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Where do White people belong in DEI work?

A lot has changed in the diversity, equity and inclusion space in the last few decades—and specifically within the last few years—but there is one trend that has remained a constant in this work: white people have yet to grasp that our role in this work is as a supporter and accomplice, not as a leader. This has many white people coming to terms, maybe for the first time in their lives, that something wasn’t created or designed specifically for them. 

So, if we de-center whiteness and white people from the DEI conversation, how do we all effectively move forward to accomplish our shared goal of dismantling the foundation of white supremacy our country was built on?

A belated arrival
The murder of George Floyd inspired individuals committed to equity and justice to dig deeper and be bolder with their activism. For many Black leaders, their writings, teachings and proposed solutions to ending racial injustice were finally given the attention they deserve. 

For white people, there was a new call for allyship, for educating and having difficult conversations with our peers, and for exploring the ways that we have consciously and unconsciously supported white supremacy in our country and world. Many of us arrived very late to the game, to the exasperation of communities of color, but we arrived, nonetheless. 

Voices of White allies
Over the last year, I have seen on LinkedIn, of all places, a new boldness from white individuals when it comes to discussing race and proposing solutions to racial injustice. I am one of those people who has made a commitment to using my voice more and ensuring that my majority white following doesn’t return to business as usual. 

A surge of white individuals joining the fight for racial justice raises some interesting questions for me as a white diversity, equity and inclusion advocate.  When is it appropriate for me to use my voice? When should I be amplifying the voices of the community members closest to the injustices that are being discussed? If I am asked to speak at a company about diversity, equity and inclusion, am I obligated to share that mic (and check) with a person of color? Do I pass the mic entirely?

Most people would agree that until more white people join the conversation, we are going to continue to experience slow progress on racial justice. On the other hand, communities of color are rightfully anxious that the movements they have worked so diligently to build will be co-opted by performative activists, that limited dollars in the DEI industry will disproportionately flow to white speakers and facilitators, and that white people, who are not directly impacted by the issues they are discussing, will fail to be effective advocates. 

From an academic standpoint, anyone can become an expert in the racial injustices of our country, but is lived experience a necessary lens to have when doing racial justice or DEI work? How can people of color and white folks work together to ensure DEI conversations and initiatives are centered on the right topics and voices? 

These are questions we are still answering together, but here’s what is emerging as best practices for a new, multi-racial movement for justice:

  • White people should listen first. And when we think we have done enough listening, we need to listen again. And again.
  • It is essential that we channel our privilege to elevate conversations about race in our places of work. White people possess privileges in society and are protected from the harm and violence that communities of color experience. We can speak up with much bolder demands and face fewer, less severe consequences. Yes, this likely means we will be labeled as a disruptor, controversial and/or “too political.” But again, where white people face petty judgement from their peers, people of color will pay a steeper price in the form of pay inequity, missed promotions, and even job loss. 
  • We need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to give up to help clear a path for people of color to experience true equity. Take some time to journal about this! Your currencies you can wager include everything from organizational power to approval and acceptance by your colleagues to your job itself. How much are you willing to put on the table in the name of racial justice?
  • It is our job to “collect our people.” Our audiences, families and people we went to school with are likely part of the problem. But if we roll up our sleeves, they can be a part of the solution, too. Social media makes us feel like we are speaking into a void, but your anti-racist posts and teachings might be their only exposure to racial justice work. Whenever possible, we must reach these people and call them into the fold.
  • We must use our discomfort to grow. If you’re doing this right, there will be multiple points where you will want to quit. As you examine your role you are going to feel guilt, shame and disappointment towards yourself. I am here to tell you that these feelings are real and they are normal. The real work can’t begin until we assume personal responsibility. After that, we can genuinely and authentically focus on solutions.

Transitioning the power
We can’t forget that while it is certainly challenging as white people to unpack our own internalized racism and evolve into advocates, the Black community and people of color have been patiently waiting for us to receive this wake-up call for a long, long time. Centering whiteness is a key design of white supremacy. Centering whiteness in DEI work is how white supremacy distracts and divides our movements. There is only hope if we transition to the work of actually dismantling racist systems and policies. 

What will White people choose? Preserving our unearned right to sit in the middle of this conversation and make it about us? Or acknowledging our privilege and our power and handing it over to those to which it belongs?

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