Sarah Keeling, Ph.D.
NACA Director of Education & Research
"We have a job laid out for us, ladies and gentlemen. This is no sitting down time." –Modjeska Simkins
As protests continue to erupt across the country and we, in many ways, face a turning point in our country's history, I want to provide some guidance on how folks who identify as white can support their colleagues and students who are Black. Writing a blog post like this is an exercise in vulnerability in some ways. I am not an expert and I may say something that is inaccurate or incorrect. White supremacy urges me to say nothing at all out of fear of getting it wrong. So I forge ahead in hopes that if I do get it wrong, someone will teach me what is right and I will do better next time.
First, it is helpful to understand a few ways in which white supremacy shows up in our organizations and lives. These characteristics are by Jones and Okun, 2001, links below. One major way that white supremacy appears is through perfectionism. This is the belief that if we can't say or write something in exactly the right way, we shouldn't say it at all. Talking about race is difficult, but silence allows racism and white supremacy to thrive.
Another way that white supremacy perpetuates itself is through a fear of open conflict. Many of us don't like conflict or confrontations. However, this fear of conflict also means that when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, we may blame the person that raised the issue rather than focus on the issue itself. This is tied to another characteristic of white supremacy – that those with power have the right to emotional and psychological comfort. This right to feel comfort is linked to white fragility - a state in which even a small amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.
So how can we work to dismantle white supremacy while supporting our Black students and colleagues? Here are a few suggestions:
- Seek to understand the characteristics of white supremacy and actively work to dismantle them in your organization. What does this look like?
- Creating space for folks to make mistakes and learn from them.
- Creating a values statement for your organization.
- Offering transparency in decision making.
- Practicing ways to have tough conversations before they have to happen.
- Understanding that we grow and learn from uncomfortable situations.
- Educate yourself. Read books and articles written by Black people. Follow Black writers on social media. Do not burden your Black friends to teach you. Ask them if they are willing to have a conversation with you before you jump in and ask a question. Don't just assume that a Black person is happy to answer your questions and educate you.
- Remember impact is more important than intention. If you cause harm, apologize, learn from your mistake, and keep moving forward. Our white fragility will encourage us to focus on it, give up, say we're never talking about racial issues again, etc. When this happens, understand that it is white fragility and simply work to do better the next time.
- Use your white privilege. Use it to amplify the voices of your Black students or colleagues. Talk to other white people about our white privilege and how we can use it to dismantle white supremacy.
- Know that you will make a mistake. Acknowledge it, apologize, and move on.
This work can be uncomfortable. This work can be difficult. But we have a job laid out for us, folks. Stand up and get to work.
Sarah Keeling, Ph.D. serves as director of Education & Research for the National Association for Campus Activities and has over 20 years of higher education experience. Her Ph.D. in higher education administration is from the University of South Carolina.