We Are Failing: Reflections on the Lack of Preparedness of White People in Conversations about Race

Last night, I saw Dr. Ken Hardy speak at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. The title of his talk, which was more of an interactive discussion than a lecture, was Color Blind, Color Blind: On Being Non-White in White Spaces. During the hour and a half discussion, Dr. Hardy challenged a few of the white students in the room to speak on either what they were feeling or what their experience was regarding their fellow students of color speaking on feelings of not belonging in the space (including from faculty of color).

I have been reflecting on what that experience was like; how it felt to see every white person who was given the microphone [faculty included], have such a hard time even talking about race, let alone their own whiteness. There were times that it made me angry, and even more, disappointed. Then, to see those same white students come up to Dr. Hardy crying afterwards to apologize and whatever else they did.

For some time, I have been thinking about the question:

What would it look like for white people to come prepared to conversations about race?

As stated by many Black students last night, as well as Black faculty, this preparedness for them is mandatory in many ways, for survival, to navigate any white space.

For me, this preparedness for white people means doing the internal work around not only whiteness as a constructed racial identity with real implications for ourselves and for people of color, but additionally, understanding whiteness as a positionality, both, within institutions and structures. Building a conscious relationship with race to actively understand the impact of white supremacy and domination on every decision we make.

What would it take for white students (also white people in general) to grapple with the reality that we are implicated in other people’s lives? That it is not enough to ‘empathize’ with people of color’s positionalities, but to understand that we are both actively and passively responsible for that positionality? That every action we take (or don’t take) will have a racialized impact?

This lack of preparedness affects the impacts we cause and our participation in marches, in organizing work, in everything that we think we are doing for racial justice, or ‘to fight racism’.

What makes me so disappointed in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work is that as white people, we so often do not do the internal and foundational work necessary to even begin to be involved in DEI work. We are failing at being prepared.

White people need to be doing the work to understand our racial positionality in our own families, friendships, and relationships (beyond the work space and beyond viewing only spaces with people of color as impacted by race). We need to be deconstructing the white intimacies of our lives. Without doing this work of risking, challenging, and sacrificing, I fail to see how our work in DEI will be even remotely towards the purpose of racial justice.