Dear Fellow White Person…
(A white woman’s confession, reflection and course correction)
I’ve often thought of myself as different from all those other white people who are clueless when it comes to racial and cultural differences. I was one of the few white people who “gets it”. Turns out, I was wrong.
That time I had to see it to get it
When I think back, I’m embarrassed and ashamed. I’m working in midtown Manhattan some years ago, and I need to go uptown with my male Black colleague. As we descend in the elevator, he tells me there is no way he will be successful at hailing a cab. I tell him that is just crazy, but he is insistent. I say, “We are on the curb of one of the premier Manhattan addresses and you are in a gorgeous suit. I don’t believe you.”
So, he challenges me to a test. He is going to try to hail a cab first and I need to step away from him. Six, eight available cabs don’t even slow down. Then we reverse positions on the curb. I’m successful immediately. When he enters the cab with me, I can see the driver isn’t pleased but continues to our destination.
I wish I could tell you this happened when I was young and less aware, but I was nearly 50 years old at the time. I wish I could tell you that other Black friends and colleagues hadn’t told me similar stories before this moment. But they had.
That time I used the tired cliché in my defense
Going back in time even further, I was giving a lecture to graduate students at a major university about team dynamics. At the end of my prepared remarks, I took some questions. One Black student asked if it was best to have differences on a team. “Mo’ difference is mo’ better” was my response. Without a hint of embarrassment, I must add. At the break, the white professor pulled me into her office and provided some pointed feedback about how inappropriate my comment was and that several students were very offended.
My response was defensive, and a polite conflict ensued. When I said that I talk this way with my Black friends, she had enough. She said I either begin the next section of my presentation with an apology or leave the building. I did as requested, but I was mighty unhappy. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. When I ranted to my nephew, who was closer in age to the students, he was appalled with me and tried to explain things to me. I remained defensive. All these years later, it is now a joke between us about how ignorant I was.
That time I was the leader who needed to be schooled
Later in life, when I was an executive, I received feedback about a Latina on my team. She’s “too emotional”. She’s “too expressive”. She’s “too assertive”. I was asked to counsel her to “tone it down”. I thought it was my duty as her boss to say something. It was a tense, awkward conversation and she politely explained microaggressions. When she left my office, I did a deep dive into microaggressions so that I could understand things better.
There were other moments when I was uninformed, insensitive or just plain wrong. I only see this now in retrospect. At the time, I felt justified in my actions and perspectives.
All these years later, I am still learning and growing. And I am stunned at the insanity of our public discourse about diversity, equity and inclusion. I observe other white people responding with the ignorance and insensitivity that I once displayed. And much, much worse.
I know something needs to shift in how we are having this dialogue because what is happening isn’t working. I don’t claim to know the answer, but I keep asking one question. Why are we white people so defensive and reactive?
Each time I try to answer that question, I fall back on my considerable professional credentials. But now I think that is problematic. It is still coming from an abstract perspective. This time I’m going to make it personal. I’ll try to answer my question about myself and not the generic mass of white people.
So, why have I been (and sometimes still am) so defensive and reactive when I receive feedback that my words or actions have been discriminatory and insensitive? First, it doesn’t fit my self- image. Second, I don’t like when people tell me I am wrong. Third, I get upset when I discover I have hurt someone. In short, it makes me feel like shit. And when I feel that way, I either make it worse or shut down. I try to prove how not-bad I am by defending myself. I’m mortified that someone has unearthed a character flaw. I feel stupid for not knowing better. Once I’m done defending my position, I retreat into a hole. In my solitude, I replay the incident and vacillate between justifying my actions and trying to sort out what the next right thing to do is.
My difficult and messy inner dialogue
The dissonance between who I strive to be and how I act in certain moments is intense. I’ve come up with some strategies that have been helpful for me.
First, I admit that I was wrong and that I hurt someone. This is uncomfortable.
Second, I circle back to the person and apologize. This is uncomfortable for me but not so much for the other person.
Third, I educate myself by reading and listening and asking questions. This is not uncomfortable to do but can be hard to absorb.
Fourth, I resolve to listen with acceptance the next time I mess up, because I know it will happen again. This is so much less uncomfortable than going into battle. I take in the feedback and apologize immediately without needing to go into my hole.
Once I have sorted myself out, come off my high horse and just apologized for my actions, the other person has always responded with generosity. Whatever fears I had that the exchange would be hostile simply never materialized. So, these conversations are the least uncomfortable part of my reflective process.
I am not suggesting that my way is the way to do better. I’m only saying that we need to ask ourselves why we are so reactive when we are called out. And I’m trying to bring it down to me, instead of generalizing about all white people. By doing this, I’m trying to steer the solutions into a more personal and individual journey rather than the labels, name calling and generalizations that pass for dialogue these days.
It’s not about woke or cancel or tribal identities. It’s about being an introspective human being who values other human beings. It’s about finding a route to address systemic discrimination through small acts of personal responsibility and openness. It’s about not being shamed, demeaned or backed into a corner and not doing that to others. Bottom line, it’s about being honest with yourself. Never an easy task.
Maybe there is another path
I still don’t know how we find a more respectful, civil way to talk about diversity. But I have a hunch. Any difficult topic that is raised in a group or in public will usually lead to extreme discomfort and defensiveness. I know this is true for me. I feel knots in my stomach, my pulse races and my whole being prepares for a fight. I will not be taken down in front of others. Turning into an asshole becomes inevitable as my reptilian brain overrides my rational one. As much as I don’t like myself at these moments, I know that this is a very universal and human response.
So, my fellow white people, I’m thinking that we can make more progress when we have these conversations one-on-one. Groups, including diversity training sessions, are just too charged. Even if white people can feel empathy and compassion for the experiences of people of color, we don’t know what to do with the burden of historical responsibility. We may have a better shot at being personally responsible in the present tense in the context of ongoing relationships. That might be your sister-in-law, your colleague at work or your neighbor.
Discrimination, diversity, advantage and differences are huge systemic problems. As one white person, I don’t know how to solve those. But I do know how to interact with people in respectful ways and take responsibility for those moments when I mess up. Maybe that’s the best I can do. Maybe that’s the best thing to do.
I long for a time when we can revel in the richness of our differences and join in our shared humanity.