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I first named the phenomenon at the Moving Social Justice Forward conference in Los Angeles in 2014. It wasn’t the first question like this at the conference, by any means. It probably wasn’t the first conference where I’d heard a question like that either. It was, however, a perfect opportunity to notice.
The SSJ conference put activists of color, most of them black, on stage to talk about hands-on organizing and activism. The topics they covered were matters of life and death, though they often aren’t treated that way. In the secular movement, these subjects often aren’t covered at all.
Given all that, it wasn’t surprising for me to find myself part of a proportionally much smaller white audience at the event. I may even have been in the minority, though there were still a large number of white people in the audience. There were points during the Q&As when I wished there were fewer.
Q&As always have problems. No matter how carefully moderators specify their requirements, people will still decide the guidelines don’t apply to them. They ramble. They act as though they’d been invited to be onstage. They treat “Here is my opinion; don’t you agree?” as a question.
I noticed this specific problem for the first time at this conference when a panel of student activists combating the school-to-prison pipeline opened the floor to questions. “Have you tried talking to legislators?” Well, yes, of course they had, and they’d discussed legislation that might help, but they couldn’t wait for it to pass because people needed their help now. And they were achieving success with their methods.
There were other questions like this that weekend. Other activists talked about helping themselves and each other and were greeted with some form of “Have you tried going to the government for help?” It was this question, though, that made me realize I was listening to people ask, “Have you considered white people?”
I saw it again at the Social Justice panel at AHACon in May 2016. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was the one majority-POC panel. The instructions were great. (I’m stealing “The shorter the better. Preferably one sentence ending in a question mark.”) A couple of the questions, however, included “I didn’t hear you say anything about voting” and something about Bernie Sanders.
“Have you considered white people?”
Fellow white people, we need to stop asking questions like these. Why?
There are exceptions, but as a rule, people are added to panels because they have some expertise on the topic. When I’m putting panels together, I try to go for a balance of broad experience and rarer viewpoints that expand the discussion beyond the basics. I’m not alone in this among organizers. We work hard to get the right mix of entertaining (not necessarily funny) and informative.
Questions like the these boil down to, “Do you really not know the basics of your topic?” We don’t all know the ins and outs of governmental power structures and processes, as recent presidential election cycles soundly demonstrate. Still, we all know they exist. We know they’re considered the first option when things go bad on a scale beyond what an individual or family can fix.
If you ask the question as though it’s new or as though the person you’re asking won’t have an answer ready that you simply haven’t thought of, you’re telling that speaker you don’t think they know what they’re talking about. You’re saying they don’t know the basics of their problem. You’re saying that all the solutions they’re working on are complicated replacements for something simple that just hasn’t occurred to them.
That’s hugely condescending. It’s condescending to the speakers and to the organizers who invited them to speak. Before you ask a question like this, stop to think whether you’d expect people to know the answer.
Maybe you don’t expect people to know the answer, though. I’m not sure why. The questions I class as “Have you considered white people?” are the stuff of ninth-grade civics classes. Voting, lobbying, lawsuits and appeals. There are ways to come out of schools without knowing all this, but activists will learn it quickly when it becomes required practical knowledge.
Why would you think you’re the first person to bring it up? Why would you think you’re the first person to suggest something basic to a seasoned activist?
I don’t see lawyers asking questions about unusual legal strategies or interesting precedents. I don’t see legislative assistants volunteering that their bosses have a special interest in this topic and some time in their schedule next Tuesday. These aren’t experts asking novel questions or making novel points about the intricacies of government. These are very well-intentioned average atheists and humanists who have themselves come to learn about activism.
I know many of us are used to being smart. Some of us have even spent years being told we were the smartest person in the room. (That’s probably very bad for us, but that’s another post. If I haven’t already written it, I should.) There’s a difference between being smart and being an expert, though. Before we ask questions, we should remind ourselves that we’re here to learn. We should remember we’re not the experts in the room.
It Ignores Racial and Class Disparities
When you suggest a governmental solution to a problem that disproportionately targets people of color, chances are good you don’t fully understand what you’re suggesting. You probably assume that government works the same way for everyone that it does for middle class white people—or donor-class white people. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true.
In the 2016 Democratic primary election, I saw many black people who were unable to muster much enthusiasm for either candidate. Neither, in their estimation, was doing anything close to what needed to be done to save lives in their community. Now, of course, I also saw other black people who disagreed with them, strongly favoring one candidate or another. But it’s hard to argue with the underlying idea that neither candidate was fighting particularly strongly for their community.
This isn’t uncommon. All too often we see legislators even at the national level say blatantly racist things. More often we hear racists dogwhistles from them. Where they give explicit racism a pass, they still often display implicit racism—or the anti-immigrant sentiments or classism that have become its proxy. In an atmosphere like that, you can search hard for a champion and never find one. You can’t convince someone to help you when they think your main problem is you don’t do enough to help yourself.
And that assumes that a governmental solution is what people want. It often isn’t, with good reason. Politicians elected with the overwhelming support of people of color sometimes take that constituency for granted rather than looking out for their interests. Laws have a long history of being created to reinforce or create inequality rather than diminish it. Even laws passed with good intentions get applied unevenly, contributing to the problems they were meant to fix.
It can be difficult to remember that our experiences aren’t universal. We need to do it anyway, if we want justice. Before you ask this kind of question, think about whether others can achieve the same outcome you can with these actions. Think about whether they’re right to distrust your proffered solution.
It Reduces Our Toolsets
Remember what I said above about putting together a panel? The reason we invite speakers like these to talk to you is that they’re doing interesting things. They’re having unexpected successes. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but they are trying new things or executing strategies in new ways, and what they’re doing is working. We want them to tell you about that.
We want you to listen and learn. If you focus your attention on the solutions you already know about, you stop listening. If you spend your time wondering why these activists aren’t doing what you would do now, you’re not taking in anything new. We want you to take in new ideas.
Activist movements, particularly social justice movements made up of marginalized people, are doing amazing things right now. They are organized in ways other recent movements haven’t been. They coordinate better. They take care of each other better. They get their messages in front of the press better and bypass the press when they can’t. They make it harder to shut down their protests without raising additional protest from other people. They do better at keeping their movements in the hands of the people doing the work.
We could learn a lot. We have to listen (or get out there and volunteer and take direction) in order to do it. Before we ask questions about what people aren’t doing, we should take in and ruminate on what they are.
There Are Better Ways to Ask
All of this doesn’t mean that there is never a time to ask about “considering white people”. You can want to ask for good reasons. After all, if no one has mentioned changing legislation as an option, you don’t know whether speakers have assumed everyone knows they want legislative change or whether they have good reasons not to want to make those changes.
However, you can ask that directly. “You haven’t mentioned a legislative strategy. Is that because we’re talking about grassroots activism here or because you don’t think that’s helpful right now?” You can offer to use your whiteness to help. “I can’t always make it out to [activity] or donate. Is there anything specific I should be saying to candidates and politicians when I talk to them about this?” Just don’t get upset if the answer is “No.”
Not knowing isn’t the problem. Asking questions isn’t the problem. Asking questions that assume too little of your audience is the problem. But if you take a little time to think before your ask your questions, you can solve this problem easily.