Hello Captain Awkward!
I love your blog. I love it so much that I’ve read through your archives and found a few questions that are cousins to, but not quite the same as mine, so here goes:
I am in my mid twenties and work at a nonprofit in a large, diverse (racially/ethnically, economically, politically) city. My organization trains and places volunteers to tutor children in Title I elementary schools. All of our volunteers are hardworking people who are very generous with their time and resources. Most of our volunteers are kind and thoughtful about the challenges many of our students face, and about the differences that may exist between their backgrounds and their students’ backgrounds. Some are not.
Some people say terrible things, usually privately to staff (if volunteers say racist things to students, we ALWAYS step in. It also doesn’t happen too frequently, thank goodness. The questions is more about one-on-one interactions with staff members.)
“I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” [not their real names]
“When I went to Ethiopia I expected to feel sorry for them, but I just felt like ‘get up off ground, stop pissing in the street, and clean up your city!'” [many of our students are Ethiopian]
“So are these poor kids?”
“It’s just too bad his parents don’t really care about his education.” [not true]
“I just don’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood. You know, since I’m a white lady.” [yes, someone said this]
There are semi-frequently comments from volunteers assuming that of course our students don’t have fathers in their lives, how their parents probably don’t care about how they’re doing in school, and how their students must have a terrible home life. Of course, some of our students may be in these circumstances – the problem is jumping to these conclusions after having spent 0-5 minutes with a student.
The comments range from foot-in-mouth to super racist, and those of us on staff struggle to know how to handle them. Some complicating factors:
1. In a perfect world, we’d have so many volunteers that we could dismiss the racist ones and replace them. Unfortunately, we need every volunteer we’ve got, and usually these volunteers are at least capable of not spewing this stuff in front of students, which is really the only way to get rid of a volunteer.
2. Part of the organization’s mission is to help educate people who don’t know much about urban education so they can become better advocates for our students and their schools. Therefore, though our first priority is our students, our second priority is providing excellent “customer service” to our volunteers.
3. Most of the offending volunteers are white, wealthy, and middle-aged/seniors who have raised children. The staff is in their 20-30s, mostly not white, definitely not wealthy, mostly childless.
Most of your scripts for dealing with racist behavior tends toward the more confrontational side. Though often wish I could employ them, I’m not in a position where I can straight up tell people that they are being racist. Do you have some scripts to help us make it clear to volunteers that certain comments are not acceptable, while still maintaining a good working relationship? Or do we have to pick between standing up to racist comments and making sure volunteers stick around?
Thank you for your help! I know this is a little long, so feel free to edit as needed.
Please Don’t Volunteer Like That
Dear Please Don’t Volunteer Like That:
This is a delicate conversation, like so many conversations about race are, because of the very real power differentials at play. Your organization needs these volunteers. You need your job. You could become the Emperor of Comebacks, who just says “That’s pretty racist, so, maybe, don’t?” and the volunteers saying these sorts of things would deserve it, like, if they don’t want a salty, uncomfortable response then don’t say racist things, and if they can’t handle being corrected maybe they should fuck off. You knowing that doesn’t put food on your table, and it doesn’t get volunteers for the kids who need them, but maybe it’s mentally helpful to you as a reminder that engaging the volunteers “politely” and “positively” is a gift you are choosing to give to your organization and the volunteers themselves.
If I’m about to write a piece on how to take care of the feelings of old rich white people around race, to keep us all from barfing let’s just agree at the outset: This is work. Those tongues, sore from biting, and those neutral expressions are emotional labor. They are some of of the costs of living in a racist society, and the costs are being disproportionately borne by you and your fellow staffers. That is fucking unfair and you don’t have to be perfect politeness robots in the face of people who casually say horrible, ignorant things around you all day. If you snap at times, or roll your eyes, or need to walk away from certain conversations, be very gentle with yourselves and with each other.
One question I have is what kind of training do your volunteers receive before they go to the kids, and is there a way to work some of this out there? I taught ESL and adult literacy at a night school in Washington, D.C. for a while, and we had some very intense and comprehensive training, some of which was about pedagogy and some of it was a way to get some of the preconceptions the overwhelmingly white (college educated, white-collar, able-bodied, etc.) volunteers might have about the population we served.
As a child of the Reagan years who came of age in the Clinton “welfare reform” period, growing up middle class in an almost all-white small town in Massachusetts, fresh out of Georgetown, I am 100% positive I had some dumbass received ideas about what caused poverty and how people could climb out of it with the help of bootstraps and a well-intentioned white 23-year old teaching them verb tenses. The training I had addressed some of this head-on, asking the volunteers to describe what they imagined the students we served were like and challenging us about where those ideas came from by asking questions – “Why do you think that? Where did you get that impression? What did you hear or read or see that made you think that?” Some of the lessons in the training were:
a) If you’ve lived a somewhat privileged life until now and don’t have direct exposure to, say, immigrant communities or working class people, you’ve been fed a very consistent, racist, crafted narrative about them from conventional media sources who have agendas in portraying certain populations the way they do. It’s so pervasive that no one, not even people from those communities, are immune from the message or the portrayals.You, the volunteer, are not necessarily a stupid or uncaring person for not knowing this stuff before now, but now that you know, you need to do the work and act right. If you don’t, you can really harm people and their learning progress. (I try to do some of that same thing now in media classes I teach, especially delivering the message that, hey, young person who is here to learn, you’re not stupid or evil for replicating what you see in media, just, sit with those uncomfortable feelings you feel and think about how you want to proceed now that you have thought about it.)
b) Sometimes you will meet people who seem, on the surface, to mimic some of the stereotypes you’ve received from media and other sources about (poor people)(immigrants)(adults who need literacy teaching). The plural of anecdote is not data, don’t extrapolate. By living a privileged life to date, we volunteers were ignorant of a large section of how the world works, and it would be a mistake to assume anything about our students. Teaching and learning has to take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect for others and their experiences. Every person is an expert on their own life story.
c) Be aware of possible limits such as students working multiple jobs on top of taking care of children when you assign homework, don’t assume people have a television or a dedicated telephone or an internet access (this was 1997-98, by way of reference), don’t do or assign anything that costs money, be thoughtful about how you discuss money.
This specific, gentle, and nuanced training opened my eyes like, whoa, to the point that I can recall it more than 15 years later, the way I remember the students who worked all day and then took two buses to take my class before taking two buses back to take care of their children, the way I remember what an utterly humbling and amazing privilege it was to be their teacher.
I’m sure your organization already has excellent training, but one thing we know is that not talking about race doesn’t lessen or combat racism. The “polite’ thing American white people tried to do for the last several decades where we “didn’t see race” is a failed experiment. I realize that it’s a very big picture sort of suggestion rather than the scripts you asked for, but if you make a safe place where your volunteers can get some of this stuff out at the beginning, where you can collect and anonymize some of the statements that come up over and over again and gently start to challenge racist assumptions you might head some of this off at the pass. You might also identify people who can be worked with and people who bear a little more supervision early on.
Okay, now for scripts.
I think some comments are to be ignored, with a “hrmmm, that’s an interesting way to look at it” at most, and maybe chalked up to “This volunteer uncomfortable and not thinking before they speak. If they say it once, I will ignore it, but if they keep expanding or repeating it, I will intervene.”
Good news: The fact that they know not to say this stuff in front of the students shows that they are capable of self-editing. You can work with that. I think some comments are to be addressed swiftly, with:
- “You’re not alone, many of our volunteers express opinions like that when they first start coming here, but the students are such a diverse group that it doesn’t really hold up over time.“
- “(Fact) is true for a few of our students, unfortunately, but I think as you get to know them you’ll find that’s actually pretty rare.“
- “(Fact) may be true for some of our students, but I find it helpful to not assume anything about their family lives at the start. One of the best parts of doing this work is getting to know all the students and their families.”
- “That’s the story that most people know about our students and students like them. I hope as you get to know all of us you’ll learn a different story.“
- For “Unsafe neighborhood” lady: “Segregation is very awkward and uncomfortable, and you’re not the first volunteer to express something like that to me. Sometimes the students talk about how they don’t feel safe either (if that’s true), however, it really distresses the students when they find out that volunteers don’t like their neighborhood. I’d love to have this conversation again with you in a month or so, maybe we can document how your experience changed in a way that will help other volunteers.”
- “Well, that’s one of the perceptions we’re here to work on, right?”
- “Sadly, the students and their families watch the same news and shows we do, and that message trickles down here in ways that are really damaging to them. I understand why you might think that, but I hope you’ll join me in debunking it whenever you can, especially around the students.“
One helpful construction for this sort of conversation, if and only if it is in fact true of you, is “I used to think something like that, too/I was raised to believe that, too/I had a lot of the same preconceptions before I started working here/I heard a lot of similar things growing up, but then I (read x article) (read this author or book) (spent a lot of time with the students and their families) (realized how that story gets recycled by media and politicians for their own purposes)(realized how little the news reports any story besides the dominant one about this place) and it really changed my mind. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” The volunteers are saying this stuff in front of you because they think that you are like them, so affirming some of that “alikeness” while correcting them might reach some of them. You can also refer them to more experienced volunteers, and train more experienced volunteers to do some of this work for you. “Fredna said almost that exact thing to me when she started, you should talk with her now, I think it would be very valuable for you.”
To be clear, I think that saying something back isn’t just for the volunteers and their “learning” or their feelings or whatever. When you have the energy and the ability, I think that challenging racist statements is good for you. It’s good for you to return some awkwardness to sender. It’s good for you to not just take it into yourself silently, or recreate the scenario over and over again in your head to wonder if you should have done something differently. When you don’t have the energy, say, “Hrmm, that’s one opinion” and go hide in the bathroom for a minute where you can don your purple shorts in peace. When you do have it, try speaking up and see what happens. The rich old white people will be just fine if their asses aren’t kissed every second of every day.
222 thoughts on “#710: I love my volunteers (but not the racist ones).”
I volunteered as an Adult Basic Education tutor for a local community center, where I taught math to adults who were getting their GEDs (so hard! such a huge task!) or trying to pass exams to be promoted at work or place into specific college courses. It was a GREAT experience for me in large part because we had two long days of training in both how to tutor, and how to connect with our students. As with a lot of community centers, the staff and volunteers were predominantly white (and from other areas) and the students were predominantly PoC. We had a crash course on assumptions and racism (although it wasn’t termed as racism, it was presented more as culture/cultural differences IIRC) and staff checked in with us frequently to see how we were doing with our students… and with our students to see how we were treating them. You’re probably strapped for money, but having training that covers racism/cultural differences both at the start and later as follow up might pay off well, assuming you can find something appropriate (or create it, I guess. I’m sure you have TONS of extra time to devote to this.)
I live in Milwaukee – one of the most segregated cities in America. And I’m white and grew up in the all-white, upper middle class ‘burbs. So I can relate to where your volunteers are coming from!
What helped me “get it” was by showing me in fun or non-threatening ways how my perceptions were wrong. Do you have volunteer meetings? How about having your next one at a minority owned coffee shop in the neighborhood? Do you do recognition nights or other events? How about having them catered by a parent who owns an ethnic themed restaurant (and then amp that up as your volunteers comment on the great food). Do you do events for the kids? How about recruiting parent and community volunteers – maybe working side by side with “those people” would be an eye opener and give them an opportunity to interact with each other.
Any opportunity you have to work in the idea that “those people” are actually just like the rest of it, do so. When your volunteer comments on the cool artwork in the lobby, mention that Student’s dad is an artist and painted it (you know, because “they have talent to contribute). When your volunteer comments on how dramatic Johnny is, mention that its because his mom runs a community theater (you know, because “they” have real jobs). And so on. Sometimes exposure to reality is more effective than a lecture.
And the Captain’s scripts are awesome suggestions for shutting down negative talk, too! Good luck!
I moved to the upper midwest from Memphis and it has been shocking to me how segregated this area is and how much more overtly racist it is than Memphis and Texas (where I lived for 17 years). I have heard people who would otherwise flaunt their liberal credentials say that they would never take the bus because “it is full of poor people” (“poor” = “black” in large midwestern city) and others speak with disdain about how racist they are in the south, yet not even notice that this city is so segregated that it actually shocks me when I see black people and white people in the same restaurant or the same church or at work.
I think it’s great that these people are volunteering, despite their comments. I can see how it would be very hard for you to hear what they say and of course what they say is not acceptable. This is an opportunity for them to learn. They are already partially there just because of their willingness, despite what they might say, to put themselves in an environment that makes them uncomfortable. So this is an audience you can work with.
This is all excellent advice, thank you. I’m gonna share this widely with volunteer-organizer friends of mine.
Imma gonna steal some of these responses for working with my colleagues, They’re not particularly racist, but there’s a lot of trans- and homophobia running around my workplace that sorta squicks me out when it comes up.
Yes! I’ve been searching the archives for days about ways to shut down racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ablist comments among my coworkers, or at least speak up as often as I can so I don’t feel disgusting about working here. If there are other posts here, please feel free to point me to them.
Ugh, I do not understand why people have such a hard time comprehending that trans- and homophobia complete with slurs are NOT ACCEPTABLE TOPICS for the lunchroom conversation! It’s horrible, because they do shut up and be polite when gay or trans staff members walk into the lunch room, so they know it is wrong and nasty but like white privilege, they just assume when they’re not there everyone else is cool with the use of problematic words and descriptors. I had to pack up my lunch and dramatically leave once when they refused to stop using certain words when I asked them to. Now they shut up when I come in too. 😀
It’s worse because it’s not “lunchroom conversation.” I work in an adult bookstore in a medium-sized Midwest city. It’s a fairly classy example of such places, and probably a third of our customer base is perfectly normal cis het couples, another third is split between lonely men looking for porn and dancers at the local strip joints looking for outfits.
And the remaining third are the transsexuals, the lesbian and gay couples, the cross-dressers (who are not the same as the trans folk), the hard-core fetishists, and the rest of the folks in the margins of sexuality and identity.
The people that my co-workers trash or make ignorant remarks about are our customer base. They are the reason we are open, why we make a bus load of money for our corporate office, why we can offer a bigger selection than anyone else in the state. They are the reason we get big fat bonuses on our pay checks…and when I’m working with particular co-workers, I just know that as soon as the customer is out of earshot, my co-workers will have something inappropriate to say. One of the most egregious offenders quit this week, but it’ll be nice to have these scripts in my arsenal.
Can you maybe not couple “normal” with “cis het couples”? It’s not abnormal to be a same sex couple.
Also, I don’t see why that had to be in the same sentence as “fairly classy”. Are the “normal” cis het folks the reason the store is considered classy?
Meh, I didn’t read the “classy” part as relating to the “cis het couples” at all. I assumed they meant stuff like “clean, well lit, not selling anything illegal, staff are trained not to try to pick you up and/or sell you drugs.” Which are all features that I appreciate in my adult bookstore!
Sorry about that. I’ll be more mindful.
And yes, what Sarabeth said is exactly what I meant by “classy.”
Also please be careful in using the term ‘transsexual’. Some trans people identify as such but in the past it’s been used against us and is seen as derogatory by a lot of us, and generally not something cis people should say
I was on equality and diversity training the other day and we were doing a quiz for part of it (which, fwiw, was really good). One of the questions was what’s the difference between a transvestite and a transgender individual.
One girl on our table was utterly convinced that the correct answer was ‘nothing’ and when the rest of us disagreed she got weirdly angry and said something like ‘what, so you’re saying that one’s had their bits cut off?!’
I tried my best to explain it calmly and luckily the rest of my table backed me up. But I am.a white cis woman and I found her words and manner so upsetting I could have easily cried. Christ knows what anyone on.our table who was anything outside the ‘norm’* would have felt.
I repeat, we were on EQUALITY AND DIVERSITY training.
Oh I meant to add:
* I don’t want to call it ‘the norm’ but can’t think how else to describe it. Can anyone help me out?
There’s no good way to say “the norm”. I would recast it as “anyone who might not identify as cis-gender”.
This did happen *despite* the fact that you were at a training. It happened *because* you were at a training. Part of the goal of a good training in this area is to bring these attitudes out into the open so the group can wrestle with them. “Wrestle” doesn’t mean “pound the homophobic ignoramus for her stupidity”. It means “help her understand the impact of her speech on others and help her consider other ways of being in relationship”. You can’t provide accurate feedback about attitudes because you’re usually assuming or inferring attitudes from behavior. You can provide feedback about the impact *on you* of people’s speech and actions. Feedback is an investment in the relationship. That’s the test I use to decide whether I’m going to respond to bigoted speech outside of my professional role (where I feel obliged to respond). Is this a relationship I want to invest in? That might be my relationship with the speaker, or my relationship with the people targeted by the comment. If the answer is “no”, I walk way (usually literally, because I can’t be around this shit and stay healthy).
Not to repeat myself – OK, I’m repeating myself. This is why you need to have well-trained facilitators manage these sessions. This stuff *will* surface. If it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right.
“Feedback is an investment in the relationship.”
Yes yes yes yes
Imagine me skywriting the word “yes”
above your house
Thanks Jay, that’s really helpful.
Unfortunately….. from that POV it wasn’t a good session. I got a lot from it, but I don’t think her viewpoint has changed much 😦
I honestly wish I felt I could report her extremely troubling attitude 😦
Ran out of nesting below, so replying again here – you can only speak to the impact of the training on you. You’re not responsible for the impact on her. Attitudes are deep and closely held; they don’t change overnight. It may or may not have been a good training – lots of them suck, unfortunately – but “she didn’t see the light” isn’t the best measure to use.
Thank you again. I really appreciate your replies!
+a ton for the pre-volunteering training. diversity training or privilege training like this school does: https://www.iwu.edu/orientation/titan/engagingdiversity.html can be helpful activities for orientation/training/getting to know people while also breaking down those racist assumptions
Further support for pre-training! I used to work with an org that does early childhood literacy education in underserved preschools, and a strong component of our training was about understanding our position as mainly white and affluent college students working with a mainly black and Latino student population. There are two main concepts that stood out to me and seem worth sharing:
1. Being both student and teacher
Our training stressed that even though we were going into schools to serve as teacher’s aides, we were not there solely to teach. If we approached the learning environment as a place where we had all the knowledge and authority, we were going to act disrespectfully and not do our jobs well. It was important to always remember that our students had a lot to teach us, too, and to approach our role as educators with humility.
2. Charity vs service
We did some activities where we were asked to talk about the difference between charity and service, and why it’s important to approach our work as service work. Charity was described as aid given (in money or action) that often involves looking down on the people receiving charity, seeing them as lesser or even helpless, and the aid given as a gift they should be grateful for. It also suggests a disconnect – you don’t give charity within your community, it’s directed to someone outside, far from you.
Service was described as aid given through actions that positions the service worker as someone who works within a community and sees themself as connected to it, whether or not it is their community of origin. It acknowledges that if they hold the people they serve at a distance, they will miss out on chances to understand them, aid them in the most deeply effective ways, and form connections of mutual respect.
