September 25, 2023

An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People?

It's coming to Traverse City in January.
By Clark Miller | Dec. 29, 2018

Could the dearth of people of color in northern Michigan mean we let down our guard against institutionalized and individual acts of racism? A series of two-day workshops beginning in January at Neahtawanta Research and Education Center will tackle those issues with help from instructors from Allies for Change, a downstate justice group.
There is a difference between these two types of racism.

African American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver cited the bombing of a black church (an act that killed five children) as an example of individual racism. He defined as institutionalized racism the deaths of hundreds of black babies in Montgomery, Alabama, each year due to poor nutrition, inadequate shelter, and lack of access to medical care.

Whether outright violence or malign neglect, the results are the same.
The Northern Expressinterviewed Rev. Jody Betten of New Waves United Church of Christ to find out more about Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People. The church is sponsoring the series with the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center in Traverse City, where the series will be held.

Northern Express: What is an example of institutionalized racism here in Northern Michigan?

Rev. Jody Betten: One that comes to mind is when people need to hire someone. If the name on the resume suggests an African American or Muslim is applying, that sometimes works against hiring that person.

Express: You’ve said workshops like Doing Our Own Work are necessary. In what way?

Betten: Yes. My perspective is that we’re always going to have to work on this. Otherwise we won’t understand how race influences culture.

Express: Your frame of reference is as a Christian. What about those who don’t have that religious context? Surely, they, too, can work to understand and combat institutionalized racism.

Betten: I agree. It’s about our shared humanity. I want everyone to feel safe and secure. To the extent that people don’t have that, we have work to do. To a large extent, we white people have the power.

Express: Racial and religious hate crimes are on the rise in recent years. Why?

As a pastor, I don’t declare political alliances. But to the extent that any leader engages in the type of vitriol and stereotyping as Trump does, it doesn’t help us. But I don’t want to stereotype the conversation. I want to open the conversation. Let’s explore it together. The workshop is about identifying racism as it happens.

Express: Do you see positive developments currently?

Betten: The “gift” of the current administration is that we have a whole lot more people saying this is not right, it’s not the way our country should go. And I look at the recent elections, where women and people of color are calling the shots at the national level more than ever. Maybe that’s a sign we’re moving in the right direction and that white people are realizing they don’t have to be in control to get it right.

Express: Racial injustice is not solely a black-white issue. It has many hues.

Betten: Yes, and I sometimes wonder why members of [the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians] and the Hispanic community [Up North] seem so hidden, at least to me.

Express: We don’t hear much about it, but activists for the Hispanic community say recent arrests here by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have pushed people underground. They’re scared.

Betten: Yes. They don’t want to stand out.

Express: It seems pretty easy to feel like you’re not a racist when there are so few people of color in your town and region.

Betten: Pretty much no one wants to live in a racist way. But racism is in the air. We need to ask what keeps [people of color] from being my neighbors, from being involved. When you’ve lived alongside African Americans in Chicago or Grand Rapids, for example, and then you come here, it can be a little jarring.

Express: White folks willing to pay to attend an anti-racism seminar seem unlikely to be racists. Might this be a case of “preaching to the choir?”

Betten: That’s quite possible. But it’s an opportunity to learn more. We can get complacent and think we’re doing good things but still not think how policies affect other communities. The purpose here is to explore how our whiteness contributes to the status quo. I believe that change happens when we’re challenged with new information.
Allies for Change explains the program this way: “At this time in our nation, we are witnessing an alarming resurgence of white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence. It is imperative that those of us who are white do the deep work required to claim and embody an anti-racist identity, understand the privilege we carry, and interrupt racism where we live, work, study, and volunteer.”

For information about Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People, contact Rev. Jody Betten at (616) 706-3549 or at


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