Beyond Books, Blog Posts, and Bleacher Seating: Relationships Matter and I have the Whale Pictures to Prove it


Mural of three different types of whales/dolphins swimming. Photo by Heidi Schillinger

Editor’s Note: We’re taking next week off to celebrate the holidays. Look for us back in 2018. Also, this is a long blog post, but stick with it to the end.

There are probably three readers that have clicked on this link wondering how I am tying whales to racial equity. You’ll have read until the end to find the connection (don’t cheat and scroll to the bottom), but I am glad the whale click bait worked.

One of the most common responses I hear to how people are building their racial equity awareness and knowledge is by reading books, subscribing to blog posts, watching movies and attending lectures. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of books, blog posts, videos and lectures. I have stacks on books on my desk. If you are wondering, I am currently reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning: and Sherman Alexie’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Clearly, I am a fan of blog posts –, Fakequity, Nonprofit AF, Black Girl Dangerous, and so many more. I have also recently been captivated by the Think Indigenous podcast, featuring Indigenous perspectives on education. And, I am a proud Viki Pass Plus subscriber, so I can watch all the Korean dramas I want.

Reading and listening are not substitutes for relationships

One of the dangers of solely or mostly relying on reading and listening to build our understanding of different cultural and racialized (among other) experiences is that we still filter our learning through our own experiences. I have seen this lead to a distorted sense of understanding and knowledge. Where people speak with a false sense of authority about something they have read, but never experienced or never had anyone close to them experience.

Or reading and listening in isolation leads to people immediately and easily dismissing ideas that challenge a current way of thinking. A minimum “practice” (otherwise known as homework) suggestion I give workshop participants is a read a few articles, all written by people of color, from a list I provide. The list includes articles such as, Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex and How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion. When I ask for reflections on the readings, I often hear comments like “I was really put off by the tone of the author. I couldn’t even finish the article because I felt like the author only complained and didn’t offer solutions. I feel like all these articles just make me feel bad about being white, and that isn’t helpful.” This is how racialized power shows up even when we read. Consider how these same patterns play out in our work. White systems won’t listen to people of color if they are too emotional—news flash racism is emotional. White systems won’t listen to people of color if they don’t present ideas in formats deemed “professional” according to the standard set by whiteness. White systems won’t listen to people of color unless white people feel included, affirmed, and comfortable. To ignore these patterns of racialized power, even when we read, watch and listen, is to uphold systemic racism.

At this point, you might be thinking –

  1. Whew, Heidi is not talking about me. I don’t do or say any of the things she just mentioned.
  2. Okay, Heidi, but I talk with other people about the books, blog posts, movies, and lectures.
  3. Heidi, when are you getting to the whales?

For the people who chose 1, we all engage in these patterns of racialized power. Yes, even people of color. Yes, even me. To say you haven’t been impacted by racism is equivalent to saying, “I believe in institutional racism, it’s just not in my work.” This is the #alllivesmatter of liberal racism.

A quicker note to the three people who chose 3, I promise I’ll get to the whales. But please keep your expectation realistic.

Answer 2: Designed for segregation and dehumanization

A longer note to the people who choose B, my loving critique is really aimed here. This is where book clubs and lecture discussions are happening but in mostly racially segregated spaces. At the very roots of systemic racism are policies and practices that were intended to segregate and dehumanize; colonization, slavery, Jim Crow laws, internment. In plainer language, policies kept white people separate and in power in order to dehumanize people of color and justify economic exploitation. The legacy of that explicit segregation and dehumanization lingers with us today, even in the way we learn.

Ask yourself, is your book club or discussion group an echo chamber? This is an especially important question for white folks. Discussing Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” or the most recent Ta Nehisi Coates’ Lecture in a group of mostly white people (and a few Asians) is upholding segregation. Having brown bag lunch and learns at work with mostly white people is upholding segregation. Holding a racial equity training with a group of mostly white participants is upholding segregation.

For people of color having spaces with just Asians, just African-Americans, etc. serves a different and important purpose, but we also need to be aware of how our echo chambers can uphold the dehumanization of different communities of color. As an Asian American, how does segregation uphold my participation in anti-blackness? If we aren’t paying conscious attention, our personal and professional lives will default to racial segregation. Remember it was designed that way to continue to uphold systemic racism and white supremacy.

