Introduction and Basic Assumptions

Our working assumption is that the desire for training at Carleton around antiracism has been generated by people of color experiencing racist behaviors, policies, and actions that white enactors see as benign, colorblind, and having no racial dimension. These have been expressed by current members of the community as well as alumni.

Why does this massive discrepancy in worldviews exist, and how can the community move towards an antiracist identity? This involves centering how people of color experience racism at Carleton and in the wider culture, uncovering the elements of a white colorblind worldview, and identifying specific actions, policies and institutional practices that represent an antiracist organization.[1]

We have both seen examples where conversations around race have been initiated without adequate preparation. Without such preparation, conversations can easily be derailed and become sources of resentment.

[1] You may already know of the Continuum on Becoming an Antiracist and Multicultural Organization, developed by Crossroads Ministry in Chicago.

The 10 Most Common Missteps We Have Observed

  1. Not adequately acknowledging the concerns of BIPOC folk, and white members of the community moving too quickly to a defensive posture by claiming that accounts of racism are overstated and due to people of color being too sensitive, thin skinned, and seeing racism where it doesn’t really exist.
  2. Positioning training as a form of mandatory confessionals, where white members feel they are being shamed and disdained simply because of their identity. Enormous resentment develops if they feel that “training” requires them to apologize, confess racist sins, and ask people of color to absolve them of their racist history. In addition, people of color get weary of white colleagues expressing their “woke-ness” in front of them. This is why we advocate racial affinity groups so strongly.
  3. Moving far too quickly to an individualist interpretation of racism, instead of understanding it as the structure of embedded advantage it really is.
  4. Using terms such as racism, white supremacy, anti-blackness and white privilege in inexact and indiscriminate ways.
  5. Perceiving training as being mandated in a top-down way with no attempt by those in charge of training publicly modeling their own engagement in antiracist conversations.
  6. Assuming that simply talking about race opens people up to considering their own unwitting participation in racism. In fact, without clear protocols and ground rules, talking about race can actually make things worse. People situate themselves in defensive camps, feel others are not listening, and are personally threatened.
  7. White community members being unwilling to participate fully in conversation for fear of being judged to be racist, or of saying the “wrong” thing.
  8. Expecting a series of conversations, workshops, and trainings to “fix” the problem and remove racism from the community.
  9. Thinking that success in race-based conversations entails a collaborative celebration of each other’s identity, fundamental transformations to newly liberating viewpoints, and a joyful coming together in agreement. Our view is that success is simply keeping the conversation going, having people listen to alternative viewpoints, and then learning to live with the realization that fundamentally different views of racism at Carleton co-exist and not seeking to move to any premature celebration of consensus.
  10. Not understanding that the conversational model privileged in academic environments of calmly rational analysis – what hooks (1997) describes as “bourgeois decorum” – does not apply in race-based discussions. Consequently, when the emotional temperature rises and people cry in frustration or express anger, or long awkward silences prevail (all of which are quite natural and inevitable), participants feel the discussion has gone awry, broken down, and failed. In fact, all these phenomena are regularly occurring dynamics of conversations regarding race.

Preparing for Difficult Conversations

For those who have not previously considered race and racism to be an important element in their lives, engaging with this topic is often difficult. Research into adult transformative learning (Taylor & Cranton, 2012; Cranton, 2016) shows it takes time for people to integrate a consideration of race into their worldview and actions. Becoming critically reflective (Brookfield, 2017) is not something that happens in a road-to-Damascus revelation.

The process is incremental and involves temporary regressions to earlier perspectives, even as new ones are being taken seriously. For a major perspective and paradigm shift to take root, people need forums to process their struggles with moving to an antiracist orientation. We are advocating that conversations be reflective spaces be created to help people work through their grappling with what it means to develop an antiracist identity (Brookfield & Hess, 2021).