning and White who are accused of being White supremacists, might be so insulted that they will be pushed over into indifference in the face of White supremacy, or even into a White supremacist mindset or group out of bitterness or resentment itself.***
If White supremacy is the default in the US, which is what many people say, does that mean that White people are by definition White supremacists?
It depends upon who you ask.
My answer is no. And that, furthermore, it is problematic to say yes, that all White people are naturally White supremacists. Not only is this factually untrue, but it is also strategically unwise to call all White people as White supremacists by default. It will come back to bite us when we no longer have accurate words for true evil.
* White supremacy is not an abstract phenomenon for people of color, or for White people either, but as White people we tend to intellectualize it while people of color suffer bodily for it (see the Covid statistics based on demographic for a concrete and recent example of this). Resmaa Menakem, for that reason, refers to White supremacy as White body supremacy. As White people we have bodies and they embody the supremacy we learn as children raised in American society. This is why we can say some police shootings are the response of non-Black bodies’ unconscious reaction to Black bodies – it is not White supremacy (which implies conscious pulling the trigger); it is automatic, bodily response. “I feared for my life,” the officer can say, and genuinely be sincere, after they have shot a Black person who was walking away with their hands up, having committed no crime. And an officer will get acquitted for it most of the time. This is why calling it White supremacy is not enough for Menakem. It is White BODY supremacy.
**The book, they said, describes race and whiteness in terms that are less polarizing and more galvanizing. It gets White people on board, because it talks about the history and context of race in the United States in a way that is hard to push away or deny.
***When I hear people saying, “No, I will not stop talking about White supremacy” as if it’s a badge of honor that they are hurting or insulting White people, I wonder if they ever ask themselves what the consequences of calling complacent White people supremacist might mean for White supremacy in the coming decades.