In terms of ways to bring these concepts into your current situation, LW, it’s too late to pre-train the people who are saying crappy things, but keeping these concepts in mind might expand your toolkit of comebacks. For example, “I’ve learned so much from the students I work with, it’s important to value what they can teach us while we’re teaching them” is a solid concept to have on hand, tailored as you see fit.
Ooo, I once got into a terrible row with a few of my grandma’s friends at her 70th birthday party.
They were sprouting shit about immigrants and asylum seekers.
I calmly and quietly stated facts showing that they were wrong and cited the studies confirming my claims.
They were shouting and foaming at the mouth.
I used to volunteer at the local asylum seekers’ shelter when I was still in secondary school. I helped the primary school kids with their homework. Like practicing their reading assignments and giving them pointers with their math problems, as having it explained a different way often helps with understanding.
So people trash talking immigrants and asylum seekers really pisses me off. Especially since I am an immigrant to Germany myself.
Oh yes. Gramma quietly asked me to please stop raising Grampa’s blood pressure (ie: don’t point it out when he is being hella racist) after a few conversations like this. He is 90 something and very fragile. I do not want to give my grampa a heart attack, so I’m currently in the swallow it camp. I am…not good at just taking it with a neutral expression, probably due to my relative privilege as a white woman.
Oh yes. My grandfather used to say some very offensive things. Some were plain ridiculous like “French men don’t change their underpants” and “policemen can’t read or write” but some were so very offensive I wouldn’t begin to quote, even as an example of what NOT to do.
We tried to call him on it but he really seemed to believe that shit so saying “don’t say things that aren’t true” didn’t work. It is so hard when it’s a relative and you don’t want to upset them (or know it wouldn’t achieve anything) but don’t want to let what they said stand. Especially if there are little kids around who repeat what they hear…
My grandad was also of the belief that people in banks wouldn’t make mistakes but ATMs would. I guess it was only his time he wasted queueing up.
Yes, he was my grandad, but I’m kind of glad that generation is dying out…
And OP, I really love the Captain’s scripts. I hope they work for you.
I can’t remember the name of the comedian, but I remember a joke about shipping kids off to the grandparents for their regular dose of sugar and racism. I don’t have kids, but that line really stuck with me, because yup.
My partner is an asylum seeker, and we are currently looking for houses. It is so… strange… when people say to me: “well, you can look in that (cheaper) area, even if there are many foreigners there, it can still be nice.” And I know that if they didn’t know me they would categorize my family exactly as that. Do they even think before they speak?
When I was looking at houses, when my realtor showed me the one I ultimately bought she said “There’s a lot of Portuguese in this neighborhood, but don’t worry, they’re a hardworking people”. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t say anything, because I was just so baffled by like, 3 different awful things all in one statement that I froze.
Hi OP! I spent the last year working with volunteers for a major reproductive health organization in a conservative state. Like you said, volunteers are awesome and much needed! Our work often faced opposition in our community, so we needed to bring all the people on board we could to try and fight against that opposition. Many of our volunteers faced similar misconceptions as yours. Context was a little different, but the character of the comments was similar (didn’t feel safe doing events in certain neighborhoods, thinking “those people” needed contraception more than others, occasional comments about welfare/poverty/abortion that could be troubling, stuff like that). In my experience, the best way to combat this would be head on with messaging and sensitivity training BEFORE you let your volunteers start working with the kids. You want to try and head this off at the pass before it becomes a problem.
I imagine you already have some sort of orientation or training process for new volunteers? You can integrate this into your existing process. If you don’t have a process, it would be helpful to get on and standardize some things, just so you make sure all key points are covered. I have two suggestions.
First would be to include in the training some sort of workshop (if you have multiple new volunteers–something you could host maybe at the beginning of the school year or whenever you host new volunteer orientation), or if that isn’t possible, a one on one conversation about these issues. I like the workshop format because if you can get some discussion going, it’s helpful. You want people to be a part of this, so establish that it is a safe space and they will not be judged for what they say. At the workshop, you want to introduce them to concepts of race and class, and address misconceptions they might have. Ask the volunteers WHY they want to volunteer–get their story. Why does this matter to them? Then see if you can address some of the assumptions people have about the area. When they think about Xcommunity they are serving, what are their thoughts? Do they have any stereotypes about the community? This is where you want to encourage people to mention things like absent fathers, uninvolved parents, failing schools, whatever. At first people will be reluctant to speak up, probably. Maybe prepare some examples? Pull some op-eds on welfare mothers that are making gross assumptions, or give an example of stereotypes that you hear regularly. Once you hear what people are thinking, the workshop facilitator then should take some time to dispel those stereotypes. Talk about what your community is really like, what issues the students face, where there is truth and where there isn’t. Connect this back to their purpose of wanting to volunteer. Emphasize that each student is individual, and that the students will definitely benefit from the volunteers’ sense of caring and passion about helping. And also emphasize that the individual children will be helped best if they can be served with an open mind, by someone who is paying attention to who they are and not to stereotypes. I have led some “Social Justice 101” type workshops for volunteers before and there are a lot of resources out there. I’d be happy to go more in depth or share some via email or a thread on the forums (or in the comments with the Captain’s blessing).
The second thing that could be helpful is to prepare some kind of messaging document that you could give out to all new volunteers, with some tips on how to speak about the community. It would have a lot of the same information you’d get to in the workshop, just in a more easily digestible format. I’d go so far as to explicitly address a lot of the stereotypes on the document. Have a “what not to say section” that lays out some of the comments you’ve heard before and others you can think of, and then a short paragraph refuting it or saying why it’s an inappropriate comment. Then have a “what to say” section where you talk about how you want the volunteers to talk to each other and the kids, emphasizing positives. Things like “treat every kid as an individual,” “don’t say bad things about their neighborhoods,” etc. Set out clearly the behavior you do expect for volunteers and the behavior you don’t expect. Go over this document with them. Roleplay some scenarios with them where they have the option to say the wrong thing or the right thing. You want your volunteers to feel appreciated, and you know what they are doing is important. At the same time, they aren’t all at the same place awareness wise, and they need help and guidance. Making sure you have specific training like this will get them all on the same page with you and allow them to be more effective as volunteers. Most of the time, volunteers are nervous about starting their jobs anyway, and have fear of doing/saying the wrong thing. The more we can lead them to what the “right thing” is, the better it works out for everyone.
I hope this helps!!
Hi DFTBAwkward! I spent years working for a smaller reproductive health organization. I just wanted to say thank you for doing it, and I admire you for doing it in a place where so many were hostile to the work. I felt almost guilty sometimes because our org is smaller and works internationally, so we were fairly anonymous in the US & the antis who get so worked up about your org generally hadn’t heard of us. My biggest problem was what to tell older relatives when they asked what I did for a living 🙂
We never had diversity training at our org, which is weird considering that we did so much international work. Even those (like me) who never traveled to other countries still encountered much diversity from visited staff. I suppose they tried to screen people before hiring.
“Sadly, the students and their families watch the same news and shows we do, and that message trickles down here in ways that are really damaging to them. I understand why you might think that, but I hope you’ll join me in debunking it whenever you can, especially around the students.“
That is amazing, I am definitely going to remember that one!
One trick is to aggressively assume good intentions.
I want to say it’s kind of like shaping, in animal training. You take an existing behavior (or concept) and you encourage the bits you want and discourage the bits you don’t want. They say something shitty like: “When I went to Ethiopia I expected to feel sorry for them, but I just felt like ‘get up off ground, stop pissing in the street, and clean up your city!'”
What are the usable concepts in there? Maybe you can build off of: not *pitying* poor people, seeing that poor people can have bad living conditions, and if nothing else, the person is here to help with tutoring.
Then, you can kind of agree–and then restate those concepts in a better way. “Hmm, I definitely don’t want to pity people–they instead deserve respect for living in a really hard situation, and every effort we can make to help them out.” That’s the encouragement and the slight, incremental changes.
Depending on what was said, you can carry that “good intention” through to their perspective on their work. “Especially since a lot of our students are Ethiopian, and a lot of our students are poor, it’s very important that we show them a lot of respect as they fight to get a good education.” (My script has really not been very good, but I hope the point comes across.)
If it happens a lot, it’s definitely good to address it directly. But you’re (A) being nonthreatening to their ‘goodness’, (B) preserving their sense of worth, (C) providing an example of what they should have said, and (D) providing a more direct instruction (“show them respect”) as something that of coooooooouuuuuurse they were planning to do. Affirming in order to correct.
It’s really treating people with extra-extra-soft kid gloves when they don’t really deserve it. But if you need to, you need to, I suppose.
This is an A+ comment 🙂
Yeah, that one in particular really caught me. Because that person is probably expressing at least three layers of things:
1) I went into this situation expecting to feel a certain sort of “acceptable”, positive-ish feeling
2) But culture shock is freaking real and when you’re not used to dealing with materially difficult conditions your emotions can be really unpredictable, and I maybe don’t know that that’s a thing, so I’m stuck on how I felt these “unacceptable”, negative-ish feelings.
3) I have turned those feelings into judgments about the entire nation of Ethiopia
4) I am telling you because ???? (making filter-free small talk? trying to validate their uncomfortable experience and shore up their worldview? worried that it’ll happen again?)
So like, idk, if your job was to get through to this particular human the best thing to do might be to validate the culture shock while questioning the resulting judgment? Like, call it out as culture shock, present a more neutral anecdote about how upsetting it is when things aren’t what you’re used to, see if they respond thoughtfully or dig in, and then judge from there how you can thread in “please don’t say horrible shit about Ethiopia to these kids”?
But that’s if your job is to get through to this particular human, a process that might take a long while of thoughtfully opening up space for them to think new thoughts bit by bit, and you are not their therapist. I think a formal training on Cultural Sensitivity might be a good idea for getting your actual job done, maybe. But I have committed willful mishearing in situations like this – “oh, it can be so hard when you’re in a different culture and not used to the way things are done there, and everything just feels off! I’ve felt like that. I try to remember that when I’m working with students who are recently-immigrated, that everything probably feels very new and uncomfortable and there are probably things that they wish Americans would do differently at first, but we all adapt to each other!” and then cue eagles and patriotic fireworks.
1) I went into this situation expecting to feel a certain sort of “acceptable”, positive-ish feeling
2) But culture shock is freaking real and when you’re not used to dealing with materially difficult conditions your emotions can be really unpredictable, and I maybe don’t know that that’s a thing, so I’m stuck on how I felt these “unacceptable”, negative-ish feelings.
You don’t know what you don’t know. If you have never faced something frankly awful, you have no idea of what you’ll feel/think/do when you see it. It’s why folks like firefighters spend so much time training–so when they are at a scene that is awful, their minds default to training and they fight a fire.
In a sense, with all the cultural baggage and backstory, falling back onto racist attitudes IS defaulting to training–unintentional, pernicious, ugly, and outright fucking damaging training, but training all the same. If you don’t know that that’s how you’ve been trained, though, you don’t know any other way to respond.
I like the idea of giving training to the volunteers well before they ever work with the students in the program. If you can give them an acceptable mental framework for dealing with what they will deal with, they will default to the training, and hopefully things will be easier on them and more positive and productive for the students.
Ugh, “culture shock.” My Liberal White Lady mother-in-law uses that term as shorthand for how she felt when she had to spend time with the family of a man she briefly dated: “I spent Thanksgiving with them and it was like [insert fending-off gesture], Culture Shock!” She was calling them uneducated trash. I know it’s a real thing, but if you’re experiencing culture shock in *your own city,* man, I don’t know. At least don’t brag about it. 😦
Not you, purple0. That was the general “you.”
Well, especially not when you’re using it as shorthand for, “we’re normal people, they are ~different~”.
Something else you can focus on is why, exactly, those people are there, again assuming aggressively good intentions.
I volunteer with a therapeutic horseback riding centre. It means I am working with people of all ages who are dealing with some kind of disability.
Talking to folks who are interested/curious or the ones who fetishize the disabled (oh, your down’s syndrome child is such a blessing!!!!) can be really, really frustrating. The patients there are people just like everybody else, and deserve to be treated like people.
I’ve taken to saying, “I like living in a nice society with nice things. One of the nice things I want is for everybody to have a chance to live as good a life as possible. For some of us, it’s quite simple. For other people, to live well requires a lot of hard work and support from the entire community–and this is my community, and the people here are part of the community. So, if I want to live in a nice society with nice things, I’d better be prepared to pull up my socks and get to work, because the work isn’t going to get done by itself.”
Feel free to adapt for education, etc.
It’s shocking to see how many people have to be reminded that people with disabilities are members of the community, too, and always have been. Just like it’s shocking to see how many people have to be reminded that people of colour are part of the community and always have been.
As a former teacher, my mom, the retired principal told me to read “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” for the schools I worked in. INCLUDE SOMETHING FROM THIS IN YOUR TRAINING. DO IT. DO IT.
I just want to say to LW that if you’re teaching these people to be good educators, this IS part of the training. It’s not a separate thing. Their biases and preconceptions are most definitely affecting how they interact with students.
There’s research out there showing that nonwhite people can tell when white people have racist attitudes, even if the white person never says anything racist to them or around them. Those kinds of beliefs…leak around the edges and affect how the white person acts in subtle ways. (I’m thinking specifically of some of the research on “aversive racism” and related studies.)
This is so true, and I will definitely be framing it this way when I bring it up with my supervisors.
Is it possible to try to attract more diverse volunteers? In the UK it’s completely legal to say something like ‘We particularly welcome applications from BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) volunteers’ on volunteering ads, that you want volunteers who reflect the diversity of the local community etc. Just wondering if this could help to break the power dynamic where rich white people are only having to interact with BME people from positions of power (donors of support/time), to one where they are also working with BME people as colleagues and equals.
I’m actually not sure it’s technically legal to say that in the US, though IANAL (and it’s possible that when it comes to volunteers it’s a little different) – race is a protected class, which means that you can’t legally use it in hiring decisions at all. That most often comes up with minorities, but it’s no more legal to show preference to non-whites than it is to show preference to whites, as I understand it.
That said, people say it all the time without getting called on it and as I said, IANAL so I may be misunderstanding the legal nuances, so it’s certainly worth considering.
I’d think it would be legal to say “we’d like minorities to apply” but not that you’re specifically going to rate them higher once you have the applications? I mean, part of the trouble with trying to get minorities in workplaces that don’t have many of them is that people sometimes look at it and go “hmm, that’s awfully white, I don’t know if I should even bother” and the advice is always to make sure that the application is specifically welcoming of those groups.
As I said, IANAL, but my understanding is that that is indeed getting into legally tricky territory, so you have to be very careful with your wording to be on firm legal ground. It’s not enough to just avoid “We will give preference to women and minorities,” etc – if anything in the ad can be construed as discouraging people from applying on the basis of a protected class (and gender and race are both protected classes), you can run into legal problems.
It’s not just that it’s illegal to specifically say it, either – it’s illegal if your hiring/recruitment practices disproportionately affect certain people on the basis of protected class at all. I think the EEOC has said in the past that “we encourage X to apply” is usually okay, but that “we are seeking X” is not.
That said, these laws are pretty widely ignored, and I doubt the OP’s organization would find themselves in hot water for mentioning it, especially since they seem to be a small business (small businesses often have more leeway) and they could probably argue that there is a legitimate business reason for the emphasis, since many of the students they serve are immigrants.
You can say that you welcome volunteers from the local community (which is an approach I have often seen for organizations that recruit peer health advisors/champions), but a better approach is go out and recruit volunteers from the community and local organizations (churches/community center/etc).
I LOVE the Captain’s suggestion about asking about preconceived notions and then offering suggestions for how they can examine where these notions came from, and what limitated perspective that might have originated with. I think that sounds like a great way to educate anyone on sensitivitiy and acknowledging the presence of bias and privilege, not just people who might get upset if challenged.
Is it not OK to say that there are areas of a city/town that I don’t feel safe in? Like, one where there is a lot of gun and gang violence? Not because “people who look like ____ or live in _____ are scary” but because “there’s a lot of gun and gang violence there”? Is that not an OK reason? Even if someone is a ‘white ‘lady’, personal safety is important! Truly questioning, not trying to stir the pot in a bad way.
My question as someone who has lived in neighborhoods with routine gang violence is, “who are you talking to and why? And who is listening?” Is it really about your safety? Is it really about you really going there? Or is it about a shared affirmation of “we are nice people who live in ‘good’ neighborhoods?” Do you know anything about that neighborhood other than what you hear on the news? Telling people who live and work in a neighborhood you think is unsafe about your feelings about that is a pretty big faux pas, in my opinion. To me, it’s like the Americans who travel in places with a weaker currency who go on and on about how “cheap” everything is there. It’s always like, um, why are you telling me this? Out loud? Not every feeling needs shared aloud.
I wasn’t thinking I’d say it to someone who lived there (a student or a parent, in this case), but say the volunteer coordinator wanted me to do something in that neighbourhood on my own, I might say “I’m not comfortable going without someone who’s been before” or similar.
I think these are good questions and I really like the answer to and suggestions in the original question, but I wasn’t (and am not) sure that it’s ‘racist’ to say there are areas of a city I don’t feel comfortable in. I am trying to work on the kinds of things you’ve brought up here so I certainly think that’s valuable to sit with and think about, for sure.
P.S. I am also not sure how ““I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” is racist. Unless you’re saying Joe [of X race description and who is symbolic of all people of that race] has a brain in his head, unlike Rose [of another X race description and who is symbolic of all people of that race]. It’s not nice to say someone is dumb but it’s not inherently racist. (Or is it just ‘terrible’, not racist?)
Um, I’m pretty sure you’ll find that Rose is non-white. I don’t think the LW needed to spell that out for us to picture it. We don’t need to play ‘how is that racist’ when the LW is only giving as small snapshots in a word-limited question to CA. Take LW’s word for it that they were and go from there.
Perhaps Joe and Rose are of different races.
The volunteer in question specifically said she felt unsafe because she is a white woman. There is this notion that white people, especially women, are somehow a bigger targets for crime & violence in high-crime areas. I don’t really think this is true and the whole line of thinking has racist roots. If anything a white affluent outsider is safer from crime than someone who lives in the community. IF the community even is a high-crime area, we don’t know if it is from this letter.
“If anything a white affluent outsider is safer from crime than someone who lives in the community.”
THIS. One hundred times this, at least for the city I live in.
This thread made me think about another conversational tack you could use with this particular kind of statement, which is to acknowledge the discomfort about being in a space which is predominately populated by people of another ethnicity and use it as a way in to getting the person to look at it from the other side.
Context: The first time I (as a white person who grew up in an area with a majority white population) in a predominately black area. I felt WEIRD being surrounded by people who did not look like me, and felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. And then I realised – this is the experience that black people in my country have a LOT of the time (albeit they are perforce more used to it). Being the majority ethnicity in most of the spaces I live in is part of my white privilege. That experience really stayed with me, and I often think about it when I’m considering, for example, how my university campus might feel to a student of colour. For me, this is an experience I might share with the volunteer saying something like the above, as a way into getting them to interrogate their feelings and understand how the students they are working with might experience the world.
