by Kendra Hovey
When I first met Jim White, his TED Talk about racism and his conviction to end it and how—“educate, unveil, and eradicate”—had just hit one million views (now: 1,094,362). Titled “A Little Problem I Had Renting a House,” the talk beckons with the promise of a story, even as the reference is immediate: This is not a little problem; it’s big, persistent, and it’s killing people.
It’s also what Jim White and I have come to this coffee shop to talk about. And if a conversation about racism between an African American and a white American sounds more fraught than fun, you really should get to know Jim White.
I hadn’t come to this conversation expecting a policy solution. That’s not what Jim White does (though he should be training those who do). White is a management and performance consultant and co-author of A Better World. His solutions are personal and organizational, and necessarily so: How we function around race is connected to our values and beliefs, many absorbed more than chosen, based on experiences, culture, and media. For many, they are also intensely felt and come with all sorts of triggers and buttons.
“Don’t think because someone buys a cup of coffee you can sit down at the table and talk about race,” says White, referencing Starbucks recent misstep, “because there might just be coffee thrown all over the place.”
Racism and the threats to African American safety are urgent and demand action. But one message from Jim White is that we act with cultural competence. Another message, a very important message: cultural competence, itself, changes behavior, enables productive dialogue, and can bring clarity to actions that will better affect change.
So to increase our cultural competence we need to take stock of our personal beliefs, assumptions, and values, including our biases and cultural blinders. It’s what White calls our personal operating system (POS). We also acknowledge and try to be open to the POS of others. Being open does not mean adopting or agreeing or abandoning our own POS, it means: being open. Should other perspectives and histories add to our knowledge, we then update our POS, as needed.
For a good demonstration of cultural competency see Jim White’s talk. Pay particular attention to how he portrays the landlord and hotel clerk that turn him away, the Major who thinks he’s being helpful, but isn’t. These people are not caricatured or condemned. White shares their words and actions without ascribing intent, belief, ridicule, or judgment. They remain fully human, even as their actions are fully harmful.
“It’s not me, I like you people,” says the manager as he nonetheless denies Jim White a space in his trailer park. “We already have a negro family,” he explains, “and if I let you in, other tenants will move out.” As much as this may offend and reek of an excuse, the man’s actions are a direct result of legislation by the U.S. government. This historical fact is not contested, just forgotten.
We’ve done a “very, very poor job with our history,” says White, “had we really talked about slavery and its impact, we probably wouldn’t be having the discussion we are having today.” Education—knowledge of and empathy regarding the historical struggles of other cultures—is essential to cultural competency and to ending racism.
And, if we really understood the history, we could talk about race without “coffee thrown all over the place.” At his training sessions White always says, “There should be no blame, shame or guilt in this room.” None of us created the conditions under which we are living, he says, “we inherited this.”
He also says: “But if we’re going to move past it, were going to have to acknowledge it. If not, you will perpetuate it.”
The lived-history is in White’s talk. If you’d also like the facts: Legislative action severely limited African Americans’ access to the prime movers that propelled many other Americans into the middle class—the GI bill, education, housing.
- “Of the billions of dollars in the GI Bill for housing and education, less than 2% went to minorities”
- “We have black educational institutions, because most colleges excluded black folks. And companies like IBM and Xerox were not going to black colleges to find their employees and future CEOs.”
- “Redlining [a practice of the U.S. government] and blockbusting [tolerated by the U.S. legal system until the 1980s] meant that blacks could buy houses in the inner city, but were limited in suburbia.”
Our inner cities, our disproportionate poverty and levels of education were legislated into existence. Consider the impact of this today: After WWII, the average house in urban and suburban Detroit went for about $30,000, says White, “today, inner city Detroit is worth $20,000 maybe; Suburban: $300,000.”
The harm is not just economic. “Slavery, reconstruction, KKK, Jim Crow, civil rights, job discrimination, mass incarceration, black kids being shot by police: trauma has been continuous,” White explains, “black folks have never been able to get away from it.”
Understanding this is essential, not to explain or excuse, White says, but so people can do whatever healing they need: “You can’t deal with the trauma, until you understand what the trauma is.”
And, if this is not your own history, you don’t respond with guilt or denial or begin searching your own history for your own trauma—not now. Because to eradicate racism, to improve your cultural competency, you are listening respectfully, perhaps with empathy, allowing yourself to feel the impact of this history on others.
“Feeling this impact” enlarges understanding, but it can also make you angry. In his talk, White says he doesn’t have the luxury of anger. When I asked him more about this, he said that he has his triggers, but he knows how to recognize them. He doesn’t deny his anger; he corrals it, and “keeps stepping forward.” The challenge is to be angry:
- with the right person
- at the right time
- for the right purpose
- to the right extent
- in the right way
Something else about cultural competence, it’s not an end-point. It’s a process, and we don’t do it in isolation. In other words, if we don’t want to talk about race, but we do want to eradicate racism, we’ve got to talk about race. “We all come to the party with biases,” says White, “and as a result of my bias I know I don’t have all the data. If I want to know if something is true, I have to get it outside of me. And the best way to do that is with someone you trust.”
Trust can come from a trained facilitator, of any race, White says, who is comfortable dealing with race, who is aware of their own triggers, and who has the expertise to manage the discussion and keep everyone safe. Trust can also come from someone you know and value. And, it’ll go best if you enter into these conversations aware that questions come from a desire to understand, not offend, and with a willingness to, as White says, throw your own competence out the window: “When I tick you off, no matter how much I think I know, I am willing to say ‘I don’t know what it was that I said that caused you some anxiety and stress but I’m willing to shut up long enough so that you can educate me.’ ” [Another tip: in a group, don’t make one person representative of an entire race, gender, or ethnic group.]
You can also have these conversations without trust, says White, but you need to understand there is risk. His advice: “One thing I say to people is, ‘Have I earned the right to talk to you about this topic?’ Framing it this way makes you stop and think about it differently, and I find in most cases people care when you care about them. Most people are willing to have those discussions with you.”
This doesn’t mean they will agree with you: “Before you explained to me all these details, I didn’t think I agreed with you. But now that you’ve given me the facts, I know that I don’t agree with you. Sometimes,” as White says, “we just aren’t going to agree.”
But when we dynamically engage with one another “we can express those thoughts and ask those questions and then we’re dealing with the truth as opposed to some of our fears and we’re less likely to MSU (Make Stuff Up) and that’s a way,” he says, “to start to move things forward.”
In our world, diversity is a fact. So is connectivity. Discrimination against some has consequences for everyone. It’s time to get a little (or a lot) more comfortable with difference. White has tools to help people get there, but he’s not interested in dictating behavior. One question I had for Jim White, “What can I do?” I never asked. Instead, I shared with him ideas that came to me, and felt right to me, over the course of our (3 hour!) conversation. For everyone, behavior is an expression of values and beliefs, abilities and strengths, etc. Be aware of your own, while also building cultural competence, and the question “What can I do?” begins to answer itself.