You may have noticed my absence on the blog over the last several weeks. As I mentioned before, this has been because I am writing some of the biggest parts of my doctoral research.
I am not sure if I have communicated what exactly I have been researching. My dissertation topic is what I am calling “inclusive leadership.” Inclusive Leadership is when leaders make sure diversity and difference is both represented and given full voice for full contribution in the places where we lead.
As a white male it is a terrifying topic, and I get asked lots of questions when people find out this is what I am doing. The main one is: How in the world did you land on that topic?
But I get other, deeper questions especially from white people. These questions often come as a response to blogs and articles on race written by people of color.
Because these issues are close to my heart and work and because race may be one of the most important conversations we need to be having today, I wanted to post a response to the biggest questions I get from white people.
What follows is a mock conversation which didn’t actually occur. If you are a friend of mine and think: He’s directly quoting me, I’m not. However, our conversation did probably shape this post in some way, so thanks. This is a composite sketch of lots of conversations and leans heavily on my own research and some ideas from this book.
I want to also be very explicit in the fact that I am writing to white people in this post. As a person of color many of these questions may be (and rightly so) offensive to you. If I’m honest my own first reaction in my head is to say: You’re an idiot and walk away. But I increasingly feel the call to hang in there and what follows really reflects the actual questions I get asked by white people.
I also decided to focus on the discussion on race in these posts for the sake of simplicity, although most of it applies to differences of color, gender, and culture as well. I am fully aware of the sweeping generalizations I make at times but the hope is to move the conversation forward (and to do so in a succinct way on a blog). I really believe addressing some of the issues in these posts goes a long way to help white people better navigate race and learn to ask better questions.
This is a two-part series, so I will hit parts of the conversation today and two more tomorrow. So, my fellow white people, here we go…..
Trevor, I am not a racist, but I really don’t like some the stuff I see on social media coming from the black community. It makes me feel bad like I have done something wrong, and I get lumped in with racist people just because I am white. Isn’t making blanket statements hypocritical? Why do I not get the benefit of the doubt?
First of all, I should point out that my identity as a white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, married, well-educated, American male means I probably have more blind spots than most people. I am in process on this stuff. It takes intentionality and even then I screw up and have glaring holes in the way I see and understand the world. And I always will. But I am committed to continuing to learn and grow.
So I want to share a few things which have been helpful to me. I remember sitting in a class and I heard an African-American friend of mine say: White people have an individualistic culture and the African-American community is a very “collectivist” culture.
My first thought was: I have a culture? and the second was: What is collectivism?
“Culture” is a really important thing to understand in this conversation. Culture refers to the beliefs, values, behaviors, and norms of a particular group of people. While people who are a part of the group may not possess every single attribute of a culture, culture deeply influences how members of a particular group see and live in the world.
Part of the culture of white people is individualism. Individualism says that all that matters is what I personally have done or am doing. If it doesn’t affect me directly, I don’t really care.
Individualistic culture also means white people don’t want to be lumped in with a group. We want to be individuals. So we tend to deny, or at least remain unaware, that we even have a culture, much less that culture affects us and the world around us. This causes all sorts of problems, and contributes to the feeling of not wanting to be lumped into a particular category.
The fact is, while each person is unique and not all people of a certain race or culture share all the characteristics of their culture, culture is the water we swim in. It shapes who we are, even if we don’t want to admit it. Even when people in a particular culture do not share the cultural attributes, they know how to navigate their culture well and usually to their advantage.
Collectivist culture on the other hand means that if it happens to one person, it happens to all of us. We all share the same story. And not just present day. All of the narratives of a culture’s past are part of what it means to be a person in the culture. The past stories are relevant and need to be told, and we don’t exist in isolation.
So a collectivist culture view says the past injustices should be talked about. What happens to one person of color happens to all people of color. Individualistic culture says: I haven’t done anything wrong, leave me alone.
But I haven’t done anything wrong! I like black people. I have a few friends who are black. I am not a racist, and I don’t do racist things or make racist comments. It is not my fault this is going on! Isn’t this all getting blown out of proportion?
Again, that perspective is shaped by an individualistic perspective. If you personally do not harbor ill feelings towards another race then you assume you are not complicit in anything that is racist and it is really not your problem.
White culture also tends towards either/or thinking. We tend to be very black and white in our thinking. There is either this or that, no middle option. Right or wrong, No grey areas.
So in the case of racial injustice, we tend to think either it is not my problem, or it is all my fault. As a white person, I happily say: both perspectives are wrong.
The book I mentioned earlier talks about the paradoxes we need to hold in conversations on diversity. On the one hand, if you are not an actively racist person, it is not your fault. You didn’t do the horrible things on the news.
But on the other hand, you absolutely are responsible. Responsible for. And responsible to.
As white people we have privileges which we take for granted. For example, not having to be scared when we get pulled over, or not having to daily think about how the color of our skin affects every interaction we have. If we do not recognize that not everyone has these privileges and that some people are oppressed and marginalized, we are perpetuating the problem and the ways of relating which keeps people marginalized by not calling out the evil that is present.
It’s not being white that is the problem. It’s not recognizing the privileges which come with being white (more on that tomorrow). We need to use our privilege to acknowledge the struggles other people have that we do not and if we aren’t willing to do that we are a part of the problem even if we don’t specifically dislike people of other races.
It is realizing the ways we are responsible for injustice, confessing and repenting of those things. And it is realizing that even if we didn’t have anything to confess (which we always will) we are still responsible to our brothers and sisters of color. So we confess, we repent, and then we ask others how we can become an advocate and an ally rather than a part of the problem.
I know you have more questions. We’ll get to those next time.