Silicon Valley Church Hosts ‘Racists Anonymous’ Meetings

Like many other Americans, the Rev. Ron Buford feels frustrated and upset by news of two more police shootings of a person of color -- most recently in North Carolina and Oklahoma.

"How can we keep doing this?" he said. "This has to stop."

Buford said that as an African-American, he too, has been racially profiled by police in his native Cleveland during "unjust" traffic stops. But the problem is much larger than police and so more people must engage in a solution, he said.

"Police reflect the racism that’s in the broader society. And when we change, we will produce better police departments," said Buford, 60.

To help combat what he considers an illness at the root of many problems in the U.S. and other countries, Buford is inviting people in his Silicon Valley community of Sunnyvale and neighboring areas to come together in a series of 12-step meetings he's calling Racists Anonymous.

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Buford considers racism "an addiction," which is why he is modeling his meetings on the Alcoholics Anonymous program. As with any addiction, the first step is acknowledging you have a problem so you can take responsibility, he said.

"Racism in the world is real. We should stop being in denial about it, the way an alcoholic is in denial about alcoholism. We should say instead -- yup, we are racist, and we are working on it," Buford said.

The weekly Racists Anonymous meetings aim to facilitate frank conversations among people with different backgrounds about their prejudices, so that each participant can gradually change their "racist" behavior with support from their peers.

At one recent meeting at Buford's Congregational Community Church of Sunnyvale, 10 participants took turns introducing themselves.

"I'm Josie and I'm a racist," said an African-American woman.

"I'm Morgan and I'm a racist," continued a white man next to her.

"I'm Jane and I'm  a racist," said an Asian woman and so on, until everyone sitting in the circle of folding chairs had spoken.

Racists Anonymous members hug after a meeting at a chapel in Sunnyvale. The diverse group includes a psychiatrist, preschool director, landscaper, and retired business executive.
Racists Anonymous members hug after a meeting at a chapel in Sunnyvale. The group includes a psychiatrist, preschool director, landscaper and retired business executive. The individuals in the photo permitted KQED to publish this image. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Racists Anonymous defines the term "racism" as something most humans would relate to. If you treat someone differently because of how they look, it's racism, said Buford.

"By redefining racism and making it really broad, it includes a lot of things we need to get rid of," he said, adding that for him, it's been the stereotype of Asians as bad drivers.

"I confessed to the group, you know? I have this thing I’ve said about Asian ladies driving cars. That is just really racist, there is no reason to believe that," he said. "If you look at the fact that we are all racist, and that we all have to reduce our racism, then that’s what we need to do."

That does not mean it's easy to identify initially with such a loaded term, said Casey Ream, remembering his first meeting a couple of months ago. Ream said he doesn't mind using his full name, though others in the group prefer to remain anonymous.

"It was very difficult to say, 'Hi, my name is Casey and I’m a racist.' It made me feel humility, it made me feel embarrassed," said Ream, 26. "But it also made me feel like -- OK, if these other people are not going to lash out at me right now after saying that, and if they are going to say it, too, then maybe this is a good starting place."

At a meeting this month, participants discussed Step 9: making amends with people you've hurt or offended. That theme inspired Bonnie, a former kindergarten teacher, to admit she's ashamed she can't remember the names of some African-Americans. She wonders whether it would be a good idea to apologize to them.

"I’d love to know people’s names and be able to talk to them and I can’t remember those weird names," said Bonnie, 77. "I just feel terrible about it."

The rest of the group listened politely, and then from across the room Josie, who is African-American, suggested Bonnie not use the term "weird."

"You might want to use 'unique' or 'different' because I don’t think a mother would like it if you said, 'Your child has a weird name, where did you get Shaniqua from?'" said Josie, 73, to laughter.

"Thank you," said Bonnie, sounding more relieved. "We help each other."

Most of the group's members have been attending Racists Anonymous since Buford opened the first-ever session last October. Their conversations are cordial and respectful. Some admit they would not share with outsiders the very personal anecdotes -- occasionally loaded with guilt or resentment -- they disclose at their meetings. Others say the honest dialogue gives them courage to open up about their own experiences.

Darryl Alford, who also chose not to remain anonymous for this story, told fellow members about a painful incident that happened to him decades ago, while he was walking home from school as a first-grader in Portland, Oregon.

"A little white boy comes up and punches me in the stomach and calls me the N-word," said Alford, his voice breaking. "I never heard that word at home. It was horrible."

Alford said he hadn't really talked about that experience before, except maybe to his wife. After the meeting, he wondered whether that boy ever thought about asking for his forgiveness. He said he hadn't dwelled on the incident during all those years, but now it was time to finally let it go.

"Thinking about forgiveness, I guess I want to also say I do forgive him for what he did to me," Alford said.

Participants at Racists Anonymous share a common desire to move on from grudges and regret, and to become more aware of how they behave with others in their daily lives, said Ream, the youngest member.

Recently, he realized he was the only white person among Latino shoppers at a convenience store in San Jose and caught himself feeling uncomfortable, he said.

"That's at the root of the problem, being uncomfortable with someone based on their race," said Ream, a part-time landscaper. "So at those moments, I just open up, smile, and I’m glad to present myself as part of the mix."

The 12th step of Racists Anonymous is to share the message with other “race addicts.”

The program is catching on. Two churches in North Carolina and Florida found out about Racists Anonymous online, through Facebook and an e-newsletter, and have begun meetings as well.