Racial Equity Institute.
Just the name alone provokes thoughts, emotions, and reactions.
Three years ago, a few friends invited me to attend the Racial Equity Institute (REI) workshop. As defined by racialequityinstitute.com: “This is a two-day long process — that helps to provide talking points, historical factors and an organizational definition of racism.”
Three years ago, I was not going to go to something like this.
I had my reasons. I knew who I was, what I believed, and I wasn’t about to invest my personal time so that I could let others call me privileged to my face.
My friends not only planted the seed three years ago, but often nourished the plant through one invitation, conversation, book, TV show, Netflix series, movie, and podcast recommendation at a time. They didn’t coerce or guilt me into going, yet their periodic conversations left me wrestling, researching, and thinking.
As a result of internal conflict over time, I came to a place where I was curious to explore what I might not know. It wasn’t comfortable, mostly because I’m not one to necessarily celebrate my vulnerability. As I compose this right now, I realize all over again how incredibly uncomfortable it is to have a conversation about racism. Deeply rooted in our history, society, and ourselves, racism’s meanings, implications, and perceptions can be widespread. Even while coming from a good-hearted place of best intentions, it’s highly conceivable that one may offend others.
Having attended the Racial Equity Institute one week ago, I realize now that my former reasons for initially not wanting to go were really misconceptions. I share my initial misconceptions (to some extent) here, because I predict that many others are at a place that I once was. Maybe if they knew how my ongoing journey is progressing, they’d be open to going themselves; they’d be open to having a conversation.
Misconception #1: White Guilt
While I understood that there are prejudiced, hateful people in the world today, I didn’t feel it necessary to be punished for something that some white people started in the would-be USA about 400 years ago. I wasn’t alive 400 years ago. It’s not my fault. Why should I feel guilty just for being white? I can’t help it, and I’m not ashamed. I was born this way. This workshop is going to try to make me feel guilty for being white.
Misconception #2: Racism–As We Knew It–Was Over
I see some hate crimes on the news. That’s because some people are crazy. But that’s not in my community. It’s not in my circles. Therefore, I didn’t believe that racism was still practiced today–at least not by people within hundreds of miles of me. Certainly, racism isn’t that prevalent today. People don’t still think and act like they did in the 1860s, or even the 1960s. The history lesson is over. This workshop is going to persuade me to feel terribly, and for something I didn’t do and can’t fix.
Misconception #3: The Hypocrisy Complex
The community in which I live, work, shop, dine, and even attend church is nearly all white. Who am I, then, to go to a workshop about racism? I was caught in the middle, and not just because of my class. I knew little about what it would feel like to be discriminated against, and I didn’t feel like I’ve ever discriminated against anyone else myself. Who am I to attend REI?
I haven’t walked the walk, so how can I talk the talk?
The only thing worse than my not attending REI, or having heartfelt conversations about race and racism for that matter, was to engage and then be perceived as a poser–a hypocrite–faking like I actually knew or lived a life harder than I actually did. REI wasn’t for me, because I don’t feel the struggle, and I definitely haven’t lived it. Ever. This workshop doesn’t pertain to me.
Misconception #4: The Ignorance Complex
Everyone already knows about topics like racism, equality, and equity. Everyone that is–except for me. I’m the last one to know. I’m late to the game. At this workshop, I’m going to look ignorant in front of everyone, mostly because everyone is farther along in their journeys than me. I’m not going to a workshop that makes me appear ignorant about an era in history that I didn’t start, don’t endorse, and can’t fix.
Misconception #5: I’m Not Privileged
This was a big deal to me. Perhaps if the word were advantaged or blessed, I would have been more open to coming to the table. After all, I’m not privileged. I work harder than anyone I know. Everything I have, I’ve earned. I make good choices. I’m a good person, who gives to his family, church, community, career, and friends of all races. It wasn’t even the actual definition of privilege–or its derivative from the system thereof–but it was how society perceived that one, all-powerful word of privilege that made me avoid this workshop. Due to its frequent misuse, I’m using advantaged instead. I’m not going to a workshop where privileged is used to smear my self worth and diminish my personal investments in society.
Misconception #6: The White Savior Complex
Let’s pretend I did attend the workshop, and, as a result, felt so moved to act upon my newfound learning. Since this starting line is so new, would my actions be rooted in authenticity? In other words, will my well-intended actions of crossing off the anti-racism checklist one item at a time be well-received by non-white people? Will my daily conversations be rooted in making me feel good or better as a person as opposed to addressing the 400-year-old systems that may be perpetuating racism today? Will my actions be grounded in comprehensive research and reflection to make the world a better place, or would they be a surface level, vanity show? Would non-white people think I was trying too hard, over-inflating and exaggerating my anti-racist and anti-biased sentiments, and appearing superficial even though I had a good heart and was coming from a good place? I’m not going to this workshop because I simply can’t win. There’s nothing to be gained. It’s best (and safe) for me not to go there.
Moving Forward–For Me
After experiencing REI Phase I, I still feel uncomfortable. I’m still not an expert on racism or equity, but I think learning to see the work of undoing racism as ongoing and not as a fixed destination is life-changing. It’s helped me break away from some of my own binary thinking. Mentally, that sets me free–free to engage new starting lines. In fact, I wish I could post this reflection as a Google Doc–with real-time options for editing, revising, and collaborating with others–as opposed to posting a seemingly fixed, final draft, stand-alone statement.
This journey is personal to the individual. It’s not about comparing one’s self to others. It’s about soul-searching and seeking inward growth. Ongoing, the journey can vary greatly in different people, organizations, schools, and communities.
REI Phase I was more comprehensive, historically-based, and grounded in research than I thought it would be. It focused more on systems and less on individuals.
I highly encourage my friends and colleagues to experience the Racial Equity Institute.
As far as clarifying my misconceptions–you’ll have to attend REI for yourself. At the very least, let’s wrestle, research, and think together. Let’s have the conversation.