Why White People Rarely Shut Up, Listen and Learn about Race
Since the murder of George Floyd over a month ago, we’ve needed to have discussions about race globally, or to put it more fairly we’ve always needed to speak about race but this need has become increasingly more pressing over the past few weeks. In the discussions I was having, I realised by first-hand experience that it is really difficult to talk to white people about race - to echo in the footsteps of Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) and Robin DiAngelo (author of White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism). Obviously it was a little bit earlier that I first realised it was hard to talk to white people about race: growing up trying to talk to those close to me about their racist behaviours was difficult, but also with my own racist behaviours and thought patterns, past and present (conscious or subconscious), have lead to some (albeit needed) uncomfortable conversations.
In general, what tends to happen when a person of colour, in this case a Black person, or an ally calls a white person out for their behaviour?
Robin DiAngelo, whilst a controversial figure in some circles, in a video (and in her book) describes how feelings of guilt, shame, anger and defensiveness can manifest when a white person is told they just did something racist:
“[We’ve] reduced a racist to a very simple formula, a racist is an individual, not a system, who consciously does not like people based on race, must be conscious, and who intentionally seeks to be mean to them… If that’s my definition of a racist, then your suggestion that anything I’ve said or done is racist or has a racist impact, I’m going to hear that as ‘you just said I was a bad person, you just put me in that category’.”
This desire to be almost consistently morally sound comes from a simultaneously “good and bad” place. On one hand, racism lies on a form of spectrum, most people, particularly if you’re taking the time to read this, will probably be on the less racist side of this spectrum. You mean well and you have a genuine desire to uphold and champion Black lives, you want people to know this if you say or do something that is racist. This is where it can come from a bad place, by trying to reassure the Black person that you are not racist, either by persistently making excuses, debating with them or telling them over and over again how “sorry” you are, you’re diminishing their feelings and experiences.
What does this look like though?
It can look like white tears, that manipulates Black people to feel sorry and even guilty for you, which can lead to apology on their behalf - centring white comfort as key, regardless of what they’ve done. It can look like “Oh I’m sorry it just slipped out”, “I didn’t know it was a bad thing to do”, “Well I don’t think I’m being racist here” and other excuses which truly aren’t needed when you can just sincerely say sorry and learn. It also looks like: “agreeing to disagree” on obtuse or more subtle ideas of racism, getting angry, apologising insincerely or a bit too much, arguing, “Oh it shouldn’t matter! There are more important issues!” and more.
It can come from ignorance, misinformation and white privilege. That you haven’t experienced something and therefore you think it is unlikely they’re telling the truth, or that you don’t have any other Black friends or family that have experienced that, which you may feel the need to cite in disagreement with them. It comes from what you read and what people have told you your entire life.
These reactions are harmful though. “Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me,” Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her 2014 blog, which was then extended into her aforementioned book. When white people offer rebuttals or tears or debates in conversation with Black people about racism it drains them, it allows their experience to be diminished, it can lead to violence and it furthers systemic racism in all forms.
How can you handle being called out better?
Firstly, simply listen, actively and quietly whilst they talk about their experiences of racism or why what you just said/done was hurtful. Apologise and don’t make a scene of it, it’ll make it less awkward for them if you briefly address that you did something wrong and move on; no one wins when you get yourself too emotional about it (except from perhaps yourself). Aim to understand through your own research and introspection, rather than bombarding the person with questions, but if you do want to ask for insight then accept whatever they give you as final and still do the above!
Call yourself out, and your friends and family. Ask why you hold certain unconscious beliefs and alter them.
Uplift Black voices, art, business, politicians and communities. Donate to Black organisations and individuals directly. Lobby representatives to make the change that deserves to be seen. Don’t offer platforms to those who consistently hold views and behave in a way that doesn’t align with the fundamental rights, success and safety of Black people (and other minorities for that matter).
Finally, I am aware that as a white person, this blogpost in itself is uplifting my own voice, rather than Black voices. I’m speaking on behalf of them and making assumptions on how Black people would like to be spoken to, even if it was somewhat informed. I’m sorry for that. After this I advise that you just read and learn from Black authors, podcasters, public speakers, etc. and aim to understand how you can genuinely gravitate towards being less harmful. Learn how you can dismantle your own acts of racism and those in the systems around you.
This wasn’t intended to be a guide on how to be anti-racist, it’s not a game of tip-toeing around them, ultimately just don’t be awkward about it, and like I said above in simpler terms: shut up, listen and learn about race.