…But I’m Not Racist: Tools for Well-Meaning Whites: Interview with Kathy Obear


Earlier this week I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Kathy Obear‘s book …But I’m Not Racist: Tools for Well-Meaning Whites.

…But I’m Not Racist is a wonderful exploration of whiteness, white identity, white supremacy, and anti-racism work from Kathy Obear. Kathy shares her wisdom and insight from decades of experience facilitating workshops on race, which are tangible, memorable, and useful. She also brings her life’s experience being a white person to connect and relate to the challenges and struggles of being an aspiring ally. A helpful guide for white folks who are trying to do better but keep bumping up against obstacles, including themselves.

Kathy generously agreed to do an interview for her book launch. You can download the book for FREE January 19-22, 2017.

Keith: Your new book, …But I’m Not Racist expands on your decades of experience leading workshops, trainings, and coaching on exploring whiteness and anti-racist work. I loved how you openly shared some of your own racist socialization and obstacles to help relate and connect with the reader. It helped me to recognize some of my own internalized racism. What has helped you to be able to shift from avoiding, resisting, and running from your own internalized racism toward recognizing it, facing it, and moving through it?

Kathy: I spent decades fronting, trying to be the “good white” and falsely believing I was successfully hiding any racist attitudes or behaviors from my colleagues and participants. I may have appeared to be a white ally, but I knew down deep I still harbored unexamined racist beliefs. I am indebted to several colleagues who cared enough to confront me and give me very clear, direct feedback that my unproductive behaviors were negatively impacting people of color and supporting the racist status quo. I could no longer fool others or myself that I was doing enough and that I was a good ally.

My drive to live a life of integrity, to have my actions aligned with my core values, was stronger in that moment in time than my fear of facing the truth about my racist socialization and my current behaviors and attitudes that perpetuated racism. Slowly, over time – with intentional, focused self-work and increasingly honest, authentic dialogue with myself and others – I more often choose to see the truth of who I am today and how I am showing up AND how I am impacting others, regardless of my conscious intent. And in the process, I have been blessed with a wide variety of friendships and connections with people of color and people who identify as multiracial or biracial – and so today, I also find deep motivation to partner to create racial justice, a world where people I know and love do not face the violence of racism that I have, and sometimes still do, perpetuate.

Keith: This book is built on decades of your own learning and professional work on diversity and social justice facilitation. What has shifted for you in how you do this work over that time?

Kathy: As you may remember, I used to facilitate white caucuses and engage whites in trainings out of a sense of self-righteous anger and judgment. I was far more concerned about looking good, being seen as the most competent white ally, and getting the approval of colleagues of color. I thought I had to aggressively confront other whites and, with some feedback from a white colleague, realized that my approach was not very effective.

Today, instead of “telling” others much of anything, I talk about my own feelings and experiences and invite them to relate in. I share times I have thought and acted on racist attitudes and stereotypes and ask them to see themselves in me. Out of a grounding of care and compassion, I engage other whites and offer them a mirror to see themselves and offer them some feedback about their impact – I call this “gentle nudging,” though in the moment some whites may not experience me that way!

I believe each white person I work with is a loving human being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. AND, I feel a deep responsibility to identify and confront their racist attitudes and behaviors so they can realize their unintended impact, and learn how to unlearn their racist and white supremist socialization so they can choose to live differently today.

Calling someone out may feel good in the moment and possibly interrupt a racist dynamic at the time, but it may do little to help educate other whites, much less develop meaningful relationships to continue the dialogue and learning over time. I am in this for the long haul. And I need other whites to be in community with me so I can be accountable for doing my part to dismantle racism. In a learning community, we can learn from each other if we have built the depth of trust and connection needed for deepening authenticity and vulnerability. I am grateful to have learned these other ways of engaging whites over the years. I deeply believe they are far more effective and productive than the more confrontive and aggressive style of my earlier years.

Keith: If you could gift white folks who might say or even just think to themselves, “…But I’m Not Racist” one awareness, insight, or tool what would that be?

Kathy: Why do you resist the possibly that you might have racist attitudes? That you act in ways that negatively impact people of color? There is a spiritual saying, “What we resist, persists.” When I got willing to recognize, and admit, the depth and breadth of racial stereotypes and racist attitudes I still held onto – I felt such relief to know 1) I wasn’t alone. Most whites, when they get honest in my sessions, acknowledge the racist beliefs they still struggle with; 2) It was liberating to honestly share these with other whites FOR THE PURPOSE of releasing them; and 3) The only way out is through: we have to admit the internalized racist beliefs in order to continuously work to shift them and learn the truth about race and racism in our lives. This was, and is, not an easy journey for me at times, but let me tell you, it is so worth it!

Keith: In the book you mention several painful but critical moments of being held accountable as a white person from people of color and other white folks. You also mention how important your own healing and self-work has helped you respond better (more compassion) both when held accountable and when holding others accountable. What has that healing and self-work looked like for you? I think many white folks recognize a need for this but aren’t sure where to look or how to do it.

Kathy: I have done my deepest self-work and healing in white caucuses where whites get honest about our racist attitudes and actions and then explore new ways to think and behave. Telling stories about my socialization over the years helped me to realize I was intentionally taught racism from every institution in this nation. And what I was taught, I can unlearn. A key aspect of healing work has been to recognize the benefits I receive from white privilege and white supremist beliefs. While a lie, I got to believe I was smarter and superior to people of color. This illusion helped me believe I was worthwhile and countered some of the negative messaging I learned about my marginalized group identities. I needed to recognize each and every racist thought that was rooted in internalized dominance and learn tools to interrupt these thoughts and beliefs in my daily life.

Reading books, watching movies, and talking to others were critical ways to learn about the history of racism and the current manifestations…these were foundational to my healing work because they fueled my passion and commitment to create a different world. But I had to look inside and see how I was perpetuating the very racist dynamics I railed against when I saw them in others or in society. I needed to do my personal, internal work so I could be more useful and of service supporting other whites to do their self-work as well.

Keith: This is your second book in a year. Congratulations! I’m curious what has motivated you to pursue your work in this way, what has made that possible, and what you have learned along the way?

Kathy: I have been training trainers and developing the capacity of change agents for the past 30 years. With each year, I am more aware of how much more work needs to be done, and how older I am getting! I am deeply committed to supporting the leadership of the next generations and I hope these two books (and 1-2 more this year!) will be useful resources. I want to leave a legacy of liberation and I hope my books and training resources help thousands of others create greater racial justice and social justice in their own lives and in their organizations.

I believe we each must contribute what we can and do our part. I wanted to share as much of how I do this work in accessible ways so others can use them and then build and create new and innovative ways to create the world we envision!

You can download the book for FREE January 19-22, 2017.

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