If My Unconscious Bias Is Always Present, Can I Trust Myself?

This blog was originally published on Medium. 

The following post is an amalgam of real life accounts of coaching sessions I have had with white women unpacking their unconscious bias and building deeper trust and collaboration with Black women in their workplace.

A coaching client, who is a white woman supervising a Black woman in the workplace, came to me for some guidance.

“Our relationship feels tense and I don’t know if it’s because of my unconscious bias around Black women or if our styles just clash? If it is unconscious bias, I am happy to work on that and try to change my perspective, but how am I supposed to know if it’s my bias or not, if it’s unconscious?”

This question has come up countless times in my coaching practice. White anti-racist clients saying things like:

  • “I want to work on my unconscious bias, and make it more conscious so I can change it.”

  • “I want to understand if a difficult feeling I am experiencing with a Black person is because of my unconscious bias.”

  • “Do I have a right to ask people of color to be self-reflective and consider the impact their behavior is having on me, or is that me centering myself without realizing it?”

  • “Do I just accept feedback from people of color about my approach without question, because it must be my unconscious bias?”

Under all these questions is one core question, I think: “As a white person raised in an unequal world in which my race is favored, can I trust myself?”

It’s unsettling not trusting your internal experience, but it is also a brave place. Anytime we step into the unknown, it requires courage, and that’s also where learning and healing can happen.

In response to this particular coaching client, I asked her; “What are the style differences you are noticing?”

“Well, I am a very introverted and methodical person. I like to create a plan and move in tandem with that plan to get things done. This particular direct report is very extroverted and more spontaneous and creative. She feels comfortable with plans changing and adapting as we go. She also likes to bring up a lot of different perspectives, which can feel like she is questioning my leadership. But maybe that is because I am uncomfortable with a Black woman voicing disagreement? Does she feel more “aggressive” to me because she is Black? Would I respond the same way to a white woman who shared her same style? How am I supposed to know?”

Here’s how I reframed the situation with her:

“You very well may have a style difference and those styles may be impacted by culture, class, education, personality and temperament. However, if/when you decide to talk about this with her, the fact that she is Black and you are white will be a factor regardless. She will likely be wondering; “Is my boss uncomfortable with my voicing a strong opinion because I am Black?” She will be wondering this because for hundreds of years, Black women have been told that their anger is unwelcome, that their intellect isn’t as valid, and that white women’s perspectives, learning styles, and choices are preferred. Even if you aren’t saying or meaning that — that’s the context that both of you find yourselves in. You will be (and already are) wondering, “Is my discomfort coming from unconscious bias?” because you know that you inhabit a privileged place in society that is only beginning to be collectively examined and recognized for what it is. The roles you both inhabit are the consequences of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow, and are inescapable.

Trying to play detective around whether you have unconscious bias or not, doesn’t change the context you are both in.”

Having realized that she isn’t to blame for this dilemma she is in, and that there is no blame to be assigned to her direct report either, but rather the reality of the racist system we live in, she is freed up to do her part in addressing the situation respectfully.

We practiced what she might say, and as per usual with my clients, she found she was more than capable and competent to get herself “unstuck” once given the opportunity to tap into her own abilities. She came up with the following response:

“Debra (name changed for anonymity) I’d like to check-in with you about our meetings and our communication. Sometimes during meetings, when you seem excited about a different course of action than we had previously plotted out, I can feel myself get tense. Diverting from plans is challenging for me. I am concerned my bringing this up could come across as silencing you, and I understand that our racial identities play into that dynamic, so I want to assure you, I do not want to silence you, and that I appreciate your perspectives and adaptability. I am curious how my style and approach may be landing for you too. I’d love to explore how we can work together so we can both contribute our best towards this project. How does that sound?”

This was a “practice run” so I don’t know yet if she tried this in real life or not, nor how it was received.

What do you think she did well in her response? How could it be improved?

