What makes an effective white caucus group?

I sent a previous version of this post out in five parts (via my newsletter) many months ago, and thought it might be helpful for you to have this info all in one place.

In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders by the police, organizations and companies have been wrestling with how to respond to systemic racism, yet again. Some reacted by releasing an anti-racism statement, sometimes accompanied by a commitment to taking specific actions, oftentimes not. Others have doubled down on diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, many of which are one-off engagements for a few hours at a time, and are disconnected from a larger, ongoing equity strategy. Still others have started racial affinity groups, also known as race caucus groups, for their staff members. If you’ve never heard of race caucusing before (specifically white caucuses), check out this brief resource (clicking the link downloads a PDF).

I’ve led a number of affinity groups / race caucuses (I use the terms interchangeably) for white people over the last few years, and have supported other groups behind the scenes as a curriculum developer or facilitation consultant. The focus has largely been on understanding how white supremacy shows up in our daily lives and what we can do about it, as people who benefit from white body supremacy (in the words of Resmaa Menakem). While I’m still relatively early on in my journey of facilitating race caucus groups for white people, I’ve noticed patterns and learned things that could be helpful for those considering bringing race caucusing to their workplace, and for those who may be attending race caucus groups. My reflections are a jumping off point to answer the question, what makes an effective white caucus group?

A note: In this series, I use “we” and “us” to refer to white people, because I’m speaking directly to them/us. I recognize that you, reader, may not be white; I’m glad you’re here and am grateful for your witnessing.

Have a Clear Purpose

Many white caucus groups begin without having a clear purpose identified at the outset. While the purpose of such groups can (and will) change over time, I’ve found that it’s important for the members of a white caucus group to decide what the group’s goal is, as the goal will necessarily shape how the group spends its time together.

A common purpose I see white caucus groups adopting is some variation of, “learn about racism / white supremacy / racial privilege”. It makes sense to me that many white caucus groups would want to focus here: by and large, white people haven’t gotten an accurate education around race, nor have we wrestled intimately with the ways white supremacy shapes our lives. There’s a lot of learning that we white people need to do, that BIPOC* have already done, at great cost, simply by existing in the United States. A racial affinity group can serve as a space for white people to relearn the history of race in the U.S., as well as how white supremacy shows up internally (in our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors) and externally (in our relationships, workplaces, and communities).

Consuming information about and discussing white supremacy can make us feel like we’re doing a good job of being anti-racists, when in fact, we haven’t taken action that meaningfully affects BIPOC individuals and communities. I’ve found it to be incredibly clarifying for me to ask myself the following questions as I take actions that I think are anti-racist:

  • Is what I’m doing meaningfully impacting BIPOC individuals or groups?
  • What are the tangible effects of the action I’m taking?
  • How will I know if this action is effective? What will be different after I do it?

If I can’t answer these questions, or if the answers to them are “no”, then I haven’t actually taken anti-racist action — I’ve just learned about something related to anti-racism or white supremacy. 

I strongly encourage white caucus groups who want to focus on learning to adopt a parallel goal: action. Taking action can follow this framework:

  • Group members name personal goals related to identifying and interrupting white supremacy internally (within their mindsets, thoughts, or decision-making processes) or externally (through their actions and interactions with people, institutions, and systems).
  • They share those goals with the group
  • After the session is over, members take action on their goals, noticing both the external impact and what happens internally (in their bodies, thoughts, and emotions)
  • During the next session, members report back to the group about what happened when they took action, externally and internally
  • If a specific action yielded a challenge for a group member, their peers can offer their suggestions and perspectives as a way of supporting their colleague in taking more effective anti-racist action in the future

This framework can also be applied to collective goals that the group sets for itself (i.e. if the group wants to use the space to organize for change within their organization, or within the broader community).

The group itself can serve as a site of accountability for its members: as a participant, if I identify a goal and share it with the group, I’m going to be more invested in following through than if I’d set a goal and not told anyone about it. 

As the adage goes, begin with the end in mind. Let a clear purpose guide your group.

*BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Learn more here.

Informed by BIPOC Needs

So your white caucus group has a clear purpose that centers both learning and action. Now what do you learn about and take action on? I’ve seen white caucus groups answer this question in a few different ways:

  • Some groups decide on a subtopic related to anti-racism (ex. white fragility, the history of race in the U.S., cross-cultural communication, understanding white supremacy culture, and so on) and then choose a resource to guide their learning (ex. a book, podcast, film, or curriculum). Participants then set goals and take action related to what they learn about the subtopic.
  • Sometimes, a leader or group of leaders within the broader organization determines the content the white caucus group will focus on. This may include providing resources or even a full curriculum for groups to use.
  • Some groups generate a list of questions or subtopics related to white supremacy or anti-racism that they would like to discuss, and choose one or more to jump start conversation within their sessions, sourcing additional learning resources as they go.

However a white caucus group decides to move forward, they must make a choice that is informed by BIPOC needs.

It’s critical to remember that white caucus groups don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re often set within a multiracial workplace, and many exist alongside BIPOC caucus groups, or caucus groups for more specific racial groups (i.e. Black, Asian, etc.). If there are BIPOC individuals within an organization who are willing to do the mental and emotional labor of offering content suggestions (which can include topics, questions, or learning resources) to the white caucus group, I would urge white caucus group members to follow those suggestions. If a white caucus group wants to make meaningful change in service of building a more racially just workplace for their BIPOC colleagues, following the leadership of those colleagues is key. 

What about white caucus groups that don’t have parallel BIPOC affinity groups? BIPOC individuals worldwide have made countless public requests of white people, and shared invaluable advice about how white people can show up for them in anti-racist ways. The Movement for Black Lives lays out policy platforms, Equity in the Center shares how to create a culture of racial equity in the workplace through Awake to Woke to Work, and Vu Le has been addressing white people and those in charge of institutional wealth for years through Nonprofit AF. These are just a few of the many readily available examples of calls that BIPOC are making of white people.

Part of a Larger Plan

Building on a statement I made above, all race caucus groups exist within the larger context of the organization they take place within. If an organization wants to make a deep and lasting commitment to racial equity, they need to have a comprehensive plan. Spoiler alert: racial affinity groups are not a comprehensive plan.

I have thoughts about what needs to be included in an organizational racial equity plan (as do many other people), but that’s another topic for another day. In short, if race caucuses are your organization’s only attempt at addressing racial inequity in your workplace, that inequity is going to continue. Here are a few questions that leadership, specifically, can ask as they consider how race caucuses fit into a broader racial equity plan, grouped into time-bound categories:

Past

  • What actions did we take as an organization prior to starting race caucus groups? How did we get to the point of starting these groups?
  • Whose leadership did we follow, to get to this point? Did employees ask for these groups? Did they emerge out of organizational transition, interpersonal conflict, current events, or something else? What can we learn about employee needs from this?

Present

  • What actions are we taking now, in parallel to these groups?
  • How are these actions supporting the work happening within the groups, and vice versa?
  • How is what’s happening within the groups impacting what happens outside of the groups? (i.e. at an organizational level)

Future

  • If the groups have an end date: What actions will we take once the groups finish?
  • If the groups are ongoing: What actions will we take next, as this work continues?
  • How can we build on what each group experienced / is currently experiencing?
  • What are the most obvious next steps for us to take, as an organization, to make our commitment to racial equity a reality?

Specific to Who’s in the Room

Each white caucus group (and really, any race caucus group) has needs and desires that are specific to who shows up. adrienne maree brown says that there is a conversation in the room that only the people present at that moment can have, and that it’s imperative to find that conversation. A skilled facilitator can hone in on what’s going on beneath the surface of a group and name it aloud, leading to a shift in the conversation, greater honesty, and hopefully, deepened vulnerability and trust.

Groups with a high level of trust can sometimes do this themselves, but it can be harder for participants to take these kinds of risks: naming an uncomfortable perspective or dynamic can be met with defensiveness and denial from other group members, and quickly derail a conversation.

To find out what folks’ needs and desires are, there’s got to be time built into each meeting agenda for sharing, and earlier in the process, a space for participants to co-create the caucus group experience, as a whole. This co-creation can look like participants offering input about what they’d like to learn about, identifying questions they have, or offering actions they’d like to take (either individually or as a group). Caucus groups are ever-evolving, and facilitators or group leaders need to responsively adapt to the group’s needs.

