On Race and Equity Conversations – Challenging Perspectives in Challenging Times
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a fascinating time to be a political philosophy major. The curriculum was quite occupied with trying to keep up with world events. The Revolutions in 1989, the democracy movement in the People’s Republic of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, and the shift to a post-apartheid South Africa all occurred within a relatively short span of years.
And when we weren’t busy listening to the music of BOP (harvey) or Wally Pleasant, we were reading many mid-to-late 20th century heavy-hitters including, but far from limited to, Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, Seyla Benhabib, Frantz Fanon, John Rawls, and Bertram Gross. With democracy seemingly on the march in other parts of the globe, it was an intellectually exhilarating era…especially for Gen X’ers as we pondered “what is next?” and “what part can we play in building a better society?”
Of course, some political scientists decided to go the triumphalist route, such as Francis Fukuyama in his work, “The End of History and the Last Man.” Others, particularly those on the Left, recognized that many disparities continued to persist, even within the world’s “only remaining super-power” – the United States. These inequities were driven by many factors, ranging from discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, class, cultural, and/or faith and were compounded by generations of structural, group, and individual beliefs and acts that kept economic and political power concentrated in the hands of a few (a white male hegemony even if some of few were neither white nor male).
This is the point where in the discussion when many white men and women (and others who may, for whatever reason, identify with them), stand up and say - or perhaps mutter sotto voce - “I bust my hump for $35,000 a year, where is my white privilege?” or “my family came here after the Civil War, we had nothing to do with slavery,” or “we live in a post-racial society now, I don’t understand why there needs to be a Black Lives Matter movement, isn’t it divisive/racist?”
If only if it were so simple as to ask folks to kindly take the red pill in order to expedite the educational process.
Getting people to think outside of their lived experience and ingrained worldviews is challenging – especially if by doing so they need to confront their own ignorance and racism and reflect, critically, on how they have benefitted from being white and have not faced the same challenges as others due to their physical characteristics.
When I have such conversations with white folks (note: the present author is white), I like to start with external factors since they are not as seemingly personal as directly questioning their internal belief systems (see also: fragility, defensive reactions to challenges to privilege). I usually begin by talking about disproportionally negative impacts on Black, Brown, and indigenous people and families in areas such as institutional barriers to wealth creation (multigenerational issues where the challenges are both causes and effects…including access to jobs, receiving lower wages than their white counterparts, not enjoying the same educational opportunities, housing discrimination, de jure and de facto limits to political power and expression, etc…) and the decidedly unequal treatment of our Black, Brown, and indigenous brothers and sisters at the hands of our criminal justice system.
So I have been looking for new ways to think and communicate about racism. Fortunately, I was able to peruse a 2016 dissertation entitled, “Impact of Equity Training on In-Service Teachers’ Development and Perception of Multiculturalism,” authored by one Dr. Harrison Booms. In it, she explores the potential of Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory in conjunction with Janet Helms’ white identity theory in the context of adult learning, specifically exploring approaches to discussing racism with white educators. Dr. Harrison Booms walks through Helms’ six distinct phases that white people “experience as they go through cultural, race, or equity training.” In order, they are:
1) Contact (the “colorblind” stage),
2) Disintegration (where they start becoming aware of white privilege and systemic injustices),
3) Reintegration (where the defensiveness kicks in/a countervailing reaction to what they learned in the disintegration phase),
4) Pseudoindependent (where there is an intellectual recognition of the unfairness of racism but also where the person can grow frustrated when not validated for their efforts)
5) Immersion/emersion (where the person critically explores the acts and beliefs of the “dominant race in society” and begins to “associate with whites that have the same beliefs they do regarding social justice”) and
6) Autonomy (where the person has internalized the knowledge that have gained and they live the values, as is “evidenced by a lived commitment to anti-racist activity, ongoing self-examination, and increased interpersonal effectiveness in multicultural settings.”)
The author notes that it “can take several years for any one person to reach” that sixth stage. This speaks to the depth of institutional racism as much as it does to any one individual’s ability to learn or willingness to embrace anti-racist ideas and behaviors.
This might be a useful model when considering how best to have productive conversations on race with white people. By understanding where someone falls on this spectrum, it would be possible to tailor communications that are more likely to be understood by the message recipient. And, from there, help move them in a positive direction.
As this blog will spend more time covering issues pertaining to race, equity, and communications, I will be exploring this and similar topics in greater detail in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.