By Rebbbecca Hemmings
Mid-sentence, I was interrupted. The lone black man in the room accompanied by his white colleagues gently but insistently interjected “Rebbecca, can I stop you there?” From the look on his face, I could see he needed to speak in that moment. I nodded.
“In my 30+ years of working for this organisation, I have never had my white colleagues describe and acknowledge racism for what it truly is.” He shared.
Noticing the loaded emotion behind his eyes and knowing what he was experiencing, I asked “And how does that feel?”
There was a pregnant pause followed by one simple word which I understood symbolised so many moments of invalidation and minimisation of his racial microaggressions and macroaggressions.
“Good” he replied.
On another occasion, upon having attended a talk I gave on antiracism for Avanti Westcoast staff members, a participant openly shared “I was in the audience of this talk, and it changed my life, my way of thinking and most importantly my way of reacting.”
It is not uncommon to get this type of response after experiencing our training. I mean, don’t get me wrong, not everyone takes to it so well. Some find it irritating having to discuss racism “again” Others may say “All lives matter.” Indicating the focus should not be on race suggesting perhaps that racism is an affliction of the past.
But for most, training with Strawberry Words, in the way we do, is often transformative, and I do not use that word lightly. It is no accident and indeed it is by design. I will come back to how we do this shortly. On a very basic level, what most people leave with, is an alternative way of looking at racism that has touched them on an emotional level and has caused them to question conflicting personal values.
What makes our work a little different? Well firstly, my background is in theatre. Theatre of the Oppressed, was quite an impactful force in my education. Brazilian Theatre practitioner Augusto Boal founded this form of political theatre to promote social and political change. In his book “Theatre of the Oppressed” Boal speaks of how theatre can be used to create positive change for oppressed people.
“I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theatre so that the people themselves might utilise them. The theatre is a weapon, and it is the people who should use it.”
Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal. (Pluto Press 2008) p. 98
Whilst he was referring specifically to using theatre as a tool, I liken the conversations and activities in our sessions, to a type of drama in which the people (learners), use the knowledge gained through critical reflection to make positive change in their personal lives and the workplace. Thus, this knowledge is the weapon for which racism continues to be thwarted long after sessions.
One method we utilise is Transformative learning theory (TLT). Created by sociologist Jack Mezirow, TLT is a learning theory which prompts examination of old ways of thinking as new enlightening information is contemplated.
Often, when systemic racism is described and explored through exercises during our training sessions, I see the disorientation begin. This is part of the TLT process of creating a dilemma or cognitive dissonance where two opposing ideas or values are mentally tussled. Almost like a theatrical soliloquy. Researchers of a recent study conducted by academics from Schulich School of Medicine at Western University, Canada and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York found the use of TLT is very efficient in leading to successful outcomes when training in unconscious (implicit) bias.
“When viewed through the lens of TLT, curricula to recognize and manage implicit biases are positioned as a tool to advance social justice.”
Why am I sharing all this? Well, for leaders wanting to genuinely develop an antiracist workforce, it is imperative you are committed to supporting staff behavioural change for as long as it takes change to take place. It is not enough to simply have training on unconscious bias or antiracism once and think the work is done. It has been proved time and time again that this simply does not work. As the U.K. Government is keen to point out.
“In general, short-term educational interventions do not change people – especially where people have acquired biases over a lifetime of media exposure and real-world experience.”
In my experience, this unfortunately is not what some want to hear. What many want is a quick fix. We must be honest about this approach and match the desires with the outcomes. When tackling racism (intentional and unintentional) we are talking about unlearning a lifetime of ingrained racial biases that disadvantage ethnic minorities. This work takes time, work and resources.
Ideally, employees are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour as they go into their working lives and feedback on challenges, successes, conflicting emotions etc… in a racial context. It is through this personal reflection that success is reached. This is a risky process as learners must become comfortable being uncomfortable. Many are not willing to be emotional vulnerable. Leaders included! However, steps can be taken to mitigate this. Such as taking the time between training sessions (and leaving enough time in-between) to reflect on the learning.
However, there is some value in one-off training sessions. Such as introducing employees to the true nature of racism so they can avoid subjecting others to microaggressions, understand terminology to better engage in dialogue and to learn ways they can change attitudes, procedures, and policies to reduce racist incidents. But the primary point is, for this work to be successful long-term, it needs support.
As I jump off my soapbox, I remind you as always, we are here to discuss your antiracism training needs on whatever level is required and we can help you find the best fit for your organisation.
Why not jump onto our online FREE antiracism training course. There is no risk in dipping your toes in the water.
Rebbecca Hemmings is the Director and Lead Trainer for Strawberry Words which is a training organisation specialising in cultural psychology.