Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Q&A with Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli


Ali Michael



Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli are the authors of the new book Our Problem, Our Path: Collective Antiracism for White People. Ali Michael is the co-director of the Race Institute for K-12 Education, and Eleonora Bartoli is a consultant and licensed psychologist. 


Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did the two of you collaborate on it?


Ali: When I was growing up, I was taught to be colorblind, to not talk about race, and to see racism as a problem that belonged to somebody else—not to me. I thought that all I could do as a White person was strive to not be overtly racist.


Then I encountered Black thinkers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Steve Biko, who essentially said, “Racism is a White person problem. It’s not going to change until White people do something about it.”


This revolutionized my thinking: whoa, racism is actually my problem. It freed me up to see that I and all other White people had a role to play. But I didn’t know what that role could or should be. I wanted to do everything I could to make change yet also understood that my efforts could cause more harm than good if I was well-intentioned but ultimately uninformed or not fully invested.

Eleonora Bartoli

Over the next 20 years, in collaboration with Eleonora, we worked. Here are three of those answers that led us to write this book.


First, antiracism is not a declaration, a book group, or even an event. It’s a practice. It’s a lifelong, skills-based practice. Change happens when we engage antiracism through our work, our play, our families, our communities. It happens when we practice antiracism where we are and with who we are.


Second, change requires that millions of White people engage an antiracist practice over the course of their lifetimes, for generations into the future. It’s a lot. Change is going to take a lot. That means it matters how White people talk to one another about race and racism; it matters how we talk to our children too.


It’s not enough for one or two White people to be antiracist in a given workplace or neighborhood. Too often we think being “antiracist” means we have to be “anti” “the racist.” This leads us to shame other White people who say racist things in order to make ourselves anti-them.


But if what we really need is more White people to walk an antiracist path, then we have to reframe the task. It’s not just about calling out a cringey comment; we need to get that White person to walk an antiracist path too.


That means we respond to their comments in ways that are both challenging and supportive. We don’t make ourselves better than them. We invite them onto an antiracist path and offer to walk with them and help them learn.


That leads to our third and final point. We know that people often join hate movements—like the alt-right or QAnon—because they are feeling lonely and afraid. They join hate movements because they long for community, respect and belonging. The irony is overwhelming!


Meanwhile, antiracism is a love movement. It’s fundamentally about honoring the humanity, complexity, and beauty of every human being.


But many White people don’t feel like they can be part of this love movement because the bar to entry seems so high. White people (ourselves included) are afraid to be wrong, afraid of offending, afraid of causing conflict or being cancelled.


Eleonora and I wrote this book because we want to share how we have learned to lean on one another, to make antiracism a daily practice, to find joy and belonging in the love movement for racial justice, and to support other White people to be a part of a dynamic multiracial community.


Q: Who do you see as the audience for the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: This book is primarily for White people who are trying to practice antiracism but keep getting stuck…or don’t even know where to start.


Most White people know that racism is bad and want it to go away. But most of us have been deeply conditioned to be bystanders when it comes to race and so we can get embarrassed, confused, and awkward about it. We often don’t know how and when to speak up.


This book offers multidisciplinary tools designed to free us from what paralyzes us so that we can match our antiracist intentions with real world impact. We hope readers take away both actionable advice and a belief that real change is possible.


Q: In the book, you describe some misconceptions about race and racism. What are some of the most common ones that you see, and how did they come into existence?


A: Myth 1: It’s rude to talk about race; we should all be colorblind.


Reality 1: We cannot challenge racism if we are colorblind. Talking about race is not racist.


Most White people are uncomfortable and, more importantly, unskilled when it comes to talking about race because we’ve been taught that it’s rude or wrong and so we rarely do it.


As a result, any mainstream conversations about race and racism are fraught and difficult, often resulting in conflict and feelings of incompetence. But we can’t do anything about racism if we don’t talk about race!


So this requires that we practice—on a daily basis-- unlearning our habit of not seeing/talking about race. White people need to normalize talking about race and level up our skills for doing it.


Myth 2: White people can and should be perfect—or at least appear perfect. We cannot make mistakes around race.


Reality 2: We will make mistakes, and we need to learn to recover quickly so that we can learn and keep going.


This myth leads so many White people to give up when we make a mistake around race (or worse yet, to not even try). Rather than learn from the mistake and keep going, we throw our hands up. Or we blame the messenger, as if the feedback we receive is a personal insult instead of an opportunity to do better.


We have to understand and accept that it’s very hard to live in our heavily racialized society and not absorb some racist misconceptions. When we get feedback that tells us we did or said something racist, it is that very feedback that can help us learn and do better.


But our desire to be perfect—or to appear perfect—gets in the way of actually learning and growing through our mistakes.


Myth 3: White people need to “win” by competing with one another. My success as an antiracist is measured against other White people.


Reality 3: We are interconnected and interdependent. We can go further together than we can alone. Placing value on teamwork, cooperation, and community is antithetical to white supremacy.


Capitalism puts everyone in competition with everyone else. We compete for most things in our society, from the time that we are very young children. It’s no wonder that White people often feel compelled to compete against other White people to be the most antiracist.


This ends up creating combative and shaming dynamics in which calling out someone’s racism is more about preserving one’s own status as “antiracist” rather than strategically or effectively addressing racism.


We suggest that when White people learn to work together to help one another develop a lifelong antiracism practice we will have a much bigger impact on racism than when there’s one super-antiracist person who dominates all the other White people.


Myth 4: It’s better to think, rather than feel, about racism.


Reality 4: When we acknowledge our feelings—as well as our minds—and when we connect deeply and empathetically with People of Color and Native people, how to take effective action becomes clearer.


Many White people (myself included) learn about racism from books or workshops or school. It’s not the same lived experience of racism as for People of Color and Native people. And because we are White, we rarely viscerally feel the pain or the fear or the vulnerability of racism.


But one of the reasons we get stuck and don’t know how to act is because we are too busy thinking about racism. When we are able to be in empathetic connection with People of Color and Native people, it becomes much more clear how we should take action.


Getting in touch with the feelings about racism—rather than constantly distancing ourselves by intellectualizing it—can help us do that.


Myth 5: Race is real and biological; racial differences are immutable.


Reality 5: Race is a social construction. We are often more alike across racial differences than we are like others in our racial group.


After all this talk about race, naming this myth reminds us that the very thing we’re talking about—race—is made-up concept. This is critical to antiracism because White supremacist ideology rests on the idea that race is real, that racial difference is permanent, that racial hierarchies are natural.


In fact, racial difference is made up. No one racial group is better, smarter, stronger, or more deserving of opportunities than another. Antiracism requires that we see, acknowledge, and talk about race, because that is what enables us to challenge racism. But we have to do all of that while remembering that race itself is not real.


Q: What do you see looking forward when it comes to racist attitudes in the United States?


A: One of the things we ask readers to do in Our Problem, Our Path is to consider that racism hurts White people too. It doesn’t hurt White people in the same way that it hurts People of Color and Native people. And of course it does benefit White people in tangible material ways like access to resources, opportunities, and safety.


But this question is important for each White person to answer because it means that when we stand in solidarity with People of Color and Native people against racism, it’s not for somebody else, it’s not a paternalistic stand that comes from a charity mindset. It's for me too.


In the book we list countless ways in which racism hurts us, but one primary way is that we are so much easier to manipulate as a voting public when we are susceptible to racism.


This is visible across the country right now. People who espouse White supremacist views have been elected by a predominantly White voting block that either doesn’t care about overt racism—or actively supports it. They are quickly gaining power and in the process, they are taking away other fundamental rights of our democracy.


But what do we do about it? The thing I am most tempted to do—which is also one of the most unhelpful things I could do—is distance myself from the people who supporting or voting for the White supremacists. All I want to do is call them names, shame them, argue with them, and cry.


But those actions are profoundly unstrategic. Being unstrategic is a dishonor to all those people of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds who built this country based on hope and a belief in the possibility of democracy, even when it was profoundly flawed.


So then what do we do? Especially as White people? So many White people (ourselves included) were taught to think that racism is perpetuated by bad people who hold overtly prejudicial views. We spend a lot of time trying to prove that we are on the good side, that we are not one of the “bad ones.” That’s why we instinctively distance ourselves from “the racists.”


But for better and for worse, there’s no “good” or “bad” when we are all just part of a system that erroneously puts White people first. While racism is sometimes carried out by individuals, it’s not an individual problem. Racism is a system, a structure, a hierarchy. All White people live in this system and the system also lives in us.


Here's an example: I grew up in a town that was 99.8 percent White. But if you had asked me if I grew up in a segregated place, I would have said “no.” I thought segregation was about the South, about racial slurs spray painted on walls, about signs that separated Black from White.


But in fact, decades of social and public policy went into making my Pennsylvania suburb an almost all-White space. All-White spaces don’t happen by accident. I lived within a system of racism I couldn’t even see.


And then, from within that system, I learned to feel safe in White communities—and to feel fear in Black communities. I developed anti-Black biases based on my lack of exposure to Black people combined with my overexposure to stereotypes combined with the suburban legends spread by other White kids who were similarly both underexposed (to real Black people) and overexposed (to stereotypes and myths about Black people). We live within a system of racism and that system also lives in us.


Yes, violence and visible White supremacy reinforce that system, but that system has always been a part of the U.S. Change requires that we see how the perspectives and assumptions of racism are ingrained in us. Change requires that we adjust how those perspectives and assumptions directly impact the world around us and how we act in it.


An antiracist practice involves learning to disentangle ourselves from this worldview piece by piece, and practicing new ways of engaging with our communities.


Once White people stop seeing racism as “us vs. them” (as in “good White people” vs. “bad White people”) and start taking more responsibility for how each of us is impacted by a racial hierarchy, three things begin to happen.


First, we start making change where we have the most power—where we are with who we are. Second, we model what that looks like for other White people. Third, we develop more compassion for other White people because we recognize that we’re all part of the problem.


Then, instead of investing so much energy in proving that we are not them or in distancing ourselves from them, we can learn to support them to do better. While we can’t bypass our racist socialization, we can work against it more and more, and be complicit with it less and less, all while inviting other White people to do the same. Being part of the problem means that we also have to be part of the solution.


Once we realize that systemic racism lives in each of us, we are better able to understand why we and others don’t know what we don’t know, why we make the mistakes that we do, why we live in segregated spaces.


We will then be better able to support one another along this path while repairing this legacy because we won’t have to spend so much energy trying to prove that we’re not one of the “bad ones” or defend ourselves against feedback that runs contrary to our intention.


Any notion that racism is just an individual problem takes us further away from the root of addressing it.


Q: What are you working on now?


Ali: This year I will also be releasing the young adult adaptation of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It Can Be So Hard for White People to Talk about Race (Beacon Press), which I co-authored with Toni Graves Williamson.


My research with Eleonora on how to talk with White kids about race is a big part of how we adapted Robin’s book. We are trying to make sure youth get all the information they need in an accessible way, as well as steps for moving forward as contributing members to a healthy multiracial community.


Eleonora: In my clinical practice, I provide trauma-informed and social-justice based counseling services. In my consulting work, I share trauma-informed resilience-building strategies designed to help individuals and communities to align their actions with their knowledge and intentions.


I also help social-justice institutions integrate antiracism into their policies and procedures, in ways that are both systematic and sustainable.


Q: Anything else we should know?


Eleonora: When people start walking an antiracist path, they learn quickly that taking action without internal reflection is insufficient. And yet many White people who aspire to live antiracist lives often get stuck thinking about racism at an intellectual level without ever actually taking consistent antiracist action.


We argue that inner and outer work must complement one another from the very start. Just like you can’t practice patience until you find yourself driving behind a school bus, you need to be engaged in antiracist action in order to practice many of the skills you are trying to develop.


You know you are doing the “right” inner work when it provides a clear compass for antiracist action—rather than make you feel more comfortable with the status quo or even more afraid to take action. When you begin to recognize racism in yourself and around you, you can’t help but want to do something about it.


Our Problem, Our Path gives a complete map of what it looks like to combine this inner and outer work. It offers specific strategies for transforming your antiracism from a series of discreet events into a coherent, powerful lifestyle.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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