White people are uncomfortable talking about race because it challenges our identity as unique and objective people. We get defensive and might insist that we’re the ones who are really being oppressed. We want to believe that we aren’t racist and any suggestion that we benefit from racist systems makes us angry or makes us not want to talk about it. However, not talking about it preserves the system that gives us privilege.
If you think being racist means you intend to do harm, of course you’ll bristle at any suggestion that you’re racist. However, you can be racist without intending any harm. Racism involves a spectrum of behaviors. It’s not a simple good vs. bad dichotomy. All white people are racist to some degree because we live in a racist culture and it’s impossible for us not to be effected by the culture in which we live. We need to stop getting angry or defensive when this is pointed out to us.
White people who consider themselves “not racist” think they have nothing left to learn about racism and thus close themselves off from any additional learning opportunities. However, learning about racism should be a lifelong experience. There’s always more to learn. Even if you marched with Martin Luther King in the sixties, it doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything there is to learn about racism.
None of us are objective. We all see the world through our own lens which depends on which groups we identify with. All of us have unconscious or implicit bias that we’re not aware of, thus we don’t have to intend exclusion in order to exclude. If you don’t see the barriers that others face, you won’t try to remove them, especially if the barriers give you an advantage which you feel entitled to. Denying that we have biases guarantees that we’ll hold on to our biases.
None of us are unique. We’re all subject to how our culture socializes us. We know that children of rich people have unearned privilege in our society just because they happen to have been born to rich parents. In the same way, being white grants us unearned privilege that’s often invisible to us.
Racism is backed by institutional and political control. Women weren’t able to grant themselves the right to vote. Men had to give it to them because men had all the power. (I was surprised to learn that black women didn’t get the right to vote until 1964. Why wasn’t this part of any of my history classes?) Likewise, the only people who can challenge racism are whites because white have all the power.
All the most powerful organizations in the U. S. are overwhelmingly controlled by whites: the government, the school system, the military, the medical system, the court system, the prison system, the news industry, the movie industry, the music industry, etc. Whites own all the institutions that perpetuate racism and thus the responsibility to end racism is on us.
Even if a white person is opposed to racism, they still benefit from it. This doesn’t mean white people don’t struggle, but they don’t struggle as much as people of color do. Claiming not to see race is disingenuous. Claims to be colorblind are an attempt to ignore the problem. If a white person remains silent when another white person tells a racist joke or makes a racist comment, this perpetuates racism by allowing it to continue.
Judges attribute white people’s bad behavior to external factors (they’re just going through a hard time right now), but they attribute black people’s bad behavior to internal factors (they’re a bad person). Thus, white people get more lenient sentences than black people for committing the same crimes. If you’re white, you automatically get the benefit of the doubt whether you realize it or not.
It’s unfair to make black people be the ones who to have to speak up about racism and take all the risks. Even though it makes us uncomfortable, it’s less risky for a white person to speak up about it. It’s easier for a white person to bear the brunt of another white person’s anger. We shouldn’t ignore it or give ourselves a free pass. Not talking about racism is one of the ways racism is manifest.
Some white people say they can’t be racist because they have a black friend, but this doesn’t cancel out white privilege. Even being married to a black person doesn’t mean you live a race-free life in the same way that being married to someone of the opposite sex doesn’t mean you live a gender-free life.
Due to our unconscious culturally-learned biases, it’s not possible for us to not judge others or to treat everyone the same way. Whoever claims this is cutting themselves off from further reflection. We need to stop being so fragile when race is discussed and be brave enough to actually talk about it.
White people often misunderstand exactly what affirmative action is. They think it means people of color get preference in hiring and that a certain number of black people need to be hired. This is not what affirmative action is. There are no quotas. Affirmative action just means black people get the same employment opportunities as white people in government institutions. It doesn’t apply to private companies, and even within government agencies, it’s rarely enforced.
White women actually ended up being the prime beneficiaries of affirmative action. It’s also been chipped away at over the years and some states have eliminated affirmative action altogether, so it basically doesn’t exist anymore. And yet, white people still rail against it. The author shared one experience she had doing a diversity presentation for a company. She got push-back from a white man who angrily ranted about how there are no jobs for white people anymore, while standing in a room full of white people.
Instead of being afraid of getting in trouble and getting defensive when our racism is pointed out to us, we should instead be open to learning about others’ experience. We should be humble and be willing to entertain the notion that we might be wrong. White people employ various strategies to avoid talking about race such as getting angry, crying, tuning out, claiming we’re already not racist so we don’t need to learn anything more, changing the subject to sexism or classism, or even claiming that attending a diversity workshop causes us trauma. No one likes having their identity challenged, but racism will continue as long as we continue to avoid talking about it.
When talking to fellow white people about racism, one way to keep them from getting defensive is to admit that you used to think the same way as they do and let them know you understand where they’re coming from. Explain why you no longer think that way. They’re less likely to feel attacked or picked on if you present the information as your own personal insight.
If you don’t know what to say in the heat of the moment, it’s okay to take time to think about it and bring the subject up again later on once you’re more prepared and the other person is more open. Be calm and concise when presenting your information. However, don’t expect to change the other person’s mind because they likely won’t. You’re doing this more for yourself. Since our culture will continue to be racist for the foreseeable future, we have to constantly resist our own racist biases.