Why We Need White People Talking about Race

At this year’s Stanford PACS Philanthropy Innovation Summit, I had the opportunity to share the stage with Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation, to talk about what philanthropy can do to advance racial equity. I respect and admire Darren deeply. He’s one of the preeminent leaders in philanthropy and one of the most outspoken advocates for racial equity, and a true friend of mine. 

The combination of the nature of our relationship, and my openness to talk about race, made it easy for us to exchange ideas about our unequal racial reality in America openly. I recognize that most white people are uncomfortable having conversations about race at all. But, if we continue to avoid discussing the topic, we’ll never change the systems keeping outcomes unequal among the races. These conversations are essential to our progress as a nation. So, here are a few tips to help white people who may be nervous about getting started. 

The prerequisite for any productive conversation about race is to observe the world around us, listen to people who do not look like us, and learn from our differing experiences. Undoubtedly, you’ll discover we have significant racialized outcomes in education, healthcare, wealth creation, and almost any other area of civil society. Consider why those racialized outcomes exist. And if you think they exist because of some deficiency or issue with that group of people – ask yourself – is that a racist interpretation? 

I grew up in rural Nebraska and was first exposed to the lived experiences of a Black person in college at Stanford. That experience had a profound impact on me, and still shapes my philosophy on philanthropy and racial equity. We lived in the Stanford campus housing district of Ujamaa, filled mostly with first-year Black students like my roommate. The name Ujamaa means “extended family” in Swahili. The residence hall prides itself on fostering a sense of belonging in an environment built for open, honest, and sometimes challenging dialogue. 

Today, my understanding that more people like me need to speak out for people like my roommate is grounded in the values Ujamaa describes.  

I had hoped that the optimism the racial reckoning of 2020 generated would have continued to propel us forward in a collective pursuit of racial equity. Instead, we have become deflated. Conversations have gotten tougher. Fear of being canceled or chastised on social media has stunted important dialogue. 

We need to center conversations on race with shared values to foster an inclusive economy and a culture of justice and equity. We need to courageously create brave spaces, not just safe spaces. People should have the freedom and encouragement to ask those tough questions. 

Specifically, there are three things that I encourage you to examine, as you delve into your own reflections about race: 

  1. An important first step is to observe and understand the racialized outcomes that exist from many of the systems and structures we have in our daily lives, from education to healthcare, to the ability to create wealth.   
  2. Next, try to discuss why those racialized outcomes exist?  
  3. And if you, or your conversation partner, believe that those racialized outcomes exist because of an underlying issue or deficiency with a specific group of people, ask yourself – is that a racist interpretation?  

Engaging in these conversations and examining your own interpretations and understandings is hard work. But it’s necessary. 

Most philanthropists give to change the country and the world for the better. We hope to reduce and eliminate suffering wherever it exists and support people on the journey to succeed in life.  None of those goals are achievable if we cannot talk about race, given our current reality.  

James Baldwin said, “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” That sentiment could not be truer in the endeavor to confront fundamentally unequal systems, and turn them around, so that success is not determined by race.