Allies, Accomplices, And Education Are Key In Tackling Racism's Roots

May 26, 2018

Racism’s roots run deep in American culture and institutions. But so does the desire to do something about it. For this week’s Friday Forum, we present part two of WNIJ's Susan Stephens interviewing Northern Illinois University Education Professor Joseph Flynn. He’s the author of White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice, which explores how education can get more people engaged in the fight for equality.

We start with a song.  

I'm just a white man comin' to you from the southland
Tryin' to understand what it's like not to be
I'm proud of where I'm from but not everything we've done
And it ain't like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn't start this nation
We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

It was 2013, and country singer Brad Paisley and rapper LL Cool J teamed up to sing about race, the Confederate flag, do-rags, cowboy hats, and accepting each other’s culture. It was called “Accidental Racist.”

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates wroteAccidental Racist is actually just racist.” But NIU professor Joseph Flynn cut Paisley some slack, saying it was a brave thing to do for a popular country singer, inviting harsh criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.

“Here’s where I feel, for lack of better terms right now, we ‘liberals’ need to get our thing together,” said Flynn, “because there was a hard backlash to Brad when the song came out and a lot of dismissive comments. I would say we’ve got to give him full marks for trying, especially in the context of country music in Nashville. And if the song was meant to open a conversation, I think there were other things he could have said.”

Credit Carl Nelson / WNIJ

So what does this have to do with anything today? It’s a good example of where discussions of racism stop. Paisley got the conversation started, then backed off. The door was opened but left unattended. But don’t blame the white country singer and black rapper for not advancing the conversation. Flynn says it reminds him of President Obama’s 2008 speech in Philadelphia about race.

Flynn said what he had hoped for from the speech, which he said was otherwise great and inspiring, was this: “We keep saying these things happen, these instances of racism happen. But you aren’t giving people a firm example they can chew on. Tell people what are real true blue instances of racism, historically and currently, that people can think about more deeply.”

Flynn said Obama punted when he could have taken it in for a touchdown by laying out real examples of the roots of inequality in our country that people can understand, such as the wealth gap persisting in part because of housing practices in the 1930s that are still with us today. Now it’s in the form of the mortgage crisis, where African-Americans and Latinos were extended subprime loans at a disproportionate rate.

“More questions need to be put on the table, rather than just declarative statements about being frustrated about the conversation about race,” Flynn said. “Let’s think about why a conversation about race is so frustrating in the first place.”

So, a reminder: Racism, according to the definition used by Flynn, is “a system of advantage we are all embedded in, it’s the water we all swim in. We are all impacted by race in some way, often negatively, even the privileged. Look at all the resources we’ve squandered having this argument, all the possibilities cut off because we are systematically disallowing some people from achieving their potential.”

Allies, Accomplices, Leaders

So what are white people to do? Is this their fight, too?

Flynn says yes. He breaks down the role of the anti-racist white person into three categories:

The Ally. It’s a problematic role, says Flynn, because, “while they say they support the push for equality, they don’t have to get in the fight. They can stand on the sidelines and say ‘Hey, yeah, I support ya!’ as the parade marches by.”

The Accomplice. Accomplices recognize the system of advantage. “They recognize they have a vested interest in changing how we function racially,”according to Flynn. “The accomplice is right there, knee deep in the fight. They recognize white folks have an important position to take in ameliorating racist practices.”

The Leader. Leaders are a subset of accomplices. Flynn says anyone can be a leader, but it depends on their ultimate motive: “Are you truly invested in changing race and dismantling systems of oppression? Are you really truly invested in that?” 

Another Forgotten History

Flynn says there’s something else students should be learning in school. “I can name so many nonwhite leaders for racial and social justice, but hardly any white folks. That’s a problem,” he admits. “One thing it does is it makes white folks feel like, when they come into a conversation about race, they are immediately constructed as the bad guy because there are no examples throughout history. Without that model, your choices about what it means to be white are greatly shrunk. That needs to change. It comes back to the K-12 curriculum. There are ways to teach American history and balance these stories while still teaching about the high points in American history we like to talk about.”

Small Steps

Flynn says allies often don’t know where to start on their way to becoming accomplices and leaders. Don’t take shortcuts. Building knowledge is a process. His suggestions for moving along in that process?

  • Watch the documentary "13th" by Ava DuVernay and discuss it with your friends and family,
  • Get involved with groups and organizations. Meet people!
  • Hear something you disagree with on the news? Do more research and listen to more voices.
  • Google “microaggressions.” Flynn says it explains a lot about what happens in daily life, where statements or actions don’t always register as being racist or problematic.

“If you say something to me that you might think is just a joke, it might not receive that way to me,” said Flynn. “If I tell you it doesn’t, rather than argue with me and telling me how I should feel about what you said, why not just say, ‘You know Joe, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean for that to be offensive.’ Then maybe we can have a conversation about why you ought not say something that way to other people. We need to stop rushing toward a shortcut to deal with a problem that’s been around 400 years but maybe walk toward understanding and compromise.”

Joe vs. Tina and what the police have to do with all this

And this brings us to "Tina." She was a friend of Flynn and his family, part of a tight-knit group brought together by the friendship of their children. When she and her family moved to Missouri, they kept in touch wtih the DeKalb crowd through Facebook. And, as things often go in social media relationships, a disagreement about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the unrest that followed undid their friendship. Flynn says he's embarrassed about how he treated Tina: She was a white woman who had fears and concerns for her family, and he didn't take the time to try to understand her side of the story. He deleted her.

What's Next?

Flynn ends his book White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice with a tip of the hat to Dr. King, reexamining his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech and how it applies today.


And here we stand in 2017 in the wake of the election of a president who, in part, won the office by stoking the racial and xenophobic fears of millions of White Americans, and simultaneously millions of other White Americans rejected that nefarious strategy. Now more than ever we must be prudent in how we engage one another. Most importantly, we educators must be attentive in how we construct and engage White folks when they show signs of resistance. We must be considerate of the range of reasons why they may sit quietly, or show discomfort, or become argumentative, or wholly disengage. We must be willing to create a rhetorical out rather than, through our language, isolate them in a rhetorical corner wherein they are just resistant, and by extension racist for struggling through the challenge of learning and understanding racism.

We all, each of us, have been manipulated by the same system that was constructed and perpetuated by generations that predate us by hundreds of years, and that manipulation has impacted us, as groups and individuals, in different ways, constructing different realities. It is crucial for all of us, educators and citizens, to recognize how the system of advantage based on race -- one that has created a racial hierarchy in which whiteness has been constructed as the norm -- has hobbled the opportunities to crest the apex of that mountaintop and actually see the magnificent vision MLK saw, but left ill-descript. Learning how to navigate the struggle is just as beautiful as the destination in itself. Learning how to navigate the struggle is prelude to the destination.

That apex is within each of us, if we only understand that we will all have been assigned roles in a system and be willing to critically reconsider those roles and the assumptions we make in light of those assignments. It is time to shift our discourses about race and truly see the humanity in one another. Not to move into a post-racial society, but a post-racism society. In order to see that vision we must rely on both the power of education and the role of teachers to help us navigate that terrain, like watchpersons with vigilant eyes on a chilly dawn, and vanguards riding forward to the bracing light of a new day, together.