How Not to Be an A-hole When…

… You Want To Stop Talking About Race (and you’re white)

Recently I posted some suggestions about how to interact with family members who might be a little bit racist. I wanted to take some time to expand on the premise, especially in light of an article that’s been going around. I think we need to talk a bit about the difference in expectations we have for people who are committed to anti-racist (or anti-sexist, or anti-homophobic, but that’s not my focus today) work and the expectations we have for those who are just waking up.

Side note – if you are someone who is just waking up to how deeply racist the U.S. is, may I direct you to this amazing article by Ijeom Oluo? Take a moment to read it over. I’ll be here.

Welcome back. Now, before I start, I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming to be some sort of enlightened being who knows all the things about fighting racism and white supremacy. I super do not. I just have been spending a lot of time thinking about this topic over the past few years, and becoming more aware of how my actions — or non-actions — contribute to our racist society.

There are difficult conversations going on all over the place right now, and I think they are leading some (white) people to believe that there’s a specific tone that people of color should be using when talking to them about race. And I firmly disagree with that. Why?

Well, for one thing, history has shown us that tiptoeing around these issues hasn’t worked out so well. Politely asking to outlaw slavery, or grant black people the right to vote didn’t really work. There were thoughtful conversations, sure, but there were also protests, and shouting, and wars.

But beyond that, people of color have had to hold white people’s hands through this stuff for fucking ever. Every time a black person is killed by a police officer and white people express utter shock that this “still” happens, black people have to figure out a way to explain that yes, this is awful but no, this isn’t new, it’s just new TO YOU. That’s a hell of a lot of emotional labor to perform on a regular basis — imagine having to do it all while centering not your own feelings but the feelings of the person who literally never has to think about these things because they are white.

The point of this site is to help people not be assholes, and I think one is reaching peak asshole if they put the feelings of people saying racist things above the feelings of the people who could be hurt by those things based on this idea that if we just say it in the right way they will get it. They might, sure. But hopefully we can recognize that at some point, what matters most is not getting them to be an ally but getting them to just stop being so fucking racist.

Given that, I think that it is imperative that us white people step up to do the work of collecting our white friends and family who do and say racist shit. Not only are they more likely to listen to us because they know us, but they also (sadly) may be more open to hearing what we have to say because they see us as more similar to them. It sucks, for sure, but that means we need to take action.

As I mentioned above, there is an article making the rounds about how activists are cannibalizing each other with purity tests and being way too harsh in general. Nearly everyone I’ve seen share this is either someone who has used the phrase “PC culture” in a negative way (vomit), or is someone who thinks they are ‘woke’ but then freaks the fuck out when someone points out how they might be overlooking some concerns held by more marginalized groups.

There are some interesting ideas in that article, but I’m sharing it because I think these critiques (except for number two — I feel like the author threw it in as a way to pander to non-marginalized groups) are much more appropriate to consider in conversation with people who are brand new to the ideas of anti-racist work, as opposed to activists. Once you’re in that world, aware of what’s going on, and dedicated to dismantling these different layers of oppression, I think you have to be held to higher standard and be open to being called out. And yes, you also need to realize that you aren’t always going to be treated gently.

But I think that those of us committed to this work have to admit that other people aren’t always on the same page. They don’t know that some of the things they’re doing are super problematic. It’s hard to believe once it’s been pointed out to you, like those optical illusions. Once you can see the bunny, you can never pretend that the picture is just of a duck. But there was a time where you really only saw the duck.

So it’s up to those of us who aren’t in the marginalized group to speak up. I don’t think that people of color need to be patient with racists, or gentle in explaining things. Similarly, I shouldn’t have to be kind when explaining sexism; dudes should step up and collect their misogynistic brethren. It’s so nice to mute Aunt Jane on Facebook, but by doing that and not making an effort just means that someone else — likely a person of color — is going to end up experiencing Aunt Jane’s bigotry. You may not be able to change Aunt Jane, but don’t you think you should try to have a conversation?

Look. I hate having awkward conversations with people I care about, but at the same time, if I care about them, shouldn’t I care that they aren’t harming others? And even I don’t really care about them, if there’s even a chance I might be able to help them stop acting in racist ways, don’t I owe that to the broader community? Some of the shit I’ve heard people say — the mind boggles. And sometimes the person saying it is so oblivious that they literally do not understand why what they’ve said is questionable (or outright racist).

So for those of you who are new to this idea that racism still exists and isn’t just people saying the N-word or wearing robes and burning crosses, I don’t want you to get scared off when you are told you are doing something racist. It’s going to happen. It sucks, it feels shitty, and it can make us think we’re not getting anywhere at all. But be open and willing to listen. Realize that the marginalized person who tells you you’ve fucked up may have had this conversation a dozen times already this week. And that them sharing what you did wrong is a gift that can help you be a better person.

And for those white people who are further along on this path, please reconsider just cutting people off without conversation. Yes, some people are unreachable, but if we want things to get better, we have to try to reach them. It can be hard work, and frustrating, but if you aren’t marginalized, I just don’t think you get to tap out

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1 Comment

  1. Wishes To Be Anonymous

    July 20, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    I have a relevant question that I’ve been pondering a lot on the same subject. As a white person who is further along the path of being more mindful about racism and my lack of contributions to racism what resources do I have to learn more about how to talk with less enlightened white people about how their actions hurt others? Having the wrong approach to this conversation often leads to people digging their heels in more and will only make an unsavory situation worse. I want to be helpful but I don’t want to alienate family members, cause them to dig their heels in or outright offend them. None of those things help them take a step in the right direction.

    Additionally, I recognize that I’m ignorant of many things related to race and the history of race. There have been occasions in my past where trying to learn about my own ignorance is met with frustration, anger and contempt. Marginalized people don’t need to be patient with me but if I’m a seeker of enlightenment where can I go to learn in an environment that doesn’t cause me to feel shamed and hurt? Just like your potentially racist aunt or grandparent I am only human and not everyone is capable of working through the pain to be better about this stuff. What kind of resource do people have want to be better about racial issues but don’t have the mental or emotional skills to push past their own negative feelings? I find that this is a huge hurdle towards improving race but I have yet to really find a great answer to these questions.

    Thanks for the great post!

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