Change Communications: Naming Racism

In the current political climate where some forces are becoming even more strident in their efforts to advance racism and white supremacy and more organizers are courageously pushing to address racism head on, there are some advocates concerned about “triggering” potential supporters by bringing race (or really, racism) up in their communications.  I want to encourage you to keep naming racism in constructive ways.  Here are some lessons learned from my book Fair Game on effectively framing structural racism.
Take time to document patterns of unfairness and identify practical solutions. Research is key when developing a landscape analysis that surfaces both necessary evidence of unfairness and practical steps toward change. The campaign to shut down a juvenile “super facility” enabled a conversation on budget priorities, education, and rehabilitation. In doing so, organizers reminded the public of what was really at stake: the future of thousands of young people who deserved much better.

Every “why” leads us to a different “how.” The Right’s “why” stories are bursting with cultural and biological pathology as an explanation for everything from poverty and school failure to crime. Within this frame, individuals are personally flawed in ways that limit their success, and social problems are the result of those individual failings. When the opposition starts that old song of pathology, it inevitably leads to policies that punish individuals. Our job as progressives is to expose patterns and systems of injustice in ways that help people understand the structural roots of these issues, shifting blame away from victims. When we disrupt their frame and assert a different story, things change.

Avoid the easy trap of telling individual, episodic stories to advance the issue. Although sympathetic characters and moving stories make for gripping entertainment, they don’t advance policy agendas over the long haul. We need stories of the machinery, the institutional practices that make things unfair, creating and exacerbating the problem. Books Not Bars assembled a range of spokespeople from youth to academics to convey a more complete, compelling account of the problem. When choosing messages and spokespersons, make sure they will help illustrate why the issue matters and how things should change.

Don’t ignore those most affected. You can’t build change without building a base. A majority is built by expanding the base of supporters, starting at the core and working progressively outward. Some recent communications campaigns, including immigrant rights and affirmative action initiatives, inadvertently got caught up speaking to the opposition’s points rather than their base and likely supporters. A campaign responding to an opponent’s themes and arguments generally serves to remind people of what the opposition has to say about the issue. Books Not Bars reached out to youth and ethnic media to ensure that their communications work spoke directly to their base and supported their organizing efforts. They invested in building voice and power among those most affected by using community media to expand their base of active support for the campaign while building for future initiatives.

Be mindful of your language. As advocates we must constantly ask ourselves, “Are we speaking in terms that our constituents would recognize as a close relative of their own thoughts and dreams?” Or, are we inventing new words and ideas that neither they nor their spell-checks can recognize? Reflecting on James Scott’s idea of the “hidden transcript.”  For example, it is common knowledge that people of color are regularly hassled by police. Even prior to the public emergence of the term “Driving While Black,” talk about racist treatment by the police was pervasive in African American communities. Church leaders addressed it from the pulpit; kids talked about it in the schoolyard; emcees rapped about it in hip-hop music. When the term Driving While Black emerged, it was widely and instantly adopted because it validated a community reality that had mostly been hidden from the mainstream.

In the hidden transcript, the oppression and alienation people feel first emerges in private discourse, but effective communications reveal these experiences as part of a shared story, surfacing the larger patterns that cause people’s private pain. Supported by effective organizing and analysis, we can help shape a collective understanding of why things are wrong and how we can work concretely to make a difference.
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