A related note: when it comes to racial equity, white caucuses and BIPOC caucuses have fundamentally different work to do. This work isn’t equal and won’t look the same, in terms of quantity of hours spent or content covered. Yet within an organization, it’s critically important that a BIPOC affinity group receives at least as much funding and consideration as a white affinity group.

BIPOC groups may opt to use their funding in vastly different ways than their white counterparts, and not only is that okay, it should be expected. If you’re a white person who’s feeling skeptical about or critical of the way a BIPOC affinity group is using their time and resources, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on a) how policing lives inside of you, b) why you think you know what’s best for BIPOC individuals, and c) how both mentalities are rooted in white supremacy.

Rooted in Love

We can approach racial equity work from many different places, internally: from guilt and shame, from obligation, from anger, from love, and so on. This may be a controversial statement, but in one sense, it doesn’t matter why we choose to do this work, so long as we do it. If we consider external tangible impact — meaning, if through the action we take, BIPOC individuals and communities are safer, more resourced, and more liberated — then the “why” isn’t super relevant. But if we look at internal impact — meaning, how we are changed and transformed through pursuing racial justice, and how we sustain themselves for the long haul — the “why” is critical.

Here are some things I’ve learned about the “why”:

  • Guilt and shame are not long-term motivators. They can spur short-term action and surface-level engagement, but they are not the catalyst for long-term, depthful changemaking.
  • Obligation is the same as above. Also — and this directly contradicts what I said about the external impact of this work above (multiple things can be true at once!) — operating from a place of obligation feels very different from operating from a place of love, for both the giver and the receiver. The felt experience of that exchange does matter, because it impacts cross-racial interpersonal relationships.
  • Anger is a powerful motivator, and I believe that anger, at its root, is defiant love. It’s love for what isn’t present (racial justice) and the world that could be, love for those harmed by racial oppression, even love for our past selves who were ignorant about systemic racism and harmed BIPOC communities accordingly.
  • Anger is tricky, though: we can easily lose sight of why we’re angry and become consumed by the anger itself. Anger can transmute into self-righteousness, self-focus, “I know the one right way to approach this”, white saviorism, and getting frustrated with (and then distancing ourselves) from other white people who we perceive to be less “woke” than we are. All of this is to say, remember what’s at the root of our anger, and practice humility as we do this work.

Let’s talk about love.

I’ve found love to be an enduring source of fuel for working for racial justice, as a white person. Doing anti-racism work with other white people from a place of love can look like…

…moving at the speed of trust (another gem from adrienne maree brown). In a white caucus setting, this looks like understanding that trust is built slowly, over time, through shared learning, deep listening and presence, honest communication, and even through conflict, if resolving that conflict focuses on changing behavior instead of denouncing whole people.

…prioritizing relationships over agendas. If there’s a conversation that’s begging to be had, make space to have it. If a disagreement arises within the affinity group, make space to move through it. If someone has a question or doesn’t understand a concept, make space to explain it and answer follow-up questions. Sometimes love looks like patience, and changing course in the moment to respond to the group’s needs.

…practicing courage with one another. If someone in the caucus says something that reinforces racism, speak up about how that impacted you, in the moment. If one of your peers gives you feedback about something you said or did that caused harm, a) believe them, even if you don’t agree with them, and b) put that feedback into action immediately.

…acknowledging our own fuck ups. It looks like noticing when we’re feeling despair and hopelessness, and pulling away from this work. It looks like really seeing the excuses we’re making for not doing more. And it looks like remembering that we have value even when we’re being stereotypically white, meaning, when we’re actively causing harm to BIPOC individuals and communities.

I firmly believe that for white people, while the goal of anti-racism work is justice and liberation for BIPOC communities, a byproduct of this work is reconnecting with our own humanity. To do that, we have to practice loving ourselves and other white people in ways that can feel impossible to access. This looks like embracing ourselves and other white people in all of our flawed, inherently racist human-ness, while actively demanding we do better.

I know that this last part could be interpreted as excusing the harm white people cause to BIPOC folks (i.e. “love and good intentions are all that matters”), but I’m advocating for something different: holding ourselves and other white people accountable from a place of radical love and belief that we can change our actions, in service of BIPOC liberation.

White caucusing has the potential to be transformative instead of simply transactional. I hope these reflections have spurred thoughts and ideas about how to engage in this practice purposefully. Thanks for listening and for joining me here!

If you’d like to learn more about race caucusing, check out these resources:


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