When whiteness elbows its way in

February 23, 2011

I was having a conversation with three other women recently; two white and one black.  We all are involved in helping people to develop awareness, knowledge and skills around how racism operates.  I was disappointed and frustrated with what happened.

The four of us had never met together before and, as we begin to plan for an upcoming project, I began to notice a pattern.  One white woman spoke and was responded to by another white woman and back and forth it went between them for quite some time. The black woman started to speak more than once and was cut off after a few words. Everyone was excited and friendly and yet the space for the black woman to speak kept shrinking and shrinking.  It became obvious to me that neither of the other two white women recognized the monopolizing of the conversation.  This dynamic went on for quite some time.

Yes, I think the personalities of the two women had something to do with what was occurring.  Yet, I was disturbed that neither of them appeared to be aware of us modeling the pattern that can frequently occur in conversations of mixed racial groups, especially given the work that we do.

As a white person, I have been socialized to believe that my opinion is important and space should be given for it. People of color have often been given the message that their participation is not as valued.

Our socialization creeps into our day-to-day patterns in insidious ways.  I’ve learned how vigilant I need to be in tracking my behavior in mixed groups so that I don’t unconsciously perpetuate this pattern of crowding out the voices of people of color and elbowing my way into dominance.

Always, in a mixed group, I have to ask myself who is speaking and who is being silenced.  We need all of the voices at the table.


  1. Thanks for this important post. Being aware of how we white folks are socialized to believe we “own the room” can help us use our white privilege to include “all the voices at the table” as you so rightly note. We must develop those eyes to see and ears to hear and then find the words to hold accountable our fellow anti-racist white folks.

    • I appreciate your comments, liber8tion. Someone asked me about calling out what I saw in the group while it was happening. While I did follow-up and ask the we listen to what “Susan” had to say (the black woman), I wish I had named what I was experiencing more directly. Since I was new to the group, I was hesitant. Yet, it is that kind of directness that will help increase the awareness of all of us. My challenge next time this occurs (and I know it will) is to speak what I’m noticing in the moment. Thanks for writing.

      • and that’s why i believe white people run from this work. it’s hard work. we need to be in the moment, find a way to put on the pause button when that little knot grows in our gut because something has just happened. i co-lead an anti-racist white caucus and we practice roll-playing to help us find those words we’ll need in the moment. it goes against how we were socialized to be good people and it takes practice to be the one in the midst of the moment to say something.

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