“I now understand that race is a profoundly complex social system that has nothing to do with being progressive or “open-minded.” In fact we whites who see ourselves as open-minded can actually be the most challenging population of all to talk to about race, because we believe we are “cool with race,” we are not examining our racial filters.” Excerpt from the book by Dr. Robin DiAngelo’ book, What Does it Mean to be White?
I am an open-minded, progressive, white woman living in America. My good friend recently forwarded me an article by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, and it prompted me to buy her book, What Does it Mean to be White? I would have proudly said, until recently, that I practice going beyond merely accepting difference to fully embracing and valuing them. But in light of what happened to Trayvon in Florida, Michael in Ferguson, and now the riots in Baltimore, I can no longer view these things from an intellectual distance. I have to face the fact that I’m viewing these events through my “white eyes” and with a perspective that can’t comprehend what it’s like for my black friend to know that statistically her teenage son is twice as likely to be shot and killed, unarmed in an altercation with the police, than my own son.
Reflection is good for the soul, and I’m just beginning to notice my own contribution to the problem. Recently I realized that I don’t always speak-up, and I tell myself it’s in the spirt of open-mindedness, “freedom of speech,” or that it won’t make a difference any way. And I fear there are times that I don’t even notice the nuances of racism happening all around me. I was granted social privilege by being born white in America, and with that birthright I was socialized to expect certain freedoms, acceptance, and prosperity. I grew up in the shadow of the civil rights movement. I learned about it through the perspective of the adults and teachers who I came in contact with, all white. My family lived in Southern California, and I clearly remember my grandfather driving us through Watts after the riots. I was only six years old at the time, but I can still remember him saying, “I don’t understand why they are taking out their rage on each other.” That seems especially relevant to me these days, as I consider that I can never truly understand the rage that was present then, or now. The statistics and recent research is appalling. American Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated, pulled over for minor traffic violations, and violated by the police compared with their white counterparts. And that doesn’t even touch-on the issue of job and pay inequality that exists. This has to stop and I don’t know what to do, except figure out my part.
I’m determined to hold myself accountable by learning how I contribute to institutionalized racism in America. I’m beginning to see that I have social privilege that my friend doesn’t have, and my past naiveté about that privilege plays a role in the predicament we’re in. It’s too easy to hold ourselves blameless for the societal chains that bind us, and in so doing, continue to perpetuate the cycle. But what does it mean to hold myself accountable? It means that I have to stop seeing myself as someone who is “cool with race.” My wake-up call was realizing that I’ve become passive with this topic, comfortable that my house is in order. I put the blame on the individuals responsible for the event, and forgot that we are part of a culture that allows these violent responses to continue to exist. We are responsible. I am responsible.
Accountability is defined as being answerable or responsible for some action or outcome. I’m personally responsible for my responses and reactions to race. I perpetuate institutionalized racism every time I knowingly or unknowingly turn a blind eye and allow it to be a common practice. We cannot stand in our full power and call ourselves “United” when we hide behind excuses, rationalizations, justifications, and defensiveness. We Americans who historically fought for our freedom must fight against intolerance and the disempowerment of our people. It is past time for white men and women to hold themselves, and each other to a higher standard.
I believe that we are ready for a different conversation, a more honest and transparent dialogue about how we experience our socialized perspectives. It starts by having the wisdom to realize that as White Americans we cannot fully know. By admitting that we can never fully grasp another’s experience, we create the possibility of embracing each other with empathy and compassion.
I hope you’ll join me. Here are some ways I’m practicing holding myself accountable for racism:
- Become better educated on the facts and statistics
- Educate others on the impact of racism in America
- Talk about racism openly with friends and family
- Speak up when comments are made that cross the line
- Question the line
- Question your own racial filters
- Don’t allow racism or intolerance of any kind, hide in the shadows of political or religious agendas
- Put people first
- And never forget, what if it were my son?
If you want to learn more about being more accountable at work and in your broader life, contact me at 303-238-9733 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you like this blog, I think you will like my book the Cycle of Transformation. Available now!
Deb Siverson is a seasoned executive coach, certified as a PCC through the International Coach Federation. If you want to schedule time to discuss how you or your organization can increase engagement by having a different conversation at work, contact us now.