‘White caucus’ confronts racism

When Dwayn Doner first heard the term “White Caucus for Collective Liberation,” it sounded a little odd. What was this group, which meets in Milton monthly, meant to talk about? And why the focus on “white”?

Turns out, the descriptor is purposeful, and after attending two meetings, Doner sees why.

The White Caucus is an arm of Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, an unofficial chapter of the #BLM nationwide movement for racial justice. You might expect to see people of color at a BLM activist meeting such as this, but the WCCL is purposefully segregated.

Community organizer Amanda Spector said the caucus is “for white people to white,” or to undertake the sometimes-uncomfortable task of confronting white privilege. In doing this, allies can better participate in racial justice work, the group’s literature says.

“Somebody’s got to do something,” Doner said. “The problem [of racism] is a white person problem. It seems like that’s how it’s going to have to be solved.”

Doner was one of five people assembled at the Milton Family Community Center last Tuesday night for the group’s second-ever meeting, an addition to the WCCL’s monthly meetings in Burlington. Spector helped bring the WCCL to Milton to better serve residents who hail from points north.

It helped that Milton already has the Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative, a group of parents and community members that formed in 2017 after incidents of racism were reported in local schools. Those activists, many of them white, wanted more opportunities to organize, Spector said.

And so Milton’s White Caucus was born. Together with the Burlington-based meetings, the WCCL is accountable to a People of Color Caucus to prioritize non-white voices. Representatives from each caucus form the BLM of Greater Burlington’s Racial Justice Collective that focuses on political campaigns, activism and more.

The proceedings are confidential—Spector only allowed the Milton Independent to attend an orientation for new members; the actual meeting was closed—allowing participants to openly discuss what it means to be white.

For Spector, this has meant confronting her white fragility, or defensiveness when challenged on concepts of race and racism. She shared an anecdote about interacting with a person of color: How should she act so as not to appear racist? Should she make eye contact? Will the person not like her?

“Those thoughts of fear … come up [in caucus meetings],” Spector said. “People will share examples of times in their lives interacting with a person of color or a white person who’s saying racist things.”

A lot of it gets personal, but WCCL members are encouraged to reckon with these unflattering thoughts, reactions and behaviors when it comes to race. Doner grew up in Enosburg Falls but previously lived in Connecticut and recalled feeling scared once when a young black man shouted at them across the street.

“I know that I wasn’t comfortable, so that kind of bothered me,” Doner said. “It’s inherently racist because I don’t think like that when I’m talking about white people.”

Doner thinks it’s especially important to have these conversations in Milton, where they’ve noticed some resistance to the racial justice movement. When the Doners hung a Black Lives Matter flag, their house got paintballed. A neighbor then displayed an “All Lives Matter” flag in what Doner perceived as a protest. Their son has been teased for wearing a BLM T-shirt.

“We talk about racism like it’s something we should avoid, but it’s very much something that is part of our society,” Doner said. “By not addressing it, it’s just going on.”

Sean Morrissey, a 2012 Milton High School graduate who’s been involved with both MIDI and the white caucus, thinks caucus is a good place to understand race, particularly in his hometown, which is predominately white.

“There were a very limited number of people of color at MHS when I was there,” Morrissey said. “While I was friends with a couple of those people of color, I didn’t understand the extent at the time of racism and racist language they were being subjected to every day.”

Milton’s population is growing and changing, Morrissey said, so these conversations are all the more relevant.

Peter Jenkins, Spector’s partner who attended the meeting, agreed. He grew up in Huntington but lived in New York, where a much more diverse population inspired his interest in racial justice work. He thinks all communities, not just Milton, could benefit from a white caucus.

The best part, Doner said, is the WCCL is a safe space to share without judgment. The group’s 10-part “collective agreement” says offensive statements will be corrected but with love. That was important to Doner, who recalled feeling extremely nervous the first time they attended an activist gathering. It’s not like that at caucus meetings, they said.

“You can go out there and be totally embarrassed and not be judged and be accepted,” Doner said. “It’s so ridiculously simple: Of course you’re going to try something and fail before you achieve any sort of competence at it.”

That’s why they keep the BLM flag flying at their home. And why they’ve vowed to bring four more people to the next caucus.

“I want [the community] to see where we stand,” Doner said. “We’re going to be here for the rest of our lives, so we might as well help change it if we can.”

The White Caucus for Collective Liberation meets the second Tuesday monthly at 6 p.m. at the Milton Family Community Center on Villemaire Lane. Learn more at www.blmgb.org.