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According to increasingly popular Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, what our country needs is for white people to “do the work.” Full disclosure: I am white. As I think about myself, or just get up and go about my day, I really don’t think about being white. I’m sure that’s just evidence of my white privilege, but please cut me some slack. I’m really just starting to do the work.
Usually, when you start a task, it’s good to get a sense of what it will take to accomplish it. What are the action items and how long might they take to accomplish. Even though I am only beginning to learn what DEI requires and what it means to be an anti-racist, I sense that the task is daunting. Centuries of oppression will not be undone overnight. But I’m impatient and I have a lot on my to-do list. There’s unfolded laundry, a sink full of dishes, a few kids to pick up from their schools and activities. Every day. Just how long will these added anti-racist responsibilities take?
Thankfully, there are many helpful websites out there to assist white people when it comes to “doing the work.” One post from 2017 was updated in 2020 to provide a list of 103 things that white people can do for racial justice.* Yikes! I am several years late in finding this advice and getting started. Even worse, the top of the page issues the following warning:
“Our work [is] to fix what we broke and left broken. The work isn’t done until Black folks tell us it’s done.”
Wait a minute. I was educated in the olden days before DEI was integrated into the curriculum. I can’t remember when I learned it, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the way I learned that the goal was to think for myself. Maybe that’s just a by-product of a system that rewards individual students with numerical grades for their demonstrations of knowledge and ability to communicate what they learned from reading, listening, or working through a math problem. In school, my teachers were always evaluating my competence with objective grades on tests and writing assignments. Now that I look back on it, it seems pretty unfair. Just because I studied and answered questions correctly on tests doesn’t mean that I deserved the benefits that followed from my education. Do you want to hear about injustice? I doubled my income after earning a law degree. All I had to do was quit my job, take on $100,000 in debt, and spend my late 20s studying esoteric legal issues instead of going to bars or concerts or hanging out with friends more often. I mean who gets handed such windfalls? White people, that’s who.
Looking back, all the racism was really obvious the whole time I was growing up. Just think of all the hours I spent watching black characters and families on TV sitcoms or listening to black musicians (I mean, Black musicians – see I am learning). I think watching years of Oprah or reading Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison are clear examples of cultural appropriation. I’ve only just started on this journey, and I think I am making a lot of progress for society just by reflecting on my own privilege and missteps. Surely, I should have only watched shows about white families and listened to music sung by white people. Is it okay for white people to listen to rap if it’s the Beastie Boys?
I have more questions about how to proceed on the path toward racial justice and a world of perfect diversity, equity, and inclusion. First, what would that world look like? I sometimes think that diversity only makes sense if the majority of people in every scenario are white, so that people of color are always adding diversity. At the same time, it seems more and more like including white people at all is so racist. For example, if you prioritize hiring people of color and making sure there is a commitment to diversity, when is it ever appropriate to hire a straight, white man? Also, if white people are supposed to wait for Black folks to tell us when our work is done, how do we make sure we’re listening to the right people? How Black do the Black folks need to be? Does Barack Obama count as Black enough? Does Kamala Harris? Should we broaden out the statement to include all people of color in America? Or maybe we should include people of color anywhere in the whole world who have opinions about white Americans. What determines whether someone is white in this scheme? Does Robin Diangelo have to listen to Black folks, or do other white folks just have to listen to her?
Trying to do this work is confusing. It’s possibly even Sisyphean. The list only has 103 items on it now, but it sounds like we should expect future additions. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I’ll probably pick and choose which items to tackle and which to ignore. Uh-oh. There I go again thinking for myself. It’s a hard habit to break. Come to think of it, I remember something I read in a novel by Toni Morrison years ago. There was an enslaved girl in A Mercy who seemed to know only hardship and suffering. She finally came to understand that only she could determine her self-worth. Other people could control or devalue her only if she let them. As much as the DEI activists probably hate it, I rather like that idea.
* This website link is included as 97 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice under the heading “Do the Work” on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page of Stone Ridge, an all-girls Catholic School in Bethesda, MD.Published in