When Addressing Anti-Racism—Not Just What, But How: Introducing The Theory of Being
“No matter where the oppressed are found, the act of love is commitment to their cause—the cause of liberation. And this commitment, because it is loving, is dialogical. As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love. Only by abolishing the situation of oppression is it possible to restore the love which that situation made impossible. If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pg. 89-90.
College educators feel under renewed pressure from this current generation of students to declare in our policies and practices that Black Lives Matter (BLM). Many of the incoming students are active in protests. They reject any excuses administrators, staff, and faculty offer that reinforce systematic disenfranchisement of domestic Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) including those who are not US citizens. Institutions are preparing action plans focused on uprooting systemic racism and xenophobia. These action plans can be void of substance, but sound bold when performed for the media. This time of pandemic wrapped around racial injustices demands a revised strategy. I propose we strengthen our outcomes by intentionally improving our processes and practices.
We are facing a time where more and more people across the world can see the need for social change is noticeably more dire. However, in many diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, people and organizations create plans that place value on documentation rather than action. The plans list outcomes, name strategies, and (re)assign people within the current structures rather than disrupt how the current system operates. The focus is not on process, or ‘how’ we work together, but on outcome, ‘what’ we can show as a goal reached. We focus solely on solutions to show our progress.
Solutions are necessary, but the rush toward solutions often leaves groups (communities, college campuses, agencies, etc.) with superficial fixes, additional problems, and further disagreement. The focus on developing a plan gives the impression that there is a finish line. Seeing a plan as the outcome means that we create documents, start actions, and then assume systemic oppression such as racism will end.
Much of our professional lives are understandably consumed by what we do and less of an emphasis on how we do it. When faced with an enduring problem such as structural racism, people and organizations seldom consider who we are, what role we can play, and how to work together in relationship to transform the organization.
We must take a different approach than one that prioritizes outcomes without attention to process. My research team and I have been honing such an approach for over 20 years and feel the urgency now to share it more widely as a process for addressing the complexities inherent in controversial social issues, especially racism.
The Theory of Being is a transformative learning theory that when applied increases the stamina of participants to stay in difficult dialogues such as anti-racism organizational change efforts (Watt & MCI Team Consortium). This process-oriented approach teaches communities how to engage in ongoing dialogue that can create a culture that bravely examines the racism within the organization and supports next steps toward system change. This requires suspending the singularly focused search for answers and invites a deeper exploration of the complexities of social problems, including identity, experiences, and context. It is a humanizing approach that counteracts the dehumanizing racial supremacist ideologies so ingrained in our institutions.
Approaching anti-racism work through the lens of The Theory of Being acknowledges these three essential ideas:
1. Racism is an enduring problem. There is no finish line. It has a role in shaping all of our processes, practices, and policies. Racism is deeply rooted in our society and will likely not resolve in a lifetime. We know racism inherently exists in American policy and practices. There a long history including slavery, Jim Crow Laws, redlining, and other racist governmental policy. Our aim is to intentionally identify and deconstruct the ways we work together that reinforce racism. Addressing racism includes realizing that change must happen in people’s attitudes and behaviors as well as organizational practices—and this will take time, thoughtful strategy, and an engaged process.
Our aim is not to claim a simple answer that will end racism, but to offer a process whereby we can have productive dialogue so that organizations can continually and proactively transform racist practices.
People and organizations will not create a proposal that once created and/or enacted will magically result in the end of racism. People will need to take thoughtful, actionable steps within a relational context and work together to change an organization’s policies and practices.Ongoing reflective and communal dialogue results in trusted and powerfully supportive relationships that are all too rare and desperately needed when working together to make organizational level change centered on deconstructing structural racism.
We have to start an eternal conversation and stop behaving as if there is a once and for all fix. Individuals engaging in eternal conversations can create equitable policies that can then be created, implemented and assessed.
Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline. Truth cannot possibly be found in the conclusions of the conversation, because the conclusions keep changing.
—Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
2. Dialogue is difficult and necessary. Dialogue about social change efforts is difficult, uncomfortable, personally impactful, and necessary. It helps to expect and to be prepared for a wide range of human reactions (Watt, 2007). Individuals must learn to embrace the dissonance and keep the dialogue going. Organizations that sustain full participation of individuals across different identities are more likely to experience meaningful and transformative change in policies and practices.
