Two-and-a-half years ago, I sat through a keynote address called “This Too Is Racism” at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual meeting in Boston. I was steaming mad when Dr. Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race & Equity Center, finished his remarks.

Dr. Harper, one of the country’s foremost scholars on diversity and inclusion, had been invited to address 7,000 professionals during this gathering of high school counselors, college admissions officers and others who help students make the transition from high school to college. He argued convincingly that racism is alive and well inside the college admissions world, but he seemed to be indicting people like me – white, liberal, and open-minded. How dare he?

He used the deadly Charlottesville incident, which had occurred just a month earlier, to frame his message: we need to pay more attention to racism. Dr. Harper asked us to raise our hands if we had been horrified by the sight of white supremacists marching on the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and chanting words of hate the day before the Unite the Right rally, during which a car plowed into a crowd in the city center.

I raised my hand; everyone else raised their hands, too.

“We cannot be selectively horrified and disgusted by racism,” Dr. Harper said. “We must be horrified and disgusted by all of its manifestations, including those that happen in the college admissions process.”

Why did he assume we were selectively horrified? We were opposed to hate in all its forms. Didn’t he know that?

I am White – but Also Jewish

While Dr. Harper had mentioned anti-Semitism and homophobia at the beginning of his speech, he primarily focused on racism, a specific type of hate. I felt left out. Why wasn’t I included in a speech on hate, especially one that was framed by an event strewn with anti-Semitic symbols and chants? I scanned the room for Jewish high school counselors I might know. I whispered to my white colleagues, “We are not racist. Why is he here?” And I rationalized my reaction with a few simple words I kept repeating inside my head: I am not his audience. I am liberal. I am open-minded. This was a nice industry, full of do-gooders with open minds. Why was he suggesting that we weren’t doing enough to combat racism?

I wanted to walk out. But if I did, would someone call me a racist? I tucked my thumbs under my fingers and began rubbing them. I could feel my feet tapping under the chair. The more he spoke, the more I fidgeted.

My Epiphany: I am Dr. Harper’s Audience

I was in Boston inside that auditorium because my company teaches high school students how to write college application essays and trains professionals who work with students. We also consult with nonprofit and small business clients on strategic communication. In all we do, we teach an approach that begins with knowing your audience and understanding how they will receive your message.

Did he forget who his audience was, I asked myself?

It’s taken a while to answer that question honestly. But with time and some serious reflection, I realized he did know his audience. It was every person in that room with white skin. It was every person who was charged with hiring at their university. It was me.

As a strategic communications professional, I have been shaking my head, questioning how blind I was that day. I teach others how to frame their messages, so their intended audiences actually hear the what they have to say. At first, I was mad at Dr. Harper for presenting his message in a way that I couldn’t accept. But it was my responsibility to figure out how to listen. He wanted me to feel uncomfortable, and it worked.

When I got home from the conference, I tried to talk about the speech with my business partner. She pushed back and questioned my reaction. We all have racist thoughts, she said. We live in a racist society. I disagreed.

I tried to talk about it with my 18-year-old daughter. She reminded me of a time I quickly hit the auto-lock button on my car when we stopped at a traffic light in Detroit and saw some Black men standing on the side of the road. She told me my reaction was racist. No, I told her. I always lock my door.

I tried to have that conversation with a lot of people. Some gave me a pass, but many pushed back. Eventually, I realized that I needed to do my own work and own the privilege that comes with white skin, which had nothing to do with being Jewish and understanding what hate felt like. For me, it was time to acknowledge long-standing prejudices that have been taught, tolerated and accepted in the world I come from.

Learning to Recognize My Own Prejudices

Learning to recognize my own prejudices that have been with me since childhood has been challenging. I still have a lot of work to do.

But I am no longer steaming mad; I want to thank Dr. Harper for waking me up.

Raised in the Detroit suburbs by middle class parents who say they are liberal, there were no people of color on my block or at my high school. My mom said she had Black friends, but I never saw any.

It was important to me to raise my daughter in a more diverse world, so we moved to a suburb with a 70% Democratic voting record, one known for its liberal activism. It was pretty much all white. I was naïve. I never even understood the term “white privilege” until venturing out on this journey.

The truth: I have not stopped thinking about that speech. I have talked about it over and over again with friends, colleagues and clients. For months, I have been engaging in difficult discussions about perception, white privilege and institutional racism in person and online; I read books and articles, listen to podcasts and ask questions.

I Listened to the Speech A Second Time

A few weeks ago, I listened to Dr. Harper’s speech again. This time, I was not offended. I focused intently on the message directed at me. This time, I thought the speech was quite brilliant.

Dr. Harper stayed on point. He was clear. If I could ask him the three questions we ask all of our clients, I think his answers would sound something like this:

Question 1: Who is your audience?

Answer: White people. White people on college campuses. Any white person who work in higher education. Any group of white people. Big conferences filled with white people.

Question 2: What is your message?

Answer: Let me help you own your privilege. Let me make you uncomfortable, so you will truly open your minds, accept your prejudices and hopefully help effect change.

Question 3: Why are you sharing this message?

Answer: I want to make cultural change to improve life for people of color. I want to force higher education institutions to follow through on their commitment to diversity.

Shaun Harper knew exactly what he was doing. His words lit a fire under me, forcing me to look in the mirror and come to grips with my own privilege and prejudices.

You can hear the keynote on YouTube. You can follow Dr. Harper on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can email me at kim@wowwritingworkshop.com to continue this conversation.


Kim Lifton, named one of 10 LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Education, 2018, is President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. Click the Wow Method to find out how we help students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. We also help business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. If it involves words, Wow can help.