During a recent Becoming an Antiracist Organization training, a white woman wrote something in the chat that derailed our training content for a moment. It impacted our training team of color and the participants in the room. Her quick, damaging side comment read: “I don’t agree with Robin Diangelo’s work on whiteness.”
Boom. Those of us who lead trainings in diversity, equity and inclusion are used to these kinds of comments and the need to mitigate the harm they cause. We knew the racial identity of “White, Ann” (whose name is changed for confidentiality) because in our sessions, we invite participants to add racial identities to their virtual nametags. This is an important way to challenge the myth of race neutrality. As a result, it’s not just “Ann” sharing a perspective in an equity training, it is Ann who identifies as white, sharing. That makes a big difference! What unfolded with her comment was that other white-identified people began agreeing with Ann in the chat and the People of Color in our Zoom room began pushing back.
It’s not surprising that white folks struggle with concepts in Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility. The internet (and perhaps other chat threads) are full of debate. But intellectual debate is not that interesting to me or the other trainers on my team. Here’s what is, and what I realize we need to acknowledge for our training participants.
We make an agreement in our equity trainings to focus on impact over intent.
It is inherently frustrating for me to see a white person challenging the concepts presented in “White Fragility” instead of taking in the concepts we present in antiracism training. As a woman of color, I felt sad and exhausted as I witnessed the exchange. Why don’t white people understand the harm this causes in a mixed-race group? If, like “White Ann,” you are unaware of how such a comment is problematic, let me break it down.
Interrupting a multi-racial learning space on antiracism with intellectual debate, centers white expertise and white comfort. Who knows what the intent was- maybe she felt offended, confused or stuck. But the impact is that a white person took up space with their fragility, discomfort and confusion. Then, they amplified their own fragility in a mixed race space, taking focus off the real learning- how white supremacy systematically harms all of us and what we need to do to dismantle it.
In a mixed race space, white folks get to step back and listen. I understand that you see your questions as urgent, but they can wait. Often, you are confident speaking up in large groups because you have practice being seen and being affirmed for what you say. White supremacy has taught you that your learning needs are more important than the needs of others. Now, you are unconscious of the ways that a question might feel academic to you but land as deeply personally wounding to someone with a different identity. This is the harm your intellectual debate causes. There is a better way!
Triggered on Your Antiracism Journey, White Folks? Try this.
1. Be Humble. Instead of projecting your expertise with an opinion, the antiracist pivot is to approach with humility. Say: “I would love to hear from folks who learned something from this book. “hat did you learn? How are you applying it?”
2. Talk to Other White People. Instead of bringing up your learning needs in a mixed race group, talk to other white folks. Find three white-identified people who think differently than you and pose a neutral question.
Don’t say things like “I totally disagreed with x. What do you think?” Or “this made no sense to me. Can you break it down for me?” These loaded questions will automatically put you into the defensive mode. Your white friends will move into politeness and won’t challenge your thinking. You will walk away feeling confirmed in your beliefs and miss a chance to learn and grow.
3. Shift into a Growth Mindset. Try saying: “I feel like I’m missing an opportunity to broaden my mind in this work. I would love help to see it from a different perspective.” Really listen with curiosity and expect to grow and change.
We Center the Expertise of People of Color
I want to acknowledge the labor our participants of color do in every session that we hold. There is always the risk in multi-racial spaces that whiteness will flare up and cause harm. As we hold space for productive dialogue, we see new ways to structure the conversation to center the expertise of Black-identified people, Indigenous folk and People of Color. We’ll continue to notice and dismantle ways that we’re distracted from the tough work of creating transformational organizational practices.
Deep bows to all of us on this journey. Let us persist, stumble and persist some more.
Together we will arrive.