People can take meaningful action now that will significantly suppress the influence of racism later if individuals can stay in difficult dialogues in a sustainable way. Racism is rooted in the history, the policies, and the day-to-day interactions in society. It is like dirty water. It has contaminated how we view ourselves, our society, and our day-to-day interactions. If we know that the water is dirty and continues to be contaminated, then we have to insert a permanent filter. Cleaning the water source is nearly impossible. Dialogue is a filter. We cannot depend on going back in time to fix the source. Now we have to engage in a process of regular practice to clean the water.
We need to employ practices that help us to build the stamina to remain present when dissonance occurs. We must value controversy as an opportunity to explore complex problems through the lens of different experiences and perspectives. Engaging these differences can help our search for more productive ways to address racism.
3. Let missteps develop, not derail, our dialogue. In our anti-racism efforts, we have to acknowledge that we are human and flawed. We must aim to view these missteps as developmental (Watt, 2015).
As citizens of the world, we need to face the reality that we will (and must) have controversial dialogues. We often respond defensively because these controversial dialogues challenge our beliefs, values, and identity. These defensive reactions (Watt, 2007) can derail dialogue and prevent a community from making meaningful change in policies and practices in their organization. As Heidi Zetzer (2011) states, “When I unintentionally say something that reveals a stereotype, prejudice, or privilege, I am suddenly faced with behavioral choices, nearly all of which coincide with the ways in which White folk in higher education respond…I can aggressively defend myself (anger), passively retreat (generalized apathy), or distance myself from the discussion (intellectual detachment)”(pg. 12-13).
Anti-racism efforts need space for people to learn. This will require that when missteps are made that there is accountability, acknowledgement, an authentic apology, open dialogue, and the opportunity to try again.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.
Samuel Beckett, 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Literature
Anti-Racism Collaboratives Not Task Forces
The ACPA Strategic Imperative for Racial Justice and Decolonization presents ideals and asks both ‘what and how’ questions such as: “Upon the engaged process of humanization our society waits. What possibilities lie ahead if we know each other as human? What future can we imagine together? How much more do we all gain by engaging our interconnected pursuit of racial justice and decolonization?”
Racism is an undeniable social problem. There is a reawakening to racial injustice brought about by the pandemic and amplified by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We know that structural racism exists and now we are searching ways to address it. There is no single solution or approach. The Theory of Being highlights the importance of being (a process) with a complex problem rather than prioritizing a rush to doing only public displays of solidarity (an outcome-orientation). For example, the aim of being/process is to understand and explore the issue or idea first whereas the purpose of doing/outcome is to solve or fix the problem. Being and doing together are an essential combination for lasting social change.
Being while Doing
DOING – Outcome
BEING – Process
The Theory of Being outlines a process for ongoing community practices of self-examination, critical thinking, and deconstruction of policies and practices. Rather than forming a task force, this approach calls for creating a Collaborative across existing organizational structures that includes Being Circles (small cohort groups). A Collaborative is a larger group (e.g. faculty, staff, students) thinking together about how to contribute to the anti-racism work from their perspectives and roles/responsibilities in the organization.
Being Circles are small group cohorts that open up space and opportunities for reflection and exploration of personal attitudes and behaviors that sustain racism. After a positive experience in small cohort groups, participants find increased stamina to stay in difficult dialogues regarding anti-racism organizational change efforts. The next step after personal reflection is to reflect on the ways in which racism has been enacted in the institution. The process not only focuses on what people and organizations ‘do’ but also involves reflection and action on ‘how’ individuals and organizations maintain systems of exclusion and oppression. For example, Being Circles can be formed with a representative/leader of various departments or committees (existing organizational structures), who do their own “inner work” as well as reflective problem-solving in service of becoming more aware and adept at seeing themselves and others in the bigger milieu of systemic racism, broadly and within the organization. These circles employ specific guidelines for listening, interaction, and trust-building.
