The last year saw widely-publicized police murders, openly white supremacist militias, and widespread protests. The rebellions of 2020 were the largest protest movement in U.S. history (NYTimes). Mass movements compel people to pick sides, even those who never held a picket sign. This means there have been heated conversations about race and racism in unexpected places.
In June 2020, birder Christian Cooper asked a woman to leash her dog in an area of Central Park with songbirds. In response, she told police “there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” all on camera (YouTube). Black birders and ornithologists often feel suspicion from white nature-goers. One graduate student recounted efforts “to appear as least threatening as possible” to each white person he encounters in the field. Now, predominantly white birding organizations are making initial steps towards diversity and renaming birds named after white supremacists. “American birders have their own racial reckoning,” read the news (Washington Post).
• Actively dismantle racial gatekeeping in social networks, organizations, and workplaces through advocacy and toughconversations.
• If you’re white, ask yourself: “Have I become the type of individual that a Black person might choose to be friends with?”
Racial reckoning came for the knitters as well. Knitting entrepreneur Karen Templer apologized for comparing an upcoming trip to India to “colonizing Mars” (Fringe Association). The ensuing conversation gave people of color room to address racism in the knitting community, but not everyone was ready. The backlash, said Sukrita Maho, was “usually from white people who don’t understand why we’re ‘making it about race’” (Vox).
Bird-watching isn’t “about” race. A white friend group, book club, or startup probably isn’t “about” race, either. But if a social group or organization is overwhelmingly white, there’s likely to be an element of racial exclusion, even if unconscious or unintended. Bringing conversations about race into majority-white spaces isn’t a distraction because majority-white spaces are already “about” race.
Some will object that their groups are exclusively Caucasian by chance. “It’s not their fault that people of color don’t want to knit, bird, work, or hang out with them!”
It’s true: people of color generally aren’t itching to spend time with white people who’d rather not spend time with them. The problem is when majority-white groups function as gatekeepers, cutting off opportunities for others.
For instance, people often learn to bird through birding organizations, and city-dwellers find birds in urban parks. If you’re racially profiled at the park and get weird looks at the meetings of the birding society, your new hobby may become unworkable.
This holds for employment as well. 70% of white people’s jobs are acquired through friends or family members. Informal networks of white people “hoard and distribute advantage among their family and friends, who tend to be mostly white” (The Atlantic). The result? Black college graduate unemployment rates are more than twice that of other graduates. Similarly, white trade school students receive job leads from white instructors, ensuring fewer Black students find steady employment in their field (Work in Progress).
Three-quarters of white people only have white friends (Washington Post). Since most jobs are acquired through word-of-mouth, all-white social networks reproduce workplace racial exclusion. Fields from firefighting to ornithology to construction are almost entirely colonized and gatekept by white social networks (American Sociological Association).
If you find yourself in such spaces, the solution is not to recruit a token “diverse” member (Health, The Root). Tokenism is just another form of racism, since white supremacy already reduces people of color to our race or ethnicity. If you suspect you’re the token in your friend circle or club, it’s time to make new friends (Madame Noire).
Instead, use your privilege to confront your peers’ racist beliefs or practices, especially when it’s uncomfortable or hard. If you think a hypothetical new member, coworker, or acquaintance of color would be tokenized, excluded, or put under suspicion, you have a responsibility to confront these attitudes now. You can put yourself in spaces where it’s you who are the minority, though only if you are able to do so with humility, self-awareness, and respect. If it makes sense, encourage your workplace to hire through open and actively anti-racist recruitment, not just word-of-mouth (Talent Beyond Boundaries, CNBC, Recruiter).
As an Asian man, I know I will receive some opportunities others will not, based purely on my race. I know that other opportunities will be closed off to me for the same reason, whether leads on apartments, favorable mentions to hiring managers, or invitations to social events. I know that this may influence my life outcomes, earnings, living conditions, and health even more than explicitly racist organizations or policies. And I know these represent a key way that racial hierarchies in the United States reproduce themselves generation after generation. Believing in anti-racism is simply not enough. We need to dismantle racial gatekeeping.
Mostly white hobbies like birding and knitting have experienced “racial reckonings” in the past year.
Though discussion of racism may be new in certain spaces, racially segregated networks, organizations, workplaces, and social circles are already “about race.”
Predominantly white social and professional networks play a key role in maintaining racial inequality.