Online Exclusive: No Time for Healing: Decentering Whiteness in Multiracial Community Dialogues

Winter 2021

By Nimisha Barton

By any measure, 2020 was a challenging year. And in response to the heartbreaking racist violence and nationwide upheaval, many independent K–12 schools as well as private colleges and universities crafted messages of solidarity and support, convened committees and task forces, and created new staff positions for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners. Many also cultivated spaces where community members could grieve and process together. But these spaces of racial healing that so many historically and predominantly white institutions created to respond to the moral imperative of our time have done precisely the opposite.
 
As a DEI practitioner at a school and a diversity consultant who works with independent schools and in higher ed, I designed, facilitated, and participated in many town halls, roundtables, and other dialogues for students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents in recent months. Typically, these spaces have had a mixed or multiracial makeup, and they aimed to help all community members heal and move forward.
 
Yet, in the best-case scenario, these multiracial community dialogues facilitate consciousness-raising for white, white-passing, and white-adjacent teachers, staff, and students who seek to understand how bias, oppression, and anti-Blackness function in their “diverse and inclusive” communities. In the worst-case scenario, they allow institutions to pay lip service to the ideals of racial justice without implementing any meaningful change.
 
Most important, facilitators, school leaders, and diversity practitioners in historically white institutions have centered whiteness in these conversations from the get-go, and it’s time to acknowledge and address the psychosocial cost for people of color—whether friends, colleagues, or students.
 

Who’s at the Center

Those who facilitate these conversations might be DEI practitioners at the institution, or they might be external consultants––usually nonwhite and brought in to help guide conversations that white leaders are unable or unwilling to have on their own. Often, the facilitators will establish basic parameters for these conversations and attempt to hold community members to them. These group norms keep the conversation on track and moving in productive directions. I have found them highly useful to help all participants cultivate an awareness of the emotional quality of the conversation, and when necessary, I remind community members of group norms mid-conversation, to protect people of color from the recriminations of those with whom they must share this space.
 
The central problem in multiracial community dialogue spaces, however, is that given the power dynamics in organizations that are both historically and predominantly white, group norms may wind up centering the experiences, the feelings, and the values of white stakeholders. This is even more so the case as well-meaning liberal and progressive white administrators, educators, and senior leaders become increasingly familiar with these norms and begin—consciously or otherwise—to manipulate them to their advantage. In this manner, white, white-adjacent, and white-passing people within education settings simply learn how to talk the talk without walking the walk. With what result?
 
These conversations may indeed leave some folks feeling like they have achieved major personal breakthroughs. But those revelations will have come on their terms and in ways that unintentionally harm the people of color who constitute their community. This is problematic because it reinforces the notion that, even in conversations that are not about them, the conversation must nevertheless unfold in a manner that safeguards their feelings, preserves white innocence, and denies the full humanity of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
 
It’s time to rethink how we establish norms within our communities knowing as we do that—whether intentionally or unintentionally—they can and will be weaponized against precisely those whom we, as DEI practitioners, aim to serve and uplift. We need to understand what does and does not serve BIPOC students, staff, and faculty who deserve dignity and justice.
 

Do No Harm

There are three common group agreements and two additional social justice norms—standards in the field—on which diversity practitioners rely when we gather in multiracial spaces to engage in difficult conversations about racism and recent events. I have used many of them when carving out spaces that I hoped might surface our individual hurts and allow us to collectively heal. But I have found that these are ultimately harmful to BIPOC.
 
Adopt a learner’s mindset. In the abstract, this is an excellent idea. We live healthier and more fulfilling lives when we approach the world in the spirit of learning, with a growth mindset. Unfortunately, however, in multiracial spaces tasked with “healing racial divisions,” it is BIPOC who are called upon—sometimes explicitly but often implicitly—to disclose their narratives of pain, trauma, and oppression at the hands of white supremacist forces, whether at school or in the wider world. These narratives do critical “work” in these spaces for a few reasons:
 
  • These narratives have the potential to activate the empathy of their white listeners—colleagues, supervisors, peers, and teachers.
  • Their personal storytelling may educate white stakeholders about the realities of BIPOC existence within historically and predominantly white institutions and in a majority white society.
  • Ultimately, by activating the empathy of white individuals and educating them about the lives of others, it might ultimately galvanize them to action within the institution and, perhaps, beyond its doors.
 
These are worthy goals, so what’s the problem? BIPOC live in a world that was not constructed for them. As a result, many BIPOC have learned how it works and how to move through it. So what learning—and whose learning—do we really envision in these multiracial spaces for racial healing dialogue?
 