Another article I often ask workshop participants to read is Men Just Don’t Trust Women — And It’s A Huge Problem. Too many times, men read this article and then tell me they talked with other men about the article and have decided it is false. This is the echo chamber problem. Or men will tell me that they talked with one woman and she agreed that the article is false. This is the tokenization problem. We can do better.

Design for relationships, design for humanization

If our default patterns are designed for segregation and dehumanization, we need to design our lives to foster true cross-racial relationships. As we think about redesigning our lives and work, remember equal is not racially equitable even in relationship building.

About four years ago, I took a hard look at who I had built relationships with and currently trusted to give me work advice. One glaring omission from my inner circle at that time was youth, and in particular youth of color. Yet, I spent a lot of time talking with educators about how to make schools more racially equitable for youth of color. I spoke from research, books, videos, and anecdotal stories. But my work wasn’t being influenced by students of color.

I realized I shouldn’t go around telling others to build relationships with the people most impacted by racism and not do this myself. I decided to redesign my week so I could regularly volunteer with youth. I chose the Major Taylor Project hosted at the YES Foundation of White Center. I hung out and rode bikes with high school students once a week. It was awkward at first. I am an introvert and hadn’t been around high school students for a long time. None of the students really talked with me, and I had to work hard to build connections. A few years later, one of the students told me they purposely didn’t talk to me for the first six months because they didn’t know if I was going to stick around. They were right, many volunteers didn’t stick around for more than a few months. I am glad I stuck around, and I am glad the students started to share things with me. My life and work have been richer, more meaningful and filled with more urgency for racial justice because of my relationships with Ricardo, Juan, Tom, Huang, Diana, Phuc, Thai, Michael and many more.

A few things I learned in my own relationship redesign process:

  • It requires effort and planning. I needed to have something regularly scheduled on my calendar. I had to prioritize these efforts to ensure they happened.
  • I had no agenda, other than relationship building. It wasn’t connected to my work. I wasn’t the leader. I was only there to connect with kids and ride bikes.
  • Building trust took time. It took six months (or more) for the students to trust me and begin to open up. But once trust had been built they shared openly.
  • Relationships are reciprocal. I had to be willing to share things, invest time, and learn from the youth as well.
  • Relationships are humanizing. Issues are more personal and urgent when I care and am connected to people directly impacted. I am less tolerant of excuses, justified or not, about why we can’t make radical changes in our education system. I know the lives of students I care deeply about are being impacted right now and they can’t wait. They shouldn’t have to wait for racial justice.

These are ideas that can be applied to our personal relationship building and also things to consider as we design for better relationships and connections with communities of color in our work. A few words of caution that deserve their own blog post in the future: please don’t tokenize, be a creeper, or displace/gentrify.

“Save the whales”

You made it. We’re going to talk about whales now. As a nearly lifelong Washingtonian, I have grown up with whales in my backyard. Not literally in my backyard, but metaphorically in my backyard. I have also done a lot of work in the environmental space and have a racial justice knee jerk reaction to the save the whales crowd. Perhaps both as a product of taking for granted things in my backyard and an explicit bias towards the save the whales crowd, I have never been that interested in whales. A year ago, I would have left a conversation about whales as quickly as I could think of a good excuse to go back to the snack table. In all fairness, it wasn’t that I didn’t like whales, I just wasn’t interested in them. But people and relationships can do unpredictable things to us. Someone I care about really likes whales and convinced me they are important to the ecosystem and just darn great animals. I even watched Free Willy.

A year later, I am struck by the fact that I have had conversations about what whales co-exist or don’t co-exist together, why a certain type of whale has a tusk (a narwhal if you’re curious), and why orca whales in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins (scientists don’t really know, but it is a sign of an unhealthy whale). I have found myself at windy and cold Beluga Point looking for whales during a recent trip to Anchorage. And, my phone camera roll includes more than a dozen pictures of pictures of whales. I even have a new outlook on the save the whales crowd. In fact, I might be in the save the whales crowd now, as I just told someone today to stop using Styrofoam and to think about saving the whales. Like working towards racial equity, we need to connect the head to the heart, relationships help us do this.

Relationships matter. Save the whales.

By Heidi Schillinger

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check 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.