Not so long ago, when Margaret "Peg" Finders was still chair of the Augsburg University Department of Education and Terrance Kwame-Ross was a newly hired professor, department meetings got tense at times.
Kwame-Ross, a Black man in the mostly white and female department, pushed against the status quo at the school. It was one reason he'd been hired, he said. But too often he felt that his opinions got shut down or pushed aside. Kwame-Ross was convinced his race was at the root of it.
Finders, a white woman leading the department, considered herself a longtime champion of racial justice. But she struggled to navigate the racial tension she experienced in the meetings — and was feeling herself.
Eventually, Kwame-Ross and Finders decided to do what they do best: examine the discomfort with academic rigor. The result is a framework they call "White Talk Moves" in which they identify some of the conscious and unconscious ways white people talk and act that maintainestablished norms.
This deeply ingrained behavior, the professors argue, prevents well-intentioned organizations from approaching the topic of racism, let alone beginning to address it. It's a hurdle more workplaces are facing as organizations across the country set fresh goals to increase diversity and inclusion.
Rooting out racism is particularly relevant at Augsburg. The small liberal arts college started by Scandinavian Lutherans in Minneapolis more than 150 years ago has transitioned the composition of its student body over the past decade. About 65% of first-year students now identify themselves as Black, indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC.
Over the past two years, Kwame-Ross and Finders, who is now retired, have taken what they have learned to conduct workshops at Augsburg along with more than a dozen colleges,universities and national conferences.
The concepts are universal, they say, applying to any type of organization, and even informal groups of colleagues and friends.
Q: How did all of this work begin?
Terrance Kwame-Ross: Going to meetings, I was put in positions where I couldn't be myself. I couldn't have a PhD, I couldn't articulate how I felt, I couldn't identify that there are variables like race and gender. So I started saying, 'Wait. Something is going on here.' It made my white colleagues very uncomfortable. And that created conflicts between Peg and myself. However, Peg was the type of person who started to think about the conflict and approach me.
That was a breakthrough for a white person to admit to a Black male, particularly, that there was racism going on, unconscious or conscious.We started to see that some behaviors had a certain kind of speech to it. We started to become very aware of thoughts and language and what people did. So we called that a "speech act" and then we thought about the idea of "white talk moves."
Margaret "Peg" Finders:When you think of any white institutional space — whether it's a board meeting, a business meeting, a panel, a conference — there's a way of doing things. You don't back up and say, historically, all the people who've been doing it this way, the people in power, have been white.So suddenly when someone talks differently, we say, 'Oh. He's talking loud. He's angry. He makes everything about race.' Because we have a set of norms established and we take them as common-sensical as opposed to being constructed by a particular group.
Q: You write that when people talk about race, the focus typically is on the person of color while actions of white people remain unexamined. In workshops, how do you shift the focus without turning white people off?
Finders: That's a real challenge because white people will instantly move to: "You're shaming me. I'm embarrassed." We created scenarios of everyday encounters that people have. We work to figure out ways to disrupt the "white talk moves" at the point of utterance.
Kwame-Ross: We try not to accuse anyone. You're bringing awareness of what I call the racialized moment. There are racialized moments all the time. And if we can help give language to it, a majority of people — not all — begin to identify with the scenarios and the language from their own experience.
Finders: Just saying the word "white" can be a hot button. I had someone say, 'I'm not going to come to your workshop because I think you're being exclusive.' Many white people haven't had practice talking about race, haven't had the experiences. So when you talk about race or when you single out white people, it's uncomfortable or frightening. But I think if you don't say it, you can't move past the racism.
Kwame-Ross: We are a Black male and a white woman. In our workshop, we sit side by side; we tell our story. You have all sorts of images people are not going to talk about, in terms of the big Black male, in terms of how white females have said that Black males have raped them. So there is historical pretext, subtext and context that is working. Unconsciously there are questions being asked and answered, and that gives people courage because Peg and I are not afraid to talk about our conflict. Participants can see and feel how we were able to think through it and how we can use this work to be constructive. However, it's not resolved. In meetings there still can be some tension around trying to talk this stuff through.
Q: Peg, you said you once considered yourself a "white ally" in support of racial justice, but that you now think of yourself as a "student." Describe the difference.
Finders: We need to be careful because "white ally" has almost become just a slogan. People deeply believe they are white allies, but what does that mean? And what are your obligations to actually do something? I position myself as a student for understanding Terrance's experiences and his expertise. If I just kept hanging onto the white ally label, I might pat myself on the back and think I'm a good person. It can't just be used as an excuse to say I'm done learning.
Kwame-Ross: Think about white ally in context of a meeting. A white female disagrees with another colleague and takes eight or nine minutes to make her point. As soon as she finishes, I have something to say about it. Then a white male says, "Hey, hey, we're out of time." And my voice is just dismissed. Then I go to my office and I hear knocks on my door from people who understood what had just happened. But at the meeting, they were what we call a "missing-in-action ally." Our workshops teach these white allies how to find some power, strength, encouragement and practice to know what to say in the moment. I need you on the battlefield with me, not later in my office.
Finders: I have to admit I was once one of those missing-in-action white allies.
Q: Racial bias training hasn't worked all that well in the past. How do you hope to break through?
Finders: By naming the moves. You can't disrupt them if you don't name them, if you can't see them, if you don't know they exist. Our workshops are not heavily theoretical. We do situate it in theory and research, but it's really down to the practical. Rather than having this big, esoteric conversation about race, we ask: What does it look like when you're having coffee with your group? What will it look like next Wednesday?
Kwame-Ross: We try to give them words and strategies. A common question is: We understand it, but how do we act in the moment to disrupt? Part of it is pausing and asking questions. Demanding why. Saying, "Wait, wait. Terrance had something to say. We'd like to hear what he has to say." That's a skill. To not shame someone, but also not to side-step.
Finders: In our workshops, people of color nod their heads, "Yes, yes. This happens all the time." And white people are like, "I've never thought of that." That's because it's a "white talk move" and we take it as common-sensical. By naming it, participants who are people of color can no longer have someone saying, "This is just you. You're just being oversensitive." And white folks can say, "I really need to think through that whenever a person of color says something, and I do this, am I really serving as an ally? Or am I over-voicing and talking over what they want to say so that I can move the conversations back to being more comfortable?"
Q: Terrance, do you ever feel frustrated that it's up to the people of color to explain to white people how their "white talk moves" land on others and how that might be standing in the way of true change?
Kwame-Ross: When we first started, Peg and I had conversations about that. I don't think this is my work. I'm not here to constantly tell white folks or remind white folks about the language that they use. It can be exhausting to do this work if you're a person of color because you start to see the "white talk moves" all the time. White folks don't necessarily think about them consciously as they're doing it. Because who does? No one does.
Q: What do you hope this work achieves?
Kwame-Ross: Bringing these issues to the forefront may be interpreted as conflict. But what we're trying to do is put us all on a path to be constructive about what's actually happening. It can lead to a constructive realization of how can we make things better for all of us to exist and participate in this particular space.
Finders: A little discomfort is a good thing. It's the sand in the oyster. You want enough sand to irritate to get a pearl, but you don't want so much sand that you kill the oyster.