Updated: May 1
(Talking to other white people about race)
Note: If you are not a white person, some of this email may not apply to you or be appropriate for you, as it’s geared toward white people still struggling with the validity of anti-racism work.
Recently I had a bunch of political discussions with my conservative family members, about
privilege, activism, racism, and oppression.
I engaged in these conversations as openly, patiently, and compassionately as possible, because I’m passionately committed to anti-oppression in my own life, and I believe that’s the only way to plant seeds and make changes.
Plus, I’m extremely aware that I’m not on any kind of righteous pedestal here. I needed others to engage compassionately and openly with me a few years ago to get me started down this path too.
(In my experience, anti-racism isn’t something most white people come to intuitively. Instead it’s something most of us come to only after racism is brought fully and convincingly to our attention, usually by other white people who are appropriately educated, and willing to engage with kindness.)
Anyway, I was struck by the circular predictability of these conversations, and of how the same “points” came up over and over. I started to write those points down, with no plan except to track and better understand what the “other side” is thinking and saying.
But then I thought… hey, tis the season.
Maybe some of ya’ll are headed to family gatherings with other white people, and reading this might help you somehow. Or maybe if you’re still unclear about anti-racism yourself, this might clarify some things.
So I decided to share this list with you as it is: imperfect, incomplete.
Just a list of arguments made by good people who aren’t yet able to conceptualize how and why the fight for anti-racism is so important, and my current thinking on how to respond. (And if you’re looking for something more instructional, I highly recommend Rachel Cargle’s article here. If you’re looking for a book to learn more about racism, I recommend this one and this one.)
The goal of my responses here was just to plant seeds, poke holes, and gently invite people to think differently; to spark curiosity and help someone move 5% further down the anti-racism rabbit hole… not to dominate or “convince,” because in my experience, that doesn’t work.
Note: this kind of back and forth typically started with my simple assertion that people of color are disadvantaged (and/or white people are advantaged) in our culture right now, and that it’s a problem.
I shouldn’t have to feel guilty just because I’m white. I didn’t own slaves or anything!
I agree that you shouldn’t feel guilty. Guilt has nothing to do with this conversation actually, and never has. But when I talk about racism I’m not just talking about the history of black slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. I’m talking about the system of current racial advantage and disadvantage which is happening today, right now, and of which you are a part, whether you’re aware of it or not.
So now racism is my fault?
Racism is all of our fault, insofar as we are still all constantly participating in a system which perpetuates it. (Even me, although now that I’m aware of it, I’m doing my best to notice the many ways in which I contribute, and do better.)
I just don’t agree that racism is really a problem. A black person has the same exact opportunities as me, if they work hard enough.
Racial advantage and disadvantage is proven statistically in a lot of ways— for example, one interesting study showed that on identical job resumes, people with typically “white sounding” names like Emily Walsh had to send out about ten resumes to receive one job interview on average, while people with “black sounding” names had to send out fifteen. This means having a white-sounding name improves a person’s chances of getting a job interview about the same amount as having an extra 8 years of experience would, which reflects the often-unconscious race-based biases and perceptions people have and enact daily. Now, could a black person just work twice as hard as a white person, and send out more resumes to overcome this specific inequity? Or could a black parent just name their child Emily Walsh to overcome this specific inequity? Sure. But they shouldn’t have to, and I believe we need to change the system that places the onus on them to do so. (Not to mention the fact that this is only one tiny detail of inequity facing them. They would have to overcome thousands of small details like this, working twice as hard to earn the same opportunities as a white person at every single turn.)
Well then it’s the manager’s job to not be racist.
Being racist isn’t about hating people of color usually, or consciously thinking they’re inferior. It’s more often about acting on unconscious biases that we’ve all learned and internalized (like the unconscious bias that a person with a white-sounding name would be a better/harder worker) without even realizing it. Those managers probably had no idea that race played a role in who they hired. Same with their companies. That’s why we need each individual to get educated about their own existing unconscious racial biases, and make sure policies exist to ensure equity.
We don’t need to get the government involved! It’s the company’s job. Or the consumer’s job to only support businesses which aren’t racist.
The company has no incentive to handle this issue if it doesn’t impact profits, and consumers have no incentive to go digging into racial hiring statistics for each company. Unregulated capitalism lends itself to exploitation. So whose job is it to intervene? We need policies that ensure this kind of thing can’t happen, otherwise racial inequity will continue.
I just believe everyone has a responsibility to do the best with what they’ve been given.
Sure. But what an individual does with the hand they’re dealt isn’t relevant to the conversation of racism, really. We’re talking about the fact that if everyone does their equal best with what they’ve been given, there will be statistical differences in how far each person gets, and that race is a hugely relevant factor in that. Are you saying that it’s always a person of color’s responsibility to work twice as hard to get to an equal place as a white person?
No, but plenty of people of color do. Look at Obama.
There are exceptions to every rule, but holding up the exceptions only serves to ignore the rule. Statistically people of color have more obstacles to success, which means they don’t actually have equal opportunities. Can we not celebrate the exceptions to the rule while also fighting to change the rule itself to be more equitable? Anti-racism strives for a state in which there is no statistical disadvantage based on race. If we’re not fighting for that, we’re saying that the current state of racial inequality strikes us as appropriate, that people of color should face more disadvantages than us.
Ok but if we focus on changing the system isn’t that kind of like telling people of color that they don’t need to work hard anymore?
Just because we teach drivers not to hit people doesn’t mean we don’t also teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street. We can do both. We should do both. Personal responsibility is not lessened by the presence of systemic equity.
I’m not racist.
Well firstly, I’m not especially interested in labeling humans by their behavior, so I don’t want to use the word “racist.” It would be more accurate to say that a person is “doing racism” than “being racist.” Secondly, the word “racist” has come to falsely be understood as an insult, synonymous with being a bad person. I don’t buy that. That said, due to unconscious racial biases, we are all unconsciously engaging in behaviors which are hurting, killing, disempowering, and oppressing people of color on a daily basis, often without even realizing it.
I don’t really identify as white/I’m offended that you’re calling me white.
Identify however you want, but being white is not an insult. Nor however is it a biological fact, since race is a social construct. Calling someone white is about acknowledging that they do not face the same obstacles and disadvantages as people of color do, in a society founded on white supremacy.
I’m just not down with the whole PC culture thing where everything you say could offend someone.
“PC culture” is a term used to belittle those of us who are choosing to do less harm in the world. Making fun of people for “getting offended” is a way of belittling the people who you are actively hurting. Focusing on how people are “too sensitive these days” is a way of distracting from the ways in which you cause harm.
How am I hurting anyone?
Racism isn’t just about violence, or hating people of color. It’s about inequality of opportunities, income, safety, jobs, education, housing, medical care, autonomy, and more. These inequities are held in place by individuals with unconscious biases, through moments of unconsciously enacted racism. For example, children of color are statistically more likely to be perceived as acting out, and be disciplined harshly, compared to a white child doing the same thing. A teacher’s unconscious racist perception and subsequent behavior (sending a black child to the principal’s office for example) leads to a record and history of being a “bad kid,” which changes how teachers and peers treat them, and how the child sees themselves. This makes it less likely that this child will apply themselves to their education, and the sense of being “bad” is likely to follow them into adulthood, where they make decisions based on who they know themselves to be, and how they know the world to treat them. In another example, young men of color are perceived as being more dangerous and violent than white men, and this racist perception leads to the subsequent behavior of police officers pulling them over, searching them, arresting them, or assaulting/killing them more often than young white men. These moments of individual racist perception and behavior help reinforce the way our education and legal systems disadvantage people of color. Each of us has been taught these unconscious racial biases, so if you have not consciously identified and dismantled them in yourself (a process which takes years of work and re-education), then you are constantly helping reinforce this racist system.
This makes me feel like you’re blaming or attacking me.
I understand this is really difficult to hear. As a white person I found it really difficult to hear too. I felt defensive and attacked too. Sometimes I still do. That’s normal. Also, I encourage you to notice that we were talking about someone else’s suffering, and what came up for you was a desire to defend yourself. It takes a lot of practice and courage to stay focused on the topic at hand, but I believe you can do it, and it’s important. Maybe we could make a separate date to discuss how hard this is to take in and process, and how it makes you feel? This system isn’t our fault, we didn’t create it. But it’s here, now. It’s inequitable, and unjust, and hurting people. To ignore that is to uphold and endorse it; I believe it’s our responsibility to fight to change it.
There were also a few wild card arguments, such as “I feel like you’re always focusing on the negatives instead of the positives– it’s gotten a lot better,” and “it feels like you’re disrespecting the generation of people who marched with King for equality in the 60s.”
While I felt like these were just deflections/distractions from the conversation, it was useful to make clear how grateful I am for how far we’ve come, and for the fierce and courageous advocates and activists who fought to get us here. (It was even a nice opportunity to explore my genuine confusion about how so many boomers used to be passionate about fighting for racial equality, but nowadays seem to actually be fighting against the new wave of anti-racism.)
Oof. That’s it for today folks.
May we all do the courageous work of examining and dismantling our own internalized racism, and then plant seeds in our circles of influence.
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