18 Apr

An Open Letter to Us White Folks on Engaging in Race Work

Reprinted with permission

Photo Credit Liz West

Photo Credit Liz West

Recently, I was participating in a professional development session on microaggressions on our campus. As the conversation moved from theory to the lived experience of those in attendance, powerful and painful stories flowed from many of the participants regarding their experiences on campus and in the broader community, as did stories of intervention and hope from those who have been able to interrupt instances of microaggressions. Towards the end of the session, a white woman colleague expressed her fear of mistaking a mistake (good) but then added: “I might as well just not say anything to anyone any more!” (not good). We had previously engaged in good conversations on privilege, systems of oppression, our campus climate, and what we could do to make a difference. She could have been sharing her frustrations at how to be an ally in the struggle and how to use her privilege to interrupt the cycle of oppression on our campus. But she wasn’t. She was voicing the fear common to White people when we talk about race. And she was running away.

This is an all-too-common experience when working with White people (or others in their dominant identities) in social justice. I am sure many of you have had similar experiences. I was surprised, however, by my reaction to her at that moment: I felt disgust; I felt embarrassment; I felt anger and wanted to verbally pounce on her for her ignorance and cowardly approach to a difficult and important topic; I wanted to look away from the train-wreck that was about to happen; I wanted to get up and leave; I wanted to roll my eyes—I wanted to do anything to not be associated with her. All of this happened in my mind, heart and soul in a manner of microseconds. All these feelings were in contrast to my years in reflecting on my privileges, dialoguing on my role in systems of oppression, finding my place in the work, leading conversations on my campus, presenting at trainings and conferences, consulting, and publishing. In effect, in that moment, I was running away too.

My brain quickly caught up with what was happening and initiated the override sequence. This ability to override has taken me a few years to develop: we White people have been trained to avoid the topic of race, shushed or punished as kids when we acknowledged any kind of difference, and not been taught effective strategies to deal with race and racism in our lives and the world around us. We grew up believing that our version of the world was real and that we were either entitled to anything we wanted or did not have to do anything we did not want to do. Because all of this was training and learning, we can un-train ourselves and learn new models of engaging in race work. The first step to developing an override mechanism is acknowledging that this has not been good for us, that we have real pain behind behaving the way we do, and that continuing to do so is no longer acceptable. Following this path has given me the courage to stay in the difficult conversations and lean into my fear and discomfort rather than running away. Plus, initiating a public, verbal, beat-down of a colleague is never a long-term strategy for coalition building or system change.

These are my expectations of myself in engaging in social justice work. I offer them in this Open Letter to White People as a path for developing and deepening our authentic and systematic engagement toward social change. The path is complex, and often messy, especially as we begin unraveling privilege from our lives.

  1. Don’t Run Away—this is what we do. This is what we are trained to do. We must stop this behavior. For those of you whose inner voice is now saying, “I don’t run away,” that is exactly what I am talking about. The moment we create distance between our self and another, or distance from an issue, we are running away.
  2. Untrain Yourself—We must read, talk, critically reflect on issues, stories, and examples of how injustice and privilege show up in our lives. We must check in with others on our assumptions until we can learn to trust our perspectives again. And then we must act to make changes, which starts the learning cycle again. We need to do our homework.
  3. Lead by Example—We need to stop waiting for someone else to do it. Start down the path of freedom by modeling effective resistance strategies in the moment.
  4. Self As Instrument—We need to share our stories of struggle, success, mistakes, and reconciliation (I hope I have done some of that here). Doing so most importantly illuminates the path for others to follow. In addition, when people see us doing our own work, it creates opportunities for collaboration, which is ultimately what needs to happen to shift the system of oppression.
  5. Support and Encourage—We need to acknowledge the fear and isolation that comes from refusing privilege and shifting an oppressive system. Our support and encouragement is the salve for the hurt that comes from a system trying to keep us in line. It also provides motivation to stay in the work, keep acting for change, and keep trying.
  6. Celebrate the Discomfort—Learning and growing is inherently an uncomfortable process, whether it is muscles growing, learning organic chemistry, or growing in our social justice consciousness. We are learning to swim up stream, and we need our new muscles developed.
  7. Connect to a community—We can’t do this work alone, and people at all stages of development need collaborators and supporters. In addition, we need to create our communities of folk who are willing to engage in the work with us. We need to stop worrying that we will be perceived as white supremacists by having a whiteness dialogue group. Invite people in.
  8. Accountability—We need to express what the expectations are of socially just White people in the organization, why being so is in our holistic interests, and hold our colleagues and ourselves accountable for acting as such.
  9. Take Risks—Actions that interrupt oppression and injustice are often messy and rarely neatly resolved. We need to take the risk to interrupt the cycle even when we are indelicate, inarticulate, or messy ourselves. Find the courage to do what is needed when it is needed.

On reflection, if I did run away from the situation, I felt like I would be throwing all my contributions and consciousness out the window, that I would be betraying my friends and colleagues with whom I have worked, and choosing my privilege over people. While I know that I have worked hard to override these instincts, I am troubled at how strong they still are. It is a reminder for me to not become complacent in my consciousness and actions. It is a reminder too that my contribution to helping to create a socially just world is to stay in, lean into my discomfort, and be okay with the messiness that can come from our efforts to make real change in a system that has hurt, and still hurts, us all. Perhaps in my efforts, I can be a model for other White folks and people in dominant identities in a way that encourages them to take risks to stay in and engage as well.