Quit Showing Up So White

white camel

A white camel in Mongolia

We’ve been joking about this blog post all week. We’ve battered the topic back and forth over text message and probably laughed inappropriately during a meeting while reading a text or two.

At various times many of us, including people of color, fall into the trap of ‘showing up’ in unfavorable ways. Sometimes it is a function of operating in systems not designed to focus on people of color, personality differences, or sometimes people are just asses and they like to exert power.

Let’s define showing up.

Showing up means how to do you interact and function with others, especially people of color and communities not typically seen as holding power. Such as how do you act, behave, what energy do you project to others. Another way to think about it is how do others, especially non-dominate communities and people, interpret your behaviors and actions, especially as it relates to race. The crass way of defining ‘showing up’ is how others judge you when you leave the room. Admittedly, some of us are flawed beings who judge and gossip, sometimes we call it ‘debriefing,’ but sometimes it is just gossip.

We brainstormed a short list of ways people ‘show up’ in less than desirable ways around race. If we’re being honest we thought about the most annoying things people do in meetings. Like we say in many blog posts, if you know us don’t get all paranoid we aren’t writing specifically about you, you’re not that special. We see these behaviors in many people and we think it is time to call out the behaviors and remind people to stop.

You cannot distinguish equity from equality. You’ve managed to attend a few workshops and now have a few words to throw out as an attempt to demonstrate you are showing up for racial equity. Your practices continue to promote equality. It is easy to think just because people of color will benefit the strategy is equity, but you stopped thinking and got lazy. If you dig deeper and listen you may realize the strategy serves everyone the same and is really equality which could hurt pocs by diverting resources away from people of color.

You believe your personal stories demonstrate your commitment to ally ship. We’ve heard many of the stories before, something uncomfortable happens and you swoop in and save the day, you’ve suffered too and you can connect, you were unfairly burdened and now you’re down with the cause. You make no mention of how you centered a POC in this situation and instead focus it all on you and your efforts. It is important to connect and to build empathy, but save the story for later. When you talk about it in the middle of a meeting ask yourself are you building a connection or sucking up space and time to put the attention on you.

You expect praise for your racial equity efforts POC’s deal with racism every day. Again, like the personal stories you choose to share, don’t expect praise for interrupting whiteness. This is your work!

You want to talk about everything but race. If we had a dollar for every time we’re asked why we are not focusing on other forms of oppression. Yes, intersectionality is real AND racial equity means we are leading with race.

Your strategies promote access. When pushed to elaborate on your practice actions, you run off the exhaustive list of the languages you have translated your upcoming event flyers. Access isn’t equity, this deserves a separate blog post so we’ll tease you with that one line for now.

You cannot take people of color at our word you need to show your white centered research that has lots of fancy charts and graphs. When we tell you disparities are real, believe us! We gain nothing from reliving our racialized experiences. Do we ask you to justify your white privilege? We don’t tell you to show us the data on how white people are performing well, why do we have to prove the system is holding pocs back? Maybe we should tell you to produce the data on how white people are performing, nah you’d come up with some lame excuse and never do it so we’ll save ourselves from the privilege-oppression-woke-off.

You want to show us what you know NOT what you are learning. Your vocabulary is impressive, high five on acing the SAT, GMAT, LSAT, MSW, MPA, PhD, or whatever letter combo you earned.  This isn’t a quiz, talk to POC folks about what you are learning, don’t show off what you already know. We want to know about your stumbles and how you used those moments to learn and grow. Being open to learning and stretching to accept new thinking is necessary to deepening our thinking about race. Even for people who do this for a living, we still should learn about new concepts and ways of thinking about race. We don’t know every nuance of every community so we should learn from each other.

You respond or interrupt every time a person of color brings up race. Just because someone says something about race you don’t have to feel threatened or show you’re an ally. Not every comment is a personal attack or recognition of you.

In Hawaii we have a term “high maka maka,” the closest English translation is high maintenance with an air of arrogance. If you show up this way, expect us to ignore you or make some comment that cuts you back down. You don’t need to prove you’re better than others. Quit being bossy too. Bossiness is a form of power we can do without. People of color sometimes do this too, we try to one up each other, let’s stop. We all need to check our privilege, stop name dropping, stop trying to prove we belong, and just be cool. If you act all high maka maka the aunties and uncles will put you in your place real fast. The white way of saying this is beware of your privilege and power and humble yourself.

Along the lines of being “high maka maka,” don’t roll your eyes, use jargon, talk down, or think you’re special. You’re not special, you’re just like the rest of us. Being white, or if you are a poc with privilege, doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else. If you act like you’re better or special go for it, but don’t expect to be invited back or get an invite to the picnic where we gossip and talk quietly about how badly people behave.

