This summer, I caused quite a stir on my university’s faculty listserv on the matter of institutionalized racism in higher education. My esteemed colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, wrote a terrific essay on the matter: “Is Your University Racist? Five Questions Every Institution Should Ask Itself.”
I subsequently caused another stir on the UR faculty listserv by criticizing my university’s inaction in the face of an law student group’s invitation for Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation to speak on campus for the fourth time in recent years — this time, to peddle scientific transphobia thinly disguised as legitimate legal and scientific analysis. (See my blog post on the matter here.)
Several colleagues — mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender women and men — have reached out to commend my bravery, invite me to lunch or coffee, and/or to tell me how they could never speak out so publicly and brazenly. I am grateful, but admittedly annoyed, for a few reasons.
First, I’ve come to recognize that what seems like bravery on my part is actually just efforts to do the work that my university has failed to do. Calling out institutionalized racism and cissexism falls to individual students, staff, and faculty when the university neglects to do so; and, such work looks (and is) brave.
Second, I don’t want to keep having lunches and coffees. These invitations are kind gestures, but they require more and more time and emotional labor, including the back-and-forth of multiple emails just to find a time that works for our schedules. I’m not speaking out to be praised or validated; I’m speaking out because my safety and livelihood depend upon real efforts to challenge racism (mine, as well as yours). Rarely have these one-off meetings turned into long-term friendship or even sustained support/mentorship/sponsorship/advocacy on my behalf.
And, finally, these interactions demand of me that I absolve white, heterosexual, cis people of failing to speak up in the face of injustice. I resent when privileged people confide in me about why they refuse to fight against the systems of oppression that constrain my life chances and quality of life, systems from which they benefit. What’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to you is literally oppressive and violent for me.
So, I took to Twitter once again to speak to white people on challenges (yet importance) of talking about race and racism. You can see the rant in its original Twitter form here. (Also check out my last one, “White People: You’re Racist, But This Isn’t About You.”)
What follows is a slightly revised version in essay form, reorganized to improve clarity and flow.
You Are Afraid To Talk About Race & Racism
White folks: so, you don’t know how to talk about race – but you want to. You feel paralyzed by fear or ignorance, and might decide to defer to someone who is “well-versed” on the subject matter. But, you feel guilty, and you want people of color to whom you are an ally to know that you aren’t racist (just scared).
Whatever the reason for your silence, you’ve made a conscious decision to remain silent about race, perhaps even in the face of racist injustice. White privilege allows you to feel like an individual who made a difficult decision. But, in reality, most white people choose silence. And, those individual decisions to remain silent add up to collective white silence, to white complicity in racist oppression, or even white consent to racist violence.
And, that’s exactly how white silence feels. As a person of color, I cannot discern between your fear-stricken silence and the silence of white people who don’t think that racism exists, who think that race only emerges as a topic or factor when people of color bring it up (i.e., “playing the race card), or who simply do not value the lives of people of color. The impact of your silence is literally the same as that of Klansmen, Nazis, most white Republicans, and other garden-variety racists.
You Lack The Language To Talk About Race & Racism
White folks: of course you feel that you do not know what to say on racial matters, or how to intervene in racist incidents. Very few of us are well-versed on the topics of race and racism. Even as a race scholar (academic expertise) and person of color (personal experience), I struggle to communicate the complex, structural, pervasive nature of racism to other people — even other academics. It may seem like people of color can talk readily, freely, and endlessly about race, but we just have lots of practice given our everyday lived experiences in a racist nation.
Of course you don’t know how to constructively talk about race. You don’t have to (thanks to white privilege). And, you’ve gotten little to no practice with it (thanks to white privilege and racism). It has never been a skill that white families desired to or felt it necessary to teach their children. There is no widely accessible script afforded to white people for talking about race or fighting racism. It’s like learning a new language or skill.
But, worse, racism makes it so that there are risks inherent to white people talking constructively about racism. In the past, anti-racist whites have been called “race traitors” and “nigger-lovers,” etc. The system is designed to protect itself from white individuals attempting to undermine it. So, of course you are clueless about how to talk about racism. And, of course, you are nervous to “go off script.”
Because you feel you lack the “right” language, you may be tempted to defer to someone who is seemingly better equipped to talk about and address racism. In doing so, the responsibility typically falls to whichever people of color are present for that conversation or incident. As usual, it’s those victimized by the system who are burdened with the responsibility of trying to get those who benefit from racism to give a damn, to listen, to learn, to act.
Too often, I see white people defer to others (people of color) to talk about race and act in the face of racial injustice — and, then never make an effort to educate themselves about race and racism. If we think of such knowledge as “racial literacy,” then an equivalent inaction would be realizing you don’t know how to properly use the reply-all feature on a listserv or group email but never bothering learn how. But, while unnecessary replies-to-all are annoying and inconvenient, collective white ignorance about racist oppression literally has dire and deathly consequences for people of color.
You Lack The Right Knowledge About Race & Racism
White folks: if you actually go on to educate yourself when you have been forced to acknowledge ignorance about racism, then please do not hit up the lone person of color you know to educate you. We do not get paid for this labor — and it is labor that is requested often.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you that most white folks (even the most liberal, well-intentioned ones) are not 100% open as students. So, with the labor of educating you about how you benefit from our domination, we risk your anger, frustration, cluelessness, dismissal, co-opting, resentment, etc.
Understand that you are not the only, nor the first or last, white person to ask questions of, to play devil’s advocate with, to process your feelings about racism with a given person of color. That time and energy adds up and, honestly, for too little payoff. You need to note that these conversations may be taxing, upsetting, or even triggering for us because it can feel like our safety and livelihood depend upon the outcome.
There are countless books written, documentaries and films and TV shows produced, and courses offered on race and racism, many by people of color. The widespread existence of academic programs in Racial and Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Asian American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latina/o/x Studies, etc. tells you that there are a great deal of scholarly and creative works on our lives, and on race and racism. I recommend becoming a student of these fields to minimize the labor tasked to individual people of color to respond to the infinite questions asked by white strangers, friends, relatives, neighbors, students and teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officers, etc.
You Feel Uncomfortable Talking About Race & Racism
White folks: please stop waiting for talking about race to be comfortable. Racism is a system of oppression. It’s never going to feel like a topic that’s lighthearted enough to absentmindedly bring up at Thanksgiving dinner. (You’ve seen the hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” right?)
As such, I encourage you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Your comfort in the face of the inhumane system of racism is an example of white privilege. Being comfortable with racism (or ignoring it) is not a luxury people of color enjoy. Personally, I don’t need you to tell me how brave I am for speaking up. In reality, I’m petrified every time I speak up! You can bravely speak up in the face of racial injustice and still be afraid or anxious or nervous. It’s not an easy thing to do — for anyone.
Your discomfort is a reasonable feeling. But, I want to caution you against confiding that fear in the few people of color in your life. You will certainly not be the first white person to say “I care, but I am too afraid to speak up.” Please, stop coming to us to absolve you of your fear-induced silence in the face of racism.
People of color have to be brave in the face of racism because our survival literally depends upon it. We don’t have a choice in the matter. But, when you let fear silence you, you’re enjoying the luxury of choosing to speak up (or not) about racism afforded to you by white privilege. The consequence of your silence and inaction is not death; in reality, the main consequence is maintaining your white privilege.
Strategies For Addressing Racism
White folks, if I may offer some strategies to those who genuinely want to challenge racism:
1) Take the time to get educated, for knowledge is power.
2) Build an anti-racist arm. Have a relative or coworker or friend who can echo your concerns when you speak up to minimize the risk of being the lone voice of dissent or concern.
3) Be proactive about developing some relatively easy way of saying “hey, wait! that’s problematic/racist/offensive!” Racism is a given, a daily reality. So, please act accordingly. Stop being surprised when it rears its ugly head — because it will, over and over again.
4) Take some time to find one good, accessible resource to share for further information, especially if you don’t feel equipped to say anything more than “hey, that’s racist!”
5) Wherever you have power, make space for people of color so that you don’t have to speak on our behalf (especially if you’re too afraid to speak about race and racism). Don’t leave it to us to do the work, but I’m noting here that there are infinite spaces in which we aren’t even allowed.
6) Don’t be so concerned with what other white people think of you. To the extent that you are trying to get the approval of other whites, you are only maintaining your white privilege. The beauty of white privilege is that you can piss off other white people by constantly talking about racism, calling other whites on their blindspots and biases, and not lose out or be harmed in the huge ways that we do (violence, termination, exclusion, dismissal, etc.). Remember, white privilege is like a boomerang. You can attempt to relinquish it – for example, by confronting a racist uncle – but, it will always come back to you. You don’t stop being white (and privileged accordingly).
7) If you speak up against racism, then don’t expect people of color to thank you and pat you on the head for being a “good white.” Our validation shouldn’t be your desired goal for fighting racism. In fact, I encourage you to learn to be OK with being called racist by people of color. Besides, “you’re racist” is a pinch compared to being oppressed by racism. So, thicken up that skin, please.
8) Recognize that fighting racism isn’t about you. Take your ego out of it. Do it because it is right.
9) Be patient with yourself (and others). Race relations are inherently tense and fraught — that’s by design. But, that can’t be an excuse to give up, to stop speaking up, to stop learning, to stop asking for assistance and co-conspirators. At the same time, please appreciate that people of color won’t necessarily be patient with you, and probably shouldn’t even grant you patience while you slowly begin addressing racism. Again, don’t get hung up on how we feel about you. We lack enough power for our feelings to be of much consequence for you — but, your silence and inaction makes you complicit in the system that devastates our lives.
10) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. One big challenge is that you cannot try to retain the comforts of white middle-class life and challenge racism. The former exists because of white privilege.
11) Get comfortable with feeling ignorant, and owning that ignorance in front of others. Remember that your supposed ignorance about racism is yet another manifestation of white privilege — you don’t HAVE to be versed in racism. That is by design. Our social institutions reinforce that luxury: K-12 and college curricula overwhelmingly feature the lives and contributions and histories of white people; mainstream TV, film, pop culture are so, so, so white; and, businesses cater to upper- and middle-class whites tastes.
12) Start talking to other white people about racism. You have access to spaces and relationships to which we are denied full access. Even if you still lack the language and courage to readily engage in, for example, a discussion of mass incarceration as a modern day form of Jim Crow racism, you can at least invite other white people to talk about race, or even call bigoted whites on their racist comments and behaviors. At the very minimum, you can pose seemingly innocent questions in response to problematic comments or behaviors that demand other whites to explain themselves (possibly revealing initially veiled racial biases) or rethink their comments/actions.
White people: confronting racism is hard and scary. I hear you! It entails getting your hands dirty, getting your feelings hurt, maybe alienating your racist uncle, and losing friends who voted for Obama (twice) but keep saying “all lives matter.”
A bit of tough love here — you are naive to assume it would ever be comfortable and easy. (Don’t you think we would have eliminated it by now if that were the case?) I recommend thinking about fighting racism as akin to going to war. Just as you wouldn’t expect to maintain your usual comfortable lifestyle during wartime, you cannot expect it when fighting racism. In fact, if you are comfortable while you are fighting racism, then I suspect you’re doing it wrong.
But, ya gotta do it. Ending racism necessitates real effort by white people to bring the system down. It’s not about you, but we need you.