Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice

reviewed by Lisa Albrecht - February 24, 2012

coverTitle: Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice
Author(s): Mark R. Warren
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0199751250, Pages: 320, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a white person, my life and work is about working for racial justice. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but I’ll continue on this learning journey for as long as I am alive.  I am where I am today because of many women of color feminists who saw something in me starting in the 1970’s (and continuing today).  Their generosity of spirit combined with their tough love have helped me choose this path.  I also know how important it is to find role models because we, white people, don’t have many visible white people to look toward.  As white people, we have a difficult time talking with each other about race and racism. We mostly remain dependent on the good will of people of color to educate us. In my own experience, that good will has worn thin because many people of color are just plain tired of educating us white folks.  We don’t know the histories of many white people who have worked for racial justice, and we rarely know white people today who are doing this work.  This is Mark Warren’s gift to us.

In the opening of Fire in the Heart, he asks: “How do people who are not themselves victims of discrimination come to develop a commitment to act for racial justice?” (p. xi). Though this book does not focus exclusively on educators, it offers white readers (and, of course, people of color) many learning opportunities.  Warren interviewed fifty white people across three activist arenas where racial justice is central to organizing – education, criminal justice and community organizing/development.  All the interviewees speak to institutional change as central to their work.

As I read this book, I often thought about what W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folks: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”  These words echoed in my head because we are in the 21st century and we have not yet figured out how to dismantle white supremacy.  In fact, in many settings, particularly in education, the disparities continue to widen between people of color and whites.  Warren notes that residential segregation persists, as does the failure of school desegregation.  We don’t have many opportunities to interact cross-racially; thus, few white people have meaningful relationships with people of color.

This leaves us white people at a loss.  Without meaningful relationships, we fall back on racist media stereotypes of people of color, and using what we think is well-intentioned language we say we are “color-blind.”  This insidious form of racism implies that we don’t see color when we look at someone.  Think about that, please.  Unless you are a person without sight, all of us see race.

Warren challenges us to think beyond what he calls the “interest/altruist” approach to addressing racial justice. The interest model focuses on coalition work; it is in our shared interests that we white people align ourselves with people of color to eradicate racism.  In the charitable altruist model, we white people want to work for racial justice for people of color, without considering why we must do this for our own humanity, and by working with people of color. Neither approach really gets at Warren’s question.  

Warren goes to great length to discuss the key themes he discovered through his ethno-sociological analysis of the interviews.  Many of us white people feel shock and anger when we hear stories of racial injustice.  However, Warren says that it is only through “seminal experiences,” that we come to have some understanding of how racism impacts people of color.  These experiences don’t often happen in classrooms, but in emotional contexts where white people actually engage with people of color experiencing racism.  Those of us who take the next steps move beyond a “do-gooder” mentality toward building genuine relationships with people of color.  Through these relationships, some white people may even earn the trust of people of color in our lives.  As a result, we learn to be both responsible and accountable to ourselves, to other white people, and to people of color beyond our immediate circles.  I agree with Warren when he articulates that over time, we white people begin to envision a new kind of humanity based on connecting deeply with all peoples. Our visions are not based solely on academic knowledge, but on a new morality we learn to develop that involves opening our hearts and allowing ourselves to feel (as best as we can) the pain of racism. We also learn that we are not full human beings because racism denies us our full humanity. In time, we begin to feel the genuine pain of racism too.

As a racial justice activist, writer and educator, I found myself not only agreeing with Warren’s analysis, but often saying aloud and emphatically “yes!,” as I read each chapter. There is a growing body of literature within the academy known as Whiteness Studies. I have tended to shy away from it because many of the books focus less on activism and more on intellectual analysis. Pontificating about racism is just another excuse for us white people to not to act as far as I am concerned. Over the past twenty years, there have been several fine books that explore ways that we white people can work for racial justice.  The writings that I feel are the strongest are not in the form of traditional academic treatise; they combine memoir, story, theory and practice and include books like Mab Segrest’s Memoir of a Race Traitor (1994), Francie Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships (2006), and Julie Landsman’s, A White Teacher Talks About Race (2001).

I wanted to really love Fire in the Heart, but ironically I did not feel Mark Warren’s own fire within his heart.  He continually reminded us of his role as the distanced academic researcher.  I would have much preferred this study to have been framed as participatory research, with Warren embedding his own stories beside the narratives of the people he interviewed.  In his writing, when Warren uses the words “white people,” he follows with the pronoun, “they.” This distancing of self was not only awkward, but quite discouraging.  Until we white writers bring our hearts and selves to these projects, I fear that we will not be able to build the critical mass of white people we need to work for racial justice.  This doesn’t mean you should not read Warren’s book.  Please do.  It’s a step in the right direction.


DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: McClurg.

Kendall, Frances (2006). Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race. N.Y.: Routledge.

Landsman, Julie (2001). A White Teacher Talks About Race. Md.: Scarecrow Press.  

Segrest, Mab (2002). Born to Belonging:  Writings on Spirit and Justice. N.J.:  Rutgers U. Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16714, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:27:38 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Lisa Albrecht
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    LISA ALBRECHT is Associate Professor and Morse-Minnesota Alumni Association Distinguished Professor of Teaching at the University of Minnesota, where she founded and teaches in the undergraduate minor in Social Justice. She co-edited (with Rose Brewer) Bridges of Power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances, and co-edited (with Jacqui Alexander, Sharon Day and Mab Segrest) Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray!: Feminist Visions for a Just World. She is working on a collection of stories about white people who work for racial justice. She is a member of the leadership team of SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice (www.usforallofus.org), a national network of groups and individuals with a mission to organize white people to work for racial justice. SURJ is part of a growing multi-racial majority that works for justice with passion and accountability. SURJ also works to connect people across the country while supporting and collaborating with local and national racial justice organizing efforts. SURJ provides a space to build relationships, skills, and political analysis to act for change.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue