Karen Fleshman, Minda Harts, Ellen Bolotin, Brittany Dandy, Lenora Houseworth discuss “Closing the Empathy Gap”​ Jan 2019

White Women: How to Show Up as Allies at Work

We can all agree 2020 has been a disaster that has particularly harmed women. But relatively few white women recognize interracial sisterhood is the only way out. Women need our collective power to take on the patriarchy and transform politics, work, home, and society so we can all thrive.

The Problem:

We all come into the contemporary workplace bearing baggage: intergenerational White-body supremacy trauma in the words of Resmaa Menakem: “a trauma that we all — including white identified individuals, communities and systems — integrate into our bodies and structures. We need to address this trauma directly in our bodies — not just in our minds.”

If white women show up on November 3, 2020, the date of the Presidential general election, the way we did in 2016 we can FORGET about ever earning the trust of Black women and women of color.

To get womxn and GNC folx talking with each other across age, race, class, and sexual orientation, Laura Haykel and I began hosting Inclusive Conversations throughout the United States in 2017. The photo below is of the January 2020 Inclusive Conversation at the Betti Ono gallery in Oakland.

I wish more white women would have engaged in these conversations, been moved, and actually changed.

Since the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising initiated by 17 year old Black girl Darnella Frazier recording George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis PD, white women executives from several companies have resigned under pressure for allowing racism to flourish, including: Yael Aflalo, founder of women’s clothing brand Reformation, Audrey Gelman, co-founder of female co-working space The Wing, and Christine Barbarich, co-founder of women’s lifestyle publication Refinery29. Amy Cooper, a Vice President at Franklin Templeton, was fired in June 2020 for calling the cops and falsely reporting being attacked by Christian Cooper, a Black man. Adidas’ head of global human resources Karen Parkin retired due to Black employees’ complaints of lack of diversity. Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line, was fired after staff revolted on Twitter. Talk show host Ellen Degeneres is being held to account for allegedly creating a toxic work environment by former and current team members.

Like writer Ashley Reese and the former Wing employees she interviewed for her article How the Wing’s Empire Was Built on Trauma, Racism, and Neglect, I am fearful that these ousted white women executives will not engage in an accountability process and actually transform but will disappear for a while, emerge later as leaders of other organizations, and cause more harm.

This has been white women’s playbook since the 1970s: “Lean In,” please the patriarchy, focus on our individual career advancement as highly educated professionals, and prepare and connect our kids to do the same.

The solution:

We must learn to relate across difference as equals

In 1980, Black feminist lesbian mother revolutionary poet Audre Lorde gave a speech, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference explaining why women failed to secure the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. Lorde said “we have no patterns of relating across our human differences as equals,” and therefore whenever we try to unite and create social change, we harm each other and make little progress. To achieve our collective liberation, she told us we needed to create new ways of relating, where we acknowledge our differences yet do not view any of us superior or inferior in any way. The picture below is Megan Rapinoe, Captain of the US Women’s Soccer Team, playing in a jersey acknowledging Lorde as her shero in 2019. Beneath her are the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns soccer teams kneeling side by side before a game in July 2020.

Here are some practices white women can adopt today to relate across difference as equals, earn the trust of Black women and other women of color, and work together to create workplaces and communities where everyone thrives.

Put our best foot forward

Because white women have such a long legacy of harm, we have to initiate relationships and demonstrate through our behavior that we can be trusted before Black women and other women of color will believe in us.

  • Err on the side of formality- don’t use slang you would not ordinarily say in order to appear cool
  • Listen more, talk less
  • Be humble
  • Understand the history and the context (at the end of this post I suggest books)
  • Don’t make assumptions — ask open-ended questions
  • Don’t interrogate
  • Don’t pretend to be “colorblind”
  • Treat women of color as individuals, not as representatives of their entire group
  • Don’t come empty handed. Bring a gift, pay for lunch, send cash for selfcare
  • Convey respect with eye contact, choice of words, and tone
  • Don’t ask if you can touch her hair
  • If she tells you a story about something she has experienced, believe her
  • Don’t tell her she’s exaggerating or misinterpreting her own experience
  • Don’t compare anything you have been through to what she is going through
  • Connect her to folks in your network who can be helpful to her
  • Whatever you offer to do to help her, keep your commitment
  • Maintain confidentiality

Take consistent, intentional antiracist action

Earning the trust of Black women requires we do much more than initiate relationships.

Learn to recognize racism:

the belief in the inherent superiority of one race above all others, and thereby the right to dominance” -Audre Lorde

Become an antiracist: “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea

-Ibram X. Kendi

  1. Radically disavow yourself of your superiority. Study your family’s history to find the origin of your privilege. Practice self care so you can metabolize your grief, guilt, and shame, and show up present, calm, and ready. DO NOT ask Black women to assuage you of your guilt or tell you you’re not racist.
  2. With each decision, intentionally create opportunities across difference.
  3. Dwell in discomfort and make others uncomfortable. Hold the powerful to account.
  4. Sacrifice and take risks.
  5. Be clear, unapologetic, the same in public and private, consistent in word and deed, and persistent over time.
  6. Be present, notice when harm is occurring, and intervene.
  7. When people point out to you you are causing harm, receive the feedback with grace, thank them, and apologize.
  8. Take accountability, strive to learn, stay current, and continuously improve.
  9. Pay reparations.
  10. Vote, protest, testify, and hold public officials accountable for antiracist policy change.

When you see something, say something

Like many white women, I was raised to avoid conflict. But now I have come to embrace it, it’s how change happens, how new ways of doing things emerge. As Frederick Douglass taught us, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

When you are held to account, receive feedback with grace

This is so important, if you want to get better, you have to learn how to receive feedback in a way that will encourage people to offer it.

  • Don’t make it about you
  • Apologize
  • Reflect
  • Try not to repeat
  • Work on overcoming bias

Questions to ask yourself every day

  • How can I intentionally create opportunities today? Business decisions, stretch assignments, mentorship, sponsorship, promotion, preparation, connection, feedback, investment, benefit of doubt, risk-taking, intervention, etc.
  • How many diverse perspectives went into making this decision?
  • When hiring for this position did I consider anyone outside of my network? Did I wait to make a hire until we had a diverse slate, or rush to hire someone I knew?
  • Does my work serve and represent all consumers well?
  • In my privilege, am I assuming this subject matter is inclusive of everyone?
  • What am I doing to intentionally share my social capital across difference?

Most importantly, aim for “accountability, not perfection” in the words of Black Womxn For, a political organization

Resources for further learning

Law professor and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw originated intersectionality, founded the #SayHerName campaign to draw attention to Black women and girls harmed by police, and founded the African American Policy Forum. There are a lot of great resources on the AAPF website.

Founder, Racy Conversations Inspiring the antiracist generation.

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