Virtually every day, people of color (POC) feel like we must defend our personhood, our right to participate in the so-called “blessings of liberty” that are supposed to be secured for us in this nation’s Constitution, and even our ability to engage in the most basic levels of self-expression.
It’s tiring as crap when you have to do so much work just to live, and it’s doubly tiring when you can’t even get on social media without being confronted with this reality.
I could write an entirely separate post about all of the different emotions and frustrations that I feel scrolling through certain social media feeds. There are so many people out there who say and post a lot of crap that is hurtful. What’s worse is that these people often get to spout their tripe completely unchecked.
When I see such things I always have to count the cost of engagement. Do I want to get in to it with this person? Do I have time for my notifications and inbox to turn into Armageddon? Do I have the emotional capital to deal with the attacks and stupidity the will come from responding?
More often than not, the answer to these questions is no. The cost of engagement is too high. I want to help someone become less ignorant, but I also need to protect my mental and emotional well being. Oftentimes, I’m already engaged in a conversation on my own social media channels and don’t have time to put another iron in the fire.
The question/comment that I receive most often from white people is, “I feel strongly about the injustices you’re talking about, but I have no idea how to help or even how to talk about it. What can I do?”
If you are a white person who loves a person of color, there is a lot that you can be doing. We need people out there fighting wth and for us.
Yes, it’s emotionally tiring.
Yes, it’s controversial.
Yes, it can be a lot of work.
But here’s the thing: as a black woman, I don’t really get to tap out of this conversation because it’s not really a conversation; it’s my reality. Sure, there are POC who bury their heads in the sand and don’t ever engage with this issue publicly or otherwise. You do what you have to do to cope. But for those of us who are paying attention, there is a perpetual grind of dealing with this country’s race issue.
And that grind takes its toll.
It’s imperative for white people to step up and do some work.
As a white person, you can help by doing the following things:
1) Call people out on their nonsense. Don’t let the people in your world say, post, or otherwise perpetuate ideas that are damaging to POC.
You are in the best place of authority to call out and correct the problematic things your close friends and relatives say and do. Your silence makes you complicit in my oppression.
I understand that you have to live and interact with your relatives and confrontation can be awkward. I understand that you want to eat Sunday dinner in peace. You don’t have to act belligerent. Simply challenge their views in a kind and gentle way.
Is it really ok for the kids in your family to hear Aunt Kimberly and Uncle Dustin’s racist musings? Should Grandma Carolynn get a pass on freely using the n-word?
Racism is learned. In order for it it be learned, it has to be taught. Children, teens, and even young adults absorb their family’s values. What values are the young people in your family absorbing?
Stop making excuses for your family members’ prejudice. It’s not quirky. They’re not a product of their time. It’s toxic.
Discomfort isn’t a valid reason not to speak out. Fear of disapproval isn’t a valid reason not to speak out. Fear of confrontation isn’t a valid reason not to speak out.
However, I acknowledge that there may be times that you don’t feel safe speaking out. Your racist family members may harm you or your kids. You might need to keep your job. As much as I would like to toe the hard line and say, “[Forget] all that,” I also understand that calling White people out on their racial nonsense can be costly and you may be unwilling to pay the price right away. You may feel called to bear with white folks in their nonsense so you can educate their ignorance.
Whatever your story/reason is, you should be seeking to strengthen your voice and resolve. Don’t let Cousin Kimberley still be talking nonsense five years from now and you still too timid to say something.
If you can’t speak up in a specific instance, show your displeasure in other ways, such as excusing yourself from the room or conversation. Giving disapproving looks goes a long way also. Use nonverbal communication to put the heat on people.
2) Educate yourself. A lot of black people have written a lot of stuff about our experience. Read it.
You have to make the effort to educate yourself. People of color can’t sit down and tell you or post about every little thing. Besides, you are only getting a very small cross section of the entire black experience.
It’s important to read different authors with different viewpoints. It’s important to read from different time period. Reading is an investment, but it’s well worth it.
Besides books, there are also lots of articles, blogs, and videos that cover just about every conceived topic.
It’s important to understand that the black experience isn’t monolithic. For just about every idea there is a different, contrary idea. As wth anything, there’s a lot of nuance to the black experience. As you educate yourself, ask questions.
(I’ve talked exclusively about the black experience in this point, but the same can be said for other groups)
3) Don’t allow other white folks to weaponize a POC who shares their views against POC they disagree with.
POC have different views on the issues in our nation. If you ask a black person and a Japanese person about their experiences, there will be lots of overlap and lots of differences. Even people in the same group have different views.
A tactic that racists have used from the beginning has been to hold up someone from the group they’re trying to demonize as an example of being “exceptional” or “smart” because that person conformed to their standards of behavior.
This is a very damaging dynamic because it silences those who feel oppressed and puts the person who is being held up in the position to feel they have to choose sides. As a tactic of white supremacy, it can further ingrain internalized racist ideas in the ‘model’ and further stigmatize and oppress everyone else. It also causes division within the minority community in question.
A concrete example of this is when people use Dr. King’s words or discuss his tactics in a way that is intended to dismiss and silence the activism of other black people.
We can and will have differences of opinion amongst ourselves. It is hurtful and unfair for those differences to be exploited in such a way that they silence people who are processing pain.
4) Tell your own stories on your own time using your own dime. Don’t make this conversation about you.
Yes, as a white person, you have life experiences and a story that is worth sharing. Yes, your life experiences have value.
One of the biggest, most annoying, most discomfort inducing, faux pas that you can commit is to center yourself in this conversation.
Several years ago, a friend who wanted to know more about my life experiences as it pertained to being a black woman invited my husband and I out to lunch. When we got there, we ended up running in to some more friends so we invited them to join us.
The friend who invited me out started asking me questions, and the other two people, who were white, took up most of the space talking about their experiences.
If that weren’t bad enough, they actually interrupted me at times to do so. The worst part of it was that they actually had very little of substance to contribute.
If you’re still uncertain of what I mean when I say don’t center yourself, here is a list of common faux pas:
•Saying that you’re not racist- you don’t need to say that you’re not racist. Let your words and deeds confirm that.
•Listing your non-racist resume- You don’t need to list all the things you’ve done for POC. You may think that it gives you credibility, but comes off as self-congratulatory if you’ve not been directly asked. POC don’t owe you their time or attention simply because you’ve been a good person.
•Talking about how you were teased for being white by black kids growing up- don’t use a conversation about someone else’s pain to bring up your own stuff.
This particular thing feels like you’re silencing or minimizing the experience of POC. It’s also very rude. If you have racial trauma that you need to process, do so on your own channels and not on someone else’s back.
•Talking about how your Irish, Italian, German, etc. family experienced oppression- once again, these are valid and important narratives. These are stories that need to be told.
But as much as you may think you are expressing empathy, it can come off as silencing. Instead of taking up space by talking about yourself, amplify another’s voice by asking questions.
• Talking about the experiences of POC you know (or parent, or are related to) to the point of silencing the POC in front of you- it’s great if your spouse, grandkids, friend, sibling, aunt, etc. is a POC. It’s great if they’ve said things to you that are worth sharing. It’s awesome that you love them and are enthusiastic about sharing their story.
You can share, advocate, whatever, but don’t take up so much space that you shut down the person of color sitting in front of you because you’re sharing second hand knowledge. And if your loved one is present and able to speak for themselves, LET THEM SPEAK.
•Playing the martyr- once again, your life experiences are valid and important, but it is not always appropriate for you to take the time to share those experiences. You might have an awesome resume. You might have POC loved ones.
Whatever your story, POC are not obligated to give you any amount of time or attention on their channels. Not everyone desires the ‘help’ or ‘service’ you feel that you’re providing.
You might not like everything that’s said. Your feelings might get hurt. You may realize that your presence is not desired or required in certain spaces. Take a deep breath and realize it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you by playing the martyr.
5) If you are the spouse, sibling, parent, grandparent, etc. of a person of color, USE YOUR VOICE. Don’t make them fight this fight alone while you sit in the wings.
You are in a unique position to be able to speak to other white people about these issues because you are a white person with close and often intimate proximity to the experience of a POC. As a result, you have the opportunity to communicate about issues of injustice from a perspective that many people don’t have. This perspective is especially valuable when you make the effort to educate and inform yourself about the issues within your loved one’s culture.
As a white person, you have the experience of having to grow in or change your perspective. You understand white people’s sensibilities. You know what it is to be a white person interacting with issues of race. As a result, you have the ability to speak to other white people about these issues in a way the POC can’t.
6) Speak up about injustice. Whether it’s writing, social media posts, or art, use whatever platforms are available to you to speak up about the injustices that are happening.
Take some sort of action. Don’t just sit on your internet connected device absorbing information and forming opinions without putting that knowledge to good use.
Being afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing isn’t a good enough reason to stay silent when people like me are carrying the weight of this every day.
You will make mistakes. You will say the wrong thing. You will offend people. You will be frustrated. Dust yourself off and learn from the experience.
Racists aren’t silent about their views, and their views are dead wrong. They’re wrong, but they seem to have no issue with being loud and proud about it.
Silence gives consent. When you’re silent in the face of racism you give it power. Speaking out, no matter how feeble of an attempt it may seem, broadcast to those around you that you are a person of integrity who won’t stand for nonsense.
Racism is the ugly, not so hidden sin of our nation. Every generation has had to deal with it in their own way in varying degrees and measure.
We’ve entered a time in our nation’s history when race has become the issue of the hour. The conversation has been thrust into the public square in a way that hasn’t been seen in 50 years.
Our stances on Black Lives Matter, the national anthem protests, and police brutality have become social litmus tests.
Whether you like it or not, we are at an important juncture in our history. Which side of history do you wish to be on? To quote George Washington in Broadway musical ‘Hamilton,’ “History has its eyes on you.”
4 thoughts on “How to stand against racism: A primer for white people”
Thank you so much for this, and for giving white people like myself a road map in these trying times. You are an amazing writer and deserve to have a wide audience. Have you considered writing a book? The publishing world is hungry for perspectives like these. I will amplify your messages any way I can. Your words are making a difference and your efforts are very much appreciated.
You had the freedom and privilege to post this……….. I was banned from YouTube for saying black in a painting video. I’m white. So yea I see how it works.