Witnessing Whiteness - a Must Reading for Caring White People


It was a crowd of primarily Black spectators that first brought my racial being to consciousness.  I will never forget the pointing, laughter, and yells: “Look at the white girl!”  As a sophomore in high school in the mid-1980s, I was the different one for the first time, the minority within a group.  Eight Black girls and I competed to go to the California State track meet in the 400-meter race. (xi)

So begins the Introduction of a most interesting book, Shelly Tochluk’s: Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It.  (Edition three is scheduled to come out in August, 2022, two months from now.)

Tochluk is very direct, often with personal examples of the importance of white people focusing upon their own complicity in racism, and their need to proactively learn and become as active as possible at dismantling structural racism.  She talks clearly of how we live in multicultural settings, yet understand so little of the daily experiences of BIPOC.   The author further makes very clear how we resist thinking and talking about race, except in limited distant ways.

When we say that we do not see another person’s color, what we essentially are saying is that we do not see a person’s racial placement as meaningful.  Basically, we are saying that we do not see the ways that a person of color experiences the world differently than does a white-appearing person. (p.27)

Since that time, I have learned that at the same time that I experienced a lack of attendance, there were teachers of color at the same school who did not experience the same issues I did.  These teachers of color went to the homes.  They overcame their own fears and anxieties.  They created parent-teacher events.  The parents came.  They reached out respectfully before trouble emerged.  Their students achieved more than mine. (p,43)

(regarding being a white Abolitionist) Unfortunately, becoming aware of, and resisting, skin privilege is an incomplete strategy.  Practically, resisting the benefits of skin privilege does nothing to stop others from perceiving us and treating us preferentially in ways we cannot control.  We also can only resist something that we consciously recognize.  This model can allow powerful unconscious elements to slip by undetected and remain unworked. (p.46-7)

Witnessing involves creating sufficient insight to imagine and support becoming active in racial justice efforts both within and outside of our school, work, and social settings.  Witnessing means knowing that we remain unhealthy as long as we are unconscious perpetrators and bystanders to racial injustice.  Ultimately, witnessing requires us to know that our society remains unhealthy as long as we do not recognize our privilege and do not give voice to the ways that racial injustice continues to create dis-ease and distress in all of us.  (p.49-50)

Choosing to stay within a heated, conflict-filled dialogue regarding race that at times might appear to be overly harsh or incorrectly managed is something that white people generally avoid.  Our sense of ourselves as individuals, not marked by race, preempts our ability to really listen to someone who challenges us regarding issues of subtle racism, especially our own.  (p.167)

Doors swung open for me.  Beyond my parents, there were many individuals who helped me get to where I now stand.  My coaches, teachers, mentors, and friends at various times, and in various ways, helped ensure that hard work did not go without reward.  At times, benefits came from those who mentioned that I reminded them of themselves in their younger days. Other times, benefits came from open doors bred from social connections to which many would not have had access.

Further, benefits came from the fact that my entire racial/ socioeconomic/ cultural background was similar to many of the decision makers in my life, such that I could easily inspire ease and a sense of camaraderie in an interview setting.  (p.207)

First, we do a better job witnessing if we accept responsibility for triggering emotional upset.  Exactly what pulled the trigger is not as important as how we respond.  … In essence, we should take up our responsibility, the ability to respond, by sitting in the fires we set for ourselves without either (1) judging the person reacting as “overly emotional,” which white people tend to do, or (2) expecting to be rescued from the fiery heat. (p.228-9)

(referring to white – support group space in her case with AWARE-LA)  We work to heal ourselves. We admit our resistances, question our actions, support each other’s growth, and challenge each other to desegregate our lives.  (p.235)

I have given a limited sampling of some of Shelly Tochluk’s wisdom one can learn from reading this book.  There is much, much more!

The primary limitations of the book are that some of the “recent history” and movement from it, is dated.   This will undoubtedly be eliminated through reading the 3rd Edition of the book, which should be out in August, 2022.

I highly recommend that concerned, activist, or potentially activist, white people, as well as others, who simply want to work on their own internalized racism, read this book.  Others may also find value in it.

I would note that I am no longer an “innocent bystander” in reviewing this book. I am helping co-create a four hour (final hour is optional q&a) free Zoom Workshop on August 14, 2022 – from: 2:00 – 6:00 pm (Eastern Time) .  It will help white people work through some of our denial of our own racism, and work to be more effective trying to reach other white people effectively.  We will actively learn much more in multiple three person breakout groups where we will work through Dr. Tochluk’s ideas, based upon how to communicate for each of the stages of Janet Helms’ white racial identity model.  If interested in attending, please email me at: CallingInBuildingAllies(at) gmail(dot)com.



The opening words of this book helped me start another personal journey!

When white people go into communities of color without sufficient awareness, we can fall into three interrelated traps: we take on a savior complex, enact a superiority complex, and feel sorry for those with whom we work. (p.39)

I was the white woman who would single-handedly lift up the students and offer them what their community did not. 

Seeing the racism in those ideas took awhile. (p.40)

Even though I had some lovely relationships with my students’ parents, I had very low attendance rates on conference day overall. (p.42) 

I told parents what they ought to do if their children did not complete homework, and so on.  I did this without asking the parents how they felt we could be partners…

Since that time, I have learned that at the same time that I experienced a lack of attendance, there were teachers of color at the same school who did not experience the same issues I did.  These teachers of color went to the homes.  The overcame their own fears and anxieties.  They created parent-teacher events.  The parents came.  They reached out respectfully before trouble emerged.  Their students achieved more than mine. (p.43)

White people need a positive, supportive foundation if we are going to collectively investigate our own whiteness.  We need a model dedicated to inner psychological work leading to altered behavior.  We need a model that starts with the development of a racial identity oriented toward equity and justice that helps us increase our perception.

The model of witnessing proposed and described in this book is just such a model. (p.49)

Reviewing this history astounded me.  My education left me woefully ignorant as to how the legal system helped shape our understanding of whom we consider white, who could be naturalized as an American citizen, and how those decisions were made. …

From 1790 until 1952, U.S. naturalized citizenship was restricted to white.  (p.70)

(Note: 1924) This law set aside 50 percent of available slots for British citizens, excluded Asian immigrants, and heavily restricted Jewish immigrants. (p.73)

Narrowing our vision just a bit is Dr. Shirley Better, an African American author.  … She said:

“Whiteness is a culture just like African American is a culture.  I don’t have to think about it a lot because everybody is raised in white culture, whether you’re white or not.  Everybody is raised within white culture because it’s the dominant culture. … (p.116)

This elder, white woman recounted a time when she and a Black girlfriend were fooling around decades prior.  This white woman had dressed up as a Black person, including black makeup and an Afro wig, to accompany her friend out shopping.  The two young women did not intend to run a social experiment.  According to the story, they were simply out having fund, dressing to avoid display of an interracial friendship during a time in our history when that was not yet the norm.

Within moments of the pair entering a store, the white woman (in disguise) noticed she was being followed around the store.  As she proceeded to the rear of the store where knives and other arms were sold, she noticed glaring looks on the faces of store clerks and she began to be spoken to gruffly.  She found herself glaring back, even overplaying her interest in those items as she recognized the anxiety and upset it was creating in the store clerks.  She did it purposely, recognizing how angry she was at the treatment she was experiencing.  

Decades later while telling this tale, the woman remained amazed at deep level of anger she had experienced, and how it was her Black friend who calmed her and got her to leave the situation without provoking the clerks further.  Can we imagine how we’d respond if we were treated this poorly on a daily basis?  What if that level of insufferable rudeness were the norm?  Worse, what if each time we tried to call attention to it, the experience was dismissed as our imagination?  (p.122-3)

(Quoting a Black [male physician] interviewee ) I think if you put … two teachers in a room and one was white and one was African American, and they taught the same thing.  I think if you polled the class[es], I think the class here…would believe more in the veracity of the words [of the white teacher], whereas here [students with the African American teacher] they would be either questioning more, try to assert themselves more, trying to challenge more.  The first time I eve had an African American science teacher was at CSUN and this guy was just hammered all the time, just questioned all the time.  And it wasn’t that he was a bad teacher.  He was a good teacher.  I mean, they just peppered him compared to the other professors we had.  Same kids, same class.  They wouldn’t pepper these [white]… teachers at all.  And then I experienced that when I student taught later on when I was a resident as well too.  (p.127)


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