Understanding and confronting racial injustice

By Kate Walker, Jessica Pierson Russo, and Kathryn Sharpe

multicultural hands in a circle
Courtesy Photo from Stephanie O’Donnell, University of Minnesota ELT

As youth development professionals, volunteers, parents, and guardians it is our responsibility to help young people develop a mindset of being responsible for themselves, their communities, and the world. It is also our responsibility to develop that same mindset in ourselves, which includes understanding and confronting racial injustice. It also requires us to recognize how our identities relate to others, including recognizing any privilege that we may benefit from. Then we can work systematically to create a community and society where power is more balanced.

To advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in youth programs, the Military Families Learning Network is offering a series of webinars on topics such as resources for racial justice, inclusive program structures, and fostering supportive youth-adult relationships. In addition to these, the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development offers the following tips for helping ourselves and youth better understand and confront racial injustice.

Start with ourselves

Supporting and following youth as they become positive change-makers in this world starts by knowing ourselves and how our identities, biases, and behaviors affect the way we engage with others. It also requires taking care of ourselves and fostering allyship.

    • Inform your practice. For people who identify as white and want to deepen their understanding and work against racism, Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources offers resources organized by stages with next steps, including resources for youth. 
    • Address implicit bias. Our unconscious judgments can have powerful impacts on how we see and interact with the world, which is intimately woven into racism.  Individuals can take a test to learn more about personal biases. Then it is important to work on mitigating those biases.
    • Practice self-care. Confronting racial injustice can be exhausting and overwhelming, so we must take care of ourselves. Self-care will look different if you are a white person or are Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC). In many cases, caring for our own well-being is deeply connected with tending to the community’s wellbeing. It should not be an excuse for tuning out or abandoning the work.
    • Find allies. Being with others who share an identity helps fight the sense of isolation, discomfort, and marginalization, whether in terms of race or gender or terms of experience or point of view. Many have found affinity groups to be a helpful strategy for creating a space of support.
    • Learn to be an ally. If you are white, and you want to confront racial injustice, learn how you can be more attuned to the effects of racism. Being an ally involves listening, confronting racism as it comes up, and working to deconstruct it. It also means respecting BIPOC wisdom and leadership, and proactively working to transform our racist tendencies. “Performative allyship” is not sufficient; it is not enough to post on social media or show up at a memorial, but rather each person needs to inquire about what actual impact they are having on advancing justice by taking a stand.  While white people may have BIPOC friends, colleagues, or loved ones, that does not mean that they are exempt from this self-reflection, since many biases are unconscious and can be pervasive.

Engage with others

We have an opportunity and responsibility to partner with colleagues, community members, and youth so that we can grow together into the leaders we so desperately need. This includes speaking and listening with care and humility. 

    • Make space for conversation. There are a host of conversation guides for discussing race, racism, and other difficult topics. The youth-led movement DoSomething offers a guide for white people looking to start anti-racist conversations with each other.  One Talk at a Time provides support for Latinx American, Asian American, African American, and Black youth, along with their families, to have conversations about race and ethnicity.  For non-Black people of color, this guide offers support for starting conversations regarding anti-Blackness within our respective communities
    • Host reflection and conversation with youth. When an event such as a police killing of an unarmed Black person occurs, it’s important to acknowledge it and invite conversation. You may consider asking for a moment of silence to acknowledge the grief and anger that people are experiencing because of current events. Provide time for people to write down their thoughts. If appropriate, invite sharing. The conversation will be a different experience if it is in a community of people who are themselves targets of racism and violence versus people who are experiencing the issue from a distance. Invite questions to get clarity on events (stick to what you know from credible sources and avoid rumor or speculation). The Anti-Defamation League’s Race Talk: Engaging Young People in Conversations about Race and Racism is helpful.
    • It is never too early to start. Children begin forming their racial identity and making value judgments about race by kindergarten. This is why it is essential to begin talking with children about race and building understanding when children are young, and continuing the conversation as they grow.  Reading books and watching videos that address race in an age-appropriate way can be useful with young children. 

Address systemic change

When we talk about addressing racism, it is not sufficient to work at an interpersonal level. We need to learn about and address systemic racism and White supremacy culture. As adults in our own lives and our relationships with youth, we are called to go beyond awareness to committing to action.

    • Commit to learning about systemic racism. We can’t address it if we don’t know what it is. There are many resources on the subject, from introductory to more detailed. The University of Minnesota’s Office for Equity and Diversity compiled this list of educational resources, which includes books on race, anti-racism, and anti-Blackness.
    • Balance learning with action. Many of us are encountering realities that we’d never before considered. Perhaps you feel under-informed or ill-equipped to take action. Maybe you’re afraid of making mistakes. This is understandable, but don’t let the fear of failure stop you from working for positive change today. Silence speaks volumes.
    • Create a culture of continual reflection. To address system change, we need a way to identify our areas of strength and growth, both individually and as organizations (e.g., Diversity and First Generation 4-H Lens, Intercultural Development Inventory). Doing so can help us make informed decisions about policies and practices that result in a more equitable system. 
    • Help young people become change agents. Youth-led activism is a powerful tool for learning and development. Young people need structure, opportunity, and tools to confront the injustices around them. Help them raise public awareness, advocate for change, or join demonstrations and protests. Create fundraisers or implement a service-learning campaign to contribute in tangible ways. Use this guide to map our roles in social change. Learning for Justice’s rights and activism resources can help inspire youth to recognize and speak out against injustice.

Authors

Kate Walker, Jessica Pierson Russo, and Kathryn Sharpe

Reviewers

We thank José Fulgencio, Mindy Grant, Erin Kelly-Collins, Dianna Kennedy, and Katherine Nguyen for their thoughtful reviews and contributions.