It is the responsibility of white people to address issues of race to move our own understanding to a deeper level. This will allow us to work together more effectively with activists of color, allowing for powerful multi-racial coalitions to manifest. If we choose not to address issues of race, we're only ignoring a systemic problem that has consistently undermined movements for social justice throughout history.

Anti-Racist Revolutions

by Laura McNeill

Institutionalized Racism lives and breathes a healthy life here in the good old United States. If you’re white, like me, you can easily miss it even when it brushes your shoulder or screams in your ear. I wouldn’t have been speaking these words a year ago, but I’m learning too. I was a recent transplant to San Francisco from Virginia who was coming into activism for the first time. I was entering a progressive nonprofit organization, JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice, whose mission is to develop in young people a life-long commitment to social, economic and environmental justice around the world. JustAct was in the process of shifting from being a predominantly white organization, to a multi-racial one. I saw several people of color come into our organization only to leave disheartened. We had done the common “let’s recruit some people of color to join our organization,” only to have them leave when we weren’t dealing with our own internal issues, many of which were around race. It was a painful time with a lot of tears. We were experiencing a change that none of us knew how to deal with, because we weren’t all on the same page. There weren’t many models for us to follow either; we were pushing into uncharted territory. I would have disagreements around planning issues with my co-workers of color, yet still have the confidence to push my own agenda through, speaking from what I knew to be true. What I should have been doing instead is stepping out of my own box to realize that the dynamics playing out in our organization and causing frustration were as old as this country. My co-workers would be able to see race dynamics that I couldn’t, because I had never needed to look at race issues before – I could choose not to.

I learned the systemic advantages of being white are often referred to as White Privilege. I also learned that non-ruling class whites are both oppressed and privileged. Prior to my working at JustAct, I had never really considered the advantages of being white, because it’s reinforced over and over in our society as the norm. For instance, I can turn on the television and have it be reinforced that being white is a powerful and beautiful thing to be, as opposed to all people are powerful and beautiful. If I never step out of my own shoes, I might not ever realize that what I see as positive reinforcement every day is not the same picture people of color see. This dynamic played out in our organization as well, often creating tensions. When my co-workers first started challenging the fact that race issues weren’t being addressed within the youth movement, I didn’t see it as my place to join them in challenging that. I still saw racism as a form of prejudice, and didn’t see myself actively contributing to that. I didn’t recognize racism as “a system of advantage based on race” (David Wellman, Portraits of White Racism). So, instead of addressing the intimate issues of power and privilege, I chose to go to workshops around Globalization in South America and other countries. Worrying about issues outside of my own community seemed more intriguing than those right in front of me.

Often, unless you live or work in a multi-racial setting, it’s easier to think racism died out with the abolition of slavery or with the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, that it ended when the laws were changed, but it hasn’t. When you live in a society built on the slavery and genocide of people of color, the effects of that foundation last a long time. Not all white people are to blame for this system that was set up in the past, but those of us who are white need to recognize that we benefit from it today.

This is where Anti-racist education comes into the picture. It is the responsibility of white people to address issues of race to move our own understanding to a deeper level. This will allow us to work together more effectively with activists of color, allowing for powerful multi-racial coalitions to manifest. If we choose not to address issues of race, we’re only ignoring a systemic problem that has consistently undermined movements for social justice throughout history. These movements are made up of the best of people with the best of hearts, but good intentions alone will not dismantle racism.

Anti-racist education allows for community activists to get on the same page. It moves our understanding beyond the liberal buzzwords of multi-culturalism and diversity trainings, to a gut level, where we as individuals and organizations can realize where we fit in our system of white supremacy. There’s a huge need for this in the movement for social justice.

The year 2001 marks a year of big revolutions for JustAct. We’re stepping outside of the box and integrating an anti-racist agenda into our 15-year-old experiential education program. Bike-Aid provides participants the opportunity to enhance their critical analysis of local and global issues via a cross country bicycle ride, so they can become more effective advocates for social and economic justice in their own communities. As these youth pedal from small towns to big cities, they examine how local citizens are making their communities more liveable and sustainable. They meet with grassroots organizations along the route and interact with community activists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, enabling cross-border solidarity and alliance building.

This summer we’re shifting the educational focus of the ride to look at the United States through an “anti-racist lens”. Youth from all over the US and global south will have opportunities to learn from each other and dialogue about issues of white supremacy/racism, patriarchy, white privilege, what it means to work in solidarity across cultures and why it’s important to support local and global movements led by people of color and people from working class backgrounds. We know it’s a full agenda, but we also know there are a lot of folks who are longing to understand racism at a gut level. Racism has always been a “taboo topic”. We want to create that space for young people to dialogue, find some answers, and feel empowered to interrupt the cycle of racism in their own communities.

Anti-racist education and training isn’t one day, two days, or even nine weeks, it’s a lifetime worth of work, but with every step it makes a greater difference than if we hadn’t stepped in this direction at all. The hardest thing for me when I started to engage in anti-racist education and action was getting past feeling guilty. When I started to learn about my white privilege and understand the role white privilege plays in society, I felt guilty for being white. It took me a while to realize that feeling guilty does no one any good. It is through understanding the role that white privilege contributes to racism that I can move to acting in solidarity. This understanding directly affects my behavior and filters into my everyday choices. It is through these choices that I can make a conscious difference.

JustAct is one of the organizations providing the space for youth from historically marginalized communities to build strength and power collectively. Our youth network is a vital part of the national youth movement for global justice. We also recognize that there are many more privileged activists ready to take action in a meaningful way. Our Bike-Aid program allows for these activists to focus their energy, by encouraging dialogue and an understanding of the US and its communities through an anti-racist lens. We are providing our participants with a space for developing their consciousness, the courage to keep listening and dialoguing about racism and the tools to create a just society, one that represents true equality and freedom. We realize that we can’t overlook anti-racist education in the quest for something that’s spoken of more often, such as anti-globalization. Therefore we are bridging this conceptual gap through this proven and powerful program. We are exemplifying a cutting edge space in the movement and nurturing the spirit along the way.

In her book Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And other conversations about Race, Beverly Tatum introduces an apt analogy. “I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.” May we find more and more people walking with us in the opposite direction, and may we one day turn that whole conveyor belt around.
Props go to the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop/s (which includes the 6-week Beyond the Whiteness Workshop) in San Francisco, CA for their dedicated hard work and inspiration. For more information, contact 415-647-0921, Also, check out for more articles on Anti-Racism.

Laura McNeill is the Director of the Bike-Aid program at JustAct.