In the month of July I’m guest-hosting a few episodes of IN Focus, the public affairs program on Whitewater Community Television‘s WGTV Channel 11. In talking with my guests I’m hoping to keep the conversation going around our region’s biggest challenges and opportunities when it comes to addressing racism, and making sure that white people are listening, learning and taking meaningful anti-racist action.
On today’s episode I talked with Betsy Schlabach, who has not only studied and taught about the history of race relations and racism in our country, but has also facilitated a workshop locally about anti-racist parenting techniques. We tackle the vocabulary of conversations about racism, what systemic racism looks like, how to build on what kids already notice in the world to help them think about race, and where racism and quality of healthcare availability intersect. I hope you find the conversation helpful; I know that I did.
You can watch the video below, on WCTV’s YouTube channel or as the episode is replayed on WGTV Channel 11. The audio of the show is also available via the Richmond Matters podcast feed, which you can find in your favorite podcast listening app.
The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.
Chris Hardie: Hi and welcome to this week’s IN Focus on Whitewater Community Television, WGTV channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie and I’m sitting in for Eric Marsh as your host for a few episodes in the month ahead. As Eric and I talked about possible themes for these next few episodes, we felt that it is very important to continue the conversations in our community around the essential question of what it looks like for Black people in our city and our state and our nation to feel and to know true equality. We also know that we cannot fully explore that question without white people in our community joining in and attempting to understand our role in systems of racism, what privileges and biases contribute to that and what actions we can take to be a part of the solution. I think that as white people, we need to show that we are listening, that we are understanding and that we are willing to do some hard work on issues of racism in the name of justice for everybody.
My first guest is someone who I think can help us have at least a part of that conversation. Betsy Schlabach is an associate professor of history and African and African American studies at Earlham College here in Richmond. And she is someone who’s done a lot of research and learning and teaching around these topics. Betsy, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate you being here.
Betsy Schlabach: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Chris: I wonder if you could briefly just tell us a little bit about your background and your areas of study and teaching.
Betsy: Sure. So my research focuses on African American history, urban history and race relations. Most recently, I’ve been working on the intersections of racism and public health specifically how that relates to the pandemic of 1918, which has a lot of relevance for our current epidemic. And so I teach African American history. I teach urban history and I’ve published a book on Black Chicago, and I hope to soon publish another looking at women’s roles in Chicago’s economy in the mid 20th century. So yeah, that’s a little bit of what I do in the classroom and outside of it.
Chris: Great. Vocabulary can be so important in these discussions we’re having. So before we dive into some questions, I want to make sure we take a minute to get on the same page about a couple of key terms. And I know that it can be really tempting to oversimplify racism as kind of overt, clear, bad acts that someone commits with the intention to hurt someone else because of their race. But I think that we’re learning to kind of go beyond that definition of racism and think about systems of racism and systemic racism. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what systemic racism is and how it works.
Betsy: So I think systemic racism refers to the ways in which like you said, that racism, yes can be these overt acts of violence committed against people of color. But racism is also about the systems and the pervasive nature of racism. So it’s not just one incident of racial bias or racist actions, but it’s how those intertwine and filter through the systems that we live in. So how racism might inform access to health care or voting rights, college admissions policies. So it’s about the ways in which racism informs the structures and the systems that govern our lives that give white people more privilege than Black people.
Chris: And is there a way to quantify something like that? Like can you say a given country or region is experiencing or has a certain level of systemic racism or another, or is that part of why it’s hard to get at because it’s hard to measure?
Betsy: I think it is. It’s part of the reasons why it’s really hard to measure it. I also think that it’s, we should hold … we should be skeptical of trying to quantify it because once we quantify it, we think we can measure it. And that’s when again, like even the systems that might measure it are informed by racism. And so it’s really messy and tricky. And in terms of which nations are more or less racist, I know the UN has done some summits on racism, global racism and the United States hasn’t had a good track record of participating in such things which should tell us something. But I think that quantifying it is difficult because those systems of quantification would also be informed by racism.
So it’s all, it’s very messy and I think to help me understand it, I’ve always, I’ve most recently I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist. And in his book, just to go back to your question about definitions, he sets up in the introduction. He starts his book by offering definitions of racism and anti-racism and he doesn’t want us to rely on a binary of racist or not racist, because what he says, racism is supporting a person who is supporting or ignoring policies or racist policies through their actions or inactions. Okay. So he says … I’ll say that again. So racist is one who supports a racist policy through their action or inaction. And he says anti-racist is one who supports an anti-racist policy through their actions or expresses an anti-racist idea.
And so that’s the binary that he wants us to adopt and abandon this idea that something’s not racist, because we live in a racist system. So everything is informed by that condition of being within a racist system. And then going back to systemic racism, what I think these definitions offer us as an opportunity to attack racist policies. So look at those policies, look at those systems or the policies that inform systemic racism and attack the policy, not the people because policies are easier to change anyway, in my opinion. It’s very hard to change someone’s mind.
Chris: Yeah. Do you have an example of a policy that might be informing or reinforcing a racist system, just so we can kind of wrap our heads around what that looks like in practice?
Betsy: Sure. So red lining, for example. Looking at mortgages and lending practices. So my work focuses on Chicago and there are some really, really interesting and thorough studies of housing and mortgage lending in the history of Chicago. And so specifically I’m talking about something called restrictive racial housing covenants, and these were agreements between realtors and homeowners that home owners wouldn’t sell their properties to people of color. And that effectively kept neighborhoods white. Or their agreements between or among real estate agents that they wouldn’t rent homes or show homes to people of color in certain neighborhoods. And so that’s a racist policy that really, even to this current day informs our way, the way in which we think people move throughout the city of Chicago. Like so African Americans only settle on the South side and white people inhabited the suburbs, like that just occurred naturally.
Well, that’s not the case. There’s a racist policy in play that created that dynamic that informed segregation that we’re still living with today. So that would be a policy and people did this, they mobilized a policy that people attacked to hopefully rid the city of racism. And again, but we’re not there yet, right? Like that’s why Kendi also says in his book that being anti-racist attacking racist policies is an everyday pursuit that you have to wake up and commit yourself to it every day. It’s a lifelong journey and you’ll lose focus and you’ll experience fatigue. But that it’s a commitment that you really have to make.
Chris: And we’ll talk more in a little bit about sort of what that action might look like. I want to also get to this other term white privilege, which I know is a phrase that’s used in so many different ways. And just off the cuff, it could feel like a phrase that’s maybe off putting to a white person who hasn’t explored it before. So let’s talk about like what is white privilege and what does that mean in the context of thinking about racism?
Betsy: Sure. So when I talk about this with my students, particularly in my white students, I try to use myself as an example. So I was raised in a very white, rural town in Northern Michigan. I was not exposed to a lot of racial diversity. And then I went to college and my first semester I learned about white privilege and I had no idea what we were talking about. I’ll be honest, I was overwhelmed, but reflective and I had an excellent professor who helped walk me through what that meant. And over the years, there’s a lot of great reading we can do about this. There’s a reading by McKintosh called The Invisible Knapsack. And in that reading, she talks about how whiteness is like this backpack that white people wear and they can take various forms of privilege out of the backpack whenever they need it.
Let’s say applying for a job or opening up a bank account. Those things are easier because of one’s whiteness. But I think it’s people trip up over it because for many white people, it’s like you’re being told that you don’t have any struggles, that your life isn’t hard. And that’s not what the concept is talking about. It’s merely saying that your life isn’t hard because you’re white. So I’ll say that again, that whiteness isn’t a barrier for you. It’s an avenue to access resources that people of color don’t have. And it’s really tricky to talk about it because white people don’t talk about being white very much. Like we just don’t know how to do it. We might defer to class or sex or where you’re brought up. Like that’s the first thing I mentioned. Oh, I was brought up in Northern Michigan.
