How to Be White (at #PoCC12) – Part 3

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Those Boots Weren’t Made for Talking


Chris Thinnes


If you want to check out the earlier items in this series, look for links in the navigation menu to your right.


Dear Reader:

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:

  1. “This is Not a Diversity Conference. This is Not an Educational Conference.”
  2. “Do Not Expect to Be an Honored Guest”
  3. “Attend and Embrace Affinity Group Sessions”
  4. “Shift Your Attention from ‘Sensitivity’ to ‘Skills'” and
  5. “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

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  • Howard McCoy

    I am glad to see that someone has called out the head of Rhonda for making such an ignorant comment. However, there is no mention about the comment about the “Republic” of Texas, nor Pat Bassett’s comments about his shirt and being “a person of color”.

  • Martha C

    And let’s not forget the story of how Texas got its name. The conquerors named it after the conquered because they were their “friends.”

  • ChrisThinnes

    On 12/10/12, Pat Bassett and Rhonda Durham issued statements at They are copied in full below:

    Letter from Pat Bassett

    Dear PoCC and SDLC attendees,

    I’m writing to you today as a follow up to my opening general session remarks about my “wearing my colorful shirt to honor the People of Color Conference.”

    First and foremost, I want to apologize for the impromptu remark. In my enthusiasm for opening the conference, I referred to the wearing my colorful shirt as a way of honoring the gathering and the work, and that comment struck many as inappropriate, the last thing I intended. Lesson learned on my journey to become a better ally of people of color: be aware that such comparisons bear no resemblance to the ways people experience the world based on their race or other cultural identifiers, and such comments can hurt. I truly regret that my comment failed to convey my belief that working with a group of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences makes our community — and the world — a stronger, more vibrant, better place and that the comment may have unintentionally undermined the data I presented that proved that very point. This is not the first time I have made a gaffe, and it’s safe to assume I’ll make others, but not the same one. Rest assured, I will endeavor to continue to support work of diversity and inclusivity in any way that I can and will re-double my efforts on the journey to be a more effective ally.

    Witnessing first-hand — at schools and at NAIS — how important it is to have diverse communities that are welcoming and safe for all, I know that PoCC and SDLC in particular serve as vitally important safe spaces that help support adult and student leaders of color and their allies within our schools.

    I also want to thank everyone attending the conference for your participation and for your ongoing commitment to advancing the work of equity and justice in our schools. What you do, and what NAIS is committed to sustaining, is critical to the growth and success of our schools.


    Patrick F. Bassett
    National Association of Independent Schools

    Letter from Rhonda Durham
    At the opening ceremonies of PoCC, I went to the podium as the last person to welcome this year’s attendees to Houston. I did so with a heart full of gratitude and expectation for this important gathering of sharing and learning. My every intention was to convey honor and respect to everyone. I also wanted to share my support for people of color and for the work of promoting equity and justice in independent schools.

    At the end of my remarks, I made an unscripted reference to my colorful boots, connecting them to Pat’s having worn his most colorful shirt in celebration of PoCC. I ended by saying “we both wanted to be people of color today.” I meant to say, in a lighthearted way, that we were trying to be “with you” today in a sign of solidarity. To say that I am very sorry for my most unfortunate, naïve reference to wanting to be “people of color” by wearing colorful clothing is an understatement. I am so very regretful and apologetic that I offended, angered, and/or hurt anyone present. I will learn from this.


    Rhonda Durham
    Independent Schools Association of the Southwest

    Letter from Gene Batiste
    In this, the 25th year of the People of Color Conference and the 19th year of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, I am reminded not only of the incredible journey independent schools have made to become more diverse, inclusive communities, but of the many thousands of individual journeys that have taken place. PoCC and SDLC provide a remarkable space to share our experiences as people of color in independent schools and to grow as leaders. The work that we do here — and take back to our schools – is not always easy, but it’s critical to the success of independent schools. I hope you will join us again next year.


    Harold Eugene Batiste, III
    National Association of Independent Schools

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