Monday, June 5, 2023


I remember when I first heard the term, “woke” applied to race relations. Several years ago, a good friend who is African American told me I was woke. She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one.

“More people need to be woke,” I remember her saying.

“First they have to wake up,” I replied. “Maybe the saying should be, “wake up and stay woke.’” We both laughed.

Unfortunately, we're not laughing anymore, because through what I have to admit is a brilliant act of appropriation, that term has taken on a different meaning. When I hear or read it now, it’s often used as an insult toward people who hold a progressive view on issues involving racial and other types of diversity. And by that, I mean people who believe that racism still exists on individual and systemic levels and that we should talk about it because the way to make something better is to examine it in the light, not make believe it doesn’t exist. Someone once said that there are two problems that disappear if you ignore them long enough. Newsflash: racism isn’t one of them. (They’re snow and adolescence, if you’re wondering.)

Anyway, woke. The term is now often used with disdain to describe people who want to—I don’t know, what? Take down the American government (ironic in light of the events of January 6…)? Take away childhood innocence? Make life harder for white people (also ironic)? Teach our kids to hate our country?

Ridiculous, of course. None of these things is true, and as we teach our kids, saying something is true doesn’t make it true no matter how many times you say it.

I think it’s time to take back the word. What does it mean to be woke?

If WOKE means I understand that events don’t happen in a vacuum, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means I believe that the present is connected to the past, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means examining the past to understand the present, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means I don’t project my experiences on to others, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means I believe what people tell me about their experiences, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means being honest, no matter how painful, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means having the courage to talk about uncomfortable topics, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means respecting and valuing the ideas of people whose experience is different from mine, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means having empathy, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means wanting a fair and just society, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means examining past policies and practices that helped some and hurt others, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means giving extra help to folks who need it because of those past policies and practices, then I’m woke.

If WOKE means being aware of unearned factors in my background that have helped me succeed, then I’m woke.

And most of all, if WOKE means listening, if WOKE means caring, if WOKE means loving, then, please Lord, wake me up and keep me woke.


Revelation 3:2 - Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.

Monday, June 14, 2021

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Why are People Against It?

Critical Race Theory (CRT), a lens through which race relations in the U.S. may be viewed, has been around for decades, but is only now making it into mainstream news. As a researcher and teacher about race in education, I was tempted to hope this was a good thing. After all, the recent uproar regarding the teaching of race through the lens of CRT in K-12 schools at least shows that people are thinking about racism. Since, as James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” the outcry against CRT in racism education does show that people are grappling with an especially uncomfortable topic. Unfortunately, recent actions in some places restricting how racism is taught seek to shut down, rather than encourage, honest conversations from multiple perspectives about the effects of racism in our current, everyday lives.

I’m thinking, of course, about the recent ruling by the Florida Department of Education banning the precepts of CRT in the schools. The governor of the state has declared that not only is the lens of CRT unnecessary, it is actually damaging in that it teaches kids to hate each other and to hate our country.* 

Wow. That’s pretty strong stuff, and if it were true, I, too, would be concerned. But, of course, it isn’t true. The purpose of teaching about racism isn’t to stir up hate, but to foster understanding of the experiences of people of color, the systems that perpetuate racial inequity, and the responsibility we all have to work toward racial healing that can only come about when we face the past and try to do better in the future. 

So what is CRT? As I tell my students, it’s okay to be against something, but first you have to know what that something is before you can be sure you’re against it. Since I used CRT as the organizing framework of Race Among Friends, my book based on research with high school students who explored race as part of their literature curriculum, I’ll draw from that text in my description of CRT. Originating in legal scholarship, CRT examines the intersection of race and power and, over the last several decades, has become a tool to analyze and critique inequity in general and, particularly, in education. Here are the key concepts of CRT that I used in my analysis of what went on among the high school students I studied: 
  • While CRT recognizes that factors like gender and social class are also important in explaining inequity, it views racism as a contemporary and persistent problem.
  • Critical race theorists believe that the experience of racism on one level or another is typical for people of color. Hence, although it would be great if we could be “colorblind,” that doesn’t work because if we can’t admit that race still affects people’s lives, we can’t do anything to correct or improve that state of being. Therefore, being colorblind only benefits the group with the vested interest (whether consciously or unconsciously) in maintaining the status quo.
  • CRT stresses that racism is not only about individual prejudice (although that certainly still exists), but insists we look at the past and present systems that keep us from racial equity. These systems can work on the large scale or in more contained environments. For example, I found that the system called “tracking” (separating students based on supposed academic ability) within the individual school I studied stopped African American students from reading certain literature that would have benefited them. Moreover, the white students at the school were also affected by this practice because they were kept from hearing the voices of their classmates of color on the very issue that affected them most.  Although my specific area of study was race in education, CRT looks at other systems as well, such as housing, health, criminal justice, and voting rights. It requires that we analyze policies and practices in these areas in terms of their effects on people of color.
  • Because racial inequity still exists, societal transformation toward racial equity is the goal of analysis through CRT.
  • Lastly, critical race theorists note the importance of hearing the voices of people from groups targeted by racism (in its past and present forms). This can’t happen until whites become aware of how race continues to function in our society and commit to seek real change. Hence, the term, “woke,” has become a sometimes maligned buzzword describing this awareness. 
So what’s all the hoopla about? Why are some people so upset over CRT? Basic arguments against the use of CRT in schools say that talking about race makes things worse because it stirs up divisions among students and that the goal of CRT is not, as I stated above, to move us toward racial equity, but to make white students feel guilty (hence, CRT is racist against whites) and to make all students hate our country (as someone who has studied race in education for a number of years, that seemed like a new one to me until I remembered the “love it or leave it” backlash against the anti-war protests of decades ago). Another, perhaps more insidious argument says that CRT damages students of color because it relegates them to the category of “oppressed” and therefore, I guess, limits them from achieving their full potential. So, according to this argument, CRT is racist against students of color, as well. 

Like CRT itself, the sentiments behind these arguments are not new, and can be understood through the lens of another theory (perhaps the next to be banned), called Racial Identity Theory. Racial Identity Theories (there are actually more than one) look at how identifying with membership in one or more racial groups influences people’s identity—how they think of themselves as evidenced by beliefs, feelings, behaviors, etc. I won’t go into the detail of these theories because it would take too long, but I will say that according to white racial identity development theory, it is not unusual for whites to experience feelings of anger or guilt when faced with the idea that racism still exists and that whites, whether they know it or not, benefit from it. (This is where the idea of “white privilege” – yet another term to be banned— comes from. White privilege doesn’t mean that all whites are racist, or that all whites are rich, or that whites haven’t worked hard to earn their money or societal positions. It does mean that as members of the dominant culture we (whites) benefit from the systems that keep people of color from many societal advantages. And, it's important to remember that not all members of the dominant culture are equally privileged because other factors like gender, social class, religion, etc., are important, too). 

As I was saying, the feelings of anger currently aimed at CRT are not new. Many of the white students I worked with during my research felt as if they were being blamed for racism, although that was not our intent (as we explicitly stated many times). So, although I’m saddened, I can’t say I’m totally surprised at the current furor in some circles over CRT. The anger is not new, but has merely found a new channel of expression. It’s easier to be mad at a theory such as CRT than to be angry at the actual inequity it seeks to expose, especially if that inequity is not aimed at my particular group. As a white person, it’s painful to admit that something as ugly as racism still exists and, what’s worse, that I might benefit from it. That acknowledgment may require a collapse and restructuring of things I believed to be true. So, when first faced with these ideas, it’s not hard to understand why whites might react negatively. However, according to Racial Identity Theory, if we look at these feelings of guilt, blame, and anger as part of the developmental process of figuring out our racial identity, we can hope that whites will be able to grow past these feelings and eventually come to understand their important role as allies to people of color. 

So, while the anger isn't new, what is especially tragic is the focus of that anger toward the making of school policy that forbids teachers from engaging in developmentally appropriate and open conversations about race among K-12 students. At the proper age and developmental level, our students deserve to grapple with these tough issues. Does everyone have to agree on everything? No, but all students should be given the opportunity to express their points of view, based on their experiences, and to come to understand the points of view of their classmates and peers.  All students deserve to hear about how race affects the lives of those around them. This can’t happen if we shut down conversations about present racial inequity, no matter how uncomfortable or angry those conversations make us feel. If parents believe their children are being "indoctrinated" by a particular perspective that they disagree with, a more productive response would be to insist on a curriculum that encourages healthy, respectful discussion and debate about the topic from multiple standpoints. This would serve the dual purpose of exposing students to multiple perspectives and of modeling civil discourse among concerned citizens, something severely lacking in public dialog of late. Isn't that one of the goals of education?

Sunday, January 10, 2021

How could this happen? In-group bias, that's how.

By now I'm sure you're saturated with social media posts, news broadcasts, and videos depicting and analyzing the chaos at the Capitol as rioters overtook police and stormed the Capitol building last Wednesday, January 6, 2021. I'm also sure that you, like me, are horrified. As you watched the unfolding images, maybe, also like me, you couldn't help but compare the police response that day to that of the Black Lives Matter protests (I'm speaking about the many peaceful protests here, not the looting and burning that followed). I'm sure you've seen the comparison images, so no need to repeat them here. 

"How could this happen?" many of us are asking. On one level, we know that the seeds were sown over the course of many months as false information about the election results were disseminated by a variety of sources. Why do I say the information was false? Because there was no credible evidence given in any of the 60 lawsuits that followed the election contesting its results. But my goal here is not to go over that again. As someone who studies race relations, I'm interested in something more immediate: what is at the root of the very different police responses to the Capitol protest-turned-riot and the BLM protests over the summer? 

It's pretty obvious that the Capitol Police were under-prepared last Wednesday, even though the plans of some groups and individuals toward insurrection were no secret--they were well-publicized on social media. These people thought their actions so justified they didn't even try to conceal their identities, as evidenced by the many videos and photos they posted of themselves and others breaking the law. The question is, why were the police so woefully under-prepared? According to Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who oversees the House committee in charge of the Capitol Police, that group expected a peaceful protest, a protest that would be "pretty vanilla"* (interesting use of terminology, but hold that thought for a moment). So sure were they that violence would not be an issue that the leadership of the Capitol Police twice turned down offers of help from the Pentagon days before the event.** Maybe hindsight is 2020 (or 2021), but how could they be so wrong? Why would they ignore ample warnings to the contrary? 

In-group bias, that's why. According to the American Psychological Association, in-group bias is "the tendency to favor one’s own group, its members, its characteristics, and its products, particularly in reference to other groups."*** In-group bias may be a "natural" tendency (or it may seem natural because we've grown up in a racist and racially divided society), but when we allow it to go unchecked, we end up buying into stereotypes and acting on implicit beliefs about the motivations and actions of those in the "outgroup." People from any background can experience or act on in-group bias, but when that group is in authority and has power...well, we saw the result last week. 

Am I saying the Capitol Police are outwardly racist? Of course not. They are public servants (many of them people of color) putting their lives on the line, trying to do their jobs, and remember that these concepts should be applied group-wide and not individually. I'm saying that those in leadership, those who rejected the offer of help, were displaying in-group bias when they thought this "vanilla" protest would remain nonviolent. If the color symbolism in the adjective "vanilla" doesn't jump out at you, well, I don't know what to say, but I'll try. Vanilla = white = perceived peaceful by other whites = in-group-bias. No one in leadership imagined that a group of government-supporting (our current President being the head of our government) white people would forcibly break into the Capitol with weapons and zip-ties (ready to take hostages) and wreak the havoc that resulted in five deaths (one being Brian D. Sicknick, Capitol Police officer). We white people just don't do things like that, right? That's what in-group bias would have us believe. 

If you need an in-the-moment example, take a look at this video clip of the riot. You may not like the news outlet or the commentator or his analysis, but that's not the point. Watch what happens in the clip between 5:14 and 6:19. MSNBC video As the rioters try to break through glass doors, three white male officers bar their way. They are completely outnumbered and obviously in danger. One of the male protestors (presumably white) can be heard pleading with them to move out of the way. "Bro," he begs, "I've seen people out there get hurt. I don't want to see you get hurt...we will make a path [for their safe escape, I guess]...I want you to go home." The three officers finally move out of the way (which is another issue), the rioters begin to break through the glass, and suddenly a gun appears on the other side of the doorway. A few seconds later a shot is fired--it's unclear what happens after that. 

But there you have it. "Bro." In the middle of a violent break-in intended as a government takeover, the rioters had the presence of mind to protect their "bros"-- members of their own racial group. There's a sense of camaraderie in the rioter's plea that can't be missed. Bro, go home. We don't want you to get hurt. 

