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Earlier this week, I took to Twitter while on the train returning from the 2018 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia, PA. I was exhausted and frustrated after the conference, but suffer from just enough anxiety to prevent me from sleeping in public. So, I decided to address one irony of the conference.
The ASA conference theme was Feeling Race, yet many white sociologists in attendance were surprisingly unreflective about their white privilege, complicity in racism, and negative emotional reactions to people of color who called them on their privilege/prejudice/stereotypes. I even witnessed some paint a person of color, who vocalized offense at the way in which another person of color was snubbed, as a villain who berated well-meaning white people.
Below, I have turned the rather long Twitterstorm into an essay. Thanks to the MANY kind people who asked whether they could share this, nudging me to turn it into a blog post to more easily share. And, special thanks to @DamienMcKenna, who kindly put my tweets into one document, sparing me a lot of copying and pasting! Please read on…
Envision this perhaps all-too-familiar scenario.
and, a person of color — let’s call her Denise — has directly or indirectly suggested that something you have done toward or said about race, people of color, or whites is problematic. Or, Denise noted that something seemingly race-neutral or otherwise unrelated to race was inherently about race. She might even have said, “you(r comments) are racist.”
Next, you feel a wave of emotions: surprise, anger, resentment, sadness, embarrassment. Denise, a Black woman, has questioned your racial politics, your allyship to people of color, your commitment to liberalism, equality, and social justice. You are hurt!
You want to do many things, but do not want to provide more fodder for the accusation that you(r comments) are racist. Maybe you to clarify for Denise, “I’m not racist,” or “you’re reading into things,” or “you’re being overly sensitive,” or “it’s not always about race,” or “you’re playing the race card.” You certainly didn’t intend to be insensitive. Doesn’t that count for something? So, you might try to further explain yourself. Maybe Denise just didn’t have enough information before she vocalized her conclusion that your comments were offensive.
Or, Denise doesn’t know enough about you — YOU! She don’t know that you voted for Barack Obama (twice!) and certainly voted against Donald J. Trump (and will do so again in two years). That you have friendly relationships with people of color, who have never said otherwise. Maybe you’ve even donated money to NAACP, marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, or acknowledge the existence of your Latina housekeeper.
You’re upset because the explicit or implied accusation that you are racist lumps you in the same category with Trump, neo-nazis, and your Archie-Bunker-like grandfather who insists on referring to Black people as “niggers” or “Negroes” or “coloreds.” You know, those white people who intentionally discriminate, actively hate people of color, and feel superior as a member of the white race.
Now, you are probably so in your head. Race relations are so fraught! Why can’t we ever talk about race without someone being accused of racism? It seems to you that some people of color already come to the conversation closed, angry, reading to call out “whitey” for racism. Why did Denise have to go there?
Now that you, white person, are currently under an informal investigation for racism, let me tell you about what may be happening for the person of color who has accused you of being offensive toward people of color (perhaps even racist).
Some of us folks of color never bothered, or have stopped bothering, to figure out which white people are racist and which ones aren’t. Accusing any white person of racism often results in the aforementioned emotional response(s). White people rarely respond in productive ways. (Since posting this Twitterstorm on Tuesday, I’ve been responding to a number of whites who demand room for caveats and exceptions, who want acknowledgement of the ways in which they are victimized in an unequal society, or who really just want to put me in my “place” and shut me up.)
Instead, we pay attention to racism as a system of oppression that shapes institutional practices, policies, and cultures, constrains interpersonal interactions, and manifests on the individual level as white privilege, individual-level discrimination, microaggressions, and prejudice. It’s never been a matter of a few racist “bad apples,” a simple fix of changing hearts and minds.
We won’t waste time calling a singular white person “racist”; it’s too much of a given to waste the time that will ultimately be spent on the white person’s negative reaction, possibly even having to comfort them so that they can restore their fragile identity as a white liberal. Honestly, some of us just assume that every white person is racist because each one benefits from an inhumane, oppressive system that robs people of color of our livelihoods, our health and well-being, and our lives.
So, in this hypothetical situation — Denise, a person of color, has accused you of being racist (again, either explicitly or implicitly). It took her incredible patience and courage to do so. We know, most of the time, we will be punished for doing so, at a minimum through the exhaustion of explaining ourselves and defending our right to feel pain under the oppressive system that is racism.
This is one of those (possibly rare) moments when we feel the stakes are too high to remain silent, or when we might actually reach you. Honestly, there are infinite ways in which we let problematic shit from white people slide; it’s not worth the energy to constantly fight. I’d venture to say that we let half or more of what we endure and witness slide because of the risks of calling it out or the energy it will take to explain ourselves.
And, now, we’ve reentered an era when calling out racism and white supremacy (or not) is realistically a matter of life or death. We have to weigh the costs. And, let it be known that pointing out that something is offensive will always come with costs, none of them negligible. Denise has drawn from an already depleted reserve of energy to “deal with” your problematic view or comments. Depleted because that isn’t even her first exposure to racial insensitivity today!
Before that meeting, a white woman moved away from her on the elevator. An older white man stared at her. A white cashier wasn’t as friendly with Denise as the white customer ahead of usher A white colleague just called her Angela — the name of the only other Black woman in the office who is several shades lighter, has short hair (unlike Denise’s locks), wears glasses, and is easily 5 inches shorter than Denise.
Unlike you, for many people of color (especially those in the middle-class), our interactions outside of the house are overwhelmingly with white people who come from a range of political backgrounds and levels of ceaselessness and insensitivity about race and racism.
You just said something was “ghetto” in reference to a Black middle-class person who grew up in and currently lives in the suburbs. (Please never refer to our bodies with the reference “ghetto booty.”) And, we don’t have enough energy to clock you on the problems with conflating Blackness with poverty and “low-class” lifestyles.
You think you’ve just complimented Denise’s new hairstyle and touched it while doing so. But, she simply doesn’t have the time to educate you on the history of whites’ possession and inspection and exploitation of Black bodies, especially Black women’s.
Denise is already exhausted because her white supervisor wanted to play “devil’s advocate” — what if we focused on class instead of race in diversifying the staff because “it’s really about class” — like it’s a game for whites while it’s our livelihoods.
That discomfort you felt in being called out for a single racist comment is a pinch compared to a lifetime of beatings by whiteness and racism that people of color face. In your efforts to defend your good white liberal identity, you will inevitably enact further violence against the person of color you have offended. Telling Denise that her experience in that conversation, in life, is a form of gaslighting — and we face it 24/7.
Falling into the predictable trap of “but, I’m not racist” is an attempt to separate yourself from every other white person’s racist behaviors — for example, this morning Trump and friends called us criminals, rapists, animals, put our kids in cages, forced us out of the country. You want to be seen as an individual white person. You don’t want to be stereotyped, you don’t want assumptions made about you because of your race. Yes, the exact thing that is systematically denied to people of color — you know, because of racism.
People of color do not receive the privilege of individuality. Assumptions are made about who we are, what we do, what we want and value, how we talk, who we love and make love with, etc. all the damn time. We are a color first and, sometimes, an individual. Even as an individual, white people in our lives come to us to work through their feelings and opinions about race (while not talking to other white people). This is a form of labor which goes unpaid, on top of already receiving a fraction of wages for the same work whites do.
Whites often come to us to be absolved for slavery, internment camps, Latinx kids in cages, the Trump regime, their racist uncle, the theft, removal, forced assimilation, and genocide of First Nation people, for white guilt, for white privilege, for even being white. Somehow, whites view us as the ones who bring race into the room or conversation. Part of the package of white privilege is being able to think of yourself in spite of your race (while reducing people of color to their race).
You’re able to think of yourself as raceless. You’re able to ignore that all of your friends, family, coworkers, fellow congregants, neighbors, elected officials, teachers, etc. are also white. But, then, see people of color as “playing the race” card. You’re totally oblivious to how you refer to individuals as “diverse,” which is logically incorrect because diversity implies difference among people not within an individual person.
White person, when Denise has called you out for saying or doing something problematic, I implore you to do anything but become defensive or angry. Do not proceed with restoring your “good white liberal” identity because that makes the situation about you. Yes, that person of color is calling you out specifically, but she is also speaking to the broader system of racism. So, please don’t make it just about you. (Most situations are about white people. Take a breath. Take a seat — take several seats.)
You should relinquish the assumption that you will never do or say anything offensive toward people of color. Odds are, you will, and you will do so frequently. You won’t be able to help yourself. You studied in schools that pushed curriculum that spoke of your superiority and, if it ever reflected people of color, framed these communities as marginal, barbaric, extinct, exotic, criminal, and to be feared. The media, politics, medicine, science, religion, and various other institutions have only echoed the centrality of whiteness and the marginal, devalued status of people of color. So, let’s get past that so we can actually address racism rather than your sense of self.
It might be fair to say that the more you make what follows about you — how right you are, how non-racist you are, how wrong they are to accuse you of being offensive — the more you undermine Denise’s sense of self, perspective of the world, and sense of safety.
I’m going to ask you to do something radical: start viewing instances in which people of color call you out for being offensive (or even racist) as gifts. Denise has taken the time to let you know how she feels and she has invited you to consider rectifying the situation, to do better, to learn and grow.
What may feel like an attack from a person of color is actually a form of “tough love” in what should be a collective project to fight racism. She likely assumes you are receptive enough to hear her and do better — or at least hopes so.
What you’ll have to do is assume you already complicit in racism by virtue of benefiting from the racist system. Work on taking the sting out of the label “racist.” It’s so counterproductive to get hung up on who’s racist and who isn’t while we leave intact the system of racism.
White person, I ask that you recognize being able to feel something about racism that then is recognized and dealt with by others (especially people of color) is a form of white privilege. How people of color feel about race and racism is too often dismissed, questioned, ignored. Hell, even the research that scholars of color do on race is labeled “me-search” and suspected of being personal opinion rather than empirical research. (It seems only whites are able to maintain “objectivity.”)
Remember when Black folks felt so enraged and sad that the deaths of innocent Black children and adults went unpunished? When we eeked out “Black Lives Matter” through voices hoarse from crying? A lot of white people got mad and said, “no, all lives matter.” You made it about you. Your cries of “All Lives Matter” was you making our grief and rage about you. And, then, you made a joke of it (e.g., Black Labs Matter). Honestly, I can’t find another way to describe this than violence. Co-opting and mocking our feelings following white violence against Black bodies… sick.
I implore you to not weaponize the anger people color feel in the face of racism. People of color are standing in a pool of white tears as it is. Please resist the effort to villainize us as the “Angry Black/Latinx/First Nation/Asian American” person because we called you out (or called you in). Again, that is a form of racial gaslighting.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying do not emote. I am not ignoring the inevitable discomfort you feel after someone has accused you of being a bad (white) person. Whites’ collective identity as non-racist is powerful; being a proud racist fell out of fashion (though it seems to be making a return).
What I am taking issue with is how you then respond. I can’t stress this enough: do not get defensive; do not demand an apology or to be consoled; do not do anything that either makes it about you or that undermines the accusation you(r comments) are racist or offensive. An implied or explicit accusation that you(r comments) are racist is an opportunity for you to learn and grow. This means that you will have to listen, open your mind and heart, even beyond limits that feel uncomfortable. (Recall that it is hella uncomfortable for Denise to call you out.)
If you do not immediately understand the accusation, resist the urge to dismiss it. Rather, you should ask to hear more (if they are willing to educate you, especially if requested without compensation and in the face of personal and professional risks of calling out racism). But, you should also make a commitment to learn on your own. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate you about racism, for you to unlearn years of racist indoctrination. Here’s a hard truth — white people invented racism to justify the enslavement of Africans, justify stealing land from First Nation people, and to limit US citizenship and other privileges of whiteness to European Americans. (Here’s a great 5-minute video made by sociologist Dr. Tanya Golash-Boza on the invention of race.)
“Please teach me” sounds innocent enough, but it misses that whites perceive themselves to be uneducated about race and the lives and histories of people of color. But, that ignorance is by design. Our stories are not included in mainstream education, history, nor portrayed in the media. You probably don’t know much about race and the lives and histories of people of color because you never had to. When people of color demand it, we lack the power to do anything more than ask you to care. Meanwhile, racist propaganda disguised as education, religion, and popular culture are shoved down our throats from childhood.
We know so much more about race, even more than white people 1) because racism is set up to ensure we are all indoctrinated into whiteness and 2) because we have to understand our “predator” as a matter of survival in a society designed to exploit and destroy us. (Check out Dr. W. E. B. Dubois’s work, especially his concept of “double consciousness.”)
Many of us deal with white people all day long, while the reverse is hardly ever true. And, most whites who do encounter people of color do so in fleeting, rare, and power-imbalanced interactions — you the manager, them your employee, you the teacher, them the janitor, etc. So, we’ve had to learn a lot about you. But, white privilege allows you to remain ignorant about us, to maintain whatever stories you already hold about us while saying to the token person of color in your life, “you’re not like other Asian/Latinx/First Nation/Black” people.
Should emotions arise after you’ve been accused of being offensive by a person of color, I’m going to ask that you place the burden of consoling you on fellow white people. You’ve got white privilege; please don’t ask anything more from us. But, to be frank here, white folks: get your people. Dole out some tough love when your fellow white folks are sobbing because they were called out for being racist. Do not feed into the white-victims-of-angry-people-of-color narrative. Do what is necessary so that they can move past the negative emotional reaction, to then focus on processing the situation effectively enough to grow from it and right whatever wrongs they’ve done if possible.
Something is wrong if you only talk about race and racism with people of color, especially if you privately express support or sympathy to us but are publicly tight-lipped about race. I’m tired of whispers of support from whites who have so much more power and privilege than I will ever have, yet sit in their cowardice as they try to maintain that power and privilege.
White people, most of your conversations should probably be with other white people. And, I’m not talking about politely enduring your Aunt Patty’s tirade about “too many Mexicans” taking up all the (supposedly non-Hispanic white) jobs. White people, you need to get comfortable with making yourself and other white people uncomfortable with the racist status quo. Watch, and rewatch, and bookmark Luvvie Ajayi’s TEDWomen 2017 talk, “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable“; become the brave domino who pushes others to stand up against injustice.
Please do not wait until after the encounter to privately commiserate with us about how racist that was. You have far less to lose in calling bullshit out as soon as it happens, and publicly for all to hear. Please do not wait on us to speak up when something racist occurs. That is everyone’s job, especially whites who benefit from racism and want to dismantle it.
If you are familiar with the bystander approach for intervening in the face of sexual violence (including rape jokes and other more “minor” instances of rape culture), many have applied it to fighting racism: https://egrollman.com/2013/02/27/bystander-intervention-racism/ Like we do in this racist society, you should already assume your relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, fellow congregants, elected officials, etc. are already racist. No need to dwell on “what did he mean by that? I can’t believe she said that!” Take the shock out of it. Racism is pervasive, period.
You need to take it upon yourself to call out racism no matter how minor. Mirror good anti-racist behavior for other whites. Yes, it is scary and always will be; but, someone else may be thinking “this is messed up,” but are far less brave and/or have more to lose if speaking up.
And, in those moments that you, white person, do call out racism, you do not get a prize. A lifetime of white privilege and a history of white supremacy is more than enough of a reward. You need to give some back. Consider supporting efforts to pay out reparations.
Getting a cookie everytime you “aren’t racist” defeats the purpose. Do it because the alternative is complicity in an inhumane system of domination. Resist the urge to say “it’s not my problem/my place/responsibility.” Everyone is impacted by racism, and therefore we are all responsible for its dismantling.
Resist the urge to cave to feeling too ignorant on race issues to speak up. There is power just in saying “I find that problematic,” or asking a question that forces fellow white people to reveal what may be underlying racial bias. You don’t have to have all of the answers to have an impact in fighting racism. Even the slightest articulation of concern could force others to rethink their behavior or words.
And, don’t expect that you will have an impact. Calling out other whites’ racism may not have a positive impact right away. And, it will likely take many people in their lives calling them out to not simply dismiss these accusations. Maybe take the time to find one good educational resource on racism to recommend. This means doing a little bit of homework, but trust that many people of color and anti-racist whites spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on creating and publicizing these resources.
From my own experience with speaking up, I’ve found that being the first to do so often doesn’t mean I’m the only voice. You very well may make space for other whites to challenge racism when it occurs. But, even if you are the only one to speak up, you have to be okay feeling afraid and awkward. Racism is structured in a way that rewards you for your complicity in it.
To your credit, white-dominated institutions are designed to fail people of color. So, the burden you feel as an individual to fight racism is the product of that institutional failure. It sucks and its unfair and its very hard. I wish I could offer more than acknowledgement here.
But again, the second you think “this is hard/uncomfortable,” I want you to remember the pinch you feel is a plane crash for people of color. I want you to proactively push through the discomfort of addressing racism to lighten the heavy burden people of color feel at every turn.
Get creative about it, use the resources that are already at your fingertips. Maybe partner with a fellow white person to hold you accountable for being anti-racist; maybe to tag-team in calling out other whites’ racism. Find a way to take joy in making other white people squirm in their white privilege. (Seriously, y’all take yourselves too seriously.)
When you’re invited into a space and see few or no people of color, immediately raise that point. If you’re invited to speak, consider declining and, in your place, recommending a person of color. Examine every seemingly race-neutral context in your life for the ways in which white people are actually privileged.
The reality is, most middle- and upper-class white folks’ lives are so busy because you are committed to living the lives to which you’ve been told you are entitled. “I just don’t have the time!” means it’s more important for you to invest in your white kids’ futures and your all-white community than uplifting communities of color and promoting racial equality.
Sure, you never actively, intentionally exclude people of color. But, you are complicit when you take part in systems and organizations that are not inclusive of people of color. There is no such thing as “not racist” or “non-racist.” You cannot be neutral within a racist system.
To be at the mercy of cultures, traditions, communities, organizations, and institutions that privilege white people makes you complicit. If not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
Of course, totally rejecting white privilege and exiting white supremacy is impossible. And, that’s not necessarily the goal here. Rather, I want you, white person, to feel empowered to leverage your white privilege in service of racial justice.
Know that the fear you feel about speaking up is the way in which white privilege (and white supremacy) protects itself. (Most) white people no longer use terms like “race traitor” or “nigger-lover” but the sentiment remains. This is the way white people keep one another in check in the white supremacist project.
The parallel from my own life is feeling cisgender men attempt to police my commitment to feminism as part of the patriarchal project. My loyalties have been questioned and, of course, I am usually assumed to be queer (because to be straight means to hate women). (For the record, I am queer AF.)
You have to let go of the need to be liked by other white people. It’s pretty messed up if you have to comply with racism in order to be liked. You’d be the person who pushed a stranger in front of a moving train to be accepted into a fraternity or sorority.
White privilege is like a boomerang. Even if you throw it away, it will come back right to you. So, fear not. Pissing off a few fellow white people who are racist won’t ruin your life and, again, the costs pale in comparison to what it costs people of color.
In summary: white folks, being called on your racism can be upsetting — but, it’s not about you; it’s part of the larger effort to dismantle white supremacy. Calling out racism may seem hard to you, but being oppressed under racism is unimaginable to you. So, when (not if) Denise calls you out/in, apologize for the impact (and don’t bother explaining your intent — it only stings more), listen listen listen, note that it won’t happen again because you will genuinely make a point to grow from this exchange and learn more about racism. Being called out is a gift — you are welcome.