A very short look at racial anxiety

This week’s post will be short. My work team and coalition just wrapped up a third event in two weeks and one more to go on Saturday. All of the events are great and changing our civic landscape in positive ways, but it means I haven’t put a lot of thought into what to write about this week. Apologies too for this posting a little later than normal. I thought it posted early this morning, but it hadn’t. Here it is and have a great weekend. P.S. If you will be at the El Centro de la Raza gala on Saturday please say hi. And to our friends and colleagues observing Yom Kippur, G’mar Fatima Tova.


Tonight, my organization hosted a talk with professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name). I’ve written about his work before and want to return to one of the themes. He speaks often about othering and belonging. During his talk tonight, he answered a question about being able to name our anxieties and how they show up.

I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t experience anxiety on some level. It is a part of living to experience anxiety. We can’t control everything and many times anxiety is produced because we have to rely on others to make our way through the world. Prof. powell shared a slide saying as diversity increases in our country, so does anxiety and racial resentment.

I hear this anxiety a lot when I am in meetings with people not accustomed to talking about race. During the start of the meeting when we do community agreements and I mention we need to add a community agreement about being clear with our language around race, equity, immigration status, etc. people start to shift in their seats. They nod and may say “that is a good one,” but I’ve broken the unsaid rule around talking about that thing that we don’t talk about. I named a fear and heightened their anxiety because talking about race is now elevated. This is also why people, whites and pocs, dread mandatory diversity training, cultural competency training, race and social meetings, etc. All of a sudden people are forced to talk about what they only want to talk about in private in hushed voices.

When we name our fears, we can begin to unpack them. If we let them simmer in the background we end up with a broken narrative that leads to what Prof. powell calls breaking behavior, meta-narratives around anger, fear, othering. Trump is very good at this narrative: Those Mexicans will take your jobs, they are bad very bad people, etc.

When I see people of color come to my coalition’s meeting I feel a different vibe. People begin to unwind because they know they can talk about race. As a colleague of color said, “I don’t have to defend my existence.” We create this space by centering people of color first and by inviting honesty and naming our fears and anxieties. I don’t always get it right in this space either and there are many times I trip over my own words and thinking, but there is more grace to do so because we’re used to talking about race. I do my best to create a space where we can be brave and talk about race and trip and pick ourselves up together. This is how we create a space of belonging and not othering.

Some quick ways to open up conversations about race to help people become comfortable naming their anxieties. The more we normalize constructive ways to talk about race the greater our change of naming fears and anxieties.

  • Use the Color Brave Space in meetings, create the expectation you’ll be talking about race
  • During introductions or icebreakers introduce prompts related to race
  • Model how to talk about race by talking about it
  • Create a space for talking about race, some non-threatening ways are start a group where you all read an article or book by an author of color, or watch a TED Talk or movie by a person of color. This will help to create a habit of acknowledging race.

There is a lot more to look at on this topic, but it’s been a long week and I still have a few more work events to go. If you have questions or thoughts about this topic please email me at fakequity@gmail.com.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Are you recreating the power systems you’re fighting to undo?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a while, in some ways it is the second part of the blog post on power. Often in our work, we do what we know and maybe adapt it a little to make it more equitable and more community oriented. However, when we do this we need to ask ourselves are we aiming for transformational change or are we just tinkering. When we think about transformational change we’re creating something new versus taking a known process and making it more poc friendly. The danger with trying to make a current power structure and making it poc friendly is current power structures suck. They are oppressive to many including those on the top, the person at the top has to work really hard to maintain their status, and the people on the bottom are constantly fighting for power.

penguinsIn this video, with penguins, we can see current power dynamics of white hierarchy and white supremacy, and it also shows the danger of flipping the hierarchy putting pocs on top. When we flip the hierarchy, we’re adopting the principles and values that have oppressed people of color. In the video, it makes the point we need to work to create a system where we all have a turn in the center—much like how penguins take turns being warm in the center.

