TEAMwork: White Spaces and the Movement for Racial Justice

Wednesday, March 4, 2020


TEAMwork: White Spaces and the Movement for Racial Justice
By Raven Yamamoto

A new, student anti-racist group called TEAM (Together as Effective AccoMplices) is sparking debate at LMU because of its gear towards white students. According to the club's mission statement, TEAM is a group that aims to provide a space for white students to understand their privilege and use it to help fight systems of oppression. Some say it’s a progressive space that can educate white people more on how to support marginalized communities represented here on campus. Others see it as "the white people club” that risks becoming a problematic echo-chamber if gone unchecked. In this episode of "Sounds About White," you’ll hear from the founder of the TEAM, Taylor Pajunen, students on both sides of the argument, and the club’s staff moderator, Ariane White so you can decide for yourself just how good of a team this really is. 


[[ NAT SOUND: Protestors chanting "white silence kills" in unison. ]]

Hear that? Dozens of people shouting, “White Silence Kills.” If the saying sounds familiar, it’s because it’s another variation of a more popular quote: “White Silence = White Consent,” a phrase born alongside the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s on picket signs, t-shirts, hoodies— you name it. The phrase, of course, calls on white people to break their silence and ally with people of color from their positions of privilege.

But it also prompts the question: How exactly do they do that? A new student club at Loyola Marymount University might have the answer.

A new, anti-racist group called TEAM is causing quite the stir on LMU’s campus because of its gear towards white students. Some say it’s a progressive space that can educate white people on how to support marginalized communities represented here. Others see it as a “white people club” that risks becoming a problematic echo-chamber if gone unchecked. You’ll hear from the founder of the TEAM, students on both sides of the argument, and the club’s moderator so you can decide for yourself how good of a TEAM this really is.  

So, what exactly is TEAM? Well to start, TEAM is an acronym for Together as Effective Accomplices. If you’re wondering where the ‘M’ in TEAM comes from, it’s capitalized in the word ‘accomplices.’

·      PAJUNEN: “It spells out TEAM. On paper, (laughs)”

That was LMU junior Taylor Pajunen, the founder of TEAM. According to the club’s mission statement, TEAM is a group that aims to provide a space for white students to understand their privilege and use it to help fight systems of oppression such as racism.

·      PAJUNEN: “We’re a group that’s really committed to learning about social injustices through the lens of a white person. Thinking really critically about what it means to be white and to be someone that wants to end injustice and in that process recognizing that we bring a lot of unintended consequences to this work so it’s really just a space to talk about that and learn more about ourselves before we can engage with other communities and actually get things done.”

The group meets weekly for discussions about race, identity and privilege to better understand their role in the fight for racial justice. Altogether there are about seven members that show up regularly, making it a rather small group.

·      PAJUNEN: “It is our first year, so we’re very much in the baby stages, which is hard to navigate.”

When word got around about the group, TEAM was quickly criticized by some students for its establishment as a space for white people. 

·      PAJUNEN: “It’s definitely the part that makes TEAM controversial and seems more exclusive and segregating but really the thought process behind it is just that white people can’t force people of color about how they experience racism. Yes, we totally invite people of color or members of other, like, marginalized communities and groups to come to the meeting. But it’s with that knowledge that we might be talking about something that can bring up trauma.”

Fatima Beck, a member of LMU’s Black Student Union, has some doubts about how beneficial a white space like TEAM can be, even if it’s technically open to all.

·      BECK: “You can say that a space is for everyone but like if we’re gonna talk about segregation like. They said it was separate but equal but was it? No. And like is this space gonna be for everyone? No, like if you walk in there as a brown person, people aren’t gonna be like ‘Ay, homie,’ No. They’re gonna be like …. ‘Who are you?’ like that’s just like the reality. And I think like it’s important to think about intention vs. impact. Like your intention could be to have this space that fights whiteness and white people recognize their privilege and everything but like you also have to recognize a history of spaces, of white spaces. Just like human behavior in general. You have to be realistic and you have to recognize your impact and that not everyone in the organization may share the same views, goals, like reasons that they’re there. So I feel like it’s important for us to check ourselves, I guess.”

