Activism Through Coaching: A Transformational Journey Towards Antiracism


Personal Transformation as a Revolution of One

To speak in the vernacular of Dr Rachel Knox, MD, MBA, I see personal transformation in a racialized society as the revolution of one. My role as a transformation coach is to ask questions, inform, and empower change. I create brave space for conversations about personal transformation, racism, and accountability by disrupting limiting beliefs, empowering deep self-knowledge, and challenging assumptions. I developed the Activism through Coaching as an approach to personal transformation based on two fundamental questions:

  1. Should we continue to advance a system that encourages racism and division, or can we seek unity and change through conversation and personal transformation?
  2. The Cairo Question: Will my young grandson, Cairo, have to protest in his lifetime for the birthright to exist in the skin in which he was born?

Dismantling Racism is an Inside Job

In my book, Cultivating Change from the Inside Out: The Power of Being Human, I share my memoir of watching dystopian films as a teen. Here’s an excerpt:

“In my youth I would often imagine who I would be if I were a character in a story, especially a dystopian one. For example, in the 1966 British film, Fahrenheit 451, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, I am convinced that I would be one of the book people, residents of a readers’ colony outside the city, way past the river, where whole books are committed to memory for the sake of preserving literature as a part of the human experience. I would be there waiting for the day when a cultureless society would turn back to appreciate literature and I could help repair the brokenness. Or perhaps I would be the protagonist, Winston, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who intuitively knows that something is dreadfully wrong in society.”

— Anita D Russell

Here’s a riddle for you. What’s the connection between George Orwell and the Global Black Lives Matter movement? The answer just might surprise you. Let’s start with a glimpse into the historical record.

Global History of Enslavement: War, Economic Domination, and Human Trafficking

  • 6800 B.C. The world’s first city-state emerges in Mesopotamia. Land ownership and the early stages of technology bring war—in which enemies are captured and forced to work as slaves.
  • 2575 B.C. Temple art celebrates the capture of slaves in battle. Egyptians capture slaves by sending special expeditions up the Nile River.
  • 550 B.C. The city-state of Athens uses as many as 30,000 slaves in its silver mines.
  • 120 A.D. Roman military campaigns capture slaves by the thousands. Some estimate the population of Rome is more than half slave.
  • 500 Anglo-Saxons enslave the native Britons after invading England.
  • 1000 Slavery is a normal practice in England’s rural, agricultural economy, as destitute workers place themselves and their families in a form of debt bondage to landowners.
  • 1380 In the aftermath of the Black Plague, Europe’s slave trade thrives in response to a labor shortage. Slaves pour in from all over the continent, the Middle East, and North Africa.
  • 1444 Portuguese traders bring the first large cargo of slaves from West Africa to Europe by sea—establishing the Atlantic slave trade.
  • 1526 Spanish explorers bring the first enslaved Africans to settlements in what would become the United States. The enslaved Africans staged the first known slave revolt in the Americas.
  • 1550 Slaves are depicted as objects of conspicuous consumption in much Renaissance art. That is to say that slave ownership was viewed as a sign of wealth and prestige.
  • 1641 Massachusetts becomes the first British colony to legalize slavery.

George Orwell, Former Burma Police Officer Whose Ancestors Enslaved Others

Eric Arthur Blair, known by his pen name George Orwell, was born in Motahari, India (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950).  He was a British author and journalist who fought against social injustice and totalitarianism. He is regarded as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century and is the second-best British author since 1945 according to The Times.

He is widely known for his essays on issues of politics, literature, language, and culture. He was a man of strong opinions who addressed some of the major political movements of his times, including imperialism, fascism, and communism. He wrote at least fourteen novels and is best known for Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the latter a profound dystopian novel that examines the dangers of totalitarian rule which crushes dissent through violence and perversion of language. Without words for freedom, liberty, and justice, the very ideas cease to exist.

Orwell spent his early days in India, where his father was stationed as a minor customs official in the Indian Civil Service. His mother brought him and his older sister, Marjorie, back to England about a year after his birth and settled in Henley-on-Thames. His father stayed behind in India and rarely visited. In fact, Orwell didn’t really know his father until he retired from the service in 1912. And even after that, the pair never formed a strong bond.

Orwell’s Scottish Ancestry and Slave Records

Orwell was of Scottish ancestry and had a well-known prejudice against the Scotts, perhaps because of the distaste he felt for the way many had accrued their wealth. It is widely known that Scotland owned sugar plantations in Jamaica from 1699 and was very much involved with the institution of slavery in the Caribbean. Many Scottish industries, schools, and other institutions were founded from the profits of slavery.

