It’s not just about having the “right” words and pictures

Estimated Reading Time: 11-14 Minutes (if you want a shorter explanation, you can review the summary graphic or the slides I made for a presentation)

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

  1. Trigger warning: I will give examples throughout this blog of mistakes I have made as a White communications professional. First, I need to mention that my first example specifically focuses on my reaction to receiving a statement after a police officer killed Philando Castile. Second, I want to acknowledge that much of this blog (including my examples) is discussing the types of microaggressions BIPOC professionals experience every day. I am sharing these stories with the hope of doing good, but I recognize the harm I’ve committed at these and other times.
  2. I am capitalizing “White” and “Whiteness” in this essay to be consistent with Tatum’s style. I continue to argue with myself on this topic, and I have several articles in my spreadsheet of Equity & Comm resources for communicators wishing to learn more about the question of capitalization.
  3. For those unfamiliar, I’ve included a summary of the White Racial Identity Development Model at the bottom of this post. I also encourage you to read Tatum’s book. It is very approachable, and I learned a lot.

While in graduate school, I was introduced to the White Racial Identity Development Model created by Dr. Janet Helms and shared by Dr. Beverly Tatum in her chapter on the White Racial Identity in Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. I immediately recognized myself as I read about the six phases experienced by White individuals working to embrace “a healthy White identity”.

Listing the 6 phases of a communicators Equity Journey: 1: Contact Phase ('Diversity' issues aren't our mission), 2: Disintegration Phase ("How do we say this without offending anyone?") 3. Reintegration Phase ("Haven't I done enough?", 4. Pseudo-Independent phase ("What are the 'right' words and pictures?"), 5. Immersion/Emersion Phase (It's how you think, not just what you do), 6. Autonomy Phase ("I'm not doing my job unless I ask, 'Do we do what we way?'")
My TL;DR summary of the 6 Phases of a Communicator’s Equity Journey.

As I reflected further, I was also struck by similarities between the phases and patterns I’ve noticed when talking to other communicators about my interest in exploring equity concerns for communicators. This led me to write a draft of this essay about the journey communicators take when they begin considering equity concerns.

Before sharing it, I want to be clear that I am not an expert on the White Racial Identity Development Model or racial identity development. My understanding of the model is limited to Tatum’s summary chapter. I am using this model as a framework to both give credit and because it helped me organize my reflections.

Additionally, I did not do any independent research when writing this essay. I am only working from my memories and perceptions, and this means is naturally biased. To be transparent about this, I am only sharing examples of my own actions/thoughts including examples of mistakes I have made.

Finally, when I first wrote this essay, I phrased my analysis as only being about White communications professionals. This was partially done out of not wanting to speak past my experience along with a wish to specifically challenge other White communicators.

After getting feedback, I have nervously removed that qualifier here. Our industry is rooted in expecting people to fit into simple categorizations, viewing our organizational interests as supreme, and viewing White people as our default and preferred audience. This seeps into all of us and our expectations.

I want to acknowledge that there are groups and professionals who are pushing back on these norms (many of which are BIPOC-led, such as Community Centric Fundraising). These groups are advocating for fundamental changes in the way we do communications, marketing, and development, and they are changes I am still seeking to understand.

Stage 1: Contact phase: (“‘Diversity’ issues are not our mission”)

Just as a White person can go their whole life without thinking of their Whiteness, communicators can remain in the Contact phase throughout their professional careers. For those not working within racial or social justice contexts (or those who define those terms only in ways that are comfortable for their White audience), it is easy to assume that discussions of power, privilege, racism, and racial equity are not required under the mission of their organization, and they may believe these topics are not questions relevant to the way communications is done.

This can result in communicators in the Contact Phase being hostile when these topics are suggested or questions are raised. It is also likely that their materials will only feature White faces and voices.

In preparing to do my Capstone research, I often heard Contact sentiments from practitioners and academics who did not see how issues of Whiteness, diversity, and equity connected to my professional MA. It was also shown by the lack of academic research I could find on equity considerations in PR research, outside of people lamenting the lack of BIPOC communications professionals in the field. While this is a valid and important concern, as I will discuss shortly, it is also allowing White communicators to escape thinking about the power and responsibility they hold.

My Contact Experience: My best example of an experience that I recognize to be from the Contact Phase of my development occurred when I was the Managing Blog Editor for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities (YNPN-TC), an organization created to provide professional development and networking opportunities for young nonprofit professionals. While I knew that the organization was having discussions about diversity (and I thought I was accepting of those conversations), I was surprised when the Board of Directors issued a statement following the killing of Philando Castile where they specifically named racism and implicit bias and stated the words “Black Lives Matter”.

