The offending title? White Administrators Talk Race, or WATR.
In the wake of the decisions not to indict police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island—when many NYU students, faculty and staff took to the streets to express anger and sadness over racial injustice—the group’s name struck some as especially tone-deaf. Did the name mean that people of color weren’t invited? Didn’t white administrators already have ample opportunities to express their thoughts in countless forums and decision-making bodies across the university? And even assuming they had the best intentions, how much good could a roomful of white people talking about diversity possibly do?
It all made NYU Stories want to learn more about the group’s origins and goals. We attended a meeting, checked in with WATR co-facilitators Brittany Bummer and Miriam Halsey on the kinds of topics the group generally covers, and interviewed Center for Multicultural Education Programs assistant director Selima Jumarali, who was involved in its founding. Here’s what we found out.
No, you don’t have to be white to attend.
“We’ve been careful from the beginning that our marketing does not say ‘whites only’—because that would just be replicating a lot of historic racism,” Jumarali says. She has been contacted from time to time by non-white administrators asking if they can participate, and her answer is always: “Yes, absolutely.”
But “white” is in the title for a reason.
“It often becomes the burden of people of color to educate folks about race and racial justice, and that is exhausting,” Jumarali explains. “The reality is that we all need to unpack our biases and our prejudices, and yet it can cause a lot of hurt and controversy when a person of color has to educate around that.”
Hence the need for a group where white people can turn to each other for support, learning, and development—where they can “hear each other out, empathize, and then work through that process to become more effective allies,” Jumarali says. “It can feel like a safer space to share if there are people in the room who look like you.”
The group’s facilitators are well versed in race and social justice issues.
“These are skilled people who are prepared to talk about race, and who can acknowledge their own identities as white people and understand their own white privilege,” Jumarali says.
And, in keeping with CMEP’s general policy, there are two of them—“so if someone is triggered in the moment, there’s a backup person,” Jumarali explains, “and one can chime in if the other is speaking and forgets something.”
The name might just change.
Jumarali and her CMEP colleagues are weighing whether to rename the group in response to feedback from around the university; “Unpacking Whiteness: Administrators,” modeled after an existing student discussion group on a similar theme, is a possible alternative. “When we chose it I did not anticipate that the name would get so much attention and coverage,” Jumarali says. But the buzz around the name seems to be attracting white administrators who haven’t previously participated in any of CMEP’s programs (like Diversity Zone trainings or the Administrators Cultural Training Institute)—so in that sense it’s served its intended purpose.
NYU is home to dozens of affinity groups and networks—from the Graduate Students of Color to the Pride At Work initiative for LGBTQA faculty and staff. This is just one of them.
And so far, Jumarali says, it’s not among CMEP’s most well-attended programs. Yet despite all that, it’s received more attention than any of other race-related dialogues and discussion groups that CMEP hosts.
White administrators who attend this discussion group are encouraged to bring a critical way of thinking about race and privilege back to their departments throughout the university.
“There are a majority of spaces on campus that are predominantly white, because we are a primarily white institution,” Jumarali explains. “This group is targeting the majority in order to further develop people's critical lenses on race, and to make them ambassadors to different pockets of the university. If there are many spaces in meetings that are predominantly white, the more folks we have with a critical lens on race, the more they can contribute to making those spaces better serve students of color.”
Sometimes that means talking through whether to question colleagues—and even superiors—about their biases. “I had an experience recently in which someone who is very well-respected in higher ed said something I found particularly off-putting,” co-facilitator Brittany Bummer recalls. “Then I was able to come to this group and ask, ‘What do you think about what this person said?’”
No, it isn’t perfect—but it’s a start.
“There’s no right way, no perfect way to do any of this, when you’re talking about something that’s as broken as our construction of race. Any ally of any group may want to find the perfect thing to say or do, but that’s actually impossible, because we’re operating in a broken system,” Jumarali says. Contributing positively as an ally, then, involves a lot of humility and acceptance. “Sometimes you need other allies to support and encourage you. It’s not the responsibility of marginalized groups, such as people of color, to do that.”
“Allyship is hard,” co-facilitator Miriam Halsey adds. “It comes from wanting to support friends, colleagues, peers, and students who have an identity that is targeted while yours is privileged, but you have to make sure that while you’re supporting that voice, you’re not usurping it.”