Expert teaches local Rotarians how to discuss issues of race

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Eugene Whitlock, an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion, visited a virtual meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Altos March 11 to discuss race.

Whitlock, assistant vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, observed that the pandemic has spurred people’s collective preoccupation with threats and loss. He noted that such thoughts are commonplace among marginalized populations.

Recent events, he said, have caused a shift in the willingness to believe that racism is still present.

Ultimately, Whitlock, the school’s chief people and culture officer, believes the level of discrimination has not changed much and people are still skeptical about progress.

He compared the 1963 March on Washington, which drew more than 200,000 people, with a similarly large march last year. Watching videos of both events, Whitlock said he was struck by the “vast difference” in tone – people marching for rights in 1963 versus protesting wrongs in 2020.

When something goes wrong with a team, Whitlock said, there is a saying: “‘You’re either coaching it or allowing it, and both are a problem.’ … When it comes to racial bias in America, I believe that it’s pretty much the same thing: You’re either prejudiced or you’re allowing prejudice to exist – and both are a problem.”

Whitlock cautioned that discussing race will be uncomfortable. Expect missteps, he said, where you may do or say the wrong thing; when that happens, apologize and move on.

He encouraged Rotarians to speak up when they know something is wrong, learn about racism and civil rights in the U.S., develop “cultural competency” and work to uncover one’s own biases.

When people respond to Black Lives Matter with “All lives matter,” Whitlock offered a comparison. Imagine, he said, attending an event to promote breast cancer awareness and someone holds up a sign saying, “All cancers matter.” Those at the event do not suggest that other cancers don’t matter, he said.

It seems insensitive, Whitlock added, to minimalize or shift focus from the cause by raising another issue.

He also described microaggressions – everyday remarks that are intended to be harmless but may have a negative impact on the receiver. For example, if a person of Asian descent tells someone he’s from San Jose and that person responds, “Where are you really from?” the questioner may not realize that he or she is making someone feel alien in their own country.

Whitlock noted that it takes all of us to work against racism and make change happen.

Mark Rogge is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos and was recently elected to its board of directors. For more information visit

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