Want to be an accomplice for racial justice? Check this List First.
As part of my “Checklist” series, this is a practical checklist for those of us with white privilege to use while engaging in tough conversations, whether one-to-one or within a group.
I’ve compiled this series of lists after facilitating trainings, workshops, and discussions around race, equity, and inclusion. This checklist is for when you’re entering the dialogue from a position of privilege. See my previous checklist on checking your progressive white sanctimony here.
One key to remember: no one (including me!) follows these with perfect adherence. As they say in the recovery community (and what is racism but a disease to recover from?), we aim for “progress, not perfection.”
So, to the list!
1. Be aware that privilege comes with handicaps, liabilities, and blind spots. Privilege isn’t all unearned benefits, it’s blindness too. Privilege may keep me (a white man) from being followed in a store or harassed by police, but we also need to view privilege as a kind of poison that makes us insensitive, ignorant, and unaware. It is its own handicap. James Baldwin would go as far as to point out, privilege, to the extents it puts us on the side of the oppressor, distorts our humanity, right down to our soul.
Growing up in the affluent Northern Virginia suburbs, I took for granted that whenever I saw a police presence, I felt safer. Imagine my genuine (and hopelessly naïve) surprise when I reached college and my first close friends of color shared with me the gut level dread they had at the sight of a blue uniform. This is a reality for so many BIPOC of which I was completely unaware. I was dumb, stupid, ignorant. No other way around it. Privilege made me that way. So, the chances that there were other (and are still other) things I was dumb about was around 100 percent.
2. Do your homework and know your terms. There is a vocabulary for discussing these topics. These terms exist not just in order to be respectful, but because they represent valuable concepts. A few key ones to start off with: privilege, white fragility, whitesplaining, gaslighting, respectability politics, critical theory, diversity, inclusion, equality, equity — these last four are not interchangeable, you should know why.
It’s also valuable to understand there are different types and categories of racism. You should know that “race” (vs. ethnicity) was a concept invented by the West as a justification for colonization and slavery. The people you are discussing these topics with are likely to know or understand many of these things already. If they don’t, learn them together. Definitely avoid “teaching” them, because that has its own pitfalls: see whitesplaining.
3. Equity vs. Equality vs. Justice: This is an important enough distinction and definition to include its own section here. The graphic below demonstrates it best.
When we consider the illustration it’s valuable to consider the point of view of the tallest figure (because that is likely those of us who are privileged). In the first panel, like everyone, he has a box, as the boxes are distributed equally. But the tall figure (us) already has height (representing privilege). As a result of this privilege we don’t actually need the box.
In the second panel we see an example of equity — the resource of the box is redistributed from the figure that doesn’t need it to the shortest one who does. Everyone can see over the fence now. The middle figure who still needs a box, still has one. The shortest has two. But turning back to the tallest figure, we have to recognize that he (we) gave something up. Sure, in the final analysis, as a result of the privilege of height he is (we are) fine. But it still required a sacrifice, a loss even. It is for that reason we must realize the next item: what justice looks like.
4. Equity, and even justice, can look or feel like oppression from the standpoint of privilege. Let’s imagine that the tallest figure had a strong emotional attachment to that box. Let’s go even further and imagine he (we) had a deep attachment to the fence, if for no other reason that it was familiar. Maybe we have fond memories attached to it (note: this is often the argument made in defense of offensive team mascots).
Humans don’t always like change. We don’t like loss. So for the privileged, giving up things can be hard. Being “forced” to may even “feel” like oppression. It may feel especially painful, if we don’t understand the point of view of the shortest figure. Without understanding their story, their pain of not being included, the request to give up our “box” or even the original “fence” can make us feel like we’re the victim. We’re not, but the only antidote to that fallacy is to understand the perspective of all the figures.
5. Am I arguing for the status quo? If so why? A useful set of questions to ask when you are speaking from a position of privilege is this: do I find myself arguing for the status quo? If so why? Thinking back to our graphic above, the status quo is that original fence with the original distribution of boxes. Remember, we might have some attachment to this arrangement for no other reason than familiarity. But our privilege might be blinding us to how this arrangement, as benign as it might be to us, could be harmful to others. Furthermore, our refusal to change might feel like an assault to them! So, if we find ourselves defending the status quo, we should consider why. Is it nostalgia, laziness, or blindness? If we are defending the status quo, we are likely arguing to maintain a structure that is actively causing others pain. If the only barriers are our own emotional attachment or our resistance to change, well those are easily enough overcome. Our discomfort is a small price to pay to helps others. As a bonus, you might rescue your own humanity (see Baldwin reference above).
