From White Supremacism to Justice: The Role of Education in Moving “Good White People” from Denial to Responsibility

By Lisa Sandoval

April 18, 2017


The belief amongst white people in the United States that racism is no longer a significant issue in our society continues to be prevalent despite ongoing oppression of people of color. This oppression is kept in place by the structure of our society in systems built to advantage white people and recreate patterns of white racial dominance. This unearned advantage acts invisibly to most white people and helps them remain ignorant of the ways in which they support societal racism. This paper examines the role of white people in the United States in dismantling racism in our society. It explores theories and methods of anti-racism education for white people, and considers the suitability of experiential, workshop-style trainings as a first step for them to begin the journey of breaking down any existing misconceptions and ignorance surrounding racism. Trainings of this sort can galvanize and prepare white people to partner with people of color, cultivate communities committed to anti-racism, and ultimately to challenge and interrupt racism on individual, institutional, and national levels to create lasting systemic change.


“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies.

—Ta-Nahisi Coates (2015, p. 42)

I remember being aware of racism and injustice in my society for a long time and feeling troubled by it, but until a few years ago I saw it as a problem separate from myself, caused by other, racist people and institutions. A particular day in the spring of 2015 marks the first time I realized something was wrong on a personal level, that racism existed in me and acted through me. I was at a meditation center I frequented regularly. A woman who was a member of the center was there, and she was black. Most of the people who frequented the center were white. I remember this woman as tall and dignified, dressed like a man in jeans and a flannel collared tee-shirt. I became aware that I was not relating to her the way I related to the other white people, whether or not their clothing matched their perceived gender: I was experiencing an overload of mental activity regarding her, although I could not at the time make out the contents of my mind or hear what my thoughts were saying. I was aware of my discomfort, yet fearful she would notice my awkwardness, panicked that it was wrong to feel this way, and all the while trying to appear on the surface as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. This, I see now, is an example of a white liberal person’s experience of racism. I was experiencing my racial bias, but having rejected the notion that I could have any personal responsibility for racism in American society, I was attempting to negate, alter, or push away the experience through defensive mechanisms.

This experience prompted me to apply for a program called UNtraining White Liberal Racism. What I have learned since joining the UNtraining in 2015 has kept me committed to the process of anti-racism education for white people. The United States has reached a paradoxical point where many people claim racism is gone or inconsequential despite massive evidence to the contrary (The JBHE Foundation, 2002; Loya & Cuevas, 2010; DiAngelo, 2012). The ways in which racism continues to manifest cause a wide array of ongoing human and civil rights abuses to people of color as well as psychological suffering for white people, though this second aspect usually goes unnoticed and unacknowledged (Tatum, 1997). 

The responsibility for dismantling racism in this country does not lie with people of color alone; a critical element lies with white people who aspire to a future of equal opportunity for all and requires them to work together as a community to learn about their white conditioning, or the ways in which they unknowingly participate in racism. With greater understanding, white people can “begin to act in new and more equitable ways,” thus interrupting the patterns of racism (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 28). And since white people control the majority of institutional power due to occupying most positions of decision-making authority, white people have more power to make laws and enforce institutional change, and correspondingly more responsibility to implement these changes. DiAngelo (2012), uses the example of women’s suffrage to illustrate this fact. She says that although women had to become conscious of their right to vote and advocate for it, it was the men in government who had the power to actually change the laws. Enough of these men had to also come to believe in women’s rights and convince other men to support them. If no men had been convinced or had acted, women’s suffrage could not have been achieved.

But becoming convinced of the need for social and institutional change and understanding exactly what those changes should be is not necessarily a simple task for white people. McIntosh (1989) observes that “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal” and to define other ways of thinking, acting, and being as “cultural,” different, interesting and even threatening. Therefore, although white people may mean well, they may need to examine unconscious beliefs that direct their behavior without their awareness. Through education, well-meaning white people can learn how to truly act in anti-racist ways and serve as an influence on other white people and an ally to people of color.

For the purposes of this paper, I have chosen to use the terms black and white to describe people of mixed African descent and mixed European descent, respectively. These two terms are limiting, however, because they do not describe ethnicities, nationalities, or cultures. Western States Center, a social justice advocacy organization in Oregon, defines race as “a false classification of people that is not based on any real or accurate biological or scientific truth,” “a political construction” and “classification of human beings with the purpose of giving power to white people and to legitimize the dominance of white people over non-white people” (Western States Center, 2003, p. 13). The Western concept of race was developed out of false science during European colonialism and European and American practices of slavery to justify and legitimize the injustices being perpetuated (Williams, 2014). Some of the authors I cite do capitalize one or both of these terms. I also use the term people of color when needed to speak generally about people who are not considered white in the United States. The US Census Bureau includes in the “white” category people of Middle Eastern and North African heritage, but in this paper I am using the term to refer only to people of European heritage (including Jewish people of European heritage), because these are generally the people who are considered white, who think they are white, and who are favored by racial inequality in the United States.

Racism and Human Rights in America

This section explores the costs of racism in the United States and justifies the author’s argument that there is a need for a greater understanding of what racism really is and how it operates, which naturally leads to an understanding of how to disrupt and dismantle it. I also position the costs of racism as human rights abuses worthy of concern in the field of international development. While the human rights challenges in the United States may not be as severe as those occurring in other countries, they are nonetheless significant (Tatum, 1997).

Human rights are one benchmark by which human development can be measured in addition to economic growth. Human rights are defined as “universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions and omissions that interfere with fundamental freedoms, entitlements and human dignity” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR], 2007). Dr. Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, observed on Human Rights Day on December 10, 2015, “One need only look at the new Sustainable Development Goals agenda to see the global commitment to a universal, people-centered, equitable and just society … Rights are also increasingly a centerpiece – if not a condition – of international development policy.” Global development is centered on improving the lives of the world’s people as a whole, especially those suffering the most. According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how we raise GDP and whose life improves in the process is as important as the simple fact of economic growth. Thus development indicators are now intertwined with and inseparable from human rights indicators (OHCHR, 2007). It is becoming more widely accepted that a rights-based approach to development as opposed to a purely economic approach is useful.

SDG 16, for example, calls to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (United Nations, 2015). The reason for this goal is that just and inclusive societies are a condition on which rests the success of the other SDGs. Goal 16 includes in its targets to reduce violence and violence-related deaths and to ensure justice for all. These targets are supported by the belief, shared by the United Nations (UN) and many people globally, that life, security, and justice are not merely optional benefits but basic human rights (OHCHR, n.d.). The preservation of these rights is fundamentally “right” and “good” and their opposites—unnecessary death, the threat of harm or death, and injustice, unfairness and discrimination—are fundamentally wrong and unethical. Article 3 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) expresses this formally: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The UN’s summary of SDG 16 (United Nations, 2015) further explains that “[p]eaceful, just and inclusive societies are necessary to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” (p. 1). Furthermore, the UN recognizes that the world’s richest nations are not exempt from human rights abuses: “Crimes that threaten the foundation of peaceful societies, including homicides, … as well as discriminatory laws or practices, affect all countries. Even the world’s greatest democracies face major challenges in addressing … crime and human rights violations for everyone at home” (p. 2).

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2007) defines a human rights indicator as information about human rights-related condition that can be used to measure the extent to which that human right is present (p. 16). A simple way to measure how well a human right is honored is by comparing information about its condition in one segment of the population with its condition in another segment of the population.

Statistics on police violence in the United States paint a vivid picture of racial inequality between black and white people in terms of the right to life and security of person (Lowery, 2016). At 62 percent of the US population, white people make up 49 percent of those shot and killed by police. Black people make up 13 percent of the population, but 24 percent of those shot and killed by the police. This rate means they are 2.5 times more likely than whites to die due to being shot by the police. In a comparison of the numbers of young black men with the numbers of young white men shot and killed by police in 2015, a higher proportion the black men were unarmed, meaning they did not constitute a threat to the police officer’s life (Lowery, 2016). Cody Ross (2015), a researcher in the University of California, Davis Department of Anthropology, found that in 2015 in almost all counties in the US, individuals who were shot by the police, whether armed or unarmed, were more likely to be black or Hispanic than white. Ross (2015) writes:

Tragically, across a large proportion of counties, individuals who were shot by police had a higher median probability of being unarmed black individuals than being armed white individuals. While this pattern could be explained by reduced levels of crime being committed by armed white individuals, it still raises a question as to why there exists such a high rate of police shooting of unarmed black individuals. (par. 29)

People have argued that black people are more likely to live in high-crime areas and therefore more likely to encounter police in hostile situations, but studies do not show a statistically significant relationship between racial bias in police shootings and race-specific crime (Ross, 2015; Lowery, 2016; Goff, Lloyd, Geller, Raphael, & Glaser, 2016).

