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

Estimated Reading Time: 11-14 Minutes (if you want a shorter summary, you can review either the top-level graphic or slides from a presentation)

Image Description: Overlapping lined paper arranged on the ground to create an empty space that looks like a speech bubble. Three balled up pieces of paper sit inside the bubble. 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. This blog started as an essay in for my graduate school class CI 5464: Politics of Literacy & Race in the School taught by Professors Timothy Lensmire at the UMN College of Education & Human Development.
  3. This essay is a work in progress, so I encourage people to leave comments or send me a note on Twitter or LinkedIn with thoughts. I’d love to know if it resonates with you and/or gives you ideas of things to explore.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Model developed by psychologist 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 had begun to notice 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 this model or racial identity development. My understanding of the model is largely limited to Tatum’s summary chapter. I graduated undergrad with a Political Science BA, and I earned a Strategic Communication MA and Literacy & Rhetorical Studies minor in graduate school. I am using this model as a framework for discussing these phases as it helped me organize my reflections.

Additionally, I did not do any independent research when writing this essay, so I was only working from my memories and perceptions of my conversations. It is, naturally, biased by recognitions of the similarities and differences with my thoughts and feelings.

To be transparent about all of this, I am only sharing concrete examples in this essay of my actions/thoughts including examples of mistakes I have made. I made this choice both to be transparent about who I am and because I wish to write this piece from a place of honesty rather than hubris. I am not proud of my actions in these and other moments in my life, and I hope this honesty will help other communicators recognize themselves.

It is easy to read these stages as saying an individual is wrong if they have not reached the end, but this is not how it is intended. We must each go on our own journey, and I found learning about the initial model helpful as it told me 1) I was not uniquely flawed, and 2) there was a possibility of moving past the sense of paralysis I was feeling at that time. In each of the examples I’m about to give, I was doing what I believed was right at the time, and I would have argued with anyone who told me differently (I did, in fact). I also acknowledge that I am just as likely to make these (or other) mistakes today, although I am striving to listen and question myself more.

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 do 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 choose to 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. 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 on equity considerations, outside of people lamenting the lack of BIPOC communications professionals in the field.

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), I was surprised when the Board of Directors issued a statement following the killing of Philando Castile where the Board 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 create opportunities for conversations between liberals and conservatives in YNPN, and I felt type of 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 local community. I continued to hold this belief, and I regret to say that it meant that, once I joined the board, I slowed down and stopped several social justice related measures. (If you wish to learn more about my thinking at this stage, you can read my YNPN blog “Can talking work?“)

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 the 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—a feeling that showing “diversity” is something that needs to be done to so the organization isn’t accused of overt or unintended racism. Alternately, these communicators may have become aware of the lack of diversity in their organization, and they assume this is only 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”. Often times, communicators will next decide to specifically take photos of BIPOC participants (or purchase stock photos) so they can be featured—an action that often results in the selection of photos that over-represent the percentage of BIPOC individuals within the organization’s clientele. Communicators will also rewrite quotes and other items to make them match their organization’s voice with the hope that they are helping the individuals present themselves well.

They may also start writing statements about diversity-related issues and/or add special “diversity” sections to their website and publications to showcase these photos and stories. These statements are highlight their organization’s support for “for all people”, but they will lack concrete action or investment from the organization and they are written with the focus being on not offending people. While these actions are often done with the best of intentions, they isolate the representations and concerns of BIPOC members from the organization’s main activities, and it may mean these efforts are little more than feel-good tools.

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

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 coworkers 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, however, he knew he would become one of the prominent faces of the program.

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 may feel I am removing an important part of their individual story, I ignored her under the belief that I was qualified to decide what information was needed. 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 have expressed 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 BIPOC individuals—whether that consists of including BIPOC faces as little more than props in photos or writing stories that only focused 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 as they will assume answers are simple, universal, and static.

My Disintegration Experience: I was once asked to interview an Asian international student who had—seemingly—had a hard life. I had begun to learn about ethical storytelling at this time, so, while doing the interview, I approached the events of her youth tentatively and with the mindset that she would not want to discuss this painful history.

This led me to stop, many times, during the interview to assure her she didn’t have to answer my questions. Ultimately, she interrupted me and said she had no problem sharing the story. It was, she said, simply the story of her life and what was needed so she could succeed.

In that moment, I recognized that I was bringing my personal bias to the conversation and assuming I knew what was best better than her. I was, ultimately, making it her responsibility to make me feel ok with doing a story I had been assigned rather than following her lead and respecting her experience.

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 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 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 others to talk to and to 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 the communicators 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 rather than expecting individuals to fit a pre-formed narrative.

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. Finding this online community let me know I was not alone in believing I needed to look deeper in myself for answers, and it gave me the confidence to do the final Capstone research I wished to do.

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 story, and/or they will seek to create spaces for individuals to tell their own stories. As they do this, they will seek to focus on the story the individual wishes to share rather than expecting them to fit into the organization’s preferred narrative.

They will view their professional responsibilities as moving beyond being excellent practitioners and, instead, focus on being ethical counselors responsible for asking whether a brand is fulfilling its promises to stakeholders and society.

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 of White Racial Identity Development, 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 to say that I feel a hopefulness that, perhaps, marks the start of the Autonomy Phase (although I am hesitant to claim 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 continually asking questions of yourself and others, understanding your own identity and how it relates to a given topic/individual, and pushing yourself to grow. 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 like whether my organization’s actions (both externally and with its employees) fulfill the values expressed in our communications. It can, at times, 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 I’m told I’ve made mistakes and redoing things that seemed to be working fine but others found lacking.

In summary, embracing the mindset that 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 they consider themselves colorblind/non-racist. Many Whites spend their entire life in this place and assume they 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 (back to a Contact mindset or into racist thinking).
  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 make BIPOC friends or entirely avoid gatherings where BIPOC are present out of fear of saying or doing 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.


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