Cultural Competency Exercises

Become An Active Participant In Eliminating Racism

Below are sample exercises that can be explored in group settings. It should be noted that these exercises are developed for education on racism in the United States, which includes a context of slavery, colonialism, ongoing Native American genocide, racist labor and immigration policies, and state violence against men and women of color.

Racism does not exist in a vacuum, and isolating the context – ours, the United States, Washington, Spokane – is essential for discussion.

Defining Racism

Adapted from Bonner Curriculum: Racism– Deconstructing It. Similar exercises can be found in training by The People’s Institute and other diversity trainers.

This exposes participants to the classic definition of racism, which is power + racial prejudice.

  1. Divide participants into two groups. If you have a very large group, you can separate into more, but there are only two subjects of group participation.
  2. Have Group A brainstorm the definition of Power. Have Group B brainstorm the definition of Prejudice.
  3. After 10 minutes or so, have participants reveal the results of their brainstorming.
  4. Explain to participants they have developed two sides of the term that still plagues our society: racism.

Prejudice is defined as characterizations or stereotypes that once aimed to organize and simplify the abundance of information that exists in the world, but now has become insufficient and distorted. For the purpose of this exercise, answers like "bias" or assumptions" are all fine starting points for the expanded definition. (Basically, our primitive brain automation and categorization can sometimes backfire to oppress people).

- Quoted from the Bonner Curriculum

  • People, from these insufficient and distorted characterizations, make pre-judgments about other groups of people that are, in many instances, negative and biased.
  • Power is defined as the ability to influence others. Groups use their power to discriminate against other “lesser” groups in order to maintain their characteristics and privilege.

Racism, therefore, is the combination of racial prejudice and power (manifested through discrimination) that has traditionally functioned to systematically oppress and even exterminate groups of people based upon perceived racial inferiority.

At this point stop and consider your audience:

Advanced groups

Systemic racism versus individual bias

  • By definition, racial groups cannot be racist since it is defined by societal power, but this is a point that has to be used by a skilled facilitator: the trick isn’t in coddling white groups from confronting racism, it’s to make this an educational description of the frame of critical theory, and how the modern view of racism really works. It doesn’t mean their experiences of bias aren’t valid.
  • Research and give examples of racism in systems and institutions, such as prisons and sentencing.

Beginner groups

  • Find and give examples of systemic oppression and have a conversation about individual actors within that system. e.g., prisons and men of color. Is each and every judge racist if a specific group or individual is continually sentenced, or people of color received heftier sentencing?
  • How does the structure of criminal justice and society contribute to the actions of judges in charge of sentencing?

Colorblind Racism

This exercise consists of watching two YouTube videos (from ABC’s What Would You Do series) and having participants engage in a dialogue around colorblind racism. In short, colorblind racism refers to that despite racialized consequences of actions and beliefs, people contend they do not see color or that it does not influence their actions. Recently, with immigration legislation in Arizona, some have begun to question the colorblind theory. Nevertheless, it still serves to illustrate how well-meaning people who contend not to be racist can engage in racist behavior.

Have participants watch this two part video:

Lead a discussion using the below questions:

  1. Imagine you are one of the children whose family was thought suspicious for napping in their car. What is going through your head?
  2. Why do you think more people were alarmed by the black children than the white children?
  3. Would the people who called the police on the black children consider themselves racist?
  4. Were their actions racist? If not, why did fewer people call the police on the white children?
  5. What stereotypes are in play?
  6. When the woman said “our backyard,” was anything hidden in that statement?

Finally, introduce the idea of “colorblind racism.”

  • A conversation starter may be to ask the audience if they have ever heard people say they don’t see color. Dig into that, and explore what the intention of that statement is. Is it a good intention?
  • Then, facilitate the conversation toward the impact of that statement on people who experience racism.
  • If stereotypes so clearly affect our actions like in the video, even if we have good intentions, is it fair to say we do not see color?
  • At this point, feel free to talk about this kind of racism as modern racism. Subtle, sneaky, and pernicious.

Intent vs. Impact

This exercise was inspired by and uses examples from the book 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say That Widen the Diversity Gap by Maura Cullen.

Sometimes people don’t understand why their words or actions can offend others– sometimes people assume that others are just too sensitive and need to lighten up or relax. However, in a context of daily racism, even seemingly innocent statements or questions can be hurtful reminders of oppression.

Instruct participants to imagine themselves in the scenario where they wake up, and stub their toe on their bed frame. You can tell this like a story. When they go to work that day, they accidentally kick the floorboard by the coffee machine, further injuring their toe. Later, a coworker accidentally steps on it. At this point in the day, they are keeping their distance lest they injure it again. When they get home, their partner takes their coat, gives them a kiss, and accidentally steps on their toe. This is the last straw, and they explode and exclaim their confusion why people can’t be more careful, or more thoughtful. Their partner thinks this anger is completely crazy, and way out of line for just stepping on their toe once.

However, if their partner could see a film reel of all the day’s toe injuries, it would make sense. A lot of times when people get offended by a comment or a statement, it is a similar situation: an injury upon an injury. It piles on.

The same is true for seemingly innocent questions or statements. It is important we are mindful what we say, and are willing to apologize and self-evaluate, so that we don’t perpetuate a cycle of this sort of injury.

Explain to participants that statements have both intentions and impacts.

Intention is somebody’s hopes for how an action will affect someone. Impact is how the person is actually feeling the action. Note that each person is the authority here, but only one has the potential to experience material harm.

Introduce the following statements for conversation from the audience. The first one is about sexism, which is a good place to start for many audiences who have not talked about racism before. Ask what the intent is, and what the impact is. Clarify participants answers with below answers.

Please note that having a good intention does not alleviate guilt; a good intention couples with accountability to poor decisions is essential for personal growth.


Calling women “girl” or “honey” at work.

Intent: usually said by men with the intent to make a connection or attempting to make an environment casual.
Impact: perceived as sexist and condescending. Disrespectful, particularly for younger men to refer to older women or subordinates as this. Paternalistic.

“I don’t see race. We’re all part of the human race.”

Intent: I don’t discriminate! I judge by the content of a person’s character!
Impact: People of color can interpret this as being rendered invisible. This comment dismisses the reality of discrimination, race, and privilege; it marginalizes the existence of race and racism.

What do your people think?

Intent: seeking information from a group the asker might not be familiar with.
Impact: suggests there is “one response” from an entire community or population. Directly related to stereotyping; consider the absurdity of asking a white person “What do your people think about the economy?”

Where are you really from?

Intent: perhaps noticing an accent, or making conversation. Generally, curiosity.
Impact: insulting. Imagine a second or third generation person asked where they are from, and the answer is “Chicago,” but the questioner continues pressing as if there is a real answer being avoided.

White Privilege

The concept of white privilege can make for challenging discussion. This is recommended for either advanced groups, or advanced facilitators who have already gone through some of the above exercises.

The idea of “free stuff for white people” can be challenging to grasp, particularly for white people who may have grown up in poverty or feel they have not seen the benefits of white privilege. For these participants, it is important to note that privilege is not necessarily an all access pass, but merely an unearned benefit that is often unintentionally cashed in. Privilege is given automatically; it must be denied and challenged consciously.

If it helps, begin by talking about class privilege. Unless you are doing a staff training with the top 1% of wealth holders in the country, everyone should be able to groan at the image below. Use it as a launchpad.

Have participants take turns reading from the list of items from Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Discussion questions:

  • Are whites taught to recognize white privilege?
  • What is “meritocracy” or bootstrapping? How does the concept of privilege complicate this? (Restated, if the playing field isn’t level, is this still an American ideal?)
  • Which on this list did you identify with? Which on this list was it hard to identify with?
  • What are ways that you noticed white privilege happening to you or others?
  • In what situations ought we “disrupt” white privilege? How can we do that?

A Note for LGBTQ Allies

LGBTQ history is full of leaders who have had to write and struggle against both heterosexism and racism. Leaders such as Bayard Rustin, and writers like Audre Lorde have made clear a need to recognize the intersectional nature of oppression. These exercises can be done with LGBTQ groups, and it may be helpful to make a connection between the lived experience of homophobia and racism and even discuss issues of “passing” with regards to gender identity and orientation.

For example…

  • In what situations can LGBTQ people “pass” where people of color cannot?