Maybe you feel stuck in what you can do to bring about in your community or your daily life. If you don’t see or experience racism in your everyday sphere, you may believe you’re doing enough because you have a black friend, employee or acquaintance, or you’re sympathetic. 

In today’s podcast, we’re talking to Vonnetta West, former Director of Education and Training of The King Center. She’ll help us drill down into the complicated but important subject of racial reconciliation and tokenism. You see, the assertion that “I’m not racist” because “I have a Black friend” is harmful. We’ll talk about why this position hinders reconciliation and offer specific guidance for working towards lifting the burden of racism in America.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • What systemic and structural racism is.
  • What tokenism is and why it’s not OK.
  • Why the belief that I’m not racist because I “have a black friend” is harmful to reconciliation – and what you can do instead.
  • What you can do to be an authentic friend.
  • How, as one individual, you can change generations’ worth of pain by looking at the heart.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.

Tackling Tokenism in Racial Reconciliation Transcript


Karin: Welcome to the R4R Podcast. I’m Karin Conlee the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation. I am so thrilled to have you joining us today. This is part 2 of a series that we are doing as we launch Race for Reconciliation. I want to invite back and welcome my dear friend and amazing guest Vonnetta West. Vonnetta thank you for doing a part 2 with me right now. 

Vonnetta: Thank you for having me. 

Karin: Well, if you missed our first video or our first podcast depending on what format you are following us on, I really want to encourage you to go check out our part one of the series. We’re really talking about the five majors, the five pillars, the five foundations of who we want to be as an organization and as a movement. We have a heart to educate and elevate – that’s what we want this podcast to do. We want to create conversations that educate about this topic of racial reconciliation and elevate. 

It’s not enough to learn. We must bring change. We have got to be able as Americans in this context to be able to decide that enough is enough and how can we really bring change to solve some of the systemic problems that are with us even today across our country. Vonnetta comes as a person who has walked in this space. 

Vonnetta, I read your bio in our last podcast and I didn’t even get to the fact that you have your Doctorate of Ministry, you have created a school in Liberia, you worked in non-profit for 20 years, and obviously you have been a Trainer and Curriculum Developer for the King Center, a social media strategist and a writer.

You are an amazing woman but what I love most about you is your heart and I just really appreciate the way that you’ve been willing to walk with us as we launch this platform so that we can provide a way to go into cities across America with yes Races; we will do literal 1-mile fun runs and 5Ks and 10ks and that really is we wanted to become a positive unifying voice on the subject of racial reconciliation.

These five majors that we’re talking about really are to help us keep focused on what matters and so we talked in our first one Vonnetta and I appreciate you and what you had to say on redefining reconciliation knowing that for so long we have just thought let’s all shake hands and be friends and realizing that that is not enough, that we have to address the systems and the structures that have existed for generations now that still cause oppression and injustice to happen in our culture.

The second focus that we have, the second major, is what we’re calling tackling tokenism. I know in our first podcast you talked about struggle words, words that cause Vonnetta and many others to struggle. I think the first struggle word; I’ve created this list struggle words okay – the first one is “privilege.” I think you might have alluded to as we were coming on that tokenism would be another struggle word. That word, tell us in your perspective, explain why that is on your struggle word list. I think I know but I want to hear from you.

Vonnetta: Tokenism for me is the notion that we have one black something or one Latino somebody or one woman somebody, one gay somebody and so because we have this token we’re exempt from being racist, we’re exempt from being sexist. So I have one person who’s my token who allows me to say you can’t call me that because I have this; I have a black friend, I have a black employee, I have a black person in my life and then they become a token.

You hear it when people they go into these places where they’re in danger and you know, they said something or done something and people are labeling them and saying they’re racist so, you know, there’s some type of ism and they start to say well “I have a” and you’re just like oh no, don’t do it, don’t say it. Having a token doesn’t mean you’re not racist. Racism, as we talked about in the previous podcast is systemic, it’s a power construct and I can have as a white person I can have black friends or a black friend and still be complicit in racism. 

Karin: Well, let me do this as we continue this conversation. I want to bring to our audience this major in its full context because some of what you just referred to we actually have worded in this and I think it’s honestly a conversation that just as a white person I’m going to say every white person needs to hear. So let me read this to you, it’ll be on the screen if you’re watching via video, but our second major is tackling tokenism.

We believe that the assertion and belief that I’m not racist because I “have a black friend” is harmful and hinders reconciliation. Authentic friendship wants the best for each other and systemic and structural racism is far from the best for black people in America. How can I be a friend if the burden of racism is not something I’m working to lift?

