White People as Individuals

Note: No blog post next week for mid-winter/mid-Feb break. Feel free to check the archives and catch up on old posts during the break. You can also visit our friends at Nonprofit AF if you want to read some other fun posts.


Artwork display: Welcome to Entitlement, seen at Seattle Univ, May 2018

I’ve been sitting on this topic for a few weeks. Heidi suggested it as a topic and I’ve been marinating on it. As a person of color, and especially as an Asian I’ve been socialized to think about the group and the collective. As a child in classrooms and at home the messages were: “how will this affect others?,” “what does the group want to do?”. All of these messages shaped me into the person I am today. These messages were engrained in being Asian, think about others – group needs. Don’t get me wrong, my individual needs were met and I don’t feel I sacrificed from having to think about others.

It wasn’t until I was older and moved to Seattle that I understood where individualism shows up. I currently work in education advocacy. In so many of the hot button education topics individualism shows up. People show up and say: “My kid isn’t being served because they are super smart and get bored in a regular classroom,” “My child can’t excel because of this ‘inequity’,” “I really need this…” In the advocacy world we coach and encourage people to use personal stories, stories make abstract concepts stick. Yet there is a point where this individualism isn’t good for advancing racial equity – we forget that there are many others who need more and our individual needs aren’t always the greatest inequities. Those often needing more are silent.

“The white women are very comfortable”

A few years ago, I was in sitting with CiKeithia. She leaned over to me and whispered, “The white women are very comfortable here.” A white women had just noticed a buzzing sound and interrupted the flow of the presentation mentioned it to everyone. She wasn’t obnoxious or loud about mentioning it, but she felt comfortable pointing it out to the entire meeting. The room went with it because we have been socialized to allow white people comfortable and for their needs to be prioritized. Many of the POCs noticed it as well, but we didn’t interrupt or call attention to it since it was in the background and there was a meeting going on.

A friend, who is a racial equity trainer, mentioned in her training sessions how a white person will interrupt her to ask to have the activity changed because they don’t like a piece of it. Another friend is a high school teacher and told me how one of her students informed her that he changed the assignment because he didn’t want to do it the way she assigned it. He threw a high school version of a tantrum when she said he couldn’t just make changes without checking with her first. Never mind that both of my friends, as educators carefully thought through their lesson designs and thought about how to reach the largest number of people and supporting the group. As my other friend Carrie says: “When we design for everyone, we design for no one.” These stories illustrate how people think about themselves as individuals and not seeing themselves as part of a collective with greater needs over themselves.

White culture is built upon individual accomplishments and praising the individual, and at the same time denial or separation when convenient. Recently listening to NPR I heard an interview with a voter from Iowa. Towards the end of the interview Anita, the interviewee, said “Well, I don’t think I’m racist, but, sometimes, I say the wrong thing. … But no, I don’t think I’m racist because I know too many people of different backgrounds.” What I heard was “me” and seeing herself as an individual versus associating with others who have similar beliefs – a lot of proving her individualism is important.

White people it is ok for you to be uncomfortable for a while. You don’t need everything tailored to your individual needs. You don’t need to speak in every meeting or to speak to fill silence. It is ok to be part of the collective and not fight to be seen.

As an exercise to help you notice this dynamic, the next time you listen or watch the news gauge how many stories about white people as individuals, then look at the stories about people of color and how they are portrayed. The recent news around the coronavirus is an example – the collective of Chinese people vs. the individual European or Americans (often white) who are being interviewed.

In meetings how often do white people ask for changes and what are the changes? Are POCs as comfortable speaking up and asking and suggesting changes?

At another time I’ll explore how POCs can and should be seen as individuals and not always as a group. Before I write that one though I need to practice naming my own needs as an individual – Heidi another get together soon? I need some help figuring it out. You can practice naming your needs too and then we’ll group accomodate.

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