Lessons For Anti-Racist Action

in Fall/Winter 2020 by

The Parents’ Association DEI Committee invited Park’s School Counselor, Julie Mumford, LICSW, to attend their December open meeting and lead a presentation and discussion regarding race-based microaggressions. Park Parent editorial volunteers attended the meeting, and with the guidance and input of members of the PA DEI Committee, along with Julie, we hope to provide a recap of some valuable takeaways.

We do offer practical definitions and strategies from Julie’s presentation, but we have ultimately focused our attention even more intently on various critical lessons that emerged from the meeting – lessons about the interpersonal, intercultural dynamics of anti-racist work. As well, concerns arising from the actual planning and structure of DEI-related events like this meeting itself help to illustrate the disconnect that can remain between people of color and their white allies – despite the fact that these two populations share the goal of true equity and inclusion at Park and beyond. The more that disconnect can be thoughtfully recognized and bridged, the more effective anti-racist initiatives will be.

Key Points About Race-Based Microaggressions:

What are microaggressions?
“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.” – Derald Wing Sue

What are the impacts of microaggressions on the BIPOC (Black, Indiginous, People of Color) community? On the white community?
The impact of microaggressions, as well as the resources needed to respond to them, are enormously different for these two populations. 

“The Weathering Effect,” which emerged as an important concept in the post-presentation discussion, describes the cumulative damage felt by people of color as an impact of repeated microaggressions. Research has shown that experiencing racism in this consistent and ongoing fashion causes serious lasting stress, not only emotional but physiological. Further, the sensitivity resulting from weathering can mean that even a “superficial” and/or unintended microaggression can easily have a severe impact. The impact of a word or an action can be far more relevant than its intent. 

Meanwhile, the impact felt by a white person who becomes aware that they have been unintentionally involved in a racial microaggression, or realizes that they did not notice its occurrence at the time, is likely a sense of shame and/or embarrassment. As well, witnessing a microaggression or other racist behavior – whether or not that white person intervenes – can bring genuine discomfort, anxiety, or even fear. However, uncomfortable though they may be, such impacts are incomparable to the kind of “weathering” harm experienced by a person of color who is the object of such a microaggression.

How can one meaningfully intervene when witnessing a microaggression, regardless of perceived intent?
Julie presented two broad conceptual areas of action appropriate when one notices a race-based microaggression taking place. In a reactive mode, one can “call out” that behavior, immediately letting someone know that their words or actions are unacceptable. In a reflective mode, during and/or after the fact, one can “call in,” by asking that person questions or otherwise engaging with them so as to promote self-reflection and growth in cultural competency. (For examples of how one might call someone out/in, please click here.)

Regardless of any intervention – or lack thereof – what is required of BIPOC community members in order to cope with the impacts of microaggressions? What is required of white community members?
Bearing in mind these very different realms of impact, Julie’s presentation noted the near-constant effort individuals of color must undertake to assure self-care and resiliency: assessing power dynamics in everyday interactions; assessing for physical safety in various contexts; setting boundaries; searching out support from peers; managing the overall cumulative effect of weathering in a variety of other ways. 

Among other resources, cultural affinity groups can be critically valuable in this respect, as they provide BIPOC participants with safe, dedicated spaces where they can discuss self-care strategies and responses to racism without needing to simultaneously moderate the learning process of white allies.

Meanwhile, white community members have never needed to devote energy to the ongoing coping skills, described above, required of people of color in response to everyday racism. It is incumbent upon white allies to shift that unjust imbalance — to begin using their own energy to adopt an active anti-racist outlook in their daily lives, and to do the committed, reflective work in cultural competency that is required.

Cultural affinity groups designed differently than those described above can provide white allies a less vulnerable space to engage in their own anti-racist work. In settings such as these, white allies can share experiences and learn from each other without fear –  fear of causing additional harm or burden to BIPOC participants who are seeking a different conversation, and of the shame that follows. While a certain amount of discomfort is natural – even appropriate – for white allies becoming involved in anti-racist work, there is no value in making potential participants in this vital work feel alienated or deterred because they do not feel they can enter the conversation safely.

Key Points from the Post-Presentation Discussion:

Participants shared their appreciation for the fact that valuable guidance on microaggressions had been offered to the group, but voiced their concern with the manner in which the meeting itself had been envisioned and managed. Several parents of color noted that the presentation, and as a follow-on, the meeting as a whole, was essentially “white-centered,” and therefore inherently problematic given its context.