The costs of racism to black people are well-documented and are by no means limited to police violence. They include disparities in housing, education, wealth accumulation, employment, and incarceration, which contribute to increased stress and ultimately ensure that black people on average have lifespans several years shorter than those of white people (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 89). These costs affect the country’s bottom line: “Whether one looks at productivity lowered by racial tensions in the workplace, or real estate equity lost through housing discrimination, or the tax revenue lost in underemployed communities of color, or the high cost of warehousing human talent in prison, the economic costs of racism are real and measurable” (Tatum, 1997, p. 14). And racism does not only harm people of color: white people often experience guilt, shame, repression, fear of “the other,” and live in racial segregation (Tatum, 1997, p. 14; DiAngelo, 2012, p. 161-162). The writer Wendell Berry (1970) says it well:

If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.… [T]he more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society (p. 14). 

Thus the costs of racism to American society are numerous.

It is interesting to note that in the United States, inequality is usually spoken of in terms of civil rights, rather than human rights. Human rights are considered inborn and due to all humans regardless of existing laws (OHCHR, n.d.), whereas civil rights are granted by laws and not considered fundamental. For example, the right to vote is a civil right as opposed to a human right because voting depends on the type of government a country has. The rights to life, safety of person, and equitable treatment, on the other hand, are inalienable and therefore human rights. People might disagree whether certain rights (such as the right to education or health care) should be universal human rights or whether they are merely civil rights available in some countries.

Anti-Racism Education

You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend there is a real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear … And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.

—Ta-Nahisi Coates (2015, p. 79)

There isn’t any Negro problem, there is only a white problem.

—Richard Wright, 1946 in Kinnamon and Fabre, 1993, Eds., p. 99

Many types of education exist for white people on racism, including college courses, workplace trainings (such as mandatory “diversity trainings”), and workshops. This section explores workshop-style classes administered by community organizations and universities. Such classes offered by a community organization could look like a series of workshops led by facilitators, who follow a particular curriculum, and could be advertised as being intended for white people. People from the community would be admitted to the program through an application and acceptance process. But anti-racism education could equally take the form of a credit-granting university course, in which case the race of the students who enroll could not be restricted. The formats and teaching methods of these workshops have important effects on participant outcomes and experience. Regardless of the type of learning experience, however, white students new to exploring race are able to confront a common set of misconceptions.

The format of these workshops could be either all white or mixed-race (although in a university setting restricting the race of attendees would not be possible). It is generally best for white people to begin in an all-white setting to gain more self-knowledge and internalize some preliminary lessons about racism before exploring the topic with people of color, says Robert Horton (personal communication, April 13, 2017), who co-founded an organization called the UNtraining and has taught workshops and trained teachers for over ten years. As Horton notes, people of color tend to be exposed to the effects of racism on a regular basis while white people tend to be ignorant of the racial bias and privilege in their lives. Horton has observed that when people of color are brought together with uninformed white people in a workshop, the people of color usually end up teaching the workshop because they have a greater understanding of racism than the white people, which puts the people of color in an unfair position of having to take on a role they did not sign up for and are not being paid to fulfill.

Learning about white conditioning needs to be an experiential process involving the whole self - mind, body, emotions - because socialization resides mostly in the unconscious depths of our psyches and is closely entwined with our cultural practice, sense of self (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 13-28), and deepest insecurities (The UNtraining, n.d.). Teaching racism cognitively, or as an abstract concept, makes it difficult for students to connect what they learn to their lived experience. A combination of discussions, experiential activities, journaling, and self-reflection helps make the learning extremely personal and “encourage[s] the processing of new information, a deeper understanding and awareness of race relations and the dynamics of racism, and … help[s] students explore the areas that create personal dissonance” (Loya & Cuevas, 2010, p. 290). To study the usefulness of racism education that engages the whole self, including emotions, attitudes, and feelings, Loya and Cuevas (2010) ran pre- and post-tests on students of a college course that convened for nine four-hour sessions over the course of a winter intersession. Workshop activities included setting ground rules, viewing a movie and discussing it with the help of a guest lecturer, ongoing class discussions, and online discussion forums. Experiential activities included assignments to visit areas of town that made the students uncomfortable due to the presence of cultures other than the students’ own and an exercise in which the students were asked to line up and step backwards or forwards in response to certain questions – forward if they answered yes to having experienced a particular privilege and backward if they answered yes to having experienced a particular form of discrimination (2010, p. 291). Both activities produced significant insights for the students.

Fully understanding how racism manifests in their lives can be a long and difficult process for white people in the United States. DiAngelo (2012) writes that white conditioning through socialization is so strong that “[i]nformed knowledge on racism for whites only comes from intentional long-term study and practice” (p. 8). Many white people report their parents taught them that skin color does not matter or to treat everyone the same regardless of differences, and believe they follow their parents’ advice. But such statements are not sufficient to counteract society’s messages in which “dominant group members are affirmed, made visible, and represented in diverse and positive ways,” leading to internalized superiority in whites in which they “see themselves as normal, real, correct, and more valuable than the minoritized group” (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 67). These unconscious beliefs are difficult to identify and overcome.

Whether a college course or a workshop series, anti-racism education needs to include elements of relationship-building between participants. The relationships formed between white people learning together about their white conditioning are critical to counteracting the societal norms of silence, ignorance or denial of unearned privilege and the reality of racism (McIntosh, 1989). Racism is held in place in part because white people do not discuss it with each other or people of color. Forming relationships in the context of a shared understanding and discussions about racism allows white people to begin to build communities and form strong bonds with each other in the presence of a shared commitment to understanding how racism operates in their lives in order to cease perpetuating it. In doing so they actively undercut the status quo of denial and ignorance around racism.

Eventually, mixed-group work can allow white people to form similar relationships with people of color who can further challenge the white people to face the racism in themselves and their communities. DiAngelo (2012) considers the formation of cross-racial friendships to be critical to white people, many of whom grew up or continue to live in racial segregation and therefore lack much first-hand knowledge of what it is like to deal with the effects of racism. Relationships amongst workshop attendees – regardless of race – cannot be forced but are facilitated by small group size, sitting in a circle, group discussions in which honest sharing is encouraged, group rules upholding confidentiality, and sufficient time together as a group to build trust and let people get to know each other. For example, in workshops like those held by the UNtraining, relationships are able to form over the course of the 30 hours of cumulative time participants spend together. University courses can also easily offer this amount of time; the other key features of group work such as circle formation, small size, and confidentiality are less common to university settings, but by no means impossible to create. 

An important aspect of anti-racism education which appears in the UNtraining programs is called multi-dimensionality. This idea – defined as the “ability to hold more than one reality simultaneously” (The UNtraining, n.d.) – was brought to the program by its other co-founder Rita Shimmin. It is learned via a simple meditative practice. The practice begins by settling the mind and connecting with the body; recalling something or someone who evokes love, appreciation, or fondness; and taking a minute to experience that positive feeling. The next step is to bring to mind something troubling (whether related to race or not) and attempt to hold both the positive feeling and the troubled feeling gently in mind at the same time, switching back and forth between the two if holding them both simultaneously is difficult.

Cultivating awareness of multi-dimensionality helps one become comfortable with conflicting realities, such as the reality of being a good person and at the same time having racist conditioning, and is critical to being able to relate to white conditioning without devolving into the unhelpful states of shame, denial or paralysis. Multi-dimensionality shows the way to stepping out of what DiAngelo (2012) describes as the “racist = bad / not racist = good binary” (p. 201), a phenomenon she says has emerged over the course of the last few decades as racism has come to be considered politically incorrect. Racist people have been labeled “bad” and conversely, good people cannot be racist. The binary separating good people from racist people might seem at first glance a positive development, except for the fact that simply viewing racism as unacceptable does not make it go away. Racist conditioning persists, and therefore white people who are intellectually against racism find themselves exerting great energy to deny their own racial biases in order to continue to see themselves as good people. The practice of multi-dimensionality has many applications but one is simply to help white people learning about their racism cope with it while still affirming their humanity.

Several preliminary discoveries emerge for people engaged in anti-racism education. One key lesson is the clarification of what racism is. White people commonly understand racism as individual acts of discrimination, disrespect, or violence motivated by racial prejudice and undertaken by individual people (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 87-89; McIntosh, 1989). However, theorists, scholars, and activists alike find it more accurate to view racism in the United States as “a system of advantage based on race” in a society where there is an “ever-present power differential afforded Whites by the culture and institutions that make up the system of advantage and continue to reinforce notions of White superiority” (Tatum, 1997, p. 10). Tatum (1997) therefore prefers to use the term racist to refer only to certain behaviors committed by white people in the context of this power imbalance, not those behaviors when committed by black people. Similar behaviors undertaken by black people, such as exhibiting a preference for one’s own race, would be termed prejudiced, not racist, because they would not tend to disempower white people. White people systematically benefit from society’s power differential whether they know it or not, and thus are always participating in a system of white superiority (Tatum, 1997, p. 11).

Another common area of exploration for white people engaged in anti-racism education is the notion that they have a culture (Loya & Cuevas, 2010). White people differ in terms of their feelings of having a culture or not; it is common for white people to see “culture” as referring to the ways of life of people from different countries, rather than to all people’s ways of life. In Loya and Cuevas’ (2010) study, students were required to bring items to class that represented their cultures. Loya and Cuevas (2010) found that the “exercise reinforced to the White students that each person does, indeed, have a culture that he or she identifies with” (p. 294), which was a revelation to some. Time spent thinking about one’s culture can help unravel the implicit assumption that white people’s ways of life are somehow normal or standard in a universal sense.

Anti-racism education represents a way for white adults who are already against racism to learn about how it manifests in their lives. This education, whether in a university context or a community organization, allows these adults to better understand the problem of racism and what they can do about it. This is a more comprehensive solution to racism than one that focuses just on the people, such as police officers, who occasionally commit violent actions against people of color. As Jasmine Rand, human rights activist and attorney for Trayvon Martin, said, it does not matter how well-written and fair the laws are; if the judge and jury are biased, cases will be decided in favor of white superiority and the status quo, and police are not the sources of racism but are merely acting out our dominant cultural views on race (personal communication, March 27, 2017). Programs targeting police officers, as well as initiatives to reform public school curriculums and efforts to counteract white supremacist hate groups, do have a critical place in addressing racism. But a great deal of potential resides in the many white adults who are troubled by racism but feel too afraid to talk about it or too ignorant to act. These people are raising the next generation of children, serving on juries, running private companies and public institutions, writing policy, and voting—which allows them an active role in shaping discourses around these subjects.

Education and Social Change

One way in which education of white people can affect positive change on racist structures and systems and thus discriminatory human rights abuses is that it leads to actions and interventions. Through education, white people can become more knowledgeable and aware of the problem of racism and of their own feelings, thoughts, and actions, and can begin to change their behavior (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 28). By choosing to act in more equitable ways, white people can impact the people around them, cause less harm to people of color, and start interrupting the status quo with other white people and in their workplaces, churches, and social groups. Anti-racism education can enable people to become more vocal, less afraid to call out a racist comment and more confident about naming racism when they see it operating, whether on an individual level, in an organization, or in society at large. They might start conversations or engage with people who disagree with them. They may also find many white people around them – family, friends and acquaintances – who are interested in investigating racism themselves but had been afraid to broach the topic. In my experience, many white people are troubled by the situation of continuing racism in our country but do not know what to do about it and are afraid to speak of it because no one else does. 

The website suggests “opportunities for white people in the fight for racial justice” and conceives of a trajectory in which white people move from being an actor, or someone who supports racial justice in theory but does nothing to disrupt the status quo, to an ally, or someone who challenges institutionalized racism and white supremacy and disrupts the status quo in white-dominated spaces and educates other white people, to an accomplice, or someone who acts to “directly challenge institutionalized racism, colonization, and White supremacy by blocking or impeding racist people, policies, and structures” (Osler, n.d.). On the safest end of the spectrum is the actor, who takes no risks, while on the other end the accomplice could potentially take great personal and professional risks to not simply “challenge” and “disrupt” in mainly verbal ways as the ally does but actively “block” and “impede” racism. Examples of such actions given by the website are civil disobedience; raising funds for organizations working for racial justice, especially those controlled by people of color; organizing anti-racism trainings for one’s community; amplifying the voices of people of color in white communities; and physically intervening in instances of racist violence. The white accomplice of people of color might seem like a risky role to take, but may not actually involve greater risks than those faced by people of color in the United States. The foundation of the accomplice’s actions, the website suggests, is a deep understanding that the oppression of black, brown, and indigenous peoples in the United States affects white people profoundly and that no one is free when others are discriminated against.

Social learning theory, though not within the purview of this essay, adds a critical element in understanding how the effects of anti-racism education in individuals could spread beyond those individuals and affect change in the society at large. Rogers (1983) explains, “Social learning theory states that individuals learn from others that they observe, whom they then imitate by following a similar (but not necessarily identical) behavior. Such social modeling frequently occurs in diffusion networks,” which are the interpersonal networks that people use or create to get things done or share information (p. 311). Shimmin (2011) has applied the theory of the diffusion of innovations to social learning theory, suggesting that only about 20 percent of a population has to accept an idea for it to become strongly implanted in that culture. In other words, for the dismantling of racism to start to take greater effect in this country, it may not even be necessary for the majority of the population to agree with the concept.

