I was a white racist. I think training made me a better person.

With a headline like that, I’m guessing my future career in politics may be over before it begins. I’m ok with that.

For a long time I felt that we lived in a nation that was realizing Dr. King’s dream, where people in the United States in the 2000s had every opportunity to be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. I worked in Washington, DC, in a youth center helping students earn their GED credential so they could have bigger and better opportunities. My students seemed to enjoy my tough love approach and my sense of humor and perhaps most importantly, my presentation style – it worked for my students in a way that their traditional high schools didn’t.

There were times when my students would be talking about “white people” and I’d give them a look and they’d quickly say: “Oh, we don’t see you as ‘white’, Brian!”

I worked with neighborhood gang members and drug dealers and it really felt to me that with some hard work, a good support system and some determination, anyone in this country had an opportunity to make it as far as they themselves wanted to go. I saw it with my own eyes! My students were earning their GEDs and getting jobs!

Then, a little over 13 years ago, I was serving as the training director for the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association. Our organization worked closely with the foster care system – a system which touched families of color at an overwhelmingly disproportionate rate compared to the general demographic make-up of the United States. Our organization’s volunteers across the country were overwhelmingly white and middle aged.

With so many opportunities for misunderstanding between our volunteers and the families with whom we worked most closely, cultural competence, and later anti-racism training, was essential to our ability to be more effective working in the foster care system.

Casey Family Programs, another organization doing amazing work within the foster care system, approached us with a training program on racial and ethnic identity development called Knowing Who You Are. Our entire staff went through the program. It was eye opening, I’d even go so far as to say life changing. We wanted to bring it to our nationwide network of programs and volunteers.

In order to do so, however, we had to send our facilitators (me included) to become “certified” to train on their curriculum. Any time you’re facilitating conversations around race and ethnicity, it’s important to do it well. Otherwise you can end up doing more harm than good. So it was reasonable for Casey Family Programs to insist anyone using their training program go through a certification process.

Adverse Reaction to Anti-racism Training

As a first step, we were required to go through a 2-day program called Undoing Racism. Colleagues who had been through it said it was a fantstic program, and they’d be interested to know what I thought.

It was certainly one of the most jarring professional development experiences I’ve ever had. I suppose it depends on the facilitator. I thought it was a terrible experience and it felt like it had done me more harm than good. It did, however, introduce me to a concept I’d not heard before.

Power + Racial Prejudice = Racism

Because the institutional systems in this country are what yield real power (police, education, healthcare, finance, etc), and because those systems are controlled by white people who have set up the systems to their advantage, then that meant that all white people are racist and people of color cannot be racist.

While people around the room nodded in understanding and agreement, this didn’t sit well with me. I was a good person. I fought the good fight. So much of my work had been to ensure a better world for everyone – the Peace Corps, helping students earn their GEDs, helping foster children find their forever homes. And now I’m a bad person because of the color of my skin? I’m racist? And there’s nothing I can do about it?

With all due respect, piss off.

An Intensive Certification Process was Life Changing

Having gone through Undoing Racism, I could check that box and move on to the other components of certification. I had to go through Knowing Who You Are as a participant, attend a train the trainer session and then deliver the training with a certifier present to share observations and feedback.

As I mentioned earlier, going through the 2-day Knowing Who You Are course was incredibly eye opening.

We went through Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege Checklist. As much as I didn’t want to admit I had privilege, as hard as I tried to make sure there were some things I couldn’t check off this list, the fact was I could check almost everything off.

Few of my colleagues who were people of color could check off anything, no matter how much they wanted to.

(If you’re white and you’ve never read her article or gone through her checklist and you’d like to know more about white privilege, I highly recommend clicking here and learning more.)

We watched a segment from an old episode of Primetime Live with Dianne Sawyer entitled True Colors. If any of us white people in the room wanted to try to make excuses for things that came up in the white privilege checklist activity, this video (an undercover video showing two individuals – one white, one black – going through a series of every day tasks) illustrated how different the white and African American experiences were.

Activity by activity, the ah-ha moments kept rolling in, but the training didn’t stop there. We were asked to examine our own organizational and personal practices to identify areas in which bias and privilege impacted the way we do things. Who were our vendors? How did our hiring practices provide an uneven playing field?

It wasn’t enough to simply be “woke” to the fact that privilege existed, we had to examine each aspect of our work. And do something about it.

We didn’t just have to check a box by bringing this training to the rest of our network of programs – leaders and volunteers alike – we had to believe in it. And we had to practice it.

