A question for our disrupted times: Will well-meaning white people be able to change?

December 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of Martin LaBar via Creative Commons

Last year’s Dodge Board Leadership Series wrapped in the spring with a workshop titled “Turning Learning into Action,” with an emphasis on addressing systemic racism in all aspects of our society. Even at that time, we were wondering, “What sort of world will we be acting in?”

Since then, the question has only become more pertinent and the need for change more stark. George Floyd was killed nine days after our workshop, followed by months of demonstrations across the country. The pandemic has grinded on, with data of its impact making the inequities in our society strikingly clear. We have learned just this week that life expectancy for Black Americans has dropped at three times the rate for whites. As we watched power and water restored in Texas after the devastating storms, we saw it come last to communities of color.

Most dramatically, on Jan. 6, we watched an assault on our Capitol building led by fellow U.S. citizens, many if not most identifying as white supremacists.

So again: What will our society be like on the other side of the pandemic?  Many white people like myself who do not identify as white supremacists have intellectually understood that our “new normal” should begin with a dramatic difference in our racial worldviews – specifically that we should acknowledge a history of white supremacy in the United States, and that we should address and change systemic racism in all aspects of our society.

It feels as if there is momentum for real change. Books like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, have been bestsellers for months, and a new vocabulary is bringing clarity to issues long ignored. Every nonprofit I work with has organized, or is participating in, anti-racism training. We have a new president and a female, Black, South-Asian vice-president who have made racial fairness a central value of their administration. The political divisions in our country notwithstanding, we seem poised for change as a society. 

But change is more emotional than intellectual. I wonder how well we understand what it will mean emotionally for white people to give up power and privilege. What will it take for those of us in the position to USE our power and privilege to advance racial justice to actually do so?

In the spirit of DiAngelo’s exhortation for white people to talk to each other about questions like this, I’d like to offer a reality check and a heads-up for people who look like me.  I’d like to explore what gets in the way of change

I used to present a framework for the emotional dimensions of change in the Dodge Board Leadership workshops. It was drawn from the work of psychologist Robert Evans, who wrote about the challenges of change in schools. He says people experience change, no matter how sensible it is, in four ways: as loss, as a feeling of incompetence, as confusion, and as conflict. His framework helps explain why people resist change.

In my years of working with non-profit leaders, I always presented these four dimensions of change in a very general way, observing that when we are in the midst of change:

  • We feel a sense of loss, because the patterns of our lives become our identities, and when those patterns change, we actually mourn what has been lost.
  • We feel incompetent, because whatever the new way of doing things will be, we don’t know how to do it yet; we feel competent in the ways we are doing things now.
  • We experience confusion, because our organizational practices are all part of a complex whole. When we change something deliberately on Tuesday, something we hadn’t anticipated changes on Thursday; to combat uncertainty and confusion, we say, “couldn’t we just do things the way we’ve always done?”
  • We experience conflict, because workplaces are like families. Change can serve as an excuse to bring out long-held grievances; it seems as if we are arguing about some aspect of change, but what is really going on is that years ago one person got the parking place, or the office, or the assignment, that another one wanted.

All these emotional dimensions of change reinforce the status quo. When I read Evans’ work, I don’t see resistance to change as stubborn or uninformed or reactionary – I see it as healthy human behavior. It makes sense to avoid loss, incompetence, confusion, and conflict. This is why change is so hard.

But so what? We find ourselves beginning a new year at the confluence of an ongoing pandemic, economic uncertainty, deep political division, and an evolving understanding of the many ways our old “normal” wasn’t working for people of color. We need change. 

The Evans framework reminds us why it won’t be easy. Let’s look at the psychological dimensions of change through the lens of what will be required of us to create the fairer society we envision:

  • The sense of loss for white people will be profound: We will have to give up a core part of our identities – the notion that we have nothing to do with racism; if we are serious, we will have to give up – actually help dismantle – a system that advantages us.
  • And when it comes to feeling incompetent, just watch. We have had the luxury of not having to think about race every day as we get in our cars or go to our stores. Most of us have little experience talking about race in mixed-race groups; as DiAngelo writes, we have not had to “build our racial stamina.” She further writes, in the only line of the book that made me laugh out loud, “…when white people discuss issues that make them uncomfortable, they become almost incomprehensible.” 
  • Confusion reigns when we don’t know what to do, and changing systems is a complex task. Systems are multi-layered, and it’s never fully clear what is causing what. And at the core of anti-racism work is recognizing our own unconscious biases; by definition they are invisible to us.
  • And if healthy people avoid conflict, it will take an act of will, again and again, to wade into waters full of real and potential conflict: Interactions with people of color who are out of patience, interactions with white people who will claim that it is they who are being disadvantaged by our efforts, policy discussions in a civic sphere characterized by deep political divisions and lack of basic trust.

My takeaway is to be warned – and on guard. If we want to be agents of change, we have to be aware of the forces that can take us out of the game.  When these four emotional dimensions of change come along, as they surely will, it will be helpful to expect them, to name them, and move on. We have to remember that our goal is transformation within as well as in the world around us.

David Grant is the author of The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations. He is the former Dodge Foundation president, a facilitator in the Foundation’s Board Leadership technical assistance workshop series, and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog.