Update 18 November 2015: Since publishing this post, I have gone back and forth on whether or not to delete it. I decided I'm going to leave it as an example of where I was at a certain place in my journey. While I do feel that most of the points themselves do describe real thoughts and states of many white people, I'm not sure that all of my action points in how to address them are communicated well or even a good route to take. However, I'm going to leave this here. Too many of us are terrified to make mistakes when it comes to racial discussions, too scared to be honest. I hope this post encourages you guys to voice your thoughts so we can work through them together, to be patient with each other as we all learn. If you decide to grow and change your mind on issues related to race like I have, that's totally okay. Let's help the atmosphere around racial discussions move from labeling & hate to conversation & forgiving grace.
Added note: I didn't intend for this article to be a reflection of how things should be, all of my own opinions, or a list of things that are right. I simply mean for it to be a reflection of what white people actually think during conversations about race but rarely voice to people of color. It represents white people at different levels of awareness, so not everything is ideal for a positive race-centered conversation, but it is real. Hopefully it can help us understand our own biases and the biases of those we interact with, give each other grace when necessary, and learn to communicate better.
Issues centered on race and racism have entered the news headlines in a big way the past couple years (although, obviously, it has been present all along), and many of us are engaging in discussions on race and culture in ways we've never done before. In some cases, this is incredible! It leads to greater understanding between groups and impacts positive change. In other cases, it results in bitter, ever-deepening divides between people.
Obviously, I'd like to have more positive-change kinds of talks in our society! So, today, I've got a list of eight things to keep in mind when talking to white people about race, with the goal of increasing your odds of being heard and being persuasive. If you're a person of color that has been frustrated in your discussions on race with white people, this might help you communicate your message in a way that will keep the dialogue open and constructive instead of leading to an emotional shut down. If you're white, it could be a good reminder when talking to other white people about race, which is a really important thing we can do to advance equality.
This in no way is a post telling anyone to coddle white people, to change your opinions, or to cater to the whims of the pasty race. It's just that communication tailored to your audience can make you more persuasive and likely to win people over, and that applies in any context where you hope to get people on your side.
Below are some tips/insights, and they work best in the context of a personal relationship. They may be harder to implement on a larger scale or, say, in a conversation with a random person on Facebook, so keep that in mind.
Here are eight things white people wish you knew in talking to them about race:
As I hope is obvious, not all of these things will apply to every white person and some of them may even seem to conflict, but that's because they represent the views of white people at different levels of cultural awareness and experience. Not every white person will identify with all of them, but every white person will identify with at least some of them.
1. My experience as a white person is different from other white people.
White people come from lots of cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, and life experiences. Technically, white people can be American, German, South African, Chilean, etc. in background and those are all very different. We don't all have the same outlook. We don't all have the same opinions. Or even if some of us do have the same opinion, we don't have the same reasons for holding those opinions. It could definitely be worth your while to probe a bit and see where we're coming from. Not everyone's experience of whiteness is the same.
2. I'm not used to talking about race.
It's a good idea to acknowledge "white fragility" right off. White fragility is the concept that white people are often easily upset by or wary of entering into race-based discussions because we have isolated ourselves from those issues and built walls to protect ourselves from having to think about it.
While I don't mean to imply that this is okay, I think it is wise to acknowledge it. Nobody likes to talk about uncomfortable subjects of any kind unless they feel they have to. While people of color generally don't have a choice on whether or not to think about racial issues, white people do. Unlike a person of color, we can care or not care to think about race and our life will look pretty much the same either way (in the sense that our safety doesn't depend on it).
Acknowledge this "sheltering" that many white people have when it comes to racial issues (whether it's been done intentionally or not). If we seem defensive or quick to disagree, remember that the habit of many white folks is just to avoid it or end the conversation quickly, and just mentioning the subject of race is enough to put some white people on edge. Simply because you want to talk about race and may even have a good heart behind it isn't enough to instantly change the years of habits some people have. Be patient with them and know that you personally may not be the cause of anger or a sharp response. It might be the white fragility talking.