I’m just uncomfortable dismissing someone’s feeling unsafe, even if the reason they give is one we reject. I don’t know if you asked them if anything specific happened, ie, someone threatened them or said something to them, or if they had a bad experience before. Really honing down WHAT makes them feel unsafe “I saw this in a movie once…” vs “I was mugged in a place that was really similar” vs “people call nasty things at me every time I’m there” are vastly different, and need to be figured out I think.
I can handle your discomfort about this. It isn’t a discussion of personal safety, and I am running out of patience for these hijacks in an otherwise productive discussion.
+1 to CatScratcher
I went to a predominantly white and Asian-American college in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I know a total of one person who was mugged there. That’s not random, that’s privilege. And for the record, the university was nestled in between two rival gangs’ territories and the murder rate in the area was astronomically high.
yeah, my high school had some issues with gangs, as well as a pretty large wealthy, extremely privileged population. It was a very stratified town. I was totally baffled when there was a gang related stabbing during lunch one day, and a bunch of parents came out and pulled their kids out of class for the rest of the day. They were never in any danger! they were nowhere near where the fight happened (we could eat lunch anywhere in the building, we didn’t really have a lunch room), and it wasn’t a school shooting or something, where someone was being randomly violent. It was a specific fight between two people who had a specific beef with each other. No way were the kids actually getting taken home involved, or at any risk for involvement.
I used to work with volunteers at Art Museum in Midwestern City, and while my experience doesn’t particularly help the LW, since that was a totally different kind of organization, we definitely had problems with volunteers expressing racist sentiments through coded language, and a lot of image problems as an organization that rich older white ladies (mostly) were heavily involved in. It had gotten to the point where recruitment of volunteers had been only from certain zip codes around the city, and attendance had started falling when I worked there because of lack of outreach to other areas. One of the more useful things my boss did was recruit and develop volunteer trainers from all geographic areas, in order to introduce a more inclusive program to new volunteers. It wasn’t diversity training, but it did get new volunteers from different areas and more young professionals interested eventually.
To speak to your PS, here are some things I would hear occasionally:
“These schoolkids have never even been in a museum, and have no idea how to behave.” If it had just been the last part of the sentence, I would have dismissed it as frustration, but you can bet the first part meant nonwhite students. Whether it was true was irrelevant: the assumption was that white students had more exposure to art, more school resources to come to a museum, “naturally belonged there,” and so on.
“ignorant people asking art questions on the free day…” meaning: people who come in on free days naturally don’t have the ability to pay admission, and must therefore be less educated.
“West side of Midwestern City…..” meaning: poor and nonwhite. West side, incidentally, is large and racially and economically quite diverse. But “West side” for anyone living in the suburbs or other areas always means POC, the same way “urban” does.
It’s really subtle, coded stuff, the kind of thing we do without thinking.
And there’s definitely room to re-direct that-emphasize how it’s good that people who don’t normally feel comfortable in museums are coming in, discuss how “museum behavior” is a learned code of behavior and one with strong class/racial overtones, ask them to think about how socioeconomic and racial disparities might affect how much people are able to learn about art(and that asking questions is the sort of thing we ought to want people to do-if they want to learn about art, how are they to do that without asking questions?)..
And such an easy way to frame “don’t know museum behaviour” in a positive way.
“These schoolkids have never been to the museum and they’re all very excited. We’re happy they’re excited to be here, even if they are loud.”
“We’re all here for all comers, and if people are asking us art questions, it’s because they’re here to learn. We’re happy to help anybody who wants to learn.”
First, I wouldn’t assume that the volunteer coordinators don’t live in the neighborhoods they serve. I do service type work in a different area (not related to poverty) and that work overlaps with concerns that are personally relevant for me. People often assume that no one in the room has the background of the people we serve. I have friends who have done direct service work in low income communities and low income policy who have had similar experiences. It’s enormously frustrating and painful.
Second, I think volunteers know what they are volunteering for ahead of time and I think people mostly do not volunteer for things that they are wildly uncomfortable with, so I am inclined to think the volunteer in question was trying to connect via racism rather than express a genuine concern. Also, I think that because the LW presented it that way and zie was there.
Third, personal safety is important. But feeling safe and being safe are not the same thing.
Which is not to say that feeling safe doesn’t matter. It does. But sometimes these conversations about safety are less talking about brown recluses with a spider bite expert more like discussing a daddy long legs with an arachnophobe: there’s a lot of screaming and crying, but despite the scary looking evidence they’ve shown you, you’re probably not going to get hurt.
People over and underestimate risk all the time. In a situation where someone is afraid to go to a poor elementary or middle school because of the neighborhood it’s in, I think working on their thinking and assumptions about the people in that neighborhood is going to do more to make them feel safe in the long run. Any measures aimed at making them safer are just false talismans, since they are probably already as safe as someone ever is while being out in the world and doing things.
As someone who has always had and benefited from relative economic privilege, I constantly need to remind myself of this. My privilege makes me safer, even though it can simultaneously make me more fearful. The solution to that fear isn’t threat reduction—it is fear management. Deep breaths and check my privilege.
As a side note and a personal note on the concept of safe neighborhoods: I grew up in a predominantly white affluent area. A safe area. We might not have a mall or a movie theater but our town is very safe. (Nevermind the sexual violence. Or all the really egregious hit and runs where people died. Or the theft. It’s really very safe. )
I had a chance to reflect on this when I was home a few years ago. Driving down familiar roads to the library. Past my preschool. The place where we used to get celebratory chocolate chip pancakes. The church where my scouting troop met. And I ended up making most of that drive behind a truck with a confederate flag on it. And in case I had mistook that for something other than blatant racism (it’s never anything but), there were a plethora of bumper stickers clarifying the meaning.
And I was reminded, again, that when people say a place is safe, they don’t mean it’s safe for me. They just mean there’s no one there who looks like me.
Great points, especially about the relativity of “safe.” I thought of exactly this kind of thing when I read a news story about how there was, no joke, one of those white open carry assholes walking around the Atlanta airport today “exercising his Second Amendment rights” and describing it as “harassment” when he was kicked out. He was exercising his rights to MENACE and CREEP PEOPLE THE FUCK OUT in what I’m sure is a “lovely” neighborhood.
I read that line in the OP and thought the exact same thing about shared affirmation. The LW doesn’t say if they are white or not or if that comment was actually said to them, but if they are, or if it was directed at someone else who is white, then that’s what it’s really about. It’s about having a cosy discussion with Fellow White Person about how ‘WE know these things, don’t we, and isn’t it funny?’ It may be a response to some of the volunteers’ uncomfortableness around people of different races and cultures if this is something they haven’t experienced much before. They are trying to find common ground, in a racist way.
I live in a middle class town and everyone at my workplace is white (including me) except one woman, who also has a strong accent. Quite often customers I’m serving say to me ‘oh that *incorrect guess at Asian country* lady, I just can’t understand a thing she says!’ They want me to say ‘oh I know!’ and laugh about it with them. I’m not going to lie and say ‘I’ve never once not understood my coworker the first time she says something’. But I’m also not going to be part of this little game the customer wants to play. So I tend to say something like ‘it can be hard at first, but make sure to concentrate fully on the conversation (some customers have a bad habit of playing on their phones when you’re talking sometimes) and ask her to repeat anything you don’t understand’. (I’ll forgive someone who is hard of hearing or has an auditory processing disorder but these aren’t usually the ones who do the little confiding racist thing. I once served an elderly man from one of the counters that has glass paneling in front of it. The glass paneling, combined with him being hard of hearing, meant he couldn’t hear anything I said at all. I directed him over to this particular colleague, who wasn’t behind glass paneling, and he got all the information he needed.)
The thing is, how dangerous is a neighbourhood? How hard to understand is an accent? These things are not absolutes. Who is more at risk in a dangerous neighbourhood: someone who grows up there, goes to school there, goes to work there, raises their own children there…or someone who visits occasionally? And I know sometimes white women like us say ‘oh it’s scary to be a woman here’ and forget that women of colour get street harassed waaaaaay more than we do, especially black women.
The Cap is right. Not all things need to be said.
“It’s about having a cosy discussion with Fellow White Person about how ‘WE know these things, don’t we, and isn’t it funny?’”
White people will do this too with poc, who they think will also go along with this line of thinking, because said white person(s) are heavily invested in upholding the model minority myth, as if their approval is necessary or something poc should be seeking. With, of course, the underlying message that if you take any sort of stand against their racism, or even white privilege in general, you will be no longer be a ‘good’ poc.
I’m going to express what I assume is going to be an unpopular opinion here. I’m about the whitest white lady ever, who lives in a very non-white area of a large metropolitan area; and generally, I don’t feel ‘unsafe’ in my neighborhood. But… I have definitely been targeted for harassment because I am white. I’ve literally had groups of dudes shout crap at me in regards to being white (and female) while simply walking down the block. So whether or not I’m *statistically* less likely to be a target doesn’t matter all that much if I’m actually a target in real life.
I understand the history and the connotations of white people being afraid of ‘those other people’, and of some of the subtle racist code-talk that people often engage in; but to summarily dismiss someone’s safety concerns as outright racism kind of rubs me the wrong way. Especially since pretty much every other post/advice around the subject of women and safety does nothing but emphasize that women should always listen to their gut; that they have a right to do what they need to do to feel safe.
I’m all for examining one’s prejudices, and in most of these cases I suspect that the volunteers will get more comfortable over time, but now we’re saying that, “Hey, you feel unsafe? Just push that down and ignore it or you might look like you’re racist. Because how you appear on the outside, to society at large, matters more than your own feelings/opinions/internal dialog.” Yeah… I don’t think we should be telling women of any color to do that.
Also, the idea that there aren’t more violent and crime-prone areas in every city is just ridiculous. I can guarantee there is a hell of a lot more crime where I live than in, say, Beverly Hills. It’s not simply because one area is white, and the other isn’t; it’s because one is a whole lot richer than the other. This is a class/wealth issue which co-mingles with race because of a long history of segregation, zoning laws, and wealth disparity. In short: it’s complicated.
It was not okay for those dudes to harass you, and I’m not ridiculing how uncomfortable that must have been. But those harassed you probably also harass EVERY woman who crosses their path. All people who live there run the same gauntlet. Your whiteness maybe made you stand out somewhat, and was commented on to make you uncomfortable, but it doesn’t actually make you all that special in that circumstance. You shouldn’t have had to put up with it, it’s sexist and awful, and your fears are real, but it doesn’t make you a victim of racial profiling and it doesn’t make those feelings central to this particular discussion. Signed, “La Gringa,” 21st and California, 2011-2013.
It is complicated, you’re right, which is why I keep saying consider your audience and when and where and how you express these oh so unpopular views (that nearly every blatantly racist white woman I know expresses in the exact same language you are using here) to make sure you are not hurting others. Like little kids, who, in exchange for attention and tutoring services apparently have to learn to put on their grateful “oh, thank you white lady for braving the street where I live” faces on. Your opinions about this are actually pretty depressingly popular in the culture at large, so, enjoy!
If you can’t see how saying “As a white woman, I don’t feel comfortable here” when you’re volunteering can possibly be racist, and if you can’t handle being told “hey, I don’t want you to feel unsafe, but that’s kind of racist, so please don’t say that when you are with the children,” please don’t volunteer with children in neighborhoods where you don’t feel safe. I’m not sorry to have rubbed you the wrong way. You and the other “BUT FEMINISM AND WHITE LADIES FEELING SAFE” are rubbing ME the wrong way in this thread. Having a behavior identified as racist is not going to end your world or the world of these volunteers. It hasn’t ended mine when I’ve fucked up and it’s been pointed out to me, though it did surely feel uncomfortable and mortifying. It’s actually a pretty mild criticism, and if people are saying that to you it means they actually care about you instead of just silently withdrawing (and saying it about you).
No one is saying that people should do unsafe things or jeopardize their safety. But saying racist stuff, even when you have real feelings of anxiety, is not cool and it’s never gonna be cool. It’s definitely never gonna be cool here on my site.
Another thought. The feeling of being “rubbed the wrong way” or “Am I really not allowed to ask that, but it’s about my safety?” that you’re having when you read this stuff is real, and I don’t want to discount that either, but I think where it’s coming from is this:
“My feelings and/or the problems that affect me the most aren’t being centered in this discussion, the way they usually are on this site, and that is uncomfortable for me, as is the implication that I, a generally good person who is well-informed about the world, might somehow be racist.”
Which is true, we really do talk a lot about women and safety in public spaces here. But in *this* discussion it is not *central*, because the volunteer’s statement in the letter was less about actual safety than about off-gassing some uncomfortable racist feelings onto a fellow white person. Can you see that?
In your scenario you are equating “female” and “white” in the mental box of *traits that make me a target for harassment.* Which is not true. What makes people targets are perceived vulnerabilities by perpetrators. Your whiteness is not a perceived vulnerability – quite the opposite. Do you think these same dudes who harass you also harass white dudes? Doubtful. They are harassing you because you are female and picking on your whiteness because they know that will increase your discomfort.
Even if they were targeting you for your whiteness it’s still not racism and not relevant to this discussion, which is about the insidiousness of covert racism among the privileged including the use of code words, especially using “unsafe” to imply “discomfort with people not in my privileged group.” It’s normal to feel unsafe around assclowns who verbally harass you, but it’s important to recognize that if you were not white, the harassment most likely be even worse and more readily escalate to actual physical harassment.
When you receive street harassment from white guys do you think ‘urgh, white men’, or just ‘urgh, men’?
I encourage you to look up the hashtag #YouOkSis on Twitter, where a lot of women, predominantly Black women and nonblack WOC, document their experiences with street harassment.
Like the Captain says, it probably wasn’t because you are white, and in fact you may experience a milder form of street harassment compared to what BW deal with. I had the same beliefs that you do, but listening to Black women has showed me I was mistaken.
Great hashtag recommendation AND really good point to the poster that they might want to consider if the street harassment they are experiencing is different.
Where I work, if I’m out later in the evening after the office buildings have emptied out, I definitely get verbally harassed but rarely touched, physically stopped, or have anyone try to block me from passing them, whereas my friends of color have reported experiencing a lot more physical harassment.
Re: guys shouting stuff at you about being white and female, I often get shouted at for being tattooed and female. I think thetigerhasspoken’s comment is true. Even when I’ve experienced racially coded harassment I’ve always felt like it’s 100% because of being female, not because of being white or not white.
That being said it sucks that you are being harassed at all. It’s kind of amazing to me how if I leave my office at 6, I don’t get harassed, but if I leave any time after 8 it’s like open season or something.
Hmm. A few things.
1) I think that it’s important to acknowledge that even when jerks focus in on a certain characteristic, they’re very rarely actually harassing you because of that characteristic. If they weren’t commenting on your whiteness, they’d be commenting on your dress. If they weren’t commenting on your butt, they’d be commenting on your breasts, or your stomach, or your legs. It’s kind of like how women get harassed whether they’re wearing sweatpants while jogging or a business suit – the tone is different, maybe, but the harassment happens regardless.
2) There are absolutely areas that are more unsafe and crime ridden, but simply saying that you don’t feel safe in them is unproductive. I think that the way an individual approaches their discomfort is very important. “I feel unsafe because I’m a white woman” isn’t just negative because it comes off as racist, it’s negative because it’s a statement that doesn’t leave much room for a conversation or a solution.
Contrast that with, for example, “I’ve been feeling unsafe when I come here. Do you have any suggestions for what I can do to make myself less of a target/feel more safe?” The sentiment is still problematic, but it’s leaving much more room for a conversation and shows a greater willingness to learn.
I live in a lovely neighbourhood in East London which has craft fairs, blah blah, everyone knows each other & looks out for one another – and all ages and cultures rub along together which is wonderful and part of the charm of this place.
But there are still gangs and within those gangs, stabbings, rape & even murder.
I always used to deal with it by thinking “I’m not a teenage black or Asian boy, so I’m safe – it will never involve me.”
And then I got to thinking how fucking scary it must be for those who *are* teenage boys. Some black parents send their kids overseas between GCSEs and uni, to remove them from the risk. Wow.
I also heard of refugee kids in this area being punished at school for eating with their hands – until the school realised they’d never seen cutlery. And others who threw themselves to the floor every time a helicopter flew overhead – other kids may laugh, but to them helicopters meant shootings.
It makes such a difference to try & see these things from the eyes of the kids.
So OP maybe try to get your volunteers to imagine what it must be like to be in the social /cultural group of those who you teach? Having that perspective really helps. Sometimes you have to encourage people to consciously think about it, so they break away from pity or judgement to understand why.
Isn’t eating with the hands traditional in some South Asian cultures, also? Either way what a horrible thing to punish kids for, it doesn’t hurt anyone and will only serve to humiliate the children in question.
Why do you think that a primary black/immigrant neighborhood is the one with the most gun and gang violence? Why do you think that you as a white lady who perhaps goes through that neighborhood twice a week is at more risk than black/immigrant people who live there?
Serious question. Do you think that *white* neighborhoods are less violent?
I didn’t say black or immigrant. I said gun and gang violence. I am not saying everyone who lives in that neighbourhood is in a gang or has a gun (#notall_____) but I can look at maps and read gun crime statistics, and yes, that area has a lot of gun and gang issues. And my use of ‘white lady’ was from the original letter to the Captain. But is that white lady not allowed to say she feels unsafe? Perhaps she feels she might be targeted because she is a (as in the original question) “white, wealthy, and middle-aged/senior”. And is it inherently racist to say so? I think it is a disservice to reduce a comment about personal safety to ‘racist’.
Serious answer: I think there is violence in a lot of places, regardless of racial majority of the neighbourhood. But there are more gun and gang-related crimes in X area. So people – who have the privilege to do so – may choose not to go to X area.
I want to learn, I really do, and be more aware of the kind of stuff discussed in the original answer. But I also think people should be able to express feelings of non-safety (won’t walk by construction sites alone, won’t go to dangerous areas unaccompanied, won’t walk on badly-lit streets after dark) without getting called racist.
I’m not trying to start a fight. Captain, feel free not to let this through if you think it will detract from the very worthwhile and educational conversation going on in the comments.
“Dangerous areas” is a value judgement on that area. It is legit if YOU feel unsafe in a particular area, and if you are doing a job or volunteering somewhere it is absolutely OK to say, “I don’t feel safe doing that. Can we talk about how we can manage that? Could I have a more experienced volunteer with me?” That way, you’re owning your perception of the area as “dangerous”. But if you just label the area as “dangerous”, as if that was an objective fact, then you’re naming the people who live there as dangerous and that’s not OK.
And higher rates of gun or gang violence don’t make an area *objectively* dangerous, because even that violence will be targeted in particular ways which may not affect you the volunteer at all.
Of course, a decent organisation shouldn’t be sending inexperienced volunteers to a “safe” neighbourhood alone either; that’s just basic health and safety. That might be another way to think about it: if you army comfortable doing X in what you perceive as a “bad” neighbourhood, your sense that it’s OK to do it in a “good” neighbourhood may well be illusory.
I feel a lot more comfortable in my neighbourhood, which has a lot of dangerous crime, then I do visiting Friend in [Other Bit of Town] even though it’s definitely not any more dangerous than mine. It’s just not my neighbourhood.
