By Renee Rubin Ross, founder and principal, The Ross Collective

But because I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t mention race. At that time, I thought that if I mentioned race, I would be calling people out or stepping on toes.

As I write this essay, I’m thinking about Shanice*, a Black woman who joined my course at Cal State University East Bay several years ago.

On the last day of class, Shanice handed me a note. The note said, “I didn’t feel encouraged in this class.”

My first reaction was a defensive one. What is she talking about! I thought to myself. I didn’t intentionally treat Shanice differently than any other student.

That note stung. I put it away for a time and held onto my defensiveness.

But eventually, I picked it up again, looked at it, and thought to myself, what is the truth that this note is holding?

I now see it as a gift to deepen my own understanding of how I need to lead as a white instructor and facilitator.

I taught Shanice and her classmates about grant proposal writing. But because I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t mention race. At that time, I thought that if I mentioned race, I would be calling people out or stepping on toes.

Now, after some significant work and learning, I know that by not mentioning race, I caused harm. And going forward, one of the best ways that I can honor and affirm the students, colleagues, and participants in the conversations I lead is to be open, direct, and courageous in talking about race.

When we — white people — talk about race in an affirming, open, direct, and courageous manner, we join BIPOCs on the journey towards racial equity and liberation.

This is harder than it sounds.

As a trainer and facilitator, a core of my work is building safety, inclusion, and belonging. Yet as a white person who grew up in our racist society, I learned practices — such as not actively and consciously opening up space for BIPOCs to talk about their experiences of race and racism — that have caused harm.

We — white people — are socialized not to talk about race, especially among people of different races. For many of us, talking about race is perceived to be rude — as if, by referring to someone’s race, we are going to put that person on the spot and embarrass the person.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is that we each need to start unlearning our traditional views on the subject — stat. In order to stop causing harm, white people must talk about race and equity in every meeting.

Why do race and equity need to be brought up in meetings?

When white people fail to have the courage to talk about race, the default racial context for conversations is whiteness. BIPOCs’ lived experience of racism continues to be invisible and suppressed.

As white leaders seeking to build antiracist organizations, it is important for us to try and create environments in which each person in the room (virtual or otherwise) feels welcomed, seen, and affirmed.

This can happen when we de-center ourselves and thus open up more space for people who are not us to talk about their different experiences in the world. Doing this feels especially important at this moment, as our country continues to grapple with different health outcomes based on race from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One study found that Black patients had 1.4 times the risk of hospitalization and 1.36 times increased risk of death compared to white patients. This means that each Black person on our teams, boards, or classrooms is much more likely to know people who have contracted and died from COVID.

When white people fail to have the courage to talk about race, the default racial context for conversations is whiteness. BIPOCs’ lived experience of racism continues to be invisible and suppressed.

Talking about race in every meeting is also so important for strategic planning, board governance, or just building a well-functioning team. At the most basic level, equity means that:

  1. systems are shifted so that BIPOCs who have been historically and systematically disadvantaged in terms of access to wealth, power, education and health have the resources to enjoy full, healthy lives, and
  2. the people closest to these challenges have the power to dictate the solutions.

To move a group towards equity, white leaders must create transparency and clarity about differential racial outcomes and experiences.

How do we do this?

A terrific resource is this presentation, “Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities,” by Frank Harris III and J. Luke Wood, professors at San Diego State University. While the presentation focuses on education, the practices Harris and Wood share are relevant to board and staff teams from all kinds of nonprofit organizations.

Harris and Wood mention that “being race conscious” is among the most important of their proposed five practices. They remind white people that we cannot ignore conversations on race, since experiences around race are part of the life experiences of BIPOCs in the (virtual) room.

According to Harris and Wood, race consciousness includes:

  • Being intentional about providing opportunities to engage in race and equity issues
  • Giving participants tools they will need to productively engage in racial dialogue
  • Making sure that leaders have the tools they need to facilitate dialogues
  • Staying present in the dialogue, monitoring it regularly, and intervening when necessary

Some specific steps

Harris and Wood point out a few key ideas, one of which is when we as white people are leading the conversation, we need to build our own comfort with talking about race in an affirming, curious, and open manner.

Harris and Wood point out that it is an ongoing process and effort to build safe spaces that do not create harm–these are practices that cannot be just attended to once, but rather need ongoing awareness. Leaders can continuously set up and reinforce positive group dynamics by starting each meeting or class with group agreements.

But the other part in talking about race among white people and BIPOCS is understanding that microaggressions will inevitably occur. When I lead conversations, I think about “calling people out versus calling people in.” The idea is that we

  1. Acknowledge when someone has made a comment that might be perceived as harmful.
  2. Slow down the conversation.
  3. Encourage all members of the group to think about different perspectives, assumptions and ways of being.
  4. And hold the goal of building a community that affirms safety and trust while acknowledging, celebrating, and incorporating the range of experiences from the individuals in that community.

Harris and Wood also assert that representation matters in the content discussed. Learners and participants want to see themselves in the stories and experiences that the larger group engages with. When I work with organizations on planning processes, I encourage them to survey their staff and board on demographic data and to use this for reflection and discussion.

For example, one reflection question might be: How does the composition of our board and staff reflect our commitment to equity and ensuring that those who are most impacted by challenges are weighing in on solutions?

I believe, according to my faith tradition, Judaism, that it is “not up to us to finish the work, but nor are we free to desist from it.” In other words, it is the responsibility of white people to take the next step, and the step after that, towards race affirming leadership practices. Here are some questions that will lead to advancing first steps:

  1. Assess how comfortable you feel talking about race. What learning or practice could you do to increase your comfort with talking about race?
  2. What tools do you need to better understand microaggressions and what to do when they happen?
  3. If you’re feeling resistance, what feels scary or hard about race conscious practices?
  4. What do you imagine would be the benefit for your team or organization?

For white people who are not used to talking directly about race, it can feel strange at the beginning. We are knocking down a powerful pillar of white supremacy — that it is more polite and socially appropriate to be race neutral.

But in my experience as a white leader, it is also freeing for the entire group when all of us center conversations about race and equity in meetings. In seeing each individual in their joy and pain — and in listening carefully to how the systems of white supremacy and life experiences contributed to pain and joy — we begin to find new paths forward, together.


*Shanice’s name has been changed to preserve her privacy.

Renee Rubin Ross

Renee Rubin Ross

Renee Rubin Ross (she/her) is a recognized leader on board and organizational development and strategy and the founder of The Ross Collective, a consulting firm that designs and leads inclusive, participatory processes for social sector boards and staff.

Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives.

In addition to her consulting work, Dr. Ross is the director of the Cal State University East Bay Nonprofit Management Certificate program and teaches board development and grant writing for the program. Dr. Ross lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She is a board member of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Dr. Ross writes regularly on nonprofit strategy, racial equity, and learning. Subscribe here. She can also be connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.