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Can a white person be critical of a Black person and not be racist?

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I recently had a chat with a client, a white professor who leads a university center, who found themselves in a bit of a quandary. The topic at hand? The events involving Dr. Claudine Gay, where attacks on her credibility and competence, as well as accusations around plagiarism, (shrouded in racist and sexist overtones), led to her stepping down as the President of Harvard University.

Now, here’s the thing––my client believes in addressing the issues of racism and sexism that played a role in the unfolding situation. However, they were hesitant, conflicted even, about voicing their concerns, because they also saw validity in investigating plagiarism. The underlying question that lingered, unspoken but palpable, was:

“Can I, as a white person, be critical of a Black woman, especially when she’s facing public scrutiny?”

And the answer? Well, it’s a nuanced one…

Yes, you can speak up. 

First and foremost, it’s crucial to acknowledge that anyone can voice their concerns about issues they believe in, irrespective of race or gender––particularly when the situation impacts someone with whom you share an affinity.

However, there’s a catch.☝🏽

It’s not just about having an opinion; it’s about having a process to interrogate your biases to ensure your opinion upholds principles of equity and aligns with your broader perspectives on justice. Developing that process for yourself takes learning, practice, and time.

Navigating the Gray Areas

My client’s hesitation likely stems from the need to navigate the delicate balance between allyship and advocacy. Their desire to offer allyship (lending your power to partner with others in achieving their preferred outcomes) with Dr. Gay in the ways she’s been attacked on the national stage is balanced with their desire to advocate for integrity and fairness in their professional field by ensuring other scholars are credited for their ideas. 

It is possible to accomplish both.

To do so, you must do the internal work to examine how racial biases, stereotypes, and hegemonic views of success, excellence, and credibility might influence one’s perspective on what, and how, you advocate, and with whom you ally. When you’re still on that journey or haven’t fully sorted out these complexities, situations like these can feel perplexing.

The Worthy Pursuit of Processing

What makes this situation particularly intriguing is that my client and Dr. Gay are peers in the same industry, sharing similar credentials. 

It is neither necessary, nor a good use of time, to form an opinion on every public social issue. 🙅🏾‍♀️

However, their shared professional background adds another layer of complexity to the discussion. My client’s position in the industry, role as an institutional leader, and concern for how this issue impacted their team, combined with their commitment to equity––made this a worthwhile area of inquiry and processing. 

It’s worth some advanced processing to generate criteria around which topics and circumstances are worthy of your mental processing time.

It will save headspace and emotional exertion in your pursuit of justice to establish a perimeter. 

(Sidenote: as an organizational leader, it is IMPERATIVE to establish with clarity the issues you will and will not take up publicly as an organization, more on that in a future post)…

Taking a Consistent Stance for Justice

The issue here isn’t about whether a white person can speak about a Black person. It’s about ensuring your words are rooted in a genuine commitment to justice. Nobody wants to live in a world where someone feels they need permission based on their race to address issues. On the flip side, we also don’t want a world where every issue becomes fair game for opinions rooted in systemically oppressive views of race or gender.

In essence, this situation serves as a reminder of the ongoing work we all need to do in understanding, addressing, and navigating the complexities of bias, discrimination, and justice.

It’s an invitation for leaders to reflect on their own perspectives, ensuring that when they speak out, it’s not just words but a consistent stance for a more equitable and just world.

Remember, it’s okay to grapple with these issues, as long as the journey leads to a more thoughtful and informed perspective. After all, progress often comes from moments of reflection and growth.

Wishing you all thoughtful conversations and continuous growth.

Want more tools to confidently lead DEI efforts through this nuanced journey? 

Check out this FREE  training on “How to Train Your Team to Be Inclusive Without Shaming Them or Creating More Conflict.”

In Partnership, 
Samira Abdul-Karim
Chief Executive Officer & Principal Consultant
Hyphens and Spaces LLC.

Samira Abdul-Karim

Samira Abdul-Karim

Chief Executive Officer and Principal Consultant​

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