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Training white people in Colorado to be “anti-racist” (not just “not racist”) is one step in the fight to correct historic wrongs

Audiences in church basements and conference rooms around Colorado are being taught to see — and confront — racism in the systems around them, not just in individual acts.

Activist and speaker Regan Byrd asks attendees a question during an anti-racism training event held at Pine Street Church in Boulder, Colorado on October 19, 2019. The training, titled "Embracing Anti-Racism", seeks to educate participants in ways to actively combat racism. (Photo by Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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On a crisp Saturday morning in Boulder, 50 people, most of whom were white, streamed into the basement of a stately old downtown church to spend three hours immersed in the history of racism in America, a lesson that included uncomfortable truths, disturbing images and a belief that knowledge, ever powerful, could lead to change.

Outside, it was one of those blustery but sunny autumn days that draw people to Chautauqua Park for one more snow-free hike, or out to the Saturday farmers’ market for local honey and heirloom squash. It wasn’t a bad day to run errands or sit on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game. 

Instead, people poured themselves a coffee under fluorescent lights in a church basement, hugged friends and gave warm handshakes to strangers as they chose seats at large, round tables. They talked about what drew them to this anti-racism training, from big, obvious instances of racism that made national news to the knowledge that from the justice system to schools to housing, racism was systemic, but how bad was it, and what could be done? Above all, they wanted to do something about racism, and anti-racism training presented an opportunity to learn and, hopefully, become informed enough to act.

Shamika Goddard shares with fellow participants during an anti-racism training event held at Pine Street Church in Boulder. (Photo by Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Regan Byrd, the Denver-based anti-oppression consultant leading this anti-racism training, began by telling the crowd they’d learn about the history of racism, as well as how they’ve been taught to think about racism. 

She recited a defense used by people who say racism is no longer a problem: “There were some bad people who did bad things, and we’re past that and we’re over that.” History classes in school might cover slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era. But they skip the efforts to create second-class systems that persist today, she said, and that’s just the start of systemic racism.

“Understanding history is critical to understanding oppressive systems,” Byrd said. “Most of us are not even 10% into understanding the history of these systems.”

Individual and explicit acts of racism are good at grabbing the attention of the public and the body politic. In November, following an FBI report that 123 hate crimes were reported in Colorado in 2018 (an increase of 16%), Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced the formation of a coalition to fight hate crimes in the state. 

Implicit, unconscious bias and systemic racism — the kind of racism that affects housing, employment, schools and the justice system — can be harder to see or quantify, but they’re no less a part of the public conversation. They were at the heart of the two-hour public discussion Boulder City Council held about racism and white privilege in the first week of December, sparked by a councilwoman’s remarks about the white male council members who’d volunteered to serve as mayor or mayor pro tem for the city. And they revealed themselves again during an incident in March when a Boulder police officer tried to detain a black man who was cleaning up trash in front of his own home. 

Reading list

Looking to expand your own understanding of systemic racism? Marissa Tafura, co-founders of the Boulder chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, has put together a list of podcasts, books and articles — including special recommendations for kids.

Click here to jump to the list.

Anti-racism training is designed to arm people who want to fight against the big, systemic examples of racism, such as hate crimes, and also engage in the subtler, more nuanced conversations that so easily flare into heated discussion and reveal stark ideological divides — whether that means responding to a coworker’s inappropriate comment or standing up to speak at a public hearing.

These divisions were captured in a Pew Research Center study from earlier this year on people’s perceptions of issues related to race in America. Of the 6,637 people Pew surveyed about race, whites and nonwhites (as Pew puts it) expressed widely varied views on many questions around racism, from believing racial discrimination is an obstacle to black people getting ahead (white respondents: 54%; black respondents: 84%) to whether black people are treated less fairly when applying for a mortgage (white respondents: 38%; black respondents: 74%) and in hiring, pay and promotions (white: 38%; black: 74%).

The ideological differences that undergird the survey responses are familiar to people who work in anti-racism. “Racism operates on many more levels than the individual, so we’re going to talk about that, and racism can be conscious and unconscious,” Byrd told the crowd at the church. “So we want to get out of the idea of this conscious intent and into systems.”

The flyer for the anti-racism training, which was open to the public as part of All Souls Church’s “Lab” series, included a quote from historian Ibram X. Kendi, whose book “How To Be an Antiracist” draws a line between being non-racist, which is what most people might think they are, and anti-racist: “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’” It’s a distinction that had people at the training that Saturday morning thinking about what they personally can do to be actively anti-racist.

“Being neutral as a system rolls along means you’re contributing.”

Some people at the training were just getting acquainted with the nuance of non-racism versus anti-racism and wanted to learn more. Others wondered how racism might be playing out at their child’s school, or at their work. Others were ready to spring to action: A University of Colorado student who sat at my table said she had classes in the Engineering Center on the Boulder campus, where a woman (who is not part of the CU community) spewing racist vitriol that was caught on video on Oct. 6. She hadn’t witnessed it, but the incident spurred her to sign up for the training. At the end of it, as she tucked her notebook into her backpack, she told me she next wanted to attend bystander intervention training, where people learn how to intervene safely if they witness harassment.

“Being non-racist only exists under this individual-character status,” Byrd said in an interview later. “Being anti-racist is, ‘I understand how racism works as an oppressive system and I’m actively working against that.’ And another distinction: You can be non-racist and contribute to a racist system. Because being neutral as a system rolls along means you’re contributing.”

For three hours that morning, Byrd held forth with a presentation that captivated her note-scribbling audience. She began by covering the bad “science” that established supposed biological difference between races, and how even though the Human Genome Project definitively debunked all of it, those ideas of biological difference persist. She gave a sweeping history, from John Punch, the first person in America who was enslaved for his entire life, to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that banned interracial marriage, to boarding schools for American Indian children that, for much of the 20th century, demanded assimilation and prohibited kids from speaking their native languages.

Attendees view a slide depicting a scene from “Birth of a Nation” during an anti-racism training. Some participants were overwhelmed by what they saw and heard during the training. (Photo by Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The historic images of enslaved people in her presentation were visceral, the Jim Crow-era representations of black people horrifyingly dehumanizing, and at the end of the training, some participants were overwhelmed by what they’d just seen and heard. There was head-shaking as people leaned into one another to discuss it. Sometimes, Byrd said later in an interview, “people are really just shocked by what they didn’t know.”

Others complete her trainings feeling validated — that they were right to be concerned about racism, that it really is a tangible problem. Some leave completely unsurprised about the depth and extent of the history of racism in the U.S. and how it continues in less-blatant ways today. “The devastated reactions of white folks — the people-of-color folks, they’re walking out saying, ‘Yeah, that’s what I grew up in,’” she said.

Attendees Rebecca Bundy and Keely Taylor, members of All Souls who had recently started an anti-racism group at Taylor’s home in Louisville, were not in the devastated camp at the end of the training –– at least not this time. “I was noticing that that sense of overwhelm that I was witnessing in other people was not what I was experiencing in my body, but that it is familiar,” said Taylor, who had attended trainings like this before and, along with Bundy, has been on a path of anti-racism for years. “I know it and I remember it.” 

“It felt really incredible to be learning from Regan, and I felt grateful that the church would invite her in, and that people would show up,” Bundy said. 

Seeing the full house that Saturday, it was clear the church was meeting a community need. These white people wanted to know how to be good allies to people of color. They wanted to know how to stand up, and hopefully not blunder and make the situation worse. They wanted to understand the history they didn’t learn in school and teach it to their kids. They just didn’t know what they didn’t know, or where to start. 

“People are showing up because they feel the problem, and they’re not sure what they want or need out of it, but now, they can’t handle it anymore,” said The Rev. Adam Bailon, a pastor at All Souls Church, which partnered with Pine Street Church for this training. Also, he said, “We want to be able to have a practical tool that helps us do something different in the world.”

All Souls has been talking about anti-racism for several years. “We’re mostly a white congregation, mostly middle-aged families, mostly middle to upper class, and we feel like this is our problem,” Bailon said. The church meets on Sundays in the heart of downtown Boulder, where the population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures is 88% white, 9% Hispanic and 1.1% black. “There have been these incidents in Boulder that are racially connected that  we can’t approach this topic as the world-out-there’s problem. 

“We have to realize this is our problem here and now,” he said. 

Beyond Anti-racism 101

Byrd, who led the training, grew up in Highlands Ranch. She had been working for nonprofits involved in advocacy for marginalized populations in the Denver-metro area when she decided to start her anti-oppression consulting company after the 2016 election, and after the Me Too movement came to the fore.

MORE: A Denver startup asks every potential investor: Have you faced sexual harassment complaints?

“I saw a lot of folks offering a lot of 101 types of training, but not 201, 301 — really understanding these trainings on a deeper level,” she said. She advertised a training for 40 participants. It sold out in an hour. She now offers a variety of sessions, for companies, government agencies and churches, like All Souls, as well as individual consultations.

