Activist Group Urges White People In Kansas City To 'Show Up' | KCUR

Activist Group Urges White People In Kansas City To 'Show Up'

Jul 23, 2016

Alice Chamberlain admits it's often uncomfortable for white people to talk about prejudice, white privilege and institutional racism.

That's why she's excited. 

On Monday, more than 300 people — most of them white, like her  — showed up at St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church in Kansas City to have a conversation about just those topics. 

Showing up was the key part. It was the third monthly meeting of a new activist group in the metro area, the Kansas City chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ KC. Their mission, as stated on the group's website, is "organizing white people" to join the ongoing social justice movement that has been largely defined and driven by groups like Black Lives Matter. 

Chamberlain, a SURJ KC co-founder, says before now, white people in Kansas City were not showing up to such potentially-tense gatherings as much as she would have liked. Now, she says, things are changing. 

"I think in the wake of recent events in this country, we've seen a huge dramatic increase in the number of white folks who are really trying to find and examine their role in a racial justice movement," she says. 

The meeting Monday featured the  topic of institutional racism, for many white people, a subject they've never thought about outside a college class. There were several breakout sessions focused on how subconscious forms of racism persist in the workplace, the media, and in schools.

Some people of color were there, including local activists with groups like One Struggle KC. SURJ KC leaders say they invite the partnership of such groups but are focused now on having "conversations within our own white communities first", as one SURJ member put it. 

"People of color across the county are asking white people to step up," says Anna Svoboda-Stel, who has worked with One Struggle KC for two years before recently starting to come to the SURJ KC meetings. "We have plenty of resources and literature to have these conversations on our own. We can't wait to be asked individually to join these conversations." 

An easier task, maybe, for someone like Svoboda-Stel, who's been working as an activist in some capacity for years. Other white people, though, may be coming to topics like bias, prejudice, and privilege for the very first time. 

That can be disturbing, says John Tramel, a social worker and community organizer in Kansas City. 

"As white people, we have been taught we are individuals, and we don't have to think of ourselves racially," he says. "When these conversations come up, then, we get defensive, uncomfortable. These talks are shaking our core beliefs about how the world works."

His advice?

"Sit with the discomfort. Hold on to it. Don't justify, don't deny, don't blame. Just sit there with your feelings and ponder the question, 'If this is true, what does it mean for me?'"

That can be emotionally taxing work, Chamberlain says, but work she feels needs to be done. 

"Racism is costing white people," she says. "Economic struggles are often blamed on others -- immigrants, people of color --and that is a distraction from leaders, politicians, and corporate leaders who are making decisions that create inequality. We, as white people, have an interest in dismantling that racism."

SURJ KC will hold its first public action Saturday, what its leaders call an "End White Silence" event, at J.C. Nichols Fountain near the Country Club Plaza at 5:30 p.m.

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle