Tuesday, June 14, 2011

David Reich's The Antiracism Trainings

The tl;dr: Five stars of five if you're interested in the history of Unitarian Universalism and antiracism theory, four if you're interested in antiracism theory and institutional power ploys, three otherwise.

The longer take: If I had not had my own encounters with Critical Race Theorists, I wouldn't have read this in a rush. Reich has the clean style you would expect of an experienced journalist, and he has a good sense of pacing, but his sense of humor isn't mine, the book feels a bit long, and this just isn't a novel. It's a thinly disguised—make that, very thinly disguised—memoir. Calling UUs "Yoonies" and changing, for example, the Rev. Thandeka to the Rev. Malika simply distracted me.

I also wish he'd told the story chronologically. Reich says he shuffled the chronology to focus on one character, but I think that was as mistaken as George Lucas's decision to focus on Darth Vader. What's interesting isn't the arc of one character. It's the broader story of an institution dealing with people whose goals are admirable and whose tactics are not.

The book is set in the 1990s. Antiracism theory and the UU church have changed greatly since then. Most antiracism theorists have dropped the "all whites are racist and only whites are racist" arguments for a slightly more nuanced take on the nature of power—but while they now make token acknowledgment of other factors under the rubric of "intersectionality", they continue to be race reductionists, as their name indicates.

Pondering The Antiracism Trainings, I've seen something that now seems obvious: "training" in a theory is only indoctrination. I don't know what modern antiracism training is like, but in the 90s, it clearly was little different from "training" in EST or Scientology: trainees were isolated, then drilled by people who belittled them for deviance and praised them for conformance. If I was writing an essay about the ways cults create members, I'd be sure to mention Stockholm Syndrome.

Though I've quibbled about Reich's book, I'm very glad he wrote it.

Bits from reviews that struck me:

uuworld.org : book review of 'the antiracism trainings': "Reich’s novel does offer an informed critique of recent UUA history. That, and not its literary merit, is what it will be remembered for."

Mutizwa: The Antiracism Trainings by David Reich: "Instead of these hard-to-take-seriously antiracism trainings, an authentically progressive and productive liberal institution would hold something closer to anti-dogma trainings—sessions that pay more homage to open-ended arcs of thinking and respectful articulations of dissent."