Cracking the Codes of Racial Inequity

November 16, 2012 8 Comments

I recently got to attend two events with racial equity educator and filmmaker, Shakti Butler, in Boston. Her new film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, is full of stories that help to paint the picture of how race and racism operate in the U.S. – at the internal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels. Drawing on the work of john powell and others, Shakti emphasizes that racial inequities are constantly shapeshifting, that racism is a dynamic system with multiple layers functioning simultaneously, and that we are all wounded as a result.

One very powerful story in the film is told by Joy DeGruy about an experience she and her family had in the check out line at a grocery store.

Joy’s sister-in-law uses her white privilege to intervene in this situation. She asks the checker to reconsider the way she was treating Joy in a way that the checker and the other folks in the check out line could hear, causing the injustice happening before their eyes to become visible to them. I’d venture to guess that this checker was probably not intentionally discriminating against Joy. How do you think unconscious bias might be playing out in this story? Where and how are identities, culture and history playing out? How are institutional and structural racism playing out?

In my own racial justice work, I struggle with how to create spaces and facilitate conversations that help people to both learn about racial injustice AND get inspired to continue the conversation and continue the work together. I’ve been in too many anti-racism trainings in the past that have left me as a white person feeling guilty and paralyzed. We so desperately need ways to engage in conversations about race and racism that honor the complexities of our histories and experiences, where we go deep and can be authentic, and that propel us forward together armed with tools to deconstruct racism as it exists and create something new together – we don’t need more shallow or guilt-inducing conversations.

Shakti suggests that one of the most important strategies for us now is to get good at asking really good questions instead of confronting racism head on with people who might react defensively if their racial biases are called into question. We are dealing with cognitive dissonance and unconscious bias – these are the realms of the emotional and psychological, not of the logical. Most white folks in the US are terrified of being called racist and of their actions being perceived as racist, so more and more it seems to me like calling people out is not the way forward. How can we all get better at asking each other good questions that forward the work of racial justice rather than shut it down?

Shakti Butler’s new film is one tool that I think can help jump start some productive conversations. Check it out, as well as the accompanying conversation guide coming out soon!



  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Jen. I love the strategy of asking good questions. Well crafted questions can lead a person to reflect and experience genuine insight more powerful than most things we could tell the person. And, I find that it takes real discipline to craft questions that aren’t too leading, and to engage with the actual answers–rather than the answers I hope the person will offer!

  • Keesha says:

    I was able to attend the film screening and the workshop as well. I was surprised by the content of the workshop and I don’t think I would have attended if I’d known what was on the agenda, but it was exactly what I needed. For me, the message of the day was “How important it is that we do our social justice work from a place of love and compassion?” and the days work was about helping us remember why this is necessary in transformational work and how do we have evidence that this is infact our practice.

    I imagine most of us get into this work because of our heart but I think it is very easy to get pulled out of that place as we become more “professionalized” in the work. It’s a hard thing for me to explain but I know it’s something I’ve been experiencing this year. As we spend time on becoming more skilled in the technical aspects of mobilizing and facilitating change, we must spend as much time strengthening our hearts and our capacity to love because at the end of the day we know that all the data in the world does not move people to make the changes we seek, it is our connection to one another.

    How am I demonstrating my belief in our interconnectedness? I felt Shakti was suggesting that we ask ourselves these questions and hold ourselves accountable to this standard. From a strategic perspective, this builds credibility which is key to influencing others. From my own spiritual perspective, this also keeps me focused on why I am committed to engaging in such difficult dialog with people – because we are inextricably connected.

    I needed that.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Hi Keesha,

    Thanks for your comments! Your comments about integrating (or re-integrating) the heart in our racial justice work really resonate with me. I’ve been a part of anti-racism work in the past that was very intellect focused, and while I’ve learned a lot from it, I think it’s time for us all to find ways to forward racial justice work personally and collectively by engaging our minds, hearts and souls. In professionalized settings this doesn’t always come naturally and is not often valued. Of course, racial justice work doesn’t only happen in professionalized settings AND the more love we can cultivate to forward this work in all spaces the better. I just heard Junot Diaz speak at the Facing Race conference and he talked about the “decolonial love” that we must learn to cultivate as activists and in the struggle for racial justice. I really like that and keep thinking about what that might mean and look like in action.

  • Keesha says:

    Thank you for sharing the Junot Diaz presentation. I found it online. These types of presentations need to be made available to all of us out here that can’t get to conferences. Please continue to share :-).

  • Larry Davis says:

    Please help me decode the title “Breaking the Codes”. I’ve watched the film and taken notes in preparation for a planning meeting for a RACE MATTERS IN APPALACHIA SUMMIT coming up in Lewisburg, WV this fall. Does it mean breaking codes that are a part of our mental makeup, and these codes are the ones that dictate our behavior with respect to interactions with people that have different color skin, different ethnic backgrounds, etc.? I’m a biochemist, and I know that genetic traits are coded by genomic DNA sequence. The movie 1996 movie “Breaking the Code” was about the Enigma Code. Wait, wait, a code is a system of rules of conduct. That’s it!

    • Jen Willsea says:

      Hi Larry, It sounds like you answered your own question! I’m curious about the Race Matters in Appalachia Summit coming up in WV – is it open invitation?

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