Don’t forget to talk about whiteness
When I’m doing equity, inclusion, and diversity work in organizations, talking about whiteness matters. Why? Because if we don’t, we miss the context and history that has a direct impact on today’s culture.
Many of the leaders I’ve worked with are white (and so am I). As white people, we have a wide range of experience levels when it comes to white identity development. Some of us have none — meaning we have never really thought about what it means to be white, where the idea of “white” came from, why race was created in the first place, and how all of this impacts our actions today. Others have done some learning and reflection, but the vast majority have done little.
So whenever I get the chance, I talk to fellow white leaders about what it means to be white. I recently facilitated a juicy conversation with a white leadership team about racial identity and allyship. Our exchange involved both personal reflection and group processing. Everybody drew from different life experiences and cultures of origin, but we were all connected by the responsibility to understand our whiteness and act in service of racial justice.
I offered these prompting questions as a strong jumping-off point for the conversation:
- What does whiteness mean to you, and has this perspective shifted over time? If so, how?
- How has whiteness shaped or impacted your career and leadership in the last 5 years?
- What do you struggle with when it comes to whiteness and white privilege?
- What’s your vision for how you would like to use your white privilege?
We also worked through this definition of allyship that I adapted from PeerNetBC:
Allyship is an active, consistent, and challenging practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to work in solidarity with people that face marginalization. Allyship is not an identity — it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with people who face marginalization. Allyship is not self-defined — our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.
With this definition as our anchor, we talked about times when we were practicing allyship, times when we weren’t, and opportunities to step it up. It’s clear to me that one of the best ways for leaders at the top to practice allyship is to carefully listen to employees who face marginalization and then change systems, policies, and practices for the better. This takes a high level of engagement, commitment, and relationship across differences — all things that we as white leaders get to practice.
Identity development should be a component of any earnest equity and inclusion strategy, especially for those with the most power. I encourage you to include it as part of the ongoing and evolutionary process of dismantling racism in your organization.