The University of Maryland recently announced a “white awake” student group. It sounds kind of like a racist thing but it’s just the opposite.
The support group is actually part of the Maryland’s psychology department and is designed as a university resource for white students who want to learn more about cultural diversity and how they can become better allies to marginalized communities.
A flyer that was being distributed for the support group makes its goals clear and let’s be honest, they are just what many white people need and want right now:
- Do you want to improve your ability to relate to and connect with people different from yourself?
- Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable and confused before, during, or after interactions with racial and ethnic minorities?
- Do you want to become a better ally?
In fact, this is just the kind of support group that could benefit almost any group.
Learning more about people who are seemingly different than us is how we bridge divides and become more intertwined, supportive communities.
It’s a lot harder to hate, or even fear, someone who is familiar to us. It’s literally in our DNA to fear the unknown and bond with the familiar.
But there wasn't something about that flier that felt a little "off" to people...
Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, including some minority students.
*Do white people need their own “safe space” to talk about diversity?
*Is it fair to create a group just for white people rather than having the discussions include, or even led by, people of color and other marginalized groups?
*The name, despite obviously playing off the term “woke” does sound a bit … problematic. To put it mildly.
As one University of Maryland student put it in a poignant tweet stating her opposition to the group flier:
I am ashamed over the execution of white awake nor do I fully understand its clause. “How they can fit into a diver… https://t.co/4SiJ4WhS9H— Alysa Conway (@Alysa Conway)1536853552.0
“If they want to talk about diversity, there are other ways to do it,” another anonymous student told Fox 5 News. “They need to understand where other ethnic groups are coming from. It would work better if everyone was talking collectively about the issues and concerns that they have instead of this group feeling like they need to do this. If you get a bunch of white people in a room, then I don’t see how you are really going to understand how racial dynamics work.”
In response to the criticism, the university’s counseling center has decided to pull the flier and says it’s open to renaming the group as well.
They’ve also renamed the group: the "Anti-Racism and Ally Building" group, which seems like a much better reflection of their intentions.
Statement from @UofMaryland on "White Awake" group (now renamed "Anti-Racism and Ally Building" group)... "we did… https://t.co/7hRrjDIeZN— Cori Coffin (@Cori Coffin)1536972391.0
Also, despite some initial claims to the contrary, it was revealed the group is being facilitated by people of color.
Conway herself chimed in to her viral Twitter thread, stating:
"The concept is fine. The concept is of good intention. However, the flyer is designed poorly as if minority groups are a nuisance to 'whites'."
At the end of the day, these are the kinds of discussions that all Americans, but especially young people, need to be having.
We can’t magically cure racism anymore than we can pretend it doesn’t exist.
Some people will choose to embrace prejudice but for many others it’s a question of building education, empathy and community.
If we want to make progress on racial tensions in America and reverse course from the negative trends of recent years, we need to be able to openly talk and learn from each other in ways that bridge seeming differences between people of different backgrounds and identities.
“White awake” might be a terrible name but the intentions behind it are admirable. Hopefully the attention being paid to the group will lead to positive discussions and the kind of communication that can make the University of Maryland a welcoming place for all communities.