An Open Letter to Us White People On Engaging in Race Work (or How to Work With Us White People) By Craig M Elliott II PhD

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.

Dr. Craig Elliott II works as the Assistant Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, CA and holds a rank of Assistant Professor. He received his Ph.D. in Transformative Learning and Change and his doctoral research was on fathering as a feminist experience. Craig is also a trainer, consultant, and speaker on diversity, leadership, and social justice. He has contributed chapters on feminism, fathering, co-authored an article on the transformative nature of medical missions, and an article on the climate of inclusion and equity for publication. He is a Social Justice Training Institute alumnus, a past faculty intern with SJTI, and a Lead facilitator for the LeaderShape Institute. Craig welcomes dialogue and feedback at celliott@samuelmerritt.edu

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12 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Us White People On Engaging in Race Work (or How to Work With Us White People) By Craig M Elliott II PhD

  1. Kristin says:

    Dr. Elliott, thank you for your open letter and continued thought regarding the importance of White people purposefully engaging in this work. Though you state it at the end, I think it important to emphasize that by running away (an emotion I know well) we not only throw our “contributions and consciousness out the window” or “betray our “friends and colleagues with whom [we] have worked” but also continue to thereby ask our colleagues of color to be the ones to name and call out these multiple daily experiences of racism. By choosing our privilege over people, as you state, we further the notion and stereotype that people of color are the only ones who see racism and are hyper-sensitive — a further mircoaggression on our part. I was recently reminded of this in my own behavior by a colleague — knowing about racism and even talking intellectually about it only blusters my academic credentials as a White person. Rather then running, I have to be engaged fully in the work.

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  2. hxing says:

    In other words, bend over so far backwards that not only do you flagellate yourself for being white, also attack other whites who don’t share your self loathing. Only then, will you meet the standards of a “decent person”.

    Lemme share something with you, from a PoC viewpoint. Disbelieve if you want.

    The only whites I have ever respected were the ones who were upfront with their prejudices, but were polite or respected me enough not to treat me differently. That’s friendship and mutual respect. That’s real. Social “justice” for whites is just guilt and shame. The ones with no sense of ethnic and racial pride, the ones that grovel, such as yourself, are the whites I despise the most.

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  3. Wikoli Keli`ikinolua says:

    From another PoC point of view, thank you Craig for your story and your list of what Whites can work toward. I say continue to examine yourself, and systems of oppression which privilege some and oppress others–the examination and dialogue are transformative moments themselves.
    I am NOT comforted by Whites who share their racial, ethnic, linguistic prejudices with me and expect me to have an answer to every experience they have had. I can have that talk, but it takes a lot of time. I find that these isolated comments such as “i might as well not say anything. or i know them, i live near them.” come from a very ahistorical perspective. Similarly I find it to be ahistorical when I read/hear other PoCs accepting racism toward themselves and other communities of color as long as it’s done politely and respectfully to the individual…that’s called assimilation in my book…born out of the oppression.

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  4. The use of the term “privilege” is a slippery slope, Dr. You assume all caucasian people grew up in the same “white culture ” as you did.
    I respectfully submit that I did not. I was not, like you, “trained” to assume an entitled stance toward anyone–for any reason. I was raised to be a decent person and to be as honest as I could and apologize when I wasn’t. I learned to make friends and nurture those friendships. Clearly we are not a monolithic culture, and I protest your painting us all with the same brush. I am an individual, and when I am discounted as such, I will absolutely leave~in search of people who accept me as I am, recognize and respect the work I do in bridge-building, and forgive me when I apologize for mis-steps, which I do frequently. To err is human, and to apologize when one has erred is to take an evolved human step forward in the awareness of oneself as a fallable part of a wonderfully varied species. This I will continue to do, when I am called on my behavior by others and when I realize I have just done something stupid or thoughtless or unkind. I do this whether my friends are pink green black or white. There is a lot of “privilege” I actively disdain, because I do not value these “privileges” as necessary or desirable. I do not own a car, a house, a television, a high tech cell phone because all of these support the status quo, and they are pointless and ruin community. I do not own any diamonds not just because I think they are kind of ugly, but because the diamond trade kills. I live in an urban area, walk or take public transportation, recycle, grow some of my own food. I have a 10 year old computer and a 6 year old cell phone, since to buy new ones puts human beings at mortal risk. I make less than 20,000 a year and do not strive to make more than I need. I have not procreated. I am an out homosexual, an incest survivor and a domestic abuse survivor. Tell me, how am I privileged? Since you know so much about me.
    If you assume that a certain group of people is always and only wrong and guilty, based solely on one physical attribute, And when you work so hard to pin blame on the merest of infractions, you are only going to alienate and make people defensive and you will lose potential allies. Is your brand of social justice about healing the blight of racism or about self righteously beating people down when they don’t get things 100% right according to your lofty standards~ to show that you are one of the Good ones? Just wondering.
    Sometimes it does seem hopeless, and it hurts when one is working on being a good and authentic person and it is either not recognized and/or completely discounted. It hurts when one is blamed for things one has not actively contributed to, or even things one has worked actively to change. I sympathize with your colleague that you and others in the academic institution of social justice so lack even a basic degree of compassion that you would judge her for her human-ness. She made no grave mis-step. Murdered no one. Exploited no one. She was honest about her feelings. Which should not be discouraged. Yes, it’s too bad she feels helpless and I hope she finds people who will see her as an important part of the solution, who will care enough to listen to her and help her find ways to stay with the effort it takes to help heal the horror that is racism. But why on earth are you ragging on this woman when you could be marching into the offices of Shell Oil or the ADPA to demand they stop exploiting the workers of Namibia or Tanzania. Hell, why don’t you go on down to McDonald’s and demand that they stop ruining Indigenous peoples’ lives and homes in the rainforest? I mean come on, you’re all white guys, maybe they’ll listen to you. In any event, I encourage you to set your sites higher, sir. Why don’t you focus your efforts on the people whom racism benefits the most? Quite useless to try to convince me that I am a despicable racist because I happened to be born into a caucasian family, or that I benefitted from racism because my whiteness has obviously provided me a charmed life. Ha! Who are you kidding? Thanks for your offer of additional original sin, but no thanks. Finally, the concept of “race”, even as it is used in the social justice lexicon, fully accepts, validates and lends weight to what is largely a baseless social construct, which except for cultural heritage and pride, is of little practical use except to support the status quo.

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  5. kristataves says:

    Julia, I think you really missed the point here and your rant is a great way to run away. No white person can simply erase the privilege of the color of your skin. It is given to us every single day. This is not about “original sin” or about “guilt”. It’s what happens to us in the way we see ourselves an way others see us. By the way, I’m also female and homosexual and have not procreated. But do people grab their purses when I walk into an elevator? No. Do they watch my every move when I walk into a retail store? No. We absolutely wear our privilege in different ways and internalize it in different ways. The idea that a white person can disavow their privilege by having a six year old cell phone and a ten year old computer is flawed and a form of denial. It sounds like you do some really great work for social justice. You have made some very strong choices and are making a difference in the world and I admire that. But I’m going to call you on this idea that any white person can completely disavow their privilege. Every one of us has ways that we are oppressed and ways we are privileged. It is a complex interrelationship of social location and cultural influences. Every white person has the privilege of the color of their skin. This isn’t a form of original sin, and I think your attempt to deny it by asserting that the author has made it an “original sin” is a form of deflection. It is running.

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