My Family’s Journey to Anti-Racism

Written by Kellie Bahri

This work is the product of searching for a way to help my family in their journey in social justice, antiracism, their role in racism, and how to stay woke to become lifelong change makers. Through conversations with my adult children and their friends, I have been moved to hear of their activism through protesting, watching documentaries, reading, and filling their social media pages with support of Black Lives Matter. Their yearning for more information and understanding fills me with hope that change in America will happen as this younger generation sees truth and actively fights against racism. I also feared their actions were a part of a trend and it would fade away. I wanted to provide them with something that would guide them in this work long term. The work that is needed to create equity, justice, and fairness is going to take years of hard work, and we need to prepare ourselves to be actively involved for the long haul. So, where do we begin? Ourselves first.

To be an activist for anti-racism, we must know ourselves to understand our own identity, our part in social justice, and where we fit into it. Every conversation with my family was filled with questions. Who am I? What is our role in racism and social justice? How can I make a difference? How have I unknowingly contributed to racism?  So, thus began my family’s work. 

It goes beyond knowing ourselves and moves solidly into consistent and ongoing action. This is the reason why I created ITEA. It is a guide to help us in our journey and to ensure that our understanding and action in social justice will not be a trending activity, but a life long work of constant action.

As I write this I must admit my apprehension, as I am still learning and doing my best. I know I will stumble along the way and I may not get everything right. In full transparency, it pains me to recall a time that I thought I was being helpful. I was at a store and I stepped in to “fix” an issue that I saw happening with a white clerk and Black patron. I was met with the words, “I don’t need a white savior.” Those words ripped through me. I thought I was being helpful. I remember walking out embarrassed, but I also knew I was never asked to intervene and truth be told, she was handling it just fine herself.  I also realized I had a lot to learn and still do. There have been many moments that I wish I could thank her for helping me see my error and helping me grow. I know there are more mistakes in my future but to fear mistakes is to consent to racism. My hope is that through my example, my children will also be brave and continue to learn and be active social justice change makers. 

    The ITEA model moves from INQUIRY to TRUTH to EMPATHY to ACTION with the ultimate goal of being life time activists for Social Justice. The four areas of ITEA can be worked on simultaneously. For example, as my family continues to work on INQUIRY learning about ourselves through the lens of racism, we are also researching TRUTH that we have our eyes shut to. I highly recommend you begin with Inquiry, then you can move to any of the other areas that best fits your journey. When my family sets out on hikes, we have many starting points to choose from for our journey; I like to think of ITEA as a pathway with many entry points to our social justice journey.

INQUIRY 

    Once your heart is aligned in seeing systemic racism as a huge issue and that severe changes are needed, we must come to understand the truth of our part in it. Many may be saying, “I’m not racist, I have friends of color and of all races.” This may be very true, but we all have a part in this. My family and I felt these same things. Through listening and a lot of reflection we began to learn what being white in America really means and that without conscious effort we are a part of systemic racism. 

    We saw more clearly the injustices and how being white afforded us privileges that Black and Brown people do not receive. I remember being a part of a Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) session several years ago. We were asked to stand up in a line and given a small handheld mirror to hold. One by one we went down the line verbally saying what we thought about when we woke up in the morning. We held up our mirrors and the first person said something to the effect of, “I hope the coffee machine is working..I need to make my kids their lunches?” Then it was my turn. “I am so late! I hope there isn’t any traffic. I have a staff meeting today,” I rattled on. We all were kind of giggling as we spoke. I mean everyone could relate to waking up late and hurrying to work. Then the man standing next to me held up his mirror and the laughing stopped. “I pray for the safety of my children today. I pray they are not treated unfairly because of their skin color. I pray that I will make it to work today without being pulled over for no reason other than my skin color.” 

    You see, he woke up seeing his skin color and knew the ramifications that it brought him. Every morning he saw it. I did not. I did not see my skin color. I didn’t see white. I saw nothing. This is White Privilege. Without conscious thought, I am a part of systemic racism. I benefit from unearned privileges based on my skin color. I am allowed to move through the day without seeing my whiteness. This is just one example of what being white affords me. There are 100s of other benefits I receive on a daily basis. If you are white and have been born in America, you have grown up in a country that honors you. This is not true for people of color. I do not bring this up for anyone to feel guilty about being white or for the privileges that are attached to it. 

