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.

Oppression Olympics and White Speak

facebookLast week I blogged about LEGO and their bias towards featuring only white children in their pictures. Another person posted a similar thought on LEGO’s Facebook page. Wow, were some of the comments rude and racist. My favorite racist comment was “If I wanted to see little brown people, I’d buy Nat. Geo. [National Geographic].” The comment was reported to Facebook and subsequently deleted, but not before this screenshot was taken. Racism runs free on Facebook, but we already knew that. [Update: Looks like the LEGO post was deleted.]

We also need to acknowledge the US missile attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack the Syrian government launched on the Syrian people. While all of this is unfolding, we have to be ready to open our borders and services to immigrants and refugees from the country, and work to continue protecting our current immigrants. The Trump administration has made it clear they do not value immigrants, so we must continue to push and resist bad policies and work hard to create a welcoming environment.


Earlier today Hana, a reader, emailed asking us to share insights on how to handle conversations that sound like this: “I am a [white] woman and I have suffered discrimination, so for you to assume I do not understand [fill in the blank] is unfair.” Independent of the email request, Heidi sent a text saying we need to write about “white speak,” meaning how we have to re-frame conversations so white people hear what people of color are saying without shutting down. Both topics deserve their own blog posts, but tonight I want to write about them together.

Let’s define ‘white speak.’ White speak is the verbal dance people of color do to make others, mostly white people, but sometimes pocs who aren’t woke (self-aware around race), understand what we are saying around race without losing their marbles. In this verbal tango pocs have to make things sound less threatening and gently explain why something is racist, privileged, or annoying to people of color. In white speak, we cater to white people’s fragility afraid to offend them or afraid of pushing too far and then having to deal with their tears, anger, or obsessions around being seen as perfect and non-offensive. When we white speak we also use coded language; we are catering to white people’s fragility and making them feel comfortable around hard messages associated with race. It is taxing to police words and to have to ‘code switch’ or mentally rewrite messages and judge if someone can understand what we want them to understand. Many times white speak hides or masks the poc truths and we give a tamer version at the risk of not losing people entirely.

As an example of Oppression Olympics, it sounds like this: “I’m a white women who’s experienced discrimination and hardship. My kid is in a class of 26 and his needs are not being met.” What I hear is “What about me? You’re not saying anything about my needs.” The white speak that has to take place to keep her from falling apart then sounds like this example: “Yes, I understand you have faced hardship and your son is in a classroom with 26 other children and that is a large class size. AND we must recognize there are other schools more under resourced then your school. It isn’t fair and the system isn’t resourced well enough to provide everyone everything they need.” What happened in the talk-back was we had to cater to the white person and say, “we see you, and you’ll be ok.”

It is human nature to want to feel included, but when white people want their problems seen first, we need to ask is it at the expense of focusing on people of color’s needs. If the answer is yes, then white people need to step back and check their privileges. Being able to articulate and voice a problem is a privilege, not all people of color have the ability or agency (ability to make the decision) to voice problems and be heard fairly or at all. As an example, while the white parent in the above example can say their kid (and therefore they) are experiencing hardship because their kid’s class is at 26-students, there may be additional outside resources to make sure their needs are met including parent education, community assets, etc. If we were to find a comparable 26-student classroom filled with students of color there is a greater likelihood the student’s needs are not being as well-met and the overall needs of the students are more because of historical legacies of under resourcing schools in communities of color. The parents of color in the predominately poc school probably are upset too but they don’t have the same agency to be heard, and/or the burden of speaking up is greater (i.e. organizing to testify at a school board meeting, having time to call policy makers, access to policy makers, etc.).

The white parent talking about how they are facing oppression or discrimination may even get praised for speaking up. We need white advocates, especially parent advocates, to share their stories and talk about how systems are failing children. But we also need white partners to understand how to share the advocacy burden and not fall into the role of playing Oppression Olympics by saying my need is greater than yours so you should follow my lead and my voice. Please don’t do this, it hurts the overall cause and it takes away from the need to be seen as a united front. Centering communities of color and people of color does not diminish people from seeing white people. White people and pocs of privilege our job is to create access and use our resources to highlight voices (in a non-tokenizing way) to people of color.

Wrapping Up

White people our asks are simple, stop with the oppression Olympics of saying “I’m discriminated/oppressed/hurt/etc. because I’m white.” We’re all oppressed in some ways and we’re all privileged in some ways; own your white privilege and do something good with it for people of color.

One of the ways you can do good is by listening and allowing people of color to speak honestly and fully. Create space to listen without censorship. Recognize the verbal gymnastics we sometimes do to have you hear us. I have a colleague who is bi-racial with white passing privilege. He grew up with both the white side of his family, as well as deeply ingrained with communities of color. With his white passing privilege, he is privy to how conversations sound with people of color are in the room, and how they change when the pocs step out. The conversations are different, with the pocs it is guarded and safe for fear of being offensive. How much more freeing would it be if we were all able to say what is needed and to have open conversations where we can check assumptions and hear each other. Let’s work on that and maybe we can stop having to white speak and play Oppression Olympics.

By Erin Okuno

Fakequity of the Week, with pictures

Today, is a special day, my kid has a birthday. This means I remember exactly where I was all those years ago. I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and fries in a hospital cafeteria before having a baby. This year we skipped the grilled cheese but still had French fries and birthday cake. Because of the birthday celebration I’m too lazy to think about writing a thought-provoking and deeply meaningful blog post, instead we’ll do a Fakequity roll call of bad behaviors I’ve encountered this week.

#1 LEGO So White

My kid loves LEGO. He has LEGO bricks coming out of every cervices of his room. If you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up he earnestly answers, “a LEGO engineer.” I’m cool with that if it pays the bills and I don’t ever step on a LEGO brick. Last year I took the kids to a LEGO exhibit at a mall not too far from Seattle. It was the LEGO Americana Roadshow, featuring LEGO structures of American landmarks such as the White House, US Capitol, Statue of Liberty, etc. They had a passport card where you answered questions and turned it in at the LEGO store for a prize. The prize was this gem of a poster (sorry for the quality) of all white kids.

2016-10-30 16.09.51

Also, check out this picture from their website, more white kids.


And finally, yesterday the LEGO magazine arrived in the mail. Look at this page of all white kids.

IMG_20170330_235148 (1)

Hmm, I’m seeing a trend #LEGOSoWhite. Hey LEGO, can you diversify and feature some children of color, maybe disabled children, and think a little more broadly in your picture selection? Kids of color really like LEGOs too. Don’t tell me children of color aren’t submitting pictures, if they aren’t then do the harder work of recruiting and creating relationships with families of color.

#2 Unchecked Implicit Bias

This infographic was posted on Facebook. What do you notice? I noticed some racial bias showing up, the only brown kid shows a kid melting down and words like “I’m not easy,” overwhelming, and terrible attached to it. The other pictures of mostly white and an Asian kid are all cute and happy.  Hmm…


Originally from Learning and Exploring Through Play

I posted a comment pointing out the racism and implicit bias projected. Immediately people started posting-back saying “You’re not serious?,” “Don’t being [sic] your issues to our table. These children don’t need stereotyped [sic] by adults– like you just did! You stereotyped her, no one else did. That’s on you.,” and “Ummm, take a closer look…..[sic] the child is white with curly brown hair. All that ranting for nothing, moron.” These were a few of the numerous comments, majority overwhelmingly negative. These comments are not unexpected, lots of white fragility and colorblindness displayed.

What made the situation sad was the owners of the Facebook page didn’t step in to moderate the conversation. They posted more content afterwards which tells me they were active on Facebook. I sent a private message to the page owners. They replied nine-days later reply saying because they had over 4-million page views and over 775,000 Facebook interactions last week they are unable to reply to everyone. This is unacceptable, especially for a company who’s stated goals include wanting to be accessible to people of color and promotes relationship building.

Because they didn’t moderate their Facebook page they tolerated bad-behavior which created an unsafe (online) place for people of color. I didn’t feel welcomed in the online conversation after I voiced my views. I will own my views around race and my privileges, and I don’t need others to protect me when I share those views. However, I don’t condone the organization allowing name-calling, racism, and what could be characterized as online-bullying to happen. (Because it was on Facebook I’m not taking it super seriously. I’m more annoyed with the response and lack of response by the org than the silliness of fragile white people.)

If you are a Facebook admin on a page or for a group, you must monitor and moderate conversations to make sure they are welcoming of diverse voices and people of color. Set expectations of how you want people to behave online and call out bad behavior when people violate the expectations, otherwise conversations will default to centering whiteness.

#3 Lunch Meeting Gone Wrong

Two weeks ago (still holding a grudge) I had lunch with a white male. This meeting was a long-time coming and it was one of the first times we talked outside of a group meeting setting. Dude clearly has work to do around race, especially after he said “I’m married to an Asian,” to justify his stance and beliefs. Face+palm=zero poker face.

Please do work around learning what race means and its impact. Realize what you don’t know, and as Jondou calls “what you know, you don’t know,” and go do some thinking. Be humble and learn. Read diverse media, force yourself to really listen to communities of color — shut up and just listen, and stop trying to justify yourselves. If you want to say something ask nicely and humbly.

#4 Something Happy, a Good Bun Bowl

Because I’m trying to practice more gratitude this year I’ll end with one happy picture. This is a picture of my Plate of Nations lunch at Rainier Restaurant. If you haven’t checked out Plate of Nations yet please do. I try to stack as many business meetings during Plate of Nations week. Plate of Nations week offers pre-fixe $15 or $25 meals, perfect for relationship building and sharing a delicious meal. Sharing food and supporting local people of color owned businesses is part of racial equity work. Today I checked out another restaurant, Banana Grill and had a wonderful lunch with a colleague. We talked about our Japanese-American experiences and what it means for the current generation of students. Go enjoy a good meal with colleague and talk about what is happening in communities of color. If you need a question prompt here is one: “Tell me what you eat at your family celebrations.” This will probably open up into a deeper conversation about self-identity. If you want to jump two feet into race and identity, you could ask “What is your race and ethnicity, and what evidence do you have to support this.” (hat-tip to Jondou and Heidi of the fakequity team for the second question.)


Thanks for hanging with us this week. Sometimes we just need to focus on things like a good bun bowl, it is one of the best anti-fakequity cures around. Next week I’ll try to be less grouchy and more introspective. If you have something on your mind or want to explore a topic ping me, would love to have some thought partners on how to fight fakequity, fakequity@gmail.com.

