Episcopal Schools often cast a wide net, drawing in families from a variety of backgrounds — different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, family structures, to name a few. Of course, this is one of the beauties of being an Episcopal School, as we promote diversity and social justice as open and accepting communities that seek to gather all sorts of people. At the same time, this diversity presents certain challenges as we mix students from a variety of backgrounds together. Therefore, I have always seen it as a chaplain’s duty to be on the frontlines of social justice issues — taking the chaplain’s prophetic call seriously and speaking up for those who have historically been marginalized.
This academic year, however, I have been asked to take a different, more challenging approach to this effort. In the wake of a series of racially-charged incidents that have rocked the United States, St. Mark’s Community & Equity Committee, on which I serve, decided that we needed to create a space for white students to explore their racial identity, especially in the context of building equity at a New England boarding school. The idea of a white affinity group—to go along with affinity groups for a variety of races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders—can be very controversial as some might mistake it for a group bent on white supremacy. This, of course, is not the case. Rather than promoting some form of racial supremacy, these groups try to offer students and staff an opportunity to unpack an incredibly complex topic in a space where all the participants are safe, where a white student might learn about issues of race and privilege, free to bumble a bit and make some mistakes on the way.
The idea of examining whiteness represents a paradigm shift for most folks. “Why do they need a space,” someone might ask, “Aren’t they already the majority?” Yes, but just as the fish pays little attention to the water, the white students on campus often pay little attention to their own racial identity because they’re inundated by it. Moreover, we often don’t turn a critical eye to the injustices of the past while also acknowledging how our current systems may be the result of that historic oppression.
As the country continued to debate Civil War monuments, I ended up co-leading a new group on campus called “white.space.” When I introduced it to the school, I started with a blank slide and asked students to look at the slide and consider what they saw. Over the course of about 10 seconds, text began to appear on the slide, slowly fading in. The text stood out because when looking at a white page with writing on it, we tend to notice the writing before we notice all of the whitespace around it. For many white students and adults, this is also the case. We spend very little time paying attention to the whitespace because it’s all we’ve ever really known.
Therefore, we need a space for those students to ask important and tough questions. In our most recent meeting, I asked students to write down some questions they’d like to discuss in future meetings. Here are a few of them:
- What exactly does “privilege” mean and do I really have it?
- Is there such a thing as “reverse discrimination”?
- What do I do when my friends make false assumptions about me because I’m white?
- At the intersection of race and gender, what is the role of white women? What about white men?
Navigating these questions in a mixed race group can be difficult because white students typically aren’t practiced at speaking about race. By creating space to discuss these questions amongst the white students alone, we have the opportunity to increase their understanding of the racial concerns present in our country and to develop the ever-important skill of perspective-taking. Moreover, we can do this in a safe space where students don’t have to worry about offending their non-white friends.
The group is just getting off the ground, but I’m encouraged by the questions that students have asked and the frankness with which they have conducted these conversations. Over time, I hope that we can help white students to understand why the idea of race has been so problematic so that they can think about how they might work to create greater equity both at our school and in our world.
If you’d like to explore the idea of creating a group to examine the category of “whiteness” on your campus or if you’re already doing so, please get in touch with me so that we can share resources and ideas.
About the Author
Stephen Hebert serves as the Assistant Chaplain at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA. At St. Mark’s, he has chaired the Religion Department, worked as the House Head for III Form boys, and coached golf and basketball. Before working at St. Mark’s, Stephen taught both Religion and English at the high school and college levels in his native Houston, TX. He holds degrees from UT at Austin and Harvard Divinity School, and is currently working on a D.Min. at Claremont School of Theology.