At the recent sixtieth anniversary of the March on Washington, nine White men, including one of us (Otis), wore black t-shirts emblazoned with big white bold letters that read, “White Men for Racial Justice.”
White men [can] flip the narrative of White supremacy by refusing to go along with it or accept its power over us.
Fellow marchers were largely stunned. A few dozen marchers stopped to find out what our group was about, requested photos with us, and many interactions turned into lengthy conversations. A man who turned out to be the father of Representative Cori Bush—a congresswoman from St. Louis who is a member of “The Squad” and recently introduced reparations legislation—was so energized that he called his daughter and got her on speaker phone in the middle of the march, so we could begin building a connection.
Of course, it is a sad and shameful reality that nine White men wearing pro-justice t-shirts is all it takes to surprise and inspire. And there is something deeply unjust about a society where a tiny gesture of goodwill is enough to catalyze immediate access to American governing power. But it also hints at how much potential there is for White men to flip the narrative of White supremacy by refusing to go along with it or accept its power over us.
Over the past several hundred years, plenty of destruction has occurred after White men met behind closed doors. Our history textbooks, not to mention our contemporary newsfeeds, are filled with examples. So we’re not surprised that many people are skeptical, if not outright alarmed, that we have convened groups of White men, in private, as part of our equity practice. Why do we believe that such spaces can help advance equity?
The Value of Affinity Group Organizing
Oppressed populations have long encouraged privileged people to organize their own. “Sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something,” Malcolm X writes in his autobiography, “have got to work…in their own home communities.”
Within social justice movements, caucusing—by race, gender, and other identity markers—has long been a way to unpack challenging emotions and interactions across differences. For people like us who have had significant material advantages from birth, they offer a container to shed ignorance, clarify some of what we are unsure about, and grapple with complex social dynamics through a structure that doesn’t directly burden marginalized people. “When you come out the other side of this process,” author and therapist Resmaa Menakem has emphasized in his writing about affinity spaces for conventionally privileged people, “you will experience more than just relief….You will also have grown up a notch.”
[We need] to ensure accountability to those who are most impacted by our actions.
Part of what drew each of us to affinity spaces was a desire to “do our own work” in a way that did not ask White women and people of color to explain everything to us. Such spaces aren’t a substitute for mixed spaces; they don’t exist to insulate the privileged—there’s only so much White men, and any other caucus group for that matter, can learn from each other, reading books, or the internet. Still, affinity spaces help equip us to build enduring relationships across differences, which we believe is a crucial catalyst for progress.
Whether the group caucusing is White men or any other privileged group, a crucial dimension is the degree of attunement to the impact of our actions on marginalized populations. For this reason, even some of those who see value in caucuses of White people or men get uneasy when they hear that White men are coming together. Because our lived experience is typically dramatically different than that of marginalized populations—and because many White men have held, and often abused, power for so long—there is skepticism about whether White men can develop that attunement and support each other’s growth toward living lives that center equity.
To ensure accountability to those who are most impacted by our actions, therefore, a group requires skilled, nuanced facilitation. Critically, facilitators of affinity group spaces need to stay grounded in a broad set of life experiences and realities, including in their personal relationships. That said, even close relationships across differences are not a substitute for lived experience. So, facilitators need to be humble that maintaining such grounding is a lifelong journey—that there isn’t an end point, and that our grounding can crack if we don’t practice it regularly.
One way to stay grounded is to be explicit about being accountable to those outside the affinity group. This should be formally embedded in governance structures. Since caucusing is a power-building approach, caucus groups of privileged people must demonstrate they are building power in ways that ultimately increase interconnectedness and the power of marginalized peoples. Caucus groups that don’t prioritize that aim explicitly may consolidate power among themselves more than they democratize it.
Practicing accountability is still, in some ways, more an art than a science. It is further complicated by the fact that reasonable people can disagree about whether an individual or organization is engaging accountably and generating impacts that advance equity.
So, facilitators of affinity spaces benefit from having accountability partners who have the patience and capacity to collaborate with privileged people through complex journeys that are often uneven and full of slow realizations and triggering moments. That complexity also includes recognizing that every human being has wisdom to offer, and this includes White men.
We believe that facilitators are most effective when they offer their participants compassion. The facilitators who most impacted us didn’t judge us, even as they challenged us.
The Growth of Antiracist White Male Affinity Groups
All the above sounds good, but how can these principles be put into practice?