Here are my thoughts on what she did well:

  • She was super brief and factual about the behavior from Debra she wanted to explore.
  • She owned her own reactions using “I” statements (she didn’t cast blame with “you made me feel…” statements).
  • She shared her intention and ended her note by asking permission to have this level of conversation.

Here’s where I am conflicted (and would love to hear your thoughts). While she recognized that their “respective racial identities play into the dynamic,” she didn’t explicitly name her whiteness, or the race of her direct report — should she have?

At Compasspoint Nonprofit Training Center, I teach a class called, Liberatory Principles and Practices for White Supervisors.” Myself, my white co-facilitator, and BIPOC trainers (who teach a version of this class for mixed race and a BIPOC only audience) have discussed this question quite a bit. We haven’t landed on a clear consensus, but lean more towards open ended questions allowing time and space to build trust.

What do you think of these approaches? Have you tried something different?

The Three Rs & Me

My journey through racial justice by way of witnessing a family member’s hardships, the complexities of codependency in both my relationships and in my identity as an activist, and the transformative power of body awareness in the pursuit of social change.

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Who Owes Who? A Case for Reparations

Authentic Solidarity often ends with a big aha! moment for the participants. The aha in question? “We really need reparations.”

After learning about the deep, extensive net of systemic injustices throughout our history and present-day (slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, red-lining, and the strategic indebting of Native Americans, just to name a few), people come to realize we are never going to heal as a country, nor will justice be within our reach, without reparations.

But what are reparations? I’ve come to learn about the varying roles of government, philanthropy, business, individuals, and other efforts to support reparations by engaging in restoration and repair.   

The first thing to emphasize is that true reparations are the government’s responsibility. Nikole Hannah-Jones explains it this way in her New York Times article, “What is Owed?”: 

“Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it, and our federal government initiated, condoned, and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against Black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.”

In one of my first Authentic Solidarity cohorts, a participant shared with the group that her organization’s perspective (a progressive movement-building organization) was that in fact, if individuals claim their individual donations as “reparations,” it takes away from the burden that rightly should be placed on the federal government. This is an important distinction between individual acts of repair vs. broad-scale reparations owed by the government.

Another way to build toward reparations at the individual level is by supporting legislation in favor of the study and implementation of reparations from the government. Recently, HR 40 passed in congress, establishing the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. You can learn more about that bill here

What About Philanthropy?

A lot of my work, and the work of many of the participants in Authentic Solidarity, intersect with the world of philanthropy, my non-profit clients included (as many of them are funded in part by philanthropy). Philanthropy of course is interesting because the money comes from corporations. Corporations that gained their wealth through a system designed on stolen land and uncompensated labor. There is a movement in philanthropy to more honestly and transparently look at where the wealth they give away comes from, and their true motivations for giving money away. 

Edgar Villanueva’s groundbreaking book, Decolonizing Wealth, makes the case for reparations while outlining philanthropy’s specific role. He offers a challenge to the field of philanthropy to invest 10% of their wealth in communities of color. He believes, and I agree, that material/financial transfer is essential to healing. 

Edgar’s book offers seven steps to healing: Listen, Acknowledge, Apologize, Relate, Represent, Invest, and Repair. Again, careful to heed my colleague’s word around letting the government (or philanthropy for that matter) “off the hook,” these seven steps are ways that individuals, particularly leaders of organizations but also everyday people, can move towards a restorative practice.

You can find out more about the Decolonizing Wealth approach here

What About Corporations?

Yes, corporations have a role as well. Corporations, and those that lead them (predominantly White men), have an opportunity to foster positive relationships with staff and stakeholders by recognizing the economic and education systems in place which have afforded them a better chance at financial wealth than their minority counterparts. 

Micheal Gee describes the role of businesses in supporting reparations in the Harvard Business Review article, Its Time for US Business Leaders to Talk about Reparations.” Gee provides an example of how business leaders can support BIPOC entrepreneurship through the CEO of Vista Equity’s proposition of a “corporate ‘2% solution,’ which includes funding Black-owned banks and businesses. In his vision, 2% of net income of the nation’s largest corporations (approximately $25 billion annually) would be invested over the next 10 years.” 

What About Individuals?

This is the most challenging and I assume, for most of you reading, the most relevant question. My emerging sense of where to begin as one person is really two-part:  

  1. Making Financial Contributions – Material contributions are essential in any efforts toward restoration, repair, and reparations. I recommend individuals make an informed commitment to annual financial contributions to a Black or Indigenous-led organization(s). As part of Authentic Solidarity, I require that all participants make a donation while creating a supportive space to discuss the nuances and conflicting feelings that come up around money. We dig into difficult questions like, “Is this patronizing? Is it a cop-out? Should I invest in a relationship with the organization? Should it be anonymous? How much is enough?” It is important to work through these answers to not allow very legitimate questions stop us from making the financial contribution at all. One participant noticed similarities between my model and a Giving Circle, which has a long tradition in the US.
    My first Authentic Solidarity Leadership cohort landed on three organizations to provide collective financial contributions to. I still give to these three organizations annually. You can find out more about these groups on my webpage, Community Accountability.
  2. Tending to Relationships – The second element of my practice utilizes Edgar Villanueva’s “Seven Steps of Healing” in my interpersonal relationships with Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. For example, how can I listen longer when a person of color brings up a perspective I perhaps don’t understand or agree with? If a person of color brings a blind spot to my attention, can I simply apologize rather than defend myself? Can I advocate within my organization for more serious metrics for representation and inclusion of diverse communities? While these are simply ways to be in positive and respectful relationships across differences, the weight of the responsibility to show up for challenging dynamics is stronger given what I know about history. All these actions, while not reparations, are small, active, and real acknowledgments that reparations are necessary – that we live in a society that is unjust, unfair, and in which race still matters.

Ultimately, reparations, both financial and interpersonal, are about healing. In fact, the United Nations’ definition of reparations is quite a bit more than financial contributions, including five formal categories: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.

All the practices highlighted in this blog, from transparent philanthropic investments to corporate and individual giving to interpersonal communication, are part of what’s required to generate the political will for government-sponsored reckoning and payment. 

And along the way, while at times this work still feels overwhelming, the forging of the path towards reparations is liberating for all. 

Te-Nehisi Coates, author of The Case for Reparations, shares a vision and purpose for reparations: 

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

The prevailing narrative on reparations is that it will make Americans, particularly White Americans, feel bad about themselves and the country, when in fact, it’s precisely what will set us all free.

A Guide to Anti-Racist Stretch Goals: What It Means to Be Anti-Racist and How to Take Action

The anti-racist stretch goal is s a core element of the Authentic Solidarity Program that pushes us to take action. It’s about building new practices, stepping outside of routine, creating neural pathways, building new muscles, and getting out of your head. It’s about taking your equity and inclusion values and making them real

To be successful in your anti-racist stretch goal, it is important to choose a goal that is uniquely tailored to your experience, passions, skills, and platform. I will describe what the anti-racist stretch goal is and provide you with examples to support your implementation of a goal that makes ​​sense for you.

There are three core ideas that inform the anti-racist stretch goal that we must take into account before getting started.

#1:  What does it mean to be anti-racist?

#2:  How does racism show up in the world, and where can you intervene? 

#3:  What is a stretch goal?

Let’s take these, one by one.

#1:  What does it mean to be anti-racist?

The idea of being anti-racist has been around for a while, but became popularized in 2019 when Dr. Imbrim X. Kendi wrote: “How to be an Anti-racist.” In this work, Kendi quotes famous civil rights activist, Angela Davis, explaining:

“in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, one must be anti-racist.”

