Try to Always: White Privilege and Interrupting Racism
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Karen Boss
Over the years at my varied jobs (in higher education, the scuba-diving industry, nonprofits, and now publishing) in many locations (Maryland, Los Angeles, Thailand, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Boston), I have often discussed race and diversity with others. From first widespread American use of the word “multiculturalism” while I was in college in the early 90s, to the annual three-day diversity training for student leaders at Occidental College, to working with Burmese folks who went to Thailand for protection, I’ve been concerned about race, diversity, and people’s experiences in the United States and beyond for a long time.
Working in publishing—especially children’s publishing—for me has meant being able to continue to engage around diversity issues. And I’m lucky to be at Charlesbridge, a house with a track record of publishing books featuring characters of color and diverse cultural viewpoints.
Recently I was reminded of an experience I had more than a decade ago, when I attended the Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI). This three-day intensive is for campus professionals and engages diverse groups of about twenty in an immersion experience centered on race, culture, and social justice. The discussion one morning was focused on interrupting racism when one sees, hears, or happens upon it. At one point, I (a white person) said that I would commit to always trying to interrupt racism. The reaction in the room was palpable. I knew I’d made a misstep, but I didn’t know what I’d said wrong. I waited.
Someone said that my trying was nice, but he needed me to always interrupt racism. He said that every day he gets up and makes his way through the world as a person of color, but that in my phrasing, I had made it clear that I have a choice. I could choose to interrupt racism if it were convenient for me, or I could carry on if it weren’t.
A lot of heads nodded around the room. Murmurs began.
Yes, someone else continued, trying isn’t enough. We need white people to call out other white people on their racist remarks, comments, or missteps. You can’t just try. You have to do it—every time.
As the murmurs got louder and the tension in the room grew, I started to speak. Tears began, and then I was full-on crying as I responded to the group.
I will try, I said. I don’t want to lie in this room, and I know that I can’t—won’t, if I’m being honest—always interrupt racism. Sometimes the situation feels risky, I said, or sometimes the offender might be a family member with whom I can’t fight, I explained.
As I made my excuses, I cried more.
I will try to try harder, I said. I will try to always do it. Try to always. But I can’t promise you. I wish I could. I’m sorry. I’m being honest, I said.
Finally I stopped. I couldn’t believe the privilege inherent in my words. What was I saying to this group of people that I was letting down? The session finished soon after that. As we gathered our things (and I gathered myself together), a few people approached me.
Thank you, they said. Thank you for being honest. I was surprised. I didn’t deserve thanks. I had disappointed the room, the Institute leaders, myself. I knew trying wasn’t enough.
More people approached to tell me my honesty and owning my struggle and privilege was appreciated. Some reiterated the notion that I must try harder. I agreed I would.
I’m protected by the system in the United States—a system based on white privilege—every day. Sometimes it blinds me: recently I missed something in a manuscript that might’ve offended people had it not been pointed out by someone else, which horrified me. Sometimes I default to caring for the offender, which after the fact makes me angry: when a family member asked if we would ever change the race of a person of color in a nonfiction book “for marketing reasons,” I spoke up, but much more gently than he deserved. In my thoughts or actions, I recognize my own white fragility, which our system supports. (If the term “white fragility” is new to you, read this article first. For more in-depth information, this paper is fantastic.) But I still fail myself, and I fail others. I still struggle with the always.
Racism isn’t an issue that can or should be left to people of color to solve. I’ve always believed that ending racism has to involve white people. In that room at SJTI, I was reminded that as a white person, I get airtime, face-time, discussion time with other white people that most people of color don’t. (A lot of people subscribe to this notion. Read this recent speech given by John Metta to a white audience in Washington State.)
As a publishing professional, in a field that is far less diverse than it should be (see this article about Lee & Low’s recent efforts to collect data regarding publishing-employee demographics), it is even more important that white people be part of the solution. I believe that it’s important to check my own white fragility and remind myself and others that we don’t, as many wish to believe, live in a “post-racial society.” It’s my obligation to not rest on the laurels of privilege I didn’t earn and don’t deserve. Now it’s also my obligation as an editor to do whatever I can to interrupt privilege and question my assumptions when evaluating manuscripts and making books.
This issue is complicated. For me, it’s a lifelong exploration. Figuring out how to figure out what I don’t know is always my first step, especially as an editor. Because making diverse books is all fine and good, but if they aren’t authentically diverse or if they do a cultural disservice, then in my mind, they’re potentially worse than if they didn’t exist at all. And even in this last paragraph lies privilege, because I have the freedom for my journey through these issues to meander and take as long as it takes. But people of color need action now. And since always is better, that’s what I’ll keep striving for.
Karen Boss is a full-time assistant editor at Charlesbridge and works part-time in development at Hyde Square Task Force, a nonprofit in Jamaica Plain in Boston. She holds an MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons College. She first discovered Janet Helms’s White Racial Identity Development model in 1994, which was a game-changing moment in her life. She’s been thinking about social justice for more than twenty years t
hrough a degree in sociology, a master’s in higher education administration and student development, and ten years of work in the nonprofit sector