TEAM has also been criticized for making their own, exclusive space instead of going into cultural spaces that already exist and taking the time to learn from them.

·      BECK: "I think there’s a danger of a group that’s founded on this idea of social justice and decreasing the margins so that there are no more margins. I think there’s issues when that group only involves the voices of those who are experiencing privilege— or who are benefitting from the oppression of marginalized groups. I think if you want to know how to be an accomplice to marginalized groups, you have to go and listen to the and so I think that where the time would be best spent for them would be to go to clubs like BSU, LSU, MecHA, like the API clubs, going to listen and making themselves uncomfortable by being in a space where they’re the other and like really seeing how that feels and listening."

·      PAJUNEN: "TEAM is really here to recognize that those spaces were not made for us. Sure, we can be invited into those spaces every once in a while, or we can invite them into our space. But this is really here to get our own stuff done and talk about our own stuff and our own role within social justice work and not burden other people so that when we do come together we can work together and we can start on a different level than the basics of. Right now when I feel like white people come into those spaces, they force communities of color and other groups to accommodate them and make them feel welcome and validated but in the whole process of that we’re invalidating other people. The whole goal is to avoid all that."

But the idea of a white space in the movement for racial justice isn’t a new one. Other college campuses have student clubs with similar interests and missions. Lewis & Clark College has a Student Anti-Racist Coalition, Smith College has the Unlearning Racism Group, but the most prominent example of spaces like these is probably AWARE— the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere. AWARE is white, anti-racist group much like TEAM and is a group of movements with chapters nationwide including the White People for Black Lives movement. AWARE was one of Taylor’s inspirations when forming TEAM and her advisor, Professor Ariane White is a member of AWARE’s Los Angeles chapter.

·      WHITE: “When Taylor approached me and wanted to make an anti-racist group, I was like ‘Okay, let’s be really clear about what this purpose is. Historically, nothing good comes for people of color from white people getting together without an explicitly anti-racist purpose. There’s been a lot of racism and a lot of hatred that comes when white people are getting together out of that sense of ‘we need to untie around this white identity/” So that’s not what an anti-racist white affinity group is about, an anti-racist white affinity group is saying ‘Hey, we recognize we have work to do as white people to unlearn the way we were socialized and to learn how to show up in all spaces in an anti-racist way.”

Ariane is also very careful to define these spaces as "white, anti-racist affinity groups."

·      WHITE: “An “anti-racist affinity group” is not meant to take the place of multiracial dialogue, rather it is meant to support white folks in having a brave space to say what’s on their minds, to talk about the mistakes that we inevitably make and to process through those mistakes and those challenges with other white people because there’s been a long history of over-relying on people of color to educate us as white people about race and racism. Folks of color are tired! Understandably so.  They’ve asked us to do our own work, this goes back to Malcolm X. Malcolm X told white people 'go and organize in your own communities.'”

o   (MALCOLM X, from video clip): "I’m suspicious of whites who join Negroes and always have to be in the lead. Who always have to be at the head, who always has to be at the top. In Negro organizations, those whites who really have the interests of blacks at heart. Let ‘em give some advice to the Negros and stand on the sidelines. But don’t join the organization and then get at the head of it and pose as a friend of Negroes."

·      WHITE: “And so we’re following in a tradition of leadership of people of color asking for white folks to do this particular work of unlearning the ways in which we’ve been socialized into a racist world.”

After hearing about TEAM from a friend, LMU senior Madison Foote decided to go to a meeting herself.

·      FOOTE: "I was like ‘I’m white, also Filipino. I normally show up for API stuff so why don’t I show up for a white thing for once?"

She wasn’t impressed to say the least.

