How To Be White (at #PoCC12) – Part 1

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Chris Thinnes


Okay. So I’ve been tagged — along with my excellent NAIS “Call to Action” colleagues John Hoye (Awty International School, TX), Sandra ‘Chap’ Chapman (LREI, NY),  Stacey-Lee Williams (Somersfield Academy, Bermuda), and Nakeiha Primus (Haverford School, PA) — as one of #PoCC12’s official ‘conference bloggers.’ Not out of virtue, but out of volunteerism. Because Gene Batiste put out a call for bloggers and, well, because when someone calls, you’re supposed to respond.

And here you are. And you opened up a first post with the provocative title, “How To Be White,” chosen in tribute to Baratunde Thurston’s stunning How To Be Black. Have you read it? Go read it. I’ll wait . . . No seriously: if you don’t have a copy, download it from amazon. Or give one of those Houston taxi drivers their 6 bucks and get a hard copy at a bookstore, if they’re not sold out. Then you can wait in the autograph line, and have a thin but socially acceptable excuse to stand in the presence of intellectual and comic greatness.

Anyway: I have a confession to make. I’m white. Really white. And I’m a heterosexual man. And I’m a school administrator. So what on God’s Green Earth am I doing blogging about the People of Color Conference…? Lucky you!

I’m not the only one who’s not entirely sure that having a white blogger at the People of Color Conference is the best idea ever. Check out this courageous, open concern voiced by a member of CTA when s/he was asked about it:

I also have mixed feelings. Frankly, when I read Gene’s original post, I felt nervous: would the blogger’s posts reflect a genuine understanding of racism, white sessions? Personally, I don’t think folks of color have a responsibility to take care of white people as they struggle to find a positive white identity, and I *especially* do not think it is something with which people of color attending PoCC should concern themselves. The conference should be as much of a safe haven as possible for the people PoCC aims to serve. That said, the fact of the matter is that hundreds of white folks attend and, presumably, might be reading the blog posts, so it could be an opportunity for this white person to model the reflective thinking and commitment of a white ally. Gene, if you feel confident that such modeling would happen, then I think it would be a positive addition.

That definitely settled my nerves.

So please don’t get any big ideas from the title of this post. As the first white PoCC bloger (as far as anyone involved can tell), I’ll admit that I am quaking in my narcissistic boots. I have asked myself, “Self, why is this so?” and the best I can come up with is this: I suppose, at some level, I am aware that white educators have been asking teachers of color, parents of color, and students of color to act as spokespeople for their races for many generations now — and I fear that it would only be natural for folks to expect me to do the same.

So do me a favor — would you? — and let me fumble around here? I’ll do my best to offer my observations on #PoCC12 — primarily on the basis of my experience instead of my opinion, if I mind my manners — and particularly to offer some invitations to white folks for how we might behave ourselves the next few days in Houston. But I’m relying on you to provide comments, suggestions, insights, and — if you care to — any straight-up insights about the limitations of my point of view as we all “Lean into Discomfort” in Houston.

So why stop with the provocative suggestions there? Let me start with a couple such invitations to white folks, or to share with white folks, in that spirit. If you’re white, please consider these on the basis of the experience of people of color who have shared these suggestions directly with me. If you’re not white, please send your white friend to this post, or to track me down at one of the affinity group meeting to yell at me.

Think of these as a partial draft of a covenant — a “Code of Conduct for White Folks at PoCC,” if you will.

1. This is Not a Diversity Conference. This is Not an Educational Conference.

Cultural tourists, beware: NAIS couldn’t have made it clearer that PoCC’s “primary purpose is for people of color (and experienced allies and practitioners of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities). We encourage you to see PoCC as different from a diversity conference for newcomers to diversity work… Its focus should be on providing a sanctuary and networking opportunity for people of color and allies in independent schools as we build and sustain inclusive school communities.” Do not come here to learn ‘about’ people of color. Do not come here to find an exciting new curriculum initiative to drop on your colleagues at school. Come here to examine your role and responsibilities to build, sustain, and support an inclusive community.

You’re here either (1) because you are an experienced ally to people of color, (2) because your school wishes you’d become an ally, or (3) because someone mistook this conference as a place to make an ally out of you. Act the part if you’re already playing it. Fake it ’til you make it — and, for what it’s worth, please lower your voice — if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

2. Do Not Expect to Be an Honored Guest

Let me tell you a quick story in the fashion of an amateurish meditation. A few weeks ago, I was facilitating a workshop called “Making ‘Privilege’ Visible” at the “Across Colors” conference in Los Angeles. My partner was a white woman with many years of experience doing this kind of work. She was leading our participants through a “power analysis,” asking folks — teachers, leaders, and parents; both white folks and people of color  — to call out identifiers of ‘power’ in American culture. Someone called out ‘male.’ Someone called out ‘heterosexual.’ Someone called out ‘white.’ And my partner asked, “Any others? What does ‘power’ look like in our society?

And a brave soul smiled at me, and called out, “It looks like Chris.”

Everyone understands that your presence at the People of Color Conference is a great thing. You’ve demonstrated some measure of commitment to inclusion, equity, and justice in our schools just by signing up. That said, I encourage you to “be okay” with the fact that you may not be greeted as a hero. Your presence may not give people of color the warm and fuzzies, just by the sight of you.

This was a tremendous learning experience for me, the first time I went through it. These few days of sanctuary, safety, and community for people of color in independent schools are cause for some high-stakes identity poker. Experience a workshop in which you may be one of three or four white folks in a room with hundreds of people of color. Experience an interchange in which your opinion is perhaps not the most highly sought-after insight. Have a powerful emotional response to a speaker or an affinity group session, and notice that other folks might not be impressed. Think about the math when you get back to school.

Rinse. Reflect. Repeat.

3. Attend and Embrace Affinity Group Sessions

Before my first PoCC experience, the single thing I dreaded the most was the idea of attending affinity group meetings with other White folks. As far as I can tell, this is a wholly unimaginable sentiment among people of color. I remember, a few years ago, being asked by a colleague whether I was looking forward to the affinity group meetings. I said, “Oh, yeah! I hardly ever have the chance in private schools to spend quality time with white folks.”

A great deal of emphasis has been placed by CTA, in its work on the conference design, to be sensitive to the feedback of past conference attendees. Some of this feedback suggested that some white folks were uncomfortable at various junctures, and experienced some discomfort for a variety of reasons — particularly at the affinity group sessions. But remember that the purpose of PoCC “is to help participants understand their roles in advancing in their schools equity and justice around racial and ethnic identity. The affinity group work offers a safe environment where these conversations can happen effectively.”

The work of inclusion, equity, and justice begins with your own identity work. You have a singular responsibility and a singular opportunity, to be a change agent in your learning community. Can that work be uncomfortable? Yes. Might you get a little emotional or tongue-tied? Yup. Is it possible that you might not have the right answer; might be embarrassed or a shamed by a discovery; might regret your past and wish to shut the door on it; might wonder whether you have the courage to continue the work? Indeed.

In my opinion and my experience, if you are completely comfortable these next few days, you probably didn’t learn much. Remember what you know about learning: if you knew it all when you got here, you probably should have reconsidered coming.

Stop talking, and listen. Stop answering, and question. Stop reading, and go make a connection.

I’m out. Have to catch a plane to Houston. See you soon!

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes