Embracing Antiracism

Art by Alyssa Guzman
Racial justice is the path to racial progress. Follow us on twitter @GetRaceRight

The last post was about the rise in overt White racism over the last fifteen years or so. Interestingly, it has been accompanied by an increase in White support for antiracism, too—the backlash to the backlash. According to Civiqs, while 51% of White American adults oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, 37% support it. That doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that 75% of White American adults opposed Dr. King in 1968, his final year of life, it’s a step, at least. There are several indicators that the number of White Americans concerned about racism is on the rise. Why might that be?

In How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Ibram X. Kendi asserts that while most White people want to be non-racist, that isn’t possible. Kendi says that we are either going along with the racism of the culture or we are actively working against it. To do nothing is to let racism take its course. We can pretend to be non-racist, but it isn’t actually possible. Kendi goes on to make the interesting assertion that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities that describe something fundamental, something essential, about a person, across time and place. Rather, racist and antiracist are behavioral descriptions of what we are doing at any given point in time. Kendi says, “We can be racist one minute and antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are.”

So, in this section on The View from Above, let’s examine how some White people come to embrace antiracism and how they can spend more and more of their time being antiracist.

How White people become aware of racism

If you ask most White people, “What is the cure for racism,” they’ll answer, “Education.” But it’s way more complicated than that.

Education can help, under the right circumstances. Bañales, Banks, and Burke (2021) offered incoming college students, all of them White, an opportunity to participate in a three-day antiracism workshop and found significant changes in students’ attitudes about race and racism. Helen Neville and her colleagues (2014) found a reduction in racism among White university students during their time in college if they took diversity-related courses, attended diversity events, and developed a racially diverse friendship network. Smith, Senter, and Strachan (2013) did a very similar study and found that while White men were more likely to hold racist attitudes than White women when they entered college, they were also more likely to be positively affected by diversity-related courses, experiences, and friendships during their time there.

But formal training doesn’t always make that kind of difference. Edward Chang and his colleagues (2019) found that diversity training did change participants’ attitudes, but not their behaviors, unless they were already pretty committed antiracists. Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly (2004) found that educating managers about diversifying the workforce usually doesn’t result in a change in hiring practices. Don’t teach it, they recommend. Do it. Set up new procedures for hiring and for supporting people from under-represented groups—and be sure to identify the people responsible for making it happen. Onyeador, Hudson, and Lewis (2020) also say that traditional training often isn’t very effective; they suggest a variety of other options that work better. Remember, too, that antiracist efforts are always met with racist backlash. When people don’t want to attend a diversity event, but they have no choice (think of mandatory sessions in the workplace, e.g.), they may well walk away disgruntled and annoyed (Sanchez and Medkik, 2004).

To dive deeper into the effectiveness of diversity training, listen to this podcast from the American Psychological Association, featuring social psychologist Calvin Lai.

Given the mixed results of formal training, I think we need to consider a broader definition of education for those of us moving toward antiracism. Not only seats in seats for half a day with a break for bad coffee and stale muffins, but all the ways we learn, unlearn, and re-learn in life. Think about the college students in the studies I just mentioned who became more antiracist during their time in school. They took classes, yes, but they also joined organizations and developed new friendships. Changing long-held beliefs and values has to engage the whole brain, not just the cerebral cortex.

Sociologist Jacob S. Rugh of Brigham Young University wrote an open letter to the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging, expressing his concerns about racism on campus. Prof. Rugh is a scholar of racism, but in his letter, he did not cite statistics or describe his research. He focused, instead, on his relationships with students of color at the university and his concern for their well-being. Writing from his heart, his letter speaks of the anguish of people he has come to know and respect. He cares about racism, in part, because he cares about the people who are hurt by it.

I can relate. I have studied race and racism for over forty years, but it isn’t all head knowledge for me, either. It’s listening to students, colleagues, and friends who have been treated in ways they did not deserve. It’s learning that people in power who are supposed to respond to racist events often would rather just explain them away, and then threaten those who refuse to go along. Some of my White students who understand racism well, and care deeply about it, have an adopted sibling of color. They are appalled by the terrible ways their sister or brother has been treated. I am convinced that racism depends on the extreme isolation of White people, resulting in both ignorance and apathy. Every White person I have ever known who broke out of the isolation, who truly cared about a person of color, was deeply concerned about racism and committed to antiracism. If you are White and stuck inside White spaces, you’ve got to do something about that. If you don’t know what else to do, start with social media, where you can learn from people who don’t experience the world in the same way you do. From there, you’ll get some ideas about next steps you can take.

