“What prevents you from talking about race?”
The trainer offered the group of nearly 90 people seated in a room on the 10th floor of the LBJ Presidential Library some suggestions: Was it fear? Maybe fatigue? Ignorance?
Whatever their reasons, this group of executive directors, educators and local government employees had gathered to do just that: spend two days talking about race.
“Talking about race is tough,” Madge Vasquez said. The CEO of Mission Capital was among the group gathered for the diversity training led by San Francisco-based Pacific Educational Group. (As part of the agreement to let KUT observe the training, the reporter was required to participate in it.)
“It requires a deep sense of authenticity and sharing lived experience across different identities," she said. "The risk is that folks get defensive or shut down, and I’m not so worried about that. I think it’s an invitation to be open to our full humanity and to get to know others.”
Task force members became interested in how to talk about race constructively, so they took the "Beyond Diversity" training, which Glenn Singleton of Pacific Educational Group wrote more than two decades ago. In the task force’s final report, released in April 2017, members wrote:
“The impact of the training is of such magnitude that we have to prioritize the importance of the city providing access and support to expand the training across the Austin community.”
The mayor has attended the training, as have most City Council members and some of their staff. (The training is not cheap: The city paid $23,800 for council members and staff.)
The city has bought into Singleton’s work so much that the mayor has even challenged him to train all of Austin's roughly 1 million residents. Leadership Austin now offers the training to community members for $325 each. (The nonprofit does provide some scholarships).
“We will not be able to address affordability in this city ... until we address race,” Adler told the 86 participants at a training late last month. “As leaders in this city, this is a conversation that you have to be having, because if you don’t have this conversation, then this community does not have this conversation.”
According to Leadership Austin, 436 people have attended the training, and another 320 people have registered for trainings through April. Sixty-two percent of the participants who will have taken the training from June through November are white, and 73 percent are women. The training is sold out through December.
“I’m honored to be here with you,” Singleton told participants at the start of the session KUT attended. He would train the group not on how to solve racism, but how to talk about race. The session started by asking people to assess how they typically think about race: Is race an emotional endeavor? Is it an intellectual exercise?
Then he asked participants to put a number to it: “What percentage of your life does race impact?”
Adler said this is the question that tripped him up when he attended the training.
“I kind of labored over what kind of percentage,” he said. “Clearly, I couldn’t put 100 percent down because I’m sitting at the table with folks that are African-American. They live with [race] all the time in terms of that they’re African-American. They walk into a room and people know they’re African-American.”
Adler couldn't recall the exact number; he said he chose something between 50 and 100 percent.
That Thursday, Terri Broussard Williams, an executive with the SouthWest affiliate of the American Heart Association, wrote down 85 percent. Race, she said, is never far from her mind.
“At this point in time in our country, I’m acutely aware that I’m black,” she said. “I travel a lot, and I can tell you that I feel it quite often.”
Among the participants seated at one table, white people tended to record a lower percentage than people of color. After some prodding from Singleton, people who did not write down 100 percent realized their folly: The exercise was not about negative impacts of race – but any effect at all.
“As you go through that conversation you really quickly realize that there is nothing that happens in any of our lives in this country that is not impacted by our race,” Adler said.
The first day of training concluded with a questionnaire about opportunities afforded white people because of their race, or white privilege. Participants read a series of statements and assigned a number to each depending on how often the statement was true: typically, sometimes or hardly.
The statements included:
- I can go into most supermarkets and find the staple foods which fit my racial/ethnic traditions.
- I can go into any hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- If a police officer pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
Participants’ total scores ranged from 0 to 130; the higher your score, the more white privilege you have. With numbers written down, the group followed Singleton’s instructions to stand in a circle from highest to lowest number.
The picture was striking.
“When I looked around the room, the numbers dwindled and there was a clear delineation of where oppression began and where people of color were, and there were no white people at the end of the line,” said Broussard Williams, who scored a 50. “And so, I went from being open all day to not being able to look around the room, to having my eyes just become overwhelmed with tears.”
She said scoring in the middle troubled her.
“For me being, quite frankly, a light-skinned African-American, I wrestled most of the night trying to discern, have I adjusted to Austin?” said Broussard Williams, who is originally from Louisiana. “Have I adjusted to being in a city where I don’t see many people that look like me, or is this part of my privilege being a light-skinned African-American woman?”
Laura Cortez, who runs a public engagement consulting firm, scored a 22.
“How likely is it that I’ll see myself in images in magazines and television?” she said, thinking about the statements she scored "least likely to be true." “I think as a Latina, I strive to look for those visions of myself and people who have my lived experiences. But it’s not often I see them – so that was a 0.”
Vasquez, who spoke diplomatically of the training before it began, ended the day feeling tired.
“I think after doing a full day of training," she said, "the weight of the work that is before us weighed heavily on our shoulders because it is so complicated and it is so layered.”
Recent events have forced Austin residents to confront racial divides in the city. For nearly three weeks in March a bomber terrorized residents, killing two people before blowing himself up as police closed in. The bomber’s first four victims were all people of color.
Although police have said the bomber’s video confession did not name race as a motivation, communities of color felt targeted – and frustrated when police ignored or brushed off their fears.
“Austin is a place where people are really, really open to ideas, but not always necessarily open to talking about race,” Broussard Williams said.
A 2015 study named Austin the most economically segregated city in the U.S. A study the previous year by University of Texas professor Eric Tang found that Austin was the only major growing U.S. city whose black population had declined.
“While Austin will always appear to me as one of the more progressive cities, there’s still this underlying and historic sort of in-the-earth kind of challenge [regarding racism],” Singleton said.
Last year, the mayor convened an Anti-Displacement Task Force to write policies to help stall the flow of low-income and communities of color out of the city. The council has asked members to finalize their ideas later this year.
Singleton said Austin’s growth may only perpetuate displacement. In 2011, American Community Survey estimates put Austin’s non-Hispanic white population at 47 percent; in 2016, estimates put it closer to 49 percent. If newcomers are mostly white, Singleton said, conversations around race may get harder to have.
“They don’t resemble the brown and black populations that are feeling displaced here,” he said. “They also don’t come with an historical conversation about why those populations need to be here and what contributions those populations not 'have made' but continue to make in terms of what we value about the culture, the climate, the hipness, the coolness of Austin.”
The majority of people at the training Singleton led last month were white. He said the curriculum doesn’t change based on the racial makeup of the audience. But his behavior may; for example, when there are more white participants, he shares his own stories of being black in America rather than relying on other people of color to speak.
“What I do have to recognize, though, is the amount of stress that people of color experience as their white counterparts and community members here are in the process of their own transformation,” he said. "Sometimes that learning that we as people of color are observing in our white friends and colleagues, sometimes that’s quite painful for us.”
The second day of training centered, in part, on defining white culture.
Instead of letting participants sit where they liked, Singleton grouped people according to their white privilege numbers. Because of this, people ended up at tables with others who looked like them.
“We fondly called our group 'The Brown Group,'” Vasquez said, laughing.
Singleton called them "affinity" groups. Cortez said the conversation at her new table, compared to when she sat with white people, immediately changed.
“We automatically just had this connection. … We immediately went into our families and how we ate and what we listened to,” she said. “We were like, 'Wow, I felt like before when we were sitting in the groups, we were monitoring what we said and we were somewhat cautious about how we took turns to answer questions.'”
Tasked with defining whiteness, the people seated at Cortez’s table started thinking about ways in which they’d been asked to change in majority-white work environments.
“One woman shared that someone in her office said, 'You know, you’re really passionate and you have to tone that down,'” Cortez said. “And the reality is that, as Latinos, we’re really passionate and loud and excited and do all these things. And she said, I realized that I got people to like me more when I toned that down.”
Eventually the whole room began to define attributes of white culture: a bowing to authority, individualism over collectivism, the nuclear family as the ideal.
For Broussard Williams, being among people who both looked like her and were also community leaders raised questions: “Are we the safe people of color?” she thought. “That we might not disrupt too much and that we also just kind of adhere to the code. And so, that really turned into a conversation about ... What is our responsibility to turn the tide in a constructive manner?”
When the training ended, people filed out, leaving their nametags on a table by the door. Eighty-six nametags – and if the mayor has his way, there'll be hundreds of thousands more.