When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.
It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.
Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.
So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.
A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.
Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.
One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.
Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.
Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.
So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.
One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.
But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.
Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.
If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.
Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.
So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.
Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.
At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.
Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.
You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.
Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.