Is Your Equity Work All White?

This week has felt like a fire drill or actually a real fire. In Washington state, a DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals) young adult was detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). This is a big deal because while many of us knew eventually DACA protection would be tested, we are now realizing an even newer reality. This and other ICE raids across the country have left many immigrants and refugee communities shaken and worried about their lives and welfare. A colleague shared an undocumented family told him they make sure only one parent is at home at a time in case there is an ICE raid, this way their children will be able to stay with the other parent should anything happen. Another colleague told me the youth she works with are stressed out and worried about losing their parents. In the nonprofit world, we’ve been scrambling to meet community needs. Today at my coalition’s monthly meeting I had a request to save time to talk about what is happening with the ICE raids and what we are doing as a community to get information out. Other partners are working to get legal information and Know Your Rights trainings out to families. All this reacting is leaving little time to do other important work, but we must continue to get the rest of our work right so we can make progress and continue to build on the assets of our rich communities of color, especially our immigrant and refugee communities.

Equity Teams Silosgreen-balls

Last week I was in a meeting listening to people talk about a rubric (fancy term for a grading scale) on how to grade their racial equity teams. The teams wanted to see a chart where they could measure themselves and to benchmark progress. I sighed, racial equity work isn’t like getting a grade and saying “we’re passing! High fives!” Racial equity work is more about the process and journey and actions not about giving ourselves a passing grade, there is always more to learn.

I sat there and half-heartedly listened to the white organizers chatter on about how some teams were doing well and how others were stuck. Midway through the conversation I realized they were having the wrong conversation. They were talking about equity in a whiteness-bubble. These equity teams will never achieve transformational changes because it is mostly white people talking about “equity;” I put equity in quotations because I don’t think they were even talking about racial equity since race was hardly named, it was implied but rarely called out. Their conversation about race was centering whiteness and talking about what they saw as important. Allowing whiteness to pervade conversations about race is a form of power, a power to control the narrative and the stories that are told which often frames the solutions we seek.

The organization is mostly white, approximately 90% white. Listening to white people try to undo racism by only talking to white people, is like watching a silent movie expecting to learn spoken language. Their conversation about race was centering whiteness and talking about what they saw as important. Allowing whiteness to pervade conversations about race is a form of power, a power to control the narrative and the stories and the solutions we seek.

The other problem with majority white groups working on racial equity is it allows white people to default to their bad behaviors. At a different meeting, I sat in on a table session with a majority white group looking at data. The table dynamics could have been scripted: white dude got all defensive and tried to justify and blame people, white woman said “I try really hard to smile extra big to the Spanish speaking family. I could say ‘hola’ in the morning, but then I can’t say anything else,” the lone person of color had to fight to be heard at the table. Defaulting to these usual behaviors doesn’t help to undo racism, in fact it plays into racism’s hand. Diversifying people in the room and working to level power dynamics holds white people accountable; white people shouldn’t hoard emotional attention, they are accountable to people of color and balancing the group dynamics will force this accountability.

Stop Talking to Only White People

We need to force open tables and invite in people of color. People of color have different lived experiences and truths than white people. As people of color we have amazing assets and stories that need to be acknowledged and welcomed in. Our assets will help to provide the solutions to the problems faced by communities of color. Our stories will frame the way we see the problems and how we go about solving them. As I wrote about in the introduction about the current political climate many of our nonprofits working with communities of color are scrambling to serve our communities, we do this because we have to and because we hear from people who are being impacted by the presidential actions. If we only listened to white people we wouldn’t be able to be an asset and ally to our communities. Now we need white people to get out of their white bubbles and to start listening and sharing the burden of undoing racism.

Listen to Our Stories

About a year ago, an African American parent told me “I can’t sing your song until I learned my own.” This phrase is so true in racial equity work, while we must open up and listen to each, white people we need you to learn your own stories and songs. I need you to learn about race and what race means to you. Step back and listen to people without breaking down, without getting defensive or tone-policing us. When you listen and then stop to process on your own, you’ll realize the gift of stories and richness we as people of color are offering you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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