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How St. Louis inspired ‘Witnessing Whiteness’ author and her new book on anti-racism

Miya Norfleet
St. Louis Public Radio

If it weren’t for the YWCA Metro St. Louis, Los Angeles-based writer Shelly Tochluk would have never written a third edition of “Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It.”

Tochluk credits the local YWCA as “the reason this book is still being used” – and why she took up revising it. At the same time she was making those revisions, she was writing her new book that will be released next month, “Being White Today: A Roadmap to a Positive Antiracist Life.”

Originally published about 15 years ago, “Witnessing Whiteness” became a program the YWCA Metro St. Louis started in 2011. Since 2014, more than 4,000 white St. Louisans have participated..

Mary Ferguson has been deeply involved in nearly every facet of the YWCA’s Witnessing Whiteness work — first as a volunteer, then as a consultant. She said Witnessing Whiteness aims to deepen white people’s understanding of their own role in how racism operates. The program is distinct from more conventional forms of diversity, equity and inclusion work in its explicit focus on white people meeting with one another rather than cross-race approaches.

“Often, people who are interested in seeing change in the community look outward, and think about conditions that are uneven and unfair … and they'll want to go straight to the communities most affected by those disparities and do ‘good work,’” Ferguson said. “What we've been able to convey with the Witnessing Whiteness program is how, over time – and in the creation of both the categories of race and the policies that upheld racism – white people have played a role.”

Mary Ferguson (left) is a former consultant and facilitator for the Witnessing Whiteness program. Shelly Tolchluk is the author of "Witnessing Whiteness" and "Being White Today."
Miya Norfleet
St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Ferguson, left, is a former consultant and facilitator for the Witnessing Whiteness program. Shelly Tolchluk is the author of "Witnessing Whiteness" and "Being White Today."

Spikes in interest and participation in Witnessing Whiteness have coincided with highly public incidents of fatal violence against Black Americans. In the St. Louis area, the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson in 2014 brought about the first surge of interest; the next came after 2017’s Charlottesville rally and the Jason Stockley verdict. The program attracted the most interest after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in 2020.

“We like to talk about being more aware, more reflective, and then being thoughtful in your action,” said Ferguson. “Not going in as someone who has a solution, but [white people] working in solidarity with communities of color, learning alongside.”

Ferguson said her ongoing hope for the program is that iterations of it aren’t as reactive and that white people see “their own role in the perpetuation of racism and understanding our community better as part of their normal growth.”

Moving from ‘Witnessing Whiteness’ to ‘Being White Today’

Shelly Tochluk said her new book, co-authored with Christine Saxman, has some overlap with “Witnessing Whiteness.” Tochluk said the new work’s focus is to equip people to counter rhetoric and messaging about whiteness that folks may find confusing. This is especially salient given trends toward white nationalism.

“More extremist versions of racism are pushing and pulling people, especially those who haven't given a lot of consideration to race toward one side,” Tochluk said. “This book is really designed to go step by step through the racial identity process for white people, and uplift and orient toward: ‘What are the different messages that people get, and how do people navigate them both so that we, as white people, can stay resilient on the road toward antiracism, and can help other people take on a more antiracist stance as well?’”

Tochluk said “Being White Today” offers something useful for anyone interested in antiracist work. It is, nevertheless, a book intended for white readers.

“What we are hoping for is that white people who care about our multiracial democracy will read it … and gain skills and approaches that will help them further the conversation.”

Shelly Tochluk will speak at a YWCA Metro St. Louis event from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Phyllis Wheatley Heritage Center. The event is free, but registration is required.

For more on Shelly Tochluk’s forthcoming book, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher, or click the play button below.

How St. Louis inspired ‘Witnessing Whiteness’ author and her new book on anti-racism

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Elaine Cha is the host/producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.