The takeover of the Capitol last Wednesday should teach us much on many levels about the danger of false information and the responsibility of our leaders to tell the truth. But we ignore the role that race played in how the events unfolded at our own peril. 




Wednesday, June 24, 2020

White People, What Can We Do?

So, here we are again. America, are we ever going to get this right? I have to admit I've wondered if our country can or will ever recover from the sin of racism: a sin so evil, so brutal, so ugly, and so etched into the fiber of our society since before its inception that, for some, it is all but invisible.  However, in the many, many posts I've read over the last several weeks, I do believe I'm beginning to see a glimmer of hope, a subtle shift in sensibilities. For the very first time I'm seeing the question from white people, "What can we do?"

It's an important question, not for the anticipated content of its response alone, but for the sense of surrender it signals. Okay, I get it, the questions implies. Racism is real. Black lives matter can no longer be dismissed or ignored. Black lives matter--there, I said it. Okay? Now, what can I do?

There are many things we can do--maybe you've seen the lists floating around cyberspace. They usually begin with listening, something that I, personally, am not always good at, but yes, first and foremost we need to listen to the perspectives of people of color. We need to grow past the immature, egocentric thinking that says, what I do or do not experience is what everyone else does or does not experience. So, of course, we need to listen and learn from the experiences of others. But there's something else we need to do.

We also need to talk -- TO EACH OTHER -- about race. We should not expect people of color to bear the burden of our education. It is painful and not their responsibility. Racism is a white problem at its core. White people started it and white people need to end it. One way we can do that is to educate ourselves and each other about how the policies and practices born from our racist history continue to marginalize and disenfranchise people of color today. The good news is that education has never been easier or more convenient: TED Talks, movies, blogs, articles, books, etc. are only a click away.

So white people, let's talk.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

White People, Don't Miss the Point

Social media burns with the streets
Over the image of George Floyd
Choking under the knee of oppression.
Sadness, fury, disgust,
Tears, empathy, prayers,
A thesaurus of emotion
Washes through social media like a flood-bloated river
Bloated with concern.

But white people,
We need to be careful.
Be careful not to miss the point.
From the depths of the swollen waters
A message floats to the top: not all cops are bad.
People compelled to point out
Remember, not all cops are bad.
It's a very important point--
Bears repeating and so we repeat it:
Remember, not all cops are bad.

Yes, true, good point.
Of course, not all cops are bad.
Police, our first responders
Enter danger like I enter the grocery store
Run toward while we run away
Immersed in crisis every day--
A child shot
A burning house
A drunken brawl
A food distribution
A car wreck
A Covid struck community.
It's a hard, hard job,
And we appreciate their service.
Of course, not all cops are bad.

But white people, don't miss the point.
Don't let the point be overshadowed
By the tent of defensive posturing
By a point that is not the point
By a point that helps us miss the point.
Who's good, who's bad, how many
What percent
White people, that's not the point.

The casual knee that stopped the breath
The pleas, heartbreakingly polite
Please. He said please.
He'd been taught well
By the mother he called at the end.

That knee wasn't just a knee.
That knee was attached to a culture
A system
Just another day on the job
That knee was attached to a failure of leadership
That knee was attached to a tolerance of abuse
That knee was attached to a fear of brown bodies.
If George Floyd had been a dog
The Humane Society would have been called.

White people, don't miss the point.
We don't need to defend the good cops
This isn't about them.
This isn't about how many good cops
How many bad cops.
This is about how many times.
How many times before a cultural shift
Roots out oppressive knees
Before they put on the uniform
Before they hit the streets
How many brown bodies have to die?
White people, don't miss the point.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Still the Elephant in the Room

The other day a friend (it's always fun when you can count former students as friends) posted about a troubling interaction he had with a police officer after he rolled through a stop sign. My friend admitted his fault -- he was clearly guilty of sloppy driving. Here's the exchange, used with permission:

Officer: Do you know what you did wrong?
Me: I rolled through the stop sign, sir.
Officer: Don’t lie to me—if you lie to me again I’ll arrest you right now! You ran the stop took your foot off the gas and then put it back on the gas. Do you work here?
Me: Yes, Sir.
Officer: Does your company know you drive through stop signs?
Me: No, sir.
Officer: Do you think they should know you drive through stop signs?
Me: Yes, sir.
Officer: If you do it again, I’ll tow your vehicle and arrest you on the spot!

