In light of several recent high-profile murders of black people, I’ve debated whether or not to write anything.
On one hand, words are cheap and do little to express the outrage, pain, and sadness I feel about these events, as well as how I feel about some people’s responses to these events. They’re even cheaper when attempting to use words to empathize with people whose everyday suffering merely because of the color of their skin is far beyond what I experience in my own life. Compounding this with trying to express and discuss anything meaningful within the gutters of social media only seems to make it more trivial.
On the other hand, silence can be worse.
So, to my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and millions of other people of color who I don’t even know personally, I am truly sorry for the pain, anguish, injustice, and immorality that our culture, system, and society has and is causing you. There is no excuse. No justification. No rationalization. It is unacceptable. Rather than try to share, focus on my feelings, and water down what can’t really be expressed with words, I’d rather listen to how you are feeling, hear your stories, and support you however I can. Should you want to reach out and talk, I am here to support you. Should you choose to process in other ways, I respect and appreciate you taking care of yourself, however that may look.
What I do want to speak to is how we, as white people, engage in conversations, situations, and systems involving race. Not just now, but moving forward. Not just in social media or with friends, but also in our communities and our organizations. Whether it’s because we feel ashamed, guilty, ignorant, nervous, uncomfortable, or defensive, too often our behaviors unconsciously perpetuate racism instead of eliminating it. Good intentions aren’t enough. Diversity trainings aren’t enough. Even speaking out isn’t enough. We need to cultivate the humility and courage to confront ourselves and the institutions we participate in if we want to address racism and injustice at its core.
Although there are no quick fixes, the following are some actions we, as white people, can take to begin addressing racism. I offer them not from a place of having it all figured out or making anyone wrong or bad, but of sharing what I’ve learned and what I’ve found helpful to begin making a difference. If you are a white leader who wants to create change, I encourage you to take these actions.
If you only choose to do one thing, choose to listen. Too often, white people talk to avoid facing our pain, discomfort, shame, or guilt. Talking typically includes:
- Justifying: “Well, what that person really meant was …”
- Minimizing: “It’s not really that bad – look how far we’ve come!”
- Denying: “Are you sure that’s what really happened?”
- Advising: “Well, you should look at it this way (my way) instead.”
- Equalizing: “We white people have problems too!”
- Disowning: “I’m not racist because …”
- Rationalizing: “Well, not everyone is bad!”
- Diverting: “But what about …?”
Not only do none of the above responses resemble anything like listening; they also reinforce racism by prioritizing our “message” above someone else’s experience, implying that our perspective is more accurate, and putting the focus on ourselves. A core element of racism is a dominant group seeing themselves as superior. Both prioritizing our message above a person of color’s experience and implying that our (white) perspective is more accurate (“see it MY way, not yours”) are forms of superiority that reinforce racism. By listening, we can get a more accurate understanding of how racism shows up and actions we can take to support people of color and take action.
There are many ways to develop your listening, some of which I wrote about in this post. We don’t need to fix, educate, or solve anything. We can simply listen. (And by the way, listening doesn’t just apply when talking about race – it applies when having conversations around just about anything.)
Thirty years ago there were far fewer resources and means by which to educate oneself about racism. Now, between the abundance of books, videos, training, articles and other resources that are widely available, there is no excuse to not be able to educate ourselves. A simple Google search with keywords such as “books about racism” or “movies about racism” will bring up plenty of resources. Instead of looking to people of color to educate us (which again makes the conversation about us), we can do some research and use what’s already available. As part of this research, we can also learn about what racism really means (spoiler: it’s not just about using racial slurs or actively disliking people of color). Additionally, go beyond current events to learn about racial issues that are buried under the table (for example, despite the many injustices that Native people have and currently face, Native people and issues are often left out of the conversation and ignored by mainstream media, which is another form of racism).
Lastly, when people of color are sharing their experiences, histories, or information, they ARE educating us. Often, we just choose not to listen because the information isn’t delivered in a way that makes us feel comfortable.
Confront your biases
As white people who hold more power in our society (whether we want it or not, or regardless of how much we may also suffer) and being humans with biases, having racially-biased thoughts, ideas, or perspectives isn’t a matter of IF – it’s a matter of HOW. As humans, our brains are wired for bias (as my colleague Deena Pierott says, “If you have a brain, you have a bias.”). Because racism isn’t necessarily a matter of hate or dislike, but also of superiority or “rightness,” there are often subtle, unconscious, and unintentional ways our racial biases show up. If we want to create change, our job is to recognize and counteract these biases. Some examples of often unnoticed racial biases include:
- Talking in ways that resemble the above examples in the section about listening
- Valuing statistics or external “evidence” over someone’s experience
- Believing there is a right or better (typically in ways that align with white values) way to speak, parent, dress, protest, engage in conflict, express sexuality, dance, eat, socialize, etc.
