Combating Racism After Charlottesville NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with educator and activist Brittany Packnett about how people can help fight racism and white supremacy in their daily lives.

Combating Racism After Charlottesville

Combating Racism After Charlottesville

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NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with educator and activist Brittany Packnett about how people can help fight racism and white supremacy in their daily lives.


One day after President Trump condemned the white supremacist groups who marched on Charlottesville, he changed course again and spread the blame for the violence on the counterprotesters.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent.

MARTIN: Those remarks are stirring up a new round of criticism directed at the president, even from leading members of his own party. And it's provoking old questions about how Americans do and do not talk about race. Recently, I spoke with Brittany Packnett. She's an educator and activist, and she served on President Obama's 21st Century Policing task force.

What do you think has changed in this country since Charlottesville?

BRITTANY PACKNETT: I think a lot of people are now awakened to the fact that the terror that has lived under the surface for so long was never fully gone. Formerly overt forms of racism, white supremacy and oppression, once socially unacceptable, are now socially acceptable again.

MARTIN: Now that the racism and the hate, as you say, is out in the open, is that provoking different kinds of conversations? Have you seen a shift in how people are talking about white supremacy and racism?

PACKNETT: I have seen a shift, primarily amongst white people. A lot of my white friends and people on my timeline have been writing about the ways in which they've been passively allowing this culture to exist and need to take a much more active role and not just - not being racist - right? - but being actively antiracist.

MARTIN: So all too often, the onus to explain racism and the prescriptions for it falls on people of color. How are you, as a black woman, handling this moment?

PACKNETT: This moment, as a person of color - as a woman of color is really about protecting my energy. So I'm very careful about the images and news stories that I allow to come into my space. I elect when to educate folks on this and when to pull back and allow others to do it.

MARTIN: You talk about your white friends and how they seem to have a different level of revelation after the events in Charlottesville. Does that get frustrating for you - to have to wait for something like this to happen for white people in your life or the larger white American population to start to feel like they need to try to make change in the ways that they can?

PACKNETT: It certainly has the potential to be frustrating. It shouldn't continue to take these cataclysmic events in order to move people. But I will say that no one is born fully awake to the issues of systemic oppression and racism and how institutions perpetuate oppression on everyday people. And so if something wakes you up, once you're awake, you have to be responsible to stay woke, as we say, to remain awake and to choose every single day to engage in this issue.

MARTIN: So how do you do that? Because a lot of people watched what happened in Charlottesville and felt a real sense of not just despair but helplessness. When you think about combating systemic racism, it's hard to imagine how one person changes that. So what do you say to those people?

PACKNETT: The first thing that I would remind people to do is to not get discouraged - that this actually is conquerable and something that we can take action on. It can be very discouraging to be taking on something so big, so massive, so destructive. And so to - get in community with other people. It might be a book group. It might be you and your neighbors. It might be members of your family. But get together and figure out how you're going to work on this together.

Educate yourself as to the fact that racism is not only real but that it's more than extremes like the KKK or even the individual, everyday slights. There are tools like Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack" that gives you 50 ways in which white privilege can manifest in your life. But awareness, you know, isn't enough. So we have to be aware, and we have to be aware so that we can be actively antiracist.

MARTIN: What does that look like? I mean, I imagine a lot of this is just being willing and able to confront racism where it pops up, where it might pop up - in your life, in your family, in your circle of friends.

PACKNETT: Being antiracist is absolutely about confronting racism in the moment where it pops up. It's about making sure that when you see a colleague of color being spoken over, that you acknowledge that in the moment. It means making sure that, if you're hiring for people, that you have an adequately diverse pool, a pool that would allow you to potentially be hiring a person of color. It means not just correcting your racist relatives, which is a very popular phrase right now, but also checking yourself when you see a black man walking down the street and you decide to cross it. Having the dialogue within yourself to say, why did I have that reaction, and how can I hold myself accountable to my own biases and disrupting those? When someone tells a racist joke and someone is offended, if the response is, well, it's just a joke, that's a covert form of racism. We need to make covert forms of racism as socially unacceptable as what we saw in Charlottesville.

MARTIN: Brittany Packnett, educator and activist, thank you so much for your time.

PACKNETT: Thank you.

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