Below, I will describe my take on what Davis and Kendi mean by being more than just non-racist. To hear more on Dr. Kendi’s anti-racist definition, see here

Being non-racist means refraining from being racist, right? Most of us today, when we think of racism, we think of things like telling racist jokes, only hiring White people, making ill assumptions about people of color, or more serious incidents like BIPOC targeted police brutality. We think of racism as serious, overt actions that “other people” do. 

So, if I don’t do any of these things, that means I am not racist and have done my part, right?. Unfortunately, the systems of racism and inequality are so deeply rooted that simply refraining from overtly racist acts is not enough. Being anti-racist goes that step further. 

Many people are starting to see that simply being non-racist isn’t enough to create meaningful change. My favorite synonym for being anti-racist is to be “pro-active.”  Rather than waiting for something racist to happen, what can you do to get ahead of it?  Or rather than refraining from feeling judgmental towards people of color, can you make an effort to understand why you have that initial perception and then shift towards acceptance?  (Only if you really mean it though).  Rather than making sure you don’t discriminate against people of color in hiring, what if you made an extra effort to recruit qualified candidates of color?  These are all definitions of anti-racist actions vs. non-racist actions.  Being proactive, making an extra effort, and intentionally amplifying the achievements of people of color, are all part of being anti-racist.  

#2:  How does racism show up in the world? (So you can pick a focus)

Ever heard of a SMART goal? (If not, you can learn more here.)  I like to focus on what the “S” stands for, which is SPECIFIC.  The idea being, that the more specific your goal is, the more likely you are to focus your energy and actually achieve an outcome.  So, how do you get “specific” when it comes to racism?  Racism is a complex, multi-faceted, long-standing dynamic.  

To be successfully anti-racist, I don’t think you need to study the intricacies of how racism functions in society, but I do think it is key to have a general understanding of the four primary ways racism shows up in society. 

The  four primary ways racism shows up in society are:

  • Individual:  Within oneself
  • Interpersonal:  Between two or more people in a relationship
  • Cultural:  Within messages, symbols, films, books, and shared assumptions
  • Structural:  In the legal structures of organizations and institutions

And of course, these all overlap and influence each other, but let’s look at them briefly one by one.  

Individual (Within oneself):  Racism lives within each one of us that has grown up in a racist society.  It lives in our thoughts, beliefs, stories, assumptions, and unconscious associations we make about people of different races.  Research shows that every single one of us is biased as a human, along all different vectors, race certainly being one of them.  Changing our thoughts and beliefs is hard, but possible for humans.  We can become more self-aware if we are willing to try.

Interpersonal (Between two or more people in a relationship):  Racism also shows up in our communication with each other.  When you show up to your child’s first day of school – who do you choose to talk to or introduce yourself to?  During a team meeting at the office or group discussion, who gets the most air time?  These tendencies to be around and offer preferential treatment to people who look like or remind us of ourselves is called inter-personal racism.  

Within culture: Racism shows up within culture through the constant flow of information and entertainment that we all digest. Movies, streaming series, advertising, symbols, history books, music, etc.  All things which inform our collective thoughts, beliefs, and actions. And when these different forms of media reinforce racist stereotypes or assumptions, we are being influenced by racism within our culture, which can be extremely powerful in upholding a racist society.. Therefore, we can define cultural racism as the patterns of interpersonal relationships getting played out at large across society. 

Within legal structures:  While all areas of racism are important and worth attention, this fourth area is often considered the most important. However, strangely enough, it is often the most overlooked.  Note:  Many, many organizations have their take on these four levels, some use five or more.  The World Trust Educational Center uses this graphic. The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian describes it this way.

While many of our laws have since been refined, for hundreds of years there were legal systems in place that discriminated against people of color, particularly Black people. The effects of those discriminatory laws are with us still today.  Until the 1970s, Black people were legally turned away from acquiring bank loans to buy a house as well as to attend universities they were equally or more qualified for. The way wealth works in this country is that it gets passed down and accumulates, primarily through homeownership, generation to generation. – it’s the single largest driver of wealth in the country. Therefore, through legally sanctioned discrimination, people of color have been historically locked out of access to build wealth.  Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones describes the history of legal discrimination against Black people and its relationship to building wealth in the US here.  

No single one of these areas alone will eradicate racism, yet all of them are crucial.  As my participants draft their stretch goals, I recommend focusing on one area deeply.   Are you going to work on deepening your own self-awareness of your racist thoughts and attitudes?  Are you going to work towards speaking up more about racism that you witness or are a part of in relationships?  Are you going to contribute to cultural change through writing or producing art?  Are you going to organize to change laws and policies, either in government or in your company/organization? Know that being an anti-racist is a lifelong journey, you can devote a year or more to one area and then move on to another. 

#3: What is a Stretch Goal?  

The “stretch goal” is a common idea in leadership development and behavior change. The basic idea is the following: Choose a goal that is not so outside your comfort zone or what you are used to that you panic or freeze, (The Red Zone) but also not something so close or familiar that you aren’t challenged at all, (The Comfort Zone).  The idea is to be just uncomfortable enough that you are learning and growing, (The Green Zone).

Let’s look at this idea of a “stretch” with a racial equity lens. For many people, taking any action at all around race is intimidating.  Immediately, many people feel like they are in the panic zone.  

So, if that’s the case, be real with yourself;

What can you do that isn’t so scary but is a bit more than you are doing now?  

Here’s another thing.  I can hear my colleagues of color taking deep breaths as they read this, trying to manage their frustration with White people who are “so scared” of taking any action.  Let’s look at this, fellow White people. What are we actually scared of when confronted with the prospect of examining our internal racism, speaking up around race, putting some anti-racist art or messaging out there, or organizing with others for more anti-racist policies?  Damaging our reputation? Losing credibility?  Rupturing important relationships?  Probably some combination of these fears is coming up for you.  And these are legitimate fears! The stakes are pretty high professionally and personally for getting it right when having conversations about race. We don’t live in a culture that allows for a lot of mistakes.  It does seem sometimes like one slip of the tongue, and you could be “canceled.”  This is the reality we live in, and it does need to be taken into account when considering your stretch goal.  

While these fears are real, let’s look at what our colleagues of color face in the workplace, what they might be scared of, and what’s at stake for them.  Every day the challenge of re-training people to think of them as competent, qualified, “easy to work with”, and not a threat is present, if not in the foreground, in the background of everyone’s consciousness, including their own. Every day the prospect of being stopped by the police, or someone they love being stopped by police and being mistreated either verbally or physically is in the background.  Every day, navigating the question of the impact their race has on interpersonal and professional dynamics; did I get that promotion because of my race?  Did I get passed over for that promotion because of my race? Can I give my supervisor feedback, or will I be perceived as a problematic employee because of my race?  Every “risky” moment that we all face in navigating power dynamics, is that much riskier if you are Black or a person of color.  

So, when thinking about risk-taking (which is basically what a stretch is), I suggest to my White clients and partners, what if you thought about what could be gained from this risk, rather than what could be lost?  What if by talking more openly, honestly, and bravely about race in the office; you gained more trust among a broader, more diverse group of staff?  What if your risk-taking added to your credibility?Because even when you made a mistake, you owned it, apologized, and then were able to move on. What if Black employees, peers, and colleagues felt more seen and appreciated – felt the effort to really see and appreciate them. What if that could lighten their daily stress load and allow for more creativity and calm throughout the office?  If all of that were possible, wouldn’t it be worth it? That’s the thing about learning and growth, you can’t really get the rewards without the risk. And usually the greater the risk, the greater the reward. 

If equity and inclusion are something you truly care about and genuinely want to experience, you aren’t going to have that experience without taking the risk.  

