Upstanders: How Whitney A White of Equity Commons Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate
Acknowledge the reality that all of us have implicit bias, and let that realization compel you to take action. You have probably had racist, bigoted, or hateful thoughts before, and that does not make you a bad person. Even if you are extremely measured in your words and actions, it is still very likely that you have implicit bias. Once you reckon with that, it can help you open your mind to education and growth in ways that might not have been possible before.
An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. A bystander is someone who stands by while others are being bullied, maligned, or mistreated. An upstander is someone who stands up to protect and advocate for the victim. We are sadly seeing a surge of hate, both online and in the real world. Many vulnerable minorities feel threatened and under attack. What measures are individuals, communities, and organizations taking to stand up against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate? In this interview series, we are talking to activists, community leaders, and individuals who are Upstanders against hate, to share what they are doing and to inspire others to do the same. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Whitney A. White.
Whitney A. White is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Equity Commons, a company that integrates the latest cross-disciplinary research with cutting-edge Virtual Reality technology to reduce implicit bias. For over a decade, Whitney served as CEO of Afara Global, an innovation firm that guides startups, social enterprises, and corporate teams through the process of launching and scaling new products and services. Whitney is also the creator of Take Back Your Time, a coaching practice that helps high achievers cut through the noise of the million and one things on their plates and get on a clear path to achieving the goals that matter to them most.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the small, rural town of Hemingway, South Carolina. From an early age, education was a focal point for me. My parents really emphasized the importance of my siblings and me doing well in school and focusing on academics — it was always a huge priority. Education was seen, in many ways, as the great equalizer in terms of the ways it could open doors to opportunity. Even though I didn’t know exactly what that opportunity might look like, I felt as long as I focused on school, studied really hard, did well on standardized tests, and did well in classes, that I’d have access to limitless opportunities. I’d be able to pursue things and experiences far beyond my small town, and, in many ways, that has been the case in my life.
At the same time, my mom really emphasized that to whom much is given, much is required. She made it a point to instill within my siblings and me a responsibility to advocate not only for ourselves but also for other people. She used to say, “My kids can’t pay all the taxes,” because people would ask her things like, “Why are you advocating for this other person’s child? Why are you going to school and checking on other people’s children? Why do you care what happens at the school if your kids are getting good grades and your kids aren’t having this issue or that issue?”
Her perspective always included this idea of not just advocating for yourself, but also advocating for others. As I grew up, that became a huge part of my ethos and how I saw the world — not only to advocate for myself and my opportunities but also for opportunities for other people. Another thing that my mom instilled in my siblings and me was this idea — this belief, this value — that if you see something you don’t like, you can do something about it. You can fix it. You can change it.
It is that value that has carried me through not only being an advocate for others as I came up through school — being a campus leader at Davidson College and leading student movements on campus around race, gender, and generally making Davidson a more inclusive place for all students — but also in the work that I do with Equity Commons. Everything goes back to those lessons I learned growing up.
Can you share a personal story of how you experienced or encountered antisemitism, racism, bigotry, or hate? How did that experience shape your perception and actions moving forward?
I’ve experienced a lot of bias in my life. One instance of bias happened to me in an airport as I was boarding a flight from San Francisco to Florida. Nowadays, many flights board by Boarding Zones. I was in Zone 1, which was First Class. When I went up to scan my ticket, the gate attendant said to me, “No, no, no — only Zone 1 is boarding right now.” I did not want to go back and forth with him, so I just scanned the ticket. Notably, if you are not in Zone 1, the scanner makes a different sound. My ticket made the correct sound, of course. But the gate attendant kept saying to me, “Only Zone 1,” over and over again. He was repeating himself rather loudly as groups of people continued to board. I said nothing and got on the plane, even as he had been making a big deal of my boarding.
When I got on the plane, I sat down and felt frustrated. What in his mind made him think that I could not be in Zone 1? I had no idea. Was it the way that I looked? Was it something about my gender? My race? Something about my age? I had no idea. But whatever it was, he just looked at me and assumed. That is the thing about bias — it could be anything. Whatever it was, he simply assumed that I could not have been in Zone 1.
The entire encounter was quite unsettling in that I was going about my business doing something completely normal and was chastised quite loudly in a public place as though I was doing something wrong. I sat there and tried to get comfortable in my seat in first class but remained quite disturbed. A few seconds later, I noticed someone coming down the aisle. It was the gate attendant. When he got to my seat, he kneeled down in front of me. “I am so, so sorry,” he said to me in earnest. I looked back at him and I said, “Thank you” — because I appreciated the apology, and I appreciated him recognizing his error and going through the effort to come onto the plane, kneel at my seat, and genuinely apologize.
That experience is both a reminder of why the work we do with Equity Commons is so needed and at the same time it is the kind of thing that gives me hope. Implicit bias is not about people being bad people; it is about people having biases that they are not even aware of at the moment and making biased decisions or taking biased actions because of those implicit biases. I believe that with the right awareness, intention, and tools around behavior change, people can all make different decisions.
Can you describe how you or your organization is helping to stand up against hate? What inspired you to take up this cause?
One of the most insidious forms of hate is bias against marginalized groups. While the type of bias that we focus on — implicit bias — is not intentional and should not be considered overt hate, that is exactly what makes its effects so insidious. It operates beneath the level of consciousness, so most people are completely unaware that they treat others with bias and will deny that they are biased in the first place. Our organization, Equity Commons, combines the latest cross-disciplinary research, cutting-edge technology, and established discussion-based learning to provide immersive Virtual Reality experiences that reduce implicit bias.
Put simply, we employ the power of empathy. Research shows that perspective-taking — the act of, as realistically as possible, seeing the world from someone else’s vantage point — is a powerful tool to reduce implicit bias. Additionally, research highlights the effectiveness of Virtual Reality as a catalyst for empathy. Putting the two together — perspective taking, in concert with groundbreaking Virtual Reality technology — paves the way for real progress toward a future without bias.
The inspiration for Equity Commons can be traced back to Davidson College, my alma mater. I’ve been longtime friends with Dr. Aubrey J. Grant, who eventually became one of Equity Commons’ co-founders and Chief Equity Officer (along with Leslie Alvarado, a co-founder and our Chief Technology Officer). The idea came to be as Dr. Grant began sharing his concerns with me about the pernicious effects of implicit bias in medicine. As Dr. Grant and I put our heads together, I thought back to conversations I had had with Leslie when she was participating in the Davidson Tech Impact Fellowship I founded at Davidson. In her application for the fellowship, she cited academic literature about the use of Virtual Reality technology to build empathy and reduce implicit bias. I organized a call to bring the three of us together. That was the beginning of Equity Commons, which we founded in 2018.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your work as an Upstander?
I was traveling recently in a foreign country, and I was feeling really ill. Despite how bad I was feeling, I was afraid to go to the ER. I was scared, and I was really stressed out. I talked to a medical doctor, a friend of mine, who urged me to go to the ER. All I could think about was the negative experiences I had had where I felt unseen and unheard — experiences in which bias played a role. It’s a horrible feeling when you are in a time of need, where you feel very vulnerable physically and emotionally, and you go into an ER only to feel like you are not being seen, heard, or properly cared for. I did not want to put myself in that situation, even with the nagging feeling that this could be really serious and that I needed help.
The experience made me think about so many people who have that same feeling. There are so many examples — whether it’s women who have had their pain ignored as pointed out by Lindsey Bever in her 2022 Washington Post article, or whether it’s people of color who do not receive the same level of care as noted by Kate Raphael in her 2020 Harvard Global Health Institute article. As a result, people in these groups often prolong the time between when they have symptoms and actually seek care, which, frankly, can mean life or death.
The second part of this story is what gives me hope. I ended up going to the ER, and I was amazed that every single person in the ER — regardless of gender, ethnicity, the visible signals of socioeconomic status, whether they were housed or unhoused — seemed to receive the same level of care. I was blown away! Amazed, I thought to myself, “Wow, so this is actually possible.” Ultimately, this should not be the exception, but the rule — to go in seeking medical care and notice that everyone seems to be treated fairly and equitably. This made me even more excited about the work we are doing with Equity Commons to build a future where an experience like that is not surprising but rather is the norm — a future without bias.
Could you share an inspiring story that demonstrates the impact your efforts have had on an individual or community?
At Equity Commons, our Virtual Reality training invariably makes a big impact on participants. When people put on the Virtual Reality headsets and experience the Virtual Reality simulations firsthand, we can see just from body language how significantly our participants are affected.
One of the executives who brought us in to do a Virtual Reality implicit bias training with her team followed up after we worked together and said, “I have been telling everyone who will listen that I`m so glad we did that training with you all. It was incredibly insightful and pushed a conversation and learning that some of those folks wouldn’t have done on their own if it wasn’t required by the workplace.” Feedback like this keeps me inspired and speaks to the promise of Virtual Reality as an effective mode of implicit bias training.
