Racism reeducation book #9 – Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Here are four questions to wrestle with from Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant and brutal Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.

Question one – If you’re white, how much would you have to be paid to live the next 50 years as a Black person?

Political scientist Andrew Hacker put that question to his white undergraduate students at Queen’s College back in the 1990s.

Most students said they’d need $50 million to “buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be Black.”

Question two – What would you have done with Hitler if he hadn’t killed himself in a bunker (that’s been paved over and turned into a nondescript and unmarked parking lot)?

In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio ran an essay contest where they put that question to students.

A 16-year-old Black girl won the contest with a single sentence – “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”

The contest ran the same year a Black teenage boy, who sent an innocuous Christmas card to a white girl at work, was bound and thrown into a river while his father was held down on shore to watch his son drown.

Question three – Are you willing to be as courageous as August Landmesser?

There’s a famous photo taken in 1936 at a shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. Hundreds of workers are heiling in unison. August is the only one who refuses to salute.

“Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history,” says Isabel. “Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong.

“We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in defense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of love ones and neighbours and coworkers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man. What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

So if you’re a white person, do you have the courage to dismantle a caste system that’s given you a lifetime of unearned economic, social and political privileges simply because of the colour of your skin?  Are you prepared to direct your anger up, rather than down, the ladder? Are you willing to stop correcting, directing, disciplining and policing the people who are the bottom rung?

“The fact is that the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it,” says Isabel. “The challenge has long been that many in the dominant caste, who are in a better position to fix caste inequality, have often been least likely to want to.”

And question four: While debate rages about statues, monuments and memorials for slave owners and segregationists, it’s worth looking at what Germany has done.  “Rather than honor supremacists with statues on pedestals, Germany, after decades of silence and soul-searching, chose to erect memorials to the victims of its aggressions and to the courageous people who resisted the men who inflicted atrocities on human beings,” says Isabel.

Next to the front doors of a subway station in the heart of Berlin is a sign that’s nearly a storey-high and impossible for residents and tourists to miss. The sign reads Places of Horror That We Should Never Forget and then lists a dozen concentration camps where millions of Jews were slaughtered.

So where would you put a storey-high sign in your city that lists all of Canada’s former residential schools?

You’ll be forced to confront many more uncomfortable and unforgettable moral questions in Isabel’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns.

“Evil is not one person but can be be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal,” says Isabel.

“It is easy to say ‘if we could just root out the despots before they take power or intercept their rise. If we could just wait until the bigots die away…It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unquiet minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place. It is harder to focus on the danger of common will, the weaknesses of the human immune system, the ease with which the toxins can infect succeeding generations. Because it means the enemy, the threat is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.”

Racism reeducation book #8 – Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be

The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

I made the mistake of going into a North Hamilton neighbourhood with good intentions.

I persuaded my employer to get involved in events, projects and partnerships. When I talked about the neighbourhood, I called it one of the city’s poorest, with above average unemployment, below average high school graduation rates and third-world health outcomes. I ignored the neighbourhood’s strengths and assets and instead zeroed in on shortcomings and gaps. If that wasn’t insulting enough, I also pitched a path out of poverty that must’ve seemed impossible and impractical to a whole lot of people.

Dolly Chung's The Person You Mean to Be

I pretty much did everything that social psychologist Dolly Chugh warns against in her book The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.

“There are four modes of behavior that prevent believers from humanizing others and prevent them from becoming a builder,” says Dolly, who’s an expert in unconscious biases at the NYU Stern School of Business.

“In these four modes – savior, sympathy, tolerance and typecasting – good intentions are counterproductive. By trying to be a hero, by feeling bad, by treating differences as something to be tolerated or ignored or by typecasting someone to be someone they may not be, we operate in modes that do more harm than good.”

I also overlooked the lifetime of headwinds that were battering generations of kids, teens and grown-ups in the neighbourhood. As a white, straight, able-bodied man, I’ve sailed through life with the benefit of a constant tailwind. When you’ve faced few, if any headwinds, it’s easy to believe that everyone can find the will and the way to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of their lives.

“Headwinds are the challenges – some big, some small, small visible, some invisible – that make life harder for some people, but not fall all people. When you have a tailwind pushing you, it is a force that propels you forward. It is consequential but easily unnoticed or forgotten. The invisibility of headwinds and tailwinds leads us to vilify people facing headwinds. It is no coincidence that the groups facing great headwinds in our society are also the most negatively stereotyped. Our failure to see systemic headwinds and tailwinds in the world around us leads u to blame the people facing headwinds.”

Dolly offers practical steps we can take to move from being believers in diversity, equity and inclusion to becoming builders of diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and communities.

She recommends we educate and occasionally confront others by following the 20/60/20 rule.

The easy 20 are believers in diversity, equity and inclusion and ready to become builders.

The stuck 20 are non-believers. They lack the internal and external motivation to control prejudice. “They may be loud and opinionated or quiet or resilient. Either way, they will suck the life and sustainability out of you if you try to educate or confront them.”

Your goal with the stuck 20 isn’t to educate, persuade and change them. Your goal is to neutralize their ability to hurt others. Tell the stuck 20 that you and many others see things differently. Don’t try to convince them that they’re wrong.

The middle 60 is passive, silent and the most susceptible to influence from the stuck 20 or easy 20. They’ll notice what you say to a racist or if you choose to say nothing. Persuade the undecided majority by telling stories. “The middle 60 tends to be less invested. Stories generate quick bursts of emotion and humanity. Facts are obviously important and are useful for rebutting falsehoods, so know and remember as many as you can. When in doubt, however, stories are more likely to persuade the middle 60.

It can also be tricky to know if speaking up means you’re speaking over someone who’s more than capable of standing up to the stuck 20 and defending themselves. Dolly recommends we not be a bystander whenever someone’s being targeted by racists.

“A big part of allyship is speaking up and not leaving people on their own when they are targeted. One approach is to turn to the target and simply ask for their guidance on whether they would like you to intervene. We can say ‘Would it be okay if I jumped in here?’ or ‘I know you can handle this, but I’m here as backup’ or ‘I’m happy to take this one’ or ‘Say the word if I can help.’ When in doubt, say more, not less.”

There’s no right way to become a builder, says Dolly. It’s hard work being a better human being and it’s always a work in progress.

“If there’s no right way, then each of us can find our own way to be builders and support builders,” says Dolly. “The only wrong way is to settle for only being believers. The work of being a builder is exhausting. If you are not exhausted, at least some of the time, chances are you are still a believer only.”

Racism reeducation book #7 – Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Each of us has a choice to make.

We can choose to be a segregationist.

An assimilationist.

Or an antiracist.

“Segregationists are haters,” says Jason Reynolds. “Like, real haters. People who hate you for not being like them.”

“Assimilationists are people who like you, but only with quotation marks. Meaning, they ‘like’ you because you’re like them.

Antiracists “love you because you’re like you.”

Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You

In his remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Jason in his remix shows how these three identities have been adopted over and over again for hundreds of years.

“The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically. How it has always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet. To keep the ball of white and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to and believe is truth.”

According to Jason, the world’s first racist was Gomes Eanes de Zurara. In 1415, Zurara wrote a book that defended African slave trading. Enslaving people was defended as missionary work. It was a way to save, civilize and Christianize African “savages”.

And so began anti-Black racist ideas that continue to this day, even after scientific evidence proved on June 26, 2000 that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.

“This is how racism works. All it takes is the right kind of media to spark it. To spin it. At least, that’s why history has shown us. Tell a story a certain way. Make a movie that paints you as the hero. Get enough people on your side ot tell you you’re right and you’re right. Even if you’re wrong. And once you’ve been told you’re right long enough, and once your being right has led you to a profitable and privileged life, you’d do anything to not be proven wrong. Even pretend human beings aren’t human beings.”

History tells us we should expect a backlash to Black Lives Matter and the current moment we’re in. “Whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse,” says Jason. “You know the old saying, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get racist.”

We need to meet that racism head on by getting active. Posting summaries of antiracism books on blogs and social media won’t cut it.

“Scrolling will never be enough,” says Jason.

“Reposting will never be enough.

“Hashtagging will never be enough.

“Because hatred has a way of convincing us that half love is whole. What I mean by that is we – all of us – have to fight against performance and lean into participation. We have to be participants. Active.

“We have to be more than audience members sitting comfortably in the stands of morality, shouting “WRONG!”. That’s too easy. Instead, we must be players on the field, on the court, in our classrooms and communities, trying to do right.

“Because it takes a whole hand – both hands – to grab hold of hatred. Not just a texting thumb and a scrolling index finger.”

Racism reeducation book #6 – Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Alicia Elliott says indigenous kids have good reason to fear governmental care more than their parents’ poverty.