Guilt seems to be a natural step in learning and understanding more about racism. My family experienced this. We were filled with guilt and wanted a way to apologize and make it right. What does that even mean? How does one apologize? Does apologizing bring change? Who do you apologize to? 

Again laden with questions and becoming stagnant in our journey, we had to place guilt on a shelf because we knew there was A LOT of work that needs to be done. We needed to learn and understand how we can use our unearned privileges to change systems. 

My family knows that we have a lot of work in this area. We know that the more we understand our own identity and what white race is, the more we will see the injustices that are embedded into every part of our society and entangled into every system of America. Our eyes are opened. We are fueled to learn more and be a part of making change happen. 

Here are a few books I have read that may help you get started on inquiry: 

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do

Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race

So You Want to Talk About Race

NOTE: I have linked these titles to (link to good reads OR to Black-owned businesses)  Amazon for you to peruse. PLEASE PURCHASE THEM FROM BLACK-OWNED INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES 

TRUTH

An area that caught my family by surprise was how much we didn’t know about the history of slavery and how it has grown into systemic racism in America today. The more we read, the more we went back to inquiry and dug deeper. Where does truth come from? How do we decipher truth from untruths? And at what point do we all begin to speak the truth of history? 

We have all been told the story of 1492. Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He found America! Wrong. He did not find America. It had already been inhabited by Indigenous people. In fact, by the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century A.D., scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas (History Channel, 2019). 

Columbus, along with every other explorer pillaged new lands, brought diseases from their homelands, ran the indigenous people further and further out, killed them, and did other unmentionable things. This is the definition of colonialism. 

“Why are we told that Columbus found America, mom? I always thought he was some kind of hero,” asked my son. Shame on me for not setting that story right in my own home.

Let’s move onto slavery. In some textbooks, African enslavement is actually taught from the perspective that they were “workers” who wanted to come to America to work. Unbelievable! African Queens and Kings and doctors and engineers and families were forced here to work our lands to build America. Slave owning men justified their known actions by stripping African men, women, and children down to words such as property and savages who needed to be saved by white man’s religion (Reynolds & Kendi, 2020). 

The twisted truths that are taught have been passed down generationally, taught in schools, and have created a whitewashed America. Through our searching for truth, it honestly led us to more questions and wonderings. A question that my young children began to ask was if all white people were bad during this time. This hit me hard. I began to search my heart and purpose for this work in helping my children. Was I helping them to see the whole truth? 

The truth that yes there were some very good white abolitionists who worked endlessly to end slavery. In researching, we got to know the works of Elizabeth Margret Chandler, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Grimke, Angelina Grimke, Benjamin Lay, Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Rush, Moses Brown, and of course the famous work on William Llyod Garrison. 

    Something happens when the truth is seen. Our perception of our reality shifts, our view becomes multifaceted, but it can also lead to confusion and more inquiry. We discovered that without asking questions and researching, how easily we can be gaslighted by hearing only one side of a history. We also learned the truth made us uncomfortable. The truth of the past, leads us to the truth of the present. 

One thing is for certain, my family no longer views history the same. We stand and honor the men, women, and children who lived through the horrifying reality of slavery, those that fought to create equaility and justice, and the heroes that stand to change racist policies. We not only stand as an ally but a co-conspirator BESIDE those who continue to be harmed because of our history of systemic injustice.

A few books to read to gain truth of history not told in the history books:

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

(Lies my teacher told me is another fab book btw)

EMPATHY

Empathy fuels passion for change. It is what builds compassion for someone else’s story. It creates unity for us to stand side by side with one another. It is what is needed for impact to make a difference. Psychiatrist and researcher Helen Riess, author of the book,The Empathy Effect, states, the ability to connect emphatically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society. (Riess, 2018) This doesn’t mean you will think or feel the same as someone else. It’s being able to see other’s struggle or pain. So why is it that we can gain empathy, but seem unable to sustain it for the long term movement in ending systemic racism? Helen Riess adds,  “It’s hard to watch someone who is suffering. We may feel their pain or absorb their sorrow; we may worry that we won’t know what to do or say. Those uncomfortable moments might make us turn away from their distress—to preserve our own well-being or to carry on with our lives” (Helen Riess, 2018). I believe this to be true. We will absolutely feel uncomfortable and we may not always know what to say, but remaining silent adds to the very thing we want to change. So, what can we do? How do we move from empathy to impact? How do we push through the uncomfortableness? How can each of us be a changemaker?  

