How Not to Talk About Race

Hi, friends! I don’t really post here anymore. Still thinking about race and Whiteness and all that; still learning and growing and talking about all of it; but the more typical perspective for me these days (forever? who knows) is spiritual, so when I do talk about race, it’s usually grounded in that perspective & published over at Clawing My Way to Enlightenment. If that’s not your jam, I totally get it, but if you feel like giving it a go, I’d love to have you along for the ride.

I could put a spiritual spin on today’s post, but mostly I just want to share some hints on How Not to Talk About Race in a Racially Diverse Organization. My beloved DEI Committee at work has transformed into something else. (More about my work troubles here.) It may wind up being better or worse, but the demonstration of the new incarnation was not promising.

Our new D&I Director (who I do personally like) led and presumably created what was promoted as a courageous conversation about race to kick off Black History Month. I attended to support her and show my exceptional maturity in the face of the antagonism of the CEO. It started about as Racism 101 as you could get (definitions of racism, when did you first notice race, etc.). We we watched a 10-year old video that was basically an extended version of the Baby Doll experiment, to demonstrate internalized racism. People shared how that made them feel (“sad”). There was another video of White women talking uncomfortably about race. And, finally, we went into breakout rooms to answer the question, “Would you want to live as a Black person?” and why. When we reconvened, people shared their answers. No one answered yes. I did not answer, since my breakout room was expressing themselves quite freely without my participation, and I’ve said plenty about race in my 4+ years as a DEI Officer. Much praise was heaped on organizers and participants. We ended early.

Here’s the Problem

If you’re White and don’t see the problem/s, I don’t blame you. I’ve been involved in this work for years, and have had the great luck to be educated by Black friends who’ve been engaged far longer. If you’re Black and can’t pinpoint the issues, no shame there either. We have (almost?) all internalized the racism of White superiority and White defaults. Perhaps it will help if I clarify that this was not a training for White people. It was recommended for everyone in the organization. Though led by a Black woman, that is no guarantee of Black safety or even Black recognition. There was no space in the courageous part of this training for Black people. The D&I Director posted the question “Would you want to live as a Black person?” then started futzing with the breakout rooms without addressing its exclusivity. I tried to reach her in the chat, and when she didn’t respond I asked out loud, What are the Black attendees supposed to do while this question is being answered?

“Um, this is really for White people, so the Black people can just listen to that part.”


Any Black attendees were Excluded from consideration at the outset, Othered by the question, and then had to witness their designated Othering while the default race discussed why they wouldn’t want to be like them.

Specifically, Black attendees got to hear lots of well-meaning White folks talk about how they felt bad about it, but they wouldn’t want to be Black because they would be profiled, targeted, have a more difficult life, etc. Yes, good that they recognized systemic racism, but if my small group (which was all White women) and those who shared in the large group were representative, not a single person said a single good thing about being Black. Being Black is, apparently, just being White but harder. Nothing about culture or community or (a big plus in my view) not having to carry the guilt of centuries of White murder and enslavement and capitalism and all around bullshit. Nothing about Black joy or art or even the presumed advantage that Black Don’t Crack. Nothing. And no one said anything about it. A breakout group that had a Black attendee thanked him for his silent graciousness, but no one acknowledged the insult of being portrayed as nothing more than a victim. Certainly not the trainer, the VP of HR, or the CEO. None of my trusted DEI cohort attended.

Want more? I’ve got more. This courageous conversation (not affiliated with the widely praised Courageous Conversations) happened 5 days after the Tyre Nichols video was released. But there was no mention of Tyre Nichols at all. Not even as an example of systemic racism or internalized racism, which were both defined in the training. Not even a brief recognition that another, potentially traumatic murder had been forced into our consciousness as our city approaches the anniversary of Amir Locke’s police killing and the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Our D&I Director has an MA in this stuff. What did they teach her in Grad school? A year ago our DEI Committee facilitated conversations about Amir Locke, separated by racial affinity groups. Are we going backwards?

And I can’t talk to anyone about it – no one who can make a difference. She won’t reach out to me for feedback, because her supervisor and their supervisor are the only people in the org opposed to my participation. She should have anyway – I’m the legacy DEI person and could have at least shared what we’d done in the past and why. But no. If I had mentioned it at the meeting, perhaps even if I point out the issues privately, I’ ll most likely be written off as bitter or overly critical and unwilling to let go. As far as I know, no other attendees noticed that anything was wrong with any of it.

After all the work our committee put into improving equity and inclusion at our workplace… What was it all for? I am unwilling to let go. Not of my active participation or leadership in their DEI committee – I took the lead in removing myself from the committee, the email group, the Teams group – but of making things better for marginalized groups in the org. Nonetheless, it’s looking like I may have to. And it breaks my heart, again.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Talk About Race

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