Why White Leaders Need More Racial Literacy

Original column by Annahid Dashtgard published in the Toronto Star, May 6, 2023

Race: The Elephant in the Room

In my line of work as an inclusion consultant I’m always in the thick of discomfort, working out the best way forward to lead groups toward greater cohesion. Like many others who do this work I come to it from personal experience — more explicitly, from racial trauma.

Immigrating to small town Alberta from Iran when I was 9-years-old knocked early lessons about visibility and power right into my bones, the foundation of this later life passion to create spaces where everyone matters and belongs.

Many organizations are making progress toward equity and inclusion, but I continue to notice how quickly other marginalized identities get onboarded into institutional conversations while race often remains the elephant in the room. As long as white leaders remain unwilling, or unable, to have frank conversations about race, we’ll remain stuck — because what we can’t speak about, we can’t change.

Annahid Dashtgard

This discomfort around race exists for a few key reasons. One is that we’re all more comfortable with what we’re familiar with. There are neurodiverse white people, white people of different sexual orientations and gender identities, white people with different religions etc., so conversations around these areas of difference are usually more accessible for white leaders.

The one identity white leaders can’t step into is non-whiteness: Brown, Black or Indigenous skin. It requires an extension of first empathy, then trust for white people to believe the voices of people of colour when they speak about their experiences.

When my memoir came out in 2019 I remember some white people saying they didn’t think I was “dark enough” to experience racism. I wish they could have been there in all the hundreds of moments I was ignored, dismissed, downgraded or shamed because of my not “dark enough” skin! Why couldn’t they simply have trusted I was speaking my own truth?

Race and Polarization

This brings me to the second reason I think race is so hard to talk about: the current highly charged political climate. I have met white people who are so afraid of being labelled a racist that they avoid any discussion of race altogether. There’s so little room to make a mistake that many people feel they don’t even have the space to try, which is a problem because making mistakes is how we fundamentally learn as human beings.

Yet, when white leaders can’t talk comfortably about race, the fallout always lands on the shoulders of their non-white colleagues, who are experiencing the race-based discriminatory patterns.

I’m now leading two BIPOC Leader Labs for institutional leaders from different sectors across North America and many of them talk about the double bind of being asked for equity advice and then not being believed when they voice what they see or experience. I am always humbled by their courage toiling for change in white-led organizations, but BIPOC leaders can’t be the only ones doing the work.

Leaning Into Conversations About Race

It is time for white leaders to lean into conversations about race, not despite their power but because of it. This is an important caveat because white people bending over backward to accommodate everything people of colour ask is almost as unhelpful as white people shrinking back in fear and avoiding the topic altogether.

So how do you stay open without collapsing? You start developing racial literacy, a long-term skill that takes practice and time (360 hours plus, to be specific) to achieve. White leaders can start by accessing any number of resources racialized experts have put out into the world, including myself. My latest book, “Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World” is such a resource and was just published.

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With literacy comes familiarity and familiarity dispenses fear — fear of discomfort, fear of judgment, fear of doing or saying something wrong or any of the other fears white leaders face. We Brown, Black and Indigenous leaders are here courageously carving the path forward, we’re just waiting for everybody else to show up.

Anima Leadership CEO Annahid Dashtgard seated looking at the camera in a red blazer.

Annahid Dashtgard

CEO and Co-Founder, Anima Leadership

As a seasoned change-maker and non-fiction author, Annahid has worked with hundreds of organizations and leaders to create more just and equitable futures. She’s a first generation immigrant woman of colour whose inaugural book—Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation documents her journey identifying and healing from racial trauma. Her latest book Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World is a set of poignant, humorous and timely stories translating everyday racism to ordinary life.

Annahid has a Masters in Adult Education and has trained in various psychological modalities to understand the root of systems change in human consciousness. She has spend more than two decades consulting, educating, coaching and writing on EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) issues across both public and private sectors.

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