Teszler: Getting Anti-racism Right

Anti-racism education must call on scientific, evidence-based techniques — not just impulses.

by Max Teszler | 9/21/20 2:00am

On Sept. 9, the University of Michigan-Dearborn announced a “non-POC cafe” for white students to discuss their experiences with race on campus — and drew sharp criticism on social media after students posted images of the invitation. The university swiftly apologized, offering the explanation that it had merely wished to educate white students and “provide members of [its] campus community with opportunities to reflect on their lived experiences.” Yet no matter how it may be justified, enforced segregation yields damaging effects and has not been proven effective in overcoming bias. 

The public may finally be ready to embrace active anti-racism. But if the educational methods of this movement are based on untested opinions rather than evidence, they will be doomed to fail. Instead, experimentally validated and empirically based techniques must form the cornerstone of anti-racist education.

In the tumult of the past months, well-meaning attempts at combating racism have often run directly against the body of scientific evidence. For instance, at New York University, a group of students petitioned for all-Black housing, requesting halls “completely composed of Black-identifying students with Black resident assistants” on the grounds of shielding students from prevalent racist attitudes and the burden to educate others. Regardless of its intent, though, this segregated housing would reduce opportunities for students to create friendships across races — a proven method to reduce biases — and strengthen the “in-group” and “out-group” perceptions which drive prejudice. Ultimately, NYU opted for a Black culture-themed residence hall open to all students — a more promising approach, as it will allow students to visualize the richness of Black history and refute negative stereotypes.

This form of counter-stereotype imaging — visualizing a person or group contrary to negative stereotypes about their race — is one of many proven anti-bias techniques. Similarly, facilitating friendships across racial divides may serve to break down the hard-wired “in-group” favoritism which drives prejudice. Many cross-racial friendships have even been found to decondition committed white nationalists from their vitriolic hate. 

In cases of more subtle implicit bias, researchers have also found a number of strategies backed by experimental evidence. These interventions are often simple — a 2011 study from Northwestern University found that viewing a video of a racist incident and imagining the feelings of the victim could lead people to both take racism more seriously and reduce biased behavior or expressions. The research is also clear that anti-bias training shouldn’t be a one-off event — it must be replicated and use a variety of methods to achieve lasting effects. If personal education and conscious anti-racism are to have the best chance at dismantling oppression, then we must employ the approaches which empirical evidence shows are the most effective.

But, much like UM-Dearborn’s misguided cafe, a certain type of aggressive and counterproductive anti-racism pervades some activism circles, based more on personal opinion than evidence-based techniques. Saira Rao, an anti-racism educator and former Congressional candidate recently tweeted, and then reaffirmed, that “white people need to stop writing Black and brown characters.” Frustrations over underrepresentation of authors of color are valid, but the cure that Rao proposes flies directly in the face of evidence. Deliberate perspective-taking is a proven technique to combat bias, but Rao seems to cast any imagination beyond one’s own race as problematic. 

Meanwhile, Robin DiAngelo, the author of the best-selling “White Fragility,” takes a similarly aggressive approach, accusing all white people of being automatically, near-incurably racist — her book includes numerous examples of over-the-top reactions when white people are confronted. Her subjects have broken down in tears or stormed out of lessons, which DiAngelo posits as proof of white fragility. While studies do support the idea that consciously acknowledging one’s biases can be helpful in combating them, DiAngelo’s aggressive techniques do more harm than good. By making the leveling of accusations the centerpoint of her technique, DiAngelo triggers defensiveness and anger, only hardening people in their viewpoints — which is supposedly their own moral failing and not an expected psychological reaction. 

There are a number of ways both educators could have aligned their frustrations more with science. Rather than condemn altogether white authors writing non-white characters, Rao could have asked for more well-researched, non-stereotypical depictions. It is visualizing people of other races beyond stereotypes which combats bias, and a more diverse pool of authors writ large could also break down racism by leading to more friendships and cooperation with people of other races. Meanwhile, to DiAngelo’s point, large numbers of the population do have implicit biases, which can be revealed successfully in implicit association tests that often form the beginning of anti-bias curriculum — no harsh accusations of personal racism are required.

The desire for change is understandable, and empirical techniques to counter racism still have a long way to go. Many workplaces in the country, from schools to police departments to corporate offices, now incorporate anti-bias training, but, obviously, racism still exists in such professions. The evidence on many techniques is still mixed and inconclusive. But the fact that past research has not yielded perfect solutions should not be cause to abandon it all together — it should inspire further inquiry to find even better techniques. In many cases, the activist talking points can serve as a perfect starting point for new ideas. For instance, there has been increasing condescension of the desire to be “color-blind” and simply ignore race as an issue. And a more direct acknowledgment of racism does in fact help — studies reveal that even in young children, explicitly discussing and condemning racism will have a more strong effect on reducing bias than appeals to “treat everyone with respect” or similarly vague sentiments. 

The powerful movement built across this country in the past few months is the most potent since the 1960s — and just like then, important steps are needed to institutionalize and formalize the desire for change into real progress. Increased focus on anti-racism education could be one of those pillars, and it must be done in the right way. In the coming months and years, we should adopt tested techniques into our efforts, and experiment and innovate with new ones. Dartmouth itself could become part of that effort, creating sessions on the Sexual Violence Prevention Project model to combat bias and analyzing the results. You could even start yourself by taking an implicit association test. Science and experimentation can give us the best shot at surmounting the centuries old challenges of racism and bias — but only if we are willing to embrace them.