Should White People Ask About Race? Kind of.
From a concerned reader (July, 2016):
I live in the whitest state in the nation.
Being willing to listen and really hear about life experience very different from one's own is a huge challenge, especially as you can't just say to someone, "I don't get your life. Tell me about it." Why would they? Nobody owes me an hour or more of their time to get the privileged white chick to understand!
I want to do something. Just not sure what.
Seems like the best thing is to treat people as individuals, not as representatives of their ethnicity or their economic status or where they live or where they come from—Just be individuals.
And, you know, there seems so be an assumption sometimes that simply being Caucasian means privilege. There is privilege in it; but more and more it is economic status that is the real privilege, no matter what shade one's skin is.
But that's really what I want to ask if I could strip away the political correctness bullshit. Cuz I DON'T KNOW! ... Perhaps I just need a good reading list, but I'm afraid the people I want/need to hear aren't published anywhere.
I think the heart of my question is how do you acknowledge the need/desire to ask someone about their experience (specifically regarding race in America) without turning it into an "other" situation? On one hand, I want to relate to a person as a person, not some representative of an ethnic group or minority. On the other, I'm asked to be mindful that the person has had experiences that I haven't BECAUSE they are of that ethnic or minority group.
[Q:] How does one approach that duality mindfully?
As a Black man I'm expected to suck at math, be ridiculously athletic, and have a propensity for having sex with almost every woman that remotely has a butt. But being Black, for me, is not restrictive or complicated. It's liberating and enlightening. I see the road blocks and get to run right into them, just to see what happens. I get to create culture and watch people flock to it. Sadly, they may not acknowledge my hand in creating it, but at the end of the day everybody knows what I did.
What makes being Black difficult, for me, is the fact that I have to keep reminding people that I am Black. In this day and age, everyone wants to be color blind and say that race doesn't matter. I don't know about the rest of the Black community but I know that I like being Black. I like it so much that I get slightly upset when people try to ignore it or pass it off as a characteristic that shouldn't define me.
Instead, say that I am Black. Say it with respect. Then, I will say that you are White. Hopefully we can both understand that we are different and we can learn to love those differences and similarities. I won't ignore what makes me stand out. I like standing out.
Race is a construct. One that refuses to remove itself. The way I see it, there are two ways this goes down. The first is to remove the concept of race in its entirety from everything we see and do. The second is to do what logical, thinking, breathing human beings do. We talk. We see the elephant in the room and we actually sit down with it to see why it's been standing there.
If you really want to learn more about being black in America, just ask. If you want a more academic view on the subject, look into Cornell West's writings and seminars. Better yet, start to research W.E.B. Du Bois. Then, once you've understood and read the academics of it, go to a lower income neighborhood's Boy's & Girl's Club or YMCA. Once you've seen what we look like and do, travel around the world and look at how everyone else acts. Lastly, go home and tell everybody that human beings are crazy and they will continue to be crazy.
But, by all means, feel free to contact me.
Imagine you sit next to a man on an airplane and you exchange pleasantries then after a few moments he asks, Did your parents spank you when you were a child? Yeah? Was it with a belt or a paddle or the old-fashioned way? Tell me about it. Because I wasn’t spanked as a child, but I want to understand your experience.
It’s really none of his business and rude for a stranger to ask such a personal question.
Instead of expecting people of color to educate you, make an effort and educate yourself. Visit the library. You’ll find writers of color there. Also, reading lists featuring writers of color have been handily compiled for you to find (with minimal effort!) online. Here’s a quick one: James Baldwin. Amy Tan. Sandra Cisneros. Roxane Gay.
Have a conversation with a person of color about anything but what it’s like to be a person of color. A guy who works at the coffee shop I go to started his own company. Both of us are fatherless. His dad died on Thanksgiving. Both of us are surprised that we like Utah and think Salt Lake City is fairly progressive. When he was younger, one of his neighbors kept going on about how he was Gwen Stefani’s cousin. Yeah, right. Then one day the neighbor’s having a birthday party and who walks in? Gwen Stefani.
Do I know what his experience is as a black man in America? No, I do not. I do know that he recently went to a car dealership and was the only person looking at cars, and not a single salesperson of the many who were customer-free and ready-to-mingle approached him for a full fifteen minutes—so he left. What I also know is that he’s a nice guy who’s easy to smile and likes to talk to people. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to start a conversation with him.
As with anyone of any skin color, you get bits and pieces of a person’s story over time until you have an understanding of that person. The key phrase here being “over time.” Because that’s the thing. The work’s on you to learn, not on people of color to teach. Don’t expect an easy answer to such a complicated personal question so you can nod and be on your way and consider yourself educated.
It is an “other” situation. Can’t be helped. And as tired as I get of being “polled” as if one African American can speak for all African Americans, I’m aware, more than ever, that a whole lot of people really don’t know what my life has been like and need to. So at this point, I think if you’re just as honest with a person of color as you were here, stating, up front, that you want to have a real talk about this, that might work just fine.
As a reporter, back in the day, I used to think people who’d just lost someone in a plane crash or other horrible event wouldn’t want to talk to me. But I learned that they were actually grateful to be able to express what they were feeling. These days, I feel a lot like those people I interviewed, as I watch the news about yet another black man being shot and people deciding that our anger over 500 years of being whipped, lynched, castrated, shot, burned to death, brutally beaten, dragged behind pick-up trucks, unjustly arrested, and otherwise shown that black lives really don’t matter, isn’t justified.
Having to repress what I feel is worse than being asked slightly embarrassing or unintentionally hilarious questions. I wish more people would be brave enough to ask. If you can’t think of anything else to ask, ask, “What are we not getting? What don’t we understand?” And then keep asking whatever comes to mind as you listen. But be sure to listen. Without being defensive, without feeling the need to justify or even respond to things that may bother you, at first.
The fact that you’ve asked this is important and I thank you. Just one more thing: Do NOT say, “I don’t see color.” See color. Honor it. And then, dive in. Bless you!
Honestly I think it's more about the person than what you're asking. For example, at work (I'm a manager at a foodservice restaurant) there's a blend of Hispanics and Blacks where the Whites are actually a minority yet we all seem to understand there's an obvious issue with how POC are treated. We can talk freely about different things without making it an us vs them situation.
My son's father on the other hand.
All he does is listen to podcasts talking about unfair treatment toward blacks, talks to his friends about his job, [has totally black and white thinking (excuse the wording) to the point where he excuses bad behavior (Ray Rice's and Bill Cosby's issues come to mind). In short, having to listen to him is exhausting.]
The usual downfall of a conversation is when everyone gets too defensive. The person of privilege doesn't understand why they should "feel bad" for being white (they shouldn't). The POC doesn't understand why when they say Black Lives Matter, everyone else doesn't understand that they mean Black Lives Matter Too.
I think the fact that you're approaching it as you are is already a win.
Sometimes I think I’d like to be black. Sometimes Mexican, or is it Hispanic? The black I probably already have in my DNA. My sister agrees because if you’re awake enough to realize where the human race all started, and I’m including the Dukes of the world who don’t have a clue about anything, then most of us whities carry black, at least somewhere deep in our DNA. And then it’s more prominent if we’re descendants of a Jefferson, or some other slave owner.
Mexicans, though, have the most fun and know a little more about life than the rest of us. My daughter, blonde and white as can be, married into a Mexican family. If you’ve never sat around a big table with a whole bunch of Mexican women, talking and chatting and laughing with kids running around, you’ve missed out on magic energy. They know life.
Approaching this issue the way you have is an indication of your mindfulness. There is a duality, but perhaps you’re giving it too much weight.
To me, this is an ongoing process. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. It was about 50% white, with an obvious us vs. them mentality all-around. College opened my mind a lot, but it wasn’t until I moved to Washington state when I was 21 that I learned that racism isn’t just “the way it is.” That it is a learned behavior, passed down through the generations and geographically influenced.
I feel that the most important thing we can do is listen. Even if you’re in the “whitest state in the nation”, you must know a few minorities. Even if they are Facebook friends you’ve never actually met. There’s nothing wrong with a quest for compassion and empathy. We have no humanity without those things.
I’m really interested in the way this caller (I don’t know why I want to pretend this dialog is happening on a radio show) both accepts and rejects her privilege. She calls herself the “privileged white lady,” and also says, “more and more it is economic status that is the real privilege, no matter what shade one's skin is.” She both cops to her white privilege and then equivocates about the severity of white privilege.
It’s easy to identify, because it’s something I’ve fought within myself. I’m, like our caller, a white lady in a fairly white state. My neighborhood is depressingly white. I spend a lot of energy on guilt, but I’m trying to instead spend that energy on helping. The equivocation about privilege, that’s where I believe the most energy is wasted: when those who enjoy privilege allow themselves to hide from what is there. So I try to keep myself from forgetting, retreating, and hiding. I try, and I fail. A few examples:
A white woman gives a talk calling to burn down the current misogynist and classist structures of the literary establishment. I swoon and feel that so many of the gaslighting and degrading experiences I’ve had as a woman have just been called out. I’m exuberant. My friend, the woman of color who brought me to this lecture, says, “Of course you loved it, Laura. It was for you.”
