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Anti-Racism training: Same old, same old St. Olaf

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Illustration by Sadie Favour

Amidst a racially turbulent contextual moment in the U.S. and on campus where numerous BIPOC faculty members have sent in resignation letters, St. Olaf College issued a campus-wide anti-racism training to “ensure that every area of the St. Olaf community engage in an anti-racism training centered on self-reflection, engagement, and deep listening.” However, the training felt more like an introductory information dump focused only on learning, rather than further growth. I doubt the this training will have a long term impact.

The virtual training had students attend a discussion and lecture in a call facilitated by moderators from the Washington Consulting Group. It opened up by equipping students with jargon surrounding racial discourse: white fragility, institutional racism, white guilt, etc. While the reiteration of terminology to students is necessary, the training disregarded the paramount step of applying these terms.

Moderators would read from a list of definitions displayed on screen and ask for comments, of which two or three out of approximately 70 students per call would provide input. Moderators did not stimulate discussion, and instead, when students gave a response, simply reiterated their points and ended with a nice “thank you for sharing!”

Instead of relying on the three-to-five moderators to stimulate reflection for every students, a check-for-understanding-style reflection prompt could’ve asked students to apply their learning to the St. Olaf context and their lives in general; this would ensure that every person in the call ruminates about how the terms mentioned show up in their lives.

Organizers at the Washington Consulting Group, in a discussion with former Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Bruce King, noted how a virtual setting makes it difficult to create intimate training sessions. They attempted to remedy this with a host of interactive elements like small groups, polls and Q&A sessions, but the lack of in-depth and difficult questions ensured that the only responses garnered would be surface-level.

Questions such as “how do you be a good ally?” felt like the moderators throwing students a bone. The chat lit up with students who understand that an anti-racist must actively fight racism, but there was no conceptualization of what anti-racism might look like on campus.

It could be argued that the surface-level aspect was meant to make sure that the training met people where they were at. But we do these seminars once a semester at most, and at this pace functionally no change will be made. There is no sense of urgency to St. Olaf’s anti-racism; it feels leisurely, especially compared to the diligence demonstrated in the school’s response to COVID-19.

At one point in the training, the Washington Consulting Group played a video titled, “Systemic Racism Explained.” While the video is very educational, again, there was little to no application on the concepts it discussed. After the video mentioned systemic racism, the training could’ve asked for students to reflect on how they are (dis)advantaged by institutionalized racism. After the video explained implicit bias, the training could’ve asked students to recall an example of implicit bias they have seen on campus or in themselves. Instead, we took a poll that asked us to describe how the video made us feel in one word.

Even worse than the application of information in the training was the framing of it. The very nature of providing only definitions and conceptual examples lends to students’ understanding of racism existing only in theory; in hypotheticals around them at best, beyond them at worst.

The training’s information failed to provide students with the ability to recognize their own privilege, racism and bias, which allows for the abstraction of white supremacist culture and inevitably leads to students being able to distance themselves from it. I’d suggest incorporating more concrete examples of racism and microaggressions and requiring students to think about how these ways of thinking intrude their minds and the institution they are at. Aside from a few students, there was a reluctance to engage amongst students: as seen in permamuted mics, off cameras and curt responses.

Students are committed to avoiding any racial stress and have an avoidant style of conversation more concerned with not saying the wrong thing than actually confronting racism. The expectation that BIPOC students will do all the work in the conversation about race pervades every St. Olaf classroom.

The silence of some students might be born out of not wanting to center themselves in the conversation, but there is a difference between not centering yourself in the conversation and not interacting with it at all. 

Here is what the training should have provided: prompts to get students speaking, reflecting and reckoning with subconscious biases. The training was structured as if the rumination would do itself, when in reality, any shadow work — introspection into implicit biases — began and ended with the call.

If the goal is to prepare Oles to pass a quiz on anti-racism jargon, the training has succeeded. But in terms of facilitating growth and the unlearning of subconscious biases, this training has fallen short. It is time for St. Olaf to listen to the complaints students have been making for years and incorporate streamlined anti-racism training into the Ole experience.

Blue Nawa ’24 is from

Arlington, TX.

Their major is undeclared.