Her work comes with grave personal risks but rewards as well. “I’ve had to alert the police, ‘Hey someone who has posted a lot of gun pictures has posted they’re coming (to my training) and they’re clearly alt-right affiliated.’ The other side of it is, I get to be seen and heard in ways I haven’t been before. I get to talk about my experiences as a person of color to people who are here to hear about it. To have my expertise living this, but also having formal training in this … it also feels joyful and empowering on the other side, too.”

When she gives an introductory training, she sticks to foundational learning. “If someone’s only going to get one training from me, I’m going to focus on theory and concepts,” she said. People often want to leap into action, to immediately solve the problem of racism. (In anti-racism circles, this I-can-fix-it tendency is called white saviorism. In those same circles, however, people say racism is a problem white people have, so white people need to fix it. A good way to avoid crossing into white saviorism, they say, is slowing down and listening to people of color about their experiences with racism.) Action can come later, she said. After people have had time to reflect, they can put theory into action. “You going out to do something without having a good foundation can actually cause harm,” Byrd said.

Steve Donnelly shares with fellow participants during an anti-racism training event held at Pine Street Church in Boulder. (Photo by Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Though her introductory training at the church didn’t include bystander intervention or tips for talking to people about racism, she did arm participants with a slew of factoids on the history of racism in the U.S. and perspectives on how it continues that they could easily break out at work, or at the holiday dinner table. And she hopes people do start conversations. 

“I always like to say that some of the hardest work in anti-racism is convincing people who don’t think this is a problem that it is an issue,” she said. “‘Oh, I don’t talk to my racist uncle anymore.’ Doing that is not helping the work. White folks listen to white folks differently, that’s why allyship is important.”

This isn’t conjecture. In a study on confrontations about racial prejudice, white people were more accepting of the confrontation when it came from a fellow white person than they were when it came from a person of color. 

But it’s still hard. No one wants to hear that they’ve made a racist blunder, or worse, be accused of being racist. Even the suggestion is anathema. 

Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” is on many anti-racism reading lists, including Byrd’s, which was printed on a half sheet of paper placed at every seat at the training in Boulder. DiAngelo is a sociologist and longtime diversity trainer, and her book — which has spent 73 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list — is peppered with examples of white people’s extremely defensive reactions at her trainings. Many of them have to do with what she calls the good-bad dichotomy: People think of racism as bad, and good people don’t engage in it, ever, period. Even accidentally, or out of ignorance. 

She argues that well-intentioned white people’s anxiety about being seen as racist, and therefore “bad,” is what prompts them to make dismissive declarations, such as, “I’m color-blind” or “I have black friends.” The problem with these defenses is that they shut down self-reflection and conversation. They also exempt the person who utters them from responsibility — “I’m color-blind, so racism isn’t my problem.” Failing to see themselves as part of the larger problem (or solution) of racism at a societal level allows racist systems to persist in perpetuity. 

Some people at All Souls Church are overcoming this anxiety together and taking it into their lives outside of the church. 

Bundy, who started the at-home anti-racism group with Taylor, said the interest in their group has been encouraging. “You would think people would be afraid,” she said. They aren’t. Instead of forming a group with fellow churchgoers, Taylor and Bundy invited people they knew from their kids’ school, as well as some business owners in the community. 

They didn’t know everyone very well. But people are showing up to have hard conversations. The participants listen to assigned episodes of the Seeing White podcast and show up every few weeks to discuss it. Also, “We always bring in an outside voice, from a person of color, whether it’s poetry or a TED talk or a video,” Bundy said. It’s only a six-week session, so it’s accessible. “People are desperate to talk about it, and they’re curious,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect 20 people to show up to talk about racism, but they are.”

They keep the structure of the meetings consistent, so participants know what to expect. “When you’re discussing a topic this intense, you have to think about that,” Bundy said. “You have to think about structure, you have to think about safety.” They set up rules of engagement for their discussions: Assume the best in one another. Take turns. Say “oops” when something you said doesn’t come out quite right. Another important rule: Confidentiality. 

“We’re seeing a willingness to be uncomfortable is one of the only things you have to bring with you,” Taylor said. She added that it’s strange to invite people over to your home to be uncomfortable. 

“I did have to go back to a friend of mine who was in the conversation and just check in with her the next day and make sure that I didn’t hurt her feelings with my honesty,” Taylor said.

“It’s messy,” Bundy replied. 

“It’s messy,” Taylor agreed. 

“And I think it’s a mess that typically lands on the shoulders of people of color in our community, so Keely and I have been talking about, can we shoulder some of that weight,” Bundy said, hitting on an idea in anti-racism that people of color are often put in the difficult position of having to explain racism to white people. It can be helpful if white allies can do some of this work — if they have a foundation in understanding racism. And if they can help without getting into white saviorism. (Byrd’s advice, before acting: “You can always take direction from marginalized folks.”)

They’ve seen this in their own group, Bundy said, which is “predominantly white people, but there are people of color in the group as well.” 

“And their feedback has been helpful because they are thankful to not be leading it or initiating it, that it’s coming from white people, and that was a surprise,” Taylor said. “I don’t mean to say all people of color would feel that way, but that’s been the feedback.”

Bundy and Taylor said they approached hosting the group as people who were also on the path of learning more about racism. They’re just facilitators for the conversation, they’re not there to teach. “Even having this interview, I don’t want to be portrayed as a ‘woke’ white person, because I think that’s the first step to losing my integrity,” Bundy said.

Last year, Taylor attended another anti-racism training at All Souls, one that was organized by church elder Marissa Saints, who along with Bailon has emerged as a leading proponent of anti-racism work in the congregation.  

“I think part of taking an active anti-racist stance is, there’s deep internal work that needs to happen, but then there’s the external work,” Saints said. “I think a lot of times, people get overwhelmed, because, oh my gosh, there’s so much to do. I’m really focused on how we can integrate these things into the lives we’re already living. So I did that personal analysis: where am I involved, where does my voice carry weight? And one of those places is in my church community.”

Saints and Bailon became partners in moving the church into anti-racism work after Bailon gave one of the church’s workshops on race and the history of the church four years ago. A small group formed from that Lab for “anyone who wanted to keep the conversation going,” Saints said. “So we developed a 101 on social justice and what it has to do with the Christian faith.” 

Saints led one of those groups, then developed a follow-up. Several people at the church, including Bailon, began hosting small groups at their homes. 

“Our church is not universally progressive,” Bailon said. “There are many in our midst who have different views.” After the 2016 election, though, “there were many people in our church who were wondering, what does it mean to call myself a follower of Jesus right now?”

It’s also personal for both of them. Bailon said he has been thinking about how to use his privilege, because, “I’m a mixed-race person, but I have very light skin, so I move through the world as a white man.” Saints, who identifies as multi-ethnic and multi-racial, said, “I’ve had people on both sides say, you’re not white enough, or you’re not brown enough to be a person of color.” 

When asked whether it’s hard, given Boulder’s demographics, to do anti-racism work there, Saints said, “I think Boulder is really good at being in denial about this. And we see this shifting, in the past couple of years, we are seeing more conversations.”

“It’s possible to live in our Boulder bubble, as it’s called, and say, ‘I believe in these political ideals and I vote for those things. And we’re educated, and we don’t think we’re racist, we just happen to be white,’” she said. “There’s this denial and dissociation for why Boulder might be predominantly white.”

Can you unlearn implicit bias? Yes. But there are caveats. 

People who are engaged in anti-racism work call it just that: work. They talk about “doing the work,” the constant effort, the commitment to lifelong learning about racism and building relationships with people of color. The idea that this takes sustained, long-term effort is supported by research on race-based bias.

Josh Correll, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU, researches how we react to racial and ethnic groups; he’s nationally known for his work in how those reactions apply in police shootings. A lot of his work is in face recognition and implicit bias, the unconscious bias we don’t even realize we have. I called him to ask if we can change. His answer was “probably, yes,” but with many caveats.  

Research in short-term interventions to counteract implicit bias suggests that some things can shift our biases, but they’re temporary, they don’t stick. To create an intervention, researchers might show participants photos of people who defy stereotypes, give participants a goal to override their biases or ask a white person to imagine the perspective of a black person. (If you want to test your own implicit bias, try one of the tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Correll’s shooter task, where you can try to shoot bad guys of various races and not at someone holding a cell phone, is online as well.) 

A large study published in 2016 on reducing implicit racial preferences found that “interventions that were more self-relevant, emotional and vivid tended to be more effective than those which were less involving.” Still, none of those shifted preferences remained days or even hours later, the study said.  

It’s one reason Correll said he doesn’t have much faith that one-off or annual diversity training at work — the kind people are forced to attend — does much to change bias. 

“You can kind of view the problem with all of these trainings as these very localized, intensive interventions that happen with the individual, where the individual is cast back out into the real world, where the old sets of associations apply,” he said. “The brain’s not stupid. It’s going to say, ‘OK, we were in the lab.’”