Statistically, I’m at no more risk (possibly even less) leaving her house at 2 am than I am walking up my street at 3am, but it definitely feels more dangerous. I feel more at risk leaving my aunt’s house in Middle-Class Suburb, where the quiet and lack of noise is unnerving. I know where I live, I know what sounds are worrying, what sounds are just normal– I know specific people, and even if I don’t, I’ll assume that the loud teenagers at the bus are basically the same as my brothers or my neighbours kids were at that age, rather than being intimidating the way loud groups of young men are when you’re coming home at night. I know I’m not safer, but I definitely feel like I am.
Flip side– I don’t mind walking someone to the bus-stop if they’re leaving mine at night because I recognise that, you know, just because I feel pretty safe there, there are good reasons why they might not. My aunt is at more risk getting the bus from mine, then she is getting off the bus at hers. She’s not at more risk than I am, but she is at more risk than she usually is. My friend might live on what the estate agents try to avoid calling murder mile, but it’s her home-ground in a way my patch isn’t.
I think you are splitting hairs in a way that does not show you in a good light. “I can read maps.” Really? Racism isn’t about your feelings, it’s about power, money, and the weight of history. The relative “safety” of neighborhoods is often coded language about race and racism. Not every feeling you have needs to be expressed, so think about your audience going forward. Glad you got the answers you sought. Maybe, sit the rest of this thread out.
Edited to add: This is a thought exercise that some kind and smart person put out on Twitter one time (I would credit but I literally can’t remember who it was): Next time someone says “x thing is racist,” and your instinct is to explain why it’s not or ask if it is truly, objectively, technically, factually racist, try being quiet for a little bit and asking yourself in what ways it is or might be racist? We could all stand to do this a lot about a lot of things.
Jennifer, I think we’re all aware that the history of white women being told that they need to fear for their safety in certain neighborhoods/around people of color is basically 90% of the history of and usually the covert or overt justification for American racism. This is, like, right at the middle of the whole thing. At the same time: the history of telling women that their fear of physical violence is shameful or unworthy and that they should keep it a secret is also a big ugly part of our culture. I hear the other people in this thread suggesting better ways to frame a legitimate concern without making it come off as insulting people who call a neighborhood home. I just see this argument come up over and over, frankly, and I wish there was a better way to get at the middle of it somehow.
We have many, many threads here on this website about street harassment, personal safety, women & safety, the gift of fear, listening to that voice, not mocking that voice, etc. I’d put the number in the double digits, easy, maybe in the hundreds. We have one recent thread about racism. It’s not a thread about street harassment or male violence against women, etc. It’s a thread about well-intentioned (-maybe) white people being racially shitty and how to shut that down while keeping kids safe from it.
I think it is a certain kind of racist to harp on the safety of neighborhoods in a way that is clearly coded to be about race and economics. This is not a thread about the personal safety or, really, the feelings of white women about safety stuff, and it’s not “telling women to keep it a secret” by limiting how far we let this tangent derail the discussion. Frankly, I don’t think that “all of us” are aware of the direct historical connection between white women’s invented, exaggerated fears and racist violence done by white people in black communities. I think that people probably got shot in the United States, by cops, today because because of the vague sense that some places and some people are inherently more dangerous than others.
I have literally seen someone murdered in front of my eyes in a gang-related incident in front of the house where I lived. It made me feel…shall we say…unsafe. And yet, I beg everyone reading this to consider how you talk about the relative safety of neighborhoods. Consider the audience. Consider how you think you know what you know about that place. Consider if it’s a place you ever even actually go to (Hello, grad school professor who used where I lived as a synonym for “a place you should never go.) Consider that you might not be the only one who feels unsafe, like, say, children who walk to school in neighborhoods where shootings are common. Consider how often white people who go on and on about “urban” “populations” and “safety” and use coded language that means “those people” ARE being really fucking racist. Consider how depressing it would be for a child to hear statements like those in the OP about where they live. Nobody gets individual “You are well intentioned and when you do this stuff you are the non-racist exception!” merit badges for this shit. Asking if something is racist, being told “yeah, it kinda is, here’s why” and then doubling down to split hairs and carve out an exception for yourself is not cool. I’m glad Mary and others had very constructive answers for Anon for This, but I’m not sorry for getting a little ticked off at stuff like “I can read maps, okay?”
To speak to the OP, asking the volunteer “Can you describe, more specifically, what you’re afraid of, so we can try to alleviate some of that anxiety?” or “Can we match you with another volunteer who knows the area well?” are very constructive ways of dealing with real anxieties. But it doesn’t make “I don’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood…as a white woman” (yes, as others pointed out, the volunteer brought up race) not racist.
JenniferP, I hear you. It occurs to me that while I am from a place very much characterized by your link, I’m not from a place that really uses the “bad neighborhood” coding – as far as people who dogwhistle here are concerned, all cities ever are “inner city” and full of “urban unrest” and there’s no need to split hairs – so of course people in this thread are also picking up on specific subtext that I’m not trained to hear.
As someone pretty close to the history you reference, that’s what frustrates me: there’s definitely “invented and exaggerated”, but there’s also “instilled and propagandic”. (And also “coded”. Crystal Feimster writes about this – about how false racialization of a real sense of threat made it okay for white women to talk about fear of physical violence where otherwise it would not have been – and this is including in the lived memory of older Baby Boomers.)
Anyway, I’m really not trying to derail, I swear to god. I just wish that there was a better way to untangle this particular knot, because it comes up over and over and over because in big and small ways it’s at the center of the whole history there. I agree/hear you about a script of “We’re absolutely looking out for your safety, and let’s talk about how to address your concerns specifically, but I want to start by saying that the racial piece of that is really a myth that people put around about these neighborhoods.” Maybe that is how to start untangling it? Bleh.
Also, I’m very sorry that that happened. And I will stop responding to this subthread, since this is not “practical suggestions to help OP”.
So the Captain has already said so much that’s so great here, but I just want to jump in and say that if you can’t understand why saying “as a white lady” in that context is racist and insensitive I don’t think you’re trying very hard. I have lived in an extremely white southern town where I was harassed by white frat boys who called me “firecrotch” and I’ve been called a “snow bunny” by men of color in Washington Heights. Both of these situations made me feel unsafe as a WOMAN, and on both occasions my appearance was specifically referenced but since it would be bizarre to say “I feel unsafe as a redhead” in the first circumstance, it is equally bizarre to say “I feel unsafe as a white woman” in the second. Brunettes and non-whites aren’t “safer” in those circumstances, they are likely targeted for different reasons (as every hispanic woman I’ve ever heard called “Mami” would likely be happy to explain). And virtually all crime statistics I’ve ever seen support the notion that “outsiders” in neighborhoods are far less likely to be victims of crime than people who would be considered “insiders” (for race, ethnicity, class, etc. reasons). Emphasizing one’s whiteness in a conversation about safety, especially one in which you imply you are more at risk than people of color, is insensitive and it’s also factually wrong.
Statistically, I was likely in far greater danger from those frat boys, but even that isn’t really the point. Expressing concerns about one’s safety is something women should always feel empowered to do, but we don’t have to do it in a racist or classist fashion. White women like myself have to be careful with the privilege that comes to us because of our whiteness, even in those moments when our womanhood seems to be making us targets. “As a white lady” assumes that nonwhite ladies don’t face the same fears/difficulties and that’s a silencing, negating assumption that our media (::cough:: Nancy Grace ::cough::) loves to support, with its constant portrayal of white women in jeopardy. But especially if you’re trying to work in communities in which you don’t live, it’s generally not a good idea to other yourself from that community in your own language. Express your fears, ask for help, but don’t assume that you, the white lady, have a harder time in the neighborhood than the people who live in it. If you can’t see how that’s racist, I hope your momma raised you well enough so you can at least see that it’s rude.
This thread has really really helped me to unpack some of my own prejudices and *gasp* racist thoughts. Like, I knew they were shitty thoughts, but I was having a bit of trouble pinpointing exactly why, I guess? So thanks everyone who’s taken the time to lay out the facts and debunk the stereotypes, and thanks to the Captain for maintaining a place where this discussion can happen. This blog makes me a better person.
The Captain’s comments on considering your audience and emdashing’s note on rudeness remind me of the ring theory of complaining (tbh I probably came across it because it was linked to from this site!)
It was developed with a different kind of situation in mind but I think it can be adapted for what we’re discussing here. Maybe it will help clarify what considering your audience entails in order not to be rude, at least.
The notion is, you can only complain about how a bad situation (real or perceived) makes you feel to someone who is less affected by said situation than you are. Always “complain outward”. The original example is about cancer: if someone has cancer, their spouse or carer absolutely gets to feel exhausted and stressed out about the situation and the process, but they do not vent those feelings to the cancer sufferer. A close friend gets to be worried and to stress out about that, but they do not vent to the spouse or carer, and even less so to the sufferer. Etc.
So as other commenters have written here, if you think an area is dangerous, don’t complain or stress out about it to those who live there.
Of course the preferable thing is to realize why it actually is racist rather than just trying not to be rude.
“I can look at maps and read gun crime statistics”
Keep in mind that crime statistics are heavily influenced by whom the police choose to investigate for criminal activity. There are scads of studies showing that non-white people are much more likely to be stopped by police than white people. Non-white people tend to be charged with more serious crimes than white people for the same activity. Sentences for the same crime tend to be higher for non-white people.
That’s a very valuable point, thank you.
Yep. Drug arrests/convictions are a great example of that – I think that white people make up something like 65% or 70% of drug users, but black people (predominantly men) make up a similar proportion of the people who have been imprisoned for drug convictions. I can’t remember the exact stats off the top of my head and can’t find the graph, but it’s something like that. I’m sure that many of those white drug users are in “good, middle/upper class neighborhoods” – they’re just not getting arrested.
Similarly, I’d bet that violent crimes like rape and assault are far more likely to be prosecuted when it’s a black man who committed them than when it’s a white man, particularly a middle/upper class white man. How many predominantly white, middle/upper class frats have a reputation for misogyny and rape? How many of them get prosecuted for it?
1. If we’re gonna split hairs here, why is ~*getting called racist*~ an undesirable outcome? Is getting called racist really the problem here, and not saying a racist thing?
2. As soon as you start saying ‘People ought to be allowed to do/say ______ without being called racist!’, you will not come across well. Even if you clarify that your intentions are non-confrontational, it’s simply a horrid ‘GOTCHA!’ way of framing something. Please don’t approach the subject like this around PoC–if you know any.
I will perhaps say this here too: I’d be cautious about calling out a woman who’s expressing a fear for her physical safety for racism directly. She might be being casually racist or representing a feeling more of “that’s not the kind of thing someone of my social status does”, but this is someone who’s deliberately trying to volunteer in this situation asking a safety question, even if she’s clearly betraying some messed-up learned beliefs while doing it.
Full disclosure: I was once in charge of supervising some students in an abroad situation where we were working in a place that – oh god, please believe me, there was an extremely high rate of violence, including violence that had encompassed people with our demographic characteristics pretty recently, and the cultural constructions around gender were different from what we were used to and involved a lot of really aggressive approaches from young men. And one of the students I was supervising started having a really, really bad reaction to these factors and being very very fearful, because WE DID NOT KNOW HER LIFE and she was dealing with some past trauma.
And my supervisor (a white man) got really disgusted with her, and with me for bringing it up and asking him for help, because we weren’t appreciating cultural differences (while this kid was pretty much having a ptsd situation in our van.)
Anyway, that’s why it’s an undesirable outcome for me, depending on the exact situation.
Okay, now here’s the other thing.
If the Letter Writer were to say something like:
“I can tell that you are really concerned about your safety, so is there anything specific we can do about that? (+ specific suggestions). However, I have to say, your statement that you don’t feel good here ‘as a white’ woman is kind of racist. I have to ask you to be mindful to not talk that way in front of the students. It really distresses them when they feel that the volunteers are afraid of them or where they live.”
-to the volunteer, it is within bounds. “Hey, you are being unintentionally kinda racist, can u not?” is NOT a mortal insult. White people, especially white people who want to do antiracism work, really have to get that and get up out of their feelings about that. We’re profoundly through the looking glass when the horror of being called racist or having an (unexamined) behavior pointed out as rooted in (perhaps unconscious) racism is seen as worse than saying and doing racist stuff.
It’s also a question of how the stories get re-told. Some other white people seemed surprised and/or concerned if I mentioned walking alone in northern Manhattan at night. Nobody asked if I felt unsafe near my office after the police shot several innocent people a few blocks away one weekday morning. “Shooting in Harlem” is treated as part of a pattern; “shooting near the Empire State Building” is treated as a complete anomaly.
My usual answer to people who were worried was to tell them the simple truth: I didn’t worry because there were plenty of other people on the street, i.e. plenty of eyes. I did worry one winter, when my shortcut was officially closed, and therefore not being plowed–but mostly what I worried about was slipping on the ice and not having anyone nearby to help me if I sprained an ankle.
You can also watch the PBS documentary “Slavery By Another Name” for free on Youtube. It’s award-winning and based on solid historical research. It will explain why some neighborhoods have a higher crime rate than others. I use it as the centerpiece of my unit on Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and racial discrimination/segregation in the United States, leading all the way up to today. (I teach US history.)
I live in a big city, in a neighborhood with an expensive university. Most of the students are not black; most of the non-student population is black. White people are *very* concerned about safety in this neighborhood; there is a lot of attention to not walking alone after dark, worrying about being mugged, about shootings, etc. It is 100% a neighborhood where someone might say they “don’t feel safe”–I have heard people say that.
However, when you look at actual crime statistics? It is one of the SAFER neighborhoods in the city. Even the anecdata support this; we get emails when crimes are committed against students on the streets, and we hardly ever get emails. Why do people say they don’t feel safe? Black people live here.
Sounds like my former neighborhood – mix of “black”, “gay”, and “student” with not much overlap between those categories. And by crime statistics, the second-safest neighborhood in the city, but *everyone* I dealt with regularly who didn’t also live there was absolutely convinced that it was a Scary Bad Neighborhood.
The worst thing that happened to me there was my car being vandalized – and when it happened, one of my neighbors knocked on my door, asked if that was my car, and then ran after the vandal while I called 911.
The second-worst thing that happened to me (and happened over and over again, so this was overall the worst thing about living there though any one instance of it wasn’t that bad) was creepy white dudes in nice cars pulling along side me when I was walking home from work and being all, “Honey, you lost? Do you know where you ARE?????” Which, fuck off, by the point that became a regular problem I’d lived there for several YEARS.
Re: getting called “racist”: When I talk about race in my college English classes, there’s always a bit of preamble I have to give if we’re going to have productive discussions. What I’m about to lay out here is a guide* to racism for white people. (I am also white.) The problem I see here is in part a vocabulary problem, and that vocabulary problem is two-fold: first, we use the same word, “racist,” for a swastika-tattooed, confederate flag-waving, hood-wearing neo-Nazi as we do for dear old Aunt May, who is white. She is well meaning, but gets nervous around “those people.” Aunt May does not have a swastika tattoo. She thinks the KKK is a shame and that everyone deserves a chance. Aunt May would be very hurt and confused if you called her a racist. She doesn’t hate “those people,” she just doesn’t understand why they [insert racial stereotype here]. Aunt May’s racism comes from ignorance and privilege**, not from hate, and so from a certain perspective, it seems unfair that we use the same word for her that we do for the Grand Cyclops. From that perspective, calling Aunt May a racist seems like an injury to her: she is being compared to hateful criminal terrorists. We can see how that comparison could offend.
On the other hand, whatever the origins of Aunt May’s discomfort with “those people,” that discomfort is founded in racism. This is where the second vocabulary problem comes into play. Most people think of the term “racism” as meaning “racial hatred.” By this definition, since Aunt May doesn’t hate “those people,” she is not a racist. This definition, however, is incomplete, and it is not the one used by scholars and social scientists. A better definition of “racism” is “racial prejudice combined with institutional power and privilege.” By this definition, Aunt May is a racist. She is prejudiced against “those people,” and her race confers institutional power and privilege.
Should we have two different words for these two different ideas? Maybe. I can see good points and bad points on both sides. On one hand, people react with hostility to being called racist, and productive discussion becomes impossible. On the other hand, racists of the definition are much more numerous and powerful than those of the first, but all of them are on the same spectrum. All of them believe that “those people” are somehow less than. All of them believe that “we” are somehow superior. All of them believe that the world would be a better place if “they” were more like “us.” Ultimately, I would be concerned that finding a different word than “racist” for the Aunts May of the world would be to deny the real harm they do.
So what should you do if you are called a racist? First, rein in your hurt and hostility. The hurt done to people on the receiving end of racism is beyond what you can imagine. This is not about you, it’s about the people harmed by racism, so don’t make it about you. Put the person you (may have) hurt at the center of the discussion. Second, acknowledge the possibility that you may have said or done something racist. It happens. We all make mistakes. Follow the first rule of holes. When someone calls you a racist, the fact is that you may or may not be in a hole; whether you are or not, digging won’t get you out. Third, educate yourself. Do not expect the person who called you a racist to take their own time and energy to educate you. They might be hurt and upset–even more hurt and upset than you are. Do some reading. Talk to people who know more about it than you do. Don’t just go to your white friends for reassurance. That’s dishonest. Fourth, do better. Be aware of your thoughts, words, and actions. Apologize if it’s appropriate–if your apology is sincere, if you sincerely believe it will be appreciated, and if it’s about the person you hurt and not about yourself. Take a breath before you speak. Believe–really believe–that you are sometimes wrong. When you step on someone’s foot, you apologize, even if–especially if–you didn’t do it on purpose. Same thing here. Being called racist hurts. Racism hurts, but more than that, it injures. Don’t be part of that problem.
*I apologize if I omit any important issues or make any other mistakes. I’m writing without notes. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
**Ignorance is a feature of privilege. If you’re white, you have the luxury of not having to know what kinds of hard truths other people face.
I’ve often wondered if we could do with splitting up “racism” into a few different words. With gender we have “sexism” but also “misogyny” – we have different words for “unthinking playing into stereotypes” and actual antipathy based on gender. With racism we only really have the one word and it’s a lot for one word to do. All forms of racism are damaging, of course. I don’t want to give anyone a free pass for saying racist things. But when you say “that was racist” meaning “engage your brain and stop making assumptions based on these harmful cultural narratives that we all hear every day!” many people will hear “you hate all black people!” And will then jump into an impassioned defence about how that’s not true. I must have seen hundreds of online arguments that basically boiled down to people shouting at each other because they were using two different definitions of the word “racism” and for no other reason.
@JustPlainNeddy White people definitely have an aversion to the word racism and freak out whenever something they do is identified as racist (and often when they are explicitly identified as “white”) but “bigotry” and “prejudice”, etc. don’t make racist acts and statements less racist. Racism isn’t about how people feel on Internet forums, it’s about institutional violence toward human beings. Aunt May’s attitudes and bullshit makes violent KKK guy more possible. You can’t dismantle and interrogate something you can’t name, and the constant sea lioning people do about whether racism is REAL racism honestly makes me want to tear my hair out.
This is a really good comment. I spend a lot of time with my family dealing with cognitive dissonance, because it IS a spectrum, and in some ways Mr. Swastika is easier to get my head around than Aunt May. ‘He’s a disgusting racist asshole’ is simple. ‘She’s a wonderful, generous, loving person, so HOW CAN SHE BELIEVE THIS SHIT’ is not.
Speaking as someone who is affected by sexism and misogyny, I don’t think this is productive on a strategic level, either short- or long-term. I think being nice to Aunt May is counterproductive. It allows her to retain her essentially narcissistic perspective on racism and racial equality, and it promotes her own belief that she is a better person than a Klan member.
And really, I don’t know if I can recognize that distinction in terms of hating women, or if I see any point in doing so. There’s a difference between hitting your wife and seeing intimate violence as a “family problem,” I suppose, but the latter makes the former possible, and is also evil.
I know you’re not denying the seriousness of Aunt May-ing, but I’m not sure that you can have a productive discussion with Aunt May so long as you implicitly award her points for not being a real racist. I also don’t think there’s such a category as, “the people we can all agree are racist.” I’ve never met an Uncle Marty who just harbored some unexamined sexist beliefs and didn’t support violence against women under some heading or another, sad to say.
Out of nesting, so replying to myself: PLEASE don’t think I’m an Aunt May apologist. I have ZERO TIME for Aunt May. That lady is a straight-up racist. She thinks that what she thinks about “those people” is “just the truth” and that she’s coming from “a place of love” because she “wants what’s best for them” or whatever. She pretends to herself and everyone else that she doesn’t hate and contemn them, but she does. She pretends that she doesn’t feel superior, but she does. She gets off on that superiority. It defines her, and the only reason she pretends otherwise is because racism isn’t “nice,” and she’s a Nice Lady. It’s self-serving, disingenuous bullshit wrapped around a poison pill of hate. Fuck. That. IRL, I call out racism all the time. I’ve lost “friends” over it, and frankly, good riddance. I once raised my voice to a room full of senior colleagues when they went off on a self-congratulatory racist tangent. (My white privilege allowed me to call them out and not face any consequences.) I finally got my own mother to stop sending me racist email forwards by shaming her and implicitly threatening her access to her grandson. In my private life, I put the hammer down on that noise.
What I wrote above is not for private life. It’s for the classroom and other professional settings. It sounds like the LW is getting a lot of Aunts May in her program. (It also sounds like Anon for This is on track to be an Aunt May. She sounds an awful lot like a lot of people I don’t talk to anymore.) (Sorry, Anon for This, but you need to get your head right.) I know what it’s like to deal with them in a professional setting because, although most of my students are not white, some of them are. First, it is not productive to put people on the defensive. Second, addressing the issue this way gives the non-white students some vocabulary and other tools for identifying, articulating, and addressing racism where they find it. Some people need a primer. A good primer meets them where they are and takes them where they need to go. That was my intent above.
I actually think having more vocabulary is pretty important to racial discussions. For instance, when we were doing dialogues on race, we worked really hard on definitions for the discussion, distinguishing things like individual prejudice vs institutional racism. It’s valuable in that it allows people to be more specific about the behavior they’re addressing, and it makes it much harder for people to derail the discussion with things like “but, reverse discrimination! It’s rough as a white man out there”.
It’s pretty hard not to grow up in this culture and not accidentally absorb random racist/sexist/[insertphobic thing here] crap along the way. So if you have privilege, you’re almost certain at some point (probably many points) to screw up, need to apologize and work constantly at getting better. And having different words for different sorts of racism is valuable because it allows calling out that behavior to be more specific to prevent derailment, and having less loaded words to use might make conversations slightly less exhausting when you try to talk about someone’s problematic language or behavior (maybe. I realize less exhausting may be expecting too much. I can dream.)
The distinction I was taught years ago in school was ‘active racism’ vs. ‘passive racism’. In this case, ‘active racism’ would be someone who actively participates in violence and deliberate oppression of others (like the KKK). ‘Passive racism’ would be Aunt May, someone who would claim that she certainly does not support violence or oppression against anyone, but whose prejudices and perspective support the perpetuation of a society that does. I doubt that would help with the issue of getting people to not act defensive, though, because being called a ‘passive racist’ probably doesn’t feel any warmer or fuzzier. I think it was a useful distinction to use in discussion of racism, though.
Reply to Allie re: active vs.passive racism.
I see where you are going with this, but I find “active” and “passive” aren’t useful distinctions regarding statements or actions. I can’t speak to what it feels like to be the recipient of racist actions or statements that meet your definition of “passive,” but the “passive” sexism I have received felt pretty damned active to me when my heart was pounding and my stomach was twisting in knots.
Courtney, thank you for that. I was turning that “active” vs. “passive” thing over in my mind, because it just wasn’t working for me. Aunt May is not passive. She’s opening her mouth and saying things, and that’s not passive. She’s committing microaggressions every time she interacts with POC, and that’s not passive. Moreover, as Jennifer points out, Aunt May helps keep a space open for the Grand Cyclops. Protecting the status quo is a political choice. Strategic inaction is not the same as passivity.
White neighborhoods are perceived as being more financially able to support local law enforcement financially and come out and vote for specific elected officials. Further, people in power tend to have the money to buy homes in more affluent areas, and the people with power and living in affluent areas tend to both be predominately white. Another consideration is that more affluent neighborhoods tend to have homes spread further apart (big lawns are a luxury) or, if in big cities, there are various hurdles to jump to gain access to nicer homes, like doorpersons or security guards and gates. When interaction with neighbors is less simple, there is less interaction, and thus less opportunity for clashes to occur. However, anyone who thinks white neighborhoods are 100% crime free is deluding themselves. And being a POC in a predominately POC-occupied neighborhood is not like having a magical forcefield around you.
Anecdata: When I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta, and was in one of maybe 10-20% non-POC (or mixed but predominately non-POC) households there, it was my African-American roommate who was shot at while changing the light bulbs on our front porch, not me (Caucasian) or our other Caucasian roommate. We hung out on the porch and in the yard, and were never shot at or challenged when we tried to park in our own driveway.
Conversely, it was me who had the cloth top of my old beater convertible slashed nearly weekly and me who surprised a neighbor breaking into our kitchen with a crowbar. Those were not crimes of violence aimed at me or us. Our neighbors apparently (falsely) assumed that we must have some good stuff that was worth breaking into our car and house to get. (Boy, were they wrong about that! We were very poor! They got some CDs out of the car, once, that I guarantee no one wanted to buy, because they were homeburned mix CDs or were simply not to most folks’ taste.)
These shenanigans cannot be simplified to a race issue where one says “Oh, that neighborhood is unsafe for white people because POC live there.” The white roomies were not subjected to random gunshots. We weren’t confronted by hostile people just coming home after a long day and trying to park in our own driveway, like our AA roomie was. Best guess is that it is a poverty, lack of social services, lack of employment opportunities in the area (for everyone at all stages of a career looking for any kind of job), abundance of punitive but otherwise unhelpful LEOs, and a decades-long “the deck has been stacked against poor folks, especially those of color, especially those who struggle with poverty” misery kind of thing.
Atlanta has a lot of white folks who fall in various spots along the “generally means well” spectrum, some who are overtly racist and score a zero on that scale, and some who do try but still struggle with deeply ingrained anti-POC, anti-poor person, anti-jobless, “just bootstrap it!” social messages that seek to blame people struggling with one or more things in life for those struggles. I doubt there are any, simply due to areas of unexamined or poorly-understood areas of privilege, no matter how well-meaning, who get a 10 out of 10. And if you want to worry about drugs, poor folks can’t generally afford them, and most of the folks acting the fool while being arrested under the influence are white kids. Meth and “legal” opiates are a plague. Regarding guns, it’s also mostly the white folks in Atlanta who have them, are obsessed with them, collect arsenals of them, and can magically wrap themselves in White Privilege to avoid getting shot while “open carrying” at a damn airport like a total toolbag.
I understand feeling unsafe in a neighborhood where, for example, the streetlights get broken a lot and there aren’t a lot of open businesses nearby at night and the roads are neglected badly enough that your tire could get damaged. But that is not something that is always 100% correlated with the skin color of the inhabitants, and I currently feel more unsafe in a 99% white neighborhood because my neighbors like to play with their guns in their back yards, drive their ATVs across my front yard, and let their large, untrained, occasionally aggressive dogs roam about freely.
Yup. Black Americans are far more likely to be the victims of gun crime than white Americans.
Do you know for SURE that there’s a lot of gun and gang violence? Because it’s super common in majority white countries for it to be ASSUMED that a majority-black area is a hotbed of gun and gang violence when it’s actually just a totally normal residential neighbourhood with not a lot of money.
Also, if you absolutely do need to talk about how you don’t feel safe in a particular area, own it as *your* problem, not the problem of that neighbourhood. Right way: “I’m from a Protestant part of Belfast, and to be honest, i wouldn’t feel comfortable going to that Catholic area by myself. Can we talk about how we will manage that?” Wrong way: “You can’t seriously expect me to go THERE! Everyone knows you don’t go there after dark!” (Really? The people who live there are not everyone?)
Lastly, recognise that the places where you feel safe can be just as scary to other people as the places you consider “scary”. Place filled with super confident upper-middle-class white people assuming they know everything? Absolutely terrifying to many people of colour, working-class people,etc.
(Having said that about whether you know for sure that somewhere is a hotbed of violence etc, if it’s somewhere where you wouldn’t feel safe, i would say don’t second-guess yourself and pretend you feel OK if you don’t, just because that way you might put yourself in actual danger because you’re trying to ignore your own feelings of discomfort and you might well squash “real” ones as well as racist ones. Better to acknowledge that your response is probably conditioned by racism and privilege, and that it’s your problem to figure out what’s racism and what’s real “this feels dodgy”, and ask that you don’t go there without someone motte experienced until you’ve got your bearings. Which is a totally legit request that any decent organisation should work with.)
Sorry to reply twice, this hadn’t shown up when I posted before. Thanks for this – it’s got a lot of what I was thinking but wasn’t expressing clearly. Especially this: “Better to acknowledge that your response is probably conditioned by racism and privilege, and that it’s your problem to figure out what’s racism and what’s real “this feels dodgy””.
Thanks for that. It’s useful.
” if you absolutely do need to talk about how you don’t feel safe in a particular area, own it as *your* problem, not the problem of that neighbourhood. Right way: “I’m from a Protestant part of Belfast, and to be honest, i wouldn’t feel comfortable going to that Catholic area by myself. Can we talk about how we will manage that?” Wrong way: “You can’t seriously expect me to go THERE! Everyone knows you don’t go there after dark!””
I’d wonder if you’ve actually seen the gun and gang violence, or just assumed it must be there because the neighborhood is poor/most residents are Black/etc? Or maybe you’ve seen some breathless news reports about that neighborhood? Because I live in a neighborhood that legit (ok, according to police reports, and there are many ways those can be skewed) has less crime than the “good” neighborhood my friends live in, where muggings and sexual assault are scarily common. But my neighborhood backs up onto a low-income housing development, and is 60% POC, and isn’t walkable to an underground subway stop, ergo, it must be “sketchy” and “scary” and just. . .I want to scream every time a Nice White Friend talks about feeling unsafe coming to visit me.
The way people do it around here is to say stuff like “omg, that neighborhood is so sketchy, [person I know] totally got their car broken into there.” Which, again, is anecdotes, not data. And subject to confirmation bias. (Happens in one neighborhood = proof the neighborhood is bad, happens in a different neighborhood = isolated incident.)
Ugh. “Sketchy” is such a racist dog whistle. Massive side-eye to anyone using that to describe a neighborhood.
i think the ‘white lady’ part is actually crucial to why this is racist. if you’re not comfortable in a neighborhood, that’s one thing, but not being comfortable because you are a white lady? anecdotal volunteer is the one who brought race into it. think about why she would think her race is important to this, especially in a historical american context if you can. i feel it might enlighten you.
That’s what I was thinking.
A bit of a personal story: I live in a medium-sized Australian city. For about twenty years, I lived within a stone’s throw of one of the most notorious “bad” areas in the city – it was bad enough the cop cars went in there in pairs. For about five years recently, I lived in a suburb which was basically “bad district” from the word go, and right next door to some major long-term welfare-dependency and public housing territory. I’ve also lived in “good” suburbs, including the “nice, aspirational, middle-class” suburb I’m in now.
In twenty five years of living in the “bad” suburbs, we got burgled three times. Once a car was stolen. I used to regularly walk through the heart of this notorious area as a way of getting home from work (because it was more interesting to walk home than it was to wait around for a bus). I even walked through there at night on occasion. Never got hassled once.
In about four or five years of living in “nice” or “good” suburbs, we’ve had our house broken into and our car stolen once, I’ve been hassled in the street (street harassment) in one of the “nice” suburbs I’ve lived in. In the “nice” suburb I’m living in now, there’s a household just up the street in one direction which has the police visiting about once or twice a year due to domestic violence, and about a month ago there was a murder in our street (just up the road from us in the opposite direction; close enough our complex’s driveway was within the forensics cordon line – which meant we had to get police permission to enter and leave our own driveway).
My point being the popular reputation of a suburb has absolutely nothing to do with how safe it is to live in or near it.
(White Australian, Anglo-Celtic ethnicity, female).
I had my car broken into twice, and my husband’s car was straight-up stolen in a city that regularly makes it into the top 10 safest cities in America. Then we moved to Los Angeles and the worst thing that happened was people parking across our driveway.
Yep. I lived in Seattle for many years and now I live in St. Louis. In Seattle, my ex and I had our car broken into with items stolen, and our house was burgled multiple times. I also endured some scary street harassment incidents, including a guy who tried to get me to get into his car.
In St. Louis–which is perpetually at the top of assorted crime stats lists–the worst I’ve experienced is severe noise disturbances from the tenants above me in one apartment, some items sitting in the middle of my driveway being mistaken for curb leavings at a rental house, and some aggressive panhandling in a touristy district from someone who seemed high (which is why the incident gave me pause. But I was able to easily cross the street in that last situation, and it left me less rattled than an aggressive street harassment encounter would have (which happens pretty much anywhere, regardless of crime stats.)
Heh, I used to walk home from work on Saturday nights right up the street that was notorious for being where the sex workers congregated and everyone was always appalled when they found out. It was parallel to the one I lived on and I went up there instead of going one further to start with because the sex workers were there. They were all either really nice or just didn’t engage, they knew the area, and it meant passing multiple people every block almost all the way home instead of being alone on the street. The idea of someone assuming I was working (I’m transmasc/genderqueer but perceived as cis female) never really bothered me and if it had happened it’s easy enough to say “sorry, I’m not working.” But apparently walking up that street at nearly 1 am was just asking to be assaulted/murdered/whatever.
There are definitely reasons to not feel safe in certain areas, but framing it as ‘…because I’m a white lady’ does two things: it assumes that a white woman would be less safe in that area than someone who actually lives there (which is probably not actually the case; most crime is intra-racial, not inter-racial, and local authorities are by and large more likely to protect a white woman, especially if her assailant is not white), and it puts the fact that her students are living and/or attending school in an area that isn’t safe in the background.
I get the impulse to go, ‘this is a scary neighborhood and I don’t feel safe there,’ especially if you’re someone who doesn’t live in a scary neighborhood and doesn’t experience that base level of danger in the rest of your life, but it’s important to remember that there are people who can’t just avoid that neighborhood, because that’s where they live.
This is a hugely important point that I think a lot of people either haven’t processed or aren’t aware of. And, inter-racial crime is more likely to include white people targeting POC than the other way around.
Hmm. On one hand, I get what you’re saying, especially since I think that when people feel uncomfortable because there are genuine warning signs that they’re having a hard time articulating, they can sometimes grasp at straws to explain it, even when what they’re identifying isn’t actually what’s causing their anxiety. However, I also think it’s far, far more common for people to be intimidated in a new situation because they feel like outsiders, which translates to a heightened sense of danger that far exceeds the actual risk involved, and it’s important to acknowledge that dynamic and challenge people on it.
I can see validity in respecting people’s concerns whatever the situation, but if you’re going to do that, the conversation absolutely cannot end with “Well, you feel that way, so that’s that.” You can respect concerns about personal safety without ceding ground to fear that’s based largely in prejudice and stereotypes.
“However, I also think it’s far, far more common for people to be intimidated in a new situation because they feel like outsiders, which translates to a heightened sense of danger that far exceeds the actual risk involved”
Very true. Same reason it’s common to feel more anxious walking down the street in a strange city versus in your home town. In your own neighbourhood you tend to feel more confident judging what’s an actual threat and what’s not, while when you’re traveling you may not know what’s just a normal sight or sound and what’s something to worry about.
Maybe shifting the conversation to this phenomenon might be a way of addressing this person’s anxiety and helping them reframe hwo they look at it to a less racist way?
“The plural of anecdote is not data” – Holeeee shit. Now THAT needs to be a t-shirt. (Sorry, mildly OT, but DAMN that’s brilliant.)
I often refer to “anecdata” when relating my personal experiences.
it is brilliant. It’s also one of my favorite “mystery origin” sayings — no one is QUITE sure who said it first, but it’s very widespread.
http://msgboard.snopes.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=101;t=000076;p=0 managed to track a reference from 1988, but no further.
‘The plural of anecdote is bullshit’ is the one I was taught.
Two things I would add: firstly, diversity training is a real, difficult thing that a lot of professional organisations that train social workers and teachers don’t get right. I think the Captain’s scripts are great, but I wouldn’t *just* try and invent diversity training yourself. There is a lot expertiseb out there, so reach out to other organisations in your area and find out what they do and whether any diversity organisations would work with you and your volunteers, either to deliver training or to work with you to develop some. There may also be specific funding for this kind of thing, or someone who wants to take it on as a project of their own. Think in terms of creating something structured and lasting and look for best practice in diversity training, though, rather than just scripts to shut down racism in that moment.
Second, is there any space for your students to work on this? Could your students prepare a training session on “what we wish people knew about us” or something? If your students are teenagers or adults, and you’ve got someone with the skills to facilitate something like that, it could be an amazing learning experience both for your students and your volunteers.
Could your students prepare a training session on “what we wish people knew about us” or something?
That sounds like an amazing contribution and I think would work even for younger kids – I’d want to have an experienced facilitator at hand to head of ‘but I have read the statistics’ arguments.
“asking the volunteers to describe what they imagined the students we served were like and challenging us about where those ideas came from by asking questions – Why do you think that? Where did you get that impression? What did you hear or read or see that made you think that?”
I really love this. I have volunteered at both a sexual assault center and domestic violence center. I really hated the sexual assault training as it was too personally invasive for me (especially the privilege line, don’t nobody need to know that much about my past and I certainly don’t need the Privileged Look of Pity, thanks).
