My Fellow White Folks: It’s Up to Us to Stop Racism

Racism is our problem to solve.

White people like myself are the ones with the problem, and the ones with the vast majority of the power. You may not feel like it. You may want to believe you’re a minority, too, that you’ve experienced racism, that you’re not a racist and never do racist things, that everyone you know is double-plus good, and anyway, it’s hard and not your problem. I’ve heard you. I’ve lived with you, and gone to school with you, and slept with you, and worked with you, and I have been you. And I’m tired of the excuses. So don’t make them here. If you aren’t willing to be the solution, if all you want to do is say, “Well, yes, but…” and come up with excuses as to why the systemic racism in our society isn’t your fault, then you’re not going to be happy with what I’m telling you. I wasn’t happy when I realized it myself, honestly. But shut up and bear with me. Practice your listening. Don’t stop listening until you’ve reached the end of this post.

Listen to Yemmy, for a start:

If those complaining do not understand why attention needs to be drawn to minority, underprivileged, under-represented groups, they should do their research.

If white people truly want to understand, they should make time out to use Google and find the many materials online that are available for free on these subject matters.

If with the abundance of evidence available on how police officers are more likely to stop and frisk a black person than a white person, how a black person is likely to be shot on mere suspicion than a white person or how a black teenager is likely to be arrested on suspicion of shoplifting before the security even consider suspecting the white teenagers in the shop, but my white friends are still butting in with “What about..” then my white friends should go do their research!

I can’t always be in the mood to keep explaining this over and over again. And in the light of all that is going on in #Ferguson and what happened to Trayvon Martin, and many other victims of racial profiling and white supremacy, I do not owe my privileged friends an education, they owe themselves and the society an education. [emphasis added]

That is key, right there. Nobody owes us an education. We need to do this (mostly) on our own.

Image is a blue poster with the British crown on top. Caption says Keep calm and educate yourself.

If you’re a feminist, you’ve already got the tools to combat racism. You already understand that minority groups can’t do all the work for you. You understand how important it is to listen to what people in the minority are saying. You know how to use Google and follow links from bloggers you trust in order to educate yourself. You know how to find the 101 spaces where you can ask questions if you need to, but you also know most of your questions can be answered on your own with  diligence in your listening and research. You know how to apologize if your ignorance steps on someone’s already bruised toes. You know what their anger means, and you know better than to make it all about your hurt feelings.

You know that your privilege will make you blind to some of their experiences. The only way you’re going to see is by making the effort to look through other people’s eyes.

You also know that you have to admit you are, consciously or unconsciously, part of the problem.

This is difficult, because you don’t want to think you’re one of those Bad People. You are not A Racist™. And I completely get that. I wasn’t A Racist™, either. Had the proper creds, didn’t I? Hell, at the age of sixteen, I alienated my racist-as-fuck grandfather by telling him he wasn’t allowed to spout that bullshit around me. I had a black friend. I dated a black boy in grade school, even! I completely believed in content of character, not color of skin.

So it came as a nasty shock when I realized I may not be A Racist™, but I was still capable of doing, saying, and thinking some pretty racist shit. I respected people of color who were middle class like me, but didn’t understand how our society had its boot on the throats of just about everyone with a darker skin tone than mine. I looked at many aspects of black culture with contempt. I told extremely questionable jokes. I made excuses for the police when they did racist shit, or when they murdered yet another black person. I didn’t understand the dynamics of the OJ Simpson trial. I thought the whole Rodney King thing was a bunch of people rioting over something stupid. I saw young black men as much more threatening than they actually were. Cultural narratives had stained me thoroughly. I was completely capable of racist thoughts, racist words, and racist actions, without seeing what they were. I was blind to the absence of non-white faces in the halls of power, in media, everywhere. I didn’t realize there was a huge problem with stereotypes. I didn’t realize I was often the one doing the stereotyping. And I wasn’t even curious enough about the world to recognize my problems and fix them.

Luckily, I’d grown up in the midst of a lot of Native Americans, always living near reservations, with plenty of native friends, and I’d learned to see things through their eyes in many respects. I knew their experiences were far different and far more difficult than my own. So when I slowly began realizing oshit I’m capable of racism, I already had practice listening to other voices, and seeing things through other perspectives, and knowing that even if I wasn’t perfect, I could be better, and that my friends damned well needed me to do better. It bothered me, that I was capable of this racist shit. It bothered me a lot. But it didn’t attack the core of my non-racist image of myself. It just made me realize I had to do a better job.

It’s not easy, but you can do it. Listen to Libby Anne, who was raised in the Christian Patriarchy movement and had even less exposure to people of color than many of us white folk do:

The hardest thing about it was admitting to myself that even though intellectually I did not believe that any one race was superior to any other, my unconscious reactions were racist. But I admitted it. I would rather have racist reactions and be aware of them than have racist reactions and be unable to see them. We cannot fight what we do not know exists. Do I still have race-based and class-based reactions today? Yes, sometimes, but they are growing less and less, because I continually challenge them.

Challenge yourself to see things from the other perspective. Challenge yourself to see things that don’t happen to you. Challenge yourself to understand that your experience of the world is far different than someone who’s part of a minority group. There are a couple of videos at this link that can help you begin or continue that challenge. Read the comments on Libby Anne’s post with your defensiveness turned off. Don’t argue. Don’t protest. Just listen.

Not getting defensive is important. So is not thinking you know it all because of your Black Friend™ or your Cultural Studies Degree:

A degree can’t be used as proof that you “understand my struggle.” A degree can’t be used as a shield against criticism. Most of all, a degree can’t be used as a weapon to invalidate my lived experiences. How can a piece of paper on a wall weigh more than the burden I carry just for existing as a woman of color? Your degree counts for something, but it’s not enough.

One of the hardest things for me to realize as a white person was that the perspective of my one minority friend, what I’d learned in one class, or from reading one book, didn’t give me greater authority than the person who was relating their experience. It’s natural to get defensive, to want to say #notallwhitepeople, to indignantly claim you are not like that. It’s hard to learn just how unhelpful that is. But I’ve learned to hold my tongue. I’m probably wrong. I may have missed something. I need to do more listening, and I seriously need to avoid whitesplaining.

Then what? After you’ve done that hard work, what do you do?

You surely do not go around telling people of color how to conduct their struggle. You do not play the Great White Savior. No one needs that.

But you stand up and educate your fellow white people. Someone cracks a racist joke in your presence? You call them on it, as gently or harshly as necessary. Someone uses a racial slur, sends a racist email, makes a racist comment, you push back and explain that shit is not acceptable in a civilized society. You push for diversity in your workplace, in your social gatherings, in your conferences. If you are in charge of hiring, you make an effort to pay close attention to the resumes of people of color. Don’t let yourself subconsciously dismiss someone because they have an odd name, because they don’t look or talk like you. If you’re in charge of inviting speakers for a conference, you make an extra effort to invite people of color. Demand diversity in your entertainment, whether that’s video games, novels, movies, or otherwise. Reward places and people who are doing the diversity thing right with your dollars and your praise.

If you have a platform, make an effort to promote people of color. Notice when minorities are missing, and rectify the oversight. Look for ways you can support, mentor, empower other people. Donate your time, your money, but let them lead.

Challenge those innumerable aspects of society that sustain racial inequality. Demand the police, the justice system, our political systems, our bureaucracies do better. When people of color tell you there’s a problem with the police or some other authority, listen to them and investigate. Demand accountability and change. March with the protestors, if you can. Vote for people who are willing to fix these issues rather than handwave them away.

When someone tells you so-and-so’s only there because of affirmative action, call them on that bullshit then and there. When people in your presence snub others because of the color of their skin, demand they do better or GTFO. You educated yourself. Help them educate themselves. Teach fellow white folks about microaggressions. Help them see all those little oppressions as well as the big ones.

And let people call you out when you screw up. Learn how to gracefully accept the correction. Admit when you’ve done wrong. Learn how to apologize, and do better in the future. It’s hard, sometimes, but it’s not impossible. You can do this. You’ll stumble, but you can get up again. You can do better next time. It gets easier.

Never forget that racism is whites’ problem to solve. We can be part of that solution. Let’s do this.