Posted by Erin

Humanizing or Weaponizing Data – Treating People as Subject or Objects, get your data right

Earlier today my colleague Jondou Chen joined my organization’s advocacy and policy cohort to talk about weaponizing data (using a community’s own data against that community). Jondou is a mind-blowing presenter and partner in racial equity work, he also has a little goatee which if he stroked while presenting would make him look very professorial and add to his equity-aura.


Illustration by Grant Snider of Axes of Evil in graph form

One of the concepts he shared is how data can be used against a person or community. This happens when data from people is objectified, or turned into an object. Let me break this down into non-wonky language: Data starts with people. People are at the heart of data – people generate the research questions, they give information, people interpret data through quantitative or qualitative means. People have ‘agency’ and power over their data and are the subject in relationship to  their own data.

The problem becomes when we turn other people’s data into our object. That is we take and we use someone else’s data without allowing the subject (the people behind the data) to have power or control over it. Nicole in our group today observed: “By writing we turn subjects into objects,” as in who controls the narrative behind the data. What does it mean to do this and why and when do we trust them to tell an accurate story?

Turning a Subject into an Object

Over the past few months my organization has been partnering with a group of Chinese immigrant parents to help shape several policy asks. The longer back story is about a year ago my organization served as the backbone organization for a large community based survey on family engagement in schools. Many of these Chinese parents had previously taken the survey and were pleased to see we were closing the feedback loop to share what their data showed. After presenting their data several of the parents began to share stories and talk about what they wanted to see happen next, they were continuing to be ‘subjects’ in relationship to their data and refused to become an object where others would define their experiences with the data.

In a reverse example, there are many times we’ve seen data used against communities. This Seattle Times article on library usage shows double-digit declines in the number of library visits made in South Seattle library branches. Affluent neighborhoods saw increases in library attendance.

The subject of the data are library patrons. The library system does not track race in their count of who is using the library; overall I would characterize their tracking as race neutral with the belief they are open and accessible to all (in another blog post we’ll unpack why access isn’t equity) and defenders of freedom of information, if user data isn’t collected it can’t be used for evil is one belief strand of librarians. When we turn the subject of the data, library patrons, into objects we strip away the story and other important data on why people of color may not be using the library.

When people of color have agency/power to control the narrative around their own data the questions become deeper and nuanced. Such as how many of the books in the library are written by authors of color? Do libraries in the south end (less affluent) have children’s librarians and programming for families that would increase patron counts. Is the programming culturally enriching and co-designed with the community? How many of the patrons have fines blocking them from borrowing books – a $15 fine (the threshold when an account is blocked) is less of a burden in affluent communities. How many immigrant families know how to get a library card and what paperwork will it take?

When we weaponize data against a community it sounds like this fictitious example: “Library usage is down in South Seattle. We need to make budget cuts, so let’s cut hours at the Rainier Beach branch because it has the lowest visit count and the highest percentage of fees on record.” Taking data in this way without allowing the subject, Rainier Beach library patrons, to have power over their data (e.g. usage rates, fees, staff availability) is turning them into the object of a policy decision.

This same weaponizing phenomenon is seen in so many other sectors. In education, we see it happen with achievement gap data, family engagement where families are blamed for not participating, English Language Learner programs, and disciple rates to name a few. Asian and Pacific Islander communities where API data is lumped together hiding the disparities within the race category and playing into the Asian Myth. In elections policy makers may use data to gerrymander districts by saying we need to even out people count versus looking at where communities reside and may want to stay together for political power or vice versa look at where certain communities congregate and redraw lines to give one community more political clout.

How Not to Objectify or Weaponize Data

It is important to actively work against weaponizing data and turning people into data objects. One way we can do that is to remember that data comes from humans and people have important stories behind their data.

Here are some questions to ask to ensure you’re keeping your data as human as possible:

  • Who controls the narrative around data? Is it the communities and people who gave you the data?
  • Reframe the question of “What data is being counted?” to “Whom [people] is being counted?”
  • Who controls the research funding and how is it being allocated? (Data projects are often backed with money, be honest and transparent with your funding sources and allocation.)
  • Create and maintain feedback loops with communities who participate. What are researchers missing? What are they mis-measuring? What are they misinterpreting?
  • Believe in and use qualitative data.
  • Ask yourself “What don’t I know?” and be humble in acknowledging “What I don’t know, I don’t know,” and be ok with not being the expert and in control of everything.

Posted by Erin Okuno, with special thanks to Jondou Chen, PhD, for dropping some serious knowledge. *Note for Jondou: I think half our grant report is written.

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Want to Close Achievement Gaps, Close the Relationship Gap

Earlier this week I spoke at Launch’s luncheon. Launch is a fabulous organization providing preschool and out-of-school time care with an eye towards supporting the whole child and family. A colleague asked if I could share my speech, so here is an edited version.

What I want to talk about today is relationships and why relationships matter.

In my job, I focus a lot on relationships. I’m fortunate to work for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. SESEC is a community based coalition of nonprofits, schools, parents, and allies focused on closing opportunity and achievement gaps and doing it WITH communities of color. As a coalition, we use a racial equity lens and we work to deepen and widen the network of support for our students.

Our SE community is diverse. If you walk around neighborhoods in SE you’ll see and hear kids doing their thing – taking part in robotics programs, speaking in Somali, Chinese, and Spanish – maybe even simultaneously on the playground. You may also see Launch teachers walking their preschoolers in matching Pepto-Bismol pink or neon orange t-shirts on field trips to the Wing Luke Museum, or walking to the library for storytime.

These things show our community is strong and resilient in the face of poverty, having to figure out how to deal with the under-funding of schools, and supporting families who are stressed because of threats of deportation. Because we have a strong community we can face these challenges and better protect children.

One of the ways we do this is by listening to our community, especially families of color. A recent project was a community wide survey on family engagement with schools. This survey was unique, it wasn’t like the surveymonkey links we get over email. Our community owned it and drove the entire survey process. We asked ourselves what is the value of the survey, and we landed on trust. At every step or when we got stuck on questions the design team asked “How is this building trust with the community?” We worked hard to live this value and check ourselves against it.

It was an amazing survey process. We gathered over 600 survey results, primarily from families of color, it was translated into ten languages and offered oral interpretation if needed, and the results are being used in so many different ways.

I want to share with you one finding, how families like to receive information.

Launch Luncheon

As you can see there are huge gaps in the bars. White families prefer email, while families of color prefer in-person communication or phone calls. Seattle Public Schools is now 54% students of color, which means these results are magnified and will continue to grow if we leave them unchecked.

The data from the survey tells an important story. This slide is demonstrating a relationship gap, which translates into opportunity and achievement gaps. If we can’t communicate effectively we aren’t going to close achievement gaps.

Many times, we default to what we know and what is easy, such as email. This is fakeqeuity – fake equity. Fakequity is taking the easy route. How it plays out sounds like this “We translated the email into different languages, they should have read it…” or “we don’t have time to make personal calls or schedule meetings.” These messages place blame, instead of stopping to examine why there is a communication and relationship gap.

Email is a one-way passing of information. Even if it is translated cultural nuances are missing. As an example, when we were working on our survey translation a Somali partner said:

“This isn’t a Somali survey. You took an American survey and translated it, that doesn’t make it a Somali survey. We speak directly and we ask open ended questions.”

This feedback was critical, we changed course and worked with our Somali partners to collect survey results differently. Many of them used interviews to collect stories. In one case a Somali parent who was collecting surveys went door-to-door and was invited in for tea and through that relationship they talked and prayed about their hopes and frustrations with their children’s education.

When we shared this data with families of color many of them said the data resonated. They saw themselves in the data and understood the results. As an example, some of our immigrant families said receiving information in-person and via phone allows them to ask questions, an email or flier doesn’t allow for this relationship building.

So, what does this mean for our schools and for all of us today? It means we need to slow down and take time to build relationships. Relationships are the glue that holds our communities together and it gives us the empathy to want to create change.

One of the reasons I am a fan of Launch is I see how they want to build relationships. From the moment, I drop my child off we are greeted with a warm hello from Ms. Florence. I also see Launch investing back into the community. They are at community events and supporting the schools they are in. When Beacon Hill International School rebuilt their playground Launch staff was volunteering. These relationships make change possible. When Launch, staff saw the data on how families like to receive information they used the data to reshape how they interact with families, focusing more on in-person and family engagement. We need more people pushing for change.

We also need more people to be brave and kind in talking about race, racism, privilege, hope, and community. We need to be able to talk about these things the way we talk about the Seahawks. They aren’t taboo topics, as we saw from the data snapshot, race is impacting outcomes. By being brave and voicing what we believe about race we change the narrative. When we talk about race, we can begin to change. Not talking about race allows the status quo to continue hurting all students, including white students and students of color.

Students can’t wait for slow incremental change. We need to extend our relationships and begin to ask hard questions of ourselves and of our schools.

Your work and my work is simple and hard at the same time. We need to pay attention to race. We need to notice how race and relationships show up in our everyday interactions and in our systems.

Systems are what are left when everyone leaves the room; it is the policies, the practices, and the relationships that either drive us toward equity or maintain the status quo.

Pay attention to elections and ask candidates hard questions and hold them accountable when they are in office. Strong relationships help us remember what we are accountable to and why.

This is also why it is important to grow relationships beyond our comfort zones. I hope you’ll extend yourself and get to know someone outside your comfort zone. These new relationships will deepen and widen the networks of support our kids need from us.

Thank you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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What are you reading and watching

Before we start if you’re not busy next Wednesday come join me for lunch at the Launch luncheon. I’m speaking at this fundraiser and super excited to support this great organization. Launch provides child care and preschool services and they do it with a spirit of inclusiveness and relationship building. See you at lunch.

harukiEarlier this week a colleague of color, who is interested in learning more about race, asked if I knew of any good textbooks or places to go to learn about race. I sort of chuckled, hopefully it was only audible in my head although I’ve been told I don’t have a poker face, and I said “well, you can’t really read just one book, it is more about diversifying media and perspectives overall.” To understand race and what it means to people is to remember there are multiple truths to every story. Diversifying what we read or the media we take in is one way to learn about race.