The dv training was fantastic. Most of it focused on the practical and legal training but they also did a lot myth busting and cultural awareness. One of the most powerful days was when a survivor came in to talk about her experience, she also happened to be a very successful, wealthy, CEO of a major company. We also had extensive cultural training on the most predominate cultures in our area which included struggles that may be specific to each culture, religion, status, sexuality etc. (i.e if they can’t call the cops because of fear of deportation, if abuse “doesn’t happen” in homosexual relationships). Though I bet it would have been even more powerful to have people from these cultures come and talk to the volunteers directly as that really ups the empathy factor.
Not sure if you have any people who have been through this program either as the child or the parent of the child who can/want to talk about their experience and their success. Or if like @Jill said above, any event with folks from the cultures/backgrounds you all serve can be a good way to open the lines to empathy which is what breaks down prejudice. Also if you all send out a volunteer newsletter, including “PR” type language around the folks you serve that casts their culture/religion/background in a positive light competes with the mass media’s denigrating messages.
Strongly seconding Mary’s comment above. Diversity training is challenging and important and likely to create a great deal of discomfort for everyone. If you’re going to do it, consult people who do it well. The National Coalition Building Insitute http://www.ncbi.org is a great place to start. They have resources and well-trained facilitators who can help you figure out how to work with your volunteers.
I’ve done some work with NCBI and have done some diversity facilitation myself and I have learned a great deal from this post – thank you, Captain. I can cope with racist/classist/sexist/whateverist comments when I have my professional hat on; when I’m not in Facilitator Mode, it’s much more challenging. I love love love the scripts. Over the past few years I’ve given myself permission to let stuff go if I don’t have the emotional bandwith, and I’ve also recognized that I need allies to do this work effectively and safely. If I don’t have an ally in the room, and I’m not in a position of authority, I usually let the comment pass. I can trust that I’ll have another opportunity to intervene. OTOH, if there is anyone in earshot who is in the targeted group, I will speak up in some way. They live with this shit every day. I can take it for a few minutes.
This is awesome, Jay, thank you for the link. Does anyone have other suggestions for places to look for diversity trainings, specifically learning how to do them? If I could learn how to give white people don’t-be-racist lessons it would help me out a ton in some work that I’m trying to do in my union.
Thanks everyone for an awesome thread.
The Center for Nonviolent Communication is also a good resource https://www.cnvc.org/ Giving white people lessons is a deeply challenging task. This thread demonstrates some of the issues that are going to come up. We all hold racist attitudes and prejudices that come from some of our deepest and oldest values and it is painful to have those challenged. All learning and all changes in attitude require destabilization first. That hurts. You have to be able to create and hold a safe space, and you have to be able yourself to maintain what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” for everyone despite the expression of racist opinions while you support the people who are hurt by that expression. In order to do this, you have to build authentic relationships. Done properly, it’s a long and careful process.
You might also take a look at Peter Senge’s materials on learning organizations – http://infed.org/mobi/peter-senge-and-the-learning-organization/ I found that a very accessible entry point into this work. The Ladder of Inference is a particularly useful tool. http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_91.htm The Ladder of Inference has helped me in all my relationships – my husband still refers to a turning point in our marriage as the “ladder of inference fight”. He’s also a trained facilitator. We were having an argument about an entrenched issue when he suddenly realized that I’d climbed up the ladder of inference about him, and that he had climbed up the ladder about me, and we were both reacting to our assumptions and inferences. He stopped arguing and our relationship changed in that moment.
Final update! Armed with your resources and a bit more fire from the comments here, I approach my manager about piloting some diversity training. I was pretty nervous, since I’ve only been working here for a year, but she was really receptive! Though unfortunately there isn’t enough money to pay someone to do trainings for all our volunteers (we have over a thousand) there is enough money for me to get some training to be able to lead them. There are still some kinks to be worked out about how to get a thousand people who are volunteering all over the city the training they need, but all your amazing comments have reaffirmed for me that this is ESSENTIAL in doing the work that we do. Thank you all!
Yay! Go you! I hope we hear updates later about how it’s going.
Oh that’s excellent! Well done!
Also, wow, that’s a big organisation! Good luck!
Ooh, thanks for that – bookmarked!
Yes thank you, great links!
I don’t have a recommendation for training, but I have a reading recommendation ;-). “Good white people” by Shannon Sullivan was recently discussed in a group of friends (of all colors) and we all agreed it was very eye-opening, and full of good suggestions. OP maybe could convince their organization to have a ‘library’ copy to lend out to those problematic new volunteers? Or it may seem strange to read it themselves :-), but I think they’d find some strategies in dealing with this problem.
LW, I’d also be concerned that this sort of racist stuff could definitely be affecting the kids, even if the racist volunteers never say it in front of them. Racism, IME, leaks out and influences their interactions. If the racist volunteers have a white-savior you-poor-kid-you-deserve-to-be-white-like-me attitude, odds are that at least some of the kids are seeing it.
Oh hell yes.
I teach in a super segregated school where most of the faculty is white, and even the teachers of color often reflect the standard white view of the kids. There’s a lot of “if we could just teach them how to behave…they need to pull up their pants” going on at my school.
Here we get the intersection of racism and classism. A lot of the teachers here will say things like, “you need to become more literate so you’re not working at McDonalds/Wal-Mart/on Welfare, etc.” They all have the kids’ best interests at heart, but what the kids hear is, “Your parents work in worthless jobs and you should find that sort of work terrifying and beneath you. Please consider your parents beneath you.” Telling a kid who loves his parent that he ought to be ashamed of his parent’s job and of the educational level his parent has attained is dreadful. We have situations where parents don’t complete elementary school, come to the US, have kids here, and raise them in their native languages. Then the kids get to school. By 7th grade they have exceeded their parents in education, so their parents can’t help them with their homework, and the work’s in English, which the parents don’t speak. I’ll never forget this tearful parent who begged me (through an interpreter) to help tutor her son because she *couldn’t.* She had sacrificed so much to provide a better future for him than what she got from her parents in her home country and she couldn’t help him any longer. And we Americans just assume that the parents are lazy or don’t care or are trying to live off the dole. But we have teachers who would tell this boy to be ashamed of his mother and to work hard not to end up like her – a caring and devoted parent who would do whatever she needed to do to raise her kids.
Our staff chides the kids for failing to show up with school supplies pretty much constantly. “They go buy hot chips before school and eat those and they never have a pencil.” Then, conversely, they get mad if the kids don’t eat. And I’m stuck here looking at it and thinking “the kids are damned if they do (buy food) and damned if they don’t. Never mind that our public school food is a disgrace. I’d rather eat hot chips. And pencils aren’t cheap. What are the kids supposed to do, save their lunch money to go buy a packet of pencils? Tell their parents that they’re out of supplies *again* and stress their poor parents out? Binders don’t last a year. Paper and pencils don’t, either, but they only go on sale once a year and they’re *expensive.* So instead the kids buy their breakfasts with the money they’re given to do so and they borrow paper and pencils from each other until no one has anything left. These kids are so generous. They give each other food. They give each other supplies. They’re kind. Because everyone needs something and they know what it’s like to want. (I teach 12-15 year old kids. Yeah. That age group. They’re awesome. Really.)
But the adults are so cruel. You want a pencil? You better behave super well even if you’re hungry and you got no sleep because your kid brother is colicky. Give me your shoe if you want to borrow some crayons. Ace this test if you want a binder. You don’t have school supplies *again*? What kind of parents let their kids go without supplies? How dare you come to school unprepared? How come you care so little? How come your parents care so little? Why does no one in your culture value education? Why do you black/Latino/SE Asian kids act up so much in class? Obviously you kids are every bit as bad as the media says you are. We must model you into good citizens [our definition, not yours] for the sake of society in general.
I hate the way the adults treat the kids. So, yeah, the racist/classist/sexist stuff *definitely* affects the kids. Most of the adults would never admit to harboring such poisonous thoughts, or they’d say they’re trying to get the kids to “do the right thing.” But holding poor kids to the same standards as affluent suburbanites is ridiculous. The kids see it. The behavior absolutely must be addressed, and probably not just with the volunteers. This behavior is endemic among educators in general, including liberal SJW types.
Sorry for the long rant. I have FEELS about this subject.
Rant applauded. I replied earlier more expansively, but realized I was giving too much my-employer-specific info.
This is awesome!
Excellent points – I tutor adult ESL learners and most of our students are recent arrivals to the US and vary wildly in terms of education – some have had no formal education and can’t read/write in their native language at all; some are very highly educated and just need to learn to read English quickly.
I briefly had a student (I moved and switched regions) who had two elementary school aged children who could not read, and she was getting letters from the school about their lack of progress. She couldn’t help them because she couldn’t read English at all, and there were just no resources available from the school – or if there were, she couldn’t navigate the system to get them. It broke my heart.
I volunteer with a similar age group (13-18), and your rant just made me cry at my desk (in a good way, if that makes any sense). The kids are f*cking awesome, and 3/4 of the people who are supposed to be educating them are too racist/sexist/classist/etc. to see it, and the stories about how their teachers treat them make me so angry, and I’ve never been able to articulate why. Thank you for putting words to this, and so eloquently.
OMG, I have the same damn rant from when I used to teach. It almost broke my mind the way some of the adults treated the students. My school was much more demographically similar to our students than yours sounds like it was, but the treatment was the same. I’m like, I have a student who asked me what he would be missing tomorrow, and when I asked him why he was going to be out, he told me he had to stay home to meet a repairman so their heat can be fixed, b/c his mom can’t leave her job. It was the middle of January. Another student showed up with what HAD to be cigarette burns on his face/arms (yes, I reported it). Several had to wait until supplies went on sale before they could buy their school supplies. Another disappeared from my roster for 4 months, then returned; he said he’d had to go live with his grandmother b/c his mom’s boyfriend didn’t like him–he moved back when the boyfriend left his mom. One confessed, when I confronted him with a test that he had left completely blank, that he didn’t see any point in doing anything in school anymore because he was “an illegal” and he would probably get deported one day. Another timidly asked me after class one day if she could have a different seat b/c she felt really scared being surrounded with no escape, especially if she was surrounded by boys. I didn’t need elaboration, because she was a new student who had just moved here from a war-torn country, and the implication of what she was scared of (and possible had ptsd related to) was obvious.
Almost every time a student of mine was doing something they weren’t supposed to or didn’t have something, there was a perfectly valid reason for it, and it didn’t take much to find out why–students would tell you if you were respectful of their dignity and didn’t make them announce their reasons or defend themselves in front of the entire classroom. And I had plenty of interested parents–I had a classroom full of parents when we did PTA nights. Yes, there were parents who didn’t care, but that was also true in the mostly white school I did my internship at.
What I could never understand, though was why were so many of my colleagues surprised when students didn’t have supplies or had problems with classroom rules when those students were dealing with real-world shit that no kid should be dealing with?
My only supply requirements for my students were a composition book and something to write with (because I know how expensive supplies are), and a lot of them couldn’t get one or both of those. I made sure to tell my students that if they came to me, I would find some way to help them. I kept extra pencils on hand. I had extra composition books (and some of the students of better means even brought some extras to contribute).
You could tell that some of these students were just being beat down by the comments people made to them. I know I wasn’t perfect, and god knows I did get frustrated at the endless not-having-of supplies and the high turnover of some students, but I knew it wasn’t their fault 90% of the time (and the other 10%, well, they’re teenagers. Teenagers don’t always have the best priorities, and that’s normal). I did everything I could to make sure they knew I believed in them, that they were capable and valuable, and everything I could to help them work around problems they were having. Even if they weren’t always on-task. Even when they were driving me crazy because teenagers are really good at that (and I had some very creative students). Teaching was absolutely mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and it was never easy. Teachers get so little support these days. There’s a reason I burned out after a couple years, but it wasn’t because I came from a different background/culture/race as most of my students–it wasn’t hard to find things in common with my students, and they taught me so many things. It was because teaching them meant being trapped in a system that was profoundly unjust and difficult to work in. I had the means to get out of it, and I took that out because I knew I was going to have a breakdown if I kept teaching.
I still feel guilty about leaving those students behind.
This is a great comment and you’re not the one who should feel guilty.
This comment (and many of the others in this thread) are a part of what pisses me off so much about the idea of #firstworldproblems. Take off your blinders, assholes – we’ve got plenty of problems right here.
(One part of a long laundry list that would be getting horribly OT.)
Great rant and great follow up comment, thank you both for sharing!
I just read this fascinating article that many of the insensitive (understatement!) teachers you mention and anyone on the “just behave better'” and the bootstrap brigade could use to read. If they can’t see how blinkered they from a societal point of view, maybe they’ll respond to La Science http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/what-does-it-take-for-traumatized-kids-to-thrive-56488
FUCK YES. Child poverty, education, food in schools etc is a big topic at the moment in my country and I have several friends who work with very low decile school kids (NZ; the schools are ranked in ten deciles according to socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood with 10 being the highest, low deciles get *slightly* more funding) and it’s pretty similar. One of them is starting to learn Samoan because so many of the kids are from there – Maori and Pacific Islanders are generally in the same position here as black and latino kids in the USA, with obviously completely different specific history etc. But even when they work in schools that are really supportive of the kids there’s still sometimes pretty horrible attitudes that come out or incidents where if the family can’t afford something the kid gets left out, and of course teachers are so badly paid that they often can’t even afford to bring much in the way of extra supplies (or food) themselves. And then there are school buildings falling apart that are as cold and damp as the families’ houses so the kids are always getting sick, because housing is so fucking awful here it literally kills them (also big in the news atm as the coroner’s just blamed the shitty state house a toddler was living in for her death from pneumonia last year) and yet people are blaming the kids for not learning properly, pulling up their bootstraps and going to university (which they can’t afford because the government keeps cutting financial aid for students) to qualify for one of the completely non-existent jobs in industries that are routinely shedding hundreds of workers at a time. It’s so fucking wasteful and it would be even if they were surrounded only by people who understood the positions they were in, let alone “well-meaning” outsiders touting individual responsibility and racist bullshit.
Absolutely. Humans are just not that good at compartmentalizing. It may be subtle, but their biases are most definitely influencing their interactions with the kids.
Seconded. People of color are very aware of when white people are racist. It comes out in a million little explicit and implicit ways and it’s devastating, especially for kids who don’t know as well what they’re dealing with and internalize the racism.
LW, often in all-white or white-run organizations serving people of color, a scarcity mentality combined with a savior mentality means that shoddy services are offered because “we have to do what we can!” and “we have to keep moving forward!” This often creates a downward spiral of service quality and relationships with clients because, unsurprisingly, individual clients and communities might not appreciate what a “sacrifice” is being made in their name.
I really recommend this analysis of white supremacy culture: http://www.cwsworkshop.org/PARC_site_B/dr-culture.html. It lays out some of the common assumptions that white organizations and activist groups make, along with ways to address them.
Oh my gosh that link is awesome. Thank you.
This link is so amazing! “Things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot, for example numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict” describes my organization perfectly.
LW, when you say youre not in a position to straight up tell someone they’re being racist, what do you mean? Do you mean you’ll be at risk of violence, or of losing your own job?
To be honest it sounds like you’re working in a place which condones racism. If staff will step in when a volunteer directs racist comments to a student, there’s no reason staff can’t step in if a volunteer directs that racist comment to them. These volunteers have good reason to believe that it’s ok to say racist things to other staff. This is a big, big problem. I can guarantee that their racism is affecting the way they treat your students, and that your students notice. Your students will also notice that these attitudes are going unchallenged amongst staff. If any of your students overhear a volunteer saying these things, and hear you *not* standing up against it, they will also think you agree with the racist comments.
If you are not in a position to organise training or change the culture of your workplace, I urge you to raise this issue with your boss. But unless your personal safety or your own job is at risk, I don’t see any reason why you can’t challenge these racist comments when you hear them. This question is another variety of the perennial ‘how do I get person to stop doing awful thing without upsetting them or making things awkward in any way’. They made this awkward with their racist comments. They choose to say these things to you because they think you will agree with them. They’re making it upsetting and awkward. It is not your job to cover for them or smooth things over with them – it’s your job to help your students feel safe and supported, and part of that support is standing up for them behind their backs, not just to their face.
From my reading of the letter, LW is afraid if they confront the racism directly, the volunteer will feel hurt or offended and not return.
Many non-profit organizations like this rely on a few paid staff members and many volunteers to keep the organization running. It’s a double edged sword: you like volunteers and are happy to have them, but best case scenario is that they keep coming back–return volunteers are less work. They know what’s up and how to do things. Especially working with children, who thrive on stability, it’s ideal to have long-term volunteers rather than a continuous in-and-out of new people.
I think you’re right; even if the staff is monitoring who says racist things to the children, the…”soft racism,” or coded racist language (as an above commenter called it), and the greater racist ideology, is still being picked up on by the students. But as someone who has felt the need to maintain good relationships with bad volunteers, I think it’s important to remember that without the volunteers, the LW’s tutoring doesn’t happen.
Plus sometimes you’re taking best of the lot you can get. Iiii have been involved in organizations in my town that were really beset by, idk how else to say this – purity politics? Like, I am not saying there’s anything wrong with excluding a giant damn racist from your club. And I know, this is going to sound like a slippery slope argument, but in real life what happened in my life was that this one particular organization got winnowed down to people who knew social justice slang, but those people were really homogenous and also all had a very specific political agenda that wasn’t in any way reflective of the people they were claiming to advocate for and I felt like that was in the end a way worse organization.
I’m not sure about how to incorporate this into scripts, but maybe it could help to try to let volunteers know that if they are acting in ways that reflect institutional racism, it isn’t a personal moral failing per se, but a system of oppression that is pretty much impossible to avoid. This assumes good intentions, of course. And it becomes a personal moral failing if, after becoming aware of what is going on, someone continues to behave in ways that continue to reflect institutional racism.
I’m not sure if someone has already pointed this out, but in their letter, the LW said:
“Most of the offending volunteers are white, wealthy, and middle-aged/seniors who have raised children. The staff is in their 20-30s, mostly not white, definitely not wealthy, mostly childless.”
I think part of the problem about implementing the scripts is that the volunteers are privileged, and socially-traditionally they’d be in a position of power over the staff. So I’d like to adress this.
LW, it can be really difficult to question a statement made by someone that you’ve been taught knows better than you (because they’re older, whiter, richer/more successful, have raised children, you name it). I think looking up the posts about how to deal with mansplaining can be helpful in this instance.
I also find it useful to gather my experience-born confidence around me when dealing with these attitudes. So, outside your organization these volunteers are in a position of power over you and the rest of the staff. HOWEVER, inside your organization they are the newcomers, and you (the staff) hold the knowledge of how things run and thus, the power. Remember that. Inside your organization, the staff are the experts. You’ll probably have to fight against the ingrained social order in your brains, but once you guys manage to remember that you’re the authority on how your org runs, you’ll be able to remind the volunteers. They’re so used to being the ones with the authority that it probably hasn’t occurred to them that in this instance they are… well, not.
Scripts for this:
As a mantra, maybe something like “Older people aren’t always right. I know more about here than them. My opinion is based on experience, not on the media” would work. Trust yourselves and your experiences, regain your confidence. That will contribute to project a calm authority aura, that’ll hopefully help your volunteers take you seriously, or at least listen to you.
For conversations, I think you could work with the Captain’s scripts, maybe putting the emphasis on the “oh, that’s what everyone thinks at first, but give it time, you’ll see” part. Keep your tone calm and kind/light, but not joking, like you were guiding a friend through a computer game they’ve never played.
Hope this is helpful, LW, and lots of luck! Your students and volunteers are lucky to have you there 🙂
LW I know you mean well, but I think you’re being far too diplomatic about these things.
This problem is an intersection of many things that I’ve encountered in the past as a volunteer, volunteer manager, and recipient of services provided by various non-profit groups.
Volunteer organisations and volunteer managers have had this idea that you can’t say “no” to a volunteer drilled in to them for decades (if not longer). There are never enough volunteers for organisations, just like there are never enough funds or time. But you still get to say “no”. YOU CAN SAY “NO” TO A VOLUNTEER.
These people may not be overtly racist in front of students but you can bet they are being covertly racist. And you can also bet the students know this, they’re picking it up, and they’re internalising it. Most racism isn’t explicit. If you wait for it to become explicit then it’s already gone too far and inflicted damage. It’s like a cost/benefit analysis: how do you weigh the harm to individuals/group morale/community perceptions against the good of supporting a single kid (who may or may not benefit in the long run because of said racism).
The truth is, some volunteers do more harm than good. It may not be individual outbursts of racism/sexism/ableism/ageism; it could just be an insidious undercurrent that alienates certain views and groups of people.
When you overheard these interactions, how did the non-overtly-racist person respond? Did they emphatically agree or were they silent like you and bottled up their frustration and anger? People talk. Somebody may have a [minority] friend who is interested in volunteering, who then chooses to go elsewhere when their friend recounts these conversations.
If you’re concerned expelling these volunteers will lead to a shortage of tutors – you’re right. But it will be a short-term cost. In the long term, the word will go around that your organisation is truly inclusive, that enforce zero tolerance policies, they you consider not just the welfare of your service receivers but also your service providers. Word will spread throughout the community and the chances of [minority] people volunteering will rise too.
If your organisation doesn’t have a volunteer agreement/contract already then write one ASAP. Every volunteer should be required to read and sign the agreement. They should acknowledge the clauses about inclusivity and zero tolerance and commit to attending specified training sessions. Yes it costs money to set up, but not only is it best practice for volunteer management but it is also part of risk management for your organisation. Volunteers are acting on behalf of your organisation – they are the public face. Their actions can expose your organisation to risk from a multitude of angles, just like the improper actions of staff and management can expose your organisation to risk.
A final point:
Even if “I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” isn’t racist – it is horrifically ableist. More ‘intelligent’ people are not entitled to more/better education than less ‘intelligent’ people. People with intellectual/developmental/executive functioning disabilities are no less deserving of education and support than neurotypical people. IMO the person expressing this sentiment is grossly unsuited to the role of tutor/teacher and should be removed immediately.
Wild applause. Volunteer contracts are a great idea.
*blush* Thanks 🙂
This is a great point! And I know I pointed this out in my comment as well but I definitely want to underline the suggestion that training on cultural sensitivity and how to talk to the kids absolutely should be a part of onboarding new volunteers. Set the standard with a contract. Show them how to meet the standard with training. That’s a powerful one-two. With proper training they will know what the lines are to avoid–which will make a more tight case for your organization if you need to get rid of a volunteer who is not working out.
YES!!! This is an awesome idea.
“Population.” “Behavioral challenges.” “Low-income school.” “Title 1.” Yeah. I’m familiar with the coded language.
My kids are so relieved to be treated like human beings that they respond by behaving very well. And all you have to do is meet some of their basic needs and *see them as people.* Unfortunately, that’s really hard for just about anyone, because on top of their race and class they’re also adolescents. I teach in a middle school, and every single adult who steps onto campus views the kids through the lens of their own middle school experiences. They *expect* the kids to be shallow, hostile, beastly idiots and that’s the behavior they get. I have seen my wonderful, well-behaved students transform into utter monsters in the classrooms of other teachers.
There’s a quote from Remember the Titans that runs through my mind often, at my site. It’s “attitude reflects leadership.” You reap what you sow.
This was supposed to be a nested reply. *sigh*
I understood – I deleted the post you were replying to for being too specific about my employer. If I never hear the words “Well, but when you’re working with this population…” with a weird little pause as if they have somehow explained something again it will be too soon. It honestly makes me flash back to the Torchwood: Children of Earth discussions about ‘which children’ should be given to the aliens.
Another possible script, in the “aggressively assume good intentions” vein, would be to respond with something along the lines of “I know what you mean, and I do understand, but I’d like to ask you to please be sure not to say anything like that in front of the children. They hear so many direct and indirect messages that they’re not good enough, that their families don’t care about them, that they’re never going to get anywhere, and I know that’s not what you meant [even, maybe especially, when you know that’s totally what they meant], but you know how kids are — the way they sometimes latch onto a stray comment in ways you’d never expect and really take it to heart.” The general tone should be something along the lines of “Oh, I totally know you’re not racist and didn’t mean anything bad by that, but you remember what kids that age are like.” It appeals to their presumed authority as parents, shores up their beliefs in their own goodness, but still hopefully conveys the message that what they just said isn’t harmless.
I can appreciate where you are going with this and I like appealing with the FOR THE CHILDREN feeling (which is ostensibly the reason these people are volunteering). However, as someone mentioned above, I feel like this kind of comment still not-explicitly tells the volunteer that the staff, particularly the LW as they seem to be the one addressing the issue, are the ones to talk to/vent all the thoughts you have in a day. Perhaps taking the “lots of people feel that way at first, you’ll see” or the Captain’s scripts and pairing it with a “by the way don’t date say this where kids can hear you thx” might be a way to address both. I wonder if there is time/staff for a daily or weekly debriefing session? A trusted, more experienced volunteer might be able to lead as well. Create a space where the volunteers celebrate the growth of the kids and acknowledge their contributions, and then talk about the volunteers’ growth that week. When working with adults, I really like sentence frames: “I have always thought ___ but this week I learned ____.” for example. This could come at the beginning of training too. Whatever you end up doing, LW, with these volunteers, good luck.
Other Becky, I like this a lot.
In the kind of therapy that I’m in (DBT! topic for a different thread) we talk a lot about how people are least open to change when they feel like they have to defend themselves or prove that what they just said is Totally Right. The mantra is “validate the valid” while still challenging behaviors. So here, you’re validating that they want to help – otherwise they probably wouldn’t have volunteered – and want to be good people, but also challenging the behavior of “saying some shit around kids”.
There’s one strategy I find really useful when I want to question someone’s assumptions but want to avoid a direct confrontation-type conversation. I try to channel a sense of frankly curious bewilderment. That is, I intentionally frame my response as though I’m essentially unfamiliar with or confused by their viewpoint and can’t put together how they got to it on my own. I’m addressing them not as openly offended or disagreeing or anything (though the reality may be that I am both of those things), I just don’t get it and could-you-walk-me-through-how-you-got-there-because-like-I’ve-heard-this-totally-different-thing-that-is-the-opposite-of-the-thing-you’re-saying.
To the extent that it works, I think it works because it doesn’t frame the other person as ignorant or as in opposition to me (whatever the reality may be). It frames the conversation as me asking them to explain something they know stuff about, but sneakily the thing they’re being framed as knowledgeable on is no longer the thing they think, but *why* they think it. Because gosh-I-just-can’t-seem-to-put-that-together-on-my-own-darnit. And all of a sudden they’re deliberately examining why they think the thing.
Damn, where were those training questions when I was in grad school?
My university required every TA-to-be to spend two days in a program that included diversity training. I thought the diversity training would be useful. I imagined them dispensing information like, “Don’t assume that a student is being deceitful because they don’t make eye contact; in some cultures, eye contact with a higher-ranking person is considered disrespectful.”
What we actually got: “There sure are a lot of different kinds of people! Diversity is good! Super good! Yay!”
Addressing the uncomfortable things that people say and why they’re wrong before that batch of volunteers has personally said them? Before anybody needs to get defensive? That sounds like a great strategy to me.
Cinderkeys, were you by chance sitting next to me ten years or so ago in the auditorium as a soon-to-be-TA?
I’ll give my Large Midwestern Research University credit for at least acknowledging that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to adapt a classroom experience for students who require physical or academic accommodations, but my university-approved training concerning such things began and ended with “don’t laugh at students in wheelchairs” and “don’t discuss a student’s modified test requirements in front of the entire class.” Things were not super good. I gave no yay.
Wow. “Don’t laugh at students in wheelchairs” needs to be taught? Large Southwestern Research University apparently didn’t think so. Hopefully they were right.
Hi everyone! OP here. Thank you all so much for your comments. Reading advice columns is a hobby of mine, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to write a good letter and include all the relevant details plus be concise (I think maybe I aired on the not-enough-info side)
1. I am white
2. The organization does provide training on how to use the curriculum, but there is no cultural sensitivity type training
3. The organization does have a basic volunteer contract, but I will definitely lobby to have something about acceptable behavior of tutors in there! Fantastic idea!
4. On Rose & Joe: Joe is Chinese, Rose is black. Definitely should have made that clear! So in my mind, there was model minority and ablesim stuff going on
Others have noted correctly that the organization is probably understaffed and underfunded, which is true. The lower level staff (like me) is also under constant pressure to enroll as many students as possible, ostensibly because we get to serve more kids that way, but also because it lowers cost per pupil and makes us seem more cost effective to funders (I started working at a nonprofit to escape the corporate mindset, but alas)
I also agree that for those volunteers who say racist things to me, there’s probably a cloud of unspoken racism that surrounds every interaction they have with our students, which obviously is a HUGE problem and one of my main concerns in writing this. Given that the effect this might have on students, one thing I didn’t touch on but the Captain and many of you did, is that this is also a big strain on lower level staff members, who are the ones who actually have to deal with these people. It’s a shitty, shitty thing to hear, and especially disheartening (and disillusioning) for me, since it often comes from the white people with PhDs, who have travelled a lot, who are super well educated and have had every opportunity to learn more about this issue and even WANT to volunteer, and they’re STILL racist assholes. Obviously, my feelings on the subject are of secondary important and I’m afraid for what’s in store for our students as they try to navigate this world of shitty people, but it’s hard for me to do my job (not that being white is a burden…not trying to complain about all the privilege I have). Interactions like these make me want to curl up and never go to work again. So I appreciate the encouragement from the Captain and others here!
I am sort of in a position where I could implement a cultural sensitivity training (though I’d have to make it sound palatable and not too expensive or alienating to higher ups). Questions for Awkward Army:
1. Have you done this type of training before? Did everyone go, or just white people? (About half our volunteers are POC, and I wouldn’t want to, ironically, make them feel like they don’t belong by making them sit through a training clearly meant for rich white folks, but targeting certain volunteers could be tricky). Is it possible to do a training that’s equally helpful for everyone and doesn’t turn our POC volunteers into spokespeople for their races?
2. What specific exercises were most helpful?
3. Free resources? (I see some good ones up top too)
Thank you! This community is amazing and I love that there’s not a single mean comment on this post. Hooray internet!
I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to participate in anti-oppression training. It has improved my life dramatically in so many different ways. This was my experience:
My workplace sent a small group for training and then we were able to keep that knowledge in our company. To get everyone on the same page quickly, our trainers set up week-long trainings where each day focused on different areas of oppression. Each attendee then decided if they fit into the oppressor group or identified more with the oppressed. Each of the two groups received similar/same information with an emphasis on their role – learning about themselves as well as about the others. Most people found themselves in different roles on different days and we talked about that too (intersectionality and allies.) Our meetings were considered safe spaces where we could ask any question we wanted, even if we thought it would be offensive in other contexts, and receive an educated response. It was intensive, tough but wonderful. And the trainings continue today, on a smaller scale, for new hires.
I found a list here: http://soaw.org/resources/anti-opp-resources/106-resources/612
Most anti-oppression trainers are connected with marginalized populations, so check for local support groups in your area for recommendations. A lot are non-profit too.
Because learning how many different ways people can be awful to each other can be emotionally draining, I really feel it is important to contract with a professional. Perhaps your organization can partner with others for a group training to save money?
I’m glad you are being proactive about this. Good luck!
I like the discussion focus in this idea, but I’m a bit wary of any exercise that pressures individuals to out themselves as part of any specific oppressed group in front of coworkers or peers.
When I’ve attended anti-racism training it’s been mixed groups. The facilitators are responsible for shutting down any pressure for an attendee to be a spokesperson/educator/racism whisperer. Generally (in my experience), there are multiple facilitators of different races who can explain things, as they are already there in official facilitator capacity.
Everyone should go because you don’t know which kinds of privilege they might need to be able to recognize in their own viewpoint.
I grew up very poor and my grandparents were all immigrants but I have little experience with learning disabilities, for example, so when I’ve tutored in the past I had to recognize that some people with stuff like dyscalculia are always going to have trouble with certain kinds of math, despite being very smart and competent in other subjects. Making assumptions about how much help a kid with dyscalculia is going to need on his English assignment based on his performance on his math is extremely wrong.
Racism is just one kind of prejudice you would want that class to cover, and you can’t assume from the color of someone’s skin how well they know about the impact any of it will have had on your students in particular, because each student is an individual.
Plus, sometimes I (as a very gay lady) like sitting through “how not to be homophobic” training, because it reminds me that my workplace cares about making sure I’m comfortable there.
Yes, everyone should go. You will learn from each other and strengthen your relationships, so that when someone says something, you will have the skills to cope. We all step in it from time to time. My goal isn’t “never again say a racist or insensitive thing” – it’s “recognize it as soon as possible, repair the relationship without causing more harm, and educate myself”.
Last year I had a brief conversation with a staff member at my daughter’s middle school. At the end, I said something that made it clear that I had him confused with another staff member. They are, of course, the only AA men on the staff. He said “No, I’m not Mr. X. I’m Mr. Y. People get us confused all the time”. I apologized and felt like a racist idiot. I didn’t say any more about it to him – it’s not his job to make me feel better – but the next day I called a colleague who has been through the same anti-oppression training and who happens to be white, and the two of us spent some time unpacking my racism – because that’s what it is. I carry it with me, and I won’t ever get rid of it completely. I will keep working on the skills I need to reduce the harmful impact of my own prejudices.
by the way, this is why you have to get someone to do this who knows what they’re doing. Someone will undoubtedly say something in the training that will land badly on someone else. The facilitators have to be able to maintain safety, and that’s not easy. NCBI has some low-cost options. Check with them.
Oh god yes, hire someone to do this training. Do not do it yourself.
About half our volunteers are POC, and I wouldn’t want to, ironically, make them feel like they don’t belong by making them sit through a training clearly meant for rich white folks, but targeting certain volunteers could be tricky.
The best suggestion might be to have a meeting with just your POCs and ask them what problems they’re seeing from the rich white people and find out what roles your POCs are willing to play. (My first thought was that you can make the volunteers who are POC into “training partners” for the white people. Pair off a white person and a POC for one training, then have the same POC act as a training partner for each new group of white people, or something like that. But then I reread your post and that suggestion is probably negated by your other concerns.)
Is it possible to do a training that’s equally helpful for everyone and doesn’t turn our POC volunteers into spokespeople for their races?
I noticed a lot of concerns that seemed more “socio-economic” than racial in comments above, like how the parents sometimes don’t know how to read, didn’t complete middle school, don’t speak English, or can’t afford both school supplies and lunches. Maybe if you lead with that stuff, which is probably valuable for the POCs as well, (particularly if they come from a couple generations of “having enough money”) you can draw them into the conversation without dragging race into the issue. In fact, you can do a lot of work with that; have the new trainees role-play or storytell the part of a child being talked down to when their parents don’t speak English/didn’t finish school/has two jobs.
It might even be possible to sell it as “Economic Sensitivity Training” or “Immigrant Lifestyle Sensitivity Training” and bypass the issue of race as much as possible; you’ll still be covering much of the same ground without making everyone – possibly including management – uncomfortable about race. Your volunteers should get the point regardless. If you do an “Economic Sensitivity Training” then still have to talk to someone about race, maybe they’re not very sensitive…
I do not think that this is the best suggestion, especially when weighed against hiring someone to do a training for all volunteers and having a standardized training & volunteer contract (great suggestions, both) for all volunteers. Why should the non-white volunteers have to spend their free time policing and handholding white people vs. working with the kids? This puts a huge burden of work and annoyance on fellow volunteers and takes up their time that could be spent with the children. This kind of personnel management stuff is what paid staff are for. Plus, I know race is the elephant in a lot of these rooms, but the elephant in the room is in the room.
Absolute agreement on hiring someone else to do it. This is definitely the very best advice on the whole thread! But also talk to the people you might hire about your particular concerns and the fact that there is a mixed group of POCs and white people, and what the organization’s specific needs might be, the educational level of the volunteers and whether to hard or soft peddle the elephant in the room. I’ve never hired anyone for diversity training, but I’d expect that you can customize it to your organization’s particular needs.
My personal take on the elephant in the room is that it should be confronted directly, but I do understand that not every person or every organization is ready for that.
My first post probably should have read, “the best suggestion I can make.” Sorry about that one – I didn’t mean to imply that my ideas were superior to anyone else’s. My big point here is that the racism is probably very noticeable and annoying to the POC in the organization, and they may have some concerns or ideas that should be addressed with your solution, or some willingness to help in various ways that can be harnessed. So talk to them.
As a white male, one of the ways I keep from buying into the media’s narratives about race and poverty is by reminding myself what my own ancestors went through when they immigrated to the country, and how their problems and issues would have been interpreted by the narrative of the time. Maybe you can tie this thought into some kind of useful strategy.
Sorry. Italics fail. Buh.
“Have you done this type of training before? Did everyone go, or just white people? (About half our volunteers are POC, and I wouldn’t want to, ironically, make them feel like they don’t belong by making them sit through a training clearly meant for rich white folks, but targeting certain volunteers could be tricky). Is it possible to do a training that’s equally helpful for everyone and doesn’t turn our POC volunteers into spokespeople for their races?”
(Quick background: I am white. I’m describing my experiences and observations below, not endorsing or condemning anything about it.)
This wasn’t exactly training for adults, it was a trained speaker who came to our high school (small but relatively diverse school) to talk about race. It was pretty clear this was supposed to be sensitivity training aimed at the white students. PoC students did attend, but the speaker came to our school a week before the talk itself was scheduled. PoC students were asked to fill in a short questionnaire. White students were not privy to the content, but all of us were told it was about what expectations they had for the talk and what issues they felt were most important to bring up. In other words, I had the distinct impression that the intent was to give PoC students a voice and make their participation a core priority. The speaker then opened his talk by asking white students to raise their hand if any of them felt excluded at not being asked their opinion, not being asked what subjects they wanted to discuss, to just not have their opinion asked at all. A lot of the white students raised their hand. The speaker used this as a jumping-off point to talk about white privilege and how it feels not to have it.
