Confronting racism: How a white discussion group found a home at a Black community association
‘It’s up to white people to be doing something,’ says co-founder of the Confronting Racism Discussion Group
This story was originally published in March 2021. Since then, Kemba Mitchell has moved on from her role as chairperson but is still in touch with Moashella Shortte and Rachael Seatvet. They are now expanding the discussion group to include Canadians who heard this documentary when it first aired.
As chairperson of the West Island Black Community Association in Montreal, Kemba Mitchell is always busy responding to requests from people looking for tutoring services, scholarship information, assistance from the legal clinic, support for seniors and much more.
But one email request that arrived after the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, caught her completely off guard.
"Is this a setup?" was her first thought, Mitchell said. "Because this has never happened before — a white individual contacting us, inquiring about a book club for them to identify their own privilege? Wow."
WIBCA didn't have this kind of program, but that connection eventually led to the creation of its Confronting Racism Discussion Group, which is exclusively for white people.
This new program could not have been created without the trust established between WIBCA and Rachael Seatvet, the woman who sent the email.
Seatvet is a 26-year-old graphic designer and artist who moved to Montreal almost four years ago from North Carolina.
After the death of George Floyd, she started thinking back to previous news reports about unarmed Black men being killed. For the first time, she saw them as just people, doing nothing wrong.
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Seatvet said she asked herself, "How have I lived 26 years and I never made it personal?"
"I will never know what it's like to live in that kind of fear. But just to humanize it for the first time, that was the change for me."
When Seatvet contacted WIBCA, her honesty led Mitchell to open up about her own feelings about George Floyd's death.
"I started to think about when I heard him ask for his mother, who was no longer alive, and so I kept on thinking about that and I became very emotional," Mitchell said. "I don't have white people in my close circle. And never mind being vulnerable. That doesn't happen."
I don't have white people in my close circle. And never mind being vulnerable.- Kemba Mitchell, WIBCA Chairperson
"You feel like the world hates you because of your skin being black. And then you have this young white female that really is acknowledging the privilege, and the unearned privilege, and willing to do something about that."
Since WIBCA didn't have an existing program about recognizing privilege, Seatvet was ready to help set one up.
Initially she thought it might be a book club, then expanded the idea to include podcasts and documentaries — anything that would spark discussion about confronting racism.
"It's about learning about other people's experiences … and really listening," Seatvet said.
Her idea was to rely on existing material that's easily accessible instead of putting the burden on Black people to explain racism and privilege.
Mitchell appreciated that, as too often, Black people are expected to explain racism while battling it themselves.
Seatvet was also concerned about white people learning in a bubble, without insight from Black people who have lived experience.
So Mitchell decided Seatvet could organize the Confronting Racism Discussion Group while WIBCA volunteer, Moashella Shortte, would oversee it.
Shortte is a published author, a mother of four, and her work includes offering anti-racism workshops in schools and daycares.
"It was the fact that [Rachael] understood that even though she had a desire to change, she knew that that didn't make her immune from acts of racism," said Shortte. "This is what you want to hear."
An eye-opening year
When Seatvet moved to Quebec it was not what she was expecting. She says Americans view Canada as "this perfect land of snow and no racism," but she found it was not much different from North Carolina.
"This past year has been a real eye opener to the insidiousness of the idea that Canada is post-racist," Seatvet said.
She's excited to grow this community of people eager to confront racism within themselves and within their neighbourhoods, but she's starting small, with a group of about 12 people.
Seatvet and Shortte decided to make the discussion group exclusive to white people so that participants would feel comfortable opening up without fear of offending a person of colour.
"I had a lot of cringe moments," said university student Sophie Tremblay, 22, explaining how the discussions have led her to reflect on her own past behaviours.
The group's first reading assignment was White Fragility by Robin Di Angelo. The book examines the defensive reaction often provoked when discussing racism.
Shortte and two other WIBCA volunteers act as a parallel group, consuming the same material. They're available to answer questions and offer their perspectives.
Although WIBCA volunteers are not present at the discussion group's meetings, Shortte says the connection between them is key, especially in teaching the group how to be good allies.
Being a good ally
"I have had experience in the past where I'm discussing something where change needs to happen with someone who's supposed to be a white ally, and I've spent too much time trying to console them because they feel sympathy for my experience, and that brings them to tears," said Shortte.
"I think our role is to show the discussion group how that can be counterproductive."
After their first three meetings, the group was getting accustomed to having uncomfortable conversations.
Experiencing a racist attack
But they were not prepared for the harsh lesson they were to learn at WIBCA's annual general meeting in December.
The Zoom meeting was hijacked by young people repeatedly shouting racial slurs, including the N-word.
It was a traumatic experience for Black people on the call, and members of the white discussion group who were present were also shaken.
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"I started to cry. I turned to my husband and I said, 'I can't believe that this is happening, that this is here, that this happens every day to other people,'" said Carol Horn, a 76-year-old retired teacher and member of the group.
"It was really eye opening for myself and the other people who were there, because I had never felt that feeling of invasion like that," Seatvet said.
Shortte was heartbroken, but her first instinct was to check on Seatvet.
It's that black woman thing where we have to be strong all the time. I thought I was a rock.-Moashella Shortte, WIBCA volunteer
"It's that Black woman thing where we have to be strong all the time. I thought I was a rock. I was thinking, who needs support?" she said.
"I was made aware of how, as members of the Black community, we feed into that [idea of] white fragility and I think that's what was happening."
When Shortte phoned her, Seatvet just listened, even though she too was hurt and stunned.
"But she didn't see the need to to bring that into the conversation," said Shortte. "She gave me exactly what I needed from a white ally."
Shortte says that in the end, the hijackers' actions backfired.
"We've grown in strength as a result of it," she said.
Now the conversation in the Confronting Racism Discussion Group has reached a new level. They are not just talking about past experiences, but also about making changes within their lives.
Horn has convinced a non-profit organization she works with to make room for a Black person on its board.
Tremblay is starting conversations about race with the people of colour in her life. She's also listening when they tell her how hard it can be to get a job when your name doesn't "sound white."
After the documentary about this Confronting Racism Discussion Group aired on The Doc Project, WIBCA started receiving emails from white people across Canada all wanting to make changes in their lives.
Seatvet and Shortte are committed to continuing this program and eager to see where it will go.
Seatvet says she knows she still has much to learn.
Looking back now, Seatvet says she realizes she had the subconscious attitude that racism was "not our problem because we're white."
"That was a huge change for me, realizing that it's up to white people to be doing something," she said.
Mitchell says she hopes more people will see that this is an everyday fight.
"When you step up and call things out, that's what's going to make the difference," said Mitchell.
Shari Okeke is creator of Mic Drop, a Peabody-nominated CBC podcast for teens and pre-teens and she's eager to bring more young voices to The Doc Project.
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook and Veronica Simmonds.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.