Friday, September 22, 2017

Things White People Need to Stop Saying: 10 Simple Rules for White Liberals Discussing Racism

Until recently, almost no one openly endorsed neo-Nazi sentiments. The election of white supremacist Donald Trump changed that. Now we have to be sensitive to white supremacist feelings by calling these monsters members of the "alt-right." That's scary enough. Here's what's even scarier: it's given white liberals a free pass.

Now that racism is so visibly associated with the vocal belief that people of color are inferior and a willingness to kill them, many white liberals can pat themselves on the back. "We're not racist!" they gleefully proclaim. "Look at those neanderthal Trump supporters and their torches. I've never burned a torch or run over a black person. I even have a black friend! I can't possibly be racist."

I've spent much of my life trying to engage with people who think this way, so they can understand how their more palatable and muted form of racism enables more aggressive forms of white supremacy. In the wake of the Trump presidency, these smug white liberals have become a lot more certain they're not racist. Meanwhile, their brethren of color grow ever more desperate. I've watched dozens of social justice groups disintegrate as people of color clamor to be heard, white people silence them, and racism becomes more and more pervasive.

Then the white liberal racists insist that the divisiveness is the fault of people of color. If they would just be quiet, we could defeat real racism.

White people: the only way we can defeat real racism is for smug white liberals to admit to their own racism, fix it, and then unite with people of color to end this plague once and for all. For that to happen, we need to change the way we talk and think about race.

Here are 10 simple rules that can move the conversation forward. They won't protect you from call-outs or uncomfortable conversations. They shouldn't. Those conversations need to happen. These rules can, however, prevent you from saying something profoundly damaging to a person of color.

Not all people of color are the same
In every discussion of racism, sooner or later a white person will tell you about how their black friend thinks they're not racist. Or how their Native friend has no problem with people dressing up like "Indians" for Halloween. Or that their Asian friend thinks racist jokes are just hilarious.

In some cases, a person of color even turns up to defend the bad behavior of a white person.

White folks, please get this through your skulls: not all people of color are the same. The fact that one person of color, or 10, has no objection to something does not make it ok.

You can also find people who will justify murder, lying, and spousal abuse. That doesn't mean you should listen to them. Aspire to be better than that for which you can receive forgiveness from a single person of color.

Your goal in life should be to avoid hurting and oppressing people. So if someone tells you your behavior is a problem, it's a problem. Even if you can find someone else to tell you it's ok. Not all people of color are the same, or think the same. If you believe people of color are people, you must also believe their feelings matter. This means also taking them seriously when they say you've done something hurtful.

A black person being mean to you is not racism
One of the most maddening things about talking to white people about racism is that they won't accept even the most extreme behavior as an example of anti-black racism. But they want to argue that a black person being mean to them is racist. Nope on out of here with that nonsense. If you're like the many whites who think that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism, you probably should not be talking about racism at all. At least not until you read this.

Don't compare your experience of oppression to that of a person of color

As a white woman, I've experienced a lot of oppression of my own. That experience helps me to empathize with people of color. But sexism is not comparable to racism. Nor is transphobia, ableism, or any other form of oppression. This does not mean that other forms of oppression are unimportant, or that racism is always worse than other forms of oppression. It simply means they're not the same.

Understanding your own oppression does not equip you to understand what hundreds of years of legalized non-personhood is like. Or what it's like for people who looked like you to have been killed with impunity, or systematically enslaved. Or how it feels to have your grandparents treated as disposable subhumans, the genocide of whom was necessary for people we call "pioneers"--not murderers--to "settle" the United States

If you keep hearing the same complaint, the problem is you
One of the weirder things white people do when discussing racism is talk about how they're being "attacked" when multiple people correct their behavior. Or they claim that they don't know how to talk about racism because "everyone is so sensitive."

Newsflash: If you keep hearing the same, or similar, complaints about your behavior, the common denominator is you. That's doubly true if the complaints come from people of color, since to discount the feelings of multiple people is to discount their humanity.

Your opinion on what racism is is irrelevant. Racism makes white people less adept at clear thinking
As a society, we talk a lot about how racism harms people of color. We talk a lot less about how it harms white people. That's proper. But it comes at a cost: white people don't realize that racism makes them ignorant. When just a few black people move into the neighborhood, white people think the neighborhood is majority black. Doctors can't recognize pain in black patients. White people overestimate the number of black people on welfare, and underestimate the number in college.