Organizations in the Field

The UNtraining. The UNtraining, founded 25 years ago by Rita Shimmin, a woman of color of African American and Filipino descent, and Robert Horton, a white man, is one organization working to dismantle racism. Located in the San Francisco Bay Area, it offers an educational track for white people called UNtraining White Liberal Racism, which consists of three phases. The first two phases involve six group workshops over the course of six months, each workshop lasting five hours. The program runs three Phase 1 groups per year in the Bay Area, with 10 participants in each. For the people who complete Phase 1 and want to continue, the program runs two Phase 2 groups with 8-10 people each per year in the Bay Area. Phase 3 is an annual two-day weekend program that usually has about 30 participants. Workshops for white people are taught by trained teachers who have been through the program and in some cases by co-founder Horton. They take place at a variety of locations since the UNtraining does not have its own space.

Having completed the first and second phases of this track, I can attest that the group work is heavily experiential and say that my experience has been profoundly meaningful and has greatly influenced my views of our society and contributed to my own personal growth. Generally speaking, the UNtraining offers practices and activities that help participants become more aware of themselves and their interactions with others. The program’s secondary goal is to train facilitators who can then offer their own groups, thus allowing the program to grow organically (the UNtraining, 2013). The following key elements are included in the curriculum, regardless of the track:

  • Multi-dimensional consciousness: the ability to experience and hold multiple realities at the same time in one’s body, mind or emotions (for example, simultaneously being aware of the ideas that “my actions just now hurt somebody” and “I am a good and worthy person”);

  • The nature of oppression;

  • Core issue: our deepest personal insecurities and self-preserving beliefs;

  • Basic goodness: the notion that people and all of reality are fundamentally worthy and good, similar to the concept of Buddha nature (Trungpa, 1984);

  • Tracking: the practice of noticing our social conditioning and core issue through awareness and breaking down the elements of our lived experience;

  • Working with intensity: identifying our reactions to more intense (e.g. louder, more emotional) levels of experience so as to better understand ourselves and others; and

  • Inner world work: seeing what is going on within us so as to not project our issues and internal conflicts onto others.

Western States Center. Western States Center, founded in 1987 in Oregon, is another organization working in the field of education for racial justice. One of Western States Center’s programs involves teaching racial justice trainings in other organizations, such as non-profits. The goals of the training are to help organizations address the racial inequities that exist within them and to see how racism is operating in the institutional context. Western States Center has compiled a thorough document, available online as a PDF, called Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups (Western States Center, 2003). The document has a very insightful section on anti-racist organizational development that describes why white organizations that aspire to become multi-cultural often fail and explains what an anti-racist organization could look like. Out of its nine main paid staff members, Western States Center employs one organizer/trainer.

The organization also engages in leadership development for social justice by means of a three-day training conference for social justice actors and year-long intensive training program for emerging organizers and activists, in which they practice organizing skills, develop a shared vocabulary, receive leadership development, learn about volunteer recruitment and retention, and build relationships with each other and outside actors in their fields. The training program meets four times per year for workshops of several days; one of the gatherings involves organizing and participating in the three-day conference. 

Western States Center was founded for the purpose of connecting and empowering community organizations in a time when such groups and activists in the Pacific Northwest were increasingly isolated from each other, and this remains their mission. They support racial, gender, and economic justice, including a current project on LGBT rights in local Native American self-governing communities, and continue to develop training tools and methods to build and strengthen organizations working in these areas. They target all levels of change, including individual, community and legislative, and publish a yearly report for policymakers called Facing Race: Oregon Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity, in collaboration with community organizations in Oregon.

Comparison. Overall, Western States Center is more institutionalized than the UNtraining and works more broadly and at a higher level. The greatest contrast with the UNtraining, in terms of how the information offered about racism relates to white people addressing their own racism, is that it does not contain the UNtraining’s more spiritual elements that stem from contemplative Buddhist practices and inner world work; it also did not include the idea that racism gets inextricably bound up with our personal issues. Western States Center does not duplicate the educational efforts of organizations like the UNtraining but complements them with its trainings on the institutional level as well as their program teaching community organization and large-scale program facilitation for activists. 

