Ways to talk about racism and whiteness with whites
Question: “I was asked to do a workshop on whiteness and white fragility by my organization and it was a train wreck”.
Answer: I wish that I could ask this person more about what happened and what could they have done differently. Often when I hear these stories, what happened was that folks come in and talk about what whiteness is, what racism is, and how we’re not doing enough. And the energy is low, and participants aren’t engaged. If it’s a lot of telling and speaking, generally it’s going to be a train wreck.
My book, But I’m Not Racist, has a lot of different tools and strategies that I use when I work with whites. I like to have them come in and talk about their passion for creating an inclusive racially just organization where people of color succeed and thrive just the same as whites.
I ask them, “What’s your passion for creating a racially just organization?” Then we talk about it. After that, I might have them review a list of ten common racist dynamics and microaggressions that happen and talk about which ones they’ve seen. Or I might have them review the unproductive meeting behaviors, and which ones they’ve seen from whites towards people of color and what the impact was. Something to get them to realize it’s more than just an isolated incident, that there are patterns.
I might also have them look at a much longer list of microaggressions that I’ve collected from people of color in the organization about their experience at work and in the local community. I call that the Gallery Activity. You can collect stories live, but you can also collect them ahead of time.
The intent is to get people talking about their passion and where the organization is in terms of equity and inclusion. They may or may not have a realistic view, so helping them hear from the voices of folks of color can help. You can tell some stories, share a quick video, or short handwritten vignettes, but it is important that you make sure they’re generic enough that no one knows where the incident happened. For example, you could say that you collected these this last month from this organization. That can help get whites out of their head into their heart.
The resistance will likely come up when participants start to recognize that these racist dynamics happens. Then the conversation can shift to discussing the impacts of these common dynamics and behaviors of whites. My handouts include a list of common unproductive behaviors and attitudes of whites that are rooted in our socialization. Examples include that we interrupt people of color more than we do our white colleagues, listen more intently to whites than to people of color, when a presenter that we don’t know comes in and one is a person of color and one is white, we assume that the white is the leader. These are just common racist dynamics I’ve heard for over thirty years. I’ve done every single one of them.
You’re in a meeting and a person of color says something, it kind of plops and nobody follows up. Two minutes later a white person says something similar and they love the idea. If you take about twenty of those common behaviors that happen in meetings to discuss, that can help the conversation. Then you might say, “So what are the racist attitudes underneath these that might have whites unconsciously doing these behaviors?”
Notice how many times I have said probably, might, maybe, and unconscious. Most whites are coming in at a readiness and competence level of a two or three on a scale of 1 to 10 and haven’t done their work as whites. So, meeting them where they are, in a way that supports them moving forward with minimal resistance is my strategy. If I come in and say, “You all have racist attitudes, here they are, let’s talk about them, what can you do?” and bring that energy, many will shut down and not want to attend any future workshops of affinity spaces.
I was working with a group this week where I thought that I could move faster, and then I realized that they’re in organizations where folks are actively racist. I knew that if they could get five people to a workshop to look at race dynamics and what we can do with whites to create greater racial justice, that would be a miracle. They were very early themselves, so I slowed down and gave them time to talk about their socialization and I shared about mine. There was no blame or shame, just an opportunity to tell the truth.
In summary, whether you’re facilitating a workshop around whiteness or another kind of workshop, the needs assessment is essential for finding out how willing they are, how ready are they are emotionally, and what their current capacity is around diversity, equity, and inclusion.