More than a year ago, Gaurdia Banister, RN, PhD, NEA-BC, asked colleagues Michael Sullivan, PT, DPT, MBA, and Darlene Sawicki, MSN, NP-BC, whether they had read the book White Fragility. Intrigued, Sullivan and Sawicki did, and the three of them—along with ten other employees from various departments—began a book club to discuss it.

Robin DiAngelo, PhD’s New York Times bestselling 2018 book bears the subtitle “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” As explained on her website, “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves... This book explicates the dynamics of White Fragility and how we might build our capacity in the on-going work towards racial justice.”

Each meeting focused on a chapter, with members taking turns facilitating. “It has been for me one of the richest experiences in terms of having conversations with colleagues who don’t necessarily look and sound like me,” says Banister, who is executive director of the Institute for Patient Care. “There have been a number of ‘Aha!’ moments for our group, such as the recognition that many Black parents talk with their children about how to interact with the police, and other parents don’t.”

Sullivan, who directs Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Services, echoed the thought. “There were moments of disbelief during our discussions; we are not in the place we perceive ourselves to be. I’ve come to recognize how much burden some of my colleagues carry, and society’s intent that they continue to carry that burden. And as a white man I’ve become increasingly aware of my privilege.”

Carlyene Prince-Erickson, director of Employee Education and Leadership Development, says “As a Black woman I wondered how could they not know? I came to the realization that for people who have no personal experience of it, why would they know?”

The conversations have been frank and open. “The book club has provided a safe place to ask questions and to reflect on our own and others’ experiences,” says Sawicki, who is director of Advanced Practice Providers. “Growing up in a Mexican-Caucasian family, I had always thought of myself as very open-minded, and never saw myself as someone who benefitted from being Caucasian. The footprints I leave have a bigger impact than I realized.”

Interest in the book—and a yearning to discuss it with colleagues—has reached beyond the original group. Social workers and psychiatrists make up another group; and associate chief nurse Theresa Gallivan, RN, MS, NEA-BC, has recommended the book to nursing directors. “I came away with a more realistic sense of the work we all must do to prepare to help address racism in any meaningful way. Nursing directors play a major role in advancing an anti-racist environment, just as they do in all that is critical to the well-being of the patients, families and staff we serve,” she says.

And, in Sullivan’s department of about 300, about 70 staff members expressed interest in the book, and now make up ten discussion groups. 

“We want to serve as a catalyst and a support; smaller groups are better, allowing intimacy for these conversations that aren’t easy,” says Banister. “The more we can spread these conversations across the hospital, the better.”

The original group is now turning to White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, by Carol Anderson. “There’s so much enthusiasm that we want to keep reading,” says Prince-Erickson. “Why would we stop? The journey’s just begun.”