(This post is directed to my fellow white people.)
I understand how it feels. We constantly hear about race. We constantly get the knot in our stomachs because we “don’t treat people differently based on race” and no one we personally know does either. We feel like “they are always making it about race.” We feel like “they are the ones being divisive”.
What this means to me is that those who feel these things are aware enough to recognize their own prejudices and not let them affect others. Maybe I’m projecting, but that’s how I felt. I know I have prejudices and when they sneak into my mind I tell myself No. That is a preconceived notion based on something I experienced when I was younger and it stuck around in my unconscious. I stop to reflect on where my prejudices come from and then make a conscious effort to give whomever the benefit of the doubt.
This is Step One. I don’t get a cookie for this and neither do you. This is the duty of a civilized, intelligent, socially aware human being.
Step Two is to recognize we’re reacting to what we consider a personal condemnation. This is where we default to “But not all ______”. Stay with me here. I’m starting to lose some of you to the “but” statements. It is true that not all ____ do whatever you’re thinking. Not all cops. Not all white people. Not all men. This isn’t the point. When we hear “That shirt/saying/picture/headline/insert whatever it is here is racist”, it is our duty as civilized, intelligent, socially aware human beings to understand why someone feels that way. Once we suppress the initial urge to defend and actually understand why someone else is hurt by whatever it is, then you are within your rights to agree or disagree. However, this is where it gets tricky. If you disagree, you have no right whatsoever to force someone else to agree with you. This is where the concept of respect comes in. Respect has two parts: 1) agree to disagree; 2) do not insist on displaying/saying/wearing/insert appropriate verb here whatever it is that hurts another person. Yes, it is your right to do as you wish and it is not against any law to offend someone. It’s about being respectful of another person. I really want to stay away from analogies in this post but sometimes it’s necessary. If you would chide your child from commenting about someone’s scar across their face, regardless of how true the comment is, you are teaching your child not to draw attention to what’s different about a person and that commenting on that difference may hurt their feelings or bring back painful memories. Not using a word or symbol is the same thing.
Step Three: Realize that our reaction is “BUT IT’S EVERYTHING” is false. It’s not everything. We are only being made aware that what we consider innocuous may not be to others. For instance: I was having a conversation with someone younger who was horrified that another person used the term Afro-American. I asked if the person who said it was older than 40 and he was. I explained that many of us who are over 40 were taught to say Afro-American instead of Negro. When we are taught what to say as a child, it’s difficult to change the habit and we need to be reminded of how language has changed. I’m willing to bet the person who said it meant no disrespect. However, society has evolved to recognize terms like “Afro-American”, “Oriental”, and “American Indian” are not accurate labels for anyone or anything. It doesn’t matter that you feel that another person shouldn’t be upset over a label. Another analogy: you don’t force an adult to eat asparagus if they say they don’t like it because you do. You shrug, think them a little odd, and then chow down on the extra that someone didn’t want.
Step Four: Figure out why we’re so angry. We get angry about so many things. I personally think that it’s because we’re all so stressed. Being respectful takes work. It means keeping up with what’s happening in our world. It means being aware of where oppositions come from. It means facing ugly realities like finding out that “gypped” is derogatory to an entire culture, that “Indian giver” is not that a person wants back something they gave away, and that the original line wasn’t “catch a tiger by its toe”. Being respectful means to be aware of how your words and actions affect others and we’re so stressed as it is. But it’s a stress we can actually fix! I swear. Keep reading.
In addition to the quoted statements in the first paragraph, there is another big one I hear from my fellow white people: “I’m so tired of it.” The truth of the matter is that we are the ones who are fueling the racial fires. How? We’re doing this by not listening. We encourage divisiveness by being dismissive. I’ve written before that if people have to constantly repeat themselves, they will eventually get angry enough to yell and throw something against the wall. (If you’ve never gotten to this point, congratulations and teach me your ways!) I’ve sat at a table and listened to complaints about a how a university cultural advocacy group requires its members to be of that specific culture. Others are welcomed to join in their functions but the actual governing students need to be of that culture. I heard complaints that the policy is divisive. I don’t believe it is. I wouldn’t want to go to a women’s group and have the discussions led by men; I’d be thrilled to have men show their support at functions. I wouldn’t want to attend a support group led by someone who has never experienced the trauma or illness being supported; I’d love for someone lucky enough not to have lived through a specific trauma or illness come to educate themselves at an open event. An argument could be made against excluding members with no personal experiences…. But I’ve yet to hear a solid one.
There are exceptions to everything. Arguing with “what about ______?” isn’t helpful. I’m positive that your specific exception is relevant, valid, and something we should be aware of. Please be aware that “What about_____” is still being dismissive. However, if your question is genuine and not meant to be a challenge, be sure your tone of voice reflects that and, if you are on the internet, make sure to add a disclaimer because your tone could be misinterpreted.
Why am I suggesting this course of action? Why should you do a self-check on all this racism talk? Why shouldn’t you? Seriously. Why shouldn’t you? Go back up to that first paragraph. I UNDERSTAND. I won’t make you guess why I understand. I used to feel all of this. I used to argue with “but not all white people”. I used to argue with “but not all cops”. I still feel that not all white people and not all cops are being harmful to others. The difference is that I’ve realized it is not a valid argument. I’ve stopped taking the declaration of racism as an attack against me personally.* Other than its very existence, the only thing that angers me about racism/discrimination/prejudice** is that there are people who still roll their eyes about it rather than actively doing something to abolish this hatred.
It’s uncomfortable to realize when we’re at fault. It’s hard to hear we’re wrong. It’s hard to do the right thing. We have to step up and change our behavior.
Requests: If you plan to argue with insults, I assume you do not have a leg to stand on, so please have a seat. Please do not argue about “political correctness”; I’m convinced it is synonymous with “I can’t be bothered to be respectful”. Thank you.
*To POC reading this, I’m aware that I benefit from a racist system; I am working on bring awareness to others and doing my best to check my privilege. I screw up, but I try.
**Racism, discrimination, and prejudices are all different but intertwined things. Example: White people do not experience racism, but we have been victims of prejudice. Go ahead and research it.