Anti-racism trainers were ready for this moment – is everyone else?

pre-pandemic scene from one of Race Forward’s trainings. The trainings currently are online-only, but high in demand. MUST CREDIT: Brian Palmer via The Washington Post syndicated service

Robette Ann Dias has been training people how not to be racist for nearly 20 years, but her organization’s services recently reached a new level of demand. In a typical month, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, of which she is the executive director, would get nine requests for training. Within two weeks after George Floyd was killed in May, it had received 110.

“We’ve been here all along, but now people are recognizing that we have something to offer,” Dias says. Which is affirming, on the one hand, but at the same time it’s given her and her staff an uncomfortable feeling. A voice in the background saying something like, “Oh, now you think white supremacy is a problem.”

It’s a good time to be in the anti-racism training business, but, um, let’s just unpack that statement a little bit. Business is booming because of racism. Because of some white people’s newfound awareness of racism. Because the most recent wave of police brutality was too much to ignore, even though it’s been happening for a long time.

People and institutions are realizing that they need to think and talk about race, and many feel unprepared. For the professionals who have been thinking and talking about race for a while, it’s a bittersweet moment.

Speaking requests for Ijeoma Oluo, the author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” had all but dried up at the beginning of the pandemic. “And now all of a sudden, people have the capacity for these conversations,” she says. “It was a reminder of what it takes to get people to pay attention. There’s something that undervalues your humanity in that – that there has to be bodies in the street.”

The call for change in America’s streets has extended to its offices, where high-profile shake-ups have occurred in recent weeks. The CEO of CrossFit resigned after making racist remarks about Floyd, and the editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine was forced out after employees spoke out about a workplace that was hostile toward people of color. Reality shows, co-working spaces and media organizations (including The Washington Post) have also grappled with issues ranging from microaggression to a lack of representation in leadership. Food companies are phasing out Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth logos.

“Part of what happened was corporations started putting out all these statements of support, right? ‘Black Lives Matter. This is awful,’ ” says Oluo. “And all the black employees were like, ‘Oh, since when did black lives matter to you?’ You know, I think the hypocrisy of it made it really, really just unbearable.”

Anti-racism books, including Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped From the Beginning,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” have climbed the bestseller lists. Companies are racing to hire diversity managers. Employees at some corporations were offered Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

And human resources managers filled the inboxes of people who run anti-racism training programs.

Which are what, exactly?

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Anti-racism trainings are programs aimed at teaching people and groups to recognize the ways that white supremacy and implicit bias are a part of their behavior and how they shape nearly every institution in the United States. Depending on the organization, they can be a day-long training, or several sessions spread out over days, weeks or months. Central tenets of anti-racism education include confronting one’s own privilege and complicity, and taking individual and collective actions to counteract systemic racism. For white people, that might include actions like educating oneself and other white people about racism, and making donations to groups working to end discrimination.

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination,” wrote Kendi in his book on anti-racism, which is part how-to, part memoir.

It also requires hard conversations and actual commitment.

A scene from Race Forward’s pre-pandemic training sessions. MUST CREDIT: Brian Palmer via The Washington Post syndicated service

For anti-racism experts, one of the challenges of this moment is gauging which organizations are taking it seriously and which are just trying to feel good about themselves. Before accepting a speaking engagement, Oluo says, she asks a lot of questions about specific issues that people of color at the organization have been experiencing. Racial justice organization Race Forward does an assessment of how willing the potential client is to center the voices of employees of color and invest money in making changes based on what those voices are saying.

“For transformation to really occur, we need for folks to be ready to go beyond moral niceties,” says Key Jackson, the senior director of movement and capacity building at Race Forward.

Overcoming Racism, a group that does trainings for educators and corporations, isn’t afraid to turn down clients that do not meet its standards. “If you come to us saying, ‘My CEO was wearing blackface, can you come in?’ No,” says founder Matthew Kincaid. “We work with the willing, not the coerced. If you are just trying to hire us because you need it for your PR statement, no.”

Gavin Goodall, 36, is the senior program manager of school redesign for Denver Public Schools, and he participated in Kincaid’s training over the course of two years through the Broad Residency, a mid-career fellowship for professionals in public education. As a Jamaican-Chinese immigrant to the United States, talking bluntly about racism gave him “a sense of catharsis,” says Goodall, “that relief of being recognized.”

It was different for one of his white colleagues in the fellowship, Jerre Maynor, 36, the senior director of career pathways for the Tennessee Department of Education.

“It brought up huge feelings of shame and guilt,” says Maynor. “It’s like pulling back the veil on things that have been present and you have just not been able to see before.”

Those feelings led Maynor to address the group, confessing to actions in his past that had perpetuated racism, many unknowingly. It was met warmly by the tightknit group, which Goodall estimates was about one-third white, a third black and the rest people of other races.

“It was this mix of emotions,” says Goodall. “Like, ‘We love you, Jerre. Thank you for saying that. Let’s work on it together.’ ”

Maynor has been working on it. The course gave him the vocabulary to challenge his colleagues “on any policy or any sort of practice or assumptions that can be racist and might have a racist impact, even though that’s clearly not the intent.”

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A pre-pandemic workshop run by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s workshops. MUST CREDIT: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun via The Washington Post syndicated service

Anti-racism training differs significantly from the workplace diversity-and-inclusion training that employees might have participated in before. (Though those courses, too, are benefiting from a surge of interest that “makes the boom spurred by Harvey Weinstein’s exposure seem small in comparison,” says Andrew Rawson, co-founder of Traliant, a company that makes interactive video training courses for the workplace.) Confronting the entirety of white supremacy is more intense than talking about how to hire and support people from a wide range of backgrounds.

“What our workshop does is help us look at how we have all been socialized, conditioned and programmed in a race-based society,” says Kimberley Richards, interim executive director of the 40-year-old People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. “We are a nation that is built on the imposition of the ideology of race itself.”

Race Forward’s sessions involve honest and raw discussions of white supremacy and implicit bias and an analysis of racial hegemony “in terms of the internalized, the interpersonal, the institutional and the structural,” Jackson says.

And presenters recognize that they offer a potentially rare chance for employees of color to speak up.

Each time she does a corporate gig, there are “employees in that room who have felt excluded and beaten down and harmed, and need to be heard,” Oluo says. “They need to have someone who the corporation listens to. And the truth is, they listen to me more. If this does something for one black person in that space, it’s a victory.”

The pandemic has made this work especially challenging. Anti-racist trainers are learning that it’s hard to have sensitive conversations over Zoom, where people can’t look one another in the eye. When Crossroads hosts sessions online, there are multiple facilitators, one of whom is responsible for watching people’s reactions.

Despite the awkward medium, the demand persists. And anti-racism trainers say they have reason to believe they can use this unusual historical moment to facilitate real change.

“It’s demanding repair, and demanding racial justice in ways that we haven’t actually collectively experienced before,” Jackson says. “And you know, I think this time is going to translate into lasting change because it has to.”

“Some people are going to get it quicker than others,” says Richards. “Yet we don’t throw those people away who didn’t get it as fast as we got it. And we can’t allow that to frustrate us to the point that we are out of touch with our humanity.”

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