And so in that major as we talked about that, honestly, it just hits me square between the eyes because I was if you went back 7 or 8 years ago, I probably would have answered the question are you racist with no, I mean, yeah, I grew up in a “mainly white school” but I had a few black friends, I even had a crush on a black guy and so surely I’m not racist. Help a white person understand why that’s not enough.

Vonnetta: Karin that’s beyond, you know, even white and black people. If somebody asked me am I anti-Semitic if I start to say I have Jewish friends therefore me too then I’m practicing this kind of tokenism – it’s just not enough. First, I think a struggle word that a lot of us don’t really realize is a struggle word for us is friendship. The older I’ve gotten, the more I redefine; I’m telling you I look at people and I say I don’t think we’re friends because my definition has changed as I matured. Certainly, as I started to hit 40 I said I think I only have like 5 friends because it shifted. 

And so it’s not enough because if you’re authentically my friend, then how can you not care about not only my condition and how racism impacts me but also the condition of my family, the condition of my people, my lineage, my ancestors what happened to them; how can you not be concerned about that? And so friendship has to be for a lot of us redefined so it’s not enough to say hey, I know Vonnetta, I’m friends with Vonnetta but if you really know me then you know, these issues are something that I think about every day and I’m concerned like really internally in my mind, my heart about how we as humanity are going to shift and change. 

Now if you’re my friend and you know those are concerns for me and things concerning me, then you move beyond this kind of thing of Vonnetta is my black friend and I certainly hope that’s not how anybody would describe me anyway, and so I need to know so I can say we’re not friends.

Karin: [Inaudible: 09:00] take them off that list. 

Vonnetta: Scratch, but definitely I hope you know when you develop a relationship you start to be concerned about what that person is concerned about. Israel Haughton had this song years ago, he released and he said God, give us a heart for things that break Your heart and I started to crave that on a regular basis once I heard that song – Just for me, give me a heart for things that break Your heart. And so even in my relationships if something is breaking my friend’s heart, I start to say God give me a heart for that because that’s really hurting them. What is it? And that’s how people say, how do you develop compassion? That’s it. You know, what’s heartbreaking for this person just generally causing them pain, let me be attentive to that and understanding. That moves beyond tokenism. It’s essential that we get out of that space.

Karin: Vonnetta I love what you just said. I also love even between recordings, we were having a conversation and really we started talking about the difference – the similarities I should say between sexism and classism and all the different isms that are out there and really say okay, what’s the root of all of these power, somebody feeling elevated over someone else and really it goes down to the heart level. Talk a little bit about the heart in this because I think sometimes it feels this conversation can feel so overwhelming. How can any of us individually change generations’ worth of pain? But if we look at it at the heart level, elaborate on that because to me that gives hope at the individual level. Yes, there’s responsibility but there’s something you can do. Would you talk about the heart level? 

Vonnetta: Absolutely. The heart is when I was developing a sermon about 15/20 years ago on the heart, I looked up the word and it’s rooted in the word called caris which means the center of your will or emotions. So when I think about the heart for me personally, I think you know the heart is the center of my will, it’s the center of my emotions, it is the center of what I determine is right and fair and just. You think about that in terms of racism and in terms of any ISM if the heart is hard and the heart is evil and the heart is not bent towards justice and it’s the center of our will, then of course we won’t have any push or any real persistence in eradicating racism because the center of my will is not bent towards eradicated racism. Whatever I have the will to do, I do it. 

You think about the heart that way then it shifts us from thinking oh, the heart is just mushy, it’s this emotional place where you know, where we cry, weep, we’re just compassionate. No, it’s what determines what I care about and what I’m willing to work toward. Dr. King believed we can have heart change and legislative change that we don’t have to choose one of the other. However, he said this – basically, he said even if your heart doesn’t change we need legislative change because you know what? A law might not stop somebody from hating me, but it can stop them from lynching me. 

So we need to change laws but if hearts don’t change then we never really fully get to a place where we can have reconciliation you just have well, you can vote now you should be okay – shut up, You can sit on the bus with us now you should be okay  and be quiet but that’s not reconciliation and that’s not true justice and that’s not heart change. 

So personally I can determine if there’s bigotry in me, if there’s bigotry I’ve learned, if there’s any prejudice that I’ve learned over the course of my life that I want to change my heart and that’s difficult even to get to that first step but it starts with this: if people listening could just say hey, I realize I’ve learned some things that are not right, I’ve learned some things that I’ve accepted as truth that I need to change. Everybody can say that; you don’t have to list what it is, you can just start right there and certainly, if you’re a person of faith you can say I want to be better and I’m going to start praying that my heart changes and that the center of my will shift so that it’s bent towards love, justice and fairness, mercy and peace all those great things that we believe, I do believe, I think you believe as well comes with the kingdom of God.

We can start to say hey, I want my heart to be bent towards these things. You start there, you don’t have to start listening man, my grandfather was racist or man I have photos of my family members lynching people. Those are hard. I look at those photos of people being lynched and I look at the white people at the front grinning and laughing and stuff and I wonder who their descendants are? And when they look at those photos, what do you do with that? It’s either I have a guilt complex and I don’t really want to deal with it I’m just going to deny it, I’m going to be angry about it or I’m going to say I’m going to be that way too and I’m going to be a person who today would be complicit in modern-day lynching who today would say they’re okay. It’s okay for black people to be violated so the heart it’s really important that we shift that.

Karin: And I think for anyone new to this conversation that has to be the starting point.

Vonnetta: It does.

Karin: And that you know for me as you just talked about that, I know I referred in our last podcast to the event that we hosted and we went to the site where there was a lynching of a gentleman in Memphis. To be honest with you that moved my heart, what you just said, how could anybody do this ever? It is that asking okay, let my heart be open and let me learn and as we are allowing our hearts to be changed, then to me this feels like a topic that anybody can walk in. I care about people and it is not okay for this to continue to happen. That to me makes it a positive unifying message not that there aren’t hard conversations because it’s hard. It’s a lot easier to just pretend like you don’t know and keep on if you’re somebody as you said last time – you face your race every day.

I can talk about it but I still get up and walk away and in most cultures, I’m still in the majority; that’s not the case for somebody who’s black. I think Dr. Brian Laritz just the other day, was reading a tweet from him – he says every time I stand up from the table I still stand up for black men. That’s something for somebody who we have the privilege as you said, of deciding when we want to care or not but if we ask for our hearts to be opened in this topic I think that tackling tokenism really challenges all of us to say okay, how much of a friend am I really if I don’t really understand what’s going on in my friends lives that are different than me?

If we’ve never really talked about how their race impacts their daily life, then maybe we are acquaintances and maybe it’s time for us to become friends. I hope that that will be encouraging. We still have to make a decision to do something, we still have to make a decision to advance to that friend to have that awkward conversation, to weigh into something that’s messy and might make you feel bad as white person to hear like it doesn’t feel good to hear that but what progress can be made if our hearts are willing? 

Vonnetta, in that definition kind of our major, we talked about we have to deal with this because we also want to deal with systemic and structural racism. I know that you could probably teach for hours on that topic, that’s a huge topic.

Vonnetta: It is.

Karin: Can you from an education standpoint, you are talking to somebody that is new in this space kind of from the fifty thousand foot level, describe what systemic and structural racism is? 

Vonnetta: Sure. You know even people go back to you know slaves were free and then I tell the language I started to use the ship to enslave people so I don’t put the ownership for slavery on the people who were enslaved. You have emancipation but emancipation moved into still structural and systemic racism. You have a government that put black people in ghettos and if you think about the concentration camps and the holocaust they will called ghettos. Ghettos aren’t places that you go to prosper so there was even then the intent that black people go to a place housed, packed into small communities where they didn’t prosper, where there would still be poverty, where they would be fenced into a place separated from white people so as to conform also of segregation.

That’s systemic, that’s cultural, that’s structured racism because then you’re saying you’re free but not really and then we’re going to have Jim Crow laws that also impede you where you’re free, but not for real – we’re still segregated; you can’t have the best stuff. If you think about people saying today black people should be over that with those Jim Crow laws surely, just because some of those laws change you can’t be telling me you really believe that some of those precepts, those concepts that construct doesn’t still exist within systems here in the United States.

I mean, you look now at redlining, voter suppression, the different things that can happen with gerrymandering that affects the black vote, that affects the Latino vote and the different things that happen now with clans that go into certain communities that emit carcinogens. Look at Flint, it’s a prime example of what can happen to a black community in the United States still not having clean water – that structural systemic racism anything in a system that makes it clear that black lives are less important or might not even matter at all. 

So you have the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and people say well all lives matter. Well, sure they do. It’s clear in systems that white lives matter: black lives matter is saying we have to really assert and chant and work for getting systemic change so that in our systems we can see, in our policing we can see, in our Criminal Justice System we can see, in our housing we can see that black lives matter.

We don’t see that yet because you still have laws that either their stated or they’re unstated that black lives don’t matter. It’s not even for me that they don’t matter as much, for some people is clear today from what I’m reading and hearing from them that black lives just don’t matter to them. There’s some excuse that they can give as to why a black life didn’t matter.

