… You will need companions along the way. Some will be people who guide you and support you, others people whom you will guide and support. Some you will become very close to, others you will know only via their writings. You’ll need all of them all to stay the course and keep growing, and you will be a companion for others.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli. Ali Michael, Ph.D., is the co-director and co-founder of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators. She works with schools and organizations across the United States to help make research on race, Whiteness, and education more accessible and relevant to educators. Dr. Michael is a best-selling, award winning author of several books, including “Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education.” Eleonora Bartoli, Ph.D., is a consultant and licensed psychologist specializing in trauma, resilience-building, and multicultural/social justice counseling. Dr. Bartoli is the author of several publications focused on multicultural counseling competence and White racial socialization. She left her academic career to share the tools of counseling and psychology in support of social justice work.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I (Ali) was part of a tightly knit family with four children, and parents who raised us to be bold, humble, capable, independent, and fair. And, like so many White people in the U.S., I grew up in a suburban community that was predominantly White. In my community we received the message that good people are colorblind and that we shouldn’t talk about race. People felt it was racist to talk about race. I can see now how that approach made it very hard to build any kind of skill for navigating the very normal and expected racial stress that comes up in a multiracial society like ours. It wasn’t until college that I realized this early training for colorblindness rendered me pretty useless in conversations that focused on race and racism because I would stumble and stutter my way through class discussions that required me to see things I’d been taught not to see; to say things I’d been taught not to say. Slowly I realized that if I can’t talk about racism, then I can’t do anything about it. I became very interested in being a part of discussions and classes on race because it felt like a whole new world was opening up to me — there was so much about US history and about the experiences of my Peers of Color that I didn’t know. What cemented my commitment to unlearning racism was the time I spent in South Africa living with a Black South African family just 4 years after Apartheid ended. That family continues to be a big part of my life. My time with them helped me really understand how damaging it is to everyone involved when governments create “races” and give them different roles, rights, and opportunities in a society.
I (Eleonora) grew up in Italy at a time when the country was racially homogeneous, and dynamics of power and oppression played out not through a racial caste system, like in the United States, but within ethnic tensions (between the North and South of Italy) and gender dynamics. I didn’t have a language to understand these dynamics or how they influenced how I viewed myself and others until I came to the United States for college. While trying to acculturate into North American culture, it became apparent to me that questions about race were not particularly welcomed, and that as a White person I was not expected to be able to understand or participate in conversations about race. All the while, race seemed to have as much significance around me as ethnicity or gender had in my upbringing. The opportunity to navigate different cultures gave me a perspective that opened a whole new way to connect with others and break the norms that keep us separate and in conflict.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
My (Ali) favorite book was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved it because it introduced me to the internal life of a child growing up in poverty, which was so different from my experience. She talked about how hard her family worked to be able to contribute to the food drive charity at school because her mother felt like it was always important to help others, no matter how little you have. She wanted to maintain her dignity and did not want to be on the receiving end of charity. This felt like such a mind blowing realization to me as it both humanized people living in poverty and made clear the power dynamics at work within charity. It helped me break out of the mindset that we are what we have. It helped me see how important it is to be in relationships of solidarity with others, and to prioritize their dignity, while recognizing how much they give to the world and to their community, even if they don’t have material wealth.
I (Eleonora) don’t usually like to read books more than once, but one book I always carried with me, including when I came to the United States in my late teens and through my many moves since, was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha — a fictional story inspired by the life of the Buddha. I still have the Italian edition I first read many years ago! What fascinated me, especially as an adolescent, was the idea that seeking the truth of life could not simply be an intellectual experience. It had to be a full-bodied one, one that required real mistakes, the act of falling and recovering, of learning from experience not just books. It gave me hope, even pride in what certainly felt like a bumpy path as I navigated my life in Italy and the United States as a young cis gender White woman who wasn’t expected to amount to much. If the bumps were the way, then perhaps I could reach my goals as well!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was in my first year of graduate school and I was riding the elevator while carrying a stack of boxes. One of my = professors got on the elevator and asked if could help me with the boxes. In my brain I started computing all the implications of saying yes: “He’s my professor, I don’t want him to think I’m disrespecting him by letting him carry things for me. He’s a Black man — he shouldn’t be expected to carry things for a White woman. But he offered to help carry things — if I say no, am I being ungrateful? What if he thinks I don’t want him to help me carry things because I’m afraid he’ll steal them from me?” These frantic and incoherent thoughts raced around in my head as I stood there staring at him — speechless — holding my heavy boxes. I believe he finally just took some of the boxes and asked me where I was going so he could help me get there. A few weeks later, I was sitting in his class, and he asked for examples of racial stress that leads to paralysis or bizarre behavior. I sheepishly brought up that moment and told him all the ridiculous thoughts that had been going through my head. He said, “Yes, that is the perfect example.”
When I (Eleoora) began to realize the extent to which racism was still operating in North American culture, I decided, in true Eleonora fashion, that I would give myself a year to undo all the racism I had been acculturated into and become “non-racist” once and for all. Every time I tell this story in my workshops, participants chuckle as they immediately understand the fallacies at the very core of such a plan. But I didn’t, not until several months into what I thought was my “deprogramming” year, and realized that the roots of my biases ran deep and wide, and were constantly reinforced by much of what surrounded me. Racism was the foundation of too many of the cultural norms I was trying to learn and live within to be easily avoided or bypassed. Looking back at my plan with some humor gives me the compassion I need not to get stuck in “self-shame and blame” every time I notice yet another way in which I have acted in a biased way.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
We want to change the way White engage with one another about antiracism. Our sense is that a small number of White people feel comfortable taking antiracist action because many are terrified of getting it wrong or falling into the well known, well documented patterns that White people inevitably fall into. With this book, we want to start where those books leave off. When White people ask, “Well, what do I do now?” We have an answer:
First, recognize the everyone is needed. Building a healthy multiracial society requires so many more White people — not just the select few who have enough experience and the right vocabulary.
Second, White people must stop competing with one another to show how antiracist we are. That is a form of individualist antiracism. Instead, help cultivate a collective antiracism, where White people will help other White people learn what they need to learn in order to have an antiracist impact in their sphere of influence.
Third, White people must forge empathetic connections with the People of Color and Native people in our lives. We have to see the ways that our fears and anxieties about race build up a fight, flight, freeze response that blocks our capacity to be in connection with People of Color and Native people. Unblocking that connection is key to being able to see the way forward as a society.
Finally, we need to train for courage. Speaking up against racism is scary. And it’s most scary because part of the formula of systemic racism is to tell White people they will be safe as long as they go along with the system as it is. In order to challenge that, we need both courage and skills. Not all challenges have to be conflicts. We support readers to challenge racism without generating defensive conflict.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
The most interesting story is in the eye of the beholder, but the one that seems to resonate with many people is the story of my (Ali) Dad. Early on in my own learning about race, I found myself regularly at odds with my Dad. I had taken a whole bunch of classes and read a ton of books that he did not have access to in the same way I had as a college student. So suddenly I was coming home with a radically different viewpoint, and he would challenge me on it, ask me to defend myself. This frustrated me and I didn’t know how to share everything I was learning, so I just lashed out and called him a racist. After that my Dad stopped engaging with me on questions of race for a long while.
I had a strong relationship with my Dad and I didn’t want to be going down a path that he wouldn’t go down — learning about antiracism felt like leaving him behind. But I also knew that he was never going to walk an antiracist path if it meant enduring name-calling. It turns out calling someone a “racist” does not make them want to learn from you. So one day I just told him how much I’d like to connect with him about what I was learning about racism. I told him that if he had questions, I’d love to talk about them with him. I said I didn’t think I had all the answers, but I wanted to think about those questions with him. So then we started talking again. And my Dad had so many great questions. And when we explored his questions and mine, he had so much knowledge of business, of economics, of history, of religion that I did not have — all of which contributed to my learning. And now, 25 years later, my Dad grandparents my children with an antiracist lens. He is willing to look back on his old beliefs and chart how and why they’ve changed.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
After the murder of George Floyd we witnessed a surge in White people’s outrage about racism. While the energy all around was powerful, many White people felt discouraged after a few months. They did not know what to do exactly or how to respond when People of Color and Native People asked them, “Why do you care about this now when you didn’t care about it before?” We wanted to find a way for White people to harness the energy of the moment by offering clear guidance on where to direct it and how to use it. We wanted to support White people to hear the pain and the urgency in the questions about “Why now?” while not getting discouraged by it. We wanted to collect all that had propelled us forward over the last 20 years on our own antiracist paths, all that we had learned from the fields we had studied, and distill it into one coherent, practical, user-friendly book of stories. We also wanted to help people realize that working for a healthy multiracial society cannot be something we do for one summer, or one workshop. It’s a lifelong practice. We don’t say that to discourage people, but rather to help people develop a perspective that will help them stay engaged over the long term.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I was working with a national social justice organization that had a White antiracist learning group to help the White members of their staff learn more about racism. But what the Leaders of Color in the organization were observing over time was that the more the White people worked together in that group, the more withdrawn, risk averse, and quiet they became. Rather than become strong advocates for racial equity, they became more uncertain, more self conscious, and less helpful. I coached the White antiracist learning group for a few sessions, using many of the principles we share in this book to help them support one another, foster risk taking, minimize competition, and address the anxiety that was holding them back. One of the women in the group said to me, “Wow, I didn’t know White people trying to be antiracist were allowed to be nice to one another!” This is one of the most common misconceptions that White people have when we learn about antiracism. White people can be kind to one another while helping each other learn more about racism. We don’t need to compete with other White people, compare ourselves with other White people, or disparage ourselves or others. Antiracism requires us to recognize and intervene with racism — both inside ourselves and in our spheres of influence. When we intervene with other White people, we can do it in ways that are both supportive and challenging, keeping in mind the long term goal of helping people take the next steps on their own antiracist path. This group went on to be much more productive, generative, and excited about infusing antiracist principles into their work. The individuals in the group felt much more empowered to speak up, to take risks, and to try — even though they knew they would not be perfect.
A friend of ours, a White woman, was supporting her dear aunt (also a White woman) as she was recounting a painful interaction with her own son (a White man). The son had been struggling with a drug addiction and his mother didn’t know if he would live much longer. In the middle of sharing, the aunt used the “n” word to berate the faceless/nameless drug dealers whom she imagined her son buying drugs from. Our friend was stunned. First, she froze. Then, she felt the urge to “fight”, by openly labeling her aunt as racist and lecturing her about all that was wrong with her statement. Having read our book, she took a breath and paused. She realized neither of those strategies were likely, in that moment, to invite her aunt to take a step onto an antiracist path. More likely, they would push her aunt away from her, the only one in her family with an understanding of racism. Still, she didn’t know what else to say. She felt stuck. Soon after the conversation was over, she reached out to Eleonora, as a White ally. Together, we processed her feelings and conflicting agendas: she wanted to tell her aunt in no uncertain terms that the word she used was misguided and harmful; but she also wanted to stay in relationship with her, not least to support her in growing an antiracist consciousness. She wanted to find a way to “call her in”, not only “call her out”. We decided that rather than lecturing her aunt, she would share how hearing the “n” word impacted her. A few hours later she approached her aunt. She thanked her for sharing her sorrow about her son and conveyed how much she desired staying close to her through this time. She then shared that she froze when she heard the “n” word, how it hurt her and made her emotionally withdraw. Our friend was able not only to convey her genuine empathy and concern for her aunt and her son, but also share with her aunt stories of her close friends of color and how they had been hurt by that word. In short, our friend created a context for her aunt’s empathy to expand while feeling cared for. This helped my friend’s aunt continue moving towards an antiracist path — even if only one step — rather than being pushed away and shamed.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There are so many ways that each of us is needed right now. We are in a profoundly anti-Democratic moment, which means that we need everyone to show up with everything they’ve got. We need to show up with all of our gifts and imperfections to do what we can to hold the ground for democracy, and to insist that every voice matters. The anti-Critical Race Theory campaign that we are seeing nationally is a political campaign designed to sow conflict and instability in local communities. Extreme right wing forces are using people’s fears about race and sexuality to pass laws in more than 30 states preventing people from talking about race in schools, from educating about LGBTQ content, from reading certain books or even discussing certain aspects of US history. This is minority rule. It is a well funded, extremely vocal campaign that does not represent the majority of Americans. We need everyone to see this as an issue that impacts them because when we begin to restrict what people can learn in a democracy, we start to lose our freedoms. We need to realize that racism is foundational to fascism, and therefore incompatible with a thriving democracy. And we need politicians to realize what a small minority is behind this campaign. We need them to quell people’s fears and remind them that we’re trying to build a society where everybody belongs. Most of all, we need individual citizens to show up at school board meetings and municipal government meetings to say what it is they support. You don’t need an expert to speak up locally. You need to say what you are for. I am pro-unity, pro-democracy, pro-history, pro-truth, pro-community. Finally, we need to build bridges wherever possible in our communities. We need to build a broad, inclusive, diversion coalition of people who love democracy. #makevotingrightssexyagain
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
We think of leadership as the ability to see where resources are unevenly allocated, what strategies are needed to foster equity, and how to use one’s power to make it happen. For example, when I (Eleonora) was the director of a masters program in counseling, I could see how a mostly White faculty and a curriculum that only marginally addressed social justice and multicultural principles disadvantaged not only our students of color — as they didn’t see their experiences reflected in the tools and practices we taught them — but all students, who were not developing the skills needed to work with diverse clients. Our leadership team had enough knowledge to understand this problem. Identified hiring a diverse faculty and infusing social justice/multicultural principles into both curricular and extracurricular activities as core strategies to address it. Each member of the team used their respective rank in the university to make it all happen. It’s one of the most rewarding system-level journeys I’ve ever been part of!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Antiracism is a lifelong, daily path which takes place in the very spaces you travel: family, work setting, school, neighborhood, grocery store, place of worship. You can change the world one interaction at the time exactly you are.
- You will need companions along the way. Some will be people who guide you and support you, others people whom you will guide and support. Some you will become very close to, others you will know only via their writings. You’ll need all of them all to stay the course and keep growing, and you will be a companion for others.
- You don’t have to be perfect or know everything to begin an antiracist practice. What you do need are the skills to recover when you fall, the willingness to learn what you don’t know, and the courage to keep your heart open when the truth is hard to hear.
- Antiracism is a doorway to joy and connectedness. Antiracism can feel scary, but it’s actually the antidote to fear. Fear comes from disconnection, conflict, divisiveness. Antiracism is all about truly seeing each other, understanding how we are deeply interconnected, and building healthy communities.
- Anyone can learn to walk an antiracist path. It doesn’t require special degrees, particular identities, or a secret language. It only requires you ability to remain in empathetic connection with others so that you can learn and act on the knowledge that comes from hearing how racism impacts those around you. Anyone and everyone can do that.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My(Ali) own personal antiracism journey began when I first heard James Baldwin say something along the lines of: Racism is not a Person of Color problem. It’s a White person problem. And it’s not going to change until White people do something about it. This quote made me realize not only that I needed to do something about racism, but that I had a right to. I always thought racism had nothing to do with me, and I questioned what right I had to try to take antiracist action. This quote felt to me like an invitation. It was like Baldwin was saying, “Never mind your doubt. What right do you have not to do something!?” I now understand that he was also trying to get White people to understand that racism hurts us too.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I (Ali) would love to meet Oprah Winfrey. I’d love to know her thoughts on this book. I’d love to know what she thinks about the current political situation and what we should be doing more of. I have so many questions for her about her life. I want to introduce to her to my friend Gertrude from South Africa.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can also find us on our respective websites: alimichael.org and eleonorabartoli.com. You can also follow us on Instagram (alimichaelphd, eleonorabartoliphd), Twitter (@alimichaelphd, @ebartoliphd), Facebook (Ali Michael, PhD, Eleonora Bartoli, PhD), and LinkedIn (Ali Michael, PhD, Eleonora Bartoli, PhD).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli, Are Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.