“Everyone chokes up saying it at first,” says Pastor Ron Buford. “People don’t come in immediately convinced. Now people in the group say it with a lot more confidence because, you know, we begin to realize the little things we do that are biased.”
What Buford is referring to is saying, “Hello, my name is ___. And I’m a racist.”
It’s the traditional way to introduce oneself at any 12-step program—and it’s how they do it at Racists Anonymous, the group Buford started at his Congregational church in Sunnyvale, CA. RA, as he refers to it, meets weekly and has about 15 core members of varying age and race from the congregation and surrounding community. Members discuss the ways racism and bias occur in their own lives with the intent of working through a 12-step model broadly spiritual system used to treat addiction through admittance of a problem, self reflection, group sharing, mindfulness, and behavior modification.
“The 12-Step program is designed to pull us forward as we first acknowledge that we have a problem; secondly, we accept that the problem is beyond our ability to manage; and third, we turn this problem over to the Higher Power. If we do this, we will reduce the ways we continually infect succeeding generations.”
From the Racists Anonymous group’s mission statement, outlining the first three steps.
America’s slave legacy and near annihilation of native peoples, Buford believes, makes racism inescapable in our nation. He believes our goal should be to try and acknowledge that no one is exempt from prejudice and to try to live lives that express it less and less, because “as a society, it’s killing us.”
“You can’t swim without getting wet,” Buford says of nationally entrenched racism. “What I hope is that by accepting the fact that it’s ubiquitous, people can say okay, then I’m a racist too. Then a conversation can happen.” Having a place to speak safely and honestly, where everyone is admitting they have prejudice, relieves some of the pressure, Buford believes. It allows for people to realize what others are experiencing and the kind of work that needs to be done.
Buford, a black man, cites working in London as an experience that influenced his dedication to this kind of work. While living there, Buford noticed racism wasn’t directed at him the way he was used to it in America. “Even just the little things that happen every day in America as a black person. They become like a constant low grade pain,” he says, “Servers come to the table and don’t acknowledge your presence. Getting pulled over ‘driving while black.’ In London that stopped happening, because the object of their prejudice was different. They didn’t like Eastern Europeans and the Caribbean population. So I experienced watching it against others rather than against myself.” He wondered if there were any place in the world it didn’t exist at all.
When he returned to America, he started to notice the prejudice against him returned. He began to consider the nature of hate and bias stemming from difference was, at its core, primitive. “And the more I meet with the group, the more primitive it seems. Maybe it’s an anthropological need that we have in our human family for a strong high attention to external difference. But if that’s so, then it’s a holdover we just need to get rid of.”
So Buford took a cue from the AA group that meets at the church every day, right outside his office, listening to how people approach a problem they were powerless over. He saw the steps as an effective way to look inward for a solution. He started thinking he could adapt the steps to make the focus on racism instead of alcoholism.
“I started thinking in the AA way—that it’s an addiction. It’s a sickness. If we think of racism like a virus we should have a zero tolerance rule for it. It’s a medical thing we want to treat. We want to quarantine it.”
Buford says he understands the very present reality of institutionalized racism and believes all movements against racism and prejudice are important to create awareness and change—but also that approaches focusing solely on external forces or social patterns of racism bring with them the possibility of creating more resentment.
“I got tired of being part of conversations about race where the white people would leave guilty and the black people would leave angry. Nothing gets accomplished. What’s different about a 12-step approach is that the process is self-reflective. The focus is about changing oneself.” Buford believes it’s important that we spend less time trying to figure out who’s “the most racist” and to acknowledge that we can’t eliminate it without each other.
And that’s where he thinks a lot of the work has to begin: internally. There are so many examples of prejudice in our society, especially in our current political climate, Buford notes, yet few people actually cop to it. “Racism is an extreme term. Everyone has their own definition. But in RA, we really flattened it out to include all the bigotry points,” says Buford. This means members are encouraged to honestly consider their bias toward others on the basis of race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion or any external physical difference such as size, ability, adornment and more.
When asked who resists acknowledging their prejudice, Buford notes white liberal individuals often seem to have the most trouble admitting to it. “What I experience from people of color as pushback is that the harm caused by racism is so great, that some people feel the RA approach lets white people off the hook easy. Somebody’s got to suffer. But what if people wanted to change? What if nobody had to suffer? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?”
Buford cites his own personal experiences with internalized prejudice, and when he started doing work in RA and listening to others, he became a lot more conscious of how it showed up in himself. “I had this thing myself with Asian drivers, and specifically Asian women drivers. I noticed, oh, that’s a racist thought. I can’t be thinking like that.” He reiterates the goal is real mindfulness, of recognizing what prejudice looks like, all the ways it shows up in our lives, and how to limit how it gets expressed or passed on in our attitudes and choices. To learn to not be quiet when racist things occur. “Often in our silence,” Buford says, “we give consent.”
As for the effectiveness, Buford says the members feel positive change within themselves—and the word is catching on. The group has sent out over 100 starter kits to others interested in starting a group. Buford says he doesn’t think it’s important groups are started by a person of color, and in fact thinks it would be particularly powerful if it isn’t.
As a pastor of the United Church of Christ, Buford believes God is still creating the world, that creation and revelation are continuous—and that we need everyone to help that happen. “We are on a path to improving the world. Each person matters. Each person has value. We don’t have a person to spare.” While Buford doesn’t think we can be entirely free of racism or prejudice in this lifetime, we can actively work to reduce its expression. “If we can reduce the incidents of it,” he says, “we can eventually raise a generation of young people who are free from it.”