Those Boots Weren’t Made for Talking
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Somebody stop me! Actually, somebody help me. Since this morning, this episode has been living in my head, rent-free, all day long. And I’ve been asking people — other white folks, but primarily people of color — how they feel about what was said. And they’re using clinical terminology like “p*ssed off” to describe their reactions. I heard one affinity group got feedback expecting some kind of formal acknowledgment of disappointment by NAIS leadership.
In my earlier posts I’ve made efforts to construct a draft of a “Code of Conduct for White Folks at PoCC.” On the list of invitations so far are:
- “This is Not a Diversity Conference. This is Not an Educational Conference.”
- “Do Not Expect to Be an Honored Guest”
- “Attend and Embrace Affinity Group Sessions”
- “Shift Your Attention from ‘Sensitivity’ to ‘Skills'” and
- “Create These Kinds of Spaces at Your School”
Tonight I’d like to add another invitation:
6. Don’t Pretend to Understand the Experience of People of Color. Above All, Do Not Make Jokes About It.
At the general session this morning, the head of the regional association of independent schools made what I’ll choose to believe she understood as a joke. Here’s the setup: she explains that she understands the importance of diversity and inclusion in our work, thanks everyone who’s worked so hard to create and sustain this conference, and then points to her silly cowgirl boots. They’ve got lots of colorful shapes on them. Awkward setup, I know — but she didn’t allege to be a comedian.
But that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem: she then steps out from behind the lectern, points at said colorful boots, and announces to a few thousand people that she’s worked hard this week to be a person of color.
Get it? Colorful boots. People of color. Still don’t get it?
Let’s just say, elusively, that many of us found her to be a ‘captivating speaker.’ Cuz you could have heard a pin drop. Til someone said, “Boo.”
There are any number of better things this person could have said. Things like, “I don’t get it,” or, “Remember what I just said about the importance of this conference? I’m not really sure what I mean.” Or, “You know what, I don’t think I understand the value of this work, or this conference, sufficiently enough to speak about it here before you.”
I offered a suggestion in the White/European-American affinity group today. It was for white folks who might be uncomfortable being a part of an ‘underrepresented population’ these few safe days in Houston, to remember two things: first, that at 22%, white folks are more visibly represented at this conference than people of color are represented in our schools. How ironic: white folks have a more visible presence at the People of Color Conference, than people of color have in many of our schools.
Second, I suggested that any such discomfort they may feel might offer the merest glimpse, or hint, or whisper, of what it might be like for people of color in private school communities the other 162 days of the school year. But only a glimpse. Only a whisper. An intimation worth exploring, but not sufficient to authentically to understand the experience.
So, my less-than-customarily-humble invitation to white folks at PoCC is this: do not allege to understand the experience of people of color. And above all, do not make jokes about it — especially that make light of it.
I almost called this one, “How Not to Be White (at #PoCC12).”
I almost called this one, “Don’t Say Stupid Sh!t.”
But that would have been disrespectful.
You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes