Culture & Race

4 reasons white people don’t talk about race

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As a follow-up to last week’s post 4 Reasons White People Need to Talk about Race (which I’d strongly recommend reading in tandem with this post), I want to explore further the general silence surrounding race within white culture.  

But before I go there, I need to confess that this is perhaps one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written.  It was one of those that I tried to avoid every time I sat down to write.  I’d type three words and get up to make myself some tea, then remember I needed to change the laundry, then attend to some dirty dishes (which is significant if you know how much I hate to clean), finally returning to my screen to check Facebook, Twitter, and email before returning here to add just five more words and deciding I was far too tired to write and needed to go to bed.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say and more that it’s just really hard to say it.  The likely reason that it’s hard to say is that all of these things below swirl around inside me to this day.  I’m not only pointing out holes in everyone else; I’m also pointing them out in myself.  Quite frankly, that’s not a whole lot of fun. 

With that in mind, I walk carefully through this complex, loaded, and painful territory, terribly aware of the reluctant awakening this journey holds for many like me.

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There’s clearly a frustrated-curiosity out there regarding white people’s racial understanding given some of the search terms that direct people to this blog:

  • “why do white people dismiss black suffering”
  • “culturally insensitive white church”
  • “don’t trust white people”
  • “no idea about white people”
  • “don’t like white people”
  • “white people think they’re experts”
  • “white people don’t acknowledge me”
  • “white people talk like they know everything”

When I see these phrases, I can’t help but wonder if part of this is in response to the silence that surrounds race in many white communities.  Recent news stories illustrate this silence well.

Phil Robertson’s comments around race were just as provocative as his comments surrounding homosexuality, but this didn’t get near the coverage that it should have.  The lack of speakers of color at many conferences passively removes the race conversation from such venues.  Bring up race in a mixed room and watch as most of the white people morph into wallflowers.  After the Zimmerman verdict last summer, I had white friends who hadn’t even heard of the case.  Even though it was one of the most controversial racial cases in recent history, no one in their circles was talking about it at all.

As every person is an individual, there are likely a whole number of reasons for such silence.  However, the tendencies that run within cultures are still beneficial to consider if we want to deepen our understanding of what shapes our views on and reactions toward racial conversations.  While this won’t be a conclusive list, for the sake of conversation, I’d like to put a few reasons out there why white people don’t talk much about race for us to ponder together.

1. Fear of Conflict

Perhaps the most potent reason white people don’t talk about race is fear of conflict.  This can be fear of both internal and external conflict.  Jon, a commenter on this post, writes about the fear of conflict with others, “Yes, racism is real in the United States, as is privilege, but I think there has to be a way to deal with that problem without constantly having to take the posture of being apologetic so that everyone knows you’re not like those “other” culturally insensitive people.”

Jon’s comment summarizes well the fear that many white people of being wrong, looking ignorant, or saying the wrong thing in conversations about race.

Sarah Visser, a professor of leadership at Azusa Pacific University who studies diversity and white privilege, points out that this fear of conflict need not be only with others, “I think that often when we experience fear-triggers, we assume that it’s coming from someone or something,” she wrote in a recent email exchange we had on the topic, “when actually it springs from deep inside us and is evidence of our need to do some ‘personal work.'”

I learn this lesson time and again, not realizing the impact of a racialized society on my own thinking.  Years ago, I was teaching at a very diverse high school.  One of my best students was a tall African American male who faithfully submitted meticulous work, treated everyone with respect, and was well-known for his kind and gentle manner.  One morning, I was walking into school and saw a tall black male dressed in saggy pants, an oversized jersey and a cock-eyed hat from afar.  Instantly, I tensed because of the ‘gangsta’ image I perceived from afar.  As I walked closer, I recognized him as my beloved student.

Coming face to face with my subconscious absorption of society’s microagressions* toward black male youth, I was both shocked and embarrassed by my reaction, and it forced me to face the fact that, regardless of what I thought I believed, I was not at all immune to subscribing to stereotypes.  In order to deal with this stereotype I held, it was necessary for me to intentionally acknowledge it rather than remaining silent to save face, even if I was only acknowledging it to myself.

2.  Guilt

“I am tired of this guilty conscience mentality that people are trying to push onto “white” people,” wrote Joseph, a commenter in this post.  He is certainly not alone.  I have heard many white people express frustration with feeling forced to ‘take responsibility’ for past actions that they had nothing to do with.

Tatum (1997) suggests that this stems in part from white society’s understanding of themselves first as individuals in a meritocracy (p. 103).  In other words, we think we got where we are all by ourselves and that we deserve it.  This contrasts significantly with the fact that many people of color come from cultures with more communal perspectives who view their individual success rooted in the experience of those around them.

My husband has made a similar observation about how this individualism influences the white evangelical church in America.  From his perspective, this arm of the church disproportionately focuses on individual sins relating to sex like homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex while turning a blind eye to corporate sins like greed, lack of care for the poor, and preferential laws for the rich.

When we (white people) view ourselves as only individuals and not part of a whole, it’s easy for accusations of racism to induce guilt. It’s true – we didn’t do it individually. However, when we allow ourselves to learn from the perspective of communally oriented cultures, we’ll learn more about how the system was established to benefit us at the expense of others and how we continue to perpetrate this very system without intentional actions to change it.

As it stands, the system in which we quite comfortably live our lives tells our stories from our perspectives far more frequently than any others.  Ponder a few of these stories with me:

  • How might the ‘Thanksgiving story’ be told from a Native American perspective?  Could it be perceived differently than a peaceful dinner between the ‘Indian’ and the White Man?
  • Who frames the theological story we tell?  How would that story be told differently from those of a non-dominant power?
  • Where are our theories rooted?  If the research on which we base our understanding of ‘sound theory’ comes only from a white western perspective, what realities might we be missing?

While the white perspective shouldn’t be eliminated, for the overarching story to be accurate, it needs to include a wide array of perspectives that extends beyond the dominant group.

3.  Ignorance

“Part of the problem, I think (in America, at least), is the willingness of the minorities to KEEP themselves segregated.”  (Chris)

To put it bluntly, a lot of white people don’t talk about race because they don’t know how, or because they assume that just because they’ve had a few conversations or seen a few news programs, they know everything there is to know about the topic.

In college, I was on a committee to plan the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on campus.  Our (mostly white) committee came up with the slogan, “Racism: Been there, done that.”  When we suggested our theme to the invited African-American speaker for the celebrations, she pushed back. “Oh no, you haven’t!” she countered, and she was quite right.  We thought that our willingness to say the word race meant that we actually knew something about it.  How wrong we were.

Chris’s comment above illustrates an ignorance that  many white people continue to believe.  We may believe it because 1) we operate on media driven sound bytes or stereotypes; 2) we don’t have actual friends of other races; 3) we rely on gut feelings rooted in our own experience and not fact; 4) we’re not listening to any experiences except those that reflect our own.  Chris’s assumptions in the above statement are factually wrong, but his views will never change until he starts to dig deeper than the reasons above.

We can’t simply will ignorance away.  If we want to increase our understanding, we have to do something about it.  Watch documentaries.  Read the resources listed at the end of this post.  Volunteer.  Listen without speaking.  Attend an MLK Day celebration or a Black history event.  Ask the hard questions not of others, but of ourselves.

4.  Subconscious Superiority Complex

That revelation came later. In my youthful days though, I had concluded in my White-Christian mind that all those (passive-) aggressive Indonesians and blacks needed to repent from their anger and that me quietly ‘forgiving’ them was the way to balance out the evil in the world. I would look at my WWJD bracelet and smile, all self-indulged. (Jobke)

Finally, I think part of my fallen culture as a white privileged male person is to use my power to control and fix things, and people. It’s quite likely that that’s a bigger part of my draw to working with people from other cultures than I’d care to admit. But I need to confess this, continually, and claim my call as faithfulness, not fixing. I fail. Maybe we need a WPA (white privilege anonymous: “Hi, I’m Kevin, and I’m privileged”). Actually, doing my own “white work,” and engaging privilege directly, is much harder for me than “serving” folks from other cultures. (Kevin)

If I get really honest with myself, I kind of like the position of racial privilege that comes with my skin.  This doesn’t mean that I cognitively believe I deserve it or that I’m better because of my race, but it is a reality in my thinking that I need to confront.

A good friend pointed out that another way this superiority complex shows up is when white people expect race conversations to be ‘fair’, as in “if I listen to your experience with racism, then you need to listen to mine and acknowledge that it’s equal.”  Sometimes, we just need to listen humbly and keep our mouths shut. The honesty about arrogance and power in Jobke and Kevin’s comments is a great starting point toward humility for us all.

Gary Howard wrote an insightful book for teachers called We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools.  In the same vane of this title, we can’t talk about what we don’t know.  Until we’ve spend some significant time understanding both our own attitudes and the perspectives of others in the racial conversation, we remain only observers of the conversation, not true participants in it.

