Commentary on ‘11 Things White People Need To Realize About Race’

This is a commentary on a Huffington Post article entitled 11 Things White People Need To Realize About Race, by Emma Gray and Jessica Samakow. The article was last updated in July of 2015, but I just discovered it a few days ago via a friend’s Facebook post.

I decided to write a commentary on this article because it has a few traits:

  1. It is well-intentioned and constructive.
  2. It lays out, in a well-organized way, most of the most important (or at least widely documented) points that white people misunderstand about racism.
  3. It also makes a lot of mistakes that I’ve seen echoed in many other articles — mistakes (read: teaching points) which I’ve long wanted to comment on, because I think they ultimately end up alienating, rather than educating, potential allies.

Each heading below is a quote from the article that I found worthy of note, followed by my comments.

‘We do not live in a “post-racial” world.’

Yes, the myth of the “post-racial” world is the first thing a white person needs to recognize before they can meaningfully engage in conversations about race, and the authors appropriately attempt to dispel the myth at the beginning of the article.

Regardless of how “colorblind” a white person alleges to be, the world as experienced by people of color is unmistakably not post-racial — to the extent that professing colorblindness or claiming a post-racial world as the status quo is actually belittling to the experiences of those whose daily experience proves otherwise.

Many white people don’t understand this, but this is where the conversation always needs to begin — by explaining how the world is different for people of color in order to dispel the myth.

‘It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about race.’

I think this sends a slightly incorrect/counterproductive message. Indeed, claiming that an oppressed group bears responsibility for righting the wrongs that others have committed against them can be a strategy for continued oppression — so I think that is what the authors were trying to avoid.

But if there is one area where people of color do share some responsibility, it is in educating white people. This is because, quite frankly, white people cannot understand race and racism without hearing the experiences and testimony of those who have lived it.

To be clear: It is indeed white people’s responsibility to be open to education, to ask questions, and to actually listen to the voices and stories of those who are affected daily by racism. And then, once educated, white people also bear the responsibility to evangelize, and use their privilege to tell what they’ve learned to other white people.

‘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 overall point here is good, as I think it’s helpful to acknowledge and name the reasons why race is a hard topic for people. But the last bit, where they say “tough shit”, is a misstep. Cursing at the reader is so unnecessary, and more than anything, risks putting the reader in an antagonistic mindset. We want to recruit and educate allies, not create more critics.

‘You need to recognize that you benefit from white privilege in order to move the conversation forward.’

Yes! This is a key point for white people, and the article includes a good quote and supporting examples.

‘Of course [all lives matter], but declaring it misses the point.’

While the above statement is true, declaring it glosses over a different point, namely, that certain messages are bound to elicit certain reactions*.

It also fails to fix the problem. If someone says “all lives matter”, then yes, they are missing the point. But, rather than accusing them of being ignorant, the appropriate response is simply to educate them. Start from square 1, and share some stories that demonstrate their privilege (whether they are your own stories, or stories that you’ve learned elsewhere (for instance, if you are also white). Getting their initial buy-in to the fact of racial inequality is likely the hardest step, so it may take some patience. But just saying they are missing the point, and getting mad at them won’t help anything.

‘“Reverse racism” isn’t a thing.’

The article references comedian Aamer Rahaman‘s humerous explanation of what the term ‘reverse racism’ would mean to him (i.e. undoing and redoing history such that all of the current societal norms and inequalities, and the ways that they came about, were reversed). It’s an interesting perspective, and demonstrates one reason why the term ‘reverse racism’ is probably more confusing and insulting than it is useful.

Ultimately, though, debating about what the term ‘reverse racism’ means (or doesn’t) to you, is beside the point: While ‘reverse racism’ might not be a very useful term to use (and may even be insulting to others), there is some phenomenon that people are trying to refer to — and claiming that it completely and absolutely isn’t a thing at all doesn’t move the conversation forward. Rather, try to have a respectful conversation about the actual pros and cons of the things that the person perceives to be reverse racism (e.g. affirmative action initiatives, socially recognized restrictions and freedoms of speech, etc.), and see if you can gain some understanding of each other’s perspectives.