There are a variety of models that describe the growth of dominant group members in overcoming their ethnocentrism. One is the Intercultural Development Inventory, which proposes these stages of development. Of course, many people get stuck in one stage and never move on, but among those who do, this is a common trajectory:

You can read more on their website, but here’s a quick overview:

  • Denial is the first stage, in which someone is unaware of difference, unaware of social hierarchies. It doesn’t last long in a highly racialized society like ours.
  • Polarization is the most likely response when one becomes aware of difference: believing that those who are different are inferior. This is the stage we often think of when we think of racism—prejudice, stereotyping, individual discrimination, etc.
  • Minimization frequently is the stage people move into when they want to move beyond polarization. If the only response to difference that you can envision is bigotry, then perhaps it’s best not to acknowledge that difference exists. When we talk about people being color-blind, minimization is what we mean. It’s important to note that IDI theorists consider minimization an ethnocentric stage. After all, you’re only pretending not to see difference, and you’re pretending not to see it from your own cultural perspective.
  • Acceptance of difference is where we move when we become aware that minimization doesn’t work very well. We can see difference, we can accept difference, and we can appreciate it.
  • Adaptation builds on acceptance once we have developed the behavioral skills to engage well with difference. We can act on the values of acceptance and navigate our way through cultural contexts different from our own.

I like this model. It explains a lot, and it helps people stuck in one stage see possibilities they haven’t considered before. It’s biggest limitation, I think, it that it is focused on the “horizontal dimension” of race, that of culture. In order to move toward antiracism, you have to understand the “vertical dimension,” too. You need to add equity literacy to your cultural literacy and account for both dimensions. That’s hard for people in dominant groups. Equity literacy in the U.S. requires White people to see all the ways in which being White makes life easier. It requires White people to recognize their participation in a society that prioritizes them over others. There is a lot of natural resistance to acknowledging those truths.

Embracing antiracism can be so difficult—and so transformational—that my Hope College colleague, Matt Jantzen (2020), describes it as a form of conversion. Following Christian Theologian James Cone, Jantzen writes that becoming antiracist requires that “those racialized as white might discover ways of being human that are not wholly captive to whiteness.” Like a religious conversion, an antiracism conversion may involve a moment of decision, but is followed by a long process of commitment, study, and growth. Furthermore, he writes, conversion to antiracism is “not an individual achievement. It must be nourished, encouraged, and held accountable by a community.”

To compare embracing antiracism to a religious conversion is to recognize that we live in a society so infused with racism that it takes deliberate, intentional effort to go against the cultural flow. Dr. King made the same point with a psychological rather than a spiritual metaphor—the idea that this is a society to which we should not adjust; rather, this is a society in which we should be maladjusted.

Whatever your metaphor, to embrace antiracism is to think carefully about all kinds of decisions–where to live, where to work, where to worship, where to send your kids to school, where and how to spend your money, etc. More on all that in the section called Getting Personal. Here I’d like to reflect on two of the most common questions I get from White people about being antiracist: How can I best respond to people who hold racist beliefs? and How can I be an effective ally to people of color?

How can I best respond to people who hold racist beliefs?

Once you begin to notice racism, you’re going to notice a lot of it. It’s all over the place, and if you want to spend more time being antiracist, you’re going to have to decide whether to respond and, if so, how.

Those of us who are White have a particular obligation in this regard. It’s a moral duty, certainly, but it’s also the case that White people with racist beliefs may simply be more likely to listen to us than to people of color. Kevin Munger (2017), a political scientist at Penn State, did a clever study in which he created fake twitter accounts, some apparently owned by White men and others apparently owned by Black men. When real twitter users, all White men, used a racial epithet to describe Black people, these accounts responded with an admonition: “Hey man, just remember that there are real people who are hurt when you harass them with that kind of language.” Munger found that when the admonition appeared to come from another White man, the real twitter users cut back on their racist terminology, at least for a few weeks, and especially when the account appeared to have a lot of followers (a sign of high status). When the admonition appeared to come from a Black man, regardless of status, the twitter users didn’t cut back, and sometimes let loose with even more racism directed at that account.

Those of us who are White, then, need to use our privileged status to speak up and make a difference in our spheres of influence. It isn’t always easy. And if you’re looking for a silver bullet, I’m not your guy (and I don’t know who is). But here are a few reflections I hope you find useful.

There are those who say we should speak up every time we see or hear something racist. I agree that speaking up should be the default, but I also know there are few absolutes in life. I think back to Econ 101 and try to calculate a quick cost-benefits ratio. Sometimes I don’t believe there would be any benefit. Sometimes I think the costs would be too high (e.g., if I’m in the middle of an important conversation focused on another topic). As I said, the default should be to speak up, but you have to decide each case for yourself. If you don’t say anything, and regret it later, you likely can cycle back: “Remember the other day when we were talking about . . .?”