When my coworker suggested a person of color may only be considered because of her tokenism, I said nothing. I didn’t say, “You should really read this essay on the effects of the constant assault of racism on nonwhites,” or, “That’s super fucked up.” I should have said something.
During Katrina, I was in Mississippi and I didn’t volunteer to help at evacuation sites. I still regret it, though my mother was in the hospital dying. A good excuse, but, were the situation different, would I have traveled into the chaos to help?
I catch myself disappearing back into self-interest, hiding away from the suffering of others. That is my white privilege, regardless of class: the choice to walk away.
To indulge in my privilege, I think, is failing my own humanity. These are all our people. We are responsible for what happened before, for what happens now, and most frighteningly, for whatever is coming. Joking about going to Canada is just another way of hiding from difficult realities and our shared responsibility for them.
So, fair caller, ask what you can do for your country. White people have profited off of black and brown bodies for too long. Be the help.
Whiteness has been a privilege in many societies, including primarily Black ones, because lighter skin tone has been associated with power. From light-skinned slaves being kept in the house (and therefore more likely to be given privileges like learning to read or write or getting raped) while dark-skinned slaves were left to the fields (see the music video for J. Cole’s “G.O.M.D.”), to skin-bleaching creams taking up a billion-dollar industry, privilege has been more linked to whiteness than money. And by the simple fact that being white or looking white (see Nella Larsen’s Passing) can afford more financial opportunities (like never being denied an interview because the name “sounds white”), whiteness and socioeconomic status are linked.
That is not to say that all white people are rich and all people of color are poor. It is just to say that white privilege isn’t just about money; it’s also about a societal conditioning that favors people of lighter skin tones. Look at the white face powder of Japanese culture, the skin-bleaching in India, the white-washing of movies like The Gods of Egypt.
It is not the job of people of color to educate white people on their privilege (above explanation included). Furthermore, it’s not their responsibility to make white people feel more comfortable about their privilege. The fact that you want to learn more is admirable and necessary, especially in a time when the world is on fire for most people of color.
When asking someone about their experience, making them an other is inevitable. Yes, we are all human, and if you watch National Geographic’s documentary The Human Family Tree, you’ll find out we are all genetically similar. But we are not the same. No one is a representative of their group, but in the moment, we all have to be. If you want to know more about someone, questions like “What are you?” and “Are all gay people this flamboyant?” are inappropriate. Questions like “I read an article about Taylor Swift being a dangerous white woman and it made me uncomfortable. Can I share how it made me feel with you so we can discuss it?” or “I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. How does the trauma of slavery affect you on a day-to-day basis?” are much more beneficial.
Lean into the discomfort.
Man, I don't know. My representative in Congress is a person. It's easy for me to say she has a clear-cut divide between her professional responsibilities ("representing") and her personal life, and it's intuitive, it makes sense. But not any sort of person gets elected to the House, right? It's a sought-after position, you need to beat a lot of eager people to make it happen. And experience with politics at that level has got to inflect your thinking—not that I have first-hand experience with this, but I can only imagine that you start seeing life in terms of the historical and legal and personal forces that made things the way they are, which really has the potential to be one of those brain-stripping Lovecraftian epiphanies if you think about it the right way...
... all of which is just to say, if I can't separate Bonnie Watson Coleman the person from Bonnie Watson Coleman in the job she's had for two years, how am I going to have a hope of separating Bonnie Watson Coleman the person from Bonnie Watson Coleman the black woman she's been all her life?
And why would I want to? Jason's interlocutor seems very concerned about treating black people as fungible, like corn or pork bellies; at least that's how I interpret her desire not to relate to someone as a "representative" of her race. I certainly don't think you should treat anyone that way. But everyone has things in common with various groups of other people. Is it that hard to avoid treating them as exchangeable ciphers?
And I guess the answer is yes, if all you know about someone is that they're black.
Put that way, hopefully the solution is obvious? Get to know people. If you live in the whitest state in the nation (or, like me, work in extremely white environments like science, tech, and finance), Black Twitter is your friend; follow Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bree Newsome, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Deray Mckesson, Melissa Harris-Perry. Be like me and follow black science fiction writers: Nalo Hopkinson, Dexter Palmer, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, Minister Faust. Follow my friend @rt_arden, who writes some of the most thoughtful shit about Shakespeare and Doctor Who that I've ever read; or @rmcnearyauthor, who writes anime-inspired epic fantasy on Wattpad. Don't go straight to taproot-level questions about capital-B Blackness. Follow and listen. Let the questions come from what you hear.
Yes, I am a minority. Here in Australia, our equivalent of the oppressed population is our indigenous race, and still there are big divides between the communities. But we also have a huge number of migrant cultures here, and I’m one of them. I think of Aus, particularly here in Sydney, as being a bit of a smorgasbord.
I've lived here for almost my entire life. It's the only home I can remember. But, if you walked past me on the street, you wouldn't automatically see me as an Australian. I have the skin colour, hair colour, and facial features of someone from a Sri Lankan background. My parents have an accent.
I think often the assumption is that people don't want to be asked about their experiences because they don't want to be acknowledged as different. So people don't say anything.
We state the differences, sure. We point fingers at those who are different. We shut ourselves off from people who are different. But the sad truth is that we don't talk enough about what makes us different. And when differences flare up, those that speak up for the victims try and say “we’re all the same,” yet that never seems to work, because the truth is we are not. Rather than saying “we should love each other because we’re all the same” we should be saying “we should love each other, because our differences are nothing to be afraid of.”
The thought about economic privilege? I'm not sure I 100% agree. It's not necessarily the first thing you notice. It's hard for that first impression not to be sculpted by the person's skin colour, or the cross hanging around their neck, or the hijab, or yarmulke. Pretending that isn't the case isn't getting us anywhere.
Maybe I’d love to talk about what it feels to feel like to be a minority, and what a strange feeling it was when I stepped onto a Sri Lankan street for the first time 2 years ago and was suddenly surrounded by people of the same skin colour.
Just go ahead and ask with genuine interest and empathy. And really really listen to the answer.
“Mindful duality” is the call to our humanity.
In 2015 the call “Je suis Charlie” after the horrific attack on the journalists of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo has been repeated in many forms as attacks on otherness continue. The call itself harkens back to May 1968 when the unlikely hero Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German Jew and part of the student movement while studying in France, was refused reentry into France after a visit to his home country. The student movement took to the streets and chanted “Nous sommes tous des Juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”).
The call to identification with the “other” is my answer to your question. In my answer I make this call in these difficult days of daily attacks, unexpected violence and xenophobia: Our humanity unites us, our individual and unique otherness unites us and is part and parcel of our humanity.
Hey, Reader and thanks for asking this question. For one, it’s awesome that you’re even taking the steps to educate yourself as much as possible. In fact, self-education is one way to approach duality—to know and understand how White supremacy is detrimental to people of color and White people.
Another way is to approach the issue of oppression with pure authenticity. We politically-conscious people of color sense when we’re being placated to and you WILL be called out for it. We’ve had way too many White people cause more harm than good because they pretended to be allies when they were not. Which brings me to another approach: Be an accomplice, not an ally, if you choose to get involved in social justice work. An accomplice is a non-Black person who will work alongside Black people who engage in radical activism. Conversely, an ally tends to want to “save” the disenfranchised when that’s completely unnecessary and condescending. I highly recommend this article.
Lastly, be prepared to hear the truth, which is going to involve many Black people (or non-Black people of color) informing you that they don’t trust you or your intentions. And I suggest that, instead of taking whatever is said to you personally, please think about what is being said, how it’s being said, and why.
Able-bodied manners and respect
I think black people really need us white people to listen to what they're saying, acknowledge there's a problem, and then stand up and say "No more" to other white people. Growing up, I truly thought the rest of the U.S. was as diverse and accepting as the city I was born in. Only a few years ago did I really learn about white privilege and systemic racism. What really opened my eyes was hanging out on Black Twitter and listening, then eventually branching out into doing my own research.
Many of my black friends—both IRL and on Twitter—have said repeatedly that it shouldn't be up to them to educate white people, and I agree wholeheartedly. I know I get annoyed (at best) if someone comes up to me and starts questioning me about my disability and life; it's not my responsibility to teach able-bodied people manners and respect.
For me, it's been pretty simple: treat others the way I'd like to be treated, read as much as possible, and share what I'm learning with other white people. I don't know if my tiny actions will make a difference, but maybe if more of us did just that we could really create change. —Elizabeth Barone