The Tuscarora writer from Six Nations of the Grand River speaks from experience.

“In some sense I intuited this, even as a kid. I knew it was bullshit that social workers and cops had so much control over our family, that they could split us up the moment we didn’t cater to their sensibilities. Knowing this then made me hate social workers and cops. Knowing this now makes me hate the systems that empower them – systems that put families in impossible situations, then punish them for not being able to claw their way out.”

book a mindAlicia grew up in grinding poverty. She routinely went to school without lunch. She lived with head lice for a decade. Her family moved between empty rental houses and shelters. Alicia, her sister, three brothers and parents eventually settled into a two-bedroom trailer that didn’t have running water for five years. They ate a lot of low-grade ground beef, cheap pasta and pancakes for dinner.

And yet…‘My siblings and I were great students,” says Alicia. “We had no problems at school; no mysterious bruises discoloured our skin. We were liked by our teachers, made friends easily. We never lacked for love or encouragement.

“Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness – things neither social workers nor police offices have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged to patrol.”

Alicia’s family lived under the constant fear that they’d be separated at any moment. And they weren’t alone. Depending on the province, Indigenous kids in Canada are anywhere from five to 12 times more likely to be taken into government care than non-Indigenous children.

While the main reason cited for breaking up families is neglect, Elliot says that’s just another word for poverty. “Social services conflates not being able to afford adequate housing, food, clothing and health care with choosing not to have adequate housing, food, clothing and health care. Instead of supporting poor families and helping them become financially secure, social services’ approach is to simply take the kids. It’s as though they believe that removing the added expenses of children is doing poor parents a favour; or taking kids from loving parents and throwing them in impersonal, sometimes dangerous foster homes is doing them a favour.”

These forced separations have been playing out for hundreds of years, says Alicia.

“So many of our nations have been forcefully displaced, so many of our children stolen from our arms and placed in residential schools or, more recently, in the arms of overworked social workers and violent foster parents, as if white abuse could ever be better than Indigenous love.

“It is only recently that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples has been referred to as genocide, and even then, it’s usually been ‘cultural genocide’ as if that somehow softens its edges and makes it more permissible. More Canadian.”

The 14 essays in Alicia’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground sharpen genocide’s edges and make the case for why Canadian success can’t continue to be dependent upon Indigenous destruction.  Alicia strips away our national fairy tales and shows our country’s hidden, darker side.

“True reconciliation with Native peoples requires Canada to stop its paternalistic, discriminatory policies and, most important, stop interfering with our sovereignty over our identities, communities and land,” says Alicia. “These are by no means easy or comfortable actions for Canadians to undertake, but they must be undertaken regardless.”

Racism reeducation book #5 – Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race

How to Be Less Stupid About Race is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

What exactly should we do now?

What can you and I starting doing today to tackle racism at work and in our community?

book stupidIt’s a question Crystal Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race, gets asked at every speaking engagement. Crystal is a writer, sociologist and associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University.

“Being educated about inequality and oppression can feel as if the weight of the world has been placed on your shoulders and now you’ve got to DO! SOMETHING! ABOUT IT!,” says Crystal. “It’s a positive sign to want an action plan that will explain how to put your newfound knowledge into practice and make this world a better place.

“But this is what I’d tell my younger self: no one is going to be able to explain to you, in a soundbite, what you should do to challenge racism. They simply can’t. The answer is going to vary for each individual, depending on your personality and background, interests, talents and inclinations. So, it’s your job to figure out how you can best leverage your knowledge and skills to help humanity.”

Instead of a soundbite, Crystal has 10 recommendations for how we can be less stupid about race and do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

Relinquish magical thinking. “If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle. To sustain your work for the long haul, you’ll have to build up your reserves of resilience, self-care, community care and courage. You’ll have to nurture your capacity for hope, humour, love and connection, even, and especially, in the midst of oppression.”

Critically assess your racial socialization. “Most of us were not taught to acknowledge the impact of racial ideas, scripts and behavior on our upbringing and values, but that’s the kind of internal work that’s required for addressing racism.”

Start or join an antiracist study group and share what you learn about systemic racism. “Making a long-term commitment to challenging racism also requires a lifetime of learning.”

Empower young people to understand systemic racism. “Help ensure that children and adolescents in your sphere of influence understand that race is not just about ‘skin colour’ or ‘seeing race’. It’s a systemic problem that’s going to require collective mobilization to bring about enduring change – and youth have an important role to play in dismantling white supremacy.”

