For the last several weeks, some faculty and staff have been engaged in a book discussion focusing on White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. It has been a great starting point for us as a community to delve into the ways in which white people navigate discussions, specifically about race and its impact on interactions and communications with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) individuals. Thus far, the conversations have been enlightening, thought-provoking and sometimes challenging.
I love these discussions, because they force us to be introspective and to consider the work that we need to do in a setting of accountability and bravery. Granted, it can be frustrating to navigate the process. The solutions are not always apparent, and progress does not happen as fast as we might prefer. But I like to begin every journey with the end in mind. The end goal is to make our Medaille community and the world, more diverse, inclusive and equitable. When you keep the end in mind during tense talks about issues of race and racism that may make you feel like walking away or shutting down, you will be able to reflect on why you took the step to participate in the first place and keep going.
Change, though difficult, is good. It is also a very gradual process — something I did not understand as a child.
Growing up, I was fascinated and frustrated by caterpillars. My friends and I marveled over any caterpillars that we came across and wondered aloud about how they would one day turn into butterflies. We gazed at them as they hung upside down by a string. Those caterpillars, however, would hold our attention for only about ten minutes before we were off to something else. If ever we came across one that was in the cocoon stage of its metamorphosis, we would stand around gawking and impatiently waiting for the butterfly to burst through the cocoon and fly free with its new wings. I remember thinking, I want to see a butterfly, not some dried up cocoon! I could not understand that change was happening right in front of me, because it did not look like what I had envisioned. Of course, once the transformation was complete, my friends and I were totally awed. With delight, we chased countless butterflies, hoping to capture their beauty in our mayonnaise jars.
Like children, we are often unable to fully appreciate the beauty of change until it is complete, because the process is incremental, frustrating and disconcerting. In fact, traveling the road to change can make you feel like a caterpillar hanging upside down from a thin string, all out of sorts. But if we can just stay consistent and engaged during the moments that turn us upside down, we will eventually achieve our desired outcome. It might take longer than we think it should, but stop and ask yourself, what am I learning through the process? Be grateful that the dialogue is happening and that by participating, we are showing that we want to do better.
During these sessions, I have learned that some folks have felt attacked. Others have felt thankful and humbled by the growth opportunity, recognizing that change, though uncomfortable, is good. It is also necessary and long overdue. And recently, in my opening remarks at the beginning of a session, I shared a couple of statistics from studies on the racial interactions of people regionally and nationally. In the first study conducted by the University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI), an analysis of segregation in the Buffalo-Niagara region found the white isolation index to be nearly 90 percent. This means, there is a “90 percent probability that a white person will not have an interaction with a person of color.” The second study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) noted that “fully three-quarters (75%) of white Americans report that the network of people with whom they discuss important matters is entirely white.”
After setting the context with these data points, I asked the group, “How do you get better at things?” The obvious answer is practice. But, if 90% of white people regionally don’t even meet a person of color and 75% of white folks’ social circles are comprised exclusively of other white folks, that does not provide much opportunity for practice; right?
Without practice, how can anyone hope to get better at anything? Without practice, mistakes will be made, but with practice, fewer will be made. I hope you caught that last point: even with practice, mistakes will be made, which is why we call it practice. No one would hand over car keys to a person who had never driven a car before and say, “Okay, it’s time for you to take your driver’s test today. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t pass on the first try, you will be labeled a terrible person forever. But no pressure!” Whether driving a car or driving a discussion on race, we must give and be given the space and grace to learn.
As we discuss issues of race and racism with one another, there is no way to extract discomfort from the process of change and still get the results that we all want. So then, if you are ever having a moment when you are feeling like, “They are just going to label me a racist because of the color of my skin,” or, “I will not subject myself to the emotional harm inflicted upon me by privileged individuals who do not understand my life,” keep the end goal in mind. Stay engaged. In order to realize the full beauty and benefit of living and working in a welcoming, inclusive and diverse environment where everyone experiences a sense of belonging, we must commit to the work.
An older gentleman once told me, “Change is part of life, so get used to it, because if you stop changing, then you’re not living. You’re just dying in place.”