This was a long list of what not to do. If you need to know what to do, it isn’t hard, be real, be humble, learn, do your own work about learning about race, go find your more woke peeps where you can be humble and ask them to help you.

Posted by CiKeithia Pugh and Erin Okuno

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar.

What is Trust & Who Has the Power to Define Trust?


Picture by Joel Santos of Eagle Hunter — trust between eagle and eagle hunter in Mongolia

Earlier in the week, I thought I would write about power dynamics, but as life often happens conversations with friends and colleagues gave me a new idea to explore – how trust and power intersect. Too rarely do we explicitly talk about trust. How often do you go into an organization or a board meeting and spent more than a passing reference to trust and power in the context race? We might talk about race, sometimes the word trust comes up, but rarely do we spend time exploring the two together, yet the two are intertwined and have such major implications for how we design our work and move through the world.

Who Has the Power to Define Trust?

My thoughtful and amazing colleague Amber Banks, PhD, studies trust and how it shows up in place-based work. Her topic is much deeper and richer than what I just wrote, so I hope you one day get to hear her speak and read her work. Dr. Amber shared some of her research findings with us and the conversation has left me noodling on a lot on themes and topics. One of the themes I’ve been thinking about since hearing her present is “who gets to define trust?” Another way to also think about is who has the power to define how trust is defined in a relationship? (These thoughts are my own, they are informed by Amber’s thinking, but if I err the mistakes are mine.)

I’m guessing when you read the word trust you can name some attributes to go with the word. Some of the common ones are: walking the talk, showing up, truth-telling, speaking truthfully, familial trust, and reliability. During our conversation, we probed a bit on these attributes and how they were formed as an association with trust. Many people of color linked our feelings of trust to experiences from our own communities, families, and childhood. Our early experiences provide a basis for looking at trust and how we operate with trust as a value as adults.

Understanding the basis of our trust is important to look at who defines trust in a relationship and how we experience trust with others in our community and work. Many times, trust is defined in a normative way and framed from a dominant white culture. Such as in dominant society we are expected to trust power and authority – teachers, law enforcement, elected officials, directors, etc. We aren’t allowed to ask a lot of questions. To question authority is to question the fragile trust in the relationship. In this power dynamic trust is defined and controlled by the dominant culture. Trust and power are exerted downward and not always reciprocated. In this case, trust isn’t being defined on equal terms.

Validating Trust

In order to reach a mutual definition of trust, we need to pay attention to power and create a space for people and communities of color to be able to speak about how we define trust and how we want trusting relationships reciprocated back. There are many times where dominant culture doesn’t know or understand the historical context of how marginalized communities define trust. The narrative around trust is often defined for communities of color and other marginalized communities. If you want to understand this more fully, read about the Native American’s experience with boarding schools or how the African American slave trade happened or the internment of Japanese Americans. Sometimes this narrative of mistrust is used to pit communities of color against each other.

What is missing from this is how as communities of color we validate our own trust in different ways – cross culturally, cross racially, and in solidarity with each other. If people don’t know what trust looks like or how it is experienced in a community it is easy to dismiss or use their power to dismiss the community’s trust base. When communities of color define trust we may be starting from a different place, point, and expectation than our white colleagues. Without understanding this we risk recreating the same dynamic that led to mistrust to begin with.

How Trust Can be Developed

Some of the themes around how trust is built and defined in community context include:

  • Remembering communities of color and our experiences are diverse and often rooted in place as well as race. Trust cannot be formed by using a blanket definition or approach for all communities of color.
  • Trust is developed through action, including repeated interactions. Are people doing what they say, are actions meeting their intentions.
  • Trust is built through “speaking truth to power.” Can we have the difficult conversation in a mutually respectful way and in ways that level power dynamics? For power holders can we recognize and trust in the stories of communities and people of color, disabled, immigrants/refugees, etc.?
  • Do you respect my definition of trust? We must acknowledge trust is defined in many different ways and we need to be able to talk about how we each define trust, including that race, culture, and power dynamics shape our views, thoughts, and feelings on trust.

Posted by Erin Okuno

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar.

Stop Taking and Extracting from Communities of Color


Photo from the movie “The Karate Kid,” Daniel wearing a Japanese headband with his hands out trying to learn Karate from Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi looking patiently annoyed.

Earlier today I spent time watching Heidi run a racial equity training. As a facilitator and a periodic trainer, I like to attend other people’s trainings to learn new skills and watch how others navigate conversations. Watching Heidi is sort of like watching a really fast-talking Mr. Miyagi (from the Karate Kid for the Millennials who don’t know this movie go look it up). She can break down racial equity concepts and have people practice the basics in new ways. One of the basics she reminded me of is extraction from communities of color. We heard this term and concept at the Othering and Belonging Conference we attended a few months ago. It stuck with Heidi; I don’t remember it but I remembered other important things like lunch and what time we had to leave for the airport.

I’m guessing most of us think of ourselves as good people who believe we don’t take things unfairly. Dominate cultural practices reinforce the belief we have a right to take things in the name of the greater good. Such as we have the right to collect information because if you want to participate you need to at least give your name and address for tracking and accountability. Corporations take/impose their oil pipeline on Native American land in the national interest of commerce and shareholders. Or policymakers and researchers who go into communities of color to do research in the name of progress but don’t return to ensure communities that invested time into the project ultimately benefit — funding runs out, the person working on it moves on, etc.

I see this happening in my work too. White people or organizations will contact me asking for an informational interview or a connection to someone or a referral. I don’t have a relationship with the person asking or the relationship doesn’t feel equal. I wonder who really benefits in the end, probably not me or others in my community. CiKeithia, another Fakequity team member, blogged about this when she wrote No You Can’t Pick My Brain.

Stop Taking Without Investing

Many times, dominant culture, white culture, tells people of color we need to justify our work. We need to prove money is being well-spent, time is well-used, we have community buy-in, and prove we know what we’re doing. There is little tolerance for what the system calls risk-taking or doing something outside of the norm.

The system defaults to having people justify actions with reports written by high paid consultants, hosting feedback and listening sessions, asking for data, studies, or informational interviews. All of these actions take/extract information from communities of color. My colleague Jondou Chen lectures about this as weaponizing data. Data is taken from people and communities of color, with little control over how the data is used afterward. As he defines it people of color are turned into objects, our data is extracted and controlled by others.

Somewhere in this equation, someone is often profiting off the extraction of information. When I say someone is profiting I don’t mean that in just the literal way of someone getting rich, which does happen. Profit also looks like the white person who gets accolades for having relationships with people of color, who gets political points or access to political tables, or who knows the juicy gossip. A white colleague who is married into an African American family and works with the African American community shared: “If I bring an African American colleague to a meeting I get a lot of praise and a nod, my friend gets nothing out of it. If he brings me, a white guy, to his community I’m seen as his liability.” It took me a moment to understand that but once I did I understood what he was saying. Because of histories of colonialism, the taking of land, language, culture, money, etc. by white people/dominant society, many communities of color are reluctant, fearful, and angry at being used again. White people and systems constantly want to take something and not return the investment, it is one of the insidious and unconscious ways power is upheld.

How to Invest, Not Just take

When working with communities of color and other communities further from power and privilege (e.g. LGBTQIA, disabilities, poor, immigrants and refugees, etc.) we need to slow down and spend time building relationships. The number one-way extraction happens is when systems and people in power swoop in and take something from communities of color without reciprocating or it is token reciprocation – hiring local translators, buying food from local restaurants, sharing one-time information, etc. All of this is a good first step but it doesn’t leave the community stronger than before, power hasn’t shifted, nor has an investment been made into the infrastructure of the community.

A better way to invest is to pause and ask yourself are you the right person or organization to lead the work. As an example, a few weeks ago I had to ask myself that same question. I promised someone I’d write a piece for them about a very politically and emotionally charged race related event. However, after attending the event I realized I shouldn’t write it because I wasn’t the most impacted person in the room. While I had valid points if I wrote it the writing would have centered me. The timeline was fast to get the story written and published, and many of us wanted to get the information out because it was powerful. I had to wrestle with my ego, did I want to write the story because it would prove I was being a good ally and prove I cared and was there.

I did what I do when I’m stuck I called CiKeithia and Heidi. They both suggested I reach out and find someone else who could talk about it in a way that focused on the impacted community, which I ultimately did. I had to slow myself down and reached out to a colleague and she said yes right away. Her piece is beautiful and centered her community in ways that no mainstream news report even got close to covering. If I had written the story I would have been extracting the story of another community, filtering it through my lens, and profited off of it by being upheld as a good ally and through the attention I would have gained. This is one reason why I’m not mentioning the event, to do so would be to center and call attention to me being there. I tell this personal story because too often we don’t grapple with the personal emotions or we justify our feelings when we extract from a community.

Organizationally we should grapple with these same feelings and questions. When we take how does it feel to our staff and our communities? It is easy to justify, but how does it feel and how are we building relationships and shifting power dynamics for the long haul?

Questions to think about if you are about to extract:

  1. Are you swooping in for a one-time or a time-limited project?
  2. If you weren’t there how would things look different?
  3. Have you listened to what the community wants? As an example, if the project is on passing a bill does the community really want the bill you’re working on or do they want to work on something different? Such as you say you want to work on environmental justice by planting trees, but the immigrant community wants to gain citizenship so they can vote and influence policymaking.
  4. Are you asking for information (e.g. survey, interviews, focus groups, etc.)? How will the information be used and how will the community have ownership of the final product? How will it be used to shift and level power dynamics?
  5. Finally, ask yourself can you authentically show up in the community again and be received well? If you can’t answer yes quickly then adjust your practices or stop what you’re about to do.

Depending on how you answer these questions you may want to retool your approach to ensure you’re not extracting form a community without also investing.

Posted by Erin Okuno

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you! Please check the fakequity.com website for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar.

Equity Requires Action – Stop Using the word as an Attention Grabber


Photo Credit Moonpig77, Flickr

Several weeks ago, I blogged about the overuse of the word equity. This week I’ll expand on the misuse of the word equity. Lately, I’ve heard the term equity used as a descriptor, as in “it’s an equity problem,” “equity high needs,” or this headline “Soda Tax Will Include Diet Products Because Equity, Say Mayor and Councilmembers.” The problem with these statements is the word equity is misused. It is used as a descriptor and a substitution for other words such as diversity, or equality or parity in the case of the soda tax.

The danger with misusing the word equity without tying it back to a problem is nothing changes. It also leads to overuse of the term equity which makes it harder to achieve racial equity progress.

If you must use the word equity you must do the following:

  1. Describe the root cause and structural barrier to the problem – Example: The root cause of the problem is people of color are losing affordable rent options because of underinvestment in low-income neighborhoods, as gentrification happens communities of color are displaced as new wealth is buying old houses and displacing people of color. To address the structural barriers funding and resources should be devoted to affordable housing measures and tied to culture, language based communities, and focus on historically underserved communities of color.
  2. Define actions to remediate the root causes and structural barriers to inequities.

If you can’t talk about equity in these ways then you don’t get to use word equity. Find another word to describe what you want. Since I’ve recently written about linking equity to a root cause and structural barrier, we’ll focus on the action part of the word equity.

Equity Requires Action

To justify the word equity, you need to demonstrate an action and prove how the action addresses a structural barrier. As an example, I spend a lot of time sitting in on task-force meetings for government organizations and departments. The meetings are often long and drawn out over months. Whenever the task forces are put together and recruitment notices come out there is often a tagline screaming the word “EQUITY,” and language that sounds like this: “Our goal is for the task force to include community members who represent the diversity of the city/state/district/etc.” If I’m being asked to help recruit people from my network I email the organizers and ask what actions they are taking to remove barriers to participation for people of color. In other words, how are they practicing equity in the design of their task forces? My questions include:

  • Are you providing stipends to community members to participate in honoring their knowledge and helping offset time away from other work?
  • Will child care be provided or stipends to cover child care cost provided?
  • Will interpreters be provided? Are documents translated (high quality – no Google or Bing Translate)?
  • Are transportation stipends available if the meetings aren’t held closest to community members?
  • Meals provided if working long hours?

These questions drive towards equitable actions. You can’t just say you want equity without working for it, all talk with no action is fakequity.

Equity isn’t easy, it takes work at thinking about undoing long-held barriers for people of color. A commonly used definition of racial equity is: Racial equity is achieved when race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. … “This includes elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by race or fail to eliminate them.” As this definition clearly articulates there is an actionable component of eliminating problematic policies, practices, and beliefs.

The Problem with Saying “It’s an Equity Problem” or “Equity High Needs”

The problem with saying “it’s an equity problem” is we’re not talking about race. The word equity is being used as a placeholder and not tied to actionable steps. It is masking the real problem of needing to acknowledge race but being too timid to name race as a factor in the problem. I get it, we don’t like talking about race because race is tied to people and we don’t want to call out people, we’d rather talk about problems without humanizing them. How different would the statement be if the person said “It’s a diversity problem” or “People of Color are over-represented in low-performing schools.” These statements change the problem and more clearly articulate the root causes – diversity and low performance. These new statements also humanize and contextualize the problem needing to be solved.

As for Equity High Needs, we just need to stop that phrase. Stop using the word equity as an attention seeker. Equity and high needs are redundant, it is describing the same thing. Also, the phrase doesn’t make sense if we think of equity as an action. What action is taking place to modify the high needs schools? Many of us know high needs is coded racial language, so why not just come out and say our Diverse High Needs schools/programs/housing/etc., our Under-Resourced Program serving a High Needs Program, or just plainly our High Needs School/Program/Project. If you must use the term equity here connect it to a barrier and a solution.

Use the Word Equity Correctly

As I wrote before, please stop using the word equity to label everything. Equity isn’t a tagline, equity needs actions to address historical racism, structural barriers, and to bring about racial justice. Unless you’re willing to do the hard work of undoing racism you don’t get to use the word. The word equity must be earned through action, prove it to use it.

Posted by Erin Okuno

If you subscribe to the blog, thank you! Please check the fakequity.com website for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar.