The Problem with White Shunning

White people hanging out with a turkey in 1949.

Thanksgiving opens the annual Season of Awkward Conversations in America. This one, the first Thanksgiving of the Trump administration, in the middle of the great outing of sex monsters, is going to be beyond awkward. And yet, we need to confront each other, and there’s no time like the present.

Our friends and family are where we go to feel safe and accepted. But there’s always been a lie in that; we often don’t accept each other, and not everything is safe. Sometimes it blows up, and sometimes people, even family, don’t speak to each other for years. When it comes to racism, white families and friends often go a long way to avoid conflict, and still end up drifting apart, or quietly disconnecting.

Please don’t do that. Don’t do any of that.

People often say that if you don’t throw these people out of your life, you abet racism. But the problem was never having racist friends and family, that’s an inevitable part of whiteness. The problem has always been white silence. When you have racist friends and family, your silence enables and perpetuates their racism and the harm it does in the world. If you quietly unfriend them, stop going to their parties, make other plans at the holidays, you may feel better about yourself, all while your silence is still enabling and perpetuating their racism, and the harm it does in the world. You just ducked out of the problem and think it’s cool now.

White people presenting each other a turkey in 1969.

It is definitely not cool. It is not the job of vulnerable people to confront white racism. It’s your job, white friends and family of white racists. Stop thinking you’re an awesome ally for putting people you’ll never see into this terrible position alone, just because you’ve made it so you’ll never see that interaction.

If you and your racist don’t speak anymore, let it be because they couldn’t take the confrontation, not because you couldn’t.

The work white people need to do right now is sitting with, and engaging with, the racists who care about what we think. We need to stay on the case. Tell them we care, that we love them, but never ever stop bringing it up. If you and your racist don’t speak anymore, let it be because they couldn’t take the confrontation, not because you couldn’t. That is the most direct and immediate way white people fight white racism. It’s also the most uncomfortable way, and sometimes you need to really stock up the energy to do that confrontation. Sometimes it’s ok to say “I can’t talk to you right now because I have to talk about the racism. I love you and my door is open to you, but this is a hard line for me, I cannot tolerate this part of you, and it needs to change.” Sometimes, you’ll have other white friends and relatives and you can work together. In the addiction world, this is called an intervention. It doesn’t always work, it doesn’t often work. And still, when confronting something like racism, it’s what the people you care about, and their victims, both deserve from you.

I have racist friends. More than one. And my friends know what I think of that. We’ve had multi-hour conversations about history, and biology, and society. Some of them have been difficult and emotional conversations. We will probably have more, and they know that too. Some of them don’t talk to me much anymore, but we both know I’m there, and that I’ll be honest with them. My friends and family who are not dealing with mental illness, addiction, health issues, or their lives realistically in general, not just racism, know that I’m not going to avoid the topic. If I think what you are doing is wrong, we’re going to talk about it. Conversely, I expect that you’ll talk to me if you think I’m going off the rails. And it was those kind of conversations in my history, from people who cared about me, which taught me to be a better person. I hope they will in the future, too.

White people pardoning a turkey. White people, we can be a little weird.

And sometimes, every once in a while, it goes better than you hoped. I had some pretty fucked-up ideas growing up. Friends confronted me, I did some work, and I changed. I’m still changing, and this is going to be a lifelong process. It’s not what I do everyday, all day, but it’s part of who I am, and where I get my strength as a person. Most of the friends who did this for me, who confronted me and sent me off to learn more, weren’t white. The least I can do to pay it forward is to take on the much less difficult task of confronting racism while not being the target of it. White folk, stop patting yourself on the back for unfriending people. Stop harassing other people for having racist friends and family. Stop yelling at someone, stalking out, and calling it a job well done. Ask your friends if they’re confronting their racists, and ask if they need help doing so. Check in with each other, support and share ways to engage which have worked. Hold each other accountable for holding your racists accountable. Share resources. (For my contribution, I’ve written a two-part series on the history of whiteness.) Don’t run away from this duty of whiteness.

When you’re sitting over pie this Thursday evening, and that awkward moment hits, and you know it’s time, say something. Look them in the eye, and say it with love and firmness. Speak your truth, and let that truth supply its own gentle power. Be ready to back up your points. You can let people yell, let them be the ones that walk out of the room. And then, with persistence and a little bit of luck, you can let them come back in over time.

This is a project of years, and we’ll be having these conversations for a generation.

Get to intervening. Whether you’re intervening on your own or coordinating with others, you are taking the power of your silence away from racism. Don’t expect things to change at once. This is a project of years, and we’ll be having these conversations for a generation. You are planting the seeds of doubt, gardening that doubt, and growing something better. Next time your racist is in a position to harm a vulnerable person, they’re going to know that it’s not that you’re busy, or you’ve moved on in life, or you’ve got your own thing. They’re going to know you’re not behind them. You’re where you belong, in front of them.