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I was a white racist. I think training made me a better person.

Can more effective training end racism in the US? There's no magic bullet, but I think well-crafted learning opportunities can be part of the solution.

With a headline like that, I’m guessing my future career in politics may be over before it begins. I’m ok with that.

For a long time I felt that we lived in a nation that was realizing Dr. King’s dream, where people in the United States in the 2000s had every opportunity to be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. I worked in Washington, DC, in a youth center helping students earn their GED credential so they could have bigger and better opportunities. My students seemed to enjoy my tough love approach and my sense of humor and perhaps most importantly, my presentation style – it worked for my students in a way that their traditional high schools didn’t.

There were times when my students would be talking about “white people” and I’d give them a look and they’d quickly say: “Oh, we don’t see you as ‘white’, Brian!”

I worked with neighborhood gang members and drug dealers and it really felt to me that with some hard work, a good support system and some determination, anyone in this country had an opportunity to make it as far as they themselves wanted to go. I saw it with my own eyes! My students were earning their GEDs and getting jobs!

Then, a little over 13 years ago, I was serving as the training director for the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association. Our organization worked closely with the foster care system – a system which touched families of color at an overwhelmingly disproportionate rate compared to the general demographic make-up of the United States. Our organization’s volunteers across the country were overwhelmingly white and middle aged.

With so many opportunities for misunderstanding between our volunteers and the families with whom we worked most closely, cultural competence, and later anti-racism training, was essential to our ability to be more effective working in the foster care system.

Casey Family Programs, another organization doing amazing work within the foster care system, approached us with a training program on racial and ethnic identity development called Knowing Who You Are. Our entire staff went through the program. It was eye opening, I’d even go so far as to say life changing. We wanted to bring it to our nationwide network of programs and volunteers.

In order to do so, however, we had to send our facilitators (me included) to become “certified” to train on their curriculum. Any time you’re facilitating conversations around race and ethnicity, it’s important to do it well. Otherwise you can end up doing more harm than good. So it was reasonable for Casey Family Programs to insist anyone using their training program go through a certification process.

Adverse Reaction to Anti-racism Training

As a first step, we were required to go through a 2-day program called Undoing Racism. Colleagues who had been through it said it was a fantstic program, and they’d be interested to know what I thought.

It was certainly one of the most jarring professional development experiences I’ve ever had. I suppose it depends on the facilitator. I thought it was a terrible experience and it felt like it had done me more harm than good. It did, however, introduce me to a concept I’d not heard before.

Power + Racial Prejudice = Racism

Because the institutional systems in this country are what yield real power (police, education, healthcare, finance, etc), and because those systems are controlled by white people who have set up the systems to their advantage, then that meant that all white people are racist and people of color cannot be racist.

While people around the room nodded in understanding and agreement, this didn’t sit well with me. I was a good person. I fought the good fight. So much of my work had been to ensure a better world for everyone – the Peace Corps, helping students earn their GEDs, helping foster children find their forever homes. And now I’m a bad person because of the color of my skin? I’m racist? And there’s nothing I can do about it?

With all due respect, piss off.

An Intensive Certification Process was Life Changing

Having gone through Undoing Racism, I could check that box and move on to the other components of certification. I had to go through Knowing Who You Are as a participant, attend a train the trainer session and then deliver the training with a certifier present to share observations and feedback.

As I mentioned earlier, going through the 2-day Knowing Who You Are course was incredibly eye opening.

We went through Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege Checklist. As much as I didn’t want to admit I had privilege, as hard as I tried to make sure there were some things I couldn’t check off this list, the fact was I could check almost everything off.

Few of my colleagues who were people of color could check off anything, no matter how much they wanted to.

(If you’re white and you’ve never read her article or gone through her checklist and you’d like to know more about white privilege, I highly recommend clicking here and learning more.)

We watched a segment from an old episode of Primetime Live with Dianne Sawyer entitled True Colors. If any of us white people in the room wanted to try to make excuses for things that came up in the white privilege checklist activity, this video (an undercover video showing two individuals – one white, one black – going through a series of every day tasks) illustrated how different the white and African American experiences were.

Activity by activity, the ah-ha moments kept rolling in, but the training didn’t stop there. We were asked to examine our own organizational and personal practices to identify areas in which bias and privilege impacted the way we do things. Who were our vendors? How did our hiring practices provide an uneven playing field?

It wasn’t enough to simply be “woke” to the fact that privilege existed, we had to examine each aspect of our work. And do something about it.

We didn’t just have to check a box by bringing this training to the rest of our network of programs – leaders and volunteers alike – we had to believe in it. And we had to practice it.

How Training Led to Reflection, then Change

One of my darkest memories of being a GED instructor was a day that started out normal enough. I had been teaching GED classes for several years at this point. My students came in, we had some laughs, we did some work. I don’t even remember now what exactly happened, but Stephen – one of the smartest kids who had come through my class – said something, or did something. Maybe he was talking when the students were supposed to be working. I don’t remember.

I called him out, just as I’d done a thousand times before to any student who was talking when they were supposed to be working. He gave me a look, then tossed the F-bomb back at me.

It was like a scene in a movie where things are going fine then all of a sudden there’s a record-scratch sound effect. The whole class was silent, looking to see what would happen next. I asked Stephen to go out into the hallway, which is what I typically did in order to have a one-on-one conversation with a student that included things that didn’t need to be observed by the rest of the class.

He walked out of the class, cussing at me the whole way.

I had worked hard to create an environment in which students who had struggled in their own public schools could come, learn and succeed. If I let a student cuss me out in front of their classmates, then what?

I decided to kick Stephen out. Forever. No second chance. And this wasn’t up for discussion.

It was probably five or six years later that I went through the Knowing Who You Are training and my mind immediately went back to this interaction.

Would I have done the same thing to a white student? Was I so confident and arrogant about treating everyone equally that I “didn’t see color” or the greater context of actions and reactions?

When I hired someone, was I truly being “blind” in my hiring decisions, or was I choosing someone who I’d be most comfortable working with because we had shared experiences that were more relatable for me?

What about a requirement in the job description that mandates a bachelor’s degree? Do people realize that while 36% of non-Hispanic white adults hold a bachelor’s degree, only 22.5% of African American adults and 15.5% of Hispanic adults do?

And why didn’t I say something at Thanksgiving when crazy Uncle Fred began telling his racist jokes? Is “meh, he means well, he’s just trying to be funny” an excuse?

What about the stock images I choose for my blog? Am I choosing them with intention? Or do I just pick the first one that looks like it’ll work (which is almost always a white male)?

We are living in a time in which our social media feeds are inundated with memes and news stories in response to the killing of George Floyd. Some people have taken to the streets to demand change.

It feels that everyone is looking for ways they can make a difference in this moment.

Those of us in the world of training and professional development won’t be able to solve the racism that’s existed in our institutions for centuries, overnight or even through one well-designed training program. But I don’t think we can discount the power of a well-designed, well-facilitated program to open eyes, change hearts and lead to action.

Not Sure Where To Begin?

Sometimes it’s not a formal training program that needs to take place. Some organizations have created space for employees to engage in conversations through affinity groups and moderated discussions.

As a follow-up to the Knowing Who You Are training, I began a book club with National CASA. We began by reading and discussing Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?.

As I mentioned earlier, awareness is a good start, but being “woke” doesn’t necessarily change anything, which is why our second book club installment revolved around the book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. While this book has no direct ties to cultural competence or anti-racism, it is an extremely important supplement for anyone who is wondering why intent doesn’t lead to action. It’s a change management book that helps break down the disconnect between our words and our actions.

I know this is a much longer (and much more personal) post than I usually share on Train Like A Champion. If you’ve made it through to the end, thank you for reading. And if you’ve ever had a similar experience in which you’ve found a training program to literally be life changing, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

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