Part 5.4:
Still have some objections, nagging doubts, or points of confusion?

Here are some common objections and questions I've heard from well-meaning people at anti-racism workshops and in other group educational settings.

These are not at all meant to be judgmental. They came from people who are truly kind, empathetic, and interested in doing the right thing.

They're also not meant to be exaggerations or caricatures. It’s actually very easy for me to write these because many of them were me—some a year or two ago and some even several months ago.

This was also one of the trickiest sections to write because a lot of this is highly nuanced and, like I said, I myself have  been grappling with some of these subjects in the recent past. I'm continuing my own learning, and I will likely get some of this wrong.

Bottom line: This stuff isn't easy, but this is my attempt to address some of the concerns you might have at this point (especially if you're a white man and/or you work in the corporate world).

Lastly, thank you for reading this far, and thank you for trying your best. And, please realize that—if you're doing it right—this work can't help but be uncomfortable. It's not always going to feel good. You're probably going to feel at times like turning your back on anti-racism work because it feels like people are being hard on you. Please stick with it.

Note: I've switched the format a bit on the rest of this page so that the first pink box (on the left on desktop and on the top on mobile) contains the objection that you might have, and the second box contains my response.

"It's nice for us to learn all this, but we need to be more focused on how to get this message out to the people who really need it (i.e., the people who are 'really racist' or who 'don't get it')."

-or-

"This stuff makes sense to me, but I'm especially open-minded / progressive / mature. These concepts are too radical or confusing for people who are more conservative / less self-aware / less open-minded."

  • Let's begin by separating three things:
    • (1) One part of anti-racism work is personal growth. It's focused on educating yourself, learning the history, understanding how the past impacts the world today, and learning how you can become a better ally
    • (2) Another part of the work is structural change. It involves doing your part to effect change in the organizations and systems you're part of (more on this in part 6).
    • (3) A third part is spreading the word about these concepts and recruiting others. This involves communication, marketing, persuasion, and figuring out the best way to present all this information so that it will resonate with a wide range of people
  • Please don't worry about #3 until you're further along with #1. You might be able to work on #2 as well alongside #1, but there's a lot of work to be done with those two before you should be worrying about #3
  • I know it's easy to tell yourself, "Sure, if it were up to me, I'd be fully on board and willing to champion this cause; but other people won't be so willing, so this isn't going to work unless we get through to them." That might lead you to think you need to work on #3 right away, but doing so can be problematic for several reasons: 
    • You only have so much energy and mental bandwidth, so you're better off focusing first on deeply learning all these concepts rather than thinking about how to sell them to others (note that I said deeply learning, which takes a while)
    • You might not quite get the message right if you're still new to the work or have only read about anti-racism and haven't had the experience yet of speaking about it with other white people doing this work. The question for now should not be whether this stuff will make sense to others but whether it truly makes sense to you
    • White fragility can show up in some non-obvious ways, so you've likely experienced it (or continue to experience it) without fully realizing it. For example, if you keep finding yourself thinking something like, "All this makes perfect sense to me, but other people won't get it," I encourage you to slow down and really take some time to examine what's happening for you
      • Yes, it's possible that you're just excited about spreading the word and you want to figure out the best way to get other people on board
      • Or, there might be a part of you under the surface that already feels defeated. That part might feel like all this is too hard so we might as well give up now. So, your unconscious mind is supplying the excuse that other people just aren't ready for this
      • There might also be a part of you that unconsciously feels defensive and is dealing with that feeling by refocusing your attention on other people instead of yourself
  • Once you're educated and grounded enough, then please do devote yourself to figuring out how best to spread the word. But if you still find yourself experiencing much white fragility, then it's probably not yet time (and that's ok!)
    • Honestly, for most people, it takes a fair amount of time after learning all these facts for things to feel settled. It's very natural to feel defensiveness, questioning, and other feelings for weeks or months after learning about the history and effects of race in America
    • If you're like me, you might even experience multiple waves of feeling like you get it then realizing you don't then feeling like you do again
    • Bottom line: If you want to convince others to take on this work, you'll likely be more successful if you wait until you can do so from a  more emotionally grounded, resilient place

"The country is so divided right now, so we have to be careful to avoid making this message too challenging or controversial.

Otherwise, people on the other side won’t be willing to listen. We don't want to divide people even further."

  • First, absolutely yes: The country is divided right now, and that's a major problem
  • Now, ask yourself what's causing the polarization and who's creating it
    • Again, my aim is not to be political, so think more broadly than a specific leader, political party, or administration—think about the larger forces at work across administrations (as well as the historical forces and precedents still impacting this country today)
  • Certainly we don't want to create divisiveness without good reason. But ask yourself what a good reason would look like. Some causes should be worth fighting for even if they make some people uncomfortable, right?
    • For example, with a wage gap of nearly 28% between black and white men in 2018 for the same job, if black men are demanding equal pay, would you consider that a worthwile cause for them to create divisiveness over?
    • Imagine you made a quarter less than your colleagues because of something totally outside your control. Would you stop fighting for it because it was creating divisiveness?
    • What about the fact that the life expectancy of black men is still 5 years less than that of white men? Is that a cause worth creating divisiveness over?
  • Also, be on the lookout for the tactic that created white supremacy culture in the first place back in early America. It's still active even today. Let's review:
    • Back in the 1600s, the lower class (including people of European, African, and Native origin) were banding together to rebel against the rich
    • Because the rich were afraid of losing their power, they created a scheme to turn the poor against each other by assigning a certain group (the people of color) to be vilified by everyone
    • The rich told the poor white people that this other group (the POC) were not like them. In fact, they were fundamentally different—closer to animals.  They weren't humans who deserved respect and rights
    • Furthermore, the rich told the poor white people that if they kept working hard then they too could become rich and powerful—just keep following our rules, they said, and then you too will benefit from all this
    • This tactic has been used multiple times in our history. It's being used again today, and it's more effective than ever thanks to 24/7 news media
  • Warning: I'm going to get just a bit political for a moment here.  I've tried very hard throughout this website to avoid doing that, but I'm going to do so here in this one section for a very specific reason: To illustrate how this "othering" tactic (i.e., they're not like us, they're part of an "other, less important group") is at play today in case it's not clear to you:
    • Think about the Central American people at the Southern border of the United States trying to seek asylum. I know there are many complexities at play here, but please try to focus on the big picture rather than nitpicking the details
      • If you feel like we should turn them away, can you imagine whether or not your reaction would be any different if they were white native English speakers?
      • You might say that these people should just follow the formal immigration process like Canadians and Europeans do. But if you slow down for a moment here, are you able to look at this issue through a viewpoint informed by everything you've learned on this website?
      • For example, if you feel like they should just put more effort into following our procedures, could that be similar to thinking that black Americans should just work harder if they're not being promoted at work? Remember everything we've explored around how many black people have far less access to healthcare, education, nutrition, etc. because of matters outside their control. Getting a promotion for them is often not nearly as straightforward as it is for a white person
      • So, it's easy as a white person to say that the asylum-seekers should just follow procedures, but the reality is that those procedures are incredibly difficult and confusing. Take a look at the website to apply for asylum and try to actually go through some of it (the application form alone is 12 pages long and largely written in legalese). I'm a college-educated native English speaker with experience working professionally with the Federal government, and I find it quite intimidating. Now imagine telling these people fleeing war with their children that they should just get on a computer and fill that out
      • Yes, it's important to follow the law. But, given everything you've read on this website about structural and institutional racism (e.g., how the education system is stacked against POC, how the prison system is stacked against POC, etc.), do you imagine that our asylum-seeking system is different? Or, is it more likely that it was designed largely by white people and without a careful eye toward what would be most equitable?
    • Another example: Think about how some people who identify as conservatives talk about Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar
        • Would they use the same words to describe these people if they were white men?
        • Would people question whether or not Obama is Christian if he were white?
    • Now, if you identify as conservative, I want to encourage you to notice what happened for you as you read all that
      • By this point, you've stuck with me reading through many pages on this website already—thank you. But did you respond differently to those political points versus all the rest of the material?
      • It's natural if you felt yourself switching to a kind of "battle mode" in your mind and you found yourself bristling and becoming more defensive. Maybe you felt more personally attacked than in other sections
      • Please know that I'm not attacking you. I don't think you're a bad person. I'm not calling you a bigot
      • What I want to point out here is how easily our political brains (i.e., "us vs. them") can take over
      • You might find yourself saying that your dislike of Obama or AOC has nothing to do with race—that it's purely about their economic policies. I just want to invite you to examine that. Is that truly all it is?
      • Try to take your mind out of the usual 24/7 back-and-forth news cycle that politicizes everything. Instead, try to think about this through the lens of structural racism you've been learning on this website. Does it seem reasonable that there might be more to your feelings about those people than just a disagreement over economics?
      • Please take a moment now to think back: Can you remember a time when you've had a negative thought about Obama, AOC, or Omar? Can you really examine it to see if it was truly 100% about their political ideologies and 0% about their races? Even more broadly, can you think of a time when race might have crept into your negative perception of someone, especially in the realm of politics or leadership? Really check in, and if your first answer is no, check in some more. I created this whole anti-racism website and my personal answer is, "yes, I absolutely can"
      • So, based on everything else you've read on this website, what seems true—does it seem reasonable to say that racism might creep into political discourse more than you might like to think? It's tricky, but this is exactly the kind of thing we need to be watching out for—when the people in power are making decisions in a way that might negatively impact people of color and thus perpetuate the oppression that's been happening for hundreds of years
      • It can be easy to excuse racist statements and behaviors by imagining that you're just defending your political party. And it's not your fault. The system is designed this way—to herd us into only one of two political camps. It pits us against each other and vilifies each side, so we have to do the hard work of noticing the effect on us and pushing back
      • I'm not telling you to switch your political party, but simply to notice. All the better if you remain a conservative and are able to teach other people who identify with that worldview about anti-racism work
  • Look around to see which groups are being "othered" by the rich people in power today (e.g., the handful of billionaires who own most news sources). This is no accident. It's a very intentional, time-honored strategy. Don't fall for it
    • Now, ask yourself again what's causing the polarization, who's behind it, and why

"Ok, fine. I'm convinced that this might be a cause worth making people uncomfortable over. But still: This isn't an effective way to go about it. This message would resonate with other white people more if you were kinder to them and didn't make them feel bad. Can't we just be allies to people of color without having to hurt white people?"

-or-

"It seems like there are two ways of doing this work: you can either cut down the white people currently in power or you can boost up the people of color who have been marginalized. Why not just do the second one? Why do you have to bring people down?"

  • First of all, be careful if you find yourself saying something that starts with, "there are two ways of doing..." That's tripped me up too because my brain likes to find patterns and groupings of information. But watch out for it, because that "either/or" type of thinking is an aspect of white supremacy culture
    • The truth is that there are probably more than two ways of doing this work. And remember that you're new to this. Others have been doing this work for a very long time, and there have been a lot of different approaches to anti-racism over the years
  • Now,  like I said at the top of this page, I very much agree that it's generally better to err on the side of kindness and empathy rather than shaming white people or purposefully making them feel bad
  • That said, the fact of the matter is that we white people have the power, and we've had the power for hundreds of years. It's probably not possible for us to transition to a country that's more equitable toward people of color without white people having to feel uncomfortable
    • We're used to a wide variety of systems that favor us. We're used to feeling comfortable in places full of people that look like us. We're used to thinking that the "good part of town" is where the white people live and the "bad part of town" is where the people of color live
    • In one study, white people said their ideal neighborhood would be around 46% white. Where they actually ended up living was 74% white
    • A lot of white people say they support diversity, but living around too many people of color still makes them uncomfortable. So, if we want more people of color to be able to live in highly-desirable areas (e.g., with well-funded schools and nice grocery stores with fresh vegetables), it's unfortunately going to mean that white people get a bit uncomfortable
    • As those things begin to change, it's only natural for the people who have enjoyed their privilege to feel challenged when it's spread out more evenly
    • But remember that we didn't actually earn that privilege in the first place—we were simply lucky to be born white and to be given access and opportunities in a way that others born into other bodies were not
  • It's not a question of bringing anyone down per se (i.e., the goal is not to negatively impact anyone). But, if a company or school is heavily skewed white today, then it might feel to some of those white people that they're losing something as more people of color are given the opportunity to work or study there
  • So yes, I'm all for trying to support everyone as we do this work. Let's try to avoid making anyone feel bad if we can. And, the reality is that change in general is hard

"I like this vision, but it feels a bit like a fantasy or unrealistic utopia. Given where we are now in the world, this seems nice but impossible."

-or-

"I believe in this, but we need to take it slow. If we push this too hard it will backfire."

  • People of color have been waiting a long time. They've been told for hundreds of years to keep waiting and maybe things will get better for them in the future
    • True, everything won't change overnight, but with today's communication technologies and upswelling of energy around anti-oppression work, we shouldn't just settle for taking timid baby steps when we can do so much more here
  • Yes, we have to be careful with messaging, and we have to use care especially when pointing out racism, whiteness, or white fragility in others
    • That's where it becomes important to not publicly shame people, for example. Instead, let's try to approach them lovingly and speak to them one-on-one
    • If you're careful and take the time to hear someone first and then personalize the message for them, it's a lot less likely to backfire
    • Here's an example of a technique called deep canvassing that's useful for persuading someone by listening to them first and then helping them come to the conclusion you're interested in on their own
      • Be careful here: Yes, truly listening to someone first can be an effective way of persuading them. And, just because we're advocating that here doesn't mean that a person of color has to fully listen to everything that you the white person wants to say to them around race. They're allowed to draw a clear boundary and ask you to stop talking to them about that (why is that fair? because of the power differential and the trauma and oppression they've had to deal with around race their whole lives)
  • Yes, this is hard work and people might tell you that you're trying to push too hard too fast. But, we white people have the power to really make a difference in this fight for equity
    • We can't just keep making the excuse that things will change someday. You don't have to march in the streets, but you can start by attending anti-racism workshops and telling your leaders at work that diversity & inclusion are important to you

"I get that people of color have it rough. But I own a business, or I'm a leader who's held to high standards in my company.

I need to give the job to the most qualified person. That's great if they're a POC, but if not then it's unfair to have to hire them anyway."

  • To me, it's misguided for anyone to claim that you should have to hire an unqualified person of color to work for your company. Putting someone into a position they're not well-suited or ready for would just hurt both of you
  • You should give the job to the most qualified person. But the trick is to recognize all the unconscious bias that might cause you to feel like someone is less qualified even if that's not accurate
  • Unconscious bias at work is a huge topic, but here are some starting points to consider:
    • We're constantly bombarded with exponentially more information than we can consciously process. So, our brains are designed to filter out most of that information. Then, they pattern-match the rest based our past experiences, what we've seen in media, what we've been told, etc.
      • While pattern-matching, the primitive part of your brain is constantly on the lookout for threats. It just wants to keep you safe, and it evolved in a time when a rustle in the bushes could mean a poisonous snake or a tiger about to attack. So, just to be safe, it labels a lot of things threats that might not actually be (e.g., people you're not used to)
    • Thousands of years ago, humans lived in small tribes with limited resources, so it was important for us to prioritize people within our tribe to make sure no one starved. That's where a lot of our unconscious bias comes from that leads us to prefer people who look like us
      • This is why the top orchestras implemented blind auditions—because they realized that the male judges had been discounting the abilities of female musicians because they didn't look like them (or they didn't look like what they imagined the best musicians looked like, i.e., male). Once they put up a physical wall in front of the people auditioning, the percentage of women who were chosen rose by 500%
    • Nobel prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow that—when faced with a complex question—our brains will often unconsciously substitute a simpler question that's easier for us to answer
      • For example, if I'm wondering, "Should I invest in Ford Motor Company stock?" I might find myself instead asking, "Do I like Ford cars?"
      • Or, instead of asking the question of, "Would this person make an effective CEO?" our minds might unconsciously ask, "Does this person look like an effective CEO?" or "Does this person remind me of effective CEOs I've seen on TV or read about in magazines?" or "Does this person have the attributes I associate with effective CEOs?"
      • As you can see, the answers to many of those questions would likely bias you toward imagining a tall white man as the representative example of a great CEO, and thus the short woman of color applying for the job might not "feel right" (even though Indra Nooyi, a woman of color, was named one of the best CEOs in the world)
      • I deliberately say "feel right" here because the primitive part of your brain doesn't work in terms of language―all it can do is send you information via feelings
  • So, the request here is not to hire people who aren't qualified, but rather to implement hiring systems that reduce subjective unconscious bias and make the hiring process more objective
    • Then, yes, hire the best person for the job, but make sure that you're not being swayed by false assumptions or discounting the variety of types of experience that someone might have (e.g., maybe a white candidate was able to get a degree from a fancy university but that opportunity wasn't available to the POC candidate; however, maybe the POC demonstrated their abilities in a different way such as through entrepreneurship)

"I understand that POC have had it hard, I really do. But I have white friends who grew up under very challenging circumstances as well."

  • I cover this in part 3 in the section about "reverse racism"
  • Bottom line: I hear you. There's a lot of pain in the world, and I'm not trying to discount the challenges that white people have experienced
  • I'm just saying that people of color experience a unique set of challenges
    • In other words, yes, many white people have a hard time too. And, the challenges that POC face have a unique flavor simply because they're deeply tied to historical events that shaped the country and infused hardship for POC into the structure of our institutions, media, and the way that we grow up seeing the world
    • Yes, there are absolutely some areas of overlap. For example, one effect of structural racism is that a lot of POC live in poverty. There are many white people who live in poverty as well. And yes, there are also complex reasons why many of those white people have trouble getting out of poverty. But one of those reasons is not the color of their skin. Remember that POC were literally told they weren't allowed to live in certain neighborhoods with the sole reason being their race. That simply is not a reason that a white person would be given
    • Yes, you can come up with rare exceptions. Maybe you know a white person who, say, grew up on the border of an Indian reservation and felt in the minority as a white person
      • One response to that is that it's always possible to find exceptions, but in the vast majority of cases it's going to be more accurate to say that POC are the ones being discriminated against
      • Another response is that even in that hypothetical case, the white person still has an advantage: They can move to a different city and be part of a white majority there. The Native Americans can't move somewhere where that will be the case for them because their civilization was largely destroyed by our ancestors. Again, I absolutely acknowledge that moving is not an easy solution for that white person, but it's at least a solution that is available to them that's not available to the indigenous people
  • Why do POC have a unique set of challenges? Because our white ancestors specifically created those roadblocks for their ancestors. It wasn't an accident; it was an intentional set of actions taken to remove their power and keep them at the bottom of the hierarchy
    • And no, that doesn't make us bad or responsible because our ancestors were in the wrong. But, it does mean that it's ethical for us to show some empathy here and recognize that people of color face some unique challenges in this country that we might be able to help with
  • Again, I'm not claiming that all white people have things easy or that all people of color have horrible lives. However, this website is focused on race and racism
    • There are many white people who are part of marginalized groups as well (such as LGBTQIA+), and there's very important work to be done there as well; but, our focus here is on the effects of race specifically
  • And, it also makes sense to place extra attention on race-based marginalization for at least two important reasons:
    • Race is the first thing we notice about people (before their LGBTQIA+ status, for example)
    • Race is tied so closely to health, education, and economic outcomes due to the long history of structural and institutional racism we've explored on this website
    • The good news though is that if we're successful in making our institutions and organizations more equitable and inclusive for people of color, then those same improvements (e.g., more objective hiring practices) will very likely benefit people who are part of other marginalized groups as well (e.g., white people who have grown up under challenging circumstances such as living with disabilities or mental health conditions)

"I get it, but it's unfair to say that I have white privilege and thus have no idea what racial hardship is like. I've lived or done work in other countries where I was in the minority or Americans were hated."

  • Again, I cover some of this in part 3 in the section about "reverse racism"
  • I do agree that some people in the social justice community can be a little too rigid with blanket statements like "no white person can come close to understanding what POC deal with"
  • I think that does apply to most white people, and I do think it's true that the vast majority of white people can't appreciate the full range of hardships that POC deal with throughout their lives
    • But, it does also seem fair to say that there might be a small subset of white people who are able to identify with some of the experiences POC in America go through: for example, white Americans who have done work in dangerous parts of the world where Americans in general are hated, outnumbered, and targeted
    • Studying abroad in, say, South Korea probably doesn't count. But I'll admit that if you worked in, say, Iraq during the mid 2000s, you're probably coming a little closer
  • Even still, it's closer but still not the same:
    • (Note: Here, I'm not at all implying that all Iraqis hate Americans; I'm simply using this as an example that will likely make sense to most readers)
    • In this example, the white American likely went to Iraq for some kind of military or humanitarian mission. That means they signed up for something that included inherent discomfort and sacrifice. A person of color born in America didn't sign up for anything like that. They simply want to live a normal life where they're respected and given the same opportunities as anyone else
    • A white American can come home. If they return to America, they'll again be surrounded by white people, and they'll again find that most people in charge are white. African Americans and Native Americans can't "return home" to a place where they're in the majority and they're in charge. An African American whose family has been in America for generations might have never even been to Africa, so that wouldn't feel like home to them. And, a Native American's ancestral home isn't available to them because it's being occupied by the white people who colonized it
  • Finally, even this act of trying to compare or rank experiences ("Is it worse to be a white American in Iraq or an African American in America?") is an act of whiteness (and again, that's common, but it's also worth examining)
    • Where is that desire coming from to try to logically rank the experiences?
    • At best, it's a desire to have a concrete objective answer to what's ultimately a complex and subjective question. At worst, it's a desire to deflect the issue instead of simply acknowledging that no, sorry, you just don't know what it's like to be a POC in America
    • I invite you to consider why it's so important to you to be able to claim that you do. 
    • Really stop to check in with yourself: What would it do for you if I told you, "Congratulations, I've determined that you understand exactly what it's like for POC"?
    • Would you be more credible? What would you do with that credibility?
    • Would it minimize the urgency of anti-racism work in your eyes? Personally, I think that's more likely. It feels to me a bit like an accident scene. Imagine that you saw a car crash and you were the only person around. You'd probably run up to try to help them.  Now imagine instead if, just as you were about to approach the car, an ambulance arrived. In that case, you'd probably feel like they had it covered and you could stay back
    • Could it be a bit like that here? If I tell you that POC have a fundamentally different experience than you can imagine, you might feel some nagging voice inside you saying that you should explore this topic more to figure out what you're missing. But if I tell you that the POC experience is pretty much the same as what you went through in your life, it's probably a lot easier for you to think, "Oh, ok. I get it, so there's no need for me to keep looking into this"
    • What would happen if you simply admitted, "You're right, people of color in America have a unique experience that I can't fully understand as a white person"? True, you can't know for 100% sure if that's the case, but what if you operated as if it were? What if you focused your attention not on determining exactly how correct that statement is but instead directed your energy toward what you would do if you knew it were true?

"I'm willing to read books too, but it's much more impactful if I can hear about a real person's experience.

I just want to learn and get better at all this, but I hear you telling me that I'm not allowed to ask a person of color to help me? That's not fair."

  • I cover this in part 4 in the section about "wanting to ask a person of color for help"
  • If it's still hard to understand, here's an analogy:
    • Have you ever seen one of those news broadcasts where the TV reporter is in an area that was just devastated by a natural disaster, and the reporter goes up to people who are literally watching their homes fall apart, and the reporter shoves the microphone into the person's face and demands that they explain what their experience is like?
    • "How does it feel to watch everything you've ever owned collapsing in front of you right now? Is it hard? I know it might be difficult to speak right now, but please think of our viewers who just want to better understand your experience"
    • Now, let's imagine that the reporter also looks a lot like the group of people who somehow created that natural disaster that destroyed the person's house. Is it fair that maybe that person finds it frustrating to have to tell the report about their experience?
    • Now, what if this is the tenth reporter who's asked that person the very same question? What if that person actually gave a heartfelt answer the first few times but now they're getting tired of having to be the one to experience the emotional toll of giving that same answer every time?
    • Now, what if the reporter is actually so moved by the person's story that they start crying themselves, and the person now feels like they have to comfort the reporter, otherwise they'll be seen as cold and unlikable?

"This stuff wouldn’t be accepted where I work.

HR wouldn’t approve, or my organization just doesn't care about all this as long as we get our work done.

This is nice in a workshop setting or in super-progressive organizations, but I wouldn't be able to apply it where I work."

