Should White People Do DEI Work?

“I just can’t even, anymore” he sighed, exasperated. “My patience for well-meaning white people has run out. We’re supposed to congratulate white folks for doing the most minimal thing. For doing what they already should have, long ago!”

Everyone nodded in agreement. I was the only white person in the room, but I, too, nodded. I, too, was fed up with white people. That had not been a good day. We were a small consulting team of Black and brown DEI professionals (except for me) and we’d come out bruised from a session that morning with one of our newest clients.

But along with my empathy and understanding, I was troubled by the implications of this sentiment. Our client was a mostly-white leadership team in a prestigious public organization that relied on wealthy (white) donors. How could we possibly serve them if we’d all run out of patience with white people? How could we meet them where they were on their journey if we were all, like me, “weary of having the same conversations with the same people in different bodies”?

The honest answer? We couldn’t.

Like it or not, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work requires working with white people, and DEI is white people’s work. White people are still the numerical majority in many U.S. geographies. White people are still the majority power brokers and decision-makers. White people still hold the purse strings, make the rules, set the tone, hand out the opportunities, and pass along the contacts that open doors. Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be accomplished without white people.

DEI is also white people’s work because we created the problems that DEI is intended to solve. In the U.S., generations of wealthy white men intentionally created a society designed to benefit them, and only them. Multiple generations have benefitted from a system rooted in those early intentions, still held in place by baked-in institutional norms, individual unconscious biases, and ongoing conscious decisions. 

Millions of white U.S.-ians like me, descended from poor immigrants who toiled in factories and fields to eke out a humble living, benefit every single day from this system. It wasn’t created to benefit me as a woman or a child of the working class, but it was set up to respect my humanity as a white person and therefore provide me with access and opportunities — at others’ expense.

One of the many failings of the DEI field is the persistent belief that BIPOC/POC (people of color) are the only ones who should be doing DEI work. This belief seems to be spreading. Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve read articles, comments, and a book excerpt by people of color essentially telling white people to get out of “their” field, stop taking over, and step aside to “let” BIPOC do the work.

This is a huge mistake. The purpose of DEI is not to pile one more thing on people of color’s already overflowing plates, cracking under the burden of history and ongoing microaggressions. DEI efforts should not hold the victims of inequity responsible for creating equity. DEI efforts should not depend on the emotional and psychological labor of people of color whose labor has long been (and still is) expected to be provided for free. That’s deeply disrespectful, abusive, and misguided.

The purpose of DEI should also not be to relegate those who are people of color, women, LGBTQ, disabled, etc., to a new ghetto — to a profession that’s rarely well-paid, rarely salvaged when funding shrinks, rarely viewed as strategic and mission-critical, and rarely considered an essential rung on the ladder of success. 

The purpose of DEI is to create a world that works better for more of us, where more can thrive and contribute our unique gifts for personal and collective benefit. 

The purpose of DEI is to make room for those in marginalized groups to become physicians, electricians, professors, artists, researchers, entrepreneurs, farmers, urban planners, writers, full-time caregivers, coders, and anything else their brilliant brains and inspired hearts desire. 

The purpose of DEI is not to divert gifted marginalized folks into the DEI profession.

Racism and oppression have traumatized us all, and more white people need to step up. To heal and grow as a nation, white people need to do a special kind of personal work that our culture doesn’t prepare us to do. 

White people must do this work, and we must take much more responsibility for creating diversity, equity and inclusion in our workplaces, communities, and homes. I still get occasional questions from hesitant white people about whether or not they “can” or “should” do DEI work. My answer isn’t only “Yes,” but “Yes, please!” And I refer them to this article I wrote to consider next steps. 

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Clearly, white people shouldn’t be the only ones doing DEI — the work requires trusting, equitable partnership among people with various identities. But to those who say that only marginalized people can (or should) do this work I say two things: One, all human beings have both power-dominant (privileged) and power non-dominant (marginalized) identities. Unless you are an elderly, queer, disabled, short, female-presenting, non-U.S. citizen person of color with average intelligence and no formal education who is Limited English Proficient and experiencing poverty while living outside the U.S., you have some privilege. 

The most effective DEI professionals are those who have done deep personal work around their privileged and marginalized identities, examined their wounds, built their emotional intelligence, and honed their ability to regulate their own nervous system. They are self-aware and self-reflective. They’re agile and curious thinkers, deep listeners and excellent communicators. 

Such people are found in many different bodies, including white ones. Being BIPOC or POC bestows an intimate personal perspective on racism, but it doesn’t automatically qualify a person to hold space for others’ emotions, facilitate dialogue, unpack complex and nuanced DEI concepts, or catalyze meaningful change.

Two, like it or not, white people are generally viewed by other white people as more credible than POC. We can be mad at the truth, but ignore it at our peril. If the goal of DEI is to create a world that works better for more of us, and white people are still the numerical and power majority, white people need to change. We must accept the fact that white people can often facilitate this change more quickly and easily. 

Also, a white person who has done their personal work is often better equipped to understand another white person’s journey and the multiple stages and perspectives that entails. Some of the most profound insights I’ve ever heard about gender came from a trans man who transitioned when he was an adult. Having experienced both bodies, my friend had a level of insight and empathy into both genders I’ve never witnessed anywhere else, and his sharing forever changed my understanding of men. 

White people who have “transitioned” from unconscious accomplices to conscious change agents are among the most powerful catalysts for change. 

However, we have to know our limitations. Just because a person “can” do something doesn’t mean they should, and sometimes a person can’t, even when they “should.” Someone who’s fed up with white people — whether they’re white themselves or POC — should examine whether or not DEI work is an effective way to serve. There’s a difference between a bad day and burnout. Weariness, loss of compassion, loss of respect, and chronic anger are signs it might be the moment to take a time-out or leave the game entirely. 

Such feelings point to wounds or trauma that require attention. They can point to unmet needs that must be met somehow — perhaps a need for new inspiration or profound rest. Whatever the reason, we must have integrity and know when to decline politely or exit gracefully. DEI work is too important to allow ourselves to become part of the problem.

Sadly, things were never the same for my consulting team after that difficult day with our client. While the client had serious issues, our frustration and bruises inhibited our ability to fully listen, make clear decisions, and model effective behaviors. The first principle of DEI should be “first, do no harm.” If your patience with white people has run out, don’t do DEI. And if you’re BIPOC and out of patience, let white people do this work that is our legacy, and our responsibility.

Susana Rinderle, MA, ACC is a writer, wisdom coach, wellness warrior and workplace wizard. She has spent nearly 30 years garnering meaningful results for her employers and clients across the U.S. and abroad in multiple sectors including nonprofit, corporate, healthcare, education and government. Susana’s first career was in diversity & inclusion. She was the co-founder and first Manager of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for University of New Mexico Hospitals, and is a former Principal Consultant for Korn Ferry.  Susana is a former TEDx speaker, and her articles have appeared in multiple commercial magazines and academic journals. Learn more at wordswisdomwellness.com .

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