By Caroline Eastham
Cecilia Mills took a class to realize her own racism.
“Some white people want to say ‘I don’t see race,’” says Mills. “Well, it’s there. To say you don’t see it doesn’t help fix it.”
Mills is one of nearly 40 people who have taken a whiteness meditation-based class series through Common Ground Healing Arts at the Jefferson School.
Racial awakening for white people is a journey that reveals itself gradually, says class instructor Liz Reynolds. “We’re always going to make mistakes, we’re always going to have racist thoughts, impulses, and ideas, and seeing that in ourselves is the ultimate humility.”
The pay-what-you-can course aims to develop a deeper understanding of racial inequity. For six weeks, participants combine guided meditation with discussions on topics like white fragility, education, wealth, and the criminal justice system, along with the history of racial inequality in Charlottesville.
The class is an avenue for white people to discover their blind spots and biases, says Reynolds. “It is not a class that congratulates white people for being ‘woke,’ or pats [us] on the back for doing our work.”
People of color can be suspicious, says Reynolds. “It can sound like a white supremacist group, which is sad, because I consider that we are doing important work. But I do understand where that perspective comes from.”
Local activist Tanesha Hudson, for example, thinks to fully understand systemic racism, you need the presence of the people who experience it. “To teach the effects of whiteness and how it affects the people that it’s initially targeted, you need those people in the room,” she says.
But Reynolds says the class allows white people space to deal with “shameful and embarrassing” aspects of white supremacy that people of color already know about.
Charlottesville’s long history of racism includes its most prominent landmarks, UVA and Monticello, both built by enslaved laborers. For participants in the class, the extent of racial injustice is often shocking and shameful, resulting in feelings of guilt, anger, avoidance, hopelessness, anxiety, and fear.
“It’s like a kick in the gut,” says class participant Judy Blooms.
Participant Philip Schrodt says he was taken aback by the intentional white privilege present throughout Charlottesville’s history. “I realized it’s not just Vinegar Hill…over and over again the white elites in Charlottesville find ways to stomp on the black community,” he says, citing black neighborhoods that, like Vinegar Hill, were destroyed by the city.
The course made Mills want to learn more about the history of racism in Charlottesville. “So much of our history has been written by white people,” she says. “People need to have access to the rest of history. The history of African Americans is not in the textbooks.”
Blooms signed up for the class thinking she would find out more about people of color. “I finished the class finding out more about myself,” she says.
“Putting yourself as a white person in a situation where you’re going to be the minority is uncomfortable, but that’s what people of color deal with all the time,” Reynolds says. “It’s a small drop in the bucket of opening ourselves up to the idea that we need to be more humble in our society.”
Reynolds’ sixth class series will run from September 11 to October 9 on Wednesdays at 6pm. Sign up on the Common Ground website.