Just after 6 p.m. last week on an evening threatening rain and thunder, I met a group of women at the Whole Foods on Broad Street.
For the past three years, these women, and several more, have comprised a Durham-based, multi-racial group from different cultures and classes that gathers each month to discuss, learn, and heal around the issues of race, class, and gender. Today, they are working with women and others all over the country to help create a less racist society. And they are hoping their work will serve as a national model.
Women Dismantling Racism operates as a subgroup of Our Sacred Circles and privately owned Joyoushout, founded by Rinah Rachel Galper that “works at the intersection of justice, healing, spirituality, and creativity,” according to the OSC website.
Galper, who is white, says WDR first came together in May of 2018, when a “bunch” of women from different races and backgrounds met at the LRoom, a women’s retreat center in North Durham.
“We wanted to understand why the relationship with women of color and the white community was so broken,” Galper told the INDY. “How do we repair that relationship?”
Galper says those initial meetings included forming a leadership group and getting educated, but also exploring how to go about healing the broken relationship between women of color and white women.
Another member, K, who declined to give her full name due to the nature of her work, says it’s incumbent upon white women to educate themselves about systemic racism, not to be “fragile” in their interactions with people of color, and to build relationships with people of color outside of work or meetings.
“There was definitely a lack of trust at first,” K says. “A lot of white women don’t see their microaggressions toward Black women. Being anti-racist is a daily practice outside of meetings and book study groups. It’s a mental, and emotional practice to do every day.”
Our Sacred Circles has a Wisdom Council whose members provide support to women and others who are doing racial justice and healing work. The Wisdom Council has an intentionality and immediacy about the need to address historic wrongs. Part of the ongoing work includes healing rituals. During a recent gathering, the white women in attendance apologized on behalf of their ancestors to the Black women, who accepted the apologies on behalf of their ancestors.
“We are not passing the torch,” K says. “This is a place where we are trying to hold this torch together.”
That was easy enough, Galper says about the growing understanding that’s taking place inside the meetings.
“It was the action part when the women failed,” she says. “They were doing really good at reading books. White women have failed miserably on many occasions.”
“They have failed to put the anti-racist work into action,” K adds.
In response to the pandemic and in order to reach more justice workers and healers across the country and even globally, Our Sacred Circles is now completely virtual.
An upshot was that the number of attendees increased, says Donna Frederick, who formerly owned and operated The Play House, a toy store on Ninth Street for decades. The pandemic, especially during the shutdown, left everyone in the same boat, with their lives “turned topsy-turvy without job security, ways of meeting, and not having that next paycheck.”
Galper says the pandemic has accentuated the worst elements of American society, particularly the actions of white supremacists.
It was also during the pandemic that the group’s members, like everyone else in America and around the world, witnessed the murder of George Floyd.
Frederick says Floyd’s death marked a turning point for the group and helped to galvanize their understanding of systemic racism where white boys are, for the most part, assured of coming home to their mothers after an encounter with the police. Black sons and their mothers have no such guarantees. She says the group had been talking about racism, but to witness a white officer kneeling on the neck of a dying Black man begging for his life was an epiphany.
“You can talk about something, but then when you actually see it, it’s different,” Frederick says. “With all the demonstrations last summer and all of the things we were talking about were coming to a head. It was recognized before, but [with Floyd’s death and the protests] it was like, ‘Oh, now we really see it. That’s the difference.’”
The racism that fueled the genocide of this country’s indigenous people and enslavement of kidnapped Africans to make white men wealthy is called this country’s original sin. That said, the anti-racist group members know that dismantling systemic racism in America is well-nigh impossible.
The WDR members say they see setbacks in voter restrictions, state-sanctioned attempts to whitewash history, and the ridicule faced by supporters of reparations to Black Americans whose ancestors labored under the lash to build this country. Galper says discussions about reparations are “a constant” in her consulting and classes.
“We’ve talked about equity being on a continuum toward the goal of reparations,” she says.
Reparations critics talk about slavery as if it were ancient history, but I grew up with a grandmother and uncle whose parents were born into slavery. Moreover, as a TikTok user pointed out recently, Thomas Jefferson was still alive when Harriet Tubman was born, and Ronald Reagan was alive when she died.
“I don’t know if white people are willing and able to make changes,” Galper says about the quest to save America from its original sins. “But we have to keep doing this work because right now, this is the best game in town. This is the most important struggle of our time.”
“It’s fear,” Frederick says in reference to the CRT (critical race theory) debate. “It’s all about fearing the truth will come out. How can you build if you’re suppressing the truth, and thinking you can work around it?”
“White folks are scared of being held accountable,” Galper says. “Everything we have, we’ve stolen. The fact that many white folks feel that they have worked hard to get what they have sometimes obscures the fact that we have stolen from so many and deprived them of the opportunity of a good life that we all deserve.”
A similar fear drives the voter suppression measures proposed or passed in statehouses across the country. Far from preventing voter fraud that doesn’t exist, the waves of legislation show a willingness on the part of whites to criminalize Black people’s access to the ballot. The Black vote can no longer matter if it causes white discomfort.
K calls it “white fragility.”
“White fragility is actually white sabotage,” Galper says. “[White people] are afraid of losing power.”
Frederick says the disenfranchisement of Black voters drives her work to get people to realize the political power that voters actually have.
“Sometimes, we just take for granted that coming together has no power,” she says.“You know, that our voices are not heard. We’ve seen that [in] a bunch of people coming together, saying, ‘No, this is not right,’ but also attacking the system that makes it not right. Learning that the system is not right is powerful.”
“One thing that makes this group unique is we’re building personal relationships,” K says. “For women we do not, or I should say, I do not trust a lot of white people, period. But I have gained trust through building relationships.”
K added that she’s part of another anti-racism group in the Triangle, “where we, the parents, have built relationships.”
“So now we know what my son goes through when he goes to school, and what my daughter was going through,” she says. “Because those relationships were built, they can put a face on the child going through these issues.”
Galper says white people should exercise more humility and openness, and white women should use their privilege to actively work to dismantle systemically racist systems.
“White people have to be willing to give up power, or share power,” Galper says. “That’s the hardest part, even within myself.”
She tells the story of a child she met at a queer culture camp where she was working recently.
“[I told her] I have these two parts of myself. One part of me wants to mobilize and connect with other progressives. The other part of me wants to ship all of the white supremacists off to an island with no boat.
“And [the child] said, ‘Perhaps you need to build a bridge to those warring parts of yourself.’ Isn’t that awesome? She’s 15 years old. That gives me hope.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.