How my Liberal Upbringing Led me out of the Toxic Maze of Anti-Racist Training

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. ‘” ― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have A Dream”

“Now I’ve ran out of white doves’ feathers, to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” — Fiona Apple “Regret”

Anyone who has found themselves on the other side of critical race theory can almost always pinpoint their own moment of clarity. We know these moments when they hit us: it’s as if we have just awoken from a dream, a dream full of people who spouted and snarled and quipped and quarreled about how awake they were, whose social membership was dependent on signaling their awakened status, cryptic as these symbols and slogans may have seemed to the uninitiated. We recall these scenes as we rub our eyes, humbled now from our perspective in waking life, yet still not quite believing that we’re out of the dream—still not quite trusting in this new critical lens through which we can’t help but look at those who are still caught up in this cult mentality.

I know I am not the first to liken this family of ideologies we informally cast under the umbrella of Wokeism to a mental virus. Indeed, it has infected even the freest minds, the people you thought would be most immune—until they weren’t.

But sometimes those moments don’t hit us, exactly. Sometimes they come on slowly and build gradually. They can begin as the softest reckoning, like a faint roll of thunder that signals a storm still miles away: you tell yourself you don’t have enough information yet, or maybe you find it hard to walk back your deference for that professor with the “Ph D” next to her name. Or maybe you are the rational type who likes to consider every angle of an issue before changing your opinion, and for this reason, are prone to doubting your intuition, that nagging sense that something feels “off”—even when it nags at you for years.

I experienced the less talked up kind of clarity at many points throughout my graduate training to become a social worker, a training that has allowed me to provide counseling to a diverse group of individuals at a New York City clinic.

I’d like to take you back to one particularly impactful moment that took place in an anti-racism course that was mandatory for all first-year students.

It is 2018. I am sitting with my legs crossed at one of the metal desk-and-chair combinations that populate the corners of most NYU classrooms. It is the kind of spartan set-up that only allows for a notebook—the coffee cup must go at my feet.

It has felt for a whole minute as if the air has been sucked out of the room. After this pregnant pause that grows more uncomfortable by the second, it becomes apparent that my classmate is crying. She is so quiet that I almost miss it at first. Her barely audible sniffing could have been mistaken for the whisper of a laptop being lifted from its sleeve or the rustle of a backpack on the floor.

“Tell me, what is the reason for your tears?” Our professor asks in her watered-down German accent, though it feels more like a command than a question. (“The Germans were pleased to have recruited another White person,” she’d said of her background as a Korean who spent most of her academic years in Europe.)

My classmate, normally an articulate woman, now speaks in a strange, halting way, like a child. She struggles to find the right words between sobs. “It’s just…” She begins. “The whole reason why I…wanted to go into—gasp—criminal justice reform.….and why I… wanted to….be a social worker….is because of my cousin. I want to do—hicc!—this because of him.” She is speaking of her adopted Black cousin, who had, in recent years, made himself estranged from her family. She had been coaxed by our teacher to share about this exceptionally personal subject on a few occasions, and every time had made herself naked before the class.

The professor nods in a way some might characterize as sagely. When she smiled at us, there was always something withholding about it, as if she were not really smiling at us per se, but at some inside joke that she re-played in her mind. (To her credit, it always seemed like a hilarious joke.) With her petite frame she had wrapped today in a delicate floral dress, and her knee-high boots that looked untouched by the dirty New York streets, the whiff of genius one was meant to glean from the silk kerchief that sat a certain way on her neck, she wouldn’t be out of place in a reformed Buddhist temple. I could imagine that same smile cast over a group of Manhattanites seeking inner serenity on a Tuesday night.

“You do realize…” Her small voice, emanating from her slight frame, is the loudest thing in the room. “That White women’s tears have historically been used in this country to oppress Black men?” My classmate doesn’t say anything. More tears spill down her cheeks.

My professor’s gaze doesn’t drift from the figure of the crying girl.

“Right now, I could say something to comfort you.” She says. “But I’m not going to do that. Do you understand why?” It seems to me that my teacher’s words, spoken so quietly, land with a terrible clatter on the room, like a steel pot thrown against the wall in the heat of a domestic dispute.

