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White Fragility article

What Psychologists Know About Helping People Change Racist Behavior

Dear editors,

It took decades for psychologists to begin to convince environmental activists that the “blame and shame” method of attempting behavioral and attitude change is ineffective and even counterproductive — even if the charge is accurate. Sadly, during those precious decades, climate disruption and species loss radically accelerated.

I fear that some of the same psychologically unsophisticated methods are now being tried by the anti-racism movement, a hugely important endeavor. While it may be factual and emotionally satisfying to label individual white students at diversity trainings racist or “White fragile,” this often creates initial resistance among those so labeled, just as being labeled a heartless planet destroyer or animal killer has unfortunately stiffened many people’s resistance against the pro-environmental message.

Those who have been truly traumatized by racism may find it difficult to understand how merely being called a racist may affect an individual student at a training. And, of course, this pain is tiny compared to what people of color have endured for centuries and continue to endure. But such labeling can be just painful enough to make some white students or employees resistant to any change. People who feel criticized or attacked don’t tend to change or learn; they just go into defensive mode and resist whatever message is being conveyed.

If changing hearts and minds is the goal, here are a few behavior change tips that psychologists, doctors, teachers, and environmental activists have learned:

1. Prepare the patient for the pain. Doctors and nurses have learned that simply saying, “This may sting for a minute,” combined with support, is an effective method for softening resistance to any painful procedure and lessening trauma. This allows the healing to happen more effectively. Alerting those in anti-racism groups (especially those who didn’t choose to participate but were required to attend by their organization) about the challenging nature of the material and promising help and encouragement in processing it is psychologically more effective than blindsiding or name-calling, which merely shuts down learning.

2. Spread the blame. We all live in a racist (and ecocidal) system, and white people have experienced their privilege as “normal” from birth. It’s easier to fess up to being racist if you understand that most white people are educated into their racism yet now have the opportunity to be educated out of it, however difficult the process may feel. It helps to reassure the student that this is about a horrible system, not about their worth as an individual human being.

3. Provide ongoing support. Those recovering from racism will need ongoing help in this process just as addicts need ongoing help to recover from self-destructive behavior. The aim of anti-racist groups led by anti-racist white people can be to create change by providing this support, answering awkward questions, offering guidance, and giving encouragement. Those on the receiving end of racism may balk at this sort of “coddling” of recovering white racists, but the goal here is surely to lessen the number of racists on the streets and in workplaces that people of color have to deal with and grow the number of anti-racist allies. Psychology and experience would indicate that for many white racists, recovery from racism probably won’t be any shorter or easier a process than recovering from any other addictive or destructive or criminal behavior.

4. Share encouraging stories. Just as addicts can be helped to recover by sharing and hearing stories of experience, strength, and hope as well as confessing to slip-ups, tales of white people who have overcome at least some of their racism may be helpful. We need guidance and role models to give us hope that we all can become healthier, kinder people, and better allies. Racism doesn’t have to be a lifelong pattern of behavior.

With help we can achieve at least some level of recovery, just as we can learn to become better Earth citizens, but only if we use smart psychological methods.

Linda Buzzell, LMFT, Santa Barbara, California. Co-editor of Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind (Sierra Club Books, 2009)

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Think about what matters most to you about our country’s future. Write a letter to someone important to you, describing that future you imagine and hope for.

Student Essay

The Righteous Path of María the Sage

Malena Vargas Sáez

Querida María:

I have so much to thank you for. I would like to start with thanking you for your ever-growing understanding and receptivity to this changing world. I thank you for confronting all the adversities that came your way throughout your life, and for every tear you held back for your young siblings, your children, and their children. Thank you for your unbreakable will despite the crack of patriarchy’s whip. For swallowing your pride for not finishing school and for becoming a strong and loving figure for your siblings and your children at home, even if it cost you getting judged by people who would not have done the same. And I begin with all this gratitude because we, the world, are in need of individuals like you —more Marías.

Inside that cement house, nestled high up in the rural mountains in the heart of Borinquen, your parents, aware of it or not, admired President Woodrow Wilson as he signed a law in 1917 that finally made us citizens of a powerful nation. Thanks to Luis Muñoz Marín and his negotiations with the United States, you got your first good pair of shoes —shoes that would hop on rocks and cross the river on your way to the only school in town. And don’t forget that moment your tongue discovered the taste of peanut butter the first day American food was served in the school cafeteria. What an experience!

Remember how you would put all these honorable men on a pedestal, like your favorite wooden saint or porcelain Baby Jesus? But, to ponder the possibility that those political figures were corrupt, while most people could not access decent education, was terrifying! It was because of this that you forbade your children and husband, even the cousins and tíos and tías that came to visit, from ever speaking politics and religion at the dinner table, or anywhere within your hearing range. It is like putting water and a computer together —things just will not end well, you would always tell yourself.

You had given up on these lying puppets when Pedro Rosselló demanded a place on your pedestals. He was followed by four governors and his son Ricardo, our current governor, who stood at the end of the line. And to top it off, Mr. Donal Trom, a magnet for controversy, walked right through the door, demanding a pedestal of his own.

And María, your waking up at 4 a.m. just to make sure the house was holding up in the face of three straight days of the hurricane was simply incredible. Holding back your anger while being thrown paper towels by the “president” of the United States instead of medications and meals for your frail husband takes unbelievable strength. One might even say you live up to your hurricane namesake. Woman, how do you do it?

Tell me, what is your secret? We are watching how this government makes education unaffordable and inaccessible; watching our honorable teachers get fired while the news exposes what ridiculously large salaries new and old secretaries and assessors make. They make protests look bad and even spew on social media that demonstrations waste their time and that we are being inconsiderate toward drivers and tourists. María, you have every reason to lose hope!

In a country where powerful figures lead us to hate our differences, you accept every race, age, gender, and sexual orientation with love and respect. In a community that is divided and riddled with the holes of ever-growing violence, you do your best to keep our family together and on good terms. María, it is like you swim against the tide, but you do not seem to mind. Is it something that comes with age? Does this radical hope come with being a mother, a grandmother, a good neighbor, a hardworking woman? Is this the true definition of being human?

I am running out of words, and I am still filled with questions and doubts, but I am hoping your memory, our origins, will guide us all through these turbulent and dangerous times. You, like so many Marías, deserve to be on that pedestal in the living room instead.

With admiration from your granddaughter,



This essay was the “Powerful Voices” winner of the Spring 2018 YES! National Student Writing Competition. The competition is part of the YES! for Teachers program, bringing classroom resources on justice and sustainability to yesmagazine.org/for-teachers. You can help YES! reach young people: yesmagazine.org/donate
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Why I’m Naming YES! in My Will

Yehudit Lieberman

I go way back with YES! I was a charter subscriber when YES! first started, back in 1996. What attracted me was that YES! showed me alternatives that were never covered in mainstream media. It featured experiments happening all around the world and made those efforts visible so people could replicate them. I saw that it wasn’t just a matter of a little effort here, a little effort there. YES! showed me that all those experiments were part of larger movements to create deep, systemic change. That helped me see a path forward. It gave me hope.

All these years later, YES! still gives me that information, that perspective, that hope. I’ve decided to leave money to YES! in my will because YES! is the only publication I know of that, day after day, shows us how we can change this world for the better. I want to be part of that transformation —now and into the future.

I know that by supporting YES!, I’m helping spread those solutions. I’m accelerating those movements for change. When I hear people lament the state of the world, I can show them YES! and say, “Here are some alternatives that are working.”

If we’re going to survive, we have to adopt those alternatives. YES! needs to keep showing us the ways forward. I want to make sure that happens even after I’m gone. Our future depends on it.

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