The Anti-Racist Path
How can a White woman lead a historically predominately White institution to become anti-racist? This essay caps off a series of three topics (although it was the one she suggested first) from the Very Rev. Amy E. McCreath
February 26 will be the second anniversary of the death of my father. On that day in 2021, I will participate in a day-long conference online at the historically Black University, Virginia Union, honoring Black History Month. During the noon hour of that conference, I’ll sit on a panel with other heads of American Baptist colleges and seminaries where we’ll discuss our roles in educating students for anti-racism and social justice. I will share on that panel about how I’m working to fight racism, beginning with myself.
My father saw me as the paragon of anti-racism, and of that he was very proud. I wonder what he, an aider and abetter of my perfectionist tendencies, would think about me saying out-loud that I have a lot of room for improvement as relates to racism?
My father was protective of all three of his family’s strong women. As his cognitive capacities began to deteriorate with age and poor health, we had to be careful what we told him about tough professional and personal situations. When we told him we’d been called out for something we’d done or said that was wrong, he would turn the story around in his mind. He’d cast us — my sister, mother, or me — as the unappreciated heroes in the narrative, and chew on worry to the point where he couldn’t sleep at night.
I hereby confess to my (actual) father in heaven: I have racist views inside me. The hero he saw was as fictional as a cartoon Wonder Woman, and I’m working to change.
As recently as two weeks ago, I made a racist assumption in talking with an African-American colleague. She, like me, is the first woman to serve as president of her seminary, but she is her institution’s third African-American president. I jumped to the conclusion that leading in her particular school would subject her to more sex discrimination than racism, but (a) I assumed wrong, and (b) who was I to assume anything?
Amy, your question is particularly important to White people leading historically predominately White institutions during this Black History Month, as the month’s events provide opportunities to do some good work. I am going to propose some anti-racist leadership practices for White women like you and me, but first, let me set forth some foundational principles:
- Whiteness is a race. In the recent book After Whiteness: an Education in Belonging (Eerdmans, 2020) by Willie Jennings — a friend and colleague who happens to be a genius — readers are introduced to certain classically White predispositions that White people like me have been trained to think of as “normal.” Only in understanding that the White race has its own tendencies can we begin to see the ways in which those tendencies have been venerated as a means of declaring superiority.
- We must be anti-racist if we are going to make a difference as leaders. Ibraham X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist (Penguin RandomHouse Books, 2019) that our nation has been so profoundly shaped by anti-Black racism that all of us have to consciously work against racism. Those who do nothing will drift toward racist actions and attitudes due to the flow of the established cultural tides. Anti-racism includes both stark examination of our own attitudes and taking actions that change ingrained racist patterns.
- We are going to mess up. In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017), Resmaa Menakem writes about the neuroscience of racism. He describes how both racist attitudes in the White, dominant culture; and trauma inflicted upon Black persons’ minds, bodies, and communities; shape us down to our very genes. Obviously, unawareness and poor formation are no excuse. Coming back to Prof. Jennings: he writes that one attribute of Whiteness is an obsession with feeling comfortable. Anti-racism and comfort do not go hand-in-hand. White people who work to become anti-racist and further anti-racism in their communities aren’t always going to get it right. When we make mistakes, we both inflict and experience pain.
Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, the institution I lead alongside an incredible staff, faculty, board, and student leaders, is taking a hard look at race, diversity, and our social justice education practices. This work started before the crises of anti-Black violence came to a boil in 2020, but the work has grown in urgency. To put it simply, our old ways didn’t work. We need new ways to be together. My mantra has been this: “We’ll either have intentional diversity or unintentional homogeneity; there is no third way.” Intentionality comes at a cost in the form of time, money, and attention, and the costs are worth it.
Andover Newton has a long, complex history of anti-racism. The seminary sent missionaries to the Midwest in the 19th century to plant abolitionist churches. It was early in accepting and educating African American students, and the school for many years adopted Dr. King’s language of a “beloved community” for describing itself. But ask any Black alumna/us or former member of the faculty and staff, and they will tell you about micro- and macro-aggressions they experienced at the hands of this school that wanted so much to believe in its commitment to diversity.
Here are the leadership practices into which I and my colleagues are leaning as we turn our historically, predominately White institution in an anti-racist direction:
Celebrate Black history. We’re taking special care to lift up the accomplishments of Andover Newton’s Black alums, celebrate Juneteenth and other milestones that take note of social justice turning points, and honor Black History Month. Two of Andover Newton’s most famous alums, George Washington Williams and Thomas Freeman, were African American, but we only started boasting about them very recently. Somewhere along the line, we’d fallen out of the practice of lifting up heroes generally, perhaps — ironically — in the interest of justice and fairness. Songs of Black lives and societal contributions, long oppressed and overlooked, must be sung from the rooftops.
Follow the money. For centuries, Black persons have been kept out of the corridors of power where decisions about money take place. It will take generations to re-balance power, but in the meantime, we can move money. Funding programs, scholarships, and in our case professorships: these are areas where change can happen more quickly.
If you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t… do. Attending to anti-racism requires humility and vulnerability from White leaders; perfectionists are going to have to get over themselves. We screw up and say the wrong things and end up, deservedly, on the receiving end of anger. We discover racist attitudes within ourselves we didn’t even know we had, and we feel shame and embarrassment. The White obsession with feeling comfortable works against our leadership effectiveness, as it undermines our courage. When we try and fail, we must try again.
I can sense the fear underneath this suggested topic, Amy, and the fear is real. People look to us in leadership like we’re supposed to already know everything, and sometimes we make the mistake of believing them. A couple of years ago, I didn’t think I was shaped by a racist mentality, and I’m still pretty horrified with every new thing I learn about how wrong I was.
White women seem to be under special scrutiny in this era of growing awareness of the racism that has always been with us. “Karen” is unlikely to be a popular baby name this year. White women are often the first to sign up for anti-racist educational events at my university, which increases the likelihood that they/we will show up and say something dumb. As an occasional purveyor of “dumb” myself, I get it, but I also think showing up counts for something.
Celebrate Black history. Follow the money. When you make a mistake, apologize and strive for improvement. These are some steps I’ve learned, but I’m still unsure of myself. As I grapple with the racism within me, however, I’m building up some muscle, and some muscle memory. I pray I’ll use that new strength, in part, to keep my institution moving on a path to anti-racism.