Image is a photo of a young Martin Luther King Jr. Caption says, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

My Fellow White Folks: It’s Up to Us to Stop Racism

6 thoughts on “My Fellow White Folks: It’s Up to Us to Stop Racism

  1. 1

    It’s Up to Us to Stop Racism

    On a larger scale this is where you need the sociology and I’m really sorry I haven’t written anything yet. I was half inclined to load the comment thread with examples but there would be too many of them.

    I just want to say that you and Libby Anne are obviously writing from the point of view of white people who don’t spend a huge amount of time around black people. This is a good thing because it accounts for a proportion of white people. As soon as you become a white person who does spend time around even a few black people you may encounter other forms of racism. You will see micro-aggressions against black people (or sometimes macro-aggressions). You may also become the target of attempts to ‘correct’ you in your choices and opinions by other white people and these attempts may be deliberate or unconscious, mild and persistent or ruthless and vindictive. In other words, you will get micro-aggressions of your own to deal with. The last resort against white people who extend their association with black people ‘too far’ is to revoke as much of their white privilege as possible, in the form of status, credibility or direct economic and social advantages. This is one way in which ‘white privilege’ as a social force protects itself from the dissent and defection of individual white people. What we need is a critical mass… and I’m sure we’ll get it sooner or later ;)

    I know I’ve been sparing with the evidence, but a simple example is that the suggestions you made are mostly not usable by me against the most racist relatives I have (who happen to be ‘nice’ self-proclaimedly colorblind left-wing liberals). By living in a white minority area we’ve lost credibility and respect with them to such an extent that we are very definitely the ones forced onto the defensive in practical as well as ideological ways.

  2. rq

    What really made me realize that racism was a white problem was a comment on a racism thread a while ago – or maybe it was twitter, I can’t remember.
    But someone wrote that civil rights didn’t happen to let black people know they were people – civil rights happened because white people needed to know that black people were people, too.
    And that’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s white people needing to realize that they’re being assholes to a rather large portion of the world population. It’s white people that need to be educated. And it shouldn’t be an exclusively black responsibility to educate them – not even majoritarily, just like it’s not women’s responsibility to educate men about sexism.

    I don’t think I have much of a point with this comment. But it seemed relevant.

  3. rq

    Okay, that bit in the middle about education wasn’t too clear – what I meant was more that it’s up to white people to challenge their own preconceptions. We shouldn’t have to rely on black people to teach us, is what I mean. They have experiences that they may or may not be willing to share, and if they are, we had damn well better listen as best we can – but if they don’t want to share, what then? Well, white people can’t force them into sharing. It’s up to white people (that’s me!) to look for other avenues of information, like the internet or the library or books (which are, from what I understand, rather few and far between with the black people’s point of view, but there’s some out there).
    I don’t know if that was much of a clarification, I will think more on this, because I know what I mean but I don’t think I’m getting it across.

  4. 5

    @rq #3- I think what you’re referring to is Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power speech at UC Berkeley in 1966. That and Malcolm X’s Autobiography should be required reading for white people trying to understand racism and their own part in it.
    For now, it’s a struggle just getting white people today to admit that they benefit from racism. Most white people don’t understand that our job opportunities are wider when implicit bias gets Black-sounding names thrown out. Most white people don’t understand that our sweet mortgage deals came at the expense of racial minorities who get cruddy deals. Most white people think segregation “just happens”, instead of by outright discrimination exposed by FHA investigations. Repeatedly. Most white people just ignore how white kids’ criminal activity rarely results in the life-ending jail time Black kids get.
    Most white people think we should be “color blind”, because they choose not to see the racism in the system that provides them with housing, education and job opportunities. Just getting white people to stop thinking they’re “color blind”, when the world we live in isn’t, would be progress.

  5. 6

    There’s “color blind” and “blind to color” and those aren’t the same thing. But I think a lot of people confuse the two.

    “Color blind” is (or example) when you have a non-white friend but that isn’t their defining characteristic. I don’t describe people as (for instance) “My black friend Bob.”

    But I am not (or try not to be anyway) blind to the fact that my black friend Bob is going to deal with stuff I don’t have to and never will. I try not to be blind to color.

    Yeah, there are situations where his being black isn’t relevant. But there are a lot where it is, too.

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