·      FOOTE: “Honestly just felt like a total sitcom-able moment, like here I am at "white club" with my kind-of-white friend. Pretty white space on the get-go, and I also thought it was interesting that not that many people came. I don’t know if it was because of like, the marketing or if it’s just people being like ‘What the hell is this?’ and I don’t really wanna go. Honestly, it was such a weird like setting because every other quote-unquote like ‘cultural club,’ not to like actually call this a cultural club or any other space for the purpose of: 'We’re gathering and we all have this racial or ethnic identity in common.' It’s kind of like Pride or exchanging life experiences with each other. But then it’s like “We’re all white and supposedly all woke so let’s just gather here and talk about it.” Like that just feels so weird. I just felt really awkward about it.”

Leaving the meeting, Madison had concerns about how effective a space like TEAM would really be if it continues.

·      FOOTE: “I don’t really know how this is gonna change anything in like LMU or society. I feel like this kind of distracts from how we should go about fighting those issues like raising awareness for it because it just turns into a bunch of white people yelling like how sorry they are and ‘Look at all these people are oppressed.’ Also even if it’s you know, like, true, obviously like people of color are oppressed. But it turns into like other people yelling about how they’re oppressed. That takes away their agency completely and makes it seem like they can’t fight for themselves when in reality it’s because no one gives them the platform because the oppressors would rather use the platform for themselves so they retain power and being woke to like raise awareness. I don’t know how this will really work out like a teamwork situation.”

I decided to go and see for myself what goes on in these meetings. And it was ... interesting.

Immediately, upon walking into the room, there’s a tense air. It’s 7pm on a Thursday night and I already feel alienated upon taking a quick survey of the room and finding out that yes, indeed: I’m the only non-white person in the room save for another mixed-race person. While it’s true that the club is open to everyone, it’s very clear that it is, in fact, a very white space like Madison mentioned. I join the small circle of desks that have been turned to face each other and smile awkwardly at what seems like a group of seven people max. Everyone seems to avoid making eye contact with me even when I introduce myself.

That’s when I met Megan Leberknight—  one of TEAM’s regular members that I noticed was very involved in the night’s discussion.

·      LEBERKNIGHT: "Obviously, everyone should try to work against structural racism but, because it’s a problem ABOUT race, white people have a different place in that struggle than people of color and it’s silly to think that we don’t. But at the same time, we should try to do something.” I feel like white supremacy and structural racism is one of the most obvious ways and glaring problems in our country right now. So I feel like if I’m gonna pick something to focus on, I should pick that. Not saying that other problems are not important, for example: The Climate Crisis. But again, really deeply embedded in the climate crisis is guess what? White Supremacy! Imperialism! Like it’s one of the root causes of I think every other problem."

Megan explained to me that she had many different reasons in seeking out TEAM, namely her desire to be more active in combatting the racism that purveys our society.

·      LEBERKNIGHT: "So, I started going to TEAM for a couple different reasons. One of them is that I already knew Taylor and so she told me about it and I felt like ‘Well, this is my friend, so I should try.’ Another reason was that I wanted to get involved with anti-racism work and I didn’t really know where to start to be honest. So, I thought ‘Hey, this is a place on campus where I can just. You have to start somewhere and if you don’t start somewhere, then you never get anything done."

One thing Megan especially appreciates about TEAM is how it’s labeled as a brave space rather than a safe space.

·      LEBERKNIGHT: "You are able to say things that you’re not quite sure are technically the correct way to say it but you gotta learn somewhere. Acknowledging that we’re all gonna make mistakes and then understand what we could do better. Own up to it and move on and actually do better."

At the end of the day, you can weigh the pros and cons all night. The conclusion is still the same: the discourse can go on forever and Tayor shows no signs of slowing down with her work or with TEAM.

    ·     PAJUNEN: “When I signed up to do this, I signed up for this. For the positive and the negative and everything in between. Comments and criticism and I’ve been trying to learn from everything. I think one of the crucial things about TEAM is that TEAM isn’t the only thing you’re involved in. You’re involved in so many other things on campus, you’re listening in class, you’re listening to what other groups are saying. But yeah, TEAM is just one component to the piece of the whole situation.”

So… which is it? Is it possible for white people to fight racism with their own spaces? How much is too much when it comes to their role in the movement for racial justice? Or do they have a role at all? It’s really up to you. One thing's for sure: I’m Raven Yamamoto and this is Sounds About White.

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