Why It Matters to Turn the Mirror on Ourselves

a white woman looks in a mirror; in grayscale

a white woman looks in a mirror; in grayscale

In Robin D’Angelo’s best-selling book, White Fragility, she writes that for race relations to move forward in our society, white people need to work on getting comfortable with the uncomfortable:

“The racial status quo is comfortable for white people, and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out–blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics? How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making? Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see? Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not?”

As two white women who serve on boards of family foundations committed to social and racial justice, we’ve come to understand why living in the discomfort matters. Investing in efforts that seek to reform systemic inequality requires us to examine the history of racism in our country. This examination is not a “check the box” training that boards and/or staff of foundations may volunteer to go through, but a deeper openness and commitment to fully understand history and our role as perpetrators of injustice, whether we realize it or not.

Not only is it important for boards (and staff) to do this ongoing work, but we believe it’s essential for us as individuals to turn the mirror on ourselves and take an honest look at our whiteness, at our implicit bias, and at the lack of real perspective we might have when it comes to understanding race.

We’ve learned through a great deal of practice, personal reflection, and vulnerability that the more we can lean in and fully understand the unfiltered history of racism in our country, the more we see the systems that have been put in place to suppress people of color. We see the tactics and policies that continue to marginalize communities of color and the role white supremacy has played in designing a democracy that doesn’t work for all.

Our narrative is not meant as an “attack” on white people, nor is it meant to make people feel shame or guilt. Our intention is to share lessons learned that have helped us grow our skills as philanthropists who seek to be more effective in changing the status quo. Our hope is that you might push yourselves in new ways, too—or teach us what has made a difference in your own journey around racial equity.

Here’s a guiding principle we believe is critical to embarking on this personal work:

Ask permission to FUMBLE.

We’ve been in many circles with diverse participants talking about race, racism, white supremacy, systems change, and more. Naming upfront that we might unintentionally say something off-putting, biased, or even racist, matters for us to be brave enough to fully lean in and try to do our best to understand and grow.

We are not experts like Robin D’Angelo or the real social justice warriors on the frontlines, but we have been pushing ourselves on this journey and hope that the stories and resources we share might inspire some of you to turn the mirror on yourselves and take on the real work needed in our field. While there are many families and foundations committed to equity work, there is a lot more to be done to truly accomplish justice. If you are a trustee of a foundation, consider looking for ways to get started to advance your knowledge and comfort. Some of the resources that have inspired us are listed below and we hope you’ll share other resources with us at fellows@ncfp.org.

And stay tuned for NCFP Fellow June Wilson’s podcast coming this June/July!

Kelly & Mary