You Can Lead Someone to Anti-Racism…
But you can’t guarantee they won’t succumb to white privilege
As I write this, I’m experiencing disappointment and anger, because someone who attended one of our anti-racism workshops, and who appeared to want to do better, has doubled down on her white privilege when it came to the crunch.
My friend Lea Jovy-Ford’s children were facing racism and discrimination at the UK forest school they attend - or attended until recently. As a staunch anti-racism believer, Lea worked with the staff team at the school to achieve more equity for historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, in this case Black, brown and trans kids.
We even put on an anti-racism workshop especially for the staff team, and it looked like they were really taking the lessons on board. They started putting together an anti-racism policy, and that’s where the problem started. They sent it out to the parents, and when Lea got it she pointed out (rightly) that the policy was not specific enough about who was suffering from racism, and also used the problematic term “ethnic minorities”. (I’ve talked about this language before). When called on it, the school leader’s response was a masterclass in how to prioritize white comfort over fighting racism. She:
Talked about her intentions, rather than the impact on the people most directly affected
Accused Lea of bringing an overly personal lens to the issue - in other words, gaslit her lived experience of racism and of leading anti-racism training.
Failed to understand the difference between anti-racism and anti-discrimination (so is she really the right person to be writing the policy?)
Worried about how white people would feel about this policy (yes, really, she actually said “what about the Polish?”)
Talked about promoting racial “tolerance”, another problematic term.
Called herself an “ally” (with allies like this, who needs racists?), plus that isn’t a badge you give yourself
The more I think about it, the more I found issues with the school leader’s reaction and communication, including:
She ignored the fact that Black and brown people experience racism both on a personal and systemic level, and don’t have the option of hiding their skin color. As my friend Stacey put it, while white people can be discriminated against: “it will NEVER be on the same interpersonal, intergenerational, institutionalized, vitriolic and insidious level that black and brown people have to experience.”
She failed to acknowledge what she didn’t know or understand and doubled down with an “all lives matter approach”.
She centered her own comfort rather than taking the word of an expert that her approach was problematic.
Oh, and did I mention that she found some “Black friends” who endorsed her position? We really aren’t a monolith. Smh
When Lea took the issue to the head of the UK forest school association, it became evident that the problem went even higher. The person she contacted stated that “I must say that I have worked for the FSA for 9 years and this is the first time that I have heard concerns about racism at Forest School.” Again, a clear example of gaslighting. He also made no statement about what he would do about the complaint he had just received.
This reinforced for me how much work there still is to do in fighting racism, and that the work has to be ongoing. If someone can take an anti-racism workshop and still not realize when her actions and statements are problematic, her white centering is ingrained. Her white fragility is on full display. And she still has a LOT of work to do.
As anti-racism activists and educators, we have work to do, too. This is why we say a single DEI or anti-racism workshop is not enough. You have to keep working on anti-racism all day, every day, forever. And maybe one day, if you get it right, a Black or brown friend or colleague else will consider you an ally, and trust you to be in their corner.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.
Thanks for reading,
Coming up on Wednesday: I’m featured at SIETAR DC on June 23: From Colorism to Anti-Racism. The event is FREE.
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.