Typically, BIPOC are positioned as teachers and white folks as learners, absorbing information about the toll that it takes on BIPOC to endure in a racist and oppressive society. This is precisely what we, DEI practitioners and facilitators, are banking on, whether or not we realize it. We are hoping against hope that white folks may hold some tender feelings for us as students or as colleagues, and we are counting on the fact that they might end up caring enough to do something about it. If we are strategic, we are thinking about the ways that we might harness this sudden—and likely short-lived—commitment to anti-racism work to push through at least a few worthwhile initiatives that might improve the lives of our fellow students and colleagues of color.
 
BIPOC aren’t learning a whole lot in these spaces; their white counterparts are. The question that any school leader and facilitator needs to ask themselves is: What learning, and whose learning, are you really seeking to activate when you refer to cultivating a learner’s mindset?
 
Lean into discomfort. This norm is an old standby for education and social justice practitioners. As Robin DiAngelo argued persuasively in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (and as BIPOC have known all their lives), “white fragility” encompasses the collection of assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors that white folks employ to resist having to deal with their own internalized racism.
 
More specifically, according to DiAngelo, when they are confronted with the fact of their racism, their emotional responses will likely include guilt, shame, anger, frustration, and sadness. These emotions are uncomfortable, to say the least. Consequently, when having challenging conversations about racism among mixed-race audiences in which white folks will be present, to remind the audience that they will likely feel discomfort has become an accepted wisdom. Essentially, it is a useful tactic for those of us eager to help white folks on their journey toward greater racial self-awareness.
 
Yet, this directive fails to account for the fact that some people are well-acquainted with the feeling of discomfort. BIPOC who live in a majority white society, who attend majority white schools taught and staffed by majority white teachers and employees, are in fact quite familiar with the ins and outs of discomfort. We develop coping mechanisms for it at home with our friends, families, and loved ones. In order to survive, let alone succeed, BIPOC become adept at managing their own discomfort in white spaces and learn to manage the discomfort that their presence in these spaces might elicit among white, white-adjacent, and white-passing people, too.
 
Therefore, when we issue the injunction to “lean into discomfort,” and even if we go so far as to highlight the productive experience of discomfort, as I tend to do, we are remiss if we do not also acknowledge that the feeling of discomfort is in fact not so new to most of the people of color. That, in fact, it is most likely the white people in the room who will feel this discomfort as they explore—perhaps for the first time—their complicity and participation in systemic racism. 
 
Assume good and best intentions. As DEI practitioners and facilitators, we often use this norm to establish a positive baseline for communication among dialogue participants, reminding folks that “we are all learning,” and indeed might err on the road to self-improvement. Those of us who are a bit more seasoned and have witnessed the way that this prescription can be manipulated might also suggest that there is a dark side to good intentions, reminding our participants that intention is not the same as impact, that what you mean may have little relation to how it lands on others. In advanced spaces, “acknowledge the difference between intent versus impact” may indeed constitute a follow-up norm in its own right.
 
While the caveat to distinguish between intent and impact is a useful qualifier to the blanket directive of “assuming good intentions,” the problem is that this particular group agreement is utterly nonsensical. When we hold these conversations in community, we cannot, we do not, and we should not leave our individual histories with one another—our students, our colleagues, our supervisors—at the door. Indeed, to do so would fly in the face of every survival instinct that BIPOC have developed in order to get through this world. People show you who they are, day in and day out, and we ignore that information at our own peril. It makes very little sense––just because we’re in a “healing” space––to suddenly accept that our white colleagues mean us no harm despite what they may say, especially if and when they have shown us a consistent pattern otherwise for months, if not years on end.
 
The fact is, when BIPOC walk into a room, they carry their histories, and white folks do not have the right to ask people not to hold them accountable. Moreover, bad faith actors with a knack for manipulation can use this norm to speak with impunity and demand to be excused in keeping with the supposed spirit of the group agreement. As a result, the norm can function as a means to manage the emotions of BIPOC, telling them: Don’t get upset at the white people in this space because they are good, they are trying, and they probably didn’t mean it that way. As such, the norm can be used to prop up the myth of white innocence by asking BIPOC to ignore everything they know in their gut to better serve the “learning” and “growth” of others. This norm gives the appearance of community participation in a healing project while maintaining the interpersonal inequities upon which the whole enterprise is founded.
 
Acknowledge privilege. Once upon a time, it would have been considered radical to hear a white cisgender heterosexual man acknowledge that he was, well, exactly that. It would have appeared radical because, although those of us considered “diverse” bear identities that mark our bodies in highly visible and undisputable ways, until quite recently, the same was not imagined of those whose bodies and selves constituted the norm—men, white people, straight people, etc.
 
Thanks to the tireless work of social justice advocates, scholar-activists, and other DEI practitioners, such acts of self-identification from white folks in general no longer comes as a shock. Rather, in most corners of the liberal and progressive world, they are now considered an important public demonstration of cultural competency on the part of school leaders who are, indeed, disproportionately white cishet men. And though it does not frequently appear as a group norm for conversations, I would say that ensuring that all folks learn to see, acknowledge, and, in the best of all possible worlds, “check” their various privileges as a prerequisite for joining a space—any space—is one of the highest goals of DEI practitioners within school communities. That sort of baseline understanding among all community members allows us to have the deep, important, and meaningful conversations that make real change possible and ensure that we can build authentic, welcoming, and inclusive learning and living environments for all our students and colleagues.
 
But in the wake of this past year, I have watched, dumbstruck, as white male leaders have found ways to co-opt and subvert the radical potential of recognizing privilege and the role it plays in shaping their worlds and worldviews. This subversion follows a particular script. First, they assert awareness of their various privileges. Consider this a variety of “woke” performance intended to convey the message “I get it.” Second, they disclose the ways that they have been unprivileged in various domains in their lives. Consider this an attempt at alliance-building with BIPOC based on an understanding of identity-as-oppression that conveys “I also understand oppression because I, too, have been oppressed.”
 
In these inversions, the bar for so-called oppression is indeed low, but that is scarcely the point. Rather, the peril lies in the fact that these statements constitute a breathtaking erasure of actual histories of violence, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment, placing those who have been historically more advantaged by multiple systems of power on a “level playing field” with those who have been steadfastly disadvantaged by those same systems. As such, it is an excellent example of what happens when we approach those DEI buzzwords— identity, privilege, intersectionality, etc.—without sufficient historical grounding and absent a social justice framework. And now we see the consequences: BIPOC run the risk of being lectured at by straight white men on the ways that “everyone suffers.” This is ahistorical, apolitical, disingenuous, and dangerous.
 
Call in versus call out. This particular phrase has been in circulation among social justice advocates for some time. Essentially, it requests that folks who seek to be in community with one another make a decision about how they will engage if one or the other crosses a line. Will you call them in for a heart-to-heart or will you call them out in a public dressing-down? We often discuss these concepts in workshops on allyship or accomplice-ship to provide folks with different sorts of tools to address and interrupt bias.
 
For understandable reasons, calling in is often looked upon as the more “compassionate” option between the two, as it spares the individual who has transgressed public shame and humiliation. It is easy to imagine how call-out culture and so-called cancel culture dovetail neatly with one another, and why they have been subject to similar sorts of critiques. Indeed, when I lead my own workshops on these themes with students, staff, and faculty, we discuss the pros and cons of each approach and give particular attention to context and the quality of relationship with the alleged transgressor in order to determine our individual course of action on a case-by-case basis.
 
I appreciate these distinctions and the intentional ways in which social justice leaders have enriched both our vocabularies and our imaginations, helping us dream up new ways of how we might engage productively with one another, even or especially with those who may unintentionally harm us. But in a community, we earn the right to be called in rather than called out. We earn that right by virtue of how we treat our fellow students, colleagues, and employees. Do we treat others with dignity and respect, day in and day out? When we have erred, do we apologize and seek to make amends? Do we engage in meaningful self-reflection and self-education to ensure we do not harm people like that again? If the answer is yes, then we have earned the right to be called in because we have done the work necessary to build a strong, trusting relationship with those with whom we are in community. We have shown them that we are capable of hearing tough feedback, reflecting, and growing. We have demonstrated that we believe in community, that we understand what it takes to build it and maintain it. That we are willing to create it and ensure that those who are most marginalized comprise a part of the community, not a community apart.
 
Unfortunately, many of our white leaders have not earned this privilege from their constituents of color. Call outs are a perfectly appropriate response when the culture of an institution—and the people who manufacture that culture every day—have done an inadequate job at creating relations of mutual trust and dignity for all.
 

Reset and Reimagine

These group norms have a place and may indeed still work as guardrails for community conversations on other topics—those that are not about the wounds that racism, bias, and oppression inflict in our communities. While I fervently believe that we must continue to hold meaningful racial healing dialogues in mixed and multiracial spaces, I also strongly encourage all of us DEI facilitators and practitioners to reconsider the terms of our engagement—to reset and regroup, rethink and reimagine. We need to get clarity and perspective on what values to uphold and which processes generate true healing and community building. To do so, we will have to center not just the comforting but bland concepts of compassion and empathy, which have failed us to date. Rather, we must begin to center an ethic of care rooted in true social justice.
Author
Nimisha Barton

Nimisha Barton is a scholar-activist and diversity and inclusion consultant who works with independent schools and private colleges and universities.