Today, I’m responding to a request from one of my readers, a district administrator who strongly wants to be a White Ally for an instructional coach who told her that she could “feel the racism in the walls” of a school in their district. The coach was unable to give her specifics as to the actions that were actually racist, and therefore, the administrator doesn’t know how to respond. She is hoping that I can address this in our Social Justice and Education blog.
The reality is, as a person of color, I too have felt racism that is hard to put into words, especially when speaking to a person who has never had to deal with race issues. I feel that sense of quiet racism when someone looks at me, up and down, disparagingly when they first see me or when someone talks more avidly to people around me who are White but barely says a few words to me if at all. Sometimes it’s the condescending tone in their voice or simply the lack of effort to make me feel welcome in their environment. But it’s hard to describe a look or a tone to someone else, especially when that person has never experienced quiet racism. And sometimes, to be honest, I, myself, can’t put my finger on why I feel an air of racism, but I know that I feel uncomfortable, and I, at the least, question if race has something to do with it.
So when you, my White Ally friend, know that this is happening to a colleague of color, how do you support them? I, of course, do not represent every BIPOC individual, as we are not a monolithic entity; however, here are five ways I would appreciate support in a similar situation.
- Believe the BIPOC Individual. When the BIPOC individual cannot put into words what they are experiencing, it’s easy to think they are making a mountain out of a molehill. In fact, BIPOC individuals often experience their White counterpart’s disbelief even when they can put their experiences into words. Therefore, a BIPOC individual who is willing to share their racist encounters with you is taking a huge leap of faith. Listen to what the BIPOC individual has to say, thank them for trusting you, and let them know that you believe them.
- Observe the Environment. Ask first for permission from the BIPOC individual, and if granted, accompany them in the environment where they feel uncomfortable. Be careful not to talk for your colleague or to take over the conversation. Be a quiet observer. Do people address you or your colleague first? How do people talk to your BIPOC colleague? Do they talk to your colleague in depth or is it cursory? Do they take your colleague seriously? What is their tone? Their body language? If you don’t see racism, don’t assume it is not there. You may not be in tune with it yet, but if nothing else, this will help you begin to look for it. Just let your colleague know that you are not yet in tune with their experience, but that you still believe them. On the other hand, if you do see it, the confirmation will feel validating for your colleague.
- Ask For Permission to Call Out the Racism. If you do recognize the racism in Step 2, ask your colleague if you may call it out when you see it. You don’t have to tell anyone that your colleague confided in you, and certainly, do not talk on their behalf, but you can say something to the effect of, “I’m feeling uncomfortable that at this meeting, everyone is asking me questions when _______ is clearly the expert.” If you notice similar behavior towards more than one BIPOC colleague, that may allow you to speak about a trend rather than about behavior towards any one individual. This will allow you to further distance your comment from the particular colleague who confided in you.
- Start Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Work at the Institution. Whether you can start this work by yourself or need the support of another colleague (or two), it is only by having colleagues engage in DEI work that the environment can start to change. Whether someone in house or a consultant leads the DEI initiative, people need the opportunity to learn what antiracism is and how to become antiracist.
- Continue to Grow. If you are reading this post or asking this question, it is clear that you have done at least some work to dismantle racism in yourself, but unfortunately, because we are bombarded with racism in our environment, we all need to continue growing in this field. Continue to read books. Continue to observe your own environment to see if you can recognize the more subtle signs of racist behavior that your friends and colleagues of color face. The more you learn, the better an ally you can be.
Have you faced quiet racism? In the comments below, let us know any additional steps you would hope that your White Ally colleagues would take to help address the issue.