As I read the email, I questioned, “Aren’t we supposed to represent all young nonprofit professionals? Shouldn’t we stay away from divisive issues that could result in people not joining our organization? How is this connected to the betterment of our work situations?” This angered me, in particular, because I had hoped to use YNPN as a place to create conversations between liberals and conservatives, and I felt using this rhetoric meant the few conservative members we had would leave and others would refuse to join.

This feeling resulted in me refusing to listen to board members who tried to explain that the statement had come as a direct result of hurt being felt by our BIPOC members (both on the board and outside) and throughout our local community. I continued to hold this belief even after I joined the board, and I regret to say I slowed down and stopped several equity-related measures my fellow board members wished to undertake.

Stage 2: Disintegration phase (“How do we say this without offending anyone?”)

While Helms/Tatum say the movement into the Disintegration phase is started by an individual becoming aware of racism, for communicators, I believe moving to this phase is started by a general awareness that the issue of “diversity” is something that needs to be reflected in their organization’s materials. This can either be triggered by genuine recognition of the reality of racism or a general instinct to protect an organization from a PR standpoint—meaning they have a feeling that “diversity” needs to be shown so the organization won’t be accused of overt or unintentional racism. Alternately, communicators may enter the Disintegration phase because they were made aware of the lack of diversity in their organization, and they assume this is due to BIPOC individuals and communities not being told they are welcome to join.

When communicators start considering issues of race and equity, I have found that our first instinct is to look at the photos in our materials and ask if we are showing “enough diversity”. Oftentimes, communicators will next decide to specifically take photos of BIPOC participants (or purchase stock photos) so these individuals can be featured prominently in publications—an action that often results in the selection of photos that creates a false image by over-representing the percentage of BIPOC individuals within the organization’s clientele. Communicators will also rewrite quotes and other items so that the words match their organization’s voice, and they do it with the belief that they are simply helping the individual present themselves well.

Communicators in this phase may also start writing statements about diversity-related issues and/or add special “diversity” sections to their websites and publications to showcase these photos and stories. These statements often highlight the organization’s support for “for all people”, but they will lack concrete action or investment since the writer’s focus is often on not offending people. While these actions are often done with the best of intentions, they may mean these efforts are little more than feel-good tools as they are watered down and separated from the organization’s main activities.

Disintegration can also be seen when equity, diversity, and accessibility issues are thought of as “extra work” that is only be done when time allows.

My Disintegration Experience: I started my career in Democratic politics in Minnesota, and there have been many times I felt a need to “show diversity” so that my (predominantly/exclusively White) organizations would appear welcoming to people of color. This would lead to uncomfortable conversations and uneasy feelings between me and other White communicators as we had, what felt like, a chicken-and-egg situation of needing to show diversity to be welcoming but not having diversity to show.

One example of this came from a time I was preparing to take photos at a series of events, and my boss stressed that I needed to get photos that “showed diversity” in them. While I felt uncomfortable with this instruction, I, ultimately, followed the only Black man who participated in a training session so I could get photos of him at every step of the process—something that I tried to hide but now realize he, likely, both knew was happening and exactly why I was doing it.

To be clear: The man had signed a waiver giving us permission to take and use his photo. That does not mean he knew he would become one of the prominent and identifiable faces of the program, and since the waiver was part of the signup process for the event, he may have not felt like he could object.

Stave 3: Reintegration Phase (“Haven’t I done enough?”)

Having made some changes, in the Reintegration Phase, communicators will push back against criticism by either saying they meant well or that their past actions should be enough. In Reintegration, communicators may advocate for the hiring/selection of BIPOC communicators and spokespeople so those individuals can respond to diversity concerns, but they will expect these individuals to conform to White culture and expectations.

My Reintegration Experience: When I write stories at work, I often write longer items with the assumption I will cut down and repurpose them in multiple publications. I always show the individuals profiled the complete story to ask them for their approval and if they want changes.

At one point, I was contacted by an angry coworker who asked me why I was using a shorter version of a story despite only showing a longer form to the individual profiled. Instead of listening to her explain that the person could feel I am removing an important part of their individual story, I ignored her under the belief that it was my job to decide what information was needed for our purpose. I hid behind the fact that the student had approved the initial story and assumed that meant we were permitted to use it however we wished.

Stage 4: Pseudo-Independent Phase (“What are ‘the right’ words, stories, and pictures?”)

I believe most of the communicators who express an interest in addressing diversity issues in communications sit in the Pseudo-Independent Phase. In this phase, communicators look at their previous efforts (along with things made by other organizations) and recognize the ways their actions tokenized people—whether that consists of including BIPOC faces as little more than props in photos or writing stories that only focus on the organization as the hero.

This analysis results in communicators feeling guilty about their past actions and seeking training about the “right way” to communicate about diversity including the “correct” words to use and the “good” way to use pictures. They will want this training to focus on providing practical tips and checklists that say exactly what to do as they will assume the answers are simple, universal, and static.

My Disintegration Experience: I was once asked to interview an international student about events of her—seemingly—difficult childhood. I had begun to learn about ethical storytelling at this time, so I was fairly frustrated to be directed to write a story that seemed to be using a client’s painful experiences to make an organization look good.

During the interview, I approached the events of her youth tentatively and with the mindset that she would not want to discuss this (I assumed) painful history. I stumbled over my questions and stopped repeatedly to assure her that she didn’t need to answer. Despite her telling me she was fine, I continued to do this so many times that she eventually interrupted to say she had no problem sharing the story as it was simply the story of her life and what needed to happen so she could continue her education. It was clear that she was neither embarrassed nor upset about the decisions that had been made.

In that moment, I recognized I was bringing my privilege and bias to the conversation as I was both judging her experiences and assuming I knew what was best better than her. Instead of following her lead, I was allowing my focus to be on my idea of what it meant to be a “good” or “ethical” communicator. Ultimately, I was making it her responsibility to make me feel ok with writing the story I had been assigned rather than respecting her experiences and seeking to understand the story she wanted to tell.

Stage 5: Immersion/Emersion Phase (“It’s how you think, not just what you do”)

Communicators reach the Immersion/Emersion Phase when they move past focusing on wanting simple answers and, instead, recognize that their viewpoint, privilege, and life experiences have given them a worldview that shapes all of their choices. These communicators will seek to identify their own implicit biases, and they will begin asking questions about how those biases impact their materials and—in an important mental expansion—their overall working processes and planning efforts.

Rather than relying on their judgment, communicators in the Immersion/Emersion phase will seek out organizations to follow and professionals to connect with so they can learn best practices. They will begin to consciously consider how to shift their messages through asset-based framing and ethical storytelling.

In Immersion/Emersion, communicators will embrace the idea of using the terms that individuals use to define their identities, although they may feel uncertain or uncomfortable about how to ask or include this. They will also strive to respect each person’s unique voice and story.

My Immersion/Emersion Experience: While in graduate school, I was overjoyed to discover the Ethical Storytelling website. I found it at a moment of extreme frustration as my classes were only speaking to a small part of what I felt was needed to be a responsible and ethical communicator.

I first viewed the guidance as a checklist where stories were either “good” or “bad”. Anything that I felt was painful or shaming was clearly bad (even if the individual wanted it shared), and, as in my previous example, I felt it was my responsibility to make clients realize they should say no by making it clear I was a “good” communicator where they should feel safe.

Later, I began to understand that, while the Ethical Storytelling Pledge contains concrete actions, it is far more focused on the importance of “listen[ing] to the voice of the constituent as our teacher.”

Stage 6: Autonomy Phase: (“I’m not doing my job unless I ask, ‘Do we do what we say?’”)

Based on my current understanding, in the Autonomy phase, communicators will look at the ways they have done their work and ask how they can be done better. They will fully embrace the need to partner with individuals when telling their stories or (even better) create spaces for individuals to tell their own stories. As they do this, they will seek to understand the story the individual wishes to share rather than expecting them to fit into the organization’s preferred or pre-formed narrative.

They will view their professional responsibilities as moving beyond simply being excellent practitioners and, instead, focus on being ethical counselors responsible for asking whether a brand is fulfilling the promises made in communications.

To quote an editorial published on PR Week by Emily K. Graham (chief equity and impacts officer and SVP of diversity and inclusion communications at Omnicom) and Bia Assevero (managing supervisor for corporate reputation at FleishmanHillard):

“We hold the conviction that communicators have the power to catalyze and drive organizational change. So often, we are an organization’s connective tissue; the people to whom everyone else talks, even when they rarely talk to one another.

“We are brand builders and storytellers. We are also protectors, who work to safeguard the reputation and minimize risk. That’s still our job. But it has evolved. Now, we must be the barometer of authenticity. Instead of merely proclaiming, ‘What we do we say,’ we must ask, ‘What have we done?’

”We know the ‘authenticity litmus test.’ But how disciplined and vocal have you been in pushing back when you know the substance is lacking, particularly with equity, inclusion, and diversity?…

“It’s time for us to take our own advice and remember that the status quo brought us to this pivotal crossroad. As we are asked to take on tasks, from crafting and reviewing communications to creating DEI strategies, remember the path that leads to equity and justice on a global scale starts with doing a better job of saying what we mean and doing what we say.”

Emily Graham and Bia Assevero, “Having Urged Everyone off the Sidelines, It’s Time We Heed Our Own Advice

My Autonomy Phase: When I first learned about the Autonomy phase, I knew I had not experienced it. Indeed, when I first wrote this essay, I identified my position as moving between Immersion/Emersion’s hope of finding a positive White identity to concerns related to Pseudo-Independent’s fear of saying the wrong thing, Disintegration’s overzealous need to prove oneself, and Reintegration’s tug towards silence and anger.

