Discussion One: ‘White Privilege- A challenge to Leaders’  [Part ONE]

On the 7th May 2020, I hosted the second in a series of discussions around the BAME Leadership Pipeline, with a focus on White Privilege. Given that over 90% of the leaders and decision makers in the city are racialised as White, it felt necessary to address issues of racism and privilege as a starting point for the discussions that we would come to have.

Before the session formally begin, I explained some key principles that would need to be respected within the room to ensure that the space remains as respectful as possible. I do not believe that spaces for uncomfortable dialogue can ever be safe for everyone in the room, but It is always important when creating spaces for dialogue, that guidance is set to create respectful boundaries.  These principles will be referred to as a reminder at the start of each session and they are outlined here:

  1. Be consciously aware of your privilege in the space (race, gender etc.) and know when to take a step back so that marginalised people can engage and lead.
  2. Believe people’s accounts and respect their vulnerabilities. It is not your responsibility to verify, question or judge their experiences. Keep in mind principle 1.
  3. Take care of yourself. If at any point you feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the space, message the host (me) privately and if you need to, leave the room, and come back when/if you are ready. As the organiser and facilitator, I commit to taking the necessary steps to address issues should they be brought to my attention.
  4. Do not say other people’s experiences outside of this space without their permission. I encourage everyone to continue the dialogue offline and on social media, but respect people’s privacy and do not share or discuss their accounts. Some of these sessions will be audio recorded (not the chat), so when sharing please bear in mind what you choose to contribute.
  5. Be mindful of your language. Reflect on what you are going to say before you say it and if you are challenged on your language and presented with a preferred alternative, please be mindful and change it.

For this session I invited four individuals to offer provocations that would guide the discussion- Dr Jo Shah, Mr Lincoln Tapper, Dr Alex Mason and Dr Shona Hunter. Each of the speakers offered provocations for 5 minutes each, leading to an open discussion with attendees. In this post (part one), I’ll be focussing on the first two provocations and the discussions that emerged in response.

Shona started us off by sharing the premise of Whiteness and how the enactment of White privilege serves to preserve power and domination. She argued that in order to challenge White privilege in practice would be to ‘flip’ leadership completely. She highlighted institutional dynamics of privileged and the role of leadership in maintaining or challenging these dynamics. Shona stated that leadership needs to involve both “leading against the institution, its culture and dynamics, and also leading against the self- the ego”. She explains this further by noting the institutional commitment to White values, White measures and White judgements, and calls for a look at ‘radical relationality’, where the lead is not one way but always negotiated.

Shona argued that there needs to be a shift from individual efforts, to institutional accountability, stating that “commitment needs to be demanded from institutions. Not from those ‘in’ them”. This point was particularly apt for the reading of the room, which had 35 attendees, only 3 of which being organisational leads. The last of leadership presence in the room was noted by several attendees who worried that the discussions would be ‘preaching to the converted’, with one attendee asking “what change can we expect to see from organisations, if leadership can’t even be in these spaces?”

The second provocation by Jo, looked at the conceptualisation of Whiteness and its positioning within an anti-racist movement.

“Terms such as ‘white privilege’ seem to have become an intrinsic part of the anti-racist lexicon. It is however important to ask, how this new lexicon is being used and understood in the context of racial oppression. There seems to be two parallel micro narratives that have emerged within the anti-racist movement in its use of whiteness concepts, manifesting in a polarised tension between how whiteness is understood and used. It could be argued that for a significant number of black and brown bodies within the movement, whiteness represents oppression and colonial trauma that still percolates in our social systems and interactions. While for those racialised as white, a consideration of whiteness appears to have become a preoccupation with the self and one’s own negotiations and processing of whiteness and what that means for them.”

Jo argued that an over-emphasis on White privilege, could simply serve to re-centre Whiteness, further distracting from the violence and trauma experienced by people of colour. She also spoke the overemphasis of the discourse in institutional EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) work, despite the poor representation at leadership level, highlighting the disconnect between the rhetoric that accompanies this discourse, and the accompanying practice. This was later picked up in the open discussion, with a number of White attendees in particular, who were leaders in their organisations, reflecting on their own experiences of self-reflective work around Whiteness, and the dangers of self-centring in allyship work.

Jo stated that “the challenge for white leaders committed to meaningful change is to critique and challenge the incentivised legalised narrative and to understand their positionality in broader racially oppressive social dynamics”. 

Jo continued to reflect on White privilege through its relationship with space, knowledge, and power.

“White people have historically operated on the assumption that they have the right and ability to enter any and all spaces, especially when seeking to satisfy some curiosity and/or preconception regarding an exoticised and objectified Other. Whatever the expressed intentions of the individual might be, this almost always serves to reinforce and re-entrench a racial hierarchy.”

She spoke candidly about the ways in which ‘well meaning’ and ‘liberal’ White people often ‘take up space’ without consideration of how this reinscribes racial power dynamics and negatively impacts people of colour.  She spoke of the danger of using spaces like conferences on race, as opportunities to ‘offload guilt’ and the impact this has on people of colour. Jo reminds us that proximity to people of colour, can often position White people as anti-racist and implored us to see beyond this to recognise the need for active, meaningful allyship work. These words chimed with many of the attendees, with responses by attendees of colour during the open discussion, echoing these same concerns.  There was a consensus that spaces were needed for meaningful dialogue but also worry from some of the people of colour attendees that the burden would once again be on them to create these spaces or initiate this work.

….Part TWO coming soon.

Shona and Jo’s work can be found here:

Shona: White Spaces https://www.whitespaces.org.uk/

Jo: The Social Performance Academy https://social-performance.academy/