Why is a white woman like me talking about racism and partnerships?
Isabelle Wallace, RN, and author Dianne Oickle, NCCDH, co-presenters of session titled “Partnerships for racial health equity” at the 2019 Community Health Nurses of Canada (CHNC) conference, in Saint John, NB.
Racism is an issue that is crucial for white people to address. It is our responsibility as white people to learn about racism and take an active role in making discussions about racism happen. As we have these conversations, however, we need to recognize that we cannot — and should not — speak for people of colour. Instead, we can use the privilege given to us to draw attention to the impact of structural racism on health and the importance of addressing racism.
Workshop on partnerships for racial equity
In May 2019, at the annual Community Health Nurses of Canada (CHNC) conference, I had a unique opportunity to facilitate a session titled “Partnerships for racial equity.” The presentation drew on learning that I, along with the rest of our team, have had from the NCCDH’s work to become an anti-racist organization. For content, I knew that I would draw on NCCDH resources such as Let’s Talk: Racism and health equity and the curated list of resources for anti-racism action, as well as previous presentations developed by colleagues. [1,2]
But beyond the material I presented in my slides, it also felt essential that, as a white person, I facilitate the discussion with a person of colour. This collaboration was important because, even though I can speak to the concept of racism and how it affects individual and population health, I don’t know what it feels like to be the target of racism. This experience is pivotal to understanding the broad impact of racial inequity.
I also knew I needed to talk to colleagues across sectors, both racialized and white, who have facilitated discussions about racism. I used these conversations as an opportunity to learn how to place myself in the discussion, consider questions that might come up and reflect on challenges I may have to respond to during the session.
The whole process helped me develop further insight and experience personal growth that has been both fulfilling and surprising.
We are surrounded by whiteness
I have come to realize that we are all surrounded by “whiteness.” My co-facilitator/co-developer for the session, Isabelle Wallace, an Indigenous registered nurse, describes our systems in this way:
|We have all inherited the systems that we are in. We were all educated in the same systems – but the way those systems are set up will benefit some people and disadvantage others. So anyone who wants to change things has to work within the colonial system that they are also part of.|
Isabelle’s argument made me think about a televised debate on political correctness I watched last year, where Dr. Michael Eric Dyson said, “When it’s been rigged in your favour from the very beginning, it’s hard to understand how it’s been rigged.”
What I have come to appreciate is that many societal systems and processes have been “rigged” in favour of white people for generations (i.e. education, public health, health system). As a result, white people like me benefit from racism at the expense of racialized communities. This has been a tough realization for me.
Rethinking white supremacy
What I have also learned is that it is critical for white people to move past the thought that “white supremacy” only references extremist groups and intentional harm to people of colour. It is so much more than that.
White supremacy is based on the assumption that practices of whiteness are the best way of doing things. White people like me experience white privilege — but the intersections of privilege and oppression are complicated.
It can be hard for white people who live with other inequities to see that they have white privilege. A white person who lives in poverty, for example, may not recognize they have white privilege because when you are poor, you don’t feel like you have any privilege at all. But privilege is not just about income; it is about being able to walk down the street as a white person and not worry about getting approached by the police just for being there. Somebody can be poor and have white privilege that comes from positive assumptions about their skills, knowledge and abilities purely (and often unconsciously) based on the colour of their skin.
Whiteness in networking
I have learned that our personal biases and assumptions about other people based in whiteness influence how we act and with whom we partner. In other words, how we conduct ourselves in partnerships can perpetuate racial stereotypes and racism.
In a public health context, this affects the diversity of experiences and perspectives among our partnerships, who is represented, who drives the focus of the work and the applications that result.
Application to the workshop on partnerships for racial equity
In the session we used a ‘making space’ exercise where participants were asked to consider a partnership they are involved in or want to develop. Participants were asked to make a list of what they could do to achieve the worst result imaginable.
Comments from the group included:
- acting indifferent to differences;
- not recognizing power imbalances;
- not asking what would make it difficult for some at the table to speak;
- making assumptions about people; and
- inviting people that we have no relationship with to partner with us and expecting them to say yes.
We then asked everyone to consider if they do these things in their own work. What was surprising to everyone was how many of us do the very things that we know exclude people and may prevent our work from including partners from racialized communities.
The time for self-reflection during the session was important and insightful for everyone, and strengthened my resolve to better understand whiteness, what white supremacy means and the impact of racism on how we develop and sustain partnerships.
Building equitable partnerships
It is essential to consider how our role in a system that excludes racialized people and devalues non-white ways of knowing will perpetuate racism and racist structures.
As I prepared for the session, I came across a few different ways that we can build more racially equitable partnerships in public health practice:
- From the outset of any collaborative work, ensure that racialized groups are included and have opportunities to participate in priority and direction setting as well as decision-making.
- When looking at health equity issues, identify which racialized groups are affected and engage those who have authentic connection to communities of colour.
- Use stakeholder analysis to identify who is essential to engage to ensure fair and equitable representation in any collaborative initiative.
- Build relationships with communities of colour by being honest about your intentions in the partnership and commitment to the issues.
- Be prepared to let go of a predetermined to-do list or preset agenda to focus on the relationship more than the outputs.
Learning is ongoing
At the end of the session, a white participant said they were glad I identified myself as a white woman because, after my co-presenter identified themselves as Indigenous, they had assumed that I was Indigenous as well. Reflecting on the content of the session, they said, “Now I can see myself in this. Seeing a white person facilitate this kind of conversation helps me see that I could be doing it too.”
Facilitating this session showed me that having conversations about the impact of racism on health and partnerships is something I can do. I can take an active role in speaking out against racism. I can consider how my approach to partnerships is influenced by my own biases and assumptions. I can have conversations about racism with my white friends, family and colleagues. And I need to be committed to forming relationships with people of colour in my life and work.
As public health practitioners, speaking up publicly about the impact of racism and having tough conversations about even tougher issues will change the way we approach our work and the partners with whom we engage.
 Ndumbe-Eyoh S, Dawson J, Yanful N. Partnerships for racial equity. Workshop presented at: The Ontario Public Health Convention; 2019 March 27-29; Toronto, ON.
 Ndumbe-Eyoh S. Partnerships for racial equity. Workshop presented at: Public Health 2019; 2019 April 20-May 2; Ottawa, ON.
 National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health. Let’s talk: racism and health equity (rev. ed.). Antigonish, NS: NCCDH, St. Francis Xavier University; 2017 [cited 2019 Jul 24]. 8 p. Available from: http://nccdh.ca/resources/entry/lets-talk-racism-and-health-equity.
 Annie E. Casey Foundation. Race equity and inclusion action guide. Baltimore, MD: The Foundation; 2014 [cited 2019 Jul 24]. 16 p. Available from: https://www.aecf.org/resources/race-equity-and-inclusion-action-guide/.
 Paax Christi Anti-Racism Team. Building accountable relationships with communities of color: some lessons learned. Washington, D.C.: Pax Christi USA; 2015 [cited 2019 Jul 24]. 8 p. Available from: https://paxchristiusa1.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/buildingaccountablerelationships.pdf.