This past May in Change-Makers, RVC capacity-building coach Uma Rao stirred the pot – in a good way – with the post “When we hire white folks to work in communities of color, it can get confusing.” In it, she raised important questions and challenges to white people working in communities of color. Moved by this, I was inspired to try a “white people helping white people” perspective based on my two years working as a white person at RVC. Beyond the difference in race, I bring my super-power – incredible laziness – to this topic in hopes it might be useful to white colleagues who follow the blog.
Many people say working as a white person in communities of color is difficult, nuanced, and requires high levels of work and commitment. Sure, maybe – but I’m not sure I want to work that hard. Instead, here are six lazy rules I’ve learned at Rainier Valley Corps for getting along as a white person in a People of Color (PoC)-led social justice non-profit. They are way easier than you think:
- Ignore what’s in your heart
- Commit to a pattern of repeated failure
- Coast on your status as a symbol
- Strategically shirk events and meetings
- Stand on the sidelines
- Be known primarily for consistent attendance
Now I’ll admit these are less rules I consistently live by, and more observations that when I follow them, things go better for me and the people around me at RVC. Every workplace is different, so your mileage will vary. Additionally, I am fortunate to have the love and support of a staff of incredible PoC co-workers who have tolerated, corrected, nurtured, and encouraged my progress. So on that foundation, let’s unpack:
1. Ignore what’s in your heart – by focusing on your work instead of you.
We all have important things in our hearts. What’s in mine drives my commitment to RVC. And every day I’m at work, I honor that commitment by never bringing it up. Because as a white person, all that deep conviction about being a good person is at best just suuuuper boring, and more likely harmful. In a world crowded with white people jamming the channel with heartfelt euphemisms for “It wasn’t me,” your heartfelt declarations are just going irritate your colleagues.
Don’t misunderstand – it’s not bad to have a good heart. By all means, reflect and struggle and commit to interior goodness. But you can keep all those musings to yourself, just like the poetry you wrote in 6th grade. Seriously, nobody wants to see that stuff. Skipping the performance art will save everyone tons of time. Instead of attending to you and your delicate spirit, attend instead to your work.
One trick that helps me stay focused on the work is to adopt a working definition of racism in which every white person is racist. If you want background on how this is derived, these are a couple of great sources. It doesn’t matter if those definitions match how you were raised or whatever – they don’t change anything about you, but the language will help you interact smoothly with the people in your organization.
Using this global, systemic frame saves you from losing your cool whenever the word ‘racism’ comes up. “Am I (gasp!) racist? Are they talking about me? My stars, perish the thought!” If you seize up every time “privilege” or “racism” or “dominant culture” comes up, then your organization is going to have to put a fainting couch in every room in the office. Trust me, they do not have budget for that.
Instead, let “racist” just be an interesting synonym for white people, and the behaviors that contribute to a system that oppresses people who aren’t read as white. You are less likely to lose your cool when you hear the word “racist” or “colonization” or “dominant culture.” In a workplace where progressive vocabulary is flying like popcorn, this is FREEDOM!
Imagine never having to explain to someone how you’re not racist. How much time will you save? (Hint: lots.) All those unsatisfying arguments that you won’t have. All those stories about your saintly grandparents and non-white best friends you won’t have to repeat. Even more than your own time, imagine how much of your PoC colleagues’ time you will save! (I have been assured they will be thanking you, even if they don’t say so out loud.)
2. Commit to a pattern of repeated failure – by taking correction, learning, and improving.
If you are white like me, you probably stink at social justice work in communities of color. But take heart, because expectations are super low! If you have not done this kind of work, in these environments, for long, long periods of time, then … it’s likely you’re terrible at it. You lack the lived experiences, the honed awareness, that racially sensitive je ne sais quoi that your colleagues receive as an unwelcome bonus for living in our society and economic system. How do you square your burning desire to do anti-racist work with your incompetence? By accepting that you are going to fail. Repeatedly.
I have repeatedly failed at my work, but I have also been buoyed up by the soft bigotry of my PoC colleagues’ low expectations. They don’t seem to expect me to get it right all the time. It’s as if…they had years of experience seeing white people act clueless about racism and anti-racist work. What they demand, and I try to demand for myself, is that I understand and admit when I got something wrong, make amends, learn, and try to do better. A couple years in, it’s not clear that I make fewer mistakes, but I hope I make the same mistake fewer times before moving on to new ones
In some situations (I’m told the cool kids call them “spaces”), your colleagues won’t have the time to slow down for you or tolerate your error rate. More experienced, mostly PoC folks around you will direct you to places where you can do good work and not burn the house down. But no matter what you are working on, if you bake in this expectation of repeated failure – and correction – and learning, you can find ways to contribute, all the while avoiding the trap of “I don’t have anything to learn, because if I did, then I would be racist, and then <head explodes> so let me explain why I don’t have anything to learn.”
