Bringing White Men to the Table to Talk About Race

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

If we are going to have serious conversations about race, white men must participate. As a white man, I have been fortunate to engage in such conversations in different settings based on my work in various roles involving diversity, equity, and inclusion. I have also valued the opportunity to co-facilitate such conversations with trusted non-white, mostly female colleagues in intergroup dialogue settings. It should come as no surprise that, while some white men do join these conversations, their presence is far out of proportion to their representation on campus. Whether in formal settings or day-to-day interactions, we are not showing up.

How can we change this, or can we?

In addressing this question, I am inspired by Dr. Shai L. Butler’s article, Not Your Mother’s Diversity Training. I don’t claim to have answers to her challenge about finding new directions for such conversations, nor pretend that my comments are particularly unique. I simply offer my personal perspective, informed by professional experience, to generate thoughts about an essential challenge — how to bring white men to the table. I share in terms of what has helped me to meaningfully engage in such conversations and what I needed to understand about others’ expectations of me in such conversations. While I generically address “white men,” my comments are intended for any context where individuals or groups traditionally identified as privileged are not showing up.

What White Men Must Understand and Prepare For When Talking About Race
Let’s not pretend that conversations about race are easy or comfortable. White men must prepare for this. Here are some of the most salient lessons I’ve learned:

Talking about privilege might hurt, but you’ll live. White men have difficulty talking about and understanding privilege. Being told we have privilege is perceived as an attack for something we’ve had no control over since birth. We feel we have experienced setbacks and disappointments in our lives and careers, just like everyone else. We worked hard to get where we are. How can we be privileged?

We must understand that privilege is a reality, not a judgment. We are not faulted for being who we are or for accepting opportunities fairly earned. What we struggle to recognize is how systemic structures have historically benefitted us as a group in vast disproportion to the advantages and opportunities experienced by others. Conversations about privilege may still be hard to hear, but if we remove the personal judgment we associate with it, we will better understand the realities of privilege — and what disadvantaged groups experience in comparison.

Cry if you want to, but don’t expect a shoulder. Talking about sensitive issues such as race does hurt, and it is natural to want empathy when we express hurt, confusion, sorrow, or anger (among other emotions). These emotions will arise when others share their experiences, and often without gentleness, decorum, or deep concern for your feelings. In these moments, we may want a shoulder (figuratively or actually) to cry on. Yet, your need for empathy may suggest to others that you believe you have been treated harshly or unfairly by being exposed to their truths. Instead, you may need to sit alone for a while with your fragility and unfamiliarity with the realities that others face on a daily basis. In thoughtful conversations on race, people of color don’t share their experiences intending to judge or hurt you, but they shouldn’t have to console you either when your lifetime of privilege has shielded you from such experiences. They also have their own stories where others lacked empathy for them.

You are not the ally you think you are. Perhaps instead of resisting conversations about race, you perceive yourself as an ally. While that is good, be careful how you express your interest and support. It is common for well-intentioned white individuals to, in effect, waive a banner and announce through words and overt behaviors that “I’m your ally and I want to help.” This message is much less well received than simply working to demonstrate increased understanding, commitment, and action around issues of inequality and prejudice without expecting recognition in return. What are you doing to learn more about these issues? How are you engaging with others in different and more enriching conversations on such matters? What are you doing differently to counter or disrupt negative and prejudicial messages and behaviors?

Don’t guard your biases and prejudices, share them — and others will embrace you. Some individuals who waive the ally banner seek to convey, in effect, that they’re okay. They have worked through their biases and prejudices and come out the other side fully — or mostly — cleansed. Others who don’t see the value of deeper conversations about race become resistant and defensive, arguing they don’t possess significant biases or prejudice that keep them from treating others fairly. Therefore, further conversation is not necessary. Still others say, “I don’t see color.”

It is not easy to share our biases around race or any other dimension of identity. Yet, in meaningful conversations about race, where people endeavor to create environments that encourage openness and safety, it is actually refreshing to share our worst selves. I have found in such environments that people of color embrace and welcome me more. It is no surprise to them that I have racial and other biases based on a lifetime of experience because, after all, we all have them.

When we are willing to acknowledge our biases, learn from them, and adopt new strategies and approaches to overcome them, others see our sincerity more than any banner waiving will accomplish. Rather than running away from conversations out of fear of revealing our true selves, revealing our true selves — and allowing others to reveal their true selves — creates understanding and bonding. This is great news for those who fear such conversations are all about judgment and condemnation.

What White Men Need from Others to Come to the Table: Patience and Tolerance for Mistakes
I hesitate to suggest that white men or others from privileged groups should expect anything from people of color or other disadvantaged groups in order to feel more comfortable with conversations about race. This has been the default standard far too long — that others must bend over backwards simply to get white men to enter the space. We must accept that such conversations are uncomfortable, even painful, and that our experiences in the moment do not compare with what others have experienced in a lifetime.

Still, I realize from my own experience that I was most receptive and least likely to shut down in these conversations when others were patient with me and my ignorance and blunders beyond what I should reasonably expect. We struggle to understand not only privilege but many other issues, perspectives and experiences involving race. We wonder how these experiences can occur because they are so contrary to our own. We make great mistakes in comprehension, language, cultural awareness, and interpersonal communication, to name a few. Yet, I’ve had great colleagues who have patiently waited for me, allowed my mistakes, and given me time to work through cognitive, emotional, and psychological challenges to ultimately become a more supportive, yet ever developing, colleague.

One colleague with whom I worked for many years, Dr. Kim D. Kirkland, currently executive director and Title IX coordinator for the office of equal opportunity and access at Oregon State University, continuously reinforced the need to account for and work through mistakes in understanding and behavior rather than meet such mistakes with punitive measures and harsh judgment. She shares her perspective in her book, Enough with the Stuff (Something That U Find Frustrating): Strategies for Defusing Organizational Noise.

We cannot grow a sustainable organizational culture that embraces difference and inclusivity without allowing individuals to step into and learn from their mistakes, misunderstandings and blunders, especially on crucial conversations about race and other social identities. White men must accept the difficult challenges that await them when entering such spaces. Others need not coddle or praise them for doing so, but can help them stay in the conversation by patiently allowing them to struggle and blunder and acknowledging their willingness and effort to change.

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