The Measurable Success of Anti-Racism Education

Programs like the ones mentioned above create clear and measurable changes in the attitudes of white people who undertake them. Loya and Cuevas’ study (2004) administered pre- and post-tests to the students who volunteered to participate and who amounted to 11 out of the 19 students who took their course, a short elective class offered to undergraduate and graduate students at a university. They used two tests: the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS) and the Cultural Awareness Scale (CAS). The first test measured “unawareness of racial privilege, institutional discrimination, and blatant racial issues;” the second measured awareness of racism and racial sensitivity (Loya & Cuevas, 2004, p. 292). The results of these tests showed that statistically significant changes occurred in the racial attitudes and level of awareness of participants regarding race and culture (p. 293).

DiAngelo (2012) has administered informal tests on students in her university courses that also show clear results. She assigns students an essay on whiteness on the first day of class; these essays are submitted anonymously. At the end of the semester she has students read these essays again and discuss them in class. In the final exam, with the ideas they had about whiteness in the beginning of the semester fresh in their minds and often in contrast to what they now know at the end of the course, students are asked to answer an essay question, “what does it mean to be white?” (p. 300). DiAngelo (2012) describes her students’ final essays as follows:

Their analysis has deepened, they are seeing complexities and contradictions they did not see before, and their self-awareness has increased. They are able to articulate key concepts and demonstrate their increase in racial literacy. They don’t exhibit defensiveness and their openness is apparent. (p. 301)

Another measure of success is the desire demonstrated by participants in Loya and Cuevas’ study (2004) and the UNtraining programs (R. Horton, personal communication, April 13, 2017) to share what they have learned and become teachers themselves. Loya and Cuevas (2004) report that the students who took the course borrowed its curriculum “to organize community-based groups to facilitate antiracism discussions within their own communities” and that several of these students became the facilitators of those groups (p. 296). The fact that workshop participants choose to share what they learned and become facilitators shows that their period of anti-racism education has a significant effect on them and motivates them to spread the teaching further.

The UNtraining actually owes its existence to the commitment of those who have completed the program (R. Horton, personal communication, April 13, 2017). Horton initially taught all the workshops for white people, but to ease the burden on himself and allow the program to grow he designed a workshop series to teach facilitation to those people who had been through the previous phases. Those who complete the facilitator training can co-lead workshops until they feel ready to lead as the main teacher (all UNtraining workshops are led by a main teacher and an assistant teacher). This proved critical about five years ago, when Horton’s health prevented him from teaching and the people he had trained kept the program going for the next two years until he was able to join them again. The group currently has about 12 teachers and many have been involved for over a decade. Caren Ohlson, an UNtraining teacher who has been part of the group since its beginning, says that the only reason the workshops are offered is because people want to teach them (personal communication, April 12, 2017). The teachers earn a small stipend for their work which comes out of participant fees, but this remuneration is not sufficient to provide an incentive to teach: teachers continue leading the workshops because they find the work is meaningful to them and important to society.


Although anti-racism education in both university and community settings is effective, I choose to explore the UNtraining specifically as an example of a successful method because of its many positive features outside of the effectiveness of its curriculum. The first of these positive features is accessibility. Although university courses on racism and whiteness are effective (Loya & Cuevas, 2004; DiAngelo, 2012, p. 289-302) and schools should offer them regularly, university classes affect only the student population and due to cost are not usually accessible to the wider community. Community organizations such as the UNtraining are open to anyone who applies and the cost is more manageable.

The UNtraining has a healthy demand and has grown in size over the years. There are usually 10-15 more applicants for Phase 1 than can be accommodated; they are given priority in the groups that are formed the following year. Phase 1 is also being offered in Western Massachusetts and Chicago with 6-8 people in each group, and a Phase 2 group will begin in Western Massachusetts in the fall of 2019 (Carter, personal communication, May 9, 2019). While the organization could certainly advertise more widely (the only place I have ever come across a pamphlet about the UNtraining remains the meditation center in Berkeley), there is no current need to do so because the demand is greater than the number of spaces offered.

The accessibility of the UNtraining for white people in terms of cost would depend on one’s income. The UNtraining charges a sliding scale fee of $600-$1,200 per workshop series, a total of 30 hours. In my experience the organization accommodates financial challenges: for example, starting in October 2016 I was able to pay the $600 fee in three installments over the course of the six months by providing three post-dated checks on the first day of class. One argument in favor of charging a non-negligible fee is that cost ensures commitment. People are not likely to take their commitment to UNtraining lightly when they have paid for it. The cost would be a barrier to those who truly have no discretionary income, however.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the UNtraining is that it is a community. It was founded based on a friendship that arose between Horton and Shimmin (Horton, personal communication, April 13, 2017). They met in the early 1990s in the context of Process Oriented Psychology workshops, and Shimmin became a teacher and mentor to Horton. She challenged him to work on his own racism and he did. Eventually he wanted to be able to share what he had learned from Shimmin with other white people and so “began adapting what he’d learned from Rita and translating how she worked with him into exercises and ways of working with other white people” (The UNtraining, n.d.). Horton’s spouse Janet Carter lent considerable administrative support to the organization over the years, in addition to teaching and facilitating workshops (C. Ohlson, personal communication, April 12, 2017; The UNtraining).

