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Should white people be leading DEI work?

Among the evaluations we received after a recent orientation workshop, a participant commented, with concern, on the fact that the facilitator of their group was white.


It brought up some complicated feelings for me.


At Fletcher Consulting, our workshop leaders usually facilitate in pairs, and we always try to find two people whose identities reflect meaningful diversity. This gives them the chance to use themselves as examples throughout the session. Doing this is both informative and illustrative—it shows participants what authentic conversations across difference can look like.


For shorter sessions, two hours or less, we often have one facilitator, as happened in this instance. The facilitator was among the most experienced of our line-up—someone I have known personally and professionally for decades and from whom I’ve learned a lot.


So, one part of me read the comment about her session and felt defensive. Her skill and knowledge weren’t in question—just her race. It felt unfair to deny her the chance to share them.


But beyond that first, personal reaction, I also felt disagreement with the commenter’s premise. I do believe there is a role for white people in antiracism work. They can model for participants what it looks like to go on the journey of unlearning biases, developing practices of allyship, and building relationships with people of color. They can take some of the emotional burden of this process off of the people of color who must navigate it every day, and even in real time play a kind of “buffer” role with other white people who are still learning about offensive vocabulary and harmful behavior. And, unfortunately, I’ve observed many times that some participants will listen and respect a message coming from a white speaker that they dismissed moments before from a speaker from a marginalized identity.


I shared the comments with the facilitator, a little hurt on her behalf. Her response was that she was surprised that more students hadn’t given similar feedback and that she agrees with the commenter. She has been questioning the most appropriate way she can contribute to this work for her whole career. She has an internal gauge for when she thinks her identity is an asset to the dialogue and she has stepped aside from opportunities and recommended peers of color when the criteria were not met.


It’s a crucial question, both for our consulting offering and for any organization looking to offer workshops to their employees. And clearly many points of view exist. What do you think? What is the role of white people in DEI workshops? How do you feel as a participant, or as a facilitator yourself, about this issue? We’d love to read your comments.


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