On Friday September 4, 2020 the current U.S. administration banned federal officials and agencies from using taxpayer funds to participate in anti-racism training. The president called such trainings anti-American, a “sickness,” and the official memo claimed they were “counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception.” This comes as no surprise as, previously, the president had declared that systematic racism simply does not exist in the United States and at the first 2020 presidential debate referenced that he was hearing that the things people were asked to do at these trainings were “absolutely insane.”
Two years ago, the staff of Emerson College’s Office of the Arts—where I am part of the ArtsEmerson team—participated in a three-day anti-racism training that I not only found to be quite profound, but was also one of the most American things in which I had ever experienced. This is why I—a white male in his early forties—feel compelled to present a counter-argument and shed a little light on the actual nature of the experience.
This training did not come out of the blue, nor was the topic new to us. During my six and a half years here with ArtsEmerson, striving to be an anti-racist organization has been part of our mission—both on and off the stage. We are currently in the midst of a Jubilee Season, wholly focused on work generated by those who have historically been subordinated—including, but not limited to, artists of color. Previously, we had taken part in several training sessions and had engaged in many subsequent conversations related to striving towards becoming an anti-racist organization. The first of these that I recall was centered around the notion of “unconscious bias”—the idea that there are common social stereotypes about certain groups of people that many individuals unconsciously form and act upon. These unconscious biases affect everyday life in ways that are hard to see and directly measure. Legal scholar Jerry Kang helpfully defines this bias as, “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.”
In 2015, to help further grasp this concept, staff members were asked to complete a series of tasks in a computer program built to measure some of the unconscious perceptions and assumptions one experiences before their conscious brain begins to look logically at any given person or situation. Since “unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values,” this test was invaluable to those of us who may have felt that because we had already vocalized an intolerance for systematic racism, that meant we were immune to its insidious manifestations, even inside ourselves. This training revealed how that assumption is most often false, or in other words: even inside the most liberal, social-justice-minded individual, these stereotypes tend to exist and persist whether we’re aware of them or not. These intense, personal revelations freak some participants out, and it’s easy to see why this type of training leads to a kind of panic in many organizations, with concerns that racist staff members are going to be identified, shamed, or perhaps even fired.
“Even inside the most liberal, social-justice-minded individual, these stereotypes tend to exist and persist whether we’re aware of them or not.”
This, of course, is not the case. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It is the key to beginning this vital work in earnest. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but once the concept of unconscious bias is understood and acknowledged, it becomes clear that perhaps even more than the actions and words of overt racists, White supremacy and systematic racism are successfully perpetuated through a complex web of unconscious participation and silent complicity.
Therefore, one of the first steps of earnest anti-racism training is an attempt to make the unconscious conscious—a massive personal undertaking, to be sure. I personally sat with this earthshaking new understanding for about two years before we took our next significant step as a team. Having this extended period of time to absorb the concept, to notice its manifestations and consciously attempt to counteract them, was invaluable to me. In the culture of White supremacy there is, and has long been, an instinct to operate in “problem solving mode;” both the training we received and the pacing at which it unrolled pushed back against that instinct.
That is all to say that if you, or your workplace, participate in this endeavor, it will not be, nor should it be, a quick process. Your organization, just like ours, is not about to solve the issue of systematic racism during a weekend retreat. Long term commitment to this work is essential, otherwise, it’s just performative—something to keep in your back pocket and defensively point to when a misstep has occurred.
Our next step on this organizational journey took place in September of 2018. Our staff was told we’d be clearing three full work days for a training program with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. PISAB, as it’s known for short, was founded by Ronald Chisom and Dr. Jim Dunn in 1980, based on the concept that “racism is the primary barrier preventing communities from building effective coalitions and overcoming institutionalized oppression and inequities.” The goal of their trainings is to “move beyond addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of racism.” Our co-leaders—David Howse and David Dower—explained to the staff that we needed to attend all three days or to forgo it completely.
Our two trainers from PISAB gathered us all in a large circle within the black box theatre space inside the Paramount Center on Washington Street on a Wednesday morning.
They first spoke about a laughably ineffective version of this training that was popular in the 1970’s, where a group of White people would organize a retreat with some Black civil rights advocates, confess their White guilt, cry profusely, sing “Kumbaya” together, and then return to their normal existence now feeling they had been absolved of their sins. The PISAB trainers made it quite clear that the next few days would not be about absolving anyone of their guilt nor scapegoating anyone for their particular participation in racist systems; rather, we were here to take the first step beyond any of these surface-level symptoms.
“Why don’t you believe we could undo racism in our lifetime?” we were bluntly asked. To my surprise, the question was not rhetorical. I had never heard anyone even pose that question before. The facilitator went on to describe how absurd the notion of banning indoor smoking seemed to everyone—both smokers and non-smokers—until the moment it indeed successfully became a uniformly accepted norm. This was not a perfect one-to-one comparison, even the PISAB trainer would agree, but it effectively \brought to mind a massive societal shift I had personally witnessed in my lifetime.
Next, ground rules were established. An assurance of safety was agreed upon. This was to be, as we were told and would soon learn, “messy work.” No matter how much trust may or may not already exist among your team, having professional trainers facilitate these sessions is vitally important. Experienced anti-racist trainers know the pitfalls and hairpin turns that derail these sessions into unproductive arguing over details that are far, far from the center point where the group’s focus should be.
We were to assume good intent from our colleagues even as things got intense, heated, or confused. This was an essential ground rule, because although the next three days were rife with uncomfortable personal and group moments, they eventually became productive learning moments in light of our agreed upon, shared trust and goals.
So, how did this work begin? Much to my surprise, with a full day and a half devoted to building and agreeing upon a definition of the term ‘racism.’ Additionally, it was communicated that while many definitions of prejudice and racism might be valid, the one we arrived upon was also the one that PISAB was committed to dismantling, in particular. Our facilitators slowly and methodically made their case for why this definition was the most accurate, and the most hurtful to our society. Here it is:
Racism = race prejudice + power
I would guess that a fair share of people’s definitions would end where the “+” happens. But, as we learned, society-destroying-racism results when the people holding racial prejudices, whether consciously or unconsciously, then wield power over others. Power here means: control of the institutions sanctioned by the state, ownership of resources, and overall, an ability to define reality itself via this network of control. Only those at the top of these power structures can create and sustain the kind of institutionalized imbalance that leads to a racist society. This definition helpfully clears the path of muddying and distracting counter arguments such as “reverse racism,” in which a kind of “but everyone does it!” statement is thrown out as a way of confusing or ending the discussion. (Now, obviously, this piece of writing cannot come close to the cumulative effect of spending a day and a half unpacking these words and this definition; there is also a lifetime of reading to be done on this subject as well, but for the purposes of explaining what I found valuable in this training, I hope it suffices).
With our definition of racism agreed upon, we moved onto an exercise of learning how Whiteness and “race” itself—as opposed to ethnicity—is a social construct whose very existence was fabricated and sustained solely to preserve a White supremacist power structure. The method in which PISAB illuminated this concept to us was one of the most uncomfortable moments of the training, but also one of the most profound. One facilitator went around the circle asking each person, “What do you like about being ____?” For instance, asking one of my Latinx colleagues, “What do you like about being Latinx?”, they replied with a love for their culture’s embrace of magic.
But for the rest of the staff, the question “what do you like about being White?” produced the strangest, most troubling answers. Reply after reply revealed that there simply is no culture of “White” save for the privileges associated with being at the top of power structures. “I like not being pulled over often by police officers.” “I like shopping in a store without being closely watched by the employees.” On and on, these stomach churning answers rolled out. If the question had been “what do you like about being Irish?” of course, someone like me would have a positive, specific cultural answer. The point of the exercise was to show that, surely, if “White” is an actual race with an actual culture, positive answers would emerge from this question, similar to those given by my colleagues of color. Whiteness, by both those who constructed the concept and perpetuate it, only signifies entitlement and superiority.
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that I found the training to be one of the most American activities in which I had ever participated. Here’s what I meant by that: the origin of our country is unquestionably, irreversibly entangled with White supremacy. From the domination and slaughter of the indigenous people here before us, to the enslavement of Africans for the purposes of building up the very foundation all of the rest would emerge on top of, the United States of America has a deeply racist origin story which is routinely denied in service of feeling “good” about our nation. As any good psychologist will tell you, denial of negative and traumatic aspects of one’s life, or in this case one’s country, will only do more harm than good in the long run. Therefore, confronting this fact and committing to trying to undo its continuation is, in my opinion, a positive, uniquely American activity to embrace.
In the ensuing years since our PISAB involvement, I often wondered why anyone would feel threatened by participating in a training like this, especially once they understood precisely how it worked. When done properly, the results are—by any measure—a productive, small step forward towards a more harmonious, equal existence among all. By the time the federal government publicly came out against it, I had my answer, largely articulated by Renée Graham in a piece she wrote for The Boston Globe in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There she explained, “Nothing terrifies white America more than the false notion that racial equality means they will be treated as Black people have been treated for 400 years. It proves that they recognize inequality and its horrors but don’t care about it so long as it isn’t at their door.” I am left to assume that the harshest critics of this endeavor imagine that the moment they walk through the training’s door, they would be subjugated to the kind of treatment they had unfairly hoisted upon others their entire life.
In this way, the president was not wrong when he claimed a “radical revolution” was happening at these anti-racism trainings happening in the United States. It is both of those things, actually—radical and revolutionary—but only so because of what the trainings stand in opposition to. In an ideal world, they shouldn’t be either of those things, and until they aren’t, the work remains to be done.