“We talk a lot about race in this country a lot, but we don’t include you [in] the conversation… I’m interested in how you feel.”
That’s the open-ended question award-winning filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas poses to young white Americans in his (aptly named) new documentary: “White People.”
The content of the film is interesting, but only scratches the surface. (To read a smart critique of “White People,” go here.) But where the movie succeeds is in bringing up a basic truth that, unfortunately, many white people in this country are still terrified to face: We have to start talking about and interrogating our whiteness.
We are two white women. We are also self-described progressives and critical thinkers, who write professionally about the way sexuality, gender and race intersect with the world we live in. Yet we still recognize an internalized reticence to engage in conversations about race and racism. Neither of us can remember a clear moment in our young lives during which we realized we were white, and what that meant. When we’re pulled over by a cop, our biggest fear is that we might get an expensive speeding ticket. We have always seen faces that look like ours on TV and in movies. All of these things speak to the depth of our white privilege — and the fact that people of color certainly can’t say the same. We do not live in a “post-racial” world.
The same way men need to be forced to confront, interrogate and reckon with masculinity in order to address sexism, white people need to face their whiteness. And it is not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about race. People of color don’t need to be taught that racism exists — they live it every day. It shouldn’t (and can’t) be on their shoulders to enlighten the rest of us. We have to do that for ourselves.
Here are 11 things every white person who doesn’t want to be Part Of The Problem should know:
1. Everyone has a race — even you.
“Racism is the fact that ‘White’ means ‘normal’ and that anything else is different,” writer John Metta wrote in a blog published on HuffPost. Because whiteness is viewed as the “default,” white people have the privilege of distancing themselves from the concept of race or denying it altogether. The first step towards combating structural racism is acknowledging its existence — and the ways in which cultural ideas about whiteness prop up those structures.
2. For white people, talking about race is uncomfortable. For people of color, it’s a necessity.
No, talking about race isn’t fun. Confronting privileges and structures far larger than yourself — ones which you may feel you have little-to-no control over or no idea how to change — will always be uncomfortable. But… tough shit. “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings,” wrote Metta. (See: “white fragility.”) Many people don’t have the ability to ignore these issues, because they worry that the color of their skin could mean dying in police custody after being pulled over for a routine traffic violation, or being killed for walking down the street wearing a hoodie, or being massacred by a white man in their house of worship. Discussions of racism can’t be dictated by the emotions of white people.
3. You’re not “color blind.”
You do see race. You make snap judgments. Pretending that you don’t see race simply means that you haven’t had to. Guess what? That’s the epitome of privilege. People who are discriminated against don’t get to just wake up and decide race doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t exist. Neither do you.
4. You need to recognize that you benefit from white privilege in order to move the conversation forward.
As one student in the documentary noted, as a white person, “you don’t have to prove you’re one of the good ones.” Think about how often that applies. If you’re pulled over by a cop, your innocence is assumed. If you’re looking to move, your neighbors will believe you’re a good person without any proof. If you’re shopping in a store, you won’t be followed by an employee. You don’t get to choose whether you benefit from white privilege or not — it’s the structures in place that automatically grants it to you. Denying that only makes you complicit in continuing that cycle.
5. #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t suggest that other lives don’t — it’s about making sure that black lives do.
Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley learned this lesson after he said that all lives matter at the Netroots Nation conference. Of course they do, but declaring it misses the point.
6. People of color are allowed to be angry about racism. Don’t dismiss that anger, take it in.
Social change requires making some noise. As the Black Lives Matter protest at the Netroots Nation conference proved, activists of color are going to hold all influencers — allies or otherwise — accountable. And doing so probably will involve “disruption,” fueled in part by (righteous) anger. As white people, we have to accept that anger is a natural response to being systematically oppressed. And it can be an effective tool. “Frustration. Anger. Silenced. Talked over. Ignored,” reads a post on Eclecta Blog, about the Netroots protest. “Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country.”
7. Everyday racism is subtle and insidious.
Blatant racism is easy to recognize, and easy to separate ourselves from. As President Barack Obama stated in a June podcast, “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” Racism is everywhere — black actors and actresses are sidelined in Hollywood. In the workplace, the wage gap hits black women and Latina women the hardest by far. And people of color experience racial microaggressions on a daily basis. (Comments like: “What are you?” and “You don’t really act black.”)
8. Words matter.
Before you speak, think about the impact the words you choose could have on the people around you. At one point in “White People,” a black student breaks out in tears when a white girl doesn’t understand why casually calling her white friend’s behavior “ghetto” was a problem. As BuzzFeed’s Tamerra Griffin put it, when a white person says “That’s ghetto,” black people hear, “That is a negative thing I associate with blackness and/or the working class.” See Griffin’s list of 14 Words That Carry A Coded Meaning For Black People for more phrases you should consider banning from your vocabulary. (Yes, describing a trend as “urban” is racist.)
9. The conversation about race implicates you, but your voice should not be at the center of it.
As Taylor Swift learned from her recent Twitter back-and-forth with Nicki Minaj, when people of color criticize structural inequality it’s not about you, personally. Again: It’s. Not. About. You. Personally. So don’t try to make it all about you. White people need to take responsibility for the big and small ways we perpetuate racism. But often that means taking a step back and listening to the people who are impacted by racism day in and day out. If you’re going to add your voice to a dialogue — which you should — make sure you’re adding value to the conversation, and not just silencing the grievances of people of color.
10. “Reverse racism” isn’t a thing.
Watch comedian Aamer Rahman debunk the term (really, do yourself a favor and watch this):
11. Don’t think you know it all — or even most of it. Listen, listen, listen.