In my work with organizations around race, power and privilege, I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes we anticipate defensiveness on the part of white people in the group and plan our sessions to accommodate this defensiveness. I’ve begun correcting this pattern and setting goals more proactively. At the same time, I have become hyper aware that a primary reasons we’re doing this work is that people of color may feel unsafe, unsupported, and even silenced. I’ve been wondering how to make their needs a higher priority in the work.
“My weariness is rooted in realizing how often starting the race conversation with white privilege automatically centers the experience of white folks.” Austin Channing Brown
In the midst of my pondering, I received an illuminating post. In White Privilege Weariness, Austin Channing Brown writes that she is weary of “how often starting the race conversation with white privilege automatically centers the experience of white folks.” When this happens, people of color “must manage their own expectations, emotions, language, questions, frustrations.” The post, which I highly recommend, made me stop and think about my work with organizations. How do we do work around privilege without playing right into it? How do we create a space where we work to undo some of the dynamics of privilege as we learn?
When people of color share in a group setting, it is often to educate white people. I am intrigued by Austin Channing Brown’s idea of hosting a workshop “Where people of color talk, vent, laugh, cry and affirm one another’s racial realities.” In this workshop, white people would be observers with specific rules for engagement, and would be required to manage their own learning and emotions. She says, “I wonder if white privilege could be taught by eliminating even the small privileges/rules that typically serve white folks well in a classroom setting.” This idea intrigues me because it flips the existing paradigm and brings people of color front and center.
How can we create a truly inclusive space where the needs of the privileged don’t dominate?
Things have changed for the better since the old days of diversity training. There is now recognition that we can’t have a meaningful discussion about race without acknowledging white privilege. We are now also beginning to recognize other privileges that come along with racism. I count myself among those who are both impacted by racism as a mixed-race person, and privileged by my light-skin and racially ambiguous appearance. Privilege, whether based on race, class, gender, or other social factors, constantly plays out in group interactions. This is complicated by the fact that we hold multiple identities, some more privileged than others. We may be more aware of the ways that we are impacted by oppression than the privileges we have. How can we create a truly inclusive space where the needs of the privileged don’t dominate? Here are a few thoughts.
One thing we can do is notice and steer away from patterns of care-taking the privileged. This means not allowing the feelings, needs, and concerns of white people dominate the agenda or the space. It means asking white people to check their privilege. It means acknowledging the shame and guilt around privilege and pointing out that it is on a different plane than the trauma of oppression. It means considering the needs of people of color, who are often marginalized within their own workplaces, and making efforts to bring their needs to the center of the conversation. It also means encouraging people to take responsibility for their own learning, rather than relying on people of color to be their teachers.
To do this we need to make room for different perspectives and for the range of emotions that are part of the experience of oppression, without blaming and shaming people. Conversations often get derailed by privilege when people of color are blamed or silenced. I have seen people of color being isolated for speaking out about racism in many different organizations. I have also seen people become silent after speaking their truth and being met with dismissive and defensive reactions. Sometimes people of color are criticized for the way things are said, and the substance of what they are saying is ignored. A paradigm shift starts with truly hearing the voices of people of color on their own terms, not as educators or caretakers for white people.
Part of making the space safe for people from marginalized groups is making it a norm to address comments that have a negative impact. Shared responsibility for this is important, so that people can learn to be aware and supportive of one another. I have found it essential to work with managers in advance and create a planning team so that there is shared responsibility for holding the space. It is very valuable when facilitators and organizational leaders model hearing feedback and accounting for negative impact. This helps the organization build the awareness and skills needed to continue the work without a consultant to support them.
White Privilege Weariness gave me much food for thought. I am thankful to Austin Channing Brown for her work and for writing this piece. From now on, I will be more intentional about shifting the dynamics of privilege and working with groups to share in this responsibility.