After footage of yet another violent, unnecessary police killing of a Black man went viral, a new wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement swept across America. The death of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests and increased awareness of police brutality that eclipsed even the Ferguson protests of 2014 that erupted after the police killed Michael Brown.
This time, the movement went mainstream. As non-Black people, corporate America, and everyone in between struggled to join the fight against the systemic oppression of Black Americans, the gap between newcomers to the movement and veteran activists became clear. Into that gap stepped educators like Lenéa Sims, who are teaching the principles of anti-racism to all those who are eager and willing to learn.
“After the death of George Floyd, obviously, the nation was mourning and it felt like this extremely heavy time,” Sims explained when we spoke over the phone in early June. “For me, it was this other kind of big, revelatory moment where I realized I don’t know enough about anti-racism — and I’m Black! I’m mixed and always felt myself running away from being Black. I realized I wanted to educate myself about Black history and systemic racism and how we can eradicate it.”
When Sims started her anti-racism practice group a couple of weeks ago, she did so mostly for herself and her own accountability. She didn’t really expect a whole lot of people to join, but sent an invitation out to the newsletter list for her self-development/coaching program, Inner Play, anyway. Almost immediately, she received an influx of emails asking to join with her in the work, and the surge of responses spurred Sims to build a more interactive framework to host the information and discussion. Over the course of the next week, the original sixty-something volunteers kept multiplying, and by the time we spoke, membership had exploded to around 600 people.
Initially moved to offer the group for free, Sims was urged by fellow women of color educators to charge for the emotional labor and knowledge she was providing for the group. Now, anyone can join the practice group, which she’s dubbed Outer Work, on a sliding scale commitment that ranges from $4.99 to $49 every month, depending on what is affordable for each member (If you are Black, membership to join the group is free). Each weekday, Sims adds resources and articles, talking points, journal prompts and more to the group, so members can work through the material at their own pace, and talk with the rest of the community about each topic.
As an educator, one of Sims’ primary goals has always been finding ways to make learning a joyful experience. Growing up biracial in the predominantly white and affluent city of Pasadena, she attended elite schools like Flintridge Prep in La Cañada — and despite being one of the only Black students at her school — found a home and self-worth in the educational system.
“My early education is the foundation of who I am in terms of being an educator and being really interested in learning as a tool,” she said. “But I also grew up being one of very few students of color at my school — specifically one of few black students there. And I definitely assimilated very much into white culture when I was young.”
The principles behind anti-racism articulate what Black Americans have already known from lived experience; racist ideas are embedded into the core of society, and white privilege is literally conditioned into each and every person in this country, and, arguably, the world. Racism is so prevalent that all of us are constantly immersed in it, and most, if not all, of us have probably acted on racist impulses or ideas in our lives. Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book on the subject, How To Be An Antiracist, helped articulate these principles of unlearning racism in a new way.
But the work of becoming anti-racist is just that — work. For those who don’t know where to start, or are intimidated by their own ignorance, an educator like Sims, who is committed to imbuing playfulness and joy into such a somber subject, is something of a godsend. “I’m starting with everyone else,” Sims explained. “I’m a super beginner at this, too. I studied sociology in school, so I do have an understanding of how social systems work and how they infiltrate people’s daily lives.”
“And of course, as a Black person, I think I understand racism on a level that most people don’t,” she continued. “But I’ve never specifically studied anti-racism until now. Anti-racism work is about deconditioning yourself, so it’s a daily practice. And I wanted to create a safe container for people to show up and be able to do their practice in the community. And having the group is a really amazing thing because it holds you accountable to stick with it for longer than this week.”
Now that she’s deep into the work of leading her still-growing group through the Outer Work of deconditioning from racist ideas, and digging deep into uncomfortable subjects like biases, guilt, and shame, and confronting family members on difficult subjects, Sims sees the connection between this more serious undertaking and the joyfulness of her initial educational network, Inner Play.
“You do the inner play so that you can do the outer work, and you do the outer work so that you can do the inner play,” she laughed. “And they feed into and support and amplify each other. I really want to see people commit to this for the long term; to commit to deconstructing their white supremacy, and deconstructing the racist ideas that they inevitably have, because this isn’t going to end in a month, even if we defund every police department. So we have to have inner play to sustain us to continue to do this work.”
Photos Courtesy of Tyree Harris