As we find ourselves at a unique point in our country’s history, where more individuals and institutions than ever are attempting to recognize the ways in which their actions uphold white supremacy, we can learn much from the work of Antioch’s first Distinguished Scholar, Stephen Brookfield. In its premiere episode, co-hosts of The Seed Field Podcast, Jasper Nighthawk and Simon Javan Okelo enter into a thought-provoking discussion with Stephen about his long career in adult education and how he uses it to frame antiracism as an educational endeavor we must all undertake, both individually and collectively. Simon and Jasper ask questions about Stephen’s upcoming book, Becoming a White Antiracist, and about the work he is currently undertaking as Antioch’s Distinguished Scholar.
Pre-order Becoming a White Antiracist here.
Read the recent Common Thread article on Stephen Brookfield, Adult Ed Reformer and Anti-Racist Scholar Stephen Brookfield Joins Antioch as Distinguished Scholar.
More about Stephen Brookfield:
Stephen D. Brookfield (PhD) has been a leader in the field of continuing education for 40 years. His overall project is to help people learn to think critically about the dominant ideologies they have internalized and how these can be challenged. His twentieth book – Becoming a White Antiracist – co-authored with Mary Hess, will be published by Stylus Publishers in Spring 2021. Stephen is also a member of The 99ers, a punk rock band, whose music you can find wherever you get your music. Visit stephenbrookfield.com to learn more.
Recorded February 10, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released March 3, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University, co-hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and Simon Javan Okelo, and edited by Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:00:07] Jasper Nighthawk: Time is our seed field. Today, we sow it with causes so future generations will reap the harvest of effects.
[00:00:22] Simon Javan Okelo: Thank you for being here with us today. My name is Simon Javan Okelo and you are listening to The Seed Field podcast presented to you by Antioch University. I am supported here by my co-host Jasper Nighthawk. Jasper, would you please introduce our guest?
[00:00:40] Jasper Nighthawk: I would love to, Simon. We’re so lucky to have on the show today the scholar and writer, Stephen Brookfield. Stephen is an important thinker and a prolific writer who has spent much of his long career contributing to the cause of adult education, the idea that higher education should be available to non-traditional populations and learners. Over a three-decade career, he has helped define disciplines, he’s received multiple international awards and honorary doctorates and he’s published dozens of books. Just last year, he came to work here at Antioch University where we’re happy to have him as a distinguished scholar. We’re happy to have you here, Stephen. Welcome to The Seed Field podcast.
[00:01:22] Stephen Brookfield: Well, thank you so much, guys. I’m very pleased to be able to do this.
[00:01:27] Jasper: Well, we most wanted to have you on The Seed Field podcast today because of your more recent work giving talks, leading trainings, and writing books about the struggle for social justice. You’ve written compellingly about the interplay of race in education and the concept of anti-racism. I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of your latest book, which actually hasn’t come out yet, called Becoming a White Anti-Racist. And the idea and practice of anti-racism is so important today as our country and, here at Antioch, our institution grapples in new ways with past and present racial oppression.
So, I wanted to ask you to start off, you grew up in England and you came to the US, New York City, as a young man. In the UK, power and oppression are much more distributed along class lines than racial ones. I was hoping that you could tell us your story of coming to understand the centrality of racism both politically and culturally here in the US.
[00:02:33] Stephen: Yes, that’s an excellent question. Thank you for leading off with that. Yes, I did grow up in England and you’re absolutely right. When you talk about structural oppression and how systems and institutions marginalize people, the first point of analysis is always social class. I was born in a very working-class inner-city part of Liverpool. I grew up as, I think, a lot of English people did with a highly attuned radar about what it means to be working class, and then to move into the middle class, and how the upper class live in a universe completely separate from the rest of us. That was the framework that I grew up with.
Certainly, of course, I knew of our history of imperialism and colonialism. As a student, I was in demonstrations when South African rugby teams from the then Apartheid South Africa would come. I had some awareness of race, but it really wasn’t until I got to the States and particularly New York, I think that being in New York was a fantastic time for me. I spent 10 years there. I had to work with a much more multi-racial group than I had been used to.
Mostly in my practice in England, I had worked with overwhelmingly white groups, and here, the groups I was working with at Columbia University where I’ve had a position at teacher’s college, they were still predominantly white, but the representation of people of color was much higher than I had been used to.
They started asking me questions. I remember in 1982, in one of my first courses, an African American woman came up to me after class and said, “Whenever I say anything, you just smile and nod, but you never say anything.” I had been operating under an assumption, I think, 40 years ago that a lot of whites have, which is the way to bring voices of color into the conversation is for you to exercise self-censorship.
Right away, she immediately challenged this and she said, “When you stay quiet, I don’t know what that means. Does that mean that what I’m saying is not worth commenting on? Is it wrong? Do you not understand me? Because, without a response from you, I have no way of gauging whether I’m communicating with you.” That was a question in ’82 that was very important for me to think about. In a way, it was-
[00:05:26] Jasper: It’s such a gift when somebody challenges you like that.
[00:05:27] Stephen: Yes, it really was. It was and it set me on this path of rethinking a lot of assumptions about my own white identity and questioning exactly my self-concept as a good white person on the right side of history who didn’t see race and all the typical ways that whites often think about this topic.
[00:05:52] Simon: Thank you so much, Stephen. It’s amazing just to travel the journey of your experiences globally really around this topic from New York, Columbia, South Africa, and looking through your bibliography, it’s in the 2000’s that you start to publish books like Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice and The Handbook for Race and Adult Education: A Resource for Dialogue on Racism. Was there some inciting event that caused you to make this turn in your career?
[00:06:26] Stephen: Thanks, Simon. I think that in the ’90s, a lot of things happened around my engagement with race. I helped design a doctoral program in Chicago and I was an adjunct faculty member of that doctoral program. We had an emphasis in the doctoral program on dealing with race. We had an Afro-centric module and cohort. So, I frequently taught with two black women. One was an Afro-centric theorist and one was a critical race theorist. Talk about a gift.
In the ’90s, this was at the forefront of my consciousness, but I think like most people, I had a real reluctance to go public with anything on race because one of the things that I think stymies us as whites is that we have an incredible fear of saying the wrong thing and of seeming to appear at naive or racist. Because we feel we’re not qualified to talk about race because we’re white, therefore in our minds, we don’t have a racial identity. It took me about 10 years or so of thinking and talking before I felt I was ready to start putting pen to paper on this.
In about 2002, 2003, I wrote a couple of papers on how adult education was a whitewashed field and how we could racialize the discourse of adult education to be in favor of other racial groups. I think it was working with colleagues of color. It opens you up to the reality, that for them, everything is seen through the lens of race. I remember someone saying to me in about 1992, a black colleague, my female colleague saying, “Stephen, the one thing you need to remember is that I view everything through the lens of race.” That was another pivotal moment for me. And then as you say, I started to write in the 2000s about it.
[00:08:47] Simon: Thank you. As a black man listening to your response and also being familiar with your work through the research for our conversation today, I just want you to know that I appreciate the courage that you’ve taken to tackle this work head on the way you have, and also I want to add a question here. How do you see working adult learning and pedagogy leading to this work?
[00:09:13] Stephen: I think we live clearly in a complex multi-racial world. We’re going to be a minority-majority country in the states before too long. So, dealing with racial differences is increasingly something that adults cannot ignore. I guess you can be in some white rural enclave and never have an interaction with a person of color, but that is going to become increasingly difficult.
Those of us who are in education and learning to be adult educators and learning to be leaders, it seems to me that the top project that we need is learning how to normalize the conversation around race so that every meeting that we have in a school or college or any other organization, as we go through the agenda items for the meeting, each one comes up, one of the first questions we ask is what are the racial dynamics surrounding this, or what racially grounded perspectives are omitted from here? What have we missed?
Now Habermas says- Jürgen Habermas the German critical theorist – says that the chief learning project of adulthood is to engage in communicative action with others. It seems to me, to engage in communicative action to try and see something from another person’s point of view, reach a common understanding, learn how to live with the fact that there are different realities in the world, that project has to be one of the chief projects of life for contemporary adults and particularly learning to live with racial difference, and to understand for me as a white person, as I say, that for my friends and colleagues of color, everything is seen through the lens of race.
