Yvette Benavides' social justice training certificate. Courtesy photo.
Yvette Benavides' social justice training certificate. Courtesy photo.

On Nov. 30 I boarded a plane bound for Long Beach, Calif. I’ve flown plenty of times, but never alone. In the days before my trip, I was momentarily gripped by an irrational anxiety that I might get lost. But I faced my fears and decided to go it alone. I had to. There’s a first time for everything. I was on my way to a five-day social justice training.

The training for practitioners and professionals, the 34th round for the Social Justice Training Institute, included some 45 participants and a focus on race-immersion. Most of us are staff or faculty members from universities from all over the country who work in student support services, first-year experience courses, residence life, and the like. Many of the participants are also heads of social justice, or multicultural programs. One tenured MIT professor of physics was there as his university’s new chief diversity officer (CDO).

Ed is white. He’d been warned by his colleagues that taking on the role as CDO would be “career suicide.” I had just met the man, but right away I understood that Ed, like everyone in the cohort, is driven by a desire to see things set aright on college campuses and universities.

In spite of that earnest goal, we all had to manage some difficult moments during our training, moments when participants admitted to taking part in “collusion,” that is, thinking and acting in ways that support dominant systems of power, privilege, and oppression.  The group owned up to the undeniable existence of white privilege, which has to do with the ways white people benefit from access to resources and social rewards by virtue of their position in a thoroughly racist society. Some were also subjected to moments, unpleasant and excruciating, of “white fragility,” where the stress of discussions of race led to high emotion, raised voices, tears.

The November 2015 Social Justice Training Institute cohort. Courtesy photo.
The November 2015 Social Justice Training Institute cohort. Courtesy photo.

The term “white fragility” was first coined by Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She has written extensively on the subject and says that for white people, racism is what bad people do. Good and moral people can’t possibly be racist.

“In large part, white fragility — the defensiveness, the fear of conflict — is rooted in this good/bad binary,” DiAngelo writes. “If you call someone out, they think to themselves, ‘What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.’ It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.”

It seemed that for many of the members of the cohort, this was not their first social justice training. When they owned the idea of being racist, said it out loud plainly and as a matter of fact, and even offered examples of prejudicial acts and racist judgments, they did so with the strength of other convictions — to try to learn, to educate themselves and endeavor to help stem the seemingly irrepressible tide of racism.

This was my first social justice training. I studied and prepped for three months before I ever darkened the threshold of the Southwest Airlines 737 back in San Antonio. But I never could have anticipated the level of stark honesty in the exchanges of the training participants. In race-alike caucuses, in across-race caucuses and core groups, it seemed that everyone spoke truth to power, spoke their absolute truth, and didn’t hold back.

The language around the training includes terms like “showing up,” “checking in” “doing the work,” “triggers” “needs,” “self-care,” and, after the training, “reentry.” Each concept offers a complicated world of exchanges, anecdotes, and, yes, displays of fragility, but also of understanding and compassion. You really get to know people in a five-day immersion experience.

Comments in the affirmative action case Fisher vs. The University of Texas at Austin from Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Roberts show that 2015 was a year of continued deterioration of support for affirmative action and that Abigail Fisher’s antagonism born of white fragility and privilege could win out and continue to put undue burdens on students of color.

Furthermore, Donald Trump continues his bigoted campaign trail. The well-attended stumps stump me. It’s unimaginable that thousands of Americans cheer on his crudeness and acrimony, his hypocrisy and disrespect. They join him in his denigration of Mexicans and share his vision to stem the tide of immigration of Muslims in ways reminiscent of some of the most loathsome figures of our world’s history.

Students at the University of Missouri and many other universities have recently protested over racism. Some attendant situations have incited violence on many campuses. Professors have resigned and black students continue to live in fear. Stupefying, too, is that we are witness to segregated student unions and fraternities and that so many people support these actions with impunity.

On the fourth training day, just before we discussed the concept of reentry, of going back to our respective work spaces as very different people, a participant called for a moment of silence for the victims of the Dec. 2 shooting in San Bernardino. Another participant informed us that the next day a black man had been shot by a police officer in San Francisco. Returning to our campuses and carrying all we’d learned to share with others in an effort to change these deplorable chapters in our collective story, portended crushing disappointment, but also just another day at the office in light of these tragedies.

But no. Another first for me is the realization that a lot of people care about turning the page. The 45 people in this cohort who educate students for a living care deeply. They check in. They show up. They do the work.

Often during our training days, the entire cohort sat in a large circle in the conference room, each person facing every other person in the same room in that configuration. Asian, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, mixed race, white. It was a wide, diverse circle we made, but one where we could see each person and be seen, hear each person and be heard. In those rough moments when someone was triggered or moved to tears, the hard work was happening, really happening.

The day I left California for home, I took a shuttle to LAX. With the confidence and sure-footedness of a seasoned traveler, I shrugged off the old fears of getting lost. I knew exactly where I was going.

*Top image: Yvette Benavides’ social justice training certificate. Courtesy photo.

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Yvette Benavides

Yvette Benavides is a professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University.