  • First of all, a lot of organizations are already taking anti-racism work seriously
    • Many companies are becoming less tolerant of words and behaviors that might be harmful to employees in marginalized groups
    • Diversity & Inclusion initiatives are becoming a lot more common. If your organization hasn't started one yet, that's likely to change soon if it wants to stay competitive in terms of talent acquisition (since a lot of high-performing, in-demand people want to work for companies who prioritize equity)
    • According to Glassdoor, 67% of job seekers said that diversity is important to them when evaluating where to work. And, the younger generation of Americans is more diverse themselves: Of the 76 million baby boomers, 72% are white. But of the 87 million millennials, only 56% are white. So, inclusion & diversity in the workplace is more personally relevant to them
    • According to management consulting company Deloitte, 2/3 of leaders in 2017 cited diversity and inclusion as "important" or "very important" to business. And, there are endless articles published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, etc. nowadays about all the business benefits of diversity
    • Please be careful if you're involved in planning a training at work, though. Many trainings around diversity and bias in the workplace actually fail
  • That said, every organization is at a different place on this journey. Certainly some will be more supportive than others if you choose to champion the anti-racism cause at work
  • You shouldn't expect everything to change at once or expect that everything you've read on this website will be welcome where you work
    • I encourage you to start slow, by introducing the concept of unconscious bias, for example, rather than immediately throwing around phrases like "white fragility" or "white supremacy culture." Those ideas might belong in, say, corporate diversity workshop #3 or #4—not the first one
    • However, work is one of the places where people of color can be most impacted by racism, so please don't give up just because everyone else isn't as far along in their education as you. Start by trying to find like-minded allies, and you can even send them to this website
  • Another thing to remember is that people of color at work want to be treated as individuals with their own unique identities, not just as token representatives of their race or as people to be "saved" by well-meaning white people
    • People of color in the workplace can sometimes feel an enormous amount of pressure to not only look good in general (as we all feel thanks to white supremacy culture), but they can feel an additional requirement to look good specifically as representatives of their race
    • As a white person, it probably never crossed your mind that your behavior at work might influence others' impressions of white people in general. But if you're the only black person in your department, it can be easy to feel a range of things: 
      • That you might be judged according to different standards
      • That white people might assume you were only hired to fulfill a diversity quota (and thus you're not actually competent)
      • That your successes or failures will reflect on your entire race (e.g., that your failure might cause them to think, "I knew it! I knew they didn't really belong here!")
      • That you represent your race (e.g., that you're a typical example of your race and thus others of that race are probably similar to you)
    • I've heard from people of color that they walk into every meeting with new people expecting that they're going to have to prove themselves
    • In contrast, as a white man, sure, I feel a little imposter syndrome like nearly everyone; but, I can also walk into most meetings assuming that their first impression of me will be at least neutral if not good and that my resume, experience, and reputation will start us off on the right foot (rather than their first impression including some doubt about my competence based on how I look)
  • So yes, there's a lot of complexity here and it might not be easy, but supporting people of color at work can be one of the most impactful ways you can be an anti-racist
    • You can start by joining a Diversity & Inclusion group if it exists or starting one if it doesn't. Then, you can work on convincing other white people to tell your leaders that diversity and inclusion is important to all of you and that you want training on unconscious bias, equitable hiring practices, etc. If no one at your organization is capable of providing that training, advocate to bring in an outside expert. It's not only the right thing to do, but it makes business sense too

"Aren't we simply making a new hierarchy here where white men are at the bottom and marginalized people are at the top?"

-or-

"I hear you telling me to treat people of color differently. Isn't the whole point to treat them equally? Why shouldn’t I just treat them as a friend like I do my white friends?"

-or-

"If this is supposed to be about all of us improving and developing resilience, shouldn’t we expect people of color to do the same? Shouldn't they be displaying resilience and not being so offended if I say the wrong thing? Why should I have to walk on eggshells around them?"

  • First of all, I don't want you to intentionally oppress anyone, including white men
  • We should not be trying to make anyone feel bad, including white men. But, there are two nuances worth mentioning:
    • First, if a white man isn't expressing empathy for the plight of people of color, then we're in a tricky spot because white men are the ones with the power, so we need them on board
      • We can't really just back off and leave things be because that would preserve the status quo. So, it might be necessary to try different ways of getting the message across such as pointing out the person's privilege and pushing them to dig deeper to look at their place in the world and face some harsh realities that they've been hiding from. As they do that, they might very well feel bad
      • I'm definitely not advocating for any kind of "eye for an eye" attitude here. Just because white people have caused POC a lot of pain over the years does not mean that we should try to intentionally make white people feel pain. But as we educate them and try to get them to understand the pain that POC experience, the end result might be that they feel bad, even if that wasn't our goal
    • Second, it's very reasonable for POC to feel angry and frustrated. They've had to put up with a lot. And because of that, sometimes they (or white allies who have put a lot of effort into anti-racism work) might get emotional sometimes
      • Everyone doing anti-racism work is aiming to improve things for others. But the work is not easy, and it's hard to remain calm and collected all the time, especially if you're dealing with yet another white guy who claims to be experiencing reverse racism (remember the TV reporter example from earlier)
      • So, this is another way that white people might feel bad from anti-racism work: not because we're intentionally trying to hurt them, but because POC and activists are human too and they lose patience. So sometimes that means they let it out on a white man, especially if he's acting smug or calling them crazy or delusional
      • No, you might not deserve that anger being directed at you if you were genuinely trying your best to be open-minded. But please just try to see that anger as part of a much bigger picture of systemic racism that people of color are experiencing every day. And, please also really check in with yourself afterward (or ask a white friend who understands this stuff) to figure out if you might have unintentionally said something that provoked that anger
    • One more note about that: Telling an oppressed person to calm down, stop yelling, and discuss things in a civilized way is called tone policing
      • It's another attribute of whiteness because it implies that being calm and rational and well-spoken is the reasonable way to behave and being emotional is unreasonable
      • Of course, it's easy to have that attitude if you're the one just reading about racism and not experiencing it every day
      • Here's an excellent comic explaining this concept (seriously, if this stuff doesn't make perfect sense to you—which is ok, since it's not what we're taught in this society—please read it)
  • Again, we're not trying to intentionally take anything away from white people
    • However, if we white men are used to having most of the power and always being allowed to be the loudest voice in the room, then yes, moving to a more equitable culture might mean that some of that changes
    • It's like if you were to switch from a monarchy to a democracy, the king would necessarily have less power. But, in this analogy, we're not advocating for the "king" to be thrown in prison or beaten. We're simply advocating for a peaceful transition to a "democracy," because that's a more fair way to run a country than a "monarchy"—it allows more voices to be heard
  • So yes, we're aiming for a society here where no one is oppressed. And, we also have to recognize that we're all starting from different places (that's the difference between "equity" and "equality" that I wrote about in part 3.2 here)
    • Because white men are starting at the top, it might feel like we're losing some of our power as we welcome in more people who have traditionally not had a voice
    • And, because marginalized people are starting below, it's also reasonable that part of doing this work of anti-racism means giving them a little more leeway to be offended. It means that yes, we have more of a responsibility to be careful of what we say to them than they do to be careful not to offend us
    • This isn't to say that we should be willing to be abused. If a person of color is yelling at you because they're angry about white people in general and not about you specifically, that's probably not fair. You're allowed to set a boundary and leave that conversation
    • Or, you could try to hold space for them and support them if you feel willing to stand in your resilience and recognize that there's real trauma here and that we as the people with more structural power have a wider support network (and thus potentially more energy to offer support) than do many marginalized people
  • I want to be realistic though that this isn't and won't be easy
    • It will take courage for you as a more privileged white person to talk less in meetings at work so that others have the opportunity to speak up more. It will take courage as a leader to invite an employee of color with a less-traditional background to lead an important project rather than the white person with the fancy MBA (and, by the way, many POC have fancy MBAs too!)
  • It's also not easy to navigate how all this new information might impact your relationships with people of color
    • Maybe before you didn't think much about the race dynamics at play in your relationships with POC and you (consciously at least) just treated them like any of your white friends. But now you might feel a bit more like you're waking on eggshells and worried that you might accidentally say something offensive or hurtful
    • The good news is that there's light on the other side of that tunnel. In my experience, the journey goes roughly like this:
    • (1) I'm friends or colleagues with people of color but ignorant of how race really works in modern America. I treat them well most of the time, but every now and then I probably make a small racist mistake that I don't realize (and they probably don't say anything because they don't want to make things awkward)
    • (2) I learn about the history and impacts of racism in this country and about some of the challenges of being a person of color in America today. I start to feel increasingly afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so I start to keep my distance from people of color
    • (3) As I keep learning, I start to feel more comfortable with the common mistakes that white people make, and I start to notice my own biases and mistakes that I've made in the past
    • (4) Now I start feeling more comfortable again seeing people of color as normal people rather than as a special type of person I have to be super careful around. I'm still conscious of the racial dynamics at play between us, but I feel more comfortable naming those out loud, apologizing if I mess up (without being defensive), and continuing to learn. They might also start to see me as someone they can talk with if they need support
    • (5) It's probably not a fairy tale ending. I still make mistakes and I keep learning, and sometimes I learn something new that makes me a little wary again. But then the cycle repeats and I sink back into more ease after a while as I keep going

Let's say you learn all this and you tell your colleagues or friends of color:

"I want you to know that I'm completely open to feedback. I truly care, and I go out of my way to treat everyone equally. If there’s something I’m doing wrong please let me know."

...But then, later on, one of those people gives you some harsh feedback because you inadvertently said something that made them feel bad.

Now, you find yourself blaming them because you're just trying your best but they're making you feel like a bad person. They're treating you unfairly!

  • I appreciate the intent behind saying that you're extremely open to feedback. It's excellent to ask for people's help in noticing aspects of your behavior that might be problematic
  • Also, getting that constructive feedback might be harder than you anticipate. Here are a few different things that can happen that might lead to your feelings being hurt:
    • (1) Perhaps you didn't realize the depth of your ignorance, or maybe you felt more shame or embarrassment than you imagined you would, especially if you were called out or cut off in front of a group (for example, if you used the N-word, even just to repeat something you heard someone else say)
    • (2) Especially if you're a heterosexual white man, you might be used to a certain level of comfort at work or in your social circles. Maybe you're used to being a manager or leader. You might be used to feeling pretty in-control and respected, so maybe it surprised you how difficult it was to be given deep feedback that really hurt—especially if it was coming from someone with an identity that you unconsciously label as less powerful, such as a woman of color
    • (3) Ask yourself what you truly meant when you originally said that you're very open to feedback. What were you imagining that feedback would look and feel like? One guess I have is that you imagined something very cerebral, analytical, and logical
      • In other words, you might have imagined that the feedback would be delivered in a highly cognitive fashion, telling you which facts you got wrong or which words you used that were problematic. You probably imagined it would feel very rational. Instead, if the feedback was more feelings-based, it might have been a lot more challenging for you
      • For example, the POC might say to you: "I feel intimidating energy from you," or "I feel unsafe around you simply because you're a tall white man, and there's nothing you can do about it," or "I don't want to keep talking about this, and I don't want to have to explain to you why"
      • When you ask for feedback from someone in a marginalized group, they're doing you a favor. They're helping you grow. I know it doesn't seem fair, but they probably don't want to debate you. It would probably be easier for them to just not say anything at all, so your asking for feedback is asking them to be vulnerable and to expend energy to help you. They have no obligation to sit with you to process your feelings and answer your questions. All they signed up for was to tell you if you said or did something that negatively affected them. If you want support beyond that, please ask a white friend
  • Finally, be careful with saying something like "the POC made me feel..." It could be that all they did was point out the negative impact you were having on them or on the group. In other words, they didn't "make you feel" anything. They simply presented a fact and your mind processed it in a certain way
    • And, at the same time, it's also perfectly ok for you to feel frustrated, embarrassed, lonely, or any number of other emotions. You're not a bad person
    • But if you're feeling lonely or like you're being perceived as the "bad guy" in the group, try saying something like "I'm feeling scared" rather than trying to defend yourself and prove that you were right. The latter might push people away, whereas the former might draw them toward you

If a person of color firmly asks you to stop what you're saying or asking, please just stop.

What could be happening? Maybe you unintentionally said something offensive. Or, maybe you did nothing wrong; but, something you said or did might have triggered a trauma response for this person (i.e., it reminded them of something traumatic from their past).

What should you do?

Step 1: Stop talking. Don't try to explain what you were trying to say or what you were about to say. (Yes, it's possible that there was a misunderstanding, but they're probably not in a place emotionally to listen to your explanation in this moment.)

Step 2: Apologize (don't say, "I'm sorry if this offended you," which discounts their experience; do say, "I'm sorry, I can see that something I said had an impact on you").

