The “Special Requests” of White People

When was the last time you made a special request because of your circumstances? Working in academia for fourteen years I saw a growing recognition of the need for accessibility services (like live transcription, or additional time for tests) to make the educational experience widely available for those who have traditionally been marginalized or discounted. But beyond what we need, modern Western culture is set up for personalization – “Customize your order,” “Just how you like it,” “Have it your way!” – and many of us are used to being able to making requests to get what we want. Perhaps you requested that a Zoom meeting be recorded so you could watch it later, or said you’d need to be late to an event or leave early because of other commitments. Or maybe you missed the deadline for something for your child, but called to ask that they still be included.

Over the last few months I have been part of the faculty team for a course on healing collective trauma and embodying anti-racism. With the course looking at intense emotional issues around race, the course designers followed the guidance of author and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, dividing the course into two cohorts – one for participants who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and one for participants who identify as white (which I do). The cohorts’ class experiences each week are different, with a couple of sessions that bring both cohorts together. The BIPOC and white faculty also meet to debrief and plan, and one comparison in particular has caught my attention over the last few months: the special requests of white people.

Throughout the course, members of the white cohort have made requests – “Can I be moved to a different small group with my colleagues?”, “Could you send me the homework again?”, “I’ll need to miss this section; can you record it and send it to me?” etc. And the white faculty are not immune either – I joined our last faculty planning meeting with my camera off because I was sick and didn’t feel presentable. What has been fascinating, though, is that the BIPOC cohort have not made any of the same requests. No requests to move groups, no requests to clarify and re-send homework, no double-bookings and requests for a recording.

The reasons why are far deeper and more complex to go into here; and this isn’t to say that any of the requests are bad or wrong, but it is noteworthy that in this case – and, I would suggest, elsewhere also – these requests come much more readily from white people. So this week I’ve been reflecting on how readily I make my own requests for personalization. I have found it eye-opening as I gain more awareness of the requests I make, and I am challenging myself to make more choices based on the circumstances as they are presented to me rather than to ask for things to be “my way.” I wonder if this might also be helpful for my white colleagues this week.

This Week’s Tip:

Take some time to reflect on how readily you make requests for personalization.

  1. If you identify as white: If you notice yourself making requests for personalization throughout the week, ask yourself what might happen if you acted based on the current circumstances without any special requests. If you have accessibility needs, please continue to ask for what you need, but otherwise, try taking a break from special requests for a few days. See how that feels.
  2. If you do not identify as white: Notice your level of comfort around making requests. Is your level of comfort reflected by your BIPOC colleagues also? How about your white colleagues? What might happen this week if you push back on requests for personalization that are made of you? Try it out on something small – rescheduling a meeting if a colleague says they’ll be late, for example – and see how that feels.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear what you learn about yourself and others as you do.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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