A reflection on Undoing Racism® offered by, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

In my previous article, The ‘White’ Conversation About Racism, I documented a bit of my journey coming to understand what racism is, and how I have been racist. I was curious about how my perspective would change after taking the Undoing Racism® workshop offered by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, out of New Orleans. The People’s Institute advertises an experience that can help participants understand what racism is, where it came from, and how to ‘undo’ it. My takeaways from the program pivot on new terms, definitions, and framing that have helped me talk about racism in my community.

Changed Perspectives

I had already gained much by finding The People’s Institute, talking with their organizers, and researching evaluations of Undoing Racism® (i.e. defining racism as a function of favoritism vs. explicit hate, the frame of ‘undoing’ something that has been constructed, and a focus on institutional leaders as agents of change for institutional racism) In addition to previous gains acquired from this group, there are three things I learned from the workshop that will further alter the way I talk about racism.

Terminology: Defining ‘Racism’
“Racism is more about favoritism toward some, than hate and bigotry toward others.”- Diana Dunn, co-founder, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

One, was a refining of the definition of racism. I had previously been using the definition- Power structures or elements that favor one race over another. This definition was constructed from my collective engagement with anti-racists coming to understand racism as a power structure, and my interview with Diana Dunn, a co-founder at The People’s Institute, where she stated that “racism is more about favoritism toward some, than hate and bigotry toward others.”

The working definition shared in the training was, “race prejudice+power.” The facilitators had us take notice that prejudice can be favorable or unfavorable. I find The People’s Institute’s working definition has a wider scope, and more explicitly includes negative prejudice toward a race as part of the definition.

Terminology: ‘Internalized Superiority’

Secondly, the workshop put a name and analysis to a phenomenon I had previously considered part of the territory of community work- that is conflict. Under an umbrella term, internalized oppression, the workshop attributed lack of progress in anti-racism, by white activists, to the sub-category — internalized superiority. The idea is that notions of hierarchy, competition, and dominance are inherent in our white supremacist history that informs most of us in U.S. culture. The ramification being that white anti-racist activists do a lot of fighting amongst themselves, and not a lot of deconstructing white supremacy. Indicators of this oppression, the workshop offered, is characterized by the counterproductive need to fight about who is better, smarter, more hip to the current dialogue around racism etc. Well meaning activists can get caught in this phase of facing racism, without moving out of the comfort zone of power, to the uncomfortable zone of accountability.

I can see this reflected in my chart in the middle row where: white people focus on talking about and listening to the testimonies of ‘non-whites’; point outside of themselves to identify what and where racism is; and seek acceptance from ‘non-white’ people as a form of anti-racism.

What I got from this segment of the workshop was not that ‘white’ people should not be smart, or powerful, but that the cultural expectation of being on top prevents the necessary humility to reflect on racist constructs embedded in ourselves, our communities, and our dominant culture.

Terminology: ‘Multi-cultural’ vs. ‘Diversity’
“This country is screaming to have its multi-cultural identity acknowledged, and enshrined.”- Kat Bullington

The third thing I picked up on and think is a good practice, is the lack of the word ‘diversity.’ I noticed more use of the term ‘multi-cultural.’ So, while much of the work around racism is housed under ‘diversity,’ and with a goal of ‘diversity’ in mind- I found Undoing Racism® trainers using the term ‘multi-cultural,’ toward a goal of a multi-cultural society. I am not sure if this is just a happenstance, or if the term multi-cultural was often used instead diversity intentionally. Regardless, I will probably think more about those terms, and how I use them. After all, America is inherently multi-cultural, and this country is screaming to have its multi-cultural identity acknowledged, and enshrined.

‘Diversity’ does not quite capture the deep meaning, and history, that different cultural structures have for the United States’ multi-cultural citizenry. I find the term ‘multi-cultural’ especially appropriate in the context of trying to decentralize whiteness — for ‘white’ people, who may feel their cultural identity is erased and lumped into whiteness, and for ‘non-white’ people, whose cultural identity may be ostracized, and rejected as ‘un-American’ or unacceptable. The clear outer layer here, is that we all share the same culture to some point.

Important to note, is that the workshop is focused on institutional leaders, and since I am not one, there were other parts of the training that seemed to have the most impact for the institutional leaders I accompanied, that I cannot speak to. The workshop also had a portion focused on black participants and addressed other ethnic identities as well.

Is there a place for a positive ‘white’ identity?

My main concern going into the training, and thinking about asking others to use the training as a tool to address racism, was blow back if the workshop focused solely on a negative ‘white’ identity. The workshop definitely ended on a dis-empowering, and negative note, I think, for ‘white’ participants. Despite this, we all came away from the workshop with an overall positive experience.

“Developing a negative ‘white’ identity provides much room for inaction, and even more racism.”-Kat Bullington

According to The People’s Institute, the training in its entirety is a 10 day training, and groups get as far as they can with where they are in the conversation. Some people take the training dozens of times.

One purpose of the workshop is to get ‘white’ people to understand white culture as ubiquitously dominant and oppressive. Another, is to put a spotlight on historical events that we are not aware of to explain how racism has been embedded in our laws and culture. These are helpful tools in understanding our roles in white supremacy.

What the training failed to do was provide the fight, and argument — the back and forth — that co-exists with these cultural and legal grabs for white supremacy. This fight is deeply embedded in American culture, and western philosophy. Looking at the fight between enshrining elitism and racism vs. liberty and freedom, I think, provides a relief for how our steps can move us further down the path of liberty and freedom, or the path of oppression and murder.

It is not enough to understand the dynamic of white supremacy in our culture, we must act to correct our path. Developing a negative ‘white’ identity provides much room for inaction, and even more racism through guilt, low self-esteem, denial, and anger. This is not to say that reflection and humility are not main points that need to be made, and taken, to overcome white supremacist patterns, only that refection should encompass positive and negative events. I looked for some research on this subject, and didn’t find too much, but this paper by Lindsay Hammond, which also provides several further citations for previous studies on the issue.

Conclusion

The frame The People’s Institute puts around racism has empowered me to talk about racism effectively for the first time in my anti-racist journey. My personal experience ended on a dis-empowering note for ‘white’ participants, but the overall experience was positive.