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Empowering People of Color to Dismantle Racism

by Tom Hanlon / Dec 7, 2022

EPSY professor Helen Neville

Helen A. Neville has spent her long and storied career battling racism and its devastating effects on African Americans and other people of color.

Through Neville’s research, her teaching, and her efforts in a number of leadership roles and capacities, she has directly and indirectly educated and empowered thousands of people—of all colors—in the realities of structural racism and ways for Blacks and other people of color to not only cope with racist attitudes, acts, and structures, but to heal and thrive in a world where racial injustice and oppression are the norm.

Neville’s work has not gone unnoticed. The professor of educational psychology at the College of Education and of African American Studies has received the Association of Black Psychologists’ Distinguished Psychologist of the Year Award, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Minority Fellowship Award, the Dalmas Taylor Award for Outstanding Research Contribution, and numerous other awards. Her leadership posts include serving as president of the APA’s Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race and being a Provost Fellow and participating in the CIC/Big 10 Academic Alliance Academic Leadership Academy. Before coming to the University of Illinois in 2001, she was on faculty at the University of Missouri, where she cofounded and codirected the Center for Multicultural Research, Training, and Consultation.

The Need for Research in Racism

Neville continues to press on in her research in color-blind racial ideology and racial identity attitudes because structural and interpersonal racism are still embedded in American society.

On the surface, color-blind racial ideology—the belief that a person’s race or ethnicity shouldn’t influence how that person is treated in society—can sound like an equitable and just principle.

But that holds true only if society itself is equitable and just. If not, then such an ideology perpetuates status quo and denies the realities and outcomes of living in a racist society.

“We live in a society where one of the dominant ideologies is to deny, distort, and minimize the existence of racism, which prevents us from naming the root causes of our own societal ills,” says Neville. “If we’re unable to name the root causes, then our interventions will fall short, and people will blame minoritized groups themselves for any type of disparity.”

Neville notes that there is a branch of color-blind racial ideology (CBRI) that says “I don’t see what color you are.” She is focused on the people who use the ideology to distort and minimize structural racism.

“What we’ve found is people who minimize or deny institutional racism are more likely to replicate interpersonal racism and support institutional discriminatory practices,” she says.

Examples of institutional racism, Neville says, include “pathologizing a client for things and experiences that are rooted in racial discrimination, or having doctors who believe in racist stereotypes believe that Blacks have thicker skins and thus should be treated differently or can tolerate pain differently.” People who deny and distort racism are more likely to support policies and legislation that are anti-critical race theory, she adds.

“If children aren’t exposed to the real, accurate history of racial oppression and resistance, they will internalize the inaccurate trope that we live in a democratic, racially-just society, and that will continue to perpetuate inequalities because no one is dealing with the injustices,” Neville says.

Those injustices, Neville says, greatly overshadow any progress made to close the racial divide that began when the first enslaved Africans were brought to present-day St. Augustine, Florida, by Spanish settlers in 1565.

“I’m reminded of the work of Jennifer Richeson [psychology professor at Yale University], who wrote about the myth of American racial progress, and of Carol Anderson [Emory University professor of African American Studies] and her book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” Neville says. “She writes about when we have particular advancements in society, there are moments of retrenchment where people take a step back. This is how systems respond to racial advancements.”

Exacerbating and prolonging the problem is that many people of color buy into color-blind racial ideology. Doing so can “harm them as individuals, as well as the groups that they belong to,” Neville says. “How does it hurt them? Let’s say I tell my children that race is not an issue. That it doesn’t exist. Then they have a negative encounter with the police or with a boss that might be rooted in racial oppression. They don’t have the language or coping skills to deal with that, so they internalize it and it can have a negative psychological impact on them.”

Educators Play a Critical Role

Neville believes that educators from K-16 play a critical role in moving away from color-blind racial ideology. “Educators need to develop a sense of cultural humility and a cultural competency, which includes exploration of their own attitudes and socialization,” she says. “They need to teach children and adults about the accurate history of race and racism, about the accurate histories of the contributions of minoritized people, particularly people of color, both inside and outside the US. Many times, in history books there is little inclusion or it is not incorporated into the actual history. It’s like this is a separate history. Educators need to understand power and privilege, and need the skillsets to implement effective strategies that humanize people who have been minoritized, and to implement this awareness and knowledge in educational spaces.”

Beyond those roles, Neville says that educators need to find ways to develop ethnocultural empathy among students.

“That can be particularly hard,” she acknowledges. “But educators need to humanize the stories of people of color, to present stories that counter the dominant narrative and that highlight the strengths and resistance of folks.

“We need to incorporate these lessons into every class so that students can develop racial literacy, which is their ability to understand how these systems operate in society. And that is critical for us to move away from CBRI.”

To that end, Neville believes that the accurate histories of minoritized people need to be incorporated into teacher training—“Not just as a separate class, but integrated into every aspect of teacher education training. This is critical,” she says. “But again, knowing it cognitively is not enough. There are things we have to work on in ourselves, ways we’ve been socialized in this system that we need to unlearn, in addition to the cognitive work.”

Learning Positive and Powerful Messages

Black people and other people of color need to hear many types of messages, Neville says—messages of truth that will ultimately be a part of the healing process. She ticks off three of those messages.

“One: Expect that you’re going to experience racial discrimination in your life. Here’s what it is, and here’s how to prepare for it,” she says. “Two: Have a sense of pride and understanding of your cultural heritage. Learn the stories and histories of resistance and contributions to literature, to math, to democracy, and so on. Three: Know that others don’t define you. You are a unique individual. You define yourself.”