Others also noted their frustration at being invited to share examples of various microaggressions they had experienced, given how tiresome and redundant it can feel to revisit these all-too-common painful moments, especially in a setting that seemed designed largely for the benefit of white participants’ cultural competency. Still, several participants shared such stories. A dominant theme was misidentification; students of color and their parents are mistaken quite regularly for peers of the same race. This happens too frequently at Park as well as in the world at large. Experiencing this can make members of our BIPOC community feel that they are not seen and known as individuals. It is a fundamental anti-racist responsibility for white parents and their children to ensure that they correctly identify members of our BIPOC community.

Anti-racist work is straightforward in its goals and guiding principles, but complex, layered, and nuanced in its execution. Along with clear, unequivocal action in the face of injustices – be they large or small, intentional or unintentional – a more holistic sensitivity and cultural awareness is vital, along with thoughtful planning, communication, and a capacity for ‘both/and’ thinking:

  • White allies must avoid burdening the BIPOC community with the responsibility of educating the white community about the impact of racism. And, white allies can actively invite and facilitate people of color, on their own terms, to share their experiences, priorities, and guidance.
  • As a corollary: It is essential for white allies to hear and learn from the experiences of BIPOC members of our community. And it cannot be seen as somehow obligatory for some members of our community to relive their past negative experiences for the sake of others’ anti-racist understanding.
  • An institution like Park can and should facilitate separate, safe spaces for differing purposes: conversations between BIPOC peers engaged in anti-racist discussion appropriate to their context and experience, and conversations between white peers engaged in anti-racist discussion appropriate to their context and experience. And, healthy, collaborative anti-racist work can and should also be accomplished in safe spaces, also facilitated by the institution, where people of color and white allies come together. (Park will begin its own programming of varied affinity spaces in January 2021.)

And so, the December 8th PA DEI Meeting and Presentation itself was both problematic and productive. It disappointed participants who had expected a different balance of content and interaction. It revealed blind spots and assumptions that cause frustration and pain. It exemplified the kinds of missteps and miscommunications that can emerge as an institution like Park tries to build a better structure of anti-racist resources. And, it was planned and facilitated in good faith by a committed parent volunteer body charged with a challenging anti-racist mandate. Through Julie’s thoughtful presentation, it offered valuable and practical concepts and skills to white allies. The ensuing discussion offered its own lessons – to those in attendance and hopefully, through this article, to the wider Park community. Overall, lessons drawn from the experience of the meeting provide helpful guidance as Park’s anti-racist initiatives unfold moving forward.

Progress towards true equity and inclusion will be imperfect. But the alternative – of delaying or not engaging in this work – is simply not acceptable. Parents at Park, bringing differing approaches based on their own lived experiences, and committing, urgently and openly, to honest, respectful participation, have the opportunity to play a huge role in transforming our school into a more deeply anti-racist institution. 


Resources shared by community members during the meeting. For more resources and information, please see the comprehensive DEI Resources page on Park’s website.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
A nuanced graphic novel about identity and belonging. 

How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
An essential text prescribing transformative changes in outlook and policy. From the book: “…there is no such thing as a “not-racist” — our actions are either racist or anti-racist. If we are serious about justice, if we are serious about peace, we don’t get to spend our time being “neutral” white people — because there is no neutral.”

New York Times “1619 Project”
Nikole Hannah-Jones developed this ongoing project for The New York Times Magazine which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of [the United States’] national narrative.”

Brené Brown’s “Unlocking Us” Podcasts
Featuring the intersection of shame and accountability in white people as they work towards anti-racism, and her author interviews with Austin Channing Brown and Ibram X. Kendi.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In a World Made For Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Austin Channing Brown focuses on racial justice in America with her book I’m Still Here: and video web series The Next Question

“This Racism Is Killing Me Inside”
An episode on the radio program “Code Switch” about the Weathering Effect.

YourBlackFriendsAreBusy.com
A phone app dedicated to being a growing resource for learning about anti-racism and supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement

7 Steps White Allies Can Take To Become More Involved:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the strategies of ‘calling out’ and ‘calling in’ and choosing to directly address racial microaggressions.
  2. Listen to and learn from members of our BIPOC community when they choose to share their own experiences.
  3. Join an affinity group, Parent SEED, or other ongoing DEI discussion group at Park.
  4. Attend Parents’ Association DEI events and other forums facilitated by Park.
  5. Improve cultural competency and understanding of the BIPOC experience using media resources such as those listed above.
  6. Begin conversations with adult friends and family around anti-racist priorities.
  7. Engage in conversations with your children about their peers.  Books can be helpful, for example: A Kids Book about Racism by Jelani Memory

The parent volunteers on the Park Parent Editorial Board write articles on current events at the School and matters of interest to the Park community for this quarterly newsletter. We are always looking to grow our team of volunteer writers and photographers. If you are interested in learning more, please contact TheParkParent@parkschool.org