Some, but not all, research in long-term bias interventions shows promise. “The data from that work is not as clear as we’d like,” Correll said. Some researchers believe that being aware of implicit bias and fighting it constantly can retrain your brain. “There are people who advocate for: if you are aware, and if you fight constantly every time you experience an association, if you stop yourself, and say, ‘No I reject that idea, that’s not how I want to live my life,’ the idea is that you can retrain your brain.”

Correll likened it to learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument. “The idea is that by constantly training them over weeks — like you would practice if you were trying to learn the cello — if you can practice that, you can change the network of associations,” Correll said. 

Motivation can be a factor. In a study entitled “Training away bias,” researchers found that some types of training didn’t change participants’ implicit bias. But people who learned that they showed bias in tests but consciously did not want to be biased, felt guilt that later led to a reduction in biased responses. 

But motivation alone isn’t enough. Correll mentioned an older study on fear induction around health behavior: Researchers tested whether fear would motivate people by telling study participants about a terrifying but preventable disease, then recording how many people showed up for the vaccine. Few did. But in the second phase of the study, after telling people about the scary disease, researchers also mentioned that a clinic just across the street from their classroom (the participants were students) had the vaccine. Suddenly, many people showed up for the shot. 

“You need to provide the step you need to take,” he said. “White people don’t want to be racist. It is fundamentally disgusting to them to think they’re racist. It turns their stomachs. But the simple next step to take doesn’t exist. But just, you know, when you leave your English class, go across the street — that step doesn’t exist, we don’t have that. There’s no easy way to address the problem.”

Investing in social change — and showing up for the hard conversations

At the end of the training at All Souls Church, several of the participants stopped near the door to talk to Nii Armah Sowah on their way out. During the Q&A, Sowah had asked Byrd how she thinks we can reconcile our personal efforts at anti-racism and the institutional effort that’s needed to effect widespread change. Sowah teaches African culture at CU, and his 1000 Voices Project calls for collective work to bring about cross-cultural understanding. 

“If we live a life where the majority of our intake, our diet, is so toxic, whether it’s school, it’s media, it’s family conversations, it’s comedy we watch, it’s friends in the park, it’s church — it’s ideology that will get pumped into us, it’s all imbalanced. And we are expected to read a book here, a book there, attend a workshop like this to undo all that? I think we should focus on challenging systems instead of trying individually to carry our own oxygen,” Sowah said. 

“To fix all this damage with your own effort, when the damage is every day being reinforced…” he paused. “I’d like to have a conversation about that reality.” 

Leslie Barrett takes notes on a presentation during an anti-racism training event held at Pine Street Church in Boulde. (Photo by Mary Alice Truitt, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Sowah was born in Ghana but has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years. He has become an anti-racism mentor to some, including Saints, and has even hosted one of her anti-racism groups at his home. 

Like so many big issues, the intractableness of racism makes change feel impossible, which is why activists of all stripes say to start local. Saints began her anti-racism work at her church. Byrd is running for the RTD board in her home district, H, in 2020. “It’s another way I’m trying to make change in my community,” she said. “I’m a transit-dependent rider, have been for years, since I was 15.”

Sowah wants to go beyond the local, though. “We spend more money trying to go to the moon than we put into learning about ourselves as humans. If we put as much into human cognition or human behavior, really investing in anti-racism, how to change your habit — we can do it, we just don’t value these things as much as external stuff.”

 


Reading resources      ^ back

Marissa Tafura, one of the co-founders of the Boulder chapter of SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice, a secular organization that focuses on engaging white people in anti-racism, said anti-racism work in predominantly white, left-leaning Boulder is a challenge.

Before the local chapter started working with families, she said, “we were constantly aware of, how are we engaging people, especially progressive white people, who say, ‘I did my part, I showed up at this thing.’ I think what we try to do is give them a call to action at the end of events. Giving them resources to change their media diet would be one simple thing we encourage people to do.”

What people read continued to play a strong role in their mission as the organization underwent a transition. SURJ Families of Boulder County’s shift to a family-focused organization happened based on who was showing up to events (many mixed-race families, like co-founder Marissa Tarufa’s own) and what Tafura was seeing in parenting groups online.  

“People were looking for concrete language: How can I teach my kid how race shapes things in the U.S. and globally?” The chapter has been working with local libraries and schools to get them to offer more diverse children’s books. 

She offered this reading list (including special recommendations for kids):

PODCASTS

ARTICLES AND WRITERS

BOOKS

FOR PARENTS

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