4 Ways White Folk Can Lead When it Comes to Race

Thanks for all the great comments last week in response to my blog about whether you would have the courage to read a (rather long) Reading for Leading about race in America.  If you missed last week’s missive it was about how as white folk, we have a tremendous opportunity to educate ourselves and become allies to our African American neighbors.  They continue to bear the brunt of the biased thoughts that infect our culture and thus our own minds.  As we watch the police incidents — and I don’t mean this to blame all police or police alone — note that “bearing the brunt” is not just a metaphor. So, we can do more than “feel bad” or even “feel outraged” about Travon Martin or Michael Brown or so many others. We need to help remove the brunt.

I promised thoughts about action this week.  I offer these 4:

  1. Show the courage and curiosity to understand how your whiteness generates privilege. This is NOT about feeling guilty. This is about awareness (of what you have — no blame about it — and then about what others don’t).  Awareness generates choice.  And I think the awareness also generates a little humility and great compassion.  These make it worthwhile, alone. But more importantly, they prompt us to see a place to act.  The person who best explains “white privilege” is Peggy McIntosh. There are two ways to get her work:
    1. Here is a beautiful Ted Talk by her. I have a confession here that I will share in case it helps you if you choose to watch this video:  McIntosh is, by her own clever acknowledgement a “little old white lady with white hair.”  I have within my oft-humbling mind, biased opinions about age, about elderly women, about feminist women, about women who teach at places like Wellesley.  So, I had to get aware of that crap) so I had the choice instead to hear her brilliance. You may not need that “heads up.” Good for you.
    2. If you’re a reader rather than a video-watcher, then read her essay.  Many young people in college and high school are being introduced to McIntosh’s essay on what she calls the “invisible backpack of white privilege.” It is quoted thousands of times in the field of sociology.  If you watch the movie first, you’ll definitely want to read the essay.  Or, you can skip the movie and read the essay here.
  2. Intentionally choose to have the experience of being “other,” of being a minority, of placing yourself in a culture such that you are in the minority.  My nephew, for example, joined his school’s Black Students Association. Good for him. I highly recommend visiting one or more African American churches.  My parents brought us when we were in elementary school, and I remember feeling so “other,” like we stuck out like sore thumbs.  Yet I was touched, surprised (and more than a little guilty) at how incredibly welcomed we were. Often good people in white congregations ask, “how can we be more hospitable to African Americans,” and my first answer is: Go see what it’s like to be treated hospitably! Experience the power of African American faith, praise and experience. Then you might ask:  Why do they need to come to our church?!
  3. Listen to African American voices.  Plural.  They are not all the same! And their expressions are very seldom about making “us” feel bad. They are about being heard — by us, by each other, inviting us to open our hearts and to act.  There are so many great voices now.  One of the most powerful belongs to Ta Nehesi Coates. His book Between the World and Me was written to his 17-year old son. It is sad, sometimes angry (which we need to be able to hear without defensiveness), searching, and extraordinarily beautiful. I recommend the audio book, because he reads it himself. You get his inflections; he makes every word reflect his purpose. Maya Angelou is a can’t miss (she also reads many of her audio books, and her voice is carmel at times, and a shot of scotch at others).  I invite others to recommend their favorites. Two movies just released are powerful as well, The Birth of a Nation and, on Netflix 13th, referring to the 13th amendment.  The latter is current and raises a huge political issue that sits on our moral doorstep.
  4. Lastly, personally reach out and listen.  I remember when I was in college thinking, “Why do the Black students and the Puerto Ricans sit at their own tables?” I now wonder, “Why did we, who were in the majority, sit by ourselves?”  Did we reach out to others, who felt “othered?” Did I ever ask anyone, “hey why do you — not just you-black-person, but you-Tony, or you-Desiray — sit by yourself?” Or better say, “I realize that my friends and I seem distant, but I’d love to get to know you.”

I think this is especially true where we let our unconscious minds categorize people — at work, on our street, on public transit, or at the coffee shop.  Consider who you see principally or predominantly as “black” or “old” or “gay” or “the woman with the dreadlocks,” or “the guy in the wheelchair” or some other category.  It’s natural to categorize.  It’s the mind.  But when we don’t become aware the mind is doing it, we are unconsciously stripping people of their personal-ness.  Imagine if all your life, people always saw you as some category, attached to all kinds of beliefs about that category. Ugggghhhh!

