Is It Possible to De-Center Whiteness as a White Presenter?
The other day, a white friend reached out asking if I had ideas around how to acknowledge as a presenter that a particular course’s content might be especially loaded for Black folks in the room. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the topic, but I have been experimenting over the years with different ways to acknowledge my whiteness and position of power as a presenter, facilitator, or speaker. Some of the things I normally do include:
- Regardless of course content, mention that the course is taking place on occupied Native land, acknowledge my privilege as a white presenter, and call attention to the number of white people in the room if it seems to be a majority white space. This is mostly for the white people in the room, to draw their attention to whiteness since whiteness is often invisible or the assumed default. I also hope to signal to POC that I’m aware of these things, though I know that doesn’t make me a “safe” presenter.
- Acknowledge where a particular topic may have loaded or just different meanings depending on cultural context and give examples. I hope that doing this again is a flag both for white folks and for POC, and makes space for bringing up cultural specificity where participants feel comfortable doing so.
- Explicitly say that as a white person, I can’t comment on some things, beyond offering perspectives I’ve read or heard from POC, because I don’t have that experience. Acknowledge that the course content is less rich because of this. I’m just trying to offer some honesty here, and avoid falling into the “well X culture practices X way…” trap.
My friend had an interesting response to my suggestions, though, that got me thinking about this approach and whether it’s necessarily right. She expressed concern about whether just acknowledging the lack of knowledge and leaving it there might center white voices, and whether it might be better to center POC by giving specific examples of how POC might want to approach the topic. I thought that pointed out an interesting blindspot in my thinking, and though I’m not totally sure how to address it, I might adjust my approach a little bit in response–possibly by asking for POC input on the curriculum in advance so that I can speak directly to POC in the room with suggestions that their peers have offered. At the same time, I feel uncomfortable “passing on” information from one POC to another through course content, since my white voice necessarily acts as a filter. I think it could still feel a little like the anthropological voice of “here is how your people do things!” Encouraging different folks to participate in a workshop is another option, so it’s not led by a single voice, but I also don’t want to assume that folks of color are comfortable sharing personal experiences in a majority white space (and often that approach leads to white folks saying racist things that could be traumatic even if I attempt to shut them down).
Of course, this only serves to reinforce how important it is that the majority of folks presenting, teaching, speaking, or facilitating at an event are people of color, and how much richer course content is when white folks collaborate with people of color. I’ve been looking for more chances to get out of my single-presenter model comfort zone lately to address this, and also turning down some opportunities to make program staff aware of the importance of racial diversity among presenters.
But that said, I’m curious particularly to hear from readers of color. When you are in a class or a presentation led by a white person, what sort of approach to race makes you feel most comfortable? Would you rather hear ideas specific to a POC perspective, even if they’re filtered through the presenter’s understanding? Would you rather the presenter acknowledge race but not try to discuss something they don’t understand? Something else?