Step 3: Slow down to get mindful. Try to figure out what might have gone wrong to see if you can apologize more specifically (e.g., "I'm sorry, I can see that I was speaking from a place of privilege and assuming that your life experience has been like mine").

Step 4: Ask if they'd be open to trying again and continuing the conversation. If not, thank them for asking for what they need, and go to a white person if you need someone to process your feelings with.

You might be experiencing white fragility without realizing it.

That happened to me too. For a long time, I thought that white fragility was more simplistic than it actually is. I imagined it only referred to people saying things like, "I'm not racist! I'm a good person!"

I didn't realize until later on that white fragility manifests in all sorts of ways. Here are some that you might face.

  • First of all, remember from part 4 that white fragility is a general sense of pushing back on what you're learning about race instead of welcoming it in and accepting it. It's a desire to go back to the status quo where you were safe
    • When I first read the book White Fragility and heard the concept discussed in workshops, I imagined it only referred to white people having emotional outbursts with screaming or crying
    • In contrast, if I calmly tried to debate the workshop facilitator from a place of curiosity, I imagined that was something else entirely
    • Nope. Looking back, I can see clearly now that different types of people respond to stress in a variety of ways. Some people might cry or run away. Other people fight, and one way of fighting is to ask a lot of questions to try to find a flaw in their reasoning, even if you don't consciously realize you're doing that
  • You might be experiencing white fragility if you feel defensive when someone is: giving you hard feedback, calling out something you said, or asking you to stop speaking. Check if you find yourself wanting to say something that starts with:
    • “Sure, but can I just say…”
    • “Ok, but let me just clarify what I meant…”
    • "Yes, but I think you're misunderstanding me..."
  • Sorry, but there's a good chance that you're not being misunderstood and that you're just failing to appreciate your own ignorance
    • I've been in multiple workshops where a white person thinks that they have a brand new perspective on racism and it will solve all sorts of problems if they could just be allowed to fully explain it, even if it's causing everyone else to feel increasingly uncomfortable. I know it's hard to hear, but I've yet to see that turn out well. The problem is their assumption that they somehow know better or that their personal needs are more important than those of the group
    • In other words, if you're talking about racism with someone who's knowledgeable about that topic (e.g., a POC, an activist, a workshop facilitator, etc.), notice if you're more focused on making sure they understand you, or if you're being humble and approaching them with a beginner's mindset to understand them 
    • Instead of saying things like, "Let me just clarify what I meant," can you say things more like, "I don't think I'm fully grasping what you mean; would you be able to explain it a different way?" or "It sounds like that's really important to you but I feel like I'm missing some context. Could you help me understand it better?
  • White fragility can manifest if you're doubting something you're hearing about race from either (a) someone with academic expertise in a field related to race or sociology, or (b) a person of color with lived experience
    • While listening to that person talk about race, you might feel resistance. There might be a voice in your head telling you that something feels off so they're probably wrong. You might feel like it's important for you to identify the flaw in their reasoning
    • Yes, it's possible that you're bringing a new perspective to this topic that they haven't considered before. But, it's more likely that this person has already thought about this topic a whole lot more than you have and you just don't fully understand it yet or you're not quite grasping the nuance of the point they're trying to make
    • Again, see if you can seek to understand rather than seek to convince. This might also be one of those times where you make a note to yourself to do some more research on your own or ask a white friend later
  • White fragility can manifest if you're frustrated that people aren't willing to engage you intellectually or debate you
    • You might feel like you have solid logical points to make but they just keep talking about feelings. They might say that they don't want to have to explain complex concepts point by point (especially if it feels like you're going to push back on them rather than thanking them for taking the time to explain things to you)
    • In other words—and this was actually hard for me to grasp too—a lot of people don't want to debate you
    • Remember that our bodies—especially areas like our guts—have a lot of information to share with us; but, they express themselves via sensations and feelings rather than words
      • Recent research actually shows that our guts contain 100 million nerve cells—there's literally something very much like a "second brain" in there
    • Part of whiteness is prioritizing words and analytical thought over feelings and bodily sensations
      • So, white fragility might manifest if you feel frustrated when a person of color indicates some sense of "knowing" from their body that they can't easily express in words
      • For example, they could say that something about a certain white person makes them feel uncomfortable but they're not able to name exactly what it is. That might be frustrating to hear, but remember that this person's intuition here is probably finely honed after years of dealing with discrimination and micro-aggressions
      • A POC might also not want to engage with you if you have a reputation for "talking circles around people" or twisting their words like a debater when they're more interested in speaking from the heart and expressing what feels true for them
    • Part of dismantling whiteness is reconnecting with our bodies. It's becoming more comfortable with singing and dancing again. It's learning to trust the wisdom expressed via our feelings and sensations. So, white fragility can manifest if you feel frustration when someone doesn't want to engage you from an analytical place
    • Sure, we don't want to implicitly trust our "gut brain" in all situations, but when we're talking about interpersonal dynamics and the traumatic effects of oppression on people, that part of us has a lot of wisdom

I hope that you find an opportunity to continue your learning in some kind of group setting—whether that's a workshop, a training, a meetup, or an affinity group (check out the "Where to learn more" section for some starting points).

This website is a great starting point, but there's a lot of richness to being in a physical room with other people exploring these topics together.

I've learned a lot from spaces like that. And if you are able to find yourself in one, here are some things to watch out for to make sure you keep being a positive contributor and don't become frustrating to the rest of the group.

These all might be signs that you need to slow down, notice what's happening for you, and potentially apologize.

  • Notice how much your voice is being heard in the room compared to that of other people. Do you keep talking more than others?
  • Do you feel like the facilitator of color made a mistake or is missing an obvious point that you want to make?
  • Do you feel like you want to educate the room on something?
  • As you’re talking in front of the group, do you start to feel anxious or tingly?
    • Some of that might be normal public speaking nerves, but some of it might also be your nervous system picking up on growing tension in the room
  • As you’re talking in front of the group, do you hear anyone gasp, moan, or make other unpleasant sounds?
    • Do you hear those sounds but feel like they must have simply misunderstood you?
    • Or, do you feel that they'll totally get it if you just keep talking and finish what you're wanting to say?
  • Do you find that no one approaches you to pair up during small group exercises?
  • When you apologize about a mistake, do you focus on the wrong you did or are you intent on explaining your reasoning?
    • Do you use the format, “I recognize that I did ___ that impacted you in ___ way and I apologize” or the format “I’m sorry if I offended you when I said ___, but I was just trying to ___”?
  • Have you said something like "I'm sorry if..." (e.g., "I'm sorry if you were offended, but...")?
    • Try saying "I'm sorry that you were offended..." instead since that validates their experience rather than calling it into question
  • Did the facilitator cut you off at any point while you were talking?
  • Are you getting hung up on exact numbers or disputing specific facts (e.g., what percentage, or exactly how much money, etc.) rather than focusing on the main ideas?
    • In other words, are you focused more on the fact that white slave owners were cruel or are you fixated on trying to figure out if they were really bad or really really bad?
  • Again, all of this is common. You're still a good person, and we're all still learning together. But those are some signs to watch out for that could indicate the issue is with you rather than with the content, facilitator, or presentation
    • It's very common to experience white fragility and to feel strong feelings when doing this work
    • Let's all support each other as we continue this work. Let's avoid shaming each other. And let's all try to carefully notice in ourselves when it's time to own up to our actions, recognize the impact we've had on other people, apologize, and make sure that we're not hogging all the airtime

Lastly, a message to the social justice community (e.g., activists and workshop facilitators): In doing this anti-racism work, let's prioritize reducing the harm caused to people of color. That's our #1 goal.

And, secondarily, let's also try to soften the harsh learning curve for well-meaning white people. Let's not coddle them or let them walk all over us. But let's not shame them either.

  • I'm going to end this section with a plea that I recognize some members of the larger social justice community might disagree with. I'll admit that I feel vulnerable writing this section as a white man. But, I also believe it's important to say because I've seen (and experienced) how harsh some of this can be to newcomers
  • So, I want to spend a few minutes here humbly asking us all to work together to do what we can to reduce some of that harshness. And I absolutely want to recognize the very good reasons that you feel fatigue, pressure, and frustration that can sometimes lead to that reduction in gentleness 
    • Many of you have been fighting these battles for a long time and you're sick of having to explain the same things over and over again. You're sick of white privilege and white fragility. You're especially sick of dealing with heterosexual white men who are used to having the power and who lash out when they feel like the smallest bit of that power is taken away from them
    • I know what it's like when you're in a mixed-race learning space and that one white guy starts pushing back with one of the common beginner mistakes. You feel the rest of the group hold their breath, and the increasing tension is palpable. You want to step in and stop this person from finishing before it gets any worse
    • All of that makes perfect sense, and I can empathize with how activated your nervous system probably feels in those situations
    • After his third question, you probably want to yell at him, or silence him, or ask him to leave
    • I want to take a moment here to explore our options in those moments
  • Let's say the same white person has been asking a lot of questions during your training or workshop. They seem to be coming from a place of curiosity but they still don't get it. Here's a range of potential responses from one end of a spectrum to the other:
    • Option 1 - let them derail you: "Excellent question! Let me pause what I was saying and spend 20 minutes interacting with you alone to fully answer your question while everyone else waits."
    • Option 2 - briefly help them feel heard by explaining: "I'm noticing that you're asking a lot of good questions. I support your curiosity, and I'm also not going to be able to answer that right now. We have a lot of material to cover, and I'm sensing that your question is causing a negative impact on others in the room that you might not be aware of. I'm open to talking with you about it during the break."
    • Option 3 - interrupt and demonstrate: "That's enough. This is an example of the white fragility that we've been talking about. Class, pay attention: Notice how this person is focusing on having all his questions answered without noticing the impact he's having on the group. This is an example of whiteness in action, and I'm going to interrupt this by drawing a clear boundary and asking this person to stop speaking."
    • Option 4 - draw a harder boundary: "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the class. I'll follow up with you afterward to point you toward a more appropriate workshop, but this one just isn't right for where you are in your learning."
    • Option 5 - unleash on them: "Can't you see that you've been talking far more than everyone else and that you're having a major negative impact on the space? Get the hell out. You're the perfect example of what's wrong with white people."
  • Having to bottle up your emotions would be a manifestation of whiteness, so I certainly don't think that's the right thing to do. So I want to fully acknowledge all the fatigue and frustration and trauma and everything else that sometimes leads us toward options 4 or 5. But my plea is for us to try our best to focus on a response closest to option 2 when we can
  • The whole point of anti-racism work is to reduce pain, trauma, and oppression for people of color. That's absolutely the primary concern. And, as the secondary concern, we should also do everything we can in the process to not harm white people either. Ideally nobody would be hurt by this work
    • Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, white people doing this work will very likely still feel uncomfortable at points, and they might even feel attacked, shamed, or vilified

    • That said, even if that's happening to people we disagree with, if they're coming from a good place (i.e., not acting out of malice), then I think we should also do what we can to minimize their discomfort

    • This is a tricky issue because discomfort can be a natural part of learning. If a white person doesn't find this work challenging at all, it's probably a good sign that they're not taking it seriously or digging deep enough. People of color have experienced a whole lot of hardship, so an empathetic white person should very likely experience some difficult feelings

    • But, there's a nuance here: We shouldn't revel in their discomfort. We shouldn't be coming from a place of "they deserve it, now they can see how it feels." Rather, I think it's reasonable for a white person to feel the discomfort of learning and growth but not of punishment

  • Many people of color will have a lot of trauma and anger from a lifetime of being marginalized. So, it's perfectly reasonable for them to express that anger without feeling the need to bottle it up to appear calm and controlled. That would be white supremacy in action

    • So, let's honor that and, at the same time, let's try not to make white people feel ostracized when they're trying their best to learn. Belonging is a core human need, and it can be very easy for a white person to unintentionally say the wrong thing in a workshop and then feel vilified for the rest of it

    • This is an extremely nuanced issue and I know there will be people in the social justice community who disagree with this. But let's please keep remembering that we're all on the same team. We have to be very careful of sectarianism here (i.e., infighting within a group that largely believes the same thing but argues over details instead of rallying against their common foe who believes something very different)

  • Bottom line: We're all against racism, so let's try not to attack people who are 90% on board simply because they're not quite at 100% yet

    • No, we don't want to give up important parts of the work or easily forgive things like toxic masculinity or gaslighting, even if they're done with anti-racism in mind

    • But, we should also do what we can to avoid publicly shaming and punishing people who are truly trying their best. Workshops and other social justice orientated spaces can be scary places, so let's all try to support each other as we try our best