My family knew that our eyes and voices were something we each could use. To use our voices to speak out when we see, hear, or feel injustice happening. We need to use our voices to call people into the work of social justice, by creating a safe space for continued conversation, learning together, and to walk in love. We also understand in doing so, we might get it wrong, but this is how we will learn and grow. 

ACTION

Action will be different for everyone. We all have our place in the world that gives us a platform to speak the truth and make changes. I have witnessed so many amazing activists and abolitionists over the last several months. It feels good to see so many strong people standing up for equal rights. As one of my children said, “There is no right or wrong in how you take action, as long as we do our part to make changes.”  So, we began to look at how we could move our empathy into action.

    If you are an educator, then fighting for equity and ensuring all children are accepted, and that their learning needs are being met based on their style, not yours, is a great start. 

If you are a student, lead by example. Treat everyone the way you would like to be treated and stand up to racism and bullying.  If you are a parent, encourage your children to ask questions, and empower them to see the world from a different lense to embrace differences around them and to use their voices for humanity. 

If you are a CEO, continue to ensure you have a diversified staff; assuming that it is already. 

If you are a Hollywood producer, for the love of God change the narrative and start making the roles equitable. 

According to author Kira Schacht (2020),  “…as Hollywood features more black characters and casts more black actors, it has also emphasized other stereotypes. To this day, black men are often portrayed as scary or angry and black women as loudmouthed and sassy. If a movie features one token black character, it’s likely to be the black best friend. And, if people die in a movie, the black character is still likely to go first. Even with awareness of racial stereotypes rising, Hollywood persists with these tropes.” 

It’s time to change the narrative and stop the continuation of damaging falsehoods. These ideals are what perpetuate dangerous biases that place Black lives in danger every day.

It is time to change our narratives.

As our family began to ask deeper questions about how to change systemic racism we realized that we were not using our democratic rights and our white privilege. 

“We the People.” 

We the people can call our Representatives, Senators, government leaders, and School Board Members. 

We realized how much we didn’t know and how much we needed to become more aware of laws that are in place and those being put in place that continue to perpetuate systemic racism. We need to pay close attention to laws around criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. We all need to make calls and VOTE. We can make change happen when we work together. I hope you and your family will join my family in our journey to social justice. 

Find your district leaders: 

Find your Representative/Senator

References

(www.dw.com), D. W. (n.d.). What Hollywood movies do to perpetuate racial stereotypes: DW: 21.02.2019. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/hollywood-movies-stereotypes-prejudice-data-analysis/a-47561660

History.com Editors. (2009, December 04). Native American Cultures. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/native-american-cultures

History.com Editors. (2009, December 04). Native American Cultures. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/native-american-cultures

Reynolds, J., & Kendi, I. X. (2020). Stamped: Racism, antiracism, and you. Little, Brown and Company.

Riess, H. (2018). Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences. Sounds True, Incorporated.

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. I love how you have broken this up into steps for each of us to take following your ITEA model.
    I read through it, but I want to go back and focus on each one, letting the words guide my work.
    “Empathy fuels passion for change.”
    THIS is foundational and there is so much to be done.
    Personally, I know I need to start with inquiry + what are the things I need to unlearn regarding my negativity bias.
    Great starting point and I look forward to hearing more of this journey with your family!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I kept wanting to leave comments within every single paragraph as I read along! So many great points, here, Kellie. When it comes to “Inquiry,” this book that we are using for #TalkAboutRaceEdu, “So you want to talk about race?” by Ijeoma Oluo was hard to read at times. She suggests that I am a racist, just by being white. I look forward to reread these sections and talking about them with friends on Twitter. And, her chapter about privilege stretched my understanding! I think that it is a great exercise for everyone to practice: Exploring all of the privileges that each of us experience, and may not even no it.
    When you mentioned the story of being reproached as a “White Savior,” my mouth dropped open. That is a great, albeit probably painful for you, lesson for all of us to hear. Thank you for sharing that one, many more, and this awesome blog, full of great ideas and thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

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