If you do decide to talk with someone who has said or done something racist, here are some things to keep in mind:

Remember that everyone deserves respect, even if they aren’t giving it. That is both a moral imperative and a strategic stance. It is, 99% of the time, the right thing to do. But it also can help create an opportunity for the other person to reflect and, perhaps, reconsider.

Carl Rogers, one of the 20th century’s most influential psychotherapists, wrote about this paradox—that the more people feel accepted, the more likely they are to change. This is from his best-known book, On Becoming a Person (1961):

“[T]he curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change. I believe that I have learned this from my clients as well as within my own experience that we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed. . . [T]he more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.”

Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you changed your mind because somebody argued with you? It happens, but not often. Usually we change our minds when we have the motivation to reflect on something, and we feel safe and secure enough that we don’t have to defend ourselves to others. You can’t force that on people, of course, but you can increase the odds it will happen by letting them know you respect and care for them.

Remember, too, Ibram Kendi’s point that almost everyone sometimes does or says something that reflects a racist perspective. Don’t assume, initially at least, that what this person has just said or done tells us everything we need to know about them.

Every person is different, every relationship is different, every context is different.  You absolutely have to take that into account. For example, even at my age (I was born in 1956), I show more deference to the generation above me than I do to those in my own generation.  Another example: I have a particular responsibility to my students that shapes how I talk with them. And family—well, family is forever. Considerations like this have to factor in when deciding on your approach.

It also helps to reflect on the individual characterisitcs of the person with whom you are talking. Do your best to speak their language and incorporate things they care about. Address the values they hold.  For example, some people respond best to personal stories. Others want to know the stats and the research results. Be authentic, but do your best to scratch where they itch.

Focus on what the other person believes, and why.  Ask questions.  Open-ended questions.  Why questions.  That does so many things for you.  It demonstrates your genuine (I trust) interest in the other person, even if you vehemently disagree with them.  It also gives you a chance to understand better the context within which someone’s viewpoint is situated, making it easier to understand why they hold their beliefs and–perhaps—offering some insight into how best to respond.

The topic is different, but the process is similar: check out the CDC’s recommendations for how to talk with people who aren’t sure they want a Covid-19 vaccination. There are some transferable skills in their recommendations.

Tell your story, too, when the time comes.  Don’t lead with this, as a rule, but even if the other person isn’t asking you questions, use the conversation as an opportunity to explain your beliefs and how you came to hold them.  Tell about an experience you found helpful in becoming antiracist.  Don’t use it to argue, just to explain, to give them insight into why you believe what you do.  It could be a simple fact: “Actually, White people and people of color use drugs at pretty much the same rate.” Or a personal experience or observation. Here’s one I’ve needed to use several times: “I teach quite a few students who grew up in high-poverty neighborhoods of color. I’m impressed with their talent, their work ethic and the support they receive from their families.”

Carl Rogers recommends sharing our personal experiences with others for this reason (also from Becoming a Person):

“I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.”

An especially effective experience to share would be one of the ah-ha moments you had on your own road toward antiracism. The late Henri Nouwen, a Dutch-Canadian Catholic priest, wrote a book on pastoral counseling and called it The Wounded Healer (1972), because it focused on “the ways in which the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing.” Those of us moving from racism to antiracism can offer much the same.

Most important:  Don’t just talk about your convictions–live them.  If this is someone with whom you have an on-going relationship, take your time and look for other opportunities to talk. In the meantime, the way you live your life will be the most effective proclamation of what you truly believe. You’ll find a lot more on that in the third major section of this site, Our Options: Where We Go from Here.

How can I best support people of color?

There’s been quite a bit written and discussed on this topic. The most common word people use to describe White people who are supportive of people of color is “ally.” (More broadly, the term can be used to describe any dominant group member who supports those in the corresponding subordinate group: feminist men, pro-LGBT straight people, non-Muslims who oppose Islamophobia, etc.) There’s concern that this term is too passive and that many who consider themselves allies are really more like sympathetic bystanders. But it’s the word most people have used, and I’m going to stick with it for now.

Whatever word we use, the concept is important. Many, many White people who say they’re against racism still cling to the benefits of being White. It happens all the time, again and again. Betsy Hodges, mayor of Minneapolis from 2014 – 2018 says that she regularly watched liberal White people block antiracist change in the city. You should read the entire article, but here’s a short excerpt:

“In Minneapolis, the white liberals I represented as a Council member and mayor were very supportive of summer jobs programs that benefited young people of color. I also saw them fight every proposal to fundamentally change how we provide education to those same young people. They applauded restoring funding for the rental assistance hotline. They also signed petitions and brought lawsuits against sweeping reform to zoning laws that would promote housing affordability and integration.”

What many people really want, in effect, is a kinder, gentler racism. So please don’t mistake your warm fuzzy feelings for allyship. You get no cookies, as they say, for tut-tutting about the Proud Boys. Psychologist Monnica T. Williams of the University of Ottawa says you’ll know you’re an ally if you meet these three fundamental criteria:

  • Allyship is an act of support and not leadership.
  • Allyship is a continuous behavior, not isolated acts.
  • One’s allyship status is recognized by marginalized group members.

An ally, then, has some skin in the game—someone who’s willing to take risks on behalf of others. But an ally also accepts a supporting role. Those of us in dominant groups often are accustomed to being the leader, speaking out, offering our ideas, and having our way. Being in a supportive role, then, might not be natural for us, and it can take some time to make the adjustment. I think Dr. Williams’s third point, therefore, is critical—the status of ally is conferred by those on the margins, not those in the center. That’s the sign that you’re doing something right.

One very important step in learning to be an ally, then, is listening to those on the margins. Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist and public theologian, has a series of posts on how allies can listen well. It’s terrific. She says she experiences allyship from two different perspectives:

“As someone who identifies with both privileged (highly educated, upwardly-mobile) and oppressed (black, female) groups, I’ve experienced both ends of the privileged-oppressed spectrum. As a result, I’ve played the part of the privileged perpetrator of oppression as well as the oppressed target of oppression. And within the reconciliation context, I’ve often had to ask for grace and I’ve often had to give grace. These thoughts on listening well as a person of privilege are based on my experiences as a privileged person and an oppressed person.”

In her posts, Dr. Cleveland offers five things dominant people need to do when listening to marginalized people:

  • Recognize that the rules are different for you.
  • Solidarity first, collaborative problem-solving later.
  • Communicate on their terms, not your own.
  • Recognize the limitations of good intentions.
  • Seek to understand and embrace anger.

That takes a lot of listening. How can we do it well? Ralina Joseph, professor of communication and director of the University of Washington Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity, says that listening isn’t enough–it has to be “radical listening.” Focus completely on the speaker. Learn to suppress your own thoughts. Make sure you signal to the speaker that you are listening carefully. Repeat back what you’ve heard to make sure you understand. Then act on what you’ve learned; use it to make a difference.

All great stuff, but not easy, and I’ve stumbled more than once. You might, too. But it’s not about us, not about our feelings or our inadequacies. It’s about the work, so when we mess up, we reflect for a bit, learn something we need to know, and head back into the game.

In an article entitled, “How to be a good ally in the fight for Black justice,” Demonte Alexander quotes an ally in San Antonio offering three components of allyship:

“Being an ally to me is about acting with and on behalf of those who do not share the same privileges as I. It’s about helping to amplify voices that are not my own and calling out discriminatory and racist behavior without fear. It’s about working in solidarity with the Black community in pursuit of achieving justice and creating equality.”

Let’s look at each of these components in turn:

First: Amplifying voices that are not my own. Who are you reading? Who are you quoting? Who are you recommending to others? Whose praises do you sing at work? Who do you bring into the converstion (with permission) when they are being overlooked? Who are you mentoring? Who are you welcoming?

Second: Calling out discriminatory and racist behavior. So, so, so much good advice on this. Here is one example. And another. And one more.

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues (2019) summarize all the ways to respond to racist acts into these four categories:

  • Make the invisible visible. Call out racism when you see it. Ask for clarification. Reject the stereotype.
  • Disarm the microaggression. Make sure people know you disagree. Describe what’s happening and why it’s racist. Redefine and redirect where the conversation was going.
  • Educate the offender. Promote empathy. Appeal to shared values and beliefs. Distinguish between intent and impact.
  • Seek external reinforcement or support. Report the offense, if it violates pertinent harassment rules. Offer to support the aggrieved, personally, perhaps, or through counseling or other sources of support. Offer to talk with the offender again.

Sometimes a response can be simple:

And sometimes it needs to be more involved:

Third: Working in solidarity with the Black community [and other marginalized groups, I would add] in pursuit of achieving justice and creating equality. There may be a whole new initiative you’d like to start. But odds are, people have already come together in your community to work on these issues. Ask around, search online; it won’t take long before you find a group to support with your time and/or money. Want some other ideas? Here are 103 of them.

The Bottom Line: This one goes to one of my heroes, the late Congressman John Lewis. Just before he died, he penned these final words to the American people:

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *