The Responsibility of White People

Authors: Sarah Baldauf, CCR Communications Consultant, and Kate Wolff, Redstone Global Center Communications Director

Of the many painful realities this past year revealed, the chokehold of white supremacy on our American systems has become even more stark. Whether it’s referred to as white supremacy or structural racism, the reality of living in America is that our systems — from schools to justice to medical to housing — offer opportunity and redemption to white people in ways they fundamentally do not for BIPOC people, including our friends, colleagues and neighbors. In fact, these systems are inequitable by design, perpetrating trauma upon communities of color and perpetuating centuries of inequity, instead of providing basic protections.

This reality was broadly felt with the confluence of demands for social justice sparked by the brutal murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd last summer alongside the coronavirus pandemic’s disparate burden — of infection and death alike — on communities of color. Again this month, white supremacy’s insidious power is on display, as George Floyd’s killer is on trial for a modern day lynching; states like Georgia pass laws that will undeniably increase voter suppression in communities of color; and we mourn the victims of another gun massacre at the hands of a white male, this time targeting Asian women in Atlanta. The structures that reliably produce these horrific outcomes will not go away without intentional, collaborative effort.

Three connected arrows with the words Trauma, Equity and Resilience.

As white people in this work, we are deeply indebted to Dr. Wendy Ellis, Director of the Center for Community Resilience (CCR), and our colleagues for the lessons we have learned and the process of awakening that has informed our response. In the summer of 2020, when the dual public health crises of covid-19 and structural racism converged, we helped convene a caucus of white colleagues to share our challenges and actions as we worked to dig deeper with our BIPOC colleagues at CCR and across the country. The foundational goal of this white caucus is to work, process, learn, wake up and act — without asking our colleagues of color to expend energy or labor to ‘teach’ us. It became important to have a space to process our own learning as white people without burdening our BIPOC colleagues, especially as they were experiencing the trauma of historical and acute racism over this past year.

As we are committed to not just learning but doing better, we have used the Center’s Fostering Equity guide as a roadmap to help direct our work. The contents of the guide draw upon the innovative work of CCR’s Building Community Resilience collaborative, and we are co-authors and editors on the guide along with Dr. Ellis and our colleagues Kim Rodgers, Jeff Hild and Harrison Newton. As white women with advantage we know that disrupting and dismantling systemic racism is very much our responsibility.

While equity, as the pathway from trauma to resilience, has been baked into Dr. Ellis’ Community Resilience Framework from the beginning, 2020 was a catalyst for our networks to move our public health advocacy work to the next level. Three ideas in particular from the Fostering Equity guide have helped us navigate over the last twelve months. We hope you will use and develop them, along with the other content in the guide, in your equity work as well.

Identity-based Caucusing

Breaking into groups organized by identity (in our case, race) has been a key tool for the white members of the CCR networks. Initially, the benefit of talking about an issue with just the people you share an identity with allowed us to create a space to process the events of last spring and summer, without adding this burden of processing to our BIPOC colleagues. We shared resources and tools to deepen our learning and evolved into a conversation about the concrete action that we were taking — the ways in which we were wielding our advantages and power to make change. Identity-based caucusing is a tool for the internal intragroup work that is necessary when working on equity with a diverse population of community members and stakeholders. As CCR network member Jennifer Brinkman has put it: “It represents the need for each of us to do our own work. To ask, ‘how do we advance the work without dominating and potentially creating more harm?’ It also is a tool for white people to understand “whiteness” and how our identities can stand in the way of equity.”

Exploring Power Dynamics

Everyone holds some form of power that translates into some form of agency or control. This is especially true for white people. Power can be rightfully earned, but we know some is bestowed unfairly — by systems or the status quo. In our work to build more equitable, resilient communities for all, we have to explore what it looks and feels like to share, confer and reorganize power. We try to do this by wielding our power for good. This might look like passing the microphone to a person of color whose voice is rarely heard or who has a valuable but under-recognized perspective. When a good idea is shared by someone who does not typically get recognized, sometimes the idea can get co-opted by, or credited to someone who has more advantage or greater power or presence. When this happens, publicly recognize the idea, give credit to the person who said it and offer them the mic to talk about it. Over and over and over.

Chart of different types of power, including traditional, expert, reward, coercive, information, referent, charismatic, and moral.
Chart of different types of power, including traditional, expert, reward, coercive, information, referent, charismatic, and moral.

Calling In vs. Calling Out

Calling someone out or singling out a person for a comment or action can result in public shaming and can have the effect of pushing them out of the conversation. Instead, try calling them in. When you call someone in, you can directly address problematic behavior or comments while facilitating accountability in a way that conveys compassion, understanding, patience, and openness to growth. These conversations are difficult but white people must directly engage with one another on these issues to directly confront expressions of racism, both on the interpersonal and structural levels.

As Dr. Bill Dietz, Chair of the Redstone Global Center, has said, “Black, brown, and indigenous people cannot be expected to end white racism. That is the obligation of white people. We must start with anti-racist actions within ourselves, in our own institutions, in our relationships with our partners, and with redoubled efforts in our communities.”

To learn more about the Center for Community Resilience’s work, check out our website: go.gwu.edu/fosteringequity.

A Milken Institute School of Public Health collaborative seeking to address the root causes of childhood & community adversity.