Navigating Whiteness in EDI Work

by Jo Teut

“Does anybody have a map? Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this? I don’t know if you can tell, but this is my just pretending to know.” –from “Waving Through a Window” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

I’m not talking about raising teenagers with mental health disorders as the mothers in Dear Evan Hansen did. No, I’m talking about diversity. The reason an entire field of diversity and inclusion exists is because no one knows how to do it well, not even me. So, I’m going to discuss my map for navigating my own whiteness in equity, diversity, and inclusion work in hopes that you can build your own.

Where I work, Centre College, for example, is a predominantly white institution which only began admitting black students 50 years ago despite celebrating its 200th birthday this year. Centre also has a history of being the result of gender-segregated institutions merging. Why would an institution built by and for white men, traditionally, know how to welcome and include those it kept out for so many years?

A similar question I have for myself is why would I know how to welcome and include people who don’t look like me when I’ve been trained from birth to exclude them? I’m talking about growing up in a small, rural community of 99% white people, where all my doctors, teachers, TV characters–practically everyone–looked like me. I’m also talking about northwest Iowa where our Congressional Representative (Steve King) thinks it is okay to have a mini confederate flag on his desk and receives no voter backlash for doing so. I’m talking about being part of a family who can no longer discuss politics around the dinner table, not that we often gather, because of the work I have done in recognizing my white privilege and helping other white folx recognize theirs.

Why would I as a white person in this environment know anything about navigating diversity? Truth be told, I didn’t know very much when I entered this profession five years ago. But, I didn’t let that stop me and my passion for equity from going on my lifelong mission of eliminating barriers to education and employment, especially for LGBTQIA+ people in Midwestern and rural locations.

I started with women’s rights and a sixth grade project on women’s suffrage in the 1920s and continued through my Women’s Studies classes in undergrad, primarily taught by second wave feminists who did not think outside of the gender binary. My own feminist beliefs grew and developed over time, as I learned more about my own white privileges and came to terms with my queer identities. As I learned more and more about LGBTQIA+ identities after college, my world opened up. It took that long.

In an attempt to be anywhere but Iowa, I applied to graduate programs across the country and moved to Ohio for a MA Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. I was no longer surrounded by only white people. My friends opened my eyes. As we slugged through our homework, essays, and more than a few happy hours, we learned about each other’s identities, experiences, families, life aspirations, and research. When someone mentioned an issue I knew nothing about, I googled it. Sparing you my entire web history, here is a short list of terms I googled within my first year:

  • Colonization
  • Redlining
  • Israel/Jerusalem conflict
  • Where is gay marriage legal?
  • Bottom
  • When could Black women vote in the US?

Pro tip: I still google. While some people complain that google can give you the wrong answer or doesn’t explain nuance, those are just excuses. When you literally know nothing, having a vague reference is still better than nothing.

However, I understood that a vague reference isn’t enough. I started devoting all my spare time to reading books written by queer people of color, especially those who are multiply marginalized – those who also have disabilities, who are immigrants, who are LGBTQIA+, among others. Occasionally, I’d pull up YouTube to see a visual representation of something described in those books. Or to see the author talk about other issues.

In my work, I started asking questions and encouraging other folx to do the same. When asked for a list of politically correct words and a list of never use words, I developed a culturally competency program that insisted we learn about the constituencies we serve, we develop relationships, and we decide for ourselves what language to use. I also spent a lot of time talking to white, straight, cisgender people about making mistakes. I told them doing something is better than doing nothing. That they cannot avoid making mistakes because no one is perfect, but that they can learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. I took responsibility for my actions when I excluded folx, such as when I scheduled a training in a non-ADA accessible room and limited a participant’s ability to engage with the session, or when I failed to prepare for a hybrid in-person/online session, excluding folx from across the state that sorely needed access to the resources and space I was providing. That was hard. And, it taught me to be more intentional about my programming and more empathetic when I received negative criticism.

And now, I’m at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, doing diversity and inclusion programming in an office with two Black women, one white woman, and my white queer self. When I interviewed for this position, one of the students at my lunch was genuinely shocked that I was the candidate because I was white and they thought only Black people did diversity work. I took that moment to explain that if Black people are the only ones working on race issues, the race issues will never get solved. White people have to be at the table doing the hard word. She agreed and asked me when I started. I gave her the search committee’s timeline and explained that we have so much more to work on than race issues, such as gender, class, and sexuality.

When I did start, one of my first training opportunities was to discuss overcoming bias, addressing microaggressions, and acknowledging power structures within the workplace for an audience of supervisors. I decided to facilitate on these issues knowing that I would be treated as an expert and listened to as a white person to a primarily white audience. In using my white privilege this way, I asked these supervisors to have difficult conversations about who is at the table, how decisions are made, and how we can do better as an institution. I did so as a subordinate, not a supervisor myself, and with my Black female supervisor in the room. Not everyone liked what I had to say, including the fact that everyone has biases, being nice is not a way to overcome them, or discussing power structures and how one might speak up against them. I was uncomfortable. They were uncomfortable. And, I didn’t get fired. In fact, I’ve given that training to others since then.

The point is I didn’t let being uncomfortable stop me. I went home and debriefed my feelings with my white wife, who is my number one white person to talk to about race. She asked me to unpack my feelings, questioned my hesitations and assumptions, gave me suggestions for doing better, and held me accountable for actually improving. I intentionally have conversations about my white fragility and guilt with other white people as to not but a person of color in the position of trying to console my white guilt. That does not deserve a gold star; that’s part of being a decent human being. Marginalized persons should not have to comfort people in privileged positions.

As hard as that conversation was, I had the even harder conversation with my supervisor to debrief the training. One aspect I am particularly concerned about is putting folx with marginalized identities into a position of educating others while they are at a training for their own professional development. I’ve been in that position more than a few times myself. We discussed the training and what I could do better. I took notes. Googled some stuff. Read another book. Am still thinking about this and integrating my new learning into my next training session.

So, this is my map. It’s not straightforward or even queerly forward. There are twists and turns and loops that I get caught in. But, at any point in time, I can return to this map and continue heading into the direction of social justice and equity. If I choose to, which is a privilege in itself.

Jo Teut (they, them, their) serves the Assistant Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programming at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. In this position, Jo works to increase collaboration and encourage intersectional event planning with various student groups, advocates on behalf of marginalized students, and creates programming to address the needs of the increasingly diverse campus community.