Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW
September 28, 2019
Do you ever wonder “what’s my place in this work?” As a white person, do you ever think “what should I be doing and what shouldn’t I be doing?” How about “what’s the right way for me to say this?” When should I be speaking up and when should I be stepping back? On the theoretical level, these answers are often much easier than what it looks like in practice.
Recently, I had a situation where I was confronting these questions in a business setting. I was in a mastermind meeting recently with about 4 other women business owners and a situation came up that tested this for me. One of the women, a white woman who I have a lot of respect for her, her work, and who I know is very conscious of social issues, shared about an upcoming speaking opportunity where she would be speaking to “inner city” kids. So as soon as she used the term “inner city” I felt a pit in my stomach. I knew using the term “inner city” was wrong but didn’t say anything during the meeting. That was wrong of me and that was me being complicit. I knew I needed to do better. Here’s how I reached out with a message about an hour after our meeting:
“I wanted to reach out after our meeting today because I was thinking about something and didn’t share it. I’m really excited for you and the speaking opportunity that you have. I’ve been trying really hard to practice the work around race and racism that I am trying to teach. On our call today you described that you will be speaking to “inner city” kids. When you said it didn’t sit right with me but I couldn’t find the right words in the moment to describe why or make a suggestion of better wording. “Inner city” is a very racially charged word bc it’s typically code for people who are Black and Brown and live in concentrated areas of poverty as a result of systemic racism. I looked it up after because I wasn’t sure what language might be better but here are a few suggestions that I came across. Kids that live in “divested neighborhoods,” “concentrated areas of poverty,” “center city” “core neighborhoods.” I’m sure that are other words and I would be curious how the children and families that live there describe it. This is still a work in progress for me trying to navigate this as well. I think it’s awesome that you have this opportunity and I know you will do amazing. I hope you are ok with me reaching out. Here’s 2 articles on my quick search that I found that address it: 4 reasons to retire the phrase “inner-city”
The response I received included the person thanking me for reaching out and sharing. She asked me a follow-up question and said that she would read the articles I shared and process the information. She ended by saying that she really appreciated me letting her know and always respects my input.
I’m sharing this because I want you to know that you are not alone in this work. This situation turned out well although it won’t always be that way. We won’t always get it right but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to try and fix our mistakes when we do get it wrong. You also need to know that you are not alone in feeling confused about the right thing to say. The system was built to make us feel that way to sustain it but that’s why we continue to educate ourselves, constantly do our own self-awareness work around issues around race and racism, and connect with others doing this work. We must push ourselves past discomfort as we continue to work and strive for a better world.
If you are a white mom, looking for more ways to learn how to navigate issues of race and racism with your child, I encourage you to join me for my upcoming webinar: Empower & Connect: How to Navigate Race and Racism as a White Mom Raising a Child of Color. Of course everyone no matter your racial background is invited and even may likely benefit but the content will address racial blindspots that we have as white people, white fragility, white privilege, and what it means to live an anti-racist life as a white mom, etc.
I know that if I don’t step up, I’m allowing racism to continue. And it’s only an option for me because of my white privilege.
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That feeling that often comes up when we aren’t sure what to say, how to say something, it’s anxiety and we need to be consistently showing up and doing the work.