By Stephen Brookfield
A couple of years ago I was having dinner with a good woman friend who had spent a career of 40 years engaged in literacy work in New York’s Harlem and Washington Heights. She told me she had been to a workshop on racism and that the first thing the workshop facilitators did was to ask every white person in the room to stand up and take turns saying “I am a racist”. As she recounted this event her voice shook with anger. She couldn’t believe that her four decades of anti-racist endeavors had been discounted by these facilitator-strangers who didn’t know anything about her. My friend was so profoundly insulted that she left the workshop immediately.
I can make an educated guess what the facilitators were trying to do. They were probably trying to ask the white participants to recognize how they are caught within a racist system that they benefit from and to recognize how they have learned deeply racist instincts and impulses. I’m assuming that the workshop facilitators’ view was that nobody escapes the unearned privilege they enjoy because the racist institutions of civil society work to advantage whites. To that extent, to be white is to be racist.
What I believe was missing from the workshop my friend participated in was any extended modeling by the facilitators of their own struggles in recognizing and confronting their own racism. The underlying assumption was that by teaching self-reflection the facilitators could help people learn to work in ways free of racist undertones. The workshop was something done to the participants by experts who had cracked the code of cultural misunderstandings so could now teach others how to think and work in non-racist ways. Yet one of the most common themes in educating about race and racism (Brookfield, 2018) is the crucial importance of teachers and leaders kicking off the process with a narrative modeling of their own continuing struggles with this process.
For example, I’ll typically begin any class in which I’m trying to raise awareness of racism by talking about how I’ve noticed my own learned racism framing my perception of a current event, or how I caught myself in a micro-aggression earlier that day. The same is true for any faculty development effort I’m leading. There is such shame in the word ‘racist’, such power to humiliate, that I’m wary of beginning a conversation by asking that white students and colleagues declare themselves as racist. Instead I need to ‘normalize’ racism, to show that because most Whites are constantly immersed in racist conditioning, it would be strange if they didn’t have learned racist impulses, instincts and perspectives lurking within them. So I need to show first how racism is embedded in my worldview and how I enact racism. I need to earn the right to ask them to consider their own racist identity by first exploring mine.
Does this approach pay too much respect to white fragility, to the alarm and subsequent retreat from confrontation that stops so many of us from looking squarely at our own racism? I go back and forth on this question. My teacher voice says, “You have to start where people are. Starting with your own agenda without having built a connection to their world is self-indulgent. Get over making yourself feel righteous and take the time to know them”. My activist voice replies, “Here you go again, copping out and backing off from necessary danger. Don’t be so cowardly – tell it like it is”.
Searching honestly for the learned racism and privilege at the heart of white identity is hard given that bearing witness to experiences of racism typically prompts whites to show solidarity with people of color. We want to protest that not all whites are their enemy and that they can count on some of us for support. Speaking for myself, I know that part of me desperately wants the approval of people of color. I want to be told I’m one of the good guys who’s exempted from blanket condemnations of white racism. I want to be told I’m an exception and to feel a flush of self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory pleasure when saying to myself “you know what, my mother was right, I am a good person.”.
One of the hardest lessons I have learned as a white person, and therefore as a representative (in the eyes of people of color) of white supremacy, is that I must expect to be mistrusted. I must also anticipate white colleagues accusing me of politically correct reverse racism. When this happens, I need to remember that this is not a sign that somehow I’m failing; it happens to every white person in this work. So I tell colleagues getting involved in anti-racist teaching or other activism for the first time that for different reasons they should be prepared to be called a racist both by people of color and by Whites. It comes with the territory.
I remember in the early 1990’s teaching a class in which a student of color declared “I will never trust a White person”. I responded by saying, “that’s completely understandable, I don’t see why you would”. But the white majority in the group were shocked and demoralized by his comment and spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince him that they were humane, enlightened and worthy of his trust. It has always seemed to be that completely valid suspicion, skepticism and hostility will inevitably accompany any white person’s attempt to work alongside people of color in an anti-racist effort. This is no comment on you personally. It’s a comment on how the history of white supremacy has conditioned people of color to expect whites always to pursue their own self-interest and bolster their own power.
The judgment of whether or not you are an ally to people of color is completely in their hands. You should never expect to be told that you are one, and shouldn’t get hung up on gauging your anti-racist virtue by whether or not you receive that designation. Of course, if you do hear that term applied to you by people of color you should take it as a sincere recognition that you’re doing something important and worthwhile. And, for a moment, it’s fine to be proud of yourself. We all need moments of recognition and affirmation to keep our energy up for the tough stuff.
But repeat after me; never declare yourself an ally. No matter how strongly you are committed to that identity, keep it private. A White person saying “I’m your ally” comes across as condescending and inauthentic. You don’t become an ally by saying that you are. You become one by consistently showing up in support of people of color. You become one by losing something. Instead of worrying about getting approval for being heroically anti-racist, you should be putting yourself on the line. You should be risking institutional condemnation by doing and saying the things that people of color will suffer even more harshly for doing and saying. Your job is to lose friends, colleagues, money, employment, perks and prestige by calling out white supremacy in yourself and other Whites, and then not to have anyone notice or thank you for it.
Brookfield, S.D. and Associates. 2018. Teaching Race: Helping Students Unmask and Challenge Racism. San Francisco: Jossey Bass/Wiley.
Stephen Brookfield is the John Ireland Endowed Chair at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul.