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White People: Yes, It is Difficult For You To Talk About Race — That’s Part Of Racism’s Design

Source: Victoria Pickering, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vpickering/

Preface

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

What Is Queer Sexual Empowerment?

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I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.

I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people.  She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.  And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball.  When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed.  Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment.  It just seemed unnecessary.  And, really, unnecessarily vulgar.  Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?

I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives.  (I’m late, anyhow.)  But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment.  Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics.  (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…)  Good; let’s think sociologically!

But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers.  Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist iconOr, is she yet another pawn of the music industryApparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin.  Fuck.  That is a really disturbing revelation.

Queer Sexual Empowerment

In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment.  It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex.  Right?  It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right?  It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?

My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment.  My mind drew a blank.  What would queer sexual empowerment look like?  In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act.  Fuck you homophobia.  We exist.

For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality.  Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality.  We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad.  I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow.  So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.

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But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex.  I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause.  First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual.  It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy.  The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion.  These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer.  That’s not empowerment.

Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered?  Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences?  Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor?  And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?

As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered.  Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals.  But, not everyone wants that.  Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public.  I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public.  I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men.  Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.

Concluding Thoughts

I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define.  For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred.  Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues.  To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act.  But, only to an extent, it seems.  We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions.  Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.Were Just Like YouIn a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms.  A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off.  The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours.  Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it.  We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”

Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment.  Ugh.

Unbeknownst White Privilege

Sometimes, I catch myself being envious of those who are comfortably disinterested in race, be it race relations, their own racial identity and community, or the history of racist oppression around the world.  Frankly, I disdain that the concept of race exists at all, but I will continue to force recognition of the way race (unequally) structures our social world.  I hate that I have to be conscious of the way my own racial identity operates as a force in my life, but, with so few people willing to acknowledge the continued existence and significance of race and racism, I cannot in good conscious block it out of my mind.  Ignorance may be bliss, but once you know, you cannot turn it off or ignore it.

On Being Multiracial

Since I was old enough to conceive of the concept of race, as a social force and as an identity, I have known that I am of two racial ancestries: African American (Black) and European American (white and Jewish).  As early as kindergarten, I can recall being frustrated by the insistence of official forms and documents that I choose only one racial category when I so clearly fit into more than one — a battle that has been a consistent theme in my life, as well as the lives of other multiracial people.  Unfortunately, upon moving from Maryland to Indiana, I felt a sense of racial culture shock, moving from a place where interracial couples are fairly common, to one where there seem to be little awareness that a person could occupy multiple racial categories.  This meant, for a brief period, feeling that I was forced into the category of Black.  My anger and frustration with some of my new experiences as a Black person in the Midwest fit with what many other Black people experienced.  But, with time, I have re-realized that I am not Black.  I am not white.  I’m neither, yet both – a complicated description of my racial identity which reflects the complexity of my experiences with race and race relations.

My White Privilege?

Along with my Black racial identity and white racial identity comes the associated racial disadvantage and racial privilege — in particular, the disadvantages, stigma, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by Black people and the privileges and  sense of being the normal, default racial category experienced by whites.  Yep, that’s right.  In all of my years of acknowledging being simultaneously Black and white, it has never occurred to me until now that I have white privilege.  Gag!  My anti-racist self is nauseous just at the thought.  But, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, I am privileged by my presumed and/or actual whiteness.

Direct, Interpersonal White Privilege: In two ways, I am privileged as a white person, or at least not disadvantaged as a Black person.  The first, of which I have always been aware, is being read either as a light-skinned Black person (and, thus not burdened by the stigma associated with darker skin color) or some other non-white race.  In thinking about sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s research on race, namely his theory of moving toward a tri-racial system in the US in which there emerges as third, middle category that is treated as honorary whites (e.g., Asians, light-skinned Latina/os), I am arguably more privileged, or at least less disadvantaged, than many Black Americans.  The second of these two ways, wholly new to me, is being read as a white person — a white male, to be more specific.  As such, there are an innumerable number of encounters in which I have been presumed to be a white man and, arguably, afforded the privileges that are associated with such interpersonal interactions.  (Could it be that the times, at least some of them, that I have concluded that a white stranger was especially nice was a product of my presumed whiteness?)

Secondary/Indirect White Privilege: At two levels, both interpersonally and structurally, I am afforded white privilege through my relationships with white people.  The largest, most sustained batch of white privilege has come from my white heterosexual male father.  The privileges he is afforded through interactions with others and those that come from the structured pattern of race relations have, in turn, been handed to me through our father-son relationship.  That means that, in part, my process of becoming socialized was shaped by white heterosexual male privilege.  (This was, of course, in combination with the Black female disadvantages by mother is afforded.)  Although weaker and not as sustained , I also am benefited by the white privileges afforded to extended family, professors, colleagues, friends, and past and future romantic partners.  An interesting story was released recently about the secondary white male privilege afforded to scholars of color who have white male mentors; although the findings are overstated, the idea of privilege being trickled down to others who are denied those privileges directly is quite interesting and relevant for my family, friend, and work relationships.

What To Do About White Privilege?

Well, sheesh, I feel a bit at a loss about quickly moving to the “what next?” question so soon after being hit with the realization that I have white privilege.  My initial reaction has been surprise and guilt — a similar reaction to the eventual awareness that I am privileged as a middle-class male.  As I encourage others, I must acknowledge such privilege and attempt to be critical enough to see when I am being privileged simply because of my presumed whiteness, or maleness, or middle-classness, or even the rare instances of being presumed heterosexual.  But, on the flip side, I have entertained the idea of capitalizing on these privileges for anti-racist pursuits.  For example, when I asked one of my professors to write a recommendation letter for graduate school on my behalf, she noted that she was surprised I was not white (after seeing my personal statement) — she had assumed whiteness and was proud of my frequent comments about race and racism in our class.  In some instances, members of the privileged group are afforded more room to speak, are listened to, and their words carry more weight because they are assumed to be from a place of genuine concern rather than self-interest.  (And, as I have argued before, white people are likely less often challenged or doubted in general, even on matters outside of race.)  But, as I am continuing to learn, reflect, and evolve, I suspect that I will have a better sense of the “what next?” question in the future.  Thus, expect more to come.