Through my research I have come to believe that cultural competency work needs to include an initial preparation stage where people of color and white people get a chance to learn about and heal from racism in separate spaces.
The purpose of this is for white people to build community, and support each other to challenge racism and white privilege; and for people of color to build community, and support each other to heal from the daily trauma of racism and internalized racism.
Also, it is important when a group is just beginning to look at race and cultural competency issues that separate space be provided for white people and people of color to learn about and heal from racism, because they have different needs:
People of color at first, need to heal from internalized racism by finding their voices, telling their stories, expressing anger and hurt about racism, and be listened to with respect and believed.
White people at first, need to heal from racism by learning how racist ways of thinking and behaving were taught to them as “normal” when they were too young to resist. They need a chance to understand, in a compassionate, non-blaming environment, what racism is and how it works.
At the beginning of the learning process, the needs of these two different groups do not fit together well. They often clash.
For example, a Latino friend of mine who participated in a mixed group (people of color/white people) racism discussion ended up being deeply upset, angry and appalled to hear his white friends talk in what seemed to him a callous, abstract and self-absorbed way about racism—when racism was a daily, up close and personal painful reality for him. He told me later he would never again sit with white people who were just beginning to look at and discuss racism. So it can be harmful or hurtful for a person of color to sit in a room with white people doing their initial, beginning unlearning racism work.
In the same way, white people can feel attacked and blamed when people of color express their legitimate anger about racism. White people deserve to be treated with compassion as they begin to unpack stereotypes. But it is not fair to ask people of color to listen and provide this compassion, just like it wouldn’t be fair for queer folks to comfort and forgive straight people who are expressing homophobic and transphobic stereotypes. Similarly, white people’s desire to resolve racial guilt or shame by confessing their wrongs and being forgiven is incompatible with the need of peoples of color to put themselves first, and to stop caretaking white people.
So separate healing work can prepare us all for the second stage when people of color and whites can build interracial trust and communication, and to collaborate. If this preparation is done, the interracial collaboration will be real, heartfelt, and sustainable.