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Dear White Colleagues

Health, Safety, and Well-being Policy and Advocacy Supporting the Profession Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Regions Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives New Professionals and Graduate Students Professional Standards Division Small Colleges and Universities Division Womxn in Student Affairs AVP or "Number Two" Faculty Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level Undergraduate VP for Student Affairs
January 19, 2021 Leslie Hughes Harvey Mudd College

Dear White colleagues,

By now, I am assuming we have enough evidence in the early days of January 2021 to confirm without any shadow of a doubt that we indeed do not live in a post racial society in the United States of America. Hot on the heels of the urgent call to awakening during the outcries that Black Lives Matter in 2020, we have seen emboldened White supremacists terrorize our nation in a way many of us did not believe to ever be possible. 

And my dear White colleagues, not believing this was possible, is one of the ways we have upheld White supremacy. You see, our White privilege allows us to justify, rationalize, and minimize in order to protect ourselves (enter White fragility) from the scary realities of a racially inequitable society.

These defensive reactions also do something far more insidious. They allow us the conscience not to act. And when we do not act, we preserve our positions in society where we hold the power. 

And that, my dear White colleagues, that too is White supremacy.

Take for example the past 8 months. Have we been overwhelmed with the grotesque racism and injustice flooding our newsfeeds? Has it made us feel outraged? Disgusted? Saddened? Overwhelmed? Eventually fatigued? Perhaps in an effort to cope with the awakening we pacified or numbed our feelings by telling ourselves tiny fibs...

Perhaps we started with tiny fibs that reassured ourselves that it was just a fluke that we had elected a racist, misogynistic reality TV star to be our president, and surely some of those who supported him initially must regret the decision now. Fibs that there were systems and powers in place to protect all people, despite the tragic -- yet isolated -- incidents we posted on our social media this past summer. Those were obviously not OK. Fibs that there was a kink in the system, and the kink was the lack of education and training for police. Maybe we soothed ourselves with the fib that over 74 million Americans voted to reelect that reality star because most of those people prized party loyalty over democratic principles; surely racism wasn’t the motive there.

The tiny fibs became big, fat, dangerous lies.

Many of us care deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We know these things matter, and we desperately hope to see a day where we can look at our leaders, our students, and our communities at large and see these principles reflected in what we see. As a White woman speaking to my fellow White colleagues– I remind us that communities, educators, researchers, scholars and writers of color have been carrying the burden of educating others and transforming systems. I pen this letter with the belief that it is our work to be done with each other as well. I write this with the hope that now is our time to do better; now is the time for action.

In the many moments of despair I have felt during this time, I have also clung to the hope that what we do in higher education matters. We have the ability to influence our institutions and shape our students, who are future leaders in all industries. Our actions and commitment to justice can help to build a different future for this country. We have work to do. Here are 5 antiracist actions we can take to get started:

1. Pull Up a Chair & Get Uncomfortable

For White people to truly engage in anti-racist work in their organizations, they must first begin inward. Engagement in both learning and unlearning is a constant. For those of us who believe they have already done work to understand their White privilege, remember that this work is never done. We must view ourselves as constant works in progress with learning mindsets committed to understanding how racism shows up, evolves, and hides in our society. We must keep listening, continue our learning through the material we consume, and be steadfast in our commitment to engage in acts of self-awareness. 

2. Learn About Your Culture

We must learn about our own Whiteness. One of the functions and privileges of racism is that White people don't, as a whole, carry race as an identity -- we live in a society that centers Whiteness, thus making it difficult for us to identify Whiteness in our families, cultures, and organizations. Most of what we have been taught does not include the truths about colonization, oppression, discrimination, neglect, and systemic marginalization -and how we benefit directly and indirectly every day. In order to truly commit to becoming antiracist, we must understand and name the specific ways, both subtle and overt, that our White culture promotes racism on both individual and systemic levels. 

3. Decenter Whiteness

When we have a better understanding of the interrelationship between  #1 and #2 we have to actively work to decenter our Whiteness. If Whiteness is the center of American society, Black Americans and Indigenous/ Native Americans are at the margins. Whiteness will not displace itself from the center through acts of healing or social media posts; Whiteness is power. It will take a collective process of intentionally making space for a broader range of perspectives and experiences to be equally valued, included, and uplifted. This happens in the ways we speak with our families and in the decisions we make at work. This happens when we critically examine and modify our words, our influences, what we tolerate, and where we use our power. This happens with who we hire and who we spend our time with. This work must take up important space in our lives. And sometimes the journey to create a new center may mean that we feel a sense of loss. But feeling loss is no reason to stop – and, in fact, it should remind us of just how deeply entrenched Whiteness is as we persist.

4. Speak Up

We cannot stay silent about racism. I know it can be scary to speak about race. There is a lot at stake in these conversations sometimes. I know we can often let fear shut us up. But we cannot let the fear of messing up keep us from speaking up. If we’ve done #1 right, we remember that we are all “works in progress”. And, #3 requires us to recognize that we’d rather make a mistake than continue to participate in White supremacy. We cannot become allies without engaging in discourse, questioning problematic systems and structures, and sharing our knowledge with others.

5. Create Change

If we wish to create affirming cultures for racial equity, we must examine the demographics, cultures, and climates within our institutions. Creating change requires disruption. We already know from #4 that we aren’t going to stay silent about racism! To be antiracist requires us to not stay silent when we witness other people display implicit or explicit bias. So we will “talk the talk”, and we will also “walk the walk”. Creating change requires a keen investigation of everything, from a lens of dismantling Whiteness and also correlated exclusionary practices such as ableism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and classism. We do this in the cultures of our work, in our hiring practices, in the opportunities we give others, who we mentor and who we sponsor. And to do this, it requires of us that we keep returning to #1.

Wanna get started? Here are a few resources:

White Supremacy Culture

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

How to Be an Antiracist

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education