“I’ve been looking forward to this all week,” exclaimed a (White) woman I didn’t know as she grabbed an empty seat next to me in the conference room. I smiled and introduced myself as I closed my Palm Pilot. Honestly, it might have been an old-school day planner; it was the late 1990s, and I was in the first decade of my professional career with a large Fortune 200 company. A virtual stranger, she spent the next few minutes before the diversity workshop officially began bragging about her Black friend in college, the fact that she insisted that her daughter invite at least one Black classmate to her birthday party and her love of Benson reruns. To round out her “racial resume” over the course of the workshop she casually dropped references to extended family members of color, her Asian dentist and her parents’ participation in civil rights protests in the 60s. I couldn’t help but wish I had a gold medal in my purse to present to her as she clearly seemed to crave some sort of validation if not kudos (ostensibly for being a good, non-racist White person). Instead, I smiled, nodded and hoped for an early dismissal.
While the experience felt a bit frustrating and draining, it was anything but surprising. Over the years I’ve become quite accustomed to White colleagues (or random strangers for that matter) nervously rattling off their racial resume anytime the topic of race or racism is raised in their vicinity. I first heard the specific term “racial resume” during a podcast featuring Resmaa Menakem, author of the New York Times bestseller My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, and it resonated with me immediately. Author of the New York Times bestseller Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, Robin DiAngelo calls the practice “credentialing.” As a workplace anti-racism thought leader and a Black woman who has worked in and around corporate America for nearly three decades, I call it unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst.
Similarly, many anti-racism advocates and diversity and inclusion experts caution against excessive credentialing. CEO & Founder, The Antiracism Academy, Brandee Blocker Anderson explains, “White colleagues—your racial resume is not a badge of honor, nor does it insulate you from internalizing and perpetuating racism.”
For would-be allies in pursuit of authentic engagement, equity consultant Tara Jaye Frank warns against trying too hard to relate. “Resist the urge to share your own hardship stories and don’t float irrelevant facts about the Black people you know,” she explains. “It’s okay to listen, learn, ask what genuine support looks like, and respond accordingly.” Theresa M. Robinson, author of Blaxhaustion, Karens & Other Threats to Black Lives and Well-Being, warns White people that rattling off their racial resume can send the message that they’re making it about them. “How does their performative peddling of a ‘racial resume’ foster connection?” she asks. “It doesn’t. Their tendency to peddle makes it a transaction not a relationship.”
Some frustrated White colleagues may then wonder, “How can my desire to relate to the struggles of Black and Brown people or signal to them that I share anti-racist values be wrong?” To that, I’d respond that while the desire or intention may be honorable, this type of behavior is often perceived as counter-productive if not cringeworthy yielding less than desired results. Here’s why….
Thou Doth Protest Too Much
With rare exception, this type of nervous, unsolicited, congratulatory self-analysis (particularly when it’s not germane to the discussion or not in response to a question) comes across as awkward and irrelevant if not self-serving or even deceptive. Too often, the credentialing comes from someone with low levels of racial literacy, stamina and/or humility who may be known for offensive comments or worse within the organization. Invariably, their words have the feel of a morbidly obese friend calling to brag about their kale salad lunch or a notoriously mischievous child explaining how they had nothing to do with the broken vase before we can even notice it’s missing. Indeed, the unsolicited racial resume recitation often feels like a conspicuous attempt to assuage guilt or preemptively explain away problematic behavior. For those who may not have a track record of racially problematic behavior, it’s often perceived as an unfortunate waste of energy focused on confirming their character that could have been spent analyzing structural inequities impacting others.
We’ve Learned the Hard Way to Ignore What They Say and Watch What They Do
The truth is that in 2021 virtually everyone denounces racism—anti-racists, non-racists, performative allies, aversive racists, even some White supremacists. Almost no one in today’s modern culture would publicly claim to be racist or support racism so to publicly pronounce one’s hate of racism or general embrace of equity is actually pretty meaningless. To add insult to injury Black and Brown people have centuries of experience with White moderates (in particular) speaking anti-racism while doing nothing or even perpetuating systems and structures that disadvantage marginalized communities, so we’ve learned that talk is cheap.
“The past resume has nothing to do with the work that needs to be done right now to dismantle racism, create inclusive culture and diversity in the workplace particularly if/when you’ve done nothing to advance underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,” insists CEO of Diverse & Engaged, Dee C. Marshall. “Past experiences don’t speak to what s/he is doing right now in their own circles with their white friends, colleagues or at the dinner table.” Indeed, if the intent is to impress others with your anti-racism, do something. Call out a microaggression, question a policy, suggest revisiting selection criteria that might inadvertently advantage some, mentor a person of color, initiate an equity audit, etc. There are so many actions—small or large—that you can take to clearly illuminate your commitment to anti-racism. Let those actions speak for you.
The Assertions Suggest That Black Adjacency Is A Big Deal
You wouldn’t randomly brag about your daughter having a short friend or having a sister-in-law with brown eyes or having a doctor who happens to be gay would you? So why does the color of a person’s skin require this type of proclamation (as if you’re expecting credit for mere proximity to melanin)? Perhaps that’s because for you, having a Black college roommate or cousin may feel novel, but for us, it feels completely normal so your treatment of it as if it’s such a foreign concept often just highlights how odd it seems to you. That said, regrettably in America Black doctors for example are rare so if that particular topic is being discussed, then the fact that your kids’ pediatrician is Black may certainly be germane, but to randomly blurt it out it to a Black person in pursuit of anti-racism cool points seems more like self-image soothing than anti-racism action.
Another reason why this is problematic is that the underlying premise is that Black adjacency somehow immunizes you from racist or White supremacist conditioning. (e.g. “I dated a Black guy for a month in college so I can’t be racist.”) While this type of logic is pervasive, it’s fatally flawed. Robin DiAngelo eviscerates this logic in her bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism using an analogy based on sexism. She artfully points out that while many men throughout history have held deeply sexist views, they’ve also simultaneously maintained close relationships with women—their mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, daughters, etc. Female adjacency clearly didn’t inoculate them from embracing deeply sexist views so why do we assume that Black adjacency means we’re not capable of harboring racially biased views (consciously or unconsciously)?
During this time of heightened focus on race and racism in the workplace, it’s understandable that many White people may feel an urge to demonstrate that they eschew racism and racist ideals, but awkwardly interjecting one’s racial resume into conversation just isn’t the way to do it. Is it ever appropriate for a White person to mention their Black niece or the Black Lives Matter sign in their yard? Certainly—just be sure the comments are clearly relevant as part of the conversation or share the information in response to a question. As a general rule as the topic of race surfaces, it’s probably best to focus on listening more and to avoid trying too hard overall. “This is a long game, and no one is racking up points,” Frank reminds us. “Instead, we should seek to build connection over time by showing up when people need us in the ways that matter most.”
For White people who may feel a sense of anxiety and need to prove their racial solidarity when people of color initiate conversations about race, remember that if we didn’t fundamentally think you were a good person who values equity, we most likely wouldn’t waste our energy in the first place. Black and Brown people have a great racial radar and can typically detect an overt racist or those hostile to the concept of racial equity, so if and when we seek you out to have those conversations, know that we’re most likely doing so assuming that you’re a person who values equity and supports civil rights. The hope though is that you also have the racial humility and stamina to listen, learn and most importantly, take action.