Dismantling Racism: first step is changing white attitudes

If the killings of Ahmaud Arbery , Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and so many others and the protests which have rocked America do not wake us up, what will? America is at a tipping point.

It is clear: we must do something. 

Shift in Attitude?

Big news: 76 percent of Americans now say racial discrimination in the US is a real problem, up from 51 percent in 2015. And public support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much in the past month as it did in the previous two years, according to the New York Times.

I see a sea change in how America is thinking when Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Republican governor of California, posted a video on the 4th of July which said “We must fight every day to make sure that the American dream is as true for a Black child born in Minneapolis as it was for an immigrant white bodybuilder born in Austria.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUHxqcPS010

America is looking to understand racism and do something about it. While I see that Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility is now being widely read, I find Peggy McIntosh’s  “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies”  more helpful.

“It isn’t my problem”

An attitude of “It isn’t my problem” is what Peggy McIntosh saw at the core of male privilege and white privilege.  In 1989 when she wrote the piece, men would dismiss women’s concerns implying domestic violence, rape, the glass ceiling, wage discrimination, no child care at work, and the piles of laundry and dishes were women’s problems. (The good news is this has changed some.)

“Racism is a white person’s problem to solve”

Ernst Owens in his article in Philadelphia Magazine, “White People, Please Stop Declaring Yourself Allies,” says much the same thing: “Racism is a white person’s problem to solve….While racism harms Black and brown people directly, it is caused solely by white people’s actions and cultural influence. These routine abuses, which have been instituted and normalized by white people over hundreds of years, have produced slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, redlining, voter suppression, police brutality, gaps in education and wealth, and numerous other human rights violations.”

“White silence is violence”

Owens continues, “The option to care or not is the very definition of white privilege.”
How do we end that silence? My definition of an ally is someone who speaks up and speaks out.

So HOW do we change the attitude of many Americans?

The Stages of Change model: a helpful framework.

Image courtesy of David O’Donnell and James Golding

Carlo C. DiClemente and J.O. Prochaska developed this model in the 1980’s based on their observation of HOW people change behavior – whether it is drinking, smoking, safe sex, overeating or whatever. I think it is equally applicable to changing attitudes and behavior about race.

The stages of change:  

1. Pre-contemplation – Not yet able to acknowledge that there is a problem that needs to be changed ƒ
    Task: raise awareness    

2. Contemplation -Acknowledge that there is a problem but not yet ready or sure you want to make a change
     Task: reducing ambivalence – helping choose to change

3. Preparation/Determination – Getting ready to change ƒ
    Task: helping to choose change strategies   

4. Action/Willpower – Change behavior or system    
     Task: help implement change – and learn to eliminate relapse

5. Maintenance -Maintain the behavior or community change ƒ
    Task: develop skills to maintain recovery

6. Relapse – Return to old ways and abandon new change and then must strategize how to recover
    Task: cope with the consequences and figure out what to do next


1. Personal experiences change the most hearts.

2.  The goal is to get someone to the next step; people rarely jump past step in a stage of change.

3. How you choose to contribute to social change and racial justice is very personal, often based on your style, what you have on your plate, how many kids you have clamoring for your attention or your circumstances. I will never forget the woman in Arizona who told me, “I would love to make calls but my fingers are so arthritic I can’t touch the numbers on the phone so I just bake cookies for the cause.”

4.  Misunderstanding and shouting in America occurs because we do not grasp where others are coming from…. their stage of change which shapes both their perspective and terminology.


1.  Pedagogy of the Oppressor

Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and philosopher, wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed which  advocated conscious raising – conscientização – centered on discussing “what is wrong with this picture?” for the oppressed to understand their role and position…how the world works.  I propose that we shift to Pedagogy of the Oppressor.

2.  Intimate connections, intimate conversations

LivingRoomConversations.org  and Van Jones in Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together provide helpful models about how we can talk across divides.  When we get to know people more intimately and get out of our “silos” and partisan grouping, change occurs.

This is different from the intimate discussions in many anti-racism study groups which are more likely to be at similar stages of change and speaking a similar language.  Many alumni of this kind of consciousness-raising are further along the change spectrum and ready for action. The next step for them may be to ramp up their activism. (See the second article in this series, “To Dismantle Racism, We Must Sustain the Activism”)

3. Reaching out into the community

Speaking engagements. In the early years of the domestic violence movement, as community awareness rose about DV, so did the requests for speakers.  I gladly volunteered. Those forays into the community, plus talking to the police and prosecuting attorneys helped me understand how people were thinking.  Speaking up and speaking out is at the heart of movement building.

Music to raise awareness. In the LGBT movement outreach into the larger community and touching hearts was also essential. Dennis Coleman, director of Seattle Men’s Chorus for 35 years, very strategically planned concerts which would attract different sectors of Seattle, e.g. my parents went to their Swing Era concert. Coleman acknowledged the chorus was ambassadors.  They had a “Drop and Go” team of singers who could drop everything and go sing where needed, e.g. in eastern Washington when a gay youth committed suicide. These are the slow but sure steps to change consciousness.

4. Don’t just sing to the choir, expand the chorus

Help facilitate this conversation. Speak, do concerts or comedy acts pertinent to race at grange halls, community colleges, Rotary Clubs, colleges, churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist sanghas, your kid’s school, union halls, garden clubs, before concerts or at the local library. Could you set something up at the Sturgis motorcycle rally or the Indie 500? Don’t just sing to the choir; find ways to expand the chorus.  Invite your friends to join you in this effort so you multiply the impact.

5.  Make these conversations not lectures How does your audience think and feel?  It is crucial to assess what stage of change they are at and help move them to the next step. The goal is to see an “I get it!” light can go on in their eyes and heart.
And one step better, laughter and comedy sneak in past barriers and change hearts and minds.

People are busy. They need to know what to do and how to help

Changing attitudes is the first step, but we can’t stop there. For those further along the Stages of Change, in the next article in this series, I will propose tangible action steps.

Can we solve the challenges of our time? Yes, we can!

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