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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.
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.
In the recent sociological blog debate on racism versus the supposed dawn of “post-racism” in America, we often touched on problems that make talking about racism difficult, if not entirely impossible. In addition to institutional constraints, there are interpersonal factors that can derail meaningful conversations about race and racism. In addition to calling attention to these barriers, it is important to make explicit that too few people take on this difficult task.
Responsibility For (Anti-)Racism
In general, too few people consistently assume responsibility for talking about race and racism, and fighting racism more broadly. That kind of work is presumed to be taken on by activists and leaders of social movements. But, in particular, the responsibility generally falls in the laps of those victimized by it — in this case, people of color. As Jason noted in his contribution to the “post-racism” blog debate, racial and ethnic minorities generally face this burden alone.
But, people of color are neither alone in this racist society nor the creators of this system of oppression. Whites are implicated by virtue of the benefits they receive (i.e., white privilege) from the historical legacy of racism, as well as today. Eliminating racism, then, is just as much their responsibility, if not more, as it is for people of color.
As I re-watched a few of ABC’s “What Would You Do” social experiments regarding race and racism, I was reminded just how problematic America’s sense of responsibility for racism and anti-racism are. While too few whites intervene when they witness racist discrimination in stores against (innocent) people of color, many seem quick to intervene to sanction Black people’s criminal behavior but not that of whites (see part 1 and part 2). (Three young Black men sleeping in their own car got more calls to 911 than did three young white men vandalizing and breaking into someone else’s car.)
A Personal Anecdote
Racist events are plentiful, from small slights to extreme forms of violence. So, there are too many missed opportunities to confront racism, or at least learn from these events to do things differently in the future. One such event stands out in my own life.
At the start of my second semester of graduate school, my cohort and I sat through the beginning of our training and preparation to carry out a telephone survey on social attitudes that summer. In talking through concerns for the project, whether we as interviewers “talk black” was posed as a potential bias in our interviews. It felt as though as though a grenade had gone off right in the middle of class, but we continued on ignoring it. I thought, “was I the only one who heard that?”
This event only became an issue when my colleagues of color and I were overheard joking about the racist comment the following week. That was brought to the attention of the professor who, out of concern, asked us whether and how to “handle” this. Three weeks later, we finally devoted an entire two-hour class to discussing the comment about “talking black” — a phrase the professor wrote explicitly on the board to facilitate our conversation.
Of course, five minutes that felt like an eternity passed before anyone broke the thick silence that suffocated the room — it was me, naturally, in which I called attention to that deafening silence. As the tense conversation carried on, my cohort was divided, with the students of color and anti-racist white students taking issue with the concern about “talking black,” and the rest remaining silent, or speaking up to say they did not see a problem or even recast the comment in their head so that it was not problematic.
The conversation boiled down to whether the commenter said “talking black” or talking black, where the quotation marks became the symbolic boundary between belief that there is a(n inferior) style of English unique to Black Americans and the knowledge that others believe that (but not believing it oneself). Only a racist person would forgo the quotation marks, for this would reflect their own beliefs.
With the conversation ending with a half-ass apology from the commenter, that one’s upbringing in the Midwest should suffice as an excuse for one’s racist prejudice, we left the room more divided than ever before. The rest of our department remained curious bystanders, but nothing more came of these events outside of the efforts of students of color to challenge racism in the department and university.
To add insult to injury, later in the semester, my colleagues of color and I overheard some of our classmates complain about the ongoing divisiveness, placing blame on us for not having gotten “over it” yet. Their simultaneous lack of understanding and lack of sympathy only further fueled the division. I am happy to say that a great deal has been forgiven, but one can never forget such events. But, sadly, because little came of it, we saw yet another racist event occur years later.
A Call For Bystander Intervention
I, as others before me, call for a bystander intervention approach to ending racism. Too often, individuals not directly involved in a dangerous or difficult scenario — or bystanders — simply stand-by and watch without intervening to provide help. As such, in the case of the prevention of sexual violence (since this “bystander effect” was coined after no one intervened in the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese), advocates have strongly emphasized the need to turn bystanders into potential interveners – “bystander intervention.” Applied to racism, this means that individuals are called to action to intervene if they witness racist discrimination, bullying, or violence.
However, I push this anti-racist bystander intervention one step further beyond intervening in difficult situations. Similar to my calls for bystander intervention to prevent sexual violence (i.e., rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment), I stress that our anti-racist work must include a sense that racism is a community issue and, as such, anti-racism is a community responsibility.
Ways To Intervene
A related aspect is noting that racism exists at multiple levels and, as such, there are an infinite number of ways in which we can fight it:
- One can intervene when they witness racist discrimination or harassment. Of course, this depends upon a number of factors that make this easier said than done. And, no one should intervene in ways that place them at risk for getting hurt. If it is a scenario of extreme violence, like a racially-motivated hate crime, a safe means of intervening may be to call the police. If it is an instance of the unfair firing of a Latina coworker, you could approach your supervisor to note that you feel your coworker deserves a second chance.
- Challenge racist prejudice. This can entail calling people out who appear to harbor prejudice toward people of color, or hold misguided stereotypes. It also means calling out offensive comments that others’ may make about racial and ethnic minorities.
- Challenge yourself. No matter one’s racial or ethnic background, and one’s racial ideology, no one is immune to the pervasive poison of racism. It is important to also check your own biases and actions. Do you seek out friends of the same race? Do you avoid “that part of town”? Do you do certain things, at least in part, to avoid appearing racist?
- Educate yourself. Unfortunately, most Americans leave formal education knowing little about racism and the history and experiences of people of color beyond obligatory coverage during Black History Month. To push beyond this, one can take the time to learn more (even from March to January). Read books about and by people of color. Go see films on historical and contemporary accounts of the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. Visit museums that feature exhibits on race and ethnicity. Become comfortable talking about race and racism with the people around you, no matter their race and ethnicity.
- Support victims of racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence. As I wrote the first suggestion, I realized that there are so many concerns that one may have in directly challenging racist actions. But, there are fewer concerns regarding harm in supporting victims of these actions. Though your supervisor who unfairly fired your Latina coworker very well could threaten you, as well, you are freer to reach out to your coworker. See if she wants to talk, needs help finding a new job, or even filing a discrimination or EEO complaint. Even outside of severe instances of racist acts, you can be a supportive ally by really hearing people out when they reveal their experiences to you (rather than blaming them or encouraging them to think of alternative reasons for those acts).
- Challenge racist practices of organizations and institutions. Though the days of overt racist laws and policies are mostly gone, there are still many — albeit neutral in intention and language — that disproportionately harm people of color. It is important to challenge these, just as it is to challenge racism at the individual-level. Maybe you can speak up if your workplace implements a dress-code policy that unfairly targets racial and ethnic minorities. Take action to prevent the efforts to repeal Affirmative Action and other policies that aim to redress racial inequality. Educate yourself and others about how new policies or policy change can contribute to racial equality, even if they are not targeted solely toward people of color (e.g., Affordable Care Act).
Obviously, everyone cannot become leaders of social movements like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or lead deadly anti-racist efforts like abolitionist John Brown or the slain Mississippi civil rights workers. Most of us are not lifelong activists.
But, there are many opportunities throughout a given day to make a difference, no matter how small. For, even small acts add up to a big contribution to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, educate oneself and others, end racist discrimination and violence, and promote racial diversity and equality. Just as we are all implicated in racism, it will take all of us to end it.