So whites' opinion on what racism is and isn't really doesn't matter. White people don't experience racism, and they're blind to the experiences of racism's victims. What's more, white supremacy was specifically designed to benefit white people. So why should we believe the people who created a system to harm others and benefit themselves, and who can't see the world objectively because of that system?

Your opinion on what racism is and isn't does not matter. If you are white, your worldview is biased and your eyes are closed.

Quit saying you're 'scared of saying the wrong thing.'
One of the many, many ways white people attempt to prioritize their own feelings in discussions of racism is by asserting that they're afraid to talk. They're afraid they'll say the wrong thing. Yet these same people never make an effort to learn why they keep saying the wrong thing. If you take racism seriously and want to avoid saying the wrong thing, then you educate yourself. You don't talk about how difficult it is for you to avoid saying something harmful.

Your good intentions do not matter. 
It's good to not want to be racist.

If you truly want to not be racist and you inadvertently hurt someone or assert something ignorant, here's what you do: You apologize. You educate yourself about what you did wrong. You don't do it again. You try to fix any harm you caused.

You don't say, "I'm sorry if you were offended." And you certainly don't say that you had good intentions. People with intentions that are actually good don't talk about it. They don't make a public display about what good people they are. They correct their behavior when they are wrong.

Consider this: if I go speeding through a stop sign and run over a child, does it matter to that child that my intentions weren't bad? Would I rush up to him and tell him that I didn't do anything wrong, and that I didn't mean to hurt him so it's ok?

Of course not. Good intentions don't make racism hurt any less. When you focus on your intentions, you are prioritizing a display of goodness over the feelings and well-being of an oppressed person.

Stop arguing with people about their experiences. 
You don't get to be an expert on someone else's experiences. You don't get to tell them they misinterpreted something as racist when it wasn't, or that they must be leaving something out. You are only an expert on your own experience. As a white person who moves through the world with white privilege, your experiences cannot inform your interpretations of others' experiences, since they may not have the privileges you do.

If something seems bizarre or unlikely to you, that's your white privilege talking. You think it's unlikely because it wouldn't happen to you. Not because it didn't happen. Your incredulousness is a byproduct of white supremacy.

Racism doesn't hurt you. Stop referring to discussions of racism as 'painful.'
A disturbing new trend among white activists involves acknowledging that discussions of racism are "painful for all sides." Or that it's "painful to acknowledge our own racism." I understand the intent. Empathy is good. Demeaning the lived experiences of racism's victims is not. When white people have discussions about racism, they don't have to worry that their fundamental humanity will be called into question, or that 500+ years of oppression will be totally discounted. The worst thing that will happen to a white person is that they will take a long hard look at themselves and realize they've been doing things wrong.

That's not painful. That's a necessary prerequisite to being a good person. Talking about how painful it is for white people to talk about racism, particularly in the context of acknowledging their own racism, centers white experience. It makes a white person's experience of being a racist somehow comparable to a person of color's experience of oppression. When one child bullies another, we don't talk about how painful it is for the bully to apologize. We must at least treat hundreds of years of oppression as seriously as we treat disputes between children.

Being called racist is not worse than being a victim of racism. 
White people hate being called racist. I get it. I do. It sucks to be called names--especially when you worry that your accuser might be right. But white people need to stop behaving as if being called racist is worse than being a racist. When a person of color correctly labels bad white behavior as racist, white people need to change--not lash out.


  1. 'Don't compare your experience of oppression to that of a person of color'

    Meanwhile, people still being put to death for being gay...

    1. Yes, that is a very good example of the sort of oppression Olympics which I'm cautioning against.

      People also are put to death for being black, and have been for hundreds of years.

  2. People are also still executed in the street for being black... As a gay femme black woman I can hide my gay if I needed to. No one can look at me and know I'm gay.... Not the same as being black or brown.... So again... STOP

  3. Can you candidly describe or discuss your own racism?

  4. Can you candidly describe or discuss your own racism?

    (Sorry if I'm duplicating. The blogger thing has me stymied.)

    1. I could, but I am uncomfortable with this becoming a space that gives voice to cruel words and thoughts. I will say that there's research showing that white people who are aware of implicit bias and who admit they tend toward racism are less likely to behave in racist ways, because they take proactive steps to correct. It's also important to emphasize that it is impossible to be white and believe racism is no longer a problem. 90% of the time that I am alone with a group of white people who aren't part of my group of social justice people, I pretty immediately hear racism. White people know what they can't say in front of POC, and they say it as soon as they are alone.

  5. This is a brave piece. Good luck.


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