According to biographical records from the Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, George Orwell’s great-great grandfather, John Blair, was listed in the Jamaican Quit Rent books for 1754 as the owner of 150 acres of land in St Catherine, 930 acres in Saint Thomas-in-the-East, 500 acres in St Ann, 300 acres in Clarendon, and 1020 acres in Saint Thomas-in-the-Vale, for a total of 2900 acres.

It is further noted that John Blair’s estate was probated in Jamaica in 1743:

  • Slave-ownership at probate: 392 of whom 211 were listed as male and 181 as female. 0 were listed as boys, girls, or children.
  • Total value of estate at probate: £20342.91 Jamaican currency of which £12269 currency was the value of enslaved people. Estate valuation included £0 currency cash, £0 currency debts and £478.28 currency plate.

Blair’s ancestors were among 3,000 slave-owning families who received a total 20 million pounds in compensation (now worth more than $2 billion) when slavery was abolished in the British empire. Compensation was paid to his great-great-grandfather’s trustees in 1833. 

Haunted by Years as a Police Officer

When Eric Arthur Blair was 19 years old, he had not yet picked up his pen name of George Orwell. He travelled to the far reaches of the British Empire where he joined the Imperial Police Force in Burma, India and spent five years there in the 1920s.

It is believed that Blair quit after five years out of a deep sense of shame, evident in his first published piece of writing titled A Hanging (1931), in which the narrator, a police officer in Burma, is quietly complicit in the execution of a colonial subject whose crime was untold. This writing comes with a sense of deep inhumane overtones associated with the system that policed and killed colonial subjects.

In his novel, The Road to Wigan Pier, an insightful account of poverty at a time of low wages, George Orwell came to see British rule in India as an “unjustifiable tyranny” in which the police were the “actual machinery of despotism.” In his novel, Burmese Days, he accounts firsthand the devastating effects of repressive governance and how it troubled him deeply.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he portrays a world divided between three States, each of them sovereign and under totalitarian rule. He explains how they are conglomerates of power in which infallible and all-powerful Big Brothers rule. It is thought that perhaps Orwell himself believed that the totalitarian world of Big Brother had extended to imperial policing everywhere, including Britain.

What is Doublethink?

With Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell also popularized the term, “doublethink” as a process of indoctrination. Here are three examples from the book: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. 2 + 2 = 5. Specifically, Orwell describes doublethink this way:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink, one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

— George Orwell

So, What’s Orwellian About the Global Black Lives Matter Movement?

Some are more equal than others. In his book, Animal Farm, he wrote about four-legged animals on the farm but it’s really about two-legged humans in everyday life. A lot of interesting things are talked about in the book, but during their discussions the statement is made “that all of the animals on the farm are created equal but some of them are created more equal than others.”

There is a lot of talk going on in America about “black lives matter.” What Orwell was saying in Animal Farm is what the Black Lives Matter Movement is saying to America. It is saying that the thing we would all like to believe—that all lives matter— isn’t so! The sad fact of the matter is that even though “all men are created equal,” or so they say, some are indeed created more equal than others. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that and know it.

What the global movement is saying to white America is that when black America faces social inequality, income inequality, judicial inequality, political inequality, educational inequality, community development inequality, then something is dreadfully wrong in society. There exists a huge gap between what white America believes and what it practices.

Racism and Cognitive Dissonance…What’s Actually Going on Here?

Is a nationwide cognitive dissonance present? Why do so many argue that America hasn’t really treated Black Americans wrong since the 1960s?

Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance which suggests that most people like to see themselves as good people and feel that America is inherently a good place. The dissonance is caused by the obvious fallacy of this argument based on historical facts and lived experiences. And cognitive dissonance theory shows that in cases where these conflicts arise, people will stick with their core beliefs despite evidence to the contrary.

This cognitive dissonance says that America is and always has been the land of the free and the home of the brave. At the same time, it excuses the fact that the men who founded this nation were mostly slaveholders. We tend to turn a blind eye to the U.S. Constitution allowing the enslavement of African men, women, and children from its passage in 1787 until the thirteenth amendment in 1865.

Seeking Racial Truth to Empower Personal Transformation

How can I become part of the solution? To answer this question, according to Robert Livingston, author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, we must come to grips with three essential concepts.

  1. Understand the problem of racism and where it comes from
  2. Care enough about the problem and the people it harms
  3. Contribute to solve the problem

For some, the existence of systemic racism is hard to accept because it violates the notion that the world is fair and just. But the racial hierarchy created by slavery did not collapse after it was abolished, nor did it end with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, nor the election of Barack Obama as president.

Whether it’s the composition of a company’s leadership team, the composition of one’s neighborhood, or the racial bias in policing, these racial divides continue to show up in America. The difference between a solvable problem and a solved problem is knowledge, truth, determination, and action. All of us must commit to harmonizing lived experiences with historical facts, seeking racial truth and reconciliation to heal the nation. It’s essential to acknowledge that the road to transforming racism starts from within.