6. Am I Tone Policing? When we disregard a message because it isn’t delivered in a polished, professional, or objective way — perhaps the tone is not what we’re used to, or “respectful” enough — we’re guilty of “tone policing.” Tone policing becomes an excuse for those in power to dismiss legitimate arguments that come from those feeling the pain of oppression. It also attempts to force the oppressed to speak in a fashion that might not be their own (there is some overlap here with the critique of Respectability Politics). Defensive media commentators — often arguing to defend the status quo — will seek to undermine the legitimacy of peaceful protests of ten thousand people by fixating on the violent behavior of five.
This happens in one-to-one exchanges too. A person’s message might be dismissed simply because they come across as “angry” or “emotional.” That is also tone policing. But let’s face it, it’s hard not to be emotional about these things when they affect you and the people you love. People’s lives are at stake. As privileged listeners, we can indulge the strong emotions of others. It might cause us some discomfort and require restraint on our parts, but that is a small price to pay when racism has been making people pay the ultimate price for hundreds of years.
7. It’s not about you. While consulting with a non-profit trying to address internal issues of racial inequality, I bore witness to an all staff meeting where the junior staff of color had some heated feedback for a particular (white) HR director whom they felt had not done enough to promote their interests. They told him he wasn’t challenging the culture of the organization enough. From their position, they did not have the benefit of insight into the extent to which this HR director had risked his professional and emotional well-being fighting, on their behalf, with senior management. As an outside consultant, I did. I had been cc’ed on the emails in which he pleaded with his superiors. I had listened in on meetings wherein he put his own career on the line for them.
These junior staff drilled hard into this director. He could have easily gotten defensive after all he had done. He had the right to, but he didn’t. Afterwards I asked him how he maintained his equanimity even in the face of some unfair criticism. His response: “I realize it isn’t all about me. Some of their anger is displaced. It’s at the institutions that have wronged them in the past and are wronging them now.” What this HR director realized was that by opening himself up to criticism, in some cases, he was becoming a stand in for larger, faceless institutions. He got some flack he deserved, but some he didn’t. Knowing this, it helped him sort through the feedback and keep his own reactions in check. It was a better conversation for it.
8. It’s REALLY not about you. A trend I’ve observed in the evolving dialogue on racial justice (and even in myself) is actually an over emphasis on privilege, specifically white privilege and whiteness. While this is a critical part of the dialogue, at times the phenomenon of taking on whiteness, defining it, studying it, deconstructing it, runs the risk of just becoming another form of white centeredness. When our critical focus becomes so concentrated on whiteness, at the exclusion of the voices of BIPOC, then we’ve just gone and recreated a stage where whiteness takes up too much space. White centeredness is a tricky thing, just when you think you’re fighting it, you realize it has pulled some serious judo on you and your efforts to eradicate it are just perpetuating it again.
9. Am I keeping historical context in mind? It goes without saying, context is important. There are two contexts to consider. One is the historical context. A lot of privileged people (read: white people) are just waking up to the injustices that BIPOC have been enduring for centuries. So some impatience on the part of BIPOC part is understandable. They have been living and dying through the miasma of racism for generations. We white people are late for the social justice party. So if we’re engaging in tone policing, or being obtuse as to “why these people seem so angry,” turn the question around and ask yourself why you have been so naïve.
10. Am I keeping personal context in mind? The second context is more recent. If the person you are engaging in conversation is a person of color, they have been experiencing injustice and hurting long before you even were aware of it. Keep in mind they might have just experienced some sort of rudeness in their trip to this meeting with you. They might have had a number of painful reminders just since waking up in the morning: news footage of a black man murdered by police, the latest epithet laced tirade of a Karen caught on Instagram, a swastika spray painted onto a wall. Given that, some rawness, impatience on their part is not only understandable, it’s justified. It’s our obliviousness we need to apologize for. Keep that personal context in mind.