The data back it up, too. Another collaboration, this time with the American College of Cardiology (ACC), involved a Virtual Reality simulation we developed aimed at raising awareness and mitigating the effects of implicit bias toward transgender patients during a cardiologist’s office visit. The results were incredibly powerful, with 95% of respondents reporting increased awareness of implicit bias, and 86% expressing a commitment to implementing changes based on their newfound understanding when responding to a post-training assessment. Participants unanimously recognized the Virtual Reality experience as a profoundly impactful tool for comprehending implicit bias, emphasizing the significance of the work Equity Commons is doing.
In your opinion, why do you think there has been such a surge of antisemitism, racism, bigotry, & hate, recently?
I think that if we label what we’re seeing across the United States and the world at large as a surge, we must also be careful not to overlook some of the systemic, institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of inequality and inequity that have long-held roots in society. A well-researched example of a centuries-old phenomenon is the classification of people with darker skin as somehow being “other”, and ultimately, “less than” — albeit completely ungrounded in fact and purely rooted in bigotry and hate, this discourse led to successful attempts at justifying the enslavement of millions of people over centuries of colonial expansion.
That said, there are certainly some reasons as to why it seems like we are seeing so many disturbing examples of bigotry and intolerance lately. For one, growing levels of social isolation are driving us to glean information about groups of people through echo chambers online, some of which amplify baseless stereotypes and enable harmful groupthink. Instead of interacting with the world and developing a sense of appreciation for individual differences, people are often devoid of human connection and find it increasingly difficult to relate to others on a person-to-person level. With the spread of misinformation on social media platforms, people can get sucked into dangerous, biased ways of thinking faster than ever before.
Likewise, the way that issues like racism and other forms of bigotry, deliberate or not, tend to be discussed can unintentionally evoke defensiveness and denial. Understandably, people do not appreciate feeling as if they are being accused of something — particularly when their ethics and values come into question. While well-intentioned, many people who try to undo bigotry end up encouraging people who may harbor bias, whether implicit or explicit, to dig in their heels and resist change. What people need is a safe space to come face to face with their feelings and views so that change becomes a growth opportunity, not purely a reckoning with shame and guilt.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I believe in both treetop and grassroots action to drive meaningful change in society. Here are a few ways we can address implicit bias:
- For one, politicians can continue pushing for bias training across myriad industries, particularly those in which health, safety, and well-being can be affected by bias. Already in the medical field, several states have mandated bias training. Through targeted efforts like these, professionals will gain greater exposure to the training they need to build a future without bias.
- Additionally, organizations need to commit to continuous improvement regarding implicit bias. As long as any employee or client of an organization experiences even one instance of exclusion, discomfort, unsafety, or harm because of implicit bias, there is work to be done, and organizations need to be committed to doing that work.
- Finally, our communities are made up of individuals. So, the actions of each individual genuinely matter for the whole. If we seek to build empathy in others, there is no more powerful launching point than building earnest empathy within oneself — whether through more formal channels like DEI training or in informal contexts like one-on-one conversations.
What are your “5 Things Everyone Can Do To Be An Upstander”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1 . Acknowledge the reality that all of us have implicit bias, and let that realization compel you to take action. You have probably had racist, bigoted, or hateful thoughts before, and that does not make you a bad person. Even if you are extremely measured in your words and actions, it is still very likely that you have implicit bias. Once you reckon with that, it can help you open your mind to education and growth in ways that might not have been possible before.
2. Start reading and consuming content that will help you understand the issues and how you can show up to your role as an Upstander. So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo is a good example of a book about race in the contemporary United States, but there are countless great choices out there.
3 . Be willing to have difficult conversations when you hear hate, bigotry, or bias come up. It does not have to be a dramatic confrontation — simply asking the question, “What did you mean by that?” is a non-threatening way to start a dialogue and open people’s minds and hearts to greater empathy.
4 . Get to know people who have experienced hate or bias firsthand. That means talking to more Black people if you are white, talking to more transgender people if you are cisgender, or talking to more economically disadvantaged people if you are well-off. Developing these relationships will help you grow your understanding of not only how bias impacts the day-to-day lives of those different from you, but also how you can be an Upstander in your daily life.
5 . Join a network of other Upstanders. This could be a community service group, an advocacy initiative, a volunteer organization, a nonprofit, a support network, or a discussion group. Ask friends for recommendations, take a look at your social media, and do some Google searching. Having a network of like-minded peers on the journey to be Upstanders will help you stay motivated and connected to your goals and your community.
How do you handle the emotional toll that comes with being an Upstander?
While it can be emotionally taxing to be an Upstander, I remember the words that my mother taught me when I was young: If you see something you don’t like, do something about it. I carry that mission with me every day and keep it in mind as I engage in hard conversations, learn about jarring instances of bias, and work to elevate others’ voices in the charge to create a future without bias.
Through our work at Equity Commons, I have the opportunity to see firsthand how being an Upstander helps reduce bias. Seeing people’s reactions to learning more about what it can be like to experience bias — and the ways in which they, too, can become Upstanders — makes the emotional toll worthwhile. I take pride in the fact that I’m helping to create the kind of world I want to live in — one where people’s health, safety, education, career opportunities, and life outcomes are not tainted by the specter of bias.
If you were in charge of the major social media companies, what would you do to address the hate on the platforms? Could you share specific strategies or policies that you believe would be effective in addressing hate on social media platforms?
While this is an incredibly nuanced and complicated issue that requires a great deal of expertise to fully address, I’d say that clear and visible hate speech policies, while not a panacea, can at least spell out what is and is not allowed on a site. Then, it’s critical that these sites consistently enforce those policies.
A 2022 report from Libby Hemphill of the Anti-Defamation League suggests some tactical ways social media platforms can better moderate hate speech, including learning from extremist websites the specific language patterns that are being used to promote hate speech so that detection models can improve over time. Policies need to be dynamic and able to change with new data — more and more, people are using code words to marginalize others and express harmful views, so it is critical that this type of speech does not slip through the cracks in models.
How would you answer someone who says: “Hate speech is permitted under the US Constitution. Why are you so worried about permitted, and legal speech?”
We are free to say whatever we want — though court decisions have placed boundaries on this — but with everything we utter, we are responsible for the consequences. It is up to every one of us to be thoughtful owners of our language and to be thoughtful of the ways our words affect others. Treating others how we want to be treated is the cornerstone of a just, evolved society, and by calling on each other to know better and be better, we can create that kind of society.
Are you optimistic that we can solve this problem in the United States? Can you please explain what you mean?
We most often hear about the bad news, and for good reason; we need to be aware of the ways bias continues to inflict harm on so many groups and vulnerable populations. As I see examples of implicit bias almost daily, I’m reminded that we have a long way to go, but I also see progress every day through the work I’m fortunate to do with Equity Commons. I’m optimistic because I get to see up close and personal the ability of humans to change. I get to see the ability of training participants to develop a newfound level of empathy for their fellow human who is different from them and the way that empathy can help one make more equitable decisions when interacting with people going forward. Those new and more equitable decisions can also change policies, systems, and structures. This is how we create a future without bias. Every instance of a changed mind or heart and every step toward dismantling systems that ingrain implicit bias in society is a step in the right direction.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an Upstander but doesn’t know where to start?
I would advise anyone looking to become an Upstander to think big but start small. You do not need to be an outspoken community, business, or political leader to make an impact. What you do need is intention and commitment. From there, take action at a local level. Have a hard conversation with a co-worker or a family member. Participate in a nearby advocacy group. Educate yourself by reading relevant books and articles. Take small steps and let the momentum build.
In what ways can education be leveraged to combat antisemitism, racism, bigotry, and hate?
It is critical that we harness the most effective learning modalities to combat implicit bias and all forms of inequity. Traditional training methods, while well-intentioned, have fallen short of achieving the transformative change needed for true equity. In fact, in a 2020 paper from Hagiwara et al. in Lancet, the authors note that awareness of bias is not enough to actually reduce bias, and Dobbin & Kalev note in their 2018 paper in Anthropology Now that urging people to repress bias can actually amplify it. Conversely, a significant body of research, including a 2022 paper from Marques et al. in Frontiers in Psychology, proves that Virtual Reality experiences cultivate empathy among participants. Moreover, a 2022 paper from Tassinari et al. in PLOS One indicates that the heightened empathy evoked by virtual reality significantly reduces implicit bias against individuals from stigmatized groups, paving the way for more equitable attitudes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom always told me, “If you see something you don’t like, do something about it.” I think about this quote every day when I’m finding ways to address implicit bias head-on, whether through our work at Equity Commons or in other facets of my life. Sitting idly while problems persist only makes you feel powerless, while taking action — even small action — can yield meaningful results.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Oprah Winfrey. She has built her business empire from a place of authenticity and is a role model for those seeking to become leaders and philanthropists in the face of adversity. In that vein, she has been at the forefront of leading difficult conversations about very real challenges people face. She does all of this while remaining optimistic and hopeful for a better future where we can all work together to create the kind of world that inspires and uplifts.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit our website at www.equity-commons.com, follow us on Twitter/X at @EquityCommonsVR, follow us on TikTok at @equitycommonsvr, and check out our LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/equity-commons/.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your important work!
Upstanders: How Whitney A White of Equity Commons Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.