Where are all the white people?

February 27, 2010

A couple of years ago a white male student came to campus to start his graduate program. He was referred to me by someone who knew of my interest in anti-racism work. When we met he said, “Where are all the white people?”  What he meant was where are the white people working for racial justice on this campus? He had come from another university where white people engaged in that work were more visible. I found myself asking that question again today.

I was presenting at a regional student conference on race; it’s offered every two years. My workshop had about 30 students; most of them students of color.  One self-identified white male and a few women who appeared to be white, were the minority. While not everyone attending the conference was in my workshop (two others were happening at the same time), it appears to me that white students are not showing up for dialogue on race.

I went to a faculty/staff summit on race about three years ago. Once again, the majority of attendees were people of color.

All of these gatherings are taking place in the context of a predominantly white state, city, and university. Where are all the white people?

Is it because we white people think we don’t have a race; that race is about “others?” Is it because thinking about race for white people is generally a choice rather than a way of living every day? Do we think we won’t be welcomed at a conference on race? Is it fear? Is it apathy?   My inquiring mind would like to know what you think.


  1. Hi Diane!
    I am intrigued and enjoying your articles. The questions you are asking are button pushing, intense, and so important. I want to write a lot, but about to go out the door, but first I just wanted to say that I think there is a lot of hard to swallow shame that goes on for white people – a feeling that humany beings will do just about anything to avoid. It’s not excuse, but I think it’s a large part of the reason. How do we reduce the shame so that we can take responsibility for our behaviors and truly see our entitlement and privelede? What do YOU think?

    • Hey JJ, it’s good to hear from you. I think shame is a component and mostly I think it is about the privilege of not having to face the issue. As a white person, I can conveniently decide if today is a day I want to deal with race issues or not. If I’ve had difficult encounters with people, I never have to wonder whether it’s because of my race. I can stay as a bystander thinking, “race conference – hmmmm – that’s a good thing to do” and stay disconnected from it and not risk an experience that might challenge what I know of myself and my life. I don’t think blame and shame are productive; they can be an excuse for inaction and actually just another form of enacting privilege in that staying in that place means I don’t have to risk changing my behavior.

      My husband reminds me of a story about a parent talking to a child who kept saying, “I’m sorry” “I’m sorry” when he behaved in offensive ways. She said to him, “I don’t want to hear that you are sorry; I want to hear that you will be different.” I try to remember that when I feel myself wanting to slip into living in the guilt realm. I”m not responsible for every racist thing that has happened or will happen. It’s also true that I have a responsibility to respond to the impact those behaviors have on individuals and our society and not turn away.

      What has been productive for me is keeping my heart wide open as I listen to the painful and repeated stories of daily racism experienced by people of color. It is that deep pain that motivates me to act, more than shame/blame would ever move me to do.

      There’s more to reflect on and say about this – thanks for continuing the conversation.

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