In our nonprofit, government, and business work we need to make sure we are redistributing power more justly. One of the problems of adopting the current hierarchical power structure is a select group is in control and not representative of the community that needs to be centered and focused upon. In communities of color, we can also fall into the trap of using these power dynamics to unintendedly uphold white supremacy or allowing the power dynamics to create wedge issues or divide and conquer strategies, all of which benefit white people more than communities of color.

Instead, we need to turn inward. As communities of color we can figure out our own solutions and we can act in solidarity with each other. Solidarity, like the word equity, has different meanings for different people. I am using the definition of we show up together, we do our ‘work’ as communities of color to work through differences, understandings, and show up in ways that unite us. We also take turns and never throw another community aside to move one community ahead of another. We must work together to achieve justice for communities of color – not just one community but all. We also need to do our work to uplift and focus on the most marginalized within our communities of color – disabled, LQBTIA, undocumented immigrants, immigrants and refugees, youth and seniors. To get to solidarity means we check our egos and be mindful of our power-base and use it in ways to redistribute our collective power across the community. (This definition may not be technically accurate. I haven’t researched solidarity and maybe in a future post I’ll contradict myself, humbly call this ‘learning forward.’ My colleague Jondou Chen also talks about the difference between interest convergence and solidarity which is fascinating and deserving of its own blog post.)

Creating a New Structure

Instead of adapting old structures and trying to adapt them to become poc friendly, we need to toss those out and create new ways of working which will look different. As an example, we can’t just take a traditional process and appoint a poc chair, or recruit pocs to a workgroup and think we’re reaching racial equity, the power structures stayed the same and it is just more diverse which isn’t helpful.

What is more helpful is resourcing groups (e.g. providing money, opening networks, space, etc.) to communities of color who are already working deeply with people of color. Many times, we’ve come up with ways of working in solidarity with each other, often informally, and we can get things done without the drama that comes with having to create formal structures that dominant society uses (i.e. leadership roles, timelines, etc.).

In communities of color, we need to take the time to build relationships with each other and build trust amongst each other. This is how we create new power networks that can withstand outside forces demanding we adopt power structures that don’t work for us. It is tempting to fall into the habits of a dominant culture, but we have to remember that is how we create ‘othering’ versus a collective sense of belonging.

Do and Don’t

Don’t expect communities to operate in known power structures – Do we really need to appoint formal chairs? Or can we be ok with having more people involved and evolving ways of working? Projects can still have things like a point person for interfacing with outside people such as funders, but do you really need to ask the group for a board list, chairperson, etc. If you want to understand if the group is inclusive of the communities they serve, ask that question and ask about who and how decisions are made.

Don’t expect things on your timeline—Timelines need to be fluid to allow evolving work and new power structures to emerge.

Do – Be flexible and allow grace as groups figure out new ways of working. It can be frustrating to watch a project and wonder if it will ever emerge because things look messy from the outside. But remember dominant culture took hundreds of years to create this mess pitting people against each other, you’all can afford a few months as we figure out our own ways of working.

Do – Test new ways of working together. We have to be willing to try new models of working together. Communities aren’t static and we have to find new ways of centering communities most impacted by racism. This means we slow down and try new strategies and let power dynamics continue to evolve and shift.


Posted by Erin Okuno. Thanks to Heidi Schillinger for sharing the penguin video.


Fakequity Fridays: 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 – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Leave the Comfort Zone for the Danger Zone

Before we start, we’re pausing to hold in our thoughts the school shooting near Spokane Washington. Harm and violence at a school, a place of safety, is tragic. To our colleagues in Spokane, we are holding you in our thoughts.

mavericThis has been a marathon meeting week. I’ve been in all-day meetings for most of the week and my introvert self is ready to find my hidey-hole and settle in with Netflix and headphones. One of the reoccurring themes from these meetings is how uncomfortable white people get when they are asked about why they aren’t talking about race. In more than one meeting I noticed white people getting defensive, then shut down the conversation when asked about race. I’m accustomed to listening to unsatisfactory answers and knowing my job is to ask and sit through these conversations.

“My community was shamed…”

My favorite line from a meeting this week came from a white person*. The person mentioned the organizers should proceed with caution and be sensitive because the community they (gender neutral to protect my integrity) represent was recently reported on in the news in an unfavorable light, “my community was recently publicly shamed… .” I cringed when these words were uttered. I thought “maybe they should feel a little shame, they aren’t innocent.” I also thought it took a lot of audacity for the person to suggest we need to tread lightly because a white community can’t handle being uncomfortable and they need special treatment.

This line also shows how much power white communities hold onto their comfort and how far they are willing to go to maintain their positions in communities. Being called out was a grievance and the language used was “don’t do that again to us,” and “we’re protecting our turf,” and “don’t let this happen again.” This behavior is what professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name) calls as breaking. It ‘others’ people, saying you’re not one of us, and comes from a place of anxiety around diversity and the meta-narratives, leadership, and organizations around it.

In that moment, the white leader could have been an ally and acknowledged their community experienced a sense of anxiety and the change needed. Prof. powell writes “Anxiety isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s just there,” it is what we do with the anxiety – do we channel it to understand and bridge, or do we use it to break our communities?

As our communities change many of us, white people especially, need to learn to be ok with being called out and called in. There are many white people expect to be catered to and expect “the benefit of the doubt,” that pocs assume their best intent, and “hold safe spaces” for white people. All of these cater to a sense of making white people ok and not asking them to feel any negative emotions such as anxiety and shame. But when we assume best intent and allow safe spaces to prevail it is only safe for one group. History doesn’t show that white people’s best intent is good enough. Was best intent used when white people created exclusionary policies?

“I went to the Danger Zone”

danger zoneCiKeithia and I have a new joke called #dangerzone. It comes from my kid butchering the lyrics to the Top Gun anthem “Highway to the Danger Zone,” my kid sings it “I went to the Danger Zone.” Before or after hard meetings we’ll text each other #dangerzone. As people of color we enter danger zones all the time – meetings where we’re one of the few people of color, there to be the ‘strong voice for equity,’ or even just walking on the streets in mostly white neighborhoods. People of color don’t have the luxury of saying “that didn’t feel good, so I’m not going back into the danger zone,” if we did this there wouldn’t be very many places to go.

White people need to be learn to be ok in the danger zone too. If you never enter the danger zone you’ll stay in a bubble of whiteness for fear of being shamed or having to feel something. It is a learned skill around functioning in the danger zone and being ok with a little anxiety and other emotions.

How to Make the Danger Zone Less Dangerous

Of course, I don’t want to shame and blame people around race. Shame doesn’t go far and people shut down. I do want people to experience race and to think about their actions and how their responsibilities to make danger zones less dangerous, shameful, and to encourage people to act.

Some ways we can work towards change:

Build relationships – When we build relationships the danger zone is less lonely and there is more bridging.

Stop centering whiteness – As an example of how easy it is to slip into this pattern at another meeting a white speaker kept saying “non-white communities.” I finally interrupted or disrupted and said “Please say what you mean, communities of color. When you say non-white you’re centering whiteness again.” A small language change that makes people of color visible.

Watch who is speaking – While watching a council meeting I took out my phone and started timing how long elected officials spoke. The meeting was dominated by white women who kept speaking and wouldn’t stop. We should all be conscious about how long and often we speak.

Facilitate for PoC safety – Facilitators and meeting organizers need to make sure they are actively disrupting whiteness and inviting people of color in. Using the Color Brave Space facilitation guidelines helps with this.

Leveling power with high maka-maka people – High maka maka is a term from Pidgin English to denote people with status and power and who may need extra preening. It is important to level the power dynamics and remind people why they are there, which may be to hear from the community not to showcase what they know. A few months ago, I helped to organize a meeting between immigrant parents and policy makers. We attended to the power differential by telling the policy makers they were there to hear from the parents not to share their agenda. The policy makers were being given a gift of personal stories and insights and they needed to honor the stories by listening. This short reminder changed the meeting tone to one that centered the families more.

Let’s stop with the danger zones and help to create more spaces for learning and relationship building.

*I was in meetings or watching meetings with many white people this week. If you are trying to guess or think it was you, relax many people have uttered similar lines.

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.

Talking About Race without Talking About Power is Useless


#defendDACA, artwork from amplifer.com, open source art and messages.