3. Coast on your status as a symbol – by being aware of the impact your whiteness has on your colleagues, clients, and organizational brand.
In this business, always remember you are a powerful symbol. Sometimes, being a symbol is an advantage, but in this case, you happen to be a symbol of bad things happening to good people, over centuries. Sorry about that – you didn’t ask to be born white. Along with all your skills, thoughtfulness, and excellent personal hygiene, you are also a reminder of injury inflicted on your PoC colleagues and those they love, over 500+ years. Also, five times before they got to work today.
As a consequence, what you say and do will all be filtered through the legacy of racism. Your body, your accent, your word choice, and your assumptions are all signifiers of a broken world that makes people of color pay dearly. Maybe you remind your colleague of the cop that pulled them over and made them afraid they were going to get shot. Maybe you remind your client that statistically speaking, your children are going to earn more and live longer than theirs. Maybe you remind a partner of the last white man who spoke over them or stole their idea in a meeting. Maybe that reminder is conscious, maybe it’s not. In any case, it’s not your fault.
Unless it totally is your fault. Because at the same time all that latent stuff is holding you back, you’re also, because of your generally low skill, going to be doing things that actively drive your PoC colleagues crazy. And because they are human, sometimes that is going to piss them off. Yes, besides being racist, you get to embrace that you are probably terrible at doing anti-racist work. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Again, this is not your fault. Unfortunately, it’s possible for something to be not your fault yet absolutely true at the same time. No matter how savvy and insightful you think you are, no matter how righteous your observation or question may be, remember that you rhyme with injustice.
To top it all off, in most non-profits focused on communities of color, even though you personally might be awesome, you are also bad for the brand. Whenever your picture appears on the web site, or you speak at a conference, or work with clients, you communicate your organization’s lack of authenticity, its uncharitable motives, and its downright danger to the people it aims to serve. (Broken record repeats “Sorry, not your fault”. Wow, people making judgments about you based on your appearance sure is rotten.) If you want to further your organization’s mission, consider carefully whether being seen as its representative causes more harm than good. Think about how to focus your efforts in non-public, high-trust environments where people are more likely to know your reputation vs. what your appearance communicates.
4. Shirk events and meetings – by making space for PoC-only gatherings.
Sometimes, your PoC co-workers will want to meet or run events without white people present. (This also happens across different non-white identities, but I’m sticking with my area of expertise: whiteness!) It may feel exclusionary. It may feel like you’re being denied a chance to learn. It may seem like setting a terrible precedent of dividing people, not uniting them.
You. Are. Thinking. About. This. All. Wrong.
This is TIME OFF! Have a soda. Watch a cartoon on your phone. Scratch yourself. You have found the holy grail of anti-racist work. For once in this multi-century struggle, PoC are going to appreciate a white person for doing nothing at all. Take a load off – you’ve earned it!
There’s a lot of thought behind why this is important. People with a shared context can make faster progress when they don’t have to constantly slow down to explain what they mean to outsiders. People managing trauma need somewhere they can feel secure. People share more, more quickly, when temporarily relieved from having to navigate white/PoC interactions.
If that’s hard to connect with, here is a simpler take: News flash — man in clown suit will not make a good facilitator for clown attack victim therapy session. 14-year-old boy will impede group of moms sharing childbirth trauma recovery stories.
Yes, it feels bad not to be invited to a party. Here is a secret to taking the sting out. If you can be deliberate, non-dramatic, and consistent about asking whether your colleagues would like a PoC-only space, it will hurt your feelings way less when they say YES once in awhile. And it will make it less awkward for your PoC colleagues not to have to do the asking. If you want to generate some instant goodwill for zero effort, show that you understand the utility of PoC-only caucusing and won’t cry if you’re left out.
5. Stand on the sidelines – by acknowledging the inherent asymmetry in your position vs. that of your PoC colleagues.
Pro sports wouldn’t be the same without fandom. Sure, players could still compete, but it takes fans for athletics to achieve scale and grandeur. As important as fans are, though, they’re NOT players. Fans can leave in the last quarter. They can decide to root for the other team. They can sit out a season because other stuff is going on in their lives. Players, on the other hand, have to be all in. Their careers are at stake. They’re going to live life on the road, struggle from dawn til dusk, endure all the injuries that arise from putting their bodies in play. Fans are involved, but players are committed.
White people have an essential, even existential stake in working against racism. But for the most part, our lives are not at risk. We get to clock out and go home and be white. Your PoC co-workers do not have that luxury, and if there are flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror on their commute, it likely means something vastly different for them than it would for us. Being read as white by our culture means you are a fan – involved in the struggle from the sidelines. Your POC colleagues, the players, are on the field and committed. They can get fired, or worse, for taking a knee.
Solidarity is well and good, but when you equate fandom and player-dom, you are likely to piss your player colleagues off. If you want someone to affirm that it’s admirable to join this struggle precisely because it’s optional for you, I’m always here for you – especially if that means you won’t make that demand of your PoC colleagues. And if a committed person – a player – shares how much it stinks to always have to always be on the field while you get to hang out on the sidelines, please don’t argue. Just listen, be flattered by their honesty, and accept the truth of that asymmetry. Over time, you will see that the fans can do unique things, and they get their measure of respect too.
This is not a perfect analogy – because as white people, we have enormous agency and accountability that doesn’t quite match the “sidelines” locale. But it’s useful as a way to surface the difference in roles and risk between white people and people of color. (The comparison is evolved from a less apt one centered around a pig and a chicken. This excellent analogy also works if you are a video or computer gamer.)
6. Be known primarily for consistent attendance – and shatter the stereotype that white people would rather leave than be uncomfortable.
Sorry readers, I can’t find a funny way to describe this one – which is a shame because I bet it’s the most important of the six. Because of the high stakes, your low skill, and the unavoidable friction with your colleagues of color, you’re likely to want to up and quit from time to time. Quitting may even seem like the most merciful thing to do for you and your co-workers. That’s a unique privilege you have as a white person — remember, you’re a fan, not a player.
Don’t take the hint. Come back every day, especially when the day before was a hot mess. When you are embarrassed. When you feel unsupported and singled out. When you are convinced that at least one person would rather you were not there at all. Per my experience, if you are losing sleep replaying conversations, interactions, body language, you are not doing it wrong. You’re just…doing it.
By returning consistently, you are helping shatter a key stereotype: that when the going gets tough, white people leave. You will also need to be a great learner, sensitive, thoughtful and competent … but you can’t progress in any of those dimensions if you’re not consistently marking ‘present’ on the attendance sheet.
(There are limits. If your supervisor or your mentor takes you aside and tells you it’s not working out — fine, that’s not a hint. Things don’t always work out – you might not be ready, or the workplace might not have the spare energy, or something else not related to the white/PoC dynamic might be in play. Even when it’s always about race, it’s not always about race. Show your commitment to the work by picking yourself up and finding a different way to contribute. The great thing about systemic racism is that there will never be a shortage of places to practice your craft.)
That’s it. Six easy, lazy rules. I do wish it were actually easy all the time. Don’t let the difficulty dissuade you, though. We white people have a critical role to play in creating a just future. And even though (maybe especially because) your solidarity with your PoC co-workers will be hard fought, it will also be incredibly valuable to you and the work you do.
And now the format-breaking shocker: there is a secret seventh rule: Learn More. If you haven’t already noticed, I’m the opposite of an expert, but here are things that have helped me: Read a book or attend a workshop by Robin DiAngelo, whose “White Fragility” work along with Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege” ideas underly most of this post. Join a workshop on Undoing Racism by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Support and be supported by other white folks by joining a European Dissent / Dissenting from Whiteness chapter. (Who knew laziness had so many steps?) If you have come across something that’s boosted you or another white person’s growth, let us know about it in the comments below!
Thank you for this white on white exploration. It really helped me puncture some pretty balloons in my head. And, it was a fun read to boot, the funny boot kicking my butt every other sentence. I am am going to take these themes into my thinking as a white man interested in learning, and as the Director of a non-profit serving youth and teachers, .
I so wish I had been able to read this a year ago when starting at a PoC-led racial equity non-profit. The constant awareness of how my whiteness affected my colleagues was draining and challenging but eye-opening, as was the realization that I would fail all the time. None of my specialized skills really made up for lived experience and honed awareness. At the time I felt silly wishing for a primer for white people in PoC-led organizations, but I’m really glad you made one.
This is rock solid and presented in a way that gently nudges White people past what feels obvious to POC colleagues. Thank you.
I was mentally preparing for my first night at the RVC speed dating mentor orientation for the Fellowship Program tonight, and remembered that I had seen this link on FB yesterday. Thank you for the reminder that I constantly need these reminders. Much like Vu’s Meta Equity Cheatsheet from years past, I think I am going to type this up – list style and post it where I can see it on the regular.
I love this, however on #2, I wish POC would be as gentle on each other as we are on white people when it comes to failure and space to learn. I see a double standard where POC are held to unreasonably high standards by white folks to address equity and by POC to be ALL the change. White folks do a tiny bit on equity and voila, they are the champion! The social and worldy cred of a white person doing SJ/RSJ work is way higher than a POC doing that work. Thoughts on that angle?