Robette Ann Dias has been training people how not to be racist for nearly 20 years, but her organization's services recently reached a new level of demand. In a typical month, CrossRoads Anti-Racism Organizing & Training, of which she is the executive director, would get nine requests for training. Within two weeks after George Floyd was killed in May, it had received 110.
"We've been here all along, but now people are recognizing that we have something to offer," Dias said.
On the one hand, that is affirming. But at the same time, it makes her want to say, "So now you think white supremacy is a problem?"
It's a good time to be in the anti-racism training business, but let's unpack that statement a little bit: Business is booming because of racism. For the professionals who have been thinking and talking about race for a while, it's a bittersweet moment.
Speaking requests for Ijeoma Oluo, the author of "So You Want to Talk About Race," had all but dried up at the beginning of the pandemic.
"And now all of a sudden, people have the capacity for these conversations," she said. "It was a reminder of what it takes to get people to pay attention. There's something that undervalues your humanity in that — that there has to be bodies in the street."
The call for change has extended to offices, where high-profile shake-ups have occurred. The CEO of CrossFit resigned after making racist remarks about Floyd, and the editor in chief of Bon Appétit magazine was forced out after employees spoke out about a workplace that was hostile toward people of color. Food companies are phasing out Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth logos.
Anti-racism books, including Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race," Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist" and "Stamped From the Beginning," Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" and Layla F. Saad's "Me and White Supremacy" have climbed the bestseller lists. Companies are racing to hire diversity managers. And human resources managers are scrambling to find people who run anti-racism training programs.
Commitment is vital
For anti-racism experts, one of the challenges of this moment is gauging which organizations are taking it seriously and which are just trying to feel good about themselves. Before accepting a speaking engagement, Oluo said, she asks a lot of questions about specific issues that people of color at the organization have been experiencing. Racial justice organization Race Forward does an assessment of how willing the potential client is to invest in making changes.
"For transformation to really occur, we need for folks to be ready to go beyond moral niceties," said Key Jackson, the senior director of movement and capacity at Race Forward.
Overcoming Racism, a group that does training for educators and corporations, turns down clients that do not meet its standards.
"If you come to us saying, 'My CEO was wearing blackface, can you come in?' No," said founder Matthew Kincaid. "We work with the willing, not the coerced. If you are just trying to hire us because you need it for your PR statement, no."
Anti-racism training differs significantly from the diversity-and-inclusion training that employees might have participated in before (though those courses, too, are benefiting from a surge of interest). Confronting white supremacy is more intense than just talking about how to hire people from a range of backgrounds.
A chance to be heard
Presenters recognize that they offer a potentially rare chance for employees of color to speak up.
Each time she does a corporate gig, there are "employees in that room who have felt excluded and beaten down and harmed, and need to be heard," Oluo said. "They need to have someone whom the corporation listens to. And the truth is, they listen to me more. If this does something for one Black person in that space, it's a victory."
The pandemic has made this work especially challenging. Anti-racist trainers are learning that it's harder to have sensitive conversations via Zoom than in person. But the demand persists. And anti-racism trainers say they have reason to believe they can use this unusual historical moment to facilitate real change.
"It's demanding repair, and demanding racial justice in ways that we haven't actually collectively experienced before," Jackson said. "And you know, I think this time is going to translate into lasting change because it has to."