Let’s look at some examples of anti-racist stretch goals:

  • Call-in my colleagues to anti-racism by naming and noticing unconscious racism when I see it. (Inter-personal)
  • Add IDE (i.e., equity and belonging) as a standing topic to the monthly meeting with the expectation that leadership will cascade topics and conversations to their teams. (Inter-personal and Cultural)
  • Increase racial diversity by 20% on the Executive Team via proactive recruitment. (Inter-personal and Legal/Policy-oriented)
  • Build a social & racial justice lens to our innovation launches, bringing tangible new products to market as a clear and bold commitment and point of differentiation. (Cultural)
  • Ensure that an inclusive process, across race and other historically marginalized identities, exists for assigning task force project opportunities for career development, by end of Q1. (Inter-personal and Legal/Policy-oriented).

Notice that the goals span interpersonal, cultural, and legal realms. They are also specific and measurable, with many including specific time frames. The degree of risk must be determined by each person, leader, and team.  

What is your anti-racist stretch goal? How will you challenge yourself to go beyond being non-racist and be more pro-actively anti-racist, or pro-actively and intentionally inclusive across race? What feels like a do-able stretch for you? How can you step outside your comfort zone without panicking and stick with it?  What is a small but significant change you can make consistently over time? And finally, who can support you? Choose a friend or colleague that you can share your goal with and talk about how it’s going in order to help you stay accountable. I’d love to hear more about your stretch goals here. The more transparently and openly we all talk about how to make our values of inclusion real, actionable, and measurable, the closer we get to moving towards justice.

Grief and Renewal in Times of Transition

For most of us, 2020 has been marked by loss.

Hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans have lost their lives — or those of family members — to the coronavirus and COVID 19. As has been well documented, the pandemic has disproportionally affected communities of color.

Ongoing racial injustice – historical and present-day — continues to result in the loss of additional Black and brown lives. Police brutality and lifetime prison sentences continue to afflict minority communities while Native Americans continue to mourn the loss of their ancestral lands, culture, language, and more. All of us, if we stop and look, have to face the loss of human and civil rights — either our own or those of our neighbors.

Over the last six months, we’ve also lost our routines. Parents have lost child care and youth have lost their schools, friends, and their primary places to socialize. So many have lost their jobs, their homes, or their sense of security – and again, these losses are carried disproportionately by people of color.

In a stunning and stark reality that has been brewing for nearly four years, we are on the brink of losing our democracy and the institutions upon which it is so fragilely built.

Are we also losing our collective grip on reality?

There is so much loss and so much grief.  But how should I grieve?

What function does grief have in society? Is it best done alone or among others? Do I risk going into a dark place I can’t get out of? What if I don’t know what to say or how to respond to someone else’s grief?  

These are all questions that were alive for me when a colleague, Erica Peng, invited me to a ‘grief ritual’ online, in community, last week. Despite how much I was walking into an unknown experience, it felt right. I NEEDED it.  And the experience was profound.

Here are three big learnings that happened to me that will help me continue to grieve while holding space for others who need to grieve as well:

3 Steps to Grieving

#1 The Setup Matters

Before coming to the grief ritual, I had made a deal with myself. If I got overwhelmed, I was going to give myself permission to leave. When I arrived, the facilitators had set up a wonderful list of intentions to help keep the container safe and inviting. The intention that made the most difference for me was an offering to meet with one of the co-facilitators, a trained somatic healer, in a private one on one space, if anyone was feeling overwhelmed. In this way, you did not have to “leave” the community, but you could get a tailored kind of support, respecting you may indeed feel overwhelmed, to help you stay connected rather than opting out altogether.

While I didn’t find I needed to take advantage of the offer, knowing it was there calmed my nervous system tremendously. Other intentions that were meaningful included: acknowledging the courage that it took to come, confidentiality, and a reminder that while we may be remembering moments of pain and harm, the harm isn’t here now with us today in this space.

