Culture & Race

4 reasons white people need to talk about race

carpe-1Hi.  My name is Jody, and I’m a white person.  

Over the years, this single admission has often felt like an Alcoholics Anonymous confession, a fact about which I can do nothing and for which I am slightly ashamed.  I have stood at bus stops on the south side of Chicago, desperately wishing for dreads and dark skin so I wouldn’t stand out so starkly.  I have maneuvered the streets of the developing world, greeted with “I lofe you, babeee” and “Taxi, madam” solicitations because of the color of my skin.  I have received unwanted but superior treatment to the locals because my skin defines me as a wealthy foreigner.

My whiteness is something I did not ask for, cannot change, and don’t always completely understand.  While I haven’t always been aware of the full implications of this trait in a racialized society, living between worlds has pushed me to grapple with my race as a significant shaper of my identity. As I began this process, there was a time when I was ashamed of the privilege it carried, angry and saddened over the history of racial supremacy and discrimination.   I hear this shame frequently from other white people, frustrated with feeling blamed, dismissed or responsible for actions-not-their-own.  In response to this post, Jason summed up a sentiment I often hear from white people:

I feel frustrated that I somehow inherited qualities based on what my race did or didn’t do, and that I have “responsibilities” to be a certain way to other races therefore. I feel people want me to feel guilty for who I am based solely on my race.

I’m tired of being the bad guy, the boring guy, the rich guy, whatever. I’m tired of being told I have no right to feel that way because others have it worse. I’m tired of being singled out, having to be taught how to be “culturally sensitive” as if I’m the only one who isn’t–which incidentally reinforces privilege. I’m tired of being told I can’t have a voice, an opinion.

Joseph articulately shared a similar opinion:

All that to say that assuming someone’s whiteness or blackness marks their cultural makeup and place in society does not further the discussion nor lead to constructive debate. The issue in claiming that white people should burden the responsibility is that we again draw swords for the wrong reasons.

We entrench ourselves in our values and take sides to eliminate the burden of guilt and point to a symbol, which has no clear identity, as the root of the problem. Respect, faith and personal responsibility should be a driving force in how people conduct themselves with any and every person regardless of race. We should not be subject to some noble obligation for the sake of cultural semblance. I challenge your presumption that being white requires some intangible burden to be carried. You assume that my whiteness defines me simply because I am white. It does not.

Comments like these are great examples of why white people need to talk about race more than we do.  Let me explain a little further:

1. We don’t know how to talk about race

It’s rare that I hear a white person use the word “black” in public settings to describe someone’s race without stuttering in the process.  Most white people stumble nervously over themselves when using racial terms, “She’s a-um-a, well, she’s af-, bl-um, she’s blackImeanAfric-um, I mean, African-American?”

Yeah.  Let’s just be honest…I know I’ve done it.  And I know that chances are most of you white folks reading this have done it too.   We’re uncomfortable using racial terms because we don’t have to think in racial terms on a regular basis.

People of color talk about race all the time – they have to in order to negotiate living in a world where the dominant power structure does not recognize cultural norms outside of their own.  When race is a daily factor in human relations, people develop a language and ability to process it. However, because white people remain so silent on the issue, we often don’t have a clue how to talk about race with someone from a background different than our own.

2.  We don’t know who we are

I (along with plenty of other scholars) would argue that one of the reasons we defend ourselves so vigorously is because we don’t fully understand ourselves and the racial dynamics that shape our perspectives.  In her landmark book on racial identity development Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997) explores the development of white identity.  She suggests that the silence on race in white communities stems from the fact that white people see race as something as a defining trait for other people, not themselves.  As one white student commented, “I’m not white, I’m just normal.”

Tatum then goes on to explain the stages of white identity development, something I’d never even heard of until my college years.  My first encounter with my whiteness was when I participated in an urban studies program on the south side of Chicago.  We privileged and white college students lived in a rehab center with recovering drug addicts, all of whom were urban African Americans.  Completely unaware of the cultural rules by which I operated, I dove into seeking relationship with the residents, eager to learn more about their lives.  I asked all sorts of questions and listened eagerly as they shared their stories with me, a naive rural white girl.

I thought I was maneuvering just fine until the day, a woman named Pat approached me and said, “I need to apologize to you. I’ve been avoiding you the whole time you’ve been here.”

I froze inside, wondering what I’d done wrong.  I thought I’d been so nice, listening, smiling, asking questions. People where I came from were rarely so blunt, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to her bluntness, so I just continued to listen.

“You asked so many questions, I felt like you were some journalist pelting me with questions,” she explained.  “It didn’t feel like you really wanted to know me, just like you wanted to use me for my stories.”

I thought I might cry, both from her misinterpretation of my intentions and my lack of understanding about how my actions were perceived.

“So. I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you a chance and just shut down on you instead. It wasn’t very nice of me.”

I stumbled through some sort of response, but mostly I was speechless because I really didn’t know what to say.  It was the first time I’d come face-to-face with a person whose cultural rules dictated different values than mine, and I hadn’t even known I’d been operating by cultural rules.  In my mind, I was just “being normal”.

Come to find out, “normal” isn’t the same for everyone.  Gerald Pine and Asa Hilliard (1990) explain some of the underlying dynamics shaping our differing communication styles.:

Discussions and debates about racism create anxiety and conflict, which are handled differently by different cultural groups.  For example, Whites tend to fear open discussion of racial problems because they believe that such discussion will stir up hard feelings and old hatreds.  Whites tend to believe that heated arguments about racism lead to divisiveness, loss of control, bitter conflict, and even violence.  Blacks, on the other hand, believe that discussion and debate about racism help to push racial problems to the surface – and perhaps, force society to deal with them.

When I hear whites portray themselves as ‘colorblind’, I think of myself in those days, unaware and shielded from the harsh realities surrounding race and privilege as well as the different values by which I operated.  I think of the friend who said to me, “If you don’t see my color, you don’t see me.”  I think of all the people like Jason and Joseph who feel silenced in the race conversation because they feel blamed or pigeon-holed.  I think of the intense individualism by which white mainstream America unknowingly operates that conflicts with the communal value systems of other races and cultures.

And then I think it would do us all a whole-lot-of-good to talk about these things far more than we do.

3.  We need healing, too

Oppression does not only hurt the oppressed, it leaves deep scars on the oppressor as well.  Silence breeds shame, and the silence about our history as racial oppressors has allowed our shame to work its way so deep we don’t even see how it eats away at us.  Some of us even find it funny when it shows up in our private-little-racial-jokes or shock jock personalities like Rush Limbaugh.  Occasionally, it slips out to the public and there’s a collective gasp, a scurry to apologize, and red faces.

Quite frankly, sometimes it all feels like one big messy subject, a conflict too painful to solve, more divisive than uniting.

But Parker Palmer’s words linger in my heart, “We think the world apart, what would it be like to think the world together?”  To me, this is where healing for everyone begins in this complex conversation; and to think the world together, there needs to be two participants in the conversation. If we truly want to see change (which I believe many of us do), it can’t just be the people of color who are vested in this issue.  When white people “participate” in the conversation by smugly crossing our arms, silently observing from a distance, assuming we know better or arrogantly refusing to consider to other perspectives, we only perpetuate the system we’ve created.

4.  We’re afraid of losing control

This conversation about being the majority race can certainly grow complicated, and sometimes we can be so caught up in subconsciously defending our long-standing position of power that we’re unable to actually discuss the issues in earnest.

If we do want to discuss the issues, we need to start with ourselves and the history that frames the reality of our lives. While I value his honesty, I’d challenge Joseph’s notion that our whiteness does not define us by suggesting that in order to effectively and compassionately participate in society today, we need to spend time first understanding ourselves in relation to others by contemplating questions like this:

  • Who do I know?  Are my social circles made up of mostly people just like me?  If so, have I ever really listened to someone’s story that does not reflect my own?
  • How do I respond when someone presents a perspective I don’t understand?  If I am defensive, dismissive, or angry, what does their response trigger in me that makes me unable to hear their story?  How might I learn to respond with more compassion?
  • In conversations about race, do I listen or do I preach?  Do I assume first that I am right? Do I follow Stephen Covey’s model to listen first to understand, then to be understood or do I leave the conversation before I even consider the other participant’s perspective?
  • What do I know about my history?  Where do I come from?  What shapes my subconscious values and rules?
  • What do I know about the history of other races and cultures?  How do I know this history?  Was it told through the eyes of the culture itself or the dominant culture?  Could there be another perspective than the one I’ve seen?
  • If race comes up in a conversation either positively or negatively, do I speak or remain silent?  Why do I respond the way I do?
  • If I feel afraid or guilty in race conversations, how have I dealt with these emotions?  Do I allow them to immobilize me or do I lean into them as opportunities for deeper growth?

This cannot be a discussion of tit-for-tat, of accusations and defensives, and as members of the dominant majority, we need to lead the conversation first with humility and compassion.  We can not let go until we know what it is that we’re holding onto.

swirl

I’m Jody, and I’m a white person.

This is not my only identity, but it is certainly a piece of it.  The more I understand how it shapes me and, in turn, how this affects those around me and in the world-at-large, the more I will become a peace-maker rather than a conflict-instigator.

Will you join me?  

The road is long and the journey a bit bumpy at times, but the destination is one of vulnerability, hope and restoration. Let us not shut our eyes, our hearts or our mouths, but rather open them to those around us, creating space for everyone in our midst, not only those just like ourselves.

Related Posts

Further reading

Comment Policy

This is a painfully loaded issue posted in a moderated public forum.  Comments are welcome, but please be sure to carefully read the post first and then thoughtfully respond.  Knee-jerk reactions and hasty accusations are rarely productive in potentially explosive conversations.  It may also help to read this post before commenting.  Comments that do not follow these guidelines will not be published, though it is highly likely that these commenters will receive a personal email from me so we can dialog in a more private arena. While it can be ironically cleansing for the shit to hit the fan, it’s not particularly helpful to fling it all over everyone else.

Pine, G. & Hilliard, A. (1990).  Rx for racism: Imperatives for America’s schools.  Phi Delta Kappan, 593-600.

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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9 thoughts on “4 reasons white people need to talk about race”

  1. This is so thoughtful, Jody. Appreciate your clarity and the list of questions I need to ask myself. Thank you for not letting us (me) sit and read but not respond. I feel like I need to take those questions and for a walk, think and pray my way through them.

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  2. Jody, thank you for such clear insights, and your powerful call for understanding and action. This is a something I’ve seen and lived with for decades, from my diverse high school days and all through my marriage to a woman whose skin looks different from mine. To echo what one of your friends said to you: if I didn’t see my wife’s color, I wouldn’t be seeing her. The same goes for how she sees me. (And then there’s how our kids are perceived by others!)

    Nice job here, Jody.

    Tim

    Like

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