Both Horton (personal communication, April 13, 2017) and Ohlson (personal communication, April 12, 2017) agree that the UNtraining is a strong community of people who have been working together for over twenty-five years as well as newer people. Sometimes groups can become cliques and make it hard for outsiders to join them. I have not observed this in the UNtraining since my first workshop in the fall of 2015. The five UNtraining teachers and assistant teachers I have observed since that year have been warm, friendly to each other, and open to getting to know new participants on a personal level.

The UNtraining offers highly experienced and qualified teachers. Horton (personal communication, April 13, 2017) says that the process of training teachers has been slower than he would like. I have observed that although the curriculum of the UNtraining is comprehensive and effective, it cannot be administered by someone without experience. Many of the most important and insightful exercises in the program depend on the teacher’s ability to administer them individually to participants with perfect timing and to be able to tune in to the participant’s feelings and observe their non-verbal cues. A certain amount of practice is required to develop this facility in working with others. Therefore, the UNtraining could not be replicated by merely publishing the curriculum and providing it to untrained facilitators. This limitation requires the organization to grow very slowly but ensures the teaching it provides is of consistent quality and allows each teacher to have a unique, authentic teaching style and to involve their full selves in their work.

The UNtraining is not incorporated as a not-for-profit organization (C. Ohlson, personal communication, April 12, 2017). Although there have been internal discussions about whether it would be beneficial to gain nonprofit status, the decision to do so has never been reached. The reason may be that the structure of the organization is working well to meet its current needs. Ohlson thinks an important consideration about becoming a nonprofit and therefore able to fundraise is whether the increased structure would have a negative impact on the community-based nature of the organization. Certainly, she feels, raising money to pay teachers could have a negative effect of changing their motivation for teaching and thus the quality of their presence and effort when leading groups.

Organizations need not try to be all things to all people, and having different organizations working in different ways all over the country towards similar goals is probably the strongest model. The UNtraining is not the right experience for all people at all times: I have observed three people decide to leave the program mid-way for reasons including health challenges and dissatisfaction with the environment provided. In one case, it was not the time for that participant to be involved in the deep introspective work of the UNtraining due to the energy required for her to recover from a recent accident, and in another case, the participant had already led his own workshops on anti-racism and had ideas about the settings and environments most conducive to this type of work which differed from the location in which we were meeting. A workshop offered by a different organization in a different setting might have been more satisfying to him.


We have seen that education is both effective and necessary to white people in allowing them to understand what racism is and how it operates in the United States and open up possibilities of acting differently and challenging inequitable power relationships. The costs of racism have not disappeared since the ground-breaking advances of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. We continue to see discrimination, inequality, and human rights abuses, which render the need to dismantle racism further all the more urgent. But racism has become more covert since the civil rights movement, to the point that it has a name: new racism. New racism is defined as “[t]he ways in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist” (DiAngelo, 2012, p. 106), making it easier for those who receive the positive side of those racial outcomes to ignore and deny that racism is operating.

White people in the United States, even those who believe they are not racist, are profoundly affected by subtle but ongoing racist socialization. The role of anti-racism workshops and courses such as those discussed here are to help those people see, understand, and disrupt racism, rather than try to ignore it, deny it, or push it away. It is not realistic to say that every white person should take an anti-racism workshop, and pursuant to theories of social change, it should not be necessary for them to do so. Just a minority of people committed to anti-racism can instigate a significant cultural shift (Shimmin, 2011). 

A topic of further research would be to examine in depth how social change occurs, especially on the subtle level of attitudes, habits and emotions, the areas of culture that are usually outside of our awareness. This inquiry could clarify how the people who do immerse themselves in anti-racism education can make the greatest difference in affecting change. The process of engaging in critical, personal inquiry about racism, though difficult and painful, is incredibly rewarding and leads to ongoing self-discovery and growth. Like any process of increasing self-knowledge, it helps one live more fully, break down the barriers between oneself and others and in so doing create a more humane society.


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