White People: Stop and Think Before Giving Feedback


Left to Right: Erin, Heidi, Mindy, CiKeithia, and Michael. Now you know what we look like.

The Equity Matters team had a quick get together to have our headshots taken by the fabulous photographer Michael B. Maine. He made us feel comfortable and because we’re a tight team we were laughing and enjoying each other. Between picture sessions Heidi downloaded notes to me about this week’s blog topic – feedback and how to give it.

Over the years, Heidi and I have facilitated a lot of conversations, trainings, and meetings. Through this work, we’ve received tons of feedback and like most things in life the feel-good feedback is nice, but the harshest criticism sticks more. We are both professionals that have worked in poc centered spaces and with a lot of white people. If we’re being honest (truth telling, which this blog tries to do) the criticism from some white people misses the mark.

This is how the feedback sounds:

“The training was helpful, but the exercise where we had to talk about race should have also included socio-economic status.” Um no, this isn’t a training on economics, we’re talking about race.

“I was really uncomfortable talking about my personal identity. I don’t understand the purpose of having to identify as white. I’m an immigrant and feel like an outsider because of my accent and I had to flee my country because of religious persecution. I was uncomfortable saying I am white, when I don’t believe I have the same privileges as other white people.” No, we’re not playing the oppression Olympics, you have white privilege.

“I didn’t like it, I wasn’t the center of attention.” This isn’t real, but if we boil down bad feedback this is what it sounds like.

Heidi and I welcome feedback, we want to improve our work. I crave and sometimes seek out genuine critique because I want to make my work as useful as possible to partners and not waste time on things that don’t work. That said we are also asking white people and poc’s with privilege to stop and reflect before giving feedback. On our feedback forms, we ask people to circle if they are bi/multiracial, poc, or white – we do this on purpose to disaggregate the feedback data and to make sure we’re being balanced and centering people of color in our work.

It’s Not About You

Racial equity work isn’t about white people or even individual people of color, it is about the greater community and centering communities of color. Racial equity trainings and well-facilitated meetings should challenge all of us in some way. The point of bringing people together to meet and dialogue is to learn from each other. This means as facilitators and trainers our job is to make everyone uncomfortable at some point during the conversation. We don’t aim to make people so uncomfortable they completely check out, but we are there to help push conversations and help create space for people to think and accept new information. For our white partners, it is ok to shift in your seat a little and realize the training and meeting is forcing you to think and accept new information. What isn’t ok is to use the feedback form to rip apart the training because you were uncomfortable or to use the feedback form to say how you would have ran the training ‘better.’

Before You Give Feedback Some Things to Consider

Before you give feedback stop and think, is this feedback about the work or is it about processing your own thoughts about race? If it is the later, the feedback process might not be the place to put your thoughts. If you need to have a thought partner in processing, then ask for one, but don’t criticize as you ask for help thinking about race.

As an example, I once had a white person give me feedback on a meeting I facilitated. Her feedback was “I felt like you constantly cut me off when I’m trying to share information,” and “I feel very white as when I come to these meetings.” Her feedback was about her needs, comfort, and expertise. As we talked she acknowledged the meeting was centered on pocs and I asked her what did she want me to change to make her more comfortable while keeping it poc focused, she didn’t have an answer. Her criticisms weren’t helpful for the group dynamics, they were personally focused. Had she asked for help understanding race  we could have had a good conversation, but as soon as she made judgments and critiques it became about her ego, not growth of herself or the work and the conversation stopped.

Personal Process or Group Learning

When I fill out feedback forms I ask myself is the feedback about me and my feelings or is it about the group and process. Both are valid forms of feedback but as a facilitator it is helpful when people can differentiate between process and their personal learning. It sometimes sounds like this “I didn’t like the part of the training where we had to hold hands and give gratitude’s, because I don’t like having public Oprah moments, but I can see how it was useful for others to get closure.” By nuancing what the person didn’t like and why it is helpful feedback, it was more helpful to read that the person understood the purpose of the exercise was to keep the group moving forward together. Feedback along these lines let’s us know the overall tone and message was right but the activity might need to change — maybe no holding hands or group gratitudes not individual Oprah moments.

Tips for giving feedback

  • Give details and use words you hear in the training, especially words related to race or the topic
  • Say what stuck and what parts you’re still not sure about, it helps us know more about how to alter the training for the next group
  • Differentiate between personal process and group learning
  • If you need help understanding something ask, don’t hide behind making your question sound like feedback.
  • Feel free to be blunt, bold, and honest

Please continue to give feedback, but also think hard about the feedback you’re giving. Helpful feedback strengthens helps us grow, crappy self-centered feedback is more about you than the work.

By Erin with input from Heidi. Photo by Heidi and her selfie stick.