Editor’s note: In the wake of nationwide protests demanding justice for George Floyd, we are sharing some of our previous coverage about how to end systematic racism in America. For more, see this collection of stories from our archive.
It’s not a new idea to access training as a way to strengthen white people’s ability to be allies of people of color. In the 1970’s some of us brought to the world of direct action training a session designed to support everyone to move beyond racial and gender oppression. For example, during an all-day training before a planned action one of the modules would address oppressive dynamics that show up among activists.
Not a bad idea, but I for one didn’t understand then how deeply racism and other oppressions were embedded within us. It turned out that the road to liberation would be a long one, not only for the larger society where oppression is actively supported by the economic structure, but even among white social change groups deeply committed to justice.
Since then, a group of activist trainers evolved “direct education,” an updated version of popular education that brings two additional resources to training: state-of-the-art group dynamics and re-invented learning tools that formerly had a class bias.
For me, as a member of a largely white climate justice group, the good news is direct education helps us grow beyond white supremacy. For me, personally, as a white person in a majority African American family, the resource also supports more integration in my life.
Grab the opportunities
At our best, activists stay nimble. We scan the environment looking for lemons that can be turned into lemonade, noting that our society gives us lots of lemons. One way that class-unaware anti-oppression work has slowed whites down is by stimulating blame and shame, reducing the self-respect we need to stay nimble and do our best work.
The recent series of outrages from Ferguson to Baltimore could have provoked another guilt-bath in the group I’m part of, Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT. But, as a result of learning direct education, we could respond freshly. When an African American staff member asked for a leave of absence to respond to a request for his help in Ferguson, EQAT supported him to go immediately, with his salary in hand, while we took care not to make his mission a fundraising ploy for the organization.
Baltimore erupted with another racist killing shortly before an EQAT monthly meeting. At the meeting we placed it first on the agenda. We asked individuals in groups of three (so as to foster intimacy and confidentiality) to share their inner feelings aroused by the stormy events. I watched the body language in those sharing groups, which said it all: vulnerable and passionate sharing with very little of the defensiveness shown by angry outbursts against “those (other) racist white people.”
Later in the meeting, EQAT considered the proposal for a new campaign that would frequently put our members in cross-race, cross-class situations. This could be another five-year commitment, as was the campaign that won EQAT’s first victory. White middle-class members acknowledged it would pull them out of their comfort zones. The group agreed to continue to research the proposal.
Whether or not EQAT finally chooses this particular campaign idea, I was struck by the moment’s rarity in a largely white, largely middle-class climate justice activism. Decades of anti-racist work among progressives has not put that movement or most others in a new place. If the old anti-racism methods of blaming and shaming worked, I would still be doing them, but those methods have resulted in defensive reactivity and walking on eggshells. Too many graduates of political correctness training have learned to disempower themselves and their comrades, often through second-guessing. Ironically, such outcomes make white people less effective allies of movements of color.
Continuity matters for working against racism
EQAT’s experiment has been to partner with Training for Change, or TFC, the internationally-known group that invented direct education. From the start, TFC facilitated strategy sessions in which EQAT learned to create six-to-nine month action “arcs” that escalated our campaign, successfully pressuring PNC Bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. TFC also facilitated EQAT meetings where we saw the chance, with help, to push beyond the tight boundaries of middle-classness and become more “real,” and therefore more diversity-friendly.
EQAT members attended TFC train-the-trainer workshops where we learned group process skills that made our meetings more lively and welcoming, processes that supported attenders to be more authentic. Nearly all of the 125 actions that EQAT organized to achieve its victory were preceded by a training that increased skills and boldness, and at the same time encouraged teamwork and mutual awareness and support. Further, nearly all the actions were followed by a debriefing, in which participants were encouraged to claim their courage and acknowledge their mistakes.
Our pro-training organizational culture is all about “the learning curve” and “being on our edge,” so getting help from outside trainers is to us a no-brainer. Our group is evolving a pro-training culture that supports flexibility, making mistakes, being vulnerable, expressing courage, showing affirmation instead of judgment, and making lemonade out of those lemons.
Significantly, the direct education training tools TFC is teaching us address many of the characteristic descriptions I’ve heard from people of color and working-class people who feel distant from white middle-class activists: arrogant, cold, defensive, reluctant to give authentic support, in their heads, afraid to be real and spontaneous.
Within a pro-training culture, working on racism is a very different process from my early experience in the movement. Using direct education for movement-building increases the ability to be effective white allies even when it omits the special words of anti-racist discourse. A liberatory organizational culture downplays the correct language and trendy abstractions that academics love so much.
My own working-class background taught me that what counts in an ally has nothing to do with knowing what “intersectionality” means. What matters is knowing how to express the spirit of solidarity. My observation is that many college-trained white people who use the word “intersectionality” have trouble expressing solidarity, even with their fellow white people. In fact, the reason I left the training world of anti-racism was because I saw language being used as one more technique of middle-class correction and control, a use of language that is in direct contradiction to the goal of liberatory empowerment.
As EQAT moved into our process of discerning its next campaign we decided to become more explicit and invited a TFC trainer with deep experience supporting whites confronting racism to lead a workshop on that theme. Erika Thorne chose a simulation and other activities that generated many “a-ha’s” as we saw ourselves in fresh ways. Her facilitation built a container that supported a loud “storm” where white members could express passionate disagreement, a breakthrough for EQAT in diversifying its communication and conflict styles. The experience helps prepare group members for the rough-and-tumble that might show up as EQAT works in coalitions across class and race lines.
Erika followed up by working with a small group of EQAT members to strengthen cross-cultural conflict-waging skills. All groups have conflicts within them, and culturally homogeneous groups endorse one or another style for dealing with them: avoidance, emotionally-rich argument, rational dialogue, physical contest, mediation, hierarchical decision, and so on. Group members often have a loyalty to one or two styles, shrink from those out of their comfort zone, and reflexively label others as immoral. A living revolution invites white middle-class people to broaden their subconsciously-formed ways of handling conflict and develop a larger repertoire of skills. That will equip us to “play well with others,” forming robust coalitions with sufficient unity to overthrow the dominance of the economic elite.
Other groups may have other growing edges for their anti-racism work, but my guess is that all will find that their beneficial changes are accelerated by direct education training. For EQAT the opportunity is to stretch our organizational culture with a wider range of conflict styles. If we succeed it will be a win/win/win: for the larger movement, for our members’ fuller expression of authenticity, and for the racial and cross-class welcome mat of EQAT itself.
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I was trying to do anti-oppression work in a climate campaign and it lead to huge conflicts, some of those were indeed about how we deal with conflict. In fact almost no conflict was allowed and shame was used to stop it arrising.
I also thought I detected an idea from some of the people who set the campaign up that what we needed to do was to stop people making racist comments and to teach people to call out racism and other oppressive behaviour in a polite manner. So the core of the group, the informal leaders, thought they knew what the oppression of minority groups was without actually listening to minority groups and also wanted to impose on everyone else, including minority groups, how to deal with oppressive behaviour, which was sort of ironic.
However at the last session to deal with these issues, where the group said they were reviewing thier work, some people from marginalised communities said to white middle class people that it was not thier fault that they were born white and middle class, so guilt was being recognised and addressed. What we have achieved was also acknowledged and celebrated; high standard childcare at protests, good disability access, Queer Space at most protests and involvement by a radical black group in the event were listed. And the group seemed to be taking steps to do commit to do this work more deeply and actively explore what it means in practice while listening to minority voices present in the group more.
It also helped that more people came forward to deal with these issues within the campaign and that they were from diverse communities themselves.
Hi George – thanks for this wonderful article. I think it is a great look at how to address systematic oppression without getting in to an “eggshells” situation or one of middle-class correction and control.
I’d be interested in more detail around how to move away from “blaming and shaming” in a way that doesn’t tone-police oppressed people when they do call out oppressive behaviours. “Defensive reactivity” is a problem, but does that mean that people should change how they talk about their experience? Or that defensive reacters need to grow up?
I think I do tend towards your view that the best way to challenge oppressive behaviours is through solidarity rather than “correction and control”. But what does that mean? And how can we move towards that?
I see accusations from oppressed folks as an opportunity for learning by everyone. I could share an example of what solidarity can look like in that situation. We were in an all-day retreat of community leaders after a national election, sharing about what the election might mean for our grassroots work in the next few years. At one point we created a huge balance sheet on the wall: what social forces are pushing toward a more just society and what forces are pushing against? Everyone had already placed on the wall the specific forces as they saw them. Now it was discussion time.
“Someone has placed ‘progressive white organizations’ along with the other forces that are obstacles to a better society. Isn’t that a mistake?”
I was facilitating, and I asked, “Who put that one up?”
A young black man in the back row, Kevin, put up his hand.
“I meant it to be there,” he said. “Progressive white organizations are racist and even though they talk a good game, they’re actually holding back the overall movement.”
Silence followed the accusation. Kevin was a respected activist who’d given leadership in a number of campaigns. I looked around at the mostly white crowd and saw defensive faces, people trying to figure out how to challenge his provocative statement.
“That would be me a year ago,” Markus said. I was intensely curious about what he would say. Markus was new to the area, an upper middle class white college grad who had been doing community organizing in a poverty area with mixed racial composition. I knew he’d been working hard on his racism
“Yeah, I can relate to what Kevin’s saying,” Markus went on, “because I’ve been part of mostly white or all white progressive groups and it’s true, you know, we do put out a kind of atmosphere of exclusiveness. Nobody says to working class people or people of color, ‘Stay out!’ but it’s more a matter of tone. It’s the way our organizational culture works; it’s just not welcoming. And we do love the comfort of our white activist culture. It’s painful to give that up, but we need to. Kevin’s right. I definitely find it hard.”
The discussion that followed was the most grounded conversation I have ever heard among whites in that kind of setting. It was thoughtful and probing because of Markus’ intervention, his readiness to identify as part of the problem rather than defend white activists or, on the other hand, point the finger at other white people.
But the solidarity wasn’t just in the content of what he said. Markus also showed his vulnerability, which is what Kevin had also shown by his willingness to launch the accusation knowing most people might react with hostility. The vulnerability bonded them, and that’s one form of solidarity.
The following discussion was grounded because Markus joined Kevin, not in a way that asserts “Look at me: I’m an ALLY!” but, on the contrary, showed his vulnerability as one of the privileged who is still a work in progress. Still, notice that he didn’t grovel in guilt, which Markus finds worse than useless. The power of his vulnerability came from a place of self-respect.
To me, this is nonviolence in practice, which often puts us in a place of vulnerability when there’s injustice or the threat of violence and derives power from that very position.
The threat of violence is more often projected than real (whites fearing blacks, for example — whites are far safer in black neighborhoods than blacks are in white neighborhoods!), but whether projected or not, in the craziness of a racist , classist and sexist culture the inclination for the privileged to tense our shoulders shows up a lot!
If vulnerability is too big to reach for (let’s say we’re having a bad day), an alternative place for the privileged to go is to a place of curiosity. Curiosity is a psychological alternative to judgment. Get curious and ask a question, to the accuser or to the group. It shifts the atmosphere because it signals openness.
The story about Kevin and Markus comes from my book Facilitating Group Learning, which is full of real stories illustrating alternative behaviors that assist us to shift from the old stuff that doesn’t work. I devote three entire chapters to anti-oppression work, because, as the white supremacist terrorism in Charleston so sadly reveals, we really need to go deeper than we’ve gone up until now.
Thanks George for this comprehensive and helpful answer. The example is very helpful and I appreciate your thoughts around the importance of vulnerability. I think i’ll look into “Facilitating Group Learning”.
I would be interested in learning this set of dynamics to use in my peace/justice activism. Please add me to your mailing list. Thank you the information.
I would really like some kind of White Ally Training at my university. Definitely something I could benefit from, and I think the university as a whole would grow tremendously from it if folks would actually attend.