As I revisit this essay, I am pleased that I feel a hopefulness that, perhaps, marks the start of the Autonomy Phase (although I am hesitant to claim having reached the “final” stage—particularly since I continue to operate in predominantly/exclusively White spaces). Through the journey of my graduate school research and talking to other communicators, I have found ways to use my voice to bring up issues that are not otherwise being considered, and I have begun to rethink the fundamentals of how I do my work.

This has led to me understanding how, according to Tatum, in Autonomy, “the positive feelings associated with this redefinition [of the individual’s Whiteness] energize the person’s efforts to confront racism and oppression in daily life” (p. 206).

Additionally, in a major shift of my thinking, I now believe addressing equity concerns is much more than just recognizing and neutralizing my biases. I started my Capstone research believing I could create some magical checklist for communicators that meant we would never make mistakes. I have now moved to a place of believing the answer is much more about being willing to continually ask questions of yourself and others and pushing yourself to deepen your understanding of your own identity and how it relates to a given topic/individual. I also always try to maintain an awareness and focus on the needs of my audience and, when doing storytelling, the best interests of the individuals involved.

This is not always easy. During my recent performance review, I recognized that my view of my professional responsibility has fundamentally changed, and it means I am now asking questions and being involved in things that are beyond (at least what I considered) the traditional bounds of my role in communication. It involves asking uncomfortable questions about actions my organization is (or is not) taking. It can also involve finding tactful ways to say an organization shouldn’t make a statement it can’t support in action. It has also required that I be willing to listen when people say I’ve made mistakes and redoing things that seemed to be working fine but others found lacking.

In summary, embracing the mindset of knowing there is much more I need to learn and do to be an ethical and equitable communicator has allowed me to feel the hopefulness that comes with Dr. Tatum’s challenge:

“As we have seen, many White people experience themselves as powerless, even in the face of privilege. But the fact is that we all have a sphere of influence, some domain in which we exercise some level of power and control. The task for each of us, White and of color, is to identify what our own sphere of influence is (however large or small) and to consider how it might interrupt the cycle of racism.”

Beverly Tatum, Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race

What do you think?

Does any of this ring true to you? Do you see yourself somewhere on this journey, or are there things you think I missed? Does it give you ideas of things to explore? Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me publicly or privately on Twitter/LinkedIn.

Summary of the White Racial Identity Development Model

The Model’s six statuses cover the “two major developmental tasks” (p. 187) for White individuals embracing “a healthy White identity”: “the abandonment of individual racism and the recognition and opposition to institutional and cultural racism”. To summarize quickly, the six statuses are as follows:

  1. Contact: White people pay little attention to their race or consider themselves colorblind/non-racist. Many Whites spend their entire life in this place and assume their thoughts/experiences are simply “normal.” (p. 188-89)
  2. Disintegration: This is the first status after a White person becomes aware of racism. White people feel guilt, shame, and anger. They often respond by feeling a responsibility to point out all forms of racism occurring around them or retreating from their new knowledge (i.e. going back to a Contact mindset).
  3. Reintegration: The next status can be marked by anger and a wish to say racism is a problem for the BIPOC community to solve. While Tatum reports being asked if this stage can be avoided, “most White people who speak up against racism will attest to the temptation they sometimes feel to slip back into collusion and silence.” (p. 195)
  4. Pseudo-Independence: Referred to as the “guilty White liberal” (p. 199) phase, Pseudo-Independence occurs when a White person “has achieved an intellectual understanding of racism as a system of advantage but doesn’t quite know what to do about it.” Here, Whites may either wish to 1) make BIPOC friends or 2) entirely avoid gatherings where BIPOC are present out of fear that they will say/do the wrong thing.
  5. Immersion/Emersion: This occurs when the White person moves past guilt and recognizes the need to connect with their White identity and “other Whites who are further along in the process.” (p. 201)
  6. Autonomy: The last part of the model occurs when a White person fully embraces their White identity, becomes “characteristically open to new information and new ways of thinking about racial and cultural variables,” (p. 207) and moves to “doing effective ally work” (Shelly Tochluck as quoted by Tatum, p. 207) alongside BIPOC groups and individuals. “While autonomy might be described as racial self-actualization, racial identity development never really ends.” (p. 206)

Source: Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race (2nd ed.). Penguin Books. (back to top)

3 thoughts on “It’s not just about having the “right” words and pictures

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the honest insight and I found it really interesting as you are questioning yourselves and taking a wider perspective of the world around you. While none of us will ever be perfect, a little bit of self-awareness and empathy will help us go a long way. You may have read the book “White fragility” and that’s an excellent resource if you haven’t. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you; I really appreciate it. Writing this was helpful as it helped me recognize both how I’ve grown and what underlying ideas continue to exist in my mind below my awareness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Built with

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: