I was at a meeting recently, talking about engaging people experiencing inequities in all levels of decision-making in our state agency. It is a bold move. It is a necessary move. It is one that as an agency, we won’t likely make even though we’ve discussed it several times. We won’t do it and the reason is: it makes people uncomfortable. White fragility.
Imagine walking into a meeting where you won’t know the outcome of the discussion, or if there will be a discussion. Imagine finding a seat among strangers, trying to figure out whether or not the person next to you is fidgeting with their smartphone because they are genuinely too busy or just want to appear busy because they don’t know what’s safe to say prior to the meeting. Uncomfortable, right?
On the other hand, most of our meetings are filled with people we know or have seen before in some other related meeting. With or without an agenda, we generally know what to expect. We know what we want to say and who we should to say it to in order to rally support. We help ourselves to a seat, handouts, and small talk. We are comfortable.
After the meeting, an esteemed colleague noted to me, “That’s how you know you are doing something wrong: when we can walk into a room and we are completely comfortable with how things are.”
Being uncomfortable is necessary. Don’t believe me? That’s understandable, and I’m already over it (‘it’ being the sound of skeptical eyes rolling). It defies logic: doing really good work should also make you feel good, right? And we’re public servants, so doesn’t working for the greater good mean we should all get along? Well, White America, it’s time to be uncomfortable and OK with it.
When we talk about equity, politely avoiding issues of race (not to mention gender, sexual orientation, legal status, ability, religion, age, class, etc), we strengthen white privilege and institutionalize racial bias.
The cost of inequities to our communities as seen in health disparities, achievement gaps, incarceration rates, wealth accumulation, housing discrimination – and on and on – must outweigh the discomfort of a few meetings where program practices and public policies are being made. We’re not so fragile, are we? So many smart, well-intentioned people in a room should be able to be a little more emotionally intelligent. Weigh that discomfort against the reality behind disparity statistics that we prefer to talk about.
Statistics are safe, objective. A useful part of our work culture, statistics help us navigate around white fragility. We acquire them, require them, and reinforce privilege of not being the subjects most impacted. We have a hard time imagining where to begin unraveling these statistics with people who are not immersed in these reports, unlike ourselves. We have become comfortable talking about issues without hearing from the people they impact most. If this is our standard operating procedure, we need to start being uncomfortable with it. Then we can move forward.
PS – if you’ve made it anywhere near the bottom of this post, please leave me an emoji in the comments (or a real comment) to let me know who’s reading this stuff and I’ll try to write something relevant. Thanks.
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