Beyond Good Intentions: Homework for White People

Last night, I attended an event called Unraveled Networks: Beyond Good Intentions.

I first want to make it clear that I’m deeply grateful to Pollen for hosting this event, and to the panelists for getting up in front of a room full of people and talking about race. Few topics are less comfortable to discuss in this country, and they got up in front of a crowded room willing to talk about it both from a personal and organizational perspective.

The event was described as:

“an honest, difficult conversation about how Minnesota nonprofit organizations can break down cultural silos shaped by race and social class, and build more authentic, institutional relationships that value equity, true collaboration, and new forms of community.
Unraveled Network: Beyond Good Intentions will help us address the fear and discomfort that confronting systemic racism creates in traditionally white-led organizations, and the role it plays in propagating closed networks. How do we open up our networks, acknowledge the existence of white supremacy, and build new, equitable connections? What are the intentional and practical changes we can embrace to be more mindful of our network-building practices? This conversation will involve sharing and listening at a deep level.”

As a leader in an organization publicly committed to diversity and inclusion, and as a director on several non-profit boards, this topic is deeply relevant to me. I showed up ready to discuss what we, as white leaders, can do to drive change. Right now. Today.

But, unfortunately, a good portion of the discussion revolved around white feelings of confusion and discomfort. It was frustrating because most of us showed up wanting to talk about what to do — and that frustration could be heard during the audience Q&A. I didn’t want to hear about how staff was getting diversity training, or vague discussions about “figuring it out” — I wanted to talk about actual steps we are taking to dismantle white supremacy in organizations. I certainly didn’t want to hear any fussing about the phrase “white supremacy” making white people feel bad.

This tweet sums up how I felt as I left last night:

I raised my hand to speak during Q&A, but many other voices needed to be heard, and we ran out of time. But, here’s what I wanted to say:

Educate (yourself)

The first and most important thing that we need to do as white people is to educate ourselves on the experiences of people of color in our world, and especially in our country. We cannot dismiss history and say, “Let’s focus on the future now.” We first have to make peace with our bloody, racist past. And if thinking about that past makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how it makes people of color feel. Sit with it for a minute or sixty. It’s not the job of people of color to make us feel better about it, it’s our job to look at that past, recognize how it affects the present, and take action to make change right now. We can’t be meandering on a slow journey. This is now. It is a luxury to grimace and say, “We’re still learning.” That’s a cop-out. There are a million ways to educate yourself — if you haven’t, then you need to admit that it’s because you don’t HAVE to. You get to decide whether you make time for this or not. And hey, I get it: I have two kids, a full-time job, serve on non-profit boards, attempt some semblance of self-care and try to maintain friendships, too. So I understand the constraints of space and time. But this is urgent.

I don’t know what that education should look like for you, but I can tell you some of the ways I’ve started to educate myself. And this is just a start — I have a long way to go, but I am making time to get better as fast as I can.

Read: Seek out works by authors of color. This can be fiction, non-fiction, blogs, magazines…anything. I am reading about the experiences and perspectives of people of color and seeking to understand. I am trying to learn about systemic racism and my part in it.

Listen: Podcasts are awesome! Find some! Listen, listen, listen. I pay attention to stuff that surprises me or makes me uncomfortable. Listening to these conversations gives me an awareness of the many ways — often invisible to me — that my whiteness benefits me. Admitting that we have a problem is the first step.

Watch: Seek out entertainment created by people of color. Again, this can be narrative or documentary, entertainment or educational. And this isn’t all about watching Roots or 12 Years a Slave, because being a person of color in America isn’t all about slavery — seek modern stories that help you understand the world through different eyes, or just get your eyes used to seeing mostly non-white people. Avoid white savior stories.

  • Here are a few TV show ideas: Jane the Virgin, Empire, Luke Cage, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Black-ish, Master of None, Living Single.
  • And here is Slate’s Black Film Canon

Participate: Seek out events by organizations that you are not familiar with. Diversify your networks by going into spaces where you don’t know everyone. But be aware of taking up too much space as a white person — if you are at an event for people of color, understand that your presence may not be welcome. If you’re not sure, ask before you go. And if you’re there, remember to listen way more than you speak. Remember that it’s not the job of people of color to make you feel better. There are lots of options for this once you start looking around. One of the things I did in the last year was attend an open house and education session at a mosque in St. Paul. I got to learn more about Islam and share a meal with a bunch of people I didn’t know.

Follow: I have make a concerted effort to follow people of color on Twitter. It’s not hard — start with an author or podcaster you like, and Twitter will start suggesting other people to follow. At events, I pay attention to voices of color who are tweeting, and I follow new people. I try to amplify voices of color and use my network to broaden their reach. This has drastically diversified the content of my Twitter feed.

Advocate

Once I started to better understand the experience of being a person of color in America, I could begin to see how my whiteness contributes to that experience (even though I’m a really nice person!). I could see the power that I have and started to recognize the ways in which I could use that power to advocate for other people. Advocacy (or ally-ship) can look like a lot of things: it can mean nominating someone for a board position who might not otherwise be “seen”, it could mean repeating an idea in a meeting and giving credit to ensure that it is heard and attributed to the right person, it could mean demanding access on behalf of another person. Nancy Cassutt of MPR told a story last night about Mukhtar Ibrahim, an MPR journalist who was turned away from covering a story at the courthouse (despite having press credentials). She talked about calling the courthouse on his behalf and demanding an apology. That is an example of how we can use our power, privilege, and access for good.

Get out of the way.

Guess what? Creating more diverse organizations means that some of us white people are going to need to step out of the way. This is the hardest, but most important, thing we need to do. Now that I’m better educated about this, I know that it’s my job at work, and as a board member of GiveMN, Bollywood Dance Scene, and Still Kickin to be thinking about who can take my place. That’s hard to do because I’ve worked hard to get to where I am. I am a driven and ambitious person. I believe strongly in the organizations I serve. I don’t want to give up my hard-earned seats, but I do need to be the change I want to see.

What’s Next

As part of my job as COO of Clockwork, I’ve been having lots of discussions with our CEO about what diversity and inclusion mean to us and our organization, and how we can continue to turn those beliefs into action. Yesterday, just hours before the Pollen event, we came up with the following:

Diversity is about the things that make each of us unique. Diversity — in all ways — is valuable to us as people, and as an organization. We value differences. This means that we make an effort to invite and attract a variety of people.
Inclusion is creating a space where a diverse group of people feel a sense of belonging. This means creating, and constantly evolving, a respectful culture.

These two things are hard. As humans, it’s easier to be around people who are the same as we are. Whether it’s gender or race or language or religion, there is a sense of relief when we are with people who are obviously the same as us in some way. Committing to diversity means working harder to find the less obvious ways that we are the same, and being respectful of the ways in which we are different. That’s hard. It means that whatever cultural shorthand we have with people who are the same as us, we may not be able to use as a crutch. It means we might have to work harder to learn how to pronounce an unfamiliar name. It means not asking the people of color around us to educate us, but educating ourselves. It means remembering that pointing out differences can make people feel alienated (even when we think we’re just showing curiosity about their “interesting” name or wondering “where they’re from.”).

Admitting that we have white privilege is not saying that we are racist (But you know what, white friends? We are. We all are. We’ve got to work on it, all the time. Me. You. All of us.). Admitting that we live in a country of white supremacy (even though we have a black President!) isn’t saying that we ourselves are white supremacists. Wringing our hands and fussing about this stuff in front of people of color, forcing them to listen to our whining or make us feel better is making everything worse. We have work to do. Let’s get to it.