#2 Share the Labor:  Your Grief Allows Me to Touch Mine

This was a new idea for me. We were invited to give gratitude to others in our group for expressing their grief because when they do, they are lightening the load for all of us. To witness someone else feel into their pain and begin to release it, it was as if all of our loads began to lighten. As people began to cry and release, emotions I had stuffed deep down began to surface, and I started letting them go. I thanked those that cried first and I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

#3 Move In and Out of Darkness and Light

We spent three hours together in the grief ritual. We grounded by calling in how we are resourcing ourselves lately, which reminded us of our natural resilience (this was by design to do first our facilitators later shared). Throughout our time together, we read poems, we breathed, tapped our bodies, and sang. We learned a call and response chant and our facilitators played drums. We brought symbols that were meaningful to our grief and the wisdom of our ancestors known and unknown.

For me, there were moments of deep sadness, but also moments of giving and supporting others by simply holding space and witnessing, which also served as a break from my pain. There were moments when I simply paused and rested, there were moments when I felt light and joyful, and moments when I dipped back into my sadness.

Disability Rights, Racial Justice, and Radical Summer Camp

“Crip Camp,” the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Winning documentary, recounts how a summer camp designed for people with disabilities led to a revolution in the 1970s.

I was moved by the passion and persistence of the real-life activists featured in the film and saw so much relevance to today’s work of fighting to end structural racism and also re-imagining education.  

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In Conversations About Race, ‘Safe Space’ is a Cop Out

We are in a moment, as Angela Davis would say, of “radical reckoning” with respect to race. White people are waking up to the vast difference in our experience compared to our friends, neighbors and co-workers of color. Our histories are different, and our present experiences are different, even when we live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, or work in the same building. White people are seeing how truly segregated our lives still are. Real integration — in our schools, our neighborhoods, our churches, and our work lives —  has failed. Collectively, we are finally starting to talk about this failure.  But it is not easy. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color often have vastly different experiences than White people even in the same conversation.


Here are few examples of these differences that I see showing up in organizations:

  • An email exchange in a large women’s empowerment network post-George Floyd blows up because years of unchecked micro-aggressions finally get called out. The White women feel shamed, embarrassed, and confused. The Black Women, and Women of Color, feel some relief, but the resistance of the White women triggers both anger and exhaustion.
  • A multi-racial social justice network adds to their norms that space be made for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) to speak first in the debrief of a presentation.  Questions and comments from White people are taken only if time allows. BIPOC feel seen and appreciated in new ways, while many of the White people feel left out and express themselves at length in online chats.
  • A company begins recognizing that systemic racism may be playing a part in the fact that their leadership is mostly White. Race starts to be a topic that comes up frequently.  The mostly White staff complain, “I can’t say anything anymore.” The staff of color on the other hand, say “acknowledging the problem is just the first step; we’ve barely begun.”   

When any of the scenarios above arise,  someone in charge is likely to say, “We need to deal with this!  Let’s facilitate a conversation to try and bring people together.” 

Navigating Tough Conversations

As a seasoned facilitator myself, I know that the first step in navigating tough conversations is  to develop a good set of ground rules that guide the way participants will engage in that conversation before launching into it.   

Unfortunately, when addressing potentially uncomfortable race issues, a common trend I see come up again and again during the ground rules conversation — the conversation before the conversation — is this: White people will request that the conversation feel “safe” and that everyone “assume best intentions.”
The result of these requests is that BIPOC feel silenced from the get go. Should they make any of the participating White people feel unsafe by sharing their actual experience, they will be pegged as ‘the angry BIPOC employee.’ In these scenarios, the stakes are especially high for those who identify as Black.  

When talking about the need for creating a ‘safe space’ such as in the scenario above, it is important to consider two key questions:

  • What does “safety” mean when talking about race?  
  • Does  “safety” mean the same thing for White people as it does for Black, Indigenous and People of Color?