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Fortunately, a handful of new initiatives offer affinity spaces for White men who strive to practice equity accountably and “show up” effectively for social justice. These initiatives build on longstanding efforts such as the Oakland Men’s Project, a group cofounded by Paul Kivel in 1979 that has long embedded affinity groups in its approach. White Men for Racial Justice (WMRJ)—a community of several hundred White men who are seeking to build an equitable America—hired two Black community leaders as “equity advisors.” WMRJ leaders have regular check-ins with their equity advisors, who help WMRJ evaluate its progress and guide the organization’s activities. Breaking the Mold (BTM)—an equity leadership program for White men—hired two Black women to fulfill a similar role.
Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation—a national network that is mobilizing White men to learn and take action against White supremacy and patriarchy—was created in response to a need identified by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network organizing White people for racial and economic justice led by queer White women that has found it challenging to attract White male members.
At Solidaire Network—a donor community that supports social justice movements—Chris Westcott, a longtime housing justice and worker rights organizer, is helping to create affinity spaces for the group’s White male members, with support and guidance from the leaders of color at Solidaire.
While these efforts engage different segments of the nation’s White male population in different ways, the thrust of their work is similar. They all convene White men through virtual and sometimes in-person settings. When they gather, they revisit the historical context of White supremacy and how that is experienced at a personal and societal level; reflect and discuss how our identity markers shape our lives; and explore ways White men can operate differently to develop stronger relationships, build new skills, and shift power dynamics.
Those practices include digging into some areas that make many White men uncomfortable. Since many White men are reluctant to be vulnerable, facilitators model and affirm that practice. Participants are encouraged to admit when they don’t know something instead of exuding false confidence and to express their emotions more openly than they might in other settings. Hearing how our peers are struggling, striving, and succeeding equips us to become healthier, more resilient, and more effective.
It’s still early days for many of these efforts, but there are emerging signs that these groups are having a positive impact. For example, White Men for Racial Justice was born amid the 2020 uprisings, shortly after George Floyd’s murder. The original organizers had been alerted to the relative absence of White men on the streets, and the group emerged out of preexisting relationships. WMRJ has largely grown through word of mouth. It emphasizes community building as one of its core tenets. They meet weekly, hold in-person learning retreats at historical sites that have been important to racial justice, such as Alabama and South Dakota, and support local actions, initiatives, and projects. Recently, members testified in support of municipal reparations in Philadelphia and have been supporting networks of Black urban farmers.
Breaking the Mold was also created in response to repeated questions, largely from people of color, asking, “Where are all the White men?” The cofounders responded by creating a six-month, cohort-based program for White men in leadership roles. The program has supported 30 White men from a variety of organizations and backgrounds to date, and feedback from participants’ colleagues indicates that the men—including one of us, who participated in BTM’s second cohort—have grown significantly in our ability to build deeper partnerships and more inclusive organizations. BTM’s alumni network meets monthly, which is intended to be a lifelong space for participants to support and challenge each other. The program is growing and is currently welcoming nominations and applications for its third cohort in 2024.
Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation—a national network that is also building out local chapters—hosts various series of online conversations focused on confronting racism and sexism. It also recruits participants for campaigns on key racial and gender justice issues, such as a successful effort to protect abortion rights in Kentucky.
Perhaps what most unites [these] efforts…is [a] dual commitment to organizing and narrative change.
Solidaire offers programming that encourages its members to tackle complex questions such as how much money is enough—and what repair might look like if one’s family profited from slavery or other forms of exploitation. Solidaire also trains its members through practical programming on topics like mobilizing family members to support social justice and giving money in ways that share power and authentically empower social justice movements.
While these initiatives support White men from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, most of the White men who engage are middle-class or wealthy people who have time and resources to do this type of volunteer and inner work. That’s one of the reasons why we’re excited about Punch Up, a new initiative that is collaborating with Black femme and queer-led movements to engage poor and working-class White men to channel their anger away from marginalized groups and toward power brokers whose decisions are impoverishing all working-class people.
Doing the Work
Perhaps what most unites the efforts of the many groups named above is their dual commitment to organizing and narrative change. They share a perspective that helping White men to reflect and act in their spheres of influence is important, which includes—yet is distinct from—the importance of seeing different narratives about White men in the news, movies, politics, and our personal lives. Since White men hold systemic power and are also symbols of power, those who deviate significantly from the script and refuse to defend the status quo can help shift culture and, ultimately, policies.
These are lofty goals for a movement still in its nascent stages and limited in its reach.
But for White men who are committed to racial and gender equity, part of “doing the work” is both deepening relationships across differences, and building connections with other White men who share our perspective. Affinity spaces for White men can help begin to make change—both for White men and for the social justice movements they support.
Garrett and Otis are co-conveners of the Perennial Sunflower Project, a field catalyst that is building the movement of White men who are committed to sharing and building power with marginalized people and communities throughout their lives.