How Training Led to Reflection, then Change

One of my darkest memories of being a GED instructor was a day that started out normal enough. I had been teaching GED classes for several years at this point. My students came in, we had some laughs, we did some work. I don’t even remember now what exactly happened, but Stephen – one of the smartest kids who had come through my class – said something, or did something. Maybe he was talking when the students were supposed to be working. I don’t remember.

I called him out, just as I’d done a thousand times before to any student who was talking when they were supposed to be working. He gave me a look, then tossed the F-bomb back at me.

It was like a scene in a movie where things are going fine then all of a sudden there’s a record-scratch sound effect. The whole class was silent, looking to see what would happen next. I asked Stephen to go out into the hallway, which is what I typically did in order to have a one-on-one conversation with a student that included things that didn’t need to be observed by the rest of the class.

He walked out of the class, cussing at me the whole way.

I had worked hard to create an environment in which students who had struggled in their own public schools could come, learn and succeed. If I let a student cuss me out in front of their classmates, then what?

I decided to kick Stephen out. Forever. No second chance. And this wasn’t up for discussion.

It was probably five or six years later that I went through the Knowing Who You Are training and my mind immediately went back to this interaction.

Would I have done the same thing to a white student? Was I so confident and arrogant about treating everyone equally that I “didn’t see color” or the greater context of actions and reactions?

When I hired someone, was I truly being “blind” in my hiring decisions, or was I choosing someone who I’d be most comfortable working with because we had shared experiences that were more relatable for me?

What about a requirement in the job description that mandates a bachelor’s degree? Do people realize that while 36% of non-Hispanic white adults hold a bachelor’s degree, only 22.5% of African American adults and 15.5% of Hispanic adults do?

And why didn’t I say something at Thanksgiving when crazy Uncle Fred began telling his racist jokes? Is “meh, he means well, he’s just trying to be funny” an excuse?

What about the stock images I choose for my blog? Am I choosing them with intention? Or do I just pick the first one that looks like it’ll work (which is almost always a white male)?

We are living in a time in which our social media feeds are inundated with memes and news stories in response to the killing of George Floyd. Some people have taken to the streets to demand change.

It feels that everyone is looking for ways they can make a difference in this moment.

Those of us in the world of training and professional development won’t be able to solve the racism that’s existed in our institutions for centuries, overnight or even through one well-designed training program. But I don’t think we can discount the power of a well-designed, well-facilitated program to open eyes, change hearts and lead to action.

Not Sure Where To Begin?

Sometimes it’s not a formal training program that needs to take place. Some organizations have created space for employees to engage in conversations through affinity groups and moderated discussions.

As a follow-up to the Knowing Who You Are training, I began a book club with National CASA. We began by reading and discussing Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?.

As I mentioned earlier, awareness is a good start, but being “woke” doesn’t necessarily change anything, which is why our second book club installment revolved around the book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. While this book has no direct ties to cultural competence or anti-racism, it is an extremely important supplement for anyone who is wondering why intent doesn’t lead to action. It’s a change management book that helps break down the disconnect between our words and our actions.

I know this is a much longer (and much more personal) post than I usually share on Train Like A Champion. If you’ve made it through to the end, thank you for reading. And if you’ve ever had a similar experience in which you’ve found a training program to literally be life changing, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

18 thoughts on “I was a white racist. I think training made me a better person.

  1. Another amazing training that provides the experience of living in poverty is called “walk a mile” it’s a poverty simulator that allow the participants to experience first hand how difficult living in poverty is and reflect upon their assumptions coming in, and to notice their own behavior under the circumstances… For example, one man on my team came in believing that welfare fraud was widespread and he believed that it was lack of teaching good morals that was responsible for the fraud. In the simulation, he was assigned the role of my disabled auntie. Now, he was supposed to be sitting at home while I, the unemployed mother did all the family errands while the kids were in school and husband was at work… But it would have been impossible for me to get all the tasks done without help. So he helped me, he ran to the bank to get the paychecks cashed, he went to the community resource office to get our power bill voucher (without which we wouldn’t have enough money to pay the rent and then we would be evicted). He literally committed welfare fraud by doing tasks a disabled auntie wouldn’t be able to do… And for the first time realized that to “be honest” in this case would have robbed the family of two very important resources: his disability check and the extra manpower needed for the family to survive.
    While this delineates the challenges of poverty, not race specifically, it moves the needle of perception dramatically.

