How can church leaders counter racism in real time? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Sheila Beckford about strategies for equipping church leaders to do the hard work of anti-racism to bring about real change.
Jessica Anschutz: Your book, Anti-Racism 4REALS offers real action steps for dislodging, disrupting, and dismantling racism. Can you share a bit about your inspiration for the book and what distinguishes it from other anti-racism texts?
Sheila M. Beckford: The book was actually inspired by the work that my coauthor, Michelle Ledder, and I do. We are anti-racist trainers, and we lead in this work by living it. We think it, we eat it, we drink it. After leading an Anti-Racism 101 Course with the General Commission on Race and Religion, I said in passing, “You know what? We should write a book.” I think that was in August, and by November we had a contract.
Michelle and I met when she was mediating a meeting between me and another person who was racially terrorized at a Christian conference. As I shared my story of what took place, I noticed how she and I had the same pedagogy. We were coming from two different racial identities, but we handled anti-racist work in the same way. We became instant friends, and the work took on a life of its own through our conversations and then this book we wrote together.
What makes us different is we understand the history of racism. And we know it’s not going to be changed just by reiterating history. If that were the case, it would have gone away a long time ago. We also understand that to dislodge, disrupt, and dismantle racism, we have to give people entry points. Oftentimes, people believe they have to take many trainings to begin anti-racism work. But that’s not the case at all. We can start immediately. So, we set out to produce something that shares strategies and ways to begin to do anti-racism work immediately. People don’t need to attend 50 trainings before they feel ready to go. Being anti-racist is just calling things out from the beginning and saying, “Okay. I recognize that and that’s racist.” If that’s the only thing you can do, then that’s where you start. That’s what makes our approach very unique and different from the other anti-racism work and books.
Jessica Anschutz: I appreciate your point that there are many different entry points into this work. And one of those is real talk — naming racism as it happens, where it happens, to the people that experienced or witnessed it. Can you give our listeners an example of how this might play out?
Sheila M. Beckford: So, we all know about “parking lot conversations.” Something happens in a meeting, and after the meeting everyone goes to the parking lot to discuss what happened. We think that perpetuates racism. Why? In the meeting something in your head said, “That is wrong. That is racist. That should not have happened.” But instead of addressing it at that moment, in real time, you wait until afterwards, after someone (usually the target) has spoken up to say, “No, you will not talk to me that way. No. This is racist.” And you and everyone else in the room are silent. Then, when you leave that space, those targeted may receive emails saying, “I like how you handled it,” “Yes, what so-and-so said was wrong,” “I can’t believe they said that.” These messages just cause more harm because when the person had the opportunity to stand up and disrupt it in real time, they did not take the opportunity. Instead, they shielded themselves and allowed the targeted person to receive the brunt of the harm. People do not speak up because they want to maintain their social status. They worry, “If I defend this person, then I’m going to become the target.” Instead, they wait until afterwards to say, “I agree with you.” But it doesn’t matter afterwards. A parking lot conversation does nothing to help or decrease the harm or interrupt the harm the target is receiving at that point.
Jessica Anschutz: I would say that applies to all parking lot conversations, whether related to the issue of race or not. They are often more harmful than productive because we’re not bringing the conversation to the table where it needs to be discussed and where the players are.
Sheila M. Beckford: Right, but we particularly put an emphasis on race because race is where we are remaining silent. These other parking lot conversations may cause harm, but when it comes to racism and silence, you are talking about another human being as a person. You know another human being is being affected and it doesn’t stop there. Most of the time, white people have no idea that harm is being done. They don’t pick up on it. And so that’s why it’s so important that if a white person does hear it to jump and say, “Nope, that’s racist. That is absolutely racist.”
Jessica Anschutz: How does your work as a pastor and an anti-racist educator intersect? How does anti-racism shape your ministry, your preaching, your teaching, your work on the ground?
Sheila M. Beckford: Well, anti-racism work affects my whole life. There’s not a place that I can enter where I am not hearing a microaggression or blunt racist behavior and comments, so I’m always on. My ears are always listening and always perked. Even in my own community, we often perpetuate harm because of how we have internalized white supremacy through colorism and different ways of making people feel “less than” because we were born black. And that’s just the race, right? We’re really brown. But that’s the race in this country. It’s black. So, it is impossible for me to turn it off. It affects me at all times. I’m always looking at my situation through that lens and I’m paying attention to the injustices that happen in our communities. And I’m always trying to decipher, “Is this because of race or is it because of something else?” Am I seeing racism everywhere I turn? No, I don’t. I don’t say “that’s because of racism” when it’s not, but when it is, my ears are very attuned to it.
