Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: The hard work of anti-racism training

Published: 9/20/2020 6:00:04 PM

“Un-American.” “Anti-American.” According to the news media, those are the terms President Trump has used to describe people like me — and some of you also — who teach anti-racism workshops.

According to The Guardian, “Donald Trump has directed the Office of Management and Budget to crack down on federal agencies’ antiracism training sessions, calling them “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”

In a two-page memo, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought said Trump asked him “to prevent federal agencies from spending millions in taxpayer dollars” on anti-racism training sessions. The Washington Post reports that “Vought says the OMB will instruct federal agencies to come up with a list of all contracts related to training sessions involving white privilege or critical race theory,” and do everything possible within the law to cancel those contracts.

Since 1986, I have crisscrossed the United States offering these “un-American” training sessions — working with thousands and thousands of students, teachers, clergy, professors, elected officials, university administrators, heads of nonprofit agencies, human service workers, concerned citizens and many, many others on the roots of racism; an analysis of personal, cultural and institutional racism; racism’s impact on our lives, communities and country; and what we can do to create long-term, systemic change. That’s decades of doing this important, difficult, emotional and much-needed “anti-American” work.

Because racism is this country’s original sin and every institution in this nation was created by white people for the benefit of white people, white privilege and racism are interwoven into every American system and structure. Name them. Our health care system, educational system, criminal justice system, banking system, housing and lending system, organized religion — all have subtle and overt benefits for white people baked right in.

White privilege is the unearned advantages bestowed on white people daily and relentlessly without white people asking for those advantages and often without noticing the benefits. The hallmark of white privilege — when it is at its most obvious and most virulent — is when it is denied.

When Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, in one of his many interviews with President Trump for Woodward’s new book “Rage,” asked Mr. Trump if a privileged life left him out of touch with the pain of racism, the president denied that white privilege had had any impact on his life.

Mr. Woodward asked, “ ... And do you have any sense that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave, to a certain extent, as it put me — and I think lots of white, privileged people — in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country? Do you see?”

“No,” the president said. “You, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”

When a person cannot even acknowledge that white privilege exists, that is when white privilege is most blatant.

So the hard work of looking at racism in this country — the painful, shocking, exhausting, ongoing and necessary work of anti-racism seminars and trainings — is an important way white people can wrestle with our horrific past and chart a new path for the future.

Anti-racism trainings are not fun, they are not easy, and they make people uncomfortable. There are often tears and sometimes shouting. But it is work that holds a glimmer of hope that we may confront our past, own the terrible wounds white people have caused, stare the legacy of racial inequity in the face, and discuss a future where systems of advantage for white people are dismantled and justice for all is allowed to prevail.

Believing that trainings that confront white privilege are “un-American” could be the working definition of white privilege. Mr. Trump is so acutely misguided, uninformed, insensitive and insulated that he does not even recognize that his white skin has been an enormous advantage that he has enjoyed his entire life. Trump believes his white skin has no significance, but the opposite is true. Make Trump a Black man with all the lies, cheating, assaults, deceptions and swindling he has conducted all his life and he would not be in the White House, he would be in jail — a convicted felon serving a life sentence without parole.

Trump’s America hates immigrants, locks up children, demeans women, defunds social services, denies climate change, incites violence, mocks heroes, betrays allies, exalts criminals, spreads falsehoods, threatens war, rewards polluters, rejects science and distorts reality. I am happy and proud to be “anti-American” if Trump’s vision is the widely accepted definition of being a “good” American today.

Anti-racism trainings are not our only hope or our best hope for a future where the unearned advantages given to white people in this country are examined and dismantled. But those trainings — filled with people who mean well and do badly — are one step in an ongoing journey to face the cruelty of America’s past and the long shadow of racial injustice and white people’s failings, brutality and greed has cast on our lives today.

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Anti-racism trainings are one step, one way, one hope that something can be changed because it is faced.

Having worked with a countless number of white people on issues of race, I can say that most white people want to unlearn what they have absorbed — relentlessly and subtly — about people of color growing up. Most white people find the courage to look at their own privilege and racism and want to change. Most white people struggle with guilt and shame and want to be part of the solution, not the cause of the problem. Most white people want to crawl away from the lies and denial and embrace justice in active ways. Most white people. But not Mr. Trump.

Rejoice all you anti-racism educators everywhere! Trump has come after us. And because Trump thinks we are doing something terribly wrong and dangerous, we must be doing something extremely right and valuable. Hold your head up high and continue with your work. Anti-racism trainings are worthy, noble, and good for America. Let’s keep on keeping on.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is a member of the ministerial leadership team at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership which offers free movement-building classes all on Zoom.

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