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In Why do all the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria, author Beverly Tatum discusses the necessity of courage to break the silence in the race conversation.  “Silence feels safer,” she suggests, “but in the long run, I know it is not.”  Tatum recognizes that nothing will happen if she acquiesces to her fear of confronting the reality she sees, and that silence is ultimately not a beneficial response for herself personally or society at large.  Keeping quiet in the face of injustice has never hailed as a historical virtue.  

With gentle steps and hopeful hearts, may this be our ever-present prayer:

Give us awareness to let down our guard and lean into the fear that keeps us silent in racial conversations.

Give us courage to face our guilt by learning about how our cultural values shape our internal definitions of what is valuable.

Give us a desire to increase our knowledge through listening and learning to voices of those whose stories and whose access to power differ from ours. 

Help us acknowledge our propensity to hold tight to power by loosening our grip and looking always to understand before we are understood.

(If you’re not white, I’d ask that you pray this for us as you can.  The painful history of race has also left us a broken people, even when we don’t acknowledge it, and your prayers for us are deeply needed.)

What’s your take?  Have you experienced any of the above reasons for not talking about race?  What did I miss?  

Related Posts

Further reading

Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

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

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6 thoughts on “4 reasons white people don’t talk about race”

  1. I think it’s an oversimplification to say the guilt issue stems from a delusional belief in a functional meritocracy.

    The fact is, being told that you are hurting people does – and should – make people feel guilty. And a fair amount of antiracist literature focuses on driving home the point that racism is still real by graphically illustrating the harm that racism does to people of color. And then it says “If you are white, you are participating in this.”

    And both of those things are true. But it’s also true that there’s no way to stop participating in it, other than “have the common decency to be born something else next time.” So there is a sense of being trapped in real, and legitimate guilt. The message ends up being that racism sucks, and hurts people, and you’re on the wrong side, and you’re stuck there. And being stuck on the perpetrator side may suck less than being stuck on the victim side, but it still sucks. So people feel like they have the choice to either give up and hate themselves, or embrace the injustice and defend it because it’s the only position they’ve got.

    Of course that’s not what anyone’s trying to say, but it is what a lot of people hear.

    How you phrase things can help with that: much in the way that clever feminists talk about “patriarchy” rather than “men”, antiracists who talk about “systematic racism” rather than “white people” or even “whiteness” are less likely to make white people feel like they may as well be racist because it’s the only game in town. In my observation, giving practical suggestions for things they can do to participate *less* also helps – even something as simple as “This thanksgiving, look up the National Day of Mourning. Maybe you’re not comfortable participating in it, but you can talk about it with your kids” opens up the possibility of doing something right. That possibility may seem really blindingly obvious to people who are active with social justice, but it’s *not* to everyone else (at least not where race is concerned.)

    Another things that helped for me, personally, is making a clear distinction between feeling *guilty* about something, and feeling a *responsibility* to improve it. I don’t feel guilty for being white – I didn’t ask for it, and I can’t change it. I’m not obliged to apologize for the existence of racism (and I won’t, if anyone asks me to.) But being responsible for my own actions, and for making the effort to learn about racism, notice it, and oppose it where I can, is basic human decency, and I am obliged to do *that* whether I feel guilty or not, because it’s the right thing to do.

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  2. “To add to the discussion, I think another reason that white people don’t talk about race is because they don’t have to. It’s not something they are doing or not doing, but because white culture prescribes “the way things are” in most places, white people don’t come up against the feeling of dissonance of “why are things this way” unless they find themselves in a place where another culture prescribes “the way things are”.

    Amen! I totally agree with this sentiment. they simply don’t have too. For the most part, many White People are completely ignorant to the reality of “white supremacy”. In having conversations with my White Sister (I’m bi-racial and identify as Black) it’s occurred to me that the reason it’s hard for us to talk and understand each other is because we truly do come from entirely different world even though we grew up in the same house…

    I’m sending her the link to this article – thank you so much for shining much needed light on this.
    ~Rachelle

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  3. Hi there,
    I recently started following your blog, and I’ve really appreciated your perspectives on the culture conversation. I identify with the feeling of living between worlds as an Asian Canadian and am thankful that people like you help take the burden of always being the one to “bring up the culture conversation” off of people like me.

    To add to the discussion, I think another reason that white people don’t talk about race is because they don’t have to. It’s not something they are doing or not doing, but because white culture prescribes “the way things are” in most places, white people don’t come up against the feeling of dissonance of “why are things this way” unless they find themselves in a place where another culture prescribes “the way things are”.

    – Elsie

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