As far as preaching and teaching, it’s in my sermons because that’s how I see the scripture. I can find injustice and justice in every scripture. It’s hard for me not to include it in a sermon because I think that’s who God has created me to be. That’s the lens God wants me to look through. So, I have to use that gift to actually speak out and bring awareness to others, especially in my community. When I’m in other communities as well, I’m bold and audacious. I’m going to speak the truth. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m not going to be silent. I’m going to speak the truth. I’m going to say, “Well, I’m sorry but I’m really not sorry. This is the circumstance, and what you’re saying right now is actually causing someone, some group harm.” So, it’s in the way I teach my young people and the way I listen to them, as well. They share information with me about what they see and hear. And I’m not going to tell them that it’s not true because it absolutely is true. But I am going to teach them strategies to manage and navigate this system that causes and perpetuates racism and causes harm to many groups.
Jessica Anschutz: I really like how your book outlines strategies and identifies unique strategies for white people based on particular situations. You also lift up why it’s important to be prepared for these situations and the preparation work needed to respond with real talk.
Sheila M. Beckford: Many times, white people don’t say, “Okay, that’s racist.” They’ll say something like “Oh, that just doesn’t sound right.” But they can’t identify why it doesn’t sound right. Rev. Michelle and I are saying, “You have to be prepared. You have to start really focusing on people’s language.” If it makes sense to only white people, that’s a problem. It’s a problem if only white people understand why they benefit or how they benefit. They don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — why the other group is not benefiting.
In doing anti-racist work, anti-racism work, we have to actually practice. Because your ears are like babies. When babies start to learn different sounds, they start to imitate those sounds. When children start to walk, their walk looks just like their parent’s way of walking. They have the same mannerisms. And that’s because they’re watching and practicing.
We have to come to a point where it’s just organic. “I hear it. I see it. I speak it. I disrupt it.” We’ve got to, in real time, bring about some change, change that is sustainable, policy changes. Not just putting BIPAL (Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islanders, Asian, Latino/X) people as the face of our business, but actually valuing the strategies of BIPAL people to change the policies that keep BIPAL people oppressed.
Jessica Anschutz: You mentioned anti-racism work happening in real time. Explain what you mean when you say real time.
Sheila M. Beckford: We always say, “In the moment. In the moment. In the moment.” For us, that’s real time. Real time is not waiting to pull someone into a private session to say, “You know, what you said was racist.” Like I said, the majority of people who do not know it’s racist are white people, so for the benefit of white people, you say it in public. For the benefit of valuing or restoring dignity to the targeted person and to the entire situation, you do this in real time.
In the Book of Matthew (18:15-17), there is a passage that says, if your brother offends you, go alone and talk with him. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, and if he still refuses to hear, tell the whole community. This scripture is often cited when we talk about interrupting in real time. But we continue to use that scripture to allow racism to hide in plain sight. We continue to use that scripture to allow us to shy away from doing anti-racism work. I remember one particular woman in a workshop saying, “Do you think I’m going to embarrass someone by saying ‘What you said is racist?’” And our response is, “So, it’s okay for the target of the racist comment to be devalued and embarrassed, but it’s not okay for the person who said it to be checked and told in public that it was wrong?” And so, to be anti-racist and practice anti-racism, we must deal with the issue when it arises in real time. We must disrupt it, dislodge it, and dismantle it in real time in the moment.
Jessica Anschutz: You touched on the excuses that white people make for not engaging in real time with real talk. What are some strategies that empower leaders to counter these excuses?
Sheila M. Beckford: The excuse that we hear basically is, “I’m not ready. I don’t know what to say.” This excuse is why we wrote the book. It removes that excuse. We give 137+ strategies to prepare you to do the work. If you truly want to do the work, there is no excuse now. If after reading the book you still say, “I don’t know where to begin,” we can most definitely say, “You do not want to do anti-racism work.” Because it is in the palm of your hand. We have given you exercises.
The book is like a workbook because writing helps us remember. And it also allows you to go back and read what you wrote so that you can be prepared. Many people will not have great answers in the beginning of this book, but by the end of the book, you should be ready and prepared to go back and say, “Okay. Now I see how I would have perpetrated harm by doing it this way.” By the end of the book, you have all the strategies. You can go back to the first exercise and respond again, now that you have more tools in your toolbox to combat racism.
Jessica Anschutz: In our work to become anti-racist and to empower anti-racism in life and ministry, what do practitioners need to do to nurture ourselves to sustain this challenging work?
Sheila M. Beckford: Rest is very important, particularly for BIPAL people, because every day we’re on. Every day we encounter racism. It doesn’t work the same for white people. White people can walk away from anti-racism work. “I’m done. I did my part. I’m going to give it back to the BIPAL people. They know what they’re doing.”
One way we nurture one another is that BIPAL people provide strategies for white people to follow. And along the way, as we work together, we check back to see if this is the correct way to do this strategy. Because we come from two different racial positionalities, you may read something and interpret it one way, but it was written by BIPAL people from their lens, their racial positionality, their experiences, their understanding of what humanity looks like. And sometimes it can be co-opted because there’s not an understanding. White people can’t basically understand what BIPAL people have gone through. And so, often when white people receive the strategy, they decide when it’s time to do this work rather than have BIPAL people say, “Okay it’s time now.” “No, no, no. It’s not time yet. They’re not ready yet.” And BIPAL people are to wait until white people are ready to move into the work.
I believe that if we’re working together and the BIPAL people create the strategies and white people do the work, that’s nurturing right there. It’s allowing BIPAL people to get rest and move away from this constant doing, doing, doing, and trying to eradicate racism. It’s exhausting work. It’s traumatizing work, especially for BIPAL people. And so BIPAL people need to step back and rest. And people need to nurture that relationship and allow them to do so by saying “Okay, we’re going to continue to work while you rest.” I think that’s nurturing on both sides.
I used the word allow, but I should not have. Because that’s recentering white power. White people must release that feeling of control and recenter themselves and in essence decenter themselves so that the strategy of BIPAL people, BIPAL voices, BIPAL thoughts and ideas can flourish and be credited to BIPAL people.
Jessica Anschutz: In the book you lift up several examples where white people in positions of leadership took on the ideas of BIPAL people and claimed those ideas as their own. How can we work together to prevent those situations from happening in the future?
Rev. Sheila M. Beckford: I believe we give the example of a CEO who heard the idea of BIPAL people and basically called it problematic, but then the idea appeared again with the CEO’s name on it. What was important was that a few allies, white allies, stepped up every time the CEO mentioned these new ideas and they said, “That came from that BIPAL group.” They constantly made it known that the CEO had stolen the idea. But the protection was not really there. You know, all of that was a farce because the damage was done. The work, the ideas, all of the blood, sweat, and tears from that particular group was knocked down as problematic when it came from the BIPAL group, and then it resurfaced with the CEO’s name on it. So, at every opportunity that those allies — I’ll say accomplices — made sure to say, “Oh, no. That came from that BIPAL group. When are you going to give credit to that BIPAL group?” That is a very powerful example of how we need to protect ideas of BIPAL groups, And the protection needs to come from our white allies and accomplices.
Jessica Anschutz: Can you speak to your hope for the church, as it seeks to be anti-racist?
Sheila M. Beckford: In the last chapter of our book, we talk about sustainable change — not change that looks good on paper, but actual change in policies. Because you can make a change on paper, but if the same person who made that change difficult is in charge, it’s not going to happen. There will always be loopholes where oppression will seep through, where racism will happen within that corporation or organization.
As far as the church is concerned, in the United Methodist Church I still see leaders at the top being rewarded and promoted for a lot of the things they do perpetrate harm, a lot of the things they have done to promote oppression and racism. Standing in the middle of a fence straddling both sides is not leadership. Burying work of BIPAL people because it’s too difficult for a person in leadership to handle will never bring about change. It will never bring about anti-racism.
Jessica Anschutz: What words of encouragement do you have for the clergy and laity doing anti-racist work?
Sheila M. Beckford: I want to be honest and say this is not easy. As white people, you’re going to come to a realization that much of what you have been taught, your upbringing, and some of the actions that you have displayed already in your life were racist. You have to say, “Yes, it happened, but now it’s time to do something.” You have entry points. You have strategies. I know if you want to do this work, you will do this work. And you’ll get tired because this is exhausting work. And sometimes you’re going to fall back, and you’re going to continue to perpetrate that harm because you are coming from a different racial positionality than I am. But don’t stop because you cause harm. Apologize. But don’t put some “buts” in the air: “But I was trying to do ….” Just simply say, “I’m sorry.” And keep pressing to do better each and every time.
But we BIPAL people have a lot of work to do as well. We have internalized racism. We have caused each other harm. We have practiced colorism. We allow white dominant groups or spaces to dictate how we live, how we dress, what culture we practice by giving up our own culture and embracing whiteness. We have also caused each other harm by doing the bidding for white people or white supremacy and coddling white manipulation and allowing it to seep into our own communities. We need to practice resilience and resistance. We have to resist whatever it is about white supremacy that looks good to you. You need to step back and say, “Is it worth it?”
And I think the last thing I’ll say to give you some encouragement is, “It can be done.” It can be done as soon as you close the book or click “leave meeting.” The work is calling you. If your heart is pulled to this area of anti-racism work, go ahead and get with it. Get into it. You can start immediately. And please don’t let anyone distract or deter you by saying you have to do cultural competency training or 10 courses of anti-racism work. You can do this work immediately and we’re rooting for you.
- Anti-Racism 4REALS: Real Talk with Real Strategies in Real Time for Real Change (Chalice Press, 2021) by Sheila M. Beckford and E. Michelle Ledder. Also available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- Moving Faith Communities to Fruitful Conversations about Race, a free video-based adult Christian study from Wesley Theological Seminary
- Centering Marginalized Voices to Lead Change by Tyler Sit and Jessica L. Anschutz
- Challenge and Opportunity for Predominantly White Churches by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- “Tackling Tough Topics in Church,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Elizabeth Hagan