See if you can talk but especially see if you can listen.  Fix your mind and give them space to be in human relationship with you.  Doing so allows you to

Lead with your best self!



  • I was privileged to teach at Berkeley high school in 1968-69. The school district approached many of these same issues in a similarly constructive way. New teachers were treated to a play, “Raisin in the Sun” their first day on the job. A new high school course called Social Living was set up to encourage intergroup understanding and personal responsibility for dealing with social and health issues that were affecting community wellbeing at the time (see http://loudounnow.com/2016/07/22/op-ed-engaging-teens-to-confront-social-and-health-challenges/ ). The district also offered teachers an after school course in Minority History & Culture. One nice thing about these initiatives is that they were inclusive and not in silos, avoiding divisive terms such as “white privilege.”

    • Barry,
      Thanks for weighing in. How cool that you had that experience. Gotta love Berkeley.
      I strongly encourage you to watch McIntosh’s video about “privilege.” It is absolutely NOT intended to divide. Maybe it was an unfortunate term — maybe “privilege” raises guilt. But that is not her point. Love your thoughts after you watch her.
      It would be interesting if you went back to Berkeley High now and learned how they are talking about race. I suspect it has grown out of the courageous work that you experienced in 1968. And, although I’m not sure, I assume that discussing “white privilege,” would be part of it.

  • I grew up in a small town where there is a community on the east side that is definitely low income, under-privileged and carries a stigma. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is about 50% black and 50% white. Growing up, several of my friends, acquaintances and classmates lived there. My own father lived there for part of his child hood. I still believe that if we keep focusing on our differences and placing blame whether implied or intentional on a people group (mainly whites) that we are just driving a greater divide. It would do good for our families, communities, churches, workplaces, etc…to just be kind. Be kind to all people. I cannot fix the horrors of the past, nor do I feel the need to be forgiven for things I have not done. I have also been involved in meetings where apologies have been made by white men to black men for past wrongs (that they did not commit). On the flip side in that same meeting, I have seen a black man express that he has received prejudice from other black men because he married a white woman, he asked they these men offer their apologies for that prejudice. In now way would they do that, although they were happy for the “white men” to apologize. I guess my point in saying that is to say, as much as we want to fix this by “taking blame” it just seems to make it worse, justify prejudices and reverse roles. Daily, I will choose to be kind to others whether black, white, straight, gay, rich, poor. It’s really not about how someone else perceives me, although I do have some control over that, it’s about my own character. As a Christian, my value and worth does not come from other people but from my creator who states we are all wonderfully made.

    • Sara,
      Your comment and your commitment are beautiful. Good for you. I am deeply appreciative that you have shared your thoughts openly. We have to talk if we are going to get through this. And clearly, you and I are (and Barry below) are all on the same page that we WANT to make things better.
      I so encourage you to watch Peggy McIntosh’s video, because I think you may be able to stretch. It is so hard to see that I am not saying white people are BAD or that they should be “taking blame.” This is not about “driving a deeper divide.” It IS about affecting our consciousness at a deeper level. McIntosh’s humility and careful elaboration are meant to help us hear — avoiding the way we get flooded by our guilt, so that we cannot hear in any new way.
      May I offer an example? I saw one of my children as a “rebel.” She surely saw me as “controlling.” And we got what we expected to see: she was a controller, I saw a rebel, and over and over we acted this out. I would consciously and frequently see her as a “daughter whom I deeply loved” and try to get past my bad feelings and her bad behavior. But at the root there was misunderstanding. And at the root I really thought it was her problem. Until I got to that root, I was stuck. But as, I got to that root (my own fear of losing control), not when I got to that root — because it took much trial and error — the problem dissipated on its own. (She, by the way, led this work; we were both working on our own bias and pre-conception and getting at its roots.)
      So, “as” those white men apologized in the meeting you discuss, I suspect that there was not just healing for the black men, but for the white men who felt compassion. In the same way that a manager realizes they have been unwittingly hurting their employee(s), it’s not just the employees who win. Instead, the manager gains new awareness and new choices. As white people, we stand to gain every bit as much as those whom we have a range of feelings for — empathy, fear, guilt, cynicism, etc. Those are our emotions (which affect our thought and behavior).
      In your example of the black man who sought an apology from other black men, I see a few things: (1) Getting rid of our fear and bias does not happen all at once, so I’m not surprised he wasn’t given apologies all around, and (2) Although it’s simple to make your point that “in no way would they” apologize, this characterization of yours turns those black men into one
      group identity. (3) Similarly, I am sure that some of the white men in that group did not feel as apologetic as those who apologized; each of us struggles in our own way and at our own pace. I am quite SURE you didn’t mean it, but your characterization of the difference in the experience is that the whites owned up to something (they perhaps shouldn’t have) and the blacks didn’t. I doubt you mean that. But if you re-read it….
      At bottom, your one-to-one desire to live kindly in the now is WONDERFUL.
      AND there remains the question of the deep down biases that we think — I’ll speak for me, that I often think I — have escaped that perpetuate the experience that groups are “other,” and so easily not as good.
      Love to hear your further thoughts.

  • Dan, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say in this post and have tried to live this for years. But…. I have to give you a little feedback; the title you selected just seems patronizing, ” white folk” really Dan? What if the title simply replaced the term “white folk” with “we”. After all….. Leadership with race ( and all prejudices) is something everyone needs to think about. By adding that term, it just seems like you are pandering. Maybe it’s just me, I am curious if others had any buttons pushed. Again, I agree with and support the message, but ask you to consider how the title choice impacts the message. Thanks Dan, for all you do to help rise the tide of leadership everywhere.

    • Nanette,
      Thanks for the challenge. A comment and question:
      Comment: last week I wrote about how many African Americans are weary of not only experiencing the prejudice that is so hard for a group to shake, but then having to be the ones who fix it. So, I said then that I was going to write as a “white guy” to other “white people.” I think it’s time “we” have that discussion. Maybe “white folk” was a bad term. I wasn’t sure what to use to make the point that I was continuing a theme.
      Question: What was patronizing about it? Did you think I was excluding myself from it? Or is it a variant of “black folk,” an expression that many African Americans would use in speaking about themselves? I wonder why it triggered you?
      Thanks for joining in this learning community and for your kind – as well as your honestly critical – words!

  • Race does make a difference in America. I grew up in a town where there are almost no minorities, so in a sense there was no racism, because there was no one to discriminate against. ” About all I felt was at one point I learned that the “upper class’ of my town looked down on persons who wore blue jeans. That was a class marker. I think it is not so much like that today. But I have seen times when race stood out as an issue. I worked for a funeral home, and took a body to a larger city (Flint) for burial. There was a funeral director there I met who was supervising the burial. At the cemetery, we had a service and then following, the funeral director turned to the two cemetery workers (black men) who were going to take the casket to the grave. The director said, “OK, boys, let’s get going.” The look on the faces of the black men when he said boys was stunning. They looked down and looked frozen. It was terrible to see. I had no response, but should have said something.

    Earlier this year I had a month’s stay on Cleveland. As it turned out, I was in a largely black part of Cleveland. It is strange to be the only white person at a McDonald’s restaurant, or a laundromat. I got a lot of stares. There was a sign at the laundromat, which said to ask the manger if you need change. When I asked a lady there who looked like she might be the manager, if she was the manager, she shivered and could not look me in the eye. She said yes, I gave her some bills and ask for change. he never relaxed. I do not recall her saying anything except the “yes” to my question. I add that I am not an imposing person in size. I am five foot 6 inches tall and thin.

    I had similar experiences in a grocery store and other businesses. I had not thought there was such a wide divide between races.

    • Mark,
      Thanks for these stories. STORIES tell us so much, don’t they?
      I SUSPECT that your experience was not just rare for you, but for so many of us. It helps to give us a sense of one of the strongest forms of white privilege — the unearned advantage of being “normal” and not “other.”
      Thanks for continuing to engage in thoughtful ways.
      Question: Did you find your way into a church in Cleveland?

  • I hope you listen to my tape that I will upload this week, sir. Maybe it will change opinions on whites not being victims of police brutality. P.

  • A year after taking 155 I’m still reading these weekly leadership inspirations and applying them to my daily life!!!!

  • Dan,
    I am pleased to see you opening this conversation. I’ve been personally influenced by reading Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” and watching the interview with him by Charlie Rose. He’s a man of remarkable courage and genius. He’s continues to make a difference in our country. I also want to recommend the new book by Patricia Bell-Scott called The Firebrand and the First Lady. The life of Pauli Murray (The Firebrand) also inspires me.

  • Dan,
    Just a thought, how many “White folks” scream their heads off when supporting “Black” players in their favourite sports team but shun any contact with people of a different colour in their daily lives?

  • Dan, you are proof-positive liberals corrupt and destroy everything they touch with liberalism. “Show the courage and curiosity to understand how your whiteness generates privilege”?? And this is the tenet for “leadership,” today? Goodness. Last week was White Guilt Week moving on to White Privilege Week, right out of the 21st century liberal playbook. This is not unique, profound or even new. How about some new material for goodness sakes? This is 101 learning in high school these days and 404 in college. These blogs – apologies to the word “blogs” – are the opposite of leadership. They are followship of Dan’s rehash of standard liberal doctrine. And here’s a newsflash and this is critically important for the followship – Dan, himself, has no “white guilt” nor does he suffer from “white privilege.” He only helps you with yours. He’s a “good liberal” and they don’t suffer from ANY such afflictions, only those they preach to. P.T. Barnum had it wrong for today. He said, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” But, today, most are made by liberals. Don’t be one of Dan’s.

  • Here’s Dan’s answer to my post. I felt it was important to allow him to present his views on my comments, to the group.

    Read the tone of your message to me.
    Compare it every other message – many of which disagree with me.
    Do you notice any difference?
    You attack left, right and center.
    A huge idea that might help you is to look at your anger.
    Maybe your anger is that you feel the liberals have taken down your country. If you feel such great political indignation, I think that’s great (not that you value my opinion much). I think you should express your indignation (a kinder word). The way you have done it will reinforce anyone’s views who agrees with you. But it really doesn’t do much of anything to open inquiry, which is what my blog (no “apologies for the word blog” – why that weird attack, Jon?) is all about.

    But I think the IDEAS you are writing are an expression of some personal anger and hurt. As if I did something to YOU. What did I do to you? Or am I a stand-in for Obama and Clinton and Kerry and LBJ, etc.? That still leaves the question, why are you so PERSONALLY angry. Who hurt you, John, that you are fighting back in such vitriolic ways? Before you answer me – if you haven’t already, please go back to lines 1 and 2 of this message. Re-read what you wrote.

    For my part, I find your attacks sting. If that’s what you want, you have succeeded.

    If you want to call names and talk about liberals and rants and all that, find a good political site and flail away. You could do that on sports sites too; they are great blogs because people call each other idiots, assholes, and worse. That’s not what this site is about.

    If you want to contribute and learn, you are more than welcome to comment. Challenge people with specific ideas, not wild broad-brush, self-evident-to-you attacks on liberals. For instance, what is the leadership point YOU are making, as you accuse me of having none?

    If you can’t do this, your comments will be blocked. Then you can say, “a-haa, proof that liberals just hear what they want to hear.”


    Daniel G. Mulhern

    Distinguished Practitioner in Law & Business

    University of California, Berkeley

    2220 Piedmont

    Berkeley, CA 94720




    Sign-up for “Reading for Leading,” a weekly one-page stimulant for those who lead, at dev.danmulhern.com/category/reading-for-leading/

  • Dan, I’m sorry if I offended you or the Governor. If I did I hope that you guys will forgive me one day. You two were always so nice to me no matter what and I don’t want any hate between us. I love reading what you write/ (listen to the audio), as well as your wife’s tweets. If I say something on here you don’t agree with you can tell me, I can handle criticism from someone that I have respect for. PV.

  • >