Karin: We’re going to talk about this in our pillar on walking in wisdom, but one of the things that I think is absolutely critical is for people to be willing to actually educate themselves. I remember walking through the Museum of African-American history in Washington DC and as I’m walking through there as a person of faith and thinking actually through the sequence of historical events that freedom was granted, you know slaves were freed, emancipation happens okay, but in a very literal sense as those people are freed to your point they’re not really freed.

From a church perspective, I think what was stunning to me was wait a minute, we have worked so hard in our ministry to bring a church that reflected the community that we were a part of; how did we ever get here? And if you go back and you realize wow, when freedom was granted and they showed up at the churches and they were told no, no, no not here, there is a problem and so for me when I start to go back as you just described that okay, wait a minute, so freedom was granted.

Vonnetta: Not really.

Karin: When you’re put in a place where you are not going to succeed, where you don’t have health care, where you don’t have what you need to feed your family, where you don’t have the education, all of a sudden it paints a very different picture of why we can see in families how generations pass things on for good or for bad if you know for prosperity or in poverty. That education piece I think is really an important part of this, it’s just being willing to go back and think through it from a perspective that maybe you haven’t before.

Vonnetta we have talked about wanting to provide healing, honor and hope: wanting to find a place that the silent middle is kind of what the term that I have used of people that you know here in the 21st century, maybe their heart is softening but maybe they’ve not actually ever moved beyond “man I feel bad about that” to actually becoming a plain person that helps bring change. What recommendation or advice would you give a white person who wants to move beyond hearing to truly walk along someone in a way that does bring honor?

Vonnetta: You know what? I’ve been thinking about for the last few minutes the state of emergency, you know, I think even as we were talking about heart change, I started to consider sometimes people’s hearts change while they’re in the midst of the work and I think what brings healing honor and hope and specifically honor at this point is to start to honor black lives by saying this is a state of emergency, this is urgent and lives depend on it. That’s for me how my true authentic friends are honoring me right now – we can’t wait. 

My friend that I felt comfortable talking to last week and saying, man I am just really devastated by this, she honored me and she honored black people by stepping up on a platform and saying hey, look, you know, I have all these white people that follow me we have to do something, this is urgent. Black people are dying, black people are being discriminated against in ways that affect their health, in ways that affect their mental health, in ways that affect them with their families, you know, their lives [Inaudible: 25:43].

So when she started to say that, that to me was honor. Putting in work to me is honor.  At this point, it’s one of the main ways the fundamental way to me to demonstrate because what else do we have now? Because we have talk but what I know with these conversations is they’ll lead to us saying what do we do next but for a lot of people they’ve been used to talking about these things and then they don’t say how do we change systems? You know, they don’t say how do we really change some of these things that are constructs that effect and devastate black families and black people, you know, and Latino people and Asian people?

You look across the board unless your white in this country you’re facing some type of racial discrimination and even as we were talking about it on the break, even within that there’s classism and there’s some type of structure power constant that has people white male, Christian people, heterosexual people sitting at the top and we’re all dealing with it in some way. So honor to me is putting in work right now. 

You talk cross the line when you talk to people; most black free grammar checker people that I talk to and you ask them you know, how can you honor the struggle? How can you honor black people? How can you demonstrate a sense of honor for the past and what we’ve been through and what we struggled through and an honor for what we’re trying to build for the future? It’s not by any more just being someone who says I’m with you but actually showing that you’re an ally and an advocate and you’re working in these areas – that work. I think that could be like a tavern – work is honor. 

Karin: That’s great.

Vonnetta: Putting it in.

Karin: Yeah. Well, Vonnetta I think this is a great place for us to wrap up this specific conversation.

Vonnetta: Oh no!

Karin: Oh no! Did you have something else you wanted to say? I think you know as I reflect back on this conversation, I think what I’m hearing from you and what I want to encourage our listeners, is even in the simplicity of are you really a friend to somebody? And as we talked about the heart level to say as we build friendships with people that are different from ourselves do we really build a friendship enough that we care about what they care about and that we have those hard conversations? And if we can begin to do that at an individual level, then we will begin to do that as you know, in our circle of influence, then we begin to do that in our cities, but it does start at the heart level. 

And so I appreciate the conversation. I look forward; there’s so much more that we want to address and that we will get to in future podcasts and future videos, but thank you for lending your expertise, your wisdom and your heart to this conversation. If you want more information, please go to, we’ve got resources there and also find out about upcoming events there and I look forward to seeing you next time.