Now, I don’t see hardly anything through the lens of race, or I didn’t use to. So becoming aware of the primacy of racial identity as a way of framing how you experience and understand the world and realizing that a lot of people in my institution and my students and my colleagues who are a BIPOC saw and experienced the same things that I saw and experienced, but in a very different way, I can’t think of anything that’s a more significant adult learning project than that.
[00:11:53] Jasper: I love the way that you put that and your suggestion that whenever we have a meeting or we come together to make decisions about any of a dozen or a million different topics that we ask as one of the first questions, “Well, how does this affect people of different races? How does our country’s legacy of racism come into this decision that we’re taking?”
Yet, I’ve seen so much resistance to that. Most recently, I really saw this around the decision of how the coronavirus vaccine would be rolled out. There were questions that the FDA had an expert panel of ethicists weighing in on who should get the first doses. One of the factors that they asked, which is a real step forward if you ask me, is, “Well, how will this impact people of color? How will this impact communities that have historically been oppressed?”
[00:12:53] Stephen: Right.
[00:12:54] Jasper: There was a tremendous amount of pushback against that. How do you help people to see the importance of that question without being immediately resistant to it?
[00:13:05] Stephen: You can’t. That’s the short and easy answer. (Jasper chuckles) It seems to me the nature of this work, the nature of the beast, is that there will be a lot of pushback. It’s differential depending on where a particular group is, but my operating assumption is that I will be mistrusted both by people of color and also by whites, that most of the people I’m talking to will see any training as unnecessary, they’ll be cynical and skeptical about it. They’ll just think the institution is doing it to make themselves look good or to meet some diversity requirements.
In the absence of their knowing me, they absolutely should be incredibly suspicious of me. I don’t try, anyway, not to take this personally. Obviously, some of it gets through, but if you understand the dynamics of adult learning, particularly around any transformative learning and, I think, rethinking your racial identity and what that means for how you live, that is a very transformative learning project, particularly for whites who have grown up not seeing whiteness as a thing. That is going to induce a lot of fear and uncertainty and confusion and people will range from being skeptical to being hostile to it.
I find, in my work, I very early on create the opportunity for the hostility and the cynicism to be expressed. So I will always kick off a training event with an anonymous poll, where people choose from different responses about how they feel as they’re coming into this conversation or training around race and I always put in options like, “I’m fearful”, “I’m cynical”, “I’m skeptical”, “This is a waste of time”, “This is a politically correct stratagem to make the institution look good,” “These conversations won’t go anywhere and nothing will happen.”
And then just acknowledge that those are very legitimate responses because, in my experience, a lot of diversity work doesn’t go anywhere and it is window dressing. It’s designed to deflect challenges from the outside towards an institution. A race incident breaks out on campus, gets reported in the press. Then the institution swiftly rushes out an anti-racist proposal and reaffirms the dignity of everybody on campus and all the rest of it. I think a lot of that is done just to re-establish that legitimacy. It’s not really dealing with white supremacy on campus.
What I realized quite early is that the problem of race and anti-racism is not the same as inclusion and diversity. The problem of race, at least for me, is the unacknowledged whiteness, the way that a white supremacist idea is embedded in the way the institution runs in its day-to-day practices in the language that is used in its assessment formats in the standards for performance appraisal that are in place for staff and also for faculty.
[00:16:46] Jasper: That makes so much sense to me that you see becoming an anti-racist as like a major adult learning experience. I’m hoping that we could back up just a little bit. Your forthcoming book is called Becoming a White Anti-racist and you co-wrote it with Mary Hess, you and she have given many of these trainings. Right?
[00:17:05] Stephen: Yeah.
[00:17:06] Jasper: So I was hoping you could just define for us this term “anti-racist” and I also am hoping you can tell us why your title says becoming a white anti-racist. Why the white part is so important.
[00:17:20] Stephen: That’s a packed question, Jasper. (Jasper chuckles) I’ll take the last part first becoming a white anti-racist. I think that when you look at books like Kendi’s book on How to Be An Anti-racist, most books on racism, Me and White Supremacy, are written by people of color about what it is to live a racialized life, where your identity has caused the rest of the world to define you in a deficit way and how you move through structures that structurally disadvantage you, and of course, that is incredibly important.
But I come back to the point that the real problem of race is whites’ collusion, unacknowledged, an unwitting collusion in a white supremacist system where the notion that white identity means that you are somehow more intelligent, that you should be in the control of the reigns of power, that you should be the one who makes decisions for others, that leadership should look white because whites are just innately superior. And by connection, people of color, if we want to use that way of bifurcating, are emotional, volatile and therefore should not be trusted to make decisions for the rest of us. And people of color also have a tendency to be unpredictable, to be overly emotional, and to have a propensity for violence.
[00:19:07] Jasper: That sounds to me like a great description of just unacknowledged racism. So what does it mean – I think a lot of people have this vision that they themselves are simply not racist, “Oh, I don’t actually believe that about people of color.” But what does it mean to be anti-racist?
[00:19:25] Stephen: Anti-racist means to name whiteness as the problem of race, to focus on the way that this idea of white supremacy is embedded in institutional practices and habits. That’s why I drill down not just to curriculum development, not just to mission statements but to actual specific practices. How do we run our meetings? How do we ensure that considering racial dynamics is something that’s linked to every agenda item? How do we rewrite performance appraisal for our annual performance appraisal, so there’s an attention to understanding your racial identity and to challenging white supremacy becomes a major factor in a positive review?
I always try to get across the idea, as many people are- that racism is not individual actions, individual expressions, and behaviors. It is that, but really racism is a system that structurally advantages whites. That means that if you’re white, you don’t have to face a lot of other things that people of color have to face, you don’t have to think about that stuff, it’s not in your worldview. Racism is the institutional system that needs to be unpacked, and if we get too diverted into stuff around implicit bias and microaggressions which are a legitimate part of anti-racist training, but if we just think that addressing racism is addressing our own biases and being careful about what we say and making sure everybody gets a chance to speak in a meeting, that’s not really addressing racism. It’s helpful, but racism is the structure.
Racism is the fact that a white supremacist idea is at the heart of this country’s culture and has permeated its institutions, Antioch included, so that whiteness becomes the natural, normal way of seeing things – a white view of the world which tends to emphasize a lot of individualism. For example, we assess students often individually. We don’t assess group projects, or if you’re a faculty member and you publish a co-authored article, it’s not seen as important as an individual article. Or if you teach, co-teaching is seen as, “Okay, you only have 50% of the course load because you’re with another colleague,” when in fact all those things are way more difficult.
Now, that comes from I think a white perspective. If you think of Africana philosophy and the idea that identity is inextricably linked to the collective, I am because we are, that’s something that rarely gets externalized. It’s of course assumed, we’ll interview people individually, we’ll assess their work individually. A higher education classroom is one in which, yes, there are group projects, but ultimately you’re all assessed on a person-by-person basis.
That’s, to me, something that’s embedded in white epistemology, and it’s not set out to be inherently racist. What it means is that if you’ve grown up in a Hmong family where you’re used to doing homework around the table with your peers or your siblings, or if you’ve grown up in a tribal indigenous culture in which groupness is valued way above the individual accomplishment, then your way of representing yourself and showing the world what you have learned and are learning is not open to you. You are forced into this particular model that tends to exist in higher education.
It just drives me crazy when I try and say we need to have oral forms of assessment, not just text-based forms of assessment, we need to privilege orality and we also need to privilege groupness because these are modes of being that in a white framework tend not to be acknowledged as very important.
[00:24:10] Simon: For me, Stephen, it’s just a privilege to listen to you speak because I feel that what you have to say is so important and it’s not said enough. You’re reminding me so much about my tribe, Luo. I am from the Luo tribe in Kenya, the group dynamics, and I was completely taken away by it – but I just feel lucky right now, and I want to go a little back into Becoming a White Anti-racist, which is your forthcoming book, and look into Chapter 2 where you quote Ijeoma Oluo who writes, “If you are white in a white supremacist society, you are a racist.” In my experience, a lot of people flinch, reflexively from any acknowledgment that they might be racist. You talk about this in the book. Now the question that I have now is, how do provocative statements like Oluo ‘s help expand people’s understanding?
[00:25:15] Stephen: It’s a great question, Simon. I’ve thought a lot about this myself, and as an educator, the dynamics of how you introduce powerful and contentious, and potentially transformative ideas and activities is very delicate and there is no one-size-fits-all. A lot of how I would do this would depend on what I knew about the particular group that I’m was working with. I understand Oluo to be saying, because there is a white supremacist racist system in place just by the fact of you being white, irrespective of how economically underprivileged you are, you still have an inbuilt structural advantage. You still don’t have to worry about certain things merely because of the amount of melatonin in your skin or your phenotype.
To say to a white person, as an opening statement, “You are racist,” can really backfire because people assume when they hear that word, “You are racist,” they interpret it in this framework of individual behavior. They hear you saying, “You go around spraying racial epithets, deliberately trying to diminish or degrade or dehumanize anyone who is not white around you.” A lot of whites will say, “No way do I do that.”
My preferred way of getting to this dynamic is, first of all, to deal with “what is racism” and emphasizing always, this is a learned behavior that’s embedded in the culture, that’s embedded in the systems and institutions that we move through. Therefore, not to have learned this way of looking at the world, particularly if you’re white would be incredibly remarkable.
You have learned defacto a racist view, a white supremacist view of naming the world. You would never say that because that’s not how it’s framed in your head. To you, it’s just normality, and reality, but if we look at it that the system and the world that you move through is deliberately created to underscore and continue the superiority of white people, then I think it’s easier for people to accept this. “Okay, I see what you mean. I am racist,” thing.
The other thing I’d just say quickly on this, for me, a basic principle of any anti-racist work, particularly for a white person, if you’re doing it, is that you have the responsibility to use your own autobiography and your own narrative and to talk publicly about how you enact racism on a daily basis and how you struggle with trying to uncover all this stuff as I do and how I still feel, using myself as an example, as a complete novice and telling people that making so-called mistakes is basically the nature of the game. Don’t go into this thinking that as a white person, you’re going to frame everything so perfectly that you will evade any hint of racism. That’s just not the way that it works and that’s not how it works for me.
I often tell people that there are two ways you can do anti-racist work: imperfectly or not at all. Those are your only options. So don’t get hung up on doing this correctly because that will freeze you to such an extent that you’ll be afraid of taking any first steps or of saying anything. You’ll constantly be trying to guard your back against doing or sounding racist.
[00:29:14] Simon: It’s just wonderful how you define it clearly. At least for someone like me who is seeking to understand how to learn and then communicate it to others, but I just wanted to also take us a few steps ahead. Let’s say, someone has received the training, especially around what anti-racism really is, what racism really is, and they’ve acknowledged the unavoidable racism. What happens next? What do you think should happen next to help them stay the course?
[00:29:46] Stephen: I think now you try and make sure that that acknowledgment happens in a group context, so it’s a dawning of group awareness. I think it’s good that people read Oluo and Kendi and whomever else on race by themselves, but really, again, going back to transformative learning and adult learning, the most significant change I’m convinced is rooted in groupness. If you have a group of other people on this journey with you all sharing how difficult it is and their struggles and trying to realize the struggle is the nature. Struggle does not mean you’re failing, struggle basically means you’re succeeding because that’s the nature of the beast.
Having that group support is really really crucial, and then as a group, I think you have to move to- “All right. What does it mean to be an ally? What does it mean to try and dismantle the racism that we see around us? What does it mean to name white supremacy when we see it at Antioch or any other institution or community, or in our own behaviors?”
Then there are so many different things that you can do that this would be a whole podcast on itself, the nature of being an ally. Then you start to think of the institutional change, the times of being a support. I think one of the most effective ways that whites can show support is on a Black Lives Matter demonstration when whites form the outer phalanx of the demonstration so that the police are initially coming up against white people. Therefore, the police now have a decision. Are we going to beat up white people with the cameras on us, as we try and go into the crowd and get what we see as the Black Lives Matter black activists?
There are ways that you can support that you take direction from people of color. Then there are other ways I think in predominantly white institutions where there aren’t that many people of color where you need to take the lead in naming racism and white supremacy, and each multiple contexts all have different strategies.
My overall advice to people is always, focus on the structures. Don’t think that if you change someone’s mind, who’s in a position of authority, that that has done with it, that’s dealt with the problem because that person will leave or will be replaced by somebody else. What you need to focus on are the structures and the policies that are in place and just keep rigorously drilling down.
[00:32:37] Simon: Hi, this is Simon speaking. We are getting close to the end of our time with Stephen, and I would love to let you know that The Seed Field podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s and your master’s or study for a doctoral degree with us here at Antioch University, and join a community with a 160-year long commitment to social justice. Win one for humanity. Learn more at antioch.edu.
[00:33:20] Jasper: Stephen, you’re now in this new role, you’re actually our first distinguished scholar that we have had here at Antioch University. You’re working with education programs across our six campuses, sharing your expertise to whatever programs can benefit from it. I wanted to ask how you see this role and what is most exciting about it for you.
[00:33:41] Stephen: Well, I think two things are particularly exciting about it. One is that I have known of Antioch for a long time and always been attracted to the student-centeredness that the institution proclaims and the connection to positive social change in the world and social justice. Of course, a lot of institutions claim those things, whether they actually live them out is another matter entirely. I’ve always been attracted to Antioch and admired what you do.
The exciting thing about it is precisely what you described, Jasper. Each week is different. I don’t know what unit I’m going to be working with, who I’m going to be talking to, what program I’m going to try and be helping to develop, what professional development that I’ll be doing. I’ve pretty much said yes to everything so far. I don’t know if that’s a tenable situation, but I love that variety and I’ve always seen myself as a teacher, as being a helper of learning. That’s my shorthand definition for what teaching is, you’re helping learning. So any way in which I can be helpful to people is great and I will try and do that.
[00:35:04] Simon: Thank you so much. Jasper, could I just take this chance to thank Stephen? It means a lot to us and we’re excited here at Antioch to have you really, but as we are closing up, I just wanted you to share with us, we know that you’re a punk rocker, and for over a decade, you’ve been recording and playing shows as a frontman for The 99ers. (Stephen laughs) How does punk rock tie in with your scholarship and activism, if at all?
[00:35:31] Stephen: Well, I think that the short answer is it doesn’t really because as a band, The 99ers doesn’t play a lot of political songs. Occasionally that creeps in, but we’re more likely to be singing about Godzilla than Donald Trump although we do have a track out there called Trump Land. For me, it’s just the visceral side of my life. I think as an academic, you live in your head a lot, and certainly, emotion comes into your life, but when I’m writing and playing and performing and rehearsing, it draws on a completely different side of me and it just makes me feel very much in the moment. I think as academics, you can become distanced and you don’t live in the moment. You’re thinking about articles you want to write, books you want to read, but there’s nothing that beats for me, crashing out an A power cord and signaling that now we’re going to rock and roll. That’s just a visceral joy that I crave.
[00:36:41] Jasper: That’s so important too in a life.
[00:36:44] Stephen: Yes, absolutely.
[00:36:46] Jasper: Well, thank you so much for joining us here, Stephen. It’s been such a pleasure to read your work and engage with you, and now have the chance to talk with you about it. Your book Becoming a White Anti-racist is coming out from Stylist Press this spring. Do you have a release date for that?
[00:37:03] Stephen: I know it’s April. I don’t have an actual date yet.
[00:37:08] Jasper: Well I hope that you have the chance to go give some readings from that, even if in this pandemic time, that has to be virtually, and thank you for the good work that you’re doing both in the world and here at Antioch.
[00:37:20] Simon: Thank you very much, Stephen.
[00:37:21] Stephen: My pleasure. Thanks for all of your questions. I appreciate them.
[00:37:31] Jasper: You can read the first four chapters of Becoming a White Anti-racist at stephenbrookfield.com. You can listen to The 99ers song about Godzilla by searching for Godzilla’s a Punk, wherever you get your music.
You can find out more about Antioch’s education programs by going to antioch.edu, and you can find show notes, transcripts, and links from this episode by visiting theseedfield.org.
The Seed Field podcast is a project of Antioch University.
Our editor is Lauren Instenes, guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:38:19] Simon: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. I hope you have a beautiful day, and don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a course and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field podcast.