I have two focus areas for myself this year: first is to practice more gratitude, and the second to be aware of how much energy I put into English-only speaking spaces. This year I’m aiming to try to take in more media from non-English sources (translations and interpretations count). As a monolingual English speaker and reader I know I have a limited view of the world because my world is filtered through an English only lens. As an example, there are some cultural nuances I will never catch on to by only understanding English. Mindy, my colleague, is fluent in English and Cantonese. She recently explored some of the roots of Cantonese language and said there are many words in Cantonese that have literal translations. Such as the word troublemaker, 搞屎棍 (gaau si gwan), literally translates into “poop stirring stick.” I’ll never look at a toilet brush the same way, or use that word in the same way again.

My personal challenge this year is to read more books and articles from people of color, especially books and media from non-English speakers. If you have any suggestions of good books, movies, or online videos from non-English perspectives please let me know, please note I will need translated or subtitles since I’m not ambitious enough to learn another language right now.

Because I couldn’t think quickly enough when my colleague asked what reading and media I recommend, I’ll answer the question here. This is my recommended list of reading and media.

News and Blogs

  • South Seattle Emerald: Marilee Jolin, the Executive Director of the South Seattle Emerald, recently visited with an advocacy and policy cohort I help to facilitate. She shared the Emerald’s vision for diversifying news. The Emerald is a great South Seattle resource and they prioritize running stories from South Seattle residents, which includes a lot of people of color. I enjoy their coverage and seeing so many different perspectives shared. If you aren’t in Seattle purposefully seek out your city’s version of the Emerald
  • Nonprofit With Balls: We have to give a shout out to our friend Vu Le with nonprofitwithballs.com. While Vu’s focus is on nonprofits he often interweaves communities of color perspectives into his posts.

Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds

I get a lot of my news from online resources, especially social media because of this I try to make sure I am following a wide and deep range of people and organization’s on social media to get different perspectives. Here is my short list of feeds I find thought provoking:

  • Equity Matters– Heidi does a great job of posting articles and writing short explainations of why they matter. She also does the extra work of looking for articles by authors of color to promote different narratives versus just mainstream media.
  • The Atlantic – while this is a mainstream liberal news organization, I enjoy their diverse topics and focus on race. Especially when they have writers of color featured, such as Ta Nahesi Coates
  • Colorlines
  • There are many others, too many to list.


Here is a list of books I’ve read and recommend, most of them by authors of color. There are quite a few kids books on the list since I read to my kids and well I needed to put kids books otherwise the list would be sparse since I don’t read a lot of IMG_20170306_200343adult books these days.

  • The Underground by Colson Whitehead
  • When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson
  • March by John Lewis
  • Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie
  • Peach Girl by Raymond Nakamura
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (I’m on page 7 and so far I like it, yup recommending a book after only 7 pages, feel free to judge)
  • Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • Visas for Life by Yukiko Sugihara
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin

To give you an idea about how important it is to seek out diverse check out this infographic by publisher Lee & Low. If we pickup books that are easy we default to reading books by white authors. More interesting infographics by Lee & Low here.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you would suggest as ways to diversify media. Let me know what you recommend and I’ll put it on my list of things to read, watch, or listen to.

Posted by Erin

More thoughts on Language for Racial Equity


Last week we wrote about dual language programs and the value of them. I’m happy to share my partners from OneAmerica reported the bill to expand access to bilingual education for Washington’s students (HB1445/SB5529) have passed BOTH chambers of the legislature budget committees with bipartisan support. The next step is to get a similar bill passed out of the Senate. To lend support to this effort please join OneAmerica’s mailing list.

This is the second part of last week’s blog post. Heidi (of the fakequity team) sent me detailed notes and thoughts about dual language and how language factors into racial equity. This is how our conversation went. “Hey Erin, You wrote a good personal narrative about dual language programs. What happened to all of my notes?” “Yeah, I couldn’t fit in all of your detailed notes. Sorry.” So to make sure Heidi’s good thinking and notes are shared with the blogosphere here are Heidi’s ramblings and thoughts about language, race, power, and learning with more personal narrative by Erin.

Assimilation and The Price of Assimilation

“Lastly, let us not forget that the eradication of our Native languages not only brings about spiritual and cultural loss, but the elimination of our languages has been central to colonial and genocidal efforts. The colonizer wants us to forget that we are originally free peoples who had our own forms of governance, spirituality, ways of living and languages. Eradicating our languages is a means to eradicating who and what we are as Indigenous peoples.

 “Teaching an Indian youth in his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him. The first step to be taken toward civilization…is to teach them the English language.” -Commissioner of Indian Affairs John D.C. Atkins, Native language Survival & Revival

Language is one of the ways people of color are told and forced to assimilate into mainstream cultures. In the United States that meant Native and indigenous people were forced to give up their languages and in many cases children were forcibly removed from families and sent to boarding schools where they were reprimanded, including physical punishment, for speaking their Native languages. Across races this legacy of forced assimilation, and English only is now deeply embedded into our society, workplaces, and education systems. We no longer see losing home languages as an act of cultural genocide, but one that is just the “way we do business.”

The normalization of English only practices (whether conscious or unconscious) means the original colonizers have succeeded with their original intent to forcibly assimilate through language elimination. Monolingual English speakers and systems almost always make non-English speakers come to their turf, on some occasions wander out of the English only castle (translation and interpretation), but rarely spend time in spaces that are using other languages as the tool of power. Because they don’t want to and don’t have to give up that power.