When individuals experience a process-oriented approach that focuses on “how to work together,” it results in:
- a stronger sense of purpose and integrity;
- a greater capacity to sit with one’s own discomfort and that of others within difficult dialogues;
- expanded capacity to be fully present to others in ways that affirm and heal;
- increased skill in asking the honest, open questions that help others uncover their own wisdom;
- greater confidence to seek or create communities of support;
- increased understanding, appreciation and respect for human differences, based in deeper awareness of the; identity, societal structures, and integrity of ourselves and others;
- greater capacity to build the relational trust that helps the organization transform racist practices.
Only then can groups begin to thoughtfully and intentionally devise strategy that is both proactive and reactive to an ever-changing social and political landscape. The Collaborative, along with the support of the Being Circles, works together and creates a strategy for having an eternal conversation where individuals can think critically together about how to create an anti-racist organization.
Cultural Bias Creates Barriers in Anti-Racism Collaborations
As we focus on ‘how’ we work together in anti-racism efforts, we must acknowledge that we are surrounded by cultural biases. These cultural biases create barriers that shape the context with which we interact.
- Lack of Transparency
- Academic Commodification
- Binaries, Either/Or
- Entitlement/Racial Supremacy and Socialization
- Power Distortions
The purpose of naming these barriers is not to set an unrealistic standard for elimination, but instead to recognize that they exist and consider ‘how’ they might derail or constrain dialogue. We must keep in mind that these barriers hinder authentic interaction. Derailed and constrained dialogue stifles individuals from taking needed action when working to change an organizations anti-racism practice.
Naming and discussing how these barriers may interfere with anti-racism practices invites important questions for collaborative action-oriented discussion. For instance, if racial justice and equity is our goal, then is that goal achievable while this barrier dictates how we interact? How might we subvert this barrier in order to begin the change we want to see in our organization? When these barriers are not openly discussed, they can work to undermine the change the organization is striving to make. Discussing these barriers openly can help to push social change efforts to a different level.
Being Anti-Racist Not Performing Anti-Racist Work
Authentic anti-racism work pays attention to ‘how’ we are engaging with each other and is not just concerned with displaying ‘what’ we are representing to others. We must intentionally create ‘ways of being’ in relationship that involves having difficult dialogues about how to deconstruct racist systems. We must not get seduced by showing how we are not racist, individually or as organizations, ahead of actually attending to how to not be racist.
Unlearning racism is not a semester-long lesson, but a lifelong course. Shifting toward a focus on the process allows for communities to examine complex social issues in ways that are nimble and offer a greater possibility for more inclusive solutions that will directly address the roots of the oppressive system.
Process-oriented approaches are a necessary complement when seeking less reactive and more proactive, substantive, and thoughtful problem-solving strategies. A singular focus on outcomes leads to performances for the media, but not change that is “deep, pervasive, intentional, and long term...” (as cited in Woodard, Love, & Komives, 2000, pg. 61). Creating collaborations of sustained and engaged interaction in our institutional practices has the greater potential for real and transformative change to our racist systems.
Excerpts from Watt, Mahatmya & Martin-Stanley & MCI Team (In Process), Working Title: The Theory of Being: Practices for Transforming Self and Communities across Difference
Sherry K. Watt is a professor at the University of Iowa in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also founder of The Being Institute (thebeinginstitute.org). Sherry is a facilitator prepared by the Center for Courage and Renewal. She is an editor and chapter author of a book entitled Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications and Facilitator Considerations (2015). She has over 25 years of experience in designing and leading educational experiences that involve strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening. Sherry and her research team are working on two forthcoming books that focus on sharing research and practice on ‘ways of being’ in difficult dialogues that examine social oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) and that inspire thoughtful, humanizing action.
Watt, S. K. (2007). Difficult dialogues, privilege and social justice: Uses of the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) Model in Student Affairs Practice. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 114-126.
Watt, Mahatmya & Martin-Stanley & MCI Team (In Process), Working Title: The Theory of Being: Practices for Transforming Self and Communities across Difference.
Watt, S.K. (2015). Designing Transformative Multicultural Initiatives: Theoretical Foundations, Practical Applications, and Facilitator Considerations. Stylus Publishing, Alexandria, VA.
Zetzer, H.A. (2004, 2011). White out: Privilege and its problems. In S. K. Anderson & V.A. Middleton (Eds.). Explorations in diversity: Examining privilege and oppression in a multicultural society (2nd ed.) (pp. 11-24). Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth Publishing.