- Assuming that our legal, educational, law enforcement, organizational, and other institutional systems treat people of color the same as white people, or focusing on the exceptions
- Being more outraged or bothered by how we’re impacted instead of how people of color are impacted (being more upset by looting than the fact that innocent people of color were murdered by police officers, being more annoyed that a football game was “interrupted” than learning about everyday injustice that literally results in people being killed)
- Being put out by conversations about race (“I don’t want to have to talk about it all the time,” “Enough already,” “Can’t we just move on?”)
- Making yourself out to be free of racial bias while pointing the finger at other white people (assuming others are the problem, but not you; perpetuating a good/bad or right/wrong dichotomy; believing that any political party is free of racism)
Although it can be difficult to both recognize and acknowledge our racial biases, addressing them within ourselves instead of pointing the finger at others is far more impactful. We must, as Gandhi’s oft-quoted saying goes, be the change.
Own your shame and guilt
I believe that shame and guilt are two of the biggest barriers for us as white people to address and work towards eliminating racism. We often take people of color’s feelings, statements, or facts about racism personally or as anti-white (again, making it about us) instead of listening to what’s being said, empathizing, and being allies. We believe we are somehow directly responsible, bad, or imperfect, and this triggers our shame and guilt. At this point, it becomes impossible to take in anything that’s being said or look at ourselves objectively.
In general, someone expressing anger towards you doesn’t make you a bad person, or necessarily even mean anything about you. It simply means that the other person feels angry. Instead of talking, focusing on your shame or guilt, or getting defensive, these are great opportunities to stop talking, become present, and listen. Listen to empathize. Listen to understand. Listen to learn. Listen to support. (Again, these are good skills to use in most conversations.) And, if there is a follow-up action to take, take it.
For better or worse, based on how our human brains are wired, it’s “normal” to have a certain degree of biased thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors (this applies to any type of “ism” such as sexism, classism, ageism, etc.). These biases don’t make us inherently bad – they make us human.
The real issue is when we deny, avoid looking at, dismiss, defend, or minimize our biases. This is especially true when someone points them out or shares a way they’ve felt harmed by our words or actions. Our existence as white people isn’t the problem – our resistance to hearing and acknowledging what’s true, our unwillingness to look at ourselves and our systems, and our avoidance of speaking up and taking a stand for what’s right are some of the problems. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable to see our biases (and we may feel shame or guilt about them), but uncovering and counteracting our biases as best we can is essential in order for us to learn, grow, and create meaningful change. We all make mistakes – what matters is how we respond to them.
There is no shortage of examples of how racism shows up in everyday life and organizational culture. Whether it’s around who gets hired or promoted (and who doesn’t), who gets arrested and receives more severe sentencing for the exact same crimes (or even when crimes weren’t committed), who gets to make the decisions around laws, policies, and rules, or whose voices are heard, we can start to name these inequities and take action to change them. This is especially true if you are in a position of power (such as a manager), have influence, or hold decision-making authority.
This isn’t about shaming other white people, looking good, or “saving” people of color – it’s about speaking the truth and doing the right thing in order to create a more equitable, just, and fair world – for everyone. I believe that most white people want this kind of world; however, making it a reality requires moving towards the places that feel uncomfortable and taking a hard look at ourselves, our culture, and our systems.
These actions aren’t meant to be taken alone. As white leaders, we can support and challenge one another to confront racism and look at our part in perpetuating it. We can come together to address injustices and inequities in our systems and, as people whose voices are more likely to be heard and as people with relatively more power to change these systems, take collective action. Whether individually or with others, the following are some questions for reflection:
- How do you respond to conversations around racism? What feelings and thoughts arise?
- What are some ways you believe your ways to be right or better in areas such as speaking, dress, parenting, or other everyday behaviors? How many of those so-called right ways align with the values of white and/or European culture?
- How can you improve as a listener?
- How can you address racist behavior in ways that supports awareness, growth, and action without shaming, one-upping, or making other white people wrong or bad?
- What would it mean for you if every story, fact, or piece of data about racism and people of color’s experiences were completely true?