Cost of Assimilation

Language assimilation and loss were and still are the ultimate tool of assimilation. Because language holds cultural insight, perspective, and value taking away a home language takes away these connections. Forcing or using only English defaults us to being limited to thinking and tools that benefit the colonizers.

Defaulting to an English only framework places people who speak a different language than English at a disadvantage, we are always trying to fit into the American/English speaking framework because we are using someone else’s tools.

“Thinking in English leads to thinking and acting like the colonizer.” – Native Language Survival & Revival


As an international transracial adoptee, I [Heidi] see how much value is placed on “economic security,” learning English to be able to survive and hopefully thrive in America. There is lesser concern about the “cultural loss and separation,” and even with economic security, adoptees still face trauma from adoption, racism, and cultural loss. For adoptees who want to reconnect with their country of birth, and biological families loss of language can create retraumatize or create new trauma because there is no sense of belonging – not belonging in the adoptive culture, but not having a homeland to return to. Language ease makes you feel comfortable in the US, but seeing yourself mirrored in society makes our birth country’s a place of comfort until we open our mouths.

In immigrant and refugee families loss of language can create gulfs between family members. Parents or grandparents who continue speaking their mother tongue and children who may be English only cannot connect with each other. Or the power dynamics are reversed when a young child who has to translate for their parents. This disconnect is taxing within families and can create trauma within families. Programs such as dual language programs that help students maintain and continue to grow in their home language are wonderful bridges and helps children develop racial pride.

Language as a Tool for Racial Equity

Language is a very tangible way to move closer to racial equity. When we design for two or more languages we default to hiring different people, using different cultural norms, learning different history, etc. We intentionally slow down and begin to see our work as more complex and inclusive.

“Guajardo is acutely sensitive to the critiques voiced by Alvarez and others. “Without the infusion of culturally appropriate, culturally relevant approaches, I think that we don’t touch the spirit of the region,” he said. At one point, he was interrupted by a phone call; someone from the MBA program was looking for a course taught in Spanish to fulfill a breadth requirement. He pitched a Mexican- American studies class. “Stephanie would be great for the MBA students,” he told the person on the other line. “She would turn [the business students] upside down with all kinds of Chicano studies stuff that they would do well to know.” – Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University

Racial equity work is about creating relationships with people different than us so we can begin to have expanded world views. Language and ability to use language as a tool to make this happen is important. Erin recently took her kids to the public library and there was extra space in the Spanish language storytime. Her daughter loves storytime, so much so they have to have play storytime at home. Yet during the middle of the Spanish storytime the kids asked to leave because they ‘didn’t like it,’ they couldn’t understand what was being said, but they could follow along, but they stayed. It was important for the kids to not be at the center and it was ok they didn’t understand. Learning empathy and how to struggle with language is an important part of developing racial equity skills.

In a final thought a friend shared this thought: “I dream in Somali and think in Swahili. If I take time to answer you, know that my brain is trying so hard to translate my multi-lingual syllables in your English language.” English is her fourth language which she forced herself to learn to survive life in colonized world. “I love and appreciate folks with deep accent. I often want to hold them upon hearing their accent.. it shows they are rich in language and culture. That I’m not alone. That they come from another world just like me.. and their courage speak for itself through their accent. Diaspora. Immigrants. It’s so beautiful I have no words for it.” 

By Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno

Hell Yeah to Dual Language Programs


Over a hot pot lunch my partner and I started talking about the dual language program at our kid’s school. Our kid is in elementary school and is fortunate to be an immersion program where he spends half the day learning math and science in Chinese and the second half of the day learning English language arts and social studies in English.

What made the conversation interesting is he hadn’t thought about who the program is designed for. At our elementary school two-thirds of the students are students of color, including a large percentage who are Latinx and Asian and the English language learner (ELL) rate is 46%.

While cooking our hot pot I explained the benefits of the program and how it really works to ensure students of color, especially students who don’t speak English as a home or first language, benefit from spending half of the day in their home language students. Children who are native Chinese or Spanish (the two languages at our school) are at a language advantage for half the day. In their immersion classrooms, they are maintaining their home language and able to be fluent, versus the typical school model where ELL students are expected to assimilate and learn in English.

As a parent, I see the advantages of these programs for student learning. Having a quality dual language program is giving my kid a way to connect to his racial and ethnic background. While he’s part Chinese American the Chinese language is lost in our family, we don’t speak Chinese. Learning Chinese at school gives him the ability to connect with his cultural background and explain nuances of his self-identity that only language can give him. The dual language program has also helped to ensure my kid is seeing teachers of color in his classrooms. Had he been in a traditional school I couldn’t count on this since the current teaching workforce in Washington state is 92% white. All of this is important to ensuring he and other students of color are seen and understood in their schools.

As we continued to cook our  lunch my partner admitted he thought dual language programs were for middle class families who wanted their children to have the advantage of learning a second language. While there is an element of truth there, dual language programs should first cater to and center their offerings to students of color and English language learners, this is racial equity. Placing dual language programs in predominately English speaking neighborhoods or allowing programs to gentrify away from their target languages is fakequity.

Why Learn Another Language

Language is a tool that can connect or divide us. When I’m facilitating I try to be conscious of the languages represented in the room and to remind myself and others we as English speakers/readers hold a lot of power and there may be times when we need to slow down to allow for full participation from everyone. In the US (and many other countries) we center our work and lives around the English language. As an interesting exercise, I recently sent out an invitation for policymakers to join me at a gathering with Chinese immigrant families. In the invitation, I added a note reminding attendees to request English interpretation since the families speak Chinese and we want to center the work on their needs first. Interestingly none of the policymakers requested an interpreter, meaning they all speak Cantonese or they assume an interpreter will be provided. Assuming interpretation is provided centers their comfort with English even though Cantonese is the dominant language of the families participating.

Learning another language is an important way to break down barriers and to practice empathy. Thinking about my kid’s education I can see him working to learn and understand another culture and language. I also saw a huge sense of pride when he taught me how to introduce myself in Mandarin for a work meeting. He took great care to correct my tones and praise me when I got it right. I hope his classmates who are Chinese language speakers are feeling the same sense of pride when they are in a position of being ‘the expert’ in the classroom.

I still remember the moment when I realized my kid’s dual language education was sticking. We were watching the movie The Martian, there is a brief scene where the actors are speaking in Chinese. The kid, who was probably about six at the time, said “I know what they are saying,” and explained the scene. It wasn’t a word for word translation but accurate interpretation. In that moment, his dual language education created a new dynamic that connected him to the world in a new way a language filter was removed. I look forward to having more moments like that but with real people, not just movies, because connecting and understanding are at the core of racial equity work. I also look forward to watching the shift away from monolingualism and creating a new norm where multilingualism is valued. As several friends have said “Hell yeah” to dual language programs and “If I could make it so, every kid in Seattle would be in an immersion program,” these are the new norms and values we need.


Currently our partners at OneAmerica are advocating and pushing a bill in the Washington legislature, HB1445/SB5529, to expand dual language access. Please join their efforts by contacting your legislators to let them know why language access and dual language programs are important to you. Please also think about what this means for our Native and Indigenous languages. Policies such as these can support language and cultural preservation and evolution which in turn fights cultural genocide. Supporting dual language programs also benefits  our Deaf and Blind colleagues and neighbors who speak and read American Sign Language and Braille. Take a moment to write to your elected officials to push for dual language programs. MomsRising is collecting stories about multilingualism, hurry and share your story before this link closes.

Additional Resources:

By Erin Okuno, with help from Heidi Schillinger and Roxana Norouzi

Is Your Equity Work All White?

This week has felt like a fire drill or actually a real fire. In Washington state, a DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals) young adult was detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). This is a big deal because while many of us knew eventually DACA protection would be tested, we are now realizing an even newer reality. This and other ICE raids across the country have left many immigrants and refugee communities shaken and worried about their lives and welfare. A colleague shared an undocumented family told him they make sure only one parent is at home at a time in case there is an ICE raid, this way their children will be able to stay with the other parent should anything happen. Another colleague told me the youth she works with are stressed out and worried about losing their parents. In the nonprofit world, we’ve been scrambling to meet community needs. Today at my coalition’s monthly meeting I had a request to save time to talk about what is happening with the ICE raids and what we are doing as a community to get information out. Other partners are working to get legal information and Know Your Rights trainings out to families. All this reacting is leaving little time to do other important work, but we must continue to get the rest of our work right so we can make progress and continue to build on the assets of our rich communities of color, especially our immigrant and refugee communities.

Equity Teams Silosgreen-balls

Last week I was in a meeting listening to people talk about a rubric (fancy term for a grading scale) on how to grade their racial equity teams. The teams wanted to see a chart where they could measure themselves and to benchmark progress. I sighed, racial equity work isn’t like getting a grade and saying “we’re passing! High fives!” Racial equity work is more about the process and journey and actions not about giving ourselves a passing grade, there is always more to learn.

I sat there and half-heartedly listened to the white organizers chatter on about how some teams were doing well and how others were stuck. Midway through the conversation I realized they were having the wrong conversation. They were talking about equity in a whiteness-bubble. These equity teams will never achieve transformational changes because it is mostly white people talking about “equity;” I put equity in quotations because I don’t think they were even talking about racial equity since race was hardly named, it was implied but rarely called out. Their conversation about race was centering whiteness and talking about what they saw as important. Allowing whiteness to pervade conversations about race is a form of power, a power to control the narrative and the stories that are told which often frames the solutions we seek.

The organization is mostly white, approximately 90% white. Listening to white people try to undo racism by only talking to white people, is like watching a silent movie expecting to learn spoken language. Their conversation about race was centering whiteness and talking about what they saw as important. Allowing whiteness to pervade conversations about race is a form of power, a power to control the narrative and the stories and the solutions we seek.

The other problem with majority white groups working on racial equity is it allows white people to default to their bad behaviors. At a different meeting, I sat in on a table session with a majority white group looking at data. The table dynamics could have been scripted: white dude got all defensive and tried to justify and blame people, white woman said “I try really hard to smile extra big to the Spanish speaking family. I could say ‘hola’ in the morning, but then I can’t say anything else,” the lone person of color had to fight to be heard at the table. Defaulting to these usual behaviors doesn’t help to undo racism, in fact it plays into racism’s hand. Diversifying people in the room and working to level power dynamics holds white people accountable; white people shouldn’t hoard emotional attention, they are accountable to people of color and balancing the group dynamics will force this accountability.

