A group of mostly first-timers showed up for one of What’s Up Pittsburgh’s open meetings last Monday night.
Facilitator Lizzie Anderson asked participants sitting on the floor to squish together to make room for latecomers in the room, which was packed well beyond capacity.
The recent police shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas largely spurred the spike in attendance. While many across the country sprang to action, some upset white people have quibbled with how they can help communities of color.
What’s Up helps white people unlearn racism, even if unintentional, and use their white privilege in a positive way. What’s Up stands for Working And Healing To Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege.
Anderson said What’s Up meetings primarily consist of white people.
“We also do multi-racial organizing work as well and act in solidarity with people of different races, especially people who are most impacted by racism, which are people who are not white,” Anderson told the crowd.
Taylor Grieshober, 28, of Wilkinsburg, joined the What’s Up meeting for the first time. She said she’s been looking for something like it for the past few years, as she’s tried to navigate what it means to be white.
Grieshober said the meeting was a great entry point, but the beginning of that process is hard.
“Even being with two other white people, it was hard for me,” she said. “At first, to even talk about my thoughts and my feelings, because I was still worried about coming off wrong and feeling like I was saying the wrong thing.”
Grieshober said at first she was concerned with meeting in an all-white group.
But organizers said that’s one of the intentions of What’s Up, to provide a space for white people, among each other, to work out the emotional issues related to race, where good intentions are assumed.
Jocelyn Inlay, 23, lives in East Liberty and said conversations about racial justice are important, but especially after recent tragedies, she wants more.
“I wanted to come because I'm sick of being upset and not doing anything,” Inlay said. “Protests are good, but it needs to go beyond that.”
The group has planned events, like protests, for six years while emphasizing that it’s not about white people's perspective. It also holds study groups on white privilege and implicit bias, or the idea of unconsciously stereotyping. Numerous studies show that some white people, even young children, have a tendency to automatically associate negative things with people of color, without realizing it. Those sometimes unintentional biases can work their way into the academic world, criminal justice system and everyday life.
But, facilitator Tiffany Wilhelm warned participants that no matter what they work on during the meeting, their journey to anti-racism shouldn’t only be about one of those categories.
“We can’t let either the learning we feel like we need to do hold us back from action,” Wilhelm said. “And we can’t let the action just drive everything without doing the learning at the same time, and keep those things going, for the rest of our lives.”
The roughly 100 attendees split into smaller groups, one for healing, planning action and learning.
Wilhelm lead the learning group and described a tool called “The ladder to empowerment,” or the steps towards anti-racism.
“So the bottom level is sort of this idea that ‘I’m normal,’” she explained. “What our society has told us is that white is the norm, white is the absence of race. We’re really naïve about the connection of power to race and we’ll start to understand that as we go up the ladder. We really think that people of color just want to assimilate into white culture.”
Wilhelm said going up the ladder means having more interactions with people of color, learning more about systemic racism and eventually how people are perpetuating these issues.
“We get to the point where we do understand we are participating in this problem, in a really real way,” she said. “We start to feel really bad about that, and it sucks.”
Wilhelm said this step is often met with denial and defensiveness. Eventually, she said, people understand they’re in the dominant group by being white and learn how to use that power and leverage intentionally. She said that can manifest itself in different ways, from calling out a racist joke to questioning an all-white office.
Attendee Taylor Grieshober said what she took away from the meeting is that it’s not people of color’s job to teach her about her racism.
“We have received things that we did not earn, as much as society has put barriers in front of people who didn’t deserve those either, we have a lot of work to do to understand that and have a lot of work to do to undo all this,” said Wilhelm.
She said times of tragedy, like after high-profile shootings, can be turned into opportunities for white people to develop a greater understanding of their privilege and act on it.
“Try to take them further as fast as you can before it sort of blows over,” she said, “and before people go back to not paying attention again.”
Grieshober said she wants to stay engaged in the conversation about race and can’t wait until next meeting.
“(Until then, I’ll) hold myself accountable,” she said. “Try to talk respectfully to family about racist remarks.”
Inlay said she’ll continue to be active in protests, but is also pursuing change at the policy level.
The action-oriented breakout group said as a result of their meeting, multiple events are in the works for the coming months.