It was a long time ago, but I do remember that the PoC students appreciated this approach, attending and contributing without being singled out or being made into spokespeople for their respective group. Again, this was high school and I’m white, so it’s a very different beast, but I did remember it as one way to make PoC people part of the discussion, having their collective interests be the core of that discussion, without heaping unasked and/or unwelcome responsibility on their shoulders. It may not be the best and only way to go about it, much depends on context and age of the participants and group culture and willingness to participate and the ultimate goal of the training and god, so much. But a lot of us walked away with a much more nuanced understanding of the world and the people in it, without singling out or exposing any individuals and without pretending like it’s okay to just “not see race.”
Hi there LW!
I’m no expert on this subject, but I did work at an institution where this type of training was included in the hiring process for every employee.
1) Include everyone. First, a well-run diversity training program really will have material of interest to everyone, because being POC doesn’t make you immune to the need for it. How about discrimination against physically or mentally handicapped kids, or ageism, or discussion of cultural differences that have nothing to do with prejudice, but can still impede communication? Second, your organization wants to be non-racist, so it can set the example by not _racially discriminating among employees_ during training!
2) Bring in someone from outside to present to your current staff, and also develop literature that new hires will read during the training process. That way your current staff gets some intensive training right now, and new hires get off on the right foot. If the budget permits, a speaker could come in annually.
3) Agree very much that you want a pro, since you already have a culture in place which you are trying to change.
Best wishes in your awesome work!
I’m so glad you’ve gotten so much helpful information here! This is a good discussion to have.
1. I lead a “Social Justice 101” type training for another organization I volunteer for (not the one mentioned above). This training is a combo sensitivity training + introduction to an understanding of power and privilege + how to be an activist training. We do this training with the whole group, not just POC, but the training doesn’t just cover race. We talk about gender, ableism, sexual orientation, etc. Before we host the training, we send out an assignment where people have to think about their own identity and identify where they face oppression and where they have privilege. With a mixed group, pretty much everyone had some aspect of their identity that was targeted (female, POC, neurodivergent, GSM) and some aspect that was privileged (male, straight, ablebodied, white), so it gave us a lot to explore without specifically targeting one person. In the training itself, we talk about what those identities mean in the real world–how to use privilege if you have it, how to be sensitive to those that don’t, how to listen, learn, and respect. It makes for an interesting discussion when we get into the training because people do learn from each other. I know that no one should be put in a position where they have to teach about or speak for the minority group they belong in, but as I’ve been facilitating this workshop we’ve never had that been an issue for participants, as far as I can tell. Because they are excited about volunteering and being a part of our organization, they come into the training with an open mind and willingness to participate. The point is to all learn from each other and listen to each others’ experiences, and I think this works REALLY well. I like having the mixed group.
I have also attended a training a few years back that was specifically anti-racism. This was at a convention of a very leftist lawyering group. Any attendee at the convention who was white was required to attend an anti-racism workshop. While this workshop was going on, POC could attend a meeting about the people of color caucus of the group if they so chose. I think it was a great idea on behalf of the conference to require the anti-racism workshop. However–and this may not be all that surprising considering the group was a bunch of lawyers–some old white men who were hostile to the ideas being presented were difficult to deal with and I felt more time was spent convincing these guys that racism exists than talking about how to deal with it. That’s valuable–those guys needed to get the fact that racism is A THING knocked into their heads–but might not be the best format for a volunteer training.
2. When you’re training volunteers how to talk, I cannot underestimate the importance of role playing! Try to get them to simulate some of the questions they might be asked or the conversations they might be put in with the kids. Let them practice modeling the behaviors you want. To make it honest, pepper this in with examples from your own life if you care share things that are relevant. It helps them be inspired that they can learn this stuff and get better.
This is a little adjacent to the topics at hand, but I thin it might be helpful. I work in a high school, in a mixed race/class district that is on the whole “well off”. So I get white students spouting off weird racism defenses from time to time, even though they would identify as non-racist if you asked. They think they are sort of ‘white knights’ (pun intended) of under-spoken truths, fighting back against the PC machine.
For example – Me: “hey, maybe a Native American Halloween costume is not so cool, because, appropriation of marginalized cultures, amirite?” Student: “oh, what do you mean it is racist to wear clothing?/I have freedom of speech!/ it is just honoring the culture/YOUR racist for telling me what to do!!!/You can’t control my mind, PC thought police/Some Native American’s would like if I wore this/How do you even KNOW it’s racist??” etc etc
this hasn’t always worked, but I found I can sometimes get headway with this argument. “You’re absolutely right. I can’t tell you what to do, wear, or think, and I would never try to! That is 100% your choice, and I respect that. However – whether you think it is reasonable or not, whether you think it “should” be this way, or that it makes sense, I can prove to you, that wearing a Native Halloween costume makes a lot of people upset. Specifically, POC and Native Americans, but also people who care about these issues. We can go online and find articles if you want – but we don’t have to. Now, like you said, you are 100% in control of what you wear, say, and do, but I just want you to make your most informed choices, and maybe you didn’t know that this would upset people. Now, again, it’s totally up to you what you do, but since I didn’t think you wanted to unintentionally upset a lot of people, I thought you should know.”
Now, usually the student is like “hey, but why should I give up my creative speech to people who are sensitive!” or some weird, pseudo-fedora wearing argument nonsense. But I’ll reply and say “Again, no one is saying you should or shouldn’t. But the choice you have to make is if your interest in this costume is worth more than the unhappiness you know you’ll be causing. It is up to YOU if it is, but it’s a CHOICE you have to make. So now I think you just have to think about that choice and what avenue you prefer.”
And I’ll just leave it. It is really hard to measure who you “win” this way, because most people won’t cop to having their minds changed on the spot. But I do know that with this form of argument I totally side-stepped the “IS it racist?” black hole of nit-picking that can sometimes occur, and replaced it with the much easier to defend “Does it upset people?” question.
I really like this argument, and oddly enough I use it against myself when I get into an overly logical brain spiral of “but I don’t actually think this is offensive…” It’s like, “do I want to be right or be kind? sure, maybe I could make a nice, well constructed argument as to why Word X/Action Y isn’t -ist, but the point is that upsets people, and if I can choose a different word, why not just do it?”
I feel like getting into a big argument about whether something is or isn’t racist is just not helpful–there’s never going to be any way to prove one side or the other. I mean, I don’t necessarily agree (even after sitting and thinking/educating myself etc) that every thing someone brings up as possibly -ist is…but in most cases, *I don’t need to do those things*! It costs me *nothing* and doesn’t hurt somebody else? Well then why would I continue to do that thing? Just to prove a point?
Somebody doesn’t have to agree that something is objectively wrong to not do it around people who are upset by it, after all.
This is basically my job – and I have so many feels and ideas about it. My main advice is: make sure that your organisation is *explicitly* anti-racist (and sexist/homophobic/etc, while you’re at it). It needs to be in your statements, on your website, in the volunteers’ information packs, and in their training. It has to be core to your organisation. This will help you attract the kind of volunteers you want. But more importantly, it gives you something to point to when your volunteers say something racist:
Volunteer: “It’s just too bad his parents don’t really care about his education.”
You: “That’s a really big assumption to make! A lot of people have prejudices about parents of (group) children, but you know that we as (organisation) are strongly anti-racist and don’t let ourselves be led by prejudice. In fact, most parents are very engaged in their child’s education, and that includes (child)’s parents.
The script for responding to a comment basically is: 1) wow, that’s not ok. 2) we are not a racist organisation, and you are part of this organisation, and 3) here is why your racist opinion is wrong.
With the volunteer group you speak about, it can be very difficult to speak about racism – so you can also use words like assumption and prejudice. But the more you discuss racism in the volunteer training and in any communications of your organisation as a whole, the more they will understand that when you say ‘assumptions’, you mean ‘you are racist, stop it’.
Finally, as above, volunteer contracts/agreements are great! As are safer spaces agreements and value statements for your organisation. They give you a specific words and “rules” to refer to if any volunteers act in a way that is inappropriate. Safer spaces agreements and volunteer agreements can cover anything from ‘volunteers are not alone with students and do not give them their personal contact info’ to ‘volunteers are expected to uphold the organisation’s anti-racist values at all times in their work for the organisation’. Good luck!
Man, LW, I feel you – I do a lot of volunteer work but much less coordinating than I used to do because I burned out on it a little bit. Volunteer coordinators are in a uniquely difficult spot (or sometimes it can feel that way) when it comes to wrangling volunteers, whether the issue is racism or just volunteers not being good at a particular job. It can feel really harsh to ask someone to donate their time for free and then have to tell them they’re not a good fit/not doing a good job.
The Captain’s advice re: training is an excellent one. It’s a lot easier when you can set those expectations at the outset than it is to try to address it ad hoc as it comes up. While we can’t make people think differently, you can set rules for what they do while volunteering. Another idea is to have a volunteer contract that everyone has to sign at the beginning of their involvement that can lay out standards of behavior.
I’m assuming you are doing your work in the US by your use of Title I, and I would like to make a plug for OneBrick, which is an organization that I volunteer with, if you need volunteers for one-off events. OneBrick is a great way to get a large bunch of volunteers quickly if you need to staff something. They’re an organization that connects nonprofits with volunteers and a lot of folks I know have begun volunteering regularly with nonprofits that they encountered through OneBrick. One thing that’s great about it is that by doing a few one-off events with an organization, you and the volunteers can get a sense of whether you are right for each other without making a commitment at the beginning.
(personal rant!) What I have found in my area is that there is a big disconnect between volunteers and coordinators – kind of the opposite of the problem that you are having. Most of the organizations here that need volunteer labor that I work with are run by retired teachers/educators, and while they’re lovely people, they don’t seem to understand their volunteers are younger, overworked professionals who are usually working a job and a half or two jobs to get by in a very expensive metropolitan area, and they can’t do something like show up for training at 2 pm on a Tuesday in a suburb forty five minutes from public transit. The volunteers often get dinged for being flaky or unreliable, but they have way more demands on their time.
Thanks for this. Last week a coworker said something that began with, “I don’t mean to sound racist, but…”
I responded with a mildly disagreeing comment which was not perfect, but hopefully better than what I would have done a few years ago (which was smiling uncomfortably and changing the subject).
I’ve been doing a project to read fifty books by authors of color this year and I’m learning a lot from it. Exposure to more media (books! art! movies!) by people of color can really show a different perspective than the mainstream media story mentioned in the OP. That in itself can be a good form of education and outreach, like what Jill was saying further up in the comment stream. What about making up a reading list of books and suggesting volunteers read one?
Somewhat tangential, but that sounds like a good project for me. Did you make your own book list or use a published one?
Muddie Mae, I was inspired by a post on Bitch magazine, which you can see here:
I used that as a starting point for some initial selections. I’ve gotten a lot of excellent suggestions from the Friends of Captain Awkward forum actually! More than from the librarians I’ve asked in fact, who’ve mostly responded with “That’s a great idea, I should read more books like that.” Sigh.
If you message me on WordPress with your email address I’d be happy to send you a complete list of what I’ve read so far and some other diversity reading lists I’ve found helpful. I’m up to book 28 and it’s going great.
Yeah, that thread on FOCA has been very interesting. 🙂
OOOOH! To continue this tangential comment thread briefly: The following blog is based around a similar challenge – reading a book from every country in the world. http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/
CL, thanks for sharing. I’m getting so much out of this book project that I’m considering doing a second one next year on books from different countries, possibly excluding a few (Canada and the UK and France, for instance, whose authors I’m pretty familiar with already.) Your link could be very helpful to me if I do that!
A) Tour training kicked ass, because it seems like the perfect blend of gentle, firm, and enlightening. It doesn’t punish people for not having had a certain upbringing or for never having been taught something or never having been exposed to certain things…but it *does* tell them about these matters and instruct them to now behave differently. So good.
B) I’m glad to see answers to “well, I *would* stick up loudly and energetically for the victims in this situation but honestly that just isn’t practical.” Sometimes, like the LW, giving someone a well-deserved verbal slap just isn’t a thing that can happen, and here are some great scripts for when one needs to walk a little on the eggshells but still be effective. Thanks, Captain.
“Have you done this type of training before? Did everyone go, or just white people?”
I’ve run diversity training at my organisation (with external trainers) before, and because it was optional, it was actually the other way round – all of our LGBT volunteers and only 2 straight volunteers turned up for the LGBT training, for example. I’ve found that making the training compulsory is the only way to ensure that more privileged people actually attend, as a such a central part of having privilege is having the power to choose to remain ignorant about your ignorance.
Comments of the “Joe and Rose” type, which while not explicitly racist, is directly insulting to your students. This might be a chance to vent by giving the volunteer your best stern schoolmarm look and say “We don’t speak that way about our students.”
I feel like this could be useful for a lot of the above comments. “It’s pretty inappropriate to make assumptions about the students’ family situations.” “For a lot of our students, Ethiopia is their ancestral homeland and I’ve got to ask you to keep dismissive comments like that to yourself.”
I don’t want to reduce racism and prejudice to an issue of rudeness, but one thing that unites all of LW’S examples is the fact that they’re really fucking RUDE.
i volunteer for an organization that serves homeless families. Recently they had a volunteer appreciation event that I attended. The only people who came were wealthy, white and mostly older women (probably not a representative sample based on the people working in my particular program). We did an activity where we made posters and listed our wishes for the families who lived there. While I was suggesting things like, “safe housing” and “affordable healthcare,” my fellow volunteers were throwing out ideas like, “the motivation to succeed” and “the desire to better themselves.” I was HORRIFIED that these things actually ended up on posters that were photographed for all the residents to see. I realized why my co-volunteers probably don’t go to events like that.
Oh, FFS. I’m surprised no one wrote “bootstraps”.
For the last 9 years I have been living and raising my more of less free-range kids in a ‘sketchy’ neighborhood. It has been an education. People assume that my neighborhood is populated by blood-thirsty criminals and tweakers that can’t wait to break in and murder them for their used electronics. The truth is that there is a high density of very vulnerable people here. Many are elderly or disabled. There are also the predators that prey on them. I have seen over and over again that the most vulnerable here bear the brunt of the crime, not the more privileged.
if volunteers say racist things to students, we ALWAYS step in. It also doesn’t happen too frequently, thank goodness.
Are you sure? I don’t know what your set up is or how aggressively this policy is enforced but if volunteers are regularly telling you racist things, then this attitude is turning up in their interactions with the youth you serve. Not in the form of slurs maybe but that volunteer that said she didn’t feel safe might be asking one student how his family could afford new sneakers and the other student, “No, where are you *really* from?”
I hope that I’m wrong and these people are actually able to tell themselves to treat these kids like their own but I’m also hoping you can convince whoever’s in charge to do the diversity training because if that’s not already in place then I’m probably right.
Long time reader, first time commenter here.
I just wanted to chime in and give a wild round of applause to the Captain for your amazing commentary in the comment section. You get it. Tears of gratitude spilled down my face as I read this morning because you get it so much.
As a black woman who has been a Volunteer Coordinator Coordinator for several years, I get it. There is almost never enough money or volunteers to go around. But I would rather “fire” a volunteer (it can be done) than to have the children we serve feel the hot shame and resentment of someone’s racist commentary. I try my darnedest to protect kids because I remember.
I remember the first time someone called me the n-word–in kindergarten, because I wouldn’t scoot over in the sandbox.
I remember when my college professor asked me to explain about “growing up in the ghetto.” I couldn’t because my family was more like the Huxtables.
I also remember our then college president standing up in front of the student body to say we couldn’t observe Martin Luther King Day because there wasn’t enough of “you people.” That was in 2002.
I remember a co-worker on my first adult job looking surprised when I mentioned my father and saying: “Oh, so you actually know who your father is?”
I know this comment was long, but I just wanted to share a few examples so we could all understand a little better how racism hits its mark.
Because we don’t forget.
Thank you for your stories and for the kind words.
I taught a class where 15 of 16 students were white men and the 16th was a black woman. One of the men wrote on an audience feedback form, anonymously and unironically, “You make too many films about black people and black issues, you should try to be more diverse.” I’ve had bosses tell me that a black coworker is “scary” and “intimidating.” I’ve seen fellow profs turn to one black student in a classroom after showing a (racist) clip and ask them to verify whether it is racist. I’ve heard black students talk about film classes where showing Do The Right Thing on the last day of the semester is the ONLY time they discussed a black filmmaker or even saw a black face on the screen in their courses, except maybe a mocking comment about Tyler Perry. I’ve seen white students working in a group with a black student flat out ignore her input, like, she is saying the thing they should do next, correctly, and they are talking only to each other as if they have not heard her. I have seen a black student volunteer to be the subject in a lighting exercise and be told by an old white male that “lighting black skin is advanced work, I need to start with someone ‘normal’ for the basic tutorial.”
I figure, if these are the things that I can see, what does the rest of that iceberg look like? I know way too many left-voting, otherwise open-minded white people in positions of power who treat every single micro-aggression and aggressive aggression like an “isolated incident” and not a pattern, and who think that racism is about their personal feelings and intentions.
I think most people who read this site have no problem understanding that it’s hurtful and wrong when men treat women as if their lived experiences are debatable, but white women have a real problem seeing when they do the exact same thing to black women and other women of color. Any “getting it” is thanks to people who told me, sometimes gently, and sometimes not so gently, to stop trying to “debate” racism or earn my own Personal Exception Merit Badge.
This reminds me of my undergrad class sequence. Everyone at my school had to take a two-semester “survey of Western Humanities” sequence in order to graduate. There was some flexibility about which books were included in the course, and the second semester of the section I was in was put together, as I still describe it, as “Fifteen Dead White Men plus Alice Walker.” There were versions of the course that did NOT do that, but…ugh.
Definitely there should be standard training for all volunteers.
I also notice that several of the problematic things you’re hearing appear to be straight out misinformation about facts. A volunteer believes that most of the children in a particular community don’t have close and loving fathers, a volunteer believes that a particular neighbourhood has a higher crime rate for white people. Those things are in some ways easier to combat than the subtler things, because you can give them better facts.
Of course sometimes you just need the person to shut up with the comments in front of people who will be hurt by them, but if they are making statements that they genuinely thought were true (whether because they just assumed or because they were explicitly taught that those things were facts), better information could certainly help.
As someone that used to be in these programs, these racist volunteers are the worst. And even though it’s been over a decade, I still remember the racist interactions I’ve had with people like this. Even if they’re not saying racist things to the students, that doesn’t mean their actions aren’t betraying their beliefs. And the kids will definitely pick up on it. As much emotional labor as it is to work with volunteers like this, it’s also emotional labor to have to be a kid that deals with these people, especially when they’re an authority figure, and you may not even think you can call them out on their racism/classism/etc.
It’s a tricky situation when you need volunteers, but if they’re going to be creating an uncomfortable environment (intentional or not) for the people you’re helping, then it kinda defeats the purpose. I know that a lot of distrust around these kinds of programs starts with the crap they expect to deal with from the volunteers/staff. When you have to deal with racism from your teachers, classmates, and other random people you encounter, you’re not going to voluntarily sign up for more if you’re expecting it.
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