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The Discomfort of Coaching While White

By Noelle Apostol Colin, Bright Morning Consulting associate.

"You wouldn't understand," she said to me. "You're not from this community." The administrator who shared these thoughts with me was an African American woman; I am a white woman. Her comments made my stomach knot up and my heart pound.

This was not the first time nor the only time that someone I was coaching made a statement that made me feel defensive. Coaching across lines of difference can feel very challenging. But I've learned that this is the moment in which I need to pause and make intentional choices about how to respond, choices that build a bridge with clients whose background is different than mine, choices that deepen relationship with another person.

I've worked in very diverse school districts where coaching someone of a different race was common. And yet, this experience often brought up feelings that were scary to acknowledge, including shame and doubts about my ability to be an effective coach for people of color. I realized that if I was committed to equity in schools, to building schools where all children thrive, I had to figure out how to bridge this gap.

Developing deep, meaningful relationships within which children can learn and thrive is the foundation of our work as educators. If I couldn't develop such relationships with the adults in schools as their coach, how could I coach them towards doing it with their school communities? Since I began coaching, I've learned a lot that makes me more comfortable and effective in coaching across lines of difference.

Activate Curiosity and Compassion

Moments like the one I describe above are the perfect opportunity to activate a foundational mindset of a transformational coach: curiosity and compassion. First, get curious about yourself:

  • Who are you?
  • Which are the parts of your identity that you associate most strongly with?
  • How do others most often identify you?
  • An identity wheel exercise such as this one can help you in this reflection.

In my case, I'm a white woman. I strongly identify with my Greek roots. I also grew up poor, with a single mom, put myself through college, and dealt with sexist professors telling me what not to major in. I've worked hard to get where I am, and as a White person, I've accomplished what I have within a system created for White people to succeed. I'm structurally privileged.

This reflection brought up a range of feelings, including pride, anger and guilt. I needed compassion for myself to experience the feelings and not turn away. Experiencing the feelings allows us to make meaning of the experience. It gives us choice then about how to respond, rather than react from a feeling or thought that bubbled out and caught us off guard.

Learn About Identity

Once I could acknowledge and accept my feelings, I could stay present with the topic to do some crucial learning. I recognized that racial identity is not neutral. It is socially constructed and tightly linked to issues of power, values, class, and ideology. This is the source of much of our discomfort. In the United States, our attachment to the myth of the meritocracy is strong. Acknowledging privilege and oppression, especially for those of us on the more privileged end of the spectrum, often brings up so many feelings that we get defensive and shut down to learning, to understanding others' experience.

A key realization was that this ability not to see is itself a privilege, and when we turn away, we're a part of maintaining a racist system. When we close off to others' realities, we are not able to be the transformational leaders and coaches that our children need.

A curious and compassionate mindset is necessary to ground us in our own reality as we build the skills to navigate the tricky conversations that will come up as we coach across lines of difference.

Commit to the Journey

Since the incident I described at the opening of this blog, I've worked with Black leaders in the South who jump up throughout workshops shouting "Amen!" as I led the groups through learning about coaching for social justice. I've also worked with coaches of color whom I've supported successfully in their journey to fulfilling their own vision for the equity leaders their schools need.

That said, I still stumble and I still find myself in situations where I'm not sure how to respond. And I still have moments of anxiety and self-doubt. If we commit to this path or learning, we have to be comfortable knowing that it's one of continuous self-reflection and growth.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll share specific strategies for engaging in these kinds of coaching conversations.

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