I think we can all agree that this officer was out of line. My friend admitted guilt immediately and responded politely and respectfully. There was certainly no need for this over-the-top verbal display of authority. As you might expect, my friend received many responses to his post that ranged from sympathetic to outraged. What interests me most though, is that the vast majority of responses ignored the elephant in the room: the fact that my friend is brown-skinned and the cop was white. 
Interesting, yes, but not really surprising; race is still the elephant in the room that most of us don't want to acknowledge. 

Maybe you're thinking, there's no proof that race was the issue here. Maybe age or gender are more relevant in this situation. Maybe that cop would have been just as rude to a young, white guy. I have to admit that's a possibility. Or, maybe the cop was just having a bad day. Short of the use of racial epithets, there is no way to know if race plays a part in any interpersonal interactions. But the "maybes" here are the point. If you are part of a population that has faced discrimination historically, you can never really know for sure if your race (or some other cultural or physical characteristic) is influencing the interaction. I found this phenomenon to be real during research for my academic text, Race Among Friends, and I tried to explore it more fully through the characters in my novel, The R Word.

Somewhere in this recounting, there's a so what. As a white person (and, therefore, a member of the dominant culture), I can't know what it's like to live in the world of maybe. If I'm verbally harassed by a white cop (unlikely because of my gender and age), I know it's not because I'm white. If I'm critiqued by my white employer, I know race has nothing to do with it. If I'm given the worst seat at a restaurant, if I'm followed around a store, if I'm asked for ID at the bank, no matter who's right and who's wrong, the room is free of elephants.

Although my friend didn't mention race initially, in a later post he admitted that he did have race in the back of his mind, and because of that, he feared the situation would escalate. Thank God, it didn't. There isn't much I can do to help my friend, but I can understand and empathize. I can try my best not to let my own internalized prejudices rule the day during my own interpersonal interactions with people who are different from me. It may not be much, but it's something, and something is better than nothing.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Words You Can't Say on Facebook

Recently, a Facebook friend had the unpleasant experience of having a post censored by the FB powers that be. She'd used a certain term to describe someone caught behaving badly in a video. The term pointed out the person's white heritage paired with a synonym for that stuff you throw away. For the Charades lovers out there -- two words, rhymes with "light hash" and "slight rash." (I'm making myself stop now. Sorry.) Anyway, you all know the term, and I won't repeat it here because, well, I don't want to risk the same censorship and deprive all three of you from reading this post. 😼

The point here is not to debate whether Facebook should or shouldn't censor posts or what words or ideas should be censored. While that is a worthy topic, it's really not my thing. As a person who thinks and writes and teaches about race, what caught my attention was the term itself. Of course, I've heard it many times, but I never stopped to think about what, exactly, makes it objectionable in racial terms. Of course the term is derogatory, but does it qualify as a racial slur, or is this just another example of an over-sensitivity about race? After all, the person in the video was white, and as I've pointed out before, simply noticing someone's race or using one's racial background as an identifier does not make one racist. So if I were to say, "the white guy in the picture is my cousin, Fred," I would not consider my comment to be racist in any way, shape, or form.

In previous writings I've also explored the phenomenon of insider/outsider status in using words that are widely considered to be racial slurs. As brilliantly depicted in the "Blackish" episode, "The Word," some people believe that what might be okay when said by an insider is definitely not okay from a person outside the group. (Note: watch the episode and you'll see that not everyone within the group agrees.) Since the person using the term banned on Facebook was of the same racial background as the person in the video (both white), does the insider rule apply here?

Maybe you think it should. Or maybe you're thinking, finally, someone sticking up for white people, even if they are light hash. But here's the problem -- while certainly meant as an insult, the term itself does not disparage white people in general. In fact, it does the opposite, because really, what is the purpose of pointing out race as part of the insult? Prefacing the disparagement with the person's race is implying that white people are supposed to be better. It's a way of saying, "look at that white person, acting beneath his or her noble race." The term itself is an example of whiteness serving as the invisible "norm" against which all other races are judged. So, when you think about it, a term meant to disparage a white person behaving badly also disparages everyone who isn't white in its assumption that whites are inherently meant to behave better. Of course, all this is subliminal, as are most of the really damaging racist ideas we hold.

Words matter. Words can hold meanings on levels deeper than we may realize.