Turning White Privilege Into Change – In Practice
The questions below were asked during our online workshops. This document will continue to grow as more questions come in. The hope is this offers support, guidance, clarity, a reorientation, inspiration, or anything else you might need as you continue this work.
We can’t do this work in a vacuum. Who can support you or read these with you? Connect back with us for more workshops and practice opportunities.
1) How can I have more friends of color? How can I change my overwhelmingly white friend group?
With this question it’s most important to get cozy in awareness. You’ll step into and out of action as well – but mostly you’re going to want to build a strong and comfy spot in awareness, specifically self-awareness.
It might look like this:
Self-Awareness – All my friends are white.
And then return to the five tenets.
Honesty: Why? What are my implicit biases? What am I feeling? What do I feel? What do I feel when I imagine making friends with people of color? What have I done to try and make friends? Why do I want to make friends who are POC or Black? What are my feelings about my current friend group? Where does that come from?
Grace: Where am I right now? Can I meet myself in honesty? Can I meet myself in all the feelings that are coming up?
Vulnerability: Embrace it. Can I be vulnerable with myself?
Witness: Am I willing to step into engagement and see and be with myself and others in this process?
Commitment: Am I asking this question because I know it’s a good question to ask OR am I committed to doing the work, whatever that may look like for me?
This is just one suggestion for how it might go to answer this question. But there are many layers and for each person there are as many routes.
2) How do we engage our white peers to care about this issue?
I think this one lies in the subtleties. This is where witnessing others and grace seem to step in front. Who is the person in front of you (witnessing the other and witnessing yourself)? Can you meet them where they? (grace) Who are you in the context of this relationship (witnessing/self-awareness) and can you meet yourself where you are (grace)? Can those two meet each other?
Because it matters who’s in front of you. It matters who you are in the context of that person or people. Because this is how we learn the way to approach and/or engage someone. We meet them where they are.
How did you move from not involved to involved? Sorta-caring to totally caring? Most of us didn’t begin without moving from one to the other.
While doing the work here’s some starting points:
- Engaging white peers begins with and includes – a willingness and commitment to challenging racist jokes or comments.
- What changes will you make to commit to the work and turning privilege into change that says to others, come with me?
- To do this work well you have to engage the work with/on your self.
- Why do you care to engage with your white peers?
And sometimes when we explore honesty, we find that we are not the one who should engage someone, for many various reasons. Which is why we need so many of us doing this work. Because for all those you can’t or struggle working with, someone else will shine. For more on this see the next question.
3) How do we deal with people who don’t believe that white privilege exists?
It’s not something any one person can do. Presumed majority sets the rules and traditions – we are trying for an actual majority. So, spending all our resources on those that maybe don’t actually want to learn something but who are quite comfortable where they are – we miss out on all the others who are interested in being part of systemic change. A great tool to help determine and think through this is the Spectrum of Allies. I think we focus on those that are between neutral to active-allies. As we become stronger and more confident in this work we can begin . Also it’s important to acknowledge that there are certain people you will struggle with reaching. and that’s okay. The more of us doing the work the more opportunities and possibilities of engaging others.
The way I think about this is imagine your fist – or hold your fist in front of you. Your fist represents all those with power and who want to hold on to it. Who’s only goal is to distract you and take your time and energy and resources. My thoughts are, why? Why give so much? When they and you are surrounded by those that care. The more of those outside the fist we inspire and empower to turn privilege into change – the smaller the group of those that would rather distract.
4) How to support people in groups addressing racism without shutting them down?
Shutting someone down can look like a lot of different things.
I really want more context for this question because there are so many ways to answer it. So, I’m going to try to answer the two most common.
- you actually do shut someone down (oops)
- a person who feels shutdown may do so because they don’t want to address or acknowledge their privilege.
I think in these instances it’s important to find honesty. To really ask the question – did I shut someone down?
- You actually shut someone down. (oops)
- The best way to learn in this moment is to find grace for yourself and the other person. Do your best to listen to what they have to say, to the story they tell you about how you shut them down. To listen with curiosity. To be willing to show vulnerability, to be witnessed in your process and to witness another in theirs.
- If through this, you find that what is honest is that you behaved in a way that shut someone down then the next step is to do the work around that. Why did you shut this person down? What was going on with you? What was behind the reason for shutting them down? Can you find grace for yourself and the other person?
2. The person who felt shutdown did so because they didn’t want to address or acknowledge their privilege.
- This also happens. When we push people to acknowledge and challenge their privilege it can create feelings of being shut down. For those that are just learning about privilege it can feel incredibly difficult to hear it. In these moments finding grace is an excellent practice. To remember where you were when you first started learning about your whiteness and white privilege. To meet this person where they are. To practice moving at their pace while pushing slightly.
The best way to support people and groups addressing racism, is to do your work first. Consider how you are entering the space or the conversation? Do you have expectations for the group members? Are there trigger points for you? If someone touches one of those points – do you know how you’ll move through it? I think we often shut others down when we are feeling inadequate or ill prepared in some way. And also sometimes it’s because we haven’t worked through our feelings and emotions about the topic or the person in the room. Maybe that person reminds you of someone or people or a group and you are responding to them. And sometimes we just find ourselves being triggered and that happens and we work on it for the next time.
So the question might be how can I maximise the way I support people to do anti-racism work?
When I started to work this part of myself I returned to the five tenets. To find what’s honest. To work at finding grace for myself and for the person/people in front of me. I would also work to place myself within the model. This work feels like developing a deeper awareness would be a way to move through all the reasons you might have shut someone down and to explore ways to support others.
5) How do we help white people be interested in looking at privilege, especially if they have not before?
For some – very slowly.
Remember what it was like when you were first learning, the parts that you didn’t want to believe or struggles you had believing it was real. Honesty, Grace, Vulnerability, Witness, Commitment.
6) How do we help without feeling like we’re taking up space?
If you feel like you are taking up space you are probably taking up space. It happens. First note: when in spaces that are not of your community – your only role is to listen and follow. Listen and follow. That’s it. So, if you are in POC or Black spaces and you are showing up as an ally – listen and follow. Offer your resources and skills. You don’t need to offer ideas, or suggestions, or solutions, you can just offer resources and skills. The simplest way to not take up space is to not take up space. And it can be hard for some.
There are so many reasons we want to say something, to speak up, to offer a thought, to be involved, to feel like we are part of the conversation.
What will help you as you move through awareness and action is to engage a few or all of the five tenets.
Honesty: What is my motivation? Why am I there to help? What brought me to help? What feeling does helping evoke? What does it mean to help? What am I looking for by helping?
Grace: Can I meet myself where I am? Am I able to be in the honesty of where I am without judgment: good or bad? Can I meet myself in honesty? Can I hold myself where I am?
Vulnerability: Am I willing to feel what might come up for me? Am I willing to work through those feelings?
Witness: Am I willing to step into engagement and see and be with myself? Am I willing to seek help and support?
Commitment: Am I committed to addressing and doing the work, whatever that may look like for me? To do the work around taking up space as a white person?
7) How do we talk about white privilege in communities that have other intersectional identities like the LGBTQIA+ community and the disabled community?
A couple things could be happening here. 1) the comment of “I can’t be racist I’m _______ , 2) the challenge of bringing in the conversation about race when there is already so much work to be done. Such as, “it’s not about race!” Which can often mean “I’m already so full with working on these other oppressions, I don’t have space to work on this too” or something like that. There are multiple ways to work these situations. Part of it is remembering the fist metaphor in question three. Some folks are just not going to be at all interested in changing or challenging their white privilege. So, focus on others in the community you can shift. Again, the Spectrum of Allies could be quite useful here. Build that coalition of people so that that majority shifts and creates that systemic change. e.g. white people confronting privilege becomes the majority. A change in language, a change in behavior. Depending on what makes sense for you – at some point you’ll need to bring in the conversation around how different forms of oppressions intersect and how that impacts people differently. e.g. a black, indigenous, or person of colour who is disabled is likely to experience a different form of oppression that a white disabled person. Part of the work is learning how to have this conversation and help educate others.
8) How can I take an anti-racist approach more actively when I facilitate workshops and meetings?
9) How can I have an anti-racist approach with my clients who are BME?
10) How can we embed an anti-racist practice in our organizational systems?
I often find when we ask questions like these, we already have an idea. And sometimes what’s needed is a conversation.
If you are unsure what an anti-racist approach looks like then that’s a sign to go hang out in awareness while working on action. It can be paying someone to come in and do an assessment of your organization. It’s reading books, watching webinars, attending trainings. There are so many resources available to help everyone build an anti-racist, anti-oppressive practice into their work.
What would it look like to apply this question to the model:
Awareness: I want to bring an anti-racist approach to my work.
Self-awareness: as a white person how do I do this? What knowledge do I have? What knowledge do I need? What ways do I do this work that makes sense to who I am?
Systemic awareness: why is this work important? What systems am I trying to change? What systems am I currently working in? How can I do something different than what’s currently being done?
Action: Educating yourself, practicing, challenging, taking risks, giving it a go. And returning and existing in awareness as needed.
Again, I think this brings us back to the five tenets.
Honesty: How do I know that I don’t use an anti-racist approach? What has stopped me from implementing this approach? What biases do I carry? What privileges do I have?
Grace: If things feel difficult or there’s push back – how can I meet myself and others where we are?
Vulnerability: How can I support myself in making mistakes as I try to challenge racism and turn privilege into change?
Witness: How can I support myself in being witnessed? How can I support others while we make this shift and change?
Commitment: When it gets hard and frustrating – how will I support myself to remember and live into my commitment to this work and turning privilege into change?
Kyle Sawyer (he/they) is an anti-oppression facilitator and educator specializing in working with individuals and organizations on how to turn privilege into change. He is a trans, queer, mixed-race, white-passing individual. With over a decade of experience Kyle founded Building Allies in 2013 and developed the term Active-Ally, someone who witnesses injustice and responds to it in any situation. Kyle has worked with teachers, nonprofit organizations, students, therapists, social workers, community members, family members, and many others on learning how to be Active-Allies through an intersectional lens.