3. I'm scared to talk about race.
For many white people, we've built up walls to avoid racial discussions because we're scared. We're nervous we're going to offend people and get labeled a racist, so we just don't want to talk about it at all. (This is especially true if we disagree with something a person of color has said.) Oftentimes we're curious, SO CURIOUS, about your experience, but we don't want to ask dumb questions or, worse yet, insult you. So we just never ask, or we try to avoid the conversation to avoid potential conflict.
For example, before college I always wondered about black people's hair. I thought it was awesome and wanted a 'fro so bad. (Obviously, never gonna happen.) However, I never asked anyone about it because I didn't want to seem ignorant or to make someone feel singled out. But when one of my best friends started the process of embracing her natural hair and let me in on it, I learned so much. I suddenly realized why it was important to have a hair stylist in town that knew how to work with natural hair. Another girl gave me a tutorial on how to do cornrows, and an especially gracious friend even let me practice on her hair a couple times. Because people allowed me to ask dumb questions, I have a better grasp of their experiences as African American women in a 96% white town. And that's not just about hair, either. There are all sorts of cultural nuances wrapped up in our daily activities, like styling our hair, that people of other races may never learn if we don't share them. If you're a person of color, please try to be gracious with our dumb questions and use them as an opportunity to kindly let us in on what it's like to be you. Oftentimes we aren't trying to be insulting; we just really don't know.
4. I don't know "the rules."
You know those rules on what to say and what not to say when it comes to racial discussions (or regular discussions, for that matter)? You know, those rules about which people group prefers to be called by which term, which stereotyping jokes are funny and which are going too far, and what is okay to ask and talk about? How did you learn those rules? I'm pretty sure no one ever wrote them down for you, gave them to you in a memo, or had them all typed out for you in a textbook. You learned by watching others' conversations and talking to people, right?
Well, consider this: many white people have never talked to a person of color on a deep level. They've only talked to other white people. How would we have learned what other peoples do and do not like being called if we've never talked to one, if we've only ever relied on certain media sources or hearsay? How would we know what joke is insulting to a Chinese person if no one has ever told us they were offended? (Or if we've only told the joke to non-Chinese people who don't care?)
I know, it sounds crazy because the rules are oftentimes so obvious to people of color. You think, "Surely they KNOW what they just said. That was totally intentional and wrong." Well, they may not know. For example, I know white people that call people of other races "colored," but it's not because they're trying to be insulting. They're just from an older generation/rural area where that was acceptable. They've never really talked to a person of color on a deep level to know it's not alright, and the white people they're around aren't bothered by the term. How would they know it's not okay to say that when no one has ever told them? Sometimes it's just ignorance, not intentional insult. (And in case you're wondering, no worries, I speak up in those moments.)
Obviously, there are people who are trying to be insulting and know exactly what they're saying, and that's not acceptable. However, if you're in a conversation with someone about race and they use a word or phrase that grates on you, take a moment to determine if they are trying to be insulting or just don't realize the word they used is loaded. Especially if you have a good relationship with this person otherwise, it could be a great teaching moment instead of a friendship-breaker. Instead of getting angry and exploding on them, maybe take a minute to tell them that word was offensive to you and even explain the meaning it carries for you. This way the person doesn't feel randomly attacked, knows what they said wrong, and knows why they should avoid saying it. You will have just shared your cultural knowledge with someone, and hopefully they will accept your experience and avoid that word/phrase/comment in the future.
5. I have experienced pain, too.
While it is true that "white privilege" affords white people the chance to have some things in life easier than other people, it doesn't mean that white people automatically have an easier life or don't understand hardship. Many white people have even experienced racism themselves (although, granted, most have not experienced systemic or institutional racism). I was prejudiced against when living in Africa on a daily basis. It has profoundly shaped who I am, and it's a big part of why issues about race are important to me. Sometimes white women that marry black men experience negativity from both the white and black communities and aren't fully accepted in either one, and the opposite is also true. White people that post pictures with their minority-race relatives aren't believed when they claim them as family. While white people in the West don't generally experience systemic/institutionalized racism, many of them do have personal situations where prejudice was a reality. Of course this doesn't mean they "get" the experience of a person of color; it just means they have a point of reference when it comes to racism.
Instead of minimizing these stories--even if they do seem very small in light of the difficulties you've faced--use them as a foundation on which to build your case. If a person has had even one small moment of experiencing prejudice, it will be easier for him to empathize with your story because of an emotional connection, not just a cerebral one. Knowing about racism and feeling it is the difference between an apathetic bystander and a passionate advocate. Tap into that person's felt experience and connect it to what it's like to be you. Explain to your friend what it would be like to have a story like theirs… but every day. Expand on it and help them feel the effects of racism.
6. I don't like to be lumped in with all other white people in the past.
It really bothers me when people say, "Well, racism is here because white people did this in the past," or "If white people would stop doing that..." Referring back to point number one... not all white people are the same. Just as there were slave owners, there were conductors on the Underground Railroad. Just as there were policemen at Selma, there were white people killed by other whites for marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as there were colonialists, there were white people fighting for the rights of native peoples and advocating for them before their own governments.
Please do not lump us all together into one category and blame us for the wrongdoings of past people. I swear, if I had been there I would have marched with Dr. King. I would have fought on the side of the Union. I would have proudly taken my seat next to Rosa Parks on the bus. If you lump me in with people in history as if I had been there actively helping them to create the problems we are facing now, it really doesn't make me want to partner with you for equality. I just feel invalidated in my efforts to help.
7. I want to help, but I don't know how.
So a lot of white people agree that racism is a big issue, but we aren't sure what to do about it. Odds are good that we aren't magazine editors that can choose to use people of color in our editorials, or policemen high enough in the chain of command to make policy decisions, or influential celebrities with giant platforms giving speeches. We probably feel the way you do a lot of times: how do we tiny people bring change in the face of such a big problem? We're trying to listen to your experience and support you… but now what? What do I do about it?
And this is where a lot of white people get stuck. We know it's a problem, but we don't know what to do about it. Instead of looking at us as apathetic or uncaring, tell us tangible things we can do to help you. It might be obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to someone else. We want to help; show us how!
8. I want to fight with you.
When white people see that racism is a real issue, we often want to help eliminate it. Let us help in the fight for equality. The vast, vast majority of white people don't offer to fight racism because we believe white people are necessary to that process. We just want to help because we think racism sucks, too, and we don't want to leave all the people of color to fight on their own when we could add our resources, fight with you, and quite possibly end racism even sooner. Show us how to help in an actually helpful way.
We know we have white privilege. We know some people are more willing to listen to another white person on these issues than a person of color. Instead of resenting that, let us use those things to your advantage. Let's collaborate and work together. I'm really sorry that there's such a thing as white privilege and that some people don't give others' views the time of day, but let's work the system together and beat it!
What do you think of the points above? Do you identify with any of them, or have you encountered these things in any real-life discussions? Are there any that bother you? Any that have surprised you?
As usual, please keep comments respectful and avoid sweeping statements or assumptions of others. If you disagree with me, I'd be glad to discuss things with you, but I'm a real person behind this blog and I appreciate respect, too!
Other useful posts on this topic:
- 10 Simple Ways White People Can Step Up to Fight Everyday Racism - Derrick Clinton for Identities.mic
- Why Don't my White Friends Talk About Race? Here's What They Told Me - Heather Barmore for the Huffington Post
- 3 Tips for Talking to Other White People About Racism - Samantha Allen for The Daily Dot
- What Color Am I?: Why White People Avoid Talking About Race and Why People of Color Keep Bringing It Up - Judy Wu Dominick