And so I think it’s very hard for us to talk about whiteness, especially something that’s not been a stumbling block for us. Whereas and also, I don’t think we’re trained at a very young age to talk about race at all. And that’s in itself a form of white privilege that we don’t have to focus on it. We don’t have to reflect on it. It’s not something that we have to think about every day as we mature, as we progress through our life. And that’s a privilege that it’s not something we have to talk about or talk about with our kids. Whereas African American families, they’re talking about race day one. Their Black mothers are teaching their children and the Black fathers how to interact with teachers, how to interact with law enforcement because their lives are literally at stake. Right. My kids don’t have to do that. And so I think that’s, and that’s a privilege. So it’s this idea that yes, you have barriers in your life, whether it be class, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, but whiteness is not one of those barriers for you. And that’s a privilege.
Chris: Yeah. And just to put a fine point on what you’re saying, I mean, someone could be in a pretty difficult situation financially. They could be struggling to make ends meet, unemployed, whatever that looks like. And if they are white, they’re going to still experience the world in a different way than someone who is going through those same struggles, but is black or a person of color, because that privilege is, like you said, that backpack is still worn. Even if someone is yeah, not fitting into some stereotype of a wealthy white person. But if they’re struggling, they’re still going to be able to experience white privilege, even if they don’t know it. Yeah.
Betsy: And like I said, I don’t think we’re equipped to deal with it because well, we don’t really have to. And so it’s these moments of reckoning, of racist reckoning that we have where white people are forced to confront our … we’re forced to confront our whiteness and we don’t know how to do it. And so we get very defensive. And I think it’s also, it’s tough like if you have barriers in healthcare, if you’re bouncing checks and whatnot, it’s hard to think, but wait, you’re going to tell me that I have racial privilege? Like my life is hard. And so it’s tough to have those conversations.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Are there other terms we should kind of define before we move forward? Anything else that stands out to you as really kind of key for understanding this conversation?
Betsy: Well I think and this is a pretty theory laden word. There’s this idea of intersectionality. And I think that also can help us understand race and identity. There’s this wonderful scholar, her name is Kimberly Crenshaw, and she coined this term or developed this theory in the late 20th century. And it refers to the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect to make life difficult for people of color, women of color, trans people of color. And so in terms of privilege and the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect, it gets a whole lot more complex. And so this is sort of like scratching the surface of that. And I think it’s exciting to think about the theoretical levels. But that can be … I mean, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea to talk about that.
Chris: It sounds like it’s important to get at, at some point along the way. So you’re watching Whitewater Community Television, WGTV channel 11. I’m Chris Hardie and I’m talking today with Betsy Schlabach. Betsy, you’ve conducted workshops I think locally and in addition to your classroom work about what it means to understand and address racism. And I know you’ve done at least one in particular about what it looks like to parent a child in a way that that works against racism. So I’m wondering if you could talk us through some of the points that you cover in that conversation.
Betsy: So yeah, I’ve given this talk a couple of times and it stems from my own interest as a parent of two small children and trying to figure out how they will navigate the world of race and racism. And in particular, I got really interested in it after a few embarrassing conversations with colleagues where my kids were being their observant selves. They’re about two years old. And then I thought, well, I need to look into this further. And so what I do in these workshops is I basically, I talk about the stages of racial socialization. And so experts say that infants, as young as three months old can track the differences between races and experts know this because they watched the eye movements of infants as they sort of meander, switch between colors.
And then between the ages of two and three, children start to notice racial difference and they start to conceptually put together racial differences. They start asking questions and wondering if racial differences stick. And then by ages five to seven, experts say that this age range is where children evidence their greatest racial prejudice and they start identifying systems of racial prejudice. So noticing why all of the students in their school might be of a particular race, how congregants at their local church might be of a particular race or not. And they start verbalizing those differences and that’s where those embarrassing questions for parents might emerge. And then between ages seven to 12, with greater access to the internet peers and social media, children start to show that they’re able to place themselves within those systems of racial prejudice.
And they start to be able to measure how they might be arbiters or might be consuming racist ideas. And that’s a really important moment because you have kids ages seven to 12 starting to identify systems of racial prejudice or those racist policies that Kendi talks about in his book. But what’s so distressing is that in 2017, 70% of white mothers espoused a color blind parenting process where they were-
Chris: What does that mean?
Betsy: That means like they would downplay the notion of race or … And I’ve seen this recently on social media, especially in regard to the protests that we see. People say, well, I was taught never to see color or I was taught that everybody’s the same. Well, and experts tell us, actually you are designed to see color. Those infants at three months old are tracking between racial groups. And so what this can do is especially for white kids, it can result in really, well, misalignment, right? So that they’re noticing racial difference in the world, but when they bring it up at home in their safest space, their parents are shutting down that conversation. And I don’t think the parents that are … like I don’t think we’re being malicious at this point, but we’re just doing what our parents did. Like, oh, you’re not different from them. Everybody’s the same, treat everybody equally. We treat everybody equally.
But kids are really good at, at least my kids are very good at pointing out what’s fair and unfair. I have twins. And so it’s really easy for them to be like, “No, that’s not fair.” And they’ve been doing that since they were three. And so it can be really confusing for a child to witness the systems of racism to be able to sort of parse out their participation in the systems of racism, but then have their most trusted adults say, “Let’s not talk about that or we don’t see color.” And so what I encourage people in that workshop to do is I have a number of strategies and one of them is make race an every day descriptor of your world. And I talk about the book by Eric Carle, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? And in the book, he walks the reader through all of these different animals and their different colors, like the purple cat or the white dog, the red bird. But then in the end, the story culminates with a teacher looking at the children.
They don’t tell us what color the teacher is. They just say teacher. And when you actually look at it and you figure it out, you’re like, “Well, that doesn’t even rhyme.” Like it’s just, it’s really bizarre. So I’ve been encouraged to insert the word a white teacher is looking at us, because your child is learning, okay birds are red. The dog is this color, the bear’s brown. And I see a white teacher. So it helps them become comfortable having race be part of or just like a descriptor of their everyday worlds. Other strategies include go to culturally diverse events and talk about race when you do or with your children talk about racist messages that make you uncomfortable. So another example, I was preparing to my kids to Disney world, and I thought I want them to watch the Disney movies and we watched Peter Pan.
Well, that was, there’s a whole host of racist messages in Peter Pan, if you haven’t seen in a while especially when it comes to Native Americans. And so I stopped the film and I walked them through some of the messages that I have a problem with and why. And they kind of just stared at me which they do when I lecture to them. But then later on like little conversations emerge about how all that wasn’t fair or … Then we got to talk about Thanksgiving and some Pilgrim thing at their school and other messages like that. And I’m just trying to get them to think about the materials they’re being exposed to and what I think about it and why I’m uncomfortable or why I’m comfortable. And honestly, the third thing I tell people is that this takes a lot of practice and you’re going to be uncomfortable, and you’re going to think that you’re making mistakes. But I really think it’s better to talk about these things with your kids than leave them unprepared for conversations about race.
Chris: Yeah. I know, like for me personally, I mean, I went through a lot of the first part of my life when the subject of racism came up, it was definitely like yeah, racism is a problem and like what are black people going to do about it? It was kind of like, well, poor black people, they have to fight racism. Isn’t that too bad? And that obviously coming from a place of white privilege and a place of not having seen race and the resulting racism come from something that I was participating in.
So it sounds like the strategies you’re describing, I mean, if they are woven into everyday life, everyday parenting, the awareness that that can come out of that is beneficial because then white people maybe stop seeing ourselves as separate from the problem of racism, but woven into that system. And we can start to understand where we might have a role in undoing it or fighting it. Are there studies or results that kind of show that it does have a positive effect over the course of a child’s life and sort of as they start to think about the systems they’re part of?
Betsy: I can’t name any off the top of my head actually. But that is my sincere hope is that we can create a sort of informed generation and feel a little bit more responsible for the current racist climate. And then we can engage in anti-racist work in authentic ways because there are some times when I see my children talking about race, talking about anti-racism where they’re steps ahead of me because they are getting a different racial socialization than I did. And that gives me a lot of hope. I think it’s exciting. And there’s so many resources out there, reading lists and our own local library does I think a great job with the range of diverse sources they have, the readings that they promote, even the … when you walk in and you look at the books on the shelves, there’s a lot of great material in there. And so I think we have the tools. It’s just that part you talked about, like we have a role and it’s part of our responsibility because racism is never going to go away if we don’t do our part to end it.
Chris: You mentioned that the library, I wonder, are there other local resources, tips, organizations that you know of for parents, especially parents of, white parents who are doing parenting, trying to figure out racism and if they’re watching what’s going on in the world right now and saying like where do I start? How do I get going? Like where would you point them especially here in Wayne County?
Betsy: Sure. So my kid’s a little bit too young, but Girls Inc, they’re doing a fantastic girls empowerment series over the summer, a summer camp and I’ll shout their accolades from the rooftop. I think that’s a great place to start. I’m a little less familiar with the Townsend Center. I’ve met their director a couple of times. But I guess the first thing that comes to mind would be Girls Inc. I know they’re doing great stuff. I know Richmond Friends School, they have their curriculum is … I’ll put a plug in for them too. They did summer camps last summer, but now due to COVID, I don’t think they’re doing any. But yeah, those two resources would be the ones that come to mind.
Chris: Great. And we’re talking about racism, anti-racism, white privilege, what people in the Whitewater Valley and in our community can do to make sure we are understanding, listening and acting on this incredibly difficult and challenging part of our world. And we acknowledged at the beginning, there’s so many different layers to these discussions, there’s vocabulary that becomes difficult, and it’s important to clarify. There’s understanding when awareness of race and racism starts. And we talked a little bit about parenting. I’m also struck that some people have talked about we have this pandemic going on. And then on top of that, we had this whole other series of events renewing attention to racism. And sometimes the conversation is we had pandemic over here, racism over here they are these separate things. But Betsy, I know you’ve studied how race affects the quality and the kinds of health care that’s provided to people in this country. And I wonder how you’ve seen that dynamic play out in the current public health crisis either locally or just beyond that.
Betsy: Sure. So I guess I can speak to nationally, not so much locally, other people who could comment on that. But so I’m an expert in the 1918 pandemic, Spanish flu, and the way that Americans suffer from that epidemic. And that story resonates so well with our current moment, so COVID-19 and the protests for the murder of George Floyd. What people may not know is that, so after the first wave of the epidemic in 1918, there was a massacre of African Americans in urban centers all over the United States. So there was one in Chicago in late July. There were other massacres in East St. Louis. And so I think like the racial unrest and pandemics, like there’s a link to be made there. And basically what I’ve seen from Black scholars is the argument that the uptick in deaths of African Americans from COVID-19 is a result of structural racism. Police brutality and the deaths of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, that too is the result of a structural racism.
And so what I’ve read is that from the Black community perspective, these two things aren’t very different. That structural racism, structural violence informs both of these events. And so and I think it’s really important that we try to think about them together. So for example, in March, I’m going to cite a statistic here. So from the Midwest to the mid Atlantic to the Mississippi Delta, Coronavirus has hit African Americans especially hard. And so one third of the Americans hospitalized in March were black, that’s despite being only 13% of the US population. And what we know is that for some of those people who were hospitalized for COVID, some African Americans they’re in service industries. And we know also know that health insurance is usually tied to our employers and not all employers offer health insurance.
