To my white colleagues: I can’t give up. You can’t either. Written by May Rico
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - July 10, 2020
To my white colleagues:
I work very hard at being someone I can respect. I treat others the way I want to be treated. I give others the chances I want to be given. I make space for others that I want to be made for me. And when I mess up, and I do a lot, I learn from it and move forward instead of giving up. That’s a person I can respect. That’s who I work to be.
I think all of us in this field want to make the world a better place. I think most of us recognize that means we have to make ourselves better people. I am a better person today than I was yesterday. I hope to be a better person tomorrow than I was today. But part of being a better person is being honest about the mistakes I made and the things I need to change. And that’s tough.
I feel aspects of white fragility play out in that process. I want to explain and defend so you won’t think I’m a bad person, so you won’t think I’m a racist, so that I’ll be someone you can still respect. So I offer to my white colleagues that getting past that barrier IS part of the work we need to do to be the change we want to see. If reading through this helps you recognize that in yourself, cool.
So to give some grace to myself, and to my white colleagues reading this, we can agree as a baseline that we are trying to be good people. We can agree as a baseline that we’re trying to do the right thing. The problem is much of what we were taught the “right thing” is was wrong.
I believed I should only judge a person based on my experience of them, not negative experiences others told me about, and so there were times I silenced others because their experiences differed from mine. I now know that others can have completely different experiences from my own, and that both can be true.
I believed everyone should be treated the same and that’s what fairness looked like, so I didn’t look deeper into what barriers might exist for some and not for others. I now know that if I want to understand what barriers might exist that I can’t see, I have to ask and listen. I also have to shut off the inner dialogue justifying those barriers.
I’ve been part of naming and enforcing “professional standards” that only support white mainstream expectations and really have no impact on the work. I now understand that HR practices are meant to protect the status quo, and the status quo in general means structures that support white supremacy. While I can’t ignore them, I do challenge such practices when they only serve white culture.
I participated in bargaining away safety for immigrant communities, communities of color, and LGBT communities when those needs were inconvenient with how we did things. I now know we have to change in ways that meet those needs to truly serve all our community, and that means pushing back against the comfort of doing things the way we always have.
I let people of color do the heavy lifting because I thought it wasn’t my place to speak their experience or I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I now know it is very much my place to call out harm to communities of color when I see it, especially when done through a structure I benefit from as a person with white privilege. I also know I will sometimes say the wrong thing.
I know that all those lessons learned didn’t happen in a vacuum. They happened because the harm I was doing, or a structure I work within was doing, was pointed out to me by the people I was hurting. Their pain was my learning experience. The way I honor that, and really demonstrate I mean it when I say, “I’m sorry,” is to change the pattern that caused the harm. That can mean not doing something I did before, or DOING something where before I stood silent.
Those are some of the things I did yesterday that I am trying to do better today. And I know there are things I am doing wrong today that I hope to do better tomorrow. I know there are still things I am doing wrong because discussions of race and power and privilege are not yet central and core to the work we’re doing. I know there are still things I am doing wrong because at a time when racial equity is very much a mainstream topic, the core that we’ve tried building at our agency to hold this space is struggling to survive. I know I am still doing things wrong because we rarely have more than one African American or Asian staff member at a time, and often have none. And I know these things are my responsibility to change because of the position and power I hold.
And above all, I can’t give up when it feels too hard. Or when it feels like it isn’t working. Or when I mess up and cause more pain. Or when it feels like I don’t know which way to go next. Or when it feels like the failures outnumber the victories. I can’t give up. You can’t either.