Aug. 22, 2019 12:30 pm

Dear white people and non-Black people of color: Get comfortable being uncomfortable

When it comes to the work needed to advance racial equity, there is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone, says Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of the Women's Medical Fund.

Elicia Gonzales.

(Courtesy photo)

This guest post was written by Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of the Women's Fund.

“Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss. It should always be anger-inducing. As long as racism exists to ruin the lives of countless people of color, it should be something that upsets us. But it upsets us because it exists, not because we talk about it. And if you’re white, and you don’t want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone.”

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race

I was participating in a workshop a few years ago and the facilitator was leading us through Community Agreements (sometimes called “group norms/rules”). Being an educator myself, I was familiar with all the agreements folks were naming. Until someone said “safety does not equal comfort.”

My ears perked up as the participants and facilitator began discussing this notion in greater detail. Up to that point, I had known only (and tried to practice) creating a “safe space.” For the first time, I heard dialogue about the importance of disaggregating the two because there is no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.

Systemic racism permeates every bit of our society, including nonprofit institutions. We have an obligation and opportunity to analyze ways we perpetuate racial inequities and embark on transformative shifts to ensure all of our communities can be free.

This is no easy task. For starters, we live in a capitalistic society that prides itself on productivity. Conversations about anti-oppression and racism can be seen by some as a distraction to the “real work.”

Secondly, many folks are unfamiliar with how to engage in conversations about race. Perfectionism is a characteristic of our white supremacist culture, so some might feel nervous they are going to make a mistake along the way.

Thirdly, people do not want to think of themselves, nor be labeled as racist (OK some people do — but they are likely not reading this right now anyway). People are quick to point out how they cannot be racist because (fill in the blank reason).

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Lastly, white people and non-black people of color often have the luxury of going to work and going about their day without thinking about their racial identity.

These reasons (and many more) often prevent us from talking about systemic racism within our nonprofit sector. When we do embark on the task, careful attention is paid to minimizing discomfort. Comfort for white people, that is. Fear of angering donors, alienating foundations, or dividing our communities causes us to tread too lightly, to sugar-coat, and to coddle. We must ask ourselves — to whom are we beholden? People who hold the purse strings or those who have been the most impacted by systemic oppression?

We have a deeply rooted problem that requires intentionality, action, and commitment. The first step is talking.

Wait, no.

The first step is taking a deep breath and telling yourself that you are likely going to mess up. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help folks learn how to talk about race (like the book referenced at the beginning of this post). It should be noted that the discomfort a white person might experience when confronted with their own racism pales in comparison to the pain and generational trauma endured by Black and other people of color in our society. Just sayin’.

Another step is to explore your own racial identity, consider your proximity to whiteness, and assess your privilege. I recently saw a meme that read “Dear non-Black POC, when you see, ‘white people,’ assume it applies to you, too.” Damn. I had already been on a journey to explore my own propensity for anti-blackness and that phrase just confirmed the depth of this work.

As Latinxs, we have some work to do to explore and reconcile anti-blackness within our communities. This goes for Latinx leaders in the nonprofit sector, as well. These conversations are hard and will continue to cause great discomfort. But we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

I believe in people. I would not be doing this work if I didn’t believe that people want to and can do better. White supremacy isn’t going to dismantle itself. It requires all of us to be brave, to be intentional, and to be authentic.

A one-time training or workshop will not suffice. In the nonprofit sector, addressing racial inequities must be centered in our work — from our mission and vision, to fair and thriving wages, to paid family leave, to embedded self-care. This work is ongoing and requires an investment of time and money.

We can do this. We must.


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