“Why Race?”

Shawna Coppola🏳️‍🌈
4 min readJul 19, 2022
Credit: wildpixel

In my work as an aspiring co-conspirator helping to “call in” my fellow White* folks and explicitly supporting equity and justice efforts within my community and beyond, I am often asked in conversations–most often by fellow White folks–why I (frequently) choose to “focus on race.” Why not draw attention to all kinds of oppression? they ask. We don’t have those problems here, they often argue, “those problems” being a semantic proxy for the kinds of interpersonal conflicts that make it into national headlines or viral TikToks.

Let’s set aside for the moment that “those problems,” which more often than not take the form of microaggressions, are often invisible to the vast majority of White folks until their neighborhoods, their schools, and their businesses find themselves on the receiving end of the enlightened public’s disapproving gaze. Let’s also set aside the facile notion that “focusing on race” is done so to the exclusion of (or is decontextualized from) other kinds of oppression–e.g., misogyny, homophobia, anti-fat bias, etc.

I am certain, in talking with others who engage in equity and justice work in predominantly White spaces, that I’m not alone in being asked such a question. And because I have been asked “Why race?” a lot, and foresee this not stopping anytime soon, I thought I would lay out my usual answers here in an effort to 1) conserve my (future) time and energy, 2) help others, potentially, who often face this same question, and 3) open myself up to feedback in the event that I am missing something important.

That said, the following encompasses how I most often answer this enormously complex question when working in these kinds of spaces.

  1. The very fact that this (community, institution, organization, space) is predominantly White is reason itself to focus on race. In a nation whose racial and ethnic diversity is ever-increasing, it is becoming more and more difficult to justify (if ever there was a justification for) the predominance of Whiteness in our organizations, our communities, and our institutions. For example, the last time I was asked “Why focus on race?,” I was sitting around a table of town leaders, all of whom, including myself, were White. The town’s largest employer, a public university, is predominantly White, and its property tax rate is among the highest in the state. Some questions worth asking in a situation like this might be, “How did we get here?,” “Why does our [community/organization] look the way it does?,” and “What is our [community/organization] missing out on due to its lack of diverse perspectives and lived experiences?”
  2. There is no racism–historically, no concept of race itself–without Whiteness. Despite what most White people are socialized to believe, to be White is to have a race. Race was intentionally constructed in the United States in order to legitimize the social control of certain populations (e.g., poor European laborers and enslaved Africans), to justify oppressive practices (e.g., colonization and enslavement), and, most importantly, to confer the advantages and protections of Whiteness onto those who were deemed by the ruling class to be White. For these reasons, spaces and places that are predominantly White have an obligation to grapple with concepts of race and racism.
  3. Every other kind of social oppression is connected to race in some aspect or form. When we consider the ways in which different social identities intersect (Crenshaw, 1989) to confer advantage or disadvantage on an individual or group, race–and/or one’s racialized identity–is often a compounding factor due to the fact that racial inequities exist within every single system and institution (education, housing, health care, etc.) within the U.S. For example, let’s consider one’s socioeconomic status. While women’s hourly wages in the U.S. on average continue to fall behind those of men’s (on average), greater disparities are made visible when accounting for race, regardless of the individual’s gender identity. In addition, while disabled people all over the world experience discrimination and oppression, statistics show that those who are both disabled and Indigenous experience higher overall rates of incarceration, unemployment, and even premature death due to their inability to access appropriate (and non-discriminatory) health/medical care. In our work to eliminate racial oppression, we would also, potentially, be working toward eliminating other forms of social oppression.
  4. As a result, many of the tools often used by myself and others in helping White folks like me acknowledge, disrupt, and work toward eliminating racial oppression are useful when considering other forms of social oppression. And while my Black women colleagues (special shoutout to Dr. Towanda Harris) have drawn my attention to the ways these tools can often be used to avoid explicitly talking about race and White supremacy due to their broad applicability, the fact also remains that by helping folks become comfortable with using tools like the Courageous Conversations Compass (Singleton, 2015) and the Power Wheel (Canadian Council for Refugees), they are more likely to return to them when thinking about/discussing their relation to other forms of power like patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.

This, in its most simplistic form, is how I answer the question, Why race?. What am I missing? How would you answer it?

*Note: In this piece I have chosen to capitalize the words White and Whiteness in order to acknowledge these terms as racial and political concepts and to signify their racial and political significance. Many thanks to my colleague Lorena Germán for alerting me to this practice.

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Shawna Coppola🏳️‍🌈

I am an educator, a writer, an artist, & a troublemaker. Website: https://shawnacoppola.com/ Twitter: @shawnacoppola #blacklivesmatter She/Her/Hers