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University of Minnesota Extension

Understanding and confronting racial injustice

As youth development professionals, volunteers, parents and guardians, it's our responsibility to help young people develop a mindset of being responsible for themselves, their communities and the world. It is also our responsibility to develop that same mindset in ourselves, which includes understanding and confronting racial injustice. That in turn requires us to recognize how our identities relate to others', including recognizing any privilege that we may benefit from. Then we can work systematically to create a community and society where power is more balanced.

Start with ourselves

Supporting and following youth as they become positive change makers in this world starts by knowing ourselves and how our identities, biases and behaviors affect the way we engage with others. It also requires taking care of ourselves and fostering allyship.

  • Inform your practice. For people who identify as white and want to deepen their understanding and work against racism, Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources is organized by stages with next steps, including resources for youth. 
  • Address implicit bias. Our unconscious judgments can have powerful impacts on the way we see and interact with the world, and these are intimately woven into racism. Individuals can take a test to learn more about personal biases. Then it is important to work on mitigating those biases.
  • Practice self care. Confronting racial injustice can be exhausting and overwhelming, so it’s important that we take care of ourselves. Self care will look different if you are a white person or are Black, Indigenous or a person of color (BIPOC). In many cases, caring for our own wellbeing is deeply connected with tending the community’s wellbeing. It must not be an excuse for tuning out or abandoning the work.
  • Find allies. Being with others who share an identity helps fight the sense of isolation, discomfort and marginalization, whether in terms of race or gender, or in terms of experience or point of view. Many have found affinity groups to be a helpful strategy for creating a space of support.
  • Learn to be an ally. If you are white, and you want to confront racial injustice, learn how you can be more attuned to the effects of racism. Being an ally involves listening, confronting racism as it comes up and working to deconstruct it. It also means respecting BIPOC wisdom and leadership, and proactively working to transform our racist tendencies. "Performative allyship" is not sufficient; it is not enough to post on social media or show up at a memorial, but rather each person needs to inquire about what actual impact they are having on advancing justice by taking a stand. While white people may have BIPOC friends, colleagues, or loved ones, that does not mean that they are exempt from this self-reflection, since many biases are unconscious and can be pervasive.

Engage with others

We have an opportunity and responsibility to partner with colleagues, community members and youth so that we can grow together into the leaders we so desperately need. This includes speaking and listening with care and humility. 

  • Make space for conversation. There are many conversation guides for discussing race, racism and other difficult topics. The youth-led movement DoSomething offers a guide for white people looking to start anti-racist conversations with each other. One Talk at a Time provides support for Latinx American, Asian American, African American and Black youth, along with their families, to have conversations about race and ethnicity. For non-Black people of color, this guide offers support for starting conversations regarding anti-Blackness within our respective communities. 
  • Host reflection and conversation with youth. When an event such as a police killing of an unarmed Black person occurs, it’s important to acknowledge it and invite conversation. You may consider asking for a moment of silence to acknowledge the grief and anger that people are experiencing because of current events. Provide time for people to write down their thoughts. If appropriate, invite sharing. The conversation will be a different experience if it is in a community of people who are themselves targets of racism and violence versus people who are experiencing the issue from a distance. Invite questions to get clarity on events (stick to what you know from credible sources and avoid rumor or speculation). The Anti-Defamation League’s Race Talk: Engaging Young People in Conversations about Race and Racism is a helpful resource.
  • It is never too early to start. Children begin forming their racial identity and making value judgments about race by kindergarten. This is why it is essential to begin talking with children about race and building understanding when children are young, and continuing the conversation as they grow. With young children, reading books and watching videos that address race in an age-appropriate way can be useful. 

Address systemic change

When we talk about addressing racism, it's not enough to work at an interpersonal level. We need to learn about and address systemic racism and White supremacy culture. With adults in our own lives and in our relationships with youth, we must go beyond awareness to committing to action.

  • Learn what systemic racism is. We can’t address it if we don’t know what it is. There are many resources on the subject, from introductory to more detailed.
  • Balance learning with action. Many of us are encountering realities that we’d never before considered. Perhaps you feel under-informed or ill equipped to take action. Maybe you’re afraid of making mistakes. This is understandable, but don’t let the fear of failure stop you from working for positive change today. Silence speaks volumes.
  • Create a culture of continual reflection. In order to change the system, we need a way to identify our areas of strength and growth, both individually and as organizations (e.g., Diversity and First Generation 4-H Lens, Intercultural Development Inventory). Doing so can help us make informed decisions about policies and practices that result in a more equitable system.
  • Help young people become change agents. Youth-led activism is a powerful tool for learning and development. Young people need structure, opportunity and tools to confront injustices around them. Help them raise public awareness, advocate for change, or join demonstrations and protests. Create fundraisers or implement a service-learning campaign to contribute in tangible ways. Use this guide to map our roles in social change. Teaching Tolerance’s rights and activism resources can help inspire youth to recognize and speak out against injustice.

Contribute to community healing 

The University of Minnesota's Office for Equity and Diversity has a list of resources to help our communities and each other cope, learn and recover in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. These include resources for personal well-being, community organizations that need support, Black history at the University of Minnesota and educational resources, including a list of books on race, anti-racism, and anti-Blackness. Additionally, the University's Office for Public Engagement is compiling a list of organized ways to donate, volunteer and contribute to community healing.

Authors: Kate Walker, Jessica Russo and Kathryn Sharpe

Reviewers: We thank José Fulgencio, Mindy Grant, Erin Kelly-Collins, Dianna Kennedy and Katherine Nguyen for their thoughtful reviews and contributions.

Reviewed in 2023

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