A slide from Regan Byrd's workshop on anti-racist allyship points out the need for allies to participate not just in the more glamorous side of racial justice work, but also in the less visible, thankless tasks. (Courtesy photo)

By this point in a year marked by mass demonstrations and protests in response to the killings of Black people by police, the response by much of well-meaning, white America has become stuff of internet memes, pithy sign slogans, and yes, a much-needed larger conversation about the role white people have to play in the ongoing fight for social and racial justice. In two workshops brought to participants by the ideas festival Original Thinkers and the Wilkinson Public Library, anti-oppression activist and trainer Regan Byrd presented workshops this week aimed at providing critical historical context and useful tools for constructive action for those, especially white folks, who wish to support the struggle for justice as active anti-racist allies. 

The workshop, titled “White Anti-Racist Allyship,” highlighted four levels of how racism perpetuates within a society, dubbed the “Four I’s”: Ideologies, institutions, interpersonal and internalizing. While current conversation around race in America often gets “stuck” in the interpersonal realm — that is, the tendency to focus on racist agressions between individuals — understanding the role of the other three “I’s” provides a critical knowledge base for moving in a helpful direction.

Describing ideologies as beliefs, morals, standards and cultural underpinnings that create “ways of thinking that lead us to think that certain things are normal versus abnormal, right versus wrong,” Byrd deftly unspooled a whirlwind history lesson connecting the dots across centuries of slavery and oppression to the deeply entrenched racist ideologies that continue to broadly influence the American public.

Randomized opinion polls of 16,000 Americans, for example, showed that in 2008, 40 percent of white respondents opined that white people are harder working than Black people, while 25 percent asserted that white people are more intelligent than Black people.

“These racist ideologies, these beliefs in fundamental racial differences, are much more common than a lot of people think they are,” Byrd noted. “The reason why you think they’re uncommon is that we don’t talk about these kinds of things. You’re not often in a position where people offer these kinds of opinions or reveal them very often. We know it exists, and it’s simply more covert than it’s been in the past.”

Ideological racism feeds directly into institutional oppression, as the extension of ideas into policy, such as the ubiquitous practice of “redlining” in federal housing policy during the twentieth century. Across every major city in the U.S., redlining entailed drawing red lines around Black and Brown neighborhoods on maps, with both governmental and private lending and housing authorities purposefully creating racially segregated neighborhoods through discriminatory practices.

In other examples ranging from professional sports to health care, Byrd detailed the ways in which racism has permeated our modern institutions.

“There is history like this all across the U.S. and we need to understand it to know how to address it,” she said.

The effects of racism go far beyond the much-discussed “interpersonal” instances such as hate speech online or in person, racist caricatures of celebrities like Serena Williams, or violent acts. To understand the “internalized” level of racism in the “Four I’s” model, Byrd shared a study in which both Black and white children were asked to point at either a dark-skinned doll or a light-skinned doll in response to questions such as “Which doll is more intelligent? Which one is the pretty one? Which one would you want to be?” 

“Both Black and white children would point to the white doll,” Byrd said, noting that children as young as three begin racially classifying and internalizing ideas of self-worth based on their observations of the world around them.

When it comes to participating in real allyship, Byrd said, it’s helpful to think of the concept not as a noun, description, or part of one’s inherent identity, but rather as a verb, saying, “It is action. It is what you are doing to dismantle systems of oppression.”

By thinking of allyship as a skill set, allies can recognize that like any skill, it takes a long-term commitment to practicing the skill, to improving and to learning. Like playing the piano, you won’t play that difficult passage perfectly the first time, or every time, and you will need to listen to your mentor when corrected or advised of new approaches, rather than getting defensive or feeling attacked for your efforts. Feedback is a critical tool to improvement, but only if the receiver of feedback has open ears and an open mind, while recognizing that it takes effort and trust on the part of the giver.

Byrd outlined the pitfalls that commonly pockmark the road to anti-racist allyship, often stemming from the “white fragility” popularly described in Robin Diangelo’s best-selling book of the same name. By being aware of common pitfalls, allies become more self-aware of their “impact versus intent,” able to prioritize actions that lead to positive impact, listening intently to the communities directly affected.

For those who want to start or continue on a path of meaningful allyship, Byrd’s workshops offer a two-hour crash course of useful information; the Denver-based consultant offers private and community workshops and trainings. If you couldn’t make it to Byrd’s workshops this time, stay tuned for future library events.

“The library has plans to incorporate anti-racist programming and the work of BIPOC in all of our programming moving forward,” said adult programs specialist Joanna Spindler. “Keep an eye out for this — it will mean we're elevating not only perspectives on equity and inequity, racism and anti-racism — but also elevating creatives of color, Black joy, brilliant authors of all cultures and races, Latinx leaders, and beyond.”