Stop Talking to Only White People

We need to force open tables and invite in people of color. People of color have different lived experiences and truths than white people. As people of color we have amazing assets and stories that need to be acknowledged and welcomed in. Our assets will help to provide the solutions to the problems faced by communities of color. Our stories will frame the way we see the problems and how we go about solving them. As I wrote about in the introduction about the current political climate many of our nonprofits working with communities of color are scrambling to serve our communities, we do this because we have to and because we hear from people who are being impacted by the presidential actions. If we only listened to white people we wouldn’t be able to be an asset and ally to our communities. Now we need white people to get out of their white bubbles and to start listening and sharing the burden of undoing racism.

Listen to Our Stories

About a year ago, an African American parent told me “I can’t sing your song until I learned my own.” This phrase is so true in racial equity work, while we must open up and listen to each, white people we need you to learn your own stories and songs. I need you to learn about race and what race means to you. Step back and listen to people without breaking down, without getting defensive or tone-policing us. When you listen and then stop to process on your own, you’ll realize the gift of stories and richness we as people of color are offering you.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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Anger=Love, Build Relationships

Valentine’s Day is coming up next week, a day dedicated to thinking about love, happier things, and candy. You may think we’ll blog about love, nah that’s for a traditional blog. This is the fakequity blog so instead we’ll write about something different, anger and resentment. Anger is a form of love, if we didn’t care about something or someone we wouldn’t get angry or resentful. My friend and I have a text conversation about anger and resentment. It started about two days ago, and we’re still going back and forth. One of the things we’ve realized is anger comes fast and dissipates. On the other hand resentment lingers, can grow, and is tied to feeling wronged with an element of righteous indignation. I’m a very flawed human and I resent a lot of things. Such as I resent evening meetings where I’m invited to be a community representative but don’t have a real role other than to sit there absorb information and legitimize someone else’s process. I sit through these meetings wondering why I’m there and resenting giving up an evening binge watching the newest season of Voltron on Netflix.

Talking about race and racial equity can easily get emotional. In my text conversation with my friend we went back and forth about whether emotions such as anger and resentment are a choice or if they are instinctual and impulsive. I am working with the belief we can control our emotions and make choices about going to a place of anger and resentment, or the opposite love and understanding.


picture by bodhijesitsnatchesthepeach

As part of my own racial equity work I’m trying to be more conscious of allowing time to unpack emotions. It is hard to calmly and rationally talk about race when someone arrogantly says “I went to the training on white fragility and I wasn’t as defensive as the other guy. I’m all good on this race thing.” Those types of comments make me want to jump across the table or throw my pen at them, instead I sometimes sit there and stew and let anger build. I’m envisioning Yoda from Star Wars scolding me saying something like “Anger, To fear, leads, Fear of white supremacy taking over.” I know I should ascertain where the belief is coming from, but this takes a lot of emotional energy. Sometimes I’ll just write the person off and avoid them for life adding the experience to my list of resentments.

Avoiding people and the topic of race isn’t a healthy formula for creating urgency and change. Taking the time to talk and build relationships that further cross-racial connections is necessary to undoing anger and exploring how to undo personal and systemic racism.

To fight anger and resentment around race we need to spend time building stronger relationships with people of color. Relationships force us to confront things about ourselves and others. Getting to know people who are different then ourselves allows us to check our biases, tendencies, and forces us to expand our viewpoints. Tonight, in a meeting a white colleague said “I’m a white person, as a white person I had to realize I had blinders on. I couldn’t learn about race from other white people, I had to open the view from my blinders not put on another pair of glasses. I had to expand my blinders outside of just white people.” It is easy to resent and get angry at people we don’t know, but when we know people we’re more willing to build tolerance, love, and we change our beliefs.

Do Not Tone Police

Please do not use your relationships to tone-police people’s anger. Tone policing is when we criticize how a message is delivered or downplay the emotion (often anger) versus acknowledging the experience or feelings expressed are true for the person expressing it. It is sometimes ‘correcting’ someone else, or dismissing their anger or experience ‘it couldn’t be that bad…,’ or saying something like “I’m a white person and I experienced the same…”

Author and Buddhist scholar and writer Thich Nhat Hanh explains the concept this way in this quote from the book Anger:

“If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”

In a mutually reinforcing relationship we listen to each other and when something doesn’t feel right we ask more questions to build a deeper relationship. We can take the time to introduce to share stories and to remind people they don’t have to solve problems alone.

Love, because we can’t be a total downer

This Valentine’s day I hope you challenge yourself to build a new relationship with someone outside of your comfort area. Anger and resentment form more quickly when we don’t understand each other.

For me I have a lot of really great relationships with people of color. These relationships feed me and make me feel whole. But I am realizing a lot of the relationships I have are with English speaking people. As a monolingual English speaker, I allow this language privilege to prevail in my relationships. I need to invest some time and energy into figuring out how to get out of my English only rut. For a start I better practice learning how to introduce myself in Cantonese for a parent meeting with some Chinese families in a few weeks. Learning how to say hello and my name is the least I can do to prepare and to break out of my English only bubble.

Post by Erin