When White people ask for “safety” as a prerequisite for even beginning a conversation about race, the impact on Black, Indigenous and People of Color is often: “You have to be f-ing kidding me?!”  When Black people are shot and killed by the police regularly, when their competence in the workplace is constantly questioned, when the only neighborhood where they can get a loan approved is a high crime area, the fact that White people would ask for “safety” before having a conversation is the ultimate expression of privilege – the luxury of not needing to know or care about the context of danger in which Black people live on a daily basis

It also plays directly into the myth that Black people are dangerous. Many of my Black colleagues have shared with me that this lack of awareness from White people is deeply painful for them.  

And it is.  

However, underneath the request for ‘safety’ and ‘assuming best intentions’ is an expression of a different kind of risk. Entering into a conversation about race in which many White people believe (rightly so) that they could say something triggering or harmful to People of Color — and that this will be noticed and probably commented on publicly — feels risky.  And it is risky. But we must then ask: What’s at risk? Is it a human life? No. Is it a sense of identity and belonging? Probably. If my White identity is built around me valuing diversity, appreciating human beings regardless of race, and of being thoughtful, sensitive and inclusive, and this gets called into question, it can indeed feel deeply painful. And if belonging and feeling accepted in this multi-racial group matters, having that sense of belonging threatened feels risky too.   

Let’s acknowledge that these two risks — losing and/or shortening one’s life due to structural racism vs. a loss of identity and belonging — cannot be compared.  They are in two totally different spheres.  So, White folks, let’s not use or request the safety parachute for these conversations — It’s a cop out, and it is just too painful.  

Alternatives to Safety: Start Somewhere and Grow

So, what ground rules can create containers for productive conversations about race? What’s the alternative to safety? This poem by Micky ScottBey Jones offers an alternative. The first few lines of the poem recognize that:

“There is no such thing as a ‘safe space”’ — We exist in the real world. We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.”

This deeply human recognition that we have all hurt others, and we all have hurts, different as they may be, allows us to connect to our own and each other’s humanity, and invites us to drop the notion of “safety” altogether, because the notion itself is not even realistic.  

Later in the poem, one of my other favorite lines is:

“We have the right to start somewhere, and continue to grow.”

Rather than asking for assurance that everything we (especially us White folks) say will be seen in a positive light, this line asks us to be compassionate with ourselves and non-judgmental with each other, because we all have to start somewhere, and to simultaneously hold that we all have the capacity to grow. As a White person, I can totally live with this. I can let go of my need for safety (i.e. to be fully understood in my good intentions) if I can also recognize that I am on a journey of growing and evolving. 

“We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.” 

This is a powerful call to action for us White folks especially, not to be passive or extractive in conversations about race.  

Creating a truly integrated multi-racial space in which power is shared, requires a mutual investment in examining our beliefs and being open to those beliefs changing. This is a responsibility — it’s a requirement, I would say — especially for White people, in creating a truly integrated space.  

Really good ground rules should be oriented towards not only what does one need from the group to show up fully, but what will one give to the group so that others may show up fully. I sense in my facilitation that us White folks have been socialized to think of ground rules as an opportunity to ask for what we need from the group. When we consider the generations in which our needs as White people have come first, stepping into a multi-racial space in which we are committed to making a truly integrated space, should be seen as an opportunity to  give  to the space.

Letting go of safety and acknowledging that we are all starting somewhere, and growing, allows us to be more human – with ourselves and with each other. It doesn’t give us an “escape route” if things get hard, but it does open the door for self-compassion. Actively participating in questioning our beliefs, rather than advocating, explaining, or making really great points, also invites connection and builds trust.  This communicates that we understand that the world has tried to shape us in ways that divide, and that no one is immune to this. Trust comes not from absolving oneself from the impact of white supremacy, but from noticing it and actively questioning it. 

I hope we can all embrace the words of wisdom from Micky ScottBey Jones and create more brave (rather than safe), multi-racial, truly integrated spaces.