Since I last blogged Trump repealed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which allowed over 880,000 people to live more humanely and participate in our community more fully. As an action please sign this MomsRising petition calling on Congress to stand with DREAMmers. Please support organizations and individuals working to protect, defend, and push for progressive changes. My suggested list includes OneAmerica, Colectivia legal del Pubelo, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Neighborhood House, and 21 Progress (all of these organizations are poc led). Beyond financial resources, please take a moment to learn about what organizations in your neighborhood are doing to support DREAMmers and immigrant communities most impacted by this decision, immigrants will be here long after Trump so let’s keep the support going.

I’ve been thinking and reading more about power and how it manifests in our work and lives. In the United States, we are conditioned to believe and aim for equality. What this means for power is it is an off-limits topic, we consciously or unconsciously, believe we have equal chances of attaining our dreams. We hear phrases like “education is the great equalizer,” and we believe in ‘equal access.’ Due to power dynamics, we are never really equal. We can’t undo racism without talking about and understanding power.

In our current world view race and power go together, like hand-and-glove, fish and chips, and sometimes like oil and water. If we think about who currently holds formal and informal power we see patterns of whiteness. White people are in positions of formal power – they are over represented in government, business, public sector jobs, etc. By default, in informal settings, white people still hold on power. I’ve gone to many meetings with white people who should be my peers but they exert more power than they are due. It shows up in who is talking and where they sit, whitesplaining, or I have to sit through tantrums because a white person is unhappy when challenged and see an action as power being redistributed away from them.

I started reading Eric Liu’s book You’re More Powerful Than You Think, A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen. I’m only on page 56 so I haven’t fully gotten into the book, but it is giving me some good thoughts on how power needs to be attended to. In the opening chapter Liu defines power as “capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Liu lists several main sources of power: violence, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. He goes on to say conduits of power come from institutions, organizations, networks, laws, and narratives. Borrow his book from the library or buy it from an independent bookseller to learn more.

When we think about the main sources of power, there are very few that allow for people of color to positively express our power. Currently social norms default to whiteness, wealth is concentrated with white people, ideas are monetized or acted upon by white people (wealth and networks to decisionmakers are more visible to white people). Violence and state actions are used intentionally or unintentionally to hold people of color down. Before you give up and stop reading there is hope.

When we acknowledge power dynamics, especially racialized power dynamics, and work to rebalance them we shift power. Liu touches upon shifting power dynamics in his book. Organizing is one way to build power, labor unions are good at using the power of their membership and numbers to shift power.  In the community organizing, I’ve been involved with we often use narrative to shift power. Community voice and stories are used to challenge and call out societal norms that default to whiteness. As people of color become the majority in our country it is important we work on coming together in ways that recognize our collective power when we act in solidarity with each other.

We all have the power to shift power dynamics to benefit people and communities of color as well. Earlier we blogged about Color Brave Space, facilitation guidelines Heidi developed. When I facilitate I use these to focus the meeting on people of color. The act of focusing our meetings on people of color is an important way for me to exert my positional power to focus on people I care about. While it may make people including myself squirm to acknowledge my positional power I must do so if I want something to change, not acknowledging or using it appropriately means the system will default to what is easy which is currently centering whiteness.

For societal norms to change we must acknowledge how race and power work. When we understand how power shows up we can begin to shift it. Here are some simple steps you can use to begin to understand how power works in everyday life:

  1. Who is speaking – Start paying attention to who speaks at meetings, in conversations, etc. What are the racial and in some cases gender dynamics?
  2. Decision making power—Do community members and people of color have decision making control? Do they need to seek final approval from a governing body?
  3. Privilege—Access to networks, materials, financial resources, information, etc. What steps are taking place to redistribute these privileges?
  4. Disengage—The power to disengage from uncomfortable conversations or work is an important form of power. Impacted communities cannot walk away from unsafe or uncomfortable situations, yet those with power can often abandon projects, strategies, programs.

The more we can name and see how power the better we are at having it shared. There is more to think about this topic so share your thoughts on the topic by commenting on the Facebook thread or emailing fakequity@gmail.com. In a future post, we’ll unpack power dynamics more.

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.

White People: What Kind of R*cist are you? Take this 8 Question Quiz

White Folks, Do you need everything to be about you quiz 

what-do-mean-we-have-a-quiz-todayConsidering it is the Friday before a long weekend and Erin is taking a nap and eating at buffets, I decided I am going to be a little cheeky. And, if cheeky is not your thing, feel free to stop reading. Also, if you find yourself wondering if an example shared here is about you, it’s not. Well, it’s not specifically about you, but these are all things I see or hear on a fairly regular basis in my racial equity workshops. We’ll see if this post gets past the chief Fakequity editor.

 The last time I had a conversation about race. . .

  1. I don’t have conversations about race. I just see everyone as human.
  2. I shared all the POC books I’ve read lately and invited people to my book club and an upcoming lecture. (If you don’t know what POC means, answer #1. POC=People of Color.)
  3. I focused on listening to and centering POC voices.

When someone confronts me about my white privilege, I say. . .

  1. It’s not my fault! I can’t help that I am white.
  2. But I am a good person. I volunteer with at-risk youth and went to the BLM rally. (If you don’t know what BLM is, then answer #1. BLM=Black Lives Matter.)
  3. This is really uncomfortable, but I’m going to lean in and listen.

When I saw the news about Charlottesville. . .

  1. I retweeted 45’s comment about there being blame on both sides.
  2. I thought thank God, I live someplace where that doesn’t happen.
  3. I sent money to a Community of Color embedded organization doing work in Charlottesville and didn’t feel the need to tweet about it.

When I see a white person cry in a racial equity training, my reaction is. . .

  1. Anger and then I would state in a loud voice, you are oppressing white people.
  2. Cry too and sit with them and offer tissue.
  3. Have compassion, but not allow the conversation to shift to centering whiteness.

When asked for a commitment at the end of a racial equity training, my answer is…

  1. Pass or I’m only here so I don’t get fined.
  2. Increased awareness, I’m going to read more articles and books.
  3. [Insert specific daily action] that leans into discomfort, is explicit about race, and works to dismantling systemic racism in your organization.

The “suggestion” I write on my evaluation at the end of a racial equity training is . . .

  1. You’d be more effective if you didn’t shame and guilt white people.
  2. Next time please focus on more than just race. I grew up poor and you just ignored my experiences with oppression.
  3. Thank you for helping us talk specifically about race. I wish we had more time.

I took this quiz because. . .

  1. Someone sent it to me, and I am really offended and about to start trolling them and this blog. I’m pressing “Hide post” or “Hide all posts” on Fakequity’s Facebook page. (We take no offense to this, bye Felicia.)
  2. I wanted proof I’m not racist. I plan to share my results on social media.
  3. I read the Fakequity blog every week.

My honesty level with this quiz was. . .

  1. I was honest, and my honest response is that this quiz is an example of “reverse racism.”
  2. I wasn’t really honest, but I chose what I thought should be the “right” answer. And, now I will share my results on social media along with my Ancestry.com results showing I am part Native American.
  3. I was honest and now I’m going to print out a copy of this quiz and place it on some of my coworkers’ desks.


Mostly #1 Answers: Why are you here? I am guessing you didn’t really actually make it to the end of this blog post. You’re so uncomfortable with race that you can’t even read this blog post. You always need to be comfortable and centered. Pretty much everything always needs to be about you, your comfort, and your feelings.

Mostly #2 Answers: You might be a “self-appointed ally” who is more focused on looking good than addressing systemic racism. Your racial comfort is only on your terms. You really want to not be centered or comfortable all the time, but habits are hard to break. You still manage to make racial equity work all about you, your actions, and your comfort.

Mostly #3 Answers: I don’t believe you take it again. If you take it again and your answers are still mostly #3 then keep up the good work. You are comfortable being uncomfortable in racial equity work. You manage to slow down and consciously work to center the needs, comfort, and ideas of people of color. It is not all about you. But if I’m being honest, I’m not sure I really believe you.

By Heidi, with input from CiKeithia and J34. Chief Fakequity Editor says Heidi and CiKeithia should write more.

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.