Recognize and reject false equivalencies. “One of the most dangerous and pervasive forms of racial ignorance is the insistence on drawing a false equivalency between being a member of the racial majority group and a member of a racial minority group.”

Disrupt racist practices – get comfortable calling shit out. “If you’re not making powerful white people uncomfortable, you’re doing antiracism wrong. Leverage your social influence, stand up against racist behavior and be willing to make your racist family members, friends and/or colleagues uncomfortable.”

Get organized – support the work of antiracist organizations, educators and activists. “The most intelligent way to address a systemic problem is to approach is systematically, which involves organizing and mobilizing collective action.”

Amplify the voices of Black women, Indigenous women and women of colour. “Our vulnerability to multiple forms of oppression render Black women more sensitized to and knowledgeable about the complexities of racism, sexism, classism, and so on.”

Shift resources to marginalized people. “Institutions, organizations, politicians and everyday citizens can all make it a regular, ongoing practice to look for ways of disrupting the status quote by investing material, cultural, social and political resources into vulnerable communities.”

Choose an area of impact that leverages your unique talents. “You don’t have to be a ‘single-issue’ antiracist, but I do recommend selecting a few areas to build your knowledge and maximize your impact.”

Crystal says we’re stupid about race because we think of racism as individual prejudice and not as a broader system and structure of power. “Whether you realize it or not, racism is systemic, pervasive and embedded within the core of all our major institutions. The consequences of systemic racism are vast – from the burgeoning racial wealth gap, political disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and racist immigration policies to micro-aggressions, racial profiling, racist media imagery and disparities in health, education, employment and housing.”

Along with reading Crystal’s book and adopting one or more of her recommendations, there’s one other thing you and I can do right now. When we ask if authors and experts can run antiracism workshops and guest talks at work and in our community this fall, pay them for time and expertise.

‘I could write entire novels about the so-called invitations I’ve received to give free talks about racism and slavery at well-funded universities that built their wealth on racism and slavery,” says Crystal. “Gee, as tempting as it would be for me to enrich your life with my unpaid labour while you rollick in your white privilege, I’m going to have to pass.”

How to prevent diversity training from becoming a support group for white people (review of White Fragility)

crying-1299426_1920I owe the facilitators an apology.

I was taking my first mandatory diversity workshop at work. I was more than 20 years into my career.

This was not my finest moment. I sat with my arms crossed, back up and mouth shut.

I was suffering from an acute case of sudden onset white fragility. I thought the facilitators were preaching to the converted. I’d never said anything racist to a co-worker. I didn’t judge people based on the colour of their skin. Of course everyone should feel safe, welcomed and respected at work. So why was I there?

Robin Diangelo’s seen and heard it all during her two decades as a racial and social justice trainer and consultant. At least I didn’t sigh, cry or storm out of the room.

white fragility“After years of working with my fellow whites, I have discovered (as, I am sure, have countless people of colour) a set of unspoken rules for how to give white people feedback on our inevitable and often unconscious racist assumptions and patterns,” says Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all.”

Should a facilitator break the cardinal rule – “do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances” – Diangelo says you must then follow 10 other tongue-in-cheek rules, including:

“There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.”

“Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (e.g. classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.”

Diversity and inclusion workshops have the potential to turn into support groups for comforting and coddling aggrieved white people. Talking about racism for two hours in a conference room somehow becomes more traumatizing than enduring a lifetime of racism.

“White fragility functions as a form of bullying,” says Diangelo. “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.”

So what’s the solution? Start with how we define racism to help diffuse tension in the room. “It is not limited to a single act or person. Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching efforts.”

We may not be Tiki torch-waving racists but many of us have benefited from systemic racism and its unlimited lifetime supply of white privilege. Reflecting on that advantage is an overdue conversation well worth having.

We also need to rethink feedback. Take it as a gift rather than an accusation. “Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in terms of interrupting my own white fragility is that this feedback is a positive sign in a relationship,” says Diangelo. “Of course, the feedback seldom feels good – I occasionally feel embarrassed or defensive. But I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic patterns, so if a person of colour trusts me enough to take the risk and tell me, then I am doing well.”

Before offering diversity and inclusion training this fall, have everyone read White Fragility as their pre-workshop homework. And then, as a group, have the courage to call out colleagues who’d rather be comforted than have uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism and how to dismantle it at work.

This review first ran in the August 6 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.