'I Was Asked To Agree to a "White People Are Racist" Contract at Work'

I used to be liberal. I still am in the sense that I'm a more classic liberal; I believe in free speech, due process, the Constitution and civil rights. But political liberalism seems to have passed me by and, in my opinion, evolved into a very ideological form of leftism. So now, I feel politically homeless. I don't really subscribe to either of the major political parties.

For many years, I was working as a lawyer in private practice, focusing on family law. I also have a degree in psychology and I have worked as a therapist. So, family law was a good way to make use of both of them, and I found it fulfilling to represent domestic violence victims. I even did pro bono hours in that area; one aspect I hated about private practice was when someone came in with an awful story, but they didn't have the money to pay for lawyers. That would always kill me.

When my current employer had an opening, I jumped at it because I wanted to represent domestic violence victims and not worry about who has the money to pay and who doesn't. I felt that it was a wonderful opportunity for me and I really like the work.

We are based in Philadelphia, and unfortunately, Philadelphia has a lot of problems with crime, with poverty, and with domestic violence. Most of our clients are our people of color, and when George Floyd was murdered in June of 2020, our workplace organized meetings about it; everyone was upset.

This evolved into having what was later referred to as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) sessions, where we had affinity groups where staff were separated out into groups based on ethnicity, for example into a white group and a Black group. I was told that I had to attend a white affinity group meeting, but eventually, I was given permission to not attend, because I really didn't agree with being separated by race.

I also felt that, as a Jew, the last thing I wanted to do was to be separated by race. I didn't feel anything productive was going to come of that. And I felt it was very regressive. I felt that we didn't need to listen to one group over another and split ourselves off into groups, we needed to come together more and be more humanistic about it. To me, that was the only way we could address racism.

I found the approach of my organization to be very divisive and to be taking time away from our mission. I don't think it practically helped any domestic violence survivor. I also don't think it accomplished anything concrete at all. So it was a lot of wasted hours, which means wasted money. Because, of course, time is money in any organization or business.

Nicole Disagrees With Her Employers Anti-Racism Measures
Nicole Levitt has filed an EOCC complaint against her employer, after being asked to agree to a a "Full Value Contract" shared over email that included a point saying white employees had to "Own that all white people are racist and that I am not the exception." Nicole Levitt

I have always been adamantly opposed to racism. I joined the Racial Equity Committee at my job in 2020, but over time, I personally found the language used against white people to be very dehumanizing. I also discovered that there was to be a difference in stipends paid to members of the Racial Equity Audit Taskforce ("REAT"), where Black members of REAT would be paid more than their white counterparts. That seemed not only wrong, but illegal, a violation of US civil rights laws.

The argument was that we work with people of color, so we needed to think a certain way in order to adequately represent them. But I object to being told how to think by anyone. And the fact that you couldn't dissent from this ideology without being singled out was very concerning. And it was a big red flag for me.

At one point, I had requested that an article on anti-Semitism be included in the company's anti-racism resources, where they included information on Islamophobia and other prejudices experienced by minorities. My request was denied. I was told that the decision had been made a while back not to include this material.

My company has said that they have spoken out against anti-Semitism, but when I replied to an email about the subject and it created a big firestorm where my motivations and timing were questioned, with some people suggesting that I was highlighting Black perpetrators of anti-Semitism in order to sow division. This struck me as highly unfair. Why shouldn't the religious group most targeted by hate crimes in America be part of the DEI discussion? Why must focusing on one community's pain mean that there's no room to focus on others?

Meanwhile, one of the trainings I was given noted that white supremacy is "a smog we all ingest." Another was about how our organization was complicit in systemic racism and white supremacy. It was a given that if you're white, you're racist. And I was even asked to agree to a "Full Value Contract" shared over email that included a point saying we had to "Own that all white people are racist and that I am not the exception."

The "Full Value Contract" was intended to govern our behavior during Legal Center meetings. My view was that everything else about this "Full Value Contract" was fine. But there was that one line that stated that all white people are racist and that I'm not the exception. That was my sole objection.

We're lawyers, and we look at words, and we take the meaning of words seriously. And we're not going to stop doing that. So I refused to agree to using words that I saw as dividing people.

I was eventually told I had to attend a meeting with the DEI consultant at the time, which my company suggests was presented as an alternative to going back to the white affinity group. I chose to attend the meeting with the DEI consultant. I would describe the meeting as my thoughts being probed with an attempt to reform them, despite the fact my company describes it as an opportunity to support me. I recall that the meeting was to see whether I am safe to be around my colleagues and clients of color.

I did listen to the training. But I didn't adhere to an ideology that I thought was racist. I don't think you can fix racism through what I saw as more racism. You can't fix racism against Black and brown people by, as I saw it, casting aspersions against people who aren't of color.

I don't believe America is a racist country. I believe we have not always been true to our ideals. And we have a lot of work to do. But I don't think we're an inherently racist country. I believe the 1619 Project has some truth to it. But it's not the whole truth of what this country stands for. And it was presented as the truth about America in some of our training sessions. When there are no other dissenting opinions being presented, how is that helpful in an office environment?

I know racism exists, and I want to eliminate it. By saying America is not a racist country, I'm not denying that racism exists. It is there. But I don't personally believe in Ibram X. Kendi's idea of anti-racism—which in part states that the only way to address prior racist discrimination is through present anti-racist discrimination—is going to eliminate racism, I personally think it's going to make it worse. By pitting different identities against each other. I don't think that that's the way we should be operating in this country. And as an attorney, I believe a lot of what I experienced violated civil rights laws.

So, I have submitted an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against my employer for singling out white people to agree to a "Full Value Contract", or set of standards in the workplace, saying they're racist. I believe this is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. You're not allowed to scapegoat any race, including white people, for whatever purpose. A racially hostile atmosphere is one in which there are constantly messages of stereotyping, discriminating, scapegoating, one race, which is what I feel I experienced.

I did not want to take this action, but I do feel like I was pushed into a corner. I really like my job and I don't want to put it in jeopardy. But at a certain point, I felt like I couldn't have my integrity and not speak up. It became a matter of protecting myself.

If my clients had experienced racism and there was something I could do about it, I definitely would. If I saw an instance of racism, I would do something about it, but I hadn't.

My relationship with my clients of color is very good. I represent them to the best of my abilities. And I get a lot of positive feedback. My relationship with my Black colleagues was always good, it was always friendly. I really don't know what it's like now; it's ostensibly professional, but I don't know what the feelings are underneath. I'm not looking into it, as long as we can all get along professionally and continue to do our jobs and serve our clients.

I believe that a better approach would be something more humanistic that didn't divide us into different groups, something that doesn't, in my opinion, dehumanize, stereotype or scapegoat one race over another, or ascribe characteristics to one race over another. Something that brings people together.

There are forms of anti-racism that I agree with; Sheena Mason has one called the Theory of Racelessness. To me, these programs are not divisive, they bring people together. And that is the only way I feel that true anti-racism can be accomplished.

I've had so many people, both white people and people color, reach out to me who have said that they are having the same problem or have been through the same thing. They have thanked me for speaking out and said I have really helped them. Obviously, I've gotten a lot of really negative comments, too. But I'm developing a thick skin and that's not a bad thing.

Where racism exists, I want to stamp it out. I just don't believe it's everywhere. I don't believe that the one cause for every disparity between groups is racism. II think you have to be wary of mono-causal explanations for complex problems.

I've learned that it's worth it to stand up for your ideals, but that you will pay a price.

I think you're going to pay a bigger price if you don't do it, in terms of your integrity. And if you stand up, then it can help empower other people to stand up. I hope that I did it in a way that was as kind as I could. I know that of the people who disagree with me, most of them are doing it from a good place. Because they see a problem and they want to solve it. My problem is that I think that the cure I experienced is worsening the disease.

Nicole Levitt is an attorney based in Philadelphia, You can follow her on Twitter @LevittNicole7.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.