  2. Brian, thank you for sharing this. I’ve been reading quite a bit from various sources lately and I found this one of the most valuable to date. I think I’ll be looking for ways to be a better ally for many months to come and this piece has given me lots to think about.

    • Dana, thank you for your comment. I’m glad this has been helpful. I’ve been scrolling through lots of memes and news stories being posted and that’s not the route I wanted to go. I’ve been reflecting on this for a while and I hope this is helpful to inspire reflection and action!

  3. Brian: Thank you so much for your honest writing. The way you detail your journey and those you serve is both humbling and inspiring. For years, I lived and worked in the NYC public schools with at risk youth as well as here in Seattle. My mission: use the arts as a vehicle to promote social change and healing. And yes, like you, I believed I was part of the solution. Your piece highlights just how much we all need to do and continue to do in order to sustain real social and lasting change.

    Thank you again for your volunerabiliy and holding space for this conversation.

    Theresa

    • Thanks Theresa. Yes, it’s not enough to just go out and do good for a bit. I think self-reflection and understanding *why* just going out and doing some good isn’t enough is key to being able to make change.

  4. Thank you for this post. Ever since I learned of Peggy McIntosh in undergrad, I recommend her readings to any white people who ask to talk with me about race. (As a black woman, I find it draining to be peppered with questions and have conversations about institutionalized racism with any non-black person .)

    • Thanks Kayla. I was having this conversation just yesterday. And I found the Peggy McIntosh/White Privilege Checklist activity to be one of the most impactful elements. Here was and still is the rub with this, however: I don’t think it would have been as powerful if we had just had a group of white people sitting around checking things off. It was so eye popping when people of color shared: I can’t check off any of these. And then a bunch of white people were like: C’mon, surely you can… hmmmm… ok, maybe not that one, but… hmmmm. Oh. Hmmm. Yeah. This is an issue.

      That said, several people of color who participated complained that they felt they were being used as props so that white people could learn. I fully appreciate how exhausting it must be to have to constantly “be on”.

    • Dear Kayla, another resource that you can turn to when questions, comments or general white nonsense comes your way on social media is “white nonsense roundup” @whitenonsenseroundup on IG and FB.
      A group of mostly white folks who volunteer to educate, speak up against and to use position as white people to speak to other white people who are in need of education, so that BIPOC don’t have to expend their time, resources and emotional labor to educate the ignorant.

  5. Fantastic post Brian, I appreciate your vulnerability here, and it’s the kind of self-examination white people everywhere need to go through. I don’t have a training story so much, but I have spent the last five years actively trying to learn more about racism in America (I moved here from Australia 8 years ago and was surprised to find the city I moved to was very segregated, still, so it made me curious to learn more.) I had some of the same visceral reactions and growing enlightenment of how deep the problem really is, and that similar problems exist in Australia that I hadn’t fully understood. I spent the weekend learning more about the history of policing and had another sense of awakening that I’m still working through. This is a really important conversation and as white people, we need to really take an active role in listening, learning and acting.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Miriam. Yes, it’s absolutely an area that white people in particular have not spent much time thinking about (let alone doing things about) and it often needs to begin with a serious self-reflection of our individual role. There are lots of things we can’t control… and then again, there are probably more things than we can think of that *are* in our control.

  6. Brian,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response and challenge to take thoughtful action. I am a middle-aged African-American women, a child of immigrants and parent to a soon-to-be adult with a disability. Difference and otherness has been an ongoing part of my journey. I have been involved in diversity work in some way since the 90s and as difficult as it is to just “be” some days, I’m hopeful after reading pieces such as this one. I so appreciate your candor and humility. You have stimulated thought and touched our hearts. Sincere thanks! I sojourn with you toward a better world.

    Rose

    • Thank you Rose. I’ve been staring at social media posts for the past week or two wondering what I can/should be doing. I think reflecting and sharing this was a start, in hopes others may be inspired to do some reflection as well. I appreciate you comment!

  7. Brian, thank you for sharing your post. It really made me think and recognize how I have unfairly benefited from “white privilege.” My next step is to find a location where I can attend the training that made such a difference for you.

    • Thanks Lisa! It’s been a while since I had anything to do with Knowing Who You Are, which was a training developed specifically for people working in the foster care system. It was a super powerful experience (and I offered just a small taste of that in this post), but when I went to link to the training through the Casey Family Programs site, it appears they haven’t been supporting that training for a number of years.
      🙁

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