In this moment, even though she isn’t saying these things to me, my heart feels all their impact.

The girl nods, fishes a crumpled Chipotle napkin from her coat pocket, and uses it to mop her face.

I was sitting through just one of the many tense, borderline abusive moments of DROP, a course that made up the core curriculum of my graduate social work program. The acronym stands for Diversity, Racism, Oppression and Privilege. And for all the “discourse” in the literature about centering other races, much of the course content seemed in hindsight to be preoccupied with White people: what we feel, how we think, how we behave, and how our entire worldview was racist and needed to be re-educated out of us.

From the first day, DROP had a decidedly different tone than that of any other course I’d been in. DROP was less of an open seminar in the Socratic tradition, and more of a Sunday school in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Featured in the reading list was Robin DiAngelou’s “White Fragility”, research papers on micro-aggressions in places like college campuses and airplanes, and a personal essay by a Lebanese woman fuming at all those culturally appropriating Karens in her drumming class.

We were taught all of critical race theory’s greatest hits:

White people must work their entire lives to rid themselves of their racism.

White people will never be able to rid themselves of their racism.

It is impossible to be racist towards a White person.

It is ever possible to be racist towards a person of color.

White people should reflect, perhaps to a masochistic degree, on their racism.

White people’s feelings of guilt upon reflecting on their racism is selfish, because it implies that there is something they can do to become less racist.

White people should sit with the grief of knowing that their unearned privilege has benefitted them at the same time as it has harmed people of color.

White people should enjoy their privilege.

If any person of color disagrees with any of these ideas, they have internalized racism.

If any White person disagrees with any of these ideas, they are racist!

“I don’t care about your feelings.” The professor warned us on the first day of class, the weak lunar glow of her smile casting about a room made up mostly of White women in their twenties. It was one of the many things she’d say that semester that seemed vaguely rehearsed, but without the thought that you might expect would go into such a statement; that is, if you were used to being treated as if your feelings did matter. It’s funny looking back on the total one-eighty in approach from other college classes, where the trigger warnings were as plentiful as the free condoms in the student health center.

That was how it went, though. Truths were not discussed as much as dictated to us from on high and we were to readily absorb them as truths, though any statistical grounding was rarely if ever provided for, and never seemed important anyway.

If I had to describe the overall experience of being in DROP, I would say it was the opposite of illuminating. Rather than de-mystifying bigoted or outdated ideas about race that likely still linger in certain parts of the country, ideas that I think are largely rooted in ignorance, DROP seemed more interested in layering in more mist. Rather than giving me the clarifying experience of having arrived at some truth about the world, DROP left me with my head in a dark cloud, my heart bruised and hurting. But even stronger than that hurt was the anger that simmered underneath that, an anger I don’t think I was in really touch with at the time and couldn’t fully articulate until four years later.

Though I think it’s important to look at our lived experience as objectively as we can, I also can’t help but think that on an emotional level, we all know when we’ve experienced racism. We know how it speaks and acts, even if the wording may temporarily mislead us. We know, even if our guilt-prone nature, our desire to be good, to do the right thing, drives that hurt and anger inward, and we blame ourselves for the way that we feel. We think our resistance is evidence of “the work that still needs to be done”. And there are many people out there of the scholar-activist persuasion, people like my DROP teacher, who want us to think exactly along these lines.

There is a special kind of rage that is reserved for the realization that your gentleness, compassion and empathy, qualities which often lead you to internalize your own mistreatment, to blame yourself for your own pain, are being used in service to someone else’s dogmatic, anti-democratic agenda. Once you get in touch with this rage, it becomes much harder to reconcile all the other stuff, to spend even another minute of energy parceling out teachings that were confusing and contradictory to begin with. It becomes a lot harder to tie yourself in mental knots.

Gaslight, gaslight, gaslight. It’s what so many decent people are doing these days.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? the medieval theologians debated in the sixteen hundreds. How many White people must repent of their inborn sin of whiteness before the world is healed of racism? The anti-racist clinician muses in our day.

How quaint of us in 2023! How esoteric, how fun! It reminds me of the kind of conflicts that get played out at Medieval Times. Saint DiAngelo, where is thy robe?!

Sadly, as much as engaging with CRT may provide a viable alternative to larping or lifestyle BDSM, it is not healing racism in this country. In fact, it is doing the opposite. As controversial and backward as it may seem to those still caught up in this ideology, I am convinced that CRT is making us more racist.

 When I was in grade school in the nineties, I had never heard of anti-racism. But I knew well what racism was. By age eight, I knew of the worst atrocities of America’s past, and not because I was home-schooled, or had activist parents who supplemented my education with pedantic picture books.

 I learned all about America’s troubled beginnings in my public grade school that was situated within the New Jersey suburb I grew up in. And although the absence of Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous kids meant that it was not truly diverse, my school still represented an American ideal to many progressive-minded parents in that its racial make-up was evenly split down the middle between White and Black students.

 Black History Month was full of creative projects and decorations. The carpeted hallways would be lined with colorful displays of remarkable African Americans from history: Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone. We would be pulled out of class for assemblies that were sometimes cringingly pandering but could also be entertaining, and yes, even educational.

Our winter holidays were full of music that celebrated Christmas, but also Hanukah and Kwanzaa. A solid portion or even most of the songs we learned year-round were from non-White cultures. We would find ourselves singing with surprising ease in Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili. We learned “Wade in the water”, an old Negro spiritual, in my fourth-grade chorus. Learning the historical context along with that song, especially in the absence of any racial guilt-trip, made me appreciate its brilliance more, not less.

The things we were taught about slavery in this school might shock even some adults now. Sometime around the third grade, I learned that the lashings of a whip delivered by an overseer hurt as much as slamming your finger in a car door. I was lucky enough to have been spared the experiences of both. But the alarming nature of this detail activated my mirror neurons, shaped my emotional brain. I was taught to empathize in ways that were sometimes difficult, but never abusive. What sort of person would do this to another person? was the question that hung in the air in those loaded moments in class. Intuitively, we already knew the answer: a person living under the harmful delusions of racism. Those uncomfortable moments of reflection formed the architecture of my values. As I grew up, my aversion to racism expanded outward to include a profound distaste for many other forms of prejudice. I was taught that it was wrong, at any time and in any context, to discriminate against another person based on any trait they could not control. And a trait like skin color is surely one of the hardest things about us to change.

It would have been unthinkable to me then that twenty years later, I’d be using this argument in defense of my own race.

There were a lot of things about what I was taught growing up that differ from anti-racist education today. A big one of these was the narratives we were given about racial progress and the kind of country that America is. In the nineties, I was made to feel fortunate to live in a time when race-based discrimination was illegal, and society was becoming increasingly more integrated. There was a hope and an optimism that I don’t believe exists in K-12 education today.

I always got the sense growing up that we were approaching our final destination for racial equality. And we had already arrived, in so many ways. That arrival was marked by the end of the dehumanizing policies that defined the Jim Crow era. Activists, notably Black activists, had achieved this during the Civil Rights movement of the nineteen-sixties. They had fought for justice in the classic liberal sense, and we honored them and celebrated their victories with their grandchildren.

And now, it was time to live as the society we had always aspired to be: an inclusive, tolerant, liberal society; a society that demanded equal opportunity—not equality of outcome, but equal opportunity—for everyone.

It seemed that we had finally arrived at this truth that has seemed radical at many points in history and yet is essential: that we are all members of one human family, one species that has, in our three-hundred thousand years on this Earth, spread out across almost every continent. We had finally begun to warm to this notion that skin tone, like hair and eye color, is nothing more than a genetic phenotype that has emerged over many thousands of years as an adaptation to the incredible variety of climates we’ve made our homes in. But with the rise of critical race theory at every level of education and now in our professional training, we are, quite shockingly, being encouraged to forget this truth again.

What I’m trying to say is: we’ve been here before. It’s worse than that: we were just here. Have we not seen enough of the ugliness of racism just in the last hundred years in our country to know what we’re capable of when we make it socially acceptable to casually dehumanize other groups? Worse still, when we reward young people for it in our centers of so-called higher learning?

Do we not know by now how this story ends?

In those history lessons in grade school, I was never once made to feel that there was something inherently wrong with me because I was of European heritage. I was never once told that being born with less pigment in my skin made me an oppressor. Rhetoric like this would not have flown in the nineties, because we all knew better back then. I don’t care what utopian ends you think justify its means: it is wrong to teach this to kids. It would have been wrong then, and it is most certainly wrong now.

If you think there is anything righteous about, as Ibram X. Kendi has asserted, present discrimination as a remedy for past discrimination, you are the problem in my book, one hundred percent. Youare what we need to protect our young minds from.

I remember my second-grade teacher, Ms. Barnes, shepherding us from music class to lunch, to the library and then back to class, one of the many faces that we interacted with every day. That she was African American was a relatively minor aspect of who she was to me. It’s hard to get across sometimes just how normal it was that the teachers and students were of different races. It didn’t mean that we were the same. But there was an acclimatization to that difference. There was nothing to fetishize about it and nothing to fear.

What would Ms. Barnes think of these anti-racism initiatives today, I wonder? She may not even be alive today. In one of my few memories of her, she is helping me button up my winter coat for a trip outside. It was a pale pink coat that I loved, and the gold buttons were sometimes too fussy for my small fingers to manage.

What would Dr. Martin Luther King think of us now? Would he be proud of our incessant talk of implicit bias and micro-aggressions? Would he admire my DROP teacher for her commitment to dismissing the feelings of her White students? For teaching us that it is impossible to be racist towards a White person?

The truth I know now is there was never any hard-core unlearning to be done in DROP. I didn’t have to work at being an anti-racist because I was raised with a more integral version of an anti-racist education than DROP could ever hope to emulate. Because I was raised to be tolerant and empathetic. Because I was raised in the legacy of that great man whose birthday we celebrate, not to load up my psyche with assumptions about people based on their skin color, or for that matter, what country they come from, their religious background, social class, disability status, gender identity, age, sex, or who they love, but yes, on the content of their character.

These are my values. These are the values I was raised with. They are democratic values. They are liberal values. And I think they represent the best of American values. And these values are present in every session with my clients.

And I will never, ever stop living by my values.

And so, to the elites of social media whose White guilt leads them to prostrate at Black Lives Matter rallies, to my DROP teacher, to Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehesi Coates, and all the other de-centralized clergy of this pseudo-church of CRT, I say: you can keep your vacuous, regressive ideology. The fruit your theories have borne is already rotting on the ground. So don’t be surprised if you start to get complaints about the smell.

Your revelations are not born out of compassion and a fire for justice as you may have, somewhere down the line, convinced yourselves they were.

The truth is you do not desire tolerance, inclusivity, or progress. You desire revenge in the form of a full institutional takeover, a death to liberalism by a thousand cuts. You cheer on the idea of White people paying reparations checks to atone for crimes they never committed, against people they’ve never met. You watch smug and satisfied as they are shut out of opportunities based on their skin color, the same way that Black people were shut out just over half a century ago.

I would respect you more if you were honest about your lust to punish and outpace rather than cloaking this odorous truth in a rhetoric of compassion and justice and then having the absolute nerve to claim moral superiority. It is vile behavior to those of us whose compassion doesn’t exist to advance an agenda, to those for whom justice is not a charade—to those of us who want to see everyone in this country lead fulfilling, successful lives, not just certain groups deemed as more worthy due to being historically marginalized.

I’ll let you in on a little secret that the truly “woke” among us know: we are not racist. But you? Speaking in double negatives doesn’t double-negative what’s in your heart. It doesn’t negate your own internal struggle to see White people as fully human. And so, I’m no longer to going to enable what I see now to be your own noisy projections. You have a hang up around race, and I hope you can find clarity on that soon. But it’s also not my problem.

You’ve managed to confuse a lot of people with your “anti-racist” teachings. But they can and will backfire. I am proof of that. And so, I will not apologize anymore for who I am. I will no longer be weighed down by guilt for things I never did. I’m not looking away anymore in doubt and shame. I’m looking straight at you.

I see you.

We see you.

By J. K.

NB: *Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those written about.

 *I have intentionally capitalized the word White in this essay when talking about White people in response to the new practice by the New York Times as of 2020 to put white in lowercase while still capitalizing Black. I have chosen here as an equalizing measure to capitalize both White and Black.

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