So it’s really difficult to find care if you’re in that spot. And so what people are being forced to do also in these cases is do they take time off to recover from illness or do they keep working? Do they run the risk of getting fired and do they take care of their health? And if you work in service industries, this is a really, this is a life and death decision. Right. And so all of that is historically I mean determined, I think is the word I would use. And so it’s structural racism that has put many African Americans in the spot where they are at risk for COVID in ways that white people haven’t been put at risk. And it’s because of mass incarceration, the trend toward mass incarceration and police brutality that African Americans are put at risk for being violently assaulted by police officers. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that these things are informed by structural violence that puts people of color at risk. And so they’re not that different.
Chris: Yeah. Well, and it’s a really striking example where if you zoom in to any particular encounter in all of those systems, healthcare, employment, health insurance, I mean, you could probably, if you asked a local doctor or a public health official, like is there racism in the options available to address COVID-19 or until I get tested or something like that? In general you could probably find like, oh, there’s no one saying like Black people are going to be treated differently than white people. But it’s when you zoom out and look at all of the interplay and all of those systems where you see those trends that you talked about. And certainly you see them if you’re a person of color trying to figure out healthcare, health insurance, if you’re a frontline service worker who doesn’t have those options.
And just going back to our earlier conversation, if you’re a white person who’s always had access to those things or where the access has not been limited by race, you may not see them. So if we’re acknowledging that there is systemic racism there, and we’re talking about structural violence, as a white person, what can I do about that? Because it can feel very overwhelming to say we’re talking about all these systems that are just massive. You have massive governments and bureaucracy and corporations behind them. What should be our reaction to that when we hear the idea that there are all those systems that are working against Black people? What do I do about that? And I know it’s a huge question and maybe an unfair question, but I assume a student has asked you that in class, in some form, and like how do you answer that?
Betsy: Well, I guess yeah, I have been asked that and I try to get to the motivation of the question. And I think you said it’s like, it’s people feeling helpless like they can’t change the system. Well, the system wasn’t built overnight. The system is the result of various pieces of legislation, different kinds of systems of representation. And so I would point us to the upcoming elections in November and really reflect on what is your vote going to do to attack racist policies. Do your research, do your homework, look at the candidates, who are the anti-racist candidates and support them. Then also I think it can be really … and I do this too, I get wrapped up in the macro level stuff. Right. But I think about like just trying to go get a test for COVID and I was texting with a friend and I said, “Well, how did you get your test?”
And one friend said, “Well, I think you need an Indiana ID.” And my husband just so happened at that moment was renewing his driver’s license and he needed two pieces of mail with his name on the address. Well, what if you don’t have … what if you’re homeless? How are you supposed to get those two pieces of mail to get that ID, to go get tested for COVID or to vote. So if you could break it down into the micro policies and then try to help people navigate that, I think you’re doing your job, you’re doing anti-racist work. Or just being able to identify strategies to ease the path for others that you don’t have to walk because of your race. I think that’s what we can do.
Chris: I wonder in your studies, if you’ve been able to put a finger on the role of protests and marches and kind of speaking out in sort of outside the context of some of those formal structures like elections. I know that, I mean, you studied a lot of Black history and you’ve looked at stories of how and where Black people have found ways to be heard and understood in that struggle for equality. But as we’ve talked about, it’s not and shouldn’t be Black people’s burden to bear on their own. So what does it look like when we see protests marches, other events like that coming up, what does it look like for a white person to participate in those, support those or not? Like where is their value, where’s their leverage that we can apply to work toward justice in that way?
Betsy: Well, I think part of what white people can do in that moment, because that’s about visibility, I think, getting cameras and that’s a tactic used by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Right. So create sympathy with media exposure. But I think it’s important to take our cues from that moment. And this is not a moment for white people to lead the way, this is a moment for us to support and follow the lead of people of color, follow what our African American brothers and sisters are doing, not to take the microphone from them, to be sensitive accomplices. And I mean, some people use like the word allyship, but I’ve learned that accomplices is a little bit better. Because when we think about ourselves in that way, we have to be willing to take risks and show a genuine commitment to dismantling structures of white supremacy. And to do so is to take a risk because it might be viewed as betrayal to other white people.
Betsy: But terms of marches and visibility, I think what history tells us is that it’s our duty to support and not take the mic. This in a way it’s that’s our role in this present moment is to engage in critical self-reflection on the harm we’ve done. And then once we’ve done that and we’ve done our homework, show up and support. I think that’s what … I recently saw an image from one of the protests I think was in Louisville, a woman, a white woman holding a sign that said, sorry, I’m late. I had a lot to learn. And I thought, wow, that sign kind of hit me. There was like this sort of you’re there, you’re doing what you should be doing, but come informed and ready to serve, not lead.
Chris: Yeah. It seems worth talking a little bit more about that self-reflection piece. For a lot of people, if they just pose the question to themselves again, this oversimplified version of racism, am I a racist? They’re probably going to say no or they’re going to say no. I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t done anything racist lately. So what are some other ways that people could engage in self-reflection that really gets to the heart of participation or contribution to systems of oppression or systemic racism? Because I know, I mean, it’s with respect to the profession of academics, like it can feel like a huge time investment for people to take classes, spend lots of time thinking about these topics, even participating.
Chris: A while back in Richmond, there were study circles around racism and it was great. And they’re also, they’re a time commitment and some people maybe don’t even have that luxury on the surface anyway of how they spend their time. So what I don’t know, is it an unfair question to say, like how does someone start that process of self-reflection if they’re not feeling like there’s a tool or a resource out there for them to just sign up for?
Betsy: Well, I guess I would disagree. There are tools and there are resources. Just lately there’s a Google doc being sent around about anti-racist tools for white people. And I guess even prior to doing the self reflection, I think they’re important questions we can ask ourselves. And again, I don’t think the … it may not be the right question to ask, am I a racist, but perhaps ask, am I an anti-racist? Am I supporting anti-racist policies? Am I expressing anti-racist thoughts? And that’s Kendi’s book telling us to do that sort of mental exercise because I think that that can get for white people, it can get you past the hurdle of getting hung up on, oh, I’m racist, I’m a terrible person or people who don’t even want to engage in that line of thought and I think asking that question can do different types of work.
Betsy: I do think it’s important though to reflect on the harm that you’ve done to people of color unconsciously or overtly or otherwise. But again, I read this op-ed in the Washington Post by a man named Tre Johnson. And he says like don’t get caught up in the comfortability of like white book clubs talking about racism, because that space is a little too safe. I think it’s not going to challenge you to really think about the ways that you’ve consumed racist ideas. And so I guess if my answers sound like they’re meandering is because there’s no … a path is, excuse me, remarkably clear, but it’s really difficult for white people to take. Like it’s going to take some serious reflection and commitment and being really uncomfortable with yourself. But know that there’s another side to it. And that this work is, in my opinion, the most important work we can do.
Chris: Yeah. I’m mindful too, we’re two white people having this conversation. And a lot of people, I think navigating these topics are trying to figure out like when, if and when it’s appropriate to ask for help from Black people, people of color in the work that we’re doing. And I wonder if you have guidance there in the study and the work that you’ve done. How do you know when you’re far enough along in committing to anti-racism that it’s time to reach out and go beyond that self-reflection or that like working within white privilege and our own whiteness to say whatever it is you might need to say like, “Hey, I want to be a part of something. I want to keep this conversation going.” Because there’s, I think people are worried or sensitive about like I don’t, again, I don’t want to make this the burden of Black people who are already working with so much around racism. So how do we know, or is there a way to know when that engagement should be expanded or increased?
Betsy: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I’ve seen just recently an Earlham alum published a piece online about all his white friends keep checking in with him in a way that they had never done before. So it takes like the murder of George Floyd for white people to check in. And he was wondering and he’s a Black male. And he was like, “What are their motivations? Like what do they want from me? Do they want me to tell them that they’re okay?” And so I think it’s really, really sensitive and my advice would be you can educate yourself on these topics or ask me and I’ll give you stuff to look at, conversations to have. And I think it’s after those important steps of self reflection, education, figuring out what racist policies are out there. Once you’re doing the work of anti-racism, you’re going to find those networks of, the interracial networks where you can have authentic conversations with people of color about race and racism.
Well, you’re not asking Black people to do the emotional labor of dealing with white guilt because that’s not their job, right? Like we’ve got to figure that out on our own. There’s a scholar, there’s a book by Robin DiAngelo called White Fragility that can walk you through some of those topics. But so once you’ve done the self-reflection and you’ve looked at the resources that are out there, done your homework so to speak, once you’re doing anti-racist work, that’s when I think the connections will come and in an authentic way.
Chris: Great. We have just a little bit of time left and I wanted to ask you another sort of probably unfair question. But you’ve studied a lot of history and thinking about where we are now in society and the nature of racism today, do you have any sense at all of are we worse off? Are we better off? Are we making progress? Are we finding new tools and new strategies? Because people are, I think there’s a lot of excitement and attention about the movement. As people say, it’s more than a moment, it’s a movement. But is it one that has the potential to be lasting and to push us to new areas of progress in what you know, and what you’ve seen in the studies you’ve done?
Betsy: Well, I’m thinking of all the reading I’ve done and the scholars who are engaging in this. I guess I don’t think a movement is a movement only because outsiders are calling it a movement. I think the struggle toward racial justice has … African Americans have been doing this since 1607, right? Like since they were brought here against their will. And so there’s always a movement, right? It’s just at various intervals, white people seem to notice. And so I think we are at our latest moment of noticing the struggle toward racial justice. And that’s why I think like the refrains from since 2014 with the murder of Michael Brown is that Black Lives Matter. And because that’s something that African Americans have been shouting since, like I said, since like 400 years, it’s been 400 years.
And so I think this is the latest iteration of that 400 year demand for racial justice. And it’s a matter of like what’s my place in that movement going to be? So I don’t know if I answered that question. That’s a big question. Because I don’t think I’m well positioned to say gains or losses. Like historically, we’re dealing with different factors now than we were in 1919, but also like the same really. Police brutality. They used to be slave patrols and so in some ways not a lot has changed. But it’s a different historical moment too.
Chris: Yeah. Well, and just to reflect what I’ve heard you saying in the course of our conversation is that when I’ve talked about things like measurement or progress, I think you’ve hopefully pushed back on the notion that there’s going to be some box we can check to say 400 years of racism and oppression have been undone and solved. And I think what you’ve been saying is that the important thing is to be a part of whatever progress is possible by doing anti-racist work. And not just being quiet or observant on the sidelines because being quiet when racist things are happening, racist systems are at play and we’re a part of them is a way of participating in that quietly maybe, but still participating. So I appreciate the idea that the hard work is ours to do and that it may not have concrete observable results, but that it still needs to be done. And that, that is the nature of I guess pursuing justice for the longterm is finding that balance and that discomfort in the short term. Is that fair?
Betsy: I think so. Yeah. That’s, I think you’ve captured it. That someone wants … I think it’s that’s still that op-ed from Tre Johnson in the Washington Post where he said, if advice about this feels convoluted or confusing, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Yeah. It’s an emotionally fraught issue and it’s complex. But I believe in good people. So I’m hoping. I still have hope, right? You got to.
Chris: Yeah. Well, Betsy, thank you so much for your time and for your insights and for having this conversation together. I really appreciate it and I hope it’s been useful to our viewers as well.
Betsy: Yeah. Thank you so much. I appreciate the time to talk and reflect more on my role. Thanks.