Yes, I Have White Supremacist Tendencies…and I Am Working to Change

As Cohort 4 of Diversifying Our Organizations (DOO) comes to an end, and as we attempt to draft A.R.T./New York’s Diversity Plan, I have been thinking about the challenges I have personally experienced through the program.  

I originally conceived of Diversifying Our Organizations in response to the NYC Cultural Plan, which urged us to diversify our staff and board. In my early conversations with our consultants in this work, the Raben Group’s Alicin Williamson and Whitney Tome explained that before a company can successfully welcome and work with board members of color they need to demonstrate cultural readiness. In other words, we would have to get our own houses in order before we reach out to board members or staff of color. When A.R.T./New York applied for and received a generous 3-year grant from the Scherman Foundation’s Katherine S. and Axel G. Rosin Fund, l knew we were undertaking a big challenge. But I had no idea just how much I would learn about myself and my implicit and explicit biases. I participated in Cohort 1 along with a board member, where I enjoyed the cohort learning process. Our final assignment was to develop a Diversity Plan, which we were encouraged to do with our staff and, ideally, a board member. Looking back, I see how incredibly naïve I was to think that the staff would rubber-stamp my draft Plan.

In our first staff Diversity Committee meeting, it became clear that there was an ideological divide between me and the younger staff.  As someone comfortable with hierarchical management I was used to identifying a problem, recommending a solution, and implementing change.  But I had never tackled a challenge like systemic racism. This was the first time I attempted a conversation with the staff about race and as a cisgender, white woman in her 60’s, I quickly realized that I was “out of touch” with the national conversation.  I found myself feeling very defensive during these conversations, and when I tried to express my feelings, I offended the staff. I would soon learn that this was my white privilege expressing itself.  But there is a huge difference between understanding white privilege on an intellectual level and learning to adapt and check your privilege at the door.  I am still struggling.

Learning to eliminate one’s bias and racist tendencies is incredibly difficult: it takes hard work and self-awareness. Despite being well-intentioned, I continue to make mistakes. At a DOO event for potential board members of color, we held a panel discussion with a playwright. Sensing that our guests wanted the conversation to continue, I announced that I was “exerting my role as Executive Director and extending the discussion.” The Raben Team later explained to me that this was viewed by some of our guests as "White Supremacist" behavior. I was ashamed and devastated!  

Whitney Tome explained that as a white Executive Director, my act of redirecting a conversation between two African American speakers was an example of White Supremacist behavior. She continued to explain that exhibiting this behavior is not the same as being a White Supremacist. Owning up to this behavior and working to change it would take work, but she and the Raben Team were there to help me do it!  

I will be forever grateful to Whitney Tome, Karen Driscoll, Stephanie Ramirez, Anee Korme, Alicin Williamson and Ken Ebie. Without them I would never have learned about my unintentional, but offensive, behavior. I am also grateful to our staff members who continue to work with me on our Diversity Committee as I undertake this journey. Through frank and “difficult” conversations, I have experienced incredible kindness and understanding from individuals who experience